Posted by: Joe English | August 2, 2007

Races: White River 50 Miler (Part II)

Part II of a series of the White River 50 Mile Trail Run. For Part I, click here.

There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell . . . remember that courage and strength are not without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime – Edward Whymper, Scrambles Amongst the Alps

It’s 5:45AM and I’m standing waiting for a PorttaPottie in Buck Creek campground in the shadows on Mt. Rainier. Someone next to me sees one of his friends. He lights up and offers, “hey, how was Badwater?” as a greeting.

I try to process this for a moment. Did this person standing next to me run Badwater, the 135 mile race through Death Valley? The race was only a few days ago. ‘Who are these people?’ I thought to myself. ‘Are they insane?’

Over the next few hours, I would get the answer to that question. The sanity of these people was about to be tested. My sanity was going to be tested. And I would spend a fair amount of time wondering if I was actually one of them.

If I finish in 48 hours, do I get a belt-buckle
At 6:30AM, without any fanfare, the race got underway. So far from the streets of San Diego or Boston or New York. There were no throngs of people, no running Elvises, no national Anthems. There was nothing to distract from the momentous task ahead. There were just a few people gathered with their running gear, and they quite suddenly took off down the road, heading together in one galloping horde out of the campground.

In the first quarter mile, people joked and laughed as we ran down a wide gravel and dirt road. My friend Karl loudly asked, “if I finish in 48 hours, do I get a belt buckle?” to which many people around us laughed and smiled. The crowd was jovial and having fun. They were ready to run, but there was a serious undertone to the group as well. I could feel the gravity of the situation. Everyone knew that it was going to be a long, potentially uncomfortable, road ahead.

One half of a mile into the race, I noticed campsites on my left. I had the realization that some poor souls were probably trying to sleep, trying to enjoy the peace of camping in the forest. Instead, 150 people were tromping by like a stampede of horses through the quiet morning. We would soon be gone and the forest would retreat back to the stillness of a few moments before as if we’d never been there.

The group fell into a single-file line as the trail narrowed and began to undulate along the banks of the roiling torrent of the White River below us. The river was gray with glacial melt and had the appearance of liquid cement as it passed by us. Stepping forward rhythmically, I thought that the pace felt a bit fast for an ultra. I had imagined that after the start, no one would be in a rush to take things off too fast. Instead, I was in a line of a dozen or so runners, who were cruising carefully through the forest at about 9:00 minutes per mile. It was an easy pace for me, so I sat back and let the others lead as I searched for my footing on the dark trails. I was waiting for the first climb to start, hoping then that the pace would slow dramatically. Hoping too that the climbs would not be as bad as I had made them out to be in my mind.

In those first few miles, I began running with a man and woman in a matching green shirts. I liked their pace and thought that I might hitch along with them for awhile. There was a bit of tumult as we ran through the first aid station at mile 4. The woman and man, who had been running as a team, now had me in between them. I introduced myself. The woman turned and greeted me with a smile and then POW she crashed to the ground. We both felt a little silly, understanding immediately that there was no room for taking one’s mind off of the task at hand. Every step, flying down the trail, could lead to an instant disaster, simply by tucking a toe behind a root or a rock.

Shortly after the aid station, the trail began to climb, gently at first. The group slowed considerably, but picked the pace back up any place where the trail flattened or descended. So far, this climb seemed much like any other trail climb that I had trained on. But suddenly all of that changed.

We must have hit the base of the wall that we would be climbing for the next few miles, because the trail began twisting in a series of switchbacks so steep that they started to defy my imagination. The thin air of the mountains made it hard for me to get my breath. At every turn, the trail kept getting steeper and more and more people started to pass me. The trail became so steep in one section that a set of log stairs had been laid onto the slope, almost vertically, to help with the climb. I held onto the handrail, panting furiously, trying to step up each stair without falling over backward and tumbling down onto the runners below me.

Up and up the trail climbed over the next few miles. With each switch in the trail, I had to slow a bit more, pushing myself around the bends and the increasing steepness of each turn.

After what seemed an eternity, the path began to flatten out somewhat. I was cold with sweat and felt battered from the lower portion of the climb, but I knew that there was much more to come. We had not even reached the second aid station and the climb continued for miles beyond that. Climbing more gently now, I caught up with my friends in the green shirts. I said hello and then POW I slammed down to the trail, losing my bottles and a large amount of my composure. I picked myself up and within minutes, BAM, I was on the ground again. I decided that the runners in green, although friendly and running a good pace, were not good karma and let them leave as the trail turned skyward again.

Frustration began to set in about an hour and twenty minutes into the first climb. I had figured the next aid station was only four miles ahead and it should have appeared by now. I needed to refill my bottles and the aid station just wasn’t anywhere to be found. I caught a woman with mid-length tights and short red hair protruding from a baseball cap. “Is this the longest four miles ever?” I asked. She turned and very calmly told me that the aid station was seven miles further along, not four, and that it should be coming soon. This made me feel better, but I was still struggling up the steepness of the climb and hoping that I would get to the top soon.

Eventually, I did pop out onto the exposed shoulder of the mountain. The bright sunshine poured down around me, as I passed through fields of wild flowers and green mountain grasses. To my right was Mt. Rainier, glowing radiantly in the summer sun. I peered over the edge of the mountain, watching it drop away for nearly 3,000 feet back to the valley floor below. It was a moment of joy and wonder.

Then came a moment of despair as I looked across the valley at another mountain. This one was higher than the one I was standing on. I knew that I would need to run back down from this mountain and climb that one, and then I’d still have a half-marathon to run. The gravity of the task took my breath away. This climb had taken almost three hours and I wasn’t yet to the top. I knew instinctively that I would be stronger and faster on this climb than I would be on the next. The second climb was two miles longer than this one. It would take many hours to climb and I had many miles to cover before I could even start.

Just then, as I was taking this in, the trail seemed to move almost vertically. I stopped in my tracks, looking up at the trail above me. The mountain wasn’t steeper than in any of the other sections, but there were no switchbacks here. The trail went straight up, steep as a set of stairs, but without the stairs. I took a few steps upward, my legs quivering under the strain of the near vertical climb. I was walking, walking very slowly. I often tell my runners to just slow down, but here I couldn’t go any more slowly. Slowing down would have meant stopping. I used my arms to push down my shaking legs. Eventually I got to the top, panting and exhausted in the thin air. I was quite literally trembling from head to foot.

The dread returned as I started to realize that I had never felt so exhausted in all my life. Not in the Ironman, nor in any marathon, had I quivered and trembled to the point of exhaustion that I was feeling at the top of this climb.

And this was only mile 15.

Tomorrow the race continues as Coach Joe remembers how to run on the downhills and the tackles a life changing eight mile climb to the top of yet another mountain. Click here to continue the story.

Running Wild with Coach Joe – a blog focused on marathon, triathlon and ultra-endurance racing, training and motivation. Bookmark us at https://coachjoeenglish.wordpress.com or use your favorite RSS feed reader to get the latest news and articles. Running Wild is also now available on Facebook and My Space.

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Responses

  1. […] For chapter II, click here. […]

  2. […] Thank you to Cougarbait for this great submission. For the second chapter of my own race report from White River, click here. […]

  3. and?????….like a child being read a story in class at school. What happens next, teacher? hehe. You weave a nice picture and can’t wait to hear the rest! The karma part is a hoot!

    Tracy

  4. Nice Report Joe,
    Here is the Waldo Profile, that’s next for me:
    http://www.wpsp.org/ww100k/course.html


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