Friday, April 15, 2016

Race Report: 2016 Gorge Waterfalls 50k
Negotiating throngs of tourists has never been my strong suit. Even as a tourist myself, I avoid large crowds, preferring remote destinations. Never-the-less, I found myself running through a sea of families at Multnomah Falls Recreation Area with a mile to go in the 2016 Gorge Waterfalls 50k.

I had entered the first lottery in 2015 but failed to be selected. It seems the second time is a charm, and it ended up fitting my calendar much better than the alternative American River 50 mile. Sciatica (my first encounter) kept me off my feet and getting fat for most of the winter. A self-preservation DNF at Way Too Cool 50k in March had my fire lit; regardless of how long it took me, I was going to finish this race. I had not finished an ultra since crossing  the finish line in LeFebvre Stadium nearly ten months prior. I needed a confidence boost.

The lottery results were posted in mid-November - weeks before my sciatica hit. At that point, gaining entry to States was still a possibility (a small one). It fit into my ambitious schedule perfectly. I had never traveled so far to run a race before, and I love Portland, so I was pretty excited. As race weekend drew near, it became obvious that Twirly would be unable to join me due to work commitments. I would fly to Portland alone, and run the race without crew. Another first for  me.

I spent a couple days before the race hanging with old friends, staying in Troutdale (about fifteen minutes from the finish line). The majority of my pre-race stress came from trying to pick a local brew to enjoy while I prepared for race day. A 9:00 am start meant I could awake at a decent hour, and race morning dawned overcast and balmy.

The race climbs around 6000 feet over 31+ miles, with almost a third occurring in the last 6 miles. Mostly single track with about 10% paved roads, the course tours through the waterfalls and campgrounds on the Oregon side of the Colombia River Gorge.

Single track begins!
Runners are bused from the finish line at Benson State Recreation Area to the Wyeth Campground. It took about 25 minutes, and I chatted with my seat-mate. Jeremy was running his first 50k and had a similar professional background. We chatted about everything from race strategies to drinking water infrastructure. He went on to finish sub-6 hour on the tough course (nice job). I also met fellow Circle Cat Larry, from SoCal (finished sub-7). We commiserated about lack of fitness and training, starting the race together and chatting about niggles and treatment strategies for the first few miles. After about a half an hour, my heart rate forced me to slow down. My aerobic fitness just isn't there yet.

Wooden bridges out-numbered waterfalls for quite a while

Lushness abounds

I held my pace steady and easy, allowing runners to pass as they needed. After about four miles, the course leveled off and we had a mile-long downhill to stretch the legs. Another mile climb led to a more rolling descent to the first aid station at Cascade Locks. The station was organized and efficient. My legs were feeling good, but my back reminded me to keep my core engaged. I imagined squeezing a quarter between my butt cheeks and rotating my hips forward every time I felt the twinge. Between that and the rocky trail, I had my mind full!

Plenty of information to distract you

Old roads..

Surrounded by history

More bridges

The next section flattened out, and brought a short section of pavement on the old Gorge Highway. My nutrition was working really well. Skratch Labs Green Tea in the bottles, Clif Energy Food Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal and a back-up bottle of caffeinated Tailwind provided a variety of slow-trickle calories. As always while racing, 5 grams of Master Amino Pattern every hour kept the cramps and lactic acid at bay.

The rolling course would occasionally have a 200-400 foot pop, which provided an opportunity to change up the muscle workload, and every 25 minutes or so we would cross another drainage, almost always on a wooden bridge. I had expected to get my feet wet, but kept them dry for the duration of the race. Around mile 15 I began wondering when we would see an iconic water fall. I had been under the assumption that the whole course was a tour of waterfalls. While there was plenty of water running, the first significant falls didn't show up until mile 18. Totally worth the wait! Glenn Tachiyama was posted, ensuring a race picture worth spending some $ on:

Elowah Falls, Mile 18, photo by Glenn Tachiyama

This one bounced!
I spent a few extra minutes at the Yeon aid station. I mixed some more Skratch and Tailwind, had a volunteer pour some water on a towel, and wiped off my head. The clouds had burned off and the temperature was climbing. The next 2 miles followed the frontage road, and had a slight rise. I had trouble keeping my heart rate down and took regular walk breaks to ensure I still had legs for the final segment. Runners leapfrogged, and I saw a lot of familiar faces from the first 30k.

The section between Yeon and No Name aid stations provided some really run-able grades, but rock slides and technical trail made it feel more like hopscotch. I began to joke with fellow runners that the course "was the most beautiful course I never get to look at!"

Trying to carry speed through loose rock piles and slides took the utmost focus

I liked the granite trail markers

You guessed it... More bridges!
The falls grew larger

The course even ducks behind this waterfall!

Jeff Bridges has nothing on the Gorge Trail 400

This one was in a box canyon

Did I mention the enormous river?

Multnomah Falls

The waterfalls came more frequently, and leaving the No Name aid station we were told there was just one more big climb, then a paved switchback descent, and then the finish. I felt good as I approached the final climb at Multnomah Falls. The tourists grew more dense as the trail approached the recreation area. Eleven paved switchbacks provided a decent grade, and I enjoyed bending to the trail and power hiking. At the top of the falls, the trail continued to climb. This was the prettiest section of the course, in my opinion. A lush canyon dotted with more falls, and a never-ending climb of about 1500' overall. I caught a runner from Mexico and we exchanged grins before he took off running up the hill. I caught him again at the top. He was pretty wasted from the effort.

The final chasm was straight out of wonderland
The descent to the finish was as advertised. About two miles of rocky single track gave way to the paved switchbacks. Tourists were fewer on this side, and I was in the groove. Carnage dotted the course. Limpers and leaners whimpered with each step. I tried to encourage them: "can you smell the barn?", "good job, keep it up". I was trying to leave it all on this hill, quads be damned.

I arrived at the bottom of the switchbacks, just above the park and the finish line festival, only to have the course bend away from the grassy field and turn back up hill towards Multnomah Falls! It turned out I still had over a mile to go. I looked at my watch and determined I could still eeke out a sub-8 hour finish, which gave me the motivation to keep moving. The crowds grew thick as I entered the parking area for the falls. Little children darted in front of me, forcing me to stutter step or stop altogether. Finally I gained the grassy double track that would take me around the lake and back to the finish. The longest 8 minutes of the race!

I finished just under the wire: 7:58. My slowest 50k to date, but still a very satisfying return to ultra running. James Varner, Race Director, gave me a high five and I went to get out of my sweat-soaked race kit. Beer flowed, pizza was plentiful and race stories were recounted by friends old and new. Rainshadow Running really hits the ball out of the park with this race. Despite its technical trails and crowded vistas, I can see returning to conquer the Gorge Waterfalls again.

Huge thanks to the Rainshadow Running crew and all the volunteers. Of course, Victory Sportdesign drop bags kept me in the race and moving through the stations efficiently. I used two Cougar I's and a Coyote I at Cascade Locks. Besides water, I took nothing from the aid stations. Although I wasn't as fleet of foot as I have been in the past, I executed well. I move forward with this confidence boost under my belt and set my sights on Miwok 100k in four weeks.

As always, thanks for reading. Now here's the deets:

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