White River 50 Mile Race Report

- Strava Data (via my Suunto Ambit2 S)

I took second place at Saturday’s White River 50 Mile, running a 6:55:25 to hold off Kiwi Vajin Armstrong by just a few minutes.  We were both well beaten by Justin Houck, who was making his 50 mile debut (you can read more about Justin in Quick & Dirty, a new RunFlaherty.com feature).  This race capped a two week trip to the northwest for me, which began with the Missoula Marathon, and continued with about 9 days of camping in Montana, mostly in Glacier National Park. 

I flew from Kalispell to Seattle on Wednesday evening before the race, so I had a few days to check out the Crystal Mountain area.  Thursday morning afforded a chance to get up on the Pacific Crest Trail for a 90 minute trail run.  The day was chilly and cloudy, which actually made for a pretty cool environment to run in.  No views of Mt. Rainier, but awesome to be running in the clouds.

Vajin Armstrong arrived on Thursday evening, and the next morning, we got in a quick shakeout run on the Skookum Flats trail, which makes up the last 6.6 miles of the race.  The trail follows the race’s namesake, the White River, and is a really gorgeous trail—full of rocks, roots, and felled trees covered in moss.  I’m glad we took the time to enjoy it on Friday morning, as one is hardly in condition to do so a mile 43 on race day.  After the run, we drove up to the lookout at Sun Top (which happens to be mile 37 on the course) for a view of Mt. Rainier.  

Mt Rainier
Me and Vajin Armstrong on Sun Top
My Salomon teammate Aliza Lappiere soon arrived as well, and it was great to spend some time with her that afternoon.  She is coming off a few injury troubles this spring, and put forth a great effort on Saturday, finishing second to Jodee Adams-Moore by a mere 31 seconds (final time of 8:00:31).

Me and Aliza post-race
My race went somewhat predictably, I suppose.  I figured that the magnitude of the race’s two sustained climbs would be a challenge for a Midwest boy like me, and indeed they were.  I’m not too disappointed with the result, as sub-7 hours on that course is still pretty respectable.  I think it was possible for me to go maybe 5-10 minutes faster if I hadn't gotten caught up in racing too early, but  regardless there is no way I would have been able to match Justin’s 6:26:44 winning time without living and training in the mountains (and perhaps at altitude as well).

The race profile
At the start of the race, a pack of four—me, Vajin, Justin, and ultra/marathon stud Uli Steidl—gradually pulled away and formed a lead pack.  After about four miles of tame singletrack, you begin the first climb, which gains about 4,000 feet and lasts well over an hour.  I took a strategic pitstop part way up this climb, in order to be by myself and make sure I was running my own rhythm.  Even so, I slowly caught back up to Uli and Vajin, but Justin had moved ahead, out of sight.

Race start
Beginning with the the first Ranger Creek aid station at mile 11.7, I was hearing reports that I was about two minutes back of Justin.  Vajin and I were chatting and keeping it comfortable as we continued some gradual climbing towards the turnaround loop and aid station at mile 16.9.  But as we hit some rollers and things flattened out a bit, I wanted to take advantage of the more runnable grades, so I pushed on and separated from Vajin.  I think it is in this section that I cost myself a bit of time later.  I would really struggle with the next climb, and I probably pushed too hard in this stretch, which was at around 6,000 feet (nothing crazy, but definitely noticeable coming from sea level).

I kept moving fairly quickly, but never seemed to close the gap on Justin ahead of me.  After making it back to Ranger Creek AS again (just past mile 22), the course makes a hard left into a beautiful 5 mile singletrack descent (on which I ate it once, and almost another time as well!).  I never really blew out my quads fully during the race—that just doesn’t seem to happen to me anymore—but dropping over 3,000’ in 5 miles definitely still took a toll.  I found my quads and especially my feet were fairly tender the rest of the race, making it more difficult to use subsequent downhills to my advantage.  (By way of example, I think Justin ran the late-race downhill road section a full 5 minutes faster than me.)

The classic Glenn Tachiyama shot with Mt Rainier.  A White River 50 tradition is for all age group award winners to receive a framed version of these.  Very cool!
Coming through Buck Creek (near the Start/Finish) at mile 27, I was still just three minutes back of Justin.  But barring an epic blowup by him, I didn’t anticipate catching him.  As I began the second big climb of the day, it was quite clear that my climbing legs were already shot.  I must have powerhiked well over 50% of the next 10 miles to Sun Top (mile 37).  I expected Vajin or Uli to pass me at any minute, but that never happened.  Finally making it to Sun Top, I downed a bunch of water, took an S!Cap, and shoved some PB&J’s in my shorts for the 6+ mile road descent to Skookum Flats.  I'm always amused by the ridiculousness of showing up at an aid station late in race, totally dazed, and doing things that seem quite weird to the volunteers (like shoving sandwiches down my pants, or shoving outrageous amounts of potato chips into my face).

I knew at this point that Justin must be well clear, as no one was telling me what the gap was anymore (read: he’s so far ahead it doesn’t matter).  I had no idea where Vajin or Uli were behind me, but I would later learn that Vajin had closed a 10 minute gap at Buck Creek to a mere 2 ½ minutes by Sun Top.  Uli had a rough day and would finish fifth.

On tender feet, I pushed the road descent as much as I could, running probably mid to high 5 minute miles (hard to know, as my GPS was under-reading a bit in the remote race setting).  It’s a good thing I pushed here, as I managed to open up a total lead of 5 minutes on Vajin by the bottom (unknown to me at the time, but crucial all the same).  Quickly eating some goldfish, and cramming a few more PB&J's into my shorts, I was out fairly quickly.  I soon wished I had drunk more water.  The day got fairly warm, and I was running out of water between aid stations the whole second half of the race.

By this point I could smell the barn, but the bummer was that the barn was still a painful hour or so away.  This last section on Skookum Flats, trying desperately to hold onto second place, was a real grind.  There was of course the physical pain and struggle.  (It seems I kept stepping on rocks or roots with my right foot, irritating a bruised metatarsal head that has been giving me some trouble for the last month.)  But the mental struggle was just as significant if not more so.  Running ultras is tough, especially when you are really pressing, and the way I usually race, the last 5-10 miles always seem to require so much mental fortitude.  It’s so taxing to stay constantly engaged, pushing through the pain, when all you want is to enjoy the incredible scenery for a moment; to drink all the water in the White River; to collapse in your girlfriend’s arms.  But not yet... 

The commitment to the task at hand finally paid off as I emerged from Skookum Flats, somehow still in second place, crossing the finish line in 6:55:25.  Vajin came in two minutes later, running a pretty solid race.  I’m not positive, but I think this was only the second year where three men have gone sub-7 hours at White River.  (The other I’m sure of being 2010 with Krupicka, Dakota Jones, and Greg Crowther.)

Quaffing a few brews with race winner Justin Houck.
I’m quite glad I made the trip to run this classic northwest race.  Scott McCoubrey and his stellar crew really know what they’re doing.  The local running community comes out in force, and like most of the better ultras on the scene, post-race festivities include a barbecue, beer drinking, and swapping war stories with old friends and new.

White River was the USATF 50 Mile Trail Championships from 2000 to 2010, so it has seen its share of talented athletes come through.  I can be happy with a sub-7, especially when I consider how out of my element I was.  I had already recently come to the conclusion that I must incorporate some dreaded treadmill training in my program, and this just drove home the point.  Running hill repeats on a 300 foot climb in Bloomington is just drastically different than running uphill for an hour or more at a time.  I’m planning to add to my training a weekly climb of an hour or more at 15% grade going forward, until Les Templiers.

A big congrats to all the runners out at White River on Saturday.  It was great to see so many people persevering (Justin's father-in-law being one who battled the cutoffs, gutting out a hard-earned finish—pretty cool to see!).  And many thanks again to Scott McCoubrey for hosting me and putting on a great event; and to my sponsors for their continued support.

Race director Scott McCoubrey
Gear used:
- Salomon Sense Pro
- Salomon Exo Tank
- Salomon S-LAB Short
- Julbo Dust shades
- Swiftwick Aspire Four (red!) socks
- Suunto Ambit2 S