It’s often been said that ultra marathons are a lot like life. It has its ups and downs, both physically and emotionally. Spectacular moments and also times when you want to fall to your knees and just cry. The unexpected can and will happen. How you respond to this adversity will effect you in so many ways going forward. The challenges and rewards of taking on an ultra are many. As a person who faces ongoing mental health challenges, one reason I took up running ultras was to remind myself difficult obstacles can be surmounted and that I am capable of more than I realize. This reinforces belief in myself from day to day.
My latest race, the Gorge Waterfalls 100k dished out plenty of challenges and rewards. The race began at 6:00 am after race director James Varner filled us in on some wrinkles Mother Nature provided to this years race. Because of the rough winter there were still some sections of snow on the course. One snowy spot in particular created a dicey situation. On a steep downward section of trail the snow was still deep and packed. Running down would be dangerous because one could easily slip and tumble down to the water and rocks below, not to mention twisting and injuring an ankle or foot.
So kudos to Rainshadow Running for taking the time to actually shovel out steps in the snow bank. We were urged not to run but to walk down as the snow would not hold up to such pounding from some 300 racers. I needed no urging to go slow when I came to the snow bank in the still dark morning. Also, there were more downed trees then usual so we would have numerous opportunities to test our scrambling and limbo skills.
Lastly, due to one particular mud slide the trail was impassible and we would have to rope climb around that section. All would add to the fun of the long day, right!?
Having run this race in 2015 I had an idea of what to expect. Last time I took the first hill climb of some 1,500 feet in 2.5 miles too fast and I vowed to go slower. Well, I did take it at a somewhat easier effort, but I should have gone even slower. Maybe it was my running poles which I was racing with for the first time that gave me more confidence, but more likely it was the emotional high of running my first ultra race in almost a year that overwhelmed any practical thinking at this point. On the descent of this first hill I continued to run harder than I should have. I love taking downhills. Usually running them with the attitude of the harder and the faster the better. So once I did reach the top of the first climb I let loose and didn’t worry about pacing.
This somewhat fast pace out of the gate wouldn’t necessarily have doomed me for the latter stages of the race if I would have handled my caloric intake better. Just days before the race I decided to run with a bottle for the first 13 miles until the second aid station where I would pick up my hydration vest. Packed in the vest I carry various energy bars and gels. Well, I forgot to bring some of those with me so I had to rely on just my water mixed with Tailwind along with the first aid station for calories. To further compound my situation when I did reach the first aid station instead of taking a few extra minutes to take in some much needed calories and even grab something to take with me for the next 7 miles I hurriedly ate just a bit, said a quick hello to a friend manning the aid station and took off again. I believe these first 13 miles put me into a quick calorie deficit which I’d not be able to overcome.
Upon reaching the second aid station a fellow running friend Drew Dinan who graciously offered to crew me, was there to hand me my race vest and offer words of encouragement. I’ve never had someone crew me in a race before so it was a learning experience. I very much appreciated his help but I had feelings of guilt. Knowing what a long day it would be for him hanging out just waiting for me, moving from one location to the next. At least that’s how it played in my head. Next time I will certainly try harder not to worry about anyone crewing me as it defeats some of the purpose of their being out there. Drew is also a darn good ultra runner so he knew what he was getting into by offering his assistance, so I should have focused on that when feelings of guilt arose. However that is one of my personal challenges I face on a daily basis in dealing with generalized anxiety disorder. I worry too much about what others think. Knowing that I shouldn’t worry about something doesn’t mean I can stop myself from doing it. Just one of the “little” challenges such a mental health problem creates. To his credit throughout the day each time I saw Drew he always offered words of encouragement, a laugh or two and even reminded me of what really mattered. I was out on a fabulous trail doing what I really loved, trail running.
Before I left the aid station I dropped to the ground to try and stretch out my right hip and glute. It was an issued I had been dealing with the last couple months and it now reared its painful head once again. It would literally be a pain in my ass until midway through the race.
As the miles continued to mount I gradually eased up on my running intensity and tried to take in the scenery.
I even stopped on occasion to take a photo or two and sent out short texts to my wife and family who were following me and wanted to know how far along I was. At one point I think around mile 25 I saw on a long straight stretch of trail a runner approaching. I immediately knew it was Jim Wamsley. As he got closer I noticed how fluid and fast he was moving. As he got right next to me I shouted to him to bring it on home. It seemed he needed no encouragement as he looked like he was racing in a 50k race not 100k. Having such an encounter, just the two of us on a stretch of trail, both running in the same race, one being one of the best ultra runners today and the other a mid pack runner is one of the things that makes trail running special. As I later stepped aside for more front runners to run by many of them countered my words of encouragement with their own. Some thanked me for my getting out of their way and one guy even let out a loud primeval scream as he came down a switch back towards me and several other runners. Yelling “You guys look awesome!” or something to that effect. Needless to say moments like that give average runners like myself a nice emotional boost.
The trail continued to offer plenty of sweet trail to run on along with muddy shoe sucking sections and occasional snow packs to gingerly walk over as well as rocks. Lots and lots of rocks underfoot. I almost forgot how the embedded rocks in the trail over time will tenderize the soles of my feet and by races end they were a bit sore for sure.
By the time I reached mile 31, the halfway point and turn around I was feeling good except for the nausea I was feeling. I had encountered this once before in a race and knew what it meant. My body was craving food but it was hard to put anything down because I felt like I’d just throw it back up. I forced down as much as I could and indeed after awhile as I’d started running again I regained some energy and the nausea dissipated. But it was short lived. My body seemed to use up any calories I took in very quickly and I’d be back at the nausea stage again. I was to repeat this process the entire second half of the race.
Some 48 miles in I came to Elowah Falls. It’s a spectacular waterfall among many amazing ones in the Columbia River Gorge. I stopped at several spots to take in the view and also on the foot bridge to feel the spray from the splashing water.
As I continued down the trail I noticed a trail marker pointing up off the trail and up the steep hillside. Slowing to look I just thought “Well that can’t be right. Someone messed with the course markings. ” and kept going. Well I came to an abrupt stop. The trail in front of me was washed out.
I thought about trying to cross anyway but one look down the steep hundred foot drop finally nudged my memory from the prerace talk. There was to be a rope at one location to get by an obstacle. Hmmm. I walked back and taking a closer look at the last arrow marker I now saw several pink ribbons leading up the hillside and then I saw the muddy rope which now blended in to the hillside. Another runner came up to me and I said I guess we go up.
As I packed away my poles he grabbed the rope and went up. I soon followed. It looked worse then it was and I soon had found my way back onto the trail and off the brief detour.
As the race progressed I had some emotional ups and downs as my body continued to complain in so many ways it’s lack of nutrition. But I tried the make the best of it. Taking in the scenery and on occasion taking another photo or two. I had to dig deep for motivation to keep going. It was in these late stages of the race I reminded myself why I did this. Running races was both a motivator to me and a reward. When I started running several years ago I did it mainly because I had found that excercise helped me combat my anxiety and depression. Over time running became one of my cornerstones in maintaining my mental health. I chose running because it was my favorite form of exercise. Even though I got much enjoyment out of it I often found myself lacking motivation. When my mental health took a downward spiral I just couldn’t do it regularly. But I soon found that signing up for races helped motivate me to get out and run regularly week in and week out. Because I knew if I didn’t I would pay dearly come race day. And once race day was here I always have three goals in mind. First and foremost is to just finish the event and have fun. Second goal would be a time I feel is a fast finish for me but doable. Third goal was if all the planets aligned and I was having a great day to go for an even faster finish time that would put me near the top 20% of finishers and near the top of my age group. Well today was a day goals two and three would not be attainable so I focused on just beating the cut offs and thus finishing in under 17 hours to qualify my entry into the Western States Lottery. I finished in 16 hours and 8 minutes and was very pleased to have done so. It was a hard earned finish, with many unexpected twists and turns but in the end I got it done and managed to even have a little fun along the way.