|Photo of the WR50 Start Line. Photo Credit/Stolen from Eric Sach|
The day after a long race is always the best because beer, pizza and sitting around all day. Makes for a great recipe for race report writing!
I signed up for this race on a whim last week. Angel and I ran our first 50 miler there two years ago and had a great experience, but for some reason it fell off of the radar this year. I thought I had to work race weekend for some reason, and then lost track of when it was until folks started posting on the old F'book and I put two and two together and I threw my name in the hat. In brief, I'm stoked that I signed up because the race experience exceeded expectations.
The Fast People
Being that I'm one of the biggest WA ultra fanboys around, I was looking at the race entrants a few weeks ago, and I didn't expect a particularly fast race at the front of the pack. Matt Flaherty was signed up, as was Vajin Armstrong from New Zealand. Both of those guys are international-quality runners, but I didn't expect that either of them would have enough top-end speed to challenge Sage Canaday's 6:16 record from two years ago. (Despite the 8500 feet of elevation gain, White River is generally a runner's race because of the comfortable grade and the 7 mile stretch of fire road downhill near the end where fast marathoners can throw down 5 minute miles and make up for oodles of time lost on the steep-ish last climb to Sun Top.) I knew that my buddy (and 7 Hills runner) Matt Urbansky was running, and I expected that he had a shot at the podium if he had a good day. Then, last week, Uli Steidl and some guy named Justin Houck from Mercer Island signed up and their names shot to the top of the Ultrasignup predicted finish list. Uli was running his first ultra in years, but he was a long-time record holder at White River, and he threw down a 2:19 marathon earlier in the year, so the race suddenly became intriguing. I don't think anyone in the ultra community outside of his circle of family and friends expected anything major out of Justin Houck - he had only run one previous ultra, setting a course record at the decidedly un-prestigious and un-mountainous Vashon Island 50k earlier in the year. He admittedly ran a crazy fast time there in 3:11, but it was a sample size of one, and ultrasignup frequently creates inflated predictions for runners without many results. I was expecting a winning time in the 6:45 range based on the field.
On the women's side, Jodee Adams-Moore was the only name that I recognized. She has the speed to put the 7:32 course record at risk on a good day, but for some reason I was under the impression that she wasn't actually planning to run (she's a Scott Athlete, and WR is a Scott race, so I was thinking it was a free entry situation). I hadn't heard of anyone else in the race, so didn't expect anything sub-8 hours this year.
The race shook out to be much more interesting than my pessimistic expectations.
On the men's side:
The first 27 mile loop of the race features a short out and back, so when you're in the middle of the pack you get to see the position of the front runners about 10 miles into the race. The first runner I saw coming through was Houck, who I only recognized because he was wearing a Seattle Running Club singlet. Flaherty was a couple minutes behind with Armstrong, Steidl and Urbansky spaced pretty evenly behind him. Of the front runners, Flaherty, Uli, Armstrong and Urbansky all looked more comfortable when I saw them than Houck, so I kind of expected that Houck had made the typical rookie mistake of going out too fast, and would drop back as the race went on. With his experience, I was kind of expecting that Uli would pass everyone except maybe Flaherty and Armstrong.
Ultimately, things didn't fall out like I'd expected at all. It turns out that the look on Houck's face might have been fear rather than exhaustion, because he reported that he was running scared of Flaherty and others catching him from miles 3 through 50, and had never planned to run out front. But from reports, Houck only got stronger as the race went on, and made up huge ground on other runners on the final long climb up to Sun Top, and managed to finish with the third fastest time ever on the course, in 6:26 - he said he had no idea how far ahead he was from the rest of the pack. Flaherty and Armstrong both finished in the 6:50's (roughly as expected) for 2nd/3rd, and Matt Urbansky passed Uli in the final flat 6 miles on Skookum Flats for 4th with Uli finishing in 5th. (Uli told me after the race that he hadn't run more than 2 hours in months, and the race was a complete suffer-fest. Props to him for finishing though, and a complete suffer fest three years after his last ultra was still good enough for 5th place in a surprisingly fast field.)
For the women:
It turns out that Jodee Adams-Moore did show up for the race, and as generally expected, pulled out the win in a solid if unspectacular 7:59:58. Again, looks were deceiving when I saw the runners early in the race. Jodee was several minutes ahead of 2nd place at that point, and looking really strong. Aliza Lapierre, from Vermont, was running in second but looked generally miserable. By the end, Lapierre had essentially set up a photo finish, and came in 2nd in 8:00:29, just 30 seconds behind Jodee. Local Olga Nevtrinos finished 3rd in solid 8:50.
I was a bit surprised that the women's race was as close as it was, but after doing a bit of resume research it made sense. Jodee has world-class top-end speed, and at the 50k distance she's a threat to win any race in the country. (She ran a 4:46 at Orcas this year, which is crazy fast at an under-the-radar but seriously tough race, and came close in 2013 to being the first woman breaking the 4 hour mark at Chuckanut.) But you get the feeling that she hasn't yet nailed the 50 mile distance the way she has 50k's. Its just her second race at the distance, and while she's been solid, she probably hasn't raced fully to her potential at 50 miles yet. Lapierre is very experienced at 50 miles+, (she's won big races - Leona Divide and Vermont, and finished on the podium at Western States in 2012) and clearly ran a really smart race. Props to Jodee though for holding on for the win against a tough, and much more experienced competitor.
As a Washington running fan, the thing I was most excited about was that Washington runners won on both the men's and women's side in our biggest race for the first time in years. People have started to recognize Jodee's talent already, so Houck's performance was particularly notable. It wasn't as big as newbie Zach Miller winning JFK and Sonoma last year, but it was potentially a major statement. I personally don't think there's any such thing as a fluke at the 50 mile distance, and Houck ran the race faster than anyone besides Sage Canaday and Anton Krupicka. Those guys are two of the biggest names in the trail world, and if Houck sticks with ultras, yesterday's race might represent the birth of a new nationally competitive trail runner. Justin provided some comments for this report via email, and he noted that he was most proud of having run the fastest time by a Washington runner (Krupicka and Canaday were based out of CO when they ran), and it's true that he put himself squarely at the front of the pack of Washington men's runners with just one race.
From Houck's comments, it sounds like more trails are in the plans. He'll be racing the USATF Trail Half in Bellingham in October, and may race McCoubrey's Sky Marathon at Crystal in September. Excitingly, he lists it as one of his goals to help put Seattle back on the map in the ultra scene, so if things go well me might see some great things out of Houck in the next few years.
The Crazy People
This summer, it seems like Van Phan and Jess Mullen are on a quest to prove that they're the baddest-ass mofos in the world. They completed the local self-supported Hardrock-lite Issy Alps 100 miler about a month ago, and this weekend, instead of running one White River 50, they started the night before and ran two White River 50s - finishing a preview run of the full course before the start time on Saturday morning, then running the race. Megan Kogut and Kelly Woznicki also ran the full course the day before to both complete their first 50 milers before running the Best Aid Station on the Course (TM) at Corral Pass, because why not (High Heelers have the most fun)? Also of note is that old-school ultra badass William Emerson ran the race again this year, and finished in the top-10 at 50 years old. And 7 Hills' Phil Kochik ran his first 50 since 2012, lending the race the kind of old-school cred it deserves.
I've noted that I jumped into the race at the last minute, so I didn't have many expectations other than to have fun. Two years ago I raced this one as my first 50, did all of the proper training and tapering, previewed the course, did my research, and generally ran the best race I could have at the time - finishing just under 10 hours. I'm a much more experienced trail runner this year, and although I didn't do any focused training or preparation, I secretly hoped to improve on my time/come out feeling like I haven't lost anything despite the fact that I've been much less disciplined and organized this year in my running routine.
Although I generally carry more than I need to in races, for this one I decided to just take one 20 oz water bottle and some preferred gels (Honey Stinger Chews) and bank on the well-placed aid stations for real food and refills (I like to alternate real food with gels for races over 50k - eating about 150 calories of both every hour - for real food, mostly fruit with an occasional salty potato). Aid stations are spaced about an hour to 90 minutes apart at my pace, so I figured I could get by without my normal 50-mile stock of food and extra water weighing me down. That worked out generally well - although I did run out of water a bit early on the way up to Sun Top and on Skookum Flats at the end (damn you Skookum!). I finished the race a little dehydrated, but I don't think it affected my performance. I was able to take about 9 minutes off of my time from the last race, and finished in 9:50. My biggest problem: butt chafing.
In general I followed Angel's race strategy, which is to have as much fun as you can on the course and let time be a secondary consideration. I generally tried to act as stupid as I could whenever there was a camera around, and to get hung up at aid stations shoving food in my face and talking to friends. In the first half of ultras, it seems like it's essentially impossible to go out too slow or to eat too much food, so I started at the back of the pack and tried to not be too impatient when I ended up behind people moving more slowly than I would have been otherwise. Coming up the first climb to Corral Pass, I cheered on the faster runners and was stoked to see a Seattle Running Club runner in first place and my buddy Matt Urbansky looking strong in 5th (and wearing an S&M inspired getup - black Salomon vest, no shirt, black shorts). I stopped for a bit at the aid station to complement Megan Kogut on her hand-painted cowboy hat and green leather cowboy boots, and to shove so much food in my mouth that I couldn't close it. After a good laugh I moved on, and enjoyed running most of the downhill with an entourage of good people, including new FB friend Mike Henson and a young lady named Anya who proved that barefoot running is not dead by finishing her first 50 (well ahead of me) in Luna Sandals. I'd somehow forgotten how pretty this first loop of the course is, with miles of ridge running and fantastic views of Rainier and surrounding mountains. I'm a firm believer in the superiority of James Varner's Rainshadow Running race courses, but White River keeps up with any Washington race in terms of the beauty of the course. Scott McCoubrey doesn't always put on races, but when he does, they're amazing.
On the second climb to Sun Top, the weather started to heat up and the miles started to seem longer. The climb is steeper in places than the first, but there are also multiple downhills to break up the ascent, so overall I thought it was a generally enjoyable section. I'm a better hiker than runner anyway, so I enjoyed chugging along slowly up the hill. The view at Suntop is probably the most spectacular on the course, so despite the fact that I was feeling the 37 miles behind me, I was happy to get to be there on a perfectly clear day. An added bonus was getting watermelon and ice water from Brian Morrison and crew from Fleet Feet in Seattle, and seeing folks decked out in Hillbillies gear - a new trail running team Brian's organized which has the potential to be a great new development on the local trail scene and some healthy competition for Phil Kochik's Team 7 Hills, which has already established itself as a fixture at both local and national races.
On the seven mile fire road descent from Sun Top to Skookum flats, I decided to open things up (as much as anything I do can be referred to as 'opening it up') and averaged about 7:30 miles down the hill. I'm not sure it was a good decision not to hold back, because I didn't have a great run on the last 6 miles through Skookum. I didn't totally blow up, but I did take about five minutes longer on that section than the last time I ran the race - about 1:05 this year vs. about 60 minutes last time. (Although that race I did have the then-solid-now-awesome runner Chris Chamberlin pulling me along.) And it was the only section of the race that I didn't particularly enjoy, spending most of my time cursing Skookum Hell and neglecting my nutrition because I was 'almost there', which one never is in an ultra. In any case, I finished faster than last time, and didn't suffer through 90% of a 50 miler, which is a big net win. (Plus, hating Skookum is an essential part of the White River experience that I didn't get last time.)
In summary, it's always nice to be pleasantly surprised, and this year I went into White River with no real expectations. (I'm not sure why - the first time I ran was among the best race experiences I've ever had). Turns out it was an amazing event as usual, a ton of fun, beautiful, and exciting at the front of the pack. Congrats again to the finishers and thanks to the cast and crew who continue to make this WA's standard-setting race!
You should run it.