Race Report: White River 50 Mile Endurance Run

Because it's unlikely that there are 50 people who coincidentally happen upon this page on the same day that I link it on my Facebook wall and the Seattle Mountain Running Group, and at no other time, I always assume that it's read primarily by friends in the Seattle trail running community, along with a few of my friends from other stations in life and some family members.  That's a pretty diverse audience ranging from people who totally get the ultra-running experience to people who are genuinely concerned for the health and sanity of ultra-runners.  I'm going to try to encapsulate the White River experience for both groups.  It's kind of long, but whatever.  You all have proven that you have the stamina for this kind of thing - either by running freaking forever, or by putting up with me to this point in life.

A Little History

For some basic historical/contextual background, the White River 50 Mile Endurance Run happened last Saturday, and has been happening in July on a couple of small-ish mountains just outside of the Sunrise entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park for the last 20 years.  It has grown from a race of just a few friends to become (until a few years ago) the USA Track and Field 50 mile national championship race, and probably the most prestigious and popular ultra in Washington State - definitely so at the 50 mile distance - and one of the top 50 milers in the country.  It draws top runners every year, and this year also had its largest number of registrants ever at something near 350.  A big part of its popularity stems from the fact that it is on an amazing course climbing (and descending) around 8700 feet on perfect single track up two mountains with massive views of Mt Rainier at the top of each - 2 of the most beautiful marathons you'll ever do.  (The course would make for a great week-long backpacking trip, but why waste all that energy lugging around all of your gear for a week when you can just do it in a day?)  This year the favorites were Sage Canaday - a world class marathoner running his first 50 miler, Vajin Armstrong - a New Zealander who has been winning races Down Under for a while (that's what she said), and who just won a big race at American River, and Ellie Greenwood on the Women's side - the current Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of Women's ultra-running, who just destroyed a previously untouchable record at the Western States 100, improving on Ann Trason's time (the Best Female Ultra Runner Ever) by 50 minutes at the most prestigious ultra in the US.  She was using this as a last-minute tune up race, but as expected, this year Ellie won easily in 7:40 (roughly 2 3:50 marathons in a row, up two mountains) for the third fastest time ever.  Not quite as expected was Sage's ridiculous time of 6:16, beating the old record by 10 minutes and essentially running two back to back 3:10 marathons with 8700 feet of climb (compare that to the Seattle Marathon, which is considered a difficult road race because of a couple of 100 foot climbs, and where 3:10 is a very respectable time).  Dude's freaking amazing and just established himself as one of the best in the world at the 50 mile distance in his first race.  Vajin finished a distant second in a solid 6:53.  I'm just honored to have been on the same course with so many amazing runners.

Shifting gears to the personal side of the report...

It seems weird, even to me, to say that running 50 miles for the first time was one of the best experiences I've ever had, but it's true.  I signed up for the race essentially 1) as a personal challenge after having run 50k, 2) because a bunch of friends were doing it, 3) because the timing was right with a good amount of time to train on Summer break from school, and 4) so I could get some cool Glenn Tachiyama pictures taken.  I expected it to be a really miserable experience after about mile 30, but it turned out to be surprisingly good fun for pretty much the entire course (save a few moments of dehydrated grumpiness at around mile 33 - 35, fixed easily with water, energy gel, and salt pills).  The day was perfect, which played a huge role - 65 and sunny.  A few low clouds in the morning made the views at the top of the first mountain more stunning and the run up more comfortable.  The sun in the afternoon was never enough to overheat you, even on extended exposed stretches.  Absolutely ideal summer trail running in the PNW.

Backing up a bit though, I want to talk a bit about how Angel and I ended up in this race, because it wasn't entirely by design, and it involved a big element of good luck and good timing.  At this time last year, I was training for my second marathon, I'd never been on a trail run, and Angel was on the cusp of a calf injury that sidelined her on and off for 6 months.  After trying out trail running a couple of times, and hooking up with the Sunday morning run group organized by the Seattle Running Club,  we set a goal for 2012 of running a couple of 50k races (about 31 miles).  It seemed reasonable to be able to add 5 miles of distance to a marathon, especially on the trails where there's no shame in walking portions of the race.  In December we signed up for a particularly challenging and beautiful one - the Yakima Skyline Rim which takes place in April - expecting that we would run the distance before that to prepare.  Unfortunately Angel got hurt and we ended up being out of town for our expected inaugural 50k - Chuckanut - so Yakima was our first.  It was really brutal - more, and steeper, elevation change than White River, significantly hotter, rocky trail, and completely exposed to the sun.  It took us 8 - 9 hours to complete, which was kind of discouraging, but along the way people kept telling us "if you can do this, you can definitely do a 50 miler".  I only half believed them at the time, but it was coming from experienced runners so it planted a significant seed.  In the months of training after that race, a significant number of the people we ran with decided to do White River as a first 50 mile experience, I realized that we are likely going to be out of the country for the race next year, and registrations started filling fast making me a bit worried that the race might sell out (I was naive, and apparently that doesn't happen, but nevermind...).  So, in June I took the plunge and decided to register.  Having struggled through a couple of serious injuries, Angel was a bit more cautious.  But she continued the training with me, and after finishing a difficult 32 mile, 10 hour training run, I and some of our other friends finally talked her in to signing up.  Like so many things in life, running 50 miles boils down to hanging out with the wrong crowd.  I'm glad she made the decision she did - running to this point has been a challenge we've taken on together, and I really didn't want to do my first 50 without her.

At this stage in the blog post, if I were you, I would be getting sick of reading all of this narrative.  So, to mix things up a bit, I'm going to start

A List of Things That Made the Experience so Great:

Because everyone likes lists.  And I'll throw some pictures in as well once they come in, because everyone likes those too.

1) Ultra runners are friendly people, even the elite ones. 

a) Along the way in training, we got a ton of encouragement and running tips from the Seattle Running Club and other veterans in the trail running community - Win Van Pelt, Blaire Williams, Adam Gaston, Glen Mangiantini, George Orozco, Deby Kumasaka, Dave Allen, etc., etc.  I genuinely wouldn't have had the confidence to sign up for the race if a bunch of people hadn't told us that we could do it, and then told us how.

b) At the event itself, we got to have meaningful conversation with runners we really admire.  At registration we met Vajin Armstrong and a couple of his crew/friends who were over from New Zealand.  Having lived there ourselves, we had to introduce ourselves, and talked a bit about how awesome his country is, where the good spots are to run in WA, etc.  One of his friends was also there running his first 50 miler, so we wished them all luck.  At the carb-load dinner the night before the race, Angel also sat us down at a table with Ellie Greenwood, who was also super nice and completely unpretentious, despite being one of the most impressive athletes on the planet.  We chatted for a while about running in the Vancouver area, what races we had coming up, what the best runs were in the area, mutual acquaintances, funny anecdotes from Western States, etc.  At the finish line, those of us who completed were greeted by Jonathan Basham, one of the race organizers and an amazing ultra-runner in his own right (added 12 miles on to Hardrock this year - arguably the hardest race in the country - and still finished top 20).  He was giving out congratulations and high fives all the way up to the last finishers, and maybe it was the Southern accent, but they seemed genuine rather than obligatory.  It's awesome to participate in a sport where the elites are still there hanging out with the normal folks.  I didn't get a chance to meet Sage, but he seemed like a super nice guy as well.

2) Running with Friends is great.

One of the best parts of the event was making a bunch of friends during the training process who were in the same boat, running 50 miles for the first time, and trying to achieve a goal that seemed unimaginable at some point in all of our lives.  On the day of the race, to a person, everyone who we'd trained with that showed up finished, and most of us in better time than expected.  A lot of us ran together at some point during the race, or at least said hi on an out and back portion in the mountains.  I was especially happy for Priya Naik, Evan Anderson, Sharon Hendricks, Yitka Winn, Evgeny Roubinchtein, and Maris Lemba because we did a lot of running with them, and we were all intimidated by the event, feeling like we had a real chance of DNF'ing.  Everyone was glowing afterwards from having completed the race, and Yitka put in the fastest and most impressive performance - finishing in 9:53, good for 7th place among women and 2nd in her age group!  Everyone I talked to felt great about the race, which is long and hard enough to lend itself to setting a goal to finish and leaving the rest up to the mountain gods - we were all genuinely happy to have completed ourselves, and genuinely happy for each other.  I didn't see Angel along the course, but I got updates from aid station volunteers and other runners who had, who told me she was looking strong and happy.  She finished in a solid 11:37 and came in running with a huge smile on her face.  Something like the one in this photo, taken by Glenn Tachiyama after 37 miles and an 8 mile climb
(Funny anecdote from along the way - Priya took the early start and was running out front of the other women for a lot of the first loop.  Multiple people who I was running with along the way were asking "who's that girl who's beating Ellie?!"  She looked strong enough and happy enough to be the leader, and finished in an impressive 10:48)

The event itself was a huge party in the local trail-running community, and it was also amazing to see friends at almost every aid station and the finish line.  My favorite was at Fawn Ridge, in the middle of the hardest climb, where there was a luau set up complete with Hawaiian music, spray bottles, and pink flamingos, and where our friend John was volunteering and hugely encouraging, as always.  It was also great to see Glenn and Takao Suzuki out photographing - I was so excited to see Glenn the first time when I came around the corner near Coral Pass that I was waving and saying hi while he was photographing rather than doing the requisite 'pretend you're strong' pose, and ended up with a photo with an amazing background and a look on my face that suggests that I've been crying. Not inappropriate, really.

And one of the best parts of the experience, for me, was falling in behind Chris Chamberlin - a guy who lives close to Angel and I, and who I've run with just a couple of times before.  We were moving at a similar pace up the first hill, and started running together at mile 17.  From there to mile 50 (about 7 hours), we ran together the entire way, and I'm pretty sure neither of us would have finished as well had we run individually.  I like to think that I pushed the pace for him on the ascents and descents (after spending my winter and spring running up and down Mt Si and Tiger Mountain), and he definitely pushed the pace for me on the flat portions - especially near the end, where I'm positive that I would've walked portions that I ran if he weren't ahead pacing me.  The best motivational thing that happened during the race: Chris's mom, who is 63, was also running (and was, at the time, the 60-69 female record holder).  She had taken the early start, and was having another amazing race, such that we only finally caught up to her at about mile 47.  She and Chris hugged and he introduced me, and she told us "You're doing an amazing job - now go and break 10 hours!"  At that point that meant suffering through another 3 - 4 sub-10 minute miles on the final uphill portion of the race, which at the time sounded totally unappealing.  But we pushed our way through and came out of the forest onto the last 1/2 mile or so stretch of logging road, knowing that we were close to our pace.  Chris picked up the pace there to what felt like a sprint, but was probably something more like an 8 minute mile, and I pushed with him to come around the corner together 50 meters from the finish line right at 9:59:00, finishing out under 10 hours!  It was 30 minutes earlier than I'd anticipated in my own best case scenario, and an hour and a half earlier than I'd expected - averaging right at 12 minute miles for the course.  Chris's mom (Liz) came in a few minutes later, ahead of her previous record, but very slightly behind another 60 - 69 year old female.  

One doesn't generally run 50 miles on their own, and the experience of taking on a challenge and achieving a really difficult goal with a group of friends made it a really meaningful experience.

3) Going Further than Ever Before

I have come out of multiple road marathons feeling really crappy, and totally exhausted, to the point that I immediately laid down and put my feet in the air, groaning, and couldn't move without cramping for 15 - 20 minutes.  Longer training runs on trails haven't produced that result, but I fully expected that this race would mean suffering through some kind of similar miserable experience.  Which is why I was continuously surprised that, between miles 25 - 50, my muscles didn't really feel any different than they do between miles 20 - 25 of a marathon - tired, sore, but really just a consistent, low level pain that's an annoyance, but tolerable.  After that stage, it became just a game of keeping up with hydration, nutrition and electrolytes, and mentally convincing myself to keep moving as fast as possible.  I noticed that I would start to get hangry and dehydrated more quickly than earlier in the race, so I would need to take salt, electrolytes, and food more frequently, but the basic dynamics of distance running didn't change.  At mile 37, there is a 6 mile steep downhill on a logging road prior to the final trail portion of the race, and I was surprised and ecstatic to find that I could still keep up a 7 - 8 minute mile pace.  I completely expected to crash on the last 7 miles of trail, but at that stage running with Chris was huge, and I used him as a pacer to keep myself from giving up and walking - and ultimately the crash never happened anyway, and I never cramped - distance running really is a fueling/mental game.  I came out of the experience surprised and completely happy with my performance in a tough first 50.  "They" estimate that your White River time should be about 3 times your road marathon time, and I came in about 10 minutes earlier than expected even in that scenario. It felt like a real ultra experience (not just some dinky 8 hour 50k), and Glen Mangiantini, a grizzled veteran of the Seattle trail running community, told Angel and I that we're real runners now - a big endorsement.

Overall it was a perfect running experience.  I got a bigger sense of accomplishment out of it than anything I've done since our very first sprint triathlon 2.5 years ago, it was a perfect day in one of the most beautiful places I've been, Angel and I accomplished it together, and with a bunch of old and new friends, we got to meet awesome famous people and reminisce about New Zealand, we raced against (and got destroyed by) the fastest runner ever on the course, the event was fun and really well organized, and it sounds amazing, even to me, to say that I ran 50 miles last Saturday. 


Deby Kumasaka said…
This is awesome Tim! Such a positive blog on such a challenging course. Way to embrace the challenge and enjoy the journey. Great time for 50 miles, especially your first!
Jorge Orozco said…
Tim and Angel, congrats on starting and finishing such an epic and challenging journey. I hope your experience has been positive and fulfilling and will return to WR for many years to come. Hope to share the trails with both of you soon!
Unknown said…
Thanks Deby and Jorge - it was great seeing both of you out there as well! We definitely both had a great experience - I very rarely come out of a race thinking "I want to do that again!", but I definitely did with this one. It just covered all of the bases for a great experience.

It was really cool seeing both of you there with your kids too - what great role models you two are for them!
chris chamberlin said…
Tim - thanks for this fantastic writeup. It was a joy to spend the day with ya, and especially to finish faster and feeling better than either of us expected. Let's do it again soon!
Unknown said…
Chris - Squamish 50 in a couple of weeks? :)
Dave said…
Awesome work Tim! Really proud of you (and Angel!) and you seriously crushed it! Also really bummed I couldn't be out there, (even volunteering) but this is great motivation to get my ass back out on the trails.
Unknown said…
Thanks Dave - I was sorry to hear/see that you couldn't make it out too - seemed like a great time for the volunteers as well! We'll have to hit the trails together sometime soon! Right now it's going to be mellow fun runs and biking for me for awhile! Training was kind of intense.
Unknown said…
You inspire me!! What a huge accomplishment. I still couldn't imagine running 50 miles. Congratulations you guys!! I'm so proud. -Cat