Mount Rainier peeks out to say hello as I begin the descent from Sun Top. Photo by Alexander
I registered for the White River 50-miler before I had even run a marathon. In fact, I had run only one half marathon since recovering from a broken leg. Overconfidence? I don’t think so. I would say it was drive. After being laid up for months, missing out on all the running and hiking adventures of summer, I had some serious living to catch up on.
It’s been a relatively straight path from the moment I clicked the registration box to today, with minimal injury-related detours along the way. After that first horrendous marathon, I breezed through the next two and glided through my first ultra. I wasn’t sure if running a difficult 50-miler with such limited experience was a good idea, but I have met with nothing but support and encouragement along the way, and I feel tremendous confidence in myself. Plus, I’ve got great hair for it.
The Seattle Running Club hosted two “preview” runs for the White River course earlier this month, and I leaped at the opportunity to take a look at what I had gotten myself into. Each run entailed 4000′ of elevation gain, the first run a loop of 23 miles and the second loop 25 miles. On race day, there would be an additional two miles around the start/finish area.
Preview Run #1 traveled the second half of the WR course. We set out through the Skookum Flats section, which was intimidating right off the bat. I had not encountered such a technical trail before. The tree roots and rocks were just incredible. Being near the front of the pack, I was forced to run much faster than what was comfortable. It’s incredible how much energy and concentration it takes to negotiate such technical footing, and I was panting less than a mile in. Soon after, I tripped on a root–my greatest fear. Fortunately, I caught myself and prevented a fall, but it scared the hell out of me. Time to slow down. I pulled off to the side to remove my long sleeves as a wave of runners blazed past. Alexander and Andy kept moving forward, and I went on solo.
I found my tempo and settled into the run. Things got real when I reached a washed out section of the trail. There was a rope tied across the expanse, and runners were lined up to cross it, one at a time. I was just waiting for this to do me in, but it turned out not to be so bad. It was honestly kind of thrilling to be clinging to a rope, picking my way across the loose dirt and trying not to slide down into the White River below.
Runners started to spread out at this point, and I fell into a rhythm with a runner in front of me. We chatted occasionally but mostly remained focused on the trail ahead. She had also tripped early in the run, so we both took a cautious approach moving forward. Mary Ann would end up becoming my trail buddy for both preview runs. We made a great trail team. She’s a bit faster, which helps push me, but not outside of what I am capable of. She would have me take the lead while being sure not to crowd me. We found a nice balance between talking and silence, and I really enjoyed her company.
The climb to Sun Top put my Taylor Mountain experience to shame. That’s not to say Taylor Mountain isn’t a monster of a hill; Sun Top was just that much harder. It’s steep and relentless, something like 8-10 miles of switchbacks and vertical climbs. I don’t know who can run up such an ascent. We power hiked as fast as our legs and the terrain would allow. I followed Yassine’s instruction to eat every half hour so that I would have the energy to get up this thing. While it can be frustrating to have to hike instead of run, I still enjoy the ascents all the same. Perhaps it connects me to those first runs up the hill behind my childhood home and serves as a comfort of sorts. We leap frogged a few times with a man who was in incredible pain, limping along and howling out loud. He sounded like an animal; it was unreal. This is the ultra runner sort, though. Stubbornly pushing your body beyond its limits and refusing to give in to pain is a trademark characteristic. He was miserable, but he wasn’t complaining. His howls were simply a means for releasing the pain so that he could continue.
Alexander linked up with us on the climb. Before the final ascent, we encountered some steep downhill sections. Again, following Yassine’s directions, I challenged myself to move past my fear and to push the downhills. Lowering my center of gravity and leaning into it, I tore down the hills in a flurry. It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time; the true sublime. It was all I could do to keep from yelling, “Yeehaw!” Of course, my knees would suffer as a result, but in them moment it’s tough not to give in to gravity.
The final switchbacks were intense, as we broke from the forest and met the sun. I could hear voices directly above me and knew the summit was close. As I rounded the final corner, Mount Rainier came into full view. It stopped me short and took my breath. The Mountain has such a strong presence; you feel it as a living being. I felt like it had been sneaking up behind me, spying on me as I crawled up the slope. I hope to never reach a day where I don’t gasp upon seeing it.
The final climb to the summit of Sun Top. Photo by Alexander
Sun Top summit, with Rainier in the background. Photo by Alexander
We lingered for a few minutes at Sun Top, refilled water bottles, and had a quick snack. I learned that packing sandwiches and rice balls in your hydration vest is a bad idea if you want to pull them out later looking anything like food. The trip down was, for me, the worst part of the run. While it might seem like a welcome change after a grueling ascent, descents can be tough on your body. This was a ridiculously uneven gravel and dirt road, steep at times, and difficult to find good footing. When cars rolled past, they kicked up clouds of dirt to choke you. Alexander and Mary Ann sped down as I picked my way more gingerly, my knees screaming with each step. Alone for miles, I was relieved when the next runner passed me, as it verified that I hadn’t missed my turns and was on the right path back. All told, the descent was about 7 miles long. I realized for the first time that running downhill for such an extended period not only hurts my body, but I find it very boring. I am typically so happy to be running that I take whatever the trail gives me, but the unchanging downhill cadence became monotonous after a few miles, and I was ready for a change.
You should always be careful what you wish for. Just as Eric, the runner who organized the event, told me, when I hit the flat section at the bottom of the hill, it felt like my “ass hit the ground,” to use his expression. A flat surface never felt so difficult! I knew there were only a couple of miles to go, though, so I powered through. My watch had died, but talking to others, I figured out that it took me 5 hours 27 minutes to complete the loop. Not fast, but also not bad. I would push harder on race day, and at least now I knew what was in store. Of course, this would be the second half of the course on race day, so I had to both keep the Sun Top ascent in mind and know that it was going to be tough but not let that intimidate me either. Acknowledge it, and move on.
WR50 Preview Run #2. Photo courtesy Seattle Running Club.
The second preview run followed the first loop of the race course. It was a cool, rainy morning, which is my kind of running weather. Like the previous week’s run, this one also began in a more technical section of trail. I was more relaxed this time around and navigated the roots and rocks more smoothly. This run was just plain fun. I met so many interesting people along the way. I love chatting with a runner for a bit and then parting ways. You share some stories, your excitement for the race, your appreciation for the beauty that surrounds us. One runner in particular remains with me from this run.
Ron had run Taylor Mountain as well, and we swapped stories about that race and trail running in general. I learned that, at age 40, he was obese and smoking a pack a day. He was also terribly scared of the water. After volunteering at an Iron Man, and facing some painful experiences in his personal life, Ron decided to train for an Iron Man. He took swimming lessons and chipped away at his fear of the water. He quit smoking, got in shape, and lost weight. He said that when he made it through the swim component of his first Iron Man, and stepped out of the water, he felt like he had won the race. He was solidly in the middle of the pack coming out of the water (49%) but, to him, he had the same feeling as if he had completed the entire thing and had won. I knew exactly what he meant. He lingered on that point to emphasize the sheer joy, and importance, of working toward these goals for yourself. The passion and energy with which he shared his story was incredibly moving and inspiring. To look at Ron now, you would never even imagine such a history. He looks like a complete badass. Sometimes I think we believe people who look like chiseled statues are born that way. Knowing how hard Ron had to work to get there, learning the fears he faced, and seeing him now glide up the trail with such ease and confidence today, strongly resonated with me. He went on to encourage me as I make my own journey, even using the term “badass” to refer to me, which was quite a compliment. We ran together for maybe 15 minutes before Ron pulled ahead, but that conversation won’t ever leave me. Its encounters like this that fuel me and feed my love for the trail running community.
It was a misty morning, so there were no sweeping views of mountain vistas. The fog cleared enough on some passes for me to realize how steep the drop off was along the trail. I kept my eyes forward and pressed on, pushing my fear of heights aside. I ran solo for a while and was amazed when I reached the Ranger Creek lean-to to find a clump of runners there refueling and filling water bottles. It’s interesting that you can watch other runners zoom past you out of sight, but you then realize that they weren’t really that far ahead of you. Here, Alexander decided to take the trail back to the car; the weather didn’t agree with him. I linked back up with Mary Ann, and we pressed onward to Corral Pass.
This stretch of the trail was probably my favorite. It’s mostly rolling hills and very runable. The big climb was out of the way, and now we could enjoy a steady pace as we made our way through small alpine meadows and beautiful stands of trees. After a funny encounter with speedy Andy, who, not realizing he had done the lollipop and was now retracing his steps to Ranger Creek, was astounded that I was somehow ahead of him. I assured him I’m that still slower than him, explaining the turn-around, and we parted laughing. At Corral Pass, Mary Ann and I opted out of the lollipop (Eric said it added only a quarter mile) and headed back. The rain had made the trail a bit slick, so it was slower going at times. At the lean-to, we took the left trail back and started the long descent. This was much more pleasant than the Sun Top descent, as here we had all trail switchbacks, no road. It’s easier on the body. Mary Ann had me lead to set the pace, and we found a nice rhythm. She told me about 12 hour and overnight races she had run, and they grabbed my interest (I came home and registered for the Carkeek 12 hour and will register for the Starlight overnight race when it opens. I am so easily influenced!) As with the Sun Top descent, I did get a little bored after 5 miles of constant downhill. I’m not sure why this is, but I guess it’s good to acknowledge it and not dwell on it. I don’t want to dread the downhills. My knee did hurt a times, but I was able to negotiate it. It raised some concerns about race day, though. I will do this descent and still have loop 2 and Sun Top to go, so I will need to find a happy medium between making up time on the downhill from Ranger Creek and not blowing out my knees.
I really had no idea how far we had gone and finally asked Mary Ann (I was just using my Timex stopwatch, which doesn’t track distance.) We were at mile 23, with 2 to go. It was incredible to me that I had run almost marathon distance without even thinking about the mileage. On the road, I would be counting every mile. On the trail, I was completely lost in the experience and had no thought or care of how far or how long. This was such a reaffirming moment, and I reflected on how far I had come as a runner to not be phased by 25 miles on a difficult trail. We rolled into the parking lot at Buck Creek and high-fived our achievement.
A couple weeks later, it would be time to put both practice runs together into one run. Instead of intimidating me, though, these preview runs have only made me all the more excited to run my first 50-miler. Yeehaw, indeed.