This past weekend, I ran Rainshadow Running’s Gorge 100km race in the Columbia River Gorge for the second year in a row. Having also run the 50k course in 2014, it’s safe to say that this race is now definitely one of my favourites (that, or I just keep going back for more pain!). It features miles and miles of countless waterfalls, moss-laden trails, and flowy singletrack – but make no mistake, this race is no gimme. With a sneaky 12,000 feet of cumulative gain built into 100km of rolling hills, and two steep climbs bookmarking the beginning and end of the out-and-back course, as well as off-camber footing and rocky terrain that makes it hard to run with a normal gait, it’s easy to see why this race is now a Western States qualifier. It’s rugged, tough, and gorgeous. Sign me up.
I’m extremely lucky to have a wonderful group of insanely talented girlfriends who also willingly register for crazy races like this one, and we turned the weekend into an unconventional girls’ roadtrip. We caravanned down to Oregon in two cars with 6 girls and 2 boyfriends in tow, stopping almost every 30 minutes along the way for pee breaks and food, as one does the day before a big race. I have an amazing talent for cramming in all of the water I should have been drinking in the week before the race into the day before, much to my bladder’s chagrin. Side note: on the return trip, we stopped exactly once the whole way back… just a slight difference from the nervous hydration happening pre-race.
We stayed at McMenamin’s at Edgefield, which is a quirky old school that has now been converted into a creaky older hotel. Bathrooms are communal, and our rooms were on the 3rd floor – no elevators. My first thought upon checking in was “Oh boy, I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to get back to my room after the race”. Also, after carrying my bags up three flights of stairs, I was winded. Not a good sign the night before running 100km. Clearly, pre-race jitters had kicked in.
After eating an entire pizza by myself and washing it down with a courage-boosting glass of wine, I tucked myself into bed at 10:30pm and set my alarm for 4:15am. Compared to last year, when I had to be up at 1:30am for the much earlier 3am start time, this felt downright luxurious.
Our fearless racers, consisting of Alicia, Tory, Tara (Barry) and Tara (Holland) and myself, managed to get ourselves ready and out the door to the race almost on schedule, but when we got to the start line parking lot at Benson State Park 15 minutes later, we were told that the parking lot was full and we would have to park a mile down the highway and walk back to the start line. Uh oh. This was a good lesson in leaving time for the unexpected, as we had planned our morning so that timing would work only if everything went according to plan. Suddenly we found ourselves hauling drop bags and gear along the highway back to the start line in a panic, checking in with minutes to spare, and still pinning bibs on as the race began. I only hoped this wasn’t an omen for the day to come.
Tara Holland and I had previously decided to run the first half of the race together so that she could pace herself and not go out too fast, as it was her first time doing 100km (and double her longest distance ever!). Because of the scramble to get to the start line we found ourselves quite far back in the pack, and shuffled along in a conga line with the main pack for the first kilometre until we hit the big climb and the pack started to space out a bit. As I watched people jostle for position or sprint uphill in order to move ahead exactly 10 feet from where they were, I had to laugh at the futility of their efforts. In a race this long, the less effort you expend the better, especially at the beginning when it doesn’t do you any good. One of the golden rules I swear by, which coach Gary Robbins has taught me well, is to “start slow, finish fast”. I can say with certainty that every single one of those runners who went out too hard in the beginning in an effort to prove that they could indeed run uphill (good for you, that looks sustainable!), ended up struggling to finish, if they finished at all. Pacing, in these races, IS the race.
I’ve discovered that one of the reasons I like long distances so much is that I’m good at finding a consistent pace that I can hold for hours on end (aka Hilary the human metronome), and I felt fantastic as we cruised through the first section, blew through the first aid station without needing to stop, and settled into a comfortable rhythm as the KM’s ticked away. I felt so lucky to be able to share what ended up amounting to ~80% of the race with Tara H, who is both a badass (and crazy fast!!) runner, but is also a straight up wonderful woman who I have so much admiration for. We were actually asked once during the race if we were sisters, and I replied “I wish!!”. It really felt like we were. We were a seamless team for much of the day, and took turns pushing and pulling the pace as needed. It always amazes me how life brings us exactly what we need in that moment, and I’m so grateful to count Tara as a friend and future adventure buddy.
The first half of the race flew by with little fanfare, other than the unseasonable humidity which had everyone drenched mere hours into the race, and early hotspots on my feet that slowly turned into blisters over the course of the race. I decided not to change shoes when I had the opportunity to at the first pass through Cascade Locks Aid Station (35km in), because a) the blisters weren’t bad enough to affect my gait, and b) the Saucony Nomad TR’s that I started the race in were my best option given all of my foot issues leading up to the race, and I wasn’t willing to give them up yet. Shoutout to the Wy’east Wolfpack, led by rockstar leader Yassine Diboun, who made this aid station the highlight of my day with their amazing energy and enthusiasm. You guys rock!
So as far as nutrition goes, I realized early on that my stomach was not happy, and I had a lot of trouble eating the food I’d packed in between aid stations due to nausea. Because of that, I started spending more time at each aid to make sure I got at least a couple of hundred calories in when I could. Coke, chips, fruit and pickles became my lifesavers, along with some avocado at 65km that tasted like heaven, and gallons of electrolytes to compensate for my extreme sweating. What a cocktail.
Tara and I (along with Alicia, who we met up with along the 35-50k section before she ended up eventually dropping out of the race due to pacing and nutrition issues), hit the turnaround point at exactly 6 hours 30 minutes, which was perfectly on pace for my goal of a sub 14 hour finish, with a bit of a buffer built in. I should add that I ran the entire race without a watch because I worried that I would become fixated on my time goals and screw up my pacing – and really, there’s not much I can change about the outcome by obsessing over each minute that passes for 13 entire hours, other than to drive myself crazy. Before the race, I had decided that I would run by feel and by heart, and be at peace with whatever outcome that gave me at the end of the day. It’s a hard thing to do, especially since I had last year’s performance to compare myself to – hello, déjà vu – but I do feel that for the most part (until the last hour when I decided to just go for it and see how fast I could finish), I managed to stick to it.
Because of the out-and-back course, another thing I love about this race is seeing everyone else either coming or going along the way. So many high fives and hugs!! Tara Barry passed us flying as she headed to her eventual 10th place finish in 12:15, and rowdy high fives with Tory kept us all in good spirits.
Gary had warned me not to start racing until after the 50km mark, and having run a conservative first half of the race, I felt ready to pick it up a notch. I waved goodbye to Tara and Alicia, and started to tackle the uphill climb out of Wyeth AS with more energy. It felt great to open up the legs here, and I enjoyed the solitude of flying along in the woods by myself. The beauty of races this long is that they give you plenty of time to ponder life and be super intellectual, while still gasping for breath and thinking about which tree you are going to pee behind next.
The biggest takeaway from my hours of musing (I’ll condense it for you, you’re welcome), is that my motivation for running these long, physically and mentally demanding races has to be rooted firmly in the right place. When I’m out there alone for hours, battling highs and lows and convincing myself to maintain forward momentum, the only person that I am truly competing with is myself. The reason that I love ultra running so dearly is because I am continually learning more about who I am and what I’m capable of each time I challenge myself to do something that I’m not totally sure I can do. I’m aware that not every challenge will be successful, and there will come a day when I don’t reach the finish line – and that’s ok too, because it’ll also teach me something new about myself. This journey is pushing me, redefining my limits, and forcing me to be completely honest and vulnerable with myself and with others. It’s an incredible feeling, to strip everything external away and just run with my heart, and to be completely present in that moment and that moment only.
I hit Cascade Locks AS for the second time feeling strong, except for the growing blisters on my left foot that I couldn’t quite ignore. I’d been planning to stop here and change shoes, but as soon as I did I realized that that was no longer an option. My backup pair have a narrow toebox, and I knew as soon as I swapped shoes that this was going to make the blisters worse – so I put my Nomads right back on again. Sigh. As I was dealing with my shoes, Tara came flying into the AS. Crazy how close our pace was all day, even when we weren’t running together! I waited for her to grab some food and switch shoes, and then we took off together, reunited again! I was extremely thankful to have her company when we hit the 2 mile road section following Yeon AS at around 75km. It was HOT, exposed and asphalt, and we were shuffling along on a road that ran parallel to the highway. Not exactly inspiring stuff. It was a low point for both of us, but we got through it with a combination of running and walking and shuffling, until we finally hit the relative cool of the trails again. It took a few minutes to get our energy back after that soul-sucking section, but we slowly regained momentum and started picking racers off by the handful. The beauty of starting out slowly is that you get to feel really strong when you are passing runners late in the game – and we realized after the race that we didn’t get passed once for the entire second half of the race. I’d call that successful pacing!
Right around when this picture was taken, I started to get the urge to really pick up my pace. I left Tara for what turned out to be the last time that day, and started to push myself. I glanced at the time for only the second time that day as I hit the final aid station (just before the last big climb starts), realizing that I needed to have a strong finish if I wanted to be decisively under 14 hours. This thought gave me new energy, and I felt strong as I power climbed the final hill, passing runner after runner as I went. I stopped counting after a while, but later Tara and I figured out that I passed 10 girls in that last 10km alone, moving from 23 to 13th place. The power of pacing, seriously. Apparently I passed runners who I knew as I went, but I was so focused that I have zero memory of it at all.
I hit the top of the climb completely euphoric, knowing that all that stood between me and the finish line was around 5km of downhill, concrete switchbacks and a flat kilometre around the lake at Benson State Park (it’s a torturous km, as you can see and hear the finish line at that point but yet you are moving away from it). I’ve previously had my quads totally cramp up on me at this exact downhill section, but on this day I felt invincible. I literally threw myself down the mountain, whooping and hollering out loud and feeling giddy with glee and abandon. I splashed through creeks recklessly, no longer worrying about keeping my feet dry to protect my blisters. I’m pretty sure that tourists hiking up to the waterfalls thought I was batshit crazy, but I didn’t care. I was having an absolute blast, and felt no pain. In what felt like only minutes later, I skidded into the finish line at 13 hours and 27 minutes, 13th female overall, and almost 45 minutes faster than last year’s 14:12.
Tara finished almost exactly 5 minutes after me – again, our paces were ridiculously close. What an incredible debut for her first 100km race!
Aside from some very glamorous puking in the parking lot as we were heading back to the hotel (who knew sprinting downhill with a stomach full of nothing but Coke and pickles was a bad idea at the end of a race?! Sorry, stomach), the rest of the trip was blissfully uneventful.
I do have to admit though – one of my first thoughts when crossing the finishing line was “Gee, if this was Fat Dog 120miler, I’d barely be halfway done right now”…😳. A frightening thought, that, but thank god I don’t have to worry about that until August. For now, you’ll find me happily glued to my couch.