Posted by: pointlenana | July 29, 2014

White River 50 – 7/26/14

White River 2014 - photo by Glenn Tachiyama

White River 2014 – photo by Glenn Tachiyama

I love this run.  I’m sure it’s partly because it was my first ultra/trail race (and basically my first real trail run).  But it’s a beautiful course, very well organized, and just a fun day (if nothing goes terribly wrong).  So I was happy to be out there for my 3rd year in a row yesterday.

It was also a test to see what, if any, benefit I’ve gotten from my intense training in recent weeks.  Would 80, 100, 120 mile weeks enable me to keep going or had they just worn me out?  After running 10:25:27 last year when I was in decent shape, I was hoping to take a chunk of time off and get close to 10 hours – maybe even break 10 if I had a great day.  Estimating times based on elevation change and my actual times from the past two year, I put together a small laminated crib sheet with aid station target times that would get me in just under 10 hours.

The White River 50 is held at the northeast corner of Mt. Rainier National Park, just outside the park boundary.  I drove down Friday afternoon (hitting horrible traffic).  I knew I wasn’t going to win when I saw Uli Steidl in Enumclaw Safeway.  Uli is pretty well known in the ultra world, and woefully underappreciated in the broader running community.  Aside from winning the Seattle Marathon something like 10 times, he’s run Boston as a masters the past three years and finished 1, 3, and 1 among masters, most recently running a 2:19 at the age of 42.  And Uli holds 3 of the fastest 10 times at White River.  So with him in the race, my chances of collecting prize money had dropped quite a lot – from approximately 0% to exactly 0%.

The pasta dinner and pre-race briefing are held in a beer “cellar” up at the Crystal Mountain Ski Resort.  I had dinner with Jon ’64 from the RWOL community – he flew in from the East Coast to run his first mountain 50 and second 50.  We sat with a woman (Ziyang Liu) doing her first 50 mile, and as we talked to her it turned out she ran at 2:49 at Boston this year.  The guy next to her was 2 hours into a 4 hour wait to find out if the potato salad he had eaten that was 12 days past expiration date (courtesy of the same Enumclaw Safeway) was going to tank his race – I saw him the next day about mile 14 and he seemed ok. I also said hi to Justin Houck – he ran a really fast time at the Vashon 50k and we happened to ride the ferry back together.  Justin is on the college team that Uli Steidl coaches.  Scott McCoubrey did his long, detailed pre-race briefing and showed this video (2002 White River Video Part 1, Part 2) from the 2002 race with people like Hal Koerner, Scott Jurek, Krissy Moehl, Karl Meltzer, and William Emerson (more on him in a bit):

I slept in the back of our minivan near the start.  I was really comfortable and slept soundly for a good 3 hours, at which point I woke up and started overthinking the race.  At 4:30 my alarm went off and I got on with lubing, dressing, and trying not to forget anything important.

The forecast had been pretty good and reality did not disappoint.  Crystal clear, 50 at the start, and warm but not really hot midday.  I didn’t find Jon ’64 at the start, but I did run into Reglor from RWOL who had signed up at the last minute, and also found my friends Jeff and Craig.  Jeff and I ran Miwok together, and Craig is the friend who does huge events essentially on no training.  He said he trained for White River though, running a consistent 15-20 miles/week.  Phew…  We lined up, Scott McCoubrey counted the time down, and we left.

Start to Camp Sheppard (3.9 miles)

The first 5 miles or so are run mostly on a nice rolling single-track trail paralleling the White River.  The big question for me was how hard to start.  The first year I went hard from the start and felt like I was overdoing it.  Last year, I intentionally started slowly, but found myself stuck behind a train of runners on a trail where it was hard to pass.  (For the first couple miles I was staring at Matt Inman’s/The Oatmeal’s back just in front of me, and admiring the world’s first Blerch shirt – “I believe in the Blerch”.) This year, I parked myself midway in the pack at the start and still hadn’t made up my mind.  Running up the 1/2 mile section along the airstrip, I found myself passing people and decided I wanted to be towards the front of the train not stuck at the back.  When we turned into the single-track, I was in a comfortable spot with people who were moving quickly but not too quickly.  Unlike 2 years ago, when I was pretty literally learning how to run on trails in this section, this year skipping past the roots and other obstacles seemed unconscious.  It felt fast but comfortable, and my heart rate was about where it is in the early miles of marathon-pace training runs.  I ran most of this with Craig.  Jeff was already ahead – I saw him one more time going up to Ranger Creek and then he disappeared.

Only a few miles in - feeling good.

Only a few miles in – feeling good.  Photo courtesy of Ross Comer.

10 hour goal to Camp Sheppard:  40 minutes, Actual: 32 minutes (slightly faster than my first year, 8 minutes faster than last year).  8 minutes up relative to my goal already, but mostly due to having better “luck” re: position in the line of runners.

Camp Sheppard to Ranger Creek (11.7 miles): After another mile of rolling trail, the race turns up.  Really up.  White River only has “2 hills”, but they are big – 4000 feet and 3500 feet.  We climb that first one in about 10 miles after Camp Sheppard – 8% average grade with the first 1/3 steep and the rest alternating between runnable and steep.  The steepest section of the whole run is about 6 miles in, where it turns up, then more up, and then you reach these stairs that go straight up a cliff next to a stream.  Going up the stairs I estimated a 40 degree angle, but looking down from some switchbacks above I think it’s closer to 50 degrees.  Thankfully, after those switchbacks the grade mellows out and my pace dropped from about 20 min/mile to a slow run.

Recycling a picture from two years ago.  You can just make out the stairs in the center right of the picture.

Recycling a picture from two years ago. You can just make out the stairs in the center right of the picture.

This section gave us our first view of Mt. Rainier.  It’s tucked behind a ridge (the second hill we run, in the afternoon) but with the clear day it was already spectacular, looking at the north side – the Willis Wall, Liberty Ridge, etc..

Most of the aid stations are full-service and have big spreads, but there’s no road to Ranger Creek, so volunteers hiked in 15 or 20 5-gallon jugs of water, electrolytes and gels a couple miles on our behalf.  Thank you!

10 hour goal to Ranger Creek: 2:10, Actual 2:03.  I was pretty happy at this point.  The fast time to Camp Sheppard had to do with positioning, but I’d done the Ranger Creek split right on my original 10 hour target.

The White River elevation profile, with a comparison to the Boston Marathon for kicks...

The White River elevation profile, with a comparison to the Boston Marathon for kicks…

Ranger Creek to Corral Pass (16.9 miles) The trail turns up again right after Ranger Creek and it was back to mostly walking.  Above Ranger Creek, the trail is a big lollipop – an out-and-back section that we’d come back on, and a loop above that that takes us past the Corral Pass aid station.  The cool thing about this is that we see the leaders coming back.  The first year I ran, Sage Canaday flew past me on a gnarly narrow downhill.  This year, Justin Houck did the same – I literally dropped 2 feet off the downhill side of the trail into the bushes to make room for him.  Unlike the past 2 years though when I saw probably 30 people coming back, this year I was moving quickly enough that only 10 or so came by before I reached the lollipop turn, including Justin Houck, Vajin Armstrong, Matt Urbanski, Uli Steidl, and 50-year-old William Emerson (who won several years ago and who has placed in the top 10 something like a dozen times).

Looking at the first climb of the race.  The race starts in the bottom right of the valley, goes 5 miles to the left, and then back up to the right along the top of the ridge.  The high point is somewhere along the ridge in the distance.

Looking at the first climb of the race. The race starts in the bottom right of the valley, goes 5 miles under the cliffs to the left, and then back up to the right along the top of the cliffs. The high point is somewhere along the ridge in the distance, maybe in the center of the photo.

At this point we were up in alpine meadows/scrub trees – with lupin and indian paintbrush blooming and Mt. Rainier looming behind us for those that turned around.  I was running near people who had not run White River before and/or were from elsewhere, and a couple times I heard this sequence:  “Turn around!”  “Oh, wow!”

This is the kind of view we had looking from Corral Pass towards Rainier.  Thankfully, I only saw mountain bikes a few times, and always when they were pushing up steep hills.

This internet image is the kind of view we had looking from Corral Pass towards Rainier. Thankfully, I only saw mountain bikes a few times, and always when they were pushing up steep hills.

Not my photo, and probably not anywhere near where we were running, but it kind of looked like this.

Not my photo, and probably not anywhere near where we were running, but it kind of looked like this.

The Seven Hills Running shop in Seattle sponsored a contest – first person to Glenn (Tachiyama – race photographer extraordinaire) wearing a Seven Hills logo would win a prize.  I had my 7 hills shirt on but spent the last few miles into Corral Pass – where Glenn hangs out for the first half – in a small train with at least 5 Seven Hills shirts.  The local trail community loves that store – the only running shop I know of that’s 100% focused on trail running.  As it turns out, Uli Steidl won with a sticker on his shirt – I’m not going to beat Uli.

Somewhere near Corral Pass - sure looks like I'm moving fast!

Somewhere near Corral Pass – it sure looks like I’m moving fast!  Photo from Phil Ullrich.

Glenn Tachiyama's photo at Corral Pass.

Glenn Tachiyama’s photo at Corral Pass.

10 hour goal to Corral Pass: 3:14, actual: 3:00.  On one hand, I had picked up a few more minutes.  On the other, I felt like I had pushed pretty hard and I got to the Corral Pass aid station with tired legs, looking forward to some downhill to recover.

Corral Pass to Ranger Creek (22.1 miles)  Leaving the aid station, the course climbs a little further up.  I grabbed a bunch of food at the aid station, eating a little and saving the rest for when we topped out.  As Scott McCoubrey explained in the briefing, eating at the start of a downhill gives you a chance to digest when your heart rate is a bit lower.  Once I turned back onto the stick of the lollipop, I started passing people coming up.  One thing I love about trail runs is that people cheer each other on, whether it’s Justin Houck cheering me on as he’s flying past me or me cheering on the people I saw coming up.  I saw Jon’64 and several other locals and there was a constant stream of “Great job!”, “Nice work!” and the like.

After maybe 2 miles, the descent begins, undoing all the climbing we did.  The section from Corral Pass to Ranger Creek is somewhat rolling – flat, down, occasional short ups.  You definitely know you are going down but you get some breaks.  I started to recover in here as the food hit, and got to Ranger Creek feeling decent.  I spent about 15 seconds at the aid station getting a quick bottle refill.

10 hour goal to Ranger Creek: 4:15.  Actual: 4:03.

Ranger Creek to Buck Creek (27.2 miles)  This is a bomber descent.  Something like 2000 feet in 5 miles, with most of that compressed into the first 3.5-4 miles.  The trail is soft and pretty smooth (although I tripped a lot my first year) so you can fly.  One of my pre-race goals was to push in this section.  I have not been good at descents but I’ve worked on it, and unlike past years where I’ve been passed a lot, I pretty much held my place.  I did trip a couple times.  One time I evolved my Trip Sprint concept to be Trip Hill Sprints – I tripped, found myself pointed towards the uphill side, and sprinted up the bank until I recovered.  The second time I tripped in exactly the same spot I did two years ago, just as I was identifying it as the spot where I had tripped and a tree had saved me.  This time I recovered without the tree.  Just about the time I was getting tired of going down, we leveled out, crossed the road and headed back to Buck Creek aka the start/finish.

4+ miles of coming down this, in Ranger Creek.

4+ miles of coming down this, in Ranger Creek.

10 hour goal to Buck Creek: 5:15.  Actual: arrive 4:53, leave 5:00.  I ran this section about 5 minutes faster than I ran it last year.  Buck Creek has drop bags, and porta-potties.  The first year I spent 20 minutes there.  Last year it was about 10 minutes, with a porta-potty break.  This year I got in and out in about 7 minutes – even with a portapotty stop (apparently there is just not enough time for me to take care of everything before a 6am start).

Buck Creek aid station - photo from Seattle Running Club.

Buck Creek aid station – photo from Seattle Running Club.

Buck Creek to Fawn Ridge (31.7 miles)  This is the hot part of the day.  It starts down in the valley and then heads up the side of a hill that was cleared some years ago, with the noon sun overhead.  There is a lot of moderate climbing in this section, and I did my best to run anything that was moderate.  Two years ago when I did that, I passed several people.  This year, I was further up in the pack and there weren’t many to pass.  In fact, for most of this I only saw 2 other guys, who were also running the moderate grades.  In the space of the last couple miles I closed the 100 yard gap between me and them and we entered the aid station together.  I was only carrying one handheld bottle – I rationed the water out and drained it a short distance before we arrived.

10 hour goal to Fawn Ridge: 6:15.  Actual: 6:01.  Still keeping a safe margin on the 10 hour goal, but not gaining, and still wondering if I had run the first half too hard.

Fawn Ridge to Sun Top (37 miles) Coming out of Fawn Ridge, there’s a sustained cruel uphill grade for a mile or two.  The two guys I came in with pulled steadily away from me on the up and then disappeared.  After that grade, it levels out, drops, goes back up, drops, and then climbs up to Sun Top.  I was feeling pretty fatigued in here but kept trying to move along.  I ran a bit less, and wasn’t as quick to transition into running when the grade eased.  Partly I was tired, but I also knew that if I didn’t make myself bonk I had a pretty good chance of coming in under 10 hours.  Risk management so to speak.

Higher up on the Suntop trail.

Higher up on the Sun Top trail.

About 1.5 miles from Sun Top, there’s a mile downhill section.  My pre-race vow was to see what I could do on the downhills, so I pushed, caught the two guys, passed them and then pulled away.  I crossed the Sun Top road a couple times and headed up the Sun Top trail (captured in part 2 of the video above).   I spotted Glenn at a distance and managed to break into a run on the last hill, past Glenn’s camera and into the aid station.

Well, it felt like I was running.  Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

Well, it felt like I was running. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

At the pre-race dinner, Ziyang – the fast woman – mentioned the story of a guy who was about to win the Western States 100.  Brian Morrison arrived in the stadium at Auburn and collapsed yards short of the finish.  His pacer (Scott Jurek) helped him up and around to the finish.  Afterwards, because of the assistance, Brian was DQ’d – pretty sad given how close he was.  Ziyang arrived at SunTop just ahead of me and we stood together eating and getting our bottles filled.  I realized last night that the really nice guy who filled our water bottles was Brian Morrison.  He runs one of our local running stores.  Basically, all the running leaders in Seattle come out and support this race – Scott McCoubrey, Eric Sach from the Balanced Athlete, Phil Kochik from Seven Hills, Rich White, Brian Morrison from Fleet Feet, Wendy Wheeler-Jacobs, Adam Hewey, Laura Houston, John Wallace, Betsy Rogers and a bunch of other Marathon Maniacs, and many whose names I don’t know.  Again, thank you.

10 hour goal time to Sun Top: 7:35.  Actual: 7:15.  Having finished most of the up, I was pretty sure I’d go under 10 hours if I didn’t fall apart.  Roughly an hour down the road, 5 minutes at the aid station, and 80 minutes through the heaven/hell of Skookum Flats meant I was looking at 9:45, maybe a little faster if I moved along.

View from Sun Top

View from Sun Top

Sun Top to Skookum Flats (43.4 miles) Another bomber descent, this time on a gravel road.  This is about the only non-single-track section of the course.  The leg is a bit over six miles, but the descent happens in 5 miles and the grade eases in the 5th mile.  So, in essence we drop about 2500 feet in about 4 miles – a sustained 12% grade.  Uli Steidl once ran this section at ~5:21 pace, after 37 miles of hard running.  2 years ago this was a nightmare for me – aching quads, alternating between painful running and painful walking, 10-11 minute pace.  Last year was much better and I was in the 8’s for most of the descent.  Pushing again this year, I was in the 7’s a fair amount and occasionally saw paces in the high 6’s.  I averaged around 8/mile for the whole section including the flat mile+ at the end.  This might sound easy – it’s a big downhill after all – but turning my legs over at 10k to half-marathon pace isn’t so easy to do for 5 miles and after 40 miles with 9000 feet up and maybe 6000 down.  Uli’s splits are incredible.

10 hour goal time to Skookum Flats: 8:35.  Actual 8:08 to the aid station, 8:13 out of the aid station.  This was the one aid station where I lingered unnecessarily.  Adam Hewey filled my bottle – he’s running UTMB too so we talked briefly.  I got an update on the leaders.  I ate.  I talked to another runner.  I ate some more.  I didn’t really want to leave and face Skookum Flats.  But finally I left.

Skookum Flats to finish (50 miles)  The Skookum Flats leg should be awesome.  It’s similar to the Camp Sheppard leg from the start of the day, but on the other side of the river.  6+ miles of gentle single track, right along the White River, rolling but mostly level, cool, shaded, beautiful.  On fresh legs, this would be a great run.

This shirt captures my view on Skookum Flats, and seemingly the view of everyone I’ve talked to:

WP_20140727_001 WP_20140727_002

The thing about Skookum Flats is that you know it should be easy and it’s not.  All the little roots trip you.  The tiny ups and downs are brutal and steep.  You should be running at 9 minute pace but it’s 11-12 minutes.  The first year I ran this I thought the leg would take me 70 minutes.  It took me almost 90 and my low point in that race came 1-2 miles into this leg when I realized how long it was taking.  Last year it took 80 minutes.  This time I left the aid station at 8:13+ and briefly thought I had a chance to break 9:30 but when I found myself walking again after a mile or two, I gave up on that.  This is apparently common.  Jon ’64 faded hard in the last two miles.  I talked to William Emerson and he gave up on some time goal in this section.  Justin Houck told me he felt like he was giving up minutes in this section.  Jeff ran out of water and seriously considering drinking river water.  It should be heaven but it is soul-crushing.  Still, I moved along as well as I could and figured I’d finish in 9:35-9:40.

Don't let looks deceive you.  This is hard.

Skookum: Don’t let looks deceive you. This is hard.

Another tricky think about Skookum Flats is the bridges.  You run across these beautifully constructed bridges (also in part 2 of the video above) and you think “I must be close to the end – they wouldn’t possibly build this in the middle of a 6 mile length of trail”.  But they did, and no, you are not close to the end.

Feeling low about 20 minutes out of the aid station, with a somewhat unhappy belly – I ate and drank quite a lot at the aid station – I forced myself to down a gel in hopes that it would keep me going 30 minutes later in the last couple miles.  After 10 minutes I felt a little better and settled into a rhythm of 10 minutes of running and a minute of walking.  That quickly turned into 9/1 (easier to track on the watch!  yeah, that’s it…) and eventually 8 or 7 to 1.  And I also walked all but trivial uphills.  And some of the particularly rooty flat/downhill sections after tripping a couple times.  So basically I had a steady run/walk rhythm with lots of optional extra walking included for good measure.  I started to get a little worried about hitting even 9:40 and tried to remind myself that sub-10 would be a huge victory.  Mostly I just kept trying to move forward as quickly as I could at any given moment, and stopped doing mental math on when I might finish.

Almost there - sort of...  Photo courtesy of Ross Comer.

Almost there – sort of… Photo courtesy of Ross Comer.

I ignored all the things that I had previously mistaken as signs that I was close, kept going and found myself in some scrub trees.  From previous runs, I remembered the forest changing just before reaching the road, so I looked up and saw parked cars along the road.  Yes!  I ran up the hill, turned onto the dirt road, heard the volunteer tell me it was .5 miles to the finish, and looked at my watch.  9:23.  Wait.  9:23???  Feeling as tired as I do at the end of an all-out marathon, I took off running with as much speed as I could muster.  Down the dusty road, passing cars exiting, down the airstrip, looking for the turn into the finish chute, lots of people applauding (watching trail runs is pretty boring so people get excited when the occasional finisher comes through).  I turned into the chute and crossed at 9:27:42, welcomed in by Eric Sach and Scott McCoubrey.

Afterwards: I found Jeff – he ran 9:06+, just an awesome race.  Craig came in somewhere around 10:35, again on non-training training.  Justin Houck won the race in 6:26, the third fastest course time after Sage Canaday’s 6:16 and Anton Krupicka’s 6:25 (and the course has a little more uphill now than when Anton ran it).  Uli Steidl was undertrained according to someone who would know, and ran to a 5th place overall finish in 7:22 and 1st place masters.  Reglor and Jon64 from RWOL played leapfrog with each other not knowing they are both on RWOL and finished a bit after 11 hours within a few minutes of each other.  Jodee Adams-Moore won the women’s race.  Ziyang ended up as 4th woman, running 9:13:31 in her first 50 on a hard course (and putting 14 minutes on me in the last 13 miles).  Close to 325+ people had signed up, but only 293 started and only 248 finished – that’s the lowest finishing rate since 2005.  Unclear why.  Maybe just bad luck.

As far as I’m concerned, the Most Badass award goes to 62 years young Tom Giuliano.  Coincidentally (or not?) the father of Justin Houck’s girlfriend wife Claire, Tom was running also but fell and broke his hand about 15 miles into the race.  At the finish, Claire told me Tom had a balloon cast on and there was blood all over but he was still out plugging away just ahead of the time cutoffs.  Looking at the results, I see he finished DFL in about 14:10.  Definitely hardcore, and what a great bookend to the race after Justin’s victory!

I finished 48th overall and 4th among 39 50+ male finishers (including 12 in the 60+ group), which is about the best I could do given that my age group has William Emerson (previous winner, lots of top 10 finishes, finished 9th yesterday in 7:48), Dave LaTourette (~8:50)who is one of the people who started the Vineman triathlon (Edit: I’m told this Dave LaTourette may not be the same as that one – pretty amazing that there are two very gnarly endurance athletes with that name), and a guy named Michael Senior who is ranked way above me in UltraSignup and has run way faster than me in every race we’ve done together.  Michael Senior finished in ~9:17, so I actually wasn’t too far behind him.  My average pace was 11:21/mile, with about 20 minutes stopped in aid stations.  William Emerson pointed out that my pace was a minute faster/mile than last year.  I definitely beat my pre-race expectations and even hopes.

Again, thank you to the organizers and all the volunteers.  Thanks to the sponsors as well – I love my finisher’s beanie from Coal.  A great event and a great day!

After the race - Craig, me in my Skookum Flats shirt, and Jeff.

After the race – Craig, me in my Skookum Flats shirt, and Jeff.  Photo courtesy of Jeff.

P.S. Here’s a nice write up from Tim Mathis that also covers the competitive end of the pack.  He didn’t like Skookum either.


  1. Mark: Enjoyed your write-up – you sure had an awesome run! That is amazing that the same guy in the Scott Jurek story was actually at Suntop. I agree with you about that last 10k through the woods – It should have been a fun part but somehow . . . not so much. Very nice meeting you at the pasta dinner – I hope I can get out there again to another event before too long. Have a blast at UTMB. I’ve been studying the website and it looks like it will be an epic adventure.

  2. […] ran White River for the 5th time yesterday, and this is the 3rd or 4th time I’ve written about it.  So I’ll cut to the […]

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