Monday, August 08, 2011

Reflections on Running
White River 50 Mile Endurance Run

I have long been intrigued by this race for its organization, spectacular scenery, and incredibly challenging terrain. This year, in honor of my 50th birthday I decided I would run it. It would also be my first 50 miler. I could have definitely chosen an easier race to mark my milestone, but why? I was more interested in completing White River, not the distance!

Consisting of two loops and two sustained climbs with a cumulative elevation gain and loss of 8,700 feet, I figured my background as a hiking guidebook author should help a little. That and lots of training runs including with fellow Skagit Runner Shawna Tompkins who on race day ripped up the course with a time of 8.07.53 for a woman’s win.

It was Tompkins who showed me how to properly run downhill, one of her strengths; and a key to successfully completing this race. I was repeatedly told by White River veterans to not spend your legs on the first descent— a seven mile 3,000-foot plus downhill blast.  

Another key to successfully completing this race was staying well hydrated on the second ascent—an eight mile 3,000-foot-plus elevation gain ridgeline romp up Sun Top Mountain. And this peak lived up to its name, with much of its lower slopes and wildflower-graced open summit taking on the full brunt of the hot July afternoon sun. Even here in the rainy, snowy Pacific Northwest, heat can be a factor. And despite a very cold and wet spring and early summer this year, race day once again proved to be sunny and in the high 70s. A bluebird day for gaping at the blockbuster views of glistening 14,411-foot glacier- covered Mount Rainier, but a little on the warm side for a challenging run.

The prior colder months did however leave behind a half mile-plus section of heavy deep snow along the first ascent. Race directors were determined not to alter the course like they were forced to in 1999: so they and a handful of tenacious volunteers spent a good week shoveling steps into the snow and placing ropes to aid travel. It was well appreciated making the snowy section just a little slippery and not a downright nuisance!

But despite the lingering snow and warm afternoon temperatures, White River saw its biggest field ever. There were 281 starters (up from 238 the year before) lined up that beautiful morning at the Buck Creek Campground in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest; and 244 of them crossed the finish line. “That’s a great finish rate for such a hot day on a tough course,” says race director Scott McCoubrey.

He’s been directing this Northwest Classic since 1993. And he along with his wife Leslie, Brian Morrison, John Wallace, Eric Bone, Eric Sach and a slew of volunteers pulled off a flawless event from this runner’s point of view. The course was well-marked and the aid stations were well staffed with enthusiastic folks quick to fill water bottles and get you the food and l supplements you needed.

I opted for the 5:30 am early start to give myself an extra hour for making the 7:30 pm cutoff. Turns out I didn’t need it, completing the course in just under 13 hours. But taking the early start did have another added bonus. At about 10 miles into the course I got to witness the front of the pack come darting by. Former course record holder Uli Steidl was first—and stayed in that position until the end crossing the finish line at 6:49:25 to claim his third White River win.

The out and back section from Corral Pass across open meadows one mile high was another great spot for spotting the lead runners—and for encouraging everyone else who came prancing by.  And the last six miles are notorious for messing up your pace falsely leading you into thinking that with the two climbs licked, you can now sail into the finish. But with a 500-foot climb on at times rocky terrain, many a White River runner has let this section—Skookum Flats—get the best of them. But with its course through cool old growth giants and along the glacier-fed roaring White River, I kept a skookum (Chinook for strong) pace to come smiling into the finish—happy to join my fellow White River runners who all tackled one of the most challenging and beautiful races in the Pacific Northwest.

(photo-approaching Sun Top at Mile 37-photo by Bob Wismer)

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