The White River 50-mile ultramarathon is – to put it in a nutshell, hard.
It involves running a marathon up a mountain on a skinny, windy, rocky trail, followed immediately by a surprisingly similar marathon up and down another, much hotter and steeper mountain. It is a difficult activity.
Since this was my first big race I felt it necessary to take the early start. Regular starters (6:30 a.m.) have 13 hours, but early starters have 14 and the advantage of a few more miles in the woods without the hot Julaugust sunshine. The downside is that a 2 a.m. wakeup call is pretty jarring.
Fortunately a good friend and far better runner, Heidi Dietrich, came along to lighten up the conversation and keep my lovely wife and chauffeur Betsy awake on the way out. About ten seconds after telling us at length how hard she finds it tough to sleep before a race, Heidi fell into a sound sleep while Betsy and I babbled on, too nervous and too busy driving to sleep. This would be my first “big boy” race, and Betsy had sweeper duty on the first half of the course.
Campers, cars and tents littered the periphery of the airstrip at Buck Creek and wandering dark shadows greeted us, pointing us toward an area in which we were soon parked-in. There would be no escape.
T-shirts and bibs appeared from the darkness at the wave of Leslie McCoubrey’s hands. Packs were packed and repacked. Bottles were filled and we were off into the feeble morning light. Instead of using a drop bag I decided to use a drop car, hoping to change shoes and refill on gels at the halfway point (and affording a place to hide my shame in the event of a drop).
The first mile of this race follows the length of the airstrip, which is to say that it’s a straight shot down a gravel road – a very civil last meal for the condemned. After the strip we wended our way through the woods along the final eastward reaches of the Skookum Flats trail, paved with springy, loamy humus and wending next to the roaring river. Seriously, if ever a path doth wend, Skookum doth.
After crossing over Highway 410 the trail began to take the shape (but not yet the angle) it would keep for most of the day. The utilitarian term “singletrack” may not appear in your dictionary, but its shape should be evident from its etymological roots. Its single defining characteristic is that there just isn’t a reasonable method of passing, short of bribing, leapfrogging or goosing the runner ahead. It’s a system that relies entirely upon the good will of those ahead to accept their own failures, and if your’e an early starter, that acceptance comes early and humiliatingly often.
After Camp Sheppard (scene of John Yoon’s equipment Twilight Zone), the trail turns up, and it turns up with the attitude of one who is familiar with the term “up” and wants to push the envelope of the definition. Up. Cross a stream. Up. Climb some stairs. Up. Another stream. Up. Vista of Mount Rainier. Up, up up it goes.
I let Heidi take the lead (i.e. couldn’t keep up) and hung back with Glenn Mangiantini, otherwise known as Glenn the Loquacious, with whom I debated the relative merits of each member of the Beatles, blister removal and the likelihood that watermelon eaten late in a race will cause all previously-ingested food to emit from the orifice that ingested it.
The Ranger Creek aid crew looked a tad surprised, not only that we were there earlier than expected, but that Heidi was kicking our butts by such a substantial margin. “Yeah, she’s about five minutes ahead. You’re not catching her.”
Here I took off on my own, leaving the old man biting at my heels and probably relieved for the peace and quiet. Just past the peak I heard a quiet relaxed voice from behind saying, simply, “Back.”
Leaping to the side gave me a great view of Anton Krupicka chasing some kid (
later to be revealed as 19-year-old phenom Dakota Jones Oops – it was Adam Campbell) at an amazing pace. Thirty seconds later another leap into the bushes gave me a great view of Scott Jurek and the other leaders. They disappeared over the next ridge, Scott’s hair sank down slowly, backlit by the rising sun, leaving me repeating out loud, “I’m getting my ass kicked by Scott Jurek! That’s so awesome!”
So began my game of hopscotch. Run a bit; hop into bushes. Run some more; hop into bushes. As a national trail championship race, White River attracts amazing talent, and starting early allows one to have their ass kicked by lots of quality people. The out-and-back section allows a select few of them to do so twice.
Corral Pass had food, water, but no shelter. The owner of The Balanced Athlete in Renton happened to recognize me and shooed me out of the station before I could get a good “linger” going. This pattern repeated all day with the irritatingly competent volunteers at this race. It was impossible to sit and rest because they filled my water bottles, put food in my mouth and kicked me ever so gently in the ass down the trail.
Runners coming up the trail began to leap out of the way from me, thinking I was among the elites, forcing much confusion, prostration and feeble explanation on my part, leading to confusion and prostration on their part.
Just above Ranger Creek there is a series of switchbacks in very dense brush. Switchbacks, it may be observed from even a cursory glance, swap the uphill and downhill sides at each turn. Even a mule on the low end of the bell curve can figure this out.
However, following my pattern of “run a bit, leap off trail” I ended up jumping or sliding (the memory is vague) toward the incorrect downhill side and disappearing about five feet below the level of the trail. An oncoming runner probably wouldn’t have noticed except for my cackling laughter due to the delight of having fallen and not injured myself beyond a scraped knee and a generous mud bath.
The Ranger Creek station guys filled my dirt-crusted bottles, threw some salt and gels down my gullet and gave me the customary kick downstream to the very runnable but fantastically tripable switchbacks. If you run this race, don’t take this section too fast because you’ll end up with ass-teakettle inversion syndrome. My teakettle was saved by the many tree branches I used for steadying myself.
Cross the highway blah blah blah. Feels like I’ve been here before because I have. Once again the competence of volunteers removes any possibility of escape through a suicidal leap into traffic.
Back at Buck Creek all the world was in attendance. There’s no chance of a tired runner ambling in and taking a bit of time to relax because all eyes are on you and all voices are yelling, “Go Go Go!!!” More gels, more water and it’s back along the springy windy river trail for a bit before heading back along a charitably shady section and heading upward.
On the map the “up” section of Fawn Ridge is far tamer than the first half of the race, but on the tired legs it feels like like cresting Disappointment Cleaver. It felt interminable, and was the worst section of the entire race (until the next “worst section of the race”). Giving most of one of my bottles of water to a guy who missed the last water station didn’t exactly leave me in the best shape, either. When he asked me if I could spare a sip I thought he was the leader of the 50+ division and I couldn’t send him up the hill with two totally empty bottles.
Laura Houston and the crew at Fawn Ridge basted me and stuck me back in the oven, staggering toward the peak. Fawn Ridge is Horrible, but Suntop is Horrible the Sequel – aptronymically accurate and prone to inciting flights of etymological fancy due to simmering brains, Suntop is one long, brightly lit tunnel. Or at least that’s all I remember. There may be views here, and I’m pretty sure I passed four mountain bikers and two gals on horseback. I think I had conversations with these spirit guides as well, but have no memory of what I said or where I walked.
The forest service road that spirals up the peak of Suntop plays a cruel trick on runners. As I crossed it Heidi Dietrich was running down the road, leading me to think I was at the apex and thus catching up with her, but the path crosses and crisscrosses and climbs for about another 15 minutes. Ten feet from the summit the elusive Glenn Tachiyama popped out of the bushes like a garden gnome, capturing my single smile from the second half.
My wobbly knees and woozy head snapped back into alertness when UltraDiva Jess Mullen smacked a sponge soaked in what appeared to be liquid nitrogen on the back of my neck and followed that by a gentle misting with a plant sprayer. How fortunate for my reputation that my sunglasses hid the tears of joy.
Then joy turned to un-joy – the sort of un-joy that accompanies dental work – as the 6.4 miles of washboard forest service road hammered repeatedly at my knees and quads. Reverting back to my early days of marathoning I Gallowalked the hell out of that evil, dusty hellroad.
The Skookum crew were just as irritatingly efficient as the rest, provisioning me instantly and leaving only a moment to grab a slice of watermelon before staggering into the woods thinking, “Watermelon. Glen was saying something about watermelon. What the hell was it?”
My mountain bike has thrown me to this section of forest floor many times. It’s a twisty, windy path strewn with roots and rocks and soft patches of humus that feels like quicksand. I began however to wish, to pray, for a bike. I was even too exhausted to give my atheistic self a hard time for the latter.
But there was one small distraction. Glenn M. was right. Watermelon late in a race can make you want to barf. Didn’t happen, but I began to wish it would because my belly began to revolt. Beware the watermelon.
My namesake, Matt Hagenah flew past laughing on the flats and so did Arthur Martineau, who helped motivate me with his usual crass comments. “You RUNNING this thing?” He complained of only being able to eat three gels because of stomach issues, while counted packets in my pocket and realized I’d eaten nine – and was still bonking.
I sent him after the doppelgänger and staggered on.
The finish at this race was amazing, with an enormous enthusiastic crowd to cheer you in and a race director who hands you the most desirable object in the world: a commemorative aluminum bottle filled with icy cold spring water.
The lead runners were still there hanging around to cheer in the back-of-the-packers despite having arrived four hours earlier. Anton Krupicka ran 6:25:29, breaking his own course record. My 10:38:34 earned me 97th place.
Barbecue appeared magically on a plate in my lap. It was still warm.
I felt like Max after his adventure with The Wild Things.