In terms of competition, the Gorge 100k was not a goal race for me this year. The plan was to go out, finish my first 100k in a respectable time, meet some cool people and generally gain experience. As a bonus, I'd get my qualifier to enter the Western States lottery. The Gorge field is generally very competitive, so I was definitely not there to try and place well - I'll leave that for another day!
My last long run was just 11 days before the event, cramping my tapering period somewhat. In addition, I had my usual pre-race week lethargy. I figure this is an evolutionary adaptation previously used to conserve energy when the kudu starts to run out and another persistence hunt is imminent. Pretty useful when you think about it - keeps your body from expending too much energy right before a big journey. Amazing that the abstract concept of a large race can produce such physical responses in our bodies. Of course, this adaptation pales in comparison with the immediate pre-race effects caused by nerves, which also have their uses.
The ten hours of travel from Victoria to Portland brought me to a hotel packed with cool people. Ten more hours had us all standing in a dark parking lot beneath some hills, 333 crazy people all hoping to cover one hundred thousand metres in less than the 17-hour cutoff.
The course consists of a 50 km out-and-back route along the southern bank of the Columbia river, travelling through the forested hills. As per the name, it is rather famous for passing by (and under) some pretty spectacular waterfalls. There were several points on course where I actually stopped for a while to drink in the views.
The 6:00 am start (THANK YOU RAINSHADOW RUNNING FOR CHANGING IT FROM THE PAST 4:00 AM START!!!) had the first hints of dawn on the horizon as we set off. The path followed the highway for a bit, with long dewy grass pre-moistening our feet for the day. To look behind and see over three hundred headlamps following was very special. The weather could not have been better - shorts all the way, not too chilly in the morning, and not a hint of rain all day. Well done meteorology.
After a brief flat mile around the park, the main hill of the course began. Running the roughly paved switchbacks in a crowd was interesting. The powerhikers and hill-runners spent some time coming to an agreement regarding technique and pace, swapping places often, but it all worked out. Since I wasn't there to compete, I fell into an old (and probably annoying) habit of chatting with everyone as we were running, asking where they were from, what their past races were, and discussing the beautiful scenery. I suppose my hill training has been sufficient, because the 500 metre gain was a non-issue, as would be the other 2800 metres of climbing throughout the day.
It was light enough to not have a headlamp on the descent, but that is where I started to get a sense of unease regarding surface. The pace was quick but not crazy, but with so many people behind I felt pressured to keep up the pace - not something I enjoy on rocks.
A note about footing - let me take a moment to describe these rocks, since no other race reports I read really describe the terrain apart from some vaguely ominous terms: There are two lithologies (rock types - excuse me for geology-geeking out for a moment) on course, basalt (columnar and pillow) which makes up those spectacular waterfalls, and dark limestone, which makes up those picturesque mossy rockslide areas. Between the two of them, they form 20-30 km of the total race distance, mostly within the first 20 km of trail. I walked pretty much anything that consisted of rocks. Part of this is due to the sandals, but most is because I don't want to trip/fall/roll ankle/face plant. The basalt chunks are embedded in the trails in fist-sized lumps or larger, making foot placement a constant draw of attention. It's not impossible, but you have to slow down to minimize the potential for carnage. Luckily these aren't too slippery, but they are relatively sharp and embedded in the trail, so you have to be aware. Scree is minimal.
The limestone comprises a much smaller portion of the trail (mostly those rockslide areas, about five of them at ~100 metres each), but boy are some of them slippery! It's still an awesome course, and the rocks are the price to pay for amazing scenery, but these earlier trails are not (in my opinion) in great condition. Expect fallen trees, tight twisting trails and lots of rocks in those early sections in particular. Fun for sure, but not exactly well-maintained. It certainly makes for a much slower course than would otherwise be expected.
The first 50 km of my run was pretty uneventful. No Name aid station (10 km) came and went, the trails led to a 4 km road section and the second aid station where I saw my dad who was crewing for me. I kept up with the calories in the form of shot bloks, and chugged along.
The section from Yeon (20 km) to Cascade Locks (35 km) was way less technical but with a corresponding lack of waterfalls. I found someone to run with, Tim from San Fran, and we yapped for about an hour about our past races, goals and discovered we both had a similar attitude towards the day - have fun and don't focus on competition too much.
Cruising into the Cascade Locks themed aid station, a guy grabbed my waterbottle and helpfully started helping me get all my gear in order. It took me a while to realize it was Yassine Diboun, a runner whose accomplishments I really respect. It is such a cool aspect of our sport that even those who are among the elites get out to volunteer on course. This community is awesome.
The 15 km to the turnaround at Wyeth was easy, non-technical and fun. The descent into the aid station was surprisingly gradual, although there were a couple points in this section where I hadn't seen a course marking for a bit too long and was wondering if I was off-course, but eventually one would always appear. This leg did feel way longer than 15 km though...
I got into the turnaround in just 5:05, way under my prediction of 6:00. I was feeling great, physically very fresh and mentally fine. I sat and drank some soup, amused spectators by (unsuccessfully) trying to wash some of the pollen out of my eyes with my water bottle, and then set off back towards the start.
It didn't take long before the mental struggle began. I think the problem was that I didn't have the proper motivation to cope - no thoughts of competition or a certain time goal meant that I faced an interesting problem; I would tell myself "Hey, know what, see that mossy slope in the sunshine? You could have a nap! Just an hour... you'd still finish, and it would be so nice!" Unfortunately I didn't really have an answer to that, making things difficult.
I battled it by tailing other runners to relieve some of the decision making. It's so much easier to just follow a pair of shoes than to decide if this hill is worth running or walking. In the end though, you just have to keep moving, and one way or another that's what I coerced myself into doing.
One thing that did go well this race was food. Shock to the rest of the running world, I'm sure, but gels are amazing! I had only taken two before race day - a GU apple which I was not a fan of, and a Clif razz which was stomachable, but also easy and quick to get down. so, I broke my rule of "nothing new on race day" and packed a whole bunch, figuring that they were basically liquefied shot bloks anyways, and should be that much of a change. Total success, and probably a game-changer since the chocolate ones are surprisingly delicious. Coupled with watermelon, two cans of butternut squash soup and brushing my teeth 80 km in and I felt pretty good about nutrition. No puke too.
Shortly after the road section Tim caught up with me, and together we tackled the remainder of the course. I really enjoyed running with someone, each of us pacing the other and sharing the experience.
After a very fast last couple of kilometres (not my idea), we crossed the line in 11 hours and 40 minutes, and gave the RD James the traditional high-five. I tried to remain standing for a while to talk to people, but eventually just had to collapse in a heap as per tradition.
Overall, it was a mental battle, not a physical one, and more experience which helps me to understand how I work as a runner. The volunteers were top-notch, with all of the aid station volunteers being extremely helpful and competent. As long as you like your technical trails and forest views, it's an easy race to recommend. I'll be entering my name into Western States for next year (<10% chance I'll get in first time), and I'm already looking forward to the next race, Elk Lake 50-mile in May. It's astonishing to me that when I did my first ultra I didn't run for three weeks after - mentally and physically I never wanted to move again. Just 24 hours after the race I was looking forward to the next one, and 48 hours after I was out for a little run on the trails. It's amazing how our bodies adapt to the conditions we place them in.
Finally, a lesson as I write this:
Jars of pasta sauce labelled "Spicy Red Pepper" are NOT good recovery foods.
Especially when combined with tofurkey cajun sausages.
Writing words here and there on adventures running out in the forests and mountains