To say that the Gorge Waterfalls 50k was an epic run is the understatement of the year, for me personally. I had started off the year with a few goals in mind – 50k and 50miles – my year of the 50/50. I completed my first 50k last year and it was tough but I was happy to reach and exceed my goal. I know some people say 50k is only 8k more than a marathon, but until you’ve done one, I might suggest you bite your tongue. My recovery from last year’s 50k took almost 6 weeks – more than double what I had hoped and expected. This year, it was going to be different. And it was. Little did I realize that “different” has many interpretations.
Our original party of 6 dwindled down to a party of 3 – with work schedules, injuries, and just plain life picking people off one by one. Jeremy and I were still running and Mandy was our superstar support crew.
Friday night after work, we set off across the border to start our trip to Portland. Our plan was to drive as far as we reasonably could and then find a place to rest for the night. This took us to Centralia – only 1.5 hours away from Portland. Perfect.
Saturday morning, we make our way to Portland, do a round of tax-free shopping and call it a night after a carb loading dinner. 10pm, we were all in bed with our alarm clocks set for 5am.
Sunday morning, temperature was perfect hovering around 10 degrees with a bit of cloud and everything goes according to plan – we make good time on our drive to Benson State Park, the start of the race, arriving 10 mins shy of our planned 7am arrival. Check in was to be 7am-745am, but at 10 minutes to 8, we finally heard that the Race Director got a flat tire while he was out on the course and was waiting to get back with all of our race packages. Finally, at 840am, the race begins!
Within 3 minutes, the whole pack almost goes off course missing the first turn across the lake and onto the trail but we quickly recovered. Whew! That first part of the trail was a bit dodgy with two narrow dirt paths amongst a grassy area, where every person was vying for a good spot before we started our trek up the mountain. The elevation map showed 1600ft of climbing over 2 miles right off the bat, after our mile flat start, then descending for 2 miles straight into the first aid station. I now know very clearly that I need more than a couple of miles to warm up before I start climbing a mountain. In hindsight, I’m fairly certain that I went out a bit too quick and then climbed a little more aggressively than I should have. The elevation was challenging and parts of the trail were fairly technical, with some sections muddy, packed with snow, and filled with rock shards from the wash from the waterfalls. The advantage of this course was that it was a straight out-and-back so you knew what you were in for on the way back, for better or for worse. Coming down the backside of that first climb (around 6 miles), I rolled my ankle pretty badly and heard a pop. I’m no stranger to rolling ankles but I’ve only heard that pop once before and I know the results are not pretty. I also know that it’s going to be painful for a bit but it will subside and I can run through it. So, I stopped to let the initial wash of pain pass through and gingerly made my way down the rest of the hill to the first aid station. With a grimace across my face, I passed through and started another climb.
In less than a kilometer from that aid station, it happened. I tripped on a rock, smashed my right knee into a rock, bashed my right hand into the ground and my face collided into the trail. It all happened in slow motion but yet so quickly. I just laid there on the ground for a bit to try and assess what exactly had happened. I slowly sat up, spitting dirt and pulling twigs out of my mouth. My left glove was torn. My right hand stung. My right knee was throbbing. My lip was bleeding. My ego was bruised. People were asking how I was doing as they passed me by. Finally, two people stopped to make sure I was ok. My initial reaction was to keep waving them by, not because I didn’t need the help, but more because I was truly embarrassed. With their genuine concern and encouragement, I accepted their help and they waited until I could stand before they agreed to leave me and continue with their run. My upper lip was bleeding and my knee was bleeding. I tried to wipe off what I could and moved off to the side to try and think clearly. This was a pivotal moment for me. I definitely thought about turning it in and walking back down the trail to the aid station and calling it a day. But something in me just kept thinking, “you didn’t come down here to run 7 miles!” And you’re right. I didn’t. I figured I would just see if I could make it to the next aid station and see.
The initial steps were difficult – I felt like a newborn calf with unsteady legs. After a little while, I started to get a bit more comfortable and started making my way forward. I don’t know what I did right but I eventually started running with a guy named John from North Vancouver doing his first 50k. We ran together for the next couple of hours and it was exactly what I needed to get my head out of that bad space. We chatted about everything, kept an even pace, and reminded each other to drink and fuel. It felt like a weekend trail run with a friend, which was absolutely perfect. I found that smile again and apparently, it was plastered on my face for the rest of the race. At 11-12 miles, we ran on a paved section and got to see some of the leaders come back (wow!). On that stretch, I saw Jeremy making his trek back and he yelled something about it being “totally worth it.” No idea and he was gone before I could even say, “what?”. John and I pushed forward, pausing at the next aid station to fuel up with potatoes and potato chips and he helped me clean off my face from the dried blood. We then continued to the turnaround point to the last waterfall – Elowah Falls. So, the turnaround point. Capital W-O-W. We ran past a number of waterfalls and even ran BEHIND a waterfall (Ponytail falls!), which was stellar, but this was phenomenal. It was so breathtaking that we stopped and took a couple of pictures. Heck, we’re not going to win so what’s an extra minute or so? So worth it. So, now we’re on the trek home – home being almost 3 hours away but at least we knew what the course was going to be like for the rest of the way. I think around 19-20 miles I started to feel stronger and I pushed forward, knowing that I would see John at the finish line.
One by one, I started picking off people, and I felt stronger and stronger and surprised myself that I was catching and passing people on the climb, which never happens! I passed the woman who had stopped for me earlier along the way and thanked her again for stopping for me. When we hit the top and started descending, things were starting to fall apart. My energy was waning, my watch had died, and my knee was throbbing with every down hill step. Normally, I revel in downhill trail running and found it mentally difficult to accept that I couldn’t just let go and enjoy this section. Remember that nice woman who stopped for me and I passed earlier? Well, she whipped right past me and took that hill like nobody’s business. Damnit. That should be me. So I go chase her down, gritting my teeth, keeping my mind alert and eyes glued to the trail. I didn’t catch her though on that downhill, but as soon as the trail started climbing again, there she was. I caught up to her and started walking a bit with her – thanked her again for stopping for me earlier and wished her a good run. And there I was .. on the last couple of miles towards the finish line.
Those were the longest, hardest couple of miles I’ve run in a long, long time. The trail by the lake seemed to go on forever. I kept thinking that there had to be a bend just up ahead that crossed the lake and took me the finish line but then I’d blink and see a runner wwaaaaaayy ahead on the same trail. On the same side. Not crossing the lake. Oh, wait. Oh, I think .. yup, I think he is .. YES, he’s turning! Happy dance in my head! And before you know it, I’m crossing the lake, and see the flagging toward the finish line. I smile as I make my closer and closer and finally step over the finish line, right to the smiling faces of Jeremy and Mandy. Ahhh…
So remember those last 5 and 1/2 hours I ran? I did RUN them .. but now, I can no longer walk. Well, I can walk but I’m walking like Tim Conway from the Carol Burnett show – actually, maybe a bit slower. If you’re not familiar with Tim Conway, check out this skit.
The human body amazes me. Crash and burn on the trail, push through it, complete just over 5 1/2 hours of running, and then as soon as I stop, all the “abused” parts swell up and everything comes to a halt. But I am done and absolutely thrilled. I’m certainly looking forward to putting my feet up (with some ice) and watching my knee and my ankle return to its normal size. 🙂
So, in the future, my one piece of advice would be .. if you’re going to fall, fall forward.