Gorge Waterfalls 50k race report — first 50k!

This Saturday I ran the Gorge Waterfalls 50k in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon — my first 50k and second race over marathon distance. It was a great day of running, but I may have been undertrained for the distance and I paced poorly, and I think my time could have been better.

My training was to do a mix of easy and hilly runs during the week and a long trail run on the weekend. Those weekend trail runs got over 20 miles and/or 6000 feet of elevation gain several times, knowing how important that training and experience would be for this race. For the year 2016, I averaged 43.1 miles and 8800 feet of elevation gain per week, which I considered to be solid training, especially the elevation. I averaged 20–30 miles per week for most of 2015, for context, and I was fortunate to avoid injury except for two brief plantar fasciitis flareups while ramping up training.

The race was a 50k of course, with about 6000 feet of elevation gain. I knew there was a reasonably large hill at the beginning before the first aid station, a really big hill at the end after the third aid station, and rolling hills in between. My plan was to hold back enough through the beginning and rolling hills so that I’d have something to spend at the end. My nutrition plan was 900 calories of Tailwind, a Gu every hour, and whatever I grazed on at aid stations. I figured this should keep me above 200 calories per hour, which I’d maintained well in training.

My last long run was a 6 hour race two weeks ago, where I covered 29 miles and ~6500 feet elevation gain in 5:47. Given that performance, I thought it was not out of the question that I could finish in under 6 hours here at the Gorge. To be on pace for that, I’d have to hit the first aid station at or before ~1:45 and the second aid station at or before ~3:30. Really though, considering that this was my first 50k, I’d be happy with any kind of finish. When I first signed up for the race, before training for it, I was nervous that my time could even be 8+ hours. Before the last long run, I was thinking of 7 hours for a goal. But why not reach for something?

Start to aid station 1 @ 9.3 miles — after the usual shakeout of early placing, we got into a long, not-too-steep uphill. I was feeling good and ran more of it than I should have. I really booked it down the back half of the first hill and I had no place doing a 7:20 mile anywhere in this race given my level of fitness. But my heart rate was low, I wasn’t breathing hard, and I was taking my calories, so I thought I’d go for it. After that I realized I needed to slow down or I’d burn out, so I took it a little easier for the last few miles into the aid station. Refilled, ate some watermelon (which was excellent) and left at 1:46 — already just barely behind pace for my goal, but I figured I had some easier sections ahead.

Aid station 1 @ 9.3 miles to aid station 2 @ 18.3 miles — these rolling hills were a lot steeper than I expected. They didn’t look that bad on the profile, but they were tough, short 200–300 foot climbs. I ended up running most of this stretch with two other guys and the conversation helped. We did slow down by about a minute per mile from my starting pace. I started to get a little bit of a stomach ache later on in this section but I kept up on my eating and drinking. Hit the aid station, refilled, grabbed some potato chips (didn’t sit as well as the watermelon) and left just about at 3:30 — just on pace for goal, but I knew I was only going to slow down from here. I had realized by now that 6 hours was unlikely to happen.

Aid station 2 #@ 18.3 miles to aid station 3 @ 25.5 miles — one guy dropped behind from our trio right about at the aid station, so my buddy and I ran off together. He was a much more experienced trail racer than I and it was a really bad sign for me that I had stuck with him this long. This section started off with about 2 miles of flat pavement on the side of the road, and it was miserable. I’m so glad I had somebody to chat with because I probably would have dropped back to a walk at points here otherwise. It was hot in the direct sun, pounding the pavement hurt our feet, and it was pretty boring. I was really starting to feel the distance and the time at this point and knew things were going to get worse. At about 21.5 miles/4 hours we got off the road and started climbing the trail again. I dropped back behind the other guy and proceeded to crash and burn.

I could run okay on the flat or downhill but any kind of incline at all knocked me back to a slow walk. There was no specific pain besides a lot of aches everywhere. I was still eating Gu and drinking Tailwind so I don’t know if it was a calorie bonk, but I just slowed way down here. I was passed by 10–15 people just from mile 22 to mile 25, which is demoralizing and everyone is going too fast for you to latch on to and follow, which can make such a difference. I hit aid station 3 knowing I had zero chance at 6 hours, refilled bottles, and got more delicious watermelon.

Aid station 3 @25.5 miles to finish — this stretch went a lot better than the last one. I don’t know if I improved physically or mentally but I felt a TON stronger. After a short rolling section, we started the biggest hill climb in the race, 1200 feet over 2 miles or so. I’ve gone up plenty of steeper hills, but at this point in the race it was a challenge. Hiking is my relative strength on the trails, though — my legs are long and strong and I do a lot of hiking in training — so I felt very good hiking up the hill and passed two people back.

This hill did have a unique feature — the switchbacks up were numbered with signs, 2 out of 11, 3 out of 11, 4, and so forth. It was only when the runner reached switchback 11 out of 11 and saw that the trail continued to climb, a lot, that they realized they were subject to a particularly cruel practical joke of some kind. Death is too good for those responsible.

The run back down was torture, though — it was just as steep as the climb and the pounding on the knees and feet was rough after 28 miles of running. It was steep downhill and I could move my legs in front of me just fine, so the only limit on speed was how much pain you were willing to take. It wasn’t fun. The trails at this point were starting to get clogged with regular hikers, which didn’t help matters. After a too-long run down, an extra mile or so on the flat looping around a lake to the finish line, and I was done in 6:38:56, placing 71st out of 261.

In hindsight, the 6 hour goal was never realistic. As recently as three weeks ago I was expecting sub-7, until I did the 6 hour run that maybe wasn’t as comparable to this as I thought it would be. Looking at the leaderboard and chatting with other folks after the race, it sounds like I was far from the only one who came in later than expected.

Clearly I also could have paced better, too. I ended up finishing just a couple places ahead of a guy I ran with at the very beginning and passed at like mile 5. I don’t know how much of a difference it could have made, but how I paced it couldn’t have helped. I do wonder if 6:30 would have been possible.

I think I was also undertrained. The last 3–4 months of training have gone great, but they were really the best training months I’ve ever had. I think I need more solid, consistent training — at least a 2000 mile year — and that will help me on these longer runs over time.

I was concerned about the trail conditions going in — lots of race reports talked about how rocky and technical the trail was — but whoever wrote those reports needs to train on some cooler trails. It was definitely rocky and there were sections where you had to watch your feet, but it wasn’t some dangerous ankle-breaker of a trail, just usual PNW rocky trail.

So what’s next? I’ll be hiking a bit more for the next few months so fewer long weekend trail runs, although I plan to bring those back once more snow in the higher mountains melt. I have some really cool 18–25 mile mountain loops in mind at Mt Rainier National Park and around Snoqualmie Pass that I want to try out in June or so. I also want to continue to be diligent about my weekday road runs, and aim to push up the mileage a little there. And it would be great to lose 10 pounds at some point. So we’ll see how that all shakes out.

In terms of races, in May through August I’m doing a trail race series with my local running club. One race a month at 10, 14, 19, and 26 miles. Elevation won’t be ridiculous at them. Those will hopefully be a good crescendo to my big objective of the summer — the Crystal Mountain Sky Marathon in September. It’s a legitimate skyrunning race at the Crystal Mountain ski area by Mt Rainier, 26.2 miles and 9400 feet of elevation gain. Includes off trail travel up and down double black diamond ski runs. I’m looking just to finish and I fully expect to hike a whole lot of it. I think if I can stay injury free and consistent with my training, it’ll be fun (and painful).

All in all, it was a great day on the trails. Aside from the short and unpleasant road section, shade from the trees and a cool breeze made for great running on a beautiful and challenging course! I had a blast and I recommend the race to others, as I recommend all Rainshadow Running races.

They had some pretty spectacular waterfalls on the course
Happy at the finish line!

Strava link: https://www.strava.com/activities/540682211

Race website: http://www.rainshadowrunning.com/gorge-waterfalls-50k.html

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