It’s about a quarter-mile to the turn-around in the 2015 Gorge Waterfalls 100k, and, in some intensely serendipitous turn of events, I’ve found myself in the front group of four guys, including Justin Houck, Ben Stern, and Chris DeNucci. As we descend into the Wyeth aid-station at mile-31, I’m pleased to find that my heart-rate’s dropping to 123bpm. THIS is exciting sh*t!! >>>
2013 Western States 100 champ, Pam Proffitt-Smith, is graciously crewing for me this morning while Inside Trail teammate, Chris Wehan, is popping up everywhere along the way, further stoking the fire in my belly. Since I’m fueling the entire race with bottles of VitargoS2, I slam some while taking a moment to internalize my good fortune—I’m gunning for a Western States 100 spot, of which there’s two on the line today. I’m 50k into this sucker and there’s no one in front of me. I find myself departing Wyeth, happy, in control, and now leading the race…
“Nature’s arena has a way of humbling and energizing us.” –Scott Jurek
In this month’s Ultrarunning Magazine, Errol “Rocket” Jones writes, in an article entitled, Whiners and Winners, “Get the most you can from your running, because a setback is coming. Injuries or overuse will happen if you stay with it long enough. It’s part of the equation in long-distance [ultra]running and racing. You’ve got to take your lumps […].” I preach to athletes I coach that it’s not the training we can do that’s going to make us faster, rather, it’s the training our bodies can actually absorb. There is a distinct difference. From Nov-Feb, I had to take a big dose of my own medicine. And the spoonful of sugar was the opportunity to race well at Gorge Waterfalls 100k in March.
After a successful 2014 campaign, where I was able to achieve my #1 goal of defending my 2013 win at Tahoe Rim Trail 100, in course-record fashion, and back it up with a repeat win at Pine to Palm 100, eight weeks later, I knew I was incredibly fortunate to be enjoying such consistent good health, largely in part, I thought, to strategic planning of both my races and high-volume training, and of course, training/racing in Hoka One One running shoes. Still, I know nature has a way of keeping us in balance, and my “lumps” came in the form of a stress-fracture of the navicular bone in my left foot, as confirmed by MRI just before Thanksgiving.
This setback didn’t weigh too heavily on my mind, as 2014 came to a close, since I felt I had time to make a full recovery. Sean O’Brien 100k, unfortunately, had to be tossed out the window since I would not have the preparation required to be in the mix for a Western States slot, and would likely just re-injure myself. Thus, all the chips had to placed on Gorge Waterfalls 100k at the end of March.
Coming back to full health was frustrating as hell. Re-capturing my confidence has been the toughest part. The foot would be fine one day, and throb the next. More and more days had to be taken off. I was forced to dramatically change the way I trained. In hindsight, it appears I was able to ride that fine line just well enough to not hurt myself again, while harvesting enough fitness to race well at Gorge. With my fastest 50k trail-run in the Marin Headlands just two weeks earlier, I felt I was ready to race a 100k, but barely. Fortune favors the brave, right?!
At the end of last year, when I was considering my options for “racing” my way into this year’s Western States 100 in June, I studied the 2015 Montrail Ultra Cup qualifying events. Ultimately, I chose two of the longest races, that both inspired me and seemed like they would play to my strengths. As I’ve stated, I had to bow out of Sean O’Brien 100k in February due to injury but the other event, Gorge Waterfalls, seemed like a good bet since it was in late March, was a 100 “K” versus 50 miles, giving me something like two additional hours to reel in some carnage in the final 12 “bonus” miles, increasing the likelihood I could move into the #2 or #1 spot, securing one of the “golden tickets” for Western. The fact that Gorge would be very technical, with 12,000′ of cumulative ascent remains very attractive to me. If only it was a 100 miles…
For the record, it’s quite disappointing to me there’s not a 100mi option—my strongest distance—offered through the Montrail Ultra Cup series. Western States is 100-miler after all. Seems to me like we’d want to put the most qualified 100-milers on the starting line there, rather than the fastest 50mi + 100k guys and gals. But, that’s not the current reality, and at the end of the day, I’m just a Masters guy trying to do the best with the cards I’m holding. My ace-in-hole is my endurance; a card I’m left holding at the end of a 50mi or 100k. As an athlete who’s spent a decade in Ironman Triathlon, chasing entry into that sport’s “Big Dance”—the Hawaiian Ironman—for which I’ve worked hard, focused, and qualified on four occasions between the years 2002 and 2011. I’m hard-wired to qualify for the Big Dance by earning entry at a qualifying event of equal distance.
After departing the turn-around at Wyeth, it wasn’t very long before Houck and DeNucci caught up with me. A great memory from the day was running together, headed back west, toward the finish, as 100k runners were making their way to the turn-around. “We have ourselves a race!”, one runner exclaimed. Soon though the pace was a bit more than I wanted to tolerate, as we were only about half-way through. This day, I vowed to be patient, present, and positive, and I was sticking to my plan. Also, my heart-rate was giving me good bio feedback that I needed to keep holding back, at least to mile 36-40, with plenty of running to do from there. Just be patient. One, or both, of them will come back to you. Believe…
Earlier in the day, at mile 20, the front-runners had been directed off course by some hooligans who had vandalized the course. That incident tested my resolve but ultimately Yassine Diboun had gotten us back on track. It ended up adding about 2mi to my race, which I used to stay positive, and get additional calories in. Since we’d gotten off course not too far out from Cascade Locks aid-station at mile 22, I soon ran out of Vitargo but fortunately always carry emergency calories in the form of gels. We just rolled with it, and as soon as we found our way back on course, it was almost like we’d never been off course, with everyone quickly resuming his position in the race. I tried to make light of the situation and said to myself, “Well, more miles, more smiles.” I might just get to qualify for States at a “100-miler” the way this day is going!
Leading into the race, I’d been thinking of the Cherokee legend, the Tale of the Two Wolves. As the miles went by, I kept listening to my body, getting in good calories and “monitoring” the growing battle between the two wolves loose in my mind—the good wolf and the bad wolf. I kept trying to “feed” the good wolf by reminding myself to be present, in the moment, and believing in my potential to reel in at least one of the guys in front of me. At times now, the bad wolf was getting stronger; more ferocious. The good wolf was sent scrambling through my subconscious, scavenging for any scrap of confidence it could find…
Good Wolf: “You’ve just had the highest quality 8 weeks of ultra-run training you’ve ever done. You deserve to be in this position. Stay the course!”
Bad Wolf: “Pine to Palm 100 was half a year ago old man. You’ve got a crack in your foot. You’re broken. You don’t have the iron in your legs that only racing gives you. What the f*ck are you doing out here?!”
Good Wolf: “You just ran your fastest 50k in the Marin Headlands two weeks ago. You’re stronger than ever! You have plenty of time to reel in 2nd place. You own this race!!”
Bad Wolf: “You shouldn’t have run that 50k dumb*ss. Your insecurity is your greatest weakness. Besides, that 50k was only four hours of racing. You think that’s gonna help you in this 10-HOUR smack-down?! WTF are you thinking? You know better.”
Nowadays we have runners who want a course so well marked that Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles could make their way through it, solo. -Errol “Rocket” Jones, from “Whiners and Winners,” Ultrarunning Magazine, April 2015
Arriving at Yeon at mile 49, I picked up an additional bottle of VitargoS2, departing that aid-station with about 600cal to fuel the final approximate half-marathon to the finish. Unbelievably, it had come down to the scenario I’d imagined in the days leading up to Gorge—-I was in good position to run down my Western States slot!!
Aid-stations are always a sure-fire way to feed our good wolf, and I left with a boost of confidence that, with 2nd place only 3min up, I had plenty of time to catch my prey. Beyond 50mi now, it was time to shine. With no one in sight, ahead or behind, the struggle with mind and body to continue pushing ensued, often glancing at my heart-rate as my honest assessment of the effort I continued to invest in the endeavor. I popped out onto a half-mile stretch of paved road. I see the red of 2nd place’s jersey ahead, turning back into the woods. Skip Brand is standing at the entrance. I harness some strength and imagine lopping another 20sec off 2nd place’s lead. Skip gives me some encouragement and I head back up the trail. A wave of nausea hits me from the effort I’d just put in on the road. I wretch a few times in the bushes, marveling at how smooth VitargoS2 is coming back up. I recover quickly and press on, soon able to again consume and process calories.
As the race progressed from here, more and more hikers lined the trails, out on this beautiful day, taking in the marvelous spectacle that is the many beautiful waterfalls in the area, including Wahkeena Falls, Fairy Falls, Multnomah Falls, Oneota Falls, Dry Falls, and Ponytail Falls. Getting closer now to “No Name” aid-station at mile 56, I started to get glimpses of 2nd place up ahead, now 90sec up, according to Chris Wehan. Patience was the biggest challenge now. Keep the calories coming in. Be steady.
I found myself running several switchbacks and arrived at one where several hikers fanned out across the crook of the 180deg turn. I thanked them and quickly made my way passed and down a section of trail that led to a paved road. I looked left and right for a life-infusing trail marker. I asked a guy with a dog if he saw two runners go by or any pink ribbon. He said no. Back up the trail, I ran into the hikers I’d just passed. I asked them if they saw any ribbon to which they replied they’d seen some not too far back. Dammit, I cannot f_____g believe this just happened… Are you F______G kidding me?!!
I’d only been off course for about 2min and as it turned out, when I caught up with these hikers and passed them in the crook of that switchback, none of us realized that I was supposed to continue straight through, rather than around the switchback in the direction they were all headed. With the four of them fanned out as they were, I didn’t even realize running straight through was an option. I tried my best to own the mistake but wished there’d been some alternatively colored ribbon, indicative of being off-course at a trail junction. How could any runner in my position not want that? Whatever. What’s done is done. It’s my responsibility to know the course. Suck it up buttercup.
When I hit No Name, at mile 56, a panic was starting to build within me. The bad wolf was eating me alive. I knew 2nd place’s lead had now grown to about 4-5min and my hope of earning my spot to States was now slipping away. Panic slowly started to morph into apathy. A warm justification for a 3rd place finish was gradually washing over me like a nearby waterfall; its spray of indifference like a shot of morphine. The good wolf now silent.
With two miles to go, I’m trying to rally while stomping down this super touristy section of black-topped switchbacks, seemingly enroute to nowhere. I didn’t realize until later that day that the biggest mistake I made here at Gorge was choosing to not go to the Start/Finish in the daylight the day before. Because it was race-morning registration, I had no clue what the route to the finish looked like. As I’m hobbling down this steep section, I more concerned with who might be catching up with me than who is ahead. To my horror, I see a guy in black who looks so fresh I can’t believe my eyes! Note: I later discover this was Ben Stern’s pacer (no wonder he looked so fresh!). Anyway, this sends the biggest shot of adrenalin into my system I throw it into high gear and start taking the remaining switchbacks as aggressively as I can. I open up a good gap and don’t see the track star anywhere behind me. I hit the road at the bottom to find Skip Brand standing there with a front-row seat to all the unfolding action. I’m disappointed in myself for failing to secure a Western States spot, but 3rd place today is not bad, right? At least it’s still a podium finish even if, technically, 3rd place is the “first loser” at this event today.
Before darting off, I ask Skip, “How far to the finish?!” He replies “less than a mile. You have to over a bridge.” I look up ahead and see what appears to be a bridge in the road, but then there’s two more up farther ahead. I slam the rest of my Vitargo, see a pink ribbon, know that I’m on course, and blast through this busy intersection where it’s wall-to-wall tourists. I take a hole-shot through a bunch of pedestrians at a cross-walk, and with some 65miles in my legs, lay down a sub-7min mile… to nowhere.
As I get farther and farther from the chaotic Visitor’s Center, I see some runners up ahead. I ask them if they saw any other runners or pink ribbon anywhere. A motorcycle cop rolls through and I yell and whistle loudly at him. He pulls over and I run up and respectfully inquire where the entrance to Benson State Park is. I blast off back in the direction from which I came. Arriving back at the Visitor’s Center I stop and do a slow 360, trying to figure out where to go. I see a foot-bridge, lined with tourists. Pink ribbon! I head down a path. Dead-end. Not the right direction. WHY isn’t there a race volunteer anywhere? Fumes for fuel. I’m so horrified by this turn of events I consider running back to my hotel in Troutdale rather than be seen at the finish. I’ve let everyone down—my wife, my friends, my sponsors. 600 miles of training since January 1, for this race. 100,000′ of climbing. Dedication to some stupid ideal. For what? To blow it at the end and not even secure a podium position. Chris Wehan meets me with a few 100yds to go and runs me in. I do my best to hold it together but I’ve never been more disappointed in myself at a finish line. Afterward, sitting in the grass alone, I can only think about the Theodore Roosevelt, Man in the Arena quote, and what lies ahead at San Diego 100 in June…
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Yet, I ask myself, am I just one of Rocket’s “whiners”? I do think it’s very reasonable, in a “high stakes” Montrail Ultra-Cup event like Gorge Waterfalls 100k, to at least have one knowledgeable volunteer, there at the end with two 90deg turns to the finish, offering some much needed support to all those runners on the “struggle-bus”. Or, at least an arrow to go with the pink ribbon that says something like:
<<< To Finish
Admittedly, I’ve had more than my fair share of getting off course in trail-races (who hasn’t?!), but I’ve worked on it and the results have shown. In the end, I found myself scraping together every last ounce of energy I had, with close to 66 miles in my legs, running as fast as I could, doing my best to honor both myself, my friends and competitors. Seems like sometimes, there’s a fine line between a winner and a whiner, wouldn’t you agree Rocket? I’m left feeling more like the latter as I tap out this race report.
Justin Houck and Chris DeNucci ran f_____g great races (not to mention Ben Stern and Gary Robbins who did, in fact, find the finish line before I was finally able to). Had I not gotten off course at all, I still may not have been able to reel Chris in, (and definitely not Justin) but what eats away at me is how random circumstances took the opportunity to try, away from me. At the turn-around I was in a dream scenario that should not have manifest in the way it did; many of the top names dropped or never started Gorge 100k for one reason or another. I’d been given a kick-ass opportunity, but failed to make good on it. That’s how the cookie crumbles.
There’s still the Montrail “Last Chance Promo” that has about 30 runners that entered and finished the 100k on Saturday. One of those names will be drawn and will receive an entry into this years Western States 100. Naturally, the odds of me getting in are actually less than the 4.7% chance I had in last December’s general lottery. Still, a chance is a chance. I’m not whining! Otherwise, I’m setting my sights on Jeff Browning’s San Diego 100 course-record in June. Also, I’m revising my event schedule and likely omitting Cascade Crest in August as well as Javelina in October and putting all the chips on Run Rabbit Run 100 in Colorado in September. Seems like the right thing to do. In the words of another Roosevelt:
“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
In closing, I’d like to share how incredible I think the Gorge Waterfalls 100k course is. As of today, I’m definitely coming back next year, with as many friends in-tow as possible! This course is right up my alley, and with the course-knowledge from this year, I’ll easily shave 30-45min of my time, given similar weather conditions and NO course vandalism!! 😀
Thanks to my beautiful, loving, and highly supportive wife Amanda for her thankless job [even from afar] as “First Responder.” Thanks for fixing my stress fracture!! I LOVE YOU VERY MUCH.
Thank you to Hoka One One for the their continued support and producing the best shoes out there—#LetsGoHoka! The CHALLENGER was THE shoe for the job at GORGE WATERFALLS 100K
Thanks to Inside Trail Racing for your offering so many fantastic races in great places. | Thanks to Vitargo for the steady energy and making MY GORGE WATERFALLS 100K nutrition easy.
Thank you Healdsburg Running Company for opening up in my ‘hood. Love the new store and the weekly group runs. It’s great to be building community with you! THANKS FOR BEING OUT THERE SKIP BRAND.