White River 50, 4th, 7:14

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Photo credit and (c) Glenn Tachyiama

The White River 50 probably competes only with Chuckanut as the PNW’s quintessential ultra. Held each July since 1993 by Scott McCoubrey and crew, the course features two loops on beautiful singletrack in the foothills of MRNP, and regularly attracts some of the region’s fastest runners, most gunning for a sought-after sub-7 hour finish.

I had signed up over a beer or three sometime in the spring, but in recent weeks had been anticipating a trip to a family reunion in Montana would be keeping me from the start line, and had responded with commensurate focus: relatively low weekly mileage and an opportunistic approach to workouts. When that trip fell through, I decided to do a quick week-long taper and see how things went.

And it went pretty well, all things considered, though the a steady, soaking rain precluded views of The Mountain (good thing I’ve seen it before). A quick start had us through the first aid station (3.9mi) in a bit over 24 minutes, well under Ueli Steidl’s 2004 CR splits. Hanging in 15th place or so during the first few miles, I worked my way up as the trail began to climb in earnest, eventually slotting into a chase pack consisting of old PDX friend Yassine Diboun, Matt Palilla, and Seattle Running Club racers Evan Williams and Olin Berger (Matt Cecil and Lon Freeman were leading a few switchbacks up). We gave some lip service to “taking it easy” this early in the race — the course’s elevation profile is defined by two 4000-foot-plus climbs, with somewhere between 8500 and 10000′ of gain in sum — but honestly, we were pushing it a bit. This was confirmed at the second aid station, Ranger Creek (11.9mi), where we remained 5 minutes under Ueli’s splits.

A bit spooked, we slowed down significantly on the out and back to Corral Pass, and by our return to Ranger, were a solid 10 minutes off our early pace. I found myself in fifth chasing Matt and Yassine, both effortlessly fast runners on gradual descents, as they hammered back down to the river. Slightly over halfway as we passed through the campground, I began to feel some early fatigue take hold, and the first half of the second major climb was the major low point of my race. Easing into a hike whenever the trail pitched upward too sharply, I mostly tried to maintain momentum and make each moment feel as if I were racing, without digging my self too deeply into a loamy Cascadian grave of overexertion. And lo, in a timely reminder of the old ultrarunning adages that it never always gets worse and the winner is the one who slows down the least, I drew up on and passed first Lon and then Matt P., and then was sitting in third with Yassine’s bright orange windbreaker in my sights, the rain continuing to fall and fall.

Which is not to say that winning was ever a possibility! I crested out at the Suntop aid station (mile 37) in a good amount discomfort from chafing, attempting to summon enough focus to run the next 6 downhill road miles (losing over 3000′ to return to the banks of the White River) hard enough to maintain my position. I almost managed it. Averaging about 6:15 a mile on the descent, I was keenly aware that I was riding the ragged edge between a sustainable effort and leg-seizing cramps. Yassine, however, quickly pulled out of sight, and in the final hundred meters before the aid station, Matt Palilla zoomed past with demoralizing pizzazz.

“Save some for the end,” everyone always says about White River, referencing a technical, gradual, grinder-of-an-uphill from mile 43 to the finish. I mostly had, running in discomfort, not particularly fast, but fast enough. Adrenaline kicking in for my customary last-half-mile-sprint, it was over in 7:14:29, about 3 minutes after Yassine and Matt dueled for a second and third place finish, respectively, and a little over 10 minutes after Matt Cecil grabbed the win.

With more self restraint on that first climb and more focused training (particularly in the form of downhill tempo efforts), I think sub-7 is plausibly within my reach. Whether time and motivation will align and get me to the start line again remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a race I can imagine returning to. In the meantime, attention shifts to the last two races of my competitive season: a second stab at the Race to the Top of Vermont, and a second stab at the 100 mile distance.

Is it too early to be dreaming of snow?

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