Monday, March 26, 2012

Gorge Waterfalls 50K Race Report

All the agonizing, fretting, excitement, planning, preparing, researching, equipment-buying, training, powerwalking on a treadmill, my first experience running a marathon as a training run, the packing - it was all over. Race day was here.

Gorge Waterfalls 50k had pulled me in 5 months ago with its pictures and promises of a beautiful but challenging race course. I signed up four months ago, before I knew I was going to go through sinus surgery in the middle of the training cycle. I signed up, even though I knew it would be tight finishing in the time limit. And I signed up, even though I didn't know anyone else running it.

Even up to a day before, the course kept changing - 3 changes. This made a planner like me even more nervous. The course first changed because of sudden construction on the Gorge trails. Then it changed because the new course measured too short. Then race week, instead of the tropical storm they were supposed to get, the Cascade Mountains got snow dumped on them. Two days before, the race prep team found that the new 2500 ft ascent had hip deep snow! So it was changed again.

After flying in Friday night, I scouted the course for a couple hours Saturday morning. And I spent the day carb-loading: 3 donuts from the famous Voodoo Doughnuts, spaghetti and meatballs lunch with runner friend Andleeb at Pastini's, and lamb and gnocchi for dinner with Twitter friend and runner Teri (@runnerteri) at Portfino.

Race day morning, all my prep meant I was at the race early and in proper form. Two weeks of no Starbucks Mochas. 10 days of calorie monitoring (I dropped 3 pounds). One week of no alcohol. One week of major water hydration (about 150 ozs a day). Proper physical taper.

The weather was perfect, more so than we expected that morning. In the 40s all day. It was humid which kept you warm  And the 50% chance of rain never turned into any actual precipitation. True, it was cold, but the layers I'd practiced and planned were just right (tights, long sleeve shirt, light running vest, gloves for the beginning, and ear warmers).

So I'm in the parking lot 15 minutes before packet pickup even starts. A few of us stand around chatting. We're not quite sure where packet pickup or the start will be. But everyone's so relaxed about everything. About the time packet pickup should open, word travels through the crowd that James, te race director, has had a flat tire on the way here and he's waiting for a tow. Roadrunners would have generally lost their mind. But we all said, "oh, ok". We all just hung out and talked, all prepped a little. I nibbled two ginger lemon cookies (I had a bialy, kinda like a bagel, already for my breakfast) so I would keep getting calories in since I was sure we'd start a little late.
Texas Runners! (Although they are from the Austin area so I was the sole Dallasite) - Rod, Ben, Me, and Elizabeth
Race director James arrives and we all quietly, orderly, shuffle through packet pickup without a single gripe. Man, I love the trailrunner personality.

We start about 20 minutes late after the trail briefing. As part of it, James warns that there are several sections with ice, mud, or slippery rocks where we need to be careful and slow down. "There are cliffs and if you fall, you will die." We all nervously laugh. He says, "It's not funny."

We start and immediately, like the first 50 feet, hit a bottleneck across a skinny little bridge. Ha! Then through a field, across some boulders, and we cross a road to start the ascent. The first mile or so of switchbacks are paved trail. But this is steep! And we're in a big train of powerwalking fools. I smartly lined up toward the back, and they've switchbacks quickly spread everyone out. I will spend the first handful of miles bouncing around with 6 or 7 fun and energetic ultrarunners from out of state.

I planned to run by heart rate zone the whole race. Zone 1 and low Zone 2 are the most efficient zones, where I burn about 50% fat calories (save those carbs, i.e. glycogen). Zone 4 is a no-no. It's anaerobic and you burn only glycogen, not good for an endurance race. You'll bonk quick here.

My powerwalking sucks my heart rate up quick. Something I want to work on in the future. I hit Zone 4 a few times on this ascent. I curse myself repeatedly. Bad, bad Libby!! When heart rate is lower I feel like I'm moving like molasses. 

We do the majority of the ascent and then spend a couple miles along the cliff, working our way up high around a deep valley. During the whole ascent and this skirting we jump across rocks of big and little streams and see lots of smaller waterfalls. My shoes and socks are soaked 2 miles in with a stream whose rocks are drowned by all the melting snow. And that's some COLD water. While skirting the valley, we deal with a mile or so of slushy snow, packed down snow from all the runners ahead of me that's now a little icy, and mudpits formed by the tread of everyone who came before me.
Craig and Janice from California crossing a stream carefully. See that dropoff on the bottom left side. Yeah, that's a cliff. 40 foot plus drop or so.
This race had such rocky terrain for this Dallas girl. It slowed me down so much trying to keep my feet from being turned to hamburger.

More rocks - this was the standard look of the terrain for much of the race. Ugh.

We'd hit smaller waterfalls, like this one below running down a wall of rock, and small creeks over and over again. You quickly lost count.

We hit Multnomah Falls and our downhill of 1600 ft. It's slower going down than I thought I would get to be because of fighting through rocks. The cliffs provided a dilemma - the least rocks and flattest terrain would be about 12 inches wide right along the cliff edge. The next 2 feet before the wall would be rockier. I am not so fearless as I would sometimes like to be, and would like of my little girls often, which left me fighting rocks much closer to the wall.

As part of the descent, Multnomah Falls has 11 switchbacks of paved trails. And this was where we encountered our first of the obstacle known as TOURISTS. It wasn't so bad through here early in the day but it was much more disruptive coming back. This is a major Oregon tourist destination. We were guests there so we exercised lots of courtesy which could cost you seconds here and there but helped ensure the Forest Service would allow the race again next year!

I loved the paved switchbacks and careened down them, taking back time I had lost on the uphill. After some more trail, I hit the mile 7 / mile 23 aid station at about 2 hours. And that's when I slapped my forehead and knew I needed to ignore all paces on my Garmin. Switchbacks and those elevation changes had seriously jacked with my paces and distance, and I found I was much faster than I thought I had been going. At the aid station I dipped two boiled potato pieces in salt, then left there with 3 chocolate chip cookies and 6 peanut M&Ms in one hand and a big orange wedge in the other. Jeremy always says, "get in and out as quick as you can!"

I had also been doing my honey stinger chews and GUs as planned. I stayed on target with that the whole race, consuming 600 calories of supplements besides all the aid station foods.

Back onto the trails, about a mile further down we hit an area that I decided to name Rockslide. It was about a mile of a bit of forest and then you'd hit a spot where at some point a rockslide had occurred and then repeat. Some rockslides were a mix of red volcanic dust and smaller rocks. 
One of the easy rockslide areas, small rocks and lots of dirt.
Others were big rocks where you couldn't tell a path at all and would play "guess which rocks are loose" on.
Yes, we started at the top between the two trees and went straight through to the bottom center of this pic. Do you see a path? I don't. Scrambled across the rocks and hoped you didn't hit one that was TOO loose.
Then a couple gorgeous waterfalls through this area would make you forget the hard terrain for a second. Here's Oneonta Falls.

Looking down on the falls area after I've crossed the bridge and made a couple switchbacks uphill
The bridge I crossed
THAT'S how steep the switchbacks were. I'm practically right under them but that's a few switchbacks up from me!
Then we ran BEHIND a waterfall. The beautiful Ponytail Falls. 
Before going behind the waterfall...

...And now out on the other side of it!
The next section was a winding mile and a half of very narrow single track with big mossy rocks in your path and overgrown ferns. During the race I nicknamed this area the "Primordial Soup". There's moss grown over entire boulders, downed trees, I think I even see an old forest service gate at one point grown over back in the woods.

One of the wider sections here, but steep downhill drop if you slip and lots of boulders!
Unfortunately at my pace, this was also where about 50 people had to pass me coming back. I know because I kept myself going by counting off every person who passed and giving a big smile and a "good job!" every single time. Some like #29 were overwhelmed focused on the tough terrain and almost body checked me as we passed each other - I don't think she ever saw me coming until that last second. Others like #38 stepped completely aside for me - a great gesture since my time isn't valued generally like the competitive folks in the front. I stood my ground more at this race, insisting with my body that if the space would allow it, we could both run by each other while squeezing into the forest edge a little. Where there wasn't room I would easily acquiesce, stop and step aside, the courtesy I think we all expect the slower runner to yield. The dance on single track in trailrunning is an interesting one.

At almost mile 12 was 2.2 miles of paved road shoulder. Not in the original course, and not the race director's first or second choice, it was what had to be done to find the distance after the last minute trail construction and snow issues. I shuffled along and waved to friends who passed me coming back. While you wanted to speed through this "easy" part of the course, I kept my heart rate in check and just hung out and recovered at an easy pace.
Still super scenic even on the shoulder of a road

Mile 14.3/16.3 aid station sends us back into the trail. I stop for boiled potatoes. I grab a couple cookies and more peanut M&Ms and know I'll be back soon. We are heading out to Elowah Falls, our turnaround point, before we repeat the whole route backwards!

I pass about 10 people on the way to the falls. The terrain's annoyingly rocky. One woman who passes me coming from the falls says, "Girl, in two minutes, this will all be worth it". Multiple people passing comment on what they jusy saw: "It will blow your mind." "The most beautiful thing I've ever seen." I speed up in excitement. And then I'm there and it truly is breathtaking. My face has lit up like a Christmas tree. Lush green moss everywhere, gigantic boulders, a roaring stream, and a 500 foot gushing waterfall, Elowah Falls, that covers me with spray and seems to reach all the way up to where the sun blindingly appears out from the tree canopy.
The falls is in this tiny isolated valley with these huge, moss-covered boulders

Happy Trailrunner Self-portrait Time!
I snap some pictures and check my watch. 4 hours for half the course! So unless I slow down by over 1 1/2 hours going back, I'll make the time cutoff! All my worries melt away, and I feel lighter.

Another mile or so back to Mile 14/16 aid station. The volunteers help fill my hydration pack. I had started the race with 70 ounces (2 liters), and, while it was heavy, I'm glad I didn't have to refill more than once. So I left aid station 16 with another heavy 70 ounces to carry me to the end. A 4 oz cup of coke and another 2 boiled potato pieces before I leave. More peanut M&Ms, two chocolate chip cookies. I end up putting the cookies in a front pouch of the pack and eat them about a mile down the road. 

2.2 miles of road again. I know now that only 4 people are behind me. There's no pride, there's no shame, it's just where I stand. Road is boring, and I am not looking forward to the Primordial Soup area again. The claustrophobic feel of the narrow single track, the winding, how eerily quiet that area is, you feel completely alone like you are miles and miles from the nearest living thing.

A few waterfalls. A few pictures taken. Back through Rockslide area. Uneventful. Just chugging along. 

Time seems to move slowly. I'm over the twenty mile mark. 

I hit the aid station for miles 7/23 at 6 hours. I sit in a chair and retie my shoes. A volunteer pumps me up with comments about how I only have two more hours or a little more. In the last ten minutes it had already sunk in. I tell him there's a chance I'll PR on this difficult course. Another cookie, more M&Ms. The 11 switchbacks of Multnomah Falls are a killer. I'm dodging tourists and feel like I'm hardly moving. The whole ascent and then skirting the valley up on the cliff in my head feels like it was hours. And while my heart rate isn't awful, I feel like the total heart pumping time is wearing on me. I feel like it's beating hard. I feel like I can't completely get my breathing under control. I'm a little woozy and my stomach feels a little knotted and off. I stop sometimes and just stand for a minute and hold on to the wall next to me. After about a mile of this and feeling so slow-going, I sit on a steep mound of soft moss an plants and put my head between my knees. Two minutes and I feel a world of difference. I talked to two other people who experienced the same thing. Wish I knew the cause. But wish even more that I had done the head between the knees thing a mile earlier. 

The descent starts and I'm going through tons of sticky slick mud from the 250 runners who came before me. Great, it's bad flashbacks to Cross Timbers Trail Marathon 2012. Then I see Janice and Craig from California up ahead of me a little ways. It's motivation. I haven't seen another runner since the turnaround. I don't have a desire to pass them, just to catch up. But they're strong on the rocky flat areas so I only slowly gain ground as I'm now trying to haul.

I finally catch them when we hit the paved trail steep switchbacks. But we saw on the out portion of the course that I was a better downhill runner and as I had told them at mile 7, "but you're both better at everything else!" So I pass them quickly and I am gaining speed from here. I would kill for a perfectly accurate measure of splits through here because I outdid myself. But I groan loudly at the very sharp turn of every switchback. I had heard people say this course kills your quads, and I hadn't understood. It was the downhill while holding yourself back, people would say. Still didn't get it. Midway through the race I could see that it would be sections where you opened up your stride downhill only to suddenly stop short from super rocky sections - this happened a lot. Or how a lot of the severe downhills would be switchbacks where you suddenly had to slam on the brakes, do a 180 and  then go again. That said, while I let out a big groan during those switchbacks, after the race my quads felt fine. I knew those naturally overly developed quad muscles would come in handy, even as my trainer has worked hard to make other muscles learn to carry the load! Ha!

I make it all the way down to a race official at the road and I say, "How much farther?" I've been ticking away the minutes on my watch as I realized I was close to my 8:21 PR set on the relatively flat Rocky Raccoon 50k course.

She answers, "1.5 miles." All the wind is let out of my sails. Oh. That PR is not gonna happen. In my happy puppy-ness of the first 30 minutes of the race, I had not realized it was so far.

Oh well, how close to the PR can I get? Plus I've found out the last couple miles that I have a lot more gas in the tank than I thought I did, so let's see what this body can do. And what it does it gets me on the wrong path for a minute and a half as the body is doing okay but the mind is getting tired. Oops. Back on the path, I'm ticking through the minutes. Back across the road, back across the boulders, and then my gosh, was the field we ran through in the beginning this long? Back across the bottleneck bridge, around a corner, and I see the finish line. I lengthen my stride an actually have a pretty fantastic kick in the end! 

8 hours and 30 minutes. Only 9 minutes slower than my PR. And amazingly, 15 minutes faster than my performance at Wild Hare 50k which had 4800 feet less of elevation gain and matching decline! And my first half of the race was 4:00 and second half was 4:30, and when the second half had a 1600-ft ascent at mile 27 or so, I'll take those splits!

I'm ecstatic! In the last mile of the race, I was very emotional and was expecting I would sob at the finish line but I'm too happy and surrounded by such smiling faces. Race director James shakes my hand and congratulates me, twitter friend Sarah (@sarah430) is working the finish line and introduces herself, and new friends Mark and Elizabeth are there.

Immediately after I saw my finish time I knew I want to go back to Rocky Raccoon because I now think I could do so much on that course and break my PR with the training I've been through and the knowledge I've gained.

Gorge Waterfalls 50k lived up to its promise. A challenging race. An absolutely beautiful course. A personal friendly race production. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a scenic challenge!

Next Up: Captaining a team this weekend for the 4th year in a row at the Texas Independence Relay, a 203-mile relay race. We have an amazing 10-person team called the "Queens of the Road". Ready for a fun weekend!


  1. What a beautiful course! And how awesome to get so close to a PR! Great job!

  2. Read every word and loved it. You did an amazing job. Super excited for you!!! See you this weekend... woo-hoo!!!!!

  3. Fantastic job!!! U trained and u did it!!! Luv ya lady!

  4. Congrats! Wow, I can't get over the scenery, so beautiful!

  5. Congratulations Libby!! That race looks absolutely gorgeous and is definitely on my "races I must someday run" list. Great finish time too, the hills/snow/switchbacks sound brutal. But so worth it for those views. :)

  6. And I must say, your smile could light up any room and I love the picture of you out on the trail with the big grin, it says it all about how much you love being out there running! :)

    1. Aww, thanks, Julie. I love how that photo came out because it really did capture how I felt. I tried to smile through a lot of that race and remember I picked this for its beauty and remember to look around!

  7. Great report Libby! As for getting better with powerwalking up the hills, do you have access to a treadmill? I ran Beacon Rock last summer (another of James' races) and this one woman kept passing me on the steep uphills. I complimented her on it and she said she does sessions on the treadmill set at the highest incline (walking, not running). Although I abhor the TM, I've started doing a 10-20 minute warmup on it at my gym before I do my core exercises (about half of which is at the highest incline -- 15%). I could really tell the difference during Gorge!

  8. I used to live in Portland and Columbia River Gorge was my stomping grounds for 2-3 times a week ("short" 10 miler on Thursday and 2 long back-to-back on the weekend). Besides the short spurs of occasional rock fields lasting no more than 100 yards at a time, things aren't technical in the Gorge, but they surely provide with best views possible, and awesome climbs (may be not trail 400 for that race, it is relatively flat by Gorge standards:)). Joe's Bandera races are technical in half of the course, and Zane Grey 50M in AZ is technical for about 70% of it. I guess everything is relative in life. I am thrilled Central Texas discovered PNW and its races and is coming in waves! James puts on great events, so are Oregon Trail Series. Thanks for spreading the word. And congrats on almost PR for such a more difficult course!

  9. I love this race report, the agony, the joy, the pictures, everything. Someday I hope to be half as bad ass as you lady! :)

  10. Absolutely amazing! Great pictures and commentary! We're so very proud of you for accomplishing what you set out to do!

  11. Terrific race report! And a great race! Thanks for sharing. I love the pictures. You're making me want to get in the car and drive for 3 days so I can share your experience! Have fun at TIR!

  12. Awesome race report and great pictures! Reading your report makes me want to do an ultra next year. Great going.

  13. Holy cow! Talk about plan B, plan C and plan D for that race! So freakin' proud of you! Love it when it turns out like that - you know the opposite of what you think and you came out with a PR! Beeeautiful pictures!