Columbia Gorge 50k - March 12, 2011

After running the Hagg Lake 50k in February I kind of got the ultra bug. I liked how small the race was, how I was able to chat with other runners while running, and just the general sense of camaraderie I hadn’t really felt in a marathon. Adding in that ultras are mostly on trails and the aid station food is awesome I was on a quest to find my next ultra.

I had been lucky enough to “meet” several local women on facebook who added me to a great facebook group for local women runners. Through one of their posts I found out about the Gorge Waterfalls 50k on March 12. It was local, actually a shorter drive than Hagg Lake, and would be an excellent opportunity to run through the gorge. Since I normally spend a lot of time hiking through the gorge with a heavy pack, the idea of running, unencumbered, on the trails was very appealing.

The race had a generous refund policy (full refund if you canceled by March 7th, and even after that the race director said he could roll your registration fee into another event) so I signed up the day after Hagg to secure my spot and then decided to think about whether I would actually run it for the next few weeks. I was kind of afraid to tell Adam I was thinking about running another ultra. There are times when I think he already thinks I am a bit crazy. So I waited until a week before the race to broach the subject. He was encouraging as usual and told me I should feel free to do it if that was what I wanted.

The Saturday before the race I headed out to the gorge to run the tough beginning section of the course. The course started at the Wahkeenah Falls trailhead – which is a trail I know well as I have hiked it numerous times. It isn’t overly steep for a hike, but for a run it is super steep. Within a mile and a half you gain 1600 feet. The word brutal comes to mind. I geared up with my hydration belt and set out. I got more than a few funny looks from hikers in that first mile. The climbing was hard, but not quite as hard as I had expected. It was slow going though. The first mile ticked off in 16:54, and the second in 16:52. Right around 1.75 I hit a nice snow/ice combo that continued on and off for a mile and a half. At times I had to walk because it was too dangerous to run. Once down at Multnomah Falls, I turned around and headed back just to get the extra hill workout.

I had done the pre-race training run to quell my nerves about the hill climbing but instead just added to them. I got even more nervous when the race director sent out a note warning about snow & ice and advising participants to wear/carry yak trax or screw shoes. I can’t easily carry yak trax on my hydration belt and really didn’t want to have something with me that I didn’t need. I checked the forecast which called for rain, lows in the upper 30’s and highs in the low 50’s. I was 90% convinced that the snow I had encountered would be gone in a week but was worried about taking my chances. Thankfully the race crew ran the course in stages on Thursday & Friday to flag it and in so doing realized there was little to no snow to worry about and the Yak Trax got to stay at home.

Two days before the race I packed up my drop bags. There were going to be two main aid stations on the course, mile 11 and 21. You could pack up a bag that would be waiting for you at the aid station with warm clothes, food, or anything else you might want. Each of mine contained and extra pair of gloves, and extra long sleeve shirt, 2 8 oz Gatorade bottles for my hydration belt, a Mojo bar, extra Gu, Icy Hot and Ben Gay patches. In the second drop bag I even put in a change of socks and shoes just in case.

The night before the race I crawled into bed early and was asleep around 10 PM. My alarm went off at 4 AM and I started my pre-race ritual of a hot shower to stretch and warm up my muscles, and downing 16 oz of water. I left the house at 5 AM for the drive to the gorge, figuring it would take me about an hour to get out there. I arrived plenty early 6 AM, and got checked in. After grabbing my number I walked back to my car and the guy parked next to me said “you were at Hagg Lake, weren’t you?” We had run together for about a 2 mile stretch in the middle and had commiserated over the mud. I asked how he had done and he told me that he came in a little over 6 hours, and had seen that I had made my goal of breaking 6. We chatted about how this course couldn’t possibly be as hard as Hagg since it wouldn’t have all the mud. Famous last words…

Around 6:30 I met up some of the women from the facebook women’s runners group, got to chat with them, and we boarded the bus together to ride to the start. Teri was embarking on her first ever ultra, while Jodi & Deb had more than a few ultras under their belts. The bus ride didn’t take too long, even though we would be running 31 miles, the actual drive was only 20. We arrived at the starting line with 40 minutes to spare. Took our turn at the porta-potties, and then waited until the last 10 minutes to shed our warm clothes. Just before starting we met up with another woman, Julie, from the runners group.

The forecast for the gorge for the run was 100% chance of rain, lows in the upper 30’s and a high of 48. Not overly cold, but not overly warm either. Thankfully it wasn’t raining as we stood around waiting to get started. Just before 8 the race director grouped us all up, making us walk slight downhill from the TH for the start. He shouted a few instructions that I was unable to hear and then we were off.

I lined up somewhere in the back 2/3 of the group. I knew I wasn’t going to be fast, especially up the hill, and I didn’t want to get trampled at the start. 138 people started the race out of the 150 that had signed up. Even with such a small group of people it was still shoulder to shoulder for quite awhile. The trail isn’t that wide and it took close to 2 miles to really shake loose of the crowd.

I had a rough start to the day. I really wanted to jog the beginning. Even though it was uphill, I felt that would get me warmed up and ready for the day. But because there were so many people I couldn’t really get moving. Right around mile 1.75 at a particularly narrow stretch of trail I had two people push by me – they didn’t say anything, no “passing on your left,” etc… just shoved by me, actually shoving me into the rock on the side of the trail. It really pissed me off. Not 5 minutes later I had two more people barrel past me. I got into a cloudy mood that I just couldn’t shake. Rudeness really bothers me and this was just plain rude. Trail and running etiquette is typically to say something to the runner you are passing – “passing on your left or right” or just “mind if a squeeze by?” I could care less if someone passes me, but the feeling of them charging past you and running you off a narrow trail made me angry. The fact that they shoved by me so violently made me feel like I was really slow. I started worrying about whether or not I would make the Aid Station cutoff times (3 hours for the first one at mile 10 and 6 hours for the second one at mile 20). I got myself into a negative feedback cycle – totally filling myself with self-doubt. I thought I might quit at the first aid station.

The snow from the previous weekend was gone. That was positive. I continued on trying to shake my bad mood. I wasn’t successful. The climbing was challenging. Even when the climbing was over the terrain was challenging – lots of rocks and roots to trip you up. I haven’t spent that much time running on technical trail, and it was looking like I was going to have 31 miles of technical trail today.

At this point we had topped out at Multnomah Falls and started the descent, on pavement, to trail 400 where we would spend the majority of our day. At the top of Multnomah Falls you are at switchback 11 of 11 (they mark the switchbacks with posts) and you need to make it down to 3 of 11 before you cutoff onto trail 400. I haven’t hiked much of trail 400 and that is one of the main reasons I signed up for the race. I wanted to see what it was like.

The trail was immediately very rocky. So rocky it was hard for me to run – it was more of a quick walk. I didn’t want to twist an ankle so early in the race. After a few minutes of running I found myself in a somewhat open area with a large rock/boulder/scree field to my left. I knew this must be the area I have heard about in the Mazamas where the infamous “Elevator Shaft” hike starts. You go up, up, up through the boulder and scree field. Supposed to be a pretty fun hike, but it isn’t one I have yet done.

I continued on and set my sites on the first aid station. A nice way for me to break up the day is by thinking of the trail in 5 sections from aid station to aid station. The first “water-only” aid station was supposed to be at mile 5.5. On my hydration belt I was carrying 2 8oz bottles of Gatorade, thinking I could supplement with on course water at the aid stations. I had 2 more 8 oz bottles of Gatorade in each drop bag. I hit the first water only aid station. The website had failed to mention that it was self-serve water. There was a stack of water jugs that you could use to fill up a bottle. I had finished one 8 oz bottle already so I filled up and set off.

I was now at another steady climb. This was another section of the trail I had hiked before so I knew what to expect - a mile or so of climbing, followed by a couple of steep switchbacks down to a bridge crossing Oneonta Gorge. After crossing the bridge, there were another couple of steep switchbacks to climb up before the trail leveled out for a bit. Not long after that you get to run behind Ponytail Falls – definitely one of the highlights of the run. It is a beautiful waterfall, made all the more spectacular since the trail goes behind the falls.

Not long after the falls you descend to road level and spend 2 miles running on the road. When my feet hit pavement I was overjoyed! This was the first, and only, section of actual running I did the entire day. I had an 8:53 and an 8:55 mile. It felt really good to stretch my legs. But by now the rain had started coming down in earnest. I was getting wet. I had taken my long sleeve top off around mile 2 and was wearing a tank top and arm warmers. I now untied the long sleeve shirt from my waist and put it back on. I passed a few people on the road. I talked to one woman, Melissa, who was also struggling. She had started dealing with cramps at mile 7! She knew she was in for a long day but was surprisingly cheerful about it. My fingers were starting to get cold. My gloves were getting pretty wet, and with the cold rain I was quickly losing feeling in them. The aid station finally came in to sight…

I very happy to stop for a minute and talk with some other folks at the aid station. Most of us were in agreement that the course was tough. I was hungry for some real food. I scanned the table hoping for some pretzels or PB&J but all I saw were chips, potatoes, gu, and M&M’s. I grabbed some M&M’s. I fumbled for my drop bag, needing to get my two new bottles of Gatorade and also wanting to put on my long sleeve wool top. I knew it would keep me warmer in the wet conditions than the synthetic long sleeve. My fingers weren’t really working by this point. It took me 2 minutes just to attach the new bottles to my belt. Then I had to use the bathroom. If loading my bottles onto my belt was difficult, untying and retying the string on my tights was damn near impossible with my now frozen fingers. Finally I had taken care of everything and was ready to set off again. Just before leaving I asked the aid station volunteer what mile we were at (knowing that my Garmin tends to drop miles on trails, usually .1 mile for every mile). He replied that we were right at mile 10. My Garmin said 11.25 – I had been running for 2 hours and 25 minutes and I had only made it 10 miles?!? My mood plummeted. I wanted to quit.

But I remember the reason I signed up for this race. I had wanted a challenge – and boy was I getting one. So I set out again – my stop had taken a full 10 minutes. There was a short climb before a somewhat steep descent to Elowah Falls. Elowah is a gorgeous waterfall – a nice long drop into a spectacular pool. The trail takes you right up close to a bridge that crosses over the creek leading from the falls. You get so close you can feel the wind and the spray coming off the falls. This is great on a warm summer day, it’s not so awesome when you are freezing. I have to admit, I got mad at the waterfall at this point when it drenched me with its spray as I ran across the bridge.
I soon caught up to Melissa (the woman with the cramps). She and I were running a similar pace and we stuck together for the next couple of miles. It was really nice to have someone to talk to for a change. My mood finally started to improve.

I had looked at the course map carefully online prior to race day and according to the topo the next water only aid stop was at mile 15.4, Bonneville Dam. We were once again on a stretch of trail I was familiar with. One of our typical BCEP hikes starts at Bonneville Dam and hikes west on trail 400 approximately 1.5 miles to an unmaintained trail up to Munra Point. We were now heading eastward and I noticed the turn off to Munra and I knew what was coming. A short stretch of old waterlogged road/trail that is filled with nasty vines that try to reach out and trip you. Lots of mud in this stretch of the course. Once we finished with the old road it was back on trail and a steep descent to Bonneville. There was one short stretch of trail here that was really close to washing out. It was about a foot wide and a nice drop off to your right if you were to slip. As I place my foot on this very narrow stretch I watched some earth give way beneath the pressure. I hoped for the rest of the racers coming behind me that the trail held up for the duration of the race.

We arrived at Bonneville. No aid station. My mood once again plummeted. My garmin said 15.75. The water was supposed to be at 15.4 and I knew it was supposed to be at Bonneville. I was confused.

Continued on. A good amount of climbing, some decent trail, lots of rocks, and a descent down to Eagle Creek. Here was the water stop. But my Garmin now said 17.75. Which notation on the course map had been wrong – the location of the aid station or the mileage? Or both? Was I really only at 15.4? Was the full aid station going to be another 5 miles away? I filled up my empty bottle with water, took a Gu and continued running.

This was another rough stretch. I wasn’t sure about the mileage. I was worried that the course was going to be long. There were a lot of rocks and trees to hop over. I was behind a guy for awhile who was going slower than me. I asked him if I could pass on his left. He sped up and zig zagged across the trail so that I couldn’t pass. What the heck? This went on for about a mile until we got to a wide enough stretch that I could go around him. I caught up to another guy who was struggling. I asked him how things were going and he replied that it was rough because he had run out of food. I asked if he wanted a Gu. He seemed delighted that I might have extra. I had to convince him it really was an extra before he would take it from me.

I passed of the Gu and moved ahead. I got into my head a bit at this point. Continued to worry about my time, and wondered if my legs would hold up. Was very concerned about cramping. About 20 minutes later the aid station seemed to appear out of nowhere. I had made it to mile 20. There were very friendly volunteers staffing the aid station. One asked for my bib number so she could go get my drop bag for me. I was still having a bit of trouble with my hands but they weren’t anywhere near as cold as they were at the 10 mile aid station. This aid station had PB&J and I quickly devoured ½ a sandwich – it tasted wonderful! Resupplied my Gatorade, grabbed a gu to replenish my stores and set out again.

The next 5.5 miles were completely uncharted territory for me. I was starting to feel like I might actually finish this race. My mood was significantly improved from what it was 5 miles ago. There was more climbing, more rocks, a lot more trees to climb over. The terrain was beautiful! We were finally away from the road noise and I was finally really enjoying the scenery. The next water only stop was supposed to be at mile 25.5 and right around a trail interchange that I was very familiar with. There was a short out and back section that you had to complete around mile 22. There was a sign along the trail pointing you to go right and get a rubber band. You had to run ½ mile up a trail, cross an old bridge, grab a rubber band, and run back. This led us to a waterfall I had never been to before – it was one worth visiting. Around mile 23.5 there was a another spectacular waterfall that I had never seen before. I made a mental note to tell Fitz about this place so he could come back and get a picture with his new large format camera. My Garmin was reading 25 and I knew we were about to start climbing again. ¾ of the way up the hill to the trail interchange there was another cache of water. I took the opportunity to fill up and grab a Gu. My hands were not working well at all at this point and it was quite a challenge for me to get the top of my bottle off so that I could refill it. I had to resort to opening the Gu with my teeth because I didn’t have the grip strength (b/c of the frozen fingers) to tear it open.

When we got to the trail interchange the race sign pointed right?!? When I had looked at the map for some reason I had thought we would go left at this point. I was one again disheartened. We were now on a trail I have hiked a bunch of times and I knew it was just up, up, up for at least ¾ of a mile. I put my head down and walk/ran to the top. Thankfully, once you crested this hill it was going to be mostly downhill.

I was now in to the home stretch and again on completely uncharted territory. Should be right around 26 miles and only 5 to go. The downhill felt really good. The next two miles was a particularly pretty stretch of trail. Around mile 28 I caught up with another runner. He and I got to talking and stayed together for the rest of the race. My Garmin died at 6 hours and 40 minutes and was reading 30 miles just before it died. We were running and chatting and I was having the best time I had had all day. My body actually was feeling good at this point – and it felt good to actually stretch my legs and feel like I was running a bit. We saw a hiker ahead, he said “good job you are almost there!” We both responded, “really?” He said that the finish was no more than 100 yards ahead. I couldn’t quite believe we were done – the last few miles had gone so fast with someone to talk to. We “sprinted the finish” and my partner graciously told me to go in front of him across the line.

My finish time 7:01:20 – 1 hour and 10 minutes longer than my Hagg Lake time. So much for this being an easier course.

The finish line BBQ was in full swing, but I just wanted to get home. My phone had rung in the last 5 minutes of the run and I knew it must be Adam getting worried about me. We had talked about my projections for finish time, and I had assumed 6 ½ to 7 hours at the longest. I picked up my drop bags and headed to my car. My Hagg Lake buddy Eric had finished about 5 minutes after me. We chatted about the difficulties of the course. He told me that now that I had beaten him twice he had a new goal of beating me in the next race we ran together.

I had asked Adam to run a cold bath for me when I got home. He made me some hot chocolate and I slowly lowered myself into the freezing cold water. It is supposed to help with muscle soreness to sit in an ice bath for 10 minutes post-long run (or race). I couldn’t do ice. The cold water was hard enough. I was shivering violently. The hot chocolate seemed to help a bit. I was very happy when the 10 minutes were up and I could switch to a hot shower.

Had you asked me after the race if I would ever run this ultra again I would have said no. But after a couple of days to reflect on it I probably would give it another go. I think it was a rough race for me because I had very high expectations of myself. I thought I could go in and better my Hagg Lake time. When I realized that not only was that not going to happen, but my time was going to be much slower, I let that affect me way more than I should have. What I should have done was shaken it off and just taken in the course for what it was; accepted the challenging conditions and worked with them instead of getting angry with myself and nature. The technical nature of the course was interesting for me as well and definitely unexpected. The anger certainly didn’t serve any purpose. I do enjoy the challenge of ultras and look forward to many more in my future.

Had to get to bed early. Had a 15k to attend to on Sunday…


  1. Wow Sarah - that's quite an experience. I'm so glad you are doing this in blog form - it will be fun to be able to read as time goes on, remember your first races etc. Thanks so much for sharing with us.

  2. I think you should post the pic of you in the tutu :) k?


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