I’m finally taking the time to sit down and digest Gorge Waterfalls 100k; I still haven’t quite processed that I did it. Hopefully this recap doesn’t feel as long as a 100k 😉.
As many new ventures into the unknown do, it started with doubts. Leading up to the race, recovery was progressing along, but that didn’t stop me from wondering if it was going well enough. I’m not someone who over-races, EVER, so to plan three different race weekends in a row felt like a gamble. I had to constantly check myself – was I letting the stoke tip the scales over what is smart, or even physically possible, for me?
Chuckanut had gone well, but I pushed pretty hard to get the most of myself that day. It felt worth it. The skimo race the following weekend had gone less well: it was emotionally, mentally, & physically one of the most draining things I’ve done, and it didn’t quite feel worth it. So where did that leave me going into my first 100km race?
With doubt. It wasn’t constant, but it was there, sitting on one shoulder, waiting to pounce into my head like a kid in a puddle. There would be moments in the days leading up, on my shakeout run, and even during the race in which I would be waiting for some niggle I created during the past weekends to rear it’s ugly head and say, “I told you so. I told you it was too much. I told you you couldn’t do it.” But that never happened. It was just part of the mental game I was thrown into for doing something big and scary.
“Relentless course, continuous movement”
The race began in the dark, which initially and surprisingly kept me calm. Despite expecting to be more nervous for this start than ever before, I was simply standing in the moment waiting to start the day. I began running what felt like very casually, knowing the long day ahead would not be benefitted by getting caught up in start line adrenaline. After a couple of miles, we went from paved path to single track. That’s when I had my first mental low. I don’t remember the negative thoughts flashing across my mind in the dark. It just felt so hard to relax into things while running on technical singletrack, trying to balance the light of my headlamp with the hat brim protecting my face from the added sight obstacle of rain. I moved uncertainly, feeling the pressure of runners in front of and behind me, trying not to slip or roll the wrong way.
We eventually got off the trail onto more paved path, and the relief of sunrise beginning somewhere behind the clouds turned the world from black to blue to gray. I could relax and settle into running now. Besides that, the first 29ish miles were physically and mentally uneventful. As typical, I shed my layers sooner than most and bounced around fern gully with rain sliding off my skin. I took in all the greenery as it revealed itself, and made especially sure to look at any waterfalls and views I meandered past. That was, after all, what made me fall in love with this race years ago, and I certainly was going to appreciate it when I could.
We had our steepest climb in that section – I didn’t really notice. It felt great to change pace and all hike uphill. I watched the heaviest rain of the day fall through space and switchbacks as I plodded ahead of guys who’d been dropping me on the downhills. It was another in a pattern of reminders lately that what was once my biggest weakness has become a secret strength that I’m going to have to accept here soon.
I would say the 9+ miles between the 28 & 38 mile aid stations were where I found my first sign of fatigue. After checking off everything I needed from my drop bag at the aid station prior, I made the mistake of not topping up a half-full electrolyte bottle I didn’t want to mix, and instead went out with it as is. 1 1/2 bottles was not as sufficient as two full bottles for such a long distance between aid. Once I started rationing fluids and feeling slightly less hydrated than I’d like, the doubts returned. I knew I could run 38 miles, I didn’t know if I could run more. I waited for something to happen, like an ITB blowup, half-expecting this would be my first DNF. I juggled the logic of knowing I can do hard things and that it would take something catastrophic to force me out, with what I will assume is the inevitable questioning of physical limits in this sport that I haven’t felt since my first ultra.
“I chose to. I get to. I am able to. I will.”
I never thought too deeply about how the race would play out beforehand, knowing that if I overthought it like I do most things, it would be harder and more nerve-racking. I told myself 40 miles is doable, so I sectioned the race mentally into the first 40 miles and then this intangible journey after that. I wasn’t wrong that the last third of the race would be the hard part. My feet were already mincemeat from all of the angular rocks carefully but unavoidably maneuvered over. Add to that the fact that there were more continuous sections of climbing and descending, and 10 miles between aid stations on the out and back from miles 38 to 48 to 58.
It was what felt like the longest 10 miles of my life going out to Wyeth. My legs had never run this many miles or hours, and there were soon less distractions of scenery or people running near me to focus on. It was truly all about my race now: how my legs felt, how many times I had to pee (SIX throughout the race!!), and how many calories I kept taking in. Somewhere at mile 41 or 44 (it’s all a blur), my legs finally went from the ever-rotating niggle to full fatigue and pain. I do remember thinking 50M would be a great distance 😂. At least at mile 44 I finally had the appetite for the anticipated mashed potatoes. Rejoice in a bag of garlic mashed potatoes!
I got out to the mile 48 turnaround finally, having been marginally defeated by the never-ending descent there and having watched others heading back the other direction, knowing I’d have to do the same. In my head, I had looked forward to this point. I felt like 14 miles to the finish is very palatable. I thought knowing that ‘short’ distance was all that would remain, along with changing shoes and going from vest to belt, would leave me feeling lighter and like the hardest part was over. In reality, moving out of that aid station was the hardest forward motion all day.
We began back up, the only time in the race I did a couple consecutive miles actually with someone. My legs and mind were destroyed after the stoppage and then turnaround. I walked out, downing a bag of vegan airplane pretzels and commiserating with a guy while he chugged a Red Bull (probably the key to finding his legs again). Doubt returned. I thought, my legs are in so much pain, how can I possibly run again? This didn’t feel exactly like what I expected – the pain I hoped I could just keep slogging along with like a trail friend. It was almost laughable how impossible returning on that endless 10 miles seemed. But little by little I would run a few steps, just to see if I could, and soon enough I lead the two of us sluggishly running uphill. I just needed to run, in whatever form that took. Even if I thought I looked like an old man shuffling (big kudos to them for that smooth shuffle of experience).
I think doubt finally left me for good when I realized I had hit my physical low point, even more painful than expected, and was back to running most of the time. I found myself alone again, and time both passed and stood still like a bug in amber. All I remember is that my focus was on how my legs hurt relentlessly, until it was also on the fact that I was going to be out of water 2 miles before the aid station. Neither of which I could change, so I just kept moving along at my inadequate pace until the motivation of a finish started to kicked in. I had at this point long since decided that I was definitely going to finish, but felt an extra push to do so sooner by both a desire to sit down and to hit an (adjusted) arbitrary time goal.
I caught up to the same guy again at the last aid station and quickly filled one last bottle before continuing, determined, both of us motivated by each other to keep moving stronger. Each little downhill and then returning to the pavement hurt more, but I was confident I could get through it. The end was figuratively in sight, after all, and that always makes me empty the tank completely. I kept pushing and trying to be strong, no idea what pace I was actually going, so I could have a finish to be proud of, a sit down, and see family who made it out to a race for the first time ever. (FYI, sitting was overrated when I had to stand back up.)
I have to say, while it was not exactly what I pictured, including a deceivingly tough course of rolling, rocky, runnable terrain, I still did it relatively smoothly. I couldn’t maintain my pace in the way I wanted to, but otherwise I didn’t go out too hard, cramp, bonk, or have the wheels fall off. I am learning to call that and the overall completion a success. I really just wanted to see about running a whole 100km after all, right?
Endless gratitude to everyone who has put so much into rebuilding the trails, and to Daybreak Racing & Freetrail for bringing the race back.