Tuesday, August 9, 2011

White River 50 Mile Endurance Run

5am. 4 runners wake before the alarm rings. They crawl out of their sleeping bags, out of the tent and start their own individual pre-race rituals. I am deep in a valley running the length of the Chinook Pass Highway. Our campsite is next to White River, a fast-running murky-grey ribbon of water that appears white due to glacial sediment washed down from the mountains.

I am one of 300 runners about to take on the challenge of one of the most prestigious, well-respected 50mile races in the United States, the White River 50 mile Endurance Run. The race has a formidable history as a previous USA track and field Trail and Ultrarunning Championship race, and has been attended by the likes of Anton Krupicka (2009 and 2010 winner), Scott Jurek, Kami Semick and Krissy Moehl. Big names aside, the real attraction of the race is the epic scenery that clears the mind of pain and fatigue. Much of the 44miles of single track trail sits up on a ridgeline from where the views of Mount Rainier beg you to stop, take it in and to enjoy!

Our group arrived at the starting line with barely time to adjust packs before the pre-race briefing began. The competition was stiff, but I was more intimidated by the amount of wild hair, handle-bar mustaches and crotch-splitting shorts around me. All thoughts of taking this run as a "training run" disappeared.

Jackie and I, with our matching Salomon race-vest:

Race director Scott McCoubrey prepping the runners on the the trail details:

Race Start:

The start took us from the Buck Creek campground along 6km of wide single track trail. What had looked like a bunch of gentle, nature loving hippies dressed in spandex turned out to be a ferocious bunch of runners ripping through the mud and setting a solid pace. Fallen trees were hurdled, rocks skirted and soon I realized that this would be a wild, challenging run as much about negotiating the mountain terrain as it would be about running.

The first climb up to Corral Pass happened without too much pain. The switchbacks climbed gently, easy enough for the general field that banter filled the quiet forest. One short, steep section reinforced with stairs left calves screaming for mercy, but then we were back onto the barely climbing trail that would take us up to 1800m. Here we started a lovely section that rolled through blossoming alpine meadows along the border of the Norse Peak Wilderness Area. One one side, Mount Rainier hung onto your shoulder, a huge 4392m high volcano that is actually one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world!

Uli Steidl returning from the out-and-back section holding first place:

Mount Rainier behind me:
Photo courtesy of Glen Tachiyama.

This is why I run:

Once we had completed the out and back section, we had a beautiful 10km section of single-track downhill ahead of us. I passed some of my "competition" during this section, stretching out my legs to enjoy the pull of gravity. The trail looped back to Buck Creek where we started, and then started the 14km climb up to Sun Top Mountain. By this stage I was hot and combining power hiking and running to try and maintain a steady pace up. I noticed that although some runners would pass me as I hiked, I would easily catch them further ahead.

Half way up a group of mountain bikers pointed out Mount Rainier behind me. This was my expression when I looked around:

Always time for a photo-op:

Running towards the aid station at the top of Sun Top Mountain:
Photo courtesy of Glen Tachiyama.

Quick refuel at the aid station:

From Sun Top we had another descent. This one would turn out to be brutal. 10km along a forest service road pushed every runner to focus on saving some reserves for the final leg of the race. I stuck to the shade and tried to manage my pace. I had a funny side cramp, so avoided taking in any food or water to minimise exacerbating the ache. Once we arrived at the Skookum Flats trailhead, the final 10km was ON. I splashed a GU Brew across my mouth and face, grabbed a fistfull of potatoes and set out to try and beat 10hrs.

I wanted this section done. Every small rolling hill that I would normally not even notice seemed like a personal Mount Everest. I can run this, I would remind myself. Every time I saw a spectator I would ask how far to the finish line. The answer would be a vague distance in miles that I wasn't able to convert to metric with my tired, glucose-deprived brain. My friend Jackie caught me with a steady pace about 4 km from the finish. She swept me along in her wake and I tried to hold on to her, but at one stage I had to gasp "Jackie, I'm going anaerobic, you go ahead." In retrospect I was being soft. But at the time, 78km in, I was defeated! So I stumbled after Jackie, ashamed for having given up, turned a corner and saw the open stretch to the finish line!

A heel-kick for good luck:

A solid "training run," I finished in 9hr 52, 9th female overall and 1st in my age category!

Jackie and I, fresh as daisies:

Our group, Mike, Jackie, myself and Rune:

This race exemplified what trail running is for me. It called on you to leap, to bound, to have faith that the trail would catch you. During some parts I felt completely alone in the forest, and yet at every aid station I would turn up and feel like I was arriving at a 5-star Hilton hotel. As Mike said to me later, "well Gretel, now you can tick that off your bucket list." He is right. Every runner should take the time to come and run this amazing race in the wilderness of Washington State once in their life!


  1. Great Post Gretel! I wish I would of gone, next year. Very inspiring and beautiful course.


  2. Nice work Gretel! That's a speedy time for a tough 50 Miler, holy crap! Nice work out there honey.