Gorge Waterfalls 100k 2016: There and Back Again

Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
I find that the most difficult thing about running something like the Gorge Waterfalls 100k is going back to an everyday routine afterward. Something shifts in me when I spend the entire day outside, moving only by the power of my own legs and heart, through beautifully wild places. It is hard to put into words, but this is why I love ultra running: it gives me the gift of stepping outside of the ordinary and challenging my mind and body to do extraordinary things. You might think my smile in this picture was put on for the camera, as it was ~80k into the race - but I am pretty sure I had this huge grin on my face for most of the run. I even commented the next day that my cheeks were sore from smiling so much (little-known ultra running muscle pain). It is true that you never know what you can accomplish until you try - which is partly why I made the seemingly rash decision to run a 100k race on 1 month's notice.

Let me back up a few months.

When my ultra inspiring girlfriends signed up for this race back in October and encouraged me to do the same, I thought they were nuts. I had only run 50k a few times, and had never gone longer. The thought of how amazing this experience could be ate away at me for a while, though, and I finally decided to put my name on the wait list (the race sold out on the day registration opened). I was 129th in line, so never really expected to get in, and just went about my training for the Chuckanut 50k in March. Exactly one month before race day (2 weeks before Chuckanut), I got the shock of my life when I was invited off the wait list. Could I possibly do this? My friends of course (emphatically) said yes - but bear in mind that they are all accomplished ultra runners who have much more experience than I do. I was in the classic situation of my logical head telling me it was crazy, and my wild heart telling me that that is exactly why I should do it. I decided that Brendan would be the voice of reason; he knows me better than anyone and is very rational. Somewhat to my surprise, when I asked him he told me to go for it (amazingly supportive partner? Check.). And so I officially entered the race, deciding to treat it as what Alicia referred to as a "full-day supported adventure run". No pressure; no expectations beyond enjoying myself and revelling in the experience.

Photo: Dave Hurst
8 of us travelled together from Vancouver to Oregon on Friday (5 girls running, + 2 boyfriends and 1 friend who flew from Calgary just to come and cheer us on). We had a pretty chill evening and then before we knew it were waking up at 4:15 to try to shove some breakfast down and get to the start, which was thankfully only 15 minutes from our hotel. The race started at 6, and we arrived at 5:20 - only to find out that the parking lot was full, and we would need to park a mile away and walk back. Not the ideal beginning to the morning! We were definitely feeling a bit frantic, rushing to the start carrying all of our gear and arriving there with barely enough time to register, throw our drop bags in the appropriate piles to be sent to aid stations along the course, and have the always-needed pre-race bathroom stop. The one thing I will say is that there wasn't enough time to get nervous: when the race started, I was still pinning my bib on my shorts! Off we trotted in the darkness, a conga line of headlamps following a short loop around a lake before heading into the trails and our first major climb of the day. It was somehow soothing looking up and seeing an endless trail of lights snaking up the switchbacks ahead of me on the mountain - the anticipation of what the day would hold fading away with the familiar practice of just putting one foot in front of the other.

Hilary and I leaving one of the aid stations...
clearly, having  no fun at all. Photo: Geoff Large
On a long training run a few weeks before Gorge, my friend Hilary and I had decided to stick together for as much of the race as made sense. This turned out to be the wisest possible decision for me, because we made an absolutely perfect team out there. Hilary is a self-described metronome when running, and we fell into a comfortable, consistent pace right from the beginning. Our strategy was to take the first half very easy, not pushing on the up or down hills, with the hopes of saving our legs for the later stages of the race. We also didn't want to spend too much time in aid stations: in and out in 2-3 minutes. Our goal was to hit the turn around at 50k somewhere in the ballpark of 6h30 (for the record, we hit it at exactly 6h30). I have to say, this strategy worked flawlessly. We chugged along, chatting when we felt like it and falling into comfortable silence when we didn't. I followed her lead, trusting in her experience of having run the course the year before. Although the trails weren't technical by BC standards, there were many off-camber sections filled with sharp rocks that were surprisingly slow to navigate. And though the course is described as a "rolling" 100k, there are actually quite a few really steep climbs and descents - there was very little flat running all day.

When it wasn't waterfalls, it was magical rocks and moss. A rare flat section.
The course is an out-and back, which means that you run through every aid station twice, except for the one at the turnaround. I really wasn't sure what I would be able to eat when running for this long; in 50k races I can get away with eating only energy gels, but they definitely start to turn my stomach by the end, so I knew I would have to mix it up for this race. I decided that variety would be the best strategy, so I packed a bunch of choices in each drop bag, so that I could pick up what I felt like: avocado, cut in half, seeded, salted and with a sprinkle of lemon; fig newtons; Trail Butter (which is a thin-textured mixed nut butter); roasted & salted edamame; and, of course, some energy chews and gels. I would also rely on aid station foods to supplement what I was carrying with me in my pack. It turned out that by far the best things for me were the avocado (I ate 2 1/2 avocados over the course of the day and was absolutely loving them - Hilary said to me afterward, "you talked about avocado alot". Haha.), the Trail Butter (delicious and filling), and bananas, oranges, chips, and Coke from the aid stations. The edamame was tasty, but turned into such a paste in my mouth that it was difficult to swallow. I carried gels and chews with me and took them every now and then - basically, I was trying to eat every 45 mins or so, which seemed to be enough for me not to bonk. My energy level stayed fairly constant all day. I was also running with my hydration bladder, filled with Nuun water - I'm not sure how much I drank because aid station volunteers always filled it up for me, but it was a very hot and humid day and I know I was drinking a lot.

The second half of the race was where things started to get interesting. After the turnaround, a psoas injury that I was dealing with in January flared up, and I found myself shuffling out of the aid station with quite a bit of pain in my right hipflexor when I went uphill. I stopped to stretch, and told Hilary to go ahead. I took an Advil and walked and chatted with Alicia for a while, who we had been surprised to happen upon on the trail at about 40k, sunning herself on a rock. She (clearly) wasn't having the day she had expected, but happily came along with us and as always kept a positive and upbeat attitude - and selfishly, I was loving spending a couple hours on the trail with 2 out of my 5 friends who were running the race! It was pretty special. The other nice part about the course being an out-and-back is that you got to see every single other runner on the course at some point, which means we also got to see Tara ("yay, you guys are doing so well!"; hugs ensuing), Tory ("UNICORNS!"), and Niki (Hi! Where the eff is the aid station?!"; I had asked the exact same thing maybe 30 minutes earlier, haha) when we crossed paths.

A "rolling" course, to 50k and back again. (Even though it's called a 100k race, the markers are in miles).
Anyway. My hip. The Advil, stretching, and walking did the trick and once I started running again, I found I felt amazing. On gently rolling sections and downhill stretches, I upped my pace a bit and it felt wonderful to open up my stride and run. I realized I was passing quite a few people, especially on the downhills, and was amazed at how relatively fresh I was feeling. I galloped into the Cascade Locks aid station at mile 40 (~64k) and was ecstatic to see Julien and Ryan (Alicia and Tara's boyfriends) and Arielle there, and to find out that Hilary had just come in as well. I told them I wanted to change my socks because I had been feeling some hot spots starting, and Arielle immediately sat me down in a chair, untied my shoes, pulled my disgusting compression socks off (not an easy task at the best of times), got me Coke, and even started digging her elbow into my quad when it seized up from sitting down. I had met this girl exactly one day before this. Seriously, the most amazing impromptu crew ever. I got freshly socked and shoed, reunited with Hilary, and we were off, together again - this whole process took only about 5 minutes.

The rest of the race is a bit of a blur. I remember looking at my watch and being stunned that it was already 4 in the afternoon (How is it possible we've been running for 10 hours already? And are still running?). I remember doing the world' slowest "fartlek workout" on the dreaded 4k road section after the Yeon aid station at 80k (Let's just get to the end of the shade. Let's just get to that bridge). I know that I trudged off the trail into the woods to pee at one point, maybe with around 12 k remaining, and that was when Hilary and I separated for the final time (she ended up finishing 5 minutes before me. Amazing that we stayed so close over such a long distance). I ran the rest of the race by myself, feeling indescribably happy and grateful for the day I was having - and yes, eager to get to the finish. I passed so many people, and was passed by no one. I must have run by 8-10 women in the last 20k of the race, and every single one of them only had words of encouragement, which I of course returned. Something happened inside me, and I felt so strong - my legs were inconceivably fresh, my uphills were going better than they had all day and I bounded down descents that others were tiptoeing down. I crossed the finish line of my first 100k in 13h33 as the 15th woman in a highly competitive field. I high-fived race director James, and then immediately burst into tears as I was swallowed in hugs from my friends. 

Unicorns. Photo: Ryan Ledd

Trail sisters. Photo: Arielle Fitzgerald

This has been an exceptionally long story - but then, it was an exceptionally (for me, anyway) long run. As always, the parallels between endurance running and life are brought into sharp focus with experiences like this. I think that a recipe for success in both is to not be afraid to push yourself outside your comfort zone; to view challenges as opportunities for growth; and, most importantly, to surround yourself with people who lift you up instead of tear you down. I am eternally grateful to be blessed with so many people in my life like this: my parents, who have always supported my running and have been to countless races to cheer me on (my mom was waiting up in Quebec for me to let her know how the race went). Tara, Alicia, and Tory, who always believe in me and are as happy with and as proud of my achievements as they are of their own, and who are all amazingly talented runners who never let that get in the way of the fun of it all. Brendan, who at times understands me better than I understand myself, and who knew that I would get out of this race the exact experience that I did. And of course, Hilary, who I probably ran ~80% of this course with. Someone asked her during the race if we were sisters - and for that day, we were. The experience would not have been as rich without her by my side.

So for now, it's back to everyday life - but the beauty of these experiences is, you always carry them with you (both in your legs and in your heart). Onward to the next adventure. 

Photo: Hilary Matheson, taken the day before the race

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