Beautiful, amazing, hot, green, misty, rocky, shady, fun, technical, windy, slippery, wet, dangerous, steep, touristy... There are so many ways to describe Gorge Waterfalls 50k that I decided to list them all.
Three weeks ago I was tapering for Chuckanut 50k when I came down with the flu. It lasted for two weeks as I stubbornly pushed through it and deservedly experienced some miserable running. While friends from Missoula and beyond were opening up their seasons in Bellingham, I was forcing gels into my upset stomach while running through freezing rain around Missoula. My spirits were lifted when my friend Justin talked to James Varner who was willing to let me race at Gorge Waterfalls 50k. By this point I was in a three week (forced) taper for a 50k race?!?! I was convinced my legs would be nothing but jello by the start on March 30th.
This race started like all races do with a long drive. There is absolutely nothing in eastern Washington or eastern Oregon. I almost ran out of gas betting on a gas station between Ritzville and Kennewick, WA. Running on empty I tried filling up in a small town named Connell. There were signs on the highway and in town that pointed to a gas station but all I found was an old barn with gas written on the side and I wasn't feeling good about my chances of coming out alive or with my Jeep. I did manage to find gas by turning around and retracing 20+ miles which is exactly what you want to do on a long road trip before a race, right? Once I hit the Columbia it was all worth it. The drive past Hood River and into Portland was beautiful. In Missoula we have a two week green period in the valley before the grass and shrubs blow out and turn yellow for the remaining 54 weeks; I was enjoying all this green foliage!
After seeing the weather forecast of upper 70s, I was surprised at how chilly it was for the race start. The starting line had several familiar faces including a group of us that seem to signup for the exact same races as of late: James Bonnett, Yassine Diboun, Hal Koerner... There were some new ones though too like Mario Mendoza, Ian Sharman, Zach Violett and Missoulian Jimmy Grant who was running his first ultra!
*Photo by Glenn Tachiyama
Well off we went, looping around Benson Lake and climbing upwards toward our first waterfall of the day - Wahkeena Falls. Mario went straight to the front and I followed up the blacktop switchbacks and then up some dirt switchbacks and finally after 1500 ft+ of climbing we hit the first downhill. Mario and I had a small gap and worked our way back down the rocky, wet trail. Both of us wanted to burn this downhill but it was so rocky that opening up the stride was pointless and dangerous. We switched the lead here a few times with me preferring the climbs and Mario leading on the descents. Our split through the first aid station (mile 7ish) was 53 minutes. At this point it seemed like we had a several minute lead on everyone. Then out of nowhere on the swirly, heavily vegetated single track, before you spill out onto Frontage road, I heard vegetation crunching. Zach had bombed the descent and caught us right as we hit the road. So the three of us continued into a headwind at 6 min pace down the 2.5 mile road segment when.... out of nowhere a dog ran out and attacked Zach. All I remember is hearing a vicious growl, barking, Zach yelling and then seeing Zach laying on the road and the dog running away. Luckily he was fine - the dog bluff charged him as Zach tried a karate kick move... but he had to be shaken up.. I know I was! We made sure he was ok, regrouped and headed into aid station #2 (mile 14). This is where the race began.
*Photo by Glenn Tachiyama
As Zach and Mario filled up their water I went straight through and up the last bit of trail to Elowah Falls - the turnaround point. On my way back, with poker chip in hand, I could see the small gap I had on a charging Mario and Zach. I also got to see how the race was playing out behind with Yassine, Jimmy, Ian, James, Hal and say hello to everyone. On the road section I dropped it down to 5:40-50 pace and maintained my lead up until the last 1/2 mile when Mario went by. There was a lot of technical, wet, tourist filled climbing ahead so I kept cruising and let him open up a minute or two gap. Once we hit the single track I was immediately back on him. At this point we started hitting big groups of runners who were excited to see us and nice enough to let us slip by. In the rollers right before the last aid station I made a small push to see if I could distance myself from Mario. It worked. I was feeling a little dehydrated and frustrated with tourist pinball but my legs felt great. Unfortunately Mario bruised his foot shortly after and decided to stop before doing any further damage. There was one section before the final climb where my race almost ended as well.
There I was flying around a narrow bend in the trail and came upon a couple who were hiking. I yelled out "behind" and "passing on your right" but no matter what you say it always elicits the same response. Some trail savy people step aside and let you pass. Other less trail savy people freeze up and then at the last possible moment they panic and jump right into your path. So after announcing my presence and intention, I attempted to pass on the right along the edge. Well, the wife froze in the middle of the trail and then the husband panicked and went right - directing me right off the cliff. What resulted was a jump followed by an awkward embrace / hug that left me dangling over the cliff's edge while on this guys back! The guy, who was as scared as I was, quickly turned and swung me back on to the trail. Close call... but at least I didn't go over the edge and have to climb back up! With a surge of adrenaline I flew up the final 1500ft of never-ending switchbacks and bombed down to the Wahkeena Falls parking lot. At the bottom you can see the finish line BUT you have to circle around the lake to get there. My watch read 3hrs and 10min. All I needed was 9 min to sneak in under Max King's course record of 3hrs 19min. Despite a late charge I ended up two minutes and 55 seconds shy in 3hrs 22min but with a win and a really nice Gorge Waterfalls 50k framed art piece by a local artist - awesome!
James Bonnett moved very well over the last 1/2 of the race to finish second. Zach stayed strong and held onto 3rd. Here are the full results. It was fun to catch up with everyone post race, share stories and lounge around in the warm spring sun. All in all it was a great season opener on a beautiful and challenging course. After the race, the RD James asked me how I liked the course. I told him I was surprised at how rocky and technical the trails were. He said that when he designed the original course he thought it was mostly smooth single track!!! I don't remember any smooth single track... Next up is Leona Divide 50m at the end of April. Many miles to be run before then!