Thursday, August 27, 2009

Where's Waldo 100K

Each of the entrants to this year’s Where’s Waldo 100K received a white bandana silkscreened with a full-color map & elevation profile of the course. It turned out to be an amazingly useful bit of swag. I tied it around the shoulder strap of my hydration pack and would refer to it at least a dozen times over the course of the day. It wasn’t that I was lost (the course was impeccably marked), it’s just that I liked knowing where I was and what was coming up. It also served as a handy “white flag of surrender” (hat tip to Sarah Palin) at mile 44.7 – the end of my race. These ultras are hard nuts to crack sometimes. One day it might be nutrition problems that drag you down. Another day it might be hydration. On this day, the nutrition and hydration were both dialed in. The heat training throughout this hellish summer definitely paid dividends. But in the end, my body was simply done in by the climbing and descending, something for which I was not adequately trained. And so as I staggered in to The Twins aid station for the second time that day, I did the one thing I’m exceedingly talented at in ultras: I quit. How did it come to that? Well, this is that story. . . .

Where’s Waldo takes place in the Cascade Mountains of central Oregon, about an hour’s drive east of Eugene. The scenery is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Lush beyond belief. Steep mountains. Dense forest. Pristine, cerulean lakes. Just wow. With my trusty crew, Chris and Misty, we arrived in Portland late Friday morning, immediately picked up the Pontaic G6 (with a "NeverLost" GPS feature that was always about two minutes behind) and headed south to Eugene, then east to Oakridge (pop. 3300), our base for the weekend. After a brief rest at the hotel, we headed out the race site at the Will-am-ette ("Willamette, dammit") Pass Resort (elev. 5120 ft.) for packet pick up and a quick look around. The plan was to grab dinner at the Lodge, where they offered a $10 pasta buffet, but the behind-the-counter kitchen scene didn’t exactly inspire confidence, so we headed back to Oakridge for some perfectly acceptable pizza (followed by a little DQ softserve, of course). Back to the hotel for a little last-minute organizing and then off to bed super early. Did I mention that I had signed up for the 3:00 a.m. start?

Shortly after 1:00 a.m., the alarm goes off and I immediately make my way to the coffeemaker, knowing that if coffee isn’t ingested within 10 minutes, I might find myself back in bed. Chris and Misty (bless them) tap lightly at my door around 2:15, and we’re off into the cool darkness, heading back to the Lodge. The plan is for the crew to head back to Oakridge for a little more sleep and some breakfast, before meeting me at the Mt. Ray aid station (mile 20) around 7:45 or so. After that, the plan was to meet up at Charlton Lake (mile 32), where Misty would join me for the next 12 miles or so. At the Twins aid station (mile 44.7), Chris would replace Misty and join me for the final 17 miles.

After a quick restroom break at the Lodge (actual clean restrooms – nice touch), I mill about with the other 3:00 starters (maybe 40 of us altogether), until we’re called outside to the start line. It’s gorgeous outside (low/mid-40s), but after a summer where a humid 78 is considered “pleasant,” it feels downright chilly, so I start the run with a light GoLite jacket and gloves. The rest of my gear includes a short-sleeved tech t-shirt, my soft ball cap, Nathan hydration pack, compression sleeves on the calves, gaiters, Wrightsocks, and (feeling daring) my New Balance MT790’s. At 3:00 a.m., co-RD Curt Ringstad says “go,” and we’re off.

Start to Mt. Ray (mile 0 to mile 20.5). This section of the course sports a nice initial climb of around 1200 feet right off the bat. We ran for maybe 100 feet and hooked an immediate left up the ski hill. The climbing was more or less continuous, but at a pretty good grade – the 1200 feet was probably covered in 2 miles or less. During this section, I concentrated on sticking with folks because I was unfamiliar with the course, it was pitch-dark, and I really didn’t want to make a wrong turn early on. I fell into a sustainable (i.e., slow) climbing pace and after 35 minutes or so, the pitch became increasingly gentle, then flat. In no time, I found myself heading into a long, very runable downhill stretch into the Gold Lake aid station (mile 7.4). For the first half of this downhill, I remained in a pack that was moving very conservatively. My legs were definitely ready to run and the trail was oh-so-sweet singletrack, but I played it safe and stuck with the group for a bit. After a couple miles though, I got tired of holding back and broke free, something I probably should have done sooner. Much of the final 2.5 miles into Gold Lake I ran alone. At one point I stopped to pee, turned off the flashlight, and was overwhelmed with the darkness and silence enveloping me. Amazing stuff. Shortly before Gold Lake, you pop out onto a gravel road. I soon came up on a runner slightly ahead of me and without saying a word to each other, we both clicked off our lights and looked up into a clear, magnificent sky bursting with stars. As if on cue, we both said “wow.” There was really nothing else to say. At Gold Lake, I grabbed a couple of PB&J quarters, some GU2O, some water, and headed out quickly across a fire road and up the Mt. Fuji trail.

The first couple of miles or so of the trail climb pretty steeply, taking you from roughly 4700 feet to nearly 6000 feet. The trail wasn’t very technical however, and the 790’s were proving to be wonderful climbing shoes. Descending, well, that was another matter. But we’ll get to that shortly. Pretty soon, the first suggestion of dawn could be seen to the east. Not enough to shut off the flashlight, but I could tell it was coming. I was glad too, because around this point, I really started having the urge to see what was around me. I could definitely hear what was around me though – what must have been enormous swarms of mosquitos. Their buzzing was nearly deafening at times. Fortunately, as long as you kept moving, they didn’t pose much problem. Stop, however, and they were on you in a heartbeat. Excellent motivation to keep moving! The trail flattened for a bit, allowing some running, before turning uphill once again. Soon enough, I pulled into the Mt. Fuji aid station (miles 12.4 and 14.9). Grabbed a cup of GUO2, asked to be sprayed head-to-toe in DEET, and immediately pulled out with a small group of about 6 other runners to tackle the final ~700 feet to the Fuji summit. At this point, the trail became increasingly rocky, narrow and technical. My lungs were burning and my legs were tired, but I was really looking forward to making the summit because I had been told the view was spectacular. From time to time, we’d stop and move over to allow the downhill runners right of way (this section was out & back), and I began to realize that the coming downhill might be some of the trickiest running of the day so far. Just when the climb had taken nearly everything out of me, we rounded a rocky corner and . . . “Holy crap!” Finally at the summit, in the early morning glow, seemingly all of central Oregon spilled out around me in an achingly-beautiful 360-degree panorama. Still trying to catch my breath, co-RD Craig Thornley gave us all a high-five, before sending us back on our way down. On a course with a bounty of fantastic views, this is the one that will stick in my memory. Magnificent stuff.

As expected, the downhill is tricky business. I find myself caught between a desire to let the legs run and make up for the slow time thusfar and a desire to, well, not kill myself. So I run until the momentum carries me beyond my comfort zone and I pull back for minute. Let loose, pull back. Let loose, pull back. That’s the rhythm of my descent back to the Fuji aid station. Oh yeah, did I mention that not two minutes into that descent I come upon Erik Skaggs (the eventual winner in 9 hours and change) and the other front-runners nearing the summit. They started two hours after me. They caught me by mile 14. Mutants. (For an idea of the toll such an effort can exact, check out this story: Back at the Fuji aid station, I grabbed a couple of PB&J wraps, more GUO2, and continued my descent toward the Mt. Ray aid station, nearly five miles away and 1500 vertical feet down. Had the 1500 feet of drop been spread more or less evenly over the next 5 miles, it would have been a delightful section. It wasn’t. Heading out of the Fuji aid station, the trail fell away hard and fast, about 500 feet in less than a mile, and my lower legs were starting to feel the pounding. Shortly thereafter, the trail split to the left and rolled gently for another couple of miles, offering a nice break in the descent. But as I rounded a corner, totally unexpectedly the descent resumed, this time at a ridiculous pitch. I let the legs turn over as fast as I could, but I was having trouble controlling my speed and my quads were being pummeled. Moreover, my 790’s, which had been so light and responsive on the uphills and flats, were no match for my lack of finesse and a 165-pound frame bearing down on them. My footplants felt sloppy and unsure. This continued for at least a quarter mile and made for some of the most insane running I did all day. The pitch eased a bit and the last 1.5 miles was actually a blast. Then, about a half-mile away from the Mt. Ray aid station, I felt a sharp pain on the inside of my calf about 3 inches above my left ankle. Son of a bi%$&!! Something stung me, but I’m not sure what. Must have pissed off some bee. Wouldn’t be an issue if they’d just stay off the trail! The pain would persist off and on the rest of the day and the swelling wouldn’t die down until later in the week.

Mt. Ray to Charlton Lake (mile 20.5 to mile 32):

As I pulled into the Mt. Ray aid station, I was very happy to see Chris and Misty, cheering my arrival and ready to provide aid. First thing I did was ask for my Asics Gel Attacks. I shed my jacket, grabbed a little food, got another shot of DEET to keep the beasties away, took a minute to sit, and then bid my crew farewell. My mood was okay at this point. I was a little more beat up than I would have hoped after covering only 1/3 of the course, and there was a long 6.5 mile stretch to the next aid station at The Twins, but the map and elevation profile suggested that the 1200-foot climb up to The Twins aid station wasn’t too severe. Further, after The Twins, there was only about another 500 feet of climbing before a 3.5 mile downhill stretch into Charlton Lake, where my crew would meet me next. In a nutshell, this was a long, long section. The ball of my left foot was hurting terribly when I climbed, a victim of landing square on a root coming down off Fuji earlier. My shin was achy. My legs were tired. And I was falling into a bad place by allowing myself to think about the enormity of the entire course rather than just focusing on getting to the next aid station. By the time I rolled into The Twins aid station at mile 27.1, all I wanted to do was quit. In fact, I had already decided I would do just that at Charlton Lake (where Chris and Misty and the car were waiting). The wonderful volunteers at The Twins sat me down, waited on me hand and foot, and offered lots of suggestions to ease my suffering. Like the seasoned volunteers they were, none of the suggestions was to quit. Also, the fact that they were all dressed like some odd cross between punk rockers and vampires helped lighten my mood as I headed out to tackle the final 500 feet of climb and the final 3.5 or so downhill miles into Charlton. As so often happens in these things, I started to think that instead of quitting, maybe I’d keep going a bit after Charlton Lake and see what happened. After all, Misty was set to keep me company, and I didn’t want to disappoint. I felt like crap, my ability to climb was shot, and my downhill legs were fading, but there was still a little left in the tank. May as well use every bit of it and get my money’s worth. So after an interminable last 3 miles, I finally spied the deep blue waters of Charlton Lake through the trees and in no time was at the aid station.

Charlton Lake to The Twins (mile 32 to mile 44.7):

Chris and Misty were once again there to take care of me. I ate. I drank. I sat for a bit. I complained. But I didn’t quit. After maybe 5 minutes, I pulled myself up and followed Misty down the trail. I told Chris to try to make it to the next aid station at Road 4290 (mile 37.2) because I might not be able to make it beyond that. He promised he’d try (the road is sketchy and access wasn’t easy) & that was good enough for me. After walking the first few minutes out of the Charlton Lake aid station, Misty prodded me into running a bit – short bursts at first and then a little longer. We still walked the uphills, but we managed to keep moving fairly well, especially considering how wasted I was feeling. Much of this section is gentle downhill and we made pretty decent time, but this part of the course also ran through newly-planted forest and was very exposed. Coming from Houston, it didn’t remotely approach being “hot,” but the direct sun and the moderate altitude made conditions a little more challenging. By the time we made it to Road 4290, I was thoroughly worked, both physically and mentally. Looking back, I’m amazed I didn’t quit right there, particularly since the next section was long (7.5 miles) and uphill (1700 feet or so), knowledge that weighed on me heavily as I staggered out. From that point on, it was a death march. Misty kept moving out ahead in a mostly-fruitless effort to get me to perk up, but I was completely cooked. The climbing was painfully slow, the flats were no more than a shuffle (at best), and worst of all the few short descents revealed that my downhill legs were utterly fried. It was this last issue that basically ended my race. To finish in under 18 hours, I would have needed to maintain a little more than 3 miles an hour from The Twins #2 (mile 44.7) to the finish. With the most difficult climb of the course still to come, I knew it would be necessary to make up time on the downhill sections. Without being able to run downhill, it would be a fool’s errand (even more so than entering the race in the first place!). And so as I sat in the chair at The Twins a second time, I announced that I was done. As one aid station volunteer pointed out, this was the place to quit because it was only a 1.5 mile hike out to the road. After The Twins all the way to the finish, there was really no good way out – the course was that isolated.

As I reflect on Where’s Waldo, I don’t feel too much disappointment. It’s a tough mother of a race – tougher than I expected. I knew going in that finishing was going to be a real challenge with my lack of hill training and off and on shin issues over the summer. Sure, I would have loved to cross the finish line (and get one of those super-sweet Sporthill finishers hats), but I made it 44.7 miles (46.2 if you count the hike out) with wheels that were on the verge of completely falling off over the last 20 miles – much credit here has to go to my fantastic pacer/crew, Misty and Chris. No way I would have made it that far without their help. Other than about two dozen mosquito bites, a bee sting, and a sore shin, I seem to have made it through okay. No falls. No turned ankles. We grabbed burgers and beer back at the Lodge, watched some finishers make it in, and made our way back into Oakridge and the hotel. After a much-needed shower, I was in bed and asleep before 8:00. I was, in a word, beat.

The next day brought a leisurely drive back to Portland and our 12:25 a.m. redeye, via some phenomenal Willamette Valley wineries – Pinot to die for. But that’s a story for another time. A whirlwind weekend to be sure, but a ton of fun. For anyone looking for a challenging, gorgeous, meticulously-organized summer ultra, Where’s Waldo can’t be beat. First-rate in absolutely every way. I’ll definitely be back next year for some unfinished business.


  1. Good effort Miles...but you never listen to me!!

  2. That sounds like quite the experience! I'll have to add it to the list.

  3. It was a glorious location, perfect weather, and you were running very well, hill training or not. If not for the chronic injury, I believe you would've finished strong. Next year! Besides, we HAVE to go back next year anyway to try the '08 Pinots everyone was raving about (and for a second helping of Pok Pok)!

  4. Very detailed race report and well done for a flatlander ..

  5. I think we sat together at The Twins. I was dead too. Even took off my bib. Craig talked me in to trying a bit more. I made it to Bobby Lake then hiked out the couple of miles to the road. But like you said, I will be back next year too.

  6. You made it pretty far considering how beat you were. Kudos for sticking it out until you knew it was fruitless!

  7. Bret: yes, I remember sitting (collapsing in my case) together at the Twins. Thought you were cooked & then you decided to gut it out a bit longer. Impressive effort! I plan to return next year - such a beautiful course & top-notch race. Hope to see you there.

    Scott: thanks for the kind words. Have enjoyed your blog for some time. Congrats on a pretty darn chippy half at DK's race. You were movin'!