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Gorge Waterfalls 100k Race Report

In front of Wahkena Falls

Late last year, some friends in one of my local running groups, Wasatch Mountain Wranglers, signed up for the Rainshadow Running Gorge Waterfalls 100k and posted in our Facebook group.  Caught up in the subsequent fervor, and with my eye on wanting to qualify for Western States, I jumped at the chance and signed up!  The race ended up selling out in less than a day, so I’m really glad I made the decision before it was too late.

The longest distance I’ve ever run before was 50 miles (Squaw Peak 50 Race Report) so I was looking forward to the challenge.  Unfortunately, I tore my calf last September during the McKenzie River Trail Run and I was still recuperating when I signed up for this race.  I also could not have predicted that we would have an extremely snowy and cold winter compared to the previous year which would make training that much more challenging.

Travel

Our 5 star accommodations

Our 5 star accommodations PC: Joe Dean

My friend Joe Dean from ultrarunnerjoe.com was also doing this race and he recently purchased a pop-up trailer which sounded a lot more fun than flying and staying in a hotel so after a quick chat with Joe, plans were made.  The plan was to drive out the Thursday before the race (about a 12 hour drive) and camp for the weekend.  I was pretty excited because I’ve never really experienced a race this way. I’ve always just flown in, raced, and flown home.  I was really looking forward to the full experience, even if it meant sitting in a car for 12 hours each way including the day after running 100km!

Dinner in Hood River

Dinner with friends in Hood River

Thursday, Mar 31 arrived and I was off to Joe’s house first thing in the morning.  We set off on our trip around 9am, bags all packed and trailer in tow.  The drive from Salt Lake City to Portland is a really easy drive, and the towing laws in Utah and Idaho made for a pretty quick trip.  Coincidentally, our friends Canice Harte (owner of Park City Running Company) and Tim Briley had left Park City around the same time as us and we were within 20-30 minutes of each other the entire drive.  We finally caught up with them in Hood River, Oregon for dinner along with our friend Danny Connolly who was already in town for the race with his family.  A short 30 minutes later, and we arrived at our camp ground and setup the trailer.  In total, with lunch, dinner, and gas stops (and the 1 hour time change) we were all set by about 9pm Pacific time, about 13 hours after we left home.

View from Vista House

View from Vista House

We spent Friday checking out some of the course and taking pictures of some of the scenic waterfalls, knowing that we wouldn’t want to stop to do so during the race.  The Gorge Waterfalls 100k course has something like a dozen different waterfalls (including the second tallest falls in the US, Multnomah Falls) that you get to see twice, so we knew picture opportunities would abound.

In the end, I’m glad we did this because the last thing I wanted to do during the race was stop and pull out the camera!  After a morning of picture taking and checking out the course, we headed in to Portland for lunch at the famed lunch carts. Since we were in Portland, we walked around to check out a few of the sites (Willamette River, Voodoo Donuts, etc.) before heading back to camp to prepare for the race.  On the way back we stopped to check out Vista House, and then took the historic highway 30 back to the campsite.

Race Prep

Race Prep

Race Prep

Gorge Waterfalls 100k was my first out and back race, which made drop bag preparation different than I was used to.  Mainly because it meant less drop bags and because most of the drop bags I could hit in both directions.  Since the weather was predicted to be fantastic (50-70 degrees and sunny skies), I really didn’t need to worry about spare socks, jackets, shoes, etc.  I ended up packing pretty light putting some nutrition and short sleeve shirts to change in to as the weather warmed up.  I had decided to run with the Altra Olympus 2.0 for the entire race so I didn’t pack any spare shoes in my drop bags.  After packing my drop bags, and labeling them with the appropriate information (Name, Bib #, Aid Station Name), I was ready to go.  We headed in to Cascade Locks for dinner which is where the Bridge of the Gods is located.  The bridge happens to be the lowest part of the Pacific Crest Trail and was the end of Reese Witherspoon’s character, Cheryl Strayed’s journey, in the recent book/movie Wild.

Nutrition

Earlier this year my wife encouraged me to try out whole30, which I started on January 7.  Without going in to a lot of detail, the main premise of whole30 is to only eat whole foods and not eat sugar, dairy, wheat, or grains.  As an endurance athlete, this presents a particular challenge since most training and race day food primarily consists of sugar.  During my training, I stuck to my plan and only used compliant food on my long runs which included apple juice, Lara bars, macadamia nuts, and bacon. One side effect of whole30 is that your body can become fat adapted which means my body could become more efficient at using fat for energy instead of relying on sugary items like I’ve done in the past.  I don’t know that there’s a moment in time when you are or feel fat adapted, but during the 3 months of training leading up to the race, I was able to run longer and longer distances on fewer and fewer calories, so something was working.

Given the fairly large spacing between aid stations (7-9 miles, most of them 9 miles apart) I had decided that on race day I would carry foods I had trained with, and supplement with whatever sounded good at aid stations, even if it wasn’t whole30 compliant.  Since I would be burning somewhere in excess of 12,000 calories during the race, I wasn’t too concerned about what I ate for the day.  I ended up carrying one bottle of apple juice, one bottle of water, Lara bars, and Mamma Chia pouches during the race, and replenishing from my drop bags at the aid stations.

The Race

Since there was no bib pickup prior to race day, and we had a 20-25 minute drive to the race, we set our alarms for 4:00am. Fortunately we went to bed early, and even at 4:00am, and in spite of the non-stop trains and train whistles passing our campground all night (turns out the Columbia River Gorge is the most heavily trafficked train corridor in the entire country), this was the most rested I’ve ever been before any race.  We got ready pretty quickly, loaded up our drop bags, and off we went to the race.

Another quirk of the Columbia River Gorge, and the start of this race in particular, is that the park where the race starts is only accessible in the Eastbound direction on I-84 (there’s no off ramp if you are headed West).  This meant that even though we were only a few miles from the start of the race, we had to drive ~8 miles towards Portland to the next off ramp and then get on the Eastbound lanes.  In total we had to drive about 20 miles to travel what would have been 4 miles as the crow flies.  Something to keep in mind if you do this race and are trying to figure out where to stay.  On the flip side, when the race was over, it was a very short drive back to our campground while everyone staying west of the race had to go out of there way like we did in the morning.  One of the other slightly annoying things about this race is that since it starts at a State Park, you have to pay $5 to park.  In and of itself, that’s not a big deal (although for the price of the race it should really be included) but there’s only a single ticket machine that only takes Visa and Mastercard (no American Express or cash) and there are 300 people trying to buy tickets at 4am.  I would have preferred that the parking ticket be included in the price of the race and be pre-printed and handed out at bib pickup.

After picking up my bib and a sticker (the only momento of the occasion as it later turned out), a quick visit to the bathroom, and a brief pre-race speech by the race director, we were off!  The first mile of the course wraps around the state park on a grass-covered road and then crosses under some railroad tracks and across the street to Multnomah Falls.  From there we headed west over to Wakenah Falls on a connector trail and then made the seemingly endless climb up to the top of Larch Mountain.  I always love when a race starts in the dark and you see the long trails of headlamps in front and behind you (or above and below you in this case).  I settled in to a nice power hiking pace with everyone else as we made the initial 2 mile long, 1,500ft climb.  Once we hit the top it was a pretty steep 3 miles down to the first aid station past Multnomah Falls on a combination of dirt, rock, dry, wet, and paved trail.  I was feeling pretty good and cruising down to the aid station, even passing quite a few people along the way.

The first aid station, No Name (mile 6), is too close to the start so there are no drop bags on the way out (but they are allowed on the way back).  I stopped briefly to fill my water bottle and grab a few chips, and I was on my way.

Ponytail Falls

Ponytail Falls

The next aid station, Yeon (mile 12.9), was about 7 miles away, and the location of my first drop bag.  The section between these two aid stations is probably the most scenic, and most photographed part of the race since it’s also where Ponytail Falls is.  This is the only waterfall that you actually run behind on the course and makes for some pretty cool pictures.  Of course, I had taken my pictures the day before, so I managed to pass a couple people here who had stopped to take pictures.  I arrived at Yeon in decent time, refilled my bottles, grabbed some more food, changed in to a short sleeve shirt, put my drop bag back in place for the return trip, and headed back out.  I contemplated dropping off my headlamp here, but wasn’t 100% confident that I would make it back before dark.  Of course, the cutoff time here was 7:15pm and sunset was at 7:45pm so if I didn’t make it back in time I wouldn’t need the headlamp anyways, but logic was no match for runner’s brain so I just packed my headlamp in a pocket and continued on.

Views from Gorge Waterfalls 100k

Views from Gorge Waterfalls 100k

The next aid station, Cascade Locks (mile 21.8) was about 9 miles away and it was warming up so I had to be somewhat conservative with my water and apple juice.  By this point, the field had thinned out a little, but I was playing leapfrog with a few of the runners.  I always prefer pacing off someone else during a race, so this section went pretty well for me, although it had a lot more up and down than I had expected.  The course profile for this race is skewed by two massive climbs at each end, so it makes the rest of the course look fairly flat, but it isn’t.  I definitely underestimated the amount of climbing, and this was the section of the race that made me keenly aware of that.  In general, the course stayed fairly high and then every so often it would dip down to the base of a waterfall, and then climb right back up.  There weren’t too many extended climbs, but enough of them that I did a lot more walking than I was planning on.  I was happy to reach the aid station and refill, mainly because I knew there was only 9 more miles until the turnaround, and none of the leaders (or any of my friends) had passed me in the opposite direction yet!

Gorge Waterfalls 100k bridge

Gorge Waterfalls 100k bridge

The turnaround aid station at the 50k mark, Wyeth, was another 9 miles away from Cascade Locks.  The trail was fairly similar to the previous section, accentuated by one fairly big climb that ultimately dropped down about 3 miles to the aid station.  This was the section I would be getting passed in the opposite direction by everyone in front of me.  I ended up seeing the eventual winner of the race at about the 23 mile mark (which meant he was about 16 miles ahead of me).  Once he passed, I made a mental note of the time so I could let me friends Dominick Layfield and Danny Connolly know how far behind they were in case they were planning on making a move.  Of the 15 people racing from Utah (13 of which I knew), these two guys had the best chance of being near the top.  I eventually saw Dominick around mile 24 (14 miles ahead of me) and Danny at mile 25 (12 miles ahead of me).  After a quick hello, I continued on, keeping an eye out for everyone else I knew.  I eventually got passed (in no particular order because I can’t remember) by Tim Briley, Canice Harte, Paul Sharwell, Michael Moody, Derek Whitney, Matt Clark, Eric Nelson, and Joe Dean.  I made a mental game out of counting down how many miles they were ahead of me at each half mile mark.  It really did help knowing I wasn’t that far behind and that all my friends were looking strong. I arrived at Wyeth about seven and a half hours after the start which wasn’t great, but still easily kept me within the 17 hour time limit to qualify for Western States if I could maintain the same pace on the way back.  I also saw Chris Moffitt at this aid station, but I refilled, ate, changed shirts again, and left before him and wouldn’t ever see him again during the race.  I found out later he made it to mile 56 just behind me and missed the cutoff.

Gorge Waterfalls 100k River

Gorge Waterfalls 100k River

The climb back out of Wyeth wasn’t nearly as steep as the initial climb at the start of the race, but after 31 miles it wasn’t nearly as runnable as it would have been on fresh legs.  I was envious at this point of the Gorge Waterfalls 50k runners who would be running a week later in this exact direction since it meant they had a reasonable climb to start with instead of the grueling climb we started with (and they only had to run half the distance which sounded good right about now).  Somewhere during the climb, I realized I should have used the bathroom when I had the chance since it would now be another ~7 miles before the next chance.  It wasn’t a critical problem, but it definitely slowed me down and made for a fairly unpleasant 90 minutes.  It also become very obvious, based on not passing that many people on the return trip, that I was now near the back of the pack and I was alone for most of the 9 miles between aid stations.  Fortunately, I made it without issue back to Cascade Locks, used the bathroom, refilled from my drop bag, ate some food and took off.

Gorge Waterfalls 100k Trail

Gorge Waterfalls 100k Trail

The next section between Cascade Locks (mile 41) and Yeon (mile 50) was fairly grueling, and the mileage and time on my feet was starting to take it’s toll.  This was also where the realization that despite my best efforts, I was now chasing cutoff times.  As the miles ticked off, and the mental math kept me pre-occupied (it’s funny how simple math is when you are sitting on your couch and how difficult it is when you are 41+ miles in to a race), I kept putting one foot in front of the other making a conscious effort to run more than I walked with an eye on the clock.  I eventually rolled in to the aid station with 15 minutes to spare before the cutoff time along with a few other runners.  I refilled from my drop bag for the last time, ate a bunch of scraps (one disadvantage to being near the back of the pack), and set out for the next aid station.

Gorge Waterfalls 100k Trail Sign

Gorge Waterfalls 100k Trail Sign

Having now run 50 miles (matching my longest race ever), I was relieved that the next 2.5 miles or so was on pavement since it meant that I could make up some time and ensure that I didn’t miss the cut off.  The problem was, I didn’t actually know when the next cutoff was, and that would have a toll on the next 4 miles of trails.  This particular section of trail was probably the hardest part of the race for me, not specifically because of the trail but also because at some point I was convinced I was going to miss the cutoff and started to mentally check out.  I went through the imaginary conversation I would have with my wife about all my months of training and sacrifice that was now wasted and the social media posts I would have to make thanking my friends and training partners for their support and apologizing for letting them down.  I went through a range of emotions from being upset about not finishing what I had spent so much time preparing for by running on bitterly cold 5 degree days, trudging through knee deep powder all winter, spending countless hours running after work and on weekends; to convincing myself that despite not accomplishing my goals of finishing the race and qualifying for Western States I still ran 56 miles which is more than most people can do, and was a personal distance record for me.  To make matters even worse, this section of trail passed within a few hundred yards of our campsite.  I’d be lying if I didn’t say it crossed my mind to quit and go back to the trailer and contact Joe at the finish line to tell the Race Director I dropped!  Joe and I had even joked about this before the race, knowing the trail passed our camp site, but I never actually thought it would be more than a joke.  This was also the point in the race when the sun went down, and while I normally don’t mind running at night, it was a bit of a mental gut punch knowing that I had started in the dark and it was now dark again and I still had many miles to go.  As I approached the No Name (mile 56) aid station, now fully accepting that I didn’t make the cut off (and a little relieved that I wouldn’t have to make the brutal climb up and over Multnomah Falls), I was surprised to find out that I made the cut off with 30 minutes to spare.  After spending the the previous few hours accepting defeat, a huge sense of elation washed over me (after the initial disappointment of knowing I wasn’t getting a free ride back to the start area) and I managed to find a second wind along with a group of 8-10 other runners in the same situation as me.  We left the aid station with a renewed excitement and camaraderie as the realization that we could still finish in time set in.  Somehow despite 56+ miles of running over 14 hours, my legs were cooperating and I was actually able to run.  At this point, we had 2 hours and 15 minutes to go 6 miles, but I knew we had a massive climb ahead of us once we made it to Multnomah Falls.  Multnomah Falls is a popular tourist attraction and has a paved switchback trail up to the top that consists of 11 switchbacks.  We intersected the paved section at switchback 3.  On the one hand, it was great to know how much remained, but at the same time, we still had a lot of switchbacks to climb.  Somehow I managed to power hike this section like a man on a mission and quickly dropped the entire group of people I was with. Once I reached the top of Multnomah Falls, it dawned on me that this was only half way to the top.  We transitioned from a paved trail to a dirt trail that was wet and rocky in many places, and steeper than the paved section of trail.  This was probably the second most difficult part of the race for me since there was no indication of where the top was, and all I could see was headlamps ahead of me that seemed to just keep going up, indicating that the people in front of me were still climbing.  At some point, an airplane flew by and I thought that was a headlamp even higher up the trail and just about quit on the spot!  Another runner managed to catch up to me on the climb and we stuck together all the way to the top, which did help the time go by and take my mind off the climb.  Once we got to the top and caught up with a couple other runners, we figured out that we had exactly 3 miles to go and 1 hour to make the 17 hour time limit.  At this point it was 59 miles in to the race, I was 1,500 vertical feet above the finish line, it was 10pm at night and the only thing on my mind was finishing.  I started running as fast as I could down the steep, wet, technical section of trail knowing I only had to go faster than 20 minutes/mile for the rest of the race which was a huge mental boost, even if it was physically difficult.  After a mile of running down the side of a waterfall, a paved trail appeared and a sign that indicated I only had 0.8 miles to the highway.  I also had just over 40 minutes to go about 1.8 miles and the euphoria of knowing I was actually going to finish, and finish in time, washed over me.  I pulled out my phone and texted Joe who was certainly at the finish line already and let him know I had 2 miles left to go.  I ran down the paved trail towards the road knowing once I got there, I just had a mile to go on the flat grass path that I started on over 16 hours earlier that day.  What I had forgotten was that once I got to the road, I had to make my way back over to Multnomah Falls which meant more climbing (granted it was a trivial amount of climbing, but it was uphill none the less).  Once more, a mental gut punch.  At this point, my headlamp went in to it’s low battery mode as well and it crossed my mind that I may have to use my iPhone to light the rest of the way.  Once I got back over to Multnomah Falls, there were volunteers directed us and they informed me that I had 17 minutes and 1 mile to go.  I crossed the road, dipped under the railroad tracks, and I was on the grassy path next to the freeway.  For the last mile I could hear the finish line cowbells and cheering, but it was so dark out I couldn’t see anything.  Once I hit this section of trail, I still couldn’t see the finish line, but it was getting louder and louder and I was getting more and more excited about the prospect of accomplishing the goals I had set out for myself 6 months earlier.  As I got closer, a volunteer directed me to the final stretch and I picked up my pace.  In my mind, it was the fastest 100 yards I’ve ever run, but to onlookers it probably looked more like a slow crawl.  I could see the finish line, hear the people cheering, and feel the excitement even as the clock ticked closer and closer to 11pm.  In a final time of 16 hours, 52 minutes, and 35 seconds I crossed the finish line of the Gorge Waterfalls 100k and received the most well deserved high five of my entire life from the race director, James.

Final Thoughts

This was the hardest and most rewarding race I’ve ever done and I definitely underestimated the course.  It didn’t help that we had a cold and snowy winter in Utah this year which really made it difficult to get any kind of vertical training in, but I also didn’t take the course profile as seriously as I should have.  I was prepared for 4 big climbs, but wasn’t prepared at all for what looked like a lot of flat trail on the profile in between those big climbs.  The course was also a lot more technical than I expected, so I was glad I wore my Altra Olympus 2.0 for the duration of the race since they worked great on every type of trail condition that was thrown at me, and they helped cushion my feet for the entire race.  I didn’t get any blisters or have any problems with my feet at all, despite getting them soaked a few times.

Gorge Waterfalls 100k Elevation Profile

Gorge Waterfalls 100k Elevation Profile

This was my first experience with a Rainshadow Running race and they do a great job. I thought the pre-race communication, bib pickup (except the parking situation), aid stations, and finish line were well organized.  The only thing I didn’t really like was that there was nothing given to finishers.  Not that I really care about medals per-se, but it is nice to get something to remember the race by after running 100km!  That being said, I would definitely recommend this race to anyone interesting in doing a 100k race.

What I Wore

Socks: Smartwool PhD Run Ultra Light Mini Crew
Shoes: Altra Olympus 2.0 (See my initial thoughts here)
Shorts: REI Fleet 9”
Shirt: Nike Dri-fit Short Sleeve, Nike Dri-Fit Long Sleeve
Hat: Orange Mud visor by Headsweats
Accessories: Orange Mud VP2Body Glide
Watch: Epson SF-710
Nutrition: Minute Maid Apple Juice, Mamma Chia, Carbo Pro Metasalt Salt pills
Headlamp: Petzl Tikka RXP

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5 Comments

  1. Robert Merriman

    Great write up! Enjoyed reading it Ryan!

  2. Scott LaPlante

    I had a great time running/hiking the last section from No Name with you Ryan! Being with you on the trail definitely helped my mental state and got me through!
    Happy trails amigo!

    • You too Scott! I was convinced I didn’t make the cutoff at No Name, and having you guys there to suffer with me through the last climb was a huge mental help!

      Ryan

  3. Tom

    Awesome race report. Thank you for taking the time to write such a thorough write up. It’s the best I’ve seen so far as I prep for the race this year…Congrats on your finish

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