I Can’t Feel My Legs When I’m With You: A story about Gorge Waterfalls 100km

A lot has happened in the past 6 months.  I left my job coaching kids I love in Bozeman, Montana to move to the PNW and go to grad school at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC.

Between the packing, unpacking [repeat several times], driving through a blizzard, a last minute trip home to the Midwest, and mountains of paperwork my coach and I thought it would be a good idea to target an early spring race. If anything it would provide the motivation to spend months running in a rain jacket as an escape from my new home, a basement lab in a concrete building on top of Burnaby Mountain.

It’s been a wet winter in both Bellingham and Vancouver… like running in my Alpine Houdini every day wet. Indoor track season started, ultra season started, race results were rolling in.  People started finding their way to start lines in the deserts of Texas, Arizona, and Utah… meanwhile, I tried my best to curb my insatiable hunger for mochas and donuts.

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Who thought a spring race was a good idea?!?!

Long runs started adding up, going well. Even though my mileage is still lower than most of the women I toe the line with I’ve started to feel more like a runner and less like an imposter.

Between going cross eyed reading scientific journal article after journal article, and settling into my new communities the winter months passed by. I toed the line of my first official ultra on March 19th at the Chuckanut 50km in front of my new home town crowd. My Bellingham Distance Project singlet gave me extra go-go juice and squeaked in under the 4:30 mark good for 5th, hungry and excited to move on to the next challenge (namely eating my body weight in french fries that evening).

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Enter, Gorge Waterfalls 100km

While shopping for a spring ultra I noticed that Gorge was on my birthday… after talking to my coach it seemed that running 62 miles for my 26th was too perfect. Neither one of us questioned the fact that it would be twice as far as I’ve ever run before or that the race mileage is pretty close to my average weekly mileage… we just jumped in.  What I lack in running history I make up for with a misguided sense of my own limitations and years of training intensely for nordic skiing and biathlon.

Gorge morning came and although I didn’t feel nervous I hardly slept the night before and sprung out of bed when my alarm went off at 3:45am. I spent the little time I was asleep dreaming I kept running off course (maybe I’ll refrain from reading other folk’s race reports moving forward).

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Photos from my wonderful BDP team mate and crew for the day Scarlett Graham

Rainshadow Running’s James Varner led us out for the first 800 meters as we tripped over ourselves, rocks, and sticks. The field comfortably found it’s rhythm as we headed up the first climb of the day.  A line sorted itself out as we continued up the switchbacks, I conservatively tucked in behind Jodee, Ashley, and Amanda. My calves complained up most of the climb but I settled into a comfortable grinding pace.  In the back of my mind I was worried what might happen once we got past the 31 mile mark. The sun was coming up over the hill and we were to treated to the most incredible views of the Columbia River Gorge.

Aside from having to pee from about mile 4 to mile 18 (best pee break ever!) and the dreaded 2 mile road section the miles clipped by comfortably.  I was putting down fluids and food well and cheering for folks out enjoying the sunny weekend. It was my birthday, I was there to party.

Suddenly we were at mile 21 and the aid station was like “WOAH! you are crushing!” and I was like, “Really? I’m just here to party….” After fist bumps and high fives I took off  towards the turn around point. My legs were handling the terrain as long as it kept undulating, the longer downhills or flats were causing my quads talk.  This isn’t news to me. Generally this kicks in around mile 18 and I hold on until the end but we were well into mile 26 before I turned into the weird girl occasionally muttering, “It’s okay little buddy, you’re fine” to myself as I run along. I was hoping to make it to mile 28 or so before the lead men passed me on their way back, and was almost there when the eventually race winner came slamming around a corner.  I have a weird love for this kind of course set up. Getting to cheer on other racers gives me so much energy!  The men’s top ten were moving well and spaced evenly and I took a moment to Wooohoooo for each one of them as we ran by.  Heading into the final mile before the turn around I knew I would see Jodee and Amanda for the first time during the race and we would all get a sense of where we fell in the field.  Jodee had maybe 8 minutes on me and Amanda 5 or 6.

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I was irrationally stoked to be at the turn around. Like awkwardly dancing around as I tried to change my shoes and socks stoked.  I was in third, a place I hadn’t planned on finding myself in a field that I considered so freaking tough! Scarlett was there and I was so happy to see a familiar face. With clean shoes and socks on I switched out watches and grabbed my iPod loaded with nerdy Ted Radio Hour and Things Mom Never Told You. I wanted the second half to feel like a fresh start. As I left the aid station Sam Drove was getting set to head back out, and Keely and Darcy were running in. I cheered to everyone and thought… “well… here goes nothing!”

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The simultaneous look of excitement and fear?

I was running into the unknown. Each and every mile was going to be a mile further than I had ever run before. I hoped my legs would keep working. Sam quickly caught up to me as I power hiked an uphill shoving a honey stinger bar into my face. I’ve been Strava stalking Sam since moving to the PNW to help find routes in the area to run. It was so nice to finally meet her and we chatted for a bit as we both tried to convince ourselves that our legs were happy.  I did some quick transitions between powering walking and running and started to feel better and better. I found myself alone again, to the extent that I was almost convinced I had missed a turn… Finally the mile 40 aid station appeared and I was on cloud nine to restock. 2nd was not far ahead and I whooped as people helped stuff food into my race vest and Scarlett refilled my water bottles.

Around mile 43 or 44 my legs I slipped on a stick and hyper extended my right knee.  I had been moving pretty well and it scared me. After hyper ventilating for a couple of minutes I took off again, but more cautiously bleeding crucial time to 2nd place and to 4th place. The wheels were falling off and all I could do was relentlessly move up the trail.  Somewhere shortly after this Keely came by me like a gazelle that could still nimbly move over sticks and rocks and I thought to myself, “this is how I die” as I trundled along.

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I quickly lost about 3 minutes to Keely and did my best to keep moving forward. We hit the 49 mile aid station and I was hungry, so freaking hungry. I opened all the food that wasn’t nailed down and quickly shoved it into my face.  My watch had died and I must have missed a feeding. With a Rice Krispy treat still only halfway into my mouth I muttered to Scarlett, “Well it’s not going to be pretty but we’re going to get this done!”

Leaving the aid station we hit the dreaded road section, that unlike so many hours before now had a head wind. I cranked up my podcast about brains and tried to focus on the tiny neon clad dots up the road. Before turning back on the trail I was told I hadn’t lost any time to Keely on the road. We were past the 50 mile mark, a distance not long ago I thought was impossibly long. We were in the long home stretch. [Miracle of Miracles! *audible sigh of relief]

The next section of course was undulating which was good for my leggies. Clipping along as one does after 50+ miles I did my best to politely pass the seemingly super large families out enjoying the sunny afternoon. The last 6 miles of this course were going to be torture no matter where you were in your own head or in the field. I dropped down into the last aid station at 56 miles and to my surprise Keely was there. [Oh S*&t] I ate what seemed like an entire orange (sweet sweet nectar of the gods) and with full water bottles took off for the most painful, out of body, 10km of my life. We had a good 1,500ft climb ahead of us with lots and lots of human obstacles.  I did my best to power hike like the best version of my former skier self but my legs felt like itty bitty corgi legs (adorable, but oh so short).

Cresting the top of the climb steep down hill switch backs, wet bridges, several stone stairs, the slightest most painful uphill ever, almost getting doored in the parking lot, and a long loop (read: headwind) around the backside of the lake stood between me and the finish line on a monumental day.  Keely and I caught glimpses of each other, always about a switch back apart over this section. We both gritted it out and held the distance to the finish.  After 62 miles and 12,000 feet of climbing we had made it. We made it through the teeth of the Gorge. We made it in under 11 hours, and under the old course record.

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I don’t know that I’ve ever been so happy to make it to the finish line. Gorge held so much unknown for me. Would I even like racing this far? What happens after mile 31?  Would I even make it?  At what point would I curl up and yell uncle?

Although my legs might currently disagree, I didn’t just survive Gorge, I learned to thrive in Gorge. I found a new layer of guts.  For now I’m content to spend a few days eating donuts as I relearn how to not have to walk down the stairs sideways.

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