Trail Running in Texas & beyond

Gorge Waterfall 50k

Late last year the group was discussing a destination race.  We settled on a James Varner (aka Rainshadow Running) race because he seemed to be in line with our vibe and it offered something different than what we have done here.  Unfortunately for me, Beacon Rock 50k ended up getting moved to a date that I couldn’t attend.  As consolation, I signed up for the Gorge Waterfall 50k instead.

We arrived in Hood River, Oregon, Saturday afternoon after a nice morning in Seattle with friends.  Despite living in the northwest for many years, neither my wife or I had never been to Hood River.  It turned out to be a great little town bustling with places to eat, drink and shop though we only took advantage of the first two.  Saturday was our 11th anniversary so after getting settled at the hotel room we headed out to Celilo for dinner and had a nice meal of scallops with sunchoke puree, mushroom bread pudding, and pasta with first of the season english peas and fresh chickpeas.  Very good all around.

We retired to the hotel and I packed up for the morning.  One nice thing about traveling west for a race is that your are primed for early bed time and mornings thanks to the 2 hour offset.  Even still, I had a bit of trouble falling a sleep, woke up a few times during the night, and was out of bed 20 minutes early.

Race morning

With all the changes leading up to the event, we now were 45 minutes from the check-in and start line.  When I booked the hotel, the schedule called for driving 10 minutes from Hood River to the finish line where we would check-in and then get on a shuttle to head to the start line.  We arrived a few minutes before 7 am and found about 30 other runners milling about and James nowhere to be found.  Turns outs he had a flat tire on the trailer.  For James, this race was comedy of errors (though none of his doing).  The flat tire set the start back about 35 minutes but after a quick briefing (summed up as “don’t fall off the cliffs, you’ll die”) we were off.

A few of the Texas runners that came up for the visit:  Rod, me, Elizabeth, Libby.

There were all sorts of course changes due to unfinished and unexpected construction along the course so we probably only ran a third of the original route.  Winters in the northwest can be rough on the park service and this year washed out bridges caused one set a problems.  One course revision had us climbing up even higher until a late season storm dropped a couple feet of snow up on Devil’s Rest.  However, by the morning of, we had an out-and-back made up 5 sections.

Section 1.  Elevation

After about a mile and half of easy grass path we hit what is the defining feature of this course:  the climb up around Multnomah & Wahkeena Falls.   Once we hit this trail it is climbing for about 2 miles.  The first mile is made up of paved path ways and encompasses 1,000 ft of elevation climbing.  The second mile is rock and mud over what normally is a pine needle bedded trail.  The lead pack of Max King, Ian Sharman, Yassine Diboun, among others attacked the climb and quickly left us behind.  You could see them above as the trail switched back and forth.  I tried to be conservative on the climb knowing that while you won’t really make your time on this climb, you certainly can break it.

above pictures via here

The top brought slushy snow and then we headed down the other side.  I was thrilled to find at last a bit of rock on the trail and I was able to pick my way down the first half the descent in good time.  The second half of the descent was more paved trails which were less fun as short, steep switch backs make it hard to get a rhythm going.   Near the bottom we popped off the main paved trail onto a side trail that lead us down to the first aid station.

I didn’t really have a great feel for how long this section of the course would take me so when I penciled out a a race split the night before, I figured that the first 7 miles would about 80 to 90 minutes.  This was simply to account for the climbing and the unknown factor of snowing / footing.  Until I reached the aid station, I had no idea what pace we were on since I decided the night before to run with a watch.

My lovely wife was crewing for me and was there with the trunk of the car open with anything I needed.  I grabbed a bit to drink and dropped off my gloves and compression arm sleeves as they were overkill for that turned out to be near perfect running weather (50 and overcast).   I asked for the time and was surprised to find that the first section took 72 minutes or roughly a 10/min average pace.

Section 2:  Half & Half

Ponytail Falls, yes we run behind that! It was as awesome as it looks.

Technically I suppose it should be 2/3, 1/3.  The first 4+ miles of this section was probably my favorite from a running standpoint.  Up to now, we pretty much had a non-technical run.  The footing was either paved path, smooth (though mud or slush), and the rocks we did hit were pretty worn down and embedded.  Cobblestone like.  Finally we got ourselves onto a proper trail with rocks, a short boulder field, and then a nice forest section with rocks and roots.

Finally, a real trail!

Trail gave way to the road and about half way down the road, we started seeing the lead pack returning on us.  Max King was cruising easily out front.

The road ends with aid station number 2 at mile 14.  I came through at 2:13 from the start for a section split of 61 minutes (8:43/min pace).

Section 3.  Hidden gem

From here we had a quick 2 mile out and back.  It consisted of a modest climb (400/ft elevation) and then a dip down to the very lovely Elowah Falls.  This was a 2 mile section and took about 20 minutes total.

This picture is from Libby.  If you want to go read a more detailed and picture rich report, check it out here.  As these things tend to do, she had a different opinion about the technical nature of the course 🙂

Section 4:  On the road again

Section 4 is the same as section 2 but really was defined by the return trip on the road.  For me, it became a bit of a death march.  I was passed by a few runners and was dropping well back of the pack I had been bouncing around most of the day.  The hips started to complain loudly and I had to take a break twice to try to loosen them up a bit.  Hated this section with a passion and was glad to hit the trails again even if that meant we had to start climbing again.

View from the road, via Libby

I started to feel better as we worked our way through the woods and my hips and legs started to loosen up again.  Others clearly felt that opposite of me as this is where I caught quite a few people.  We popped out again for the last aid station where we loaded what we needed for the final leg home.   This section took about 65 minutes (~9:20/min pace), 4 minutes slower than on the way out.

Section 5:  The finishing burn

We rolled up and down for a bit (200 footers) before joining back up the main paved climb up.  On the way out there were a few early hikers out but by this time the trail was packed with day hikers.  Multnomah is one of Oregon’s most popular destinations to visit.  It is easy to see why.  It was packed today but I imagine that is even more so later in the spring as the weather warms.  Going up, the crowds were not too much of a problem.  Many in the crowd were great and cheered us on, gave high-fives and word of encouragement.  I think some thought we were just running to the top or something as they would say stuff like “only half a mile more”.  If only.

Up and up we went, there was no running but I was moving pretty steady and at a consistent pace.  I even felt pretty strong for a while there.  Near the top we switched over to trail and had a short down before more climbing.   It was in the second mile of climbing that I started to slow quite a bit and my calves started to knot up.  Nearly got off course with a wrong turn (a family was standing right in front of the markers and another women and I just headed up) but luckily a runner right behind us called out and we were able to relay it up to the women ahead as well.   It was through this last half mile of the climb that I really saw the benefit training in the training up here provides as I was passed by runners who were still running as we neared the top.  I was definitely jealous of them and all the amazing trails and mountains they have to train on.

A few miles from the finish.  I am smiling?  Picture by Glen Tachiyama.

The last 3.5 miles were half steep descent, half flat finish.  As before, the paved path sucked but now the trail was now much more of a muddy mess from all the runners and melted slush.  It was dicey at times coming fast down a muddy decline to the end of the switchback cut.  The tightness in the hips returned, the calves were really starting to complain, and I could find no rhythm on the paved switch backs.  Other than that things were going great and soon we were at the bottom and through 1.5 mile flats section and into the finish to be greeted by James, cheers, food, and beer.  The last section took 88 minutes (12:30/min pace), 16 minutes slower that the first time through.

Final time was 5hr 4m 27s.   I am not really sure what to make of that time.  The course was short of 50k.  GPS measurements are of no use with all the switchbacks, steep climbing, and ravines even if I had worn a watch.  James said 49k per the trail maps.  I’d hazard it was closer to 29 miles than 31.  4.5 miles of road certainly cut down on the times as the times of the elites certainly showed, yet the climbing was serious with about 6,000 feet of elevation gain (and equal descent).  In the end, it is nearly impossible to compare time on one course to another given all the variables.  Sitting here 2 days later, I am pleased with the run, happy with the progress I’ve made in the first year of running trails (a year ago I had never run further than 12 miles at once or 30 miles in a week, not to mention the extra weight), but at the same time I am not content.  I feel I should have and could have done better.  I suspect most of us feel that way after a race or otherwise we won’t go back out there, train the way we do, and throw ourselves against the rocks, the hills, and whatever else comes our way again and again.

Wrap up

James smiles at the incoherent man who stumbled out of the woods to steal his beer.

James and I talked briefly about this race compared to Angels Staircase.  For me, Angels Staircase is a more compelling course.  Gorge Waterfall is lovely and if I was living in the northwest, it would be part of my annual race calendar.  All of James’ races would be.  The views of the waterfalls and the surround area are among the best you could ever hope for in the race.  But I love rugged, remote races and Angels Staircase excels at that.  Angels is a race to plan your calendar and travel around and I am look forward to coming back up this August and trying my hand at the long course.

James has a great thing going up in the Northwest and all the runners I came across were a delight.  They are the second best community of runners out there, Tejas is number 1 but I couldn’t object if they wanted to lay claim to the title.

3 Responses to “Gorge Waterfall 50k”

  1. Awesome report Ben! And that time seems fast to me (fellow flatlander). I can’t wait to do Beacon Rock (looks less moist though).

  2. olga says:

    Isn’t that the truth, all James’ races would be on anybody’s calendar:) Pretty much anything in PNW should be! Great job, and time! My grizzly partner beat you by a minute or two:)

    • admin says:

      I think I know you are referring to Olga. They caught me on that last climbing section and I just didn’t have enough downhill or flatland to reel them back in. Amazing runners up there.