Ultramarathon – A race of any distance longer than 26.2 miles, often held on challenging trails rather than roads.
Gorge Waterfalls 50K – An epic race with more than 6000 total feet of elevation gain, and a nine-hour cutoff time from start to finish. Runners get a rocky, root-filled singletrack course and views of some of the Gorge’s sweetest waterfalls.
Here’s a confession: Any time I’m not feeling up to my (puny in comparison) running workouts, I snap myself out of it by watching a movie about trail or ultrarunning. These documentaries and short films are always captivating: The gorgeous, sweeping views. The amazing feats of distance and toughness. The runners’ quirky facial hair, uber-functional fashion choices, self-sufficiency and understated attitude.
So, when an opportunity arose to volunteer at the Gorge Waterfalls 50K not too far from home, I jumped at the chance to help out and see firsthand what an ultra race is like! Luckily, the awesome folks at Rainshadow Running assigned me to work at “No-Name” Aid Station with some very cool and likeable peeps, all of whom happen to also be amazing distance runners. We set up our tent and tables at mile 25, the third and final aid station where runners could load up on snacks, refill their beverages and prepare for the final 6 miles (which included the grueling* climb to the top of Multnomah Falls). After working a fun and not-very-hard volunteer shift, here’s what I learned:
When you’re looking for ultrarunners to come careening at you down a steep trail, casual hikers look extremely, ridiculously casual. Like, they appear to be barely moving.
No car stickers – The cars in the parking lot at the Start/Finish had a complete lack of distance stickers! This must be the humble, understated attitude we’ve heard about. (If I had run a 100K race, please believe I would never shut up about it. I’d have the biggest damn “100K” sticker you have ever seen.)
There was a lot less Unique Facial Hair than I expected. Maybe it’s a regional thing, or has the Mountain Man beard for ultrarunners gone out of fashion?
An ultrarunner’s stunned look and the need to take a few breaths before knowing what they need? Completely recognizable. Whether you’ve stretched your boundaries with a 10 miler or a 50K, that deer-in-headlights feeling is the same and completely relatable.
Yes, there was blood, sweat and tears: Some runners got scraped up taking spills on the technical course. There were only a few tears shed, and they seemed to come more out of emotional exhaustion than injury. (Again, so relatable. Sometimes a run has you feeling perky, sometimes it’s sheer emotional release.) But most of the runners who came through our aid station weren’t torn up. They were either totally focused on their goal, or laughing and joking around.
So many foods – At road races, you’re often lucky to get gummy bears and pretzels at an aid station. Here, there was a whole feast of real-food choices, as well as gels, water, Gu Brew, and several 2-liter bottles of all the soda you could shake a lichen-covered stick at.
Pickles were popular – We could hardly keep the pickle bowl filled! Salty snacks are helpful during a long run. One lady even requested, and drank, the pickle juice!
Coca Cola was popular – Coke was the first soda we ran out of, a popular choice for people looking to replenish their glucose levels.
Lots of Tailwind – It was common to see people emptying Tailwind powder into their bottles before a water refill. The individual packets were tough to tear open in a hurry though, so I appreciated the runners who had it in ziploc baggies.
Water vests are ALL ridiculously fiddly – Hydration vests are essential in ultras, making it easy to carry a lot of drinking water comfortably. But getting them refilled in a hurry is tough because removing, opening, re-sealing and replacing the water bag inside is always fiddly. We saw several designs, and they were all a pain in the butt.
GPS doesn’t always lock on the route – We got the “How far is it?” question a lot, even from those wearing GPS watches. The satellites sometimes had trouble staying locked in the rocky bluffs of the Gorge.
There is a chair – You might have a little sit-down, gather your strength, and finish the race.
But beware the chair – You might have a little sit-down, gather your strength, and drop out.
Apparently you can enter the race with full intention to slowly walk the first few miles and then quit (which one lady did), although that really messes with the system they’ve got set up.
Or you can be like the front runner, who blew through our station at top speed calling out, “Thanks guys, I don’t need anything!” (He was the only one to do that. I was duly impressed. It was only later I learned that blur was named Ian Sharman, from Bend, OR.)
It wasn’t long before we saw what kept him in such a hurry: Local hero Yassine Diboun was not far behind! For the record, Yassine took only a few gulps of Coke, refilled his handheld water bottle and was outta there like a dude with somewhere to be.
Sweeps are people, too – Sweeps are the strong runners who have volunteered to run the course behind the last competitors, to make sure the course is clear and nobody is in distress. Sometimes it’s also their job to collect (and carry) course markers from the trail. Yeah, it’s a tough job, and they’re exactly as impressive as you might imagine.
After seeing and talking to women and men of all ages who were in the middle of running a tough 50K on demanding trails, all of whom seemed like kind, interesting, real people, I’ve come to two important conclusions:
Ultrarunners are living, breathing human beings.
Human beings are capable of some next-level badassery.
*Grueling is not the word we used to the exhausted runners who asked about the upcoming climb. But it is, you guys. I’ve walked it in a non-race situation and it was totally grueling.
Have you walked to the top of Multnomah Falls on a sunny day? Tell us about it in the comments!