It’s pitch black as we line-up at 5 am under the gondola in front of the Willamette Pass Ski Lodge, 70 miles east of Eugene, Oregon. With headlamps ready, we say our good-byes and, at the sound of the horn, begin to climb directly up the ski run.
The Waldo 100k is a loop-type course, starting at an elevation of 5,120′ and climbing up several mountains including Fuji, The Twins, and Maiden Peak before returning to the ski area for a total of 11,000′ in elevation gain (and equal loss). The race is considered the most prestigious in the state and has included many of the biggest names in Oregonian ultrarunning such as Tim Olson, Hal Koerner, and Ian Sharman. Registration sold out this year in less than 40 minutes.
The route is almost entirely made up of beautiful single-track with some fairly remote sections and some incredible views. With a low point of 4,900′ and a high of over 7,800′ on the final climb, the elevation presents an added challenge for those of us coming from sea level. As the website warns, “it is not a beginner-level ultra and participation in the race should not be taken lightly”.
This is my first 100k and by far my longest run since Sun Mountain 50 miler this spring but not my first time here. I had the chance to crew and pace for my friend Hozumi last year when fires forced a re-route of the usual course, extending it to 106k. This year, the forecast was for slightly cooler temperatures and the area has been spared of any natural disasters. My girlfriend Jane is here to crew, along with my friend Chloe who is also going to pace me through the final 30 km or so of the race just a few weeks after running the Squamish 50 miler.
We arrived for package pickup yesterday in time for a quick shake-out run to loosen up the legs. I hadn’t run for a few days and, after a full 3 week taper, it felt great to get moving again. We spent a night in Portland to break up the drive (and to shop at REI and drink beer, of course) but the cumulative 10 hours or so of driving over the two days still took a bit of a toll.
Staying a half-hour away in the neighbouring town of Oakridge made for a pretty early morning with a 3am wake-up call. Many runners had opted for the earlier 3am start though, so things could definitely be worse.
I came with a (somewhat arbitrary) goal of finishing in under 12 hours. I had a strong finish at Sun Mountain and felt like I could have easily run another 10 or 20k. So I figured that, if I use roughly the same pacing and fueling strategy, I should be okay. The plan is to feel ‘good’ at the familiar 31 mile (50k) mark, to feel ‘okay’ at 50 miles (80k), to suffer through that last climb up Maiden Peak, and then to drop the hammer for the final 10k or so to the finish. It also means extending my usual fueling strategy of two gels and a litre of sports drink per hour for several hours longer than ever, so we’ll see how the stomach reacts.
We’ve now been climbing for about 25 minutes, nobody wanting to go out too hard while still jockeying for position before we hit the inevitable bottleneck in the trail. My headlamp illuminates a wall of dust in front of me. We finally hit some of the single track trails we’ll be spending the better part of the day on and fall in line.
The next hour or so seems to fly by, between the banter with the other runners and trying to stay upright on the dark trails – so much so that I forget to eat and barely drink anything from my hand-held. The sun comes up as we approach Gold Lake Campground and the first aid station which I pass by, stopping only to use the outhouse for a quick pit stop, before beginning to climb again up to Fuji Mountain and the second aid station.
Originally called the ‘Where’s Waldo 100k’ before receiving a cease and desist order from the new owners of the trademark for the storybook character by the same name, the race offers a few fun awards, like the ‘Find Waldo’ for the first to reach the summit of Fuji Mountain where Waldo Lake can be seen for the first time (and still finish).
My plan was to take it easy on the first two climbs so I’ve been running by feel and glancing only occasionally at my heart rate, not worrying too much about pace or time this early in the race. But now that I’ve hit the out-and-back for the summit, more and more runners seem to be passing me coming the other way on their way down. How is it there are so many runners so far ahead? Did I go out too easy?
It takes me a while to get there, but I feel less discouraged when I finally remember about the early 3am start option. I reach the summit and grab a quick photo before heading down and picking up the pace.
Mormons Don’t Run on Sundays
I’ve been running with a guy named Matt from Salt Lake City who’s also doing his first 100k with the same 12 hour target. Not being Mormon, he tends to do his long runs alone on Sundays and interestingly, most races in the area apparently take place on Fridays and Saturdays.
We eventually cross a road and hit the 3rd aid station at mile 31 (50k), about 15 minutes behind schedule, where Jane and Chloe are waiting for the first time. It’s always great seeing familiar faces after a few hours on the trail and I take the opportunity to restock on gels.
I’m trying a different pair of shoes for this race. The Salomon Sense Ultra had become my shoe of choice since Sun Mountain, but I’ve been experimenting with the lighter Salomon Sense in my training over the past few weeks. I did leave an old pair of Sense Ultras in a dropbag at this aid station and another at the 6th, just in case (along with a spare shirt, socks and gels), but my feet are feeling great so far.
I grab a bite of watermelon and take off, leaving Matt behind who I’m sure will catch up again soon enough.
The third major climb comes and goes, fairly uneventfully, and I seem to be passing quite a few more early starters. I don’t even realize I’ve been climbing until I see a sign saying I’ve reached the top. Indeed, my watch shows that I’ve been on a fairly consistent grade for at least an hour.
Back down I go until I hit the 5th aid station at Charlton Lake, pretty much back on schedule, where Jane and Chloe are once again waiting patiently.
Chloe is ready to go in case I need her to jump in early, but at just over 31 miles (50k) I’ve got a good rhythm going and I’m thinking she’s best waiting until the final 29k as planned, in case her knee ends up causing her problems. She took a pretty bad tumble at Squamish, banging up her knee before breaking her fall with her face. She almost thought she wouldn’t be able to run but, fortunately for us both, she felt okay leading up to the race (aside from a still-oozing wound on her knee).
Another runner named Roy had planned on coming along to handle most of the pacing duties but, just a week or so before he planned on running Squamish 50 himself, he developed a stress fracture in his foot. Maybe planning to pace me is bad luck?
I decide that it is, however, finally time to change my shoes.
Both the Sense and the Sense Ultra use a puncture-proof weave called Profeel Film (a lighter alternative to a rockplate), but the original Sense only incorporates it under the forefoot. This might be fine for Kilian for up to 100 miles, but I’m now thinking it’s probably best for races no longer than 50k.
With new shoes, a few bites of solid food, and a pocketful of gels, it’s time to begin the race in earnest.
Show Us Your Waldo
After a little more descending we’ve hit the 6th aid station. It’s starting to warm up so I take a minute to rehydrate and refuel. I’m over 60k into the race and it’s starting to get tough.
About a half hour ago I began chatting with another guy named Jeff who, it turned out, had finished Waldo something like 10 times before and was the volunteer on top of Maiden Peak last year.
Another one of the race’s unique awards is the ‘Show Us Your Waldo’ which is voted on by each aid station for the runner who shows the best ‘waldo’ and provides a unique contribution. It turns out Jeff has worn all of his past Waldo finishers T-shirts and now pulls another one off to give to the aid station captain. Good thing he’s down to the last few – I’m not sure how well sweat wicks through 10 layers of technical fabric.
I take a few extra cups of water with some salt and set off on the fourth big climb up the Twins.
Eat and Run
The terrain has changed quite dramatically as we run through exposed fields of burned-out trees from last year’s fire. Jeff gets talking to an early starter that we caught up with who he knew so I’m back on my own.
I eventually catch up with and pass one runner, before another overtakes us both from behind. We seem to all be using each other for motivation in our death march up the mountain, taking the opportunity to slow down and eat only when the others do. I’m hoping I can eat my way out of this funk I seem to be in.
A couple of miles go by and I’m not feeling any better. It’s not that I’m physically tired or that my muscles are sore. I’m just not having fun any more.
“Why the #$%@ am I doing this?”
Everyone asks themselves this at least once in every race. If you don’t, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough. It’s in these moments where races are won; where time goals are missed. Maybe I need to work on my mental game.
I’ve now reached that point where I want nothing more in life than to just not be running and possibly to have a little nap on the side of the trail. Anything but to be moving.
This lasts for another few miles until we see a volunteer on the top of a hill who shouts, “It’s all downhill to the next aid station!”
“Best news I’ve heard all day!” I yell back, even though he’d been talking to the guy ahead of me. Sure enough, there is a little sign saying we’ve reached the top, right as I take the last sip from my bottle.
(Iron) Maiden Peak
Rolling into aid station #7 around mile 45 (72k) where Chloe and Jane are waiting for the last time, I’m in desperate need of a change of pace, so to speak, and Chloe is ready to go. I’m a little behind schedule, but the race is far from over.
I’m happy to see that Matt has caught up, along with one of the runners who kept me company on the last climb. I rehydrate, eat some solid food, and begrudgingly am off again with Chloe alongside.
Pacers sometimes will help to literally ‘set the pace’. When running at the night, they can act almost as guides. Sometimes they’re needed to remind you to eat and to drink. At other times, they can provide motivation to get you through an emotional or physical low. More often than not, they serve as a needed distraction, coming late into a race fresh and with stories to tell.
I’ve trained with Chloe a few times over the past couple of months, so I’m counting on her to keep me honest and kick my butt a little to the finish. We’re holding decent pace as we continue down the PCT towards Maiden Peak where we’ll be making the final and toughest climb up to 7,818′ (2,377m).
I’ve been looking forward to that climb as I was pretty familiar with this whole last section of the course from last year. I also consider myself a relatively strong climber so I hoped to use my power hiking skills to pass a few people and make up some time. But now, stopped at the 8th aid station only part of the way up, the table appears to be moving around in circles – not a good sign. I decide to keep this little observation to myself.
A few runners are approaching so we quickly leave the aid station to begin the steepest part of the climb. Something is definitely different this year and I just don’t seem to have it in my legs. Last year, my heart rate had been noticeably higher than normal due to the elevation, but now it’s strangely low considering how hard I must be working, below even my ‘Zone 1’ threshold (my baseline for aerobic activity).
Chloe is helping me to keep moving at a slow but steady pace, even as a couple of runners pass me looking much stronger. Finishing in anywhere close to 12 hours now seems impossible.
The trees are starting to thin out as we finally near the top of the climb. It’s time for a gel, but the combination of the altitude and having eaten almost nothing but liquid food for the past 10 hours seems to be causing problems for my normally ironclad stomach. I keep having to stop to ward off the nausea. More time wasted.
We reach the top and are rewarded with an amazing panoramic view of all the surrounding peaks and lakes. After rushing down last year during my pacing duties, I promised myself I’d spend a couple of minutes to take it all in this time and to snap a few pictures with my phone.
The next mile or so takes us down a very steep, technical, and painful descent. My right knee seems to be seizing up although I’m pretty sure it’s just my IT band. I’m having to almost walk down most of the steeper sections. With almost 10 miles to go, at this rate, even a sub-13 hour finish is looking unlikely.
As the grade eventually starts to level out and the terrain becomes more runnable, my IT starts to loosen up and my pace is back on track.
It’s All Downhill From Here
We hit the final aid station at mile 55 and catch up with one of the runners who had passed me on the climb. One last gel, a couple of salt pills, and a cup of water should do the trick. I know from experience that the remaining 7 miles is rolling and fast which should allow for a strong finish. I tell Chloe that, in theory, I’ll be able to run the rest of the way no problem. There is a chance for sub-13 hours yet!
It takes me a mile or two to find my groove but, with about 10k to go, I take the lead and drop the hammer (and Chloe). 5:30, 5:00, 4:30, then 4:00/km – the splits start to get faster and I feel like I’ve got a brand new set of legs. A sub-13 hour finish is in the bag so I set my sights on 12 hrs 30 mins.
I pass a couple more runners like they’re standing still, including a guy who passed me on Maiden who literally just stops and moves off the trail for me as I run by. My watch still only shows 94 kms and I’m not sure if I can hold the pace.
I pass a volunteer and ask how much further who yells, “Less than 2 miles!” No problem.
Two miles come and go but the finish line is nowhere in sight. I don’t remember it being this long to the finish last year, although maybe this part of the course has changed this year too. I pass a hiker coming in the opposite direction and ask again how much further to the lodge who replies, “Less than 2 miles!” Damnit.
Finally, I can hear what must be the loudspeaker at the finish line and the sound of traffic on the highway. The finish line comes into sight through a final stretch of trail and across 200 metres or so of field. I cross the line in 12:27:37 for 25th of 108 finishers, from 137 starters (a 79% finishing rate).
Waldo has quite a bit of climbing but the terrain is much more ‘runnable’ than I’m used which can be both good and bad. There was a good 50k or so of solid running throughout the middle of the race which felt more like a road marathon effort than some of the mountain ultras I’ve done recently. The terrain of a race like the Kneeknacker, on the other hand, allows you to use different muslces and can break things up nicely, provided you’ve trained appropriately. I would definitely recommend more fast running and less climbing and technical descents in one’s training for a race like this, but overall it’s an amazing course and a flawlessly organized event.
Congrats to David Laney on the win for a new course record of 9:05:42, to Matt for an impressive 12:11:49 for 22nd, and to Jeff for finishing for the hundredth time in 13:32:39 while having a blast.
Special thanks to Jane and Chloe for the help – couldn’t have done it without you. And thanks as always to Salomon West Vancouver for the on-going support. With my goal race over for the year, I’m planning on taking it pretty easy, aside from a few shorter races and one final big run to cap things off – a trip to the Grand Canyon to run R2R2R. Stay tuned for a trip report on that!
Gear: Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Hydration Pack, Suunto Ambit2 Sapphire (HR)
Clothing: Salomon Trail Short, Salomon Trail Tee, Salomon XR Visor II
Shoes: Salomon S-Lab Sense, Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra