Race reports are usually only from the racer them self (as they generally should be) but there are other key players involved in racing an ultra and we usually don't see their perspective. My intention of writing from the crew's perspective is to shed helpful tips for future crews at this particular race and tell the story from my end. There were many things I saw that were unbeknownst to Justin while he was running.
Justin and I both made sure to get the days off from work leading up to the race. The past trend has been to work up until the last minute and get to the race the night before. This is not a plan I would recommend, especially for an ultra. It's important for your body to unwind from the work week and re-orient before throwing your body into the full acceleration of a race. My crew duties started well before the race: Packing the car, planning food, mapping out the schedule, etc. I wanted to make sure I relieved Justin of any mental stress before the race and was happy to lead the mission down to Oregon.
Arriving in Portland was like swinging open a door to some of our fondest memories as a couple. We met our first semester in 2005 when we were both running on the Cross Country and Track team. That's 10 years ago! We hadn't been to Portland since the year after we graduated and suddenly all our emotions were surfacing as we drove down Willamette Blvd toward campus. We drove past the sushi joint where we had our first date, passed the college houses we spent endless nights partying in, and reconnected with college friends who were still living in the area. It was unexpectedly reviving. Even Justin said, "I feel so youthful here." Nothing but good vibes to start the weekend.
We stayed with our college teammate John, who was one of the first Portland alumni to enter the Ultra scene a few years ago. He was also signed up for the Gorge 100k so it was nice to be on the same wave length as jitters and excitement pulsed through our conversations.
I went for a 3 hour run in Forest Park on Friday; the majority of our college runs were here which was an incredible experience that I realized was partly taken for granted. If you are ever to pass through Portland it would be a serious mistake to skip these trails. They are a truly special piece of the city.
When I got back we packed up the car, grabbed food and headed east to see the race start. I'm not sure where most of the time went, but suddenly it was sun down and the lights were out before our 2am wake up call. I can honestly say I would not register for a race with a 4am start time. Even having an hour later makes a difference for me. Justin was awake with jitters the whole night so I suppose it wouldn't have mattered if the race started at midnight.
Since we already knew where the start was (Benson Sate Park), the morning was smooth sailing. I knew there were few parking spots at the first aid station (Mile 16) so I wanted to get a head start before the masses came. I left about five minutes before the gun went off and found myself in a line of cars that happened to be other crew for elite runners. As all of us soon found out, the directions on the website were completely off. Everyone began driving in circles and pulling into dead ends. The clock was ticking and I was trying to stay calm - I knew we were close. Finally, all the cars parked in a big pullout and we all got out with our headlamps and maps. There were about 12 of us who put our heads together and tried to figure out where Yeon Aid Station was. Ryan Ghelfi's wife and her mom were calm and seemed confident in where they thought it may be. We all lined up in a caravan down highway 30 to finally find the aid station. We got to the aid station with enough time to set up, but this solidified the need to drive to all the aid stations ahead of time in the future.
Two guys came flying through the aid station with about a 2 minute lead. I would later find out those men were Ben Stern, a dark horse from Humbolt County running his first Ultra, and Chris Denucci, an ambassador for Hoka One One. Justin and Mario Mendoza (Nike) came up next, looking smooth as they worked together and took their time at the first aid station. I swapped Justin's bottles and nutrition and then headed straight for Cascade Locks, Mile 22.
There was a good crowd at this aid station and everyone set up camp in their own area. I have no shame in saying the table I set up for Justin was substantial and detailed. I wanted to make sure Justin had every possible option, even though I knew he wouldn't use it all. I also had a note pad to track everything he ate along the way, the amount of water he took, time between each runner, and time he spent at each aid station.
Everyone was twiddling their thumbs waiting for the lead pack to come through. Little did we know the top ~20 guys in front had gone off course. We finally saw Andrew Miller (Salomon) cruise into the aid station by himself and come to a halt, sharing the news of the vandalized course. Someone had taken down flagging and re-flagged a trail that lead up to a ledge. A minute and a half after Andrew came through Justin came cruising in with Bob Shebast (Hoka), Chris Denucci (Hoka), Mario Mendoza (Nike), Gary Robbins (Salomon), and Jeff Browning (Patagonia). Never have I seen such low energy at a race, especially this early on. Some of the runners were in complete crushed spirits, while others were calm, yet moving slowly and re-orienting mentally. Justin appeared calm and said "I guess the race starts here." I never saw David Laney (Nike) or Ryan Ghelfi (Nike) come through the aid station, so I assumed they had dropped. Maria Mendoza (Nike) also decided to drop at Cascade Locks. Honestly, I can't imagine running an extra 25 minutes uphill during such a long race. The hikers who decided to fudge the course may never know the impact they had.
Justin spent less than a minute at the aid station. I yanked his headlamp off, refilled his nutrition and then he was off with Bob Shebast, Chris Denucci, and Ben Stern, who all spent little time at the aid station as well. They all exemplified tough mentality in that moment, and I knew Justin would be ok since he was able to take off quickly with the pack.
I always imagine huge chunks of time between aid stations where I can go out for lunch, sleep in the car, or meander the area... but for some reason that is never the case. Megan (Justin's sister) and I pulled into the Wyeth Aid station and immediately set up Justin's table. We tag-teamed the nutrition and filled his bottles with GU and water. We laid out extra socks, shoes, salt pills, and plenty of food so he would have choices in case certain flavors weren't palatable for him. We knew there was a waterfall less than a mile down the trail so we contemplated walking to see it, but before we knew it there were people yelling from a distance "Lead pack is coming!!" Justin's dad was hanging out by the waterfall and said he barely had a chance to get his camera out to snap a picture.
Justin ran up to our table and looked me in the eye and said "These guys are rolling." I shrugged and said "Good, that's your style." I pulled all of his bottles and nutrition wrappers out of his pack and then he said he wanted a shoe change. He leaned over and almost face planted, so Megan ran over to hold him up. At first I thought it might be a sign of fatigue since he almost lost his balance, but he's also not very flexible. The auto-laces on his Salomon shoes were absolutely key in this circumstance. It probably saved us a minute not having to lace his shoes. His total time at the aid station was 1:26 - not bad for slipping on his hot pink Sako 7 Socks and a new pair of shoes!
We hauled back to Cascade Locks aid station, which would now be mile 41. I was expecting everyone to come through in a pack again but was stoked to see Justin and Chris Denucci had created a gap of 2:30! I didn't keep track of time at this station but I'm sure it was short of 45 seconds. We spent little time swapping everything. Chris Denucci was out of the aid station and heading down the trail when he turned around to say "Justin! Are you coming?"
What a great moment to see them working together. Ultra running at its best. The duo was off before we knew it.
The last aid station where crew was allowed was mile 49, at Yeon Aid Station the second time through. That leaves 13 miles at the end of the race without crew so this was an important hand off. It was between mile 41 and 49 where Justin started to put significant time on the rest of the racers. He came into Yeon with a 6:30 lead and took his time taking a couple salt pills and switching his nutrition. He looked tired and his face was a little pale, but he was picking up the pace and about to throw down a stretch of 6 minute miles in the next leg of the race.
The end of the race can sometimes be the most anxiety ridden. We found out after Justin finished that someone had, for a second time, fudged the course markings before the climb up Multonomah Falls. Justin had studied the course and knew he had to go up, so he ended up taking the only trail with a climb and it was the right one. It was heart wrenching reading Bob Shebest's race report - he went down multiple trails before finding the right one over the falls.
What a thrill to see Justin looping around the far end of the lake at Benson State Park! He set a course record by a half hour and punched his ticket to Western States! 66 miles (including the off course section) and 12,000 ft of elevation gain.
Whew... we will be on our way to California in June for Justin's first 100-miler!
I am an outdoor and travel junkie who is currently completing my doctorate in occupational therapy overseas in rural Fiji. On Sweet World Travels you will find stories of my life with my husband, the communities we serve, and the many adventures we take.