Gorge Waterfalls 100k ultramarathon race report: A dozen waterfalls along this scenic route

[By Dana Notman] 2016’s Gorge Waterfalls 100k race took place on Saturday, April 2, and the weather forecast for this ultramarathon was spectacular. We were going to experience something the Pacific Northwest hadn’t seen a lot of lately – sunshine and warm temperatures. With highs projected to reach 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit (around 21C), I was pleased that there wouldn’t be too much mud, too many puddles, or a layer of dampness covering the rocky, technical trails we were going to be on all day.

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View from the course. Photo: Brie Hemingway

This all started last year, when conversations turned to race selection for 2016. Gorge Waterfalls 100k was placed on the table by a friend. The race is called Gorge Waterfalls because it takes place in the Columbia River Gorge area of Oregon. (The Columbia River separates Oregon and Washington). The ~100k route (62 miles) has around 12,000′ (3650 m) of climbing. My response was, “Oh, that will be fun.”

From the moment I hit the registration button for the race, and all throughout training and planning, a positive energy surrounded me. Even when we lined up at the starting line, thinking about our large dinner gathering the night before and the nervous excitement felt that morning at breakfast, I tried to temper my eagerness with trepidation.

I had previously completed three 50k races, but the furthest I’d ever run was the second day at the (three-day) Golden Ultra, around 57k. Not having done a 50-miler, I was nervous. But I wanted to get out there. I wanted to run. I wanted to see what my body was capable of. And I wanted to have a great time while doing it all.

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Morning mist. Photo: Dana Notman

A couple fist bumps, hugs and “good lucks” between friends and partners, and we were off. A big smile spread across my face as I crossed the starting line, and I knew I was in for a great day ahead.

We made our way up the big hill at the beginning (which we’d see again at the end, as the course is an out and back), navigating up both paved and unpaved switchbacks. A solid leg burner to start the morning off just as the sun was rising in the Gorge. At the top of the climb, the sun shined on my face, and I knew it was time to enjoy the rest of the ride.

Brie Hemingway and Chris Hardy at Elowah Falls, around 22k in. Photo: Brie Hemingway.

Brie Hemingway and Chris Hardy at Elowah Falls, around 22k in. Photo: Brie Hemingway.

Throughout that first long descent, and up and over the sometimes grueling and oftentimes technical rolling hills and rocks for the first 20 miles or so, I chatted with everyone I was passing. Turns out, there were a lot of people who live in my neighborhood, or who live where I used to live, or who run races where I grew up. This friendliness and camaraderie helped propel me forward, smiling and laughing, as we ticked off aid station after aid station.

The scenery throughout was INSANE! We were running under old growth tree cover for most of the race, so everything was green and lush and fresh and gorgeous. Bright green ferns were everywhere, and when the trail popped out onto one of the many rock field, bright green moss covered the rocks. Everything was beautiful.

Approaching the turnaround - Kyle Conway is already on his way back. Photo: Brie Hemingway.

Approaching the turnaround – Kyle Conway is already on his way back. Photo: Brie Hemingway.

After a quiet stretch on the Pacific Crest Trail, during which we saw the leaders pass us on the out and back (“nice work,” “good job” and high fives galore!), I reached the turnaround point and farthest aid station from the start line. Reaching this point was a huge goal, and after a quick shoes and sock change and stuffing my face with aid station fare, I turned around and headed back out onto the course.

Along the race course, we had passed around a dozen waterfalls. Some tall, some small, some would spray you as you ran past, or behind, them. They were just spectacular. Now we’d get to see them all again.

Photo: Dana Notman

Photo: Dana Notman

The second half of the race posed a few challenges. For starters, my knee was getting a bit angry, which caused me to slow down considerably on the downhills. But the biggest challenge was not having as many people nearby to talk with. The steady climbs and the painful downhills weren’t nearly as fun anymore, but I put on my happy face, adjusted my rainbow unicorn hat, and powered on. Each aid station was now becoming a shining beacon of awesome ahead of me on the course, and I knew that once I reached them, I could reenergize myself for the next stretch ahead.

The volunteers are the aid stations sure knew how to keep our spirits up. The Grateful Dead aid station in particular (at mile 22 and mile 40) was fun and fantastic, with volunteers and crew shoving calories in our mouths and sending us on our way with full bottles, packs, and high spirits. And later on along the course, after the sun had set and we only had 6 miles left to go, the volunteers at the final aid station were quick to offer hugs of support to make sure the last few miles were as enjoyable as they could be.

Runners arriving at Cascade aid station around 67k in. Photo: Will Balfour

Runners arriving at Cascade aid station around 67k in. Photo: Willa Balfour

The waterfalls were spectacular, even as darkness set in. At dusk, they looked like they glowed. And at night, when you couldn’t see the waterfalls anymore, you could hear them roaring next to you.

I was happy to run into a friend from home, who I had been meeting at some of the aid stations. I partnered up with him, and we took off to tackle the last big climb and the last big descent in the dark together, counting down the hours to the 17 hour course cutoff time. Running with a friend during this stretch helped keep me as positive as possible, and any time either of us needed encouragement, we offered it to one another. Once we crested the climb, we knew we’d make it to the finish before the cutoff.

Running behind the falls! Photo: Dana Notman

Running behind the falls! Photo: Dana Notman

Hitting the pavement and the last mile long jaunt from the hill around the small pond to the finish was spectacular. Volunteers stood along the route and cheered us on, pointing us toward the finisher’s chute, where RD James Varner was waiting for us with a high-five and a “Congratulations!” Then, looking ahead and seeing my friends who had finished, our families who had supported us through the entire day, and the post-race pizza and beer, any pain or negativity I had felt melted away, and I was just so, so, so happy.

Now, a couple days removed from the race, I know for a fact that it was one of the most fun – and challenging and beautiful and magical and tough – experiences I’ve ever had. And if you see a small smile on my face over the next couple weeks, it’s because I’m reliving it in my head and experiencing it all over again.

Photo: Dana Notman

Photo: Dana Notman

There were 219 total finishers (of 292 starters) in this year’s running of the Gorge Waterfalls 100k. The top three male finishers were Rui Ueda, Chris Mocko and Jeremy Humphrey, and the top three female finishers were Jodee Adams-Moore, Amanda Basham and Keely Henninger. The top two of each (Ueda, Mocko, Adams-Moore and Basham) won entries into 2016’s Western States Endurance Run as part of the Golden Ticket Race opportunity, and every finisher under the 17 hour cutoff qualified to enter the lottery for the 2017 Western States run. Congratulations to all finishers, and thank you to Rainshadow Running for putting on another spectacular, memorable, well-organized and FUN event! [Ed. note: Thanks to Dana Notman, Brie Hemingway, and Willa Balfour for the great race photos].

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