What’s the longest you’ve run—one mile, two miles, 10 miles, or a marathon? I stopped at the marathon distance—26.2 miles long ago, but my son-in-law Dave Miller has been pushing the limits. A marathon is just the start for him. This past weekend (July 26) he ran the White River 50 Mile Endurance Run near Mount Rainier in Washington State. I had the privilege of seeing him at the aid station at 43.4 miles, and again as he finished the race. Finishing the White River run is no mean feat. The race rises and falls over 8,700 feet and has a total elevation loss and gain of 17,400 feet. Calling it a run is a misnomer; it’s more like a mountain climb, or mountain climbs and descents, over and over again, as you can see by the elevation chart below.
Each summer we visit Vashon Island just north of Tacoma, Washington where our daughter Gretchen lives. We meet up with our son Garrett, and his family, including four grandsons ages 10 through 18. This year Dave had planned to run the White River race while we were visiting, and Gretchen invited me to go with her to watch Dave finish. The previous year she had watched the race with Garrett and her nephews, who were duly impressed by Dave’s 14th place finish and 8:26 finishing time.
The race consists of two loops so when runners arrive at the aid station at Mile 27.4 they are very near the finish line, which is where some runners find the temptation too much and drop out. We didn’t see Dave at this junction, but when we looked at the leader board he was in 12th place, better than his previous year’s finish place.
We did see Dave at the Skookum Flats aid station at Mile 43.4. We arrived a few minutes before he came through. There was no messing around when we saw him; it was clear he was on a mission and he didn’t want to stop long before being on his way. He looked remarkably fresh and speedy when we saw him, pausing long enough for a drink and a bit of food before continuing on his way. His training partner, Jon Robinson, came through a bit later, not looking nearly as fresh and taking more time to rest before continuing on his way. The leader board at his point showed Dave in 7th place! Dave later recounted that he had passed five people in the previous six miles. He was on a roll! We then left the aid station and went to the finish area to wait for Dave’s arrival.
What is the sound of six hands clapping? That’s the sound ultra runners hear as they approach the finish line of their remarkable journey up and down mountains and through the woods. Unlike most road races, especially the larger ones, with a crowd at the finish line, ultra runners arrive at the finish line to the sound of the a few hands clapping and maybe a “yeah” or two from a very few close friends or hangers on. It’s a sound and pattern that gets repeated, but after long intervals of silence between the finishers, sometimes as much as 30 minutes or more. It’s clear they don’t do it for the finish line accolades or glory, or the food. Instead of tables laden with bagels and bananas, there is nothing for the leaders. The food doesn’t come out until several hours later, when the bulk of runners have come in. There was only one folding chair at the finish and believe me most of the runners needed to sit down and rest after their arduous trek over the mountains.
We heard the first clapping for the winner, Justin Houck, who had finished in 6:26. That is a 7:45 mile pace, which would be remarkable on a flat course, but on this course was an astounding achievement. Then about 30 minutes later the sound of more clapping could be heard as Matt Flaherty came in under seven hours in 6:55. Then not too far behind came third place Vajin Armstrong in 6:57. Then there was silence for about 18 minutes before 42-year old running legend Uli Steidl (first master runner at 2014 Boston Marathon) arrived in 7:22 to win his age division. Then silence and then some more clapping as two more runners came in.
Then we looked down the road to see Dave chugging along. He took a quick look behind to make sure no one was near and he hustled to the finish line to our clapping and cheers and that of other spectators. He finished 7th place in 7:46, a 45-minute improvement over his 2013 time! Gretchen went to hug him and congratulate him. His time translates into an average pace of about 9:20 per mile, which is remarkable; especially considering Gretchen and I were not averaging much faster than that on our 8-9 mile runs on the hilly roads of Vashon Island. What an achievement for Dave!
We clapped again as Jon Robinson came in a very solid 11th place in 7:55. For him it was not his best time and was only the second time Dave had finished ahead of him in a trail run. But both of them respect each other, and the course, and know that next time things may be different. There is much camaraderie among the athletes, and even though it is competitive, there is respect for anyone who completes the arduous journey.
Dave is also planning to run his first 100-mile, the Pine to Palm 100, in Ashland, Oregon in mid-September on a very challenging course. He did admit that during the White River run he was wavering and considering not doing the 100. But a few days later, as happens to those of us who do distance running, he got amnesia and forgot about the pain and hurt during the run, and has decided to run his first hundred. I won’t be there to watch this time, but my thoughts will be with him, and I’ll be ready to clap and cheer when I find out how he did.
Will Van Dyke