Where’s Waldo? Oregon’s New 100K
by Steve Smucker, Portland, Oregon
Where’s Waldo 100K & Relay
Willamette Pass Ski Area
September 28, 2002
This Oregon ultra was designed, planned and executed so well by first time race directors, Curt Ringstad and Craig Thornley, that overnight, Where’s Waldo has become a premier northwest ultra running event. Not since the birth of the White River 50, a decade ago, have we seen an ultra of this stature in the Pacific Northwest.
The organization and attention to detail, not to mention visible worrying and concern for the safety of all runners, was on par with what most runners ever only see at Western States. Radio communications kept track of every runner’s progress throughout the race. Course monitors were strategically placed at all intersections, and with four times as many volunteers as runners, fully stocked aid stations, a coffee and bagel breakfast, quality coolmax shirts from SportHill, and search and rescue personnel at all three mountain passes, Where’s Waldo was put on like a national championship caliber event.
But, before you run out and sign up, take heed. Waldo comes with a warning. Highlighted and in bold, the application clearly states: It is not a beginner-level ultra and participation in the race should not be taken lightly.
Never one to pay attention to fine print, I ignored the warning. After all, the trail is groomed single track covered with soft pine needles, something any grade school kid could handle. The three mountain ascents up Mt. Fuji (7,144), The Twins (7,362) and Maiden Peak (7,818) are a little rocky and steep, but nothing approaching “technical.” The distance is accurately measured and the trail well marked. Even the weather produced a crisp, clear, cool day. It looked like a no brainer.
Yet, as I came into the Charlton Lake aid station at 32 miles, more than an hour behind my projected time, my pacer from Wasatch, Dave Elsbernd, remarked, somewhat good naturedly, “about time you got here, Smucker.” (He told me later he lost money on me). I was sloggin’, suckin’ air and suffering inexplicable fatigue, and didn’t know why. Then Curt yells out, “Hey, Steve, what do you think? They’re calling it Oregon’s mini Leadville.”
With two thirds of the runners dropping out of the inaugural event due to altitude related problems, and the remaining runners progressing slower than they could have imagined, Kelly Woodke, 35, and I faced another problem. Even though we were running second and third, we calculated that at our pace we were in danger of not finishing in the allotted time of fourteen and one half hours. Neither of us had planned to be out there that long, and Kelly needed to break 13 hours to qualify for Western States. At the base of Maiden Peak at mile 50, with time slipping away, Kelly began climbing strongly. As he went by, I encouraged him, saying, “alright, man, time to reel in John.”
John Pearch, 29, one of the Pacific Northwest’s hottest runners this year, did not want to be reeled in. Well trained, and rested after pacing Jason Moyer to a 26 hour finish at Wasatch, John took the lead early, withstood the pressure, and held the lead to the end, collecting, en route, both the overall finisher’s award — a North Face tent — and the first to find Waldo award — a North Face bivy sack. It’s been fun watch this young guy progress. Congratulations, John!
The event’s most impressive figure, though, had to be Valerie Caldwell, 38, from New Mexico. She not only won the women’s race with a steely, blue eyed gaze and focused mountain climbing technique, but the image of her relentless climbing spelled trouble for every runner in front of her, and by the end, there were only three. With another couple of miles, she might have been able to cut it to two. Ms. Caldwell won a North Face tent for finishing first among women.
Impressive, too, was Mike Burke, 52, the oldest finisher, who carried his lanky frame to the Willamette Pass Ski Area in 13:50, to place 5th. When he crossed the finish line, my parents, who finally saw a real ultra, noticed him because there was so much cheering. “Who is that guy?” my mom asked. “He must have a lot of charisma!” I explained to my mom that it was not really charisma, just that everyone was so relieved the old guy had been able to finish. Nice job, bushwhacker 😉
For the rest of us, those lucky master’s and relay winners, we received something almost as nice as a North Face tent — Jon Gnass framed photographs from the top of Mt. Fuji, overlooking Waldo Lake. As of today, the photograph is up in my office, where it rates its own wall.
This course, the support, and the mountain/lake views are the real reward at Where’s Waldo, but let there be no doubt — Waldo is a graduate level ultra. With an August start next year, longer cut offs, and more daylight, Waldo will offer the best opportunity in the Pacific Northwest for qualified runners to test themselves. It wouldn’t surprise me if they gave out mortarboards and diplomas to the graduates of this one.
Thanks again to Curt and Barb Ringstad, Craig and Laurie Thornley, Clem and Jan LaCava, Jon and Karen Gnass, and all the other volunteers for spending time to make this race such a success. The phrase — if you build it, they will come — portends great things for Waldo.