Where’s Waldo 100K
August 16, 2003
By Steve Smucker
“Many forces may draw us to the mountains – the thrill and excitement of experiencing the great outdoors, the chance to reconnect with family and friends – we can never underestimate the value of natural surroundings in renewing the human spirit.” Willamette Pass Ski Area brochure.
Last year, we opined that the Where’s Waldo 100K was a tough, graduate level ultra. Two thirds of the field dropped out, and the rest (except for Valerie Caldwell) ran slowly. There was speculation the course was long.
This year, Yueh-Han Lin, a 21-year old college student who’d never run a trail ultra, signed up for Waldo. He planned to take it out fast – to the edge of the envelope – to see what was out there. If he blew up, there was always next year, or, for that matter, the next half-century, for him to get it right.
Lin was exactly the type of runner Kelly Woodke must have feared. Woodke had beaten the other competitors at shorter distances, and had a great race at Ashland’s SOB 50K earlier this year, where he finished second, by one second, to Juan Martinez. We were all keeping an eye on Woodke to see if his prediction of a course record would come true.
The first climb up to Fuji Mountain at 7,144 feet is 16 miles. Just before the top, there’s an out and back section, which provides an opportunity to see the front-runners. They ran down, as we headed up. Woodke was leading. Lin was half a step back. I was over a mile behind.
At the top of Fuji, search and rescue volunteers alerted me to look up from the trail. Below, surrounded by forest, was Waldo Lake, framed by the snow-capped mountains of the Oregon Cascades. I inhaled the rare air, paused, and reflected, before settling in to enjoy the descent on the smoking single track trail that makes Waldo a runners’ course. Over a bed of pine needles under a canopy of tall firs, we followed the Pacific Crest Trail through meadows, around shimmering lakes and on, endlessly at times, toward Charlton Lake — the halfway point. When I got there, I was tired, and thinking about quitting, so I left the aid station quickly, before the negative thoughts had time to take hold. Shortly thereafter, I caught John Robinson, who had reeled in Mr. Woodke. I was cool, and pulled in behind. Woodke looks back and says: “Steve, we’re 25 minutes faster than last year.”
Then things start to happen. Suddenly, we were at the next aid station at 38 miles. The three of us pulled in together, and thanks to friendly prompting from one of the volunteers – “get out of here!” – I exited the aid station before the other two. After a couple miles of steep climbing, I dared peak behind. No one was there!
This was a tough course, there were over 20 miles to go, and the only person ahead of me was a 21 year-old college student running his first trail ultra? Could this be, the perfect fairy tail ending where the grizzled veteran runs down the young prey and wins?!
I was cordial to Yueh-Han Lin when we met at the base of the second climb to The Twins, at 7,362 feet. We each opened a water jug to fill our bottles. He was headed down. I was still headed up. His face was caked with salt. There was a hint of concern, as he asked: “Is anyone back there?” I probably should have said: “No, the race is all yours,” in an effort to lull him into complacency, but instead, I told the truth — “I don’t know.” Yueh-Han then turned, ran down the mountain, and shattered John Pearch’s course record by 50 minutes.
Meanwhile, I had a wolf pack on my heels. I didn’t know what was shaping up back there, but I am familiar with the breed – savage and merciless on the trail, friendly and cordial in civilized social settings. I did not want those snarling dogs running me down and tearing my psyche to shreds. So I took off my shirt and ran.
The first sign of civilization was the lodge at Willamette Pass. I cruised in to receive my finisher’s diploma, a fine threaded cap from SportHill, and made my way to the outdoor beer garden. The first pint went down fast. I started a second. I tried to eat a couple burgers, but found the wolf in me had vanished. People were friendly and cordial, and as the day went on I noticed there was no snarling, and no teeth were bared. After a day in the woods, our animal spirits had been renewed and we were all better prepared to return to our lives in civilized society.
Experienced ultra runners designed Waldo, not only to test and challenge the participants, but to share the special trails and views of the Cascade Mountains with their friends. The effort to do so is probably a little more than they imagined, but co-race directors, Curt Ringstad and Craig Thornley, were smiling and pleased at the end of the day. They know it. They’ve got a beauty here, and when the USATF committee finally gets around to looking for a national 100K-trail championship, they need look no farther than the Willamette Pass Ski Area, 70 miles east of Eugene, Oregon.