So it’s been quiet on the blog posting front the last week or so as I got ready for my big race of the year: the Pine To Palm 100. This was my second running of the race, and last year I wrote about my 2013 run in some detail. I had struggled last year, but I did hold it together and finish. This year, with course knowledge in my back pocket, I was hoping to significantly better last year’s run and turn in a solid performance. And with my new efforts on creating my own race, I’d be able to get another round of lessons in what works and what doesn’t when putting on an ultramarathon.
After a fitful night’s camping, I woke up bright and early and made it to the starting line, once again depending on the dedicated crewing efforts of my girlfriend, Cara. It was the same pre-dawn chaos as last year as drivers and runners attempted to negotiate the narrow road that leads to the race start, just outside of Williams, Oregon. With a final countdown to 6:00 am, I was off for another run at the course.
The course was the same as previous years, which starts the race out with a 10 mile climb up to the top of Grayback Mountain. The conditions were different than last year though, due to a long-burning wildfire not too far over the border into California. The orange sunrise and dry, smoky air made for a surreal morning climb.
My pace for the first part of the course was perfect, in that I happened to be trucking along just ahead of Scott Dunlap, blogger extraordinaire over at A Trail Runner’s Blog. This was the equivalent to running with a celebrity for me, so I was pretty excited. He is also a master at photographing his runs on the go, and my spot on the trail let me sneak into a couple shots.
While my pace was perfect for getting my picture taken, it was a trifle faster than I should have been going first thing in the morning. I rolled in to the first real aid station, O’Brien Creek at mile 15, and stopped to fuel up.
Unfortunately, once you drop down off the mountain the lower elevation road miles are a bit of a hot, smoky grind. It’s true that the smoke kept the temperature down (more on that later), but the trade-off was irritated lungs. I was very thankful for being able to run a stretch of it with another runner; a little distraction goes a long way. One by one the miles ticked off (as they always do), and I rolled into Seattle Bar at mile 28.
Seattle Bar is crew-accessible, so I got to see Cara as well as Scott Dakof, a new trail running friend who was helping Cara crew until he stepped in to pace for me later in the race. It’s always a boost to see your crew, no two ways about it. Unfortunately, I was flagging a little bit already. I was doing fine with drinking water, but I simply was not doing a good enough job on taking in calories on the trail. Spoiler alert: that leads to problems.
Everyone who talks about Pine To Palm (including me last year) has plenty to say about the climb out of Seattle Bar to Stein Butte, but all you really need to know is that it’s mid-day, exposed, and relentlessly uphill for 6-7 miles. The forecast for this year was even warmer than last year, so everyone was extra nervous about this section. Thankfully, the blazing heat didn’t come to pass. Oh, it was still miserably hot… but the heavy, choking smoke did everyone a favor by keeping the direct sunlight down and the temperature a few degrees cooler. Alas, the smoke could not make the climbing any less steep, so it was still a burly hike up to the top.
After another uphill section, less steep, but still cruel after Stein Butte, runners are finally treated to a bit of shade and a long descent into the Squaw Lake aid station.
Once more, I was greeted by my crew and given words of encouragement to get me out for the 3 mile loop around the lake and back to the aid station.
I was already down on nutrition, and it took me longer than I wanted to get going again out of the aid station. I knew from experience that there was a long, tough climb in between Squaw Lake and the next full aid station at Hanley Gap. That knowledge didn’t save me from bottoming out, for the second year in a row, at the halfway mark.
Runners roll into Hanley Gap at mile 50, and the halfway point in a 100 miler has proven a tough spot for me. There is absolutely no way you can sugarcoat it for yourself; you’re most definitely not “almost there”. And both years I let myself get behind on nutrition, compounding the mental exhaustion with low physical energy. I was, without a doubt, saved from a DNF by my crew. Cara and Scott got me to eat, then eat some more. Clothes were changed, and I was pampered in a way that would make most luxury spa customers envious. Pacing and crewing plans were changed, so Scott had to work out a ride with another crew while Cara gave a ride to another runner who was calling it a night. All of this magic happened around me while I sat in a chair looking shellshocked.
Thanks to the heroic efforts of those around me, I was finally ushered out of Hanley Gap and sent up the road; destination: Dutchman Peak. The approximately 14 miles from Hanley Gap to the top of Dutchman took somewhere around 172361872639 hours. Or maybe four. Either way, it was subjectively a long, long time. Compounding my general “this is hard” feeling were two concerns: the cut-off time and my long-suffering pacer. Dutchman Peak aid station requires you to be out and on the trail by 2:00 am, and I was on pace to arrive there sometime around 1:30. I hadn’t been getting any faster over the miles, so I was nervous about running late. I also knew my pacer Scott, who had taken a ride from Hanley Gap, would have been there for hours at this point, wondering if and when I would arrive. At some point I decided it was just plain unacceptable to miss the cut-off, dug deep, and managed to maintain my pace and reach the peak at about 1:15 am.
I don’t have a picture from the Dutchman Peak aid station, but the above image does a pretty good job at capturing the moment. I arrived, exhausted and dimwitted, and plunked down in a chair. Scott leapt into action, getting me food, drink, and a blanket and trying to assess my condition. I could have easily stayed there waaaaay too long, so it was really a good thing that I was so close to the cut-off. With no choice, I hauled myself to my feet after a paltry 30 minutes and we started off down the hill, hoping that Another One Bites The Dust playing on the aid station stereo as we left (no joke) wasn’t a bad omen.
I have read other race reports where runners rally and turn things around late in a long ultra. This has always seemed impossible, but with that much time on the trail, nothing is impossible. With the diligent care and feeding from Cara at Hanley Gap, and the morale boost from picking up Scott at Dutchman Peak, I was primed for a turn-around.
This was my first ultra with a pacer, and I can say I am unbelievably thankful I had a good one. Scott was consistent with a positive attitude, encouraging me to go just that little bit faster than I would have on my own, but not pushing me into anything unsustainable. Just as importantly, he was able to compensate for my big, obvious failing: not taking in enough nutrition on the go. Gently, but relentlessly, he kept my calorie intake up and it slowly began to pay dividends.
The run from Dutchman Peak to Long John Saddle in the early morning hours was challenging, but almost relaxing compared to the work getting up to Dutchman. It also helped that both he and I had run some of that section of the course while doing the SOB 50 mile just two months back. By the time the section was done I hadn’t made up a lot of time, but I hadn’t slowed down any and I was actually feeling mostly human. The long gentle up, then down on the logging road out of Long John was tough simply because I’d been on my feet for 23 hours, but it wasn’t the death march it had felt like the previous year. The moon was up and bright enough to even allow us to run by moonlight for a while, until the slowly rising sun made the sky light enough to see clearly and guide us in to the aid station at the Wagner Butte Trailhead.
Wagner Butte Trailhead aid station is, not shockingly, at the start of the Wagner Butte Trail. This is the race’s last big climb, taking the runners from 5,000 feet to just above 7,000 feet in just a couple miles on very, very tired legs. Since I’d been eating/force fed and I knew exactly how long and grueling the climb was and the sun was now up, this wasn’t as demoralizing as it sounds. It was just a steady, steady climb. My right knee was twinging, so I just kept my steps short and continued my march. Before I knew it I was doing the final, rocky scramble and retrieving my flag, ready to start the long descent.
The race ends with about 15 miles of downhill running. That’s a lot of downhill miles for abused and misused legs. Last year I was reduced to near tears during the last 10 miles, as each step sent waves of pain from my foot through every part of my leg up to my hip. This year felt like a miracle in comparison. I took the first few miles at a slower, steady pace, negotiating the last of the singletrack as I descended Wagner Butte. I hit the last aid station at mile 90, still distracted by last year’s pain. With some pacer-encouragement I found a steady pace… then a slightly faster pace… and then I held it. Suddenly, it felt good to be moving along at a pace that an observer would actually label as “running” rather than “zombie shuffle”.
I rolled through the water station at mile 96 for the final, steep descent into Ashland. This is about 3 miles of trail, followed by a mile of pavement. And.I.loved.it. I ramped up my pace even more, flinging myself down the trail and around the turns, passing 4 or 5 other runners in the process. It felt like the last push in a much shorter race, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
There was only one significant downside to my (relatively speaking) blistering finish. Cara, watching my timing and knowing how last year’s race played out, had not yet arrived at the finish line when I crossed it. I can’t complain about a solid run, but I’m sorry I got in before she was there to see it. Her crewing and support through the race made the whole thing possible, and the finish was very much her success as well.
In the end, I finished a full hour faster than last year: 29:27 instead of 30:29. It was substantially slower than I was hoping to go, but noticeably faster than last year. More important than that, I learned (again) some very important lessons about fueling on the run. I also got a chance to experience the miracles that can be worked by a good team, dedicated to getting their runner across the finish line.
Many thanks to Hal Koerner, the Race Director, as well as the countless aid station workers and other volunteers. I’m glad I was able to participate again in the Pine to Palm 100!
That’s a wrap for the race report itself. For those interested in my perspective as a would-be Race Director, read on…
Anyone who puts on a point-to-point 100 mile race, like anyone who runs 100 miles, has to be ready for a long, grueling ride. There are an amazing amount of moving parts that all need to come together for the 48 hours from pre-race briefing to awards ceremony, and I’m impressed by anyone (Hal in this case) with the dedication to make it all happen. Running this race for the second time in two years provided plenty of opportunities to observe race direction at a grand scale.
I really like the option provided to camp at the same location where they do the pre-race dinner and briefing on Friday night. It’s primitive camping, so it’s not for everyone, but it gives people the option to stay very close to the course start and, even better, stay there for free. I won’t be able to do anything like this for my race, unfortunately, but it’s still a nice touch.
For course route and markings, Pine To Palm is a great race. The course covers a huge area, but the markings are consistent and well-placed. Even last year, when I was new to the course, I did not get lost nor was I ever worried I was off route for more than a couple minutes.
One of the things that drove me a little bonkers both last year and this year is the stated aid station mileage. From the comments I’ve heard from runners both years, this was a common issue. For multiple aid stations the mileage given on the website doesn’t match the mileage shown on a “next aid station in X miles” sign, and neither of them match the actual mileage. This isn’t a “you said 5 my GPS said 5.2!” situation, but differences of 1-2 miles in some cases. For a run like this there should be no question as to the mileage, and it should be published and consistent across all sources.
An area where Pine To Palm shines is the post-race ceremony. The race winners finish in sub-20 hours and the final runners come through sometime after 33 hours. With a large discrepancy, Hal does the awards ceremony on Sunday afternoon, right after the 34 hour mark. This ensures that the blazing fast winners and gutting it out back of the pack runners all get a chance to be together at the end. Hal also does more than just praise 1st place and move on. He makes it an interactive event, having everyone stand up and say their name and answer a question about the race. It gives a personal touch to the proceedings, helping to make the race a shared experience even after the fact. For my event, even though it’s only 50 miles, I’ve still wondered how to handle things post-race. There could easily be six hours between first and last place, and I don’t want any finishers to feel like they aren’t a part of the event. I don’t know that I can replicate Pine To Palm, but it will certainly serve as an inspiration to be as inclusive as possible.
I’m lucky to have had another chance to see a huge ultra unfold first-hand. I can’t wait to take all I’ve learned and apply it next summer. Now if I can just get them to wrap up the permitting approval…