Race Report – 2013 Pine To Palm 100

My Pine to Palm 100 adventure started on the eve of the race, with a Friday afternoon drive with my helpful crew of my girlfriend Cara and her trusty sidekick chihuahua, Donovan. Onward we went, through Northern California and Southern Oregon to the somewhat middle-of-nowhere town of Williams, Oregon. After a couple minor wrong turns and a hunt for a gas station in the tiny town of Jacksonville, we made it to Williams just as the pre-race briefing wrapped up. I ate some of the provided spaghetti dinner while hoping that “…and the flags are orange and blue. Good luck!” was enough information for the race.

Sleep was, unsurprisingly, fitful. The starry night sky, however, was a beautiful sight, far from the light pollution of any populated areas. I awoke and got ready in the usual blurry haze and we set off to the start. This involved another wrong turn and some minor stress since the 6:00 am start time was rapidly approaching, but we arrived with just enough time to walk to the starting line and retrieve my race number. Before I had much time to think about the fact that I was going to run my first 100 mile race… we were off!

Up, Up, Up (and Down) We Go – Start to O’Brien Creek

The first 10 miles or so of the race involve a steady climb up Grayback Mountain. This takes you out of the low foothills of Williams and nearly 5000 feet up to the summit. The sun was rising, my legs were fresh, and everyone I encountered was in good spirits for this climb. It is a long grind, make no mistake, but it was a beautiful morning and it was easy enough to get into a rhythm. After several hours of climbing I finally topped out and was able to start down the backside of the mountain.

The first downhill was glorious. It was all singletrack with just the right amount of twists and turns. I went harder than I should have, given that it was very early in the race, but I just couldn’t bring myself to slow down. It felt fantastic to be tearing up some downhill after the long, steady climbing of the last few hours. It was over all too quickly, and I rolled into the O’Brien aid station at mile 15.

A Different Kind of Grind – O’Brien Creek to Seattle Bar

The downhill didn’t end at O’Brien, but the fun, technical downhill did. The next 13 miles did involve some trail, but what stands out in my memory is the time on the road. It was a dramatic change from all the wonderful up and down of Grayback Mountain, and quite honestly I didn’t enjoy it all that much. A gentle descent was “easier” than a 5000’ climb of course, but mentally it felt a little draining. I’m sure it didn’t help that I was realizing that, at about 25 miles in, I had nearly run a marathon but was only down with the first quarter of the race. 75 more miles? Are you kidding?!?

Fortunately, the grind ended and I dropped in to the first crew-accessible aid station at Seattle Bar at mile 28. It was a relief to see a friendly face, and of course to get some food and water. I remember being handed a smoothie and it was heavenly. Nothing like a long day of running to help you appreciate the little things.

I also had to tend to my shoes at Seattle Bar, since part of the sole of one of my Cascadia 8’s had detached and was flapping around. A little duct tape and I was back in action, but I was irritated. I love the Cascadia line, but the 8’s have given me a lot of grief with ripped eyelets and now the soles. Minor repairs completed, I headed out to face the next big climb.

It Wasn’t *That* Bad – Seattle Bar to Stein Butte

Reading other race reports and hearing people talk about the race, this section was by far the most maligned. For one thing, the mileage chart lists it as five miles, but in reality it was about six and a half. That isn’t a huge difference, but when the terrain is a mix of steep climbs with occasional steep, short descents on an exposed, hot slope, the extra distance isn’t trivial. That said, I found this section challenging, but not even close to the toughest part of the course. My legs were still relatively fresh, and I had switched from a handheld bottle to my Nathan vest so I had plenty of water. I had also picked up poles at Seattle Bar, which turned out to be a lifesaver.

I owned trekking poles, and had used them extensively while backpacking. However, I had never gotten around to trying them on an actual run. I knew it was a risk to try something new for a big race, but I figured even if I hated them I could always just hand them off at the next crew access, so I gave it a shot. I could not be happier that I did. I’m fairly confident I could not have finished the race without them.

With my poles I marched on, up the steep, hot hill. While it was most definitely hot, it didn’t compare to a summer day in Chico, California. From my training I still had at least a little heat conditioning to draw upon, so I kept myself hydrated, went slow and steady, and just kept going. I wasn’t measuring the miles, so I didn’t really get the same disheartened feeling that others did about the extra distance to the aid station. I kept chugging along and eventually it came into view. I absolutely needed some water by this point, so with that and some fruit (and a sponge-soak on my head) I was recharged and ready to face the next section.

An Afternoon at the Lake – Stein Butte to Squaw Lake

The climbing isn’t done at Stein Butte, and there’s another 800’ or so of uphill, but then you get a descent down to the next crew access point at Squaw Lake. Since this aid station was easy to get to and most runners hit it mid-day, it was a busy place to be. It was wonderful to have crew support again, since I was starting to feel the miles by this point. I wasn’t as mentally exhausted as I would become later, but my legs were definitely letting me know that this had already been a solid day of running.

Arriving at Squaw Lake aid station you actually leave briefly and take a three-mile, very flat, trail around the lake. This felt much harder than it should have, and I tried to stay positive, knowing I still had another 60 miles to go. After the trip around the lake, I tried to take in some calories and then prepared to head out. I had handed off my poles for the trip around the lake and didn’t get them back before tackling the next section. That would prove to be a big mistake.

Struggling to Halfway – Squaw Lake to Hanley Gap

Leaving Squaw Lake there’s a dusty descent down a dirt road that is easy enough. Then you make a sharp right, and you’re back to climbing. In fact, you’re back to about 2000’ of climbing. This was a long, demoralizing hike for me. I had handed off my trekking poles, and I regretted it almost immediately. I soldiered on for maybe half a mile before deciding that this just wasn’t going to work. I needed some kind of walking stick badly. Fortunately, being in a forest, sticks were plentiful so I quickly found one that I would keep through the entire climb. It wasn’t nearly as comfortable as my poles, but it got the job done and kept me moving.

The terrain for the climb was an old jeep road, so it wasn’t technically challenging. It was just that it seemed to go on forever. With each passing step I sank further and further into a mental low. This was partly due to the simple fact of having been out on the course for 12 hours and closing in on my previous maximum race distance of 50 miles. In retrospect I think I was also a little behind on my nutrition and was paying the price with a dip in energy levels. Whatever the combination of factors, by the time I saw Cara waiting on the trail a short distance out from the Hanley Gap aid station, I was pretty well spent.

The Hanley Gap (a.k.a. Squaw Peak) aid station is actually hit twice. That’s because after arriving the first time you have to do a short, 700’ climb up to the peak, grab a flag, and return. The details of my time at Hanley Gap are a little hazy, but I know I ate a little something before I headed up that climb. That’s easy to remember, because my stomach felt terrible. The closest I came to throwing up for the entire 100 miles was on that climb. Thankfully the nausea passed and I slogged up and back down the peak with my flag in my pack.

By the time I got back down from the peak night had settled in. So a) I felt mentally and physically exhausted, b) my stomach wasn’t happy, c) I still had just under 50 miles to go, and d) it was dark. Some time in a chair, sipping ginger ale, eating soup and receiving encouragement from Cara alleviated a) and b) somewhat. Alas, c) and d) were inarguable facts of the situation, so with some fresh layers to ward against any nighttime chill I set off.

The Endless Night – Hanley Gap to Dutchman’s Peak

By far the longest subjective section of the race took place between the time I left Hanley Gap (a little before 9:00 pm) and the time I arrived at the top of Dutchman Peak (just after 1:00 am). This section was just plain grueling, mentally and physically. Things start off with two 500-700’ climbs, which, while not outrageously steep, were still draining since my brain was confused about why I was still exercising at a time that would clearly be better used for getting some sleep. My memory of that time is simply that it was dark and I kept slogging. It was an initial 8 miles to get to the Squaw Creek Gap aid station. Thankfully, the saviors manning this wonderful outpost actually had soup and ginger ale that they provided to me as I sank down in a proffered chair. I don’t know how I would have done the next section without that blessing.

Leaving Squaw Creek Gap, I climbed. And climbed. And. Climbed. The first section is a logging road, cut at the perfect angle as to not require switchbacks. It was awful. With the dark night and the nearly unchanging dirt road, I felt like I was making no progress at all. And, truth be told, I was going so slowly that I probably wasn’t making all that much. Occasionally a crew car would drive by, adding some dust to the mix. This did prove that the road must lead somewhere, but I was not able to truly appreciate it. It was also somewhere along this climb I actually began to be concerned about the cut-off times for the course.

The Dutchman’s Peak aid station listed a cut-off time of 2:00 am, and the time on my watch crept on to 11:00 and then closer to midnight. I had no clear idea how far I had gone or had yet to go, and I knew I was moving at a snail’s pace on the never-ending climbs. Then I got the first of two nasty surprises: someone lied about how close the next aid station was. In all fairness, I don’t think they were actually trying to lie. It was probably either ignorance or a simple mistake. But the net result for me was the same: I was told the next aid station was “about a half mile” when it was really closer to 2. I cannot stress how much I was looking forward to reaching the next aid station, so to be misled was incredibly demoralizing in my very depleted state.

Soldiering on through the “half mile” and beyond, I eventually reached the base of the Dutchman’s Peak climb, where I got my second nasty surprise: no aid station. More precisely, the aid station was at the top of Dutchman’s Peak, rather than the base (which is what the aid station list on the website showed). So, I arrived at this point, 65 miles into the race, utterly exhausted, hungry, wanting to change clothes and shoes, and desperate to get a big dose of love, hugs and moral support from Cara. Instead, I got a lonely, steep climb.

The Starry Night – Dutchman’s Peak to Long John Saddle

The music was blaring at the top of Dutchman’s Peak, and I stumbled in at 1:04 am. I sat down and tried to eat some food, with limited success. I was distracted and concerned about how exactly I was going to find Cara. There hadn’t been any clear signage at the spot the aid station should have been, and I wasn’t sure where she would be able to park. I was also much later than I’d hoped, so I knew she would be wondering where I was. I somehow got up, got myself pointed downhill and made it back down the steep peak. As I headed down the trail near the base of the climb towards some cars parked along a logging road, I was spotted by my wonderful crew of one and shepherded back to her car.

I had a little food, and changed almost all my clothes as well as my shoes. It was like shedding my skin. By the time I left the car I felt like a new man. It also helps that upon leaving Dutchman’s Peak you are treated to nearly 3 miles of mostly downhill single track. Of course, I went too hard, but it still felt wonderful. After a short climb, there is more downhill including some single track. The views were simply amazing. At one point I had to just stop and stare at the sky for a while.

The course was fairly easy, but the night and the miles were adding up by this stage. The fact of the matter was that I was moving very slowly. It was with no small amount of relief that I cruised in to the large, friendly looking aid station of Long John Saddle somewhere around 4:00 am. Here, at 74 miles, I had to actively fight the urge to consider myself “almost there”. Conversely, I couldn’t let myself get overwhelmed with the fact that I was still facing an entire marathon’s worth of running. It was a delicate balance to maintain, made tougher with the knowledge that the remaining aid stations had no crew access and I wouldn’t see Cara again until the end. So I set out, worn, but determined to fight through to the finish.

Pain and Tedium – Long John Saddle to Wagner Butte Trailhead

The next 6 miles of the course should have been a cakewalk. Dull, yes, but a cakewalk. The course was a wide, flat logging road with a gentle downhill slope. Unfortunately for my beat up body, nothing felt easy. And with no variation in terrain, I had no easy distractions from the suffering. It was miles of this monotony, with me shuffling along at a snail’s pace. The sun came up at some point, but I have no clear memory of it. All I remember is finally reaching the Wagner Butte Trailhead and knowing that, whatever was next, it definitely wasn’t any more of that tedium.

The Final Climb – Wagner Butte Trailhead to Wagner Butte Summit

Sunday had dawned when I reached the trailhead a little before 7:00 am. This meant I was now closing in on 25 long, hard hours on the trail. One more climb remained before I could put all the uphill behind me, so I set off for the top of Wagner Butte. Leaving the aid station the map shows a nice downhill for a couple of miles, but I honestly have no memory of that. What I do remember is a slow, steady march through a beautiful, forested trail. I had been running alone for much of the night, but on the final climb there were actually a few other runners in sight. While I wasn’t coherent enough for anything resembling conversation, it was still nice to have confirmation that I was not alone in facing the final miles of this challenge.

The trail climbed steadily until it reached a plateau at Wagner Glade, then split left to take a 1.5 mile trail out to the summit proper. There, we were to retrieve another flag as evidence of our adventures to be handed off at the next aid station. The summit trail was not as steep, but still a steady grind until finally reaching the rocky lookout platform. Getting onto the platform and obtaining the flag actually took a little balancing and climbing up and over some rocks. I’d read reports of people not being too keen on this section, and I could see why. For me, in broad daylight, it was easy enough, but if it had been the middle of the night, or raining and slick, it would have made for a slightly more dicey proposition.

Flag in hand, I rested briefly and secured my pack as I prepared for the final all-downhill push to the next aid station and to the finish.

The Final Descent – Wagner Butte Summit to the Finish

The descent from Wagner Butte really occurred for me in three stage. The first was the gentle downhill back along the summit trail to Wagner Glade. This was uneventful, and I was starting to really look forward to being done. In retrospect, I can see that I got ahead of myself here, because once you leave the summit you still have about a half-marathon worth of running still to do. Of course, all I could do at the time was grin and dig in as I started the second part of the downhill. This was soft, forgiving single track through the forest, reminiscent of the first part of the downhill trail from Grayback Mountain, way back at mile 10-15. Alas, just like that descent, all good things had to come to an end. In this case, that end was the trail intersection with Road 2060 at the final aid station; welcome to mile 90 and the start of my stage three.

On paper, the last 10 miles of the race seem pretty reasonable. A long, steady 3000’ descent from the forest road into Ashland. My legs, no, my entire body, disagreed heartily with this assessment once I started to run it. The soft single track was replaced with a solid dirt road. Immediately, every step downhill sent jarring pain through my feet, knees and quads. Everything ached, and I slowed to a crawl. Of course, slowing down just meant I had more time to appreciate the agony. But I kept pushing forward.

I had of course heard of people dropping from a 100 miler after mile 90, but I had not really understood it until now. It’s only 10 miles, right? You’ve come so far, what could stop you now? I did not drop, nor did I seriously consider it, but I could completely understand the motivation after the countless pain-filled steps I took on that godforsaken downhill road.

After about 6 miles the road turns on to a trail. This was a welcome relief, but it was then that I truly began to appreciate that, while the descent is technically 3000’ over 10 miles, it happens to put 2000 of that 3000’ in the last 4.5 miles. So, as my legs were screaming at me with every step, the descent steepened considerably. I whimpered and moaned, inside my head I think, and tried to focus on the finish line. No more shoes, no more being on my feet, no.more.downhill.

Pine to Palm wasn’t done with me yet. The end of the course, a little less than a mile maybe, is a paved surface street. Hard, unforgiving tarmac. Oh, and it’s also brutally steep, dropping you the last several hundred feet from the hills of Ashland in a rush and depositing you at lovely Lithia Park. I wanted to die. I couldn’t believe there was still more pain. There was never a question of stopping, but I wondered if it might be easier if I just crawled the final little bit rather than suffer one more agonizing step.

In the end, I crossed the finish line on my feet and with something that hopefully resembled a smile on my face. I was even able to stay vertical long enough to talk briefly with Hal Koerner, congratulating all the finishers who made it through his race. He was impressed that there were quite a number of folks who had finished the race as their first foray into the 100 mile distance. I was more than a little pleased to be among them.

 

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