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Squaw Lake Trail - Pine To Palm 100 2014

Race Report – 2014 Pine To Palm 100

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.

Shirt - Pine To Palm 100 2014

The elevation profile of the Pine To Palm 100, screened on the back of our race shirts (click to zoom)

Runner’s Report

At the start of the Pine To Palm 100

Awake and (apparently) ready to go

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.

Climbing the Grayback Mountain Trail at the Pine to Palm 100

The morning climb up Grayback Mountain (photo by Scott Dunlap)

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.

O'Brien Creek Aid Station - Pine to Palm 100

All smiles at the aid station (photo by Scott Dunlap)

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 aid station at Pine to Palm 100

Fresh shirt and ready to go(?) at Seattle Bar

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.

Trail to Squaw Lake - Pine to Palm 100 2014

Descending into Squaw Lake (photo by Tom Riley)

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.

Squaw Lake aid station - Pine To Palm 100 2014

Cara sporting a hat from the 2013 race as she keeps me on my feet

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.

Hanley Gap aid station - Pine to Palm 100 2014

I demonstrate that it’s a very fine line between smiling and just clenching your teeth

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.

Dutchman Peak aid station - Pine to Palm 100 2014

Me at the Dutchman Peak aid station (more or less)

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 Aid Station - Pine to Palm 100 2014

My direction for this picture was to “look strong”… totally nailed it

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!

After the finish - Pine to Palm 100 2014

Resting at the finish line with my pacer, Scott (He’s just blinking, he hasn’t passed out… yet)

That’s a wrap for the race report itself. For those interested in my perspective as a would-be Race Director, read on…

 

Director’s Report

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

Race Report – Siskiyou Out Back (SOB) 50 mile

This was my second year participating in the Siskiyou Out Back Trail Run, fondly known as the SOB. Once again I signed up for the 50 mile distance, though they offer a popular 50k and 15k version as well. The race starts and finishes at the Mount Ashland Ski Area in Ashland, Oregon, running along the beautiful Siskiyou mountains in southern Oregon and far northern California.

Mount Ashland Ski Area

View from Mount Ashland Ski Area, looking south

This was a training race for me in more ways than one. It’s part of my mileage build up for the upcoming Pine To Palm 100, but since that race also takes place in the Siskiyou’s it’s good location-specific training as well. There are even about seven miles of the course that overlap between the SOB and Pine To Palm. Of course, with Pine To Palm those miles occur in the dark of night, so the experience was just slightly different.

As a Race Director, this was also another chance to gain insight to all the logistics required to pull off a successful ultra. This race has a similar variety of distances and I was interested to view the race through RD eyes to see what I could glean.

For the second year in a row I had my all-in-one driver, support crew, cheerleader and girlfriend Cara with me. Waking up at the crack of dawn, we made the drive from Ashland up the hill to the ski area, arriving just as the sky lightened with time to pickup my race number and snap a few pictures prior to the start of the race.

Pre-race smiles

Pre-race smiles

Runner’s Report

Since this was my second year participating in this race, I thought I had a pretty good handle on how things would go. Of course, any time you’re racing at the ultra distances that attitude just begs to be proved wrong.

The course starts out with a couple miles of gentle rolling terrain. The sun is rising and you are greeted with beautiful, expansive views of the mountains. Amazing views of Mount Shasta standing tall off in the distance, and the early race excitement, make the early miles seem light. The first, short climb didn’t bother me, and then I hit the long, three mile descent that I remembered well from the previous year. It was memorable because, as an out-and-back course, a long descent early in the race equates to a long, grueling climb in the final miles. That climb destroyed me in 2013 and I really wanted to handle it better this year.

I blasted through the descent, and the subsequent climb-descend-climb, to cover the first 15 miles of the course. This is the turn-around point for the 50k race, a drop bag location, and a good size aid station (Jackson Gap). It was there that I discovered my sunglasses had fallen off the top of my head when I had taken a minor spill on the earlier descent. Just as I was grimacing at the thought of squinting through a long, sunny day another runner rolled into the aid station announcing that he had found some sunglasses. I was saved! I wish I had the presence of mind to have noted his race number, but I was mid-race and the details are hazy. So, thank you, anonymous runner, for saving my eyes!

After the Jackson Gap aid station, I began the seven mile descent that actually carries runners across the border into California. I wasn’t having much trouble (yet), but I was starting to get some signals from my body that I didn’t like. I was not expecting to notice my legs this early in the race, so some tightening in the glutes and IT bands was worrisome. I put it out of my mind as I finished the descent and rolled into the Wards Fork aid station. This is the last aid station on the course, and from there runners do a three mile climb out to the top of Big Rock before turning around and descending back to the aid station. I hit the midpoint of the race in 4:30, which is about the same as the first year I ran the course. This was also a little worrisome, since my body felt like I’d been running harder than the previous year. Feeling more worn out, but not running any faster, did not bode well.

I descended the three miles to Wards Fork, then began the seven mile climb up to Jackson Gap. I felt every mile. My pace was not terrible (yet), just slower than I wanted. I was lagging, but it wasn’t until I hit Jackson Gap at mile 35 that the low settled in on me. I was slower than I hoped, I was feeling worse than I had anticipated, and I was now over the “I’m used to this” distance and into the upper 30s. I fell into a hole of negative thoughts that held me pretty tight for the next section of the course. The course is mostly downhill for the next six miles, but I simply couldn’t get my pace up. The negative feedback loop is always amazing to watch, and, in retrospect, so pointless.

In the throes of this low, at around 41 miles in, I hit the three mile climb I mentioned earlier. It seemed to take an eternity. I was reduced to focusing on the basics: step forward with one foot, step forward with the other foot, repeat. Somehow, this “strategy” finally paid off. I reached the summit and traversed the final 1/4 mile to the last aid station on the course, a scant five miles from the finish. I sagged into a chair, drank ginger ale, and contemplated how nice it would be to not have to run any further. After the mental low and the grueling climb, there was a definite feeling of heavy despair.

Thankfully, I had the two weapons that every ultrarunner needs: positive, friendly aid station personnel plus an internal certainty that anything is possible. The folks at the Williamette Meridian aid station were encouraging and helpful, and were willing to let me sit for just long enough to get myself together, but not so long that I couldn’t get back up. Fueled up on ginger ale and a banana, I groaned to my feet, gritted my teeth, thanked the gods for no more significant climbing, told myself to stop complaining, and shuffled out onto the trail.

The next couple miles blurred by, and I finally exited the trail onto the access road that leads runners the final mile to the finish line. This area is accessible to friends and family, so I was greeted with the smiling face of Cara, fresh off an hour+ of waiting for me but still happy. I wasn’t able to communicate much at that point, but I was flooded with relief at the sight of her. We all run alone, but support makes all the difference in the world. There are many finish lines I would have a much harder time crossing without her.

Director’s Report

While I struggled from a runner’s perspective, I was still able to observe with an eye for input to my own upcoming race. The SOB sets a good example, since I feel they do a lot of things right. They have a fantastic staff of volunteers and race personnel, and you can feel their support and enthusiasm at every aid station. It was reinforced for me how crucial it will be to enlist quality volunteers, and keep them interested and motivated as the race planning moves forward.

On the course side of things, they again score high marks. Things are very well-marked, and I have never had trouble finding my way. I did learn something for my race director notebook, however. As noted, this is an out-and-back course, and the 50 mile and 50k share the same route in both directions. The split occurs at the Jackson Gap aid station, where 50k runners turn around and 50 mile runners continue on down a nearby trail. Unfortunately, the first two runners reached Jackson Gap before the aid station was setup and mistakenly turned, following part of the return course. They realized their error, but not until they had run an extra 3+ miles the wrong way. I don’t see this as an issue with the course marking, but it highlights for me the importance of having things in place for even the speediest of the runners. And no matter how fast you think they’ll run, they could be even faster.

On a purely fun, sadistic note I love what the directors did for the turnaround at the midpoint of the course. The last three-ish miles are a steady climb, until you hit the last quarter-mile, where you’re confronted with a steep, rocky not-quite-a-scramble to the top of Big Rock. It’s absolutely not done for the mileage, it’s just a perfect tough section that reminds you that running an ultra isn’t something we do because it’s easy. It’s a fantastic touch, and I love it. Incidentally, this year the Big Rock turn-around was staffed by a friendly, smiling nine month pregnant woman. It is really hard to complain about your physical state at the top of a climb when you’re faced with someone who is about to give birth and is happy and unfazed.

If I had one suggestion for the folks at the SOB, it would be for an improvement on the post-race meal (included for the 50k and 50 mile folks). In 2013 they had a food truck with abysmally bad tacos. This year they advertised a BBQ, including veggie burgers, so I was very much looking forward to an improved meal. When I reached the finish line, they had run out of veggie burgers (I finished mid-pack, so there were still half the 50 mile runners left at this point). Instead I got a “grilled cheese” which was just white bread and some of the plastic, simulated american cheese, cooked poorly over a BBQ. They also had a jar of peanut butter and jelly out with the option to make a PB&J instead. This was less impressive than the food selection at the aid stations, and was a major disappointment. I want to take this lesson to heart and make a concerted effort to have great food options for all my runners, including all the 50 mile folks.

The SOB organizers have one last ace up their sleeve when it comes to this race: a day-after party. In the parking lot behind Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland, runners can gather, have a beer, talk about the race and just generally build up a sense of community. It’s a wonderful touch, and I’ve enjoyed it both times. Combine it with the great overall vibe of Ashland, and it puts a wonderful cherry on the race weekend sundae. All told, an amazing job. I hope I can put on an event as successful as this one next year.