Occasionally, walking around during the week, sitting at my desk, and/or re-telling the adventure, I get really pissed off. I passes quickly enough, though I’d like to bottle it for future motivation. You see, I got pulled from the Pine to Palm 100 at the Dutchman Peak Aid Station (Mile 65) at 2 AM, 20 hours into the race. The events leading up to the DNF can be easily summarized — a slow rough patch between Mile 29 and 36, water worries, and aggressive cut-off times. Nevertheless, it was a DNQ not DNF; I did not quit. But let’s go back a day. Darren, Tim Long, and I arrived on Friday with my wonderful crew (Desna and Jim Carter) in Grants Pass, Oregon, in the mid-afternoon. Squinting at the temperature, 95+, we jogged for a short shakeout to overcome the inertia of the drive from Reno. The heat was almost unbearable as we navigated the streets near our hotel. Our constant motion then continued as we drove towards the little town of Williams for the pre-race meeting and dinner. It was cool to meet Hal Koerner, Scott Jurek, Erik Skaggs, and several of the participants as we hung around the Pacifica Gardens building.
I picked up my bib number (143) and swag bag and was weighed in. While we ate, Hal, the Race Director, gave a brief run-down of the course and expectations. There were lots of warnings about the heat and water use; little did I know. We clarified things for the crew and headed out into the growing dark. A quick drive up to Williams and toward North Fork road provided a glimpse of the start area for the next morning.
That 4 AM Saturday morning came early is obviously redundant, but I’d slept well and yet I felt a little run-down from yesterday’s heat. With everything ready we headed into the dark morning to find the start line. Once at North Fork Road we parked and hiked up to the start tent to check-in. Following ritual use of the blue-room we strolled back toward the start-line only to hear the 5-second countdown end as we were still 100 yards or so away. We tossed the jackets to Des and made our way through the on-lookers, not losing any real time and maybe better for not having to stand around in anticipation. Though it was still dark, the pre-dawn was enough that I didn’t need my headlamp as I wished Darren good luck and we strolled up the steep road. The journey had begun.
And the road continued upward and upward. I jogged a little, power-hiked a lot. It was hard to get a rhythm, but little groups formed and split as we made our way up the pavement to the trailhead. I almost missed the trailhead barely catching a glimpse of the flagging on the trail post. A few failed to buy-in that this was indeed the trail, but I yelled back once a couple more flags confirmed we were indeed correctly navigating our first of much great single-track.
It’s oh so nice to start with a 5,000-foot climb! It was lots of hiking mixed in with a little bit of sprinting as a swarm of bees pursued a few of us. The summit was fantastic with excellent views toward the hills and canyons of the coming day. We dropped quickly, probably too quickly in my case, and on some of the steepest downhill section I’ve yet to experience in an event. I hit the O’Brien AS (Mile 18) about 15 minutes behind my target (though now I think I was a bit too aggressive here). One of the great volunteers grabbed my pack and soon informed me that I hadn’t consumed nearly enough water for 18 miles. I didn’t think much of it, but he was certainly correct.
I regained time on the steady downhill to Steamboat Ranch where Jurek and friends had a station waiting for us. I felt great though I could really feel the heat building. I was exactly on my splits and spent little time in the station. I shifted to dad’s methodology of running periods broken by walks, keeping close to my targets but trying to rest what I felt where growing echoes of the steep downhill that morning. The fenceline trail around the Applegate area surprised me and I tired a bit more than I expected as a worked my way above the Seattle Bar Aid Station (Mile 28). We crossed into California for a few minutes and then back downstream to the station. Des and Jim were there to meet me. It was 12:28, the beginning of the end.
Knowing that my legs were feeling the morning, I grabbed my poles before heading out. This was a climb to be reckoned with. Different than the drawn-out gains of other areas of the course, at times, the climb to Stein Butte seemed almost vertical. It was a combination of the growing heat and lack of the forest cover; there was little shade on the rocky trail. Under other circumstances I would have loved this setting, and it wasn’t terrible, I simply could not get going. Soon my water was gone, I’d consumed 70 ounces in a couple hours and was still well short of the Stein Butte aid. I passed a few and was passed by several others.
Things got worse at the oasis that wasn’t. Stein Butte was basically out of water. The volunteers looked nervous and, soon, I did too. Empty blue containers surrounded us, but the volunteer held only a half-gallon jug partially filled with water, the last drops in the desert. There were more “runners” behind me but little promise of getting more water to the station very soon. I took what he would give and left. Their food offering looked great, but my new worries (for myself and those behind) made me march on. A little ways down the road I ran into a struggling comrade who was totally dry. We rather harshly discussed our predicament and scorned the information we’d received about the “all downhill” or “just follow the road” to water at Squaw Lakes. That’s 6 miles in mid-90 degree temperatures after having done 30 miles and losing confidence in our situation. I knew it wasn’t “all road, all downhill.” I didn’t want to miss the turn toward the Squaw Lake single-track. I split my remaining water with the dry guy, as he simply sat down in the road refusing to move. (He’d finish in under 31 hours, so I guess it rejuvenated him eventually). Because of my concerns, I walked. Of course my legs hurt but my hesitancy mostly surrounded my lack of water. But then the cavalry arrived.
Hal came tearing up the hill and performed what I believe is the fastest water fill I’ve ever seen. I held my complaints as he promised to extend the cut-off times to allow us to re-hydrate. Soon I was turning onto the single track and headed down to Squaw Lake, but I couldn’t overcome the lethargy of the afternoon so it took me awhile to get to the lake.
The cut-off had indeed been extended and Jim encouraged me to get going on my lap around Squaw Lake. Darren was two and a half hours ahead of me. By the time I returned to the station the cut-off time had barely passed. I checked-in and inquired whether I could continue. Foolish, don’t ask, don’t tell. But the super-helpful volunteer simply looked at me and said, “Don’t let me see you standing here.” Can I change my shoes? “Don’t let me see you standing here.” Des grabbed me. Oh, I get it. A change of socks and some clean feet and I was back at it. Probably in dead last place now given the cut-off and empty aid station. It was 6:08 PM.
I climbed toward the Little Grayback Trailhead and actually passed someone. Soon I heard voices in the trees as I climbed on a beautiful wooded two-track road. The water-only aid station was close so I kept the re-hydration going. When I turned the bend at the trail I was met with three empty water coolers. You gotta be kidding me. I’ve put myself in this bad spot due to my slower-than-expected pace all afternoon, but the map says water, and there ought to be some water. I’m probably ok because the day is cooling and it’s only five miles to the next full service station, but maybe I’m late enough that that station is now gone. That’s what I started thinking.
However, I felt pretty good all-in-all. I gained on the voice and eventually caught a small group of four. The water guy and some others. It was steady climbing but I was able to keep it under 20-minute miles and soon I was at Hanley Gap though now it was dark. I got to the flag in relatively good time and after a brief rest to tape my IT-band, I was heading up the road to Squaw Creek Gap. My pace improved again, though this section had less climbing that the previous segment. The Squaw Creek station was out of soup or other hot foods but that’s fine, at least I had water. Again, I felt pretty good and thought I was moving ok.
I continued the climb toward Dutchman Peak were I again met Rick Rochelle, a veteran of 12 100-milers and Director for NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) Professional Training where he trains astronauts and others for teamwork and expedition experience. I’d run away from him earlier as he was recovering from cramps but he kept moving steadily onward. He’d passed me in the aid station so now we jogged together. As we pulled up the last climb into Dutchman Peak we were moving pretty good. But Craig Thornley (Western States Director) pulled us aside to inform us that we had missed the 2 AM cut-off and that “race management” said we could not continue. It was 2:01, but we still had the out-and-back to Dutchman Peak (easier than the flag back at Hanley) to meet that actual cut-off. Thornley’s reputation had led me to understand that he believed in letting runners continue and even encouraged them to do so, wanting folks to push themselves and succeed. But here he was cutting-off two guys ready to continue, and we’d actually jogged up to him. Come on. We’ve got 14 hours for 35 miles and much of that is down (though the climb to Wagner Butte loomed ahead). No dice, rules are rules. My race was over.
As I climbed into the truck with my crew, Darren was just beginning his climb to Wagner, he’d been slowed by growing IT pain. It was so bad, in fact, that he’d grabbed tree limbs to act as trekking poles. They’d accompany him until they were ceremonially tossed away at the finish line. We waited in Ashland, hoping with each new runner that he’d emerge from the hills. And he finally did. Looking like a man who’d just wandered 100 miles in the forest, well, way worse. He backed down the steep, grassy hill to the finish. Tossing the sticks aside, he passed under the arch in 27:58:03. Intrepid to the end, never giving up, the essence of the Young Mountain Runners. Awesome.
Of course, I would have caught him. OK, it’s laughingly certain that that was unlikely. And yet, I’m confident I would have reached Ashland within the cut-off time. My splits were improving and my confidence had returned. In my previous 100 at San Diego, the dawn had brought some good form as I climbed the final ascents (similar in most regards) late in that event. When I was cut-off, a group of runners I was familiar with continued, having captured the Butte’s flag prior to the cut-off (probably 40 minutes ahead of me), I could see them leaving the station. These folks finished between the 30- and 31-hour point, with almost 3 hours to spare before the final cut-off. I’d of been there.
“Wilderness” ultra-running requires being prepared for the unexpected. Being at the back of the pack means dealing with the dregs at aid stations. I accept that and would want it no other way. The challenge is the reason I’m here, testing, solving, moving forward… But water stops are vital elements, even in the remotest outback. I plan routes with water at the fore-front. If my map shows a canyon with a spring, I pick that one over the one without. The water station (aid or otherwise) is a point on the map and I’ve planned accordingly. I understand if I wander into the aid station and it’s missing a lot of things because I’m the last in line. However, water should not be a variable in an organized event. I love the attitude and personality of Pine to Palm and give kudos to Hal and everyone for the challenging course and the ultra experience. But if you give me a map of water points, give me the water. And give me a chance to finish when the other variables of the day have conspired against me; I mean, don’t tell me what I can’t do.
Thanks so much to Desna and Jim for their all-day, all-night, all-roads excursion. You are the reason I recovered and could push forward (I’m the cut-off was as much an insult to you as it was to me; I’m sorry for that). Thanks to Darren for showing that we are indeed mountain runners. I’m also indebted to Tim for his training guidance and his confidence in my ability. After giving it his all with the leaders, the demons of the day brought him down. It wasn’t his day, but it’s cool to run and learn from one of the best.
It may be that I’m not suited to courses like P2P and that if I didn’t make the cut-off times I should accept it. I don’t agree. However, the setback provides the motivation to look ahead and seek out strategies that resolve all worry of intermediate cut-offs. I’m very likely to return to Pine to Palm, but for now I have other mountains to climb.