Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pine to Palm - a birthday bash

With three previous 100 mile achievements to my name, I was eager to sign up for another one this year - to make it two in one calendar year for the first time. What a wonderful surprise to see, many months ago, that a new 100 miler was being contested in OREGON. I knew that the Hundred in the Hood from last year was a one-off race and now I didn't have to look far to find something else in September. And the fact that this race started on my birthday (#48) was another bonus. This bodes well.

Inaugural events...there's always a chance problems will be encountered at new races in their first year. But, bolstered by the reputation of the RD, I signed on almost as soon as I found out about it. Over the intervening months I saw more and more like-minded runners join up until there were over 160 names on the list by race day.

I sat back and waited for the race details, promised to us by mid August. Eventually maps were posted to the race web site. But frustratingly, no further specifics about the course, aid stations, crew instructions, etc. were forthcoming until 9 days before race day. Finally the driving instructions were posted and we were ready to make detailed plans for the run.

I figured the race would be challenging but doable. Yet, the mid course cut off (the only cut off ) at mile 65 was a cause for concern. The fact that the race had a total of 20,000 feet of climbing and 20,000 feet of decent sounded OK. Western States has 18,000 feet of climbing and almost 23,000 feet of decent. My first 100 miler, Headlands Hundred, had 17,000/17,000. I suspected that I'd have as good a chance as any, since my training included Western States and then Where's Waldo in the month preceding P2P. I felt confident I'd be ready. But, then I'd get to talking with my running comrades and we'd start to wonder about that 19 hour cut off...

Being a slower runner I always have to sweat the cut offs in most races. I memorize them and work to stay ahead of them most of the time. Here my mantra became: just get to Dutchman Peak by 1 am.

This time Karen, my sister and professional crew boss, brought along another running friends of her's, Heather. We would be a threesome team to get the job done. In the week leading up to the race I saw the weather forecast go from predicting a 20% chance of rain on race day up to a 90% chance of rain. Oh well. This is Oregon after all and I planned appropriately. It was amazing how much more stuff I needed to bring along, though. It's a far cry from planning for the heat at Western States.

So we eventually found our way to Grants Pass, the nearest city to the race start, and we drove the 20 minute route to the race check-in and briefing. I found the 5:30 pm race briefing time somewhat inconvenient since I didn't want to take my chances on the pasta dinner being served there. We'd needed to either eat really early, before the briefing, or pretty late, after it. We chose before. We arrived in Williams and met up with my running buddy, and fellow almost-birthday celebrator, Russ. He was was taking his third stab at conquering the 100 mile distance and had paced me at my first. We sat together and waited for the briefing and check-in to take place. And waited. And waited. Finally, an hour after promised, the check in process started but crawled very slowly.

Another hour after it was suppose to begin, the briefing itself commenced, just as I was getting to the front of the check-in line. Rather than miss what was being said, I stopped and attended to the briefing. I think some people behind me in line thought I was rude and they went around me to continue their check in, ignoring the RD's presentation about the race.

Apparently Ian Torrance has become the co-RD and he started to give us a briefing of the route and important points for crucial turns. He kept referring to sections of the trail, by name. We hadn't been provided these references in the online information. I had no point of reference to understand what he was talking about. Regardless, I started taking notes about what not to miss but I was confused about most of it and he went through them so fast that eventually I wasn't able to keep up. He kept reassuring us (after warning to be sure not to miss this or that turn) that it would all be very well marked.

Once the briefing ended I finished my check in and got some really nice swag including a nice canvas bag, flip-flop sandals and a great fleece pull over.

Finally back at the hotel we made our final preparations before hitting the hay. I got my feet taped up and smeared with hydropel, in anticipation of a likely very soggy day. I expected to be wet but not too cold until later in the evening if the rain kept up.

In the morning we made our way back to the start but the porta-potty line was way too long to take care of any last minute business (2 port-a-potties for 130+ entrants). Luckily it's not a big deal for me at this point. We leave the start with the usual whoops and head up the road just as a sprinkle of rain starts.

The first 6 miles are on paved road of increasing incline. For the last three I do my 20 steps running alternating with 20 steps walking. We hit the first water-only aid station and I drop off my head lamp - a nice touch of organization so I don't have to carry it with me for 31 miles - I had another one in my appropriate drop bag for later. I knew that we'd be going essentially 17 miles before the first real aid station so I managed to bring along an appropriate amount of nibbles to keep me fueled for the first three hours or so it would take me. I know I have to pay close attention to my fueling and intended to consume about 300 calories an hour. If I get behind I lose my appetite and then it's only a matter of time before I crash.

Immediately we're on single track and we wind our way around the hills with a generally increasing steepness and switchbacks going up and up and up. The rain starts now but it's still warm and it's not falling heavy. The trail is very debris-strewn with branches and bark and rocks and I'm thankful over and over again that we don't have to try and navigate this going downhill.

Less than 11 miles later we hit the first peak, shrouded in fog and a harder drizzle. Then we start our decent down to the aid station at mile 17. The footing is still fairly debris strewn but thankfully not yet too slick with wet and mud but it's getting there in places. Eventually a volunteer is manning a trail detour through the brush to help us avoid a yellow-jacket nest that had already lead to stings for a number of people. The advantages of being in the back of the pack! Shortly we're at the first regular aid station, and as I was to find throughout the race, it was very well run and full of pleasant and helpful people.

I've made it a new rule to myself never to sit down at aid stations. I collect my resupplies and head off to the next 7 mile section that is on undulating dirt road. Generally the route in downhill and I try to cut the tangents to save distance. It's raining off and on and this keeps the dust down. I suspect that on a dryer, more typical race day it would be pretty dusty, exposed and hot section. There's not much traffic now, maybe a half-dozen cars pass me by. I run 20 minutes and walk 2 minutes most of the time as I would on a mostly flat non-technical run. This helps preserve my legs from the monotonous pounding of that sort of terrain.

I make it uneventfully to the next aid station and efficiently back onto the dirt road. This continues to weave up down and around until we get close to the Applegate River aid station where it takes a dive back onto a weird little trail bordered the whole way by a chain link fence on the left. It's steep up and steep down like a roller coaster. Then we spill out into a campground area with signs directing us in a circuitous route to an area labeled as "California." After a few hundred yards we're notified we're back in Oregon again. I think this is a nice touch, since we're so close to the state border - why not say your race covers terrain in two states?

Back onto paved road and to the next aid station where my crew is accessible for the first time. Karen and Heather see me and there's a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday as I run in! Russ is just heading back out and we start the Happy Birthday song for him as well.

YouTube recording of the event.

I get weighed and head off to the car to get together my things for the next section. It's great to have the team there to get me in and out quickly. It's been raining off and on all morning but I'm still doing well with my light shell since it's also not very cold. I also grab my Garmin for the first time in a race. I figure it will help me to keep on track with distances if I get discouraged or, god forbid, lost.

Off I go onto the next section of trail, this time mostly surrounded by red-hued poison oak. I had a surprise gift of poison oak form Western States and so I was careful to avoid contact this time around. The trail was lovely and it snaked upwards and over hills of increasing steepness. I pass a few people for the first time. Someone here was verbally averse to switchbacks towards the top. I found this amusing and fodder for good stories of adventure later on. Besides, I was already almost to the next aid station, just 5 miles from the last. Or was it...Now I know my Garmin can be off a bit and I use it for rough estimates, but at 6.5 miles I finally get into the next aid station, Stein Butte.

They are huddled under the tent and making a valiant effort at putting together some warm food - I eat some almost ready soup and appreciate it. I mention that it seems like more than 5 miles since the last aid station and they confirm "yeah, we've been hearing that a lot." I asked them how everyone seemed to be doing. The soup maker told me people seemed to be coming in discouraged but are leaving in good spirits. No doubt. These guys were very upbeat!

I left them behind and went back out onto the next section of trail, - actually a very old logging road. After a quarter mile down the trail a large tree was blocking the road and I see that this is where the volunteers had to park and then WALK in all their gear for the aid station. Wow. Now that's dedication and effort!

This road was pleasant and I was particularly interested to see every 200 yards or so there was a big pile of bear poop. I noted this along the whole way! We really are out in the wilderness now, despite that we're on a man made "road." I know there's 6 miles to the next AS and I tick them off as the rain continues to pour down pretty heavy.

Soon we're on a very steep downhill section that, in the rain, has turned into a trail runners version of the Luge. I slip-slide my way down and just before the next AS there's my crew waiting for me with hot soup. I make a complete wardrobe change into my capri tights and a new dry set of shirts and a better rain jacket with a hood. Karen reapplies hydropel to my feet and I get dry socks and new shoes. It takes me about 10 minutes here but the effort is well worth it! I feel much better - dry, warm, filled up and ready to get moving. I'm at mile 42 and it's about an hour before dark so I'm still right on track to make the cut off at Dutchman.

I suspect I'm in the very back of the pack and they confirm that I probably am the last runner out there. Already at mile 36?! I know I'm not fast and I know it's not unlikely I'll crawl in at the very end tomorrow, but to be so far in the back already? Wow. I'm reassured that I've completed about the same amount of mileage in about the same amount of time as at Western States. I certainly wasn't that far back in the pack then. This race must be eating runners up and spitting them out at quite a rate.

As I head off on the road for a loop around the lake I feel strong and happy anyway. I hear that Russ is right in front of me, maybe 10 minutes, and I feel like I might be able to catch him before too long! After rounding the lake, (longer than the 2 miles advertised) I accept that the mileages listed on the race info are probably not recently measured and merely "approximate." So far there's an equal mix of sections longer and shorter than advertised.

Karen and Heather wait in the car as I leave the lake and are back onto the dirt road to make sure I'm OK. I mention that my right pinky toe is a little sore since the shoe change. "Is it OK?" my sister asks? I consider it..."Yeah, it's OK." Pause. She replies "Are you just saying that so you don't have to deal with it or is it really not a problem?" You can't lie to your sister, the professional crew chief. I admit it - it's a problem. So I stop and take off the extra sock and replace my shoe. Now I'm fine. She was right, take care of it now so it's not a bigger problem later. Words to run by.

I start back up and they drive off, waving. It's a nice dirt road again and I wander down, down, down. It's only "3 miles" until the next aid station and I expect to see Russ any minute up ahead. I feel really great. But, as expected, the mileage is off and after about 4 miles I still don't see an aid station. Funny, I don't remember any confidence flagging either. Uh, oh. Did I miss something or did someone remove the flags? The mileages aren't trustworthy in my mind...then a car comes towards me and they pull over so I can asks them if there's an aid station up ahead along the road? Nope. " We're headed to the Squaw Lake aid station - did you miss a turn?" Well, obviously I did. DRAT!!!

Now I can see that my time cushion is shrinking. Can I still make it to Dutchman peak by 1 AM? They offer me a ride back to where ever it is I needed to turn off. I consider this but expect it could get me disqualified so I stoically decline and head back, now uphill, the way I came. Inside I'm stating to crumble. How could I be so stupid? This might be my fatal mistake - just when I was starting to get a second wind and feel really great and optimistic. Now I've gained extra mileage (not as big a deal to me) and lost precious time (a really big deal). And I only brought along enough food to last me for 3 miles.

I find the missing turn, off the road on the opposite side of where I was running. It's marked over there but I never even saw it from the other side. Crap. This is another problem with so much road running. I head up this now more rugged road and as it's starting to get dark I finally make it to the next aid station. Instead of 3 miles, I've gone 7. They help me get some nutrition in but I'm already behind. Once this happens I tend to start on a downhill spiral of anorexia. Nothing sounds good, I'm not hungry and I stop eating or have to force myself to eat. The less I eat the weaker and slower I get. But there's nothing I can do about it because I'm way behind and need to get moving if I'm to get to the cut off before 1 AM. I didn't bring extra batteries for my flashlight (I didn't expect to need it before the next aid station) so I use my dimmer head lamp.

As I move along the trail it gets very over grown. I need to use the hand-held to stay on my feet. The trail is so over grown I can't see my footing. Then WHAP! I get slapped in the face by an overhanging branch I didn't see coming because I'm concentrating on my feet. I teeter and almost fall. To the right is a sharp drop off. I try to lean left and catch myself on the uphill side of the incline. And so it goes, over and over, concentrate on feet, branches slap me in the face and I catch myself from falling down the slope. I'm losing heart and won't be catching up to Russ any time soon but I have no choice except to keep pressing on. At least I'm still running!

Finally I see the lights of the next aid station and Handley Gap! Hooray! I get to the table and right away the guy there says to me - "you're not going to make it to the cut off." A guy next to him on a walky-talky says to someone on the other end "you got room for one more?" I realize they expect me to give up and take a ride out. What? Now? There's not an intermediate cut off here. My crew is at Dutchman Peak, I argue. How are they going to figure out where I am if you take me out here? (There's no cell service out here.) Even if I don't get there in time to beat the cut off I'd like to get there and be pulled at that point. I don't want to give up. "Unless you're telling me I'm not allowed to keep going, then I'm going to move on." Reluctantly he agreed that I could go on.

I look over and see my friend Kelly hanging around. I figure he's working the aid station but it turns out he's the sweeper and this is where his job starts - to follow the last runner out. I guess that's me. He points me in the right direction to go the mile (or so) up to the top of Hanley peak where I have to retrieve a flag and bring it back down. I don't want to waste any more time so I trudge off. After the first intersection there's a pile of gravel to the left. And one to the right. There are no course markings (or glow sticks) indicating which way to go. As I stand there perplexed another runner appears, coming back down towards me and points me in the right direction around the gravel pile on my right and I make it the rest of the way to the top, retrieve my flag and get back down to...what used to be the aid station. Crap. I didn't fuel up before I left to the peak and now there's nothing left out for me to eat. If I wasn't already hosed, this cinches it. They do dig up some batteries for me so my flashlight will be useful again.

Off I head with the really lucky happenstance to have Kelly there as an impromptu pacer! If I had bad luck so far, this definitely was a stroke of good luck. I have a great time catching up on what we've each been up to since our trail work days on the Waldo course in July. He also imparts some hopeful news to me. While I was up on the last peak, the RD drove through to check on things. Kelly, now my advocate, told him how I had taken a wrong turn and run some bonus miles but was "still running well." The RD suggested that he might give me an extra hour on the cut off to compensate for my error! By this time I had resigned myself to getting pulled from the race at Dutchman Peak but now there was new hope I could go on.

Buoyed by this news I tried my best to put on a show of strength run/hiking up the dirt road on which we found ourselves. The flashlight wasn't often necessary since the route was wide and non technical. However it was incessantly steep and ever climbing. Occasionally it would dip a bit and be runnable but then go back to uphill. Kelly was pulling down flagging as he went, having no trouble catching up to me between detours. I began to feel the effects of multiple missed opportunities to fuel myself. I didn't realize it at the time, either, but the altitude really compromised my progress as well despite the smooth road surface. My strong hike turned more and more into a slow trudge. I had not consumed anywhere near my 300 calories an hour for several hours.

Poor Kelly, having to walk so slowly in that weather. Ah...the weather. I don't really mention much about it here because I didn't ever consider it much of a factor for me. By this time the wind had picked up, as did the rain. I was warm and cozy in my rain gear and didn't consider the conditions a problem. The lack of food and the altitude were my relevant issues.

Finally we hit the next aid station and lo and behold, there's Karen! Apparently she and Heather drove there by accident thinking it was Dutchman Peak and waited for me for a while. They finally figured out they where one aid station shy of where they needed to be but by then the RD had arrived for a check-in and he informed them I was on my way. He gave Karen permission to start pacing me from there. Heather had driven on ahead to wait for us at Dutchman Peak.

Cool - now I had two pacers, Kelly the sweep and Karen my official pacer. This was great company and I'd like to say that it bolstered my resolve to work hard to make it up the next 5 miles of inclined dirt road to get up to the cut off now by 2 AM. I really wish I could say that. Unfortunately I had completely lost my stomach. Karen offered all manner of available foodstuffs and nothing sounded good. Knowing that my mantra was "300 calories per hour" I choked down some shot blocks, hoping that it would prime me to want more soon. No luck.

A car headed towards us and who did I see leaning out the window to greet me but Russ. WTF? What are you doing in there?! He told me he was done and searching for his crew so they could get the hell out of there. I was sad to see him done before the finish line on attempt number three at the 100 mile distance. Obviously, this course was a lot more to handle than either of us had hoped.

The road got steeper and the air hot thinner and my resolve crumbled. Even at my previous pace, I was unlikely to get to Dutchman Peak in time. At this pace I was clearly out of the running. But, trudge we did, on and on until finally, slowly with my "climbing Mt. Everest" style of step, pause, gasp step, pause, gasp rhythm we emerged at the base are of Dutchman Peak. The AS is "just" up the next steep hill and a few switchbacks more.

My dilemma isn't the only drama playing itself out at this point, however. We bump right into Heather as we intend to head up the last pitch. "I think I'm going to throw up!" she informs us. Me too, I think. Karen's (new) Subaru is parked there but I walk right past it to finish my race at the AS with the little bit of dignity I have left. I make my way to the AS to get my wrist band cut off for an official drop and end to this fiasco, well past the 2 AM enhanced cut off time. Heather informs us that the car isn't parked on the side of the muddy road: it's stuck there and we need to find someone to help us tow it out. I can't process this (I can't really care about it yet) so I continue on. Karen follows behind me shortly with a hope of organizing the needed help from he aid station folk.

We get to the top, I thrust my wrist into someone's face and they cut off my band. That's it. Mile 65 (ish) and I'm done. I would have been willing to regroup and head out again if I was allowed. I've been doing this long enough to know that with a little nutrition and time, even overwhelming fatigue can be overcome. But instead I turn around and head back down to the car. It's raining very heavily and now the wind is howling. The aid station is just barely in one piece and the volunteers are already breaking it down to get the hell out of there. Karen stops to ask for help. Now that I'm not moving I'm getting really cold. Fast.

No Dice.

No one at the AS seems able to help us with the car problem - they have their own problems to deal with - but we find a really nice couple who are parked up by the AS and they agree to let me get into their car while Karen continues to search for help. Eventually she gives up looking for help at the AS and these kind folks drive us down the short but steep road to where our car is stuck.

The real drama of the day is about to unfold. Over the next few hours we experience the best and the worst of being caught in bad weather, in the middle of nowhere with the rear passenger tire hanging over the edge of a muddy, crumbling dirt road. If the car slips any farther it will tumble off the road edge and down the bank onto it's hood, then probably it'll keep rolling a while. Remember, this is a new car? Karen is holding it together pretty well considering the potential outcome.

How this develops would be funny if we weren't exhausted, wet, cold and in the dark. Some other nice people driving by stop to help us try and drive or push the car forward. No go. With our attempts to move it, it gets worse and the back tire is left more precarious. Now someone needs to sit in the driver's seat to keep the car from tipping over. We empty the car of all it's contents, to reduce the weight that is trying to pull it over the edge of the increasingly muddy road.

We continue to search for someone with a rope so we can pull us out. There is NO ROPE any where. There are various AS people around and a tent with ham operators near by and various comers and goers trying to get around our disabled car at this intersection of many dirt roads but no one has a rope. Everyone recommends we leave the car and bring back a tow truck in the morning. Without help soon and someone continually sitting in the drivers seat, we know the car will be completely over the edge and in need of a funeral by morning.

The folks who have given me refuge in their car wait patiently and try to help push and search for rope. Another truck with a nice fellow and his dad offer to pull us out once the rope is found. When all avenues of rope procurement are unsuccessful, the man and his dad offer to drive back into town, get a rope and return (a several hour round trip). Remember, it's nigh on 3 AM by this time. The refuge folks offer to take me with them to their hotel where I can have the spare bed and they will reunite me with my crew in the morning. It still blows my mind that total strangers are so generous to people in need. Especially since we're muddying up the back of their car.

Finally we are saved by the most unlikely of people - a hunter. Unknown to him, runners and crews have invaded the logging roads and as he heads down our road (it's ours now because we're stuck on it and no one can pass) he gets caught in our web. He can't back out up the hill so he can't get home unless he helps us figure out how to find a frigging rope!

Frankly, I don't know how, maybe it fell from the sky, maybe someone tossed it out a window as they drove by but somehow a little thin almost-rope was found. It got doubled, tripled up and threaded through the tow ports on both vehicles and mister bow hunter pulled the Subaru free!!!! HURRAY!!!! We throw everything back into the car wet and in total disarray. We dig out enough space to sit and buckle ourselves in. We're home FREEEEEEEE!!!!!

OR are we? Sure, we're drivable now. But how the hell do we get out of here? The return route is a long trek back so we (a caravan of the saviors and us) forge ahead, reading the crew instructions that should lead us to a quicker escape route. Off we go, onto ever more rugged dirt roads, through (past?) obscure and unmarked turns. Our all-wheel drive is absolutely necessary and the ride is harrowing even so. After about 30 minutes of this we hit an open area of criss-crossing dirt roads. We have the driving instructions. We have a map. We have ourselves located on a GPS. We still can't figure out what the hell to do to get out of there. Did I mention it's after 3 AM now and we're EXHAUSTED? And it's still storming? Luckily we're warm.

We all get out of our vehicles and reconeutre. The saviors decide to press on and hope they are on the right track. Somewhere ahead we've heard there's a bridge out and we're not sure which road it's on. We'd rather not get that far, only to have to turn back again. So, we decide to return the way we came and take the know route, the long way home. The others take their chances and press on. We wish them luck. We all do make it back to civilization eventually.

It's nearly daylight as we get back onto pavement and travel back towards the lights of the nearest town. Karen is nodding off behind the wheel so we pull over into some parking lot and take a need nap, sitting up in our seats. It's been a harrowing experience and a seriously disappointing DNF for me. We did meet up with our saviors again the next day at the awards ceremony and we relived our shared struggle. I can't thank them enough to have sacrificed their own comfort and safety to help us out.

This epitomizes the type of people you're bound to meet at ultra events. Even though my race ended unsuccessfully, and I'd rather not have had "the car incident" (as it's come to be known), it was an experience that reminded me again why I so love these ultra events. We help each other out. Strangers who find you in need will come to your aid most of the time.

To sum up this race, there were some organizational issues I think could have gone better and hopefully will in the upcoming iterations of this event. I believe that the mileages listed are a very rough guide. I was lulled into thinking that with a 32 hour final cut off that this race was a good option for back of the pack runners like me. Whether it's due to mileage discrepancies or the other factors I encountered, I remain dismayed that I was unable to make the mid-point cut off. I've always been concerned about meeting cut offs but this is the first time I've not been successful. It still haunts me.

On the other hand, without all the hardships, the kindness of strangers and friends would not have been revealed.


Gary Vale said...

What a day! I know how you felt. We will conquer that beast next year!

fatozzig said...

HO-LY CRAP!! Karen, of course, told me the whole story, but seeing it in print is a whole 'nother thing. I'm not sure if I'm happy or disappointed I missed all the excitement.

This sounds like it was one tuff SOB, Kate, and when all is said and done, you still remain my Trail Goddess.

Jan said...

Oh My Goodness! I'm astounded at your perseverance and sheer determination. Now that article from TIME magazine about marathon runners and their heart at the end of the run is scarier to me.