To Strive, to Seek, to Find, and not to Yield
I registered for the Pine to Palm 100 because I wanted a challenge. I wanted to run 100 miles through some of the most difficult and beautiful country that Oregon has to offer. I registered because I knew I had what it took to finish. I had no misconceptions about the difficulty of the Pine to Palm 100 course. I read race reports from the two years past, I talked to people who had run the course, I reviewed maps and elevation profiles, and I spent some time training and racing in Southern Oregon. I sought, recognized, anticipated, and met with excitement the challenge of conquering such a course and I planned my races (specifically Mt. Hood 50, CLR, and Waldo 100k) so that they would prepare me for this event. I ran in the Columbia River Gorge and at higher elevation on Mt. Hood. I ran in the heat of the day and in the dark of the night. I sought the advice and guidance of a coach, Yassine Diboun. Hour after hour, I logged mile after grueling mile. I trained until I collapsed and then I got up and I trained some more. No, I had no misconceptions.
The Start/Grayback Mountain:
Respectful of the distance, but unafraid, I toed the starting line of the Pine to Palm 100 at 6:00 a.m. last Saturday morning with my friend, Jeff, who would also be half of my crew, by my side. In the chaos of the morning, the official start was anti-climatic and unclear. At some point, I realized that everyone around me had started to move and that the race had started. I told Jeff to keep an eye on the college football scores that day and to keep me updated. Then, I made my way forward and started my watch. I quickly caught up with my friend, Sarah D, and we chatted for the first three miles or so of the initial climb up Grayback Mountain.
After approximately three miles on paved road, the course turned off onto single-track trail and I began the push through the long initial climb. After about four more miles, I found myself swarmed by bees. I was covered in them. They were in my hair, under my shirt, and on my legs. My heart raced and my lungs burned as I, terrified, ran screaming up the vertical climb in an attempt to escape one of my biggest fears. When I finally shook the bees, I kneeled over, hyperventilating and crying. I heard a voice from behind: "Des? What's wrong?" It was Sarah D. "Bees," I said. After spending countless hours with me on the trail, she was all too familiar with my fear. "You can't stop, Des. You need to keep moving." I stood tall, I took a deep breath, I wiped the tears from my face, and I hiked forward. I knew she was right. If I was going to make the first cutoff, I couldn't spare a moment.
The ascent to the top of Grayback Mountain was longer than I thought (11 miles), but I summited the climb in three hours, which was exactly what I had planned to do. That left me four hours to descend the mountain, run down the road, which would include some paved highway, and make my way to the Seattle Bar aid station before the 1:00 p.m. cutoff.
The 3:46 that it took me to reach Seattle Bar after summiting Grayback were brutal. The sun had risen fully and it was getting hot. I was no longer shielded by the canopy of the trail and, instead, was exposed to the sun along the open road. As I barreled around the corner to Seattle Bar, I saw Sarah. "My legs are jello," I said. She jogged along next to me. "Let's get some fuel in you and get you cooled off." We both knew that I couldn't afford for my legs to feel that bad that early.
As we approached the aid station, I was greeted by a volunteer who appeared to be in a position of authority. I expected him to ask, as most volunteers usually do, what my number was, if I was okay, or if I needed anything. Instead. he barked at me: "Get on the scale. We need to weigh you." While obligatory weigh-ins are not unusual at endurance races, that sort of abrasive address was completely unexpected. They weighed me. I had gained five pounds, which was not a good sign. If I put on any additional weight, I would likely be pulled from the race.
Sarah and Jeff sat me down, refilled my pack, and gave me the sandwich and Gatorade I had planned to consume at that aid station. Sarah checked with the volunteer, who had previously snapped at me, to ensure that he had written down my number and showed that I made the cutoff. "She has five minutes," he said. "What do you mean?" I asked. "I've been here. I made the cutoff." "You need to be out of here before the 1:00 cutoff or we're pulling you," he responded. Unfortunately, the fact that runners needed to be in and out of checkpoints before the cutoffs had not been communicated prior to the race, so my crew and I were confused by this, again, abrasive and curt treatment. "I wouldn't be doing you any favors if I let you sit here," the volunteer said. "Yeah, well, you're not doing me any favors by forcing me to run a 28-hour pace on a 34-hour course either. It's B.S.," I responded. I picked up my pack, handed Sarah my sandwich, and Jeff and I walked away, talking about the issues I was experiencing with my left foot. "74 out," I yelled, and I began the second climb to Stein Butte.
Seattle Bar/Stein Butte:
The climb to Stein Butte was difficult. It was another long climb and was along exposed rim. It was hot. Thankfully, Sarah and Jeff filled my hydration pack to capacity and had loaded it with fuel before I left Seattle Bar. I was under-fueled, but I would be able to use the climb to try to recover, which seemed to be the plan of every runner I encountered on the climb. I have never encountered so many runners who felt so terrible after only 29 or so miles. Runner after runner stopped on the side of the trail, dizzy, dehydrated, and nauseous. I was hot and tired, but I knew that I could not afford the luxury of stopping at all. I had to make the next cutoff at 5:00 p.m. I pushed forward. Slow progress was still progress.
The next aid station was supposed to be about five miles from Seattle Bar, but it was closer to seven or more. When I reached the aid station, a volunteer approached me and asked how I was doing on water. "I'm almost out," I said as I took my pack off expecting her to take it and fill it. "I have bad news," she said." I sighed: "You're out of water." "Yes. That's the way it goes," she said. "I can give you a cup of ice." I took the cup of ice and drank what was there. I ate some of the limited food at the aid station and kept moving. There were still 22 people behind me, including Sarah D. I couldn't believe that so many people were going to have to ascend three more miles and then descend three more in that kind of heat before reaching water.
As I made my way down the road, I saw a runner lying in the middle of the road. I stopped to see if he was okay. "I've been out of water for hours," he said. He was trying to recover by drinking the small ration of water that another runner had given him. He did not look good.
With each step I took, I monitored my watch and the time of day vigilantly. I was running out of time. It was unlikely that I was going to make the next cutoff. I was too dehydrated, it was too hot, and I simply had too much trail to cover. My race was going to end at mile 39. I passed runner after runner along the trail, each having the same realization and each asking me if I had any water to spare.
Within another mile or so, I saw a car speeding up the dirt road. I waved to the driver, hoping he would slow down and not run over the runner who was lying in the middle of the road behind me. As the car got closer, I saw that the drive was the race director, Hal Koerner. He was taking water to the aid station. Sadly, it was far too late for many runners. "Do you need water?" he asked as he drove by. "No," I said. "Are you sure?" he asked. Fueled by anger and appalled by the lack of planning for hot conditions, I responded: "My race is over anyway," and I ran ahead. I heard the car tear off behind me.
I knew my chances of making the 5:00 p.m. cutoff at Squaw Lakes was unlikely, but I also knew that I needed to make it to my crew, so I pushed forward. I rationed the little water that I had left, sipping only to wet my mouth. I was thirsty and I could feel myself getting dehydrated. At the same time, I needed to pee. I knew, however, that I did not have the time to stop. My chances of making the cutoff were slim, but I still had a chance. I continued to run and I didn't stop, despite the incredible discomfort.
Eventually, I encountered a hiker along the trail. He clapped. "You're almost there," he said. "How far?" I asked. "A couple hundred yards." I was excited. Maybe the aid station was closer than I thought. Maybe my watch was wrong. I exited the trees and found myself in a trailhead parking lot. The hiker was wrong. I was not close to the aid station. I had reached the parking lot for crew. Spectators clapped as I made my way through. My eyes welled with tears. I wasn't going to make it. This was the end.
I found myself on trail again and saw the Squaw Lakes aid station ahead. I looked at my watch. It was 5:00 exactly. I saw Jeff: "Are they going to let me through?" I yelled. "Yes," he said. I looked at Sarah. "You don't have time to stop," she said. "I know." Still running, I threw down my pack and grabbed a handheld water bottle from Jeff. "Keep the lake on your left," he yelled, and I started running as hard as I could. I had to make my way around the lake and back to that aid station to make the next cutoff at 5:30 p.m.
I ran as hard as I could with 40 miles under me and I circled the lake in 25 minutes. Greeted by Jeff, I asked: "Did I make it?" "Yes," he said, "and they just extended the cutoff to 6:00. You can stop for a minute." I couldn't believe that I had made the cutoff. I was dripping sweat, overheating, chafing, and breathing hard. Sarah and Jeff sat me down, gave me back my pack, which they had restocked with fuel and night gear, checked me for medical issues, fed me, and then sent me on my way. The five minutes that I spent at that aid station gave me the opportunity to eat, catch my breath, realize that my race wasn't over, and get my head back in the game. I got up. "74 out," I yelled. I heard clapping and cheers coming from my amazing crew and friends behind me as I exited the aid station. I felt strong. I was going to make it.
Hanley Gap/Squaw Creek:
After leaving Squaw Lakes, I spent a few more minutes eating, digesting, and recovering before I started running again. I was elated that my race wasn't over. I was 45 miles in and my body felt strong.
Over the next couple of hours, the sun started to set and it began to get dark in the trees. I began to cool. The forest no longer buzzed with bees. Instead, it filled with the hum of mosquitoes and the chirping of crickets. Night was falling and, while I am normally terrified of the dark, I met the challenge of running in the dark and navigating the course with excitement. I was determined to overcome my fear.
After another nine or so miles, I reached the Hanley Gap aid station. As I entered the aid station, I encountered a volunteer writing down numbers. I told him my number, but he ignored me. I walked up closer and told it to him again. He waved me off and rudely told me to go tell someone else. I walked away.
Once at this aid station, I had to summit Squaw Peak, obtain a flag from the top to prove that I summited fully, and return to the aid station with the flag. Runners had the choice of stopping before summiting the peak, but I chose to summit first so that I could rest, knowing that I had finished the task at hand. I had also received no attention from the volunteers, so I saw no reason to make the initial stop.
After summiting and descending the peak, I was exhausted. My knees felt shot and my feet ached. I no longer felt strong. I reached the aid station again and was greeted by Sarah D's crew, Rose and Seth. My crew would not be at this aid station. Sarah D had not arrived yet, so Rose and Seth immediately approached me and asked what I needed. As soon as I saw them, I started to cry. They tried to sit me down, but I was so dizzy that I almost fell off the chair. "I don't have time," I said. "Yes, you do," said Seth. "They extended the cutoff. You have a few minutes." While Rose restocked my pack with the gear in my drop bag and helped me put on warm clothes, Seth got me some food. There were few vegetarian options, but Seth found some avocado and that, coupled with the food in my drop bag, was enough.
"What's wrong?" Seth asked. "My knees are shot, my feet are killing me, and I feel horrible," I said. I cried. Seth reminded me that I was having a low point, that I needed caffeine and sugar, that I was dehydrated, and that I needed to focus. "You have three tasks right now. You need to digest the food that you just ate, you need to power hike as fast as you can, and you need to focus on getting to Jeff and Sarah." "How far until the next aid station?" I asked. "8-10 miles," Seth said. "I don't know if I can do it," I said. "Your mind is messing with you, Des. Don't let it," I heard Rose say. "I feel horrible," I responded. "Look around you," Seth said. "Everyone feels horrible." I looked up and I saw runners vomiting, runners lying on the ground, and runners quitting. I closed my eyes. "I don't want to quit," I said. The caffeine and calories started to take effect, Seth's and Rose's words started to resonate, and I felt strong again. I stopped crying and Seth helped me stand up. "74 out," I yelled. "Are you going to be okay 74?" I heard from behind me. "Yes, I will," I said, and I walked out into the dark of the night.
The next eight miles were long and grueling. I hiked most of the distance, but I tried to shuffle when I could. The course was not marked at all during the eight-mile section, but I kept moving forward, assuming that I was moving in the correct direction. As I made my way down the dirt road, I saw fresh evidence of bears. I moved as quickly as I could.
As I approached the Squaw Creek Gap aid station, I saw Jeff walking toward me in the distance. I told him that my knees were really bothering me and my feet throbbed unbearably every time I tried to run. He sat me down and Sarah brought me warm broth. I told Jeff and Sarah that I was worried about making the Dutchman Peak cutoff by 1:00 a.m. "My knees are shot," I said, "and I had to hike almost that entire section." "Everyone hiked that section," I heard another runner say. I looked up and, again, in an almost-apocolpytic setting, I saw the carnage of runners that surrounded me. "Do you want to quit?" Sarah asked. "No," I said. "Then make them pull you," Jeff said.
Jeff helped me out of the chair, he grabbed his water bottle, and he told me he would hike with me up to Dutchman Peak where I would meet Sarah and we would run the final 35 miles together. I just had to make that cutoff.
Jeff and I walked out of the Squaw Creek Gap aid station together, joking and making conversation. The levity was uplifting and I had energy again. For three solid miles we hiked at a fast pace and took in the beauty and peacefulness of the night. After about three miles, though, I gradually started to feel dizzy and my nose started to bleed (it had been bleeding on and off all day due to the heat and dry air). After another mile or so, I started to feel nauseous and, for the first time during the entire race, I hunched over and tried to keep myself from vomiting. I stood erect again and moved forward but, from that point on, I had to stop every 5-8 minutes and do the same thing to avoid vomiting. The change in altitude, coupled with exhaustion and dehydration, was finally taking its toll.
After another mile or so, I started to sway when I walked and I moaned in pain with every step. "What hurts?" Jeff asked. "My feet," I said, "but mostly my back." We had planned that I would only carry one liter of water during the night but, because three aid stations had run out of water during the day, we adjusted our plan and I carried two liters on my back, in addition to fuel and gear, all day. After nearly 20 hours, my back could no longer handle the weight. I continued to sway. "Do you want me to carry your pack?" Jeff asked. "No," I said. "That would be cheating." He reached out and grabbed my hand and he didn't let go. He was my rock for the final mile that I death-marched up to Dutchman Peak. Each time I moaned in pain, he squeezed my hand a little tighter.
We reached the Dutchman Peak aid station and saw Sarah: "I don't know if I can summit," I said. "It's not your choice," Sarah replied. "They're not going to let you through." While the cutoff had changed to 2:00 a.m. at some point during the night, I didn't arrive until 2:10 a.m. I would not be allowed to go on. My race was over.
Though it was only ten minutes after the cutoff, the volunteers had already packed up the aid station. Still, Sarah managed to find a chair, sit me down in front of the heater, and give me some broth. I put my head between my legs and I started to cry. "I tried so hard," I said. "I pushed as hard as I could and I still let everyone down. I'm so sorry." I looked around and saw the runners who were pulled before I was and the two who were pulled after I arrived. We commiserated briefly before the last remaining volunteers at Dutchman Peak turned off the lights and packed up the heater. We quietly piled into a car and drove off into the night.
The Pine to Palm 100 course was exactly what I anticipated. It was breathtakingly beautiful and posed the challenges of running a mountain 100 that I sought. I trained and I planned for those conditions and my crew and I executed our plan perfectly. What I did not prepare for were the tight, and ever-changing, cutoffs. I registered for the race knowing that I had to complete it in 34 hours. I did not think that would be a problem at the time and I still do not think that would have been a problem. Unfortunately, the tight cutoffs force runners to run a sub-30-hour pace early on, leaving them with no energy. That, coupled with the hot temperatures, poor aid, lack of water, and thoughtless and inattentive volunteers, set back-of-the-pack runners up to fail. The high attrition of this year's race is a testament to the poor support and running conditions with which so many runners were met. All is not lost, though. As I reflect on this race, I think about all of the things that I learned and about all of the fears that I overcame. I am a stronger and more experienced runner for it and, most of all, I have never been more grateful for my incredible friends.
During our drive back to Portland in the early hours of Sunday morning, we stopped at a rest area. Sarah helped me out of the car and locked her arm in mine to give me balance as I hobbled my way to the restroom. I looked up: "The sun's rising," I said. Side by side, Sarah and I walked on. "And things are exactly as they should have been," she said. I returned to the car and, as I lie back down, Jeff looked at me and said: "Montana won." No, I don't have a shiny buckle to show for my efforts, but I do have two amazing friends and I wouldn't trade them for anything.