I stood alone at the top of a short section of steep, eroded mountain bike trail and said, out of pure frustration, “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” Encouraging words came from the shade of some trees off to the side of the trail, something about me almost being done and to hang in there. Apparently, I wasn’t as alone as I thought. I was at mile 99 or so of a 100 mile race in southern Oregon. The last 9 miles, I’d been doing what I like to call the “crying shuffle.” The tendons on the top of my left foot felt like they were being stabbed with a knife whenever they bent, making me whimper and–after a while–cry my way down the trail. Leaving the mile 90 aid station was so hard. There were many incredibly rational reasons to say enough was enough: I didn’t know what was happening to my foot, and no race is worth permanent damage or significant injury; 90 miles is pretty far and I could be proud of what I’d done; lying on the blue tarp on the forest floor felt sooooo good . . . But, I’d been making great time most of the day. I had 8 hours before the cutoff to go 10 downhill miles to the finish. I knew it was possible, and I knew I could do it. I also knew it was going to be terrible.
The Pine to Palm 100 is a point-to-point race from a tiny little town called Williams to Ashland, the hippy-center-of-Oregon. The elevation profile has about 20,000 up and 20,000 down, which honestly felt pretty okay given all the time I’ve been spending in the Chugach this summer. The real kicker was the heat: mid-to-upper 90s is hard to train for even in the warmest of Anchorage summers. I was there with my good friend John Wros and his parents. I hadn’t seen John all day, which was good. He’s way faster and the only way I would have seen him was if he had a terrible day (he didn’t: he had a great race and finished third!!!)
About 150 runners signed up. 90% of those toed the starting line. 60% or so of those starting finished, which I guess is fairly average for this course. Things start out with a 10 mile climb of about 4,500 feet. The top is the one place I took pictures. After that, it was either so hot that I was just focused on dealing with that, or it was dark. Or, the next morning, I was too tired to think about pictures. So, you’ll just have to imagine the southern Oregon forests . . . Anyway, after the first climb came a long descent and then some rolling. The first big aid station–Seattle Bar–was at around mile 27. It’s right before Stein Butte, the shortest climb of the day at about 2,500 feet, but with a reputation as the hardest because of the heat. I took a short sit-down-break, slammed a fruit smoothie, stuffed my hat and sports bra full of ice, and ate a popsicle. Then, because the man clearly in charge of the entire aid station said I wasn’t allowed to leave until I was cold, I doused myself in ice water. A routine to be repeated throughout the day.
The climb up Stein was less exposed than I anticipated. Most of it was in the trees, with a few sections of direct sun. I think it helped that I carried a bit of extra water to stop and cool off a couple times. The heat was definitely hard to handle. But, it wasn’t the hardest climb of the day for me (I found the climb around mile 50 to be the hardest).
We dropped about all the elevation we gained going up Stein and then hit Squaw Lake. The aid station there was also great. They took my pack, cooled me off, and sent me to go around the 2 miles of relatively flat lakeside trail. I should have stopped and got in the lake to cool off, but it was ever so slightly out of my way and I guess I was lazy. That’s the first decision I can identify where I would have benefited from having a crew there to tell me what to do. The other thing a crew would have been invaluable for (besides the mental boost) was making sure that I was getting enough food down. I really struggled with that. At the mile 60 or so aid, I got some avocado on wheat bread and then at the following aid station, I had a tortilla with beans in my drop bag that they heated up for me. Getting that down was huge. My legs immediately started to bounce back and my energy levels improved dramatically. But then the following aid didn’t have much for me, nor the next. So, by mile 80, I was struggling to get in “real” food (i.e., not gels), and struggling with the gels themselves too. It was my own fault. The things that sounded good when wandering around the natural food store on Friday afternoon were terrible and essentially non-options come Saturday night. And the aid stations weren’t stocked for a vegan. I was sorely tempted by grilled cheese, but was afraid that would do more harm than good, having not eaten dairy for a super long time. So, while I felt really good about my pace until then, about mile 80 I started to suffer from an angry stomach and lack of energy.
The climb between mile 80 and 90 was supposed to be super hard, but it never felt that way. Actually, it was by far the most mellow of the day. At the very top, there’s some scrambling on boulders, but even not feeling at all agile, it wasn’t a big deal. I guess it was a good time to be a climber . . . The real difficulty for me lay in the downhill. There were enough rocks and my agility was so tanked that I ended up walking most of it. Then it got super steep. That’s when my feet started to really give me trouble. Even when the trail smoothed out, they hurt so much. I told myself to get to the aid station where John and his parents would be waiting and would make everything better. That’s when the hallucinating started. I think I “saw” the forest service road that I was waiting for about ten times before actually getting there. There was no sign of the Wros family. The aid workers looked at my feet, and basically said they didn’t want to touch the really bad blister I had on my pinkie toe and that they had no idea what was going on with my foot tendons. There was no encouragement beyond “well, you probably can’t make it worse.” I felt alone and lost.
Eventually I got my shoes back on and started out again. A volunteer in overalls and running shoes offered the only encouragement I heard from that group: “you’ve got 8 hours. you can get there.” And so I did the shuffle and, eventually, the crying shuffle. I was surprised by how few runners passed me. I guess we were so spread out at that point. I texted John: “My feet are fucked. Just left mile 90. Limping hard and walking slow.” He hadn’t been able to get to me because they’d closed the roads to prevent dust. I understood.
I did some more hallucinating. I passed the mile 96 water station (unmanned). A woman ran up to me from the other direction asked how I was doing and gave me a hug. In another mile, a man did the same (and told me multiple times to think about how good it would feel to cross the line in two miles. I wasn’t sure I believed him.). In another mile, someone asked if I was Katherine. The race folks were definitely watching out for me. Which makes sense. I didn’t see anyone else crying uncontrollably.
After four hours of shuffling, I hit the pavement. John and his parents were there to meet me. John walked with me down the steep road, getting me to the finish line, where I continued to limp on through. The trick to making people applaud you for an extra-long time: move slow. Embarrassingly slow. Like, can I sink into the earth slow. But then, I was done. The race director and ultra-running star Hal Koerner immediately welcomed me and handed me a beer. The medical people asked if they could look me over. One of the aid station volunteers who worked on a blister on my heel turned out to be a reporter and he interviewed me while the medical people worked on dealing with the grossest blister I’ve ever had. I was done, and it felt as good as the guy on the trail told me it would.
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In retrospect, I’m grateful in a lot of ways that the end was so hard. I’m beyond proud of myself for choosing to keep going when things got bad. It wouldn’t have been the right choice in, say, the middle of the Winter Classic or even in a training run in the front range. But on forest service roads on the outskirts of Ashland during a race where there are loads of people around . . . well, the risk assessment is just different. I’d say that about mile 87, I hit the place where if I was in a wilderness situation, the right choice would have been to stop and do some serious self-care before finishing. In some ways, being in a situation where that wasn’t the right choice made it all the more difficult, all the more intense, because I pushed to a place where I’ve never been, never let myself go, not even in a Classic because, well, that would just be stupid (i.e., beyond the amount of risk I’m willing to accept).
It’s been said before, but the hardest distance is the six inches between your ears. I didn’t believe the man who told me to think about how good it would feel to finish . . . But he was right. Finishing was huge. I was nowhere near my goal time. Nowhere near the even splits I’d hoped for. But, I went 100 miles on foot through beautiful forests and over a few mountains. It’s something I feel pretty good about. And something I’m already thinking about how to do better next time.
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I was really impressed with how well this event was put together. I’d say that pre-race communication was fairly minimal and I’ve heard people complain that the distances between aid stations wasn’t perfectly measured. Honestly, it doesn’t matter to me whether the aid is 3.5 or 4.5 miles away. And I think if that’s how people criticize a race, then the race is doing super well. What I noticed was that the major aid stations had solid medical people, that — after dark — there were people running the opposite direction on the course to make sure everyone was okay, and that things were marked really well. I also loved the awards ceremony. Hal had each of us talk and share a little about our race. I thought that was really special, and a celebration of everyone who crossed the line.
Thanks, Hal! And thanks to all the volunteers who made this into such a fabulous and well-run event!