Well, here it is, the latest race report from me about an event I’ll not soon forget. Even if I wanted to.
It was a beautiful day for trail running. It was a beautiful place for trail running, too. Willamette Pass, 1 hour east of Eugene, is the Oregon Cascade mountains at their best. Picture high conifer forests and mountain peaks with fog shrouded valleys and glistening lakes. The run takes place in this setting and on some of the sweetest soft single track trail you can imagine. Running between 5000 and 7800 feet, this is an altitude course but the views from the peaks are spectacular!
I took the early start and found my friend Pete right there in the dark with me at 3 am. We took off, ran about 50 yards then headed for a hike a mile or so straight up the mountain to the trail. It reminded me of the section from Rucky Chucky to Green Gate at Western States. Pete was way out in front as usual, but we planned on meeting up at the end to share stories.
It was dark for the first 3 hours and I fell once but didn’t suffer more than a bruised and scratched knee cap. We climbed up and down in the prettiest forest (seen after it was lighter) and before I knew it we were ready to climbed up the first peak, Mt. Fuji, right at sunrise. Waldo Lake was shrouded in fog but we could see around us for miles and miles. The weather stayed cool all day and I wore a long sleeved shirt over my short sleeved one most of time. I was feeling pretty strong and kept up well with my hydration and eating.
The race directors had a “Show us your Waldo” contest that was about the only award I stood any chance of winning. Intended as a way to promote a happy atmosphere at the aid stations, runners were encouraged to interpret this challenge any way they wanted that would to get the volunteers to vote for them. I decided my “Waldo” would be a big hug and kiss for all the volunteers at each aid station. I’m sure the volunteers at the later aid stations were a bit less inclined to vote for a stinky sweaty Waldo-bearer than those I encountered when I was more fresh. Even so, I had many enthusiastic return hugs. What I didn’t anticipate was that giving and receiving hugs back would make me feel so good! I entered each aid station full of needs but I always left with a huge smile on my face, loaded with good will. It’s a great feeling and I think I’ll have to do it more often in races. In the end I only got one vote in the contest and it was indeed from an earlier aid station. Maybe next time I’ll kiss everyone on the lips…or not.
Sadly, there were some trail vandals who messed up some of the directional signs but by the time I got to them they were already fixed so I didn’t get in any “bonus miles” like many folks did. This includes most of the front runners and anyone else who had a chance for a good time. Poor Pete says he got 5 bonus miles! One of the hardest sections for me was the trail going up between The Twins. This section is rolling but mostly up and never ending. Then it’s out to Charlton lake and then back towards the Twins from a different direction but it’s another hard section for me. I think I was already starting to drink less than I should have at this point. Since the weather was so cool, I didn’t really seem to be sweating much but the dry air at altitude sucks the moisture right out of you anyway.
When it came time for the last big climb at mile 50 up Maiden Peak to 7800 feet it was a real struggle for me. I knew it would be hard for me but seemed like I was climbing Mt. Everest: step, rest, gasp…step, rest, gasp… most of the way up. It felt far harder than it should have been. The view was spectacular at the top and Waldo Lake was now visible. I didn’t tarry too long because I was on pace to finish in just under 18 hours so I could get my finishers hat. Come in later than that cut off and it’s “no hat for you.” I must have that hat.
Coming down Maiden was steep but swift and I was excited to be at the last aid station. The last 7.5 mile section wouldn’t have any difficult climbing and is an essentially downhill course to the finish line. When I had the aid station workers take out my hydration bladder to refill it, it was only a little bit down. Oops. Apparently the difficulty of the climb up Maiden Peak contributed to my lack of focus on eating and drinking, and the lack of eating and drinking obviously contributed to the difficulty of the climb. I didn’t know it quite yet, but I was screwed.
I sat at that aid station and downed a couple of cups of chicken broth before I left, hoping I would catch up. But, not far out on the trail as I started to run up a small rise I felt light-headed. I had to walk. A the next one I actually had to crouch down and put my head between my knees to make the feeling pass. Eventually I had to just walk up the hills slowly but I could still run down them. Over the next four miles things progressively deteriorated. I’ve never experienced any of this in a race before and I started to spin all sorts of diagnoses to account for my symptoms and none of them were good. I got ringing in my ears. I got a burning ache in my stomach. At one point I actually laid on the trail with my legs up the slope and my head downward hoping I could recover enough to finish. Two guys ran past me and I waved at them to assure them (and myself) that I’d be fine in a minute. Eventually I was reduced to walking even the downs and knew I wouldn’t make the 18 hour time limit for my hat. But not long after that things got even worse and finally I couldn’t even walk slowly on the flats without getting light-headed and nauseated. It was the very unsettling feeling of almost passing out and I began to seriously consider if I actually could finish at all.
I was 3 miles from the end and crouched over contemplating all this when a couple in a tent right off the trail saw me and asked if I was OK or needed help. This was the first tent I’d see all day. I paused for a bit, knowing that if I said “yes” my race was over. But honestly I couldn’t see being able to go another 3 steps let alone another 3 miles. These very nice people (Randy and Kathy) were PCT through-hikers and lucky for me, the wife was a trainer for wilderness first aid courses. Eventually I admitted to myself, and them, that I was indeed in trouble.
They immediately went into rescue mode. They brought me into their tent and put me on a therm-a-rest pad, in their sleeping bag, put my feet up and started assessing me for what might be wrong. Thinking I was likely suffering from low blood pressure we tried to orally rehydrate me by sips of my GU2O and salt tabs. By this time I was hardly able to keep things down and eventually threw up about a half-liter of the fluids I did get in. Even with my head pitched down the slope and my feet up I still felt like I was going to faint. It was really scary and I don’t mind admitting there were times I really wasn’t sure if I might be a goner before anyone with the right equipment could get to me. Half joking I asked Kathy if she remembered her CPR.
When we finally realized I wasn’t likely to recover with basic rest and oral fluids, they used their cell phone and we called my family who, when they couldn’t find any way to contact the race people directly, contacted the local search and rescue. They happened to be right at the finish line monitoring the race for paramedic needs. Meanwhile, Pete was at the finish line waiting for me and alerted them when the trail sweeps came through that although I had been erroneously confirmed as a finisher, I was not accounted for. The trail sweeps had already passed us by when we were in the tent and not yet sure I needed more outside help. I was not coherent enough to remember to leave something obvious on the trail to alert the trail sweeps to my presence off the trail. Eventually the RD and the search and rescue folks on hand figured out that I was 3 miles down the trail and they hiked in to me, laden with equipment.
After the first liter of IV fluids they put in me I wasn’t feeling any better so they had to pack me into a rolling gurney/stretcher and half carry, half roll me back out on the trail. After close to 2 hours of this I tried walking again and after initially feeling faint and nauseous I seemed to stabilize. With the support of one of the EMTs I was able to walk the last 1/2 mile in. They took me to their mini triage station and put another liter of fluid in me and I began to feel better. They encouraged me to spend the night there, rather than try to drive alone the 30 minutes back to my hotel, so I did. It was about 4 am by this time. I slept for a few hours, then woke up feeling OK and drove back to the hotel where I slept for about 4 more hours until my check out time. Then I drove home to the coast.
I just can’t say enough about the nice people that helped me. The RD came out with the EMTs and stayed by my side every single minute. Randy and Kathy were the best trail angels I could have run into. I was very lucky. And I’ll pat myself on the back because I wasn’t so stubborn that I caused myself any permanent damage. If I had pushed it until I absolutely collapsed on the trail I would have risked severe hypothermia or worse before anyone with the right equipment found me and who knows what might have happened.
And now I have learned another valuable lesson about the importance of mental concentration for fueling, even when weary. Especially when weary. And it’s even more important when I’m exerting myself at altitude if I’m not acclimated. I doubt I’ll make the exact same mistake again. What I’m learning about human endurance is as much a study of mental processes as it is about the physical ones. Even though I can spout off line and verse about what the right things are to do in practically any given endurance situation, I still struggle to have the mental focus to put it all into practice when I get really tired. I’m still trying to solve this problem and hope it doesn’t require too many more such mistakes before I learn.
Once again, Pete helped save my day and I owe him a lot. Although I try to be self-sufficient in these events, it is important to have friends who will watch your back. You never know when it could be a matter of grave importance. Luckily at ultra events and in our tight-knit online community I’ve found it pretty easy to make these connections. All of the happenings of the day just reinforce to me that there is a basic goodness in most people who will help out a fellow human being in need (trail vandals excepted).
It’s heartbreaking to have come so close…59.5 miles out of 62.5. And I had really wanted to accomplish the entire Oregon trail series this year, a lofty goal for me. I’m very disappointed to have failed. But, oh well. As a ultra runner friend of mine says, “it is what it is.” I certainly can’t change things now so the best outcome is to learn from my experiences. At least I’ll live to run another day. I’m suppose to be doing this for fun so I try not to feel too bad about it.