I’ve procrastinated a while on getting this down in part because I’m finding it hard to sum up the experience of running another 100 miler. It’s not surprising I suppose, since more than half of the race I was in the dark and a good portion of that I was in a stupor. I once read that people better remember things they did while they were drunk if they are drunk again than when they are sober. Being out on the trail is likely to conjure up details I’ve already forgotten but it will be a while before I get out on the PCT again, now that winter is looming.
The race seemed, in my mind, to be a fairly doable accomplishment when I signed up for it. This is an area I’ve run a number of times. The PCT 50 is partly on the same course and was my first ultra marathon. I’ve run it several times since then, including just this last July. I felt like the course was reasonable and familiarity with the route would make it seem to go fast.
I planned to do it mostly alone this time, to see what that was like. Frankly, the logistics of trying to figure out how to get a pacer to the right spot and then get them back to their car, etc. was just too much for me to manage so I decided to just manage without. Then I was lucky enough to have my friend Wayne volunteer to run in with me from the 85 mile aid station where he would be volunteering. So, in the end I did get to travel with someone for the last portion. Thanks Wayne!
My husband Rodney came with me this time and my running buddy Glen carpooled up with us as well. We got into Government Camp in the afternoon, checked into the hotel and then drove to the packet pick up. Then we scouted out the crew check points for Rodney to hit the first 28 miles of the race. He did great and was a real big help getting me in and out of the aid stations quickly.
Starting at 5:00 am meant darkness, of course. It was a little chilly but not bad. The first 3 miles or so of trail are notoriously dusty and big clouds of it were kicked up as we headed off into the forest, headlamps not much of a help. Glen and Russ and I stayed close together for much of the morning, leap frogging back and forth and taking turns running point. Occasionally I’d lose sight of Glen and we would “Marco!” “Polo!” signal to each other our relative positions. This was better than looking around and risk tripping and falling.
After it got light the bees came out and just about everyone (except me!) got stung. We seemed to be pushing moderately hard up and over the elevation changes but chatting with each other helped pass the time. However, by the time we got to about the 22 mile aid station I was starting to feel quite a bit more tired than I should have. I decided to ratchet back the pace and began a more conservative strategy with more walking. Glen stayed with me but Russ pulled ahead for the rest of the race, as I expected he would.
At the 28 mile mark and the last aid station I would see Rodney I got together all the things I would need and was required to take (headlamp at 11:30 am?). Off Glen and I went towards the southern 35 mile stretch, the last 20 miles of which would be new to us. It was warming up but it never got very hot and the ice bandanna was enough to keep me cool.
Came into Horse Camp Aid Station mile 28 to find the cutest little Ultra-Pup.
Fall was definitely in evidence as we ran under the trees just near the edge of clear cuts and they were filled with tall shrubs turned golden, orange and red in the sun light. It was very beautiful. As I suspected the run up to this point seemed to pass fairly quickly. After we passed the aid station at Warm Springs Meadows (great pumpkin bread – thanks guys!) the trail was new territory. We climbed and climbed quite a bit before hitting the Pinheads aid station where Wayne was helping out. They made me a great burrito and I refueled at an increasingly leisurely pace, a time wasting trend throughout the rest of my run.
The following section of trail was a 10 mile stretch before the next aid and the promised water drop at the mid point didn’t materialize, but we anticipated this after leaving Pinheads. Someone did traipse down the trail about a mile or so and dropped off some water bottles and I topped off a little. This stretch seemed to really take a lot out of Glen’s generally upbeat mood. The lack of aid and the constant climbing did not settle well. Well, let’s face it, 55 miles into a race of 100 is pretty much a no man’s land. You’re barely into the meat of the race and so far from it’s end that every step seems pretty meager in it’s impact towards drawing you closer to the end. About a mile from the aid station someone had traipsed up with water again and we replenished a little bit, being careful to save some of the limited supply for those who would be coming later.
Finally we came to the turnoff to the Olallie camp ground aid station which was accessible to crew and buzzing with activity. We passed Russ who was leaving just as we were heading in. I had a volunteer to find me my drop box and Glen picked up Jerry, his pacer for the next stretch to the turn around and back.
I focused on getting myself ready for the upcoming darkness. This was the only aspect of running the race without a pacer that had me a bit spooked – running alone in the wilderness in the dark. I had a secret weapon to keep me going alone in the dark. My sister had given me a safety vest for Christmas in anticipation of just this need. This was no ordinary reflective vest. It was super reflective and…it had red flashing LED lights all over it! I looked like a moving runway! Or a Christmas tree, as I was frequently told.
It wasn’t quite dark when I left the aid station but I was outfitted and ready to go. Glen left ahead of me with Jerry. The next section was rocky and less runnable and the main regret I had was that as it got dark I missed out on what must have been some really great views. Right at dusk, not 30 minutes out of the aid station I passed Jerry who was standing in the trail waiting for Glen who was off in the bushes. Apparently he hit a low point and he was having some problems. Luckily he was in good hands and so I pressed on.
Once it got dark I turned on the flashing vest and my head lamp. I had also recently bought a hand help Fenix flashlight that was compact but bright enough to signal outer space. Wow! Never underestimate the advantage of adequate light on your ability to run in the dark. Seriously; get the best and brightest lighting you can afford and you won’t be sorry. I was able to really keep moving at a decent (for me) pace despite the rocks and hills because I could see them really well, even when it was pitch dark. I had to change the batteries once in the night but that was a small price to pay for really, really great lighting.
There were some boulder fields that we passed through. The best I could make out in the dark was that we were crossing a steep slope on a thin sliver of trail through a swath of rocks. Up over my head on the left they were stacked one on top of the other, some the size of refrigerators which were stacked on top of VW sized ones. Hoping not 1) to be in the boulder field during an earthquake that would send them all down upon my head and 2) to trip and fall off to my right were the boulders seemed to resemble more of a cliff leading to an abyss, I ran/walked gingerly but as quickly as possible. Luckily I had my FLASHING safety vest. If I did fall over the edge, someone was likely to see me flashing down below making body recover more likely.
A lot of people were heading towards me on their return from the turnaround and I had quite a few comments about my flashing lights. “Wow! Great Vest – looks like Christmas.” “Safety First!” was my usual reply.
The final stretch to the turnaround aid station included lots of climbing and more rocks and some meadow crossings. There was one tricky trail intersection that I navigated correctly and eventually people (after they commented on my vest) started to tell me I wasn’t far from the aid station. With a few minutes to go I bumped into Russ on his way back out. He was still running with his friend Gary and they seemed to be upbeat.
I found a chair at the aid station and sat down, waited on by volunteers who brought me food and drink while I changed socks and patched a hot spot on my right heel. I had some tights in my drop box but it wasn’t really that cold so I left them there. I was glad that we seemed to have hit the end of summer weather rather than touched the beginning of fall considering the timing of the race so late in September. Getting snow or rain this time of year wouldn’t be unheard of.
Replenished and satisfied, all I had to do was turn around and go back the way I came and I’d be back at the finish line in no time! Ha! Well, it was a pleasant thought that kept me going for the time being. My flashing vest and I headed back out onto the trail, probably scaring all the little critters in the woods. Almost as soon as I got back out onto the trail it seemed to get colder. A lot colder. I had on my long sleeved shirt over my short sleeved shirt, my hat, my vest and my wool socks but I was still not generating enough heat to stay comfortable all the time. I passed through little micro climates of chill and warmth but the chilly spots began to predominate. It motivated me to keep moving faster but the rocky terrain slowed me to a walk far too often.
While I was making my way back through rocks, hills, meadows, and tricky trail intersections I’d occasionally look over my shoulder at a headlamp coming up behind me, up on the ridge above. It took me a while to realize it was the moon peaking over the ridge and not someone with a headlamp. Eventually I made it to the potato soup aid station and it was nice and warm. I stayed too long but tried to eat and warm up a bit before heading out again.
The trip to the Olallie camp ground aid station was even more chilling. The rocks were harder still to navigate safely despite my adequate lighting. By the time I got there I was shivering and wondering how I would stay warm for the rest of the run. Once again, Russ was leaving just as I was heading in. As I entered the lights and activity of the aid station I saw Kevin, Glen’s next pacer, wrapped up in a sleeping bag looking very warm and cozy. Like a tractor beam I was drawn to his warmth and he stood up and then kindly opened up his arms and wrapped the sleeping bag around me and let me suck all the heat out of him. That’s what women really want from men, you know. Body heat. Kevin sacrificed his own comfort and handed the sleeping bag over to me to use while I sat and refueled and considered my resources for getting through the cold night. The temps were reported to be at freezing. And I had left my tights at the turn around. I never run at freezing temps in shorts, and there’s a reason why. It’s too cold! BRRRRRR!
Hot soup helped. Pumpkin pie helped. I had spare wool socks so they became mittens and then my best idea mimicked what I saw happening around me with some other runners who were wrapped in garbage bags with duct tape. I had a cheap rain poncho (in case it rained) and I put that over my clothes and under my vest and the hood pulled up over my head and my beanie pulled over that. This combination really worked pretty well and it saved my race from a potential DNF due to hypothermia. Reluctantly I left behind the sleeping bag and headed out onto the trail again and the next 10 mile section. Alone. Into the cold, dark woods. Glen and Kevin caught up to me and I tried to keep up as they passed but they were moving too fast and pulled on ahead. I never saw them again on the trail. Go Glen!
I’ll admit that the flashing lights kept me company at first but eventually as I got more tired and sleepy they became unpleasantly mesmerizing. I started to notice the flashing on the rims of my glasses. It was startling to get annoying so I turned them off for a while. Then I’d think about how I was alone out there and who would find me if I got lost so I’d turn them back on again. Then off. Then on. I must have resembled some sort of deranged fire fly.
Although I had anticipated being pacer-less would be kind of scary in the dark, what I hadn’t counted on was the factor of sleepiness. I haven’t ever had much problem staying up all night if I’m busy. I don’t really remember getting sleepy at my last 100 miler and I now realize that was in large part due to having Russ there to keep me company. We were busy gabbing so I don’t remember getting sleepy. But alone in the dark, flashing vest or not, I was getting mighty drowsy. And I started to feel sorry for myself. Poor me. Cold. Tired. Alone. In the dark. Boo Hoo. Eventually it seemed ridiculous to me to get so worked up over something I volunteered to do. For fun. After some internal eye-rolling I turned my vest back on and told my brain to “shut up” and I just kept moving.
At some point in this stretch of no-man’s-land I noticed some lights in a clearing off to my left. There was a guy sitting in a chair over there where an aid station was suppose to be (but was canceled due to extreme access problems). “Are you the sweep?” he asked me. Huh? What? “No…” Apparently he was a ham operator who had packed it out there to keep an eye on people passing through. He must have thought my flashing vest was an official sign of something. He must have been cold and tired too and hoped the ordeal was almost over. Sorry to disappoint. I’m just a fire fly passing through.
Next I saw a fellow runner sitting slumped on a stump by the side of the trail with his head in his hands. Concerned, I put my arm around him and asked if he was OK only to have him startle awake. “I was just sleeping!” Oops. Sorry to wake you and I was off “in a flash.” Poor guy. I found out later that he dropped at the next aid station because he was sleep running – not a safe mode of transportation. I wish it had occurred to me to have him come along and we could keep each other awake. Sorry Anil!
Finally I got to the Pinheads aid station and my pacer who would save me from sleep running and self pity. I sat and ate and eventually was kicked back onto the trail by Wayne. I knew there were just two more aid stations before the end and it seemed not impossible to actually get there.
Funny how things seemed to just get slower and farther the longer I was out there. And fuzzy. I have very limited recollection of the last 15 miles, especially those in the dark. I remember we did finally make it to the next to the last aid station and it was still dark. And Russ was there and I couldn’t believe him when he said he was dropping out! But why? “Dead quads.” Don’t you just want to try making it to one more aid station before you decide? He was sure he was done and I didn’t want to keep badgering him but I felt bad. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who was more ready to tackle a 100 miler. It just wasn’t right, but he seemed at peace with his decision and in the end that’s all that matters.
Reluctantly but gratefully I let Wayne get me back on my feet and we headed out to a long downhill section which I new was followed by a creek crossing on a little bridge then a moderate uphill (I ran most of it during the 50 miler so how hard could it be?) and then the last aid station before a sweet 6 mile downhill section to the finish. Piece of cake, right? And the coming of dawn will re-spark me and make the final push even more speedy. Right?
Wrong. Sure the trail went down, then the bridge then the steep uphill for…just…a…short…while…but maybe just a bit longer than I remember…quite a bit longer. I don’t remember it being so steep for so long.
Crap. Now I’m walking. More walking. No running, more up, more up, more up, more up, more up, more walking. There’s the dawn! I don’t feel ANY burst of energy. I’m dejected that I had been able to run this section before but now it’s all different and much harder. Drat. My triumphant finish will be taking a bit longer than I had hoped.
The final aid station was very low key. Everyone looked very tired: runners, volunteers, trees, dirt, air. Digressing into a fatigue shrouded babble, I ditched my rain poncho and I reluctantly swallowed a raspberry gel as we headed out. Before long I was actually running on a sweet section of gentle downhill. But this didn’t last for long and too soon I was walking that which was perfectly runnable. What a waste of great trail.
We tried to do the math about my progress. It looked like I wouldn’t be able to come in faster than my last 100 miler. I was going to be over an hour slower than last time. Realizing the hopelessness of pushing hard just to come in not quite as slow, I gave up trying. I walked. I saw electrical transformer boxes on the side of the trail. I saw people waiting on the side of the trail around every corner. As I got closer to these objects they transformed into the trees and bushes they really were. I was not actually having hallucinations (seeing something that’s not really there), but illusions (misinterpreting something that actually is there).
Then I began to sense someone was running behind us…now I was motivated not to get passed in the last few miles so I started running again, slowly, but at least I was moving faster than a walk! It got really quiet behind me so I turned around to see if Wayne was still there and there he was, walking and able to keep up very easily with my snail’s pace run. Sheesh, if I can walk as fast as I can “run” why waste my energy “running?” There wasn’t really anyone behind us anyway.
I won’t bore the reader here with the true perception I had of time nearly standing still and the never ending trail and the growing fatigue I was experiencing. But just imagine it for about another hour or so and you’ll have some idea of how it felt in person.
Finally, the last stretch, and I have to pretend I can still run up onto the road and up the driveway to the finish line. Rodney’s there waiting, as are Glen and Jerry and Kevin. I get my finishers prize and some extra swag and then find a chair by the fire to check out my feet and to rest. I was happy to be done and happy to have a second 100 miler under my belt.
Wayne disappeared and I didn’t hear from him again until later that afternoon by email. After a short nap he was able to recalculate my finishing time and, as it turns out, I was an hour faster than we had thought. I did beat my previous time by 22 minutes on a course that was 2.1 miles longer (103 miles). It must have been because of the flashing safety vest, right?
Once again, it goes without saying that I couldn’t have done this without the generous help of the volunteers who put on this race. No one gets paid for their trouble and I appreciate the sacrifices they made so that I could have the opportunity to run 100 (+) miles on the PCT.