Looking down the trail in the last 15 miles of the race.
After nearly a year of having my sights set on my first one hundred miler, this past weekend at the Pine to Palm 100 was my first attempt at that goal. The race is organized by Hal Koerner and runs from Williams, OR to Ashland, OR through the Siskiyou Mountain Range and it. is. beautiful.
For anyone who’s not so much interested in the nitty gritty details and thinking “no way in hell I’m wasting precious moments of my life reading this whole thing” (understandable), I’ll jump to the chase up front: Coming into the race, I was admittedly pretty much clueless as to what it takes to run a hundred miles. I mean, it’s like when someone with a fear of heights tells you skydiving isn’t scary because it’s so high that it’s hard to fathom just how high up you are. I couldn’t even fathom running this distance. I just tried to prepare myself for almost anything and got it in my head that most likely, my biggest battle would be in my head. Despite my inexperience and a bummer of a setback thanks to a pissed off knee after Speedgoat that basically had me twiddling my thumbs for what should have been the three peak weeks of my training, spoiler alert: I’m excited to report that I crossed the finish line! Just making it to the finish was my tertiary goal, and to achieving any goal in a hundred mile race where there’s so much opportunity for something to go awry, I say hell yeah! (My first goal was to run under 25 hours and second was to run under 28). There were definitely moments when I wasn’t sure if even my plan C was going to happen this time around.
This race had a few major takeaways for me:
- I’ve finally become a hiker! If you know me, you know I’m a runner, not a hiker. Embracing this aspect of ultra-running has been a challenge for me. But I’m discovering that covering ground quickly on a good long climb isn’t beyond my reach.
- Consuming 300 calories per hour is a good goal – set that repeating watch alarm to go off every 20 minutes!
- Have patience when your world feels like it’s going to hell in a hand-basket. Things get better. Ride that roller coaster with the confidence that even the shittiest of feelings go away, it’s just a matter of when.
- Always move forward. Every step – even a nauseous slow one – is one step closer to the finish.
- Talking to yourself is acceptable.
- Vomiting Coca-cola isn’t so bad, vomiting V8 sucks.
I registered for this race last winter mostly because I’d heard that while it was a challenging course, it was a very runnable one (i.e. not Leadville – which I also entered the lottery for, but didn’t get in) and I’ve heard you should choose a race that suits your strengths for your first one. I’d second that last point now that I’ve experienced it. There are so many things to juggle in a race like this, it just makes sense not to throw in other unfamiliar territory if you can avoid it.
Evan and I decided to fly into Medford instead of drive – I thought 16 and a half hours in the car before asking my body to race for 24+ hours might be a bit much, much less ask it to sit there for another 16.5 hours afterward. We arrived early Thursday evening, picked up the rental car (actually truck – we rented a midsize sedan but were instead handed the keys to 100% pure AMURICA at the Enterprise counter) and headed to a quick dinner at a tapas bar downtown and then a hotel to get as much sleep as possible two nights out from the race. I’d been coming down with some kind of feverish yuck starting Sunday before the race and I was paranoid that it would finally get the better of me if I didn’t stay well-rested. The possibility of waking up the day before my first 100 miler with a fever and a sore throat sounded like one of the more awful potential setbacks that could stand between me and that finish line on Sunday.
My parents agreed to help Evan crew and I’m so glad they did. It was extremely helpful to have them both at aid stations and it meant a lot to share this experience with them. They were driving up on Thursday and arrived Friday night with the truckbed camper in hopes of making things more comfortable for a long weekend. My mom cooked a much more deluxe version of my traditional pre-race meal of salmon (she added a fancy peach and avocado topping), rice and broccoli while dad, Evan and I went to the race briefing.
Reading comments on forums before the race had me nervous that the roads into some aid stations would be too gnarly for a rental car, so I was glad dad would have his truck there just in case (for the record, my crew had no problems, even getting into Dutchman. The road was a little washboardy, but nothing like what I had imagined after reading some reports from previous years. There were many cars at the top).
My dad’s photo of headlamps at the start.
The race started at 6am on Saturday morning on Rock Creek Rd, roughly 6 miles from Pacifica Gardens where Hal Koerner (the race director) organized for everyone to camp for free the night before (thanks, Hal!). It’s good to note that it was at best a small walk and at worst about a mile walk to the start from where people parked their cars along the road. Some folks got to the start late because the bus dropped them off at the bottom of the hill or they parked at the bottom of the hill and had to walk further than they expected. So I was glad we left Pacifica Gardens at 5:20 to be safe.
The race starts in the dark with about a mile of uphill on pavement before cutting off onto singletrack. The concerns about not feeling so great for the previous several days and my knee troubles following Speedgoat that had me stressed out over the weeks leading up to the race faded into the dark and the familiar sense of humility and concentration that comes with running an ultramarathon settled in. My world became nothing but the headlamp lit trail in front of me, the sound of people around me breathing, some chatting back and forth, and focusing on finding a pace that acknowledged the fact that the forecast called for record high temperatures (100 degrees) and we had one hundred miles to go with 20k feet of climbing and the same of descent. It already felt hot and the sun hadn’t even poked its head over the horizon yet.
Most of the first 11 miles is one solid climb. I found a good alternating hiking and running pattern and took in the beauty of a smoky dawn.
Photographer, Paul Nelson’s photo of sunrise on Saturday morning around mile 10.
I’d taken three 16 oz Salomon soft flasks rather than the two I normally carry because of the temperature forecast and I was glad I did. I was out of fluid before there was any sign of the first aid station, even with the “topper” water station around mile 5. The descent from mile 11 to the 15 mile aid station felt surprisingly long and I found that the bottom of the descent was steeper than I had imagined. Nothing like worrying about what the terrain is doing to your quads with more than 85 miles to go! (But by the way, I made a concerted effort NOT to think that way. Just go from aid station to aid station, none of this counting down from one hundred and feeling discouraged crap).
After mile 15, the course moves onto a maintained, gradual downhill dirt road, which makes for super easy running and stays there the vast majority of the way to Seattle Bar at mile 28 where Evan and my parents were waiting for me.
Descending into Seattle Bar the outside of my right knee – the same one that had been misbehaving after Speedgoat – started acting tight so I stopped a couple of times to do a quick knee exercise Evan has showed me in the past, which involves holding your knee out in front of you and quickly flexing your leg to straight, holding it for a second, then releasing. It seemed to be helping, but my stomach was also starting to feel funky. In the back of my mind I thought, it’s too damned early in the day for this crap, but closer to the surface I was trying to maintain positive self-talk by telling myself things like “it’s cool. This happens. It will get better. Just manage it. Also, let’s sing T. Swift under our breath to ourselves because that’s something happy.”
Seattle Bar Aid Station, mile 28.
Seattle Bar is at the bottom of a long, often exposed climb to the top of Stein Butte. The elevation profile says this is 5 miles long, but several people who’d run it before assured me it’s more like 6-8 miles to the next aid station at the top. When I rolled into Seattle Bar my stomach was already threatening to regurgitate the gels and fluid I’d been putting down every 20 minutes for the past five and a half hours. I weighed in, drank a cup of Coke, Evan gave me a Gin Gin to put in my cheek and my parents packed ice into my hat and the back of my shirt and ran a cold rag over my legs and back of the neck. I took a popsicle and my headphones so I could just grind out this climb and started the long ascent to the top of Stein Butte.
Despite the way I was hearing everyone talk about Stein Butte, I actually enjoyed it! My stomach started to settle not long after I left the aid station and I got into the hiking groove. I had to deal with more tight right knee problems toward the top, but a quick stop to stretch my IT band and hamstrings every now and then seemed to be working. I passed several folks by the time I reached the aid station at mile 33 and was feeling pretty good.
From mile 33, there’s more climbing along the ridge on a fire road before the course cuts off on singletrack for another long and steeper than I expected descent to the mile 42/45 aid station at Squaw Lake – the next place I’d see Evan and the parents.
Heading out for the lap around Squaw Lake at mile 42.
By the time I got down to the lake I was pretty irritated at the downhill. Even trying not to bomb it, I could still feel that my quads were getting trashed. I came into the Squaw Lake aid station and handed off my pack to my crew to refill while Evan gave me a hand bottle of GU Rocktane for the two mile lap around the lake. I wasn’t two minutes into the beautiful, runnable, smooth trail around the lake when my stomach started going to hell again. I tried to manage running, but my stomach really hurt and I was pausing every few minutes to gag; partly hoping I wouldn’t puke, but also thinking I’d be grateful to purge and start over.
When I got back to Evan and my parents at mile 45 I was really fighting the nausea. I drank a small bit of V8 thinking that the salt would help. I grabbed my refilled pack and gave Evan a quick kiss on the way out. I made it about twenty feet down the road and promptly lost what calories I’d just got down on the side of the road to the semi-amusement of two men walking to their truck behind me who commented “god, there’s no vanity in ultra-running.” I laughed and replied, “Nope! Do you wanna know more?”
I felt a little better after puking and continued an easy jog down the dirt road trying to replenish what I’d just lost with Roctane. I was at least thankful that I’d been going to the bathroom regularly all day, so I knew I wasn’t dehydrated.
In a couple of miles, the course turned off the main dirt road and headed up another two-track road into the forest before turning again onto singletrack at the top of a saddle. The climb up the two-track was – surprise – miserable. I had a GU in my hand the whole way up just trying to muster the power to finish it, but I couldn’t. My stomach felt terrible and despite trying to puke several times while I hiked there wasn’t anything in my stomach to offer relief. By the time I turned onto the singletrack and paused to fill my water bottle at the water station there, my attempts at optimism were drained and I had a little breakdown in front of a complete stranger. Said stranger’s name turned out to be Dennis, a wildland firefighter from Redding who was running his first 100 too. We hiked and talked for about another mile on single track that traverses up the side of the mountain with amazing views of the mountains and the late afternoon sun. I finally started to get a handle on my nausea so I started running again and said goodbye to Dennis for now.
Changing shoes and socks at Hanley Gap, mile 52.
This section of singletrack finally ended at a dirt road at Hanley Gap – the mile 50 and 52 aid station. Evan and my mom and dad took my pack again to refill it while I took the hand bottle of Roctane up to the peak to retrieve a baby diaper (not joking) as proof that I summited. The way back down was when it became clear to me that my quads were definitely in trouble. I was trying to run down the steep hill and it was just a ridiculous hobble. A couple people going up were kind enough to offer encouragement with statements like “you’re looking great!” and “this mountain is your bitch!” and I wanted to reply “now I know you’re lying. We all know I look like death warmed over right now.” But I appreciated the laugh. When I got back down to the aid station the sun was setting and I had an angry stomach again. I sat on a cooler while my dad helped me change my socks and shoes and I changed into a dry shirt. I sipped some chicken broth, which seemed to be going down nicely, so I had two more cups of it in a desperate attempt to input sodium and calories before heading off for my few hours in the dark by myself.
The next 8 miles to mile 60, surprisingly, were a high for me. It was all on pretty decent dirt road, which made for easier running in the dark and I was enjoying running in my own little bubble of light and listening to happy music. The best part was that I was still able to run at a pretty good pace even if the downhill was a little painful. And given all of the black bear poop I saw on the trails during the day, I only saw something rustle in the bushes at the edge of my headlamp light once and never again, which was A-okay with me. About a mile before the aid station I saw the bright glow of a reflective hydration pack ahead and recognized I was coming up behind a nice guy named Dave whom we’d camped next to at Pacifica Gardens the night before the race. I called out “Dave! Is that you?!” I was stoked to have someone to run with.
It was after the mile 60 aid station, on the five mile climb to Dutchman Peak that I fell into another dark place. Thankfully though, Dave and I were hiking together and we were talking and marveling at the cool insects and snakes we were seeing on the road in between my pauses to dry heave. He insists that he wasn’t waiting back with me, that he would have gone that pace anyway, but I’m not sure I believe him. I sure appreciated the company though.
After battling the stomach for another hour or so, I decided to risk it and stop eating entirely and just drink water for a while hoping that would help clear out whatever glob was just sitting in my stomach not digesting. Thankfully that seemed to work and I started to feel better again. Shortly after that, I could hear the blasting music from the Dutchman Peak aid station at mile 65 off in the dark. That was where I would pick up Evan and finally have someone to keep me permanent company after such a rough day with a 50k still to go.
I got to Dutchman Peak at about 11:00pm and was happy to find Evan and my dad waiting for me with a warmer layer at the base of the peak. We hiked up the road to the aid station where I got more chicken broth and some ginger ale. After descending the peak I caved on my original goal of avoiding liver damage and took two Aleve in hopes of taking the edge off of my fried quad muscles.
After leaving Dutchman, the course makes its way onto the first singletrack since coming into Hanley Gap (mile 50). Evan was trying to keep us moving at a decent pace, but it soon became clear that my quads were done and the most I could muster was an occasional awkward momentum-dependant shuffle before slowing to a hike again. I found that the fastest I could move was either after gaining momentum in the hobble on semi flat sections or hiking up a hill. It was pretty hard for both of us to accept that we were probably going to be hiking our way through the last 32 miles.
The lights and comfort of Long John Saddle aid station, mile 74
We saw my parents for the last time before the finish at the mile 74 aid station at Long John Saddle. I had more stomach problems here, but the rotten cherry on top was the fact that it was 2 am and all I wanted to do was lie down in a warm bed and sleep for hours. I tried a bite of grilled cheese, decided it was a no-go and we got the hell outta there as quick as possible since the only piece of mind was found in knowing we were making forward progress and while the camp chairs, lights, and warm food were inviting it wasn’t getting us closer to the finish.
The next 6 miles followed a maintained dirt road to the Wagner Peak trailhead at mile 80 and the next aid station. I can say with certainty that these were the worst 6 miles of the race for me. Even though I had arm warmers, a light shell and a buff, I was cold. I was also pretty sure I might fall asleep on my feet. That combined with the fact that I couldn’t move efficiently anymore to make this be over with more quickly was extremely frustrating. Thank goodness for Evan reassuring me that we were doing fine, even if we were moving agonizingly slowly.
At mile 80 I was fried. I sat down in a camp chair for the first time the whole race and decided I needed to sort things out before heading up the steepest climb on the course to Wagner Butte. I couldn’t fathom going another step, let alone up a peak. My stomach was upset. Again. And this time not even the chicken broth was making it feel better. It started to creep into my mind that I might not finish this race and I thought how awful it would be to quit when I was so close, but so far away. So I did what any reasonable two year old would do: I cried and took a 20 minute nap on one of the cots at the aid station. When Evan woke me up to see if I was ready to hit the trail, I couldn’t believe that my stomach actually felt worse. I was shivering and pouring sweat at the same time. It was awful. I kept trying to eat pieces of boiled potato and it wasn’t going down. I was pretty sure my race was over. By this time, the sun was starting to light up the sky and Evan helped me out of the immediate aid station area so I could throw-up away from the good people that were staying up all night volunteering to help runners on their way. That’s when Evan said – “if you want this bad enough, we can walk the rest of the way out of here and we’d be done by noon.” It was an instantaneous decision for me. I wanted so badly not to drop out that any option was a good one for me. Even with an upset stomach, I can walk. Why was I not considering that as an option before? Walking isn’t glorious or fast or impressive, but it could mean the difference between a DNF and an F and that was significant. The aid station captain weighed me to make sure there was nothing more serious going on and we lit out of there like a herd of turtles in time for the sun to come up.
Second sunrise and 6 hours from the finish of Pine to Palm 100 – feeling totes hag.
The scramble to Wagner Butte to get the flag
Just puking and walking. Perfect.
Ready to head back down from Wagner Butte, pin flag in hand
The sunrise, putting away the headlamp, and Evan’s trail dance party behind me felt like it gave me the boost in the fuel tank that I needed. I was immediately in better spirits, even after I stopped two more times to throw up the Coca-Cola I’d just drank before leaving the aid station. Evan kept things light with commentary such as “haha, look, it’s still fizzy!” I gave him a playful middle finger without turning around.
I battled the stomach with Gin Gins in my cheek for the LAST time until the turn-off to Wagner Butte and from there on out it was just a battle of the muscles. We scrambled up to the overlook at Wagner and grabbed a green pin flag that we had to turn in at mile 90 as proof of our summit. I gingerly made my way up and down the scrambly boulders at the top and we decided on a modest goal of managing the leg muscles enough to maintain 3 miles per hour on the last 15 miles of solid downhill (for reference, that’s how fast we’d aim to hike if we were trying to move quickly on a backpacking trip….so by running standards, we’re talking super slow). That sounded manageable, but I still worried that I wouldn’t be able to move even that fast. Frustrating.
From Wagner Butte, the course is 5 miles of single track that seemed only to get steeper the farther down we went and my legs let me know how unhappy they were about it. Finally, the trail spit us out onto another dirt road where we found the aid station and pancakes. Mmm…pancakes. I took one for the road wrapped around a piece of banana. This was the point where I truly felt like “yes! I’m going to finish this damned thing. I’ll crawl these last ten and a half miles if I have to.
Thank goodness for Evan’s creativity. “Ok, Amber. I want you to channel your inner angry old man with this thing, okay? Move with crippled fury!”
The course follows an endless dirt road downhill for 4.5 miles before turning onto another dirt road where you can see Ashland below you…forever, while never seeming to actually get any closer to it. Then it’s about 2.5 miles of sun-exposed trail (a.k.a. hell on earth) and finally a mile of steep, cruel pavement to the finish in downtown Ashland’s Lithia Park. The last mile and a half of the course, I was hobbling downhill with one of Evan’s custom tree-branch trekking poles – one of a kind, really– and I was so happy/exhausted that I had the crazy giggles and everything Evan said had me nearly blinded with laughing tears.
We crossed the finish line in an excruciating 30 hours and 45 minutes. I was tenth woman. The heat was bad enough that it apparently affected a lot of folks. Of the 121 runners that started in Williams, only 75 finished and apparently most of the drops were from complications from the heat.
Coming into the finish in 30:45
Coming into the race I told myself I would have three goals. I’d shoot for my first goal and move down the line if things didn’t go as planned. That really helped me not to sweat the things that I couldn’t control – running 100 miles is stressful enough without fretting that “there’s no way I can make my original time goal so this whole race is shot.” I kept moving, kept staying positive and when I failed at that, my crew filled that role well and I was able to end my adventure on a high note. I finished my first 100 miles. Heck yes. I’ll do it again next year, but this time I’ll have at least some inkling about what I’m doing. Don’t tell Evan I said that, I don’t think he’s ready for this again just yet;) And in all fairness, next year is probably his chance to run and my chance to crew, but I can dream.
I feel confident that I’m capable of a much stouter performance in the future, but for now I’m happy to know that I’m capable of gutting it out when the world seems to be working against me – less than ideal training, knee struggles, a race-week bug, and record heat. Running 100 miles feels like 40% training, 10% luck and 50% winning a mental game against yourself.
Finisher’s Schwag. Thank you, Hal Koerner and volunteers for putting on such an awesome event!
Today my legs hate me and my feet would murder me if they could hold a knife, but I’m so stoked. I can’t emphasize enough how grateful I am to all of the incredible volunteers who manned aid stations in the heat and the cold, lost sleep, and worked their tails off to make sure that everyone had the best shot at finishing as possible. I also cannot even begin to explain how thankful I am to my parents and Evan for listening to my worries for weeks leading up to this race, for traveling all the way to Oregon to hurry up and then wait in the 100+ degree heat and then the cold in the middle of the night to make sure that I had what I needed to keep moving. I’m currently in ultrarunning Karma debt. So if anyone needs a hand at their next race, let me know!