Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Am I tough enough?

When I first heard the announcement for the inaugural Mountain Lakes 100, I was super excited.  I knew this was the race for me and would be the venue for my first mountainous 100 mile finish.  All the pieces were there.  It was partly on trails I knew very well.  The Mt Hood 50k had been my first ultra with Marc in 2006.  As a family we have been attending the Mt Hood 50 Mile race every year since then, with either Marc or I running the race.  And Marc agreed to pace me for part of the race so we would run together again.  It felt like it was meant to be.

Fortunately, my stellar crew from my failed attempt at the 2012 Pine to Palm 100, Rose and Seth, were available and eager to help out again.  I had originally planned to stay the night before the race in a motel in Detroit. But when they moved the start to Olallie Lake it made more sense to camp.  Five days before race day the weather looked perfect and I let my motel room go that I had been holding just in case.  But around Wednesday, the forecast started to turn.  First some possibility of rain.  No big deal really and it might even hold off until the race was nearly over.  But as the hours ticked off the forecast got worse and worse, until eventually the forecast revealed that race weekend would be hit with a huge PNW storm, the remnants of a typhoon. 

My friends running the race and I weren't very happy about this turn of events. But what could we do but be as prepared as possible.  I repacked my bags and added in as many cold and rainy weather options as I had, including some items that I normally would consider too heavy for running.  There's no point in not trying, right?

Friday morning, the rain started, lightly at first but you could tell a storm was brewing.   I felt bad that I had only recently cancelled the motel room.  So when Seth and Rose arrived to pick me up I offered to see if we could get a room.  But without hesitation, they insisted on camping.  Race weekend had begun!  We drove to Olallie Lake and fortunately we got a campsite within a 5 minute walk to the start and were able to set up the tents under light rain.  But the wind was already blowing quite a bit.  I picked up my number/packet, had some of the pasta feed, socialized, went back to camp, ate more dinner, back to the start for more socializing...and before long it was 8pm bedtime!  With the rain picking up and the wind howling, I slept surprisingly well on my 3 pads, despite waking up every 2 hours.  I finally woke for the last time at 3:45am and was up....race day.  Today was my frickin' day!

After saying hi to a few more friends, hearing the race briefing and giving/getting a hug with the crew we were off in the rain.  The first 3 miles were on forest service road and I ran the first mile or so with my good friend Desiree, also looking for her first 100 mile finish.  Other friends were around and anticipation of the day ahead was in the air.  By the time we turned on to the single track trail lights were turned off. We were shrouded in cloud so any view was obscured,  But it didn't matter since all eyes were on the trail trying to dodge the ever increasing puddles that soon became rivers in spots.  Supposedly the gale force winds weren't arriving until Saturday night, but someone forgot to tell mother nature and we were hit with strong biting winds as we climbed over an exposed ridge and down to the first aid station.  From there it was all downhill on forest service road to the first crew-accessable aid station at mile 11.5.
photo by Mike Davis
Up to that point my body wasn't too terribly cold, but I was wearing 2 layers, plus a helly hansen shell and on my head a cap, plus beanie, buff and the hood.  However, despite my gloves and water proof (resistant?) over mitts my hands were wet and freezing. I just stood in front of the table and gobbled up candy bars, something I rarely do, at least this early in the race.  Rose and Seth had me change my gloves and put on the Gortex over mitts I was saving for later.  Ahh...with fresh warmers my hands were nice and toasty.  I thought this would be the ticket for the rest of the race.   Unfortunately the mitts weren't waterproof at all (the seams must have leaked) and it didn't take long for my hands to get wet again and the warmers to be ruined.

Photo by Paul Nelson
The course climbed back up to the ridge, this time on single track trail.  I finally reached my first washout that I couldn't navigate and was forced to wade right through in shin deep freezing cold water.  No use trying to dodge puddles now, especially since the trail just got worse and worse.  Fewer puddles and more washouts.  I passed a few people and a few passed me, but I spent long stretches by  myself.  Finally I reached the out and back to Breitenbush AS.  Despite runners coming towards me (and knowing there would be an out and back) I felt very confused and disorientated.  I have an excellent sense of direction and can usually tell where north/south/east and west are.  But not this day. Finally I saw a familiar face, my friend Annie, and she confirmed we were on the out and back and I'd soon reach the AS.   But not before braving that ridge with the wind blowing and the rain hitting me sideways.

Photo by Mike Davis
As I came off the trail and had just yards to go to the aid station, I saw Desiree heading out.  She should have been a lot farther ahead of me and I could see she was shivering.  So I instinctively reached out and wrapped my arms around her.  She said she'd wait for me so we scurried over to the aid station.  They didn't have anything hot and I didn't want to linger too long, so after a quick bio break I grabbed some food and we were off.  Back over the ridge we had to brave the high winds and rain. There was one section that was so exposed that I yelled back to Des, "We'll have to run for it!" as if we already weren't trying to move as quickly as possible.  But slowing or stopping in this particular section seemed like it would be truly dangerous.

Photo by Mike Davis

Finally we were back on the road with only 3 miles of easy running to the Olallie Lake AS.  It seemed so much calmer here that I wondered if I had been dreaming about the ridge.  But my hands were still as cold as ever.  Soon I saw Seth who had walked out to greet me.  He said there was a warm cabin open where I could change.  

Rose was waiting at the aid station and after getting a hot cup of broth she whisked me into the cabin.  It was a surreal setting. The small crowded room contained just a few couches and a table by a burning wood stove. The windows were boarded up and the only light was from headlamps that moved around.  We quickly claimed a couch and I couldn't get my clothes off quickly enough.  Rose handed me an avocado wrap and I ate as I changed.  It took a few minutes to find exactly the right things to wear, but I didn't mind since I was soaking up the wonderful heat.    However people around me were talking about dropping and I knew I needed to get out of there..  Demoralization was in the air, but I felt pretty good and my awesome crew had lifted my spirits.  More than once I told them, "I'm not quitting."   They bundled me up in long pants, a thermal base layer, half zip long sleeve, fleece vest, waterproof shell jacket, cap, beanie, buff and fresh socks, shoes, two layers of mittens and hand warmers.  My pack was stuffed with extra gear, food and lights since I had nearly 30 miles to go and wouldn't see my crew again until after dark.  It had taken me just over 7 hours to cover 26 miles and then I spent at least a half hour getting warm and changing.  Time to get out of there!

Rose walked me to the PCT turn off and away I went.  Surprisingly the weather had lifted a bit. The rain had stopped, the breeze was mild and I was actually treated to a bit of a view.  It felt good to be warm, but as I started to run I discovered I was overheating.  I took off my gloves, pulled off my hats and unzipped my jacket. That was better.  The next water only aid station was only 3 miles up the trail and it didn't take long for me to arrive there.  It was great to see some familiar faces, including Joe L. who was the aid station captain and Jesse B., also running the race.  Jesse should have been way ahead of me, but was waiting for a ride out since he had twisted his ankle miles ahead and turned back.  He offered me some of his supplies he now didn't need, along with his encouragement which I gladly accepted.

Carrying on along the PCT I now had 9 miles until the next aid station at Pinheads. I couldn't remember what the terrain would be like but I had a feeling it was up.  And I was right, but thankfully the gain was pretty gradual and I was able to alternate hiking with running.  The rain came back but it was still pretty gentle.  I had been eating consistently up to this point, never missing one of my 30 minute "time-to-eat" alarms and grazing at the aid stations too.  But now I started to get a little nauseous, partly because I was a bit warm.  It wasn't bad enough that I couldn't still gag down a gel, but I realized I needed to concentrate more on the salty/savory stuff at the aid stations and I regretted not asking my crew for a wrap or two to go or waiting long enough for Rose to grab me a trail butter pouch from the car.

The rain and wind picked up and the view was obsured yet again. Still, there were areas of utter beauty along the trail.  I recall a section where the forest was thick but the undergrowth was minimal.  The tall uniform tree trunks with moss hanging from them were like a beautiful abstract painting.  Scenes like this are one reason why I do this.  But along with moments of serenity, thoughts of doubt started to creep into my mind.  Would I really be able to finish this thing? When I saw my crew at Clackamas Ranger Station would I beg them to let me quit?  I had told many people that I was over first 100 mile race attempts and this would be my last....meaning that I fully intended to finish and subsequent attempts would be my 2nd, 3rd, etc. finish.  But maybe this would be my last whether I finished or not?  Maybe I wasn't cut out for these races?  I wondered then and I still wonder now if I'm mentally tough enough.

Finally, after steadily climbing and then enjoying some gradual downhill I reached Pinheads AS.  I knew that Ben C. would be there and was also happy to see Andrea J. volunteering too.  My friend Aric R. who I had ran with briefly earlier in the race was sitting by the heater.  Ben and Andrea were eager to help, with Ben kindly taking my bladder out of my pack, filling it and returning it without me having to remove my pack.  Andrea served me up a welcomed cup of onion broth.  I asked how long they were volunteering and was surprised to discover they planned to be there all night and into the next day until the sweeps came through.  It was only about 5pm.  They were a calming oasis in the growing storm and I can't thank them enough for their help and support.

I carried on and was glad that Warm Spring AS was next and only 5.5 miles away.  After this I'd be on familiar territory, with the rest of the race either on Mt Hood 50 Mile or Timberline Marathon sections or trail I had just covered.  Aric and I leapfrogged our way down the trail and I was surprised at how quickly we arrived at Warm Springs.  Time for more broth and the best instant mashed potatoes I'd ever eaten, served up by Amy S.  And of course, I was warmed by a classic Jason L. hug.  Another oasis in the storm staffed by dedicated, cheerful volunteers.  I was pretty much done with the sweet stuff for now and knew I'd likely not eat again until the next aid 6 miles away.  So I asked Jason to open a hard candy peppermint for me, hoping it would help sooth my stomach.  It was perfect and a new tool for my arsenal.  I believe the slow flow of sugar as I ran helped convince the central governor that I was getting more fuel than I actually was.

After I left Warm Spring I realized I had forgotten to get my headlamp out as I had planned.  It was around 6:30pm and I knew it would be getting dark soon.  So I stopped to get it out and put it on over my jacket hood.  It was raining harder and the wind had picked up so I was all bundled up again.  With a cap, beanie, buff and hood over my head, locked down by the headlamp strap, I could barely move my head outside of small range of motion. That constriction made me realize how much my body ached, especially my shoulders.  And I was all alone.  I kept imagining lights up ahead but it was always just a reflector strip or my own illusion.  Aric was ahead of me now but I didn't know how far.  Based on Amy's information, I expected the front runners to come towards me any time, but there was no one.  I tried to keep my light off as long as possible, but had to turn it on finally just as I started up the climb to Red Wolf pass.  

The trail had been fairly clear of water from Olallie Lake to Warm Springs. There were puddles, but they were fairly easy to avoid.  As the rain and wind picked up, so did the water on the trail.  The climb up to Red Wolf in the dark was difficult.  The lighting messed with the perspective and it was hard to tell how steep the trail was.  I tried to run a few spots, but quickly tired.  I remembered seeing pictures of Olga hiking at Hardrock with her hands clasped behind her.  I tried this stance and discovered it was the most comfortable and so I hiked this way up most of the hill.  As it started to level out I knew I was close to Red Wolf AS.  I wanted to run, but in the dark it was difficult to run on the now water-filled trail.  I felt like if I fell now I might do a lot of damage to my slow reacting body. So I shuffled along as quickly as I could, eager to get to the next oasis.  

Finally I could see the aid station lights across the clear cut.  Another familiar face, Kamm, was the captain.  She and the other volunteers were focused on getting us warm. I spent a few minutes in front of the heater and then more time with a space blanket around my shoulders while drinking up the hot broth.  Todd, one of the RDs showed up and announced that some trees had fallen on two cars back at Olallie Lake and that they were holding runners at Clackamas Ranger Station, my next stop.  Despite the warmth of the aid station, the darkness, rain and wind had taken their toll on me.  I was seriously cold and didn't think staying put was helping any.  But for the first time I was truly fearful.  I generally like running in the dark but on this night I did not want to go back out.  Yet I wanted to keep moving too.  Hearing Todd's words I had a feeling the race was over.  But I felt like I needed to keep control of my destiny and get to my crew that was only 5.5 miles away.

So without letting myself mull it over too long, I left into the darkness.  Fortunately, I came upon Aric within minutes.  He was going slowly.  I don't remember if we verbalized it or just thought it, but we immediately both knew we needed to stick together.  This section was horrific.  I'd just run it 2 months earlier at the Mt Hood 50 mile race, covering it in less than an hour.  It's mostly downhill so should be fast.  But on this night the wind was howling, the rain pelting and the trail was a river the whole way.  I suppose I could have sloshed through the water for 5 miles.  But that seemed dangerous in the dark, not knowing how deep it would be or whether I'd catch my foot with a rock or stump. And it was icy cold.  So we trudged along the sides, bushwacking through low bushes much of the time.  I was miserable.  It was hard work both physically and mentally. The only thing keeping me sane was knowing Aric was there too. By this time the race was likely cancelled but we didn't know it and we both vowed to quit at Clackamas Ranger Station.  I don't think anything could have made me go back out on that trail and I certainly didn't want to subject my pacers to it.  

I know this section extremely well and tried to find landmarks to assure myself we were actually making progress. But it looked so different in the stormy dark conditions.  Finally we came to the Miller trail cutoff and I knew it was less than a mile to go.  We were so weary of the water soaked trail I suggested when we got to the trail to the campground we cut down to the paved road and get off the trail.  But when we got there the trail seemed so dark and ominous. And maybe it wouldn't be quicker anyway.  We were ready for the path of least resistance not exploration so we carried on.  Finally, we crossed the campground road, navigated the short trail section and up the hill to the main road. I felt like I popped out into a different world.  The rain pounded on the pavement and cars lined the road.  We headed towards the main lights, still not running.  Aric saw a familiar face and stopped at one of the cars.  I carried on to the aid station, not recognizing anyone.  Finally, I heard my name and Rose and Julie R. were suddenly there guiding me to the warmth of the aid station heater.  And then to the U-haul trailer with the drop bags, the only real shelter where I could change.  And then into Seth's warm car and we were out of there. 

And it was all over that quickly.   

I discovered that the race had indeed been cancelled and runners had been held at all the aid stations.  Despite the hardship of those last 5 miles, I'm glad I hadn't been stuck up at an aid station waiting for a ride.  My pacers, Marc and friend Jen A. had gotten word I had left Red Wolf AS and had volunteered to drive back to Olallie Lake in Jen's 4wd truck to collect our tents. What a relief since having to go back there might have finally sent me over the edge.  So we drove straight back to Portland and I was home by around midnight.  High on adrenaline I stayed up until Jen and Marc arrived around 3:30am.  We exchanged stories and with that the wild weekend adventure was over.

The end of the journey for me. photo by Paul Nelson

As I posted on Facebook, usually in the days after a race I'm high on endorphins. But instead I'm high thinking about our awesome running community and the amazing dedication to each other I witnessed this weekend.  It's disappointing that no one got to finish this race. But we certainly all tried.   RDs Todd and Trevor along with Renee handled the unfortunate weather situation with professionalism and committment.  The volunteers could not have been better.  Stealing another quote from someone many races the volunteers make the this one they saved it.  My team, Rose, Seth, Jen and Marc, were amazing.  Knowing they were there to support me kept me going.

During the race I wondered if I'm cut out for hundreds.  I guess I'll have to wait for the next one to find out for sure. 

Video by Paul Nelson


Adelyn said...

Wow...what an ordeal! Glad you stayed safe out there and got to push yourself to your full potential, but also glad you were able to get out of the race when the conditions got so scary.

David E. said...

Don't doubt yourself! I know you are a good runner, and well capable of finishing a hundred. It is normal to have bad patches in a hundred and periods where you wished you could just quit. I've finished hundreds before, yet I can't imagine myself running in that mess at Mountain Lakes, dealing with the wet and cold and extra layers of clothing while still caring enough to attend to nutrition and all the other important details. After that weekend, the next hundred will be seen in quite a different light. But this one is to teach you how tough you are to run for hours in those conditions! I look forward to seeing you finish your next hundred.

Layla said...

"I wondered then and I still wonder now if I'm mentally tough enough." Honestly, I think your race report answered this question: You are mentally tough enough. You went through 54.7 miles of brutal terrain and horrid weather, and it sounds like you were still quite lucid and coherent. You can definitely conquer a 100. I know it.

Bret said...

Great post Sarah. You did much better than many out there. On a good day this would have been your race. I went out and walked a 1/2 mile on the trail towards Red Wolf. It was so bad, not sure how I would have done in those conditions after running 50 miles. Glad everyone was safe.

Joe said...

Sarah, thanks for taking the time to capture all of this. You'll be grateful for it and the rest of us are the better for it.

Yeah, you're tough enough. You've settled that.

Equivilent effort?? You had to be near 80 miles, at least, with this effort. Take comfort in that.

Pure awesomeness...congrats on persevering so wonderfully, Sarah.

Olga said...

I finally took time to read it and not just glance over it. Wow, what a weather! I was following bits and pieces on FB and felt so sorry for all involved - runners and organizers both. You are a trooped to continue in these conditions in your 1st 100 miler, tough chick! I am so impressed with your progress, just relentless, over the years, and your positive attitude. Glad all are safe! Hope you do it again:)