Pine to Palm 100, 16th, 23:03
All photos and miles 75-100 courtesy and (c) Patrick Fink
It’s just after 8PM and it’s finally honestly dark out, a poetic blood orange sun now sunk below the almost fractal pattern of endlessly receding ridgelines to the west, wizened heart of Klamath-Siskyou mountain complex. The very air itself had seemed to burn as the day’s last light refracted through the thick haze of wildfire smoke from a massive blaze just south of the OR / CA border, but that’s gone now, and the selfsame smoke responsible for these pyrotechnics has hastened dusk to an unnatural degree. I have no headlamp, and because of this, despite the past 25 miles of sad and gloomy walking, my stride has become a grim, fast hike towards the black triangle of Dutchman’s Peak (7400’). Improbably, there is club music playing, and it’s getting louder.
A light comes into view. There’s cheering, and Kate forces me into a chair.
I spend a minute trying to bring the arguments for dropping I had spent 7 hours constructing into a forceful and coherent whole, but she’s having none of it. We change my shoes, I drink soup and Coca Cola, and begun to run, one good headlamp between us but her mood bright enough that it almost doesn’t matter. Improbably, I start to enjoy myself.
The Pine to Palm Endurance Run, my first 100-miler, was intended to celebrate (or mourn?) the rapid changes my life has seen over the past month. I had just moved Seattle. I was about to start school again. I had just had my best season of running, ever. What better way to turn a new page than do something completely, beautifully pointless? It’s a race that had attracted me since I joined the sport, a compelling and aesthetic route in one of my favorite parts of the world. Giving Hal a ride from Aspen to Crested Butte for the Grand Traverse this spring and getting to chat about it with the RD himself cemented my resolve, and by July I was entered. Patrick and Kate agreed (for some unknown reason) to pace me, and we hoofed it out of Portland Friday afternoon, camping near the start in Williams, OR under a night sky of astounding clarity.
Williams to Seattle Bar (miles 0-28, 04:21)
The day’s mistakes begin early, as I nearly miss the start and run the first four miles without tightening my shoes, too caught up in the excitement of the early race to slow down. Which doesn’t really cause problems, but doesn’t say anything positive about my patience and maturity, either. The switchbacked 5000′ climb up over the saddle of Sugarloaf and Grayback passes quickly. I’m running in second, and running everything, which makes me nervous, a thought I try and tamp down with the reasoning that the best thing I can be doing is running a pace that feels easy, but natural.
But a second mistake becomes apparent as I reach the top of the climb, breaking out into tawny alpine meadowland. The first aid station, five miles in, was water only, and I had begun the race without a gel. Now over two hours into the day, I expect an aid station on the summit, but discover only tape leading back into the woods, and a sign indicating three miles until relief. I’m digging myself into a caloric hole way too early, and chinks are appearing in my armor of confidence.
As I hesitate around the first switchback of the descent, fast guy Bob Shebest (Hoka athlete, 2-time Tahoe Rim Trail 100 champ, and eventual winner) bears down on me. I jump off the trail to let him pass, but after a long stretch alone I decide to hang on for the company. It’s cheering, and before long we are out of the woods and onto the gravel road we’ll run for thirteen miles to Seattle Bar.
We clear the aid station quickly, my pocket and hands stuffed with gels, and hammer down the road. I hang with Bob for a little while, passing first place runner Ryan, dropping my fastest split of the race in the process, a mile in the low sixes. But eventually I concede I don’t have the downhill chops to hold on and let him and the heels of his Hokas disappear down the road.
Smoke begins to settle in the valley. I pass a small homestead, wondering idly how its owners deal with the omnipresent threat of wildfire this far from anywhere. Ryan catches back up to me. We’re running seven-thirty pace and it’s nice to have the company. I’m not feeling bad. Not great, but not bad. We swing onto what I’d call a carriage road if we were in New or Olde England, a nice break from the downhill road half marathon we’d just run, but it doesn’t last long and then we’re rounding Applegate Lake and dropping to Seattle Bar.
Kate and Patrick are there. I’m a little out of it. I’ve blistered from the dust in my shoes, running sockless, and do a little bit (but not quite enough) to deal with it. Ryan’s waiting for me on the trail out of the station, and racing is on my mind.
I leave too soon, and begin to undermine myself.
Seattle Bar to Squaw Lake 2 (miles 28-41, 07:32)
Stein Butte is the rumored crux of the course, a 3000′ grunt at longer-than-posted mileage, often steep, coming at a point in the race when it’s getting hot. 95 degrees hot. I have resolved to focus on self preservation, and do an okay job of this, but jogging still feels to be the order of the day. Ryan’s not doing so well, and I inch ahead a little. It’s still soft, and switchbacked, and runnable, a beautiful forest of pine and chinquapin and oaks and incense cedar.
We reach a ridge and ride a series of progressively higher and less-runnable humps to the aid station, which is not quite at the top. But as the climb progresses, the smoke from the nearby 100,000+ acre Happy Complex fire thickens. It’s not making me cough, but I’m keenly aware of it. And in unison, though I’m somehow not putting two and two together in the moment, I slowly begin to lose interest in my place, in competition, in the race. We come through Stein Butte aid station and a man in a ten gallon hat is playing Kenny Chesney. Fourth place passes us and becomes 2nd. I don’t follow immediately, but again leave aid too soon.
Ryan soon catches up and we run the quad-bashing descent down to Squaw Lake at mile 39. By this point I’m aware I’m having a low point, and Ryan is as well, so we’re trying to talk each other out of it and celebrate the fact that we’re actually running again. Before too long we’re at the lake, where Ryan’s crew is waiting. He is attended to. I immediately regret telling Patrick and Kate to skip this aid station in the interest of saving gas. I yet again leave aid too soon, jogging the two mile loop around the lake slowly and pensively. Bob Shebest is a couple miles ahead, maybe not looking so good, but moving well.
Halfway around Ryan catches up to me, headphones in. We return to the aid station and as I resolve to address my blisters in earnest he takes off down the road.
I am beginning to feel sorry for myself.
Squaw Lake 2 to Dutchman’s Peak (miles 41-67, 14:06)
Complications begin. I manage to run a few downhill road miles to the base of the next major climb up to Hanley Gap and Squaw peak. But as soon as the road kicks upwards towards a water-only aid station at mile 45, I implode. Attempting to run even mild grades feels incredibly taxing. My heart rate feels far higher than it should. There is nothing acutely wrong, but everything feels off.
I don’t know it yet, thank God, but I’m destined to slowly walk the next 25+ miles, jogging only for a few seconds at a time. I’m passed by Becky Kirschenmann, first woman and eventual 2nd place finisher. She has the strongest hike I have ever seen. I try to match her stride but quickly resign myself to the fact that it’s hopeless.
Nothing about the climb is particularly trying, but it is utterly beyond my abilities. It’s still smoky. My mind begins to take a downward spiral. I know dropping at Hanley Gap (mile 50) is a nonstarter, given the logistical nightmare it would pose for Patrick and Kate. But yeah, I’m thinking about dropping, a preemptive admission of defeat that dramatically increases the odds I’ll actually do so. I roll into the aid station in 5th, then amble up a mile to the lookout on Squaw Peak. I sit on its steps, watching clouds and smoke and mountains and trees and subjecting the blameless photographer to far too much uninteresting detail about why I’d be justified in calling it quits. Probably another five runners pass me in this stretch, grabbing the green wire flags at the summit to prove their passage. Eventually, I start heading back to aid, unable to even run a downhill road grade. (As I write this, I have no satisfying explanation for this failing — my stomach was fine, and I was mechanically sound. I can only chalk it up to smoke, to heat, to the mysteries of the distance.)
Eight miles from Hanley’s to the aid station at mile 60 pass with excruciating slowness. There is a moment when I seem to touch on the idea that if I can grind out a slow run, things will get better, or at least I’ll be able to quit earlier. But the activation energy to reach that state is simply too high. More runners pass me in an admirably resolute death shuffle. I walk.
At mile 60, I stop at aid and inquire about Kate and Patrick. My Volvo with Vermont plates and bumper stickers is hard to miss, but no one seems to have seen it. I tell them I’m dropping at the top, just like I told the photographer at Squaw Peak, just like I told pretty much all the nice people who passed me and asked how I was doing. “You’ve come a long way to drop,” they tell me. Noted. Unconvinced.
Despite my skepticism that food will solve anything, and my assurances that I really have been eating, I let them sit me down and have some soup, some Gu chews, a banana. I look at my watch, and it’s 6:30, meaning I have maybe an hour and a half to push the 5 miles up to the aid station before dark, because in my self-assuredness (read: arrogance) I neglected to plan for the possibility that I’d need a headlamp before mile 67. It’s time to get going.
I hike, and I hike pretty hard, gauging my pace off my watch, focusing on turnover, working with more attention than I have in seven hours. I climb higher and higher up the shoulder of the mountain, and the trees are beginning to drip with lichen, huge familiar Doug firs, and there are breaks where I start to see the sweep of the mountains beyond. It’s a spectacular sunset, and I’m not running but I’m moving, and because of all these things maybe just the tiniest shred of a possibility of wanting to finish the race eeks its way into my mind.
It’s finally cool out, too. The air is cleaner here, less reminiscent of a house fire and more just like someone has a campfire nearby. I push up to Kate.
Dutchman’s Peak to Finish (miles 67 – 100.5)
From where this interminable blog post began we run about ten miles together, down to Patrick, down to Long John Saddle at mile 74. Kate’s running beautifully, back from a long season of injury and frustration, and that makes me so happy I feel like crying as we cruise the first four miles in the quickest running I’ve done since I left Stein Butte. We only have one functional headlamp, but it doesn’t matter much. Reaching the PCT, it’s still net downhill, but here and there are short climbs as well, and these begin to take the wind out of my sails again, out of my lungs. My heart rate is still far higher than it should be. I am suddenly resolved, however, to finish this thing, and begin to do the math to see whether a sub-24 hour finish was possible. This is certainly a quick and dramatic adjustment from my attitude not 45 minutes before, a testament to company, I guess, or at least Kate’s company (one of the many reasons I date her).
My legs are okay. From each break to walk or urinate or just sit for a moment and savor stillness it takes a good minute before running feels natural again and I’m moving smoothly. But I need to get calories in, and gels are starting to sound pretty bad (as if they ever sound good), so we slow way down as we near the next aid station, a bit further than the posted mileage lead us to believe, one of those minor blows to morale that leaves you reeling this late in the game. Regardless, I still manage to feel that our time together is over way too quickly, as we drop off the PCT for good. We see a tent with fairy lights, volunteers, and Patrick, eager as a labrador retriever after having spent far too many hours waiting for me.
Soup, grilled cheese, several cups of Coca Cola, sitting in a chair to relieve the pressure on my feet. This becomes my modus operandi at all subsuquent aid stations, a five-minute insurance policy against leaving the light without adequate mental and physical preparation. Patrick and I jog down the road, moving well for maybe a mile before our progress devolves into comical slow-motion walk / jog fartleks, shadow to shadow, tree to tree. I am sure he is dreading the slowest marathon of his life but he lets on nothing.
Whatever. We hit the next aid, and I’m happy, the sort of happiness that comes when you know you are botching something but have managed against all odds to grasp the sheer pleasure of the present moment. It’s a steep climb up Wagner Butte at 7140′, the last peak on the course, the last climb of the race. It’s actually the steepest climb I’ve seen all day, but I am legitimately enjoying the change in muscle recruitment, a return to the grades familiar to me from training. We hike as strongly as I could be expected to, staying between 3 and 4 miles per hour. Counterintuitively, the final pitch to the summit flattens, and I begin to feel taxed again. We are made to scramble a collusion of boulders to reach the bones of an old fire lookout, where we retrieve the final flag of the race. 5500′ below and untouchable are the lights of Ashland, tempting and taunting us.
Most of the descent to the next aid station is steep and overgrown, nearly a game trail, albeit well marked. As we approach mile 90, and my quads are beginning to give me lip with each jarring footfall, I remark to Patrick that I’m pretty much resigned to everything that is happening to me.
“Ethan,” he says. “If you want to go under 24 hours, you’re gonna have to happen to this race, not just let it happen to you.”
That was it. The stark economy of effort and reward, laid out in front of me. We hit the aid station, and I had my customary soup, grilled cheese, Coca Cola. We left, and I try to happen to the race.
I let Patrick pace us, and we grind out six excruciating miles in the single digits. And then there’s a sign saying four miles to the finish, and it’s one of those transcendent moments the entire ridiculous idea of running 100 miles promises. I feel invincible, and we run 7-minute pace and blast by someone and I’m leaping off little mountain bike berms, possessed by an idea more than harnessing any untapped reserves, but it’s a powerful idea, and it does the trick.
The last mile was downhill on steep pavement and sucked. But before my mood could really dip, I was in Lithia Park, the finish line in sight. 23:03:59 after starting it was over, good for 16th place.
Kate came up, hugged us, and Hal took our photo. “So,” she began. “Do you want the good news or the bad news? Because your car broke down six miles up Mt. Ashland.”
She never told us the good news. I think I knew what it was, though.
Obviously, I owe a great deal of my finish to the inscrutable dedication of Patrick and Kate. I can’t thank them enough, or really let them know what it means to me, but it was wonderful to share those final, surreal miles with them.
I thought about registering for Hardrock 100 within an hour of finishing, so clearly I didn’t do the race quite right. I came into this thing as fit as I’ve ever been, and that let me coast through some tough spots with relatively little physical damage, with less mental effort than I’d have needed otherwise. I know there was far more suffering out there that day than I experienced, far more dramatic turnarounds, far more mental resolve, and people who ran far smarter races. But what can you do?
The same reasons that pushed me to run Pine to Palm were destined to work against me, at least a little. Moving is stressful. Starting school is stressful. Stress is stress, whether from training or life, as everyone says but no one heeds. The success I had been having in training and racing had prompted a subtle shift in attitude, an increase in competitive confidence, certainly, but also perhaps an adjustment away from some of the stoicism the prospect of long, slow miles had brought. I could have used a bit more of it, as things turned out.
Regardless, the soul of this sport lies in its immense variability, the singularity of landscape and disparate skillsets of competitors. We play the hands we are dealt, either making the most of them or not, which is why those days when everything comes together are so magical, and seeing a bad through is so satisfying. September 13th might not have been a great day, but I’m very happy with it.
Six days out, my legs feel normal, though I’ve resolved to take most of two weeks completely off. Then I’ll fool around with some 5K workouts and get out to the mountains in an unstructured way, but before you know it next year’s goals will begin to demand commitment.
The chase continues.