The next aid station was supposed to be about five miles from Seattle Bar, but it was closer to seven or more. When I reached the aid station, a volunteer approached me and asked how I was doing on water. "I'm almost out," I said as I took my pack off expecting her to take it and fill it. "I have bad news," she said." I sighed: "You're out of water." "Yes. That's the way it goes," she said. "I can give you a cup of ice." I took the cup of ice and drank what was there. I ate some of the limited food at the aid station and kept moving. There were still 22 people behind me, including Sarah D. I couldn't believe that so many people were going to have to ascend three more miles and then descend three more in that kind of heat before reaching water.
As I made my way down the road, I saw a runner lying in the middle of the road. I stopped to see if he was okay. "I've been out of water for hours," he said. He was trying to recover by drinking the small ration of water that another runner had given him. He did not look good.
With each step I took, I monitored my watch and the time of day vigilantly. I was running out of time. It was unlikely that I was going to make the next cutoff. I was too dehydrated, it was too hot, and I simply had too much trail to cover. My race was going to end at mile 39. I passed runner after runner along the trail, each having the same realization and each asking me if I had any water to spare.
Within another mile or so, I saw a car speeding up the dirt road. I waved to the driver, hoping he would slow down and not run over the runner who was lying in the middle of the road behind me. As the car got closer, I saw that the drive was the race director, Hal Koerner. He was taking water to the aid station. Sadly, it was far too late for many runners. "Do you need water?" he asked as he drove by. "No," I said. "Are you sure?" he asked. Fueled by anger and appalled by the lack of planning for hot conditions, I responded: "My race is over anyway," and I ran ahead. I heard the car tear off behind me.
I knew my chances of making the 5:00 p.m. cutoff at Squaw Lakes was unlikely, but I also knew that I needed to make it to my crew, so I pushed forward. I rationed the little water that I had left, sipping only to wet my mouth. I was thirsty and I could feel myself getting dehydrated. At the same time, I needed to pee. I knew, however, that I did not have the time to stop. My chances of making the cutoff were slim, but I still had a chance. I continued to run and I didn't stop, despite the incredible discomfort.
Eventually, I encountered a hiker along the trail. He clapped. "You're almost there," he said. "How far?" I asked. "A couple hundred yards." I was excited. Maybe the aid station was closer than I thought. Maybe my watch was wrong. I exited the trees and found myself in a trailhead parking lot. The hiker was wrong. I was not close to the aid station. I had reached the parking lot for crew. Spectators clapped as I made my way through. My eyes welled with tears. I wasn't going to make it. This was the end.
I found myself on trail again and saw the Squaw Lakes aid station ahead. I looked at my watch. It was 5:00 exactly. I saw Jeff: "Are they going to let me through?" I yelled. "Yes," he said. I looked at Sarah. "You don't have time to stop," she said. "I know." Still running, I threw down my pack and grabbed a handheld water bottle from Jeff. "Keep the lake on your left," he yelled, and I started running as hard as I could. I had to make my way around the lake and back to that aid station to make the next cutoff at 5:30 p.m.
I ran as hard as I could with 40 miles under me and I circled the lake in 25 minutes. Greeted by Jeff, I asked: "Did I make it?" "Yes," he said, "and they just extended the cutoff to 6:00. You can stop for a minute." I couldn't believe that I had made the cutoff. I was dripping sweat, overheating, chafing, and breathing hard. Sarah and Jeff sat me down, gave me back my pack, which they had restocked with fuel and night gear, checked me for medical issues, fed me, and then sent me on my way. The five minutes that I spent at that aid station gave me the opportunity to eat, catch my breath, realize that my race wasn't over, and get my head back in the game. I got up. "74 out," I yelled. I heard clapping and cheers coming from my amazing crew and friends behind me as I exited the aid station. I felt strong. I was going to make it.
Hanley Gap/Squaw Creek:
After leaving Squaw Lakes, I spent a few more minutes eating, digesting, and recovering before I started running again. I was elated that my race wasn't over. I was 45 miles in and my body felt strong.
Over the next couple of hours, the sun started to set and it began to get dark in the trees. I began to cool. The forest no longer buzzed with bees. Instead, it filled with the hum of mosquitoes and the chirping of crickets. Night was falling and, while I am normally terrified of the dark, I met the challenge of running in the dark and navigating the course with excitement. I was determined to overcome my fear.
After another nine or so miles, I reached the Hanley Gap aid station. As I entered the aid station, I encountered a volunteer writing down numbers. I told him my number, but he ignored me. I walked up closer and told it to him again. He waved me off and rudely told me to go tell someone else. I walked away.
Once at this aid station, I had to summit Squaw Peak, obtain a flag from the top to prove that I summited fully, and return to the aid station with the flag. Runners had the choice of stopping before summiting the peak, but I chose to summit first so that I could rest, knowing that I had finished the task at hand. I had also received no attention from the volunteers, so I saw no reason to make the initial stop.
After summiting and descending the peak, I was exhausted. My knees felt shot and my feet ached. I no longer felt strong. I reached the aid station again and was greeted by Sarah D's crew, Rose and Seth. My crew would not be at this aid station. Sarah D had not arrived yet, so Rose and Seth immediately approached me and asked what I needed. As soon as I saw them, I started to cry. They tried to sit me down, but I was so dizzy that I almost fell off the chair. "I don't have time," I said. "Yes, you do," said Seth. "They extended the cutoff. You have a few minutes." While Rose restocked my pack with the gear in my drop bag and helped me put on warm clothes, Seth got me some food. There were few vegetarian options, but Seth found some avocado and that, coupled with the food in my drop bag, was enough.
"What's wrong?" Seth asked. "My knees are shot, my feet are killing me, and I feel horrible," I said. I cried. Seth reminded me that I was having a low point, that I needed caffeine and sugar, that I was dehydrated, and that I needed to focus. "You have three tasks right now. You need to digest the food that you just ate, you need to power hike as fast as you can, and you need to focus on getting to Jeff and Sarah." "How far until the next aid station?" I asked. "8-10 miles," Seth said. "I don't know if I can do it," I said. "Your mind is messing with you, Des. Don't let it," I heard Rose say. "I feel horrible," I responded. "Look around you," Seth said. "Everyone feels horrible." I looked up and I saw runners vomiting, runners lying on the ground, and runners quitting. I closed my eyes. "I don't want to quit," I said. The caffeine and calories started to take effect, Seth's and Rose's words started to resonate, and I felt strong again. I stopped crying and Seth helped me stand up. "74 out," I yelled. "Are you going to be okay 74?" I heard from behind me. "Yes, I will," I said, and I walked out into the dark of the night.
The next eight miles were long and grueling. I hiked most of the distance, but I tried to shuffle when I could. The course was not marked at all during the eight-mile section, but I kept moving forward, assuming that I was moving in the correct direction. As I made my way down the dirt road, I saw fresh evidence of bears. I moved as quickly as I could.
As I approached the Squaw Creek Gap aid station, I saw Jeff walking toward me in the distance. I told him that my knees were really bothering me and my feet throbbed unbearably every time I tried to run. He sat me down and Sarah brought me warm broth. I told Jeff and Sarah that I was worried about making the Dutchman Peak cutoff by 1:00 a.m. "My knees are shot," I said, "and I had to hike almost that entire section." "Everyone hiked that section," I heard another runner say. I looked up and, again, in an almost-apocolpytic setting, I saw the carnage of runners that surrounded me. "Do you want to quit?" Sarah asked. "No," I said. "Then make them pull you," Jeff said.
Jeff helped me out of the chair, he grabbed his water bottle, and he told me he would hike with me up to Dutchman Peak where I would meet Sarah and we would run the final 35 miles together. I just had to make that cutoff.
Jeff and I walked out of the Squaw Creek Gap aid station together, joking and making conversation. The levity was uplifting and I had energy again. For three solid miles we hiked at a fast pace and took in the beauty and peacefulness of the night. After about three miles, though, I gradually started to feel dizzy and my nose started to bleed (it had been bleeding on and off all day due to the heat and dry air). After another mile or so, I started to feel nauseous and, for the first time during the entire race, I hunched over and tried to keep myself from vomiting. I stood erect again and moved forward but, from that point on, I had to stop every 5-8 minutes and do the same thing to avoid vomiting. The change in altitude, coupled with exhaustion and dehydration, was finally taking its toll.
After another mile or so, I started to sway when I walked and I moaned in pain with every step. "What hurts?" Jeff asked. "My feet," I said, "but mostly my back." We had planned that I would only carry one liter of water during the night but, because three aid stations had run out of water during the day, we adjusted our plan and I carried two liters on my back, in addition to fuel and gear, all day. After nearly 20 hours, my back could no longer handle the weight. I continued to sway. "Do you want me to carry your pack?" Jeff asked. "No," I said. "That would be cheating." He reached out and grabbed my hand and he didn't let go. He was my rock for the final mile that I death-marched up to Dutchman Peak. Each time I moaned in pain, he squeezed my hand a little tighter.
We reached the Dutchman Peak aid station and saw Sarah: "I don't know if I can summit," I said. "It's not your choice," Sarah replied. "They're not going to let you through." While the cutoff had changed to 2:00 a.m. at some point during the night, I didn't arrive until 2:10 a.m. I would not be allowed to go on. My race was over.
Though it was only ten minutes after the cutoff, the volunteers had already packed up the aid station. Still, Sarah managed to find a chair, sit me down in front of the heater, and give me some broth. I put my head between my legs and I started to cry. "I tried so hard," I said. "I pushed as hard as I could and I still let everyone down. I'm so sorry." I looked around and saw the runners who were pulled before I was and the two who were pulled after I arrived. We commiserated briefly before the last remaining volunteers at Dutchman Peak turned off the lights and packed up the heater. We quietly piled into a car and drove off into the night.
The Pine to Palm 100 course was exactly what I anticipated. It was breathtakingly beautiful and posed the challenges of running a mountain 100 that I sought. I trained and I planned for those conditions and my crew and I executed our plan perfectly. What I did not prepare for were the tight, and ever-changing, cutoffs. I registered for the race knowing that I had to complete it in 34 hours. I did not think that would be a problem at the time and I still do not think that would have been a problem. Unfortunately, the tight cutoffs force runners to run a sub-30-hour pace early on, leaving them with no energy. That, coupled with the hot temperatures, poor aid, lack of water, and thoughtless and inattentive volunteers, set back-of-the-pack runners up to fail. The high attrition of this year's race is a testament to the poor support and running conditions with which so many runners were met. All is not lost, though. As I reflect on this race, I think about all of the things that I learned and about all of the fears that I overcame. I am a stronger and more experienced runner for it and, most of all, I have never been more grateful for my incredible friends.
During our drive back to Portland in the early hours of Sunday morning, we stopped at a rest area. Sarah helped me out of the car and locked her arm in mine to give me balance as I hobbled my way to the restroom. I looked up: "The sun's rising," I said. Side by side, Sarah and I walked on. "And things are exactly as they should have been," she said. I returned to the car and, as I lie back down, Jeff looked at me and said: "Montana won." No, I don't have a shiny buckle to show for my efforts, but I do have two amazing friends and I wouldn't trade them for anything.