To Hell and Back

Long is the way, and hard, that out of Hell leads to light.
— John Milton

People say that you should never toe the start line of a 100-mile race with any unresolved demons. What people don't tell you is what you should do when the race is your unresolved demon. My experience at Pine to Palm 100 in 2012 was miserable and defeating, both physically and emotionally, and it broke my confidence to an immeasurable degree. From the moment that I was cut from the race at 2:10 a.m. at mile 65 for missing a cutoff, I swore I would do whatever it took to gain the speed, experience, and strength necessary to return and finish. Next time, I would make it to Ashland. What I did not know was how much my previous experience and self-doubt would impact my journey.

I spent two years training to run Pine to Palm. I ran many races in those two years, but the end goal, the thought that always lingered in the back of my mind, was Pine to Palm. I trained, crewed, paced, and raced thousands of miles in those two years. I became more comfortable navigating mountain terrain. I changed my diet. I lost 10 lbs. I got injured and I recovered. After every good run, strong run, weak run, speed run, slow run, mountain run, and long run I emerged a little stronger.

At the start line, indescribably nervous (photo by Sarah Duncan).

At the start line, indescribably nervous (photo by Sarah Duncan).

When race weekend arrived, I was not ready to run. Despite all of the planning and all of the training, despite having a crew of dedicated friends who believed in me, I did not have an ounce of confidence. To make things worse, I had been battling an issue with my hamstring that began after pacing a friend during her 100-mile race three weeks earlier. I had done everything I could to remedy the issue, but I wasn't sure it was enough. 

Because my race in 2012 ended at mile 65 at the base of Dutchman Peak, I began my race this year with the mindset that my race didn't start until I summited Dutchman Peak at mile 67 and made the 2:00 a.m. cutoff. I had markers in my head of various points in the race and I knew roughly what my splits were for various aid stations in 2012 but, beyond that, I had no strategy. My plan was to keep a positive attitude, to savor the beauty of the course that surrounded me, and to run by feel. 

Start to Seattle Bar (28 miles):

The race began with a slow and steady climb up Greyback mountain. The climb was just as long and steep as I remembered, but, somehow, I moved a lot faster than I did in 2012. 

Smoke from the forest fires (photo by Hal Koerner).

Smoke from the forest fires (photo by Hal Koerner).

As I approached the top of the climb, the smoke from forest fires in the area became more and more dense and my breathing more and more labored. By the time I started my descent, I was already coughing. When I finally reached my crew at the Seattle Bar aid station, I felt like I was running with a weight on my chest. It was also around this time that my nose started to bleed. It continued to bleed consistently for the next 10 or so hours. 

As I approached Seattle Bar, I saw Sarah D. I told her I was having trouble breathing. "It's gets better," she said. "You wouldn't lie to me, right?" I asked. "Well," she said, "it's better in Ashland and you're going to Ashland."

I ran in to the Seattle Bar aid station and handed off my pack to the rest of my amazing crew (Megan and Marta) while I weighed in and got a popsicle. At this point in 2012, I had gained 5lbs. This year, I had gained nothing. With my confidence in my training renewed, I left, headed for the next big climb, the one I considered the worst. 

Seattle Bar to Stein Butte (~35 miles):

I remembered the climb to Stein Butte well. I knew it would be hot, steep, and long. I was prepared for that. On the drive from Portland to Williams the day before the race, Sarah joked that with my heat training and hill work, I would feel like I was on an escalator. I was surprised to find that she was right. It was hard, but not nearly as hard as I remembered. 

When I reached the Stein Butte aid station, I quickly refilled my pack with water and my bandana with ice and made my way to Squaw Lakes, where I would once again get to see my amazing crew. The thought of seeing their smiling faces and hearing them cheer moved me forward.

Stein Butte to Squaw Lakes (~mile 39 and 42):

As I began my descent toward Squaw Lakes, I quickly noticed that I was starting to get a blister on my left foot, one so bad that I was barely able to run the downs within a few miles. Blister aside, I still managed to reach the lake a full 30 minutes faster than I had in 2012. I was ecstatic. I gave my pack to my crew, exchanging it for a handheld, and told them what I would need (including blister care) after making the trip around the lake. 

Because I arrived earlier this year than I had in 2012, I was not pushed to get around the lake to make a cutoff. Instead, I was able to run an easy pace and enjoy the beautiful trail. It felt like any other easy weekend run. 

Running in to Hanley Gap. Me: "Uh...you guys...it's still daylight" (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Running in to Hanley Gap. Me: "Uh...you guys...it's still daylight" (photo by Sarah Duncan).

I reached the other side of the lake and briefly sat dan while Megan fed me and Marta and Sarah tended to my feet. As I ate, I confirmed I wasn't going to miss a cutoff (the thought still lingered and I couldn't believe I felt that strong while not pushing it). "Des, you are nowhere near missing a cutoff," Sarah said.

Once they finished addressing my feet, I picked up my pack and my headlamps, prepared for the night to come. I would get to see my crew again at Hanley Gap, but I was confident it would be dark before I arrived. As I made my way from the lake to the trail, my crew drove by cheering. Their positivity permeated the smoke-filled air. 

Squaw Lakes to Hanley Gap (mile 50 and 52):

The climb to Hanley Gap was uneventful and, like the previous two climbs, was not nearly as bad as I remembered it. I made it there much faster than I anticipated, over two hours earlier than I had in 2012.

I handed off my pack to my crew and began my accent to the top of Hanley Gap to retrieve my flag, amazed that I was going to get to do this in the daylight, and it was an added bonus to see the fire-burnt sunset as I reached the top.

At the summit of Hanley Gap (photo by Tom Riley).

At the summit of Hanley Gap (photo by Tom Riley).

I retrieved my flag and I quickly made my descent, arriving at the aid station 30 minutes faster than I had told my crew I would.

Knowing that I've suffered hypothermia at two separate 100-mile races, my crew and I were aware that we would need to be vigilant about keeping me warm and dry during the night. With that in mind, they had me change shirts when I reached the aid station.

Although I had been eating well and regularly all day, prolonged running in the smoke made my stomach tight and queazy, and I started to lose my appetite. Still, I refueled and readied myself to head out into the evening.  

Hanley Gap to Dutchman Peak (mile 65 and 67):

The stretch from Hanley Gap to the base of Dutchman Peak was very hard for me in 2012.  I was tired, my knees were shot, I was depleted, and I was terrified of the dark. This year, I felt like I cruised there, making conversation with runners as we crossed paths and enjoying the peace of the night when I was alone. 

The best case scenario arrival time prediction I gave my crew for mile 65 was 11:30 p.m. To their surprise and mine, I arrived at around 11:20 p.m., elated that I had not only made it to my first pacer (Megan), but that I was going to make the cutoff that I had missed in 2012. Not only was I going to make the cutoff; I was going to get there a full two hours earlier than I had in 2012. I looked at Megan: "Are you ready to summit this bitch?" I asked. "Let's do it!" she said.

At Hanley Gap, as my stomach started to churn (photo by Sarah Duncan).

At Hanley Gap, as my stomach started to churn (photo by Sarah Duncan).

As Megan and I ascended Dutchman Peak, she motioned to the right: "Those are the lights of Ashland, Des," she said as she put her arm around me. I started to cry tears of pure happiness. I had made it. Now my race could start.

At Jackson Creek Gap (mile 69), getting ready to head back out (photo by Sarah Duncan). 

At Jackson Creek Gap (mile 69), getting ready to head back out (photo by Sarah Duncan). 

We stayed at the top of Dutchman Peak just long enough to check in and refuel before we descended back to regroup with Marta and Sarah. The three of them helped me put on a layer of warm clothes and fed me warm mashed potatoes and broth. 

Dutchman Peak to Long John Saddle (~mile 75):

Megan and I headed out for our 10-mile stretch together. I was so thankful to finally have a pacer to keep me company on a stretch of trail that would be entirely new to me, and I couldn't have been happier to have Megan with her positive attitude and motivational words.

Within about two miles of leaving the rest of the crew, I felt overwhelmingly nauseous. I had stomached food and Gu so well all day and had taken the usual Tums and Ginger to combat the queasiness I experienced from running in the smoke, so I was surprised to feel so sick. As hard as I tried, though, I couldn't keep going. I hunched over on the side of the trail and started to vomit. Megan put her hand under my pack and lifted its weight, trying to shoulder some of my discomfort. 

Once the vomiting subsided, we moved forward, but I was so nauseous and my muscles had seized up so much when I stopped to vomit that I wasn't able to run. It was everything I could do just to hike. Megan knew I was on a schedule to eat every 30-45 minutes, so she tried to get me to eat, but everything I tasted made by stomach churn. We resorted to me swallowing what was probably a quarter teaspoon of Gu every 20 minutes or so. It was all I could handle. Megan continued to encourage me, reminding me that every step was one closer to Ashland. 

At around 4:00 a.m., we finally reached the Long John Saddle aid station, where I would meet Marta and continue on for the remainder of the night. Since I had slowed down so significantly, I told Megan I wasn't going to stop at the aid station; I would keep going and she would send Marta out after me. When we reached the aid station, Megan stopped to check in with Marta and Sarah walked me out. I looked at Sarah and I started to cry: "I've slowed down too much," I said. "I'm going to get cut. I'm going to miss a cutoff." Sarah put her arm around me: "Des, you've made all of the cutoffs. You're so far ahead. No one is going to cut you." I wanted to believe her, but I didn't. I was so burdened by the memory of being cut in 2012 that I couldn't move beyond those feelings. 

Marta and Megan caught up with us on the other side of the aid station. Marta put her hands on my shoulders and looked directly into my eyes as she started to tear up: "Desiree, you are going to make it. You are not going to get cut." Little did she know how many more times she would have to say those words to me before the night was over. 

Long John Saddle to Wagner Butte (mile 80 and 85):

The two or so remaining hours of night between when we left Sarah and Megan and when we reached the Wagner Butte aid station were long and slow. My stomach continued to get more nauseous and I was barely able to eat anything, despite Marta's efforts. I hunched over several times on the side of the trail to dry heave and my breathing was increasingly labored. It was everything I could do to even stomach water. 

Retrieving my flag from the summit of Wagner Butte, mile 85 (photo by Marta Fisher).

Retrieving my flag from the summit of Wagner Butte, mile 85 (photo by Marta Fisher).

At some point, Marta asked a fellow pacer if he had vanilla Gu, the one flavor we found that I was still able to stomach. He didn't have any Gu, but he offered us chia seeds, which he had given to his runner when she started to get sick. "They'll help absorb the lactic acid in your stomach," he said. So I ate chia seeds and I drank water, periodically taking a small taste of Gu. That was my fuel for the remainder of the race.

We reached the Wagner Butte aid station just before dawn, where we unloaded excess clothing and fuel into our drop bags before making the final five-mile climb to summit Wagner Butte. 

After retrieving my flag and descending the boulder field, I started to cry again, no doubt because I was, at this point, too calorie-depleted to control my emotions. Calorie-depletion aside, though, the weight of my 2012 DNF started to become more than I could shoulder. "I'm not to going to make it," I said. "I've come so far and I'm not going to make it." Marta put her hands on my shoulders again. She looked at me and started to cry: "Des, you are going to make it. You have so much time." I didn't believe her. 

Wagner Butte to the finish (mile 100.5):

Marta and I moved forward as fast as my feet and legs would carry me, but by mile 85 or so, my blisters had gotten so bad that even a shuffle was painful. Normally downhill running is my strength, but the blisters made it so painful I could barely move. 

By the time we reached mile 95 or so, we could see Ashland in the distance and even heard the occasional road noise. It was so close and still so very far away. I had a pretty strong shuffle going, though, and I was determined to finish: "I just have to get to Ashland," I kept saying. "I just have to get to Ashland.

A two-year journey finally ends. 

A two-year journey finally ends. 

When we were about a mile from the finish line, where the trail meets the pavement of Ashland, we saw Sarah and Megan. I had never been so happy to see pavement. Sarah and Megan put their arms around me: "Let's finish this!" they said. "I'm not going to make it. They're going to cut me," I said. "Des," Sarah said, "you're going to make it. You're here." I didn't believe her. I had slowed down too much. I was in too much pain. Breathing hurt. It couldn't be possible that I was actually there. "I have been to hell and back," I said. "But you made it," Sarah replied. She stayed by my side for the remaining mile, telling me every turn that lie ahead. "See those cars? That's the finish line." I cried and, this time, I didn't stop. Somehow I found one last push of strength deep inside my body and I ran as hard and as fast as I could. As I crossed the finish line, Sarah, Megan, and Marta wrapped their arms around me and led me to a chair. "You did it!" Sarah said. "No," I said. "We did it."

Finish time: 33:01:09. Chapter closed. 

Finish time: 33:01:09. Chapter closed.