Pine to Palm 100: The Journey's End (or beginning...)

It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.
— Hemingway

 

Sarah, Jason, Larry, and me at the start (photo by Dana Katz).

Sarah, Jason, Larry, and me at the start (photo by Dana Katz).

As I stood under the dark, star-filled sky, near the big purple Rogue Valley Runners arch, I gave Larry a hug and whispered: “I won’t let you down.”  Nine months of training and racing had come down to this day. Two years ago, I would have given anything for just one 100-mile finish. On this morning, I was attempting my 4th in 11 weeks and 7th total. My ankle still hurt from Cascade Crest 13 days prior and, worn down from a summer of mountain racing, I was tired. To say that I was nervous would be an understatement. I knew I would give it my everything (I always do), but I didn’t know if my everything would be enough. I stood behind the arch as the crowd counted down, the 4th countdown I had heard in 11 weeks, and my eyes welled with tears. I was so excited and so grateful to have made it that far. The preceding 9 months flashed through my head like a slideshow of photos. 10...I was being lifted in the chair on lottery day…9...my back injury in February…8…Peterson Ridge Rumble…7…Capitol Peak 50…6…McDonald Forest…5…training camp…4…the overnight runs, the long runs, and the lunch runs...3...the physical therapy, the heat training, the yoga, the early mornings, the naps under my desk...2... Western States, Tahoe Rim Trail, Cascade Crest…1…it was time.

Start to Seattle Bar (~mile 29):

Having run Pine to Palm before, I knew what lie ahead. I had no goals going in other than to stay ahead of the cutoffs and to finish, but I had a feeling that, despite being tired, if my ankle held up, I had a good race in me. I paced myself, not knowing how my body would respond to running two 100s so close together, and ran conservatively. When I summited the climb up Greyback mountain in 2:37, significantly faster than the preceding year, I was elated. I stopped just long enough to take in the breathtaking view before making the descent. I knew I would get to see my crew (Sarah, Larry, and Jason) at Seattle Bar, and I was anxious to get there. Sarah (who also crewed me in 2014) thought this section was a place where I lost time last year, so I wanted to see how quickly I could get there. My soft goal was to arrive between 6:00-6:15.

Jason (the greatest of Power Rangers) rubbing my shoulders as Larry tried to make my iPod work (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Jason (the greatest of Power Rangers) rubbing my shoulders as Larry tried to make my iPod work (photo by Sarah Duncan).

As I made the descent down Greyback I was really starting to enjoy the morning. My ankle hurt, but it never seemed to get any worse, so I ran on it with caution and tried not to think about it. It wasn’t long before it started to get warm and, once I reached the start of the gravel road after the first aid station around mile 15, it was hot. The subsequent 14 miles to Seattle Bar are mostly on exposed fire road. The sun beat down as I made my way toward my crew. When I finally turned off on the rolling doubletrack, roughly 2 miles from the aid station, I was incredibly hot and had a list of things in my mind that I wanted to do when I saw my crew, chief among which was changing into a cooler shirt. I started to run faster, excited to see them and happy that I was going to make it there in the time I had predicted. I knew Sarah would be proud. As I started to run faster down a dip in the trail, I became distracted, thinking about popsicles and a shirt change and making Sarah proud, and I didn’t see the large tree branch overhanging the trail. I ran straight into it and it knocked me down. “Idiot!” I thought. My head hurt instantly.

Soon I turned the corner to the Seattle Bar aid station. I had a feeling Sarah would be waiting there for me and there she was, cowbell in hand, cheering me in. I told her I was hot, every bit as hot as when I came out of Duncan Canyon at States, I let her know what I needed, and handed her my vest as I made my way to the aid station to get weighed.

With a long climb ahead of me, we knew I needed to take a few minutes to cool down and refuel. Sarah and Larry loaded my vest and put ice everywhere like they did at States, while Jason (in costume nonetheless) massaged my shoulders. Soon, I was off to make the long climb up Stein Butte. Jason walked me out of the aid station and sponged me off: “I can’t believe I’m fucking back here,” I said, and I made my way toward the climb. I would see them again is ~10-11 miles, which we expected to take 3:30.

Seattle Bar to Squaw Lakes (~mile 39/42):

The climb up Stein Butte is, arguably, the most difficult and sustained of the race. Most runners also typically hit the climb at the hottest part of the day, which makes it even more difficult, and I was no exception. Larry and I have talked about this climb several times. In 2012, I fought the climb. In 2014, I learned that the best approach is to settle into in and accept that it’s just going to take a long time if you don’t want to blow up.

The climb was just as steep and hot as I remembered. Some sections seemed more runnable than they once did but, for the most part, it was a grind. For some reason, I was almost entirely alone for this section and, while I had planned on picking my iPod up at Seattle Bar, it was dead, despite charging it the day before, so I spent the climb alone and without distraction, which made time go by slower. However, albeit long and grueling, the climb up Stein Butte is beautiful singletrack. The September sun shines through and above the trees, and the trail is covered with leaves of every autumn color. I focused on the leaves. The sun beat down on me as I continued to climb. The aid station seemed to get further and further away as my water bottles got less and less full. Soon, I was too hot to think about anything other than the heat and getting to my crew. I was rapidly approaching the way I felt coming out of Duncan Canyon at Western States, and I knew Sarah and Larry would, once again, be able to help cool me down. I just needed to get to them, and so I pushed. 

Despite feeling horrible and overheated, it took me ~3:30 to cover the distance from Seattle Bar to Squaw Lakes, just as we’d anticipated. As I descended to the lake, I saw Jason’s smiling face, waiting to bring me in in his ever-encouraging way. “I’m in a really bad place,” I said, “and I need to figure out how to pull myself out of it.” I felt guilty as soon as I heard myself say it. It was true, but I didn’t want to burden my crew with those feelings. Jason ran with me to the aid station, where I picked up a water bottle and handed off my vest before running the ~3 miles around the lake.

Trying to pull myself together at the lake as Jason tried to calm me down (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Trying to pull myself together at the lake as Jason tried to calm me down (photo by Sarah Duncan).

As I ran around the lake, I tried to channel all of the positive feelings I felt at this point in the race last year and be thankful I was so far ahead of my previous time. Still, I fixated on feelings of not being good enough, of being angry with myself for feeling so terrible, of wondering if I’d be able to do this one more time. I reached the other side of the lake where Jason was, again, waiting to bring me to Larry and Sarah. I sat down, put my head in my hands and started to hyperventilate. Sarah pushed food on me (always her answer to my suffering). “You’ve been redlining all day, Des” Sarah said. “Stop!” I nodded my head and tried to stomach some food. The fact was that I didn’t feel like I was redlining. I was, without a doubt, working harder than I normal do, but I knew that was because I was more tired (physically and mentally) than I normally was. I could feel Cascade Crest in my legs and my throbbing ankle. I could feel the weight of the other three races on my shoulders as Jason massaged them. “I have to finish,” I said. “You need to take a few minutes,” Sarah told me. As I sat there, I told Larry I thought I was starting to blister on a toe that was missing a nail. We started to remove my sock, but soon realized that doing so would remove the other taping we'd so carefully applied, so we decided to leave it alone. “It’s fine,” I said. “It only hurts when I run.” With that bit of levity, I was ready to get up and begin the trek to Hanley Gap. Jason walked me out of the aid station: “You made it through the hottest part of the day," he said. "It’s only going to get better.” I knew he was right.

Squaw Lakes to Hanley Gap (~mile 50/52):

The stretch from Squaw Lakes to Hanley Gap is a long one, but I knew it would be significantly cooler, especially as I made my way into the trees. I left Squaw Lakes running with a guy named Todd, until I started to have GI issues and fell back to deal with them. Though we only ran together for a few miles, I was grateful for the company and started to forget about all of the pressure I felt while I ran around the lake, just enjoying being able share the trail with another runner. By the time I reached Hanley Gap, I was tired, but I had turned my attitude around. I arrived exactly when we expected. I was still on pace.

At Hanley Gap, getting ready to head out into the night (photo by Sarah Duncan).

At Hanley Gap, getting ready to head out into the night (photo by Sarah Duncan).

After summiting Squaw Peak and returning to the Hanley Gap aid station, I took a few minutes to change my shirt and refuel. At this point, I was really starting to feel Cascade Crest, not in my legs and lungs, but in my stomach. I was starving to the point of nausea, despite eating every 45 minutes. I refueled, took something for my GI, and grabbed my iPod (which my crew had charged in the time since Squaw Lakes) and headlamp, and I was ready for the dark stretch of fire road that would lead me to Dutchman Peak, where I would finally pick up a pacer.

Hanley Gap to Dutchman Peak (~mile 67):

Because I had such a difficult experience when I ran Pine to Palm in 2012, the race has, in my mind, always been a race to Dutchman Peak. If you can make it to Dutchman Peak before the cutoff, there is no reason, barring an injury, that you shouldn’t be able to finish the race. Despite being well ahead of the cutoffs already, I told myself that my race didn’t start until I reached Dutchman Peak, so, for me, things were just getting started.

The stretch between Hanley Gap and Dutchman Peak consists entirely of fire road that climbs gradually for 15 miles. It is a long, often tedious, dusty trek. I began this stretch in the daylight, but had to turn my headlamp on within a couple of miles. I turned my music up and watched the sunset over the mountains as I settled into the calm of the night and savored the cooler, albeit still warm, temperature. As night fell and runners spread out, I was alone, but, as I glanced around, the bats and the scorpions that filled the trail were, oddly, like familiar friends. Only once did I startle: when a rattlesnake crossed the trail at my feet. I turned my music down , clearly needing to be a little more vigilant.

I reached the base of Dutchman Peak as predicted, and I felt energized to be so far ahead of my time the preceding year. As I crested the hill, I saw Sarah, Larry, and Jason waiting in the dark: “Dutchman Peak, bitches!” I yelled as I approached them. They cheered. I looked at Sarah: “I think there are some people waiting for me to summit this peak before they go to bed, so let’s get it done.” With that, we began the climb up to the aid station, Metallica’s Hero of the Day blaring from the speakers above. I pointed to the lights in the valley to my right: “That’s Ashland, Sarah!” We checked in at the aid station, 20 minutes earlier than I had in 2014 and 3 hours ahead of the cutoff. I was going to finish. We took a few minutes to eat some warm food and then began the descent to Jackson Gap, where Larry and Jason were waiting at the car.

The descent was quick. We reached the car, restocked my vest, and Sarah and I were off to cover the 8-mile stretch to Long John Saddle, where I would pick Larry up for the remainder of the journey to Ashland to close the slam together.

Dutchman Peak to Long John Saddle (~mile 74):

Sarah and me at the start line. So thankful to have her to pace me from Dutchman Peak (photo by Larry Stephens).

Sarah and me at the start line. So thankful to have her to pace me from Dutchman Peak (photo by Larry Stephens).

Last year, the stretch from Dutchman Peak to Long John Saddle took and exceptionally long time. It’s not an overly difficult section of the course, but it’s a little technical on tired legs. In 2014, having run in forest fire smoke all day, I lost my stomach on this stretch, and never regained my ability to tolerate food. It was all I could do to drink fluids. This year, it was so nice to actually feel good during this section, appreciate the views of Ashland from the dark ridgeline, and enjoy the time on the trail with a good friend. Unfortunately, the GI issues I’d been battling during the day never subsided, so I continued to fight them during this stretch. I had to sit every time I needed to eat, and I soon started to experience fits of burping, which I’d never had before. I was able to run, but it was extremely uncomfortable.

Once again, the stretch from Dutchman Peak to Long John Saddle took longer than had anticipated, although I arrived exactly when Larry expected. While at the aid station, my head started to pound from running into the tree earlier in the race, so I took my hat off and adjusted my headlamp. We then tried to do something about the burping and intestinal issues n, but nothing seemed to help, so Larry and I were soon off into the night to cover the final stretch to Ashland. I left Long John Saddle almost two hours earlier than I had the preceding year.

Long John Saddle to Wagner Butte (~mile 85):

The sunrise from Wagner Butte (photo by Larry Stephens).

The sunrise from Wagner Butte (photo by Larry Stephens).

On the drive to the race start, I told Larry that I had aspirations of seeing the sunrise from Wagner Butte. In 2014, I reached Wagner Butte at 11:00 a.m., so this was a lofty goal. Larry humored me when I told him, but I knew his first goal was to see me to the finish.

As Larry and I made our way down the fire road to Wagner Butte, I was still so incredibly proud of how far I’d felt I’d come. Last year, this stretch was a death march in every sense. This year, Larry and I were running, talking, and joking like it was any other weekend run. We reached the Wagner Butte aid station around 4:20 a.m. We refueled and I changed my shirt, knowing that the sun would rise soon and I’d be even warmer than I already was.

We began the roughly 5-mile ascent to the summit of Wagner Butte in the pitch black. I knew making it by sunrise would be close, but I was hopeful. As we started to slow down and settle into a steady climb, I started to fall asleep as I hiked. I couldn’t carry on a conversation and I listed as I walked. Finally, Larry put his hands on my shoulders and told me to sit down. “I can’t sit,” I said. “I need to keep moving.” “You can’t sway all over the trail either,” he said. And so I sat against a log and closed my eyes for 2-3 minutes. I then ate a Gu and stood, ready to continue on. Larry talked at me and told me not to respond; he just wanted me to concentrate on moving forward. Then, remembering that when I started to feel sleepy at States Larry encouraged me to start running, I decided to start running, even if I was going uphill. From there on, I was awake.

As we exited the trees onto an open ridgeline, the sun started to rise. We were approaching the scree and the summit of Wagner Butte. “See?” I said. “I told you we’d see the sunrise from Wagner Butte.” Climbing the scree to get my flag was not nearly as difficult as I’d remembered. In fact, it was kind of fun. I could feel Larry’s pride as we reached the top and it gave me strength.

The descent from Wagner Butte is not a pleasant one. Once you run back over the ridgeline, you are then on steep downhill singletrack composed mostly of loose dirt, making it difficult to keep a steady footing, let alone climb over the down logs. As we made this descent, I started to slow. My feet were starting to burn. At one point when I started to run, I tripped over a rock and fell. A stick gouged inside the gash in my knee that I’d gotten early on in the race. I collapsed and silently held my breath, my eyes tightly shut as though holding in the pain. “Hold it together,” Larry said. “Hold it together.”  I took a deep breath, I got up, and we continued on the long descent that felt like it would never end.

At the summit of Wagner Butte (photo by Larry Stephens).

At the summit of Wagner Butte (photo by Larry Stephens).

We finally reached the Road 2060 aid station (mile 90) at 9:00 a.m. I handed a volunteer my flag, proof that I had summited the final climb. I knew then that I would finish. I ate some pancakes, which were so very welcome after another day and night of trying to stomach Gu. Once again, Larry and I were off.

Wagner Butte to the Finish (~mile 100.5):

The final 10-mile stretch from Road 2060 to the finish consists largely of fire road. Last year, I death marched the section almost entirely. This year, I swore that would not happen. It didn’t. My feet burned and my stomach hurt. I was simultaneously starving and nauseous. I moaned in pain. Still, I ran, taking only periodic walk breaks. “Okay,” said Larry. “You can walk it in and finish in over 30 hours or you can run and break 30.” In a shaky voice, I moaned through my pain and tears and asserted “I’m not walking it in!" I started to run and I didn’t stop. I was determined to touch down on the pavement of Ashland and finish in under 30 hours. It was everything I could do to keep moving. I wasn’t able to talk. Larry understood. He’d been there. He knew. “You are never going to feel this kind of pain again, Des,” he said. “Embrace it.” I ran harder, moaning in pain, moaning because I was fighting so hard, moaning because it fueled me. 

Larry and me running to the finish (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Larry and me running to the finish (photo by Sarah Duncan).

We finally reached the doubletrack jeep trail that leads into Ashland and saw the smiling faces of Jason and Sarah, who had hiked ~1-2 miles up to run the final stretch with us. I wanted to talk to them. I wanted to tell them about the night. I wanted to tell them about seeing the sunrise from Wagner Butte. I wanted to thank them for being there. All I could do was moan in pain., occasionally spewing profanity. Still, I ran and I ran hard. I touched down on the pavement of Ashland. I have never been so happy to see asphalt. As I descended into town, I ran faster than I did when I hit Placer Field in Auburn. I crossed the finish line in 29:28, a 3:33 course PR. I threw my handheld down on the ground, the lids few off, and water splashed everywhere. I hunched over and buried my face in my hands in complete disbelief that it was over and I had done it. I hugged Larry: “I hate you,” I said. He laughed. “I think that’s fair."

Larry and me at the finish (photo by Sarah Duncan). 

Larry and me at the finish (photo by Sarah Duncan). 

Writing this race report was difficult for many reasons (it’s hard to write about the same race three times, I’m tired of writing race reports this year, I’m tired), most of all because writing it meant that the Larry Slam was over. It’s hard to describe what goes into 9 months of training and injury prevention and recovery and race preparation. The travel and the pure physical exhaustion, not knowing how I would run one more step, let alone get up for work and function on a day-to-day basis, was physically and mentally draining. I was invested in this goal like no other, and I devoted every minute of every day to it in some capacity. I lived and breathed it. I loved it. It changed me in ways that I cannot describe. Even now, I can’t fully comprehend the journey. I lived an entire life in the span of 11 weeks and learned more about training, racing, friendship, and myself than I will ever be able to put into words. Over 400 miles raced in 4 states, over 165,000 ft. of elevation change, a bajillion Gu consumed, 9 very dear friends as crew/pacers, and the support of a running family bigger than I can enumerate. Larry Slam complete.

Here’s to next year! But, first, some rest.