The One That Almost Got Away

"There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning." -- Louis L'Amour

On the Wednesday evening preceding the Waldo 100k, the race director, Craig Thornley, announced that a wildfire had pervaded portions of the course that we were to run. Incredibly disappointed, I appreciated Craig's transparency and his efforts to keep runners apprised of the situation. The race would either be canceled or be rerouted, but Craig was not sure.  I checked my e-mail and Facebook for updates, incessantly refreshing internet pages in anticipation. At 11:45 a.m. on Friday morning (the day before the race), I received an e-mail: "Waldo is on." The race had been rerouted and would now be 105k. I was ecstatic! Five climbs, two peaks, and 65.6 miles. This would be the race of all races.

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As one of the most prestigious races in Oregon and one that is part of the Montrail Ultra Cup, the Waldo 100k is a little intimidating for us mere mortals. Being in the company of runners like Tim Olson, Ian Sharman, Hal Koerner, Yassine Douboin, and Joelle Vaught can leave one questioning: "Do I belong here?" Nonetheless, I was anxious to conquer this distance again and prove to myself that I am prepared to take on 

Pine to Palm 100. I sat on the steps of the Willamette Pass lodge and listened to the pre-race briefing, glancing up at the first climb that I would conquer the next morning.

"This is not Badger Mountain," I repeated to myself as I lie awake in the early hours of race morning, listening to the sound of rain drops hitting the roof of the car in which Sarah and I were camping. The sound was soothing. I was exhausted and nervous, but, somehow, I found peace in the quiet drizzle. "This is not Badger Mountain," the race that will forever haunt me. "This is not Badger Mountain, and it will not end the same way."

The first climb.

The first climb.

As early starters, Sarah and I toed the start line at 3:00 a.m.  In the dark of the night, we made the slow climb up the dusty, dirt road parallel to the chair lift, climbing approximately 1,400 ft. over about two miles. We reached the top of the road and, then, turned off onto single-track trail. We followed the trail in the dark for several miles at a gradual descent until we reached the Gold Lake aid station at around 7.4 miles. After a quick stop, we were off once again and soon began the second climb to the summit of Mt. Fuji.

View from the summit of Mt. Fuji.

View from the summit of Mt. Fuji.

The approximately seven-mile climb up Mt. Fuji was slow, but mostly shrouded in darkness, somehow making the hills easier to ascend. The sun started to rise mid climb and we were able to rid ourselves of the weight of our headlamps and run freely into daybreak with the energy derived form the morning sun. We made a brief stop at the Mt. Fuji aid station before finishing the climb to the summit just above 7,000 ft. As far as climbs in this race go, I found the climb to Mt. Fuji to be relatively mild. That said, the change in altitude was a factor for me and my breathing was labored once I climbed above 6,000 ft., despite having done some altitude training in recent weeks.

Charlton Lake.

Charlton Lake.

After summiting Mt. Fuji, we enjoyed a soft descent to the Mt. Ray aid station at about mile 20.5, from which we quickly began our third climb to Mt. Ray. The climb to Mt. Ray is a gradual one that gains about 1,500 ft. over approximately nine miles miles. This climb, again was uneventful. Sarah and I had made a pact early on that we would not allow ourselves to experience any low points for at least 28 miles. We successfully pushed through those 28 miles, passing the aid station at The Twins and making our way to Charlton Lake at around mile 30.4. Our stop at the Charlton Lake aid station was a bit longer than the others. I switched out my hydration pack and Sarah picked up a drop bag. We selected this stop as a major refueling point and then we pressed on.

The sun started to break through the clouds as we departed Charlton Lake and the temperature began to warm. It was not long before my clothes were dry and I started to get hot. "Don't let the heat get to you," Sarah said. I couldn't help it. I was already hot and I dreaded the raising temperatures.

The single-track, dirt trail turned to a single-track trail of sand/dirt mix, and, where we were previously shielded by the canopy of the forest, we were now mostly exposed through the next aid station at Rd. 4290 (about 35.6 miles in). This was the last aid station we would reach where drop bags would be available so, again, we spent several minutes there to refill our packs and pick up the contents of our drop bags. Normally, I overpack my drop bags slightly so that I have variety. When I reached the aid station at Rd. 4290, however, I panicked, knowing that this would be my last drop bag, and I made the unfortunate mistake of loading my pack with everything in my drop bag. It was not long before I regretted this decision. I slogged along the exposed trail in the heat as my pack weighed heavily on my shoulders.

Shortly after Rd. 4290, I reached the dark miles that we all anticipate and that we all dread. I stopped talking. I stopped eating. It was everything I could do to put one foot in front of the other. Sarah tried to pull me out my slump: "Remember why you're here," she said, but that made me want to cry. Tears welled in my eyes. "Keep moving," I told myself. "If you can't do this, you can't run Pine to Palm. Keep moving."

The next several miles were a struggle. At about mile 39, I stopped in the middle of the trail. "I'm going to try to pee," I told Sarah. It had been too long and I needed to try to force my body to recover. If I could do that, I had a chance of finishing this race. I forced myself to pee, I ate a Stinger waffle, and I had a silent conversation with myself. "You've covered this distance before," I told myself. "You've covered this distance and you've done it under harder conditions. Suck it up and move." Shortly after that, Sarah emerged from the bushes. "I'm ready," I said. "Let's go." By mile 41, I had recovered and I did not allow myself to fall into that dark place again. We began the fourth climb to The Twins. When I reached the aid station at The Twins, I donated all of the fuel in my pack other than what I needed to finish the race.

Adam on Maiden Peak (Photo by Long Run Photo).

Adam on Maiden Peak (Photo by Long Run Photo).

After Sarah and I ran through the aid station at The Twins, we turned the corner to see Sarah's partner, Adam, waiting for us. As a complete surprise, he had driven the four plus hours from Portland to run the final twenty or so miles of the race (and the toughest climb) with us. We were ecstatic! His support, encouragement, and coaching for the final 20 miles proved to be exactly what Sarah and I needed.

Each of the four climbs was overshadowed by the shroud that was the ascent of Maiden Peak, a vertical climb with few switchbacks, covering close to 3,000 ft. over 5 miles. The absence of switchbacks and the dramatic increase in elevation make this the most difficult climb of the race, one that every runner dreads. The slow climb to the peak felt as though it would never end. My glutes and hips ached. My lungs burned. I was wheezing. By the time we reached the aid station midway through the climb, I was hunched over, gasping for breath. I forced myself to eat, I caught my breath, and the three of us pushed forward. Adam, who is a climber in addition to a runner, slowed his pace to help be gain control over my breathing and to coach me up the summit.

Within a mile or so of cresting the climb, the we heard thunder. We knew that we needed to move faster, so we pushed as hard as we could. We emerged from the trees to reach the final section where we would climb another .1-.25 mile before summiting the peak. When we turned the corner, however, a volunteer was waiting to check our bib numbers to confirm that we had made the climb and then he sent us down the mountain. We would not be permitted to finish summiting the peak; the thunder and lightning had gotten too bad.

Descending Maiden Peak (Photo by Long Run Photo)

Descending Maiden Peak (Photo by Long Run Photo)

From the summit of Maiden Peak, the course follows a steep descent that leads to the final aid station before the finish. There I tried to consume enough calories to run the final 7.5 rolling miles along the PCT to the finish. Eating had become very difficult for me by this point, but I was able to stomach a couple of cups of soda, a few pretzels, and a bite of a muffin. It wasn't much, but it would be enough.

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The sun started to get lower in the sky and darkness was approaching. We were determined, however, to finish the race before the sun set and we had to put our headlamps on once again. We pushed forward as quickly as we could and, somehow, we managed to maintain an even pace. Due to the reroute and the fact that the course was long this year, we did not now exactly how much farther we had to go, but we knew that we were within 5k of finishing. We pushed harder. Soon, we heard the sound of traffic from the road below. We pushed harder. We saw lights. I yelled to Sarah: "Run it in, Sarah!" "We're finishing this together," she yelled back. I sped up, trying to catch her. "Go Des," Adam yelled. "You can do it." Soon, Sarah and I were side by side with the finish line in sight. We ran harder on our dead legs than I knew was possible. Then, the finish. Greeted by hugs and words of praise from Craig Thornley, Yassine Diboun, and Willie McBride, Sarah and I crossed the finish line in 17:29:13, just as darkness fell. Craig handed me my hat, the coveted Waldo hat that runners only receive if they complete the course in under a certain number of hours. As I reveled in my excitement over finishing the most difficult race I had ever attempted, I thought to myself: "No, this was not like Badger Mountain and, yes, I do freaking belong here."