Siskiyou Outback-er, that is. This is the 3rd year in a row I’ve run the race affectionately known as “SOB.” In 2010 and 2011 I ran the 50k, but this year was eager to step it up to the newly-added 50 mile distance. (It would be my 4th 50 mile race.) The races start at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area at about 6,800 feet elevation and more or less follow the Pacific Crest Trail with a couple diversions on to forest roads for a few miles. Course elevation tops out near 7,100 feet. There is some nice shady, forested running, as well as high, open, sunny ridges with stunning views of the surrounding mountains and hills. There is little flat out here. You’re pretty much always headed up or down. I regret that I have no pictures from this race to show you the beauty. I made the decision to leave the camera at home and focus on the run this time.
In the week leading up to SOB, I had done the math. I got really worried about making the time cutoffs, which came out to 15-minute/mile pace starting at miles 35.5 at Jackson Gap aid station. My longer runs with moderate elevation gain the last couple months had been very close to that. My concern got the best of me on my 10 mile run on Tuesday before the race. I was so consumed with worry that there were a couple miles I didn’t even feel like running, so I didn’t. I just hiked. Then I got to my favorite spot on the trail— one of my favorite views in all of Central Oregon. I stopped, bent over with my hands on my knees, and just cried. How the hell could I be so worried about something in the future as to not be able to enjoy the fact that I was moving, on my own two legs, through this beautiful place that I love? There are people that would love to be able to run, much less walk. And here I was getting in 10 miles today. I was walking— so what! Get over yourself, Laura, get out of your mind, and enjoy being able to move through the world! So what if you don’t feel as good or aren’t as fast as you think you should be. Why has it taken me so long to learn this? Why is it taking running to teach me so many important lessons? Be thankful, Laura.
Something had to change fast, and that something was my mind. I came up with a mantra that I repeated to myself dozens of times a day for the next few days: “Calm, Confident, In the Moment.” I believe you can’t worry if you are truly In the Moment. For me, worry generally comes from thinking about the future. The future hasn’t happened yet. So why are you worried about it? Just do your best. By Friday I was totally at peace and prepared for whatever might happen on race day.
The race began at 6am (which meant a 3am wakeup for me!). The first 8 miles are some of my favorite. The PCT in this section is absolutely pristine, cushy, and a dream to run on. I felt great. My plan was to put some time between me and the 15-minute pace cutoffs early in the day while it was cool, but to temper that with patience. So far so good. After the Siskiyou Gap aid station at mile 9.1, we were routed onto forest road 20 for what seemed like forever. The rocky road climbs steadily up. I thought I remembered running all of this in 2010, but today running more than short sections was a struggle. So I hiked. Then, at mile 9.2, Max King was the first of the 50k runners to pass me. They had started their race an hour later and had already caught up to me. My mind started going south as more and more 50k-ers passed me. Most said “good job” as they passed. Didn’t they know I was the back of the 50 milers? Why do I work so hard to get where I am, yet I’m still last, or nearly last? Why even run road 4601 in training? So much good it’s done for me today. I’m the cream of the crap, the worst of “the best.” Oh well, at least I’m out here.
A woman caught up with me saying that she was the sweep. Indeed, I was last. My mind silently screamed, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, get away from me!” Instead I politely said that I was surprised to see her because I knew that I was way ahead of 15-minute pace. She said she just ebbs and flows. I thought, but didn’t say out loud, “Well then, ebb the hell away from me.” Soon she did. That was a relief, and I started working on my mind. I had realized the first moment that my mind began heading south, and I had let it continue. Now I had to work to change it. The course got back on to trail, and now I had to hop out of the way for many more 50kers to pass me. That was really beginning to be a pain, but I tried to take it all in stride, just BE, and enjoy the scenery. By Wagner Gap at mile 12.5, I felt back on my game. At some point, I can’t remember when, I looked at my Garmin and was 10 minutes ahead of the cutoff. I knew that time cushion wouldn’t last because there was a hiking climb coming up. I decided then not to look at my watch any more.
Jackson Gap, at mile 14.5, was the turnaround point for the 50k and the 50 mile drop bag location. I saw a 50k friend of mine sitting in a chair, wrapped up, but shivering. I touched her head. How you doin’ honey? “I don’t feel good,” she replied. I said she should sit for a while and would feel better. She replied that she thought she was done. My heart went out to her. I am slow but I was feeling good physically. Be thankful, Laura. Be thankful. I grabbed the ziploc marked #1 from my drop bag and refilled my pocket with gels from it. From another ziploc I retrieved an already wet bandana packed in ice and tied it around my neck to help me stay cool. I refilled my water and dumped my garbage.
I was following my race plan to a T and was off again. A short climb out of Jackson Gap, followed by a few miles of gentle downhill. But first there was one big ol’ daunting snow bank across the trail to make it over. I didn’t like the looks of it, and did some hyperventilating (if my foot slipped more than a few inches, I would have slid clear down the snowbank and down the hill). Shortly after that, I was stopped in my tracks by one of the most beautiful countryside views ever. I laughed and smiled. There was a gentleman not far behind me. I waited for him, saying “Come over here, I want to share this view with you.” We put an arm around each other and just stood there for a moment, soaking in the view. We didn’t know each other, but in this moment it did not matter, and it was wonderful. These are the moments that running is about. Oh, and I did find out his name is Sean. We’d see quite a bit of one another the rest of the day.
Some nice downhill running for most of the next 7 miles. About mile 16, I started seeing the front-runners coming back the other direction. I did some quick math. Wow, they were running like twice my pace! How anyone can do that just amazes me. I can’t even comprehend it. This is why I like out-and-back courses. I get to see people. I don’t mind people passing me from the opposite direction. It is much easier to get out of their way than when being passed from behind. Plus I can see their faces, and it’s easier to give encouragement and connect. After a few miles of downhill, I started thinking, “Wow, this is gonna be a lot of uphill on the way back.” Then about mile 19 there was a wooden sign indicating the Oregon/California border. That was pretty damned neat-o! I had run to California!
At Wards Fork aid station at mile 22, I prepared for the 3 mile climb to the turnaround. I handed off my hydration pack to be filled with ice and water while I did a few other things: downed a cup of coke and some grapes, rewet my neckerchief. Co-Race Director Timothy Olson (winner of this year’s Western States 100) poured ice into my sports bra. Of course I had to work the moment. I feigned a moment of ecstasy, moaning, “Oh, thank you Tim baby, that was so good!” I donned my iPod to rock out the climb and someone handed my filled hydration pack back to me. At least I assumed it had been filled. I will never again assume.
Out of Wards Fork, I knew it was a 3 mile climb to the turnaround, and I was ready with my tunes. I left the aid station singing, with Sean not far behind me. Before long I started seeing several of my friends heading back down from the turnaround. I saw Todd and asked how much farther to the turnaround, a mile? (It’s amazing how long 3 miles can seem.) He said it was still a ways and it gets steep, and to keep pushing. Then I saw my friend Lori. She said I was just about there, that it was like climbing a rock wall. Uh-oh. My mind began running amok. Before long, we were off the trail and following flagging cross-country. Not for very far though. It was fun, but taxing. We climbed up to a rocky outcropping where there was 360 degree views. I felt happy and on top of the world. I had made it 1/2 way! I raised my arms in triumph and screamed, “Fuck yeah!!!!” I didn’t care who heard.
My friend Anne was manning the turnaround and was going to be sweeping the way back. She said I had a little over 2 hours to make it back to Jackson Gap, but that they might not be super-strict on that cutoff, but would be on later ones. I did some quick math in my head. Running the next 10 miles—7 of which were basically one long climb—in just over 2 hours was not going to happen. So I decided to just keep doing my best and have fun.
I turned around for the 3 mile descent back to Wards Fork. Sean and a woman who I will refer to as “blue shorts” (I never got her name) were on the last pitch up. The woman looked like she was nearly in tears. I was getting thirsty. I sucked on my hydration tube. Nothing. Oh my. My water had not been filled at the last aid station after all! I told myself not to get angry or upset. It wouldn’t do any good. All it would do is suck my energy. So I didn’t get upset. That decision to stay calm and focused was actually was quite refreshing, and a good change. I’d run without water before, I’d be fine. Just run consistently to the next aid station where water awaits. I did not attempt to take any gels or salt during this time. Pulling in to Ward Fork again, I already had my hydration pack removed as was yelling (as politely as possible), “I need ice and water!” What did I need to do here, now, under the circumstances? Calories: Coke. Grapes. Gel. Salt. More ice in the bra, re-wet the bandana. I felt pretty efficient leaving that aid station.
There was an orange sign saying how many miles to Jackson Gap, and that it was like 1750 gain and 170 loss. Oh boy. Here’s that long hill. Most of it was at a grade just enough that I really couldn’t run much. So I hiked. There were a few short spots of flat terrain or descent, and I ran those, even though it was perhaps only 50 feet, or even 10 strides. I don’t recall ever doing this before. This also was a good change. I was getting a little tired though. Thankfully nothing hurt, but I was a bit low on energy. Perhaps I was in a deficit because of the water situation, or maybe this would have been a natural low point anyway.
I sang. I clapped. I did what I could to keep myself peppy and positive. Soon the blue shorts lady passed me. She passed me strong. She was hiking, and hiking quickly. She’d gotten a second wind. Good for her! I wasn’t moving as quickly, but I was moving. Sean, with Anne the sweep, were behind me. Occasionally I’d look back and could see them. There were the same amazing views on the way back, and since it was apparent I wasn’t going to make the cutoff time, I decided to stop for a moment to soak it in and smile contentedly. Then I continued on.
1/2 a mile before coming back in to Jackson Gap was that goddamned daunting snow bank again! If I thought it was daunting before, it really was now! I started across but turned back, nearly in tears. I looked up for a way around. If there was one, it wouldn’t be any easier than just crossing this thing. I knew Sean and Anne were just a couple minutes behind me, so I stopped and admired the view while waiting for them for some physical and moral support to get back over this thing. Sean went ahead and Anne was a great help to me. After that I was home free. I felt good, and alive, and began to run again. I looked at my watch for the first time in a long while, and my heart sank. I was way past the cutoff.
I pulled into Jackson Gap, stopped running, pounded my quads hard and repeatedly with my fists, and burst into tears. My friend Marilyn (aka “Mel,” who I ran the Rogue River trail with in May) had been volunteering at this aid station all day, and was suddenly there giving me a long, heart-felt hug, saying over and over, “You’re ok, you’re ok.” I was so glad she was there, and I’m sure she knows exactly how I felt. I was invited to have a seat. I didn’t want to sit. I was restless. I milled around, walking in circles, stopping to look at the grand view, quietly mouthing lyrics to songs still playing in my ear.
My drop bag was here. I might as well be good to myself. Boy, that’s a switch from decades past: take care of myself instead of beat myself up psychologically. So I made use of the supplies in my drop bag, even though I wasn’t continuing. I changed my shirt. I put on a clean, icy cold, wet neckerchief. I ate the baggie of Trader Joe’s mini cheese & cracker sandwiches. I was so disappointed, but I had done my best today. And with 6200 gain and 5800 loss, it was a good long training run. My best was good enough, dammit (just not for the time constraints).
Jackson Gap aid station was packed up and a few of us who didn’t make the cutoff here piled into two vehicles. It was a beautiful drive of over an hour on forest roads back to the start/finish. The roads are cut right into the hillsides. One side of the road is steep uphill, the other side steep downhill. Once again, no flat to be found. The views go on forever and make my heart soar. A few miles out from the finish, we could see runners still making their way toward the finish. We stopped and yelled out the window in support. I was a little sad and jealous ‘cause I love the last few miles of this race, and longed to be out there.
At the finish I talked to the woman in blue shorts, who had barely made it through the cutoff at mile 35.5, but didn’t make the cutoff at mile 41. She said her second wind hadn’t lasted. She did, however, say that when she came up behind me before passing me on that long climb, I was singing “Call Me Maybe” and she found it hilarious. Sean chimed in that he’d heard me singing “Safety Dance.” Yep, I listen to everything from 80s to current bubblegum-pop. My friend Seth joined in saying I looked to be one of the happiest people out there. When he passed me coming down from the turnaround, I was singing Rush’s “One Little Victory” right to his face and pointing directly at him. I sing not only for myself, but for you, my friends. Whether you find it hilarious or uplifting, that’s why I do it. Consider it my little gift to you. I also talked to many people who finished the race, but who said it took a lot longer than they thought it would. A tough course indeed.
I had mixed feelings immediately after the race. This is my 3rd year ultrarunning, and I’ve had 2 DNFs, both this year. In fact, my last 2 races were the DNFs: Yakima Skyline Rim 50k in April, and this one. But these were also the two toughest courses I’ve run yet. At least I made the attempt. I can either let this rip me apart, or make me stronger. I’m choosing the latter. My best is good enough.