Friday, October 4, 2013

In My Element: Mountain Lakes 100

Banner on Mountain Lakes 100 website
It’s been over 14 months since my last blog post, and I’m just going to have to ignore all that time and start anew, only to say that many good things have happened in the last year. I started, but didn’t finish two 100-milers last fall (2012): Pine to Palm, and Javelina 100. I did get to 77 miles at Javelina before “timing out,” which actually encouraged me. Since then, with the guidance of my coach, many pieces have fallen into place. I’ve lost nearly 30 pounds, have been doing weekly strength-training classes for the last 11 months, do weekly strength-core-balance work at home, have been doing regular speedwork all year, and am getting stronger physically, mentally, spiritually.

Mountain Lakes 100 shares some of the course (about 28 miles?) with Mt. Hood 50, which I truly love and have so far run twice. I’ve also done a few training runs on that same section of trail. The course also includes the trail around Timothy Lake, which I have run a couple times before, so I was familiar with almost 40 miles of the ML100 course.

Until about a week before race day, the weather was looking ideal. But then the remains of a typhoon  got caught up in the jet-stream and the forecast changed quickly: 100% chance of rain. But I thought: just because there is 100% chance of rain doesn’t mean it’s going to rain 100% of the time, right? Oh, but I was no longer on the dry-, but wet-side of the state. Luckily I had seen the forecast a couple days before and packed all kinds of clothes. I’m a planner and preparer, and I thought I had probably over-packed again (which is preferable to under-packing though). After setting up my tent in light rain on the shore of Olallie Lake on Friday afternoon, the rain and wind only intensified. I lay awake for what seemed like half the night, wind buffeting the tent and tent seams leaking, wondering just how the hell this whole thing would go down. I revised what I would wear to the start at least half a dozen times.

Already drenched around mile 8–9
(photo: Paul Nelson Photography)
My alarm went off at 4:23am Saturday, race day. (I almost always set my alarm for a time that ends in 3 or 7.) Thankfully, I had set out my clothes the night before, stocked and filled my hydration pack, and knew my breakfast would be apple-cinnamon bread with peanut butter, a banana, and supermarket-deli deviled eggs (I wasn’t gonna take time to scramble eggs and I get frustrating trying to peel boiled eggs). I generally “run hot” and would rather be slightly chilly than overheated, so I donned capris and compressions socks (I knew for sure water would be splashing up on my calves, but had no idea how much so), a simple long-sleeve tech shirt, a wind-breaker vest, light beanie hat, and a dollar store emergency  poncho. I had brought a rain coat, but they are stiff, hot, sticky, I hate them, and so I’ll only wear one if it’s really bad out. I was happy that crew member and pacer Cheryl, who would run with me around Timothy Lake (approx. mile 55–71), was there to assist me before the start. I had decided minutes before the start to add the rain poncho. 

The race started at 6am in the dark, wind, and rain. I promised my coach I would not start in the back like I did at Mt. Hood 50, so I made sure to be no farther than about 1/3 of the way back. The countdown commenced, and then we all started running up the wrong forest road! It was so funny and we all laughed! Back we went, then up the correct road. The first 3 miles were on dirt forest road. Then it got serious. As soon as we were directed onto the first section of trail, there were large puddles in the middle. I watched people ahead of me hop from side to side to avoid them. I just went right through the middle. Soon we ran through a burned area and came out high on an exposed ridge, where we were subject to relentless rain and high winds. I figured the wind had to be around 50 mph through here. I was praying, “please God, don’t let one of the burned trees fall on me.” I ran through the first aid station at just past 5 miles, knowing I would see my coach Scott after another 6 miles, most of it downhill. 

My plan from the beginning was pretty basic: Use downhill to my advantage. Not to go balls-to-the-wall and exhaust myself, but to pick up the pace a bit on every downhill. I did that here, between aid 1 and 2, but the downslope was nothing like the elevation chart below shows, of course!  Somehow, a couple thousand feet of loss in 6 miles is not as kick-ass as it sounds. But I think the wideness of the road also tends to lull me into a complacent/bored place unless it is very rocky/technical, which tends to make me feel more focused and engaged.

Cheering, Scott met me at aid 2, said I needed to drink more water and take in more gels (calories). I tried to eat some pretzels from the aid station, but I have issues swallowing dry things during a race, so I spit them out and instead sucked down a Trader Joe’s Apple-Grape juice box, and a TJ’s strawberry applesauce pouch (the kind with a large twist-off top that’s intended for kids). That was an easy-down 160 calories in about 30 seconds, and was the first of several times today I had this same “real” food (as opposed to pure-sugar energy gels). I left without filling the water in my hydration pack thinking I had enough to last me to the next aid station. But I had forgotten that the next aid was 9 miles away…

Soon we were back on trail— a steep, rocky trail through the forest. The forest was beautiful and wet and green. Some of the low bushes and vine maple were changing into brilliant fiery fall colors. I couldn’t remember how long this hill was, but I knew it was a few miles. People began passing me almost like I was standing still. Steep uphill hiking is not one of my strong suits. Gradual uphill hiking, sure, I can hike very strongly. Steep is another matter. Maybe I should start doing some affirmations in this area instead of thinking I suck at steep uphills: “I am a STRONG uphill hiker.”

 I continued to suck down water per Scott’s instructions. And then, to my surprise, I ran out. I looked at my watch: 16.1 miles. Ah shit, I would be without water for the next 5 miles, most of it uphill. I periodically sucked hard on my hydration tube and got about 1/2 a drop of water, enough to keep my mouth slightly moist. When the trail wasn’t steep, it was very rocky (and sometimes it was both), like a dry river bed, except today it wasn’t so dry. Sections were impossible to run. Sometimes I could run 10 or 20 feet and then have to hike through a long section of big rocks. There was no getting into a rhythm. And then there were the puddles. They were everywhere and pretty much unavoidable. The rain and wind continued to get worse. The trail went past and between several small mountain lakes. Today they just looked like grey pools. I’m sure they are pretty and inviting on a warm sunny day. There was no need to get into a lake to cool off today. 
One of many lakes on the route (photo: Mike Davis)

The trail, low between lakes, was a lake in itself. I counted a 1/2 dozen times that I went through nearly knee-deep puddles. I actually relished this. I held my arms out wide, looked up at the grey sky, and grinned from ear to ear. I was having a great time. I felt engaged, alive. It was a total sensory experience. Even though I live in Central Oregon (on the “dry side” of the state) and have hardly run in rain since April, water and I are friends. I regularly wade through creeks mid-run, and this summer, even started lying down in them. At the end of a run, sometimes I will do what I call a “river-walking session” and walk up and down and back and forth across a river (most often Tumalo Creek at Shevlin park). I walk slow and super-focused and stay out of dangerous spots, but push my comfort zone just a bit. Also thankfully, I have no issues running long distances with wet feet. This was really key today. 

The burn area (photo: Paul Nelson Photography)
Approaching the burned area, and exposed ridge for the 2nd of 3 times, the weather was getting worse and worse. The wind-driven rain stung my face (or maybe it was the hail that some people had experienced). My thoughts went back to when I ran the Horse Butte 10 mile loop just SE of Bend last spring. The weather was very similar: windy, driving rain, no where to hide. No one else was out there but me. I thought about how most people would be absolutely miserable, but there I was loving it with a wide smile-grimace on my face. Another time I was out at Horse Butte, the loop was covered in ankle deep slush as spring snow melted. I couldn’t feel my feet for the last few miles. This was certainly not that bad. It’s all training for something, and it was all coming together today. Other people I saw around me did look miserable and cold. I was so thankful that I tend to run hot, and was only a little cold. 

At the next aid station I finally filled up my water. I was damned thirsty. There had been water literally all around, but not a drop to drink. The water in the trail and the lakes was dirty and filled with debris. Had there been a stream, I would have stopped and drank and filled my water container. Since there wasn’t, I hadn’t taken any food/gels or salt for over 5 miles. Five very SLOW miles. So I downed 3 cups of GuBrew (electrolyte drink), had 2 gels and 2 salt caps, then went on my way. Crossing the exposed ridge again, I told myself, “this is the last time, I don’t have to do this again.” One small victory. I was looking forward to passing back through the start area at marathon distance, where I would see my crew and change into some warm clothes and eat more real food. I did’t run the road section back to the start as strongly as I had liked. I got a bit down on myself for a few minutes, felt a lack of energy, and took a few walk breaks, though my legs felt fine. I attributed this to being out of water and not taking in any calories and thus getting low on energy. I recognized my negatively pretty quick this time and replaced those thoughts with others: “Good job. So strong. I run strong, confident, relaxed. I’ve got this. I am a 100-mile finisher.” I envisioned the finish line and smiled, tears welling up in my eyes. 
Approaching The Ridge (photo: Mike Davis)

I had only a couple minor physical issues in the first section. Sometimes I stepped on a rock wrong, my left foot would evert, and pain would shoot up through my lateral left ankle. The right ankle was fine though. Also, my calves were on the verge of cramping. Crew member Siiri reminded me about getting more leg extension behind me, and that would stretch out my calves more with every stride, whether I was running or hiking. That did the trick all day. There were a couple times my head and neck felt heavy and the muscles at the sides of my back began aching. I recognized that I was hunching over and reminded myself to keep my head up and run upright. This was more of an issue in those rockier places where I was looking down near my feet often. 

Ridge view #2. This was some of the nastiest weather of the day (photo: Mike Davis)
This first marathon distance section (which returned us back to the Start/Aid 4) took much longer than I had anticipated (about an hour more). Other than about 9 miles of dirt forest road, I had no idea what the terrain would be like. I found out it was pretty challenging and time-consuming. My crew hurried me into a waiting warm van. 

All my clothes were laid out for me to choose from. I changed into dry gloves, hat, shirt, put on a light windbreaker, got the forest debris out of my shoes. And I ate. I stuffed my cheeks with warm macaroni and cheese. Siiri said I looked like a chipmunk. I asked for my silicone-based personal lubricant as I was beginning to experience some chafing. I was in good spirits and joked to my husband, “honey, wanna help me out here?” (Ever try to apply Body Glide in the rain when your skin is already wet? It doesn’t work so well. This is something I had thought about before race day, and prepared for.)  

Meanwhile, Scott was keeping me moving: You’ve gotta be out of here in 5 minutes. 2 minutes. 30 seconds. “Hold on, I’m putting on some underwear!” I yelled. I’d never worn capris running for this many miles, much less in the pouring rain. They say to never to do anything different on race day, but I was thankful I had included a pair of undies in my gear last-minute, and this risk paid off for me today. I exited the warm van, downed another juice box and applesauce pack, cheeks still full of mac and cheese. Then my entire crew walked with me a short way to where I got on the Pacific Crest Trail headed north. They told me a lot of people were hypothermic and had dropped from the race. I was still standing, still moving. Elton John's “I’m Still Standing” played in my head. I would see my crew again just 3 miles later. 

The majority of trail was puddle-covered
(photo: Paul Nelson Photography)
The next several miles on the PCT was sublime running. The rain had let up and there were few puddles. After changing into dry clothes, I was feeling a little on the warm side. I hiked the small uphills and jogged the rest for the next 3 miles so I could digest my food easier. Approaching aid 5 at around 29 miles, my crew was cheering for me as soon as they saw me. I smiled and my eyes filled with tears. They had walked a 1/2 mile to meet me here. They fed me a few more bites of mac & cheese, told me how great I was doing, and I was off again, with the directions to “catch those two girls” ahead of me in the next section. “OK, I can do that,” I said. My crew was doing their job, and I was doing mine. 9 miles to the next aid station, and 25 until I’d see my crew again.

This section of the PCT was really lovely. A few peeks of views which would be even better in clear weather. Some nearby rocks, golden foliage. And of course my beloved forest. The ups and downs were pretty gentle, nothing very long or steep. I could still see those two girls ahead of me. I’d get a bit closer to them, then they’d pull away. I was hiking the ups a bit faster than they were, but they were running the downhills as fast or a little faster. I began to feel a little tired. Not my legs though, but my core. I was engaging my core! “Thank you, Ally,” I thought (Ally teaches the Thursday night Strength Training for Runners class I go to) “thank you for making me strong.” My abs are strong now and can handle this. Then I forgot about them and soldiered on, hiking some ups, and running the rest. 

I started feeling sleepy. “I gotta do something about this right now,” I thought. And I knew just what to do. I was happy to find my crew had stocked a couple caffeinated energy gels in my pack. I took them both, then put on my iPod and rocked out. I sang as I ran. I sang so those girls just ahead of me would know I was coming. This was a couple miles before the “Pinheads” aid station at mile 38. (Pinhead Buttes are nearby). An aside: I am a big fan of the Hellraiser movies and of the main character, Pinhead, so I delighted in the aid station’s name.

From here on out, I was “on” and feeling quite strong. I passed those girls and a couple other people. I pulled into Pinheads, filled up my water, and got keyed up for some good downhill to Warm Springs aid at mile 44. From Warm Springs on, I knew the rest of the course and just had to run around Timothy Lake and then go back to the start and I’d be done (I wasn’t thinking about how far was left to go). I was feeling good, I was passing people, I was excited. I’ve got this. I am meant to run 100 miles. 

I was coasting downhill for the next few miles to my beloved, familiar, Warm Springs. It was right around this time it started raining harder again. The steeper downhill was starting to get muddy and a bit slick, and darkness was falling upon the forest. I arrived at Warm Springs delighted to see a coconut bra-clad Jason Leman and Amy Sproston (no coconut bra). Jason gave me a great hug. Amy went to fill up my water but said I had plenty and that I needed drink more. Since it would soon be dark, I donned my headlamp and waist-lamp and I was off, happy to be in familiar territory again. 

I knew there was maybe another 1.5 miles of good downhill before a steep ~3 mile uphill mostly-hike to aid station 8 at Red Wolf. This is where another goal of mine today came into play: I wanted to run and hike the 10 miles from Warm Springs to the Clackamas Ranger Station better/stronger than I did at Mt. Hood 50 a little over two months ago. I’d be within a few miles of the same distance run, except I’d had much more challenging terrain early on today, in much more challenging, energy-sucking weather. Plus it was now also dark. Bring it on.

Some puddles were knee-deep on me (this guy is tall)
(photo: Paul Nelson Photography)
(I had ran a strong first half of MH50, was on goal, but the 2nd half just kinda fell apart and I pretty much gave up and jogged it in the last nearly 10 miles. And that was how I ended my goal race for the year. I was disappointed but excited the next day because I was not sore at all, just a little stiff. I could have pushed harder, it was all in my mind, and I was very excited by this breakthrough. But I still have to get past my mind, which will take some time and practice.)

About a mile out of Warm Springs, I turned on my lights. I crossed the Warm Springs River, where I had stopped to splash and cool off in mid-July. And then the hike up began. I knew this terrain, I knew where I was the entire time —I practically have it  memorized. Time went by quickly. I was still happy and feeling good, rocking out, singing when I could, but was also drenched and beginning to get cold. Puddles  were again forming and quickly getting bigger and deeper.

The trail leveled out and I began jogging. Ahead was the Red Wolf aid station, a walk-through tent set up right over the trail. I was still happy and feeling good, but getting colder and colder, now bordering on miserable. I made pretty quick work of this aid station. I knew I had enough water to last me until the Ranger Station, so just had a couple chunks of boiled potato dipped in a bowl of salt (an ultrarunner favorite), and had a few words with a couple people and I was ready to be off. The race leaders were also pulling into this aid station, but from the other direction. They were at mile 76 to my 50. Race Director Todd Janssen suddenly appeared. He said to me, “Laura, someone told me you’d dropped. And I said to them, no, it couldn’t have been Laura.” Nope, wasn’t me, I’m still standing. And then I was off. 

There were a number of trees down over the trail in this section, including a tangle of several trees that had been there at the running of MH50. I couldn’t believe they still hadn’t been removed. I was surprised to have navigated them much better today than I did then, although after throwing my legs across them, I did stumble around a bit. I wondered whether some of the other trees had come down earlier today or had been there for a while. 

I’d been drinking more water like Amy had suggested, and now I had to pee like a racehorse. I was also drenched and very cold now. Gritting my teeth, grimacing, wincing, I just had to keep running to my waiting crew, another 5 miles away. I sang, accentuated arm swing, ran as fast as I could without being reckless, just to keep warm. I did not want to stop to pee and expose more of myself to the elements than necessary. (I knew there would be a porta-potty at the Ranger Station.) It was especially difficult to “hold it” since the puddles were again deep and nearly constant, so there was always the sound of splashing water. Yet I was so focused. I don’t know what was keeping me from falling flat on my face in the water. It was hard to see with the heavy rain reflecting light from my headlamp back at me. It was like I wasn’t even thinking. I was just flowing like the water. I was flying. 

Keeping at it, still rocking out, singing when I could, I passed more and more people, most of whom were walking. Finally I made it to the Miller Trail, which cuts over from the PCT to Clackamas Ranger Station. I was now only a mile away from my crew. I was really looking forward to their cheers, getting into a warm van, changing into dry, warm clothes (including fuzzy-lined winter running tights), getting something warm to drink, eating more mac & cheese, and picking up Cheryl, my first pacer. I was making a list in my head of what I needed to do while I was there so I could be efficient and get out of there fairly quick. I hadn’t looked at my watch for hours. I was just trying to keep on my goal of using downhill to my advantage to give myself the largest cushion for the solitary cut-off as possible (mile 71 by 4am). I knew the miles after that were more up- than down-hill, and I would be hiking more.

Approaching the Ranger Station, there were idling cars parked on both sides of the road, the people inside staying warm and dry out of the elements while watching for their runner. The aid station was set up in a different spot and configuration than at MH50, and I wasn’t sure where to go. It all seemed very strange. Siiri appeared and told me the remainder of the race had been cancelled. It was just before 10pm. “Are you serious?” I asked. “I could have done this.” Long comforting hug. People were hypothermic. Trees were falling, and aid station communications had been lost, putting runners and volunteers at safety risk. Though I was very cold, I would have been OK after changing into warm clothes, which, since my race was over, I did anyway, in the comfort of Cheryl’s warm RV. My husband was there with our SUV. He had packed up our campsite at Olallie Lake that morning because our tent was about to blow away and the tent stakes would not stay in the saturated ground. That was fortunate, because there was no way in hell I was going to sleep another night in a tent in the rain. As he drove me home, I hungrily devoured the rest of my mac & cheese with my fingers and slept that night in my own warm house and bed.

My heartfelt thanks go out to the Race Directors, Todd Janssen and Trevor Hostetler, Renee Seeker, and the entire Nspire team. I can’t begin to fathom the amount of work that goes into putting on a 100 mile race, much less one in these conditions. The weather must have made for so much more work and worry. The volunteers went above and beyond the call of duty, standing in the cold, wind, and rain for hours upon hours, serving runners with the utmost care and kindness. I am truly humbled by their love and dedication. And to my crew: Scott, Siiri, Cheryl and Doug, who waited on me, kept me warm and fed, cheered for me, motivated me, lifted my spirits: you were the face and hands of God. Thank you for your love and care. I love you all and look forward to serving you one day.

Since Saturday I have been through some emotional ups and downs. I think about the experience I had, and I still smile and get tears in my eyes. When I think about still not being a 100-mile finisher, I get sad. I knew I could have done it. I controlled as many variables as possible, but Mother Nature was out of my control. So I am choosing to focus on that part of the experience that makes me happy. It was a true growing, learning, sensory experience and has made my life is richer because of it. I understand so much more about myself and the distance now. And it has proven to me that since I can run 55 miles in those deplorable conditions (while having fun even!), I can do anything. I was born to run 100 miles. I will keep training, be patient, and wait a little longer. It will come, and it will be sweet. 

photo: Paul Nelson Photography