Sunday, September 21, 2014

2014 Pine to Palm 100 Mile Endurance Run - Part 1

Pine to Palm 100

I've been reading running blogs for the past several years, beginning of course with Scott Dunlap's excellent A Trail Runner's Blog, and have regularly been inspired, educated, and entertained.  Never has this been more true than in the lead up to my first 100 mile race this summer, Pine to Palm 100 Mile Endurance Run.  You see I'm a bit of a planner, and so I devoured every race report that Google could find for me trying to extrapolate aid station splits, plan my drop bags, and put together crew directions.  While in some cases my anxiety level was only raised, these race reports and blogs were invaluable to me in preparing for this adventure.  Now that the race is a week behind me, it's time to finally dip my toe into the trail running blogosphere with my first ever posting.  After all, I feel like I finally have an accomplishment worth blogging about!  I can only hope that in future years a 100-mile newbie like myself stumbles upon this and finds a nugget of information that helps them in their endeavor.

As I said, I'm new to the composing side of this blog thing, and apparently there is some sort of limit in post size.  As this is a bit wordy (a lot can happen over 100 miles, after all), I've split this into two parts. 

The briefing was set up on a property with a big barn-like structure with open fields behind it where many runners and crew were camping.  I checked in, got weighed, signed what seemed like yet another medical waiver (were they trying to tell me something?), then we waited for Race Director and elite-ultrarunner Hal Koerner to begin the briefing.

Pine to Palm 100, Hal Koerner
Hal Daddy

My only other 100 mile race experience has been pacing and crewing twice up at Western States, which is a logistical masterpiece of planning and executing a point-to-point mountain race.  This race was, shall we say, a bit more casual.  The website hasn’t really been updated in a couple of years.  Crew driving directions, aid station mileage, and even directions to the start are lacking or known to be wrong.  About 15 minutes after the scheduled start Hal stood on a folding chair and addressed the crowd with some highlights, clarifications, and answered questions – almost all from crew trying to confirm how to get where they were supposed to be meeting their runners.  Afterward we hung with my buddy Jim and his wife, who would be pacing me, and another buddy Steve who would be helping my girlfriend Heather crew me.  I ate some rice in the car before we headed back to Ashland, met up with my parents back at the hotel as they rolled into town, then it was to bed at around 9:00 – for another restless night of waking every hour to check the clock to make sure I didn’t miss my 3:00 AM wakeup.

That alarm finally came, I showered and sipped on a shake of chia seeds and UCAN SuperStarch and nibbled at a homemade rice cake from the Feed Zone Portables cook book.  Then we hopped in my parents’ car at 4:00 AM and began the 75 minute drive to the start line, which we had scouted out the day before.  In keeping with the theme parking was disorganized and a bit of a mess but we found a spot down the road, and on my third try I was finally able to take care of important business at a port-a-potty.  Then it was almost a half mile hike up the road to the start where I checked in to get my bib, and they were out of safety pins!  Apparently Craig Thornley, the Western States RD, had run down the hill to get his car where he had a bunch, but it was now 5:55 AM.  I looked around for my parents, who I had lost in my hustle to get to the start line, and then heard “3-2-1-Go!”  I stuffed the race bib in my pocket, started the Garmin, and began the 2-mile hike up the road that began the race with just over 200 other runners, ready to tackle 100.5 miles and over 20,000’ of elevation gain through the Siskyou Mountains.

Going into the race I was worried a bit about making the cut offs at 2:00, 6:30, 9:30, and 2:00 AM, so my mental approach was to look at the race from cut off to cut off, with an in between focus on just getting from aid station to aid station.

Let’s do This! - Start to Seattle Bar (mile 28)
Two miles up the road from the start we turned off onto single track trail, and right as I approached it a car pulled up and out jumped Hal.  I asked him if he had any safety pins, he apologized for running out at the start and dug into his pocket to pull out four of them, and I was finally able to pin my race bib onto my shorts.  Alright, let’s do this now!  The single track became a long conga line up and up and up as we tackled the initial 10 mile, 4,600’ climb.  It was nice and cool still, and I fell into a comfortable hike.  I wanted to focus on eating early and often, knowing that the expected 90+ degree heat would likely hinder my ability to get calories in later in the day, particularly from solid foods.  So I was drinking my Tailwind and eating Bonk Breakers and rice cakes and Pocket Fuel nut butter.  At mile 5 there was a water only aid station, and I high fived Hal and blew right through, thinking the 2L bladder in my pack would get me to mile 15.

We finally hit the top around mile 10, and oh man was it worth the climb.  What a view.  There were 5-6 of us up there at the same time who all just stopped to take it in for a few moments.

I got up there a little slower than I planned, so it was time to get moving down the single track trail and try and make up some of that time.  It alternated between easy running and steeper technical trails, which slowed me down in some areas.  But it was nice to move a little quicker.  Of course my decision to not top off my bladder or fill my handheld back at the mile 5 water station came back to bite me, as I ran out of water around mile 13 or so.  It was already starting to warm up, and I did take the opportunity to stop at a small stream crossing to splash water all over me and dip my hat in it before continuing on, but I resisted the urge to drink out of it.

Mile 15 brought the first real aid station, and I was happy to fill my bladder with water and Tailwind, and then filled my insulated handheld with ice water to use to cool myself.  It was then relatively easy running on mostly fire road, focusing on running those tangents, but it was getting hot and smoky.  The good news was that the smoke was so thick that it probably kept the temperature 5-10 degrees cooler than it would have been otherwise, as it was still plenty hot.  That insulated bottle of ice water was used regularly to douse my head, the bandana around my neck, my hat, and my shirt every 20-30 minutes.  I rolled into the mile 22 aid station still feeling pretty good, then hit a bit of a steeper section as we moved down to the mile 28 aid station where I would first meet my crew.  And wouldn’t you know it, after not having any problems with it since my first 50 miler 18 months ago, my left IT band started to act up.  Uh oh.  But for this 10 mile stretch I managed 9:30-12 minute miles.
Pine to Palm 100, Sean Grove
The wet look is in - post ice water dousing
Pine to Palm 100, Sean Grove
"Dude, Popsicle?"

After dropping down some more single track, I came out onto a road where I could see the big clearing that was the Seattle Bar Aid station.  Right away I spotted my entire crew set up in the meadow, and I raised my hands in the air as they saw me start to head down the hill into the aid.  Jim ran up to meet me and take my pack, I was weighed in and was down 7 pounds already, but medical said I was ok as long I was feeling fine, which I was.  Then it was a quick dousing from an icy bucket and off to a chair for a few minutes to change my socks and lube my feet with Run Goo, fill in my crew on what had been going on, roll out my IT band, fill my bladder with more Tailwind, and then I was handed a popsicle and told to get out of there.
12:45 PM, 6:45 elapsed, 14:06 pace for section, 139th place.

The bonk to end all bonks - Seattle Bar (28) to Squaw Lakes (39/42)
I was over an hour ahead of the cutoff at that point and other than the IT band being a little inflamed, I started up the single track climb feeling really good.
Pine to Palm, Seattle Bar, Sean Grove
Climbing out of Seattle Bar
I knew from reading race reports that this 3,000’ climb was not only longer than the 5 miles listed in the aid station guide, but also a brutal one.   I don’t know if it was the heat, the smoke, the time on my feet, dehydration, electrolytes, or nutrition – ok, it was probably a combination of all of those - but about 20 minutes into the climb I bonked in a way I never had.  I started to feel light headed, to the point that I was afraid I’d pass out.  So I’d stumble until I got to a place on the narrow single track trail where I could sit without blocking the trail, and sit down for a minute.  Ok, what do I do now?  Drink something.  Get up, keep moving.  Get dizzy, sit, eat something.  Get up, move, grab a hold of a tree to keep from falling off the trail, sit, take a salt tab.  All the people I had passed in the first 28 miles were now marching past me sitting on the trail, asking if I was ok, but I couldn’t do anything about it other than try and fix whatever it was that was going on.  Not that I cared about my place in the race, I was worried about being able to just continue.  So I struggled on, and went from the 15-18:00 miles I was averaging earlier in the race to 20, 25, 27 minute miles.  Drink, eat, get up, move, sit, repeat.  The climb took forever, and sure enough the 5 mile distance advertised between aid stations turned out to be closer to 7.  I finally stumbled into the Stein Butte Aid Station and had them fill my pack and my handheld, grabbed some food, sat in a chair, and looked around.  Across from me a runner was sleeping.  Another runner sat down next to me, I asked him how he was doing, and he leaned the other way and started puking.  I gathered myself for a couple of minutes and despite not feeling much better I knew I had to get moving.  So as Pharell’s “Happy” blared out of the aid station speakers, I grumbled about how wrong that song was for my mood and headed off down the trail.

I put on music at this point to try and help my mood, and it did work for a while – thanks Eric B. and Rakim.  I knew it was only a couple of downhill miles to see my crew again, but my IT band was making it tough to run, so it was 15 and 16 minute miles even downhill.  But I soon hit Squaw Lakes Aid Station at mile 39 to be greeted by my girlfriend and my Dad saying “finally!”, as I had obviously slowed down considerably.

Pine to Palm 100, Sean Grove, Squaw Lakes
Heather and Dad (in black) greeting me at Squaw Lakes
At this aid station there was a 2 mile loop around the lake so I gave them my pack and they handed me a handheld and off I went for the loop.  It was flat so I was able to alternate running and walking and managed a 12:43 mile in there, the fastest mile split since the 9-12 minute miles I managed from mile 16-26.  Then it was back to the aid station and a chair, and I was able to tell them about the hell I had been through.
Pine to Palm 100, Sean Grove, Squaw Lakes
Getting some sage advice from Dad

They listened, I lubed my feet, changed my socks, changed my shirt, was handed my headlamp, swapped out my Nathan pack for my AK Race vest with a 1.5L bladder of Tailwind and food stuffed in the front pockets, was handed my ice water filled hand held bottle and sent on my way. 
5:50 PM, 11:50 elapsed, 22:30 pace for section, 153rd place.

“It never always gets worse…..does it?” -  Squaw Lakes (42) to Hanley Gap (50/52)
I was 40 minutes ahead of the cutoffs as I left Squaw Lakes running downhill on a fire road for a mile or so, the IT feeling improved enough after rolling it again to manage an 11:26 mile.  My crew drove by me and cheered as they headed off to drop my parents off and then meet me at Hanley.  Then it was back onto single track for a five mile, 3,000’ climb.  On the steeper climbs I was working so hard, even while moving so slowly, that it was hard to take in fluids or calories.  That of course would make it harder to keep pushing, and a brutal cycle would occur.  I knew that’s what had happened on the climb to Stein Butte, and it was happening again here.  I’d hike until I almost couldn’t catch my breath, bend over and put my hands on my knees until my HR slowed down, then stand up and keep going again.  Past a certain grade, I just couldn’t settle into a steady pace.  After about an hour I found myself sitting down again, trying to regroup enough to get fluids and calories in.  Whenever the grade would drop to something more manageable I would be sure to sip Tailwind, and would be able to pick up the pace a bit, but it was another tough, long slog.  The sun did set during this section, and while it was still warm it was actually a bit of an energy burst to be running/hiking at night.
Pine to Palm 100, Sean Grove
Smoke from the nearby fires made for a spectacular sunset
At the top it finally leveled off into more rolling terrain, but I had lost too much energy to try and pick up the pace, so I just tried to catch up a little on fluids and calories.  But my stomach was still not working well, too much blood still being used to power the muscles and try and keep me cool.  About two hours and forty-five minutes after leaving Squaw Lakes, I finally crested one little climb to come into Hanley Gap Aid Station and the welcome site of my crew.

I knew I had about an hour to make the steep one-mile climb up to the top to retrieve a flag, get back down, and get out of the aid station before the 9:30 PM cutoff.  As my crew took my AK vest and stuffed a bottle of Tailwind in my hand I told them I hoped to have 15-20 minutes or so to sit down and regroup after the climb and get some calories in.  Jim started to climb with me for a few yards while I sipped some soup, reminding me that I had time but I had to keep moving.  Off into the darkness again, hiking up.  This was the first little out-and-back section of the course, so the first time I had runners coming towards me.  “Good job”, “keep it up”, “nice job runner,” lots of encouragements being exchanged.  At one point I got a “there he is, nice job rallying!” from someone who had probably passed me sitting on the side of the trail at some point.  It took almost 24 minutes to make the one mile, 650’ climb, and I grabbed a flag and turned around and jogged back down as best my IT band would let me.  The good news was that it wasn’t getting worse, but it wasn’t getting any better. I passed a few runners toward the top, telling them “you got this”, but as I reached the half-way point and runners were still heading up while I was saying “keep going,” I knew inside that they weren’t going to beat the cutoff, and that they were going to struggle up and down this climb and not be allowed to continue.  That was hard to think about, but I had too much work to do myself to dwell on it.

I reached the bottom and handed in my flag and found my crew had already put the chair away!  They had seen how long it was taking people to get to the top and back, and knew they couldn’t afford to have me tempted to sit for long.  They strapped my AK vest back on, gave me a flashlight to compliment my headlamp, and I asked for soup.  Then I asked for another cup of soup and sat down on the ground – chair or no chair I needed a minute or two to rest.  I was talking to a guy at the Aid Station who was telling me the next section was a long climb, but much less steep than what we had already gone through.  It turned out he was the “Sweeper”, moving through after cutoffs to be sure runners got off the course.  It’s like talking to the Grim Reaper himself without knowing it.  I stood up and started to prepare myself to get moving again.  A woman standing next to me held my AK Vest (at the time I didn't recognize her as Tia Boddington, who my crew would drive back to town) while I fixed my headlamp and tried to get myself mentally ready to move again.

I looked around and saw carnage – every chair was full with people wrapped up in blankets, shivering, puking.  Many of the people I had been running with off and on to this point of the day would get no further, and in the end only two more runners would leave after I did while twenty-nine runners would drop or be pulled from the course at Hanley Gap.  At 9:22 PM, with eight minutes to spare, I got up and started the long climb up the fire road that would eventually take me to Dutchman’s Peak.
9:22 PM, 15:22 elapsed, 16:24 pace for section, 141st place.

Continued in Part 2....

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