Ultrarunning has a way of keeping me humble, and this weekend’s Mountain Lakes 100 was no exception. A course mostly on the PCT, with less than 11,000 feet of gain and full of autumn’s beauty – it sounded perfect for me. I had a great nine months of training and an amazing summer full of running adventures, so this was to be my penultimate event! <disappointed sound> Alas, it was not meant to be.
Race morning was an early start (we left our Government Camp Airbnb at 4:45am, oof) to make sure we got to the start in time for bib pickup. After getting my bib, shirt, socks, and new pair of Nikes (!!) in the swag bag, we had time to burn. We grabbed some photos of the beautiful sunrise and alpenglow on Mt. Jefferson, and then waited in the car for warmth.
Olallie Lake sunrise, with Mt. Jefferson in the back
After handing off my drop bags, I spotted a friend, Gwen, my physical therapist who helped me through my injury last summer. She had gotten in off the wait list just two weeks prior, but is super experienced (and ended up crushing it!) It was great to catch up with her before we headed out on the trail.
At 7:45am we got our pre-race briefing from the race directors. It all seemed straightforward until they said, “for all of you folks who start too fast, there’s some snow out there to slow you down.” One of the RDs then said, “oh, it’s not that deep, about here” and she gestured above her ankle. The other RD replied, “it’s not that much snow if you’re from Alaska.” Everyone laughed. In ALL of my pre-race worrying (and there was a lot), I never even considered snow! Unfortunately, it turned out to be the biggest contributor to my failure. Two weeks ago they were worried about having to cancel the race since all of Oregon seemed to all be ablaze, so… really, snow?!?! Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Because of the aforementioned wildfires, they’d had to reroute the beginning 26 miles a bit. The first three miles were forest road running, and while not scenic, was a nice way to ease into a long race. The start of trail races can be frustrating to start out with 100-200 people on singletrack, so this allowed everyone to settle into their paces without that frustration.
Some lovely fall colors!
The Horseshoe Lake aid station (mile 3) appeared quickly, and after a brief pause, we hit the snow. It was a little deeper than ankle-deep, but the faster runners had packed it down a bit. However, it still was the consistency of wet mashed potatoes. The first section of this wasn’t great traction-wise, but at least there were pretty views.
Reminds me of Colorado!
Not bad, eh?
When I rolled into the Scorpion Aid Station (mile 14) I unexpectedly saw Adam! We didn’t think crew would be allowed until mile 26, so it was great to have that mental lift.
Heading out from Scorpion!
Our first real climb was out of Scorpion. It seemed to go on for awhile, but really wasn’t too bad (especially as there wasn’t snow on it.) But then…back to snow. As the morning turned to early afternoon and the temperature rose, this snow became churned-up slush, and because this part of the course was an out and back, it was a VERY slippery, slushy mess. I, shockingly, only fell twice, but it was a chore to stay upright. Forget running, walking was hard enough. I felt like this guy:
I’m sure that all of the flailing about to avoid falling (and extensive use of four-letter words) was quite the entertainment for any squirrels in the vicinity.
One of the MANY lakes we passed in the course
The trail is on the left. Ugh.
Seriously, this part of the course was awful. Every step was slick and foot-drenching, and especially treacherous on the descents.
When I finally rolled back into the Horseshoe Aid station (mile 23), the nice volunteers asked me how I was doing. “Well, I see you have a toddler there, so I can’t tell you what I really think about the snow!” 😉
Nearing the Olallie Lake aid station
I was never so happy to see a forest road! Firm ground again! The run back to the start/finish for the aid station (mile 26) was pleasant. Adam and my friend, Kath, were all ready for me. They were such a fantastic crew! I changed my socks and shoes, ate a bit of food, got my headlamp and grabbed another layer before moving on. I knew I’d see them in another three miles, so that was my last chance before seeing them again at mile 55. I also knew I was behind my projected time (by about an hour) but I chose not to dwell on it, assuming I’d make up some time in the more runnable sections.
The next three miles were wonderful. My dry socks and shoes made me feel like a new woman! The PCT is nicely worn in this section, so I could just get in a groove and run. I arrived at Olallie Meadows (mile 29) in short order, and had one quick rendezvous with Adam and Kath before heading back out.
FINALLY some trail to run on!
My jubilation of being done with the snow faded, and it really dawned on me how many miles I’d be doing before picking up my first pacer, Ellen. Well, at least it was runnable! What I hadn’t counted on was how tired I was from fighting 20 miles in the snow earlier in the day. I felt like I was making good progress, but I knew I was behind. However, I just focused on getting to the next aid station – Pinheads. One thing that woke me up from my running trance was flushing a grouse in the brush. At least this one didn’t charge me like the one at Baker Lake 50K a couple years ago, lol.
On my way to Pinheads, a non-racer was out for his evening run and cheered all of us along on his way by. It was great! “I just wanted to see your smiling faces – good job! See you at Pinheads!” Little things like this make such a difference when you’re out there for so long by yourself.
I got to the Pinheads aid station (mile 37) just before dark. Some chicken broth (YUM), and some handwarmers for my gloves, and I was ready to go.
Last light of the day…
The sun was setting as I left the aid station, and then the temperature began to drop more. I stayed just warm enough if I kept running, but if I walked at any point I got cold. Hey, good motivation to keep moving, right? Here’s where it got tougher for me. I started to fall asleep while running. Already. This concerned me because I knew I’d have a long night ahead of me, I couldn’t fall asleep now! Some of it was adjusting to the weirdness of running in the dark with my little circle of light in the quiet of the falling night. I’m sure it was also related to my falling body temperature and some exhaustion from the effort of the day thus far. I needed something, so Hamilton to the rescue! I am not throwing away my shot… I didn’t bring earbuds, so my apologies to fellow runners and critters, but I hoped they enjoyed it too. 😛
Warm Springs aid station (mile 44) came up suddenly for me and thank goodness it did. I gratefully popped into their warming tent and put on a dry long sleeve with my sweat-soaked long sleeve and short sleeve shirts over it, with a Houdini jacket to top it off. I was freezing out there, so I hoped the additional shirt would do the trick until Clackamas, where my next drop bag was located. Warm Springs is also where the magic of chicken broth, followed by a mini Snickers really did the trick. It woke me up and I felt loads better. I had been eating foods from my pack every 45 minutes or so, but there’s something about the broth that really did something special. It was a salty and amazing ambrosia.
As I left Warm Springs, I thought it was possible that I could still make the extended cutoff time of 12:30am at Clackamas Ranger Station. However, getting to Red Wolf (mile 50) was much slower than anticipated. I don’t even know why. I was used to the dark by this point, but it seemed like ages before the aid station appeared. With my headlamp it felt like being on a weird natural treadmill with glowing mosses, fungi, and super reflective course markings appearing now and then. The only other thing to break up this trance-like state was the occasional gray mouse darting across the trail.
Slightly (personally) discouraging was that the fast runners were now on their way back south (they were at about mile 76). Awesome for them, of course, but not exactly helpful for my mental state as I thought that most everyone else behind me had already dropped (based on aid station chatter.) Anyway, I got to Red Wolf just a little bit after 11pm, and was not feeling optimistic about my chances. I should have been able to cover the miles in the time remaining before cutoff, but it appeared that my night running was slower than I had anticipated. I again had some broth and a candy bar there. One of the kind volunteers asked how I was doing and I told her my back was spasming a bit, but that everything else felt normal (for this distance.) Knowing it was a bit futile, but trying not to resign myself to failure, I left the station. I was just aiming to get to Clackamas and get new warm clothes and see what happened from there.
I’ve run this section of the course before (Mt. Hood 50), I knew there was a turn or two at the end before reaching the road. I saw my watch turn over 12:30am, and I felt disappointment wash over me. When I finally got to the road, Adam and Kath were waiting for me right at the trailhead. A few more steps and I had finally reached Clackamas Ranger Station (mile 55.) I walked up to a someone with a clipboard. He opened his arms for a hug and ruefully said, “Welcome to Clackamas.” My race was over at 12:45am.
My friend Ellen was right there and she gave me a wonderful hug, “I’m so sorry!” Then we both agreed that who needs races anyway, our unsupported running adventures this summer were so much more fun! I did my best to hold in my tears for later. Adam, Kath joined in on our team hug. I felt so bad they had been waiting for me in the freezing cold for three hours. I wanted to get home and get warm, but was also hungry. I wandered over to the food table and said, “well, now since I don’t have to worry about throwing up later, I’ll eat whatever the eff I want.” Grilled cheese? Waffles? Pierogies? Bring it on. They all tasted amazing. After a short drive, we were home, and I got another hug from Tara, my second pacer. Finally, then, I could get warm, dry, and get some sleep.
I learned later that the 20 miles of snow severely affected lots of other runners as well. One poor woman even dislocated her patella and tore her meniscus. There were 152 starters of this race, and only 81 finished. I wasn’t alone!
I think every ultrarunner (unless they’re exceedingly lucky) knows the disappointment of a DNF. It sucks. I’ve DNF’d once before, my first 50 miler (Mt. Hood 50.) Weirdly, it’s on this same trail! Bad luck for me I guess. Anyway, this one was a little different in that it wasn’t my conscious choice – I missed a cutoff. My twitchy back aside, I was okay physically to go on. Yes, I was tired, and things were sore, but I had no blisters and I’ve felt worse. It was all par the course for that distance, I was still moving fine, and I knew I was trained for it.
Besides missing out on the actual finish, I was disappointed that I didn’t even get to the part of a 100 that scared me the most – overnight running and the mental grit needed to overcome the exhaustion felt in the later miles. I believe that ultras reveal a new piece of your raw self every time, but 100s are something special. I wanted to test myself and see what I was really made of, and I knew I had the best pacers ready to see me through the ups and the downs of the journey. It just didn’t happen this time. I know there’s always another race, but everything had seemed aligned for success at this one. It just reinforces that nothing is certain, and 100s never come easy! As Gwen so aptly stated that very morning, “100s are always a big deal.”
It takes a lot to even get to this point, and I am grateful that I had the resources and health to do so. Lots of training, of course, (I have the best coach – Jess Mullen!) but the logistics and manpower (crew and pacing) is no small undertaking either. Luckily I have an amazing husband and really great friends who were willing to give up a weekend for my goal. While I can run with them anytime, I was disappointed that I was unable to share this special journey and accomplishment with them. (I mean, who doesn’t want to expose their friends to an exhausted, whiny, hallucinating, and possibly vomiting person? LOL.) But for everything they did to get me even to this point – thank you, Adam, Kath, Ellen, and Tara!!! ❤
So what did I learn?
- It became abundantly clear that I really need to work more on my core and trunk stability (to avoid back spasms in unstable conditions.)
- I need to work on being more comfortable with going faster than I was at night (to avoid losing time on runnable sections.) Judging speed at night is weird, and I need more practice with this (and doing it safely.)
- I also need to work on better coping skills with race anxiety, especially with a big race like this one. All week prior I had trouble eating and sleeping, and I can’t imagine that helped me in any way.
- Lastly, race conditions are out of my control (obviously, as I don’t think I have any latent divine abilities.) I can only adapt as best I can, and sometimes even that isn’t enough. And that’s okay. Frustrating as all get out, but okay.
What went right? Quite a few things, actually.
- My lighter pack felt great – it never bothered me during the 55 miles. (A first for me.) My coach astutely said, “you shouldn’t be carrying your drop bag on you.” I have a tendency to do this, lol, so this was a new thing for me.
- I got no blisters at all. I tried a new technique (on race day – *gasp*) that seemed to pay off: taping my toes with KT tape and using 2Toms blister prevention powder in my socks. Changing out of my drenched socks/shoes (and reapplying the tape and powder) after the snow and slush helped avoid trenchfoot and blisters.
- My stomach did well. I think this likely has more to do with the low temperatures than anything I did, but hey, I’ll take it as a win! Also, I now know that chicken broth followed by a mini candy bar is fricking magic.
- Generally, I’m pretty happy with how I dealt with things mentally. When it got crappy, I was frustrated, but reminded myself it was temporary. I smiled when I saw my crew and joked with them, doing my best to stay positive. When it got dark and I got slower, I just focused on moving forward, at any speed, and tried not to dwell on the negative. Not to say that there isn’t room for improvement here, because I’m not known for being a ray of sunshine, but it could have been worse!
- I didn’t injure myself, and that’s no small feat. I’m very happy that I came out of this healthy and walking (mostly) normal!
So what’s next? Great question. I know I’ll be reflecting and dissecting this race for weeks, but I’m not sure of my next steps. Besides eating all of the things – I did still run 55 miles after all. I would hate to end my season on such a disappointment (it will surely bother me like a rock in my shoe until I do something.) However, I’ve also had a really great year of successful races and adventures, so this one shouldn’t spoil it all. I am allowing a little bit of wallowing in self pity (whisky and cupcakes are welcome), but then it’s onto the next goal, whatever that may be!
We shall see…