September’s Pine to Palm ended up being a redemption race. Earlier this year I had entered the Zion 100. I was in great shape and looking to tear it up, but instead, it tore me up. I took a drop at mile 80 as a storm rolled in and turned the course to a sticky mess, but truth be told I was already finished, pitting edema in my shin, apparitions on the side of trail, and a growing disbelief in myself told me it was over. Flying home, I told myself I was finished with 100 milers. Chasing that elusive Western States lottery spot seemed self-destructive and a fool’s errand. In June, I changed my mind.
The badgering thought that I had unfinished business with the 100 mile distance led me to pencil in the 2016 Pine to Palm. I knew the course (2014 finish). The three and half hour drive to the start seemed reasonable and I’d be damned if I was going to give up 16 tickets in the WS100 lottery! Still, I didn’t register until August 30, right before the final price increase.
I drove up to Pacifica Gardens with my son, Ben. My original plan was to drive up by myself, send ahead drop bags and run without a pacer. No sense dragging anyone else through my endeavor. Two days before the race, Ben calls to check if I was going by myself and if I was he would like to go and crew. My heart jumped, while I was prepared to go it alone, his offer thrilled me. We worked out the plan and Friday morning took off for a leisurely drive to set up the tent and listen to the words of wisdom Hal would lay down at the pre race meeting.
Saturday morning the alarm went off at 3:30am, but I really had pretty much been waiting all night to hear the soft announcement that it was time to get up, prepare coffee, and eat my traditional bowl of oatmeal. Five am rolled around and we drove up to the start. We arrived at the quarry parking lot with time to spare for the final touches before the send off up Grayback Mountain.
Start to Seattle Bar (0-28 miles)
The countdown sent us down the dirt road out to Rock Creek Rd. and up the road to the trail up Grayback Mountain. I started off conservatively, alternating a jog with a purposeful walk. Once on the singletrack I felt comfortable and ready to roll. The climb up Grayback is long but if done conservatively can really be the tone setter for the rest of the race. I fell in with groups a few times but as it would pan out for most of the race I ran/hiked most of the way to the summit by myself. Climbing is my favorite part of running, always has been. I felt strong and confident and, even though downhill is most decidedly not my favorite, I rolled effortlessly down to the O’Brien Creek aid station with my mind set on pineapple and filling my ice bandana. I made quick work of the aid station, with the help of the tremendous volunteers, and started the rhythm section of the course down the dirt road to Seattle Bar, sharing some enjoyable miles with Pete. The heat of the day was whispering in my ear but hadn’t yet decided to start shouting. I rolled into Seattle Bar feeling great and hitting my pace from two years ago within the minute. Ben had the chair set up (I don’t buy the adage of “Beware the Chair”), filled my bottles and sent me on my way.
Seattle Bar to Squaw Lake (28-43.5)
With an ice water dousing, a bandana bulging with ice, and two extra water bottles dedicated to keeping my head wet, I was ready for Stein Butte. I felt great all the way up the climb, staying within myself but also catching runners ahead of me and keeping my motivation level high. I latched onto JC Callans and we made efficient work of the climb up to the aid station. The heat was starting to make itself known, but the ice and water combo were working their miracle. The extra water caches that the X-C team manning Stein Butte put out, with 1 and 2 miles remaining to the aid, were a great addition this year. Thanks! Once at Stein Butte Aid I went for another ice water douse, refilled the bandana, slurped some watermelon, and refilled my bottles with calories and off I went down the road towards Squaw Lakes. Again, I ran within myself and tried to save my quads despite the downhill that had other ideas. I entered the aid at Squaw and rolled right through for the 2.5 mile lap of the lake. When I returned, Ben was there again with the chair, a change of socks, bottle refills and words of encouragement. He reminded me that I was still hitting my previous year’s splits dead on which made me feel really good since I was feeling stronger and in better spirits than in the 2014 P2P. I was really looking forward to the this next section to Hanley Gap.
Squaw Lake to Hanley Gap (43.5-52)
The road out of Squaw Lake can be a bit dusty but soon enough I was on the steep two-track up to the water only aid station. I had conveniently forgotten about this step little part but power hiked my way up to the water, refilled my bottles with Tailwind and started the very enjoyable single track up to Hanley Gap. I especially enjoy this section because the light in the late afternoon is golden and the views back over the terrain covered earlier in the day is spectacular. The single track here is very runnable and the miles seemed to slip away pretty effortlessly, leaving time to sift through life’s ups, downs and purpose. I have always found this time of evening in the woods somewhat melancholy but today was different. I had this!
Hanley Gap to Dutchman Peak (52-66)
Heading into Hanley Gap I didn’t dawdle at the aid. I dropped my pack, Ben refilled my handheld with ice water and off I went up to Squaw Peak to retrieve my flag, proving I had made the trek up and back. I was still feeling really good and actually ran/shuffled most of the way up to the lookout. At the top I exchanged greetings with the carpenter working on the lookout structure and headed back down to exchange my flag for some food and a quick sit down. Once back at aid, I sat down and ate some soup and watermelon. Ben got my bottles topped off and I was ready for Dutchman. I like the stretch to Dutchman Peak. It can seem like a long run on the dirt road but the time of day and being able to run had me in good spirits. A few miles down the road I caught up with Martin and we exchanged places back and forth for the better part of an hour. Martin excelled on the downhill and I would slog past him on the uphill. Back and forth. Back and forth. Squaw Creek Gap aid station was up next and a welcome sight it was. I plopped down in a chair, soup was delivered to me and I chatted up a runner that was toying with a drop. I did my duty of telling him to decide at the next aid station and then Martin rolled in. We shared some ultra camaraderie while I readied my headlamp and grabbed some avocado for the road. Night was falling pretty fast but I resisted turning on the light, the peaceful feel of near darkness was too much to give up. The road started turning up more severely and shortly I could hear the party going on up at Dutchman Peak. I knew not to be tricked into the false sense of nearness and kept up my effort toward the top. The stars were incredible, the night looked to be shaping up nicely. Once at the top I fell into my routine of sitting down, gulping soup and eating quesadillas. Soon enough I was up and running back down the hill, clutching my to go snack. When I reached the bottom Ben was once again all set up with my chair and a blanket. I did a quick sock change and was off.
Dutchman Peak to Siskiyou Gap (66-73)
Off the road and onto the PCT I still felt great, running much of this section until I reached the rocky parts with a steep drop off to the left. I walked the sections I deemed too treacherous for my state of being and ran the parts that didn’t pose a threat to my life if I caught a toe. I had the two headlamp thing going on with one on my head and one around my waist. The added waist lamp really helped me see the terrain without weird shadows being cast about. The miles went by until down to my left I spotted the next aid. As soon as I entered the aid station my bottles were taken from me, filled and a cup of soup and a grilled cheese sandwich were put in my hands. The crew at Siskiyou Gap were all business, in a friendly way, and made sure I did not stay too long, gently urging me back out onto the trail. As soon as my soup cup was emptied I was escorted across the road, back onto the PCT.
Siskiyou Gap to Grouse Gap (73-80)
Smooth as butter single track wove me through meadows and starry skies and then back into the pine forest. Much of this section was uphill and my goal of sub 24 seemed to be slipping from my reality. My mind kept going back to rumors I had heard earlier in the race: “The new section is really technical. Full of ups, downs and rocks.” …and so on. I stopped a few times and sat on stumps, feeling sorry for myself and rationalizing why I could give myself a breather now and then. I had been on this section in the SOB but, in my hazy state, it seemed to go on forever. And then bam, just like previous sections, the aid appeared. I ran past the aid station, checked in with the volunteers and plunked down into my own bit of heaven which Ben had set up for me. Chair, heater, blanket, socks, soup, grilled cheese…the Royal Treatment. I have to admit I got pretty comfortable. I was not in danger of dropping, but cumulative time was certainly slipping away. I tried for a quick nap but when I heard a runner enter the aid station I decided to jump up and be on my way. I was now really on my own. I wouldn’t see Ben until the finish and I had unfamiliar trail ahead of me.
Grouse Gap to Finish (80-100)
The first bit out of Grouse Gap is on dirt road and uphill. I passed one runner who had a sour stomach and then came upon another coming at me down the road. He had come up from the PCT and wasn’t thrilled when I told him he was going the wrong way. Some quick headlamp pointing back down the slope got him back on track to Grouse Gap and soon enough I was on the trail to Split Rock. I could tell immediately that I wasn’t going to be making up any time on this section. The trail wove through knee-high scrub bushes and rocks. My energy was spent on looking for reflector ribbons that marked the way. Once I peaked out on some big rocks I figured I was at Split Rock. Looking around, I did not see an obvious trail. I traipsed around calling out to a trail that did not answer. Growing increasingly frustrated, I stopped walking and put myself into the position of the trail, asking myself, “OK, If I were a trail, where would I go?” Like a miracle, I looked up and saw a large rock outcropping. I walked around it, not convinced this was the trail but nonetheless drawn by my vision. I looked down slope, from what appeared to be an unrealistic drop (at this point pretty much anything seemed unrealistic) and saw a reflector ribbon and trail shoe footprints heading in its direction. Ahhh, the trail…relief, soon interrupted by the realization that I needed to scale down between some large boulders. I wanted to butt slide but I couldn’t really get my legs in a crouching position, so I just let gravity do its job and down I rambled to a semi-runnable track. I felt as though I was endlessly zigging and zagging. Each time I thought I was at the meet-up to head towards Wagner Butte, I encountered another zig or zag. My attitude was not civil. Finally, after countless zigs and zags I was at the Wagner Butte intersection. My enthusiasm was still waning. Two years previous I had been on this section and thought it would never end. I pushed on. Headlights were coming at me. Carly Koerner and her pacer appeared and informed me I was over halfway to the Butte. Good news, I needed it, because I was descending into the pain cave and getting sleepy. I had already passed two people in skeleton costumes (dead tree) and a bear (stump). No telling what would creep out of the woods towards me before I got to Wagner Butte. Soon enough a large pile of boulders appeared. I placed hand over hand until there was nowhere else to go. I reached into the bucket, pulled out the pacifier and gazed down onto the lights of Ashland. OK, downhill to the finish. I dreaded this downhill. I had already convinced myself that walking a good portion of it was a good plan. My thighs were screaming, but the further I crashed through the woods the better 25:xx sounded as opposed to 26:xx. I bounced onto Road 2060 and Weasel Creek Aid, into a chair, devoured some ramen, exclaimed I was crushed and headed down to Ashland. Shortly before I got to the dirt trail which led to Ashland I was passed by a runner and his pacer. I couldn’t match their pace but knowing they were just ahead goaded me into running with purpose and not slogging down the hill. The precipitous drop down the paved road was a welcome sight as I knew the finish was near. This year we hooked a right to the finish at the park, rather than a left, and a few hundred yards later under the arch. Finished. 25:32.
I was extremely satisfied with my race. I entered not feeling the fire I had hoped to feel. For a period leading up to the race, I had given considerable thought about never running another 100. My DNF at Zion put some serious doubts into my head as to whether or not I had the drive any longer. I entered Pine to Palm hoping to prove to myself that I could finish. I am happy to say that I have found the fire again. I would like to thank Hal and his crew for putting on a class event. My wife deserves a tremendous amount of credit for putting up with my ups and downs and general craziness about ultrarunning. I would most like to thank my son, Ben, for devoting day and night to look after my needs and having the confidence in me that I would get around the course.
What’s next? The Western States and Hardrock Lotteries hold the answer to that question.