Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Smiling Through The Glorious 2014 Pine to Palm 100m

Last Saturday, I had the great pleasure of joining ~200 ultrarunners for the 5th annual Pine to Palm 100 Mile Endurance Run, an epic and mountainous run in the Siskiyou Mountains near Ashland, OR. Designed and put on by ultra-legend Hal Koerner and the Rogue Valley Runners, the race delivered everything it promised - big heat, big climbs, forest fires, amazing views of endless evergreens, and a world-class support team at every aid station. I was able to find the finish in 26:59, complete with a smile!

(P2P Elevation Chart)
(P2P Course - to California and back!)
The Pine to Palm (P2P) has been on my race bucket list for a few years now, and seemed an ideal Western States/Hardrock/UTMB qualifier with it's 20,000' vertical of climbing. Three big climbs to 7,000', temps in the 90's...I mean, if you're going to do it, go big, right?!? I wasn't nearly in peak racing shape and don't have the best track record with mountain 100's, but with my Dad (Dr. Larry Dunlap) as my crew captain, I knew we could take our time and have a great father/son adventure. My recent (f)unemployment had been begging for some soul-stirring inspiration as well, and there's no better way to clear the mind and replenish your gratitude coffers like a hundo. This would be a fun test - with psychological and emotional levels at year-best highs, but a body that is a few steps behind, would it be enough?

(Hal gives us tips while balancing precariously on a folding chair...Nyla, do as Daddy says, not as Daddy does!)
We began in Williams, OR, where Race Director Hal Koerner gave us tips and suggestions while we gorged on pasta. It was a record year of 203 starters, with about 1/4 of them tackling their first 100-miler (crazy mofo's!). I could only hope the newbies had a chance to read Hal's new book, Hal Koerner's Field Guide to Ultrarunning: Training for an Ultramarathon from 50k to 100 Miles and Beyond, so they had some guidelines for the expected 99 degree heat, the 14% humidity that leaves you feeling like a dry sponge, and the waves of smoke coming from the nearby uncontained Happy Camp forest fire. Oh yeah, there's a couple of 4,000' climbs that mean 2+ hours between aid stations too...this race was definitely going to be a test of self-management!

(Runner and crew try not to notice the race started 1:26 ago)
(It's a marvelous night for a 100-mile Moondance!)
I just missed the 6am start (my laissez-faire "just going to finish today" attitude obviously getting the best of me), so could only improve my DFL position as we headed up the first few miles of moonlit road. I heard a lot of familiar voices in the night - Tia Bodington, Yaz Saito, Carly Koerner, 4x finisher JC Callans, Betsy Nye, Willem Van Dam, Chris Jones (his 4th 100 this summer) - and found comfort slotting myself among those going out conservatively in the first 5-mile, 4,000' climb of the day. The front runners included Tahoe Rim Trail 100m winner Bob Shebest, Ohlone 50k winner Lon Freeman, speedster Chris Wehan, and defending Women's champ Becky Kirschenmann, who gazelled into the morning light as we hit the single track (mile 2).

(Good morning!)
(The sun lights up the climb)
As the deep-red sun rose up through the forest fire smoke, I found myself running with Kevin Karr, a Portland, OR-based designer for the Nike "Innovation Kitchen" who distracted us from the climb with his stories of working on the latest cool stuff. What fun! I bragged a bit about my inov-8 Race Ultra Vest, which would be ideal today when I needed to switch from bottles to a hydration bladder, and back again. We finally got to see each others gear as we crested the top (mile 5) and headed down some wonderful single track.

(Among the giant pines)
(Racing the sun to the top!)
(One down, three to go!)
I caught up to a smiling Joe Palubeski, and was very surprised to see him in such good form after back surgery less than two months ago. "My wife is going to pull me out if I'm in the top 100 at the first aid station" he said with a chuckle, and joined me in shoveling all the food we could at the O'Brien Creek (mile 15). The volunteers were total pros, and had even trucked in ice for us to beat the heat, so we were soon on our way. But it wasn't getting too hot yet, much in thanks to the forest fire smoke. "I would rather be smoked than fried any day," said Joe, and everyone laughed...so true. An additional 10-15 degrees would be brutal, so the Marlboro Light-ish taste in our mouths was worth the trade off.

(Jason Donnell and I our grub on at the aid station)
I leaned into the downhill fire roads for the next few miles, trying to make the most of the cool morning air, and let my thoughts wander. The last 48 hours was great one-on-one time with my Dad, something that often slips our grasp as the responsibilities of grandparents and parents fill our family visits. I had learned a lot about my great-grandfather and our four-generation obsession with a good Manhattan, his first job as an ER doctor in nearby Grants Pass, and his summer outdoor adventure schedule that would make any of us jealous. I'm 45 years old, and still wanting to be like my Dad when I grow up!

(Sharing a laugh)
(Fun country roads as the smoke looms in the distance)
(I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles...)
The long, straight country roads were perfect fodder to dream out loud and give each thought it's proper uninterrupted space. Will Scottish independence bring the kilt back into fashion? Why is it that the same day you hit airline elite status is the same day you would give anything to never board a plane again? When my wife's lips fit perfect with mine on our very first kiss, was it an evolutionary seal to our fate as soulmates like a lock and key? Am I the lock or the key? Is the "twinx" the 7th sign of the Culinary Apocalypse, and if so, can we serve them at aid stations? Isn't it telling that the biggest IPO in US history will be a Chinese company this week? Is the word "evergreen" short for "forever green" like the pines all around us right now? And why do they even make Pop-Tarts that don't have frosting?!? That's just stupid.

You know, the important questions in life. ;-)

(The Twinx...Twix in a Twinkie wrapped in bacon, deep fried, drowned in chocolate and powdered sugar...an arterial double dare)
(Craig Thornley and Scott Wolfe getting splits in for Seattle Bar)

(Seattle Bar aid station!)
(Everyone has to refill before the brutal next section)
Poppa was there at Seattle Bar (mile 28) and helped me prepare for what was likely the most difficult part of the course, a rugged 5-7 mile climb (nobody can agree) on an exposed ridge that would take in excess of two hours. JC Callans had warned me this was a very difficult section, and volunteer Scott Wolfe agreed "it's where most of the carnage happens". I was on a 22-hour finish time pace, which was way too fast, so we took the time to eat, drink, and load up a 2-liter hydropack and poles before trekking up. I got a high five from Craig Thornley manning the ham radio, and off I went!

(Tackling the big climb, photo courtesy of Tom Riley)
I got some tunes as well - 200 random songs, so I had no idea what would be next - and found inspiration in everything from Beethoven, to Schoolhouse Rock, to 80's Big Hair Rock Ballads. The views were amazing, stupendous, epic...so I unpacked my adjectives (ha, ha). The mix of song and humor helped get my mind off the fact that sweat was dripping from my face faster than a Lithia Spring, and I was quickly running out of water. SLURP...what? Two liters are gone?!? Hmmm, I'm thinking it's closer to a 7-mile stretch.

(Sign says "welcome to California"...for about a half a mile)
(That's where we are headed!)
Megan Arboghast and her crew were a breath of fresh-but-hot air at Steins Butte (mile 33), and as promised, there was carnage. Every piece of shade was claimed by a sleeping/exhausted/crispy runner, and I joined them for a few minutes of watermelon, ginger ale, and ice. Phew! Soon enough, Willie Nelson urged me to get 'On the Road Again', and I started climbing again on the twisting, exposed fire roads. As if on cue, the song "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked" popped up to remind me that mountain suffering is in me blood, so best to push on.

(Hot, exposed, and still having fun!)
(Jason Donnell enjoys a little bit of shade)
We had a long and fun descent into Squaw Lake (mile 41.5), with roller coaster single track through the eerily quiet forest that reminded me of the nearby Where's Waldo 100k. We are seriously remote out here! But soon I heard the inviting sound of cowbells and cheers, and came into the most family-friendly aid station on the course. I had a big smile on my face knowing a swim was on the horizon, a tip my Dad suggested after camping here last week. After a quick loop, I stripped down to my shorts and flip-flops and floated in the cool mountain lake. Aaaahhh...so worth a few extra minutes! My Dad swapped out my socks, and I was soon on my way again.

(Coming into the beautiful Squaw Lake aid station)
(Mountain lakes rule!)
(Taking a 2-mile tour around the lake)
(Time for a dip!)
The next section felt like the hottest, although still mercifully in the high 80's thanks to the smoke. I didn't see a fellow runner for an hour, but did see an eagle, a bobcat, and enough fresh bear poop to keep me looking over my shoulder with every snapping branch. I took a brief stop at Kilgore Gulch (mile 45), and was hands-on-knees all the way to Squaw Peak (mile 50), coming in with a glassy, dizzy stare. The heat beast was on my back, and throwing in a few sucker punches as well, and I soon unlunched and took a knee with some of the other beat-down soldiers. Chicken noodle soup and Ginger Ale did the trick (not together, although that sounds pretty good now that I think about it), and I did the quick climb to Hanley Peak to get my flag as Carly Koerner came flying by with a huge smile on her face. Yeah, she's right, let's get moving!

(Reaching the top of Hanley Peak, photo courtesy of Tom Riley)
(Don't forget one of these to prove you made it to the top! Photo courtesy of Tom Riley)
(Then keep movin'...)
The sun began to set, bringing welcome cool breezes, and I joined 20-year-old Eric Wells from Soquel, CA, for the next climb. It was Eric's first 100-miler, and only his second ultra, and his body was beginning to give him those what-the-hell-are-you-doing-still-running-as-the-sun-goes-down signals. But he was doing great, and able to run a little and walk a little to Squaw Creek Gap (mile 60). We learned from other runners that Bob Shebest was out in the lead, Lon Freeman had dropped, and Becky Kirschenmann was on a rampage working her way up the Top 10. Holy cow, they are almost done!

(Forest fires do make for amazing sunsets)
As soon as Eric stopped moving, he started to weave, and before I knew it, I heard a THUD as he passed out and hit the ground flat on his back. Luckily my Dad was right there (always good to have an ER doc handy!), and lulled him back. We got him on a regiment of soup, ginger ale, and water, and he looked much better as I took off into the night up the third big climb, Dutchman's Peak. My Dad stayed with Eric until he could stand up, and I had a feeling we would see him again - he's a tough kid!

I got near some singing runners on this long stretch of night, and turned off my tunes to enjoy their labored versions of Neil Diamond and Elton John ("I'm still standing after all these miles"). The string of lights ahead of me seemed to go right into the starry sky, and was a good distraction from the cars taking crew members up the road in dusty caravans. Smoke, dust, dry air...I couldn't believe those guys could talk, let alone sing! No way I could...my snot rockets were already the size of gravel.

My Dad was there to pace me up the last mile to Dutchman Peak (mile 67), and we arrived around midnight to a rave-stomping dancefest at 7,000'. The volunteers were great, and helping a ton of runners get into their night gear. I inhaled a cheese quesadilla the size of my head, chugged more soup, and then turned around and did it all again. So good...once it hits your lips! Probably could have stayed there all night, but my Dad urged me down the hill and paced me to the single track on the Pacific Coast Trail. My Garmin gave its last salute, so we swapped it out for the iPhone. Awesome, more tunes! I let Carlos Santana lead the way...

(This is what Dutchman Peak would have looked like in the day)
The smoke came back as the coastal breeze shifted direction, making the headlight-vision tricky, and I slowed enough that I ran out of water and food well before Long John Saddle (mile 74). They had awesome grilled cheese sandwiches though, so I took a 15-minute break and ate a couple before running down to Wagner Butte (mile 80) and preparing for the last big climb. The guy next to me ate a whole can of clam chowder - guess I'm not the only one going for "real" food! It sure hits the spot in the middle of the night.

(Wagner Butte is a scramble at the top)
My Dad grabbed his poles and came with me up the last climb (such a bad ass!), pointing out the great landslide of '84 and other fun historic facts along the trail. We soon had an entourage following the tour! The trail kept getting steeper and rockier, and I thought that any more would require some hands and knees bouldering. Sure enough, I got my wish in the last 100 feet, crawling to the final peak (mile 85) to grab the flag. We contemplated waiting for the sunrise, but soon realized it would be 45 minutes or more, and figured it was best to keep moving. We skipped our way down to the last switchback, had one last hug, knowing the next meeting would be at the finish. Race you there!

(Getting down the last tricky single track)
(Good morning, again!)
(Last aid station, only 10 miles to go!)
I was glad I kept my poles for the steep descent to Road 9060 (mile 90), which helped save my quads for the final stretch. The sun was up now, burning in a fierce red orange glow, and showing us we were still a few thousand vertical feet from town. My iPhone died, but I knew I had about 90 minutes to cover the last 10 miles to break 27 hours, and that's all the motivation I needed to lean forward and run it in. The final two miles on Hitt Road were brutally steep, but I kept at it, and came in at 26:59:12 for 51st place, feeling good. My Dad was right there, and we quickly made our way to the finish shack for waffles and chocolate milk. He was amazing all day, and here he was still standing! Well, for a few more minutes anyway. ;-)

(Hitt Road is a tough way to finish, photo courtesy of Ian Torrence)
(Phew! Just squeezed under 27 hrs)
(Becky Kirschenmann on her way to her record setting win)
Bob Shebest had won the race in 18:42, holding off a hard charging Becky Kirschenmann (19:21, 2nd overall) who took two hours off the course record she set last year. Dave Miller (20:20) and Nathan Stroh (20:26) filled out the Men's podium, with Carly Koerner (23:28) and Betsy Nye (24:58) claiming 2nd and 3rd Woman. Many of my peeps had done very well today, including JC Callans (23:25, 5th finish here!), Willem Van Dam (24:45), Chris Jones (26:05), Joe Palubeski (26:07), and even Eric Wells (30:58) despite passing out a 2nd time! (all results) Hal did a great job of recognizing all 126 finishers (62% finish rate!), asking each to share their low point and what got them through it, giving us all plenty of inspirational stories to take home. The buckles were handed out and quickly applied to belts, walking up and down the paths of Lithia Park with silent, smiling pride.

(Nice!)
(Hal congratulates winners Becky Kirschermann and Bob Shebest, photo courtesy of Nick Dunn)
(Bob Shebest shares his winning tips with a fellow runner)
In moments of freedom, like when on the trail in an epic adventure, the secrets to life are as clear as spring water. Live life boldly, fill your days with adventure, surround yourself with friends who make you laugh and encourage you to find your best, and celebrate early and often. I got to do all of that in one day today, and best of all share it with my Dad, the one who first inspired me to hit the trails as a toddler, and the guardian angel who helped me find the finish line once again. Thank you, Dad!

A gracious thank you to Hal and all the P2P volunteers for making it easy for all of us to embrace this life credo, and doing so with plenty of laughs and smiles. Congrats to all the runners who started, and I hope to see you again when we return to these evergreen hills. I encourage you all to sign up for P2P100 in 2015 and join us!

- SD

Gear checklist:
Black Diamond hiking poles
Garmin 910XT GPS watch (uploaded to Strava)
Sony RX100 III and GoPro3 cameras