Mountain Lakes 100. A Lesson Learned.

Last year’s 100 taught me to overcome any obstacle. It was the turning point when the shattered pieces of my life fell away. I emerged from that experience stronger, knowing I could find a way around, up, over, or through any challenge. Pine 2 Palm was special. No cheering crowds, no crew or pacer- just a laid back “old school” ultra that pushed me out of a very dark spinning vortex. I found peace in those dusty mountains.

What a difference a year can make! Life is fulfilling. Maybe even a little too full- busy with a career and all of the usual tasks of motherhood- shuttling stinky kids from soccer practice, cooking dinners with vegetables that you hope they’ll want to eat, giving hugs & kisses when they need reassurance, giving tough love when needed as well, handing out Star Wars band aids and watching the tears disappear, teaching the alphabet and addition & that it’s ok to cry sometimes- even when you are 8 years old, and insisting on baths and bedtime stories. And with Alan – my source of love and strength, my best friend, and the man I trust with my everything. And with his beautiful and creative daughter, who I am getting to know and love. I am happy and out of the vortex.

Mountain Lakes 100. A race advertised as “one of the most beautiful 100 mile races” outside of Portland OR. I signed up for it on a whim, after hearing that Ron was thinking of running it and after finding out that my goal race, The Mogollon Monster 100, was canceled this year AFTER I asked for the time off work. ML100 fell on the same weekend. The course elevation profile- just over 10,000 ft of total gain- and the fact that this race hosts a lot of first time 100 mile runners gave me a sense of security…and overconfidence. I thought that, because the course wouldn’t offer much of a challenge, I would just challenge myself by running faster. Ultra-signup predicted my finish time at around 23 hours. Wow- that’s crazy, but maybe…just maybe… I actually could catch that elusive sub-24 hour buckle.

What this race actually gave me was something entirely different, but much more rewarding.

Race day. Alarm buzzed at 3:15 and I awake from a deep sleep with a shot of adrenaline. This is it. I feel great and this is my day to RUN far, fast, and free from everyday problems and worries and concerns that, like buzzing mosquitos, re-focus our attention away from our true priorities and joys in life. Alan, Ron, and I drive 2 hours southeast of Portland through a few small towns and into Mt. Hood National Forest. Headlights reveal tall pine trees dwarfed by slick rock cliffs angling steeply down to the road. We cautiously make our way through the blackness, scanning for deer and other wildlife in the road. Morning arrives with the pink sun just as we pull into Olallie Lake Campground, the race start and packet pick-up location. In front of us sits the crystal clear lake reflecting old-volcano Mt. Jefferson with glaciers of white snow and ice adorning its peak. Well, wow.

We aren’t a large group- just about 150 of us plus family & friends. We stand shivering in the crisp 40 degree air listening to race day instructions- “we use mostly orange cones, not ribbons to mark the trail…pay attention and you’ll be fine”. Last minute hugs and we pack into the start, excited energy flowing from one runner to the next in forceful happy contagious waves. Then 3, 2, 1…jog. Ron finds me is the mash of runners, and we warm up together on the uphill sloping 2 mile stretch of fire road, past campsites on the edge of the lake and a few cheering families and a few well wishers with dogs straining at the end of their leashes, longing to be set free to run with us. The course veers off onto a single track trail on the right as we hear the distinctive loud crack of gunshots. Hunters? WAY too close for comfort, but there’s security in numbers, so off and away we run together past small mountain algae green lakes and into the wild beyond. Ron veers off for a bathroom break as I keep running. And then the trail suddenly pops out onto a rocky cliff with stunning views of green mountains dwarfed by Mt. Jefferson- a landscape spotted with sparkling lakes- as far as the eye can see. I am alive and grinning and passing everyone and dancing over the rocks. Running is easy, like second nature and I’m made for this.  Mile 5.3 and the first aid station passes by in what seems like a second, and I’m picking up my pace on an easy gentle fire road and 6 miles of downhill. I catch up with a group of 3 girls and we run together at an 8 ½ minute pace. We are going out way too fast- we all know it but it feels so good to just run. We realize that we are on pace for a <20 hour finish. Ok yea right like that’s going to happen- but we throw caution to the wind and just run faster. Sarah and Becky talk as I listen…”first 100, kids grown, husbands that support but don’t run…”. Aid #2 arrives and I only pause for a few minutes to refill water bottles. The watermelon looks delicious and oh look! Pringles! And then I’m off again with “the girls” on that easy fire road.

Ron catches up to us as orange cones suddenly mark a sharp right turn onto a tiny footpath steeply sloping up the side of a mountain. And now…we hike. I watch as Ron lightly bounces up and away. The trail, affectionately nicknamed “Power Lines”, rises for over 2400 feet over about 6-7 miles. Some sections merge with an old rocky stream bed, making running all but impossible as we pick our way up the mountain. Near the top, the trail flattens out and I begin to run again. Tall pine trees play with the sunlight, creating tunnels of blinding brightness contrasted with dense dark shade. A guy catches up to me and comments that “these rocks are making me really nervous”. I can see his point. The rocky trail is still slippery with morning dew and last night’s rain, but I’m more focused on the scenery- we pass several small high alpine lakes. The surroundings are new and fascinating to me- so different from the Northern California coast. We start running a little faster and I’m drunk with the beauty around me, and then suddenly I’m launched into the air (a rock?) and land- superman style- on the side of the trail. I roll over groaning, and with my body still reverberating with the force of the impact I hear “OMG ARE YOU OK???”. I look up to see my red bearded running partner peering over me with wide concerned eyes. “Oh yes definitely- go run”, I say through gritted teeth as my left leg stiffens and protests with a massive muscle cramp. I watch him disappear down the trail. I get up and slowly start to limp. My left leg loosens and I realize that I lucked out- I’m really ok. I start to run again, however my legs feel heavy. I just feel “off” somehow, like the force of the fall had shaken up my luck and fate had decided to play me an entirely new hand of cards for this day. I’m dizzy and uncoordinated. However I’m losing time, and I’m still thinking about meeting a sub-24 hour goal. So I force myself to run again as the trail merges with that very same rocky cliff from the first 5 miles of the race. The trail seems incredibly technical now. I don’t remember running over rocks like these, and my legs refuse to cooperate. I meet runners coming in the opposite direction, and realize that the aid station and turn-around point isn’t too far away. I see Ron- he’s smiling and we exchange a brief hand clasp. As he moves away I know that I probably won’t see him again until the finish line. And then a sloping downhill invites me to pick up my pace. So I do- and find myself somehow flying through the air again. This time I land on rocks and skid to a stop under a bush at the edge of the cliff. I just lay there, not even trying to get up, all dreams of finishing this race disappearing in a flood of panic and pain. A DNF at mile 18. Perfect. My pride completely devastated, I sit up to examine what’s left of my knees. My heart stops and a flow of dirty words escapes my mouth as I peer in astonishment at a flap of skin pealed back from white bone. Until I realize with relief that it’s just a small pink and white leaf stuck to my actual scraped up bloody knee.

I’ve bruised my patellas-my kneecaps. I can’t run now without sending sharp pain up each leg with every step. I tell myself to dive through the pain, to keep going, to not give in… and then I think ironically that I still have 83 miles to go. And I can’t think of anything at the moment that’s more demoralizing than the realization that I’m giving myself a pep talk at mile 18 of a 101 mile race. This. Is. NOT. Good. The medic at aid station mile 20.75 talks excitedly about his next 100 miler- Cascade Crest? Pine 2 Palm? The Bear? He’s not sure… other than it’s going to be a “good one”. I point out my knees, expecting some sympathy and help, and instead hear “just rub some more dirt on it- you can tough it out”. The nurse in me knows he’s probably right. Trail dirt carries just a minimal chance for bacterial infection, and cleaning my knees would cause them to sting and bleed again.

The trail eventually drops back down to that original fire road and I run back toward the start and the 26 mile aid station with magnificent views of clear bright blue Olallie Lake on my right, and Mt. Jefferson jutting upwards dramatically and casting its large cone shaped reflection over the water. The sun, now high in the sky, finally starts warming this little section of the globe. Alan meets me at the campgrounds and all I do is complain. And bark out orders. And tell him how horrible I’m running, that I didn’t train enough, that I am definitely not having a good day. He straightens his shoulders and says “you look great”, but his eyes are cloudy and shifty and I know he’s lying. I stuff my headlamp into my pack- I’m sure I won’t see another drop bag until after dark.  I exit the aid station and immediately join the Pacific Crest Trail. My attitude improves as I pick up my pace over small rolling hills under shady protective trees. I zone out, listening to the rhythm of my footsteps and willing myself to stay in the moment, to be thankful for the experience. 3.3 miles fly by and I’m running into Olallie Meadows aid. I grab a banana, chips, and gels- then Alan’s walking towards me with a big smile on his face. He’s not supposed to be here! I give him a big sweaty hug and an even bigger kiss and apologize for my whiney attitude at the last aid station. His eyes light up again- I know that he just wants to see me cross the finish line. He stuffs a bologna sandwich into my gel-sticky hands and says “go get it!”.

From my experience on the PCT last year at Pine to Palm, the trail holds magical qualities in my mind. I’ve fantasized about fast hiking the entire thing- from Mexico to Canada. It’s wild, scenic, and promises exotic hard earned adventure. I climb this gently sloping meandering line of dirt and rock with 3-4 other runners- all bearded men in their 20’s and 30’s. We run silently, fatigued and somber in the realization that we have really just started this race. Random deep thoughts pop into my head, like “are ALL men in Oregon bearded?” and “Wow this bologna sandwich is really gross-I bet it would taste better with bacon”. As we reach the ridgeline, I start to run again and leave the bearded pack behind-although I am slowly and carefully choosing my steps. I don’t want another hard fall. Every once in a while my foot catches on a rock and I adjust my pace, thinking this is not my day, no not my day…however I’m eating and drinking enough and energy levels are still high.

Pinheads aid station is small and very remote. Just one table and one tent at the end of a rutted dirt fire road leading to…nowhere? I am cheered in with cowbells and happy-goofy young volunteers ready for an all-night party/parade of dirty, smelly, foggy brained runners like myself. I ask how long it took them to drive up, and I’m answered with a cheerful “like, forever!”. Watermelon! The fruit of the gods. Thank you thank you thank you and I’m off. I’m careening down the PCT’s soft buttery single track and passing 4, 5, no 6 runners. My legs unbelievably loosen up a little and my movement feels natural for the first time since that first fall. I’m no longer desperately scanning the ground with each step and those rocks in the trail no longer feel like hazards. My body responds to what I’ve trained it to do- running without hesitation. I’m jumping over rocks and roots without the realization that I’m doing it. 7 miles of gorgeous downhill, and I pop out of the woods at Warm Springs aid. I’m filling my bottle and grabbing oreos, chips, and a banana. I’m going through the motions of the familiar aid station routine- food, check-water, check- feet ok, check. I’m being told that I look great, that I’m almost halfway. There’s laughter and gratitude. I notice that I’m the only runner at the aid station. I turn to leave and a big yellow fluffy…chicken(?) blocks the trail. He/she towers over me with a big pointed plastic beak inches from my face. Slightly intimidated, I say “I like your style”, and the bird-thingy moves over to let me pass with squawking cheers. Running long can really mess with my ability to distinguish fact from fiction- had I come across that bird at night, I would have been terrified.

The sun sets behind mountains to the left, leaving the sky a cool gray, fading into warmth around the edges. I am once again running through tree covered meadows. The earth is different here in Oregon. It holds a magical mesmerizing beauty that’s completely foreign to me. It’s a cold alpine-like beauty that fills my eyes with wonder but leaves my heart wanting more. I can’t claim it- unlike the familiar rocks and trees of “my” coastal California mountains and redwoods- I can’t grab this beauty. Can’t soak it in, can’t merge my soul into these surroundings. I run through these meadows as a stranger taking nothing, and it feels like even the tall pine trees are whispering “move on…”.

A small campsite with a warm fire and two chuckling men on a log. This is THE PCT! I’m a little mentally fuzzy, and say “YOU guys are a welcome site!” and get a response of laughter. I stop to talk, and hear a story of a life’s goal made real, of how this lonely stretch of trail completes a journey of thousands of miles earned over years rolled into decades. I wish them good travels as they congratulate me on my own -in comparison little- journey and away I move. The trail starts to climb steeply and night cloaks the sun entirely. I pull out my headlamp and immediately shadows deepen around the single bobbing light, and I am truly alone. But then I’m not- out of the darkness emerges a solitary human form. He looks at me with concern closing in on panic. His name is Ricardo, he’s from the Baja Peninsula, and this is his first 100 mile race. In the excitement of race preparation, he forgot to charge his headlamp and he knows he’s in trouble. I guide him the best I can for about a mile, but he’s tired and walking the ups and downs and I feel my legs stiffening in the cold. I have to pick up my pace, knowing the next aid station isn’t very far away.

Red Wolf Aid Station straddles the trail. I run into a brightly lit tent and immediately relax in the warmth of two space heaters. I sink into a folding chair that feels better than the softest, fluffiest recliner, and hear the most poetic words ever spoken by another human: “bacon” and “chicken noodle soup”. I assess the damage to my knees- they are red and swollen, painful to light touch. I am halfway to that distant finish line. My body is already complaining fiercely, but it’s been through this before. I know that although my knees will continue to speak to me, they are just bruised & battered- they will take me to the finish. I KNOW this, but the pain still haunts me. I ask if anyone has an extra headlamp for Ricardo and am amazed to find out that yes, in fact they do, and I’m off again into the night.

This next section is mostly downhill. It’s buttery, well groomed, and the dirt is soft and spongy but I run and then walk. I feel dizzy and cold. I have my vest on, my gloves, on, and my arm warmers but temps are dropping and my muscles are tense and sore. I am hurting, and the knee pain that has followed me since mile 18 starts taking control. I fight it, angry that I can’t dismiss it- can’t run through it. I am usually so strong, so able to ignore pain when running. However this race is humbling and teaching me, and I am not a willing student. I run towards the Ranger Station at Lake Timothy and towards Alan’s waiting arms. I reach mile 55 at 9:15 pm, less than 13 hours into the race, and Alan is waiting at the road. We jog in together. I call out my bib number, and plop into a chair. I can’t even think straight. I’m so grateful for Alan- he’s pulling gear out of my drop bag. “Here, put this shirt on, here’s more gel, and let me take care of this sports bra chaffing…” And I’m telling him I’m cold as my body starts shivering uncontrollably. He takes his jacket off and gives it to me as the woman sitting beside us notices and offers warm blankets…blankets that she pulled off the ground and out from under her sleeping German Shepherd…but I could not have been happier. I stand up to leave, and immediately my legs seize up with the cold. I need to change into running tights. A volunteer ushers me over to the medical tent with heat lamps so wonderfully warm and comforting.  A runner is lying on a cot- he says his knee gave out- he’s done. He says he won’t look if I change and I believe him but don’t really care at the moment. Alan walks in and helps me squeeze swollen legs into tights that- just one day before fit almost loosely.

A kiss and I’m off to run 17 miles around Lake Timothy. Almost every runner has a pacer now. But I’m alone by choice- this is my battle. And although I know without question that this journey is made easier with the support and encouragement from volunteers at every aid station along the way and the comforting knowledge that friends and family throughout the country were following my progress, I need to let this adventure teach me. The trail flows from semi-technical rocky terrain into flat smoothness, and I run again. Miles melt away, and I’m entering Little Crater Lake Aid. The theme is…Animal House? I’m not quite sure at this point as everything runs together and blurs in my head and the only consistent thought is “ouch”, but I’m so, so happy and the atmosphere is electrified. I am wrapped into a big hug as I leave by a guy wearing a toga and shouts of “take it, girl!”. And then…darkness again exaggerating thoughts of inadequacy and doubt. I arrive at a series of bridges. I hear the soft gurgling of water under my feet and I stop. I turn my headlamp off and stare angrily at the stars and crescent moon. I lean over the railing and almost make out the rocky stream- the stars are so bright, the sky so clear. I give in to the pain. I give up control and it moves through my whole body, but my head is clear. And I’m breathing naturally again and smiling up into the vast universe. I run again, still in pain but not controlled by pain. There is a lesson in this.

A long string of colored lights draws me into the Timothy Lake Damn Aid like a moth to a flame. Two women are huddled around a huge bonfire- I recognize them as Sarah and Becky from the start of the race. Although neither of them had pacers, they had decided to stick together. Again, the atmosphere feels like a party. And again, all of the volunteers sported thick beards. What is UP with the beards? This aid, at mile 66.6, has a definite spooky theme. “What’s it gonna be- local IPA, Red Ale, Lager, or a Porter… or even better I can give you a sample of all of it!” I was in heaven. Unfortunately my stomach -not so much so I declined the offer, much to the disappointment of all volunteers. I am alone again, running and walking my way back to the Ranger Station and back into the arms of my best friend. He’s waiting at the road and gives me a concerned look. He’s says he’s been waiting for a long time, and that it’s 1:40am. How did I run that section so slowly? I am shocked. I say that the time can’t be right- I RAN around that lake. This time I don’t stay long. I swap headlamps with Alan as planned and as I kiss him goodbye he backs away with an indignant “did you just SNOT me?”. I hadn’t even noticed my runny nose, but yea… guess I did. We both share a cackled verging on hysterics sleep deprived laugh. I am hurting, but that’s no news. I leave without telling him just how badly I feel. After all, he would just worry.

The trail goes on and on and up and up, and I am simply surviving. I force myself to walk, then run, then walk. The trees close in around me and again I hear “move on move on move on”. I try to remove a plastic zip-lock baggie from the front right pocket of my pack, but it’s jammed in too tight and I give up. No Tylenol for me. Red Wolfe Aid. This time there is a sense of urgency, and runners crowd the tent then move out again into the night. I’m really struggling and I catch a few concerned looks. “Bacon? Yuck. OK chicken broth.” I force down a gel. I grab the armrests of the chair and force myself to stand-bracing myself against the absolute agony of knees on fire. Then I’m off. Night sounds come and go. An owl swoops down low in front of me and I feel the wind from her wings. I know I should pull out my music as a distraction but I’ve waited too long and am too exhausted to care. I don’t care about anything. A flashing light wakes me out of the daze. I realize it’s MY light. The headlamp. Then I realize that it’s warning me of a low battery. A shot of adrenaline flows through me- I think back. Did I actually tell Alan that his headlamp wasn’t fully charged, that he would need to charge it in the rental car? No. Nope. No I didn’t. The night is pitch black under this tree blanket. I’m running now, and catch up to a runner/pacer team- Steve and Brian- in front of me. “Excuse me, do you mind if I run in between you guys so that I can see?” And my headlamp dies. I am left to their mercy, and thankfully they agree to help even though… I should have known better. We fast hike up for what feels like a lifetime. I’m still blind because the light from Brian’s headlamp casts my shadow and I can only view the trail 5 feet in front of me. I have to think ahead and guess where the hazards will be once I reach them. It is mentally draining, but the effort pushes me out of and past my self-pity. Steve mentions that he ran 60 miles of Run Rabbit Run the previous weekend before dropping and signing up for this race one day later. We talk about Pine to Palm, how tough that race is and how it can simultaneously push you down while forcing you to fly. We find the ridge line and aid. No chicken costume this time- just warmth and laughter. I beg for a headlamp. Please? I’m sorry… this was my fault. Larry Stephens, aid station captain and ultrarunning Oregon legend, pulled his own headlamp out of his jacket pocket. “Here”. I thank him and promise to return it at the finish line. Again, overwhelmed by the selflessness of aid station trail angels.

Now I am alone and am again climbing. I’m nauseated and still forcing bars and gels. I think sarcastically that the total elevation gain of just over 10,000 feet listed on the race website must be a calculation halved. I swear I’ve climbed at least 15,000 feet by now. I don’t remember any of this. Is it possible to somehow wander off the PCT? I look around, scanning the trail and trees with every turn for orange cones reflecting silver or glowing ribbons and start getting nervous. ¼ mile, ½ mile… then finally a familiar race marker to put my mind at ease. The sky turns pink, welcoming a new day, then brightens and splashes color over fall foliage. Tall spacious pine trees lovingly growing out of a carpet of forest grasses and leafy orange bushes. I glimpse another runner/pacer team in front of me. She starts to run and he cheers “yiyiyiy yeeeeea!” then she walks. When she runs again, I’m greeted with another round of cheers. It’s strangely comforting. We run through a meadow that I clearly remember. Dead trees- disease(?) beetles(?) – it’s hard to say, stick out of the ground like white toothpicks. The view is breathtakingly beautiful and startlingly sad all at once. And then Pinheads: probably the most beautiful name for an aid station in the world of ultrarunning. I am so happy to finally be back. However I don’t linger. The time is 07:30am and I still have over 10 miles left to go. Before I leave though, I ask for Motrin. I just want to make it to the finish line as fast as possible, and calculate the risk to my kidneys- I’m taking one pill.

I run 30 feet, then walk- gasping from pain. Then repeat. Finally magic Motrin takes the edge off just enough to pick up my pace. I see the same runner/pacer team up ahead and catch up to them. She is on hands and knees vomiting in the middle of the dusty trail, her pacer hovering with an expression mixed with concern and fierce pride. She says “don’t mind me, I’m ok. I’m going to make it to that damn finish line if I have to crawl for the next 10 miles on my hands and knees”. And with that, I’m reminded again of the “why”, of the inspiring reasons we “crazies” run long. And I run. Olallie Meadows aid station never appears. I’m actively hallucinating now. I see dogs, a skunk, a skull, snakes writhing on the trail, and even a very vivid Darth Vader- and although I know these illusions are simply dead tree trunks, rocks, and branches- I am intrigued.  I hear the footsteps of another runner and glance behind me. I see him running fast, and as I move over to let him pass I realize that there is no-one. Strangely I’m not concerned, just deeply tired. I pass a (real, I think) hiker who says “two more miles” but I swear I run 10. But then I’m turning a corner and I’m ringing the cowbell hung above the entrance to aid and there I am. 3.3 more miles to go. I only stay for a few minutes and meet Becky’s family and friends nervously waiting for her to show up. I tell them I last saw her at Timothy Lake but that she looked good.

The last stretch. Orange ribbons mark the way out of the aid station, but I’m really confused. I’m convinced I’m hiking in the opposite direction and re-trace my steps. I meet another runner and let him pass me- following his lead. The last stretch back to the finish slopes mostly uphill, so I hike. I pass a guy with a large tattoo on his right calf. He’s limping slowly. I find out later at the finish line that this is his 6th attempt at the 100 mile distance and his first finish. Again…the “why”. I’m getting close and can hear the finish line. I’m running downhill and see the road, see Alan, see the lake and that glacier adorned mountain. It’s underwhelming and overwhelming, and everything a 100 mile finish should be. It’s not the race I planned for, but it’s the race I was given. And I am so thankful.

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