September 24-25, 2016. Eating humble pie.
My ankle finally gave out at mile 70, a full 30 miles from the finish. It was just too swollen and too painful to continue running. It was going to be a long night. But before I found myself broken out in Oregon, I first had to make the conscious decision to be there.
I knew I was packing a lot into one summer, and based on how things started shaping up I should have known I was setting myself up for failure. On August 7 I ran the Ouray 50 miler in Colorado and won (well, co-won, but that’s a different story), followed that up two weeks later with the 38 hour adventure of climbing all 9 of Idaho’s 12, 000-plus foot peaks (didn’t feel quite as strong as at Ouray but great adventure and goal accomplished), then two weeks later with the Rut 50k (went badly, slightly hurt), then two weeks after that I headed to Oregon for this, my first 100-miler. In hindsight it’s clear to see I tried to stack too many A game efforts in that seven-week span.
It’s usually a bit of a hectic mess to fit these races into life and work. It goes something like this: get off work on Thursday, spend the night with friends in Couer d’Alene, drive the rest of the way to Oregon on Friday and sleep in my car near the start, run through Saturday and into Sunday morning, sleep and limp around the event for the rest of Sunday, drive all the way back to Missoula on Monday. It’s they type of thing where it doesn’t feel that taxing while you’re in the moment, but looking back on it it’s clear to see how much it drains you both mentally and physically.
But it’s pretty fun in the moment. There’s about eight miles of semi-rutted dirt road to get into the lake where the race starts, and I ended up stuck behind this nice jeep most of the way. Talking sub-10 miles an hour on a road you could drive twenty easily. I mean, I drive a Prius — I shouldn’t be right behind anyone on a dirt road, much less a jeep.
After checking in just at dark I drove down a dirt road away from the start thinking I would just pull off at the side of the road or in one of the campgrounds. I found wide spot in the road big enough for the car and pulled out the stove to reheat a big pile of spaghetti I’d made the day before. My impeccable planning got the best of me though, I’d forgotten to clean out my little MSR cooking pot from when I used it at a race two weeks before. There was more mold than food in it, so cooking was out of the question. Cold spaghetti it was. Living the dream, there. I ate by headlamp, packed my bag and drop bags for the morning, and read a book for a while. Sleep didn’t come easily, but eventually the light rain on the car roof did the trick.
6 a.m. alarm goes off. It’s still dark, but thankfully the rain has stopped. I was nervous as hell. You know that feeling you get sometimes before something you’re dreading or just incredibly anxious about is about to happen, when you’re acutely aware of time marching inexorably forward? Like when you’re an hour out from giving a big presentation or doing some crazy physical endeavor and you can’t understand where all the time went and why there’s only an hour left. That about sums up the feeling.
Ten minutes before race start the organizers got on the microphone and asked how many were doing their first 100. To my surprise 40 – 50% of the runners raised their hands. I had no idea this race was so popular among 100 miler newbies. It made me feel a little less intimidated.
At this point in the summer I was feeling as fit as I’d ever been, and cautiously optimistic about how I could do in this race. I had no delusions of winning, but I thought on a stellar day I had a chance at breaking 20 hours. Barring that, I wanted to break 24 hours.
So then we were off. The first 20 miles went real well, just taking things easy and not pushing myself too hard. Chatted a bunch with other runners and just generally tried to put the rest of the day to come out of my head. Ran through some beautiful views of undulating forest around little postcard lakes, some neat morning fog filtering sun beams through the trees, and expansive views south to Mount Jefferson and the Mt. Hood National Forest.
But at mile 20 I started getting an aching pain in the front of my right ankle. It wasn’t too bad, and I chalked it out to the random pains that come and go sometimes. The pain took up residence and settled in for the long haul, though. By the time the course circled back to the Olallie Lake Resort where we’d started 26 miles before, I wasn’t talking to other runners much at all. I found a pace and a mental state that let me put the discomfort in the back of my mind, and I started grinding out the miles.
The run wasn’t all bad, by any means. If you’re a fan of rolling, open trail through forest this one has it in spades. And I did chat with other runners off and on through the majority of the run, but really from the Clackamas aid station at mile 55 I just had to concentrate on the task at hand.
By mile 70, just after dark, my ankle was cooked. After a 15-mile loop around Timothy Lake the course puts you right back at the Clackamas aid station, and from there you retrace your steps along the PCT for 30 miles to the finish. I thought about having someone take a look at my ankle, but in my singlemindedness of the moment I reckoned there wasn’t anything anyone could do besides telling me to quit. So I grit my teeth and put my compression sleeve on, thinking it would help keep the inflammation down. Who knows if it helped.
From here I knew it was going to be a long, long night. I’d put in a good time on the first 50 miles, 10 hours 23 minutes, so the cutoffs weren’t a huge concern as long as I could walk. But man, I was not excited about the prospect of walking the last 30 miles in as much or more time than it took me to cover the first 50.
Eventually, the night all blurred together. By this point most of the other runners had picked up their pacers, and I’d come across runners sleeping along the side of the trail with their pacer keeping watch. I felt jealous; I had no pacer and didn’t trust myself to wake up if I fell asleep, plus as the hours went on I seriously doubted my ability to get going again if I were to stop.
The downhills hurt the worst. I didn’t bring trekking poles for this, but I wished I had. They probably would’ve helped take some of the strain off the bad ankle. As it was I was reduced to a painful half-step on my right foot for anything resembling a downhill.
At one point, there was a log across the trail, slanting down from the steep hill above. In normal circumstances this waist-high log would take about 5 seconds to navigate. By this time I got to it, though, I’d been falling asleep on my feet for some time, my eyes going crossed and unfocused and my legs wobbling. I bet the log took me four or five minutes to get over. It’s funny how the effects of the effort and sleep deprivation would come in waves. At times throughout the night I’d feel sharp and perfectly alert. And then in other moments it took a ton of concentration and mental strength to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
The morning broke with about 10 miles still to go. The pain had leveled off at some point in the night and wasn’t getting any worse, but it sure as hell wasn’t getting any better, either. I stopped a few minutes from the finish, while I was still in the trees and out of sight of the crowd. Tried to collect myself mentally and physically. I knew my ankle was very swollen and hurt, I didn’t want to look at it; I just wanted to finish and sit down.
You know you’re worked over when you can’t even muster a halfhearted jog across the finish line. I trudged across the line — 25 hours & 50 minutes — and immediately accepted help from two medics. They half-carried me over to the med tent, pulled my shoes off and got some ice on my legs. My ankle was swollen, as they say, like a balloon. Someone brought me a big plate of pancakes and sausage, and I stayed there for half an hour just stoked to be sitting down.
After that thirty minutes, absolutely everything was seized up. If there was a crawling baby I had to catch I would’ve failed miserably. I had to throw my arm over the shoulder of one of the med guys and shuffle, tiny step by tiny step, the two hundred yards to my car. After a nap I was able to shuffle around without help, but the slightest obstacle was too much. I tried to bend down to pick up my drop bag and fell right on my face. Used someone else’s trekking pole to get back up. Classy stuff.
In retrospect I’m glad I ran a 100-miler. It is important to me to have that benchmark, to know I can do it. But I’m not certain that that particular type of suffering is what I really want to focus my running on. At least for now, I’ll stick with the shorter (like 50 mile), more technical kinds of events. I think less running on the flats and more verticality evens out the playing field for me. And the ankle is fine now, too — I’d just tried to do too much in too short a time span through July, August and September and that ankle was just the first piece to break down. But some good rest, beer and PT through the winter has helped a bunch.