Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Samsquantch or Long Dark Blues

Real truth about it is
No one gets it right.
Real truth about it is
We're all supposed to try
There ain't no end to the sands
I've been trying to cross
The real truth about it is
my kind of life's no better off
If I got the map or if I'm lost.

-Songs:Ohia, "Farewell Transmission"  (aka "Long Dark Blues")

Mile 0
Photo credit: Scott Rokis

18 months ago I did something I thought was impossible when I finished Arrowhead the first time. It was not too long before that when I began hearing about 200 mile races. A couple popped up and then a couple more. I figured I would try one eventually when the time was right. Then running friends started doing them. The consensus seemed to be that the Bigfoot 200 in Washington state was the most beautiful and difficult. After some disappointment last year I thought I would reduce the schedule and the extra time would allow me to finally fit in a big race like this one.

A 200 mile race?

They sounded tough but not a race that couldn't be completed. The time limits seemed generous. I could run a 100 so a 200 would just mean slowing down even more and getting a nap or two in. Simple.

The Bigfoot 200 begins at the southern foot of Mount St. Helens. The course runs around the mountain, across the 1980 eruption blast zone and then meanders north towards the tiny town of Randle. 205 miles of mountain trails with over 42k feet of climbing and nearly 44k feet of descending. This was not going to be easy.

The doubt begins when I actually see the mountains in the distance. This doubt ramps up exponentially as I get nearer and look up to only see trees and trail ahead of me. As I drove to race HQ I tried to get a sense of what I would be facing. Some day I will learn this never works.

This is the portion where I run through the highlights of the race. I have a problem though. The race took place over parts of 5 days and 4 nights. It is impossible, no matter how I try, to recall notable events and when they happened. It all really does run together.

The night before the race I was calmer than prior to most races. That didn't mean I was relaxed or feeling ready to go. I finally got around to sorting out my drop bags and gear. Lately, this is a task I just put off even though it takes relatively little time. I suppose procrastinating on this makes the race seem further away when I 'm not ready. It did feel good to have it done, though I constantly worry that I am forgetting some critical item.
Pre-race organizing

We met the bus to the start at 5:30 AM on Friday. A two and half hour school bus ride is rather uncomfortable just prior to starting an ultra but part of the deal.  We arrived at the start about 45 minutes before the start so I had plenty of time to let the nerves settle in. I was not feeling my best. I awoke with a slightly upset stomach but was able to get a banana, muffin and some coffee down.


We're off!!
We left Marble Mountain Sno-Park and immediately started climbing the volcano. This was a long slow climb of over 3000 feet in the first 6 or 7 miles. At this point, we entered a boulder field which was a mile or 2 of scrambling over large stones. This all forced a slower pace which was good because this whole section was exposed and the day was getting warm. It was still the morning of the first day and I was sweating at an alarming rate.

The person on the far right gives some perspective of the boulder field. 

By the time I reached the first station, around 12 miles, I had just finished the 2+ liters of water I was carrying. Already at this first stop, nothing at the food table looked good but I got a few things down, grabbed a couple gels and moved on. I also emptied the volcanic sand from my shoes for probably the 20th time. I now understood why they were selling gaiters at the pre-race meeting.

The next section ran up the west side of the mountain and then across the 1980 blast zone on the north side. The afternoon was here and there was no protection from the sun since the trees have not returned to this area yet. While there was a good amount of elevation change, it was spread out. The footing was great as at times there was no real trail to follow.

Navigating around a volcano
photo credit: Hames Ellerbe

The going was slow but consistent until 10 or so miles in when my water was nearly empty. I tried rationing it, hoping to find a stream to refill. The landscape was stark and dry with no sign of water. My stomach began to turn as my need for calories increased. I tried getting an energy bar down but had to chew endlessly to work up enough saliva to swallow it. I was beginning to feel awful and not even to the first sundown. After what felt very long, we came across a tiny stream of water running down the mountain. The problem was that the water was milky gray from the volcanic ash. Luckily, I read the runner manual that recommended a water filter. I took a few good gulps of filtered water and moved on. This held me over until reaching what the race director called an "oasis" about a mile further down the trail. A ribbon of green brush wound down the mountain, indicating a stream of clean snow runoff. I refilled my water bottles, relieved I could try to recover from several hours of poor hydration.

photo credit: Howie Stern

It was shortly before the sun set that I finally reached the second aid station. I was as relieved as reaching this station as I have been finishing some races. I was hot, thirsty, hungry and getting tired. This was mile 28 and I already felt spent. How could I possibly get through multiple nights and another 170 something miles? I sat dejected and frustrated in the chair trying to find some food I could get down. Looking around, the other runners seemed to be feeling the same way I did.

Thankfully the next section was only around 9 miles and not too much climbing. Basically, we were headed back across the blast zone but on a more northern route. I got myself up and set off, hoping to cover as much ground as possible before losing the sunlight. The temperatures began to drop as soon as the sun moved behind the mountains. I stopped several times to just look back at Mount St. Helens in the waning light and enjoy the moment.

Coldwater Lake was up next and the first stop that was designated a sleep station. My plan was stopping to get  a quick nap either here or the next station. The next was 19 miles away so the choice was almost made for me. The last two sections were relatively easy but I was still struggling with getting food and water in. I was offered a cheeseburger, got that down and headed to a sleep tent.

The volunteers tracked who was sleeping where and when they wanted to be up. It turned out to be a very good system. I told them to wake me in 45 minutes. The sleep stations were just large tents with sleeping pads on the ground and a mess of blankets. Lying down I didn't feel like I would sleep but next thing I knew I was getting tapped on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to get up. "No but I will". I picked myself up, wrapped a blanket around myself, and sat to get a few more calories in.

Leaving this station I had no idea what I was in for. It was a long, hard stretch of 18 miles with over 5k feet of climbing and another 4k feet descending. I left Coldwater around 4:30 AM, rolling along easily along the northern edge of the lake before meandering up and through the mountains, reaching the high point of the race a Mount Margaret near 6k feet. Never mind that it took me 6 hours to get to that point from Coldwater. That time was filled with doubt and disbelief. After having made it through the heat and dehydration of the day before and going through most of the night, I felt there was no way I could make it through another night let alone 3 more based on my pace.

After returning from the short out and back to climb Mt. Margaret I met a lady with a heavily taped knee limping along. I told her the out and back was not as far as it looked, to which she responded that her knee was very painful on descents and she was dropping at the next aid so she would skip that section. I said she should just do it, get to the aid and, since there was plenty of time, wait and see if things got better. She turned around and made the climb.

From here to the final day is all very hazy in my mind and jumbles together. This stretch was long and difficult. I began trying to slow down even more on climbs to keep my heart rate from spiking and then sweating too much. The pace felt so unbelievably slow. Looking to find the top of a climb I would become discouraged. So I put my head down and just kept moving and the top would eventually come. In between these mental climbing struggles, I was contemplating just straight up retiring from ultrarunning. The repeated refrain of "you're not even good at this, you not having fun and you're not fooling anyone" just repeated over and over. "Just stop. You can't possibly go another 75 hours. This is stupid."

Relying on my previous race experience helped me through this section. Shifting my focus to my breath during a climb or just when my thoughts were becoming too negative, which was very often at this point. Thinking about the full distance was overwhelming so I tried just concentrating on getting to the next station. Despite all these methods that had worked many times before, I was convinced that there was no possibility of finishing. All the reasons for quitting just kept getting longer as I tried to find the one I could give later that would be accepted by my fellow runners.

I've known my friend Chris for something around 35 years. A cool part of doing this race was a chance to visit with him. He seemed to think this whole thing was interesting and decided to be at the start and visit any aid stations he could. The upcoming Norway Pass was the first chance he would have since the start.  He's always been a person I've admired and the thought of quitting while he was here supporting me was unpalatable.

Finally arriving at Norway Pass aid, I saw the familiar face like I'd hoped. Sitting down, I began relating what had gone on since I had seen him at the start, probably ranting like a crazy person. I relaxed and opened one of the beers I had stashed in my drop bag. Burger, beer, new socks, and replacement shoes for the second pair in two races that blew out. Half an hour or so of collecting myself and I felt back to normal again. I left feeling good for the first time in the race.

Taking care of those feet
The hardest part: Leaving an aid station

The next section were fairly uneventful. We started moving into more wooded areas which protected from the sun for the most part. I tried sleeping at the next station as I was so sleepy when I rolled in, however, I was lying on a cot outside and every time the wind picked up, it would blow under the cot making too cold to sleep, yet I didn't want to get up. After 45 minutes or so, I got up in frustration and left to face the night with not enough sleep.

I struggled with some sleepiness going into that second night. This section was fairly hard from my unreliable recollection. 14 miles and what seemed like one climb after another. Some hallucinations were beginning and I was occasionally looking around me looking for mountain lions or bears. Moving slowly and consistently I worked to just reach the next station where I could sleep. When I reached it, I followed the now established pattern: burger, sleep, breakfast burrito, refill food and water, off again.

As the sun rose again, the course descended to the Lewis River which we followed for several miles. This are was flat and populated with campgrounds and tourists viewing waterfalls or walking their dogs, giving us strange looks. This was a welcome relief from all the hills of the previous 2 days. Also, this section was significant since it bracketed the half way mark of the race. My mind could still not comprehend how it would be possible to go another 100 miles but, again, I would breathe and focus on the getting to the next aid station.

I have little recollection of the Lewis River aid station and I believe I only stayed long enough to eat, again wanting to cover as much of the next section in the daylight as I could. I was beginning to feel awful again. My stomach had recovered and was now demanding all those calories I had missed earlier in the race but I had to cover 19 miles and climb well over 5k feet to get to that food.

When I arrived at the Council Bluff station, I was hungry, tired and growing irritable. It had been around 9 hours since the last stop. I sat down and immediately one of the volunteers was saying there was no sleeping here and we needed to move on. Someone brought me a bowl of chili, which I began to eat and realized it was vegetarian chili. There were not many other options that looked any good to me. It was tasty but not what I wanted. I became more irritable. Noticing this I decided I needed to move on. The station was one of the more remote so they were limited on supplies that could be brought in, hence the lack of sleep tents and plentiful food options. It was the middle of the night, I wanted to sleep but I needed to cover 9 miles to get to the next sleep tents.

I left a bit disgruntled but settled right back into being miserable on the trail, slowly moving forward and checking off those aid stations. The is stretch to Chain of Lakes aid was only 9 miles and a couple thousand feet of climbing and descending. I was fighting sleep desperately the entire way. I did arrive into the station in just over 3 hours which meant I was moving fairly well. Rolling in I grabbed another burger and then headed to the sleep tent. This tent was deluxe compared to the others. It had cots and was heated. Pure luxury. My plan now was to get a good 2 hours of sleep and hope that could carry me most of the way to the finish.

This time for some reason I decided to just set an alarm on my phone instead of getting a volunteer to wake me. I slept a little fitfully but when indications of sunlight started to hit my eyes, I picked up my phone to check how much longer I had to sleep. I had zero time. It was 6:45 and I had set my alarm for 5:45. So naturally I went into full on panic mode. I had overslept and possibly ruined my whole race.

Grabbing some quick food, I bolted out of there a complete emotional mess. How could I be so stupid? Had I gone through all of this so far just to oversleep and not fail? It took a couple miles before I calmed down and realized I only left slightly over half an hour later than I planned, I couldn't make it all up by pushing to hard, and I actually still had more than enough time. I still had the longest and, reportedly, the toughest section coming up so I was concerned with getting through that. I relaxed and settled back into the routine. Step, step, breathe, breathe.

The next 18 miles followed along the top of ridge most of the way. The sun rose and the day became warm. For the first time in the race, I started to be bothered by insects any time I stopped. I felt better from the extra sleep but the heat was beginning to wear me down again. Fantasies of finding the perfect pine tree to lay under in the cool shade swirled around in my head. I tried a couple times to lie down and get just a few minutes of sleep, but within seconds the flies would land on me, not allowing any peace, so I would reluctantly move on. Just prior to the aid station was a required out and back to the top of Elk Peak. The climb up it was very intimidating at first but I was so focused on getting to the station I didn't hesitate going up. The round trip turned out to not be as bad as I thought and I rolled into Klickitat nearly 2 hours sooner than I expected.

I don't recall at what point I began thinking about grilled cheese but it was at least 2 or 3 hours. I was so happy to reach Klickitat. For some reason, I had in my mind from the beginning that if I made it to this point, there would be no doubt of a finish. So jogging in I felt some relief from the panic earlier in the day. I sat down and when the friendly volunteer asked what I wanted, I told her exactly what I had been turning over in my head for so many miles. I wanted 2 grilled cheese and some mayo to dip it in. Horrific I know but those two grilled cheese sandwiches may have been the best of my life. I followed this with a couple breakfast burritos. Needless to say, when I left, my stomach was overly full and it took a solid half an hour before began to feel normal again.

My feet until this point had been in decent shape, which was remarkable considering the mileage and terrain, but things were falling apart. The balls of my feet were beginning to get that familiar sting of blisters forming. I knew that at this point in the race I would be fine with however bad they got I wasn't stopping for a stupid blister. It hurts for a little bit then just blends in with everything else.

I had heard from several other runners that this next stretch was one of the hardest of the race. It turned out to not be too bad. It was around 17 miles and 5k of climbing. The climbs were spread out and by this point int he race I was just putting my head down and grinding forward without even thinking about the discomfort. It was a very long stretch, however, to get through mentally. It was overgrown by cover that made it difficult to see what you were stepping on or over. There were dozens of downed trees to climb over and around. It just seemed to go on forever.

This was the last night to get through. I never reached a winter ultra level of hallucinations, probably due to the minimal sleep I was able to get. I did have the best ones on this section. The super tall fir trees began to look like ancient Greek gods. A little more than an hour from aid station I saw what thought was a giant Zeus, 100 feet up in a tree, opening his mouth to reveal Athena. I chuckled and kept hiking forward.

I made it into the Twin Sisters, the penultimate station around 1 AM. I ate, took a 45 minute or so nap, and had the balls of my feet taped, in an effort to keep the blisters from getting worse. Overall, I took close to two hours here. My finishing time didn't matter. I had plenty of time to make the cutoff. All I had to do now was keep moving, clicking off a mile here and a mile there.

From Twin Sisters to Owens Creek was a combination of heaven and hell. Many more downed trees and the overgrowth was still bad for several miles. There was a short out and back to climb Pompey Peak. This was a tough little climb but I knew it was the last one of the race. The trail after this widened and gently sloped downward. Another runner passed me while running and I decided to try it out and realized that it felt amazing to actually run, instead of "power hiking".

The final aid station of an ultra is always upbeat and fun. Everyone at this point knows the finish is just a formality. This one felt like a party. After the tequila shot a quarter mile before, I was feeling nothing but joy. I ate an insanely delicious plate of eggs, bacon, potatoes, avocado and cheese. I washed it done with another Rainer beer. Out I went, next stop, a 200 mile finish.

I strolled out onto a beautiful wooded forest road for several miles, thinking the entire time that I could not believe I was really going to do this. The forest road turned onto the paved road that would lead into the finish. I continued to alternate between walking and running. The day was growing warmer but not as bad as previous days. I moved along, trying to understand what all this meant to me.

I passed through Randle quickly and turned toward the high school where I would finish on the track around the football field. That final road seemed much longer than it should of been, allowing the emotions to rise up to the surface.

I stepped onto the track. Making the circuit around it, I thought of how I had failed so miserably to have a similar at Western States last year. I thought about DNFs at Leadville and Wasatch. My failure to get a Boston qualifying time back in April. My terrible showing at Ronda del Cims that made me doubt I should even try to do these things any more. This made up for all of it. I needed this finish. I needed to prove to myself that I could still do this. Often, failing makes the success that much more satisfying.

Disbelief and relief
Photo Credit: Howie Stern
Mile 206
Photo credit: Howie Stern

This was easily the most remote and isolated race I have done so far. There were none of the usual signs of humans. There were no random pieces of food wrappers or a broken piece of camping equipment. This land was free of that. It was remote, alone and so very dark at night. Many of the trails were overgrown, indicating how rarely they are used, meaning we were seeing places that few people see. These are the places and sights that draw me to do these ridiculous races. There were dozens of moments where I would stop to take in the scenery and becoming very emotional, whether it be from the raw beauty, fatigue or a combination of the two.

The organization of this race was excellent. The aid stations were everything you could want. Plenty of food and attention from volunteers, many of whom, obviously, are ultrarunners and know what is needed. I never got lost so the course marking was well done as well (I could not imagine getting 206 mile course marked). I'd recommend this race to anyone looking for a beautiful challenge.

I not only had the opportunity to discover and explore an amazing part of the world but I, once again, met a whole new group of fun and inspiring ultrarunners. Over the 4 days out there, I was able to come into contact with so many new faces. I was repeatedly inspired, encouraged and entertained.

I want to give thanks to all those who have and continue to provide encouragement. It really does help. I would hope that I can and do give that back to everyone as well. The thought that I would be letting people down by quitting does help get through some of those difficult times. I'm forever thankful for this.


What have I done???
It's ok. I have a burger and a beer. 

It has been nearly 3 weeks since I finished and I am tired. It is a deep down tired. I have run a few times since then and a vast majority of these runs were just plain bad. Sleep has been getting better but it has taken time since my schedule was so disrupted. I wake up, not feeling sleepy, but as if any physical activity would be too much. I have taken days off. I have tried to go easy on my runs. I feel like I did last year after finishing the Hrimthurs.

There is not much in the tank and it feels miserable. When I run, there is little joy in it and I just want to quit. When I don't run, I feel like I am losing fitness and wasting an opportunity to improve. Just pushing through it did not seem to work last year. I should probably just take another week off but that would drive me, and, most likely, my wife crazy. I know this will eventually pass like all things do, good or bad.

Next on the schedule is the Yeti 100 with the original goal of running under 24 hours and getting a sweet buckle. However, at this point I would be happy just finishing and hanging out with some really cool and inspiring people. It's just running after all.