Oreos are my new favorite ultra food. I'll get to that in a bit.
At the suggestion of Trail Nerd extraordinaire Bad Ben Holmes myself and four other Nerds headed out to Portland, Oregon for the The Mt. Hood PCT (Pacific Coast Trail) 50-Miler on July 25th, 2008. This was Ben's third year running the race, the rest of us were noobies to this one.
My trip started, and remained, an exercise in sleep deprivation. I flew out of KC on Friday, originally planning on leaving at 11am, catching a connection in Atlanta and making it into Portland around 7pm. Because I'm a super-duper frequent flyer on Delta I get to change my flights for free on the day of travel. So, my plan was to catch an earlier flight out of KC on Friday in order to catch an earlier connection to Portland in Atlanta. I didn't feel like getting to Mt. Hood in the dark but when I originally got the ticket the flights I had were the best option (award ticket...).
So, the bright thing for me to do would have been to get a good nights sleep on Thursday night, making sure I was fresh for my long day of traveling on Friday (it's a 6 hour flight from ATL-PDX). Did I do that? Pfft. No. See, Step Brothers came out on Friday and my friend Erin is a die-hard Will Ferrell fan. This means she wanted to see it at 12:01 am on Friday. I tagged along. Of course, the movie which didn't end until 2am. So, I got home sometime around 2:45. Hmm. If I was going to make the 7:10 I had to be up and lively by 4:30ish. I still had laundry to do and, true to form, hadn't packed yet. No sleep, here I come.
I somehow managed to get my laundry done and my packing done fairly quickly - with enough time for a 1 hour power nap. Midway through the nap a nice little thunderstorm hit. Generally no big deal, right? Right... Apparently I have a leak in my room. I woke up about halfway through my "nap" to the sound of water hitting the carpet. Gaarrgh! I didn't make the 7:10. I got back on my original flight.
Flights are generally inconsequential. My Atlanta to Portland one was not. I was hoping to catch some sleep on this one since it was so long and the seats were much more conducive to sleeping than my first flight. Shortly after boarding I realized that would probably be a pipe dream. This family got on with their four young kids, probably ranging from 3-8 years old. Something about them told me they didn't do a good job controlling the kids, I'm not sure what it was, I just had a feeling. One of the boys sat in the seat in front of me.
Almost immediately the kid took an interest in seeing how annoying he could be to me and everyone nearby. He was quite successful. His favorite thing to do to me was to recline his seat back and look at me to see my reaction. His dad was sitting next to him and kept telling him not to do it but he kept at it. Sigh.
The only good thing about the flight was the dinner they served us. The stewardess asked me whether I wanted the chicken or the fettucini. Uhh, that's a tough one, carb loading - sweet! It was actually a really good meal. Delta generally does a good job with that I must say.
I made it to Portland, so did that kid, although it was close a few times. I got my rental car and started the 97 mile drive to Mt. Hood.
By the time I got there it was pretty dark. I managed to find my campsite with no directions. I also found the race start, which was only about seventeen and a half feet from my campsite. Quite convenient. I parked the car, got the headlamp on, and got my tent pitched. (I wonder if I'll ever get to a point where saying that doesn't make me laugh...I sure hope not.) I crawled in and proceeded to try to get a few hours of sleep. It was about ten o'clock when I first laid down. I couldn't sleep. WTF? Sigh.
I got up and walked around a bit, meandering out to the road to explore a bit. The stars immediately caught my eye. It was amazing. There were so many. I hadn't seen stars like that since my trip to Yellowstone six years ago. I was totally absorbed in the view. I could faintly see the dusty arm of the Milky Way, the obvious constellations, and many more things I had no clue what they were but wished I knew. I could have sat out on that road all night.
I finally got tired and headed back to the tent. It had gotten quite chilly and I was glad I had some extra layers of clothing to keep me warm. I found a comfy position and finally fell asleep.
I had set my alarm for 5:15. I woke up at 4:30. Hmm. Tried to go back to sleep, no dice. So, I figured I'd head over to the race start to see what was going on. I got all my stuff packed in the car and moved my car out of the campsite. I strolled up to the race start, got my packet, and watched the folks who had opted for the 5:30 start begin to stumble to the start line. This race lets you choose if you want the 5:30 or 6:30 start, the idea being that if you need more time to complete the race you've got extra daylight to do it with if you choose the 5:30.
The 5:30 starters
Fellow Trail Nerds Gary and Bobbi had opted for the 5:30 start. Gary's wife was there also. We chatted for a bit, took some pictures, etc. Not long after the race director sent the 5:30 folks off and I was left to change into my running gear and to see how many bagels I could stomach over the next hour. I made a horrible mistake at this point. When putting my stuff on I forgot to apply copious amounts of vaseline to my groin. I would pay for this, horribly, for pretty much the entire race.
Around 6 I saw Ben and his son Matt pull up. Within about five seconds of getting out of the car Ben hooked me up with a brand new Trail Nerds sleeveless shirt to run in. It was wonderful. Unfortunately, I wanted to run in my Run Across Kansas shirt, since I had to start promoting that run. Plus, I don't do so well with a sleeveless shirt and a camelback. Chafing generally occurs.
Greg Burger was also there and he lined up for the 6:30 start with us. We got some last minute instructions from Olga, the RD, which included some pointers for not getting lost on the trail because there's some parts where it's not marked so well. I was wondering "well, why don't you mark it better?". I'll complain about that later.
The run starts out on pavement, probably just short of a half mile of it, before turning onto the PCT. The trail is mostly single-track so running next to a buddy is pretty difficult. I fell in behind a lady who was keeping a nice pace and I could hear Ben chatting it up a few folks behind me with Greg nearby. With all the folks on the trail there was a lot of dust being kicked up and I could taste it, which kind of sucked, but wasn't anything a few swigs of water couldn't take care of.
About two minutes after getting onto the trail I noticed that I was already chafing in my groin. That's never happened to me so early on a run. Thinking that this could present a problem I started hating myself for not putting vaseline on before the start. It wasn't bad, so I just put up with it.
Crater Lake is the first aid station, about 6 miles from the start. The scenery leading up to it was just amazing. We spent some time running along Timothy Lake, which was this immense body of water surrounded by tall pines. The trail was nearly perfect, somewhat technical, but not too much, and offered a nice soft dirt layer for us to run on.
The Crater Lake aid station was interesting. To get there we had to run along these wooden planks which covered a marsh of sorts. It was a little tough when you'd encounter a runner headed in the opposite direction as one of you had to kind of step off the planks for the other to pass. I found them quite enjoyable for the bounce factor. If you hit them just right you got a nice little bounce off of the planks. That's totally something my dad would have yelled at me for when I was younger.
Many things about a Camelback suck, especially how much of a pain in the arse it is to refill it. It takes too long to open it up, open the bladder, and get it filled. Plus you have to take the dumb thing off, which is kind of a pain. I really need to either start running with just water bottles or see if a Nathan pack is easier to use. This is my excuse for how much time I spent at most of the aid stations - Ben was generally in and out before I could even get my Camelback off. It was kind of depressing.
I caught back up with Ben and Noah, a teacher from California who we had saved from a confusing section of trail shortly before Crater Lake aid station. The three of us ran together for most of the next leg, to the next aid station which was only about 3.2 miles from Crater Lake. I don't think this one had a name. It was just a canopy on a dirt road staffed by some friendly volunteers. Nothing looked appetizing at this aid station but I knew I had to eat, so I ate as many potatoes as I could and got going again.
Bad Ben's good side
I can't remember anything particularly exciting about the section of trail between aid station #2 and the Thong aid station (yes, it was called the Thong aid station). There was a pretty slow and steady uphill climb but nothing that wasn't too runnable.
We got to the Thong aid station, greeted along the trail by thongs hanging from trees and signs. There were thongs everywhere! I loved it. The folks there were really nice and all seemed to be having a good time. I ate what I could, got more water, and got going.
After leaving the Thong aid station you're greeted by some long switchbacks which will take you up to a pass then down to the fourth aid station. These were pretty brutal for me and I'm not sure why. I hadn't been running real hard, but my legs were feeling very sore. It was kind of confusing and a bit demoralizing. Add to that the chafing I was dealing with. Man, it was painful. There's really no good way to describe it, it just burned, horribly, with every step. I had some vaseline with me and I applied it, but it didn't help. It just burned.
I kept up with Ben as best I could, Greg took off ahead of us. I was struggling to get to the top of the pass. My calves had cramped up pretty bad and I was starting to feel sick. It wasn't a pukey sick feeling, it was that I'm-getting-a-cold sick feeling. My throat hurt a bit and my nose was running. Great. I was totally blaming that kid from the flight for it too. Little bastard.
We got to the fourth aid station, me somehow keeping up with Ben. I took a little extra time here, getting more food in me and just relaxing a bit. I knew that I had a pretty nasty climb ahead of me...I had no idea how nasty it would be though. Ben took off ahead of me and I ended up in a group which included Greg and some other folks - including a nice guy from Minnesota who gave me a great piece of advice for the race: "It's a 2/3 1/3 race, you put 2/3 of the effort into getting to Timberline (the 25 mile turnaround) and 1/3 of your effort into getting back to the start". I had no idea how true that would be.
Just to re-iterate my situation at this point. I'm at mile 20-ish, my groin is on fire, I feel sick, my legs are just generally sore, my calves are cramped, and I've got a 5 mile, 2,500 foot climb ahead of me. I was also a disaster mentally.
I lost the group I was running with because I couldn't keep running with them. I had to walk the uphills, and the entire dammed leg was uphill. My calves were killing me. I had taken some extra s-caps at the last aid station to try to deal with the cramping but it wasn't helping. I couldn't figure out why. The only thing that kept me going was the thought that I just had to keep going. There were some stretches of the trail here that were covered by snow, which was kind of cool. The scenery was great, of course. If only I wasn't not even halfway through a run I would have been having a wonderful friggin time.
Somehow I made it up and out of the tree line, not yet to Timberline lodge, but it wasn't too far off. This is a pretty "famous" part of the course for the runners. The ground turns into this very soft, very fine, sand-like dirt that is absolutely impossible to run on. It's one of those surfaces where you end up taking half a step backwards for every step you take forward. Going uphill it was completely un-runnable. It also made me hate life even more than I did earlier. My groin was still burning, I was still sick, except now I felt like I was going to puke. The most efficient way to walk up the trail at this point was to walk with your toes pointed as far out as possible in order to get the most surface area of your shoes pushing on the sand.
After a few, well, many minutes of completely hating life and wanting to quit and thinking I'd never make it up the mountain I, for a reason I'll never know, thought of Winston Churchill's famous "if you're going through hell, keep going" quote. Pretty lame, I know. But it worked for me. This was seriously hell to me and the only thing I could do was keep going through it.
After a while I saw Gary on his way back down the mountain. I hated him for having already gotten to the turnaround. I think he took my picture...I don't want to see it! I'm sure I looked like a total a-hole.
Finally I got to Timberline Lodge. I was in bad shape. I saw Ben with his son, nephew and brother. He gave me five and told me good job. Later I'd find out that he thought I looked like total hell, a good observation at that point. Knowing Matt was up there made me think about dropping and catching a ride back down with him. I wanted to save whatever skin I had left in my groin and I thought I was sick so I didn't think another 25 miles of running was such a great idea. Hmm, should I drop?
Well, I found my way over to the aid station, got my camelback filled, found my drop bag, and on a whim grabbed a handful of oatmeal raisin cookies. I found a nice secluded area to die in and sat down to change my shoes and take stock of my situation. I started to eat one of the cookies and immediately became completely enamored with these things. They were amazing. I couldn't stop eating them. I think if you would have talked to me at this point the only thing I could have managed was a "Mmmmm, cookie!". Seriously, you would have thought I was a mental patient. The only thing I focused on, thought about, or did for the next five minutes involved those cookies.
I got my shoes changed once I got my focus back and took my long-sleeve undershirt off. I also took an ibuprofen and two s-caps. And then I was off, back down the mountain. I had spent about fifteen minutes at the aid station, trying to get myself back together. My groin was still killing me, I wasn't as sore anymore, but I still felt kind of sick. All told it took me about an hour and forty-five minutes from aid station #4 to the point where I was headed back down the mountain. That's slow. Luckily forces were conspiring to get me back down much quicker than I had gotten up.
I started back down the mountain still hurting a bit. But I was feeling better. I wasn't getting my hopes up. About a quarter of a mile from the aid station is the highest point of the race. There was a guy standing there telling us that. I don't know if he was just a spectator or a volunteer or what but him telling me that did a huge number on my mental status. It felt so good to know it was all downhill from there. Shortly after that a photographer asked me about my shirt as I ran by, asking if I had run across Kansas yet. I said I hadn't, but was planning on it. He thought it was awesome and he really liked the shirt (something I heard many times in the race). All of a sudden my legs didn't hurt anymore. I didn't feel sick anymore either. Hmm. What's going on?
The sand was even fun to run in. I was taking pretty big strides, really enjoying the softness. I started picking my pace up. Wow, I felt pretty good. Then my ipod decided to join in and played Journey for me, Don't Stop Believin'. I picked it up some more. There's an exceptionally steep section of the sand which I really struggled getting up. I hit that section on the downhill and basically jumped off of it, taking a few steps to kind of control my out-of-control self. As I was coming down a lady going the other way said "wow, you make that look fun". Hell yeah it was fun. Ok, I'll try running a bit faster...it didn't hurt. Well, except my groin.
I kept going, I kept passing people, lots of people. Two guys got out of my way and said "wow, you're moving dude". Hmm, thanks guys. I looked at my Garmin...I was doing 7:20's. Whaaa? No way. I kept running and the watch was pretty consistent, 7:30, 7:15, etc. I wasn't even breathing hard. My ipod kept helping, randomly choosing some great songs with good beats to keep me going - Stronger, Top Gun Anthem, No Way They Can Stop Me Now. It was great.
I got back into the tree line, actually missing the sand since it was so fun to run down. Then the endorphins hit for the first time. Wow, they felt amazing. They started in the back of my head, as usual, engulfed my head, then moved down my back, radiating out to my limbs. Ahh. And they stayed for a while, I couldn't believe it. So, I kept my pace up, kept passing people, keeping my somewhat out of control downhill self going. I only walked twice between Timberline and aid station #4, and not for very long.
On my way into aid station #4 I kept my pace up and was greeted with a "you're flying man" from one of the volunteers. I felt great, and wanted to keep my pace going. I did another round of ibuprofen and s-caps along with more food than usual just in case. I also grabbed some Oreos, kind of on a whim since I didn't think they'd sit very well. I headed out and proceeded to eat everything I had in my hands, including those Oreos. Wow, they were tasty. They were super tasty. I started craving more Oreos.
I knew I had the Thong aid station to look forward to, and I was sure they had Oreos there. I wanted more. I walked much of the uphill after aid station #4 but ran when I could, passing even more folks. Along a flat section near the top I came across Greg, he didn't seem very talkative at that point. I asked him where Ben was and he grunted out something along the lines of "about 200 yards ahead". Hmm, thanks dude. I caught up to Ben. I think he was surprised to see me considering what I looked like at Timberline.
We ran together for a bit but I still had a bunch of pent-up energy and got going ahead of him. Most of the rest of the trip to the Thong aid station was downhill or generally flat so I enjoyed that. I got there and made a beeline for the Oreos. Yumm. Hmm, maybe eating just cookies wasn't a wonderful idea. I ate some potatoes, watermelon, potato chips, gummy bears, M&M's, and more Oreos.
I got going, knowing I had a relatively long climb ahead of me to the next aid station. I tried to run what I could, but had difficulty, so I did a lot of walking on the uphills. The view from here was amazing. Mt. Hood is off in the distance and there's a flat expanse below you, it's quite breathtaking. I was the only person around so I stopped for a bit to just enjoy it. It made me feel very alone, just me and nature with this imposing mountain which controlled everything around it, including, earlier, me. No other sport gives you that.
I made it to aid station #2 still in good shape, except for my groin. It was killing me, worse than I could ever have imagined it would get. If the government ever gets tired of water boarding people they should really look into inducing chafing in men. I'd have told you anything at that point to get it to stop.
The 3.2 miles between aid station #2 and Crater Lake felt longer than it should have, even though I made it pretty quickly. I was really ready for the race to be over at this point. My muscles felt great, I had energy, it was just my dammed chafing that was holding me back. Every step was an exercise in mental pain management.
I made it to Crater Lake, chatted with the volunteers, who referred to me as "Kansas", probably because of my shirt. Actually, most people were calling me that now that I think of it. I'm guessing they called most of us trail nerds "Kansas". It was a nickname I wore with pride. I ate a bit more, grabbed some...wait for it...Oreos, and got going again on the last leg of the run. Ahh, it felt so good to know that the next time I stopped would be the last.
I took some time to really enjoy the scenery on this last leg. It really was a beautiful section of trail. There was a creek (river?) which fed into Timothy Lake that we ran along, and then there was the lake itself, so vast. I kept a good pace, passing some more people along the way. Grimacing every step because of my groin. I did walk most of the uphills, but I ran some also, knowing I had the energy to complete the run. I passed a guy who was doubled over on the side of the trail. He was ok, just cramping really badly. He said he didn't need anything and I moved on. He didn't look so hot at that point. I also passed two women running with their dog. I know at least one of them was in the race, I assume the other was a pacer. The dog was awesome, running all around them, excited to be out in the woods playing. Once I passed them, after a minute or so, I felt something hit me in the back of the foot. WTF? It was that dog, it had ran up behind me and sniffed my feet. After the race I found them and told them how much I loved their dog - the lady apologized for it running up on me but I didn't mind at all. Apparently they're trying to break it of the habit of doing that to people. I think it's funny.
I kept running, knowing the finish had to be close. I ran up one last long uphill feeling like it was the last, since I remembered that the trail started with a long uphill I knew a long downhill would be the last section of trail during the race. I was right. I came up over the hill and was presented with a long downhill section. Off to my right I could see the road that led to the finish. Finally.
I turned onto the road and relished the fact I was almost done. I picked up my pace as best I could but was limited from the groin pain. The chafing was insane. I was scared to see what it had done to me.
I got to the small trail which led to the finish, motored up the hill to cowbells and cheering from the crowd, and made it across the finish. 10 hours and 12 minutes. Dang. I got a big hug from one of the RD's (Olga, I think) and a nifty running hat for finishing. Gary was there, having finished a few minutes before me (he likes to point out that he beat me even with his one hour head start).
Walking was painful, mainly due to the condition of my groin. I didn't want to move, and when I walked it was more like swinging my legs from one point to another, not really walking. I grabbed some water, a pop, and sat down near the finish, waiting for Ben and Greg to finish. I chatted with some folks at the finish (who ended up putting the idea of visiting Powell's books into my head in Portland - bad idea). About twenty minutes later Ben and Greg came up the hill, together, and finished in spectacular Trail Nerd fashion.
I found my way over to the grill for a spectacular veggie burger. It was quite tasty after such a long run. Ben's entourage showed up a few minutes later and we all moved over to a picnic table to move as little as possible and reminisce on the race. Gary and his wife fished beers out for those who wanted them, I wasn't in the mood for some reason. I stuck to water, dreading trying to walk again.
Ben and Greg finishing
A gaggle of Trail Nerds
After half an hour or so of chatting I figured it was time to get going. We took some pictures and I headed over to my car, slowly, very slowly. About the time I got my shoes off I realized I had forgotten to get my drop bag, dammit. I went ahead and got changed and proceeded to try to clean myself off with some baby wipes I had snagged from Ben. The first area I headed for was the place of the worst chafing. Yeah, that was a horrible idea. I've been in pain before. Never like this. It put me on the ground. It hurts to think about it. God. No way I was showering that night, no way. Water would just kill me.
After a few minutes I regained some of my composure and went drop-bag hunting. This was quite an effort since it involved walking. I found one of the RD's and asked where the drop bags where. She told me they weren't back yet, and probably wouldn't be for another couple of hours...what? Seriously? Now, I'm a pretty laid back dude, there's not a lot you can do to really get to me. This really pissed me off. Not to be mean but that was pretty ridiculous. I had left the turnaround almost 5 hours ago. I even put my drop bag in a special "bring it back" section. How in the world could they not have been brought back - and how would it be a few more hours until it showed up? I was pissed. She said they would be left at the start overnight so I could get it anytime. Super, that's real convenient for someone staying in friggin Portland.
Yeah, I could have stayed and waited, but seriously, after ten hours of running, that isn't really an option. Plus, I had to cover 97 miles to get to my hotel. I had to decide if I cared that much about what was in my bag. A pair of socks, one of my long-sleeve undershirts, and a pair of shoes. I've got about 200 miles on each of my current shoes (I have three pairs of the exact same shoe and I rotate them). During the race I was thinking about how they felt pretty bad and how I needed to replace them. Well, I decided the shoes weren't worth it. The only thing I really cared about was the shirt, but I didn't care enough to wait a couple of hours for it. I said screw it, and left. But, it still does piss me off. Sorry folks, but getting drop bags back in under five hours seems pretty simple to me.
The drive back to Portland was pretty uneventful. The sun was getting lower and I was driving right into it, which is one reason why I wanted to get going, I remembered on the drive there that when the sun was low it was directly in my rearview mirror, which wouldn't be comfortable to drive into.
I made it to my hotel, which surprisingly wasn't difficult to find, and stumbled in, past a bunch of folks sitting outside waiting for something. I was covered in dirt, was wearing flip-flops so I had super-white feet and was walking very oddly. I can only imagine what they thought of me. I probably scared them.
The nice lady who checked me in asked me what I was doing in Portland, probably to assess if I was insane or not based upon my appearance. I told her I had just ran a race near Mt. Hood. She asked if I meant on horses. Umm, no, on foot. She did think I was insane. I got the standard "I can't even run a mile" out of her. We chatted for a bit, she seemed interested in ultras. Maybe I got her to go try to run that mile again, I don't know, I hope so.
After getting to my room I sprawled out on the floor, not wanting to take a shower, or do much of anything really. I ate my subway that I had picked up on the way and watched some Sportscenter. Avoiding the inevitable shower.
Finally I willed myself into it. It had to be done. I did stand there for a few minutes, watching the water, delaying the inevitable. Finally, I stepped in. It hurt, bad. Not as bad as the baby wipe did, but it hurt. But, amazingly, after a few minutes the pain got a little less worse. I could stand it. Whew.
The rest of the night involved me sitting on my arse moving as little as possible. I passed out fairly early, probably due to the fact that I'd slept about seven hours in the past two days. I paid my sleep debt, I guarantee you that.
All-in-all I really enjoyed the race. The drop bag thing still pisses me off but I'll get over it. There were some confusing parts of the trail which could have been easily marked but weren't. I know it caused some confusion for some folks and it's only somewhat irritating because the RD's were mentioning it before the start. The volunteers at the aid stations were great - very friendly, especially the Thong aid station, I loved that one.
It was also fun to check out Portland. It’s my first time here and I really like the city. It’s a bit Emo for me so I kind of stick out, ok, I really stick out, but it’s still a fun town. The public transportation is great, I wish we had something close to similar in KC. Wishful thinking.