Pine to Palm Race Report
P2P represents such an amazing and eye-opening adventure that I feel compelled to put some of it down just so I can remember it later and share it with those I love over time.
In late January or early February, I shared laughs at Creekside - geeking out on barbequed chicken pizza and a west coast IPA, humming on all the good things that a Wednesday Night Rogue Valley Runners group run will do for your bones and shooting the shit with a few fellow runners. Shahid Ali, Justin Walker, Joseph Chick, Rich May, Des Barnes and Mike Stadnisky were all there and Rich, Shahid and Mike talked about their experiences on the course before while those of us who hadn’t done it yet stood slack-jawed, dreaming of having that sublime an experience in nature – and longing to challenge our minds and bodies to something that seems so far-fetched at first that most people would not give it a thought.
“What have the watchmen of the world's edge come tonight to look for? Deepening on now, monumental beings stoical, on toward slag, toward ash the colour the night will stabilize at. What is there grandiose enough to witness?”
Hal Koerner is basically the Michael Jordan of ultrarunning (two time winner at Western States, Angeles Crest, won the Bear like 40 times, Hardrock, and the holder of the FKT on the JMT) and he shares it right back with his community through the store, the group runs, his charity work and availability and through race directing the Pine to Palm 100 miler. That Wednesday night, we had been led by Hal up some ungodly blend of trails and pavement into the watershed and back down to his iconic running store. Invariably, most of us had left a job of one type or another (or a classroom), dealt with the day full of modern urban living problems and then decided to strap on a headlamp and some skinny shoes and work our way deep into the hills in the dark. We got further than you would think – the miles were part of it, but the sense of connection we all felt to our senses, to our bodies, the earth and the wilderness were the real “elements” that took us away from checkbooks, phone calls, turn signals and plumbing. After 90 minutes of breathing in fresh air and hearing the trees fly by you as you spill your guts to the 10 guys closest to your pace, nothing could defeat you. Eat your heart out, John Muir. Welcome to paradise, Thoreau.
I came home from Creekside, paid the $200 plus entry fee, and didn’t sleep for an hour that night. I had just added a giant goal to a year full of goals already. And I still had a road racing goal this year that meant I could not do exactly what I would have wanted to train for trail racing (vertical, vertical, vertical). The miles ended up coming anyway – although starting my own practice took some time away that made me intimidated coming into race day. This shit is hard and 100 miles of remote terrain is almost as hard as it can get. For months, I did all sorts of things because of P2P. I did not run comfortable 15 milers on Saturday mornings, I drove to the middle of nowhere and ran straight uphill before bombing a downhill back to my car. I did back to backs. I tried not to eat fries. I tried to have daily smoothies. We bought organic produce. I skipped the Mountain Man most of the time when he came to my work. You get the idea – P2P became a part of my every day life over the last seven months because of the anxiety and hope over what it brought and represented.
Race day began with me barely hearing my alarm about 7 minutes after it was supposed to go off and jumping out of my bed (3:45 a.m.) – I had fifteen minutes until my ride, Frank, was coming to get me and needed to fill my water bladder, make a smoothie, bathe in Vaseline and throw on some clothes. As soon as the Udo’s oil hit the banana, he was knocking on the backdoor and there I was, half awake, throwing my backpack into the back of his ride and giving him a hug, only realizing after a few minutes that he’d worn a polyester shirt and burned the Fight Club soundtrack to a CD just to get me in the right mood to go out and create a little mischief. He might have seen a lawyer he knows getting ready to get in the car, but I was a scared 18 year old kid heading to college that morning – the kid heading to get on the bus for the first day of kindergarten, or the toddler on his first car trip. A puddle of fears with a garnish of hormonal excitement jumped into that car as a mess that would have been incapable of running the gambit of professional school or the bar exam.
We picked up a friend in Jacksonville and then drove to Williams. For those not local – Williams, OR is about an hour from Medford and is as rural as it gets in the western half of Oregon – lots of “don’t tread on me” flags and marijuana gardens. Frank actually got us there a little early and we parked within .1 miles of the start line, plodding up half-awake to a 9-month pregnant Carly Koerner who handed out my bib, the last step to being unable to focus on anything except for 100 miles. 100 miles?!?! Yikes! I had 50 minutes of standing around dreaming of sleep to go before we took off – and that time was spent sharing scared smiles with my friends running the race and having Frank try and jazz me up. Hal approached me at one point and said, “You know this trail better than almost anyone else out there – be a force today.” When an elite all-star of a sport you participate in says a few kind words before a race, it can really ruminate throughout the day. I am thankful to Hal for that kindness as it was one of the images that ended up driving me as the day wore on… Tyler Durden was kicking my first day of school brain around while Michael Jordan came up and told me to hit a three. If I could’ve called for a timeout a la Zach Morris, I would have and bolted outta there and back to my bed where things made sense and I could scheme.
The race began with me intending to go as slow as I could stand up the first summit – Grayback Mountain. I once took a friend from Kentucky, Adam Zornes, up Grayback Mountain and he wanted to kill me afterwards for leading him on that death hike. That death hike was the first 15 miles of my 100 mile race. This 5k or so of climbing over the first 10 miles was the first of four main climbs throughout the day and one of three summits above 7000 feet on the course. I know Grayback well and have run this section of the course. I began by taking off with my friend Paul who I paced at Badger Mountain 100 in March before Boston. I love Paul deeply and we are comfortable with each other, so it was a nice way to start the race. For the first 4 miles or so, we ran together and talked before I started to pull away only to hear “KFG!!!” coming from behind me as Joseph Chick caught up to me from his planned slow start. The Chickster calls me the Kentucky Fried Ginger and I knew it had to be him. We ended up bounding up the trail for the next 25 or so miles together, summiting Greyback and making it down past Seattle Bar while we shot the shit and shared our joys and anxieties.
We caught our first vista views of the Illinois River valley out the North side of Greyback after about 7 miles. In that time, I met Chris from Burbank who I discovered runs often with one of my friends from high school – Philip Branning. We ran up over the summit together, hootin’ and hollerin’ as we knew the course turned to predominantly downhill for the next 15 miles. We passed a few muddy creek crossings, the Grayback meadows with views of the Red Buttes, the O’Brien creek trailhead aid station and down the dirt or gravel road to the Steamboat Springs aid station at mile 22. At this point, I felt fresh and happy not to be too hot yet. Joseph and I were in such symphony and we saw a mutual friend, Scott, working at the 22 aid station as we downed some good foods, refilled our water packs and headed on down the road towards the first time I would see Mary and my crew between miles 28 and 29.
Seattle Bar was a crazy indulgence compared to what we’d grown used to – steady progress. We were weighed (and the scale I was on suggested that I had gained 51 pounds over the first 28 miles). The scale had been fried by the sun that we were running under. That woke me up a little. Coconut water, ginger ale, fruit, a refill on my perpetuem bottles and gels and then we were getting an ice sponge bath before heading up the next, hottest slope of the day. There was loud music – we were stirred awake and pulled from the gloaming quickly by all of the encouragement there.
Leaving Applegate and heading up Stein Butte was going to be a task – I knew that before the race. Last year’s second place runner, Mike Stadnisky, had repeatedly commented on how hot and lengthy that climb had seemed to him. He’s tough as nails so I knew it was going to be rough. With temps getting into the mid nineties and exposed, rocky ridge climbing going on – I began to slip into a deeper and darker place than I had been early on. I could feel Joseph behind me and it had become something of a burden to keep up any pace stronger than a brisk walk. I struggled to continue at the power-hiking pace I had hoped to keep up this slope before I knew how hot it would be. I began to feel dread that I did not have it. I began to feel dread that I would not make it to the next aid station. About a mile and a half or two after leaving Seattle Bar, I told Joseph to go on. He’d been feeling great and was chasing another runner I know, Co Jones, up the hill. I wanted to keep myself from sliding too deep into a bad spot by over amping my body early on. And I was scared too of what I anticipated might be a complete revolt.
The aid station I needed most turned out to be about 2 miles late, although I think it made me stronger in the end. I know the climb to Stein well – I used to hike it before I started trail running and it was one of my routes that stays relatively snow clear at any time of the year. I thought the aid station was going to be at Stein Butte summit and should’ve studied up more. I was “running” this section with Chris who had begun to cramp and a mountaineering guide from Bishop who had recently run the Tahoe Rim Trail 100. We were all low on water – mine had run out with the exception of some unmelted ice cubes. I had my backpack off, eating those ice cubes and trying to get to the next station. At one point, we had not seen a flag for a while and were not sure we were on course – we ended up going forward based on the footprints we saw in the trail and assuming those were from other runners. I was starting to grow unsure of whether the rest of the race – some 65 miles – might be as much of a struggle as those five miles had been. An hour of hacking, overheated, with mild stomach issues and facing dehydration had started to turn me against myself, removing a sense of joy and hope that is crucial to finishing these races.
”It's the poison that it measures brings illuminating vision”
As I crested and saw the aid station, I was overjoyed. I knew Julie and T.J. Hooks would be there – they had amazing, tiny, red grapes. An ice bath. Salt tabs. Ginger ale. And a water refill. My soul recovered almost instantly. We hit a shaded section of downhill trail towards Squaw Lake and the forest was welcoming after our rocky-ridge adventure. There was a breeze that I would have traded a car in to buy. I started screaming downhill with a giant smile on my face. My body temperature had come back to earth and I was excited that the remaining time was not going to be pure pain – I knew I could work with back and forth but did not want to grind through hell for 18 hours unless I absolutely had to. When I hit Squaw, my amazing crew was there – Laura and Jason, Rob, Dave, Scott, and Ms. Mary! There is an out and back there that had me planning to hand off my backpack and receive a hand bottle full of cold and iced coconut water – and it came with an extra prize that meant the world to me at the time – a red plum from a local orchard. Dave and Scott started walking around the lake with me, slowing my run but keeping up an incredibly quick walking pace to let me get food and the coconut water down before I left the lake. They got me even more stoked on my condition.
I remember talking to them and feeling like I had never been happier in my life than I was at Squaw. I knew I had an edge that was going to last a while and could hardly believe the way the human soul can bounce back from such a dismal situation. For the last forty five minutes, I had felt a blister on the top of my left foot’s big toe, so I sat down for the only time during the race to switch my socks on that foot and add a bandaid to keep the blister from getting too big.
I rolled out of Squaw passing four or five people on the descent to Kilgore Gulch before seeing a large group of folks in front of me including one of my friends and inspirations – Justin Walker. I knew Justin was planning on being through that spot a couple of hours earlier and could immediately see that he was in trouble. His eyes were really dilated, his skin was incredibly pale, and he didn’t have the happy and constant determination that is an essential part of the Justin Walker I know and engage with. After walking with him for 10 minutes and trying to get him going, we arrived at the Little Applegate trailhead and a weird water station scene where everyone in that part of the race had oddly pooled up. I struggled as I left Justin with thoughts of whether I should be anticipating the same pain he had. My feelings that Justin was a strong runner made me rethink whether I should be feeling as optimistic as I had. I worked through those feelings by focusing my attention on the descending sun – the rest of the day would not the same desperate struggle to avoid the heat. It’s funny to be happy that you’ve been running for 12 hours just because the sun is going back down. But once I got my attention back on the sun, I was grooving again.
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
I ran into Hanley Gap feeling like a miracle and was crushed to hear, once again, “KFG!” Crushed not to be back with Joseph but because I saw him, sitting down, salt all over his face, with little left behind his eyes. Based on how he had gapped me at Squaw, I knew that something was up. His stomach had blown up on him and he’d been vomiting. My guess is that he overheated, lost his stomach, and then had the “chills” which kept him from adequately addressing the overheating issue – but who knows. I sat with him for a minute and attended to his body – then he got up and walked up to Little Squaw Peak with me. Another hand bottle coconut out and back dreamboat. We reached the summit together and shared one of those hugs that is so meaningful it is hard to describe without feeling lame. We trail runners have these moments, on top of hard earned ridges, alone together, where we share the deepest parts of our souls without having to say much. Joseph and I had that on top of Little Squaw Peak. Matt Gunderson and I shared one of those staring at Shasta for the first time during the Headwaters race. Later, I would share that with Daniel on top of Wagner.
I left Joseph at the top and starting bounding down, getting a preview of the condition of those just behind me (and passing a few folks through the aid station). I thought Joseph would rebound – although I later got discouraging info from Mary about whether that happened at Jackson Gap – I’m proud to say he did rebound and finish. What I saw on that downhill was a lot of folks completely shelled including Burbank Chris – and then four of the happiest fiends I know (Karolina, Shahid, Ather and Tamara) who were pulling out of the aid station the first time as I came back in. They recharged me, as did seeing Mary and Rob at the aid station. I carried a small coke can and pretzels out, power hiking and enjoying my “meal.” The coke was rocket fuel, gearing me up for the climb.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in,
where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
The sun started to go down and the scene behind us was the most beautiful sunset I can remember (there’s one on Tahoe and one in Toulomne Meadows that compete). My breath was regular – the heat was gone – and the climb up to Dutchman’s was on. I felt animal. This was the latest in the race I would spend as time alone – at Dutchman’s I was meeting my first pacer and one of the toughest runners I know, Sera Matthewes, and this was the most animal and autistic that I would probably get. Among other things, I decided that my power animal was a some type of wild cat – I found myself grunt/purring as I came up the hill with joy and thought to my college’s and my hometown school’s mascots – deciding that my size mandated I was some sort of Lynx or smaller cat. I grunted and purred for hours – passing people steadily on the climb and really enjoying the views, the wilderness, and this odd place I had found some essential part of myself left otherwise alone most of the time to operate unseen, drowned out by the noise of our everyday life.
My legs were light – carried by a sense of time that was much longer than the alarm-clocked brain that was rushing around at the start line – and I was thinking in terms of epochs, ages, and major movements of natural history. I ran into an aid station and jokingly asked if I could help the volunteers, if they needed anything, and how they were feeling. I hugged a friend, Amy, who runs ultras but also spends her days helping high-risk teens, earning trusted inner-circle love status from me. It meant the world at that point.
That’s what I chased all day – and that’s what we all found in one way or another. We took the noise from making sure that modern life is attended to – and we drowned it out with the more pertinent and essential noises – those of our bodies, our souls, the landscape, and of one another – and we listened deeply to what came out in order to help us finish.
“L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux,”
“What is essential is invisible to your eyes.”
At Dutchman’s, I came across some crew members and my pacer coming down the mountain thinking that I had dropped from the race (wrong Justin). They got stoked once they saw me moving and enjoying myself. I got to Dutchman’s and hugged a number of close friends, took some of the kindest and most encouraging words available from Rob Cain – and got a head of steam from being around those I love. We took off moving well and, for the only time in the race, I got off course and added about a mile by running down to the 20 instead of taking the trail to Jackson Gap. Just a little extra climbing!
Sera and I ran and walked, hiked and stumbled, running down the iconic Pacific Crest Trail underneath the brightest of moons. She’d watched Fight Club the night before based on my jokes at the crew meeting and was ready to challenge whichever person she ended up with – I deeply love her like I do most of my good friends and was ready for her to push me a little. She yelled and screamed at the moon, moving me along the trail faster. She stopped and took in the view, making me breathe deeper and take in the same. Our souls rejoiced to find each other this free, at night, moving in some of the most sacred forests we know. It seemed like no time passed at all and we were running into Long John Saddle, mile 74, and I was shocked that my legs would still open and close normally.
We picked up my second pacer, and one of the nicest and strongest people I know, Daniel Brasch, and took off towards Wagner Butte. He’d carry me home mentally and emotionally. On the road to Wagner, I did notice that I was not grooving the downhill road section like I normally would; however, we still got along and were passing folks on that road as well. We got to Wagner’s base at mile 80 and it was a subdued moment – somewhat surprising given that I knew the folks at that aid station and they were from a group I love – Southern Oregon Runners. I think it’s subdued there out of respect for those laying down and needing a break at the aid station. There were a few guys on cots and in seats, trying to get their lives back together for the final climb that begins the last 20 miles of this race.
Wagner Butte is a frequent trail for me – it is close to town and gets me up above 7000 feet. It gives views of the entire valley – all of the cities that make up our little half-urban county on the Oregon & California border. Two weeks earlier, I had been there as I would that evening, in the middle of the night, staring down at the municipalities beneath us. Daniel and I climbed Wagner, the source of a lot of pre-race anxiety (It’s the LAST CLIMB – It happens at MILE 80 – etc…) and we started up it with a furious power-hiking pace. I knew I was behind my pre race predictions but also knew the heat had zapped everyone and that I was running a good race for what was available that day. I was in better shape than I had ever guessed pre-race. That maturity escaped me for years of racing – I would’ve gone out hard and blown up for most of the years of my running life.
Instead, here I was passing five people on the climb of Wagner including Jenn Shelton – a heroine and strong runner featured in Born to Run. We turned our headlamps off on top of the Butte to see the sky and the valley – and shared a similar hug to the Little Squaw moment. Daniel mentioned that it was an honor to be near Jenn in an ultra and we started down, where I headed into the darkest place I would go other than the Stein Butte hole. We saw a sign that explained the name of the race at mile 87 - "Do they look like Palm Trees yet?" My perpetuem bottle for this leg had been mixed wrong and was not potable so I was left with sugary gels and shot blocks for that part of my race – and my stomach was ready to revolt on my insistence that it took in that type of food. I wanted to bomb the downhill from the glade and I was only capable to run at times, my feet were hurting and my mind was upset by the lack of food. I felt betrayed by myself for not simply drinking the nasty perpetuem or figuring out some back up plan. I needed that oasis. When I got to the bottom of the glade trail, there was a huge relief because I knew I would get new food and be able to run the last 10 miles downhill to the finish.
And we did, on through the hole I came again. We had bunched up a little and ran downhill in a group, racing at times and having to pull off and walk on occasion. There was a mountain lion in the road that led to a big group of us running through throwing rocks and sticks around at everything that moved. The sun started to come up. And we saw Ashland for the first time, knowing that I would soon be able to hug Mary and see my friends. I had been thinking about that moment with her for miles and miles, it was my single largest driving image. I had fueled myself with different shadows of past images – negative driving images like those people who had tried to stand in my way – positive driving images like loved ones, friends, and mantras like Hal’s. I thought about the strength and wisdom shown by Shahid, who represents a running force to me. I thought about the struggles that defined my parents’ lives, the images of strength that I learned as a child. I thought about almost everyone who would read this race report. And those images, that drive given to me by those who had faith in me, is what had me on the pavement at the bottom of Hitt Road, running through Ashland towards the park and feeling as happy as I have felt in my whole life. For my next 100, I will know how to train and I know what I missed this time in being busy with my practice. For now, I am overjoyed with how my body and mind responded to this challenge.
I love my friends and family. And I can’t wait to go on another epic journey with my friends and family as fuel and the woods as my dancing partner. I went to a place that I only thought was possible in dream worlds – I felt completely engaged by Middle Earth, by Hogwarts, or Narnia – by the Indian in the Cupboard or the Little Prince. I went where the Wild Things Are and saw the pigs head on a stick where Jack had left it. I entered Shangri-La. And it wasn’t really figurative, it was hard earned and formed in a fire so deep and meaningful that it was all-consuming. Life became something different for me in the last few years and the journey we are calling Pine to Palm 2013 was a sublime recounting of that change – it takes complete dedication, hard work, a sense of joy and hope – with an eye towards dangerous symptoms at all times. I am alive! And for all I know, it is just this once! And I have to make sure I pace myself if I want to do something great – more is possible than we ever thought but not just through the first thing that comes to our cluttered minds– through the signals that genuinely come to our souls. I am so thankful for the hope and dedication that I have been given by my friends, family and the running community and I will pay it back with “relentless forward progress”.
“Those who had taken it for a cosmic sign cringed beneath the sky each nightfall, imagining ever more extravagant disasters. Others, for whom orange did not seem an appropriately apocalyptic shade, sat outdoors on public benches, reading calmly, growing used to the curious pallor. As nights went on and nothing happened and the phenomenon slowly faded to the accustomed deeper violets again, most had difficulty remembering the earlier rise of heart, the sense of overture and possibility and went back once again to seeking only orgasm, hallucination, stupor, sleep, to fetch them through the night and prepare them against the day.”
Let’s go onward towards one another, to the rise of heart, to the overture,
for the possibilities of life and with the day - this was the dream of Pine to Palm. While I wrote this, I clicked around on ultrasignup trying to find my next epic run in the woods. Get out there and use your instincts – they are the machine of God. Make something happen to keep your mind and body from falling stupor and sleep and lend your mind to a higher quest! I love you all. Until then, Mahalo.