Mountain Lakes 100
It’s been a week and a half since I completed the Mountain Lakes 100, and with the passing of time I was hoping I’d be able to better wrap my brain around the enormity of the journey, but I’m not sure I have. Even having completed the distance it’s still a bit incomprehensible. At the start I had no idea how the day is going to unfold and if I’d be able to finish. During the act of running I had no idea if my body and mind would continue to move forward, and in what condition it would be doing so. Even after crossing the finish line I really had no idea how I was able to accomplish what I had accomplished.
At 3:15am I finally give up trying to sleep. I might, MIGHT, have dozed off from about 12:30 to 2:30, but despite having been laying in bed from 9:30 the night before, I was anything but well rested. The run starts at 8am, but it’s a 2 hour and 15 minute drive to get there. At least I’ve got plenty of time for my morning espresso and oats. Myself and 3/4 of the crew are on the road by 4:45. Megan, my wife, is playing the role of crew captain, Jen flew in from Edwardsville, IL to help crew and pace me the last 30 miles, and Indy, well Indy is our four-legged mascot. The other 1/4, Stephen, will meet us later in the day to pace me from roughly mile 55 to 70. We arrive at the starting area with plenty of time to pick up my bib, sip some coffee, and share the morning excitement with familiar faces and not-so-familiar faces. The starting area is beautiful. The sun is rising to reveal Mt. Jefferson reflecting in Olallie Lake.
Before I know it it’s time for us to corral down by the lake for the start, and then we’re off. I’ve been signed up and training for this distance since February, and now the moment is here to see if what I’ve done is enough. My overall plan is to just run relaxed and keep a positive attitude. I’ve ran 50 miles once before and really enjoyed that day and distance, but now I’ve got to double that. That’s a lot of unknown. Some of the most basic race advice for the 100 mile distance is to “spread the peanut butter.” You want to make sure you have enough peanut butter to evenly cover your piece of bread. Spread too much too soon and the peanut butter gets thin before you reach the other side, or you run out of peanut butter altogether. Spread it too fast and you tear the bread. It’s a great analogy, but when you’re not exactly sure how much peanut butter you’re even working with, you might not find out you’ve spread too much until mile 70. The course starts out on a decent length of forest service road which gives everyone time to relax and find their natural pace groupings. Not that the things are crowded by any means, there are only 145 of us. There is a short stretch of PCT, the first aid station, and then we’re on a pretty steady downhill until the second aid station. I’m being careful not to run the downhill too carelessly and aggressivley this soon because the last thing I need is to aggravate my IT bands downhilling on a road before the real fun begins. I’m not the only one being cautious, some runners are even choosing to walk the steep downhill. It’s also hard not to remind yourself that any long downhill stretches turn until long uphills later.
Soon, the second aid station is in site with plenty of familiar faces. Everything looks pretty good, I’m even offered a blueberry muffin, but my stomach hasn’t been right all morning. Not upset, just in a big knot. I choose not to risk it, relying on the assortment of nutrition I’m carrying for now. One of the big challenges in a 100 miler is keeping your stomach from going south. Some even say if you haven’t had stomach issues in an ultra that you just haven’t ran far enough yet. This is the first time my stomach has ever given me any real trouble on any run, and we’re barely over 10 miles in. Not long after leaving the aid station we finally hit our first long stretch of glorious singletrack, and of course it’s mostly all climbing, but that’s fine by me. Nothing like a good climb to make any temp t-shirt weather. This was probably my favorite stretch of the entire course. That isn’t to say anything bad about the rest of it, just that this stretch was that much more beautiful. Namesake mountain lakes, meadows, a burn area, rocky ridgelines. Just beautiful.
The overall course is a double lollipop out and back. Head south, do a loop, head back to start, head north much further, do a lap around Timothy Lake, and then head back south to the start/finish. With that in mind, aid station 1 and 3 are the same, but I’ve got to tell you, 3 didn’t look familiar to me. I didn’t exactly stop at aid station 1 though since it was only 5.3 miles in, but I was also probably too inside my head digesting the fact that I was actually attempting to run 100 miles. Since aid station 3 is the turnaround to send you back to the start it gives you a chance to pass by those ahead and behind you. I’ve never been on a course where I’ve known so many other runners so it was great to see so many smiles and receive so many high fives as we share this epic undertaking. Just as important and uplifting is knowing so many of the volunteers along the course that start yelling and cheering for you before you even recognize them.
Somewhere around maybe mile 15, along a technical stretch of downhill, I manage to roll my left ankle. After a few ginger steps to test if I can put weight on it, it’s a little sore, but things quickly loosen back up. Eventually the trail leads back to the jeep roads that take us back through the starting area, and the first chance to see my crew. Nearly a marathon finished, 26.1 miles. After a chat with them, some delicious grapes and some cold Coke, I hit the portapotties in the hopes of moving that knot out of my stomach. No luck. I return to my crew and they’ve stocked my vest with nutrition, and my headlamp. They wish me well, and with more grapes in hand I head out. I won’t see them again until mile 55.4, and it will already be dark. From here on out the course will be 99% singletrack.
Heading North on the PCT from Olallie Lake things are mostly runnable. A few climbs here and there, but nothing sustained. I’m starting to feel a little bit of hip tightness so I pick up the pace a bit to open my stride. Not long after that Red Duck, named for her Red Duck Ketchup arm sleeves, comes cruising up from behind. We’ve leap frogged and chatted a few times by this point. The trail starts descending just enough to where you can pick up some real speed if you want, Red Duck takes off and I follow suit. She jokes that I shouldn’t take any pace advice from her that most people warn her she’s going to blow up running that way in a 100 miler. I explain that running downhill is my only runner super power, she laughs and says it’s the same for her, and we keep cruising. The trail starts to level out after several miles, about the time my watch chimes that it’s time to eat something. Red Duck continues on, and I walk and take in calories. The hips are feeling much better. It may not be the smartest thing to bomb the downhills a little around 50k into a 100 miler, but it wouldn’t do me any good to get so tight that my IT bands start barking either.
The trail alternates between climbs and descents, but there’s definitely more loss than gain. A couple more aid stations drift by, one with a guy in a chicken suit. Somewhere around mile 45 I fall in with 2 other runners and we’re holding a really steady pace for several miles with hardly a word even exchanged. Things have actually been cruising by so fast that I allow my brain to entertain the possibilities of a sub 24 finish. I also remember the fact that it will actually be dark for quite a while before I get to pick up my first pacer. Most races set it up to pick up a pacer before nightfall for safety reasons. I love night trail running so I’m pretty excited at the prospect of having the trails to myself for a while. Finally, the front runner of out trio declares she doesn’t want to lead anymore so she lets the two of us pass and falls in behind. Soon after that our momentum is halted by a large tree down over the trail. It’s so big you have to straddle it and push yourself over. At this point the only thing my arms have done for 9 hours is swing back and forth so when I go to put my body weight on my left arm to push myself over, my shoulder screams in a white-hot flash of pain. I let my running compadres go ahead as I start to wonder if it’s a shoulder of all things that will take me out of my first 100 mile foot race. I walk for a few minutes and the pain starts to subside. Carefully, I test my range of motion, and everything seems to be in working order. I start running and things feel like nothing ever happened. I eventually catch back up to the female runner of the trio just in time for our first significant sustained climb in hours. It’s during this climb that I have really my only low point of the race, and it really wasn’t that low. Just a big fat slice of humble pie reminding me that I wasn’t even half way through the run, and a lot can, and will, happen so I need to not even consider my finish time yet. Just keep things easy as I planned, take it as the trail gives it to you, and run aid station to aid station. As we power hike, we swap stories about how many ultras we’ve ran, where we’re from, etc. The light slowly fades, and eventually it’s time to get the headlamps out. A while later we arrive at the Red Wolf aid station where I see Red Duck (I actually know her has Shannon by now) for the last time until the finish. I tell her of my silliness of dreaming of a sub 24 finish right before the humbling climb, and her mood changes from her usual lightheartedness to dead serious. She looks me straight in the eye and tells me not to even think about finishing times until at least mile 85. Just run aid station to aid station. This isn’t her first 100 miler, and she’s even doing this one sans crew and pacer, so I heed her warning. Bushwacker, one of the guys I circumnavigated Mount Hood with (don’t worry, no one’s given me a cool trail name yet either), is whipping up some incredible quesadillas with avocado in them. I have some quesadilla and a cup of soup, and for the first time all day my stomach starts to relax a little. Nothing like a little hot food I guess. With that thought, I grab a piece of bacon and head back out into the night.
The next aid station I’ll come to is Clackamas Ranger Station, at mile 55.4, where I’ll finally see my crew again and pick up my first pacer. It’s a lot of fun running at night, and from Red Wolf to Clackamas it’s mostly downhill so the miles fly by. At one road crossing I stop and turn my headlamp of just to stand in the pitch blackness and look up at the stars. The sky is full of them so far from any light pollution. Another, less stellar (see what I did there?) detail to note, I haven’t had to go to the bathroom in a long time. With the dropping temps my body finally needs to, but there isn’t much coming out, and things are definitely darker than they should be, but it’s hard to tell just by headlamp. I’ve been drinking Tailwind all day, and I’ve refilled my 2L hydration bladder about every 4 hours so I know I’ve been taking in fluids, but the problem is I’m apparently taking in too much sodium. I don’t have any other symptoms like puffy fingers, but just to stay on the safe side I decide I’m going to go to straight water when I get to my crew, and then once things get closer to normal I’ll take an S-cap if I need one. I’ll just have to monitor my calories more closely since I’ll no longer be getting a steady flow from the Tailwind.
Pretty soon I can hear the cheers of Clackamas Ranger Station in the distance as runners come and go. It puts a bounce in my step and I pick up the pace. When I arrive Megan, Jen, and Stephen are all waiting and cheering. I take a chair and throw on some dry warmer layers for the trip around Timothy Lake, and fill them in on how the first half of my day has been while I drink soup and eat some delicious perogies. Indy decides to lay down on my feet in hopes that I won’t leave again. My vest is restocked, Tailwind is dumped in exchange for plain water, and after a cup of soup, Stephen and I are off. The lap around Timothy Lake looks pancake flat on the elevation chart compared to the rest of the course, but there are still a few climbs here and there. Most of the trail is pretty wide so Stephen and I get to run side by side and talk trails. His high energy personality is much appreciated, and with his first 100k coming up we have plenty to talk about. He’s really pleased to see how well I’m still moving, as am I. The miles cruise by and before I know it we’re at the Wy’East Wolfpack’s Animal House themed aid station at Little Crater Lake. Everyone is dressed in togas and basically just having a dance party in the woods. It’s hard not to stick around too long, especially since I know just about everyone at this aid station, but we’ve got miles to cover so we head back out. Some more easy miles go by and before I know it we’re at mile 66.6, The Damned Aid Station at the Timothy Lake Dam. By this time of night you start to notice just how quickly you cool off when you quit moving so we don’t stop long. Just long enough to get what we need and admire the severed hands and other Halloween decorations.
We keep moving until we eventually arrive back at Clackamas Ranger Station. Mile 71.7. I’m almost 22 miles into uncharted territory and still feeling and moving great. Less than a 50k to go! Since it has been getting colder I decide I’m going to take the time to change into tights and a warmer top. The only problem is, stopping long enough to do so is enough to let the chill creep in and my teeth start chattering. I head into the warming tent to change and try and remedy things. They have sleeping bags and heat lamps. I wrap myself in a sleeping bag while I change, but the moment I take it away I get instantly chilled again, not just cold, but shivering. Too much time passes, and Jen comes in to check on me. I have her bring me some warm soup and potatoes and tell her once it’s finished that we pretty much have to leave instantly and get moving. In hindsight I may have been better off just sticking to what I was wearing, and just doing a quick touch and go the second time through Clackamas. It is what it is. Lesson learned for next time.
Jen and I head off into the night to tackle the final 50k. Jen and I have run a lot together back in IL. We know when to talk, and we know when silence is needed if one of us is struggling and we just need to work through it. Jen introduced me to trail running, and has seen me go from 5k to 50k, and now she’s here to help me finish my first 100 miler. We’ve got some work to do. Not only does Jen get the longer stretch of the pacing duties, but she gets all the climbing. With this many miles on my legs we’re both equally impressed I’m running as well as I am, and I’m still able to power hike at a pretty good clip on the steeper climbs. We still have a long way to go, but I still feel great and I’m having fun. The climb back up to Red Wolf was long but manageable. I ask if Red Duck ever came back through, and they said yes. The one aid station worker simply replied, “That’s a tough girl.” After a quesadilla refill we head out for a very welcome few miles of downhill running before we’re met with the 6 mile climb up to the Pinheads Aid Station. The steady downhill feels great, and allows me to really loosen up and open my stride again. The 6 mile climb, not so great. It feels never ending, but it also marks our last big obstacle to get to the finish. There are a few more sustained climbs, but nothing like this. Jen and I do our best to pass the miles talking. I tell her about the day, and how amazed I am that I’m still having fun. I tell her about my delusions of sub 24 followed by a quick reality check. I then tell her of my more realistic original goal of finishing somewhere in the 26 hour window, but tell her that I’m not worried about a time anymore, I just want to finish. She’s quiet for a bit, I hear her Garmin beep as she checks the time, and then she says that we might be able to still go sub 27, but she isn’t sure, and it will be really close. I still don’t take the prospect too seriously, and we hike on. We pass through the Warm Springs Aid station again and laugh at the hilarity of a guy in a chicken suit. It seriously never gets old. We don’t stay too long and we head back out for more climbing. Seeing the mile post at the aid station, Jen checks her math again, and is pretty sure sub 27 is still within reach, but it will be close, and we’re going to have to work for it. Eventually, the sky starts to glow with the promise of sunrise. Up until this point I haven’t even bothered to ask what time it was, but acknowledging that it’s almost sunup suddenly hits my brain with some severe fatigue. My eyes just want to close. Jen suggests I shed one of my top layers so the cooler air can help wake me up. After a few minutes it does and I feel a lot better. Pretty soon it’s times to take the headlamps off, and my new mantra becomes “new day, new legs.”
The endless power hiking finally gives way to runnable stretches and even some nice downhill. While my legs were really growing heavy from climbing, I’m surprised that with the change in terrain I’m able to still run at decent pace, and when it’s time to descend and gravity is on my side I can still really open up. The fun finally comes to an end, and there is another stretch to power hike, but knowing I can still run strong changes everything. I’m no longer willing to just finish when I finish, if there is even a remote possibility that I can get under 27 hours then I’m giving it all I’ve got. I know at the top of this climb things open up to a big meadow full of vine maple and downed trees, and the aid station is just inside the woods. Less than a half marathon to go. The moment things become runnable I take off for the meadow. A look to the left to take in the colors and the wide open view, then my foot catches something and I’m going into a shoulder roll. I quickly pop back up, dust myself off and start running again, this time I worry more about my footing than the views. As I make it to the tree line I see the top of the aid station tent through the branches, and then I see a volunteer. It’s a gentle downhill so they see my legs and number before they see me. I hear “93 coming in! Is that Denzil?! It’s Denzil!” It’s my friend Aly, and her energy is infectious. She tells me I’m moving well and I’ve moved up 10 places. I grab some gels for the road and tell her I’ve got to hurry because I’m chasing sub 27. As I take off running out of the aid station Aly yells “Go get that buckle!” at the top of her lungs, and I feel tears welling up knowing how close I am to finishing this. These last 12 miles, it’s game on. I’m running everything but the steepest climbs and hauling ass on the downhills. Jen is trying to keep from crying seeing how determined I am to give it my all. In a wavering voice she tells me “When you hit the road you just drop your vest and go. Just go.” It’s going to be close. We’re not even sure which clock we’re racing against. My watch has been running since the start of the event, but if we go by standard time then that actually means I have 1 minute less to work with. Yes it’s that close. We keep moving. I keep pushing the pace, passing several other runners. Another aid station comes and goes. 3.5 miles to the finish. On one long downhill stretch I fly by some other runners, and one jokes “He’s running to win it, folks.” Maybe there is no difference between a sub 27 buckle and a 29:59:59 buckle, but a goal is a goal. I keep pushing. We see one person running back from the start line looking for his runner to pace him in. He tells us it’s 1.2 miles to the finish. You’d have never guessed I had 99 miles on these legs. Still plenty of peanut butter left to spread. Mentally though, it was the longest mile of my life just waiting for that road to come into view. I remembered from the day before that the course was going to give me a steady downhill right before the road. As I’m running, Olallie Lake is visible on my right. I’m getting closer. Finally I see the road, and Jen yells “drop the vest and go!!” I don’t even bother with with vest because that takes time and effort. As I round the corner I’m running full stride and one of the volunteers that can see the clock yells “Keep running, you’ve got the cutoff!” (referring to the change of the hour). I run through the finish line and beyond, gradually coming to a stop down by the lake. Jen and I hug in celebration. We did it!!! 26:58:10 is the official finish time. Megan comes down to give me a kiss and join in the celebration. She said I came through so fast that she didn’t even have time to get a picture of me. I walk up to Renee and collect my finisher buckle and another congratulatory hug. 100.95 miles done. I can finally stop moving. I never thought running 100 miles would be so much fun, but I enjoyed every minute of it, even the tough parts, and I’ll gladly tackle the distance again.