Plain 100 2014
I have said before that there is no such thing as an easy 100 miler. Nor is there any such thing as a normal 100 miler. Plain 100 is less easy and less normal than any of the others I’ve run. This seems to be more the organic result of the personalities of Chris and Tom, the race directors, that of anything intentional, but there are many things intentional.
Thing 1: Directions to Deep Creek, the start/finish line, drop bag point, and “aid station,” cannot be found on the race website and were not given at the pre-race briefing. It’s not clear if this was intentional or an oversight, but as others had said in fewer words, if you can’t find a campground in the woods outside a tiny town in the mountains at the dead center of Washington State, you probably shouldn’t run Plain.
Many mountain hundreds start with a big climb right out the gate. Plain starts out gently, with six or seven miles of nearly flat dirt roads, first to the original starting line in town (or what passes for one), then up a slight rise to another campground.
Thing 2: Those miles don’t count towards the 100. The Plain course runs long, and not by a mere 0.2 or 2.0 miles like Western States or Bryce. Consensus and lore have it pegged at 106 miles, although some estimates go as high as 112. When the climb out of Deer Camp starts to get noticeable, you still have about 100 miles to go.
At Maverick Saddle, around ten miles in, I checked in with Thing 3, the Search and Rescue volunteers. They hang out at a few spots along the course with radios and trash bags to monitor runners’ progress and collect our trash.
Thing 4: You are not allowed to receive aid on the course from anyone who isn’t currently running the Plain 100. That means no aid stations, no pacers, no trail angels, no race photographers, no help from SAR. If you so much as ask them a question, they will remind you that hearing the answer means disqualification. If you go off course in front of them, they will wait until you’re out of earshot to laugh. I took an extra minute at Maverick Saddle to double check my map and course directions.
Thing 5: The course is not marked. There are no flour arrows, confidence markers, wrong-way ribbons, glow sticks, LEDs, or flagging of any sort set out. What you get are turn by turn directions and a low resolution map on the website. Anyone too lazy to buy or print something better would have to make do with the bandana silkscreened with the course map given out at check-in.
Soon after Maverick Saddle, the trail got steeper, tougher, and more scenic, with some nice views of sunrise over the Wenatchee Mountains and the other side of the Entiat range. This was the first of what would normally be three approximately 5000 foot climbs.
Thing 6: Normally, the second climb would take us 5000 feet up Signal Peak in only four miles. This comes at the start of a 14 mile dry stretch, and most runners reach it during the hottest part of the day, so it must be climbed under the weight of hours worth of water and, hopefully, at least half your food for the loop.
Thing 7: Technically, the rule is no aid except at Deep Creek, the start/finish/”100K” checkpoint. This means you must carry all your food and gear with your for as much as 64 miles at a stretch, assuming you don’t go off course for any bonus miles along the way, and all the water you might need between known stream crossings.
I felt every ounce of this weight when I landed badly coming down off a rock on the technical Hi-Yu trail and my lower back responded with an equal and opposite reaction. While I sat and stretched by the side of the trail I was passed by both Chihping and Noé, two fellow Bay Area runners I’d leapfrog with at the back of the pack for many hours to come.
Thanks to a couple of wildfires smoldering off to the north, the forest service had closed down part of the course, including the dreaded Signal Peak climb. This year’s alternate route included a seven mile loop through the high meadows near 6000 feet above sea level. I’ve never noticed any symptoms of altitude sickness below 9000 feet, but that doesn’t mean the thinner air can’t slow me down. It slowed me down.
Over the next ten miles, my back worked itself out, assuaging my fear that my race was already over. I caught up with Noé again and overtook him on a downhill section. He told me he was worried about getting lost and about falling — he’d only recently recovered from a bad shoulder injury. I slid and landed on my ass in the mud, laughing, as I took off ahead of him.
Thing 8: The trails are often kind of terrible. Where most mountain hundreds are run on trails maintained by and for hikers, these are mostly maintained by and for dirt bikers. Many sections had deep eight-inch wide ruts right down the middle of the trail, which got slick with mud up in the high meadows. Where switchbacks might otherwise provide perfect downhill running, concrete honeycomb was laid into the ground to prevent erosion while pummeling our soles and threatening sprains. Sometimes there were little jumps. On one particularly awful stretch of otherwise gentle trail, there were miles of whoop-de-doos, basically speedbumps that made it impossible to run with any kind of rhythm. Elsewhere nature provided, and the trail was simply covered with fist sized rocks.
Through the high meadow loop, I found myself slowing down, and it wasn’t just the altitude. I was eating a gel or a handful of trail mix or jerky every 20 minutes like clockwork, but I was still feeling hungry and drained. I rallied for the Whistling Pig Meadow downhill and the last, easier part of the Signal Peak climb that was still on the course, and even put in some good descending from there on some bad trail before bonking completely. This was the worst. Here I was on a five mile downhill where my whole race plan hinged on making up time, and all I could do was walk and feel sorry for myself.
Two miles downhill on this Billy Creek trail, a little after the Search and Rescue checkpoint and about eleven hours into the race, I let Chihping pass me for the last time and pulled off trail to take a giant dump. I started to piece together what was going on then: it was bright green. Like, greener than goose poop. Greener than a lot of the trail vegetation, and I was running in the Evergreen State. More to the point, the last time I could remember eating much of anything green was a giant spinach smoothie more than two days ago. Almost an hour and a half and only three miles down the trail, I took another giant crap, but this time it was two-tone: half bright green, half, you know, just kinda brown. Now it was all beginning to make sense: I hadn’t really crapped in a few days, and my gut was backed up enough that I wasn’t extracting nutrition from my food as efficiently as normally.
You know how a cat will fly all over the house like a furry little demon right after after it poops? It was kinda like that. I made a full recovery on the rest of the downhill, and began making up some solid time on the five miles out along the rolling Mad River trail. After only one or two, however, I was surprised to be overtaken by another runner – someone I hadn’t seen all day. He told me he was running the 100K, a shorter race that stopped after only this first loop, and gotten lost. He also told me that from what he knew, Noé and another runner named Don had gone off course, and I was now in last place for the hundred mile race. I hoped he was wrong, mostly for their sake.
The narrow trail here snaked along next to and above the Mad River, anywhere from zero to about 80 feet above the water with a steep drop off. For the first few miles the ground was soft, but it abruptly gave way to a carpet of fist-sized rocks. Nonetheless, I still felt great, finally running well, high-fiving runners I hadn’t seen in twelve hours who were coming back the other way and telling myself I could make it to the turnaround before putting on my headlamp for the night. I made it, but just barely.
Halfway back along the out-and-back, I was elated to see Noé headed toward me. He told me he’d been following Don when they made a wrong turn and ran about five extra miles. This was on the longest dry stretch of the course, so they’d run out of water, and Don had become dehydrated. Noé told me he had been leaning and falling over, but they’d eventually found a stream, then the right trail and recovered. I told him where the turnaround was and what to look for, and that he still had plenty of time to make the Deep Creek cutoff.
A mile later, I saw another headlamp coming my way, which of course belonged to Don. I told him I was glad to see him, asked how he was doing, and gave him the same information I’d given Noé. He only said “Yeah” or “OK” in response, which at the time I took as an indication that, like Noé, he was frustrated about having gone off course and lost so much time. In retrospect, this was a mistake.
Thing 9: Plain is not a fucking joke. When I saw Noé back at Deep Creek the next day, he told me he had essentially sacrificed the rest of his race to save Don’s life. Here’s what Noé wrote about it later:
Hours later when I was coming back from that out-and-back trail I saw Don who was in his way to that point, looking completely sick, leaning on his left side, clearly sign of dehydration. – He cannot be here, I thought, this section is extremely unsafe. – Noe, can I stay with you, I feel very dizzy and weak. I responded immediately – Of course, let’s go together. He was not really walking, he was dragging his feet making a great effort to put one foot in front of the other and some times losing the balance of his body, like nauseous. It was already dark and everybody was gone, that was a single, rocky and narrow trail, so there’s no much I could do, just escorting him and make sure that nothing worst happens. Moving at 50-55 minutes/mile and taking breaks. – That was ok, no rush, I said! We were in the middle of the forest, very remote area and there were absolutely no one nearby, just he and me.
At about 2 am. the temperature dropped down dramatically (probably to the 20’s) when suddenly Don lost the control of his balance and dropped off to the cliff. – OH NOOOO!!!! I yelled very loudly. At first I thought that he had hit on any rock or he was on the river or he was dead. NO, he was trapped on two fallen old trees very close too the abysm. That section was very steep and he was like 20 ft down from the trail. Has he a broken bone? Or maybe is he bleeding? He was responding to everything I was asking so I tried immediately to rescue him.
I don’t deny that I was also afraid to slip and cause a tragedy, my shoulder is not completely healed from a surgery and I still don’t have much strength, so slowly I went down grabbing my arm on some branches, grabbed his hand and start pulling him from the area. – Don, you need to be strong and help me, I said. – Come on, little by little he was moving and finally I got him to a safe spot, what a relief!
If Noé hadn’t been with him, and Don hadn’t had the presence of mind to turn back earlier, he could have been in much worse shape by the time Search and Rescue found him. Thanks to how well prepared Noé was, he was able to walk the rest of the way to them instead.
Thing 10: Aid is only allowed from other runners, which means the only aid station is allowed at Deep Creek. However, it’s not part of the race organization. Volunteers come out with a grill most years, but weren’t able to this year. When I pulled back into Deep Creek after midnight 20 hours 38 minutes, there was no aid station, only my drop bag and a camp chair.
Nonetheless, I was happy to see both Chihping and Glen (another runner I’d spent time running and leapfrogging with) still there. I hoped to get out of my chair fast enough to leave with one or both of them, but I had enough to do just emptying and refilling my pack, putting on the right nighttime layers and lights, and eating what I could before heading out that even my fast stop took about twenty minutes, and they were both gone.
Too bad, too. This was the section I’d been most worried about. While I’d had no real trouble navigating the first 100K, the start of the second loop is notorious for getting runners lost in the dark. It starts on a trail that runs parallel to a road, and there are many intersecting roads and paths. In theory, though, all I had to do was keep following the same trail for ten miles.
This all went to hell at Goose Creek Campground where in my infinite wisdom I decided to ignore a sign saying “<--- TRAILHEAD." This was obviously completely unhelpful, since I wanted to keep going straight. Instead I spent at least twenty minutes wandering around the campground, trying to figure out where the trail picked up without waking anyone up. I must have crossed over the trail at least once, completely ignoring it again, by the time I ended up out on the road. I knew this was wrong, but eventually decided to run along the road until I could spot the trail again just off to the right, cut back over, then retrace my steps. It would waste a lot more time, but I refused to finish Plain having cut the course. Eventually I decided it had been too long - I should have seen the trail or an intersecting dirt road by then - and decided to forge into the woods until I found it. I couldn't, at first, figure out why I was going down such a steep hill, or why I could hear water so nearby. How could there possibly be a river between me and the trail? It turns out running for 22 hours without rest can, in fact, take a toll on one's mental faculties. After more time than I care to admit, I realized I'd gotten turned around. Once I got back to Goose Creek, I had no trouble finding my way through this time. I now had about six hours to get to the next checkpoint, and I wasn't exactly sure where on the course that was. I figured I still had a shot at making it, but it would be tight. Fortunately, I was still moving well. I just had to stay focused and avoid doing anything else stupid. Oh boy. For the next eight miles, the trail continued to snake along parallel to the road before the last big climb up to Chikamin Ridge. At some point, the trail descended to what must have been a sharp bend that I didn't see right at the edge of the now paved road. I must not have seen the bend. what I did see was an obvious continuation of the trail across the road. At seven in the morning, I found myself in the middle of Grouse Creek Campground. It should have been immmediately obvious that I was off course, but I didn't think I'd ever gone off course, so I just thought the map was confusing and looked for where the trail continued. I wandered back and forth through my second campground of the morning twice before pulling out my compass for some clarity. It kept spinning. I turned it over and found a big hole in the base, where the water is usually held in. I dug my phone out of my pack and waited for GPS, glad I had it for backup. Finally I saw where I was on a topo map. Now that I'd stopped moving for so long, however, and the morning light had failed to find me in this steep mountain valley, I was shivering violently. I had only two hours left to try for the Chikamin Tie cutoff. I decided instead to head back downhill toward the Alder Ridge Search and Rescue checkpoint, which I knew I could find. The topo map showed a service road heading south from the campground that cut a more direct path than the asphalt, so I decided to follow it. Of course, the topo map on my phone hadn't been updated in a few decades, and a short ways out of the campground it became clear the service road I was following hadn't been maintained in about that long either. I found myself climbing over and around thick brush and trees along a steep cliffside. Eventually I gave up and scrambled up the cliff 100 feet to the road. Before long, without so much as a thumb, I was picked up by two other runners who had dropped before me. Plain is one of a small handful of races known as "graduate-level" 100 milers. I'm one of a few who learned why the hard way that weekend, although I certainly did not have it as hard as some. Still, for all its difficulty, it's an incredibly fun, beautiful race, and I'd be glad to go back anytime. I'll just make sure to doublecheck my map. And my compass.