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Monday, September 15, 2008

The Pain in Plain was Mainly to My Gain

That was hard!

I knew Plain was basically tied with HURT as the second hardest 100 mile trail race in the country. I know that, even though I did well at HURT last January, during the last 50 miles of that race I was so miserable I swore I'd never run any 100M race again, ever.

I knew Plain was, in reality, between 106-110 miles long (I think 109 is about right), and that without aid stations, it was critical to carry enough, but not too much food and stuff.

I knew that Plain had one of the lowest finishing rates of any 100 and as far as I knew only one person (Mike Burke) over 50 had ever finished before the 36 hour cut-off. I knew that Plain had wasted me after only one loop in my previous attempt (2004).

I knew that speed-walking the loop portion of the second loop last Monday night (34 miles in 10:30) had left me feeling wasted.

I knew that heat was often a real factor at Plain, especially during the 4800' climb (in 5 miles) up Signal Hill, starting from the hottest point on the course at the hottest time of the day... and that it was unseasonably warm all week up to the race with hotter temps predicted for the weekend.

I spent the days prior to the race feeling scared and questioning why I wanted to put myself through this kind of suffering. Never have I entered a race with so much dread. But I had come all this way, spent the money, and I was determined (or trying to be determined) to finish before the cut-off. I thought that on a good day I might be able to do around 33 hours, but all I wanted was a finish.

Had I known that I would finish in 5th place with a time of 31:01, my mood might have been a bit brighter. Not only was I the oldest finisher (and tied with Burke for oldest finisher ever), my finishing time was a course record for over-50 runners and the 14th fastest time ever turned in at Plain (including the four ahead of me this year). As a runner of modest abilities, that's more bragging rights than I'm used to so if you have a low tolerance for that sort of thing, you might want to avoid me for awhile!

My success was due to:

1. The expected heat didn't materialize and the temperatures were quite pleasant, though it did get down to freezing Sunday morning up on the ridge.

2. I followed the advice of starting out extra slow for the first loop. I kept holding back, walking a lot of runnable flat sections. Going up Signal Hill, I didn't even try to speed walk the way I always do on climbs, instead I just relaxed, gave myself a mental and physical break, and climbed slow but steady. Heading up Klone Peak at mile 20, I was in a pack of 7 guys. Only one woman (the only starter older than me) was behind us. I was actually in 23rd place (of 26 starters). The rest of the runners were somewhere way ahead. None of the others with me or behind me finished the race.

3. I prayed. My fear of suffering (not normal for me) reminded me that I had my reasons for doing Plain, but I hadn't really submitted myself fully to whatever the Lord might want. Anything could happen. I could suffer for 100 miles and still not finish. I could win the race if it was hot enough that everyone else folded (there have been years when no one finished Plain). I told the Lord that I would receive whatever He had for me- success or failure, suffering or joy.

With my slow start I was able to enjoy the first loop thoroughly. Because I was usually in a group (after leaving the first group at Klone, I caught up with another group of seven or so by the top of Signal Hill), I was able to enjoy talking to a lot of folks during the day. With only 26 entrants you'd expect us to be all spread out (and I only saw two people- briefly- on the second loop), but it actually turned out to be a very social run.

As night approached I was beginning to feel a little tired (50+ miles with 16,000' of climbing will do that to you) and I was remembering how I fell apart on my approach to Deep Creek in '04. Deep Creek is the one place where you can resupply or get help from crew and it is only 1.5M from the start finish, so it's an easy place to drop out. In '04 I'd had a good first loop until I just lost it emotionally on the final approach to Deep Creek and just flat out quit. That's been eating at me for four years, and I was steeling myself against it now.

Here's what happened (and I'm sure it was an answer to prayer). On the final three miles to Deep Creek I felt absolutely GREAT! My various pains and sorenesses and tirednesses miraculously disappeared and I was filled with energy. I felt like I could run forever- and would rather be here running than doing anything else. The only problem with Deep Creek is that I would have to stop (change shoes, eat, repack) and I didn't want to.

I got to Deep Creek with about five other runners and was offered a grilled cheese sandwich (delicious) which I ate with my can of fruit cocktail while two women appeared out of the darkness catering to my every need (helping me sort out my stuff as I repacked). We were told that seven others had already entered the second loop. I was at Deep Creek from 9:45 to 10:11 and headed out feeling great. My energy kept up until 3AM and got me most of the way up the big climb (the second loop is mostly uphill for the first half and downhill for the second half). Still, I had 9 hours to go, and there are no words to explain how hard it was!

I passed Wendell, Jeff and Larry in the first few miles of the loop, putting me in 8th place. By the time (4AM) I got to mile 78 (30 to go), where Race Directors Tom and Chris were greeting us, I was in 7th due to a drop and two runners were just ahead with the others quite aways ahead. I passed those two quickly, despite not feeling so well myself (I really wanted to lay down for a nap), but at the top (where it was VERY cold) I couldn't run the flat section (about two miles) and had to settle for a "speed" walk.

As day broke I began having sleep-deprivation hallucinations, more than I've ever had in a race: people and vehicles and animals and signs and buildings kept popping up in the most unexpected places. I'd see something and think, "that can't be," then get closer and think, "But there it is!", and get still closer and it would disappear or turn into a tree stump or something. It got to be very distracting!

Then I came to the big 9 mile downhill run and actually felt pretty decent. I knew I was in fifth place and couldn't move up, but I didn't want to be passed- the runners I'd passed on this loop were all good runners, better than me on most days. Besides the hallucinations I saw two elk (real!) on the way down.

At the bottom of the hill I had gone 100 miles and still had nine to go. It was 10AM and the remaining section had taken me 2:05 when I was fresh so I was hoping to manage a sub-32 hour finish (i.e., by 1:00). The next 7.5 miles were on a trail built for dirt bikers (as were most of our trails) and would go up a couple hundred feet, then down, then up and down, up and down. Meanwhile there were big ruts and humps and I kept having to move to the side to let the motorbikes past (and then eat their dust). On the way out this section had seemed easy (during my superman phase). Now it was exceedingly tedious. I forced myself to run everything that wasn't uphill. Still, as hard as the last 9 hours was, I kept myself together emotionally. I suffered physically, but never got down.

To my surprise I hit Deep Creek at 11:45 and had about 1.5M (maybe a bit more) on paved road to the finish. I actually ran "fast", trying to get in before 12. I didn't quite make it, but was actually quite pleased by how fast I could run after all I'd been through. And I could only blame myself for not finishing sooner as a couple of navigation errors on the first loop had cost me an extra 30 minutes or so before I got back on course.

Besides no aid stations or course markings, Plain has no t-shirts or other special prizes either. All participants get a rock with the word "Plain" stenciled on it in blue paint. Finishers get a bigger rock that says "Plain 100". It is now one of my most-prized possessions.

Other reports: Davy Crockett, Rob Hester


David Haddon said...

Bravo! My usual ironic words fail me. From my current reading, the most appropriate parallel seems to me to be from The Return of the King:

"He is bold, more bold than many deem; for in these days men are slow to believe that a captain can be wise and learned in the scrolls of lore and song, as he is, and yet a man of hardihood and swift judgement in the field. But such is Faramir. . . ."--Beregond

Anonymous said...

Great job mark. I noticed that anderson-abbs holds the women's course record so maybe there is something in the nor-cal water that we need to bottle. well done! doug

jonyoon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon said...

Grilled cheese? Oh, you must have been fed by Michelle Barnes ( Her husband was running the course along with a few other friends, but they all dropped after having various difficulties on the course...but knowing them, they'll be looking to get some revenge next year!

Nice work Pastor!

Rajeev said...


Way to go. The victory must have been sweet indeed considering how the 2004 race went.



Steve S said...

Excellent run. I'm gald the grilled chesse sandwiches helped a little in your epic adventure. I was able to see you all start, drive to Cle Elum to run the 50K and return in time to make cheese sandwiches with Michelle.
I've run parts of the course (Deer to Cloan and the out and back section on loop 2), so I admire anyone even attempting the run. As another over 50 runner, it's good to hear that slow and steady still makes the top 5 in some ultras.
Brag away for a while, you did an amazing thing and now hold a very tough course record for over 50. R&R and best luck in your runnning.

robtherunner said...


I was one of the ones behind you at Klone Peak. I was heading up with my buddy as you were heading down. I was using the starting out slow strategy as well, but we did not fair as well as you did. I was very impressed when I saw your finishing time. Phenomenal accomplishment.

Lisa B said...

Hey Mark, congratulations on such a great run at Plain. It's a tough one, yes! Well done. See ya' on the trails one of these days... :)

Anonymous said...

I didn't get a chance to talk to you but I wish I had. I quit at Tyee and saw you coming through looking strong. Your story reminds me very much of my experience last year. Like you I felt terrific coming into Deep Creek and like you I had a lot of hallucinations up on top of loop 2.
Congratulations on a outstanding accomplishment!

Joe L.

anil said...

Congratulations mark! Thats a very tough adventure run under your belt. I can imagine how good you feel looking at that rock!

also read crazy statistics about britain, scary indeed.

take care