Retroactive: 2004 Plain 100 Race Report

Originally written in 2004 about my first 100 miler at Plain 100

me at plain3

James’ Plain Ol’ Story
Plain 100 2004

As John Halsten and John Stamstead approach the only
“aid station” at mile 55 I am just leaving heading out
for loop 2.  Seeing them I panic and I push the pace
to protect the lead I had held since mile 10.  The
plan wasn’t to be leading the race at least not yet
but simply to arrive and leave at the aid station
feeling great but leading a race is a pretty
unfamiliar situation for me to be in but I liked it
and I wasn’t ready to let it slip away.  Despite the
sudden urgency I felt great and had felt that way for
most of the day so I knew my preparation had gotten me
exactly what I had wanted.  Now all I had to do was
climb one last hill and cruise down to the finish.

I had left the aid station feeling great as I had
hoped I would for months preceding the race.  Last
year when I choose plain for my first attempt at 100
miles I was aware of the legendary aurora surrounding
the event– I was aware but unfazed.  From the
beginning, none of the obstacles that faced and
usually conquered runners at Chris Ralph and Tom
Ripley’s run seemed insurmountable to me.  Not that I
didn’t respect them(the only blisters I’ve ever
received from running came on a training run on
Plain’s infamous first loop) I just believed that I
possessed the right mix of skills, experience, and
stubbornness to overcome Plain’s inherent
difficulties.

To me the keys to finishing plain seemed obvious: you
must finish the first loop feeling great therefore not
attempting the second loop wouldn’t even be a
consideration and in order to feel great after so many
miles you’d have to avoid the mistakes that haunted
past Plain runners (getting lost, getting sick or
dehydrated, getting blisters, and in general pushing
too hard).  Some very talented and experience runners
fell prey to the Plain course in past years and so I
knew that the race possessed real difficulties that
must not be overlooked or underestimated.  Last summer
as I prepared for the race I examined each aspect of
the race and made training plans to address each of
them.  To prepare myself for the additional rigors of
running unsupported I ran two weekend long fast-packs,
on which I carried a light backpack filled with food
for the entire weekend and a sleeping bag.  To adjust
my body to the heat I would face on race day I would
run a few times a week during the hottest part of the
day, which in Leavenworth where I was studying for the
summer could be over 100 degrees.  To prepare for the
rugged terrain that plain’s course covers I ran in the
Enchantment Lakes and Icicle Ridge areas of the Alpine
Lakes Wilderness which in my opinion was much tougher
on the feet and legs than anything on the Plain
course.  Except perhaps for what I thought was Plain’s
most treacherous quality the motorcycle ruts and the
grainy dust that accompanies them.  To prepare for
this unique challenge and to avoid making wrong turns
I felt there was no other option than to actually run
on the course.  On two consecutive weekends Tom and
Chris hosted training runs that covered significant
portions of the two loops. Part of my being able to
take part in the race was contingent on running the
training runs since I had no previous 100’s under my
belt to qualify me for this race.  However I would’ve
run them anyhow because of my feeling that knowing the
course was nearly essential to finishing. While
running loop 1, very early on I developed the first
blisters of my running career. The dust has the
transportive and invasive qualities to work its way
into your socks no matter what strategies you employ
to keep it out and once in your socks it acts like
sandpaper eating away at your skin with every step.
Also running loop one on a hot day (it had been over
100 in Leavenworth that day which is only few miles
away) allowed me to test my hydration system
especially for the 14 mile section up and over the
steepest climb of the race.  From these two training
runs I was able to find out what would work for me and
what wouldn’t.  Four weeks before race day I ran
Where’s Waldo 100k as a test run for Plain even
carrying all of my own supplies for the entire run
passing up all the aid stations(except once for a few
irresistible Oreos).

As the race approached I felt more and more
confident I had done the right things to prepare for
the worst that Plain could muster.  Then as Mother
Nature tends to do from time to time she steps in and
shows her power over our lives and schedules.  On the
Tuesday before the race Chris emails me along with all
the other entrants that the 2003 Plain race would have
to be cancelled due to a nearby forest fire.  I was
crushed but determined to still have a running
adventure so I invited the entrants to join me for an
80 mile run through the alpine lake wilderness.  Four
others joined me for the first running of the Cure For
P(l)ain and since this is whole story in itself I’ll
only summarize it in a few words: it was harder than
Plain, had no finishers and left me with an injury
that lingered for 6 months.

Fast forward to February.  I’ve sent in my application
to Wasatch 100 and I’ve just started seeing Scott
Jurek for physical therapy. In just a few weeks of
therapy Jurek has me running again for the first time
in half a year.  But my excitement was countered by
receiving notice from Wasatch that they had received
my application two days after they had filled their
last available spot.  I considered other prestigious
and popular 100s to make my first attempt at 100 miles
but it was Plain that kept calling to me– we had
unfinished business.  So as I made my recovery and
planned my runs for the year it was all with Plain in
mind. Way too cool I would run as my first long
training run. MacDonald forest would be my first race
where I hoped just to run mistake free.  My 100 mile
weekend in the Olympics over the Memorial Day holiday
would jumpstart my summer.  Pacing at Western and
Hardrock would give me the insight into how to finish
well at a tough 100. White River would be speed
training and a final tune-up.  Pacing at Cascade Crest
was a late addition to the plan and showed me what it
was going to take to compete for a win not just a
strong finish.  And after such a great spring and
summer a win was what I was aiming for not to merely
finish.  Although I always kept in mind that this
thinking may have been downfall of many of previous
runners that had came to Plain only to quit early.  I
was confident but cautious.

In final weeks before the race two things in my
training had perhaps the biggest effect on my actual
race.  The first was that I ran loop 2 at night just
as I would during the race.  starting at sunset I took
off from deep creek the only place on the entire 100+
mile race course your crew could meet you which is
where loop 1 ends and 2 begins.  In the past, the few
that have even left the “aid station” to continue
running have usually gotten lost and discouraged when
traversing the valley bottom trail that starts loop 2.
perhaps since I had run it in the light last year or
because I was clear minded because I hadn’t just
survived the rigors of loop 1 I however had no
problems at all navigating my way to the climb and in
fact I experienced no problems at all(or so I
thought).  I had an amazing experience that night and
couldn’t wait to repeat it race day.  Running that
loop at night simulating race day conditions as best I
could and completed a year’s worth of training for
this race.  It was as I tapered however that I made my
last and perhaps most important discovery of my
preparation.  While on a short easy run with my friend
Jim Szumila I realized that the pace we were doing,
about 5 1/2 mph wasn’t elevating my heart beat or
making me breathe hard.  I felt as though I could run
that pace indefinitely and I realized that if I
maintained that pace at Plain I’d smash the record.
Now I also realized that on the Plain course I
couldn’t likely maintain that pace and keep my heart
and breathing in line but I figured I could however
maintain something close like 3 ½ to 5 mph while not
really feeling it.  I didn’t just come to the
realization on my own I had many folks over past year
or so hitting me over the head with it including,
Stacey Bunton, Andy Jones Wilkins, Monica Scholz, Mike
Burke, Karl Meltzer and of course John Pearch.  But
less than two weeks from the biggest race of my life
it had all come together and boy was I excited.

So I think I was telling the story of my race let’s
get back to it. As I ran from the aid station and my
competitors I was running scared.  My heart was racing
and my breath was all out of whack as I attempted to
shove slices of pizza and chunks of smoked salmon down
my throat.  I soon realized I was no longer running my
race, I slowed to a walk and calmly ate the last of my
real food–I regained my focus and composure.  Seeing
runners for the first time since way earlier that
morning had distracted me but it also reminded me that
this is when the race would begin.  As planned I had
survived the first loop feeling great and with every
mile the excitement to reach the top of the last climb
builded inside me.  From Deep Creek it’s a long 20+
mile climb to the ridge where it levels off for about
5 miles before a long somewhat steep drop back to the
valley floor finishing with a gently rolling final 6
miles or so. So to reach the ridge with the ability to
really pick it up a notch and take advantage of the
easiest part of the course had been my plan all along.

Early in the race we were in small bunches as we
climbed the forest service road which lead us to
Maverick Saddle where we would enter trails for the
first time.  Even though I was having a good time
chatting with the other runners I knew soon I would
leave them to run exactly my own race.  Plain has a
myth that you must run as a pair to finish—the only
finishers had been pairs, Randy Gherke and Tim Stroh
in 1998 and Liz Mcgoff and Tom Hayes in 2002.  I
didn’t believe that tall-tale from the start and
actually thought that compromising my pace with
another runner over 100 miles would be detrimental to
the success of my run.  Plus I wanted to prove the
myth wrong.  So soon after hitting the trail I picked
it up a notch not only because my body told me I could
but so I could get the separation I desired.  Once
alone I concentrated on my breathing, my heart rate,
my calorie intake and staying hydrated.  Despite the
attention to detail, climbing the second and steepest
climb, 5200 feet in 6 miles, I began to bonk and more
than a few times I sat down although briefly to rest
and to eat more(eventually I was eating as much as 400
calories an hour and often sucking down 2 Gu packs at
a time).  By the time I reached the ridge however I
had my energy level back up and was able to run.  A
few miles later as I made my way down to the second
search and rescue checkpoint I felt great.  But as it
seems running a 100 miler includes many physical and
emotional ups and downs because just a few miles later
something as petty as fallen trees on the trail had me
frustrated and unable to get any momentum.
Approaching the road down to deep creek and even the
first few miles on the road I was unfocused and just
dragging myself along despite the favorable topography
and terrain.  But with a mile or two to go the
excitement of reaching “the halfway point” first woke
me up.  Arriving to cheers of about a dozen friendly
faces was an amazing feeling although I was worried
all the cheering would be heard by runners behind me
alerting them to my position.  I enjoyed all the
attention and assistance that was showered upon me by
Tony C., John Pearch and everyone else there but I
knew I couldn’t waste any time.  After repacking for
the 2nd loop, changing my shoes and socks and eating
some really good food I headed out as the Johns came
running in.

Once I had calmed down from the aid station encounter.
I began focusing on running my run again.  And as the
trail got steeper I became more and more focused.  As
time passed I dropped all concerns except for
continuing to move as fast as possible towards the
top.  Soon the only sounds I heard were of my deep
rthymic breath and occasionally of my heart alerting
me to ease up a little.  By the time I had reached tom
and Chris I seemed to have found an amazing balance
and was able to run strong with very little protest
from my body.  The deep breathing and focusing on such
basic elements I seemed to have literally run into a
meditative state, I was filled with joy and felt
invincible.  At chikamin tie I enthusiastically
thanked Chris and Tom for putting on such a great
event and therefore allowing me to for the first time
in my life to really feel like an ultra-runner not
just a power hiker that some times runs.  But despite
all my preparation, in fact partly because of my
preparation, the good times weren’t going to hold out.

An hour or so after leaving Chirs and Tom behind I was
nearly to the top of the last climb and I knew from
there I wouldn’t be caught as I hammered it to the
finish.  But as I continued to run things suddenly didn’t look
familiar anymore which was strange because I had just run this
loop a month earlier.  I tried convincing myself it
was just because it was darker than last time or that
since I had been running for about 20 hours, mostly
alone, my mind was playing tricks on me.  So I kept on
running and when I reached a trail junction almost an
hour later I knew I hadn’t gone the same way I had in
training.  What I didn’t know however was that in
training I had actually ran the wrong way.

At the top of the last climb is a long, wide ridge
with a group of small lakes in the middle, the race
course goes to the right of those lakes while I
mistakenly went to the left when I had run it a month
earlier.  Not realizing I had actually gone the right
way I headed back to where I thought I had left the
course on the 1.7 mile section I thought I had
skipped.  Arriving more than half an hour later at the
fateful junction I made some arrows hoping the runners
behind me wouldn’t make the same mistake before
retracing my steps to the junction where falsely
realized my mistake.  Now maybe some of you are saying
to yourselves how could this happen.  Well Plain is
not marked which you probably know.  And you most
likely know that runners receive detailed written
instructions of how to follow the course and map with
the course clearly marked.  But what I haven’t yet
mentioned is that in the first hours of the race I
realized that I had dropped my zip lock bag that had
my map and directions in it.  Although I had probably
ran only a mile or two before I reached into my pocket
for my bag only to come out with a handful of Gu I
decided to run the rest of the race from memory.
(later I discovered I had an unmarked Greentrails map
with me but it was of no help on top of the last
ridge).

Finally back on course I made my way over the ridge and to
the downhill I had been looking forward for so long.
But I thought I had run 5.8 extra miles.  It was only
later after the run was over I found out I had
actually run the correct route around the lakes and
that the out and back (3.4 miles) was the
only extra miles I ran.  But at the time I thought I
had wasted nearly two hours and figured the other
runners must be very close if they hadn’t in fact
already passed me.  So my momentum that I had carried
all day was gone and I basically had to drag myself
down the mountain.  How ironic I thought that all day
I had worked so hard to put myself in position to
really enjoy this last section that now it was turning
out to be nightmare.  For about 2 hours I slowly made
my way down towards the valley until I rounded a
switchback and spotted a light coming fast only a
switchback or two above me.  This was just the kick in
the pants I needed to get me going again and I told
myself whoever that was they were going to have to
work hard to pass me.  In 10-15 minutes I reached the
road where I was able to turn off my light and it was
also the last time I knew how far back the runner was.
I ran as fast as I could down to the valley floor and
along the rolling trail towards the finish but my legs
were starting to give out and I was definitely running
faster than I could maintain.  At Goose Creek camp
there was a search and rescue checkpoint I asked if I
was still first and he said I was so that gave me an
emotional boost.  But moment’s later tendons in my
lower right knee said enough is enough and I had to
walk.  A few minutes later Zach Grossman appeared
behind me.  After chatting for a little while and when
it became obvious to me I’d have to walk the last 4
miles Zach continued running without me.  After 27
hours and 14 minutes Zach crossed the finish line
after running a very strong and smart race.  39
minutes later I too crossed the line.

It was a wonderful feeling to complete my first 100
mile race especially one where I did so well and
learned so many things about myself and about
ultra-running in general.  As for the wrong turn
debacle I’ll just have to think of it as a blessing in
disguise and use it to motivate me to do even better
next time.  Speaking of next time I’ve already got my
next 2 and maybe 3 100s planned: HURT, Hardrock and it
was going to be Wasatch but perhaps I’ll instead
return to Plain.  But before I look too far into the
future I want to recognize and thank folks who made my
exceptional run possible.  This year has been by far
my most consistent and rewarding year as an ultra
runner and I owe that to a very large group of folks.
First of all I’d like to thank all my teammates and
sponsors: Vasque, Cloudveil, Gu, Black Diamond,
Dhalgren, Rudy Project, Pro-Tec, and Ultimate
Directions.  I’d like to thank Scott and Leah Jurek
for their expertise, encouragement and support
especially in healing my injury.  This run also
couldn’t have gone so well for me without the help
and friendship of everyone in Olympia including John
Pearch, Jim Szumilla, Kyle Skaggs, and the great folks
I work with at Olympia Salvage and everyone at Olympic
Outfitters and Seattle Running Company.  Carol Ohear
Monica Scholz, Mike Burke and Kendall Kreft all
deserve special thanks for letting me steal their
trade secrets while pacing them this year.  Also I want
to thank all the runners and volunteers from Plain and
all the other races I ran this year.  (Plus a special
shout out to all the Hardrockers!)  And last but not
least I say thanks to my parents, my brother, my
sisters and all of my extended family and my treasured
life long friends.  You all inspire my legs to keep
running and my heart to keep beating.

I don’t have any photos from 2004 but these photos below and the one at the top are all from the summer of 2012 as Candice was training for her race at Plain that September.

candice at plain

plain view

candice at plain2

james eating pizza at plain

2 thoughts on “Retroactive: 2004 Plain 100 Race Report

  1. Pingback: Race Report: Pigtails Challenge 100 | Varner Miles

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