Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Just Plain Tough

I ran the Plain 100. It was difficult.

Plain may be the first 100-miler I had ever heard of in the sense that I actually knew anyone who ran it. My ultra/grad school mentor ZG ran it back in '04 or '05 and not only did he win it, he was the first person to finish it in several years. Plain runs quite a bit under the radar due to its length (108 miles) and absence of any course markings or aid stations. That's right, no aid stations, and no course markings. Less than a month after running a 24-hour rogaine that has the same conditions, that might not seem like a huge deal, but compared to standard hundred mile races, it is. Also note that in my rogaine, I covered a whopping 44 miles without aid or course markings.

The other major issue with Plain is that it a very high percentage of the course is on motorbike trails. Motorbike trails are unpleasant to run on for several reasons:
  • Pavement. To prevent erosion, trail maintainers lay concrete paving stones. So you're basically running on a concrete sidewalk instead of a regularly cushioned trail. 
  • Waves. Motorcycles create waves in the trail. Irregular 2-3 foot undulating waves in the trail as often as every dozen yards. I bet on a dirtbike it feels like pure joy, but running the waves, it's painful on the knees and impossible to find a rhythm.
  • Ditches. When the trail isn't paved, the dirtbikes carve a narrow ditch in the trail, somewhat similar to horses or stock in muddy season. The ditch can get to be waste deep, and the sides can be banked. Running it, you have to try and put each foot directly in front of the other in the dead center of the ditch, which is not at all normal running form.
  • Circuitous. Motorbikes love lazy 'S' turns that don't go anywhere. Runners don't.
Anyway, the course is essentially a figure eight, with a 62-mile loop and a 45 mile loop. There are no aid stations, so you need to carry all your food and get water from natural sources, except that you can get whatever assistance you like at the dropbag station (i.e. your car, the start/finish, also the center of the figure eight). There are no course markings, so unless you've done it before, you need to carry a map and course directions. This isn't Barkley, so there's nothing off trail, and trail junctions are generally well-marked, but it's by the Forest Service for general use unrelated to the course.

I enjoyed the first loop. I started out in the back of the pack because I ran back a few minutes after the start to grab extra rain gear (a trash bag for emergency extra warmth) from the car, but I caught up with the mid-packers after 7-10 miles. A surprising number of us hung together for the next 10-20 miles. This year there were fewer than 30 runners who started the 100 mile race (there's also a 100K race that consists of just the first loop), but there were 5 of us running together briefly. Compare this to one of the guys I carpooled with who ran for 24 hours in the latter portion of the race without seeing a single other runner, which is more the norm for Plain.

The reward for a 4,400 foot climb in the wind and rain

The weather was rainy, windy, and quite cold during most of the day Saturday, but the course was pretty, and it started to mellow out Saturday night. I got back to the car at 11:30PM, cooked some ramen, and left at midnight.

The second loop was brutal. The motorcycle waves made me pretty miserable, and I started doing under 3mph. I was running on empty. I'd listened to all the podcasts I was excited about, and when Terry Gross started talking about how to train your cat, I had had enough. But as soon as I turned it off, my mind started getting loopy, I started imagining weird house-warming party scenarios on repeat in my brain, and I slowed way down. I found a dry spot under a tree and took a dirtnap by the side of the trail, but another runner came up behind me and woke me up with some sort of comment about hypothermia. I popped up, said "No, I won't!" and left him behind on the rest of the climb. I finally remembered I hadn't caffeinated, so I took a pill and started to come back to life.

The morning was still rough, however. I was doing 23-minute miles, and kept doing the math to try and figure out if 3mph would get me in under the 36-hour cutoff. I was 80 to 90 miles in, with 20-30 to go, and that 7-10 hours remaining was not sounding good. Mostly I thought of how I had better finish so that I would never have to come back to this race.

It was a bit hard to appreciate how pretty it was on Sunday
Finally, after learning how to train a cat and having the bejeezus scared out of me by a Forest Service guy minding his own business standing by the trail while some weirdo in a trance staring at the ground trudged by him, the last climb ended and the trail dropped steeply down the mountain at mile 92. I was able to make up time with some 4-5 mph stretches set to the tunes of Ratatat.

I reached the bottom with about 2.5 hours left and seven annoying motorcycle miles to go, and finally shuffled across the finish line in 35 hours and 16 minutes. [Results]
In retrospect I'm glad I did it, and of course glad I toughed it out. I think I might recommend people do the 100K instead of the 100-miler, since the course is quite pretty, and the organizers are quite nice. However, the second loop and all the concrete really just seemed like I lucked out not getting a stress fracture in my foot or some sort of IT band issue like happened at Zion last year. Or maybe I'm just saying that because it may have been the hardest race I've ever run.

If you want to watch how my whining increased and pace decreased, I filmed a little bit every 10 miles or so:


  1. "This video is private." What does that even mean?

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