I have watched the movie “Unbreakable” dozens of times and the one of the most notable parts of the movie for me is the sound of the gong as the sun rises and the runners climb up the Escarpment. It is a sound of hopes and dreams as runners look to make the journey from Squaw Valley to Auburn, CA. Saturday was my time to hear the gong but it wasn’t going to be at Western States, it was at the 12th Waldo 100K in Willamette Pass, Oregon. For those of you who want to sound like you’re not a tourist when you go and visit it is pronounced “Will-Am-Met.” Even though I heard everyone else call it that hundred times my brain still seems to call it Will-A-Mette.
At 5:00 we stood in complete darkness at the bottom of the ski slope waiting for our first challenge of the day. As Race Director Craig Thornley counted down I flipped on my headlamp waiting to embark on the southern section of the Oregon PCT trail. When the gong went off so did the switch in my head that told me to turn off the outside world. Everything that I had been worrying about was now a distant memory and the only thing I needed to think about was the next 62.6 miles of trail. Waldo 100K starts very similar to Speedgoat as runners go straight up the ski slopes before getting their first taste of the PCT.Running in a pack lit up the dark sky but as we began to separate on the climb I could tell the next hour was going to be trouble for me. My headlamp was working at about 25% and was about as bright as a laser pointer but I was determined not to let it bother me. I knew the trail was going to be relatively smooth from previous year’s race reports but I didn’t expect the trail to look manicured like the bunkers of Augusta National. With every step through the woods I became more confident in my footing and decided I was just going to turn off my headlamp and hope for the best. Even the best headlamps will fail you if the person behind you has a brighter light so every time a runner approached with their deer spotter on I let them go by and I would tuck in behind them hoping to share some of the light. The occasional stick would make me jump thinking it was a snake but it was the moss that freaked me out in the dark. It littered the ground similar to a jumping cholla here in Arizona and I felt compelled to jump over it or go around it for the first few miles. I guess my mind is so used to the prickly cactus that I feared stepping on the unknown. As soon as it was light out that became quite funny to know I was dodging a smooth string like piece of moss on the ground.
Riding high and floating over the rolling hills of the PCT I began to feel my groove for the first time in the race. The terrain was pristine and the gentle rolling hills made it easy to keep my pace consistent. Without a goal to get to the first aid station at mile 7.4 I just left it on cruise control and took in the gorgeous surroundings. As we made our way up Mt. Fugi I began to pass several of the early race starters and I was becoming stronger with each step. The lead runners were coming down as I was heading up which excited me knowing that we would have the opportunity to tackle a few miles of downhill. Not skipping a beat I began to pick up my knees and ran to the top of Fugi trying not to fall too far behind the group I had started the day with. When you’re 6’3 you tend to make up a lot of ground on the vertically challenged. While being shorter is generally an advantage in running, long legs are a huge help when hiking up the long mountain slopes.After tagging the top of Fugi I immediately turned around and decided I was going to let loose and go for it. I have fallen victim to worrying about blowing out my quads early in a race before but this time it never crossed my mind. I am a downhill runner and there was nothing that was going to get in my way except the runners trekking uphill behind me. In typical trail running fashion they all moved to the side and let me glide in and out of the switchback as I made my way back to the first aid station. Without stopping I yelled that number 36 was in and out. With the required check-in and several runners going the opposite direction I wanted to make sure there was no question if I had gone to the summit and back. Flying down through the woods I lost any feeling of fear as I kicked like it was mile 26 of a marathon and the finish line was in sight. The throttle was wide open and I was in my element coasting in and out of the single track winding through the trees. I have never experienced anything quite like this before in my life with endless shade and never ending single track trails. I was in awe looking at my surroundings and taking in everything this area had to offer. Listening to the faint sound of streams flowing in the distance and the leaves rustling at my feet made me want to enjoy the experience and run like I was a child. I felt free, far from the distraction of meeting a goal or worrying about the distance. It was just me and forest and it felt like day one of running all over again. The joy of running had escaped me for so long and I just found it again lying deep in the woods of Oregon. I needed this experience and there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be strong mentally until I crossed the tape.
Since this is an extremely remote course and the aid stations are deep in the woods everything must be carried in by volunteers. Not just any volunteers, these are people that decided they would wheel water and supplies in 3-4 miles to make sure the runners had everything they needed. As I approached the next aid station out came a aid station volunteer yelling that number 36 was coming in. She ran next to me asking for my bottle and what I would like it filled with. I wasn’t the lead runner, in fact I was probably in 20th at the time but there was no question they wanted every runner to feel like they were first. I had been taking two Gu’s per hour so my bottle was packed with garbage and without even asking they were emptying my trash, had filled my bottle with water, and told me there were four fresh Gu’s in my pouch. Now go, go! I barely stopped for 10 seconds before I was on my way smiling about the five star treatment I just had in the middle of the woods.
My first opportunity to see Traci, Petra, and John was at mile 27 and they had hiked 2.5 miles in to bring me supplies. I wanted to stay and chat but my legs were telling me to move and the smile on my face spoke volumes for how I was feeling. I was running smooth and consistent and while every Gu tasted like I was brushing my teeth with sugar…my energy increased with each one. I kept waiting for the outside temperature to get hot or for the sun to come barreling through the trees but the forest is so thick that you run 60 miles of the 62.5 in the shade. Even the “semi exposed” burn area from 5-7 years ago had trees taller than me and my core temperature was staying well within optimal range.My goal for the day was to avoid having any low moments and I was prepared to do something I never do which was turn on music if things got difficult. I could feel some pain in my glutes and it was starting to get in my head so I reached in my pocket and pulled out the ipod Paulette had given me before the start of the race. I’m not a music aficionado by any means but this was the music you would play right before jumping off a bridge. I was told to be prepared for a long day of Alanis Morrisette but this made “hand in my pocket” sound like an upbeat song. I tried to let my mind fade and enjoy the music as I ran but strangely enough my only thought was anger. All I could think was this is how a through hiker must feel after having their peanut butter stolen from the general store parking lot. Song after song the music got worse but my attitude stayed strong so I let it play over and over wondering where one even finds songs like these.
Trekking through the forest I was blinded by the beauty of the trees and the sounds of hell vibrating in my ear as I stumbled upon the Twins aid station. I didn’t think I would hit it for another few miles but again standing out in the middle of nowhere were volunteers who must have been jacked up on Red Bull and coffee because they were ecstatic every time a runner came through. Heading up the hill I started to catch a few of the runners in front of me using my long legs to make progress on the trail. I tried running at times but was halted to a fast hike for most of the trail. Rounding one last switchback and seeing a large hill in the distance I began to worry about making it to the top. I wasn’t sure if that was Twins or Maiden Peak but I did know at some point I would have to go up it. Putting my hands on my quads I began to power hike when I saw a gentleman sitting on a chair in the woods with a sign saying top of Twins. Tired but not wrecked I took off and ran as hard as I could downhill to the next aid station.
Down we went from the top of Twins at 7,200 feet for miles until we hit the aid station. Not being good with maps I didn’t bother to look to see where we would be going but I did know the toughest part of the course was the end. You didn’t need to know how to read a map to see the large hump at mile 55 on the course profile. As we made our way back up from the lake I was expecting a few miles of rolling hills and then a 2,800 foot climb up Maiden Peak. Another runner I was with earlier in the day said Maiden Peak was way easier than Twins which made me feel really good about making a quick summit and getting back to the finish line. While the terrain stayed smooth and consistent the slope became increasingly tougher. The 5% rolling hills became 30% grades and I was now trying to keep my heart rate down. We were only at 6,400 feet and climbing but we never seemed to get anywhere. I would look at my watch to see how far we climbed and it always was less than 100 feet. Not wanting to sit or get passed I pushed on and on until I saw the volunteer at the top of the tree line.I couldn’t have been happier to see anyone in my life except I was pretty confused that runners were now coming downhill and going past me. Where were they coming from if this guy was at the top? It was a false summit and he was directing traffic as runners went up and others came down for the final decent to the finish. Wanting to lie down and pass out at this point seemed like a great option but a few words of encouragement and I was on my way. This is the only rocky section of the course but it was loose gravel which made it tough to climb. My feet slid a little as I made the .4 mile climb but when I got to the peak I was rewarded with some of the most amazing 360 degree views I’ve ever seen. With two volunteers at the peak checking runners in and out I only stayed long enough for them to tell me it was 9.5 miles of downhill to the finish. This was like a dream to me. I quickly glanced at my watch and saw I had plenty of time to break 12 hours, and I could probably run 11:45 if I pushed it. I pushed it right away but unfortunately my IT band never felt strong enough to hold me during the rocky downhill and my legs began to feel wobbly. The pain from the side of my knee grew more intense with each step and my pace fell from 8 minutes a mile to right around 12. I found myself bargaining in my head as to places I could walk. I don’t walk downhill’s, I sprint them. The disappointment had finally hit me for the first time all day. I was going to have to accept the fact that I was going to have to jog/slog it in. Mile upon mile of downhill I cringed as I saw my watch beep and show how slow my miles were. This was a nightmare to me since I’m used to running full speed in the Arizona rocks. I was on a smooth trail that gradually flowed downhill and 12 minute miles was all I could muster. I stayed positive and kept moving but four runners passed me during the final stretch. I can’t remember a time I’ve ever let a downhill part of a run slip away like I did Saturday but I was okay with it. I gave that race everything I had and left it all out on the course. I finished the 100K in 12:13 and some change and I was proud to put the Waldo 100K hat on my head as I passed out on the ground. This race was exceptional by every account. Thank you to the volunteers, RD’s Megan Arborgast and Craig Thornley, and the medical staff. I briefly checked in with them after consuming 27 Gu’s during the race to help aid my sugar coated stomach. Wanting me to be as comfortable as possible they even took off my socks and shoes, washed my feet while I laid there moaning about Blackberry Gu. There is no better single track course in the country and I can’t imagine anyone could put on a better race. I finally found my peace in racing and I have the PCT to thank. I will be back next year and this time I will bring my own ipod.
A Note from Trail Running Club: If you want to learn more about Jay Danek visit his blog at McDowell Mountan Man. You can also purchase Jay’s inspirational book titled Got to Live to read in detail why he became an ultra runner nearly four years ago.