DNF (Did Not Finish). The three most dreaded letters for an ultrarunner. It’s worse than DFL (Dead F---ing Last). At least with that it means that you finished. My first DNF after 39 marathons and 50 ultras, courtesy of my asthma.
I felt pretty recovered from my double the weekend before at Crater and Haulin. My legs were not sore, and my blister had almost completely healed. I thought I had recovered from my asthma attack after Haulin, but a few warning signs still lingered. I did not tend to them as I should have.
I drove down Friday, set up my tent at the Odell Lake camp site, and attended the mandatory pre-race meeting at 7PM at the Willamette Ski Area Lodge after gorging myself with a great pasta feed. We were briefed about the course and other activities were done such as giving of gifts to key volunteers as well as the announcement of past winners and 5-year participants since the inception of the race. But, the most anticipated announcement was regarding the actual length of the course. This year, it was wheeled a couple times! There was also a contest for the nearest guess by entrants. It turned out to be a little over 66 miles! Next year, the race directors are going to place this race in the bid for the USATF 100K Trail Championships, and it has to be more accurate, so they’ll have to cut out that extra 4 miles. But for our race, it would be the longer distance, the same course ran in the first 4 years.
I decided to go for the early start with my goal only to finish this race, which I avoided in past years as I heard it is considered one of the tougher 100Ks. Actually, over 1/3 of solo and relay runners opted for the early 3AM start. I’ve never started this early, and the timing threw me off a little. My sleep was interrupted by a train that ran behind the lodge resort next to the camp sites! Plus I had this dream that I woke up to late to make the start. Perhaps that was a sign that I should not have even started. But off we went into the darkness with our headlamps and flashlights. The race starts at 5000 feet, never drops below that point, and climbs to nearly 8000 feet. It was pretty warm at the start, but as we got higher, it became a little cooler and I was glad to have my long sleeve shirt. No hats or gloves were needed. I didn’t have any problems with the altitude at the Crater run that got almost up to 8000 feet, so I did not have any concerns about that. My healed blister did not bother me as I was wearing a different pair of shoes. My breathing was fine at the start.
I ran with two others at the start behind them. I could see in my headlamp light that there was a lot of dust being kicked up. But there was not much I could do since I didn’t want to run alone in the dark and I didn’t want to run a faster or slower pace. So I sucked in a lot of dust at the start, which I feel eventually was the cause for my DNF. In addition, there was a fire on the other side of Waldo Lake and I did smell smoke at one point. Someone said later they did too and that there may have been particles just too small to see. People who did not have asthma complained that they were wheezing even without running.
We topped out on Mt. Fuji at approximately 15.5 miles with incredible views, including Waldo Lake, Twin Peaks, and Maiden Peak, the last two climbs of the race. They seemed very far away. As I continued running, I had more difficulty with my breathing. I used my inhaler before starting and during the run. But I started to get passed by people at about 19 miles because I was having a hard time even with the rolling terrain, most of which I felt was very runnable. The regular starters passed me just before the Charlton Lake at 33 mile aid station, including a guy named Gus from Salinas, California who passed me asking, “Are you Van Phan? You’re an internet superstar!” When I talked to him later, he said there were pictures of me he had seen. He was referring to the “Beer shot” of me laying on the ground with empty beer cans strewn all around me taken by Glenn T. on a CCC training run. That picture is also on the web site for Dirty Girl Gaiters with the caption reading “Van Phan, who leads the points total in the TrailRunner Trophy Series.” I guess my training secret is out!
At Charlton Lake, I had to sit down. I left that aid station thinking that it was not so dire yet and that I could tough it out, since I have been in this situation one or two times before. Hal Koerner passed me asking, “What’s this with the early start?” Krissy Moehl passed me looking very strong. The next section was long and hot. I was passed by even more people who were concerned about me. I was able to run most of the downhill but had to walk in between spurts of running. I was having difficulty with the flats and uphills. I arrived at the 38.2 mile aid station where the last access to get a ride out was available. This was where the race directors told us the night before that if you leave this aid station, you need to be sure you can finish. I debated whether to go on. In that last stretch, I knew that I could at least run the downhills. So I left with the plan to walk the flats and uphills and run the downhills. The only problem was that the following 8 miles before the next aid station was 4 miles of flat and rolling, then 2 miles up before 2 miles down.
I switched from hand held bottles to a hydration pack with all my needed preferences since no personal drop bags were available beyond this point. As soon as I tried to run a short downhill, the pack compressed my lungs enough for me to feel that perhaps I should have kept the hand helds and my waist pack, but then I couldn’t carry everything that I needed with me. By now, I was really having problems with even the flats. I passed three people sitting in the shade. I later found out they were the rescuers on horseback, but I didn’t see the horses because they were tied up in a nearby meadow. I kept using my inhaler like candy, but I was not gaining any ground, literally. I was moving so slow that I was in jeopardy of not making the final cut-off at the next aid station at 46.2 miles, even with my early start. I finally hit the climb to Twin Peaks, and after only a few steps of climbing, I knew I was done. It felt like I was climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen and carrying a 50 pound pack. (I’ve never done this, so what do I know?) Step. Breathe, breathe, breathe. Step. Pant, pant, pant. I had to stop several times to lean on a rock or tree. All I was trying to do was to get to the next aid station to tell them that I was dropping. But the truth of the matter was that I still needed to hike out 1.5 miles after I got to that point. I could barely walk 10 feet.
All this time, I was getting eaten by mosquitoes and biting flies because I could not move fast enough. I got so mad at them that eventually I let them make contact long enough so that I could squish them, even if it meant that I would be left with a bite. How dare these things make my life even more miserable that it already was. They were taking the oxygen-carrying blood I needed to help me breath. I later counted over 20 bites. Finally, a gal named Laurie, who was part of the Willamette Ski Patrol running the 2nd half of the race came upon me. She had a HAM radio and tried to contact the next aid station about me to get the horse rescuers to come get me. She was not able to get a good connection and had me sit while she hiked up to them. A few more people passed me and I asked where the horse people were. They were only 5 minutes back. So I hiked down to them.
I met Curtis, a firefighter/paramedic and the leader of the group, his wife Judy, an ER nurse, and their friend Steve. They said that they were expecting to see me again. I guess I did look as bad as I felt. I was to ride on Curtis’ horse, Andy, who was very big. I had to stand on a log to get on. He had to adjust the stirrups to reach my feet. I was instructed to hold onto the pommel and lean back when we went downhill and lean forward on the uphills. Andy was very skittish and stopped frequently without any apparent reason. He walked off trail several times where my leg almost got caught between a tree and him. I asked right off the bat if horses fall over frequently, concerned that I would get a broken leg trapped under a horse. Curtis said no, that they usually are able to right themselves when they get off balance. The ride out took 2 hours on some very technical terrain that I would have preferred to stand on solid ground rather than sitting up high on a large horse. However, my asthma improved as soon as I stopped trying to run, walk, or hike. And I got to know some good people. Only one other person had to be carried off the mountain in the history of the race, and that was last year because he was dehydrated. I now belong to a very exclusive group.
I came back to the finish area and was checked by the doctor there. Surprisingly, he didn’t hear any wheezing, even though I still felt pretty tight in my chest. He released me. But when I entered the medical tent, Hal Koerner was there with an IV. His stomach didn’t do too well and I guess that anyone who had stomach problems during the race had to get an IV, even if they finished and were doing okay. Hal was not so lucky. Like me, he did not finish either. In fact, I ran into a lot of people who dropped, all guys. I don’t know yet if another woman had to drop. I know it sounds bad, but I was relieved to hear that others did not finish. It’s not like I relished it, but I think there was some comfort in knowing that you were not the only one. I felt less isolated.
Some highlights of the run included Krissy Moehl, who took the overall win in a time of 11:18, shattering the women’s course record, set my Kami Semick in 2005 who had a time of 12:02. Also, Krissy’s time was only 9 minutes off the men’s course record set in 2005 by Andy Jones-Wilkins of 11:09. Maniac Sean Meissner set a new record for the Wet Waldo contest of just under 14 hours. This required him to completely submerge in 6 lakes during the run. He actually did not win the contest this year since he had to compete against relay runners that also got into all 6 lakes who had a better total time. That doesn’t seem fair. I think they should have prizes for both.
So overall, I was able to complete 44 miles. Other than a bruised ego and tired lungs, I felt fine afterwards. I’ve heard other runners say that a DNF is not such a big deal. That may be true if you did it early in your running career. But after such a long streak without one, it made it all the more difficult. I’ve toughed out hypothermia, frozen hands and feet, and muscle cramps, but when you can’t breathe, there’s not much else you can do. I’ll be back next year with a face mask!