Plain 100 is a different kind of ultra – no course markings, no crew or pacers, and one aid station/drop bag about 60 miles into the race. Here is tracking info for me this weekend:
- The race starts at 5am PDT this Saturday (Sep 16).
- Live tracking for the race (demo this year, with a subset of runners hopefully including me. As of this moment there’s a small glitch in the tracking course – we actually start at the 3-way intersection just above the flag, do an out-and-back to the flag, and then finish much later at the 3-way intersection. I’m not sure how this will appear during tracking, but we have an extra 1 1/2 mile to run at the beginning, and will finish 1 1/2 miles early relative to the tracker. Perhaps this will get fixed before we start. But if not, for the 1000’s of you who will be up before dawn to watch us start, we’re not actually running in the wrong direction at the beginning. At least, I hope not.)
- Link for my personal tracking device (in case I don’t manage to get myself into the demo)
- ~105 miles, 30000 feet of climbing, 36 hour time limit, 30 runners signed up
- Guesstimated finish time: 33 hours +/- 3 hours
- Videos of the course below.
Lots more info:
I was intimidated when I signed up many months ago, and I’ve “studied” harder for this race than any other ultra I’ve done – running the Issy Alps 100 solo this spring, 3 days scouting the Plain course in July, 40 miles solo and unsupported down at Rainier a couple weeks ago, and various other misadventures in the mountains this summer. I even found myself mentally walking through all the trail junctions/turns yesterday to see if I had them memorized. All that “studying” has paid off though – I expect it to be a challenging 100 mile race but the minimal support doesn’t seem so daunting now.
As I mentioned above, they are experimenting with live tracking this year for people who have their own gps trackers. I submitted mine but as of now there are only 4 of us in the list. Still, the page shows the course and corresponding spot in the elevation profile so even if there aren’t a lot of us you can figure out where I am, where I am heading, and how likely it is that I am suffering right at the moment.
Conditions look to be decent – relatively cool but not cold, some chance of smoke in the air but no fires really close by, and little to no rain during the race. It will be dusty though – the race director included this comment in a note a couple weeks ago: “I feel this year will be an awesome year for Plain dust! We’ve had several years of late where we actually had rain ahead of race day and, unfortunately, that really knocks down the dust. I don’t think there is a threat of that this year!” Aside from dust in the air at the beginning when the massive mob of 30 runners starts out, the main challenge from the dust will be keeping our feet somewhat intact despite grit in our shoes.
I’m guessing I’ll finish in 33 hours or so. It’s hard to read too much into results, but last year the finishing times ranged from 29:22 to 35:36. That is an unusually narrow spread for a 100 mile race – and the winner was on this year’s US 24 hour team at the World Championships so he’s not slow over long distances. After running much of the course, I think the narrow spread reflects that there are a bunch of sections where you are limited by the trail conditions not fitness. E.g. it doesn’t really matter how fast you are if you are pushing through bushes, picking your way through a very rocky section of trail, or climbing over blowdowns. We’ll see though – the top 10 performances in the 20 years of the race include times ranging from ~23 to 26 hours. Maybe the trail has gotten harder as trees have fallen and bushes have grown, or maybe last year was slow for a specific 2016-only reason.
I scouted ~98 miles of the course over 3 days in July. In about 30 hours on the course, I did not see another person on the trails. No hikers, no runners, no off-road motorcycles. Just me and a lot of open space. Ironically, I did run into someone at the trailhead/race start/finish – it turned out to be a guy named Scott Weber who has finished Badwater 13 times and was the first person to do a “Triple Badwater” (going back and forth on the course 3 times – close to 500 miles – continuously in Death Valley in the heat of summer. Sounds fun!). So, lots of open space, one seriously badass/deranged person, and me. While I was out there, I took some video. The course is basically two big loops/lollipops – I did the first loop one day, part of the connector/sticks of the lollipops the second day, and the second loop the third day.
Here’s the video tour… Sorry about the breathing – rather than add music, I figured I’d show how quiet it is out there.
Day 1/Loop 1: The first 9 or so miles are on a dirt road, gradually climbing up to Maverick Saddle. I parked about 6 miles into the course, and left the car at 6:20am. I couldn’t see anything for a while, but eventually Lake Wenatchee and Fish Lake and distant mountains came into view.
From Maverick Saddle, I dropped down to the Mad River and got on the trail proper. It was about 13 miles of singletrack up to the summit of Klone Peak, rolling a little bit but gradually gaining 2500 feet up to the high point of the course. The trails are apparently maintained more by an off-road motorcycle club than anyone else, and in some places were reinforced with concrete lattice I’ve never seen before. The downside of the maintenance/motorcycle use is that the trail had small “moguls” in spots – 1-2 foot rises and dips that made running a little funky. Route-finding was mostly straightforward – it was mostly following the directions and signs. A couple of the turns were a little more tricky than they had seemed from the directions and/or the online maps/gps and I had to pull out the paper map at least once to figure out what was going on. That was the point of scouting though, to figure out where the turns were when I wasn’t worried about cutoffs. It was quiet – a few birds, running water when I was near some, a little wind, my footsteps and breathing, and not much else.
Great views all day, whether it was the wildflowers up close or the mountains in the distance. I don’t know that area well though so except for a few big landmarks (Glacier Peak, Mt. Stuart) it was all nameless to me.
A few miles on from Klone Peak, I ran through an area that had burned in recent years, and there were lots of blowdowns to contend with.
After rolling for a bit, the trail finally headed downhill, losing about 3500 feet in 10 miles. Some nice single track with turns carved by motorcycles, 3 miles of pavement which was kind of nice after the blowdowns, and a final drop along Tommy Creek almost to the Entiat River. The crux climb lay just ahead so I filled my bladder (70 ounces of water) and two flasks (another 30-40 ounces) at Tommy Creek before heading up. That’s about 7 pounds of water.
The next 6 miles from Tommy Creek are hard. There’s a quote on the Plain website:
“The Signal Peak climb is possibly the hardest single climb in ultra running that nobody knows about.”
4000 feet of climbing in 4 miles to a false summit, a short downhill reprieve, and then another 750 feet almost to the top of Signal Peak. This climb is also at the start of a 14 mile section with no water. And, as will happen for me in the race, the climb happened during the warmest part of the day. A heavy, hot, slow grind for 4 miles and then it somehow manages to keep going up for a few miles more. As I started the climb (around 2:30), with somewhere around 20 miles left to go, I texted Janet (using my InReach – no cell service for my phone) that I’d probably arrive at our friend’s house in Plain for dinner at 8:30.
After the climb, just as I turned downhill, I updated my ETA to 9:15 although I still hoped the downhill would go quickly and I’d arrive earlier. It was not to be. The downhill was slow due to rocky trails, brush overgrowth, and a couple really steep open sections where it would have been bad to trip (the GoPro shows one section but doesn’t do justice to the steep hillside). My water held out though – hopefully race day won’t be any warmer. On the other hand, the “short section” along the Mad River turned out to be 3-4 miles of overgrown trails, ending with the wettest water crossing I did all day just as the sun was going down. Arriving back at Maverick Saddle I pulled out my flashlight – glad that I carried it for the first ~50 miles of daylight – and trotted the last few miles to my car. I unlocked the car from a distance and tried to open the door/climb in/close the door quickly, but still had to spend a couple minutes hunting mosquitoes that entered with me. And instead of arriving early, I rolled up to our friend’s house at 10:30pm. My watch died near the end, but the day was roughly 53 miles in a bit less than 16 hours.
Day 2: Connector from Start/Finish to Loop 2
The second loop/lollipop of the race starts with a 7 mile “stick” – run out to get to the 2nd loop and then back afterwards to get to the finish. After my long first day and an upcoming long-ish 3rd day on the 2nd loop, I wanted to keep the day short so I decided to do the trail connection between the start and 2nd loop. I had envisioned this being a flat dusty dirt trail 15 feet away from the Upper Chiwawa road, but in reality it was rarely close to the road and rolled up and down for most of the 7 miles from the start up to the beginning of the 2nd loop. It was dusty though, and there were more motorcycle moguls in the trail here than on most of the other trails. Oddly, people tend to get lost in this section due to the many trails and roads that cross the route. I didn’t understand this before running it, but after passing through a couple intersections where you could follow a trail straight ahead but should instead turn more sharply to the right or left, I can see how a tired runner at night could make mistakes. Another benefit of scouting this route in advance is that now I’ve been on the correct trails and should be able to create a more accurate route for me to follow on my Inreach.
Day 3: Loop 2
On the third day I parked at the Alder Ridge trailhead to do the 2nd loop. The trail continues on the Lower Chiwawa trail for a few miles, climbs up a bit on the Chikamin Trail before doing a long relatively-flat traverse to Chikamin Tie.
From the Chikamin Tie junction, the trail goes up 3000 more feet on the way to Marble Meadow. In fact, from the start/finish/~62 mile aid station the race travels mostly uphill for about 30 miles before the sustained downhill back to the finish. Some of it is pretty gradual, but still – a 30 mile uphill? I had to pull out some deet spray in a hurry in this section – picaridin worked fine the first two days but this 3rd day it wasn’t nearly enough.
After the long hill, the route travels along fairly flat trails among high meadows, climbs one last hill to a great view out over the Chiwawa valley, and drops back down to the trailhead where I parked.
The second loop took me about 10 hours, and somehow I stole a Strava segment record from James Varner while I was out there (which of course has been taken away from me since then – I’m not someone who sets Strava records).
Depending upon smoke from fires this weekend, I may have to go back to these videos to remind myself what I ran through. Oh, that reminds me. There was an interesting discussion recently in the Plain Facebook group about the best respirators to wear while running a 100 mile race in smoke. As a friend once said, “everything about that sentence is wrong”. Or maybe it captures ultrarunning accurately.