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Mental Toughness

The physical challenge of running 100 miles is daunting, especially in the Siskiyou mountains with daytime high temperatures in the mid 90s and nighttime lows hitting 40 degrees. The mental challenge of such an endeavor can be just as brutal as the physical.

“After 80 miles, I was ready to drop. I couldn’t see myself making the cutoff times, and I had been running alone,” recalls Zach McKeon, a Guilford, Connecticut, resident and first-time 100-mile racer who ran the 100-mile Pine To Palm race this weekend.

The race begins in Williams and ends in Ashland.

Any runner still on the course after 34 hours is disqualified, and McKeon nearly suffered that fate. After running 2 miles in nearly two hours at the 88-mile mark, he sat at an aid station and listened to his pacer discus options with the medical staff.

“He knows that if I didn’t finish, that when I got home if I didn’t give it my all, it wouldn’t sit well with me. Hearing him say that really made it click in my mind,” McKeon explains. “I was in a lot of dark spots but people pulled me out of it, I couldn’t have done it on my own.”

Many runners report that pacers, crew and family can be factors in determining whether they walk, or are driven to, the finish line.

“My dad was about to turn 60, so we decided to run 100 miles together for the first time,” explains Krista Olson, of this unique father-daughter outing.

Olson and her father, Robert Loomis, also found themselves up against interim cutoff times during the race.

“He was having a low point at some cutoffs, and I [at others],” Olson said. “Generally at a low point, we relax; we’re not in a hurry. If one of us is suffering, the other just chills. But in this case we were, so the other one helps out.”

Olson, Loomis and McKeon were the final three of 81 finishers in this seventh annual edition of the Pine to Palm race. This year the race was made more difficult than usual by a course change the traded in about 6 miles of gravel road for up-and-down single track trail.

With 142 starters, the 81 finishers made for finish rate was only 58 percent. If temperature extremes weren’t enough, the course featured 20,000 feet each of climbing and descending, including summiting three 7,000 foot peaks, like the iconic Dutchman Peak and Wagner Butte.

Family provided motivation of a different sort for men’s winner, Ryan Ghelfi.

Ghelfi, a 28-year old Ashland resident and former standout runner for Southern Oregon University, became a first-time father 12 days before the race.

This race was Ghelfi’s second finish in four tries at the 100-mile distance. He finished in 18:28:20

“I didn’t want to drop out because something was partially different,” Ghelfi said. “My baby, he doesn’t care, but I don’t want to disappoint him. I definitely thought about that a good amount. It helped me keep going. My wife and baby were waiting for me at many aid stations, so I didn’t want to drop out before the next one.”

Both Ryan and Natalie Ghelfi are former winners of the Siskiyou Out Back 50K race at Mount Ashland. Ryan Ghelfi figures he may be the one driving to aid stations with the crib in 2017.

Ghelfi started out in the lead, but hurt his foot. Like many other runners, he considered dropping out.

“I was like ‘I’m going to walk my butt in [to the finish line] if I have to.’ But I changed shoes, and things got a little better, and it got cooler after sunset.”

Ghelfi was caught by Ricardo Tortini, the eventual third-place finisher. The two ran together for perhaps 15 miles before Ghelfi pulled ahead for good.

“So much changes in these 100s; that’s the cool thing,” Ghelfi said. “It’s really important for anyone running a 100 mile race — you can’t forecast the race. You have to be OK with ‘I’m feeling bad now. I’m just going to get through this, but it will get better. It’s hard — it’s easy to defeat yourself.”

The women’s winner, Kaytlyn Gerbin, is a Seattle resident who led the rest of the women for the entire race and finished in 22:18:51. She too, had a strong family connection in the Pine To Palm race.

My husband and I signed up together; this was going to be our first 100,” Gerbin explained. “Unfortunately he hurt his knee, so he ended up being my crew instead.”

Gerbin has an unusual training regimen.

“I do most of my training on the weekend,” Gerbin said.” I do a lot of adventure runs and mountaineering stuff.”

One of the couple’s recent weekend adventures included a 42-mile circumnavigation of Mt Hood, followed by a 31-mile run the next day.

The toughest mental challenge for Gerbin came half way through the race.

“At mile 50 when I still had 50 miles left, I had to force my mind to think positive, and break it up into aid stations,” she said. “Every time I got to an aid station I’d ask ‘how far to the next aid station?’ "

As to winning the race, Gerbin admits that her strategy was to ask people not to tell her the progress of her competitors.

Apparently there are times in an ultramarathon when what you don’t know can’t hurt you.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer and ultramarathoner living in Portland. Email him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org



Kaz Williams of Chamonix, France, leaps for joy as she completes the 100-mile Pine to Palm run Sunday. (PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR)
Elizabeth Sasseman of Boulder, Colo., runs the final leg of the Pine to Palm 100-mile ultramarathon Sunday. (PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR)