A year ago I challenged myself and started a journey supported by family (the Young Mountain Runners) and friends and somewhere along the way I became an ultrarunner. It is not merely that I ran an Ultra event (longer than 26.2 miles), it is a longer and, maybe, deeper transformation as intimidation is replaced by a desire to go long distances on demanding or interesting trails. This past weekend I broke through the bounds of my original challenge by clutching the first grail of the ultrarunner, thereby completing the transformation, with a finish at the San Diego 100. Here's the story...
Spoiler Alert: 28:57:25
Darren and I arrived in San Diego on Thursday night, meeting Tim Long and Jes at the airport. After a border-crossing-like inquisition at Budget Rental Car we dropped into a hotel in the city. Darren's recent injury and a hacking cough had removed him from considering the race, but he would crew with my excellent friend Henri Migala and pace me during the second half of the event.
On Friday we got in a quick shake-out run in the Mission Ridge Park guided by Matt, a friend of Tim's. My goal was basically not to twist an ankle or do anything that would compromise my start. Having nervously but successfully navigated the park trails, we had the biggest lunch I'd probably ever eaten, met up with Henri, and then moved up into the hills for the pre-race meeting.
Scott Mills corralled the runners, crews, and hangers-on into the lodge at the Al Jahr Shrine Camp on the slopes of Mt. Laguna at about 6,000 feet. It is a slightly different vibe when you sit in as a runner rather than a crew-member as I had at Leadville and at the much more informal gathering that is the Buffalo 100. At Scott's demand, I joined many others in standing when he asked all the first-time 100-milers to rise. This group received an encouraging applause from the gathering; from now on, I give the applause and encouragement, but I will no longer be standing at that call. The instructions were as straight-forward as anyone would need -- the course is marked; have fun, don't die. (Of course, Scott doesn't say that, but it's what I hear). Questions followed, but it was pretty basic stuff.
Our hotel in Alpine was perfect though a little cramped with the four of us. Tim kept inventing reasons he would come up lame (race report build-up) and encouraging me to get some rest and hydrate. I was putting his coaching skills on the line tomorrow. My pre-race build-up: do good = it's because Tim is my coach; do poorly = well, Tim is my coach. Nope, this is on me. I packed and re-packed the crew bag and laid out my uniform for the morning.
Up at 4:30 as Tim gathered his gear and we were quickly into the morning fog of the San Diego marine layer. We soon escaped the fog as we climbed to Al Jahr and joined the gathering runners and crews. We could not have asked for a better day. I thought I would have a few nerves on edge but the pre-race line up seemed about like any other event. I had settled into the realization and determination to simply get going and keep going. I made some final plans with Darren and Henri and settled into a mid-pack spot, this could not be a quick start. I had to keep to my plan.
Scott screeched a few last-minute instructions in a bull-horn and then the countdown began -- we were off at 7 AM. One hundred eighty-nine of us funneled into the little campground roads heading toward the grassy meadows of the Laguna Lakes. Shortly after the start, however, I passed a figure in the trees throwing-up. I looked at my watch, 0.25 miles; is this what it's like? If so, it's going to be a long day. We soon transitioned to single-track and a quick pace set in. I did not want to go too fast but I also wanted to escape the crowds. After a time I felt somewhat alone, though I could hear voices. In most races it seems usual for me to get isolated between fast groups up-front and slower groups behind. From the air it might look like I was optimistically bridging the gap between the two groups but I'm usually happy to just sit in-between until the whole things simply spreads out. This wasn't the case here. Thinking I was alone I ran smoothly into a corner and happened to glance back, immediately behind me jogged what looked like 50 people! I had no gap, which was probably fine and good, but I also felt a little claustrophobic. But it is a race afterall, I guess other people have to be here!
The first aid station (Meadows) was about 7 miles into our day. It has a little out-and-back section to access the check-in and station tent. Here, I ran into a completely new experience (a first of many). It's an easy spot for crew, family, and friends to cheer on their runner and given that all the runners are relatively bunched up, I was soon threading through a gauntlet of cheering, encouraging, and photo-snapping fans. It was awesome. If it's going to be crowded, it might as well be a pack of cheering supporters! After about 100 yards of this I saw Darren and Henri (my most excellent crew) waiting with a filled water bottle and a few gels. I downed a couple S-Caps (salt) and retraced my way through the throng.
The first aid station breaks the flow of the conga-line and soon it was small groups making our way around the meadows. The day was warming but it suited me and I focused on my half-hour schedule of gels and caps. At the Red-Tail aid station (AS) I again met the crew (Mile 13.8; 2:40) and traded my bottles for my Nathan Pack along with a long sleeve shirt and a brimmed hat. I would not get access to my crew until Mile 44 due to permit stipulations and general access limitations. I was on my own for the afternoon, although plenty of wonderfully volunteered stations and occasional runners would punctuate the time.
I did see Darren and Henri a couple times but they could only be spectators as I cruised by on my way to the Penny Pines AS. In this span I realized that my delusion of possibly finishing within 24 hours was just that, a delusion. I jettisoned the thought from my plan for the day and felt satisfied that I was moving forward smoothly if not as fast as I dreamed. It was all about finishing, the time would come on its own. And I wasn't going to let the now-irrelevant split times on my little chart get me down.
After Penny Pines (Mile 23.6; 4:50) I descended brushy Noble Canyon, getting a little careful on the more technical sections. The heat of the afternoon was building but a breeze cut through. I kept focused on hydration and fuel, enjoying the relatively quick time between gels. "It can't be time for another GU already?!" It meant I was moving forward. I finally reached the Pine Creek AS (Mile 31.3; 6:33) realizing that I was feeling the effort and succumbing a little to the heat. The volunteers were great and I was doused with water and gulped as much electrolyte drink as I could handle before setting off on the short loop ahead of me.
The Pine Creek loop seemed like a complete climb, always up and never a descent. How is that possible? It went much slower than I expected but I finally returned to the Pine Creek AS (Mile 36; 8:05) and re-did the ritual, taking my time because now came the climb with a reputation. At the height of the afternoon, I had 2,400 feet to ascend in a few miles, much of it on west-facing asphalt followed by exposed trail. There'd be little to no shade for a while. I made sure the Nathan was full and set out. I basically walked uphill the next 8 miles. A few places afforded a little jog, but nothing that broke from the overall slow pace. Although I never felt too bad, I began to wonder if I would ever have some good running sections again. In hind-sight I actually gained back time on my very optimistic splits on this section!
|Pioneer Mail (Mile 44)|
Seeing Darren and Henri at Pioneer Mail (Mile 44.1; 10:51) changed all that. Although I kind of thought it would be nice to hang around with them for awhile, I let them re-stock my pack and I moved on. Rejuvenated and helped by an awesome tailwind, I scampered on upward along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). It became a ridge-line trail, nicely exposed and looking down over the Anza Borrego Desert thousands of feet below. I felt I was really cruising again, but any glance at my watch showed my pace was well below what I might have thought. OK, so stop looking at that thing. It doesn't matter. I did catch some folks, but I was also caught by the Jester. Damn, but he's a machine and I had to keep to my own race -- let him go.
I broke through the 50-mile point just before Sunrise AS (Mile 51; 12:44), where ironically maybe, the sun was setting. I changed socks and ate something besides GU (a hotdog!) here. Jeff Browning, in the midst of shattering the course record, stopped in for an Indy-like though seemingly relaxed pit-stop. He was standing right next to me but, at the same instant, was 30 miles ahead of me. Cool, he was right where I wanted him.
Darren had offered to join in as my pacer (allowed at this point), but I wanted a little more time on my own, so I grabbed my headlamp and re-stocked pack and started into the dusk. The evening cooled as night settled in and we approached Lake Cuyamaca. The starry headlamp dances began around me as I slowly gained on or was passed by others. As I looped in and out of small canyons I could look back over the course and see headlamps, solo or in little pairs and groups, trailing behind me. It was encouraging and the little lights beautifully matched the stars and occasional planes descending into San Diego.
Scott had warned us that an equine endurance event had been run around Lake Cuyamaca earlier in the day and that we might run into some stray flagging, pink rather than our orange. I saw a "Vet Check" sign and figured I wasn't quite ready for the glue factory so I kept with the orange. But orange flags had recently decreased in frequency and I was soon concerned I'd taken a misstep somewhere along the way. The trail seemed clear and there were others following me, but they could simply be thinking I was on course. I had a few discouraging minutes but soon ran across an orange ribbon in the grass at my feet. I'm ok, just go. I'd been doing pretty well lately, and I was enjoying the rebound from the hot climbs of the late afternoon.
Darren and Henri were ready for me at Stonewall Mine AS (Mile 59; 14:55). Again I changed socks -- the sand and cheatgrass were making little burning spots -- and grabbed my Z-poles which I'd added to my gear at the last minute before leaving home (beautiful idea). Darren was also ready to join me, though now we only had a small climb before the descent along Sweetwater Creek. NOT. It was a huge climb, ever-upward as it seemed like we were following headlamps into the sky.
Eventually we descended on a fence-lined trail with outcrop-filled switchbacks (how do the horses get down these?) to Paso Picacho AS (Mile 64; 17:56). Ok, maybe I changed socks here, the stations were starting to blend together. George Ruiz (Carson City) and Chet, his pacer, caught me here; they were going steadily forward. I was happy we finally had the gradual downhill to Sweetwater. NOT. Another huge climb grew out of the dark. But this time we could look back on our previous hill and see headlamps streaming down; at least we weren't there!
The watch battery died in here somewhere, and it was hard to judge distances. Darren, still with a working watch, would say something like "Four miles in" and after what seemed like a half-hour, "Three miles to go to Sweetwater". What?! Ok, settle in. It doesn't matter. Eventually we saw headlamps heading up the opposite side of the valley, but that didn't mean it was all that close. It wasn't. But finally we saw the lights and soon stumbled into the creek at the highway bridge. We were marginally successful at jumping the flowing sections of creek but still got wet enough. And then the cold began to seep in as we made the Sweetwater AS (Mile 72; 20:20). Henri was waiting with the gear; the packs were covered with frost! This AS was half-party and half-MASH tent. One great guy was fixing burritos while in the corner runners were curled up under blankets and simply looking miserable. The drop-out rate was probably pretty high about now. I do remember getting dry socks here plus the luxury of a dry shirt, jacket, and pants. I scored a couple burritos and we were off again. Let's stay on the party side of the line!
And party it was, sort of. We climbed slowly into the distant light of morning, jogging occasionally but mostly staying focused on forward movement. The Z-poles had helped with all the climbs and descents and I was grateful for having them. Soon enough we passed Mile 78, slaying demons from Darren's recent 100-mile attempts. We weren't looking back.
This time Sunrise AS (Mile 80; 23:06) was appropriately named. The climb had taken way too long, but we felt good. Henri was sure an earthquake had awoken him as he waited for us, but it was merely Darren grabbing the gear from the waiting truck (thanks for the truck Henri!). I relished the new shoes and socks in my drop bag and, dropping off the poles, I returned to the simple uniform of shirt and shorts. I even indulged in a rather extravagant breakfast burrito as I left the station. Now we were re-tracing old trails in the rejuvenating light of the morning. Twenty-four hours had almost come and gone, but now only a good 20-mile run to go.
Relatively speaking we began to tear it up. Ok, our pace wasn't great but it felt good to go in little intervals and it did allow us to catch a few people. The exposed trail was awesome to repeat and I enjoyed showing Darren the sights I'd seen the evening before. The burritos began to catch up to me, however, and though I didn't feel bad, I occasionally thought something bad might happen. But it was only a little extra propulsion helping me along! (oh, the details).
We dropped into Pioneer Mail (Mile 87.5; 25:25) with building confidence that we were really cutting into the miles. Only a small climb and descent to the next aid at Mile 91. NOT. Now all the hills seemed huge. The trail wound back and forth and up and up, but I had to simply encourage myself that it was just a mile like any other and one more mile toward the unmoving goal. We pulled into Penny Pines (Mile 91; 26:39) at about 9:40 AM. Inquiring about an outhouse, I was told it was just down a trail at the highway. What the heck, I had time. "Yeah, the cut-off isn't until noon." What?!! "The cut-off for this station." Oh, relief, I did have time.
What followed was another long climb along the PCT. We gained on a few people, but we weren't really going very quickly. We simply encouraged ourselves to get to the top. Passing a Boy Scout troop, I requested a "running badge" to no avail, but heard the leader tell the boys, it's all downhill now. And so it was. Finally.
We caught a guy worried about the up-coming trail intersection and turn, figuring he'd passed it, he seemed to be frantically checking his phone or GPS for info. We'd heard it was well-marked so we scooted on, hollering back at him when we found it. A couple guys passed us just before the Rat Hole AS (Mile 96.2; 28:08). I had grabbed my Z-poles for the last climb, so I ditched them here. I was thinking about pushing it pretty hard now. Simply thinking about it, that is. But even the thought does some good, and as we crossed into the Laguna Meadows area again, I began to smell the barn. Darren encouraged me, though his coughing seemed to be gaining on both of us. He'd been up all night too and was merely completing a 42-mile "run" of his own.
We'd been told there would be a "1-mile to go" sign and kept thinking it would be around each corner. I recognized the landmarks just outside the Al Jahr campground and knew we were closing in. But no sign. At a small gate a lady told me "10 minutes to go" and I checked my watch. It was 11:50 AM and I decided a 28 would be better than 29 and got to it. Where it comes from I have no idea. After almost 29 hours of effort, I found more energy than I would ever have imagined. I simply put my head down and went. A group of walking "runners" ahead spurred me further. I rather rudely charged through them, but they shouted encouragement (Thanks guys!). I was close. I dropped my Nathan pack thinking I would have nice photo at the finish or something. But the campground roads zigged and zagged around familiar looking buildings and campsites. I was following the arrows and flags but it felt like I was going in circles. I was really starting to burn out but speeding up all the same. What?! A little bridge? And more trail behind some houses. Two times around the propane tank?? (ok, not really, but I expected it next). And then, getting my pace somewhere in the vicinity of 8-minute miles, I spun around a final turn and there it was, the home stretch. I heard Scott call my name on the bullhorn and I was there to shake his hand. 28 hours, 57 minutes, 25 seconds.
The happy relief is beyond words. After a year of training, reading, listening, and wondering, it was over. I had come 100 miles, but had crossed a greater distance to who I am.
I learned many things. First, it isn't that bad. Second (I'll stop counting down now), I could do better. I spent too much time in aid stations. For a first go this was great and it kept me confident and relatively strong, but it was simply too much time succumbing to company and rest. Probably on the order of an hour and a half, maybe more. The trails were difficult at night; I need more experience there. Most importantly, I learned I want to do this again, and again. It is truly, what we do.
Hearty thanks to Scott Mills and all of the extra-ordinary volunteers. Every station was a happy island in a wilderness of climbs and descents. I loved seeing every one of you; the burritos were the best. Some great guys and gals stood at a few of the turns and pointed the way, though I probably didn't need it, it was nevertheless great to say hi and be cheered forward.
|The Young Mountains Runners - Going 100|
I reserve special and enduring thanks to Darren. He's been the hero I've chased along many miles. We are an elite team, though unfortunately the talent is spread across two people. My life is better because I ran this (and because I run) and he pointed the way down the first trails. Keep going bro... I'm on it.
|Footfeathers welcomes me to the club.|
|Henri Migala, my long time friend and longer time crew (here at Pioneer Mail)|
Henri, thanks for your truck and your time. And for continually yelling, "hey, would you guys hurry up, I'm tired!" I'll miss that at every other race I ever do. I couldn't have asked for or hired a better crew. I hope you got some sleep.
And though I hit the trails way more than I should, Dez smiles on me, takes care of the feet, and keeps me fueled in so many ways. I say thanks in every mile on the trail; you're the pull that gets me there and back again.
I run always with the Young Mountain Runners, my family. IWWD.