The 2015 Angeles Crest 100-mile Endurance Run

Wrightwood to Altadena, across the San Gabriel Mountains

Just prior to the beginning of this year I started listening to the podcast Trail Runner Nation.  I highly recommend it.  Among the runners I have heard many times on the show are Jimmy Dean Freeman and Sally McRae, both of whom I met at this year’s Angeles Crest (AC) 100-Mile Endurance Run.  I can’t remember which episodes exactly, but when I began my training cycle for the AC100 I heard many musings from the TRN podcast crew on the nature of ultrarunning.  The episodes in question are from December 2014 or January 2015, so listen to all of them if you wish to hear the original discussions; I never know exactly which episode I’m hearing because it’s usually while running.  In one episode, the discussion centered on how non-runners perceive us “crazies.”  What are the most common questions people ask us when we say we ran 100 miles?  I could instantly relate to the list: “What do you think about when you run 100 miles?”  Quick answer: running.  “I hate driving 100 miles!”  So do I.  Driving can suck.  “My knees would be destroyed!  How are your knees?”  My knees are fine.  They would be destroyed if I ran in crappy shoes or without proper form.  “Is that good for you?”  Compared to what?  “Did you sleep?”  Sometimes.  Depends on the race and what the body needs.  “All at once?”  “Do you stop?”  Yes, yes.  “I could never do that,” people often say.  And in my head I disagree, because I truly think everyone is capable of it.  The ability, and urge, to move across rugged, unexplored terrain is part of the reason why there are people on every corner of this planet.

The discussions then moved to how ultrarunners perceive ultrarunning.  I think Freeman had commented that “ultrarunning is about commiseration,” but I could easily have misheard “community.”  I think both are applicable.  An old joke was told, “How do you know if someone is a marathoner?  They’ll tell you.”  Ultrarunners can be accused of the same bragging, and I will proudly wear my finisher buckles, but I think there are some subtle and key differences.  A finish is not a guarantee.  Sure, running a road marathon in a particular time is not guaranteed, even if you train for a specific pace.  But if anyone puts in the miles and properly trains, the ability to finish the distance is not in question.  The growth in marathoning over the last 30 years I feel is evidence enough for this claim.  Moreover, with trails there are many other things that can happen, even if you try to train for all the possibilities.  I think the biggest difference between a road marathon and trail ultra is that the trail and your body can gang up on you in unpredictable ways.  Finishing is not guaranteed.  My one streak that continues is I have not yet dropped from a race.  I have not made it to the start of two races, but a DNS is different from a DNF.  Someday, it will happen for me.  Even Freeman commented, “I’d trade my DNF’s for DFL’s in a heartbeat.”  (DFL = Dead F---ing Last).  He further commented that the ultra is a “triumph of spirit.  The body will endure.  What will your spirit take?”  The other key differences are the commiseration and community.  Everyone suffers.  And ultrarunners support each other.

Whether I’m running a race, or helping out at one, it is for the camaraderie and atmosphere.  Yes, there is indeed the competitive aspect, but in the end, the person I am racing is always myself (and of course my local running friends that I have a chance at beating).  There are always slower people, and faster people, and who places where often changes with distance, terrain, and many other uncontrollable factors.  The point I’m trying to make, is that for me, running races, whether a mile or 100 miles, is about being with other people that push themselves in similar ways.

One final TRN gem I heard when I began my training cycle for the AC100 was a segment called “Ask a Race Director.”  I forget the race director, but the question asked was regarding must-do races.  The must-do race?  The Angeles Crest 100.

A week prior to this year’s AC100, I volunteered at the Vista Point aid station--the Marin side of the Golden Gate Bridge--in the San Francisco Marathon.  At the aid station, with an army of local runners, at 4:30 AM we unboxed three pallets worth of Gu Chomps sport chews.  We all helped to prep the tables at the Vista Point for the thousands of runners, one side of the parking lot with sport chews, the other with water and electrolyte drink.  From the aftermath, I think I lucked out working the dry side of the aid station--I didn’t need a waterproof jacket handing out the chews!  When the front runners came through, they only needed minimal provisions; it was only 7 miles into the race, a short distance for the elites, so we were still more cheering than aiding.  It is fun seeing the top runners go through, especially when I saw my sister zoom by leading the women’s race (she won the women’s race, with a time of 2:49, I believe her third SF Marathon win). However, as the stream of people thickened, and the different pace groups moved through in succession, we could barely keep up with all of the hands grabbing for the sport chew packages.  Some people were taking it a bit too seriously, especially at this early point in the marathon (7 miles in, 19 to go).  The majority of people were gracious for the support, but a few gave you attitude, if you didn’t drop the package of sport chews perfectly in their hands.  One guy, moving somewhere between 8-9 minute pace, yelled at me, “F---ing hand it to me!”  I gave his to someone else.  After almost 3 hours and thousands of runners (marathoners and half-marathoners) passing through, the trash left was pretty epic.  My good friend Victor Ballesteros, at the Vista Point commentating on the race for, said that all big city marathoners should be required to volunteer to pick up trash at a city marathon as a qualification criterion.  Most 100-mile races require either a day of trail work or volunteering at an ultra as part of the requirement for entry, something that I hope never changes.  The big-city road marathon is certainly a very different event than a trail hundred, and it is striking to see the differences between the two within the span of a week.

Going into AC, I had ramped up my training to the most weekly mileage I had ever done in prep for a 100-miler.  In my previous three hundreds I had experienced a thoroughly trashed body in the later miles.  Both times I ran the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) 100, it happened around mile 80.  When I ran the Vermont 100, it happened dramatically around mile 94, and I went from moving at about 11 minutes per mile to over 22 minutes per mile.  I wanted to finish AC running.  But with all of the mileage, much of it up and down Big Rock Ridge (my local north Marin County mountain), I was starting to feel a bit burned out by the ultras and ready for a break.  That said, I did feel prepared.  It would be at least as difficult of a course as the TRT100.  However, I had just paced another Marin native, Pat Schmidt, in his 100-mile debut from miles 50-80 of the Tahoe Rim Trail course, at an average of a 13:30 per mile and to my legs it felt like a very easy run.  Pat moved up 5 places during my time with him on the course, and he ended up finishing in 5th place.  Moreover, I thought if I can run 30 miles, while eating real food (including pizza and beer), and not feel beat up at all, I’m in good shape for the Angeles Crest.

My crew consisted of my wonderful--especially for putting up with this nonsense--wife Julianne, and my friend, bandmate and ultrarunner extraordinaire, Victor Ballesteros.  Victor was going to pace me from a campsite called Chilao (mile 52) to the end.  I figured since Victor is training for the upcoming Tor des Geants, a 330km (205 mile) trek with 24,000m (78,000’) of climbing in Italy, France and Switzerland, then 48 miles of rugged mountains is right up his alley.  Fortunately, he thought so too.

My super crew!
My crew!  Two people I'm very lucky to have in my life!

Wrightwood really welcomed us!
The town really welcomed us!  Coffee shops opened at 3:30am!

Two days before the race, we headed down to Wrightwood.  A short drive from San Bernardino, this mountain resort town is nestled in a canyon that is about 10 minutes west of the I-15 Cajon Pass.  It’s always fun soaking in the low-key, yet still intense, excitement the day before a 100-miler.  All the runners know that anything can happen.  Every one of us prepares in our own way, but we also steel ourselves, both logistically and mentally, for the high likelihood that our race may deviate from our plans.

I woke up at 3am and started to prep for the day(s).  Many runners lay out their clothes and gear the night before, and I am no exception.  You don’t want to have to think about what you’re doing in the morning, especially if you didn’t sleep well.  Suiting up is almost like getting ready to go into battle, but the battle is with yourself and the trail.  For this race, because during training it had worked so well in the heat, I was wearing a cutoff t-shirt so I could have a bare midriff; a “crop-top.”  Some say crop-tops look ridicuIous; I think they reveal just enough to get the imagination going.  And they work.  The bib number was already pinned to my shorts before I went to bed--you don’t want to stab yourself with a safety pin on race morning.  I lubed up any potential chafing hot spots, assembled my gaiters and donned my pack.  I filled the bottles, packed the bags and we headed back up the canyon road to Wrightwood.

In order to get maximum sleep, Julianne and Victor dropped me off at about 4:15am and headed directly back to the hotel.  I had 45 minutes to ready myself with the others.  I found friends, both old and new, and we prepared ourselves for the day with toilet visits, gear checks and pacing talk, and tried not to think too seriously about what was to begin after 5am.  Fellow San Francisco Running Company teammates Greg Benson and Jack Finn were pretty amused by the crop-top.

Greg dominated the course with a 22:58 (6th overall). Even with a nap half-way up the most brutal climb of the race (most likely in poison oak), Jack finished solo in 27:54. Greg's report, Jack's report

Though it’s only 31.8 miles (wow, really close to 50k) as the crow flies from Wrightwood to Altadena, where the race finishes, and less than 5000’ feet of net drop, there would be officially 100.3 miles of trail with over 21,000’ of gain and over 24,000’ of drop (I’m not sure how that math works out…).  Driving, it’s just over 60 miles (funny, that’s about 100k) from the Wrightwood Community Center to the Loma Alta Park in Altadena, all following California State Highway 2, the Angeles Crest Highway.  It’s a long day for both runners and crew, and even longer for race organizers and volunteers.

What a course!
The elevation profile with major climbs highlighted. Just seven hills...

The start of any 100-miler is almost comical.  Some run, some walk, but unlike other distances, there is no overwhelming sense of hurry.  We all know that there is no need to secure a place during the first few miles, and starting conservatively is always a good idea, especially when you are faced with over 2000’ of climbing in the first 3.5 miles.  I stuck to my plan: hike the hills and run easy on the flats and downhills.  The goal was to average 14:06 per mile.  If I could hold that, then I could have a chance of breaking 24 hours.  This felt very mellow up and over the Pacific Crest Trail to Inspiration Point and down to the Vincent Gap (mile 13).  I was a bit ahead of pace, but I thought the trail hadn’t been that rugged yet, and the first huge climb was just about to begin.  In under 4 miles we would climb 2500’ to the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell.  I felt strong, and my legs still felt very fresh, but I was definitely starting to feel the altitude.  I felt that pushing hard up the climb was starting to make me a bit light-headed.  I decided to keep a laid back pace on the way up, because I knew we had a long descent after the summit. Shortly before the top, I saw another SFRC teammate, Chris Blagg, with his 13-year-old son.  He was out for a morning run, showing his boy the joy of ultrarunning.  It’s always uplifting to see friends, and of course, I had to run for about 20 feet so I could look good in his pictures!  I needed to model the crop top!  When I reached the summit, I stopped for a few pictures.  This was the top of the race course, so I had too! Part of why we run a course like this is for the view!  And it was spectacular.  Desert to the North, canyons and San Bernardino to the south.  And to the west, the next 83 miles of the course undulated across the San Gabriels.

Don't let the pose fool you.  I was hiking.
Yeah, I'm just posing for the shot. Photo: Chris Blagg

What a view!
Wow. Picture spans from north at left to south at right.

As I began the descent to Islip Saddle (mile 26), where I would first see Julianne and Victor, I noticed my average pace had dramatically slowed.  But that made sense, most of it was up!  As I descended, I watched the pace drop, and while the terrain was loose, narrow and technical, it didn’t seem to be taking any toll on my legs. I ran into Islip Saddle with a 10-minute mile and made it exactly when I said I would, at 11am.

I never would have notice the trail here...
One marathon down, about 3 more to go. Photo: Julianne Bretan

Julianne and Victor both told me I looked good, and I unloaded my headlamp and arm warmers.  It was starting to get warm, so I filled my hat with ice.  I still felt pretty good at this point, but I was still feeling the altitude.  I had a Beef Epic Bar, some watermelon and PB&J, and headed up the next climb.

Mmm...a meat bar!  And Body Glide!
Mmm...a meat bar!  And Body Glide!  Photo: Julianne Bretan

The climb out of Islip was steep!  Though shorter, I think it was steeper than the Baden-Powell climb, with about 1400’ in 1.6 miles.  And it was looser trail and more exposed, and of course, it was hotter.  I could see a smoke coming from the forest to the East, and helicopters flying over.  The thought crossed my mind that a forest fire could easily go out of control in these hot, dry and slightly breezy conditions.  I could feel the ice melting away, and I was already looking forward to more ice in the hat at the next aid station, just before mile 30.

Coming into the next aid station, the Krakta Ridge Highway 2 crossing, I now realized I was starting to overheat.  It wasn’t quite noticeable yet, because I could still run the flats and downhills at 11-12 minute pace.  I saw Julianne and Victor, they iced my hat and topped off all my fluids for what was supposed to be the hottest part of the course, the Cooper Canyon.  All set, I headed down the road.  As I was shuffling along the side of the highway, I heard a honk as Julianne and Victor drove by, a comforting reminder that I was well supported.  I finally stopped for a toilet break at the campsite on the edge of the canyons.  Whenever you sit down in these races, you worry about your legs locking up, but both bowels and legs seemed fine.  As I exited the toilet, I almost went the wrong way, but campers pointed me back towards the course.

I’ve always felt that my Garmin, which has about a 20-hour battery life, has been remarkably accurate, and more so the slower I go.  I had just run for about 2 miles down Highway 2 at just under 12-minute pace.  I thought, “I can catch up to 24-hour pace again on these downhills,” and by the time I reached the bottom of the canyon, I was back on track.  However, the climb out was steep, and I was starting to feel less enthused than normal about the Gu gels I was taking.  I had been taking a Gu every 30 minutes, and while I was still keeping them down, whenever my watch read 25 or 55 minutes past the hour, I started to cringe.  Meanwhile, I’m watching the miles tick away and realize that I should have been at the aid station.  Did I get lost?  No, I still see course ribbons.  But I was climbing up to the mile 37 aid station and my Garmin says I’ve run closer to 39.  Hmmm.  Usually GPS reads short--not long--especially when there are switchbacks.  However, I hear the cars going by on the road and the chatter of the aid station.  I perk up, and, motivated by the familiar faces, run the slightly uphill 100 meters towards Victor and Julianne.  Victor says to me, “You know that thing where you were running uphill?  Don’t do that!”  They could tell I was warm and starting to feel dried out.  I ate some more PB&J, iced up and filled up the bottles, and began the descent to the next aid station at officially mile 42, but probably mile 44 by my count.

Don't do that!
Out of the canyon. Photo: Julianne Bretan

As I crossed the highway and descended the single track, I stopped at a shady turn to relieve myself of fluids and heard, “That’s sexy!”  I turned and noticed Julianne and Victor looking down at me from the road, taking pictures of me peeing.

I can't go with you watching!
We saw you what you were doing!  Do you think you're marking the trail? Photo: Julianne Bretan

On the descent to mile 42 (or 44, depending on who’s counting) I felt strong, and could still suck back the Gu, and I was able to average about an 11-minute pace as I descended a rather rocky fire road.  If you go off-roading in the San Gabriels, make sure you have some durable tires.  The loose rocks on the “vehicle” roads are many and pointy.  If the next aid station was actually mile 44, then I was back on 24-hour pace, if it was truly 42, then I was over the mark.  You never know with the advertised distances.  That’s one of the charms of trail ultrarunning.  It thoroughly frustrates me during races (my polite way of saying it really pisses me off when I’m running), but in hindsight I always feel the uncertainty is one of the best things about the sport, because it pushes me mentally WAY out of my comfort zone, often to the chagrin of whoever is pacing me.  At least that’s what I try to tell myself after the race.

At the next aid station, mile 42 or 44, I was starting to feel thoroughly nauseous, especially when hiking.  I told Julianne and Victor my stomach was starting to act up, but they said I still looked pretty strong, and that they have seen others looking much worse than me.  I never know if this is actually true.  I took some ginger ale, and got down what I could, but it definitely wasn’t enough for the next section.  As I headed out, it was hot, but the ice in the hat was doing its job.  After a few miles of rolling single track, I popped out onto a paved road, and I could see it snake up what I assumed was Mt. Hillyer, where near the top was the next aid station, at mile 49 (or 51 by my watch).  It wasn’t that steep of a grade, but moving uphill was starting to knot up my stomach.  About halfway up, I was dry-heaving every 200 yds.  For the first time, I could not get down a Gu.  Once I got to the aid station, around 5pm (pace was definitely slipping away), I downed a whole can of Coca-Cola, and the cold fluid was soothing as it trickled down.  I iced up and topped off the bottles and headed out for the last part of the climb.  The mile up to the top of Mt Hillyer was difficult, but soon I could feel the Coca-Cola kick in and I was able to descend strong to a campground called Chilao, officially at mile 52 (54 by my count).  Strangely, as I began running the downhill, my nausea did not go away, but it was much more easily ignored than when I was walking.  Just before entering the aid station, I drenched myself with what was left in my water bottles.  Even though the Sun was getting low, it was still hot.  Expecting a slight shock from soaking myself, I was surprised to feel none.  I wanted more.  “I want to swimming,” I thought.  As Julianne and Victor swooped in, I told them the nausea was really slowing me down.  They both said that I not only have to pace my running, I need to pace my feeding, to take my time eating!  Julianne reminded me that I have a tendency to shovel and swallow, rather than chew and eat, most likely the result of growing up with 3 younger siblings, all very active and hungry.  I managed to get down grapes and watermelon, and some Red Bull.  At this point I used the campground toilet, and Julianne and Victor both warned me about sitting down for too long.  The legs, however, never locked up, even though it has happened to me in past races.  They stuffed all my night gear into my pack, and gave me my ice and bottles.  Initially I refused my jacket, and Julianne later told me, with disapproving tone that I refused it when she offered it, but took it when Victor told me too.  I’m so lucky that she tolerates these things, and me.  Looking after a runner can be like looking after a little kid: "Did you eat? Drink your bottle! Have you gone to bathroom yet?" The Vermont 100 even refers to the crew as the "runner's handlers." The Vermont 100, after all, is still a horse race. We headed out, and the next stage of the adventure began, now with Victor.  Julianne said she’d see me at the finish, and we departed towards LA, a little before 7pm.

Really, just halfway?
See you tomorrow hubby, I'm going to get a real meal and then go to sleep in a bed!  Photo: Julianne Bretan

Going into this race, I didn’t want to put Victor through a “death march,” where by the end I was stumbling incoherently trying to make the cut-off times for aid stations.  But Victor kept saying my forward motion was strong, and we hiked the ups and I was able to run strong down a technical downhill and up a final push to reach Shortcut Saddle (mile 59, or 61 by my GPS) by 9pm.  I could see bats criss-crossing our path in the low twilight, and the trail was narrow, rocky and winding.  It was finally time to break out the headlamp.  At Shortcut, I realized I needed something different.  Gu wasn’t an option anymore.  Before I ate anything, there was some business to take care of: I wandered over to the side of the aid station parking lot, turned off my headlamp, bent over and let the heaving begin.  Eventually something came up, but not much and I’m not sure what, but I felt slightly better.  I waddled back to the tent, sat down and took some Pepto Bismol chews, then some more watermelon and cola.  Finally, feeling a bit settled, we headed off, down the next stretch.  Appearing much bigger than before were the towers on Mt. Wilson, site of the Palomar Observatory, which once housed the largest telescope in the world.  It was with this telescope that Edwin Hubble was able to discern the expansion of the Universe.  I wished I could be more excited about running in its shadow.  As we rounded the next few turns on a very long fire road descent, we could see the accumulated light of Los Angeles come into view.  I ran as much as I could downhill, but about 3 miles from the next aid station, I had to stop.  First the nausea, and now the fatigue, were beginning to consume my focus.  I desperately wanted to vomit, and reset my stomach.  While my feet and legs felt fairly good, especially after over 100k of hard, rocky trails, the nausea and fatigue were too much to ignore.  But Victor said I was moving strong and my mind still seemed sharp, and we pressed on.  I was very grateful to have Victor at my side for this race.  Not only is he experienced in this arena, but he is an all around good person, and very giving.  He has a presence that just makes others happy.  I think this best sums up Victor and his amazing take on life: when asked if he had a bucket list of races or things to do, he replied, “No, because then I’d feel bad if I didn’t do it!”  This isn’t keeping expectations low; on the contrary, he has high expectations for himself and pushes himself through some pretty epic achievements.  But he rolls with what the trail of life gives, and keeps an eye out for what paths are available; he doesn’t hold anything back, and to the sport of ultrarunning and life, he gives it all away.  He’s certainly about the journey, and embodies what I think ultrarunning is all about.  I couldn’t imagine a better trail companion, especially for the AC100 course, and I’m lucky to count him as a friend.  At about 11pm, we made it to Newcomb’s Saddle (mile 67, or 69 by my GPS).

At Newcomb’s I needed to sit down.  Eating wasn’t going to happen while standing.  Victor took care of me well, and even suggested some coffee at this point.  I needed calories and salt, and finally submitted to drinking Gatorade, something I haven’t used in a long time. We often say "use," as if some sport food was a drug. "Have you ever done Vitargo? No, but I've done Tailwind and Osmo." The next question can be, "How do you use it?" "Just a few lines of Tailwind and then I top it off with an S-Cap, if it's hot out." Gatorade, in this respect, is old-school. This Gatorade was blue.  And it tasted blue.  Not raspberry, or blueberry or anything food-like, it tasted blue.  And I could drink it!  After coffee, broth and blue Gatorade.  I got up, ready to start descending.  Right before leaving I noticed something else on the aid station table--applesauce.  For some reason, I was drawn to it, kind of like a fly to honey.  Given how I probably smelled, I think that is an apt analogy.  I had two cups.  It went down, no burping, or vurping or anything.  It actually tasted good!

With calories in my belly, came confidence.  Shortly out of the aid station I stopped for a quick pee--a very good sign, as it meant I was passing fluids.  It was good color too, not like an IPA. Beer analogies are a common way to describe urine coloration during ultras. My pee was more like Corona.  We started running strong down a technical single track.  We had quite a view of LA before we began descending into a tree-covered canyon.  It probably was a good thing I couldn’t see the drop-offs on the edge of the rather narrow and loose trail.  But my body felt like running, and the downhill impact still wasn’t beating up my feet or legs, so we went with the flow.  Pretty soon we realized we were passing campsites, and therefore sleeping people, and we lowered our voices after a long and loud conversation that rolled through running, friends, family, music and life as we rolled with the trail.  As the canyon bottomed out, there was a nice uphill pop to the aid station at Chantry Flat (mile 74, and my GPS had finally died).  At Chantry, we saw friends and other runners in various conditions.  Some were dropping.  Some were deciding whether or not to press on.  Maybe they had already decided and were just sitting because that was all they could do at that moment.  Every runner and pacer was definitely thinking, "It's only a marathon left." From training, the mind is telling you, "That's not that long." But the miles up to this point are telling you "There's still one-quarter of the way to go!" It's strange how 1/4 seemed much longer than 26.2 at point in the race. Since it was a big aid station, It was almost like being in civilization again.  There was a big screen with race stats, and a sea of drop bags, pacers and crew.  Some looked bundled up, but I still felt hot.  Victor brought me fluids and fuel: coffee, watermelon, broth, potatoes, and--oh no!--yellow gatorade.  I knew this would not sit well, but down it went, and the dry heaving began.  One of my earliest memories of a stomach flu and vomiting is also one of my earliest memories of lemon-lime (yellow) gatorade.  I was very young, and I remember my mother gave my yellow Gatorade to replenish fluids and electrolytes.  To this day, my association between yellow Gatorade and puking is still a strong one.  It was not the fluid I wanted as we were about to embark on the longest stretch between aid stations.  But I filled up with it anyways: two bottles for the yellow drink, and one with water for drenching my head.  We headed out.  Before we started onto the trail, however, I realized I was chafing!  And in a place I did not anticipate: my butt!  We let some people pass, and Victor pulled the Body Glide from my pack, and then then we turned off the headlamps, I dropped my shorts, and I took care of business.

Mt. Wilson, what I feel was the hardest climb of the race, was on the longest stretch (9 miles) between aid stations.  The first 3 miles started pretty mellow, but we knew a climb was imminent.  Then they came: endless switchbacks.  I started to worry I was putting Victor through the dreaded “death march.”  He assured me my forward, and upward, progress was still strong.  I was hot too!  I stopped halfway up to dump water on myself.  As I sat on a boulder, fatigue consuming me, I looked around, wondering if there was a good place to lie down.  Nope.  Lots of poison oak.  Steep drop-offs.  Since we were east-facing, it was dark too, because the moon was setting and there was lots of tree cover.  I knew we were getting close to the 24-hour mark, and 24 hours awake is when my brain gets mushy.  Both times I ran the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 I needed a nap at mile 85.  We were somewhere around 80.  And it was strange, 20 miles simultaneously seemed not that far and yet enormous.  But we pressed on; I knew Victor wouldn’t let me sleep, so I didn’t ask.  We couldn’t help but speculate and muse on the record for the Strava segment for this trail (2304’ in 4.5M in 50 minutes).  It took us just over two hours.  Near the top is Dead Man’s Bench.  All of Los Angeles and its environs was illuminated before us, a grid built for cars, so people wouldn’t have to walk anywhere.  No, it’s more than that--you can’t walk anywhere in LA.  It’s not that kind of town, the complete opposite of Manhattan, or downtown San Francisco.  Julianne’s cousin Eliya, Boston native and San Francisco resident, had commented, “I drove around LA for hours and couldn’t find the city.”  At the bench we sat, and I drenched myself with more water.  Ultra race photographer Larry Gassan was there, making sure people sat on the bench, and recorded it in dramatic black and white for posterity.

A good sit.
This photo says it all. Photo: Larry Gassan

That was quite a moment on the bench, a good sit.  Others behind us emerged from the woods and sat.  It was quite a view to take in, from the wilderness.  That was the crazy thing: we were still in the wilderness, with about 20 miles of mountain to go, yet we could see this amalgamation of light, millions of people sleeping or going about whatever it was they were doing at 4:30am.  Looking at LA from the vantage point of Dead Man’s Bench was like looking at a galaxy from millions of light years away.  You don’t see individual stars; rather the light blends into a form that is only discernible from the outside and far away.  We saw LA in a form that is only viewable at a certain place and time.  It was certainly worth the journey.  Nevertheless, we could not stay long, as there was more climbing!  Larry said the 3-mile descent to the next aid station was the last “give-away” section of the race.  Yeah, right.  It was a fireroad, but with loose, foot-sized rocks all over the place.  Picking a path through the rocky debris field was kind of like skiing down moguls.  And I did not have the energy; I had to walk all the way down.

The twilight of dawn was brightening as we finally made it to the aid station at the edge of Idlehour canyon (mile 83.5).  The sea of city lights were dimming and the early-risers down below were waking for a hot summer Sunday in LA.  I sat down in a chair, and rested my head on my hand.  I could have fallen asleep.  Victor again swooped in with coffee, fluids and, thank God, blue Gatorade.  And they had applesauce!  I sucked down two children’s applesauce packets and instantly I started to feel more awake.  I was lucky, one of the aid volunteers packed the applesauce at the last minute.  That’s always part of the gamble, not only do you not know what food will be at aid stations, you never know what you’ll actually be able to consume.  I try to train with as much variety of food as possible, but again, how your body responds to foods at different altitudes, moving paces, temperatures and humidities can be very unpredictable.  That’s part of why a finish is never guaranteed, and part of how your body and the trail can work together and attempt to thwart your mind and spirit.  We left Idlehour and started a descent into the most foliage I had seen during the whole course.  We knew there was a climb back up to the next aid station, and it was the last climb, to mile 89.  If I could get myself to mile 89, then I could get to the finish.  As we descended, the pace picked up, and curiously, my legs and feet still felt strong, even after almost 90 miles.  As we started up the switchbacks of the final big climb, the temperature started picking up again.  We had caught up with another Bay Area runner, David Binder, who was running solo, and knew this part of the course.  Before the race, we were warned about the infamous “poodle-dog bush,” a nefarious plant I had heard Jimmy Dean Freeman rant about on the TRN podcast.  The needles of the poodle-dog are filled with phenols that cause a similar reaction to poison oak.  I’ve never had a reaction to poison oak, and it’s not for lack of exposure, but I didn’t want to gamble with this belligerent plant.  Either I forgot what it looked like, or I never looked, but we asked David if it was on our current trail.  He pointed to a brown fuzzy flower and Victor and I realized it was all over the race course!  Too late to prevent exposure now.  Near the top of the climb, the Sun was peaking over the mountain, and I realized it was time to start cooling myself down again.  My sun hat was still in my pack but I had left my sunglasses with Julianne.  Again, I was wearing a crop top, and by now, it had bunched up underneath my pack and my back was slightly chafed, and I was worried about a sunburn on the exposed raw skin.  But the trail kept snaking around the mountain and no aid station was in sight.  Throughout the whole race course, the only wildlife I had seen was a single mule deer.  I had seen roots, rocks and shadows that all, upon first glance, looked like snakes.  But around a turn, the morning Sun illuminated a small snake with triangular head wiggling across the trail: a baby rattlesnake.  It seemed uninterested in us as it slinked off into the foliage.  More wildlife awaited around the next corner.  As we cleared the turn, another runner sheepishly jumped up, pulling up her shorts, frantically covering what she had just done to the trail.  Victor assured her, “We all family out here!”  “I hope she doesn’t forget to wipe,” I thought.  Finally, the trail gave way to the Sam Merrill aid station, mile 89 (but probably 92 by our count).

At Sam Merrill, they assured us “All the climbing is over, it’s all downhill from here!”  I sat, and Victor got me fluids and ice, and I tried something new: a fruit cup with peaches.  The flavor didn’t matter because it was cold.  Even though it was syrupy-sweet, my stomach didn’t protest.  Finally, almost 50 miles later, my stomach began cooperating!  Filled up with red Gatorade, we started the descent, and as we followed a narrow, rocky goat trail around the next mountain, we could see all of LA stretched out in front of us.  The trail was loose, a real ankle-breaker, but I began to pick up the pace--so much so that Victor kept cautioning me, worried that I’d either trip and fall (a very long way down) or run out of energy in the last few miles.  But this was downhill, and clearly my hours spent going up and down Big Rock Ridge paid off and had prepared me well for the wild descents.  As the trail leveled off, Victor commented that the red Gatorade tasted like Kool-Aid, or maybe Hawaiian Punch.  I didn’t disagree, but I was just happy that my stomach was tolerating the stuff.  As we descended into the final canyon, we could see runners and hikers on their way up, out for a morning stroll.  Moreover, Victor was telling me about things he overheard at the last aid stations, and that one runner was struggling because the pad of his foot was falling off.  If people are still pressing on against those odds, than I surely could pick up the pace.  On the last set of switchbacks, a giant garter snake shot across the trail.  If I had been one second faster, it would have launched itself right into me.

The last aid station was 4.5 miles from the finish.  By this point, we realized we could break 30 hours, but it was going to be close.  I downed two more cups of red Gatorade.  It tasted great, just like Hawaiian Punch.  The hike out of the aid station was on exposed fire road, and I was worried about burning my back, so Victor helped me attach my bandana to my pack as little cape covering my lower back.  I thought, “Crop-top, Hokas and an ass-cape, that’s a finishing outfit!” Once we hit the top of the final uphill, I knew there were less than 4 miles left.  “I could run this,” I thought.  Sure enough, I started to pick up the pace.  As we made the final descent, following a small creek, I drew all I could from the tired Big Rock descents of my training.  I started to pass people, but everyone was also starting to look better and better, because everyone knew the finish was near.  Knowing I could stop running soon motivated me like nothing else to pick up the pace.  The faster I ran, the sooner I could sit down.  As the trail gave way to pavement, the pace further increased.  Victor was laughing, but I could tell he was worried that I might shut down at any moment.  But I knew I could hold the pace, it was the equivalent of less than 8 laps around a track to go.  This was the payoff of weekly track workouts: my body reflexively knew how to run on a flat and smooth surface.  As we turned out of the wilderness, the shift to civilization was so dramatically abrupt, it almost caught us off guard.  We spend over 98 miles in rugged mountain wilderness and then pop out into...suburban Los Angeles!  After a brief uphill dirt path behind some houses, we were on a sidewalk!  With stop signs and stoplights!  Less than a mile to go, I further picked up the pace.  Chalk arrows in the street kept pointing the way, and after a few turns, I could see the park.  I was on the same block as the finish line.  The final 100 meters was across a grassy field.  What a way to finish a mountain 100-miler, with a road mile and a cross-country straightaway!  I crossed the finish line at 29 hours 18 minutes, well-below the 30-hour mark that had become the later goal.

Nothing motivated a sprint like seeing the finish line!
Photo: Julianne Bretan, editing: Victor Ballesteros

Thanks buddy, that was epic!
Crop-tops unite!  Photo: Julianne Bretan  

We all wear the same shoes (Hoka One One Challenger ATR), because they work! Photo: Julianne Bretan

Can someone please get me some IPA?
Yep, those looks sum it up. Photo: Julianne Bretan

Finishing a 100 is wonderfully anticlimactic.  You get a t-shirt, and you’re pointed toward the food and fluids, and hopefully, the beer.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  We sat down and digested what we just did.  The most often asked questions of each other: “How was it?”  It was amazing.  Like nothing else.  “Will you do it again next year?”  Not next year.  But definitely again.  Strangely, and maybe it was the euphoria of the finish, but I was feeling motivated again by ultras.  I had signed up for the Headlands 50k, exactly 4 weeks later.  Prior to AC, I was dreading it.  But now, even though I was so happy to stop running, I was looking forward to it.  A week later, as I write this report, I'm still looking forward to the Headlands 50k. Why did I sign up?  Why not give myself a break? Because it will be another story to share with friends, both old and new.  I’ve met so many people during these events, all with their own reasons for running and stories to tell.  If I never started running ultras, I never would have would made a connection to Marin Academy, a place where I have been able to expand and grow during the last 5 years.  If I didn’t start waking up early every Thursday morning to run in the Marin Headlands at 5:30am, in rain, fog, wind or shine, I never would have connected with Victor, and all of my music gear would probably still be sitting in a closet.  There are countless friends I have made on the trails, and I hope to make many more, whether racing, pacing or aiding.  It is more than just a sport or obsessive hobby, it is a way of life and it reconnects us to our roots.

Quality race hardware!

See my race route and splits here.

Some say that the 100-mile is the new marathon.  Maybe, but it does different stuff to your body, and I've heard it said, there is still no faking a 100.