Ashes: AC100 2014 Race Report

Jussi Hamalainen & Garry Curry, mile 6.  Garry's last AC100.

Jussi Hamalainen & Garry Curry, mile 6. Garry’s last AC100.

Friday morning, 9am, August 1, sitting in my driveway waiting for a ride out to Wrightwood. I’m writing in a list notebook I found on the trails in Topanga. #7 on the list: “Create excuse for ticket”. #13: “Go hiking with Nico”. The hike was near the bottom of the list. Hopefully losing the list that late in the game didn’t mess her up too much.

I’m not such a big list maker. Back when I was drinking I made epic lists, and I mean that using the dictionary definition of epic: “noting or pertaining to a long poetic composition, usually centered upon a hero, in which a series of great achievements or events is narrated in elevated style.” These lists would stretch years into the future, always culminating with my great and majestic personal, professional and financial triumph.

I seldom got past #1 on the list. Invariably my triumphant finish derailed by noon.

This year at AC100, my triumphant finish wouldn’t derail until 9:30pm, at Shortcut Aid station, in a torrential rain.

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The race began well. I managed to get ahead of the conga line going up Acorn Trail, stuck only once for a half mile or so behind a runner who really probably should have stepped aside and let us pass – there were 4 or 5 of us she was blocking.

From Acorn to Inspiration Pt., everything was good. I hadn’t spent as much time at elevation this year as was probably recommended, and so I held back, feeling the altitude a little. I arrived at Inspiration Pt. feeling good, and right on time. Inspiration Point to Vincent Gap was a pleasant cruise.

The trek up Baden Powell is my least favorite part of the first half of the course. I pretty much hate it, and race day was no different. It’s sort of an endless series of switchbacks, and nothing particularly beautiful to look at, at least not in contrast to the 14 miles that have come before and the 12 or so that will come afterwards. Once at the top, things went well. Downhill, uphill, along the ridge to Throop Peak and then over to Windy Gap, thousand year old trees, a forest of tree skeletons, rocks, wind, and stunning views.

In 2012 I tripped in this section, fell and broke a finger. I spent a few minutes every hour or so slowly bending it back into place, so that it could wrap around my water bottle. It gave me a pain other than the pain of running to concentrate on. This was helpful in the last 20 miles of the race.

I’d been running with Howie Stern that year. I’d caught him at the top of Baden Powell. He was having a bad race. We ran together for a bit, I took off ahead, he caught up and passed, and maybe we played leapfrog once or twice or maybe I went sprawling directly. The photo of him sprawled under a table at 3Pts is legendary.

This year Howie was on fire. Life changes gave him new freedom and it seems that freedom went straight to his legs. He’d PR’ed at Hardrock 100 a month or so earlier, and recovered well. Still, I was concerned when a friend told me Howie was feeling great and gunning for sub 24.

More than most people, Howie runs with his heart, and the heart pretty much never says “Slow down, Hoss”. The heart is kinda greedy. Running with the desire of newfound love is not exactly prudent, but there is nothing more glorious…until the hurt sets in.

While Howie was flying up ahead, I was cruising right on pace along the ridge at 9,000 feet. I’ve come to know pretty much every step on this course and am able to run it easily, no extra thought or effort. I stopped at Little Jimmy springs to fill up my hand helds. There was a family filling up huge 10 gallon water bottles. Not really sure how they planned on getting them down the hill.

Islip Saddle weigh-in. 2 lbs down. Not a problem. Up Williamson, which is a climb where I can always count on passing a few folks, and I did. Williamson is steep and tough and there’s almost always heat, even on this day, warm and muggy, but it’s also barely 1 3/4 miles with an immediate downhill that’s such a joy to run that it makes the uphill worthwhile, because without it there wouldn’t be a down.

Down to Krakta, where at least 10 cars were parked to illegally crew runners. Crews were excessive and often in costume. One crew member claimed he’d brought all of Monrovia with him to Shortcut. Full aid stations were set up under canopies at Krakta, a spot from which it is specifically declared in the racebook that crewing is illegal. I high fived a few other runners’ crews and then humped it over the Scenic Mound and into Eagles Roost.

My quads were hurting coming down Williamson, and Risa did a quick KT tape job. I’ve always been suspicious of this stuff, but it seemed to help, a lot. I lost a few minutes in the aid station, but made up for them easily in the next section, to Cloudburst.

The road is not my friend. Folks ahead of me made better time than I did. Coming into Buckhorn I passed a friend-who-shall-remain-unnamed, whose race strategy the past two years might desperately need adjustment. At least, I think so. He goes out way too fast, bonks almost immediately, and the last 75 miles become a struggle against cutoffs, the body, and everything else. At Inspiration Point, he was running in the top quarter. By Eagles Roost, he’d dropped back to the bottom third. I passed him heading down to Burkhart Trail, and a handful of other runners on Burkhart heading down to Cooper Canyon.

On the way down, tourists stopped me to ask for directions to the waterfall. I told them it was almost certainly dry.

I felt the first bit of rain on this downhill.

Cooper Canyon. There was one particular runner nearby who insisted on talking to me. I generally don’t want random conversations with people, not on the trail or in real life. About 7 miles later I had to finally ask her to be quiet.

The climb to Cloudburst is short and hard and I really don’t mind it that much at all. I made good time. In and out of Cloudburst and back on a stretch that heads mostly gently downhill until 3Pts.

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One of the great mysteries of life is why people haven’t figured out that you are supposed to shit in the toilet and not on it. This seems like pretty basic stuff to me, but apparently a lot of people were not taught this potty training fundamental.

Camp Glenwood. Perfect place for a pitstop in a rustic environment. The men’s room had fallen victim to one of the many non potty trained campers in Angeles National Forest. A big turd was draped around the toilet seat so artfully it had to be deliberate. I decided I’d use the women’s toilet. It was clean, but designed for women around the age of 5, I’d guess, with a toilet seat barely a foot off the ground. Getting up from it was an effort.

Camp Glenwood, mile 40

Camp Glenwood, mile 40

As I sat on the miniature toilet, I heard a handful of runners pass by on the trail. Their feet made a scraping sound on the hard packed dry trail. I figured I’d catch them easily enough now that I’d laid my burden down.

Three Points right on schedule. I’d been hitting my marks with frightening accuracy, especially given that I was running on feel, without a Garmin or any GPS. This is a favorite section of mine, and I made it through easily, putting some distance between me and the runner behind, and then passing a few people on the road up to Mt. Hillyer aid station. I joked a bit with Uncle Hal and then took off for Chilao.

The section from Mt. Hillyer to Chilao has, in past races, been tough. This year, not so much, and I ran significant chunks of the technical downhill. I hit Chilao right on time. The weather felt like it was changing. Wind was blowing, and it was getting cooler. I switched shirts, ate a bit of food, got out a headlamp, and asked Risa for some body glide.

“Is this yours, or mine?”

“That’s yours.”

“Good, because I’m about to rub it all over my nuts.”

I hoped to get through Chilao quickly so I could get the most out of the fading light.

The stretch down from Charlton Flats into Shortcut Canyon used to be a favorite of mine. It’s technical, but every obstacle was placed perfectly for my long stride. I used to have a blast hot dogging down that trail.

The rains this spring took care of that. Now it’s barely walkable.

Heading up the Silver Moccasin to Charlton Flats I saw a sunset like no other. Sunsets always seem to get boost of beauty up in Chilao – something about the ay they set of the mountains, and closer we get these vague silhouettes of yucca plants.

And then the rain started.

At first, the rain was pleasant. It cooled me down, and the smells were incredible, especially when I got to the bottom of the canyon. It became a downpour. The rocks were slippery. I was getting soaked, and very cold. I had maybe a change of shorts and shirt up at Shortcut, but that wasn’t going to keep me dry for longer than a few minutes. I had 9 miles to the next aid station, and 15 miles to the next aid station with crew. My freshly greased nuts were chaffing in my soaked shorts.

The drop thoughts started.

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I hate the rain. Let’s just be upfront about that. Yeah, yeah, I know, think about the starving children in Seattle, that’s what people tell me when I grumble about wet weather, but I am a desert boy, born on the edge of the Sahara. I don’t live in Seattle, and there’s a reason for that. Why is it that everyone in Seattle seems to be a suicidal heroin addict? Could it be the appalling weather? Might that explain why there was never a single happy grunge song?

And then there’s this: more important than hating the rain, change throws me way off. Perhaps if I had anticipated rain, I would have been okay. I can deal with a fair amount of suckage. Because I didn’t, I wasn’t.

Me, Shortcut.  Photo by Kista Cook

Me, Shortcut. Photo by Kista Cook.

I rolled into Shortcut.

“How are you?” Risa asked.

“Good,” I said, and then thought about it. “Actually, no.” I thought a few seconds more. “My race is done.”

Risa, my friend Kista, who was working the aid station, Bill Ramsey, who ran the aid station, and assorted others tried to dissuade me.

The aid station was a bustling place, full of runners seeking some sanctuary in the downpour. Just to my left, Denise Matthias was having a breakdown, sobbing inconsolably while a crew member held her tight. The place was charged with emotion and packed with runners and crew. Various other people were standing on my gear, dripping rain and mud all over my stuff, too focused on their own misery to notice when I asked them to move because they were standing on something I needed. The only thing that saved me from claustrophobic panic was that I was too tired. Without really realizing what was going on in my head, I knew I had to get the hell out of there. A warm dry car heading back into town seemed the only reasonable option.

Basically, I just quit. And what’s worse is that if it happened again, I would probably quit again. When confronted with the unexpected, I back off and look for a quiet place to process what has happened.

I read somewhere that you can’t make someone with Aspergers do anything. You can motivate us, but we don’t respond well to demands, especially if there is emotion or even a hint of accusation. When pressed, which I was by crew and by friends, who really were just doing their jobs, I dig in my heels as a defense mechanism. It’s pretty text-book stuff. As soon as someone says “No, you can’t” or “I won’t let you” they are challenging me in the only part of a spiraling-out-of-control-situation that I have any control over.

“You need a pacer” someone said, and maybe they were right. I think Kista volunteered to drive Risa’s car to Chantry, so Risa could pace me there. This was probably a good idea, but there was information flying at me from all directions, sensory overload, and this was worse and more stressful than the rain. I started shutting down.

“I’ve got to piss,” I said, and walked across the highway to pee in the bushes. Not much came out, and the wind blew most of it against my legs. When I was done I walked over to Hal and asked him to cut my medical band. I then walked back to Risa and Kista and showed them my bare wrist.

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20 years to the day before I was shivering under a blanket in the rain at Shortcut, my mother died in a dingy cancer clinic outside Tijuana. We had hoped to get her home to Vancouver Island so that she could die in her own bed, looking out at the ocean she so loved, but she beat us to it.

She was cremated in Mexico. Not really the sentimental type, the old man had her ashes placed in a ziplock freezer bag.

Zelda, Vancouver Island, Aug.1994

Zelda, Vancouver Island, Aug.1994

We all gathered in Parksville/Qualicum Beach a few days later. The ziplock bag sat on the mantle. It was a cool Vancouver Island summer, the exact kind of weather we’ve been having here in LA. I took a road trip across the island, over to Long Beach on the windward side, a cold, windy Pacific Beach with magnificent driftwood. I hadn’t been there since I was a kid. I then took the road north a few more miles until it ended, in Tofino. The end of the road is only half way up the Island. Beyond that are villages that can only be reached by boat, and are generally completely cut off in the winter. This has always sounded very inviting.

It was a cool, grey, quiet trip, not unlike my AC100 run was until the downpour and the pandemonium at Shortcut.

A few days later, back in Parksville, we crossed the road with the ziplock bag, to the rocky beach she loved. It was just the four of us – me, my two sisters, and my step-father… five, if you count Zelda, the dog.

Zelda stayed on the shore. We waded into the water, knee deep. We had red wine in plastic glasses. I don’t remember who held the bottle. The ziplock bag was passed around. We each took a handful of her ashes and tossed them in the water. Everyone sort of turned their backs on each other because mine is a stoic family, and none of us were comfortable seeing the others cry… if, in fact, any of us actually did.

The ziplock bag went around twice. That was enough ceremony. My stepfather took it and dumped the rest of her ashes into the water. We raised our plastic cups in a toast. Nobody looked anyone else in eyes. Nobody said a word. After a few uncomfortable moments someone took initiative and headed back to shore. That gave the rest of us permission. We grilled up steaks and ate dinner in silence.

Garry Curry has finished every single AC100 that’s ever been run. So has Jussi Hamalainen.

A few months ago, Garry went out for a training run with a couple of friends. When they were finished, he went home, laid down on his bed for a nap, and never woke up.

Jussi and Garry had a friendly rivalry. With Garry suddenly gone, we wondered if Jussi was even going to run. He did, wearing both his bib and Garry’s, and carrying Garry’s ashes, and so for once they finally finished the race together, tied, Garry’s 27th and last finish. Jussi had scattered Garry’s ashes a little here and there throughout the run. The remainder went in the dirt just past the finish line at Loma Alta park. This time, many tears were shed.

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Howie’s love affair ran into some trouble down around Chantry. The second sunrise hopes became a tough-it-out-to-the-finish grueling run, but he did it. Up in the front, everybody’s sentimental favorite Ruperto Romero, who has finished 2nd or 3rd the past 4 years, finally got his win, running a smart, tough race and picking ’em off one-by-one until it was his. Italy’s Michele Graglia came in second an hour later, and two-time champion Dominic Grossman took third. Pam Smith finished 6th overall, and handily broke Angela Shartel’s course record set only last year when Angela shattered Suzanna Bon’s long standing record. Pam had a 4 hour lead on second place female and past champion Keira Henninger.

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The aftermath of the race has been unfortunate.

There are a number of people who advocate changes to the signup & qualifying. I am one of them. Race management believes the way they did things 30 years ago, which is the way things are still being done, is what made this race. I don’t necessarily believe that – times change and things need to change with the times. Clearly, they already have; electronic registration and payment did not exist in 1986 when AC100 was first run.

Some of the advocates of change have become impatient, angry and aggressive. The blast of anger, outrage, aggression, rancor and general ill will that came roaring out of some mouths (or off their keyboards) in the days immediately following the race was staggering and more than a bit depressing. The nonsensical smugness of some of the keep-it-the-same advocates was as obnoxious as their arguments were bewildering.

If anything will kill AC100, it’s not the race director’s refusal to change, but the meanspirited aggression, self righteous indignation, and sense of entitlement of those who engaged in these facebook screaming battles. I go to the mountains, train hard, and run ultras to get away from that shit.

The weather is oddly cold, still. I’m disappointed in my failure. I’m also feeling not-so-great; it wasn’t just a mental failure that did me in. Getting stuck in the cold and rain has me sick three days later. I’m more than a little depressed by the rancor of so many regarding a race that we all claim to love and care about. Work is depressing me right now, and my safe place, the mountains, where I go to get away from all this shit, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends, seems to be momentarily polluted with the same angry egos I go there to seek sanctuary from.

I’m quietly considering what might be my next race, since I have all this training under my belt and kinda wouldn’t mind proving to myself that my brain is as capable of handling adversity as my body is.

And I’m hoping for a little gentleness and quiet.

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