Looking through the last 6 months of entries into this blog, I see that almost all are about the build-up to this race. I’d trained long and hard, and made a lot of great new friends doing it. In the last 2 months, my doubt grew. My old running partner Maggie Beach is the one who’d urged me to sign up as my first 100 miler, and I did so largely out of bravado. I’d crewed her last year at AC100. As race day grew nearer, I wasn’t so sure.
Shortly before the start, Race Director Hal Winton gathered the runners for a prayer. Normally I’m not much of a prayin’ man, but this adventure was going to require a lot of faith. As long as I did not make this about me, and my abilities or inabilities or fears, the only thing that would prevent me from finishing the race were real things, like injuries, or blisters too bad to continue, or not making weight.
The excitement that had been so great dissipated almost into a calm as we gathered under the banner at the start. And then we were off.
Part 1: Miles 0 – 25.91: Start to Islip: Mountains
AC100 has four distinct sections, each of which works out to about a quarter of the race. The first of these is at elevation, with lots of climbs, a baseline at around 7,000 feet elevation and climbs up to 9,300. After a short bit on roads, we hit the Acorn Trail and the race’s first real climb: 2,250 feet in 3 miles up Acorn Trail to PCT. The trail is narrow with switchbacks, and we went up single file. Knowing this would be walking without much passing, I’d tried to place myself near the middle of the pack. Chris Gaggia was right behind me. We talked about old music, vinyl, and art, as well as recounted some of Uncle Hal Winton’s most memorable quotes.
The crowd spread out as the trail widened. Chris passed me and took off. I ran what seemed like the right pace, knowing we’d all descend on the first aid station at mile 9.3 within minutes of each other just after 7am. We came down a hill into Inspiration Point. I could see the aid station below me and was excited to see my crew. I was in and out quickly. Next station would be less than an hour away, after which would come the great climb up Mt. Baden Powell. The stretch from Inspiration Point to Vincent’s Gap is one of the stretches I’d run most in training.
As the climb began, I found myself just behind the Woo Hoo man. I’d noticed him on the climb up Acorn. He would scream Woo Hoo!! at the top of his lungs and yell out to other runners. He decided he wanted to coach me: “Runnable!!!” he screamed after I passed him walking. “Not Runnable!!!” he screamed shortly thereafter. “Hey,” he shouted “I heard you are the man!!!” “Me? I think you got me confused with someone else.” “Runnable!!! Woo Hoo!!!” He went on ahead and screamed something about his hamstrings to the nearest runner that wasn’t me. The thought flashed in my head that I hoped his hamstrings shredded and he had to drop, and then I thought no – I really don’t want to get into a negative groove of thought – what I hope instead is that his hamstrings hold up and he has a great race, but that his voice gives out soon. The Woo Hoos were getting fainter as he charged up the mountain.
As I got close to the top of the nearly 4 mile climb, I found myself looking out at the spectacular view and not feeling even a twinge of panic. I saw Howie Stern, who has 6 AC100 finishes, and almost the same number of Hardrock 100 finishes. He was struggling on the climbs, and said he had nothing. We talked for a bit. Howie is a rock climber who had offered me some help with the fear-of-heights thing. We got to the crest and I saw photographer Larry Gassan crouched next to a 2,000 year old tree, taking shots as we ran the ridge.
Atop the mountain the trail rolls as it dips and rises between peaks. Howie would pass me on the downhills and I would pass him on the uphills. After he passed me a second time I snagged my foot on some brush and took a pretty spectacular spill – a genuine faceplant that yielded me a mouth full of dirt and twigs, and a dislocated finger. I rolled onto my back and my legs started spasming.
It’s a little over 12 miles (and 3 hours) between aid stations from Vincent Gap to Islip Saddle. Islip Saddle also marks the end of the first quarter of the race, and is the first medical station. I weighed in 2 pounds under.
Part 2: 25.91 to 52.8 miles – Islip to Chilao: Heat
The four quarters of the race break into distinctly different sections. The second quarter, from Islip to Chilao, is the hot, exposed section. After a 2 mile climb up Mt. Williamson (and a rocky, technical few miles back down the other side), the race levels out just a bit, into a gentler elevation profile that is easier to run…except for the heat. It was on the 2 mile long hot, exposed climb up Mt. Williamson that I saw the race’s first casualties. A number of runners had pulled off the trail in rare sections of shade, some just trying to cool down, others attemtping to massage some life back into their legs.
I took my first sit-down pit-stop at Eagle’s Roost, mile 30. The next stretch would be 3 miles of road down the 2 and into Buckhorn Campground, and then a couple of miles down the Burkhardt Trail into Cooper Canyon. I’ve heard others say that this was one of the hottest years on record, and that parts of Cooper Canyon approached 100 degrees. The climb out was a scorcher. I was swooning a bit in the heat but still managed to pass a few folks.
From Cloudburst to Three Points is the easiest part of the course…except for the heat. From Three Points (mile 43) the course took us mostly down on dry, exposed single track. This is the first stretch of Station Fire burn territory, which gives a special desolation to the area. Poodle Dog Bush encroached on the trail for the first time. It has a pungent smell that I rather like – it’s sort of like a sour sage.
I was feeling great coming down from Three Points. I was surprised to pass Kate Martini Freeman – I would have expected her to be far ahead of me. She was having bad stomach issues, she said. We began a game of leapfrog that continued for nearly 30 miles.
The long climb up to the Mt. Hillyer aid station is not that steep, and mostly runnable, but it’s also long, hot, exposed, ugly, & there’s something relentless about it. I’m not sure what had happened, but at Mt. Hillyer I discovered I had nothing left. Somewhere in the few miles just before the wheels had quietly but utterly fallen off.
The first mile out of Mt. Hillyer aid station goes up and then flattens out. It’s a completely different terrain than the course before this point. It’s also easily runnable, but I had no run left in me. The three miles down to Chilao are mostly through a beautiful stretch of boulders. It’s a bit technical – there’s a lot of jumping if you can’t time your stride perfectly (and I cannot, in this stretch). I was cramping badly and going slower and slower. Just about everyone I’d passed in the last 15 miles passed me as I hobbled into Chilao. It was not pretty.
Crew member Luke met me on the pavement just before the aid station. I told him I had nothing left. They weighed me. Turns out I’d gained back one of the 2 pounds I’d lost at Islip. The trail down from Charlton Flat is perhaps my favorite part of the course to run, and I’d hoped to hit it in the light, make up a bit of time and, more importantly, have some good fun before the drudgery that is Shortcut to Newcombs Saddle. That plan dissolved, and I spent about half an hour at Chilao eating. Chris Gaggia and I talked for a few minutes. He’d been there an hour with IT band issues, and it looked like he was going to drop. He told me that Howie had dropped at Three Points.
Part 3: 52.8 to 74.3 miles – Chilao to Chantry: Dark & Struggle
My crew boss and girlfriend Kista paced me to Shortcut. There’s this certain kind of almost giddy happiness she gets sometimes when she’s running – I see it at the beginning of races – and she had it here. I suspect her enthusiasm contributed largely to my short lived second wind. It was the last genuine fun of the race.
I headed out from Shortcut with my second pacer Carlo. A 6 mile downhill, all on recently graded fire road, and a 3 mile climb back up to Newcombs Saddle. I was looking forward to the climb, figuring I could power walk it and maybe catch a person or two who had passed me on the way down. We got within a half mile of Newcombs when I started to experience the thing that would trouble me throughout the rest of the race: expansion of distance. The miles started stretching. They became much longer than the miles earlier in the race, and they included parts that I did not remember even though I’d run them many, many times.
The stretch from Newcomb’s into Chantry became my Dark Night of the Soul. Everything became more and more difficult and nothing seemed to work. The miles kept getting longer, and the hours and minutes shorter. There was a heavy sadness building, and the only thing that stopped me from reaching a breaking point was that I was too exhausted to fall apart.
In Christianity, The Dark Night is the time of great doubt. Thought comes to have no experiential value, prayer comes to have no experiential value, and there is a protracted sense of desolation and abandonment. As bleak as it feels, it is a good thing, because this is the final purgation that brings purity and union with God. In the original poem, there are two phases to the Dark Night. The first phase is the purification of senses. The second phase is the purification of spirit. In other spiritual traditions, The Dark Night of the Soul is an experience that is said to reveal the illusory aspect of the ego. Various methods like sleep or sensory deprivation are used to bringing it about. The middle of the night in a dark canyon, having been awake for over twenty hours, with nearly 75 miles of mountain running on the legs, is probably as good as method as any for inducing this state.
I quietly announced I wasn’t sure I could finish. My crew had other ideas. I was given food and a blanket. My feet were declared nearly golden (turns out that wasn’t quite true) but some moleskin and bandaids were applied just in case. I started shivering, and was given extra clothing to wear. The night was actually unusually warm – (I’d noticed this coming down from Shortcut) so my shivering was recognized (even by me) as my body turning itself off the way it does when a race is over. There came to be some urgency to get me back on the course.
Elsewhere on the course
While I was having my struggles at Chantry, the race was coming close to an end for the front runners. The day played out fairly simply for the men – a race from start to finish between young hotshot newcomer Chris Price and veteran Jorge Pacheco. There were moments when others were in the race – Ruperto Romero led at the first aid station, and in the middle Jorge slipped briefly to 5th place. In the end, youth prevailed and Chris Price took the win. Based on the times, it looks like the fight for second was a tough one, with Jorge edging Ruperto by mere seconds.
For the women, Sada Crawford, who has been having an amazing year setting course record after course record after having been off for a year due to injury, bolted to the front almost immediately. It was a bold and arguably reckless move, as Sada has never run the 100 mile distance before. She’d been training hard for the race up in Jackson Hole Wyoming. Photos showed her training on rugged climbs. They also showed her training in snow. There is no snow on the AC100 course. What there is instead is 100 degree temperatures in the canyons. Sada struggled in the second half, and 2010 champ Keira Henninger passed her up at Newcombs Saddle and went on to win with a time of 23:17:19. Sada held on to place third with a time of 25:04:33. Angela Shartel took second in 24:05:55. Keira describes it in her race report.
Part 4: miles 75 to Finish
The last 25 miles begins with the longest climb of the race: 3,100 feet up Winter Creek Trail to the Mt. Wilson Tollroad. The first 3 miles are gentle, but the last 2.5 are brutally steep. There is a bench a half mile from the end of the trail. That bench became the first of several fixations in these last 25 miles. It became urgent to reach that bench. I was sure it was around every corner. The sun came up, and with it came heat.
We hit the toll road. Urged by my pacer, I tried to run. Mt Wilson Tollroad is not my favorite part of the course. The wider the trail gets, the harder and rockier it feels to my imagination, so fire roads are usually not my surfaces. Parts of it are a bit steep as well, and blisters were coming up on my feet. We probably ran about half of it.
I knew these last 25 miles by heart, so it surprised me that so much of it was unrecognizable and new. The miles really had stretched, and I would find myself on chunks of trail that seemed miles long that bewildered me; it was only after such a chunk was finished that I realized where we were on the course.
Time, on the other hand, seemed compressed. The last 25 miles took such a concentration of effort that there was nothing left to deal with anything not immediately in front of me. Frustration at my inability to recognize the course or the fact that an aid station I expected to be around the corner was still miles away was a frustration that passed out of consciousness almost immediately after its arising. Things like the pain in my feet from blisters became problems in need of a practical solution, like adjusting foot plant to avoid the tender areas. The doubts I had coming into Chantry were gone, replaced by a very simple determination and a focus on nothing besides getting it done.
Idlehour aid station was serving breakfast. A quick snack and down into Idlehour campground, out of which would come the race’s last climb – 3.5 miles of exposed uphill to Sam Merrill. It was a hot morning – we could feel the heat with sunrise shortly after 5am, and I was cooking as I power-plodded up the narrow trail, passing a few more runners on the climb.
Sam Merrill: 89.5 miles. The stretch down into Echo Mountain is rutted and full of jagged rocks, difficult for me to run at the best of times. I was a bit surprised at how long it took to reach Millard – there was a stretch of trail that seemed entirely new to me until I had finished it.
At the bottom of El Prieto, coming onto the road, it dawned on me that I was actually going to finish this thing. I got a little choked up for a moment. Kista was waiting at the top of the trail, and we took it in. I was surprised that there were so many people there to greet me at the finish, including fellow runners who dropped. A few of my friends didn’t quite recognize me. It was great to see them all: Howie Stern, Rainer Schultz, Maggie Beach, Mari Lemus, Jorge Pacheco, my crew, and, of course, Larry Gassan, whose advice had been the foundation of my training.
It took a few days for it all to sink in. The race itself was extraordinary, and completing it felt (and still feels) like a HUGE accomplishment. It is, after all, rated as on of the hardest 100 milers. I think of myself as a cautious person, but entering AC100 was not a cautious move.
I choked up at the finish, and nearing the finish, but held myself back. I don’t know that I’ll ever shake that good old fashioned Great Plains stoicism.
There is an extraordinary sense of family surrounding this race. We worked on those trails together. We trained on those trails together. I could always count on meeting other runners up on Baden Powell, or in the parking lot of Inspiration Point, or on any of the trails between Wrightwood and Shortcut. Most weekends, Uncle Hal Winton was out there, too, clearing the trails. Features of the website like the live tracking (which I am told was superb) are additions that came from past runners. It really is our race.
This sense of family was very evident at the finish. Front runners were there to congratulate me when I crossed the line way at the back. Many of those who dropped were there at the finish. Race photographer Larry Gassan is a 4 time finisher from back near the beginning, coached by course record holder Jim O’Brien. He’s also a friend who gave me great advice as I trained for this race. Colin Cooley, Sally McRae, Anibal Corsi, Tony Quesada, Diana Triester, Jack Cheng, Marcus Englund, Donn Ozaki… are just a handful of runners besides those named earlier who deserve mention.
It took a couple of days before I could walk comfortably, and a day or two longer than that before my feet weren’t in some pain. There were blisters in the end, including a very painful one under my big toenail, a toenail that is barely hanging on right now.
My crew was amazing. There’s probably no way I could have gotten to the finish line of this one without their help. Crew boss Kista Cook had to put up with all my doubts and fears beforehand, too, as we live together. Dave and Luke were a good team, and Carlo & Ulises were great pacers. Ulises was recommended by Jorge Pacheco & Mari Lemus, so big thanks to them for that and for all the encouragement they gave me and others. Jorge is always gonna be our champion.
Nutrition was pretty basic: a gel every hour, and Vespa every 3 – 4 hours. I also ate like a horse when I was with crew. For that, we kept it pretty natural: potatoes with salt, watermelon, strawberries, mango…I eat a lot of fruit regularly, so this was good. Fluids were gatorade and a light mix of perpetuem. I had no stomach issues at any point in the race. I wore Hoka Stinson Evos for the whole race. 3 changes of socks, but no changes of shoes.