Mile 38. Howie emerged at Cloudburst looking haggard. He was hurting everywhere, especially in his back, which was pulling everything below it up – his glutes and his hamstrings. Howie was in pain.
I reminded him that nobody is having fun when they hit Cloudburst. This and Chantry are the aid stations that will see the most drops, in part because the cut-off at Cloudburst is tight, but also because it’s burning hot in Cooper Canyon, exposed, no breeze, hottest time of the day, and then there’s a short but brutal climb up to the aid station, made worse by all the switchbacks; you reach a point where the spectators are only 50 yards above you on an easy grade but you’ve nearly half a mile still to go on trail and it seems to take forever.
Luke Ullett, who was crewing Cyndi Wyatt, crewed me in 2012 and said that I blew through the aid station looking and feeling great. This is not how I remember it. And in 2013 I spent nearly half an hour there, gulping down pedialyte and trying to make the cramping stop.
Team Tapia, pit stop crew, Cloudburst.
Howie made it into Three Points quickly. Once again he vowed this was the last time he’d run this race. He had the same message for us at Chilao, where Andrea joined him to pace to Chantry.
Bill Ramsey runs Shortcut aid station, and runs it well, with military precision but also with an ultra runner’s understanding of what his fellows need. Bill and co race Director Jean Ho are two of the first people I met when I started ultra running, and two of the best. I talked with both for a while, and then waited for Howie and Andrea.
Howie was sure they would arrive at Shortcut before dark, and they did, with about 6 seconds to spare. I would have already turned my light on, and many runners had. I was waiting on the top of the trail with a bunch of other crew members and pacers. Most of us knew each other, and those that didn’t made new friends. Looking across Shortcut Canyon towards Charlton Flats, we saw one light come on, half way down the mountain, and then another, a quarter of a mile away, and then a few more in between, and above, and below, sort of like stars twinkling on at dusk, or maybe flickering Christmas lights. It was beautiful.
I’d said that I would not sign up for AC100 again this year. The break felt good, and as the race began I didn’t feel like I had much invested in the race beyond my runner. I wondered at what point in the day things would switch and I would start thinking about signing up next year. The light turned on at Cloudburst. Maybe Luke was right – maybe I did breeze through the aid station that year, slowly on pace for a back-of-the-pack finish. While not exactly my friend, the heat bothers me less than it does many other runners, and the legendarily scorching Cooper Canyon has never felt that brutal to me. The descent down the Burkhart Trail is mostly shaded and luxuriously cool. There’s a nasty mile or so at the bottom, hot, exposed, with some short, steep, rocky sections and not much a view to distract you, and then you get to the campground and a right turn onto the PCT. A lot of people object to this turn – the course once went straight along the fireroad instead, and the PCT section adds nearly a mile, a mile that isn’t accounted for in the cut-offs, which makes the cut-off at Cloudburst a little tight for the back-of-the-packers. A lot of folks don’t make it. I like that hard right; the exposed section on the PCT is beautiful, and there’s usually just enough of a breeze to keep me from overheating. The climb up is hard, but it’s short. The second 25 miles of the course is where I usually make back some of the time I lose on the first 25 miles.
Tom Lea, 1000 yard stare. 1943
The desire to run next year grew as Howie ran to Three Points, then Chilao, and then on to Shortcut. The twinkling of lights coming down Shortcut Canyon was joyous, and I remembered the stunning sunset I experienced last year at Charlton Flats, running just about 30 minutes behind Howie’s current pace.
As I waited at Chantry, the desire left. Despite the huge buffet style aid station, Chantry is a desolate place. It’s midnight or beyond. It’s getting cold. The runners that straggle in all have a thousand yard stare, the unfocused, despondent gaze of the battle-weary soldier or the trauma victim.
Midnight seemed very late. I was exhausted, and I wasn’t even running. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Time seemed to stretch out. I started remembering the things I really didn’t enjoy about the race at all, like the entire stretch between Shortcut and Chantry – 9 miles of grinding fireroad followed by a technical downhill that I find challenging even on fresh legs in daylight, a downhill with lots of false bottoms that trick you into thinking you are nearly there. What’s worst about it, for me, is that I loathe the 9 miles of fireroad from Shortcut to Newcombs so much that I forget about the stretch from Newcombs to Chantry. The difficulty always takes me unawares, and this combined with exhaustion and the late hour is what seems to bring on that dark night of the soul for me.
There’s a ham radio TV circuit between Newcomb and Chantry, a very nice thing for the runners because for some reason Newcombs Pass always seems so desolate. I spotted Howie and Andrea on the screen. Howie made a gun out of his hand, put his finger in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Andrea asked “Did you make it to Chantry?” Not even the pacers are thinking clearly in the middle of the night at Newcombs.
Howie Stern & pacer Andrea Feucht at Newcomb’s Pass
They left Newcombs soon after. Race Director Jean Ho said that several runners had seen a mountain lion near Newcombs and that runners were being warned as they left the aid station. To my right was a tired runner whose crew was led by his belligerent dad, a fat man in tube socks and Altras who was arguing with his runner about everything. The exhausted runner was on edge. Was he going to comply with the old man or was he going to dig his heels in and quit out of defiance? The rest of his crew backed off and let the old man and his son square off. The old man purposefully strode off to get some more food he was going to order his son to eat, and one of the other crew members stepped in, gently encouraging his runner to eat, to relax, and to get out of the aid station.
It seemed like quite a race had broken out up front. At Vincent Gap, mile 13, Guillame Calmettes was leading the trio of front runners, Erik Shulte just behind and last year’s winner Ruperto Romero on Erik’s heels. Jorge Pacheco was a few minutes behind in fourth, and five minutes behind the lead pack was Michael Carson, from Arizona, who I first met when he won the inaugural Black Canyon 100K.
Eric Shulte & Ruperto Romero, Vincent Gap
By Islip Saddle, 12 miles and a climb up Baden Powell from Vincent’s Gap, Michael Carson had joined the leaders, Ruperto slightly behind and playing it cool. Former winner, always champion and local legend Jorge Pacheco had dropped further behind. Jorge had run Western States a month and a half earlier with a bad flu, starting the race DFL before moving up, and it looks like that race took it out of him.
The women’s race was less dramatic. Ashley Nordell took the lead early, and had 8 minutes on second place runner Jen Benna at Vincent Gap, a lead that grew to 49 minutes by the time the race ended, 87 miles later. The battle here was for third. Katie Desplinter was three minutes behind Jen Benna at Vincent Gap, with Dawn Poole a few minutes behind her and Kelly Puckett another few minutes behind in fifth. By Cloudburst, Dawn was ahead of Kelly by a yard or two, and Katie a few minutes further behind in fifth. Dawn would eventually widen her lead, finishing almost 2 hours ahead of Katie, whose fourth place time of 26:30 was still a PR by an hour.
Michael Carson and Erik Shulte ran pretty much together through Shortcut, but Carson made a move on the fireroad stretch to Newcombs Pass and arrived there with a 20 minute lead. Somewhere between Idlehour (mile 83.8) and Sam Merrill (mile 89.3) that lead evaporated, and on the technical stretch from Sam Merrill to Echo Mountain it looks like Schulte put the hammer down, arriving at the next (and last) aid station, Millard (mile 95.8) at midnight with a 15 minute lead.
I heard Schulte’s name announced while waiting at Chantry. His time, 19:14 or so, means he average an 11:28 pace. I’m not sure I have a training run on the course with a pace like that.
A few minutes later, second place runner Michael Carson was announced, and soon after Ruperto Romero in third place. Two minutes after that, Howie and Andrea pulled into Chantry.
Howie repeated that he would never run this race again. He had some pizza. He took in various types of food. And then he left, alone, determined to conquer the demons of the last 25 miles by himself.
Andrea and I headed home to sleep. We didn’t hear the fourth place runner announced because it was another 2 hours between Ruperto and fourth place/women’s winner Ashley Nordell.
One of the great successes of the race, for me, was Pete Sercell, who finished 7th overall, not much more than a year after fracturing his pelvis in Idlehour Canyon on a training run. His extraordinary recovery involved a lot of hard work.
Jussi Hamalainen & Garry Curry, mile 6. Garry’s last AC100.
Jussi Hamalainen had what might have been the longest streak in ultra running: 28 consecutive AC100 finishes – every single AC100 ever run. He’s won it a few times, but that was a long time ago. In his mid 60s, he was still regularly finishing with times around 26 hours. At 68, he’s slowing down some, and last year his time finally crept over 30 hours. Perhaps there was a contributing factor last year: Jussi’s rival for the most consecutive AC100 finishes was Gary Curry. One day last year, a few months before the race, Gary returned from a training run, laid down for a nap, and never woke up. Jussi carried his ashes during the race, stopping to spread them along the course.
This year, he was in trouble. Word on the ham radio was that runner #11 had taken a bad fall near Sam Merrill, multiple facial lacerations. Altadena Search and Rescue was on its way to assess him. Jussi is a tough old guy, and he left the aid station after refusing their help. The trail from Sam Merrill down to Echo Mountain is some of the most technical trail in the race, and the trail from Cape of Good Hope to Millard is rough in spots and damaged from the storms a week before the race. Perhaps he took another spill. We waited at the finish line, getting more and more worried as the clock hit 31 hours, and then 32, and in that last hour word got out that he’d dropped (or been pulled) at Millard, the last aid station on the course, mile 95.8.
Jussi arrived at the finish line soon after the race had ended. He shuffled crookedly into the medical tent. Tommy Nielson is a multiple time AC100 winner whose win against Scott Jurek 15 years ago is legendary. Jussi mentored Tommy in those days. On this day, he apologized to Tommy for not finishing the race.
Because Jussi carried his ashes, Gary was credited with a finish last year. He and Jussi remain tied at 28 finishes a piece.
“I remember when” said with bitterness is more a sign that times have changed and you haven’t than it is a sign that something once good has now turned bad. Not all change is good, not all change is bad, but all change *is*. Whether you like it or not, shit just happens to change. Bitter nostalgia never unrung a bell. In the immediate aftermath of AC100, I’m afraid we are already starting to see the recently usual outbreak of bitter nostalgia. That is a bummer for all.
Less than 24 hours after the race ended, registration opened for 2016. As expected, it was a bit messy. Tempers were frayed. Some runners who didn’t get in insulted those of us who did. The most belligerent of last year’s voices resumed his crusade to shame Race Director/owner Ken Hamada into making changes, changes that might be welcomed by many, including me, but are almost guaranteed never to happen as long as the attacks on the race director are so personal.
And now it’s time for Fatdog, 120 miles, ten days away in central BC.