Pacific Crest Trail heading down to Sulphur Springs Road
3 PTS TO MT. HILLYER.
6.36 miles, from mile 42.72 to 49.08, elevation just below 6,000 feet. The middle of the AC100 race, and the last section of heat. It starts with 4 miles of slightly downhill winding PCT singletrack, hot, exposed, dry, desert. The station fire hit here in 2009. It’s burned, and this is the first poodle dog bush we encounter on the course. It has a special desolation.
I think it’s beautiful.
Lay of the land: this is the end of the AC100’s run along the PCT. Aside from the Yellow Legged Frog detour, the course has been on the PCT since mile 3, and it follows the PCT from 3 Points until both bottom out at Sulphur Springs Road, a road that leads up from 3 Pts, and runs past the Angeles Crest Christian Camp (a private camp that somehow exists on National Forest land). The PCT crosses Sulphur Springs Road and continues its trek north to Canada. The AC100 course turns instead on the old paved Sulphur Springs road, and heads 2 miles up Sulphur Springs road to Rosenita Saddle and the Mt. Hillyer Aid Station. It’s a gentle 2 mile climb, but it’s on exposed blacktop. During a training run in June, temperatures hit 104 on this stretch, and it’s usually still, dead air.
In 2012, I ran the first 4 miles strong. It was fun, and made even more enjoyable in that this section was crowded, and I passed a number of runners. I began a game of leap frog with Kate Martini Freeman, who was suffering. We would continue that leapfrog until she passed me for good climbing up to Newcombs Saddle, 25 miles later. Pavement is typically my enemy, though, and on the climb up to Hillyer the wheels went flat. I write about it here.
In 2013, I was running a bit behind that same pack, and this stretch was empty. Aside from Marcus England, sitting in a chair at Mt. Hillyer having dropped, I did not see a single runner from 3 Points until Chilao. I ran it well, despite nausea, and the two miles of tarmac were not a problem. I enjoyed it, which gives it the distinction of being the only part of the race I enjoyed. The emptiness felt strange, and it was lonely. There were runners behind me, still in the race, (although many missed the tight cut-off at Cloudburst), but I felt very alone and at the distant rear.
3 Time AC100 finisher (and 5 time Hardrock 100 finisher) Howie Stern describes this section as “hot and lonely”.
Hot and lonely works. I’m a lonesome runner, or at least an alone one, most of the time. My time in the mountains is not just to train but to get away, and there aren’t very many people I want to share that get-away time with. Those that I do are all fellow runners. Yes, it is lonesome sometimes, but that’s preferable to being in a crowd, at least to me. I’m not really a people person.
This is desert country. My AC100 pacer this year has through-hiked the PCT and the Appalachian Trail, Trail name Singe. He says the first 700 miles of the PCT – the desert stretch – is a real test of the soul. If an emotional breakdown is going to happen, it will likely happen somewhere in here.
The stretch from 3 Points to Sulphur Springs Road is a desert stretch. It’s a mile or two past the 400 mile marker (which is near Camp Glenwood), hot and hardpacked.
Maggie Beach, 3 Pts
I was crewing Maggie Beach that year. She and Keira Henninger were engaging in a race that eventually did neither of them any favors.
Maggie was using a past runner’s splits to calculate a 24 hour finish time. She’d been pretty much hitting her marks through 3 Points, but she’d lost a lot of time in the 12 miles between 3 Points and Chilao.
One crew member angrily demanded to know “what happened out there? You’re way off schedule,” He didn’t notice that whatever happened to Maggie happened to just about everyone else, too, as the runners in the pack Maggie had been running with, including Keira, Paulette, Jimmy Dean Freeman, and several others more or else came into Chilao in the same positions, and spread the same distance apart, as they’d been at 3 Points, and at Cloudburst before that
Maggie got defensive. His tone had her almost in tears. It’s not hard to feel a bit torn up and vulnerable when you come out of that heat into Chilao.
Keira would drop at Chantry. Maggie faded to a rather distance second. Paulette saved herself and went on to win, nearly 2 hours ahead.
Hot and Lonely
Howie’s hot and lonely comment stuck with me. It’s as perfect, and as simple, a description of the stretch between 3 Points and Mt. Hillyer as you can get. He went on to say “I like that part…just not on race day”.
I love it, even on race day. I love it so much I’ve been back twice in the three weekends that have passed since the race. I decided to ask a few friends write a few paragraphs about this stretch. Here’s what I got back:
Three Points to Hillyer is part of what I consider ‘the vortex between Islip and Chantry.’ There’s a very underestimated skill of running hard at altitude in the heat, and Three Points to Hillyer is a perfect example. The section comprises of two parts: a windy, nearly flat singletrack traverse and a gradual 5% paved road climb. A lot of runners cruise through this section in autopilot in training, but find raceday to be another story.
In early August, it takes focus to keep your baked skull engaged in all the twists and turns. The gradual paved road climb out of Sulfur Springs is the key to a fast time: run as much of it as possible and you can save 10 minutes in 2 miles. Yet on raceday, the gradual grade combined with the hot, dead air, 47 miles on the legs, and exposed sun force most runners to hike a lot. It’s a section that Jim O’Brien made quick work of in 58 minutes like it was child’s play, and everyone else is dumbfounded on, hiking like they’re back on Baden-Powell. The only antidote is high mileage and high heat training.”
Katie Desplinter has multiple 100 mile finishes. She finished 4th at Angeles Crest in 2011, but her 2013 race ended with kidney problems at mile 84. She is also a New Balance Outdoor Ambassador. Katie says:
“Here’s the thing about 3 Points to Hillyer (and really, for me, this kind of encompasses the full gamut of Cloudburst to Chilao): while on paper it looks to be the “easy” part, and single training runs will confirm this, on race day, I am increasingly of the opinion that running this section well is the deal maker or breaker.
The problem is that when you get there on race day, it’s hot as hell, exposed and you’ve got 43/44 TOUGH miles on your legs. If you’ve blown yourself out running too hard in the high country or blown up down in the heat of Cooper Canyon – you’re now using the easiest section you’re going to get as a recovery rather than attacking it with fervor. It’s honestly the difference of a minute or two per mile, which really adds up. If you still have quads and aren’t/are done puking, you can open up and fly with minimal effort. The aid stations are close enough and you’re now moving fast enough to keep ice on your neck and use some of your water for your head, so the heat becomes less of a thing.
Road up Mount Hillyer
Even still, the trail descent to the road always feels longer than it is. It’s a nice trail, but I’m always kind of praying for it to end, as the 5.7 or whatever it is mile downhill on baked, hard-packed dirt really starts to hurt when you’re nearly 50 miles into your day. Also, you have to watch out for the poodle these days – it’s often growing across the trail and threatening to make you itch for weeks to come. It’s hard to imagine the way things used to be before the Station Fire – I look at old training photos and hardly recognize the place. It will be interesting to see how it changes over the years.
Here’s another lesser-known fact: the road up Mt. Hillyer is almost entirely runnable! It’s gradual as hell, and again, if you’ve preserved your legs, you can float right up with minimal trouble. (Personally, there are still a few little turns where I hike a bit – but I do run the majority of it.) Additionally, it is always here that I begin fantasizing about what is waiting for me at the top. To this day I have yet to find a beverage that tastes as good as Uncle Hal’s ice cold watered-down Gatorade at Rosenita Saddle. That includes beer. And boy do I love beer.”
Marisol Martinez has started AC100 4 times, and finished 3, always near the front. She says she learned more from her 2011 DNF than from her 2010 finish, and she runs it old school, solo, without pacers. She makes custom leather belts to hold her AC100 buckles. You can get one for your 100 mile buckle here.
“It’s only about a 7 mile segment but somehow it had managed to carve out a bleeding pit in my gut the very first time I ran through there. ‘How could they continue to run over 50 some odd miles from here?’ is all I kept thinking as I trudged my way up toward Mt. Hillyer. I wondered about this for weeks afterward. This was years before running my first AC100.
It was a hot summer in 2003. I parked at three points and took off on the trail. It was well kept and very runnable. Back then, there was no poodle bush to contend with-but it was hot and the mild momentum I thought I was gaining would quickly come to a halt. When I finally reached the hot surface of Sulfur Springs Road, I was already drenched, nearly out of water, and certain that I would be found plastered dead on the black hole concrete before ever reaching Mt. Hillyer. It was triple digits lonely. The sun was bright, but it may as well have been a dark, cruel place. And the road went on, warping time as I tried to move forward. For whatever reason I started to trip – and I mean really trip – on general relativity, event horizons…and the possibility of a black hole on Sulfur Springs Road. Rationing my water, I managed to make it to Mt. Hillyer and on to Chilao, and eventually back to my car at Three Points, feeling completely defeated and high all at the same time. I couldn’t wait to do it again.
By the time I gathered enough courage to run AC100 it was 2010. There is no such thing as an easy section on this course and I had run its entirety in sections during training, as most of us who are local, do. But I especially included Three Points to Mt. Hillyer as often as I could. I anticipated that feeling from the first time, and decided I’d take in whatever it gave me. I’ve had the privilege and luck to have made it to the finish line three times. In 2011 I DNF’d at Chantry. Unbeknownst to me at that time, I had gotten giardia a few weeks prior. It decided to wreak havoc right there en route to Mt. Hillyer. I struggled, vomited and staggered my way into Chantry. I had lost 13 pounds from Chilao to Chantry. I called it a day- I couldn’t go on anymore, I didn’t care and it was all right. I gained some major insight and perspective that weekend. I learned so much from this death march which began at Three points, more so than any of my finishes.
Each year that I’ve run AC100 has felt different, but there’s something about this short section from Three Points to Mt. Hillyer, that makes me long for the quiet sweltering solitude of Sulfur Springs Road as soon as AC100 is done with for the year. I learned to really love this section. It can be deceptive and cruel, unrelenting and yet beautiful if you take the time to look around. When you can get a high off of that, black holes are golden.”