Whistling Past the Graveyard – AC100 2013 Race Report

Me at Chantry

The race ends for AC100 runner #61 at Chantry, mile 75.

Welcome to the 265th annual AC100.

Friday August 2nd, at the Best Western pool just off the 15, on the edge of the high desert, facing the freeway. Traffic is loud. I’m pretending it’s the ocean.

The lady at the front desk has cleaned up pretty well since last year. She still has that rode hard, put up wet biker meth vibe, bad teeth, worse tattoos, blue, blue eyes and bad attitude, but she’s softened, is wearing appropriate business attire, and her hair is long, clean, and conditioned.

The race briefing had a weirder vibe than in years gone by. Wrightwood has a new mayor, so gone was the old Mayor’s shambling magic show. The new mayor is a blond haired African American woman with facial piercings. She was wearing a pink velour track suit and welcomed us to the 265th annual running of AC100. Race Directors Uncle Hal and Ken Hamada exchanged an alarmed look but opted to say nothing. You could actually see them make the decision. Mayor Pinkie stumbled over the words someone else had written for her on a piece of paper. She did not try to hide the fact that she understood none of it. She said “I’ve never run 100 miles but I did make nationals.” She didn’t say at what. She urged us to spend time shopping in Wrightwood and hoped we’d enjoy the 95 miles of Wrightwood trails and 5 miles of Wrightwood road. She hoped we’d enjoy the closing ceremonies in Alta Loma park in Alta Dena, which she seemed to think was also in Wrightwood, even if she was confused a bit as to where.

The race briefing never recovered. Instead of their usual well rehearsed banter, Hal and Ken mostly fielded questions, or maybe a single question: “What is the distance between check points?” asked over and over again by the same lady, not a runner. Hal’s growing annoyance made him combative when certain people persisted in complaining about the course change down in Cooper Canyon.

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4:45pm, Friday Aug 2. In 12 hours we’ll be gathered in the Wrightwood Town Hall, about to join Hal in his pre race prayer. I don’t think you need to be a good Christian or even a bad one to join in this prayer. I think prayer is a good idea before AC100, even if you’re an atheist. I think AC100 requires something more than just the day-to-day you to finish. Maybe you need to dig deep inside, or maybe you need to pull something from the divine ether, but you’re gonna need to pull something big and beyond the normal from someplace, and a prayer seems like a good way to acknowledge that. For those of you like me, who sometimes suffer from an abundance of pride, it’s important to realize that AC100 does not really reward pride. It’s probably best to approach this race with humility.

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My friend Howie Stern stopped by the pool. He wondered if the body somehow knows whats about to be demanded of it, and has made some physiological adjusts, beyond (or despite) crazy pre-race nerves. It sounded reasonable to me. Mine had cycled down the last two days. It was conserving energy, even while my mind was spinning.

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Lose Weight Now. Ask Me How.

Sunrise at the top of the Acorn Trail. 3 miles into the race and I’m running behind schedule. I should’ve gotten ahead of this pack, but I didn’t, and now I’m stuck in a group of people moving veeery slowly through this 3 mile climb. There are at least 15 people ahead of me on this tight singletrack. If I attempt to pass them all, one “on your left” at a time, it’ll take me until we get to the top, and I’ll expend a lot of energy for a 50 yard gain.

I lost half an hour by the time I hit the PCT, ran steady after that, and so the climb up Baden Powell began half an hour later than it had the year before. I began the race with a bad achilles, plantar fasciitis and a bummer tendon on the outside of the ankle. This is not a hill climbing combo, and my trudge up Baden Powell was slow and ended in pain. One by one, or in little packs of two or three, the AC100 train passed my by, mostly on those last switchbacks, and by the time I reached the top I was well in the back and course photographer Larry Gassan was winding his last roll.

Medical Checkpoint at Islip Saddle, mile 26. Down 6lbs, which hardly seems possible. “My weight seemed really heavy in Wrightwood” I protest, and the medic agrees, saying “Yeah the scales are off…but they are the same scales we used at Wrightwood. Maybe they said you weighed 10lbs too much there. They still say it. But the 6lbs you lost? That was real weight. You need to eat and drink a bunch before you leave.”

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E-Z Bake Oven.

I love the stretch from Islip to Eagles Roost. I love Mt. Williamson. People look at me funny when I say this, but it is what it is. It’s a short hard climb, but you get to the top quickly, and the downhill that follows is just pure rocky fun. I headed up with a full-but-not-6-lbs-heavier belly, and had fun running down the other side. I passed a few of the folks who’d passed me. I had fun humping it over the Scenic Mound, and dropped into Eagles Roost.

Somewhere, unfortunately, I had picked up my first blister, this on my right foot. Patched it up and out again. I’m not a fan of the 2.5 mile section of road we take because of the endangered frog detour, and fresh pavement is always a particular drag because it seems to stick to the shoes. Other folks might pick up time on this section, but I never seem to pick up time on road. I still managed to pass a few folks.

The stretch from Burkhart Trail down into Cooper Canyon and up to Cloudburst is one of the most talked about stretches of the course. It is where the heat will first be felt full force, and the short climb up switchbacks to Cloudburst seems to drain everybody.

It is, however, one of my favorite stretches of course. This is inexplicable even to me because it really is a brutal stretch, but then again the run down Burkhart is the last shaded section we’ll see for 20 miles, and the return to the original course along the PCT out of Cooper Canyon Campground is beautiful. I’ve spent a lot of time training on this section because I love it so much. The return to the PCT has been the subject of much controversy, and part of what got Uncle Hal so combative at the race briefing.

In years past, we took the PCT directly out of Eagle’s Roost, heading straight down and then running along Little Rock Creek before veering up sharply, where it hits the Burkhart Trail, which is where we pick it up now. This section has been closed to everyone in order to protect the endangered Yellow Legged Mountain Frog, (which you can read about on page 26 of the 2013 racebook, or here or here), so we now come down Highway 2 for 2.5 miles, turn into Buckhorn Campground, pick up the Burkhart Trail, and run that down until it intersects the PCT. We then take the PCT up to Cooper Canyon Campground, and this is where the (ehem) “controversy” begins.

There are two ways out of Cooper Canyon Campground. One way is to continue along the PCT. Another way is on a fireroad. The PCT is S shaped, and will intersect and cross the fireroad about one mile up the fireroad. It will take about 2 miles to get to that same spot via the PCT. Because the detour along the 2 added about a mile, the race initially was shortened by taking the fireroad out of Cooper Canyon. In the racebook, the course description has it taking the fireroad. The course map, however, has the course taking the PCT. In training runs last year, we took the fireroad, but on race day the course took the PCT. This year, Hal announced the course would take the PCT. People grumbled, some loudly and persistently. I didn’t. I hate fireroad and love the PCT section. What you get in added beauty more than makes up for the extra mile.

The real problem is not the extra mile (if you’ve trained sufficiently for 100.53 miles you can probably pull off 101.53) but that the already very tight Cloudburst cutoff has not been adjusted to allow for it. If you are running on the opposite end of pack from Dominic “the Unicorn” Grossman an extra 12-14 minutes to make Cloudburst could be a real help.

I’d become confused about the cutoff time. For some reason I thought it was half-an-hour earlier than it was. I tried as best I could to power through this section. I hadn’t seen a runner in a while – there was one about half a mile behind, and that was it. As I approached Cooper Canyon Campground the thought crossed my mind that I could take the fireroad. I wasn’t going to steal anyone’s win with this. I was just going to ensure I make the cut-off.

I decided against it, which turned out to be a good idea not just for ethical reasons but also because Uncle Hal had his truck parked at the intersection with the PCT. At the aid station I asked if he was expecting cheaters. He laughed and said “hauling out dead bodies, too”.

Not far up the PCT from the campground I came on Andrea Kooiman who was sitting on a tree having a bit of a breakdown. I asked if she was okay, and she said she was, but she wasn’t convincing, and when she hit the aid station 45 minutes later she broke down sobbing. I power hiked the uphill, trying to keep my motions steady so as not to set off cramps, and then ran as best and as much as I could on the flats and downhills. I passed a few more runners, and powered it up the switchbacks to Cloudburst. My legs were spasming badly. I shouted up to someone, asking if I was going to make it. “Cutoff is not until 4:30.” he yelled down. “I thought it was 2:00” “You’ll make that, too” he yelled back. I was so relieved that I stopped on the trail, about 50 yards from the aid station, let a runner pass me while my cramps subsided just a bit.

It was medical attention time at Cloudburst. My cramps had turned into spasms. A nurse handed my crew a pack of emergency electrolytes: 3,500mg of salts plus a hefty dose of sugar. That’s the equivalent of 17.5 salt pills. I downed this stuff with gatorade, ate some food, and sat for a while. Lambert Timmermans was just ahead of me at every checkpoint, and having the same problems.

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Whistling Past the Graveyard

Here’s where it all got weird.

Being at back, fighting cutoffs, gave me a chance to see some real suffering, physical and emotional. Suddenly I went from suffering runners to no runners at all. After Matt Phillipy passed me just past Cloudburst, I went from Cloudburst to Charlton Flats without seeing another runner aside from Marcus England, who was in a chair at Mt. Hillyer, having dropped. It was oddly lonesome for much of those miles, until I picked up my pacer. I’d spent a lot of time training on the section from 3 Points to Chilao, so I’d experienced it a number of times alone, but it was strange to be out there all alone on race day. Strange, and a little eerie.

Mt. Hillyer, in and out was the plan. Marcus England in a chair. DNF. Uncle Hal. If Uncle Hal was following the back picking up the bodies, the Grim Reaper in disguise, it was not such a good sign that I kept running into him.

I was putting a bit of time between me and the cutoffs, but it was going to get dark on the way to Chilao, and the cramps started up again. I started getting depressed.

I arrived in Chilao thinking to drop. It was dark already, and that wasn’t part of the plan at all. I’m not sure whether plans have much meaning or application at AC100, aside from perhaps a plan that only involves one aid station to the next. I weighed in – still 6 lbs under – and then headed out with pacer Cory. Things went well, and I was moving well – power hiking mostly, but at a good pace. We passed a runner down in Shortcut Canyon, and then caught up to the conga line of headlamps coming in to the Shortcut aid station. I got the idea that I would be able to finish.

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Meanwhile.

While I was racing cut-offs in the back of the pack, Dominic Grossman and Ruperto Romero were racing each other up at the front. Dominic describes his race here. Theirs was a genuine back-and-forth battle until the last few miles, when Dominic pulled away. Jorge Pacheco led early, but had been struggling with injury all year, and dropped at Shortcut.

Angela Shartel said that last year she took AC100 lightly, and didn’t give the course the respect it deserves. She finished second to Keira Henninger, in just over 24 hours. This year she went into the race with sufficient humility, and shattered the women’s course record with an astounding time of 21:21:13. Tia Gabalita was almost two hours behind with a time of 23:12. and Darla Askew, fresh off a second place finish at Hardrock 100 just a few weeks ago came in 3rd with a time of 23:43. Three women under 24 hours.

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Wtf.

Hiccups.

Not hiccups in race strategy, but actual hiccups. They started as I left Chilao. I got rid of them shortly after Charlton Flats. They came back again, every time I put something in my mouth or exerted myself in any way.

It’s hard to get any kind of a run going when you’ve got the hiccups.

Last year my race took a hit on the stretch from Shortcut to Newcombs, an almost 6 mile downhill on fireroads, the race’s last give-away, even if it is a hair too steep to run comfortably on tired legs. It’s a stretch I don’t like, and a time in the race that I seem to fade, and in 2012 I walked it more than I ran it. This year, the plan was to run, even if the run was just a shuffle, but once we threw hiccups on top of a pile that included blisters, cramps, and aches from the bottom of my right foot to the top of my right leg, IT band issues, nausea, and the injuries I started out with, plus growing despair, getting anything going was a struggle.

This is when you decide it’s best not to ask what else can possibly go wrong, because there was nothing left but the ludicrous and/or catastrophic, like falling off a cliff or getting poodle dog bush rash all over the testicles, which affected one runner so severely he dropped at Chantry and ended up in the emergency room.

Around the middle of the six miles into Chantry – six miles that took forever – you can see the lights of the city. I still thought finishing was within reach until the climb up to Newcombs. It was at Newcombs that I realized I’d compensated so thoroughly for my injured left foot that I’d run nearly the entire 68 miles entirely on one leg. My right foot was blistered all over. My right ankle was swollen up like an old lady with diabetes. My shin was aching, my calf twitching, I had IT band problems, and the quads and hamstrings were gone. Plus, my ass ached. Coming down the technical Gabrielino Trail at night with a right leg that was pretty much exhausted to the point of uselessness, I started thinking maybe my race was done. Once I saw the city lights I knew there was no way I was going to get down into Chantry and then turn my back on those lights and march back up Mt. Wilson on Wintercreek Trail – the longest climb in the race, both in terms of elevation gain and distance.

Had I been willing, there’s still the question of whether or not I was able. I was going to need to pull a superhuman effort out of my ass, and I had no superhuman left in me. If I were to make it to the finish line, would it be worth the price I’d likely pay?

I’d started the race unable to run more than 12 miles before being in pain. Somehow I’d managed to get 75 miles, to Chantry, largely thanks to a crew that was as determined if not more so than I was, and some great help from race medical staff at Cloudburst and Chilao. I sat for a few minutes, and then had the band cut.

The hiccups persisted through the drive home.

I’m signed up again for next year.

4 replies
  1. John Emmons
    John Emmons says:

    I’m the guy weighing you at the Chilao checkpoint. Really enjoyed your story, see you next year.

    Regards,

    John Emmons

    Reply
  2. Nancy Shura-Dervin
    Nancy Shura-Dervin says:

    I am the nurse who gave you ORS at Cloudburst. Problems with weight changes are not equal; there is more of a problem with weight gain, less so with weight loss. When hikers out in the desert run out of water, they lose weight = dehydration and it is life-threatening because of the lack of available water and the mileage yet to covered. When runners lose weight in a race where water is available, severe dehydration can usually be avoided. Weight gain is the more serious/dangerous of the weight issues because (1) water weight gain increases plasma volume which dilutes serum sodium and (2) diluted serum sodium causes excretion of anti-diuretic hormone that may result in (3) absence of urination which causes the runner to (4) drink more to induce urination which leads to (5) more weight gain and increased hyponatremia. At races like this, I believe that runners who are down a few pounds should be allowed to continue with instructions to drink more fluid. There is also no reason why weights shouldn’t be written on the race bib so the next station can make a comparison from the last weigh in. Runners who’s weight continues to go down could be detained until they prove they can keep fluids down. Weight increase of any kind should be followed with the words “slow down your drinking”; the only explanation for weight gain during such a strenuous event is “over-drinking”. The potential for life threatening complications here is serious, because (1) access to water promotes over drinking and (2) these runners are not being warned to slow down their drinking; from this angle, it makes no sense to weigh runners at all if no one has any idea what to do about the weight loss or gain. Some runners with weight gain should be detained until they pee off the overload; depends on the amount of weight gain and the mental alertness of the runner. The inaccuracy of the scales at AC100 is a whole other problem because they are moved about on the race course. The only way to assure accurate weight numbers is to pre-calibrate the scale at race check-in by weighing an inanimate object (concrete block) that has a known weight that won’t change, then weigh all the runners. As the scales are moved to a new location, the block is weighed and the scale is calibrated to the blocks weight. Using the scale calibrator without the known weight of the block, is highly inaccurate on uneven surfaces. Sorry you had such a rough day but it is all part of the glory and gory of 100-mile ultra running!

    Reply
    • Geoff
      Geoff says:

      Thanks for all the help at Cloudburst, Nancy. Yeah, it was not a good day but thanks to a good crew and the work of aid station volunteers like you, I was able to get much further than I probably should have. Last year’s finish was much easier than this year’s DNF. I imagine you are swamped with Bulldog preparations, so I am particularly appreciative of you being out there to help us.

      Reply

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