Monday, October 27, 2014

Oriana's First Trail Race: Trail Del Rio Race Report

Mission Accomplished! Oriana finishes her first trail race.

  Billed as the "funnest course on the Solo Para Salvajes circuit," I've always been curious about the Trail del Rio race. At 13km, I thought it would also make a good first trail race for Oriana. However, despite the short distance, beware: the trail is very technical, slippery and at times dangerous: there were a few spots where one could plummet down into the river. Also, this is not a race for those who like dry shoes. There are 5-6 major river crossings, some of them were waist high. 

  We lucked out and it was a beautiful day. We started at a steady pace, not pushing too hard. On this course, that is a mistake. There are a few sections of open meadow running where one can pass others, but much of the trail is so narrow that passing is very difficult for much of the race. 

  As Oriana exclaimed at one point: "I just want to pass these people." We were stuck behind a train of folks for the last quarter of the race, but then things opened up and we made our move through the meadows.

  We finally emerged onto pavement that led down into a park. I was sure this was the end of the race, so we were sprinting with everything we had. But the course went through the park and led straight up the side of a hill. Ori struggled a bit mentally here, as she thought she was finished, and she had pushed so hard she had become something of a spit dribbler. But she regrouped and pushed up the climb, which was by far the longest climb of the day. Finally, we emerged on top of the hill and there was a short, flat section. Oriana turned it on again and finished strong!

  The photos below show some of the terrain of the Trail de Rio. 

Early in the race....                                                 All photos: me

No longer bothering with trying to keep the feet dry

Someone hiked out there to wave the flag

Waiting for her moment to pass...

Making her move!

A rare section where she could open up her pace...

Get Dirty!

At least a half-dozen River crossing like this...

River Selfie

technical trail...

powering up the final climb...

Finish line Selfie

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Great Mexican Ultramarathon: The UTMX 100k Adventure (So Much More Than a Medal!)


They came from all corners of Mexico: from the exhaust-choked urban sprawl of Mexico City, from Puebla, from Monterrey. From Oaxaca, Guadalajara, Zacatecas.  From deep in the Canyons of Chihuahua. The anticipation and nerves were palpable in the air as nearly 900 runners packed in front of the stage for the pre-race meeting.

Anticipation can kill an experience. Set your hopes too high, and the reality that can’t quite live up to our imaginations can be a real ball kicker.

Barranca de Metztitlan. Beware: no photo does this place justice.

Going into the UTMX 100k in Huasca de Ocampo, my hopes were sky high. The area is a spectacular place to run, and Marcos Ferro’s races are well organized. As I stood with 900 other runners listening to some final instructions and a few small changes to the route, I was nervous.  I had made my decision to stick with the 100k race that I had signed up for in May, but that small, sensible voice in the back of my head was quietly suggesting a change to the 42k. Normal pre-race jitters or was I making a dangerous mistake?

What I (and the mountain running community in Mexico) found out that this was more than a well-organized ultra in a beautiful place. UTMX was an adventure: there were trails that ran along precipitous cliffs; there was a final river crossing –in the dark for back-of-the-packers like me-- at the bottom of a small canyon, and there were rocks, endless rocks.

This was not your Abuelo’s “wide-dirt-road/smooth trail” 100k.

That fact was driven home about 2k into the race, with the first river crossing. Even in the early miles, there were technical downhill rock formations that were dangerously slick. I was running with Marcos Truyols and he slipped early, and while he wasn’t seriously hurt, it was obvious that it could have happened differently and been a race-ender before the sun came up. So caution was the order for the day.

There was no spoken agreement between Truyols and I, but there seemed to be an unspoken one: let’s take these early hours easy and see what the day will bring.  Marcos was nursing a knee injury and trying to avoid that ending his race. I was concerned about the distance. I was 100% in for the finish, but I was a bit wary of my previous two months of training.

After the first aid station I made a classic mistake and followed a group a runners down a road before noting we had not seen a trail marker. We went back up the road, and sure enough, we had missed a well-marked turn.  It was an important lesson for the day: don’t follow people, don’t blindly follow the “obvious” path: follow the trail markers.

   Scenes from the first 42k of the race.                                                                                     Photo: me

I was also carrying a copy of the course directions.

Marcos and I hiked and ran conservatively until the high point of the race. We snapped a quick photo and then began the run that was mostly downhill until the 42 kilometer mark.

Marcos Truyols and I at the top of the course. Mental note for next year: ask someone else to snap this photo. Where's Martin Forstmann when you need him!                                          Photo credit: super nice guy who takes shitty photos

  This section featured single track that begged to be ripped down,  and we picked up the pace, passing some groups on uphills to avoid being slowed down on the coming descents. I wanted to use the momentum of the downhills without getting carried away and destroying my legs too early in the race.

Top of a giant rock climb.                                                      Photo: me

At the 42k I had my drop bag. I had agonized about whether to put my drop bag at 42 or 71k, and in the end I opted for 42k to make sure I would have my rain jacket and “mayas” (running tights), which were required equipment after 5:00pm.  I also did something I’ve never done in a race before: changed my shoes. After running for nearly 7 hours with wet feet, dry feet just felt too damn good. I gambled and put on my road shoes, the trusty Ride 6 Sauconys that I used to run my 100miler in August.

Wild flowers and Maguey                                                        Photo: me

And then five minutes out of the 42k aid station was another river crossing. And then another, and a third. Through a series of ballet moves and lucky jumps, I was able to keep my shoes dry, but I knew that I was flirting with injury and wasting time and energy trying to keep my feet dry, but in a stroke of luck, the river crossings ended there…

We were out on a dirt road, and then a bit of pavement. It was hot. The first 44k of this race is a technical marathon with a fair bit of climbing. There were a few smoother, runnable sections, but much of it was very slow going. I tried to pick up the pace on the road. I knew the next 12 kilometers until we went down into the Peña del Aire were rolling and runnable. Time to move.

At the halfway point I encountered Pedro Fletes and many other Salvajes manning the Solo Para Salvajes 51k aid station. It put me in great spirits to see these guys. I also knew the canyon was coming, a portion of the course I had anticipated for months. Would it live up to my expectations?

Leaving the Salvajes aid station, Marcos Truyols pulled away and I wondered if I would see him again. I tried to push hard, but on this flat section more people passed me than on any other section of the course.

At the Peña del Aire (61k) was a huge aid station. This was one section of the course that was accessible by car, and Milly came out to cheer me on. I downed some soup and then headed down into the Barranca de Metzitlan. I had been waiting for this section all day, and it did not disappoint.

Peña del Aire aid  Photo: Milly
I’ve been fortunate to run on some incredible trails in beautiful places: the Pemigewasset loop in the White Mountians in New Hampshire on a clear day with views from all 9 peaks; The Highline trail in Arizona during a freak April snowstorm; up, over and down Mt. Baden-Powell on the Pacific Crest Trail in California. And now, the Barranca de Metztitlan in Hidalgo, Mexico.

Whatever fatigue I felt in my legs at this point basically faded away as I charged down to the Canyon bottom.  I had promised myself no more photos, now it was time to race, but the views kept forcing me to break that promise.  I was feeling fantastic and began to pass some of the runners who had passed me on the flats. But Truyols was nowhere to be seen. I kept pushing. I could smell blood, I felt he was close.

Finally, just as I thought I was going to finish this race with dry shoes (they had been dry since the change at 42k), the course followed the river at the bottom of the canyon. It didn’t cross the river; the trail was the river. One kilometer later and I was in the 71k aid station. It was 5:13pm. I second guessed my decision to leave my drop bag at 42k, looked enviously at the runner next to me changing into dry shoes, wrung out my socks like a sponge, and got the hell out of there to chase down Truyols. 

All the photos below were taken by me (except the good one: that was taken by Martin Forstmann) in the Barranca de Metztitlan

Marcos "negative split" Truyols                Photo: Martin Forstmann

As much as I love remote, people-less places, one thing I enjoy about Mexican races is that they sometimes go through tiny pueblos that I would otherwise never see. San Sebastian, a God-forsaken little town at the bottom of the canyon was one of these places. I greeted a few locals and then began the cruel trudge up the dirt road. 7 K of climbing up out of the canyon. I cursed the name of Marcos Ferro, the race director, on this climb, having an imaginary argument with him in my head about finding a single track trail that could take us to the top.

But there was nothing to do but march.

And march.

Finally, it leveled out and there was the Mirador aid station.

And holy shit, there was Truyols, about to leave.  I felt good, I was ready to run, I felt like the crux of the race was over, as I was certain we were done with major climbing.

I should have looked more carefully at the course map.

Truyols was out of there, and I quickly followed.

Damn, he was moving fast. I couldn’t believe it. Soon he was out of site. I was alone again, trying to keep him in site. I made a short detour off the road and followed some markers that went off to the right, but then a young villager on a horse told me that the route was on the dirt road. Shit, he was right: Ferro had explained this change at the meeting the night before.

And then at the 81k mark I arrived at Ahuacatitla, and I realized I had made a dreadful mistake: the climbing was not over. It was black now and I headed straight down: so steep it was unrunnable on my jellied legs.

Down, down. And then finally, when it no longer seemed possible that it could keep going down, a technical downhill so steep I had to hang on to trees to get to the bottom to avoid falling.

And here at the bottom was the Mother of all river crossings.  Raging. Dangerous. Loud.

It was pitch black, but there was a rope and volunteers on both sides of the rivers. I hung on to the rope with everything I had, and carefully made my way across.

Somewhere in the middle of that crossing I realized there was probably no place I would rather be in this world than at the bottom of that chasm, scared shitless, hanging on to a rope to avoid being swept down the river with 50 miles on my legs and miles to go before I sleep…

At least now I have an answer when someone asks me: 100K? Why?  I’ll tell them about that river.

Once I crossed, I thanked the volunteer, tried to find words that could express how much I loved the race and headed up in the black.

This was a serpentine climb that I would love to see in the daylight. At night, with my weak headlamp, it was like being in a lightless labyrinth, searching for little squares of white light (reflector tape) to find my way. For a time I stayed with another group, as they had better lights, but they were dying on the climb, and I knew I’d never catch Truyols if I hung back with them.  

So I forged ahead, one tiny square of light at a time.

It was awesome. In my head, I forgave Ferro for the seven kilometer climb on the fire road out of the canyon.  

And then I was out on the flats again. My time goal of 16 hours had been out the window for hours, but I didn’t care. I was alone, I had the directions in my back pocket, and between the map and the reflector tape I made my way to the 89k aid station. It was 9:10. My hoped-for finish time. I laughed about that. Drank half a Red Bull, got some good advice, cheer and directions from the volunteers, thanked them, and headed out.

I crossed the wooden hanging bridge over the  Prismas Balsaticos.

Followed the dark wet trail around the reservoir.

And then I was on the road, so close. Ran right by the cabañas we were staying at.

I ran hard, or at least it felt like I was running hard. I caught some walkers in the final kilometers. But no Truyols.

The final mental blow was when I was on the road to Huasca centro, which I knew was no more than 1k away. But then I had to turn right, through some back alleys, and then finally past the hotel were 900 of us were packed in with anticipation 25 hours earlier listening to Ferro describe the course (flawlessly, from memory), as we followed along with our maps.

The final stretch. I “sprinted” in, Milly and my friends were there. Ferro gave me un abrazo, put a medal crafted from the local obsidian rock on my neck. 17:33 minutes later, I had finished.

Truyols was nowhere in sight. I found out later he finished in 16:58. He didn’t run the fastest race that day, but he may have run the smartest. He ran the second half of the race faster than the first 51k. Who negative splits a 100k? Hats off to Marcos.

finished                 Photo: Milly


 We all think we want adventure, but adventures carry risk. Without risk it’s just a thrill:  like bungee jumping or Space Mountain. In Huasca there was risk of getting lost climbing up out of the canyon after crossing the river. There was the risk of breaking an ankle and being forced to hobble back up to the top of the canyon. There was the very real risk of rain and hypothermic conditions.

  Which is not to say the race organizers were reckless. To the contrary: they worked like hell to provide a controlled event that was as safe as one could possibly make this sort of event. The course was marked with reflective tape, chalk and ribbon.  There were course marshals at many points along the course. The course map was published months ago on the day sign-ups started. Every runner was given a map and a blow-by-blow/turn-by-turn description of the course. The night before the race, the race director went over the route and announced a couple last minute changes (some river crossings were eliminated because of high waters and one section of single track was diverted to a two-track, which the boy on the horse would later remind me about). And even with all of this, there was no guarantee. If there are guarantees, it’s not an adventure. I got lost a few times out there. I marched back to the last flag; I consulted my map; I tried to remember not to rely on the runners in front of me.

  Also, there was a required equipment list. Predictably, there was a bit of pissing and moaning about this. Mountain runners don’t like be told what we need to bring. I certainly didn’t want to carry running tights. Or a thermic blanket. Or a whistle.  But these were the rules, so I did it, and I still didn’t need to wear a pack. I stuffed everything into a zip lock baggie that fit inside my Jurek Essential waist pack and tied my rain jacket around my waist.  One could still travel light The list was not excessive. And the rules were clear (and they were published months ago) that the penalty for not having required equipment was disqualification.  So of course everyone complied and carried their shit. Especially the front runners, because who in the hell would want to chance losing a 10,000 pesos first prize to save a few grams and the minor hassle of carrying a whistle or a 10 gram thermic blanket?

  The Future of the Race?

Every ultrarunner in Mexico is now holding their breath. Will the race happen again? It could become a classic, THE Mexican Ultramarathon. Of course the Caballo Blanco race gets more international love, but this race –only a couple hours from the Mexico City Airport—makes this a much more travel-friendly location. But the amount of work that goes into the race make it tough for anyone to devote their year to putting the race together and not really make any money. Maybe a big sponsor (North Face? Patagonia?) could step in and lend some financial assistance to Marcos Ferro and the crew that brought us this race?

Marcos Ferro, RD

But until then….

  Thank you to all the volunteers out there who made this race possible. Even if it never happens again, it’s an experience I will never forget. And race or no race, I’ll be back up in those mountains, back down in the canyons.

World-class event; world-class trails.

The day after, back out at Peña del Aire.                     Photo: 7th place 42k finisher Torrey Hannas (her first run over 21k. Ever. Watch out.)


Monday, October 6, 2014

The View to Huasca: UTMX 100. Meditations on training, racing, losing (and finding) motivation.

AC 100 Finish: The end of a long journey.             Photo: Larry Gassan

  After finishing the Angeles Crest 100, (which you can read about here), I took five days off, but then tried to get right back on the horse. A couple things held my training back:

1. Motivation. The AC 100 was the culmination of 3 years of training and racing, and 6 months of focused training. After that effort I simply didn't have the same desire to get out of bed to run 3-5 hours in the mountains on Saturday and then repeat on Sunday. My body seemed ok; my mind needed a break: a longer break than 5 days.

2. Return to teaching. I was back in school the week following AC. The beginning of a school year is hectic and all-consuming: driving out to the mountains mid-week was no longer in the cards.

  However, I didn't stop running. I wasn't tracking my mileage, but I was doing speed workouts a couple times a week, and a ten miler here or there. I did get out for a great long run with Martin and Hiram for my first summit of Ajusco in August, but there wasn't much more than that.

Great run/hike up to Ajusco with Hiram and Martin.                           Photo: Hiram Marave

  And yet the UTMX 100k loomed, and all indications were that this was going to be the race of the year in Mexico. Fantastic organization; magical location. So that knowledge kept kicking me out the door to run. Just not for as long or steep as I needed to run. It's easier for me to run a race than it is to go out by myself for a long run, so I signed up for some races.

First Annual Tepozotlan 21k, Sept. 7

Wildflowers, rocks and climbs....                                      

   On September 7, I ran the Solo Para Salvajes race in Tepozotlan. Solo Para Salvajes is the mountain (and trail) running group run by Pedro Fletes Omaña. One can't speak of mountain running in Mexico without mentioning Pedro Fletes. His group efficiently runs nearly two races a month all year long. He has being doing this since the late 80's. His races feature aesthetic routes, adequate aid, and an absurdly economical price tag. About 22 USD for a race. The races are a mix of long time classics and newer ventures. Tepozotlan was a new one: a point to point race, and it was a beauty on all fronts: wild terrain that was a mix of cross-country off trail climbing and descending, and narrow, rocky single track throughout. Also, in the manner of all of all Salvajes' races it was simply, yet effectively organized: the route was fairly marked, there were aid stations were you needed them and had what you needed (salt, sugar, liquids). And, as always, a family of runners in good spirits.  We also lucked out with perfect weather: sunny, but not too warm. This race is an instant classic in my mind. Which brings me to a point I'll focus on more later: what makes a great race? Aside from organization, it's simple: the route. The route is everything. Most experienced trail runners don't give a shit about running 20 or 50 or 100 or 165 kilometers (why not 17 or 56 or 151?): we care about the trail. Trails that are aesthetically pleasing, trails that offer challenges. And beauty. 

A route that makes sense. Stunning.                    

Loops within loops don't make sense. Little out-and backs just to add distance don't make sense. If there is a peak in the area, the route should go up to that point.

Tepozotlan was the perfect route. And I had a good day, as I was in fantastic spirits as I discovered how awesome the course was. I'll be back next year.

Course was so nice I hiked back out there with Milly after the race

Ajusco 50k, Sept. 21

 I guess my only problem with the Tepozotlan 21k was that it wasn't long enough. So I had signed up for a new race being organized by some friends of mine. They aren't experienced race directors, but they have a passion for trails, and I had run with them in the area, so I was excited about the race. Also, I felt that mentally I needed a 50k long run, as this would give me some confidence going into the 100k in Huasca. I hadn't run longer than 21k in more than a month.

  Well, as every trail runner in the Mexico City area now knows, the race didn't go as planned. There were problems. Basically, the race imploded. I'm not going to rehash all the details, but I will offer a couple observations. Most complained about the trail markings, but I didn't find this to be a problem. I think the problem is that there were too many races, and the route (see my comment above about loops within loops) was not intuitive: in my mind, it didn't make sense. Also, my friends just underestimated how many folks it takes to organize a race, especially a race with a lot of new trail runners. Some hotheads called it a "deception" and a "fraud," and, frankly, that's ridiculous. It was some runners who got in over their heads and things spiraled out of control. 

It was a race. It went poorly. It's just running. Get over it.

  My race in Ajusco ended at the end of the first 25k(?) loop. Why did it end? Because of the organizational problems? Because the trail was hard to follow? Because the the finisher arch was prematurely deflated? Nope. It ended because I was dead tired. I've never felt that poorly in any race. Before Ajusco, I've never thought about dropping early in a race, but the DNF excuses were already filling my brain on the first climb. I had nothing. So when I got to the end of the first loop, I ended my race. Can't blame that on anyone else but me. I don't feel bad about it, as I was absolutely zonked and the idea of trudging around another loop had zero appeal.

But a bad day running in the mountains is still a good day...               Photo: Martin Forstmann

  I was sure my 100k Huasca dream was done. I would do the sensible thing and drop to the 42k. I told a few folks I would switch races, I wasn't ready for 100k, mentally or physically. So it goes.

 Camino Largo y Sinuoso 33k, September 28
 And then I had a good run a few days later. My body started to feel better. And I signed up for the 33k run the following Sunday, one of the classics of the Solo Para Salvajes group. I knew this route well, as I've trained here many times, and ran the race two years ago (report here). I decided that THIS would be my long run for Huasca. And the race went well: I took the first climb easy, descended down to the cuarto dinamo, which is the half-way point, and then started to push a bit from there. And I found myself able to push hard all the way to the finish. And I still finished with something in the tank. I told Milly I would finish around 5 hours, 5:15, and I ran in at 4:42. Suddenly, I was feeling great about Huasca.

UTMX 100k: Huasca de Ocampo, Hidalgo, Mexico. October 11, 2014


  But, one solid twenty-miler does not a 100k training plan make. Frankly, I don't care. It's an experiment. How much of my base have I maintained since running 100 miles? How much has slipped away? I'm running the 100k to find out.

  But really, I'm running this event because it's going to be freaking awesome.

  I don't want to miss this race. It's not just another race. Everything indicates it's going to be the premier Ultra running event of the year in Mexico (and if I'm mistaken on that count, someone please tell me where I should go run): I know a bit of the route from my previous experience running Marcos Ferro's race two years ago (report), and it's beautiful, rugged and varied (and also: very, very well organized). Running down into the Barranca (canyon) de Metzitlan (and climbing back out) is only going to raise the "Epic-ness" of this great event. If you are a mountain runner in Mexico, you will be at this event. Some have claimed that it is pricey (100USD for the 100k), and while that may seem true --by Mexican trail race standards-- remember that these guys have been working on this race for a year, with nearly a 100 volunteers and workers on race day to make sure everything goes smoothly. It's not a for-profit venture, folks: Ferro and co. are putting this own because they want to share some great trails with the trail community.

  I can't wait.

  My race-day goals:
  1. Enjoy the highs
  2. Embrace the lows.
  3. Stay in the moment

Yeah, sure I have some time goals floating around, but without knowing the course --and never having run the 100k distance-- (pace it like a 100 miler? a 50 miler?) they are guesstimates:
A goal: sub-16
B goal: sub-17
C goal: stumble across the finish line with a smile on my face at midnight (19 hour time limit).

Gettin' ready..

And after Huasca? I think a good long rest is in order....

But that race in Chico and the Salvajes classic Triple Corona look tempting....

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Angeles Crest 100 Mile Race Report: The Education of a Mountain Runner

Forget what you think you know about L.A. and surrounding areas: this is a mountain race     Photo: Jeremy Hardy

My Dad and Jeremy: Awesome Crew, Awesome Pacer. Mediocre Runner. Hey, two out of three ain't bad! Selfie: Jeremy

  For three years I’ve had the 100 mile dream. Even before I ran my first trail race: a 26km Saturday Race followed by a 16km Sunday race in Real De Catorce, the dream was there: all this is preparation for running a 100 miler.

  One of the joys of the AC 100 is that you have to sign up a year in advance. This allows for a full year of anticipation, planning and training. It also allows for lots of things to go wrong or for life to get in the way, as is annually demonstrated in the high numbers of runners who don’t make it to the start line of AC, the sole blemish on an otherwise magnificent jewel of a mountain race.

 I arrived well-trained, healthy and in high spirits in Wrightwood and with a great crew and pacer: my dad and my brother-in-law, Jeremy. We settled into the 5 star Pine Hotel, a cozy room with nails sticking up out of the floor and an old TV hanging right over the fridge so I could whack my head four times while obsessively re-checking that my water bottles were indeed ready with GU packed. Unfortunately, the whacks didn’t take, as I insisted on waking up at 4:00am in the morning and running 100 miles through the mountains to Altadena.

The AC 100 is something like 21,000 feet of climbing and 26,000 of descent. Those who make it to mile 75 are rewarded with a 3,500 climb, which for this running mortal would come at 3:00am in the morning. The course is relentless, though if truth be told, it does ease up considerably in the last 35 meter section in Loma Alta Park. So you’ve got that carry you through the previous 30 hours.

Save something for those last 35 meters!

  The pre-race meeting was uneventful, but we did get a looong explanation about how bib chips work with some follow up questions (actually, it was the same question asked 7 different times with a slightly different intonation) that would have been amusing had I not been sitting on the floor in a hot and stuffy room.

  Future Runners: You could skip the pre-race meeting, but the catch is this: there is absolutely nothing else to do in Wrightwood.

  I tossed and turned and listened to my Dad snore for several hours, and then the moment I had been waiting three years for finally came. I got my bottles from the fridge, whacked my head one last time on the TV, and headed down to the start. I felt like I was at a cocktail mixer: everyone milling around and chatting it up. With 30+ hours to “warm up” I figured taking a seat was the best option. But no joke: I was psyched. I would probably do better at parties if after 20 minutes of chit chat, everyone took off for a very long run. 

 In the words of my pacer, Jeremy, [he crewed me to Chilao and then ran with me from Chilao to Finish. How about a buckle for that??] I looked like a “kid in a candy store” until Islip. A word about the Baden-Powell section (Vincent Gap to Islip): middle-earthesque, magical, inspiring. Ok, I’m two words over, but you get the idea. A shout out to Marcus England, who led the march up to the summit at the perfect not-to-fast/not-to-slow pace --AND-- he knew all the names of the trees.

 I rolled into Islip like the aforementioned kid in a candy store, fixed a blister on my pinkie toe and headed up to Mt. Williamson. Somewhere on that climb I had the realization that it wasn’t blazingly hot out.

 I had run into a few runners at the Pasadena Patagonia store earlier in the week, and I tried not to be star-struck when I asked famous ultra runner Chris Price what his weather prediction for the race would be.

He replied: “Hot or very hot.”
See: even famous ultra runners can be wrong. And let me tell you how happy I am about that.

 Which brings me to the climb up through Cooper Canyon up to Cloudburst. Clouds weren’t the only thing that were burst here: my two-thumbs up, Baden-Powell-is-douche-grade! Energy® had been mangled into a tight stomach and a slow trudge. Earlier on the climb I saw the great Jussi H. bent over on the trail. What? Was the great one wretching?  I certainly wanted to. I ran into Mike, a non-famous ultrarunner, also from the Patagonia store encounter, and he remarked he hadn’t taken in a calorie since Islip. The mountains were taking a toll.

  “I need a sit-down and a coca-cola.”
  Boy was I happy to be at the Cloudburst aid station.

My dad and Jeremy told me lots of lies about how good I looked and how everyone else took a beating in the Canyon. I remarked that if it had been hot, I would still be down there, curled up under a rock.

  And then came the downhill to Three Points. I ran downhills great most of the day, but the parade marched by me on this section. I just didn’t have much mojo. Got to Three Points, a quick refill, with Jeremy and my Dad, the last time I would see them before Chilao. Rolling single track here was enjoyable but then, in the middle of nowhere, someone had decided to pave a road. Why?

 Why did they have to pave a road? And why did it have to be so long? I slowed to what could only charitably be called a trudge. Two runners hiked past me. And then they were gone.
  I started to have fantasies about how good it would feel to lie down on the pavement. Just for a minute, you know. But I kept moving. Until I wasn’t moving, and for the first time in the race, I hunched over, put my hands on knees, and tried to remind myself that “it never always gets worse.” I’d been here before: the climb out of the Caldera at the Jemez 50…that was worse, and then I felt great the last 10 miles in that race.
  In response to these weak rationalizations, a bit of spit dribbled out from my lips.
  I trudged on, and then, there it was, like a shimmering mirage: Hal Winton and the Mt. Hilyer aid station. I sat down, had a coca-cola. Listened to some wisdom from Hal, and suddenly I didn’t feel horrible anymore. Amazing what a four minute sit down and a coca cola can do.

  Weird game, 100 milers.

The Setting Sun                                            Photo: Jeremy Hardy 

  To make up for the road, the next section was downhill through awesome rock formations. The old pre-Islip energy started coming back. I was passing people. Feeling good. Holy crap, 50 miles and my knees don’t hurt!

I “sprinted” into Chilao once I hit the campground road. No longer a hunched over spit dribbler, I was ready to run. I said goodbye to my dad –we wouldn’t see him until the finish, and Jeremy and I headed out of there. Somehow the combination of coca-cola, GU, GU brew and chicken noodle soup had a Lazarus-like effect on me.  Night came, and we pushed hard to Shortcut, passing folks along the way. It was raining, I had my shirt off. Mexico City weather had followed me here, and don’t think I wasn’t damn happy about that fact.

Oh yeah: Remember the big party in Wrightwood? It had been moved to Shortcut.

“Dude, let’s get out of here.”

  As we exited past the radio guys, they asked “Are you sure you are going to Chantry?” (apparently Newcomb’s Pass is not a great place to drop)

  “Hell no, we’re going all the way to Altadena!”

 And so the energy continued. After the long dirt road section (waaaay down….waay up), we got to Newcomb’s. And mercifully, we were on single track again. We flew. I began to think I was done with my lows. I had never considered anything faster than 31 hours, but started doing the math for sub-30.

Newcomb's Pass Aid Station                                     Photo: Jeremy Hardy

 Every great party has an end. Mine ended on the climb up to Winter Creek. My thighs had tightened up while sitting in Chantry, and suddenly I was very, very sleepy. I wondered if I could walk and sleep at the same time. Winter Creek Trail is not a great locale for this experiment.

  This is the section where having a pacer probably saved me an hour, maybe more. The temptation of taking a dirt nap was overwhelming, but Jeremy was having none of that. He promised me a little sit down up on Deadman’s bench, but it seemed like this section of the trail had been lengthened! It was absolutely longer than when I had run it three weeks previous. That was the only answer, because it simply would not end. We were on WHAT ABSOLUTELY HAD TO BE THE LAST SWITCHBACK for like 40 minutes.

And then we emerged and saw the city lights. I tried to sleep on the bench, but couldn’t get comfortable. Jeremy promised the sun would be coming up soon. I tried hard to care.

Millions of people who will never know how good a 4 minute sit down and a coca cola feels  Photo: Jeremy

 My dream of running down the Mt. Wilson Toll road en route to a glorious sub-30 finish did not play out the way it had in my mind. I walked. Ok, maybe I jogged for a couple 30 meter sections, but you get the idea.

But I was going to finish. And when we got into Idlehour, I was on familiar ground, I had run these trails in the weeks leading up to the race, and my energy came back. I was done with Gu and Gu brew, and basically on the coca-cola train with a few M&M’s for good measure.

  We hit El Prieto and I tried to run. The sun was out, it was finally hot. But it was too late to matter. And then I turned into the park. My family was there. I had a little kick, made the most of those final 35 meters.

                                                  That mile 99 Smile                                                      Photo: Louis Kwan

And then Hal was asking me my shirt size.

Thrilled with the fact that I can stop eating a GU every hour             Photo: Jeremy Hardy

 Final Thoughts (I know, I know...I'm going on longer than the bib chip guy at the pre-race meeting, but cut me some slack: you only get to write one "first 100 miler report."

It was great having my dad there. He didn't really know anything about 100 milers, but once I showed him how the splits worked, he was totally into it. It was great motivation to know I would see him and Jeremy at the aid stations.

I won't be racing AC next year (so many trails, so little time -- thanks for the tip about Bighorn, Andi!), but I hope to be back to crew and pace my brother-in-law.

The ability to run downhill was huge. Climb up, run down. That's this course. Fitness will get you up the hill, but only lots of downhill pounding will prepare one for the downhills. You hear a lot about all the climbing and the heat, but don't forget the downs...

  The AC is at a crossroads. It's a classic, point to point mountain race, and unlike it's more famous sibling up north, it's a Hard Rock qualifier. The secret is out. It sold out in around 15 minutes this year, and next year there will be a lottery. The only question is: what kind of lottery? One created by Hal and Ken to maintain the values of the race, or a de facto lottery determined by computer speed and one's mouse-clicking fortune? It would be a bummer to see names like Grossman, Pacheco and Jussi (and many, many more) not get into the race because of a poorly timed browser refresh. Maybe they could have some slots available for sign up at the finish of the race? At any rate, one of these years I hope to be back to face the course on a "hot or very hot" day.