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.


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