Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Tales from The 30th Annual Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run

Bad Photos Before Race Day
  Race Report: The 30th Annual Angeles Crest 100

 The sun had just come up on day two of the 30th Running of the Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run and I was sitting on Dead Man’s Bench at mile 80 with soon-to-be 4 time AC finisher John Vanderpot.  I asked John if he had seen Jussi down at Chantry Flats, the aid station that was 3,000 feet and 5 miles below us. There are countless tales from the Angeles Crest 100, but Jussi Hamalainen's is perhaps the most amazing: he ran the inaugural Angeles Crest back in 1986 when he was 40, and and he kept coming back for the next 30 years. Sixteen of his runs are sub-24 (his last sub 24 was at age 60), and he has run sub-20 twice. In 2014, my first AC, Jussi notched his 27th finish, going over 30 hours for the first time ever. It appeared that Time could slow, but not stop Jussi from reaching 30 finishes. But then in 2015, the unthinkable happened when Jussi fell and was forced to end his race at Millard, the final aid station at mile 95. Jussi returned for the 2016 AC  and walked it in hunched over, stopping repeatedly to retch onto West Palm Avenue. Vanderpot was at his side for that finish. Up on dead man's bench, John told me he had seen Jussi arrive at Chantry Flats, but he didn’t know when or if he had left the aid station. Lots of runners drop at Chantry Flats, but it was hard to imagine Jussi dropping anywhere. I imagined him stoically climbing Upper Winter Creek en route to finish 29.
  My own cushion against the cut offs had continued to shrink and I was worried. John was calm, in his element. He would go on for his fourth consecutive finish, all accomplished using what he calls “finisher’s pace.”  John told me that his three AC finishes were between 32:21 and 32:29 and I asked him how we were doing and he replied “if you leave Sam Merrill by 10:15, you’ll finish the race.” He also mentioned that he usually leaves the bench by 6:00am. My watch read 6:23. This got me up off the bench, and I asked one more question as I headed up the ridge before the long downhill to the next aid station: What time to we need to be in Idlehour?
  “I don’t know, I never pay attention to time at Idlehour.”

  On Friday morning, Ken, Jeremy, Darrell and I rolled into Wrightwood, put our drop bags in the correct piles, and went to the Evergreen café to eat: I had the same dish I ate in 2014 before the race: potatoes and 3 eggs sunny side up. After breakfast we went to where we would be sleeping at Mark and Mary Ann’s house. Mark and Mary had three young girls between the ages of 3 and 6 running around, which provided a beautiful contrast to four nervous dudes unable to think or talk about much else besides a race which had been on our calendars for 365 days. The girls showed me their rabbit, their current hamster, and we visited the grave of their dead hamster in the far corner of their backyard.

The four dudes:

Ken: For Ken, it was his first 100 mile race. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, as he is a tall string bean, but he used to be a big dude. Now he was an ultrarunner being coached by Angeles Crest Legend, Tommy Nielsen. He seemed to be nervously harboring some doubts: not unreasonable considering that AC routinely spits out about 50% of those that start the race. He had finished a 50k (2016 Mt. Disappointment and a 50 mile, the 2016 Sean O Brien). That was it.

Darrell: Jeremy told me that Darrell was the fastest of the bunch, but he had gone out to Leadville last year for his first 100 mile attempt and ran himself into a hole chasing the 25 hour buckle. He was here to run smart, finish, and get that DNF monkey off his back.

Jeremy: Jeremy was a sub-three hour marathoner who I cajoled into running the 2013 Ray Miller 50k which was scheduled the day before he had signed up to race the Surf-City Marathon. He finished Ray Miller an hour in front of me on half-marathon training, and he’s only gotten faster since. (We both stumbled through the Surf-City Half for respective slowest half marathon ever the following morning--not a recommended double.) His first AC yielded him a First Sunrise buckle, and he had gone out to Leadville in 2016 and was on sub-25 pace most of the day until his legs failed him and he finished in just over 25. He was here at the 30th running of Angeles Crest to run sub 24 and had done the training to do it.

Me: In 2014 I had run the AC 100 as my first 100. It had gone beautifully, and despite the sleep monster visiting me on the climb up to Dead Man’s Bench on Winter Creek, I had a magical run between Chilao and Chantry, and managed to finish strong after Sam Merrill. 30:55. The dream for 2017 was sub-30 but I really just wanted a finish that was not too close to the cut offs. My only other 100 miler had been the 2015 Bighorn, which had just about done me in. I walked every step of the last five miles to finish in 33:10. At the finish I wrapped myself up in the finisher’s blanket and fell asleep. When I woke up I was filled with doubts about my ability to run 100 miles and I began to wonder if my 2014 AC finish had been a fluke.

Heading down from Baden Powell thinking a pack wouldn't be such a horrible idea      Photo: please let me know so I can give credit....

  As I headed up the “Hal Winton Bypass” above the bench, I came across Naomi Ruiz. I had briefly been introduced to Naomi 25 hours earlier, and like most AC runners, I knew her story from 2016: she had fought the cut offs all day and finished the race, but her finish was not official as she had crossed the line 12 minutes after the 33:00 hour limit. She was back this year to get it done.
  She first passed me on the long moonlit downhill after Red Box. My legs were no longer cooperating on the downhills and I was shuffling down with my headlamp off to preserve my light when I needed it (left my only extra batteries back at Shortcut). She looked fantastic and strong at that point, which was a complete contrast to what I saw now: She was stumbling up the hill and her eyes looked vacant. I tried to encourage her that we had time and just needed to get down into Idlehour and then up to Sam Merril before 10:15. She responded something unintelligible that did not inspire hope. Had she given up? Was the finish that everyone wanted to see just a dream? As Larry Gassan might have said about Naomi’s dream, or Jussi’s dream, or anyone's AC dream—The Angeles Crest 100 just doesn’t care.
  In addition to not caring, the AC course doesn’t relent: many consider Chantry Flats, the 75 mile point to be the “halfway mark.” The final 25 miles contains two of the toughest climbs on the course, and, for those at the back of the pack who will be out there a second day: more heat for the final 11 or so miles and no significant shade or cover.

  And speak of the devil, there was Larry up on the ridge, a huge camo back pack filled with lights and camera gear, walking slowly up to where he left his car on top of Mt. Wilson. Larry first ran AC  back in early 90's, including a sub-24 in '96. Up until 2015 he took black and white photos at the finish line, but then had a falling out with the Race Director and was asked to take his wares elsewhere. And so he now takes photos all night at Dead Man’s Bench. Sadly, I arrived after sunrise, so missed my photo. But of course, AC doesn’t care, so I ignored my uncooperative quad muscles and mustered some sort of run down into Idlehour.

  Vanderpot had arrived ahead of me, and he had taken off his jacket, and as I ran somewhat foolishly panicked through the aid station (I was worried about that 10:15 deadline), he commented “now this is an aid station!”  I didn’t feel like I had the extra time to enjoy the ambience of Idlehour, so I filled up with coca-cola in one bottle and water in the other and prepared for the last long climb up to Sam Merrill. The day was beginning to heat up.

Prophetic Coffee Mug at My Sister's the day before the race...

  On the climb up to Sam Merrill I caught up with Ken and his pacer and for a while we travelled together, but they slowly pulled away. When I finally arrived at the aid station there was no thought of just grabbing a coke and heading out as planned. I was hot and needed to sit down and regroup for the final push. The aid station still had ice, which seemed a small miracle. The final ten miles were all downhill and I struggled diligently to pretend I had legs to run. That mostly worked. Heading into Millard, Vanderpot caught up with me again, and we ran into the final aid station together. He sat down and began to chat with the volunteers and I kept moving. The final descent through El Prieto went surprisingly fast, and then I was on the pavement for the final miles. I looked at my watch and realized if I didn’t get lazy and walk I’d finish in just under 32 hours. And so I had a new goal and finished decently, relieved that my body was not a wreck as I knew that I would be flying in 10 hours and then heading directly to work.
  I saw John finish, coming in earlier than his scheduled 32:21-32:29. I started to drift off and then was woken by loud cheers and applause: Naomi Ruiz had rallied and was coming in for her finish that was a year in the making. Most of the crowd was on their feet.
 Ken had finished about 15 minutes before I did, and Darrell came in solid at 27:47. Jeremy missed the 24 hour buckle ( he remains two for two for the Second Sunrise buckle) with a 24:44 but still finished 13th overall, which gives some indication of the difficulty of this course. 

Happy to be done, trying not to think about flying.              Photo: Meggin

  Neither Ken, Jeremy, Darrell or I signed up for the lottery for the 2018 race. 
   Vanderpot will be there of course. Naomi was quoted as saying “two years is enough.” Jussi is a question mark. Word on the street is that when he turned in his bib at Chantry Flats he was saying a final goodbye to the Angeles Crest 100.
  But as every 100 miler knows, all of those clearly uttered “never agains” are rarely heeded. 
  Despite its status as one of the original six 100 mile races in the U.S.A., the Angeles Crest has long flown under the national radar. That may change in 2018 as Jim Walmsely is on the list of starters. Will he make the start line? Who can predict, but if he does, one can only imagine that he will be chasing one of ultrarunning’s oldest records: Jim O’brien’s 17:35 set in 1989 (on a cool day in September on a significantly different course). Most would argue that the course has changed enough to make the comparison  between 1989 and 2018 meaningless, and whether the 2018 course will be faster or slower than the original route that finished at the Rose Bowl is a question best answered by Dominic Grossman, a two time champ and six time finisher of the race (third this year) who lives on the course as it heads into the first climb.
  Larry is right, of course: AC doesn’t care. But fortunately many people do care deeply about this race, and for them, whether or not Jim makes it to the start in 2018 –and briefly thrusts the race into the spotlight-- is unimportant. Because of the work of the volunteers, the race organizers and the many folks who have made the race an important part of their lives, the AC 100 will continue to make and break dreams both big and small.
  Only a fool would make AC predictions a year in advance, but I feel confident with this one: John Vanderpot will finish the 2018 AC 100 under 32:29 for his 5th consecutive finish.
 While we were heading down into Millard at mile 95, John told me he’s going to run five and then call it a day for the Angeles Crest 100.
  I don’t believe that. He’ll be back for more, and, I hope, so will I.

1 comment:

  1. Wish we could share a beer and glow in this amazement. Well done!