2018 WTF

It has been a very long time since my last confession…oops there goes the recovering Catholic seeping out. I have been in quite a rut this year in many ways. I guess I would call it a period of transition and redefining myself. As for the running, well, not so noteworthy. The truth is that my body has felt like it is on the verge of spontaneous destruction, a true case of entropy if ever there was one. Every run feels like the wheels are going to fly off or a joint is going to skip out of socket. Mentally it has been a roller coaster ride of varying degrees of stress, with most of it borderline red-zone. Nothing short of adrenaline overdrive where no amount of meditative practices seem to alleviate it.

I finally jumped the ship of serfdom and started my own business as my state of employment was unhealthy and untenable. Things have been so much better since starting my own business after a decade of being too afraid to make the move. Still, things are a bit out of sorts. The few races that I have done have been lackluster at best. Sean O’Brien 100K in February ended up with me dropping down to the 50 miler as I couldn’t handle the high temperatures that the day brought. Southern California races seem to be a test in heat exposure year round now. The fact that I did not run another race until my annual Wild Wild West race in Lone Pine seems to highlight my state of mind. This race is always a favorite of mine due to its old school simplicity and beautiful scenery. My performance was not horrible nor was it great.

I decided to go back to San Diego in June to do the San Diego 100 mile race but this time with a slightly different approach considering the lack of motivation that I was feeling. I made a proposal to my friend Pete, who would also be running it seeking redemption from a previous DNF in this race. I proposed that we work together with the sole goal being to get one another to the finish line. Understanding that our energy levels would not be in synch throughout the day with my low points quite possibly occurring during his moments of feeling energized, we would react accordingly and provide a bit of cheerleading for one another when necessary and not allow each other to drop for any reason barring serious injury or possible organ failure. Pete seemed to be perplexed by this approach worried that he might slow me down. I assured him that there would be times during the race when I would most likely be slowing him down. The point of this little experiment was to drive on through all of the ups and downs that occur in any 100 mile endurance run and embrace the discomfort and glory of the journey together.

Looking back I have zero regrets and look at the experience as one of the highlights of my year. It was an experience that encapsulated what is most meaningful for me personally when doing these long runs. It is not only about me, but about all of the support provided by the people who selfishly boost your spirits along the way and the other runners who help to brush you off when your toe catches the tree root that you were too tired to see. Even when you are all alone out there for hours at a time you are not truly alone. You are accompanied by thoughts of your loved ones who give you incentive to finish what you started. Watching another runner progress through the course while processing through many different physical and emotional adversities is an enlightening experience.
Pete and I successfully completed our journey and I believe we are stronger having taking part in our little experiment.

Pete and I on course at SD100

Still floating on the endorphins that come with finishing a 100 mile journey Pete and I coaxed one another into signing up for the local Angeles National Forest trail race, or what used to be referred to as the Mt. Disappointment trail race. It was the inaugural 60K this year, so even though the 50K would have been more than sufficient for us I pushed for going all the way and taking in the extra 10K. I don’t think that Pete will ever forgive me for that. It was an exceptionally hot day on race day even for Southern California in July. Triple digit temperatures made for quite an oven run especially with the extra 10K out and back section being a meaty exposed climb happening in the hottest part of the day. The air quality in Southern California in the heat of the summer is quite offensive as well and on my return trip down from the out and back turn around I came upon Pete who I could tell was wishing he had stuck with the 50K course. For him to finish the race given the lung issues that had been plaguing him since San Diego was nothing short of spectacular.

My race was pretty acceptable especially considering the close proximity to San Diego and lackluster energy levels. I didn’t get too much time to feel any kind of satisfaction; however, as I woke up early Monday morning with a horrific case of food poisoning. It probably came about from some fruit that had basked in the sun for a little too long and this is always a risk with aid station food combined with a body that is run down. I have had food poisoning a couple times before and it is never fun. This bout took me down a couple notches and I really look back on it as the end of any effective training for the year. With temperatures and air quality being as offensive and stifling as they were even my pacing duties for my friend Christopher at Angeles Crest in early August and friend Johnathon at Kodiak in late August were taxing for me.

Needless to say, going into the IMTUF 100 in September I was feeling a bit of trepidation. So, I changed my approach to this race as well. I had to back out of this race in 2017 due to lack of travel funds and a not so flexible work schedule; additionally the race director was kind enough to roll my registration forward and I didn’t want to squander the chance again. I decided that I would drive to the race as opposed to flying. This enabled me to take my four-pawed training partner Tanner with me on a road trip that would make for an unforgettable adventure regardless of my performance on race day. I felt bad because Tanner does not get to run with me much in the heat of the summer and this would give us some quality time together and a bit of a respite from the heat. The most stressful part of the trip was having to leave Tanner at a kennel while I ran the race, but he was in great hands with people who knew how to love dogs from all walks of life.

IMTUF100, or the Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival, in McCall, Idaho is known for being a very difficult but stunningly beautiful 100 mile endurance run. I had been looking forward to this race for some time but I also knew that my training over the summer months had not been anywhere close to what was needed for a successful day in any 100 mile journey, especially not one that was a Hardrock qualifier. The Hardrock 100 in Colorado is considered to be one of the most difficult of the mountain ultras and so to be a Hardrock qualifier race has to show it has those things that make it worthy of such an association. I was not disappointed. This part of the country is especially breathtaking. Lots of freshwater lakes and streams with abundant fall foliage and mountainous landscape. Along with the beauty comes a raw grit that dares you to jump in and see if you have what it takes to play for a day in the dirt.

Drop bag welcome party at IMTUF

The day started with temperatures that had me not wanting to get out of my truck. This is pretty pathetic considering it was only around 30 degrees, which for someone growing up in Upstate New York is a typical fall day. But having called Southern California my home for almost 25 years now I am pretty much a shivering idiot below 45 degrees, especially with skimpy running clothes as my only defense. Eventually I worked up the courage to exit the truck and move quickly towards the start line where there was a good sized bonfire going to sooth me until it was time to start. I found myself looking forward to the start as every step forward would get me closer to being done and hopefully I would warm up. I do not think that I ever warmed up that day.

For the early portion of the race I just ran fast enough to stay warm but kept the pace dialed back to preserve my energy knowing that it was going to be a long day and certainly not going to get any easier. Overall my movement was pretty consistent and I didn’t feel horrible but also realized upon reaching the first significant climb that I did not feel so great. I remember having an “oh shit” moment thinking that if I was feeling so drained on the first climb with only 25 miles behind me how was I ever going to get through the next 75. It didn’t help that I rolled my ankle pretty good only 20 miles into the race just about the time I was starting to warm up. Things only got worse from there. I felt wiped out on the first climb and then the ensuing downhill made me question my ankle stability.

As the pain in my ankle increased and my pace began to decline the weather changed bringing on a bit of precipitation that essentially sealed the deal for me mentally. I was barely approaching the mid point of the race. My energy levels were not good and my pace was such that staying warm with the now wet conditions was a big challenge. I also realized that I was not prepared for the long, slow, wet, and cold night that lie ahead having packed “California cold weather gear” that was not going to keep me warm. All things combined I made the very difficult decision to take off my bib and receive my first ever DNF. It seemed to be the final notch in a string of events that made this year a year in which I have questioned my pursuits in this sport.

When I had signed up for the Cuyamaca 100K earlier in the year I remember thinking that it was probably foolish as it was only a few weeks after IMTUF100 and I would still be pretty worn out. Well, when Cuyamaca actually came around my logic was that I had only done about 48 miles so I could use another 62 to at least not feel so crappy about my DNF and get some closure for my race season. I also really enjoy the Cuyamaca race and felt that it would do me good to participate in it regardless of the outcome. It is always a good crowd and a beautiful course.

Turns out that the weather on race day was perfect for a day on the trails. Not freezing and not sweltering it was the kind of weather that I had been longing for all year. Even though my body was not feeling great my mood was good and it ended up being a very satisfying day and a great way to end the year’s race calendar.

I have not felt great since the race. Just continually plagued by an overall soreness and hips that feel like they are perpetually locked up. One blessing of my line of work is that I hardly ever sit down which is good because commuting to and from work has me on my assbones plenty. The downside is that working in construction is its own work out. Starting your own business in construction also means that you will be doing most of the labor yourself until you become established enough to be able to afford a couple of employees to lighten the load. So, whereas I am no longer feeling the mental stress of working for someone else, I am feeling the physical stress of wearing my bags daily like I was when I was a framer in my 20’s. Problem is, as much as I want to be in denial about it, I am not in my 20’s anymore.

As the end of 2018 draws near I have a lot to think about. How will I restructure my training and my life in such a way that I can be successful in my business and also successful in my running. These two things need to be able to coexist in such a way that I am not eternally broken and fatigued, otherwise both will suffer. In the same regard my well being has to have both. I know that I can also hop on the bike or go hiking but these don’t make me dig as deep or bring me to that point where I feel like I am literally sweating out my demons and cleansing my soul. I know that when I do not run it does not take very long for my warped frame of mind and negative self talk to start resurfacing.

I have found a true bliss and satisfaction in being able to build for people in a way that I can feel proud of and also hopefully make them happy with the end result. This is not to say that being a general contractor in Southern California is without challenges and stress. There is plenty of stress and I very much need running in my life to help me stay balanced emotionally. What I need is to find a way to tweak my running so that it is not becoming an additional source of stress. For me this may mean fewer races and more time on the trails running at whatever pace feels good for that day even if that means hiking most of the way. Being out there with Tanner makes any amount of running fun and that is what needs to be the main ingredient in my running. It is very true when it is said that when the running ceases to be fun it is time to reassess and find a new approach.

I look forward to the coming year as a year where I rediscover balance with those few things in my life that have true worth and meaning and discard those things that are hindering the achievement of this balance.

Taking down the monster

I have had some trouble getting around to writing about my recent experiences with the Mogollon Monster 100 mile endurance run . Part of me is still on the course thinking of ways that I could have gotten through it quicker. Part of me is surprised that I did as well as I did without injury. Part of me is still dreaming of northern Arizona like a boy dreaming of his first camping trip under the stars. It was a very special trip all around especially because Robin and I were able to go together and share the vibe that this place brings about. Robin has been to the area in and around Sedona before on painting trips but it was a first for me. Before this visit I had never thought much of Arizona other than thinking that it was all like Phoenix, one big hot box. Boy was I wrong.

The area where we spent our time was stunning and ruggedly beautiful. You feel at times that you have been transported back in time to the days of the old west and would not be completely caught off guard if a horse drawn stage coach rambled by.

The 8 hour drive was just short enough to make it enticing for a race. Any longer would have been a bit much and required too much precious vacation time. Tanner is proving himself to be a pretty well behaved travel companion though he still needs a good bit of work around others.

We stayed in a guest house on someone’s property in Camp Verde just 45 minutes outside of the race location in Pine. It was perfect, like having our own little house with free reign and tranquility. It was a completely stress free location which is always a plus before a race. Overall, I would say that I did not really feel too anxious about this race. I knew that it would be difficult but I was going into it with an exploratory approach only wanting to finish it to the best of my ability and see if I had the mettle to face off with a race tough enough to be a Hardrock qualifying race.

The Mogollon Monster is not necessarily challenging for its overall elevation gain or its altitude. Most of it occurs between 5000 and 8000 feet elevation and it does not have more than 20,000 feet of elevation gain. What really makes it a grinder is the terrain. I would say that maybe 30 percent of the course is truly rock free runnable terrain. Most of it is extremely rocky and some of it rocky with serious grade making it ankle rolling treacherous, especially if you suffer from ankle preoccupation syndrome like I do. This was another reason why I wanted to tackle this course. My achilles heel is not my heel but my right ankle and always has been due to injuries that it has sustained in the past that never healed properly. It has gotten much stronger but I am still constantly worried about it when on technical terrain, especially rocky downhill. So, as part of my efforts to overcome this fear, I decided it was time to throw myself into a really rocky course and see if I could get myself through it without breaking something.

It was only a 45 minute drive from where we were staying to the race start in Pine. The abrupt change in landscape as we approached Pine was truly amazing. The pine forests were extremely dense and definitely a fitting home for a samsquantch such as the Mogollon Monster .

When we arrived to the start location it was fairly calm with the usual prerace buzz in the air. One of the things that attracted me to this race was the small runner field. I tend to shy away from the larger races as I find it to be a more intimate experience running the long races with the smaller groups of runners. It also means fewer nerves buzzing. Runners before a race remind me of students before a big exam. I arrived with just enough time to place my drop bags, listen to the pre-race briefing and get myself ready. I decided to start off with two handheld water bottles having both drop bags at the centrally located Washington Park AS which I would hit three times over the course of the race at miles 20, 43, and 78. It was cool enough that I felt confident getting through the longest section of close to 10 miles from the Geronimo AS to Washington Park AS where I would put grab my hydration pack for the increasing temperatures and exposure.

Ready to start

I chose to fall into a comfortably paced group towards the front at the beginning to commence the initial climbing stage onto the rugged switchbacks of the Donahue trail which was a nice introduction to the rocky terrain that lie ahead. Soon enough I reached the first aid station at Dickerson which I ran through, not yet in need of any food or fluids. Not long after passing through this station the route began a seriously gnarly descent that slowed me down considerably. I did notice that some who had opted to bring trekking poles where able to maneuver down the rocky terrain a bit more fluidly. I have not yet used poles in a race but began to see where they could be beneficial in taking some load off of the ankles and knees. I eventually picked my way down this rocky section and got to a more runner friendly portion and arrived at the next aid station at Geronimo.

From Geronimo AS to the Washington Park AS it was almost ten miles of somewhat challenging terrain. Overall I was feeling a lot more tired than I wanted to feel this early on. Being this low this early in a long race can cause a bit of mental preoccupation along the lines of “how the hell am I going to finish this thing?!” I just did my best to hammer through the long stretch and tried to enjoy the views which were nothing short of breathtaking. It is beautiful country and I felt privileged to be able to be out there. I knew from past experience that this feeling would eventually pass and I would regroup.

When I eventually made my way into the Washington Park AS my wearied appearance was pretty apparent and the aid station volunteers were superstars in getting me taken care of. I got my hydration pack out of my drop bag and topped off my fluid supply and spent some time fueling up on some food. When you feel this drained this early in a race part of you just wants to call it a day. I told myself that I had felt this way before in previous races and gotten past it and that I would get past it again this time. I thanked the volunteers for their wonderful help and moved on out to continue my adventure.

Well, did the adventure ever continue. What started out not so gnarly soon turned into one of the gnarliest rocky climbs I have ever done. It was not that long, about half of a mile, but every step was exhausting and humbling as I tried to regain my footing and not be daunted by the steep incline that had me hunched over with my hands on my knees wondering why this “road” even existed. About ten to fifteen minutes later I found myself at the top to be greeted by the HAM radio station operators thinking about how I would later have to go down this hill and try to stay upright.

Rock chute…picture does not do it justice

The next 4.5 miles was on an improved dirt road running along the rim, appropriately name Rim Road #300. It was completely runnable; however, my legs were a bit trashed upon finishing the recent rocky climb. Eventually I was able to establish something resembling a running shuffle. I was thankful to have my buff around my neck to use as a face mask every time some local yokel decided to drive by at an absurd speed filling the air with a thick curtain of dust. Soon enough I reached the turn off that took me onto some nicer sheltered single track and into the Houston Brothers AS at mile 26. I had only run a marathon but it felt like I had done a 50 miler at this point. The shuffle down the stretch of Rim Road had allowed my legs to open up and revive a bit; however, and I was beginning to feel a slight resurgence of momentum.

I was glad to be feeling better as I made my way from Houston Brothers to the Pinchot Cabin AS as much of it was beautiful single track surrounded by ferns and lush greenery. The surroundings helped to boost my spirits as well and the fairly flat terrain allowed my legs to get a second wind. I passed numerous corrals that ranchers had most likely used when bringing cattle through in the 1800’s, the period when this area was supposedly used as a cattle grazing site by the Houston brothers. This was a very peaceful section to run. I had a good rhythm going and before I knew it I had put another 7 miles behind me and arrived at the Pinchot Cabin AS.

I was feeling good and so wanted to move out quickly and make a second stop at the Washington Park AS. I knew that after completing the next 9 miles to Washington Park I would be faced with the gnarly uphill section for the second time and I really wanted to put this section behind me. I was able to get some more good running in along the way and upon arriving to Washington Park for the second time my status was a 180 from my first arrival. One aid station volunteer remembered how I looked earlier in the morning and commented that she didn’t know what had happened between then and now, but whatever it was it was a good thing.

I topped off all of my fluids, threw back some food, and what I thought was lemon lime Gatorade but was actually a cup of pickle juice, and revved up for the second and final climb up the rock chute. Knowing what to expect always reduces the anxiety somewhat and I knew that it was only about 15 minutes of exhaustion until I would reach the top again and shuffle the same 4.5 miles down the road to take in the breathtaking views from the top of the rim. Once back at Houston Brothers AS for the second time I was looking forward to moving on to a new section of the course created to get around the section of the old course that was washed out due to fires earlier in the season. I had remembered that the course description had called for a high probability of elk sightings or wild turkey. Unfortunately, I did not see any, nor had I run into the samsquantch yet.

Reaching the Buck Springs AS at mile 56 I was tired but feeling content that I had just over half of the race behind me. The sun was setting and I often get energized with the nightfall. Over the course of the next section I did notice that I was having a lot of trouble seeing as my headlamps did not seem to be able to cut through the darkness of the surrounding forest. It was a little frustrating as I have yet to find a headlamp that I am really satisfied with. Only a couple hours into the darkness I noticed that my batteries were waning and I had forgotten to grab extras from my drop bag on my last pass through Washington Park and it was at least another 4 hours until I reached it again. I was able to scrounge up enough at the next aid station at Pinchot Cabin at mile 64 and for a little while traveled with a pack of well lit runners.

The travels from Pinchot Cabin back to Washington Park are somewhat of a blur. Much of it was spent straining to find my way in the dark with crappy headlamp and flashlight. Luckily I had gone through this way earlier in the day heading in the opposite direction and so it was recognizable. I was able to shuffle pretty good once back on the Houston Brothers section in the meadows from mile 72 to 78. Then came a good chance to stretch out as I ran out of the forest and back onto the Rim Road heading back towards the rock chute. I was grateful that all I had to do was to safely navigate down the rocks to the bottom and I would be able to put this rock slide behind me for the day. My feet were developing some pretty good hot spots at this point and it was good to pull into Washington Park and get some foot treatment to prevent full on blisters and change my shoes.

I made it into my third and final stop at the Washington Park AS right around 3 am. Feeling pretty wasted and with my feet on fire I new that the last 22 mile or so was going to be a slow trek. I could accept this because, unlike how I was feeling 50 miles earlier, I felt certain that I would cross the finish line at some point. I invested a decent amount of time here getting my feet right and refueling for the long leg ahead. I am usually pretty self sufficient on my runs and don’t often have a crew or pacer. I tend to take care of myself so when the volunteer medical staff offered to help me with my feet I had a hard time with it as I did not feel that anyone should have to subject themselves to my wretched feet especially if not getting paid to do it. Eventually I let my guard down and let them help as they were so happy to do so.

Heading out, my feet felt better, but still pretty beat up. I knew that it would be a slow 10 miles to Geronimo AS. At this point I was not in a hurry and so just kept on motoring forward. I had plenty of juice for my headlamp now, plenty of fluids and food. Things were good as I fast hiked along knowing that soon it would be light out. I was thinking that most likely someone had already crossed the finish line. My feet eventually found some equilibrium and numbed themselves up enough for me to pick up the pace in some of the more runnable sections. It was about four hours just to travel this 10 mile section as I reached Geronimo AS at mile 88 around 7 am. I was ready for the final countdown.

Just when you think that the toughest part is behind you they tell you that the next section has another tough climb in it. My first thought was, “How bad could it be?”. For the first 3 miles or so it was a relatively pleasant shuffle through the forest. Then the switchbacks started. My breathing became more labored. I made the mistake of looking up only to see another runner and his pacer off in the distance about as high above me as he was in front of me, and he was about a mile or so in front of me. Not good. Once the switchbacks started, the only way off was to get to the top. Every run from turn to turn was a grinder. All that I wanted to do was stop and take a nap and make it stop. I think it took almost an hour to go this last mile to the top. It was simply the most humbling section of the whole race for me mainly because it was happening less than 10 miles from the finish and I was already cooked. Well, you cannot go up forever, and it eventually came to an end as I reached the top and trotted along the short final flat section to the Donahue AS.

I spent just enough time here to catch my breath and regroup. As is so often stated, the volunteers said it was all downhill from there. Well, this does not mean diddly squat when the downhill is over gnarly volcanic rocks and your feet are already wasted. So, once again, I was reduced to a hobble as I headed downhill for about the next four or five miles until it bottomed out about 2 miles from the finish and I was able to regain a shuffle towards Pine.

Slowly jogging along towards the highway crossing that lie about a mile from the finish I came upon a mother and her daughters practicing their archery skills in a field. Part of me hoped that they saw me and before launching the next arrow while another part of me felt ready to be put out of my misery. I mustered up the strength to smile as I shuffled on by.

I finally reached the tunnel section where we were to cross the highway on the underside and avoid any frogger like mishaps. Emerging on the other side it is less than a mile along the road parallel to the highway though it seems like a lot longer at this point in the race and the asphalt is hard on the feet. I do my best to maintain as much of a stride as possible. Once the finish is in site the pain immediately seems to fade away and upon seeing Robin run up to the finish line to greet me and snap a photo I only feel the ultimate joy and satisfaction of completion and another successful finish. The race did not disappoint and was definitely one of the more challenging 100 mile races that I have done and also one of the most beautiful.

Crossing the finish line

I would definitely like to tackle this race again in the near future. It makes for a great September 100 mile race and the location cannot be beat. I took a little longer to finish than I had hoped but I now know where I can improve and what I need to work on. Hopefully when I come back I will actually catch a glimpse of the samsquantch.

Results can be found here .

San Diego shuffle turns to Martian sandblasting

Deciding to run the San Diego 100 mile endurance run again this year was a bit last-minute. I was going to pace my friend Pete in the race this year but when he told me that he was withdrawing due to a nagging injury I put my name on the wait list. I look forward to opportunities to get run time with Pete so I figured if I wasn’t going to pace him then I would try to get into the race and have him pace me, a win win. This all transpired in early April not too long after my finish at the Coyote Backbone 100, so I was itching for another journey. The wait-list was not too long and race director Scott Mills does a great job making sure that those who really want to run get a fair shot. So, in mid April when I found out that I would be able to run it again I was pretty happy. I was excited because this is just an awesome race and Scotty had promised me when I saw him at the CBT 100 that it would be cooler temps this year.

My recovery after the CBT100 in March was pretty quick and training was going well. I felt stronger than I have in a while. In the beginning of April I had a pretty successful finish in a road half marathon and I felt solid in my Wild Wild West 50 miler in early May, even though the WWW50 actually turned into a WWW 100K when I took a wrong turn. I have been training with a 20 lb weight vest and pushing my running out of my comfort zone in other areas; such as running in the heat or when tired, and just trying to strengthen my mental muscles that become so necessary for the 100 mile races. I definitely feel like I am getting better results, even if they are in very small increments. Improvement is improvement. I know that I need to be patient and accept the pace at which my body will adapt without injury.

Weather was definitely an improvement this year over last year for the race. Scotty had come through with his promise. What amazing powers of premonition he has. Temps were to top out in the low 80’s, much more runnable than the triple digits of last year. I was getting excited to get back on this course and see what I could do with a bit less heat and while feeling stronger.

Without fail, it seems like the week prior to a race my work evolves into this stress monster that just strains my adrenals and whittles away at my energy. This race was no different, and because the race falls on a Friday and I have to ask for Thursday and Friday off, I get the guilt trip from my boss. It does not matter that I give 110 percent when I am at work or that I make sure that everything is in place and squared away so that it is pretty much on auto pilot in my absence. I am always left feeling like I am abandoning my post in pursuit of a selfish endeavor. What my boss needs to understand is that if I did not do these races, which allow me to decompress from the daily grind, I would be quite hard to deal with at work. On top of that I never take sick days or vacations over 2 days long. So, no, I will not feel guilty. I would be a liar; however, if I said that it is easy to tune out work on the drive to the event, or the night before, or even in the first few miles of the race. That is the beauty of a 100 mile race, eventually any thoughts of work are replaced with the immediate sensations of the beauty of the course and the pain that your body is feeling.

On the morning of the race I was up at 2:30. I was staying about 45 minutes from the start in El Cajon and was shooting to be there no later than 4:30 which would give me plenty of time to check in and be stress free. My room smelled like a dirty ash tray so I had no desire to stay there longer than I needed to, but I was feeling a bit tired from a week of accumulated stress. Truth be told, I was not feeling like running and just wanted to go back to bed. Not a good sentiment on the morning of a 100 mile run. I knew that this feeling would pass once I got some miles behind me and some dirt on my shoes.

I arrived a bit after 4:30 with plenty of parking and time to do what I needed to do. I got my bib and put my drop bags in their proper locations and began getting myself in the right mental state. The plan was that Pete would come down to meet me on the course sometime after noon and then crew me when he could up until around mile 80 or Penny Pines 2, where he would jump in and haul my ass to the finish line. I was going to leave his pacer bib and other incidentals in the car and the car key hidden so that he would have access to it when he arrived. I had told Pete that I would put the car key into a magnetic hide a key box under the rear chassis. Unfortunately, being a loaner car, the key came secured to a key label and key fob that I was unable to disassemble and therefore unable to fit into the hide a key box. I tried to wrap duct tape around the keys to stick in the spot underneath that we had agreed upon, but in the process had pushed the alarm on the key fob. Let me just say that the duct tape I was using was some strong shit, because trying to get it off was almost impossible. Meanwhile the car alarm is going off and screwing with everyone else’s mental calm. I finally got it off and stopped the annoying alarm. Ahhhh, quiet once more. Luckily it was dark and I could not make out all of the angry stares. I decided to just hide it behind the little door of the gas tank and send Pete a text informing him of the last minute change.

Soon enough it was time for the stroll over to the starting line and the corral of nervous jittery runners chomping at the bit to exit the gate and get the party started. Scotty gave us some last minute words of advice and then it was 3,2,1, and go time.

The beginning of the course funnels everyone into a serious single track rut that crosses a meadow away from the lake. Right off the bat I tried to get a spot in the first group so that I wasn’t in the rear with the caboose. Then the confusion starts. The trail comes to a Y where there are ribbons straight ahead and ribbons to the left. As we continue straight a photographer over to the left of the Y is yelling emphatically that we are going the wrong way and that we should be running to the left towards him. He seems very confident in his commands and so the front lot of us heads towards him. Meanwhile those that were behind us continue straight as we had been doing. Well, now we have two separate races going on and quickly realize that we had been correct before and should have kept going straight. Not a huge deal this early on in the race, but getting stuck midway back in the conga line is a bit of a bummer. Most of us put in the extra effort to work to the side and get back up to the front.

Eventually I find a sweet spot and fall into a pace that suits me as I begin the first climb of the day to Pasa Picacho. It is always a struggle for me to reel in the competitive drive and run my own race. I get a bit antsy when people pass me. I have to constantly remind myself that overall consistency will prevail over early unbridled surges and wasted energy. I pulled into the first aid station about 4 minutes before my goal time of 7:20 and ran through, not needing anything to eat or drink at this point. It was on to the Chambers AS which, similar to the first leg, was about half up and half down but totally runnable. I slowed my pace down just a notch trying to keep my reserves in tact. In a little under an hour I was pulling into the Chambers mile 12.5 checkpoint for a quick topping off of fluids and back out towards the first of two Sunrise AS stops.

Not too much elevation gain on the 8.5 mile leg to Sunrise AS so I was able to keep my pace fairly smooth and enjoy the beautiful view as I hopped onto the PCT around mile 19. This was the point at which I started tanking from the heat last year. Not so this year as I pulled into Sunrise about five minutes quicker than my goal time. I knew well what lie ahead as Pete and I usually train on the section from Pioneer Mail through the Noble Canyon climb up to Penny Pines. This was where I would need to be patient and smart about my pace and energy reserves. I definitely feel that this section down and out of Noble Canyon is the crux of the whole race, especially if temperatures are above normal. This year temps were ideal, but even as such, the section through Noble Canyon with its raw exposure drains you of your hydration quite rapidly.

I made good time into Pioneer Mail and had a cool refreshing electrolyte frozen treat and made my way up to the road crossing. I ran into Tim Christoni on the way out as he was there crewing for Andy Kumeda. I hopped onto the trail on the other side of the highway and began heading down to Pine Creek AS, the lowest point of the whole course at about 3800 feet. Although there is over 2000 feet of elevation loss in this 8 mile section, it is mostly technical and rocky. This is where I am most vulnerable and get the most frustrated as my ability to efficiently do the dance over rocks downhill is nothing to boast about. I am overly cautious having had ongoing problems with an old ankle injury that continues to plague me and would rather take it slow than hobble to the next aid station and possible not finish.

As I made my way onto the fire road section in the last mile or so I could tell that the exposed section of the course was starting to have its way with some who were not acclimated to summer yet. One tough thing about this race is that it takes place in early June which, depending on where you are from, is not much time to prepare yourself for the heat and exposure that the course often throws at you. Even if the temperatures are reasonable, it is very dry and the sun quite intense. I was able to get a good kick on the last downhill down Pine Creek fire road as I hoofed it into the aid station, exchanging greetings with RD Scotty Mills as he was out scouting the section.

Knowing the I had the 7-8 mile climb up to Penny Pines next, I wanted to fill my pack reservoir as a water back up. When I had run through this section with Pete a three weeks ago for training I had discovered that my preferred pack bladder had a leak in it when the back of my shorts began to feel like wet swim trunks. I brought my fairly new bladder not thinking to test it before I left assuming that it would be fine since I had hardly used it. Turns out that it was not fine, and as soon as it was filled it became apparent that it had a pin hole in the bottom rendering it useless for hydration. I decided to just fill it with ice which would at least provide me with cooling, and once again, the wet swim trunk feel. Being wet was a good thing on this climb though.

I made my way out the aid station and on to the Noble Canyon trail for what I feel is probably the toughest section of the course. I wanted to just run what was runnable and power hike the rest maintaining my energy rather than trying to break any speed records. When I finished this section last year I came close to dropping out as the heat and climb had taken its toll on me. I definitely wanted to feel better going into Penny Pines this year. I also wanted to take in some of the beauty of this section. Part of it parallels sections of a creek and mini waterfalls that were still flowing well this year with the good rain season. It felt good to stop for a moment and soak my hat and buff in the cool flowing water and just take notice of the gorgeous surroundings and enjoy rare moments of shade. Too often in these races I just lower my head and grunt my way forward without taking the time to acknowledge the environment that draws me to trail running to begin with. I have found that slowing down to take it all in along the way actually works in my favor because it helps to refresh my mental state, which becomes the real deciding factor late in the race.

Before I knew it I was working my way up to the top and picked up the pace a bit shuffling into the aid station at Penny Pines feeling pretty good. This occurs at mile 43 and my goal was to get here at around 2:30 pm. I made it at 2:39. Pretty good considering last year it took me almost two hours longer. It seemed much more relaxed at this aid station this year. Last year it resembled more of a triage center with the a lot more people succumbing to the hot temperatures. I tried to get what I needed and head out without too much delay wanting to breach the halfway mark under ten and half hours.

After Penny Pines was behind me my focus was on getting down to Cibbets Flat at mile 64 as quickly as possible and definitely before dark. This is a downhill section with over 2000 feet of elevation loss in 9 miles with lots of rocks and overgrown sections. The sooner I reached Cibbets and turned around to head back up the better. I was about 20-30 minutes behind where I had hoped to be at this point and did not want this spread to grow too much and fall short of my ultimate goal which was to finish in under 24 hours, a goal that had eluded me on all previous 100 mile races so far.

On the 5 mile section from Penny Pines to Meadows I was in a bit of a funk. It seems that the miles between 40 and 50 in 100 milers is often an area where I hit a rough patch. My body is trying to regroup and recharge for the second half. I just allowed myself to recharge and hiked most of the way into the Meadows AS at mile 49. I was already feeling better as I put Meadows behind me and headed on to Red Tailed Roost knowing that I was about to roll past the half way mark and in good time. I was able to do the first fifty miles of the course in just under 9 hours 20 minutes. Not too shabby for me.

It was only 10 kilometers to Red Tail roost with about 1000 feet of climbing. I felt good and was able to keep on pace and within twenty minutes of my goal split times. My spirits were high. I had met up with my buddy Pete at Meadows and this had helped to elevate my mood. I don’t always have a crew and pacer. I find it can often be more stressful for me. However, when it is the right person it definitely serves as an advantage when you are in the dumps. Just before 5:30 I climbed up to Red Tail roost and met up with Pete again for a little pep talk as I made my way down to Cibbets Flat. For me this is the second most important section of the race. It is a section where you definitely want the advantage of daylight for as much of the out and back as possible. I made quick of the Red Tail Roost AS and off I went with heightened focus for the next 9 miles. I had just about an hour and a half to go 9 miles of somewhat technical but runnable terrain. It would be close.

As I headed out and down, only about a mile into the leg I saw the lead runner, Kris Brown, on his way back up with his pacer. He was looking fresh and fast and making good time. I was actually shocked to see him already at this point. Not five minutes behind him was the second leader and his pacer. He was looking a bit worn but definitely in the chase. I moved on for quite some time before I saw another runner on the return. I was seeming like a two person race at that point.

I moved as quickly and efficiently as I could over this section wanting to make good time but not do anything foolish like turn my ankle or do a superman into an agave patch. I was feeling good and within reach of making my goal or at least coming close. When I finally reached the fire road that was within a mile of the aid station I was able to really open up and found my legs charged up enough to clock under 8 minute mile pace into the aid station. I missed my goal by about 20 minutes, but still felt great knowing that I would be able to do a decent amount of the climb back up before headlamp time. Counting the return runners on the way down I was finding myself in the top ten. This also had me pretty pumped up. It would not last, but it was nice for the moment.

In hindsight, I probably could have spent a bit less time in the Cibbets Flat AS chatting, but that’s what happens when you feel good. Soon enough I made my way back out alongside my friend Edward Wang and his runner Dongyang Li. We moved along together for a bit talking about the fatass 100 miler that he was creating and other adventures. At some point I moved forward to pick up the pace and make use of the remaining daylight. Everything slows down once the headlamp goes on. Eventually Edward and Dongyang would pass me and so it goes. It was about the time that the lights went out, headlamps went on, and the masses poured downhill as I scrambled uphill that my pace began to falter. This section is difficult with the out and back as there is not much room for runners to pass one another. I rolled into Dale’s Kitchen right around 9:30 right after Edward and Dongyang and began to feel my second low patch coming on. I was not to see Pete again after Cibbets until I reached Penny Pines 2 at mile 80 where he would jump in and pace me. It was only another 3.5 miles or so from Dale’s Kitchen to Todd’s Cabin, but it would seem like 10 miles.

When I left Dale’s Kitchen I suddenly felt like I had no energy and just wanted to lie on a log and take a nap. On top of that the wind was starting to really pick up and this was drying out my eyes and making it difficult to see the terrain. I probably jammed my big toe about 20 times just over the course of the next 3 miles and I was getting frustrated. I was passed by a couple runners and this did not help lift my spirits. It took just over an hour to traverse this relatively short leg and I began to worry about maintaining the pace necessary to finish by 6 am. The good thing was that I would be meeting up with Pete in five miles at Penny Pines.

Before the race I had given Pete strict instructions to do what it took to get me to the finish line in under 24 hours. If this meant going drill instructor on my ass, so be it. I think that Pete knew that he had a project on his hands when he saw me do the drunk walk with crazy eyes into Penny Pines just after midnight. The great thing about Pete is that he is a problem solver and he would figure out a way to get this problem child to the finish on time and in one piece. It would not be easy.

After some battery changing, eyedrops, and streams of profanity flowing from my mouth about the ridiculous wind and not being able to see; we made out way out and onto the PCT for the adventure of a lifetime. Imagine placing yourself into a wind tunnel chamber where you are getting blasted with 40-50 mph winds along with handfuls of sand and debris. That is pretty much what it was like for the next 20 miles. Pete likened it to a Martian dust storm. I honestly have never experienced anything quite like it since being exposed to winter sandstorms in the deserts of the Middle East. It was difficult enough to move forward without being blown over let alone trying to do it at a decent pace. Though it was only 4 miles between Penny Pines and Pioneer Mail, it took almost an hour and a half to cover the distance. By the time we got there I was thoroughly humbled, exhausted, and ready to toss in the towel.

With a bit of cold ginger ale and brownies I routed myself up and forward back into the sandblast chamber. Not too long after heading out I was doing the zombie shuffle with eyes 80 percent closed and half asleep when I was awoken by Pete slamming into the side of me. I guess that he had been blown mid stride in my direction. It sure got my attention and served well to jolt me back to life. The idea of being blown over the cliff and down to the desert floor below snapped me out of my trance and I started to fiercely focus on my stride and increasing my pace as much as possible. On top of my extreme exhaustion I noticed that the back of my heel had a massive blister on it that screamed at me with every step. I realized that the only way to end the sandblasting was to get to the finish as quickly as I could mobilize myself. There was only one more visit to the Sunrise AS between me and the finish line. Best to knock it out as fast as possible.

The trek of just over 7 miles to Sunrise was mostly just a fast shuffle. My quads were spent. Any downhill hurt, uphill hurt my blister, and it seemed that I could not keep my feet high enough on the flat sections to miss the numerous rocks waiting to bash my big toe that I was about to amputate at this point. I could sense Pete’s concern every time that he would stop ahead of me to glance back and see if I was still upright. Being a pacer you need to have the patience of a saint but also the firmness of a church school nun if you are going to successfully get your runner home. Pete was being patient but he knew just when to put on the drill instructor hat.

It took 2 hours to cover the 7 miles to Sunrise. Being the last aid station and just 9 miles to the finish line was exciting, but I could not seem to muster up the excitement that would be required to meet my goal time. To make matters worse, my watch was telling me that less time had elapsed than really had and so I thought that even if I kept up the pathetic shuffle that I had been doing, I would probably still make it by 6 am. Pete knew the truth and he knew that unless he opened up the emergency can of kick ass, I was not going to make it.

So, about a mile into the final stretch, when he sternly told me that I needed to change gears and run this section, my first thought was that I was too tired and in too much pain. My second thought was that this was why I asked Pete to join me on this journey and I did not want to let him down or make him regret joining me. I decided that I had nothing to lose at this point and so began to pick up the pace to the closest thing resembling slogging. I pushed my body as fast as my muscle fibers would allow just short of throwing something out of socket. Eventually, it became a bit more rhythmic and sustainable. I had short bits of relapse where I had to walk, but for the most part was able to push, and before I knew it we found ourselves coming upon the meadow where I had started less than 24 hours ago. Yes, I was going to make it under 24 hours. I could see the chute and I knew then that my goal was about to become a reality. I also realized that we were no longer getting sandblasted which was nice.

As we made our way up the final little climb to the finish I could sense Pete’s relief and I worked up just enough energy to break into a healthy stride across the finish line. To say that I was ecstatic would be an understatement. I was so tired that it was hard for my face to show any emotion. When I turned around to look at the clock, it took a couple seconds to register that I had only had about 20 minutes to spare where my watch’s elapsed time reading had had me thinking I had an hour more than that. That is when I gave Pete a giant bear hug knowing with full certainty that without his final push I never would have achieved my goal.

This race has developed into quite a special event for me. Not only is it a beautiful and challenging course run by an amazing race director with stellar volunteers, it is a race that remains unpredictable. As the RD Scotty Mills says, it is “sneaky hard”. On paper it may not look exceptionally challenging if you just look at the elevation gain or profile. Then, when you get out there, and it unfolds you are constantly working to stay on your feet and react sensibly to whatever it throws at you; all while enveloped in a magical setting. I do plan on making this one of the races that I keep coming back to.

In the end I came in at 23:41:59 and in 20th place. One of my best performances yet, but as always, I found areas that need improvement. Full results can be found at Ultrasignup or you can follow my journey on Strava.

Tripping over the devil’s gnarly backbone under the not so pale moonlight

Traveling from Will Rogers State Park to the Ray Miller trailhead via the Backbone trail system is something that everyone should experience. It is a most breathtaking and raw exposure to the beauty that exists in the midst of the chronic chaos that is Los Angeles. It exhibits all that helps me to come to terms with my usual daily experience working and living here. I would wager that most who do not live in Southern California, and even many who do live here, have no idea how much beauty can be unveiled on the many trails that are right here in our backyard. I decided to get a crash course on the Backbone trail this past Saturday with the Coyote Cohorts sponsored Coyote Backbone Trail ultra endurance 100 miler .

I have run on portions of this course before, having done the Sean O’Brien 100K and the Ray Miller 50 miler, so I had a sense of what I was getting into. That being said, there are always elements that are out of your control and force you to change your game plan come race day. The weather leading up to race week had been wet and cold. Race day, not so much. A hot 100 miler is no fun without a bit of time to acclimate. Another factor that made this race quite a challenge for me was the rocky terrain. I was still nursing some extensor tendonitis on the top of my right ankle and all of the loose rock and dried up mud ruts really did not help.

The first 30 miles of the course went fairly well and at a decent clip. The 68 milers and the hundred milers all started together so I kept a moderate distance back from the lead pack with Jeff Browning leading the pack of about 5-6 . I fell back to a comfortable spot in the top 10-15 runners. I got to run for a bit with my friend Johnathon Craig and had the distinct honor of being in the proximity of ultrarunning rockstar Darcy Piceau for a very brief period of time. I felt great coming through Trippett Ranch at mile 11.5 and not too bad upon arriving at Stunt Road around mile 18. It wasn’t too hot at this point but there was a good amount of humidity as my dripping shirt and hat affirmed. It was on the rocky descent down to Piuma that the trail began to have its way with my ankle. I could not maintain much in the way of consistency, trying to tip toe around the loose boulders strewn about everywhere. My energy was good when I reached the Piuma trailhead and started the climb up to Corral Canyon and then the heat started to set in as I ground my way up the exposed fire road to Corral Canyon.

This climb is not too bad when it is in the beginning of a race, as it is with Sean O’Brien, but after about 25 miles of running I just power hiked up most of it. I was not too far off of my expected arrival time as I scrambled over the hard sandstone formations into the aid station and felt decent in terms of energy. That was about to change.

After pulling out of the Corral Canyon AS I felt flat. I took in mostly fruit and fluids as I new that I was getting dehydrated from all of the sweating. Due to the heat; however, the contents in my stomach were just sloshing around as my body’s main focus was on cooling my jets, not on digestion. So every time I tried to pick up the pace, the sloshy gut made it too uncomfortable and I was reduced to a fast hike. I finally gave into the situation and decided to let my body stablilize itself. This took some time as it was mostly a fast hike pace through Kanan Dume Road and into the Encinal Canyon Aid Station at mile 43.4. I still arrived here right around 45 minutes past my desired arrival time of 2:45, so things were not a total disaster. I was also starting to break out of my slump and began to feel energized again.

I left Encinal Canyon AS feeling better and more positive as I was soon to pass into the halfway point of my little adventure. Getting over the midway hump of a 100 mile distance is a huge mental plus for me. I was able to hit the 50 mile mark somewhere around 11 hours which was not too bad considering the slow pace I had been moving for a good amount of the last twelve miles. I crossed Yerba Buena Road, where they had been kind enough to stash some more water due to the temperatures and length of this leg. I refilled my handhelds and began climbing up to Sandstone Peak and the Mishe Mokwa AS.

It was just about 5:30 as I pulled into here and I have to say I was looking forward to the sun’s absence at this point and the subsequent cooler nighttime temperatures. Unfortunately, the first leg in the darkness was a gnarly ankle wrenching downhill for about six miles into Danielson Ranch. It was a very popular section with a lot of hikers still out playing in the massive rock formations. Maybe they were all just out to see the monolithic butt crack rock in all of its splendor under the full moon. I am sure that they wondered who the crazy lunatic was as I passed cursing and kicking rocks and tripping my way down the descent.

After a long and painful two hours or so I finally made it into Danielson Ranch which was to be the hub of activity for the next three out and back loops making up around 33 miles of nightime entertainment. I spent some time getting my foot tended to as it was developing some serious hot spots from all of the foot grinding against the rocks and I wanted to nip it in the bud before they became full on blisters. It was worth the wait.

Expert foot care at Danielson Ranch, photo by AS Captain extraordinaire Mauricio Puerto

There were 3 loops out of Danielson Ranch AS, with the first loop being a relatively short 7.2 mile loop. Though it was short it was not easy. Much of it was extremely overgrown and difficult to navigate. When I inquired about the whereabouts of my friend Johnathon who had been running strong all day long, I was dismayed to find out that he had gotten pretty turned around on loop 1 and was still not back yet. He ended up having to redo it and unfortunately lost so much time that he decided to settle for the 68 mile finish, though actually had put in about 80 miles that day.

The first loop was aptly made up of trails called 2 Foxes trail and Coyote trail. The Coyote trail looked as if coyotes were they only thing that had made their way through the tall waist high grasses in this area. Luckily, another runner and eventual second place finisher, Andrew Glaze, had warned me as he was departing for loop 2 that this section was really overgrown so I had some expectation of what I would find. This gave me the confidence boost that I needed each time I wondered if I was on the right path. I was also able to discern that it had recently been tamped down by human feet and not just coyote paws.

After a long two hour tour through the tall grasses and over rutty trails I arrived back to the Danielson Ranch station to regroup and begin my next adventure loop. This one was a bit longer at roughly 11 miles. Up to this point I was in third place but not by more than 15 minutes or so. I went into the second loop earnestly trying to maintain my placement while trying to ignore the pain of my blistered foot and sudden exhaustion. This loop was not overly difficult and other than everything aching and being tired I was able to consistently push forward. There was a moderate climb up the Serrano Canyon trail and then down to the Big Sycamore Canyon trail and fire road that brought me down to sea level and within earshot of the pounding waves on the beach near the Big Sycamore Campground. This was the turn around point where I threw back some food and made a quick exit as I saw Derrick Carr and his pacer, the legendary Scotty Mills, were right on my heels.

As I was trotting back down the fire road away from the aid station three of the volunteers told me that I was to take a left off of the fire road about 300 yards ahead where they had put stone markers. I just said “Okay, thanks” as I passed, too tired to really process this directive. Then, when I got there, I looked at my turn by turn directions closely and saw that these said I was supposed to take the Big Sycamore Canyon fire road all the way back to Danielson Ranch. Why did these guys tell me to take a left and up Overlook? I thought it plausible that there had been a course change radioed in given some of the confusion with these loops already. So, after standing there thinking for a couple minutes I took the left up the switchbacks up the Fireline trail towards the Overlook trail. After about a mile up I stopped and questioned my choice. I did not see how this was going to get me back to Danielson Ranch. Looking back down towards the Sycamore Canyon fire road I did not see any headlamps coming up behind me. As I stood there looking down I saw what was most likely Derrick and Scotty stopped momentarily at the junction where I had come up, and then watched as they continued down the fireroad. It was at this point that my heart sank as I knew then that I should have gone with my gut and followed my turn by turn directions and ignored the directions of the volunteers. I had just cost myself an additional 2 miles and lost my third place spot.

With a bit of a sour mental state at this point all I could do was get back down to the fireroad as quickly as possible and try to shuffle at a sustainable pace back to Danielson and hopefully close the gap a bit. After 75 miles this is not so easy to do as my legs felt tired even on a flat fire road.

When I got back to Danielson Ranch AS I realized that during my extra 2 mile up and down I had been passed by two other racers and now was in fifth and Derrick and Scotty were about 20 minutes ahead of me. What a bummer. I was too tired to think about running them down so I just swallowed my bitter pill and took some time fueling up, changing headlamps, and preparing myself for the aptly named “Mother of all Loops”. Loop 3 was the longest at around 15 miles with some climbs, one that would jackknife back up from the beach and leave me completely sapped.

As I pulled out of Danielson for the 3rd loop I remembered that I had also lost an hour with the daylight savings time switch so I was soon to get a nice sunrise which is always energizing after a long night. I did want to push a bit though so as to try and finish this loop before it got too toasty.

Well, as was to be expected, there was nothing quick about this loop. In the first 3 miles I was faced with trudging up Hell Hill, soon after followed by a nice little climb up Magu Peak. Once there we were to hike up to the flag where we were to find a hole punch and punch our bib to prove that we had made the climb. When I arrived I realized that I had closed the gap and was now caught up to Derrick and Scotty, who informed me that they had searched high and low for a hole punch but could not find it. So, we agreed to vouch for one another at the next aid station. I continued up to the flag pole and just soaked it in in all of its beauty as it stoically withstood the winds and flapped under the full moonlight. It was definitely worth the climb.

After a couple minutes of enjoying the rewards of my climb I headed back down and took a hard right turn towards the Chumash trail to the next aid station which was at sea level. This descent down the Chumash trail off of Magu Peak trail to the beach is only about a half of a mile; however, with about 800 feet elevation change and quite rutty. Every time that I have been on this section it seems it is a popular destination for people looking for a nice early morning sunrise challenge, and that it is. It hurt like hell climbing down and hurt like hell going back up. Boy was I glad when I resurfaced on top. On the way up I saw that someone had lost the contents of there stomach in the effort. Quite understandable.

I met up with Derrick and Scotty at the top and took a moment to take a couple pictures of the two of them capturing their efforts on this epic journey as the sun was about to make its entrance. Scotty was kind enough to take a couple pictures of me as well. I think that the expression on my face makes my exhaustion very apparent.

The three of us set out back down the La Jolla Valley loop trail crossing the La Jolla Valley Nature Preserve towards the next aid station which was in about 4 miles. It felt at this point as if the worst was behind us. Legs were spent but the terrain was moderate and mostly minor ups and downs. We made a fairly quick pass through the aid station at the Cross Roads Junction and headed down the switchbacks back to Danielson Ranch for one last time. Another faux sense of relieve heading down as is soon revealed it self as a rutty rocky downhill that did not allow me to make up any time. I fell back a bit from Derrick and Scotty and tried to have patience with my ankles inability to handle much more technical ankle torquing.

The three of us pulled into Danielson Ranch for one last time right around 8 am. We regrouped, refueled, and promptly made our way back out and down the fire road for the finish. We would retrace our steps back up the switchbacks of the Wood trail up to the Overlook Trail to the Backbone trail junction and on down the Ray Miller trail looking down on the ocean. As we ran down we were enveloped in the thick ocean mist and it was a refreshing relief from the heat of the previous day. I was not able to fly down the descent but made my way as quickly as possible, feeling recharged by the beauty and the sense that I was very near to being at my journey’s end. A journey that had taken me to some hefty lows and also exposed me to much raw beauty that I will take with me forever.
I made my final charge down the switchbacks into the finish which was now in clear sight. Round the turn and under the clock I am done and elated in a way that only comes with these long races.

Seeing Robin there it is very difficult to keep the emotions from bubbling over as I embrace her and am reminded of the many reasons that I have the strength to finish races like these.

I finished 5th overall which was also last as all other 100 mile entrants had either dropped down to the 68 miler or did not finish. I can say that am very proud of this last place finish.

Weighed down by conflicting information fatigue

It has been a while since my last post. Lets just say my attitude lately has been pretty rotten. Training has been spotty, with some decent runs coming with the beginning of the new year. Between bouts of insomnia, stress from work, incessant feelings of negativity and an overall feeling of physical and mental exhaustion I have managed to find my running legs a few times. When my first race of the year, the Sean O’Brien 100K quickly rolled around last weekend, I was nowhere near the state of fitness that I had hoped to be in. When I signed up for the race a few months ago, I figured that I would have worked through my slump. I was able to finish but it was not a strong performance in any way. More on that race to come later.

In trying to self assess and figure out the root causes for my current state I have tried to think back to periods where my running felt better or when my general mood was better. I have read through books on ultrarunning, fitness, mental health. I have poured through internet sights on diet, fitness, ultrarunning, and anything that might relate to possible causes for my fatigue and dealing with stress.

One issue that I have considered is the Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis which I was diagnosed with four years ago when I started feeling constant fatigue. After a bunch of blood work and tests, I was told that my thyroid was compromised and not working as it should. Often it is something that is genetic or brought on by exposure to environmental triggers, such as pesticides or other toxins that we are all bombarded with on a daily basis. I was prescribed a daily dose of synthetic thyroid hormone indefinitely. I felt better for a while.

Looking back, I do believe that last summer’s three hundred mile races took me down a notch. The physical and mental stress of these races, the heat, and life in general left me in heap of burn out. I chose to pull back from running following the AC100 finish in August. I did not run for three weeks and then only slowly returned as I felt the urge. I wanted to run because it was enjoyable not because my schedule had my running a certain number of miles that day or because I had a race coming. In September my longest run was pacing my friend Johnathon for the last 50K of his 100 mile race. October and November were all by feel not wanting any pressure to run. I usually do another race in November or December to finish out the year, but feeling so drained I decided that signing up for another race was not the best remedy.

What I have discovered, not that I didn’t already suspect it, is that there is no easy answer for what is best for any one person when it comes to fitness and training. I read about elite runners who feed on cookies and cake frosting and go on to win races. Then there are those that consistently run 80- 100 mile training weeks with no injury. Some runners do best with high protein, low carb diets and some do best with diets of Fruit loops and Skittles. I have long since taken refined foods and sugar laden treats out of my diet. I do not drink alcohol. I eat lots of vegetables and fresh fruit. I stay away from anything highly processed or things that have more than 5 ingredients on the package. I generally have a high protein diet with carbohydrates coming from fresh fruit and vegetables. This diet has seemed to work for me but I still feel like something is off.

Forget finding an answer in the sea of conflicting information that exists online. Some say that all dairy and carbs are bad. Some say that milk protein is good, as long as it is the full fat kind. Some say that lots of vegetables are great, but lots of fruit is bad. Coffee great, coffee bad. Potatoes and rice bad, potatoes and rice good. Stretching fine as long as it is after the workout, stretching at any time is unnecessary and just tires out the muscles. It is all quite exhausting trying to dial in what it is that will make my body a fine tuned running machine. I know one thing, and that is to obsess over it and eat potato chips while watching another video on how to fix my thyroid will definitely not work.

Is it low testosterone? Leaky gut syndrome? Overtraining fatigue syndrome? Fried adrenals? Who the hell knows. I am not confident in my doctor’s ability to figure it out and I am tired of trying to figure it out myself. So, I am going to just take a chill pill, stop obsessing, and listen to my body and keep up with a sensible and healthy diet, sufficient sleep, and hope that soon enough my energy will increase. Hopefully by March 11th when I have my first 100 mile race of the year. Should be interesting.

Silencing the demons

My days have been a bit murky since my struggle to finish the Angeles Crest 100 in August. I was happy to have completed the California Triple Crown but could not stifle the voice in my head that kept telling me that even though I finished, the performances were far from noteworthy. This is just how my brain works. I set my sights on a new goal, the next big thing. If I fail, no big surprise, because I have always been a few steps shy of being a winner. If I succeed, it is success, but not good enough to be truly proud of. It does not matter what I accomplish, my mind finds ways to diminish any sense of self-worth that might result from the accomplishment. There is no doubt that I am my own worst enemy. When I turned my back on my parents over 20 years ago so that I might escape the constant onslaught of criticism and emotional abuse, I thought that I would begin to heal with a more peaceful mind. I was able to rebound a bit, stop numbing myself with drugs and alcohol, and feel less burdened; however, eventually it became evident that their voices of disapproval and criticism did not fade away, but instead now existed in the more familiar tone of my own voice. After almost three weeks of no running following AC100, I have very slowly begun to find the mental strength and motivation to become more consistent with my running again with any type of focus. I had pondered doing another couple of races to finish out the year but am still too mentally exhausted to think about all that goes with races (race fee, stricter training, getting time off work, travel expenses, lackluster performance…). I am enjoying my current calendar of running as I see fit and finding the fun in running again. I just do not see the point in racing again until I feel more energized and spiritually uplifted. I am currently floating around in a toxic sea of bad thoughts and misguided emotions such that I have not found myself in for quite some time now. My relationship with running has always been a positive one that gave me refuge from my acrid self-destructive tendencies. It becomes very frightening when my depressive persona takes my running and uses it against me to make me feel even more worthless. I have become obsessed with how hard it is for me to be a competitive runner. My inner voice now shouts out how much a suck and shouldn’t even bother racing with the slow times that I come away with. Nothing is sacred. Any source of enjoyment or refuge from negativity is eventually targeted and under assault from the self loathing spirit within. It is like the time when I was younger and my parents brought home an adorable puppy, which I promptly fell in love with, and then quickly snatched it away because it had worms and threw up on the carpet. The crushing and debilitating feelings that accompany my spells of depression leave me wondering why. Why get out of bed if I am destined to be mediocre in all that I do. Why try to find happiness if my nasty inner demons only wait to snatch it up like the puppy of my childhood. Why bother. If this is life…
When I find myself going down this road it is quite suffocating and overwhelming. I often catch myself in situations thinking of ways that might lead to my demise and how maybe it would be a relief to not have to wake up everyday to battle the incessant rage that burns at my core. I begin to question those very things that make life worth living. I question why anyone would want to be around my negative aura. Do people in my life really admire me or abhor me? Simple comments made by others get over analyzed and convoluted in my mind. I question whether my wife really wants to be with me, there must be others out there more capable, charming, and enjoyable to be around. How horrible it is that I cannot be happy and be the warm and compassionate person that she so deserves. As the feelings rain down upon me the rage builds, pressure builds, I become frantic and just want it all to stop once and for all. It is quite frightening. I feel out of control and at the mercy of emotions that seem to spiral out of control. I often compare it to the feeling of entering a tunnel that becomes successively more encroaching as you go further. As the walls and ceiling close in on all sides you want to turn around and run back out. Even if there was room to turn around you cannot because rabid beasts are running you down. There is only forward into the smothering, crushing darkness until you black out. There is no fresh air to catch your breath, no room even for light or positive thoughts to reach you. There is only darkness. It is at this point that you reach out in desperation for anything that will give you one last breath. When your spirit has been stretched to the snapping point and you miraculously find yourself on the other side of the hourglass able to breathe again and see more clearly, you realize that you dodged the bullet again. Regroup and find a new path to travel, a new approach on life, new ways to rediscover those bits of beauty that make life’s oppressive challenges less daunting. Breathe deep to suck in all that is wonderful and suffocate the toxic demons that thrive off of a depressed soul. Breathe deep, suck in life, exhale long and slow, expelling toxicity and death. I am not one to pick the easy path and so I choose life. As oppressive as these dark patches are, they will pass, and even if life’s gems are few and fleeting, their beauty makes life a worthwhile journey.

You take my breath away AC100

Finish captured by my patient wife Robin
Finish captured by my patient wife Robin
The hallucinations were good with this one. I have often heard of people having hallucinations when they run 100 mile races, but I have never really had it happen to me. Maybe this time it was because I was so exhausted or because I had not really been able to breathe since the race began over 18 hours ago. The first image looked like a pygmy bandit in a cowboy hat with a rifle waiting to ambush me. Nope, just a tree. Then there was the bear cub in the middle of the trail. Nope, just a stump. My eyes and brain were sending mixed messages across my neural pathways. None of it really mattered at this point. I figured it was only a matter of time before I blacked out completely from fatigue or lack of oxygen and became an obstacle in the middle of the trail for another runner to have to jump over.

I can without a doubt say that this race was the most difficult race for me to finish to date. Without question. The week leading up to the race I was finding it a bit difficult to breathe full breaths and my lungs felt constricted. I was not sure what was causing this, maybe it was related to the unhealthy air quality as a result of the Sand Fire smoke coupled with general LA summer travel smog. I did not dwell on it too much, figuring that things would open up or loosen up once I put some miles behind me. Well, just after 5 am heading out of Wrightwood and up the Acorn trail climb to the PCT, it was apparent that my breathing was going to be a potential issue. It all begins on a fairly nice climb over paved street that would normally have been a runnable stretch at an easy pace. I decided to just power hike to give my lungs a chance to catch up. When I finally reached the PCT and started on down the single track, they still did not want to give me the air I needed so I kept my running to a modest pace right around 9-10 minutes per mile. Passing was difficult at this point anyway so I just set into my spot and tried to relax.

After about 9 miles I reached the first aid station at Inspiration Point. Can’t really say I was too inspired by how I was feeling. I was just past my expected split time so I just kept going, not really needing anything to eat or drink. It was only another 4.5 miles to Vincent Gap and I tried to regroup and figure out my funk before I got there and started up Mt. Baden Powell. I still was not able to get any really decent breathing going and soon enough I was pulling into Vincent Gap to get in line to trek up the mountain with a set of lungs that were about 50 percent efficient. I topped off my fluids and set off to power hike best I could to the peak which was just over 3 miles up. I did my best to establish a rhythmic cadence and relax my breathing. Switchback after switchback my chest got tighter and tighter and my legs burned more and more with the decrease in supply of much needed oxygen to the hardworking muscle groups. I began to fall back a bit and was easy prey for the multitude of runners who began to pass by me.

I came upon my friend Alexandre, who unfortunately was also dealing with a body that did not want to race on this day. We pulled each other together and moved forward. Once over the hump, Alex regained some momentum and rolled on down the descending trail ahead of me. Though heading down now, I was still being passed by runners as I tried to regain my footing being a bit dizzy from the anaerobic climb. It would take me about half an hour to traverse the less than 3 miles downhill to the next aid station at Eagles Roost.

When I arrived at Eagles Roost I had only gone just over 28 miles of the course. I already felt wasted. I could not breathe and my spirits were decimated having fallen so far behind in such a short period of time. I had no energy or desire to keep running the race at this point. I saw Alexandre getting ready to depart and after making eye contact he asked me if I was heading out. I just shook my head in dismay as I was not sure at this point and watched him head out. I was not so sure that I wanted to go another 70 plus miles in my current state of rapid deterioration. I decided that I would get to the next aid station at Cloudburst Summit, where I had a drop bag, and call it quits. It was just over 4 miles. I could at least do that.

Things did not really turn around on my shuffle to Cloudburst, but they did not really get too much worse either. So, when I did arrive, I reconsidered the notion of dropping and decided that I did not need anything from my drop bag. I figured that I would postpone the call of shame to Robin for now and just move out and on to the next aid station. I would just try to take it section by section and reevaluate at every aid station. Was I going to die? If the answer was no then I was fine to move on to the next station. My mantra was “no chair and no phone calls”.

With a new strategy, I felt a small fraction of a tad bit better. Enough to make it to Three Points at mile 37.7 around 130 pm feeling good enough to not be consumed by the desire to drop. After eating a bit and hydrating myself I pushed on through for another leg on to the Mt. Hillyer station. This was the new section of the race resulting from the demands that we not tread through sacred environmentally fragile frog habitat. To replace the original route, there was now an out and back section of about 8 miles, 4 miles up a dusty exposed fire road up to Mt. Pacifico and back to the Mt. Hillyer aid station. I love frogs, but I do not love trekking up a hot dusty exposed fireroad at 3 in the afternoon. As I headed up I saw my friend Johnathon coming back looking like he was having a great day. I fell very happy for him as I know that he had been a bit apprehensive about his preparedness for this race.

After what seemed like eternity I rolled up to the pit stop at the top of Mt. Pacifico, rapidly reloaded my bottles, and quickly turned around for the shuffle back down. I was not even at the halfway point of the race at this point and my legs already hurt enough that a relatively slow jog was all that I could muster on the way down the hill. Getting back to Mt. Hillyer aid station I spent some time contemplating the dreaded drop again. Having just barely rolled past the halfway point of the race helped my mindset a bit. But any reassurance was clouded over by the fact that my body felt like it had already gone 80 miles or more. I told myself to just get to Chilao. I had at least some familiarization with the rest of the course having done training runs on what remained. Familiarity that gave me just enough momentum to make my way down the road to Chilao. I also new that Chilao would be a major aid station where I would get some good aid and would be easily accessible if I decided to call it quits here.

Over the next four miles I thought long and hard about why I really needed to finish this race. The obvious reason was that I just had to finish because to not finish was going to be very hard for me to live with later on. In addition there was the California Triple Crown challenge. I wouldn’t get an award for two out of three finishes. I also wanted to see Robin at the finish line. I did not want to have to borrow someones phone to call her and disrupt her whole day to drive two hours from home to come evacuate me from the side of Highway 2. Then there were all of my friends who where cheering me on. I did not want to let them down as they watched me on my journey towards the end. I had to suck it up and do what was necessary to make it to the end. I had plenty of time, at this point, even if I hiked most of the remaining miles.

So, upon reaching Chilao, I had resolved most of my funk pushing me towards a drop. I did sit with the volunteer medics for a bit to get their opinion. Though I was still having difficulty breathing, everything else seemed normal. Pain was normal for this type of activity. One of the volunteers agreed with my decision to just keep moving on and upon glancing at my USMC tattoo on my arm gave me one more shot of incentive when stating, “besides, you are a Marine, right?” I nodded my head and thought to myself, “of course I am, so what the hell is my problem?”. Off I went.

The next stretch was a long one. Just over five miles of slow slogging. It seemed that as I became more tired my breathing became more difficult and it was harder to relax. This also led to a bit of anxiety which made my chest even tighter. Quite the vicious cycle. It took over an hour and a half to make it to the Shortcut Saddle aid station. The new mental highlight was that this now placed me at just past mile 60. I was going to chew this thing apart bit by bit. Wow, was I feeling wrecked though. I spent about 10 minutes putting myself together with cold ginger ale and watermelon before heading across the highway for the dusty descent down the winding fireroad to Newcomb’s Saddle, where in about 5 miles a nice little hill was waiting for me.

The night was falling around me as I felt somewhat comforted by its onset. It made me feel sheltered in the sense that the darkness made my pathetic state less visible to others around me as I continued my death march to the finish line. I would just try to stay focused and awake as I put it all behind me step by step, mile by mile. When you are hurting so bad that a power hike is all that you have, it really takes a toll on your mental state because everything passes by so slowly. Traveling at rates of just over 3 miles every hour when you still have over 30 miles to go while it is becoming very difficult to keep your eyes open is quite a lesson in resilience and patience.

As I churned up the climb to Newcomb’s Saddle, I found it very difficult to overlook how exhausted I was. It was at this next aid station where I had my only other drop bag. Maybe this would be a good point to call it quits. I could get a ride out with someone to a point….shut the fuck up! I started getting angry with myself for entertaining such thoughts once again and pushed down harder and faster on my knees as I leveraged my way up the climb. Finally, after over two hours of the zombie shuffle, I rolled into the Newcomb’s Saddle station sometime after 10 pm.

Only one more leg to Chantry Flats AS. Just need to make it to Chantry. No way I could drop after Chantry. and my bud Pete was manning the Medic checkpoint at Idlehour so even if I showed up there almost dead, I would be in good hands.
Another long 15 minute resuscitation period here at Newcomb’s, and I made my way down the trail to the Chantry Flats aid station extravaganza. Mostly downhill but somewhat technical, I did not get much benefit from the descent as my clumsy feet tried to maneuver through the rocks that littered the path. It was a peaceful period being alone with my thoughts as I continued to fine tune my mental strategy to reach the finish line in one piece. Passing through the historical Sturtevent Camp, as I was zoned out in my thoughts, I heard a rustling in front of me as a startled fox ran in front of me, startled away from the trash it was picking through. We locked eyes and without speaking I tried to let the little fox understand that I was just passing through and did not mean to interrupt its late night snacking. I think that it understood, because not a second after a passed the snack bar trash area, it quickly returned to resume its meal.

Upon reaching the hardtop, I leaned forward for the painful grind up the drive to the Chantry parking lot. I climbed up the large steps onto the upper level and stumbled my way into the buzz of lights and energy that was the Chantry Flats aid station. As depleted as I was, it was rejuvenating to finally have reached this point and be immersed in the vibe created by all of the volunteers. I internalized as much of the energy as I could and after about 15 minutes began rambling down the road towards the next section towards the Mt. Wilson toll road that would prove to be my biggest challenge of the entire race.

It was about 10K to the top of the Upper Winter Creek Trail trail climb. I realized soon into this section of the next 9 mile leg to Idlehour that it was going to be an epic struggle. It started off quite gradually with gentle inclines eventually leading to much steeper switchbacks that had me gasping for air like a triple pack a day smoker. At the end of each switch back I had to bend over trying to catch my breath and keep from falling off the trail as my head was spinning from the resulting dizziness and lack of oxygen. I found myself looking up at each turn following the headlights of runners ahead of me as they continued climbing up wondering how I was ever going to reach the peak in the state I was in. What choice did I have. I was not going back to Chantry so I had to keep going up, even if it was only one switchback every 10 minutes. The pace was excruciatingly slow. I just wanted to lay my body down on a boulder and pass out. Eventually, after about two and half hours of crawling I found my way to the dead man’s bench where another runner and his pacer already occupied the seat of exhaustion. I just kept moving through, knowing that I still had another 3 miles to any aid. I felt a sense of desperation. This climb had taken so much out of me and my breathing was such a struggle that I just wanted to get to Idlehour as quickly as I could before I ended up face down in the dirt.

I continued on some more mellow flat and gentle downhill sections before eventually reaching the point at which I had to revisit some more climbing. I saw the lights above me and felt a sense of dismay knowing that I was about to feel like a fish on land once again gasping for air. Just after 430 in the morning, about 4 hours after leaving Chantry behind me, I dragged myself into the Idlehour aid station, where I met up with Pete for some much needed medical attention. I explained to Pete and another medical volunteer the trouble that I had been having with my breathing all day and they asked my if I had any symptoms that might indicate bigger issues, such as localized pain in chest, head, or extremities. I had none of this. They checked heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen levels. All good. Other then the fact that I felt like I was sucking air through a coffee stirrer, I was fine. Pete offered me an antihistamine tablet, which I figured couldn’t make things any worse, so I took it figuring maybe this was allergy related. After some reasoning and a good pep talk from Pete, and my longest aid station stay of the race; I decided to heed Pete’s advice and wrap this thing up. I stumbled out of Idlehour, just past 5 am , knowing that I could finish this thing in time no matter what. It was not going to be pretty though.

The ensuing leg to Sam Merill was waiting for me with one more punch to the diaphragm. It was only a little over 5 miles, but the last 3 miles was an uphill grind up to the aid station. It was certainly not as debilitating as the climb up to Idlehour had been for me, and I had the solace of knowing that upon completion of this last major hump, I was going home.

The sun was coming out and my spirits were lifted a bit with the renewed clarity the comes with breaking free from the myopic vision of a headlamp. I could tell it was going to be a bit warmer than the day before. Another reason to get er done as quickly as possible. I focused on my limited breathing trying to fill my lungs as much as possible as I continued grinding my way up to the Sam Merill station. It was obvious that I was running on fumes. the roughly 7 mile leg from Idlehour to Sam Merill took me just over two hours. I was greeted at the top by a volunteer in costume with clown horn and was not sure if I was still hallucinating or if he was for real. I did know that the watermelon I was shoving into my mouth was real. I stood gazing down at what I had just traveled up from and decided it was time to shove off. On to Millard Campground station, the final stop before getting home to the finish line.

Usually, at this point in a 100 mile race, the certainly and reality of the finish is tangible. The sense of getting to the finish in this race was never truly apparent, regardless of how many miles I put behind me. I was so exhausted that I felt collapse was a possibility at any point, even if less than a mile from completion. So, although I began to feel a sense of relief that the toughest parts were behind me, I kept intent focus on breathing and staying focused on moving forward. The fact that it took me over two hours to go just over six miles underscores how drained I was in this final stretch to Millard, which was not particularly challenging, other than being a bit of an ankle twister. As I got closer, I began encountering more hikers, many with words of encouragement that helped to boost my weary spirit. At long last,I reached the Millard aid station, where I quickly topped off my bottles and continued on to the finish. It was only about 4 miles or so, but at this pace I knew it was going to be a struggle to the very end.

There were a good handful of runners and pacers that were finding some more energy; enough so that they could utilize the excitement of being close to the end and pick up pace into the finish. I tried and found nothing. It was a hike to the end. When I finally got to the neighborhood streets of Altadena that would lead me to the park it took everything I had to pick up my pace to a shuffle jog. I could only sustain this for a couple of minutes before reverting back to a fast walk. Once I finally did have the park in my sights, it was just enough fuel to allow me to pick my knees up and slow jog to the park and across the grass to the finish. It was only at this point, with the banner above me, that it truly became a reality. I quickly exchanged handshakes with friends who had already finished and then finally was able to receive the healing embrace and kiss from Robin that makes everything better. All I could do was mutter that I had to get home, shower, and get horizontal as soon as possible. Never had a race taken this much out of me and never have I been so glad to be finished.

When I finished I felt like a wounded animal that just wanted to crawl in a secluded space and lick its wounds. I was a bit remiss about not being able to attend the ceremony and applaud everyone for their efforts. I just did not have it in me. I have been obsessed the last few days with my horrible performance, trying to figure out what happened. I have never had a problem with asthma or a hard time breathing before. After a visit with the doctor on Monday, I was prescribed an inhaler to provide some relieve for what I hope is just a temporary side effect of the bad air quality recently.

On the other hand, I am very satisfied with being able to finish the three races in the CTC challenge and to have had the opportunity to run the Angeles Crest 100, which has been a goal of mine for over 3 years. It was a perfect day as far as the weather goes and I hope to eventually return to see what I can do on the course with full lung capacity.