Going into the Cuyamaca 100K this past weekend I was feeling pretty good. Pacing my friend Johnathon over the last 50K of the Kodiak 100 was a very inspiring and positive experience. He posted a wonderful synopsis of his race on his Facebook page. I felt pretty good physically, not having any major injuries or issues. I was looking forward to running this distance again. I find the 100K distance to be a challenge that brings me right to the brink of the part of the 100 mile distance that requires you to start tapping the inner reserves, mentally and physically; however, you don’t have that last dark 30-35 miles looming over you.
I drove down on Friday having booked a room at the Ayres Lodge in Alpine. I got there before check in time and decided to do a little recon drive over to the course starting point. It was a gorgeous day with moderate temperatures and clear skies and I figured I would park at a trailhead a little ways from the start and do a little hike on the beginning stretch of the first loop. The race consists of 3 loops; orange, blue, and yellow, that would take the runners on legs of different sections of the park of varying degrees of difficulty. This little segment of trail was soft powder, not in any way indicative of what awaited runners on the majority of the course. I walked up to the area where the start/finish line was and where the 3 loops intersected to create a perfect drop bag point as you would hit it twice during the race. No real need for a crew with this set up. I looked around briefly, said hello to the guys prepping for the race, and returned back to my truck.
On the way back to the hotel I picked up some simple items at a local fresh foods market for a light lunch/dinner and pre-race breakfast. Alpine seemed to me a very pleasant town with a lot of little places that I wouldn’t mind checking out given more time. After checking in at the lodge I settled in, had a bit to eat and began to get my mind cleared and relaxed for the race. I often tell myself not to get too stressed out as I am rarely in a position to contend for a podium spot and instead just try to focus on doing the best that I can to establish personal gains as opposed to taking on the top contenders. I went over the course details and the expected split times that I hoped for from station to station and tried to think of any possible challenges that I should prepare myself for.
Looking at the elevation profile, the first loop jumps out at you as being the toughest due to the length and climb up Cuyamaca Peak. As it turns out, the second loop it the ass kicker. Never having run the course I was not expecting this. It was at the check-in in the morning that I had a course repeat runner tell me the real deal and was soon to find it to be very accurate.
After a bit of foam rolling and a shower I mellowed out into bedtime mode with the latest edition of Ultrarunning magazine, that had, in perfect timing, arrived in my mailbox the day prior. Always inspirational reading before a race. As is customary, I lie awake for a good bit before I eventually faded off, only to be awakened by my alarm in what seemed like a very short span of time.
As it had been stated on the website that parking was an issue I had made the decision the day before that I would park my truck at the Sweetwater trailhead parking adjacent to the East side trail portion that we would be running on. It was only about a 25 minute walk from the start. Not so bad when it is gorgeous and in the 70’s. A little different before the race when it is upper 40’s and I am wearing skimpy running shorts and a paper-thin windbreaker.
I had decided to be there for check in between 5 and 530 and so wanted to arrive at the trailhead no later than 430. Why I ended up there at 4 is a mystery to me except for the fact that I am insanely early for everything being paranoid of the unexpected event that will make me late for an event.
So, after sitting in my truck for about 40 minutes I eventually grabbed my pack and started the chilly little hike up the Highway 79 to the Camp Cuyamaca starting area. What was wonderful was that check in was in one of the camp buildings and it was nice and warm inside so I did not have to stand around shivering until the 630 start. I checked in, got by bib, and an awesome hat and shirt and gloves for the race grab bag. Definitely some of the nicest swag I have gotten at a race.
While I waited for the race to begin I met some new people, one of the most exciting things about taking part in these events. I met a man from the east coast who was happy about being able to run without all of the humidity that east coast runners have to deal with. I met the son of one of the founders and directors of the Leona Divide 50 mile race which was very exciting as this is such an iconic and special event. I also met a woman, Robin Young, who had run the Cuyamaca 100K last year and she is the one who gave me the true scoop about where the more challenging parts of the course would be.
Though it may seem last-minute, even at this short notice any bit of information from someone who has experienced the course can help you to mentally be prepared and overall a little bit more at ease and able to fine tune your race game plan. Though the first loop was longer and had a big climb, the temperatures would still be relatively cool and so I decided to go at the first loop with two 26 oz handhelds. Then, in the second loop I would pick up my 70 oz pack with one handheld to face the warmer temperatures and challenging climb in the first half of the loop. A leg of 9 miles between aid stations is not horrible when its cool and moderate elevation gain, but it can seem like eternity when it is exposed, temperatures are climbing, and you are also climbing.
Just before 630 we all spilled out into the road and took up our spots for the start. In accurate live timing fashion; 3, 2, 1…we were off at 630 on the dot. I had fallen in with the second group of lead runners rather than the immediate front-runners. It was a comfortable pace though I am not sure what it was exactly as I don’t tend to obsessively check my watch for fear of tripping and eating dirt that early in the race. I was in a group with Cindy Lynch, who eventually finished first female, and a couple of other guys who seemed to know her. I recognized Fern and Neil taking off in the lead group. The early part of the race choked off to single track fairly quickly not allowing much room to shift spots. Most seemed comfortable with their current position and it was a fairly fluid and streamlined run all the way into the Merrigan aid station at 8.4 miles away. I came in around 1 hour six minutes and felt great but realized that I needed to reel it in a bit and slow the tempo down wanting to save something for the uphill to come. I headed quickly out of Merrigan and fell in with Robin Young and another runner. Robin and I would end up being in a sort of two person indian run until the finish. Eventually I fell back a bit from her and the other fellow to get into my own little groove and get comfortable for the next 6 miles until Green Valley at which point the climb to Cuyamaca Peak would ensue.
After about an hour of comfortable running I reached Green Valley at mile 14.2 and quickly refilled my handhelds for the next 9 miles up to the peak. It was just over 2500 feet gain over 9 miles and was not horribly steep or unrunnable. I just listened to what my legs had to tell me and continued on. Overall, the worst part of the whole leg was the last mile as it got steadily steeper heading up the paved access road to the top, at which point my legs started to complain a bit. The AS crew here was super, one of which, Cameron, I had met at a Kodiak 100 training run back in August. He ran down about 100 meters to meet me as I approached the top to grab my handhelds and get them ready for me as a closed in on the top. That is super service. I tried to keep my stay short, having taken two hours to go 9 miles, and checked out beginning my descent back down. I passed a cheery Matt Kafka churning his way to the top and would eventually have him pass by me towards the end of the downhill.
The next two legs comprising the remaining 9 miles of Loop 1 were mostly downhill, albeit a bit rocky, miles. So, I was not able to really open up and make up for lost time as rocky downhills are not my forte. I still have a very apprehensive right ankle resulting from some previous injuries that does not react very well to technical downhill running. This is a big shortfall as this is an area where runners can make up a lot of time, as Matt did when he ran me down and cruised on by.
I finished the 32.3 mile Loop 1 in about 5 hours 45 minutes. I tried to not get too comfortable as I had one of my handhelds topped off and grabbed my pack and some food. I did not want to waste much time as I now knew that the next loop of 12.2 miles, though short, had some good climbing that would only get more arduous as the sun rose higher in the sky. I wrapped it up and head out into the blue loop. Once again I found myself in the company of Robin and a couple of other runners that I had been closely trailing or leading since the beginning. Conversation was minimal as we all just focused on the next 8 miles, the first half of which was either sandy or rocky climbing. Soon, our little group spread out and at some point I was able to miraculously grind my way to the front of the others. I got in some fairly consistent running in at this point with the uphill turning over into more of a rocky rolling trail. It was at this point that I pulled off for a whizz break and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a nice red stream of urine, but no reindeer thank goodness. I have had bloody urine before so I wasn’t freaking out too much and just deduced that it was a result of a bruised bladder bag from all of the downhill bouncing. I will say that it is never something that you enjoy seeing, but better than brown which means kidney meltdown. Plus, I knew that my fluid intake was fine.
This stretch would take me just over an hour and a half, a sign that my energy was waning somewhat. My spirits were lifted as I drew near the East Mesa AS at mile 40.3 with artsy reassuring signs placed about every 100 meters leading up to the station. I had my handheld topped off with ice and electrolytes and doused myself with cool water and head out for the last leg and just under 5 miles to the end of the blue loop, or so it should have been.
This little 4.8 mile section was fairly benign with some up and down rocky running and should have taken no more than 50 minutes to an hour tops. At the intersection where the loop joins with the 3rd yellow loop, and takes a left back to the start/finish I, for some reason, kept straight leading me back to the beginning of the blue loop. I guess I had not had enough of the climbing and wanted some more. What I really do not understand is why it took me some 15 to 20 minutes of climbing before I realized that it was a very deja vu moment and I had missed my turn off. When it finally clicked and I abruptly turned around and headed back down I realized the price as I began passing 2,3,4,5 runners that had now passed me and were headed out on the final loop. My lack of focus on the markings had cost me time and I ended up getting back to the start/finish in almost an hour and a half, losing about 30 minutes and my spot in line.
Thinking back, I can remember hearing a very distinctive Kafka sneeze right up ahead of me before missing the turn. Next thing I know, rather than come up on Matt, I pass a couple of people that I had not seen in the race up to this point. As I began climbing it felt a bit too familiar but I just took it as a last little hump before the finish of the loop but after about 15 minutes of this I realized what must be happening and quickly turned around to do the only logical thing and go back to the intersection, at which point I began seeing familiar faces who were now adorned with yellow bracelets as I should have been at this point. Quite frustrating indeed. I tried not to obsess over it, what was lost was lost. I would just have to try to make it up in the last loop.
I stormed into the start/finish junction, gladly traded my blue bracelet for a yellow one, topped off my fluids, threw back some nibbles and bits and got out of there to head out on the last loop and get this thing done. I knew that it was about 18 more miles, of which the next 6 or 7 would be a bit of climbing to the Sunrise AS. At this point my goal of 11.5 to 12 hours was shot and so I decided to just finish before dark. Not much of a choice as I had left my headlamp behind as a sort of incentive to move my ass.
The climb to Sunrise AS wasn’t horribly bad, just that my legs were a bit tired at this point and I was truthfully a bit bummed about my detour. I tried to be efficient going back and forth between hiking hard and shuffling on up. It was getting to be close to 5 pm at this point so I knew that I would have to keep moving forward at a decent pace to beat the dark, as the sun would set behind the hills without any regard for my decision to leave my headlamp behind. I made it up to the Sunrise AS in about and hour and a half, just before 5. I was feeling pretty energized having completed the last of the major climbing and being surrounded by lots of invigorating and happy helpful station angels. I made quick work of getting what I needed and getting out.
The next section to Pedro Fages was only 4.6 miles or so and much of it on the PCT with amazing views of the Anza Borrego State Park and desert landscape. I also must say that I have never been on a section of the PCT that I didn’t enjoy. That being said I was having trouble picking up my feet at this point and continuously jammed the big toe of my right foot on the many, many rocks that made up this section of trail. Luckily the wind carried my curses off into the abyss. I did my best to run most of this stretch or at least shuffle quickly and arrived at the final aid station at Pedro Fages in just under an hour. At this point there was only about a 10K to go, most of it downhill. I just filled up my handheld and began my cruise on home.
As the sun began to set behind the hillsides I could tell that it was going to get dark quickly. I kept my pace consistent and earnest wanting to at least make it off the rock littered fire road and to the last mile before it really got dark. I had not seen any runners since the beginning of this loop, then as I came around a bend I saw Robin up ahead. As I approached I asked how she was and told her it looked as if she would come in second female if she kept a decent pace to the finish. She was in a bit of a slump at this point and I wished her the best and continued on.
I continued with a fair pace and was able to make it off of the fire road and onto the last mile stretch just in the nick of time. At this point I realized that someone with a headlamp was approaching from behind, but did not think much of it as I was pretty sure that there wasn’t anyone that close to me and thought it was just a volunteer or hiker as I had seen a couple jogging on the fire road earlier. As I neared the finish I struggled to see due to the car that had its headlamps pointing in my direction and blinding me enough that I almost ran right into a closed gate blocking road access. I regained my sight just in time to avert disaster and just as I was about to round the corner into the finish the person behind me with the headlamp that I had assumed was a hiker or volunteer jammed by me. I also cranked up my pace so that I could finish as strong as possible. It didn’t register until I was just about to fly through the finish that this person behind me was also a runner, Amelia, who I had last seen with her pacer a ways behind Robin. She took me by surprise and had a heck of a strong finish. I was just happy to be done, knowing that I had worked through a slump of mental anguish after the blue loop fumble and held it together to pull off a decent finish.
Driving home the next morning and passing by my old stomping grounds of Camp Pendleton, I recalled many times where I had been pushed harder than I thought I could withstand but had managed to tough it out. I aquired some very valuable traits humping over the dusty hills of this base that help me every time a get into a dark place in a long race.
I really did enjoy this race. As always, I learned a few things, and hope to come back next year stronger. Now armed with some familiarity with the course I feel prepared to do a little better. As with every race it seems, my performance, or lack of, on the climbs highlighted my need to get more aggressive with increasing my elevation gain in my training runs. I also need to work harder on technical descents and get over my hesitation on scrambling over rocks. These are my weakness that will continue to haunt me if I don’t become stronger as I continue to run more challenging races. Overall, I do feel that I am making improvements in my running, though at times it seems like it is only infinitesimals. I am moving forward and onward at any pace my body will allow and very thankful for the ability to be a part of such an interesting community.