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.


2 thoughts on “You take my breath away AC100

  1. awesomely written– unlike the trash that was mine you never commented upon —
    –i guess i am just a dumb southerner who cannot write or read, but yes, tis true I will NEVER write like you


  2. Wow Greg, you are truly a warrior and always a marine. I loved reading your essay and I could feel your pain and victory through your words. For me it was a different story, I felt like a zombie early in the race just after Isplip, trouble breathing, nausea and puking were my issues, however, I’m so happy and proud of your accomplishment. I can learn so much from guys like you and Pete. I will be back to experience the joy of crossing AC100 finish line in Altadena. Congrats!!!!


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