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.

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