Everything looks great on paper. It is fun to sit down and go through the logistics and strategy of a 100 mile run and how it “should” go down. You try to account for all of the variables and determine what will have a major effect on your split times from aid station to aid station. Then, there is what actually happens on race day. There is a good possibility that it will not go as planned. Especially if momma nature decides to crank the heat up and make running any distance quite uncomfortable. So, when the San Diego 100 mile run came around this past Friday, and they were calling for a heat wave, I got a little worried. When I was actually in the early stages of running and it was already toasty at around 9 am, I became a lot worried. You see, heat and I have never really gotten along. With my fighting weight being around 180 lbs., it takes a fair amount of energy to cool down once I start cooking. So, only 20 miles into my 100 mile journey, I was fading fast.
The SD100 course is quite amazing and breathtaking. It is also very exposed for much of the way. Often very windy as well. With the heat and wind I felt like I was running in a convection oven and having a very hard time staying hydrated even though I was carrying two 25 oz. handhelds between aid stations, the longest stretch being around 8.5 miles. Those 8.5 miles seem like eternity when the temperatures are hovering around 100 degrees and running makes your head feel like it is going to explode and your heart is pounding out of your chest because your heat acclimation started at 6 am that morning. By about 25 miles I was already wondering how I was going to get through the day and finish this race on two feet and not on my face. Having had close calls with heat exhaustion in the past and knowing the symptoms, I decided that I would pretty much just have to power hike most of my miles that occurred in the hottest hours of the day, running at a slow pace when my head was not pounding, and try to redeem myself in some way once the sun went down. This is easier said than done as the course has a good amount of loose rocks and boulders that make night running a frustrating challenge. All in all, I realized that if finishing was to remain an option, I had to put the brakes on and accept that it was going to be a much longer day then I had planned on and throw any prior time goals into the fire.
At any rate, I had some built-in incentives to get my ass to the finish line no matter what extra challenges awaited me. For one, I have this whole California Triple Crown of ultra-running thing that I had decided to sign up for. This is a challenge that requires me to complete the San Diego 100 in June, then the Santa Barbara 100 in July and last but certainly not least the Angeles Crest 100 in August. It wasn’t going to be too great if I could not finish the first of the three. I knew that even if it meant power walking the majority of the course, barring major injury, I had to finish.
Every time I finally reached an aid station I was greeted by volunteers who seriously wanted to do whatever they could to make me feel better and get me back on the course. There was ice for my hat, and watermelon for my heat diminished appetite. Every time I came in ready to rip off my race bib and call it a day; and every time I headed back out feeling rejuvenated for the next leg. Not one volunteer showed any signs of fatigue or irritability even though they would be there through the duration of the race dealing with all of our pissing and moaning.
One thing that always leaves a lasting impression on me when running some of these races is how immensely beautiful this planet is and how insignificant and powerless we as individuals are when facing off with the elements. It really hits home when you are a long way from anything and running low on fluids and feeling exhausted and fully exposed to oppressive heat and winds that make your eyes feel like prickly cotton balls.
I often looked above me to beg the sun to turn it down a notch. When I did, I would see the hawks gracefully and effortlessly gliding along utilizing the heat to their advantage. If only I were able to harness the convection currents and float along rather than having all of my energy sapped by my body’s need to cool 185 pounds of mass.
One thing that kept coming to mind was a moment in the documentary about the Western States 100 where Gordy Ainsleigh talks about his first pioneer running of the course where the only food and drink that he had was some dry trail mix and creek water. The temperatures for him that year were hot enough to make a horse drop and yet he managed to get through it. So, what the hell was my problem! I had a little heat with top-notch aid stations every 6-8 miles with ice baths! There was absolutely no excuse for me to not get my ass to the finish line, barring a face plant onto a rocky surface.
My performance for the day was far from aggressive. My goal was to keep heat exhaustion at bay and make it to sundown, at which point I would hopefully regain some energy. This meant that I pretty much walked up all inclines after mile 20 and ran a pretty pathetic pace on flats and downhill. This pace put me at my drop bag location at Penny Pines, mile 43, around 4 pm, 2 hours later than my original goal time. Needless to say I was not the only one hurting more than they had anticipated for this race. I caught up to my friend Pete just before arriving at Penny Pines and as I approached him from behind I could see that he was in bad shape. His gait spoke volumes and when I caught up to him he told me how much pain he was in and not doing well. It is hard to see a friend suffer and not be able to help. He would end up having to pull out after another 12 miles, deciding to not let bravado stifle common sense.
After changing my handhelds for my pack and a reservoir full of ice on my back, I felt like I now had a fighting chance against the heat. I was topped off with cold fluids, had watermelon in my stomach, and ice in my hat. I was ready to get back on the trail. Shortly after departing Penny Pines I was stopped abruptly in my tracks as I saw the head of a rattlesnake poking out as it prepared to cross the trail. I gave it a wide berth and looked on in awe as it slid by. As soon as it reached the other side, it gave its little “don’t even think about it” rattle and slithered off into the brush. Finally, after 20 plus years in Southern California I had seen my first rattlesnake. Pretty amazing event for me.
Even as the sun began to set and I was at the 100k point of the race heading down to the turnaround at Cibbets Flat, the winds were warm. I was beginning to see the leaders on their way back up the climb out of Cibbets. The fact that the lead was running back up exemplifies the endurance and power that it truly takes to win a race like this. It was a fairly rocky single track which made the trip down and the trip back up quite an ordeal, especially when the headlamps came out and people going in opposite directions could take turns blinding each other as they exchanged encouraging words.
On my trip down, I got pinned down behind a racer and his pacer. There was not much room to maneuver around them and then I realized that the pacer, running behind, had no headlamp. As much as I wanted to run ahead and regain some lost time, I decided that the nice thing to do was to run in the rear and light the trail for the pacer through this rocky section until we got to the aid station. I felt bad as the pacer keep tripping and toe smashing with his limited ability to make out the terrain. To be honest, part of me was a bit irritated that I could not use this section to make up time, but it wasn’t like I was going to come back from my current position and contend with the leaders.
After what seemed like a never-ending 7 miles we finally reached an open stretch of asphalt where I parted ways with my company and took off for the Cibbets AS lights about a mile away. I was ecstatic to be at the turn around point and ready for the long grind back up and ready to get to within 30 miles of the finish. This was the point of the race that the race director Scott Mills had referred to as one where we would feel like we “had the tiger by the tail “. That had stuck in my thoughts for some reason, but I liked to think of it more as having the monkey by the tail, because I like monkeys. I was going to keep a strong grip on my monkey’s tail all the way to the end.
The 7.7 miles back up to Dale’s Kitchen aid station was a long one. The rocky terrain and constant need to step aside and let oncoming runners pass made it a bit more challenging than it would have been otherwise. On top of that, I began to sense that my headlamp was becoming quite dim. I was sure that I had loaded fresh batteries in it before stashing it in my drop bag. I had back up batteries but I would not have access to them until I returned to Penny Pines for a second time in another 10 miles or so. Just another thing to slow me down. It seemed that I just was not meant to get any redemption at any point in this race. I had very little depth perception without decent lighting and kept fumbling about on the boulder strewn path. One by one, runners with super bright headlamps caught up with me and passed me by. I started to realize that my secondary goal of 24 hours was fading away, just like my headlamp.
Somewhere around 2 am I finally reached Penny Pines for the second time. In my planning stages before the race my goal had been around 1030 pm. Quite a lag. It was at this point that I knew that I would not make it home for the 6 am Silver buckle prize. Going 20 miles in just under 4 hours is a pipe dream for me when it is the last 20 miles, my legs are like stumps, my eyes so dry they are about to fall out, and I am continually tripping over my own shadow. It was time to dig in for the long haul and just do it as quickly as I could and arrive in one piece.
There are very few things in this world that lift my spirits after an all-night death march like a beautiful sunrise. This sunrise goes down in the books as one of the most beautiful that I have ever seen. It arose from behind the mountains off in the distance across the vastness of the Anza Borrego desert. As I stood watching by myself from the PCT I knew why I did these all day races. Mother Nature’s wonders are a 24 hour show and we miss so much of it while we sleep. Once in a while it does the soul good to stay awake all day and witness what she has to show us.
It was fitting that soon after my awesome sunrise show I arrived at the Sunrise aid station for the second and final time. I was feeling the exhaustion settle in but my spirits were high as I now was within one 9 mile trek from the end. Not a whole lot of elevation to be overcome on the final stretch but my legs would only give me small bouts of running. I would try to run one mile and walk one. As I got within sight of Lake Cuyamaca, I felt a bit more energy seep into my muscles allowing me to get some more consistent slow pace running. I could feel the finish line approaching. The last couple of miles followed a grassy path that seemed to wind on forever before finally approaching one tiny little hill up to the finish line. Hill or not, I continued running, wanting finish and stop the clock. I ran across the finish line to the double high-five of race director Scott Mills. Scott’s unwavering energy and obvious enthusiasm for the success of all runners is a memory that will stay with me. It made for a wonderful finish and the end of a long hot day in San Diego.
I ended up finishing in 26:53:14 in 49th place overall. Full results can be found here .