John Muir Trail

John Muir Trail

Thursday, December 1, 2016

2016 Angeles Crest 100

I've spent a lot of time running in the past 7 years.  I started with triathlons in college, left behind the biking and swimming for running on the road, and progressed to the marathon distance on-road before moving into trail and eventually ultramarathon running.  Running, as an activity and lifestyle, has brought an incredible positive change to my life.

In Hermosa Beach, I learned to run long, flat road.  Training for marathons helped me focus on healthy activities as part of my lifestyle.  I started running trail and ran a couple of ultramarathons, which eventually drove my move to West LA to be near the mountains and other dedicated trail runners.  There I met several folks who became my friends and adventure buddies, and who introduced me to the core of the Los Angeles ultramarathon community.

The Angeles Crest.  Photo: Sawna Guadaramma

At the center of this community, in a lot of ways, is the Angeles Crest 100 (AC 100).  This old, storied race chews up runners with its heat, exposure, and steep San Gabriel Mountain terrain.  It's not a race to be taken lightly, and garners an immense amount of respect from the top to the bottom of the field every year.  From the outside looking in, it's another 100-mile course.  From the inside, it's a legendary benchmark hundred mile race with rich history and a dedicated community that thrives on love of the San Gabriel Mountains.

A few of my running buddies had been chasing big goals at the race for years.  Guillaume has been chasing a win, Dom has been chasing the course record, and Katie has been chasing a silver buckle. Each of these runners exhibits their own brand of passion for the mountains and the race that became the brew in which my love for the mountains was steeped.  I look up to each of these runners and am thankful for not only their friendship in training and life, but also their guidance in preparing for to tackle the run.
The PMR Crew, minus Andy.  Photo: Dominic Grossman

I almost signed up for the 2015 Angeles Crest 100, but I decided that I wanted another year of experience and fitness in my legs before attempting to break off and chew a chunk of a bad-ass race.

I'm glad I did.  Another year of running, pacing, and training on the trails helped me to feel confident enough to go after the silver buckle that is awarded to finishers who complete the run in under 24 hours.

The Build

I planned my year around 3 races: Los Angeles Marathon, Zion 100-miler, and the AC 100.  I'd get speed from LA Marathon, where I'd shoot to finally break 3 hours, then I'd transition to the trails to get a finish at Zion and some UTMB points, and finally build all that into big days in the mountains to tackle AC 100.

The year prior I hit 100 mile weeks, big vertical, and tons of quality workouts in preparation for the Wasatch Front 100.  I was riding the knife edge of burnout, but I felt lean and fast. I spent a ton of time in those training blocks on the AC 100 course with Dom, Katie, Guillaume and Andy, learning about pitfalls of the race, strategies, and hearing stories of Tommy Nielsen, Jorge Pacheco, and Jim O'Brien.

This year, I wanted to step back from the edge a bit and focus on feeling good every week of training and finding more balance in my life.

In February, I ran 2:56 at LA Marathon and checked the 3-hour marathon box off.  In March I ran 23:30 at a muddy Zion 100 for my first sub 24 hour finish.  I recovered and re-entered the mountains with grand plans for a constant buildup/stepback periodization mileage build for AC.  I started off well, but ended up inconsistent.  Work was busy, I was traveling to Florida regularly, and the quality of my workouts was variable.  Still, my mileage was acceptable, if not as high as I would like, and without as much quality as I would like.  My legs didn't seem to want to handle what I gave them last summer, so I adjusted.

Then I got a job offer in Denver.

The offer came from a startup aerospace company with a big vision, an experienced leadership team, and a need for my technical expertise.  I jumped at the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of this kind of team...these things don't happen often in the aerospace industry.  I tried to push my start date out to September...after I could focus on my training and worry about moving my life later, not to mention helping transition my work duties to other engineers in CA and FL, but the schedule at the startup did not accommodate this late of a start, so 3.5 weeks after I got the job offer, I was on the way to Colorado.  It didn't help that there was a friend's wedding, packing, and moving thrown in there.  My training suffered, but I still had a few solid workouts and long runs to keep the mileage and strength in my legs.

I spent a week in Silverton at the Hardrock 100, getting big vertical and slow miles, which I think anchored my training up to that point.  By the time I arrived in Denver, all I needed was to get my leg speed back up a bit and I would feel prepared for AC.  Living at altitude for a month also wouldn't hurt.

To throw a final curveball at my life, my relationship with my girlfriend of 1.5 years ended during my transition to CO. It wasn't the transition, per se, that ended it, but it was the straw that broke the camel's back. So I worked 70 hours my first week on the job. At least I loved my job?  Summary until now: Sub-par training with a few good weeks, and then 3 weeks of training and taper while feeling extremely alone in a new place with no friends.  In a way, that experience is kind of like running 100 miles in the mountains: a lot of time alone with one's thoughts, punctuated by seeing close friends at occasional intervals.  Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in the final weeks on trail, thinking about my own role in the breakup, running's part in my life and its effect on the balance between my work, running, and personal life.  There's probably an entire blog post worth of material to be covered on what I've thought about in the last 3 months since I moved to Denver, but in the context of this paragraph, AC ended up being this light at the end of a shitty 3-week tunnel.

The Race

I made it through taper, and made it to California to race.  I was excited to see my friends and felt prepared to run.  I picked up my buddies Tyler (racing) and Kevin (his pacer) and my pacer Clint at the airport and we headed for the mountains.  There's almost nothing better for racing than to settle in with a good group of friends, feel comfortable, and get into a positive mental space to take on the challenge.  The change from almost complete isolation to being amongst great people in our airBNB, and great people flooding into Wrightwood for the race was invigorating to say the least, and I soaked it in.
Runners in front. Crew in back.  Photo: Tyler Clemens
Friday before the race, I met up with tons of old running friends, dropped off drop bags, picked up my bib, and returned to the house to relax and go over race-day logistics with Clint.  Clint's a badass and was totally on the ball, not only in terms of actually crewing, but asking the right questions and getting himself prepared to crew the next day.
Clint! Photo w/ Permission: Paksit Photos

The game plan in-race was as follows: hike the major climbs, run the flats and downs hard, hit splits and run sub 24 hours.

The night before the race, I had seen Dom and Guillaume and Katie, each one of them preparing for their own races and it hit me that for the first time, that I'd be toeing the line with my friends and mentors.  It was a culmination of all of the running that I've done to date, the miles and conversations that I had, all these people that I know will be standing next to me, ready to reach for their own versions of greatness.

I finally fell asleep, ready for a 2:30am wakeup to eat, drink coffee, and get ready to toe the line at 5am.

I've had jitters before races.  I've been nervous.  I've been fearful.  This morning, however, I felt calm and ready to run. Focused.  I hugged all my friends, and stepped back from the front line to where I felt was a good place to be for my pacing strategy.
Seconds before the gun.  Photo w/ Permission: Paksit Photos
We took off and headed up the hill.  I found a solid rhythm, ran with Katie for a bit, and then watched her and others pull away as I held my own leash tight and hiked hard up the first climb.  I knew that I would hit 60 minutes to the PCT, and came in at 58 minutes, perfect pacing thus far.  I felt a bit wonky/dizzy, but chalked it up to adrenaline, and started to go for it on the flats up top of Blue Ridge.  I started passing folks who were on different race plans, and I came flying into Inspiration Point feeling good.

Clint was ready like I was going for the win, but I was OK with slowing things down a bit and taking a 20 or 30 second aid instead of blowing through.  My aid plan was 'efficient, but not rushed'.  I snagged a bottle, and headed for Vincent Gap, 4.5 miles later.
Inspiration Point Aid.  Bottles Ready.  Photo:One of my friends? Clint?

Vincent Gap was the same deal as Inspiration Point aid: efficient but not rushed.  I got the food and water I needed, said 'Hi' to friends and headed out for the climb up Mt. Baden Powell.  I knew that I could hike the climb in 70 minutes, so when I hit the top and stretched at 68 minutes, I felt good.

The ridge on Mt. Baden-Powell.  Photo: Sawna Guadaramma
I was banking some time and still feeling conservative.  The heat was picking up, but so was the wind...howling! The traverse along the ridge and into Islip Saddle Aid at mile 25ish flowed well and I kept up my race plan well, staying cool in the wind, hydrated, and well fed.

At this point, my heat management plan was in full effect: ice in sun sleeves, ice bandana, white shirt and hat.  This is also where the course was modified this year, for permitting reasons.  We would run the road instead of the Mt. Williamson climb.  I changed into road shoes and took off up the road.  My stomach was feeling a little queasy coming out of the aid station, but I was on my calorie plan so I pushed on.  I tried some avocado at Eagle's Roost Aid, but it didn't sit so well, so I continued munching on bacon in the aid stations, and then started the next road section to Cloudburst Summit aid.
The road to Cloudburst.  Running hard hurts now.  Photo: Louis Kwan
The course change eliminated Mt. Williamson and Cooper Canyon, both of which are considered crux portions of the course.  Instead of taking on some tough trail and terrain, I had to run hard on the road, which sucks.  Trying to run hard 30 miles into a 100 has never felt great for me, but I pushed through at an acceptable effort level to make sure that I could also run hard out of Cloudburst, which is another key to the race that I learned from Katie: don't get to the easy stuff feeling wasted, because you should be running all of the easy stuff.  Easy money (Ha!) for getting sub 24, as long as I could hold the leash tight until Cloudburst.

Well, the road climb up to Cloudburst sucked, but I hiked/ran my way up and felt OK taking down some Coke and bacon.  I was a bit worked, but could still run.  So far, so good.  I took off and started making good time down to 3-points.

The run to 3-points consisted of single-track and road sections, some from the original course, and some from the modified course.   I headed down the single track and tried to keep pacing.  Again, I felt a bit worked, but after managing it up the slight incline, I knew I could roll down through at least a couple miles of road and singletrack.  I caught my buddy Tim who was recovered from some stomach issues...he would soon be smashing hard and pass me back, heading on to a massive PR finish in under 23 hours.

Coming into 3-points I felt...OK.  It was  hot, but I was doing alright.  I ate a pickle and more bacon, refilled my bottles with pit-crew super-Clint, and mashed on out into sections of the course that were modified and I had never run.  This section was sandy, winding, somewhat burned out singletrack.  I linked up with SB Running Co's Joe Devreese and we talked a bit and tooled through the singletrack until my stomach rebelled and he dropped me.  I pushed on, slowly, trying to deal with the nausea, and finally made it up the road and into Hillyer 1 Aid.  The sun had toasted me and my body displayed the effects of the heat.

I quickly realized that none of the leaders had come through Hillyer yet.  I would get to see my friends on their way back in!  I stepped out of the aid station and the leader came in, flying.  As I started down the road, I ran across Guillaume, Jorge, Jerry, Dom and others, all running hard at various distances back from the lead.  Guillaume was relaxed, and said he felt good...waiting to go for it.  Awesome.  Dom was a little further back...I heard he was puking earlier, but he looked solid and gave me some course intel about the Mt. Pacifico climb.

I hit the Mt. Pacifico climb and the wheels fell off.  It was a burn zone of dead foliage with no shade and wide open fire road of white dirt.  Just flat enough to run, but just steep enough to hurt.  My stomach turned.  I was destroyed.  How was I going to go another 60 miles??  But that's ultramarathon.  It always turns around with proper body management.  Hiking and running and miserable, I finally hit the top.  I re-iced and asked for tums.  No tums. Well what do you have, aid station medic?  Pepto and some other stuff.  What should I have?  After some severe medical questioning about my health and history, I got some Pepto tabs, mashed one down, saved the other for emergency, and bailed to run back down the mountain.  It was OK.  Fresh ice felt cool on my back and arms.  It got better.  I saw friends.  I ran faster.  I hit the bottom and ran the road back into Hillyer 2.  Things were going well.  I left Hillyer Aid and hit the top of the Mt. Hillyer climb to run the descent through Horse Flat.  This descent is fun.  It winds through rock formations of boulders, lone trees, sandy granite and washes.  I passed through the campground and into the final descent to Chilao.  I was riding the high, moving well.  I caught Joe towards the bottom of the climb and we smashed into Chilao together, just before 4pm.

Chilao.  Mile 53.  I was ahead of schedule.  All I had to do was run a 13.5 hour 48 miles and I could make sub 24.
My buddy Sean handing me bacon, Amy handing me sweet potato. Photo: Paksit Photos

Some quick foot care.  Lots of friends looking on.  Hi Monica, Sean and Kevin! Clint's getting my pack ready in the back.  Photo: Paksit Photos.

I also got to see my friends here.  Clint.  Amy, who crewed my first 100 miler 2 years ago.  Katie. Monica. Ginger. Sean. Kevin.  Familiar faces.  I filled up water, grubbed down, picked up Clint and headed out for Shortcut.  This pretty much consists of some single track, climbing and descending, some fire road, a lot of burnt out terrain, and a hellishly hot descent and climb out of (Tujunga?) canyon.  Things were going pretty well.  Joe caught me and passed me, and Clint and I headed into the canyon.  I had only Fluid Drink left, so I had nothing to pour on myself to cool off.  I was heating up.  By the time I hit the bottom, the heat sat stagnantly oppressive in the air.  I kept pushing through the oven, trying to keep taking down Fluid.  We pushed through the bottom and started the climb up.  I was slowly wrecking myself.  Trying to keep calories and fluid going down.

I came into Shortcut pretty worked.  I ate some watermelon and almost puked.  Fuck that watermelon.  Amy took care care of business in getting me what I needed, and Clint and I got the fuck out.

Fuck that watermelon. Photo: Amy Maurer

Stretching it out. Feeling worked.  Photo: Amy Maurer
I felt great for like, 5 steps, at which point I hit low.  Really low.  I watched Joe and his pacer, my buddy Mark, pull away down the Edison fire road, eerily similar to how Jeff Kozak and Dom dropped me in a similar situation months before on a 105 deg. F training run.  This time, the creek at the bottom would be respite from the sun and heat.  At least it was starting to cool off?  I tried to run, but everything hurt.  I pushed through the hurt, but eventually would flounder and walk for a minute.  Clint pushed me to get in a rhythm and I tried.  I drank fluid, I poured water on myself, but my body fought back.  Nausea, a flu.  It sucked.  I pushed through miles of that long, shitty fire road before I stopped and looked at Clint.  I could feel 24 hours slipping away.  I needed to fix this.  I should be running 8 minute pace.

"You think caffeine would help?" I questioned Clint.  I'm sure he had no idea but he nodded.  Fuck yeah.  How about Tylenol? How about a Gel?  How about Salt Tabs? How about the 2nd pepto?

Fuck it, let's do it all!

I went all out and put it all in.  Not very scientific, but fuck man, it worked.  20 minutes later I was running the climb up to Newcomb Saddle and joking with Clint.

We hit Newcomb, and I called into my crew on the TV link that they have set up.  They would be ready.  Clint mowed down a cup of broth and we took off for the descent into Chantry.  Almost immediately, the broth came back up.  Not my pacer's!  Something was wrong and he stooped over the side of the trail, projectile ejecting noodles into the brush. But in between pukes, he yelled at me to "GO!!!"  Dramatic, like a war movie.

So I went.  New life, new legs, time to smash.  Darkness fell and the headlamp went on.  For a few minutes, I had a bit of light to see the techincal upper section of this trail, but not much.  Dom says that the difference in finishing time between runners who hit this section in the dark, and the ones who hit it in the light is 30+ minutes, based solely on the runner's ability to see the trail.  Luckily, I was still able to run hard and I knew the trail.  I clicked through miles, passing Joe and other runners, finally making it into the flatish, shitty, creekside descent into Chantry.  And that stupid asphalt climb up to the parking lot.

No matter, I was feeling solid.  I ate, refilled, and picked up my 2nd pacer, Sawna.  Amy once again was getting shit done, while I'm sure simultaneously questioning how, as a non-ultramarathoner, she is friends with me and my idiotic sport that would have her napping in the drivers seat of the car in another hour.  Thanks Amy!
It stings!  Chantry Flats Aid.  Photo: Amy Maurer

Sawna and I took off for the Lower Winter Creek climb.  The trail meanders uphill at a fairly shallow grade, baiting runners to push too hard before tackling Upper Winter Creek: the crux of the AC100.
Into the darkness.  Photo: Sawna Guadarrama
We moved well and chatted on the way up the lower section before hitting the campground and starting straight up the hill.  I knew my legs were tired, but they hit a new low at this point.  My stomach was doing OK, but the going slowed to a crawl.  Step........Step........Step.  OK,  more caffeine, more gel.  Sawna knows this climb well and was assuring me of our distance as we neared Dead Man's bench.  I'm tired and Winter Creek beat on my quads relentlessly.  Despite it all, however, I wasn't in the worst spirits of my life and we arrived at Larry Gassan's love-nest of a welcome station at Dead Man's Bench.

You can always count on Larry for encouragement.  Photo: Sawna Guadarrama

Nope. Not sitting down. Not laying down.  Not touching the bench.  Photo: Sawna Guadarrama
His pictures of runners on the bench are iconic, like most of his AC pictures.  You can see the soul through the dead eyes of runners late in the game, pushing through all the fatigue but destroyed by Upper Winter Creek.  I refused to sit down.  I stood and drank Fluid while Sawna took pictures of the EZ-Up lighted setup and then we took off to seal the deal and make it to the Toll Road.  My buddy Ian had passed me...running...on Upper Winter Creek.  I questioned his decision, but figured he was making lemonade while the sun was shining, or whatever.  Whatever.

View from the Toll Road.  We can see the LA lights, which means we're closing in.  Photo: Sawna Guadarrama

We hit the toll road, and after a short break, took off.  I was worried.  The toll road is long and runnable and needs to be run to hit 24 hours.  What if I was too broken to run it? Like the Edison fire road?  10 seconds later, I ran it, and it went.  Legs cooperated, headlamps flowed through the darkness, and we talked about...I have no idea what.  The road wound down to the saddle and I knew...5 switchbacks to aid.  4. 3. 2. 1. Aid.  I sat down, ate some food, filled water and we took off.  I have never been through this aid station, but it was filled with familiar faces of the So Cal Coyotes, my old running group.  They kicked ass, and Sawna and I were out of there.  The race had done work on me, but I was moving.  We pushed.

I caught Ian on the descent into Idlehour Camp. We tried to get him to run with us but he was we wished him well and took off.  I had felt how he felt, mere hours before, but at least I had a pacer to help me through...he was running solo.

I've never lost a toenail in a race, but after I kicked the fuck out of a very unforgiving rock at the bottom of the Sam Merrill climb, I was pretty sure I would.  A long string of expletives later and I kept on up the climb.  Sam Merrill is minorly relentless in that it's a few miles long and keeps winding and switching back.  I didn't know the section that well, but I knew exactly how long it was from the 2nd creek to the top, so I had quantitative basis to continue swearing at myself for taking way too fucking long.

I have yet to NOT be able to do math at the end of a 100-miler.  I don't know if that's good or bad.  In this case, I was mathing my way into realizing that we were cutting it really close to 24 hours, but could pull it off with pretty reasonable 15 minute miles.  In and out of Sam Merrill aid as fast as possible.  Quads dying.  I needed water.  I couldn't eat much.  Stomach rebelled again and everything ached.  Also, my legs were fucking chafed. Fuck. I knew I should have brought that Vaseline.

We started the descent to Echo Mountain.  It sucked.  It hurt.  I knew I had to be consistent on the downhills (there aren't many uphills left, dude!).  Sawna was kindly reminding me that I was doing OK.  She gave the most gentle reminders, but each reminder pushed me slightly further.  All the way into Echo Mountain and up the railroad grade.  I couldn't run the uphill (though it's pretty much flat), but Sawna pushed and I got some good sections in chasing down Andy Glaze and his pacer through this section.  They were also pushing hard for 24 hours as well.  Once we hit Mt. Lowe Rd. and then the single track, I was flowing.  I almost couldn't eat, but I didn't care.  I only have 6 miles left.  Right?  Did the course change fuck up my mileage? I couldn't remember, because I didn't have exact mileage for the modified course.  Nothing to do but push.  Only 1, shitty, miniature climb left out of Millard.  I run/hiked into Millard, actually gaining time on my required 15 minutes splits.

I did not want to eat in Millard.  I felt destroyed, heavy, achey, empty.  I had been pushing through the pain and fatigue all the way down the descent from Sam Merrill, beating myself further into the ground.  I sat at the picnic table and Sawna just said, "Eat." So I grabbed maybe, 4 M&Ms.  "Is that enough?"  She looked at me incredulously, so I grabbed, maybe 4 more M&Ms and 2 pretzels.  "OK?" She walked on, so I stood  up.

I thought the lowest point of the race was going to be the Edison fire road descent, but the next 30 seconds were the lowest.  I took 2 steps forward and almost couldn't move.  I walked on trying to pull myself out of this massive implosion and blown legs.  I gave up on 24 hours, I would walk it in. I had nothing left.  I had done enough for the day.  I could deal with the regrets later.

"Dude, I've got nothing left."

"OK.  Let's go." she softly replied to me. Sawna took off up the shitty, miniscule hill out of Millard.  Fuck.  I had to follow.  And double what the fuck?? My legs moved.

So we hiked, and then ran.  She pulled me all the way down El Prieto with perfect pacing and small words of encouragement like, "You're doing fine."  The rolling ups and downs and flowing turns of El Prieto pounded my legs, but I could feel the silver buckle.  I focused on what it would feel like to cross the line under 24 hours.  What I would do when I crossed.  Then I'd snap back and count time and miles.  It might be long was the road section again??  I can't remember.  Sawna was confident that we'd make it.  She ran on and I followed, trying to push through the lows to keep consistent motion until the climb from the JPL road into Altadena.  I hiked the climb and we ran through the neighborhood to Lincoln Ave.  I knew as soon as we hit Lincoln that I had it.  I had 15 or 17 minutes or something to go 2 blocks.  We pushed on and turned the corner onto Palm, where the last thing Sawna said was, "Now you RUN to the finish."  Yep.  So I ran and crossed the finish line at 23:47...only a couple handfuls of minutes to spare.  The relief of crossing the line and laying on the ground flooded over me.  Finally. Fucking. Done.
What a run. So glad to be done.  Photo: Amy Maurer

Have a seat anywhere why don't you? It's not like Andy is like, 2 minutes back and coming through the finish soon! Photo: Amy Maurer

Moments later, I rolled under the race tape marking the finish chute, drank like, 2 sips of broth, and started violently shivering.  I put on jackets, pants, a 15 degree sleeping bag...I was now sweating...and shivering violently.  Fucking 100 milers dude...I had no calories left and no way to regulate my body temperature.  So I slept.  Through families screaming for their runners finishing, more finishers, music.  2 hours later I woke up, just before 7am and could speak again.  Amy, Clint and Sawna were there chilling, as well as my buddy Kevin who was crewing for Tyler.  I fucking love my friends.

Lights out, dude.  Photo: Amy Maurer


I've never leaned on my pacers and crew like I did in this race.  I sunk further into the darkness than ever before.  I didn't sleep.  Clint flew down from Nor Cal to run the show for the first half of the race.  He drove a rental all over the mountains, picked up Amy from the finish so she could crew the back half, and was everything that a runner could ask for at the aid stations.  Our brains synced up throughout the race and everything was seamless.  He pulled me out of a massive low spot, and epic-ly sent me off to the Chantry Aid with some projectile vomiting.  He recovered, and Amy waited for him at the aid station...all's well that ends well!

Sawna was the most badass pacer I've had.  I've never needed to lean on a pacer like I did at AC, and she held the weight (not literally...) and then some, single handedly motivating me to the finish with the right pace and the right words at the right time.

Amy, as she did 2 years ago at my first 100 (Kodiak 100...great race, beautiful single-loop course, highly recommend!), killed it in the aid stations.  I know she worries that she doesn't know what she's doing because she's not a runner, but she is always flawless with the crew.  I still can't believe that she volunteers for this shit though she's not a runner.  But that's friendship, and I love my friends.

I could go on with talking about runners and others that I saw out there, but I think my feelings on that front boil down to that I really was just happy to be among friends, home again.  Home again after a shitty, depressing 3 weeks in a new place, with no home and few friends, locked in my own brain and unable to run hard through a taper.

Would I have been better on more miles in training? Did I need better nutrition options? Would I have been better off without the life turmoil before the race?  It didn't matter.  It also helped that I got the buckle.

And what about my other friends who were racing?

After seeing Guillaume in 6th near Hillyer Aid, he ended up winning! Finally, after 3 years of trying, he got the win! Congratulations dude, you worked hard for that!

Dom ended up pulling himself out of a low spot and closing hard for 3rd.  Beastly finish and a testament to his experience and tenacity.

Katie suffered stomach issues and had to drop after throwing up for 40 miles, as you may have guessed after I mentioned seeing her at Chilao.  I'm sure she'll be back, maybe after a break for a year or two.

Joe finished, Ian finished, Tyler finished.  Epic runs occurred from first to last, and I was stoked to be a part of the whole experience.

I don't really have a thesis for this report...but maybe the theme is the long journey that I've been on since I started running, both as a runner and in life.  I've been pretty much a mental disaster since the summer.  It took me 2.5 months to write this race report.  It took me a month after the race just to start it.  When I picked it back up 6 weeks ago I couldn't even remember what I had written, and I kind of liked the first half after I read it again. I sat on it on it for another 5 weeks before I edited and posted it.  The last half of the report was pretty much stream of conscious writing, and it needed some coherency checks.

It's now been just under 5 months since I arrived in Denver.  I've made new friends, my job is amazing and keeps me motivated, working amongst an incredibly intelligent and passionate group.  In a small way, Colorado is starting to feel like home...there's a lot to like about it, from the slower pace and friendly people, to the low-key but extensive brewery scene.  It hasn't been the easiest 5 months of my life, but now every time I see pictures of my friends on Facebook, living in California together, running together, training together, I miss them and I miss my first home and the place that I lived for 31 years.  But there could not have been a better way to start my foray into a new, exciting place and to leave behind my home than by running my home race, with my home community, and seeing my friends chasing their dreams alongside mine.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Race Report: 2016 Zion 100 - Quick and Dirty Hundo Running

The terrain around the Zion 100 is beautiful!
Zion 100, April 8th, 2016:  A fabulous race over incredibly beautiful, expansive sedimentary desert mesas, canyons, and washes.  It's also where I pretty much wrote the book on how not to race 100-miles.  In this race report, I may or may not attempt to convince myself that how I prepared and raced was entirely adequate and should be the blueprint for all future races, while simultaneously outlining why I done fucked up good.

1.  Preparation.  

100-milers deserve respect, nay, they DEMAND respect!  If you show up to race 100-miles without some respect for the distance, you're likely to, as Howie Stern says, put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.  This respect means preparing: miles run, hills climbed, sleep gotten, and healthy food eaten.  Right.  So for Wasatch Front last year, I logged 100+ mile weeks, 25k+ weekly vert, diligently worked my core and flexibility, drank significantly less beer than I had previously, and entered the race feeling strong and ready to tackle one of the toughest 100-milers that the US has to offer.  For Zion this year, a number of things differed.  Allow me to elaborate:
  1. I ran LA Marathon, my A-race for the early year, just 7 weeks before Zion.  I worked the road and track extensively, and put in almost no vert.  I also didn't log more than 70 miles in a week and only did that once.
  2. After LA, I focused on recovery and rebuilding my languishing mountain legs.  I had planned this phase in before I signed up for these races.  7 weeks to get mountain legs hard could a hundo with only 10,000 ft. of vert be?
  3. I hit a couple of 30+ mile runs to prepare and thought, "I can survive on my base  miles...from LAST YEAR...totally."  No weeks over 70 miles...I'll just hike the climbs and coast on my LA Marathon flatland speed.  Sound plan, dude.
  4. I like beer, so I consumed a nominal amount.  Probably didn't help me achieve racing weight (see 'lack of miles', above).  My diet could have used work too.
  5. Sleep? Consistency? Work sent me to Florida like 3 times in 5 weeks.  Not only is that the fucking worst place outside the 7 circles of hell, but it's flat as shit to boot.  Even Sisyphus got hill training during his eternal damnation.  (note to self: Google around for Sisyphean training plan for hills)
  6. To ice the cake, my core and stability work (after completely destroying myself at LA) was lacking.  I was working long hours and making excuses why half workouts or no workouts were OK.  Nice job, asshole.
OK.  So my preparation was as good as it could have been (was it? Not really.) considering that Zion was not a priority for me (clearly), so why was I racing it anyway? I'll tell you:  I need more experience at the 100-mile distance.  With AC 100 coming up this summer, I wanted another hundo to have shit go wrong and learn lessons (foreshadowing: lessons were learned).  Additionally, I wanted some UTMB points, and last year Zion was awarded 6, so I'm hoping they get the same this year.  Finally, running some shitty loop course is fucking bullshit.  Zion's beauty is stark and majestic, and the race comes highly recommended by literally every runner that has ever set foot on the course.  This meets all of my criteria for a 100-mile race.

Next time: If possible, put in the miles.  70, 80, 90 mile weeks with workouts, vertical, and plenty of recovery.  Also, no plane flights or flat landing.  Florida blows.

2. Paying a-fucking-ttention.  

I showed up at the race with my buddy Pedro the day before the race.  Pedro was going to race, but was dealing with injury recovery, so instead of signing up/signing the death warrant for his hip, he decided to come out and just run Angel's Landing and enjoy the desert with some shorter miles.  I got my bib, prepared my gear, ate a shit-ton of ravioli and went to bed.  The sky is still light at 8:30pm in South-Western Utah at this time of year, but I eventually knocked out for ~7 hours of sleep around 9pm.  Coffee/Breakfast and I was at the start ready to go by 5:55am.  We camped at the start/finish which was amazingly convenient.  The weather report/copious emails from the race director that promised the rain apocalypse indicated that rain was in the forecast.  No rain as of the morning, so I was feeling good, but I packed a rain shell just in case.  

OK, so far I'm still paying attention.

Running around Flying Monkey Mesa
My nutrition plan was to use these new Ultimate Direction soft flasks filled with Fluid Performance Drink and supplement with Clif Shot gels (Vanilla, my favorite.  That shit tastes like frosting.  Not exaggerating, keep it away from your kids).  The math adds up: 100 cal per flask, plus 100 cal gel = 300 cal per hour.  19 aid stations means that I should average somewhere between 250 and 300 calories an hour depending how much I eat in the aid stations...perfect.  Right?  You guessed it, wrong.  I'm an idiot and though it seems reasonable to drink 29 oz. of water an hour, I was NOT EVEN CLOSE.  Normally, in the summer time, in the mountains, 29 oz. of water an hour is easy, but at Zion it was cool and I wasn't downing the drinks.  So now my drop bags are packed and distributed with a failed nutrition strategy.  Way to pay attention, self.  Idiot.  Additionally, it's fucking hard to guage how much of a soft flask I am drinking.  Is it half? Maybe? I dunno?  There was some chugging involved at almost every aid station.  My normally methodical in-race calorie counting was FUBAR before I realized it 30 miles in.  Fuck.  More on this later.
Cruising into Dalton Wash Aid @ Mile 30 w/ Matt Smith.  You can already see my hips are unstable! Photo: Pedro Martinez
OK, so I wasn't paying attention to nutrition.  I must have done other stuff right...right?

Rewind to the start.  We already know that my nutrition is soon-to-be out the window, so what about my racing?  Maybe if I'm being conservative, since my preparation was lackluster, I wouldn't be blowing through calories, so failed nutrition wouldn't be in issue.  Good theory, but obviously it's incorrect if you are sensing the foreshadowing of the title of this section.  Well done Sherlock, you've cracked the case!  At mile 0, I had heard there are massive conga lines that form between the 100-milers and 100k-ers who start together and climb Flying Monkey mesa within the first 4 miles.  Actual good idea (seriously): go out a bit hard for the first half mile or mile to line up at the front.  I started the climb in maybe 20th or 30th position and was not at all wasted (yet).  Maybe this was a good idea, or maybe a conga line would have forced me to control my pacing better, I dunno.
Sunrise from Flying Monkey Mesa
What I do know is that after the first mile, I settled into an effort level (judged by heart rate) that was similar to Wasatch Front last year.  This was a ridiculous idea for a couple of reasons.  1. Last year I was clocking weeks with hill repeats, intervals, tempo runs, long runs.  My lactate threshold was sky high, meaning that my lactate threshold heart rate was probably sky high too.  This means I could have been burning significantly more calories per hour at Zion than at Wasatch at the same heart rate (or maybe not...maybe the LA Marathon LT work carried over.  I dunno...physiologists, correct me).  2. A burly aerobic system does not strong legs make.  Just because my engine was spinning at low effort, doesn't mean my non-mountain legs were ready to support this effort on steep mesa climbs and descents.  Damn.  No attention being paid.

OK, so I'm a mild disaster zone in the first 30 miles, compared to what I'd like to feel like (except for that one dude we passed on the way down who was at mile 15 going up and looked like death) did I completely blow it, or just blow it in those 2 areas?

Let's find out.

I get up onto Guacamole Mesa around mile 17 or so and do a 7.5 mile loop on single track and slickrock.  The expansive vistas rose above the marbled, rolling rock and dominated the view in most directions.  Breathtaking!  Unfortunately, slickrock is hard and not-ever-level, and I could not find a rhythm.  Accelerate, turn, wobble, step, spot for a marker, decelerate, turn, step...and on on on on on.  Does this sound like I could have used a strong core and hips?  Yes.  Did I have these things? No.  I focused on hip positioning, cadence, and form, but that only goes so far with weak muscles and structure.
Matt Smith, Nick Budzyn, and Debbie (Livingston?) running by a slickrock pool of water on Guacamole Mesa
By the time I hit the aid station before the descent, I could feel my back tightening up and my legs feeling worked.  Fuck dude.  This is like, 25 miles in.

I suppose this is a good time to mention that in addition to my poor decisions, as mentioned above, I had also found my buddy Matt Smith, the Kodiak 100 RD and overall awesome dude.  We were cracking jokes and having a good time sharing miles and I didn't want to let the knowledge that he's way faster than me plus my ever-growing-more-beaten-up legs get the best of my totally-reasonable heart rate data that was encouraging me to continue at this pace. So I stayed with him all the way down from Guacamole, through Dalton Wash aid at mile 30, until mile 34 where he smoked me up the last half of the Gooseberry climb.  On the descent from Guacamole, we talked about how we both felt worked, but I'll be honest in that I think he was less worked than me.  Or maybe that's wishful thinking.
Cool formation from the Gooseberry climb.  I think this is where Redbull Rampage is held!
Can it get any worse?  Maybe, but they say it gets worse before it gets better, right?

I clock into Gooseberry Aid #1 and am realizing my calorie mistakes.  It is now becoming tough to take gels with Fluid to wash them down, so I switch over to Fluid in 1 flask and water in the other and 2 gels per hour.  This worked great.  Fluid is amazing and easy on the stomach, so I enjoyed getting as much calorie from that as possible while still being able to take down gels.  This means that every one of my drop bags is heavy on Fluid and light on gel.  Luckily, I made it work with aid station food and gels.  The Zion 100 aid stations are STOCKED! Pickles, bacon, and quesadillas were my new best friends!

I set out to get the 4.5 miles to the Gooseberry Point Aid.  I thought I was done with slickrock, but NOPE! Sadly there was a metric fuckton more.  My back was getting worse and worse and I was stopping to stretch regularly.  Nothing was working, I had a dehydration headache from my nutritional disasters of the first 30 miles, and my mind began to wander into the darkness of how I was going to finish the race with a weak back, worsening form and impending pain.  I got into the aid station, ate more pickle and 'dilla, and headed into the 1-mile out and back to Gooseberry Point where we punch our bibs to signify completion of the section.  I saw Matt almost a mile ahead of me, and after hitting the aid station for a second time, headed back out onto the 6.5 mile section to get back to Gooseberry Aid #2.  More fucking slickrock, flag spotting, and white dots (the slickrock, thankfully, is marked with white dots for the mountain bikers to follow to get from single track to single track).

I'm worried.  Really worried.  I'm feeling better by the moment, but my back is still wrecked at only 47 miles in.  My girlfriend recommended childs pose stretching n(via text, yep, was texting updates to my buddies while I climbed), so I tried that and some cat/cow stretching in the aid station...and it worked!  My back released I and I finally felt better!  I don't know if it was getting my hydration and nutrition back on track, as well as the stretching that worked, but things were clicking again...20 miles later.

Next Time: Retain my methodical approach to calorie counting.  I like the soft flasks, but I think I will have to use bottles at AC.  Not just because of the counting difficulties, but I will need the extra water at a race as hot as AC.  Be smarter about pacing for my current fitness.  Be diligent about core work to support working hard over rough terrain.

3. Planning.  

Meadow/Farmland on Gooseberry Mesa.
Grafton Aid Photo: Nancy Kaplan

I actually put a lot of thought into my drop bags.  I tried to estimate course pacing, make good use of multiple-pass drop bags, and plan adequate gear for the expected temperatures.  I left Goosebump Aid #2 with my nighttime gear: In addition to my rain shell, which I carried all day, I brought arm warmers, gloves, a buff, and my headlamp in my vest and set out for Grafton Mesa Aid, 6 miles of wide-open fire road away.  I was clicking off 12 minute miles on average through this section and got into Grafton feeling great!

Leaving Grafton w/ Pedro.  Photo: Nancy Kaplan

My buddy Pedro had showed up at mile 30 aid (Dalton Wash) and was also at Grafton Mesa...but this time, he was wearing his running gear!  He said he was going to jump in for the out-and-back to Cemetery Aid and after filling up on Fluid and Clif Shots, we were off!

We rocked the descent to Cemetery...rolling, annoyingly curvy mountain bike single track with breathtaking views of the Zion National Park canyon entrances that eventually dump into a really cool, steep descent down a grass-lined trail of dirt and blackrock.

Cemetery Aid Descent.
It was about this time that the skies opened up and DUMPED.  The rain felt great, but I put on my arm warmers and we continued down the hill and into the aid feeling refreshed and then a little wary of the continuing downpour.  I filled up at Cemetery and headed back up the hill in my rain was cold on the steep climb!  Solid working on the hill and talking with Pedro, we rolled into Grafton #2 and I bid him adieu to start the 6 mile journey back to Goosebump Aid #3 under clearing skies.  I was actually running the 'hills' and 'descents', and feeling pretty good about things.  I was still feeling beat up, but at 60+ miles in, I was gaining confidence that I could make it in my current condition, and the beat up feeling of my legs was not dragging me down.  I had changed shirts twice in this section with another change planned at Goosebump to ditch the final wet shirt before night.  My rain pants were in my Goosebump drop bag, and I decided to leave them since the weather report indicated a decreasing chance of rain, and it was currently not raining.
The road to/from Grafton Mesa Aid Station.
Sunset on the way back to Goosebump #3
Well, after immediately descending the Gooseberry Climb (a face into the ground, chinscraping climb), my legs were again toast and I still had what I thought was 5 miles in the dark to the next aid station.  The relentlessly rolling fire road wound through washes and over ridges, seemingly traveling further and further into the desolate desert with no lights in sight.  I hit 5 miles later, where I thought the aid should have been, and it was pitch black.  The aid stations have these lights that are on 12 foot poles and show light for miles in each direction.  I could see the Goosebump Aid station light on the edge of the mesa for the remainder of the race, that's how bright it was!  But in my current position at mile 74.5, I was in the dark.  I didn't realize that it was 8 miles from Goosebump #3 to the next aid.  Fuck.  So I pretty much lost my shit for 2 miles: I ran out of water, struggled with stability, and silently cursed the world for the lack of an aid station.  It's somewhere around 9 or 9:30pm, so I've been running for 15ish hours on poor decisions, fucked up nutrition, and climbs/descents that my legs haven't seen for 6+ months.  I'm at a low say the least.  I finally hit red flags (flags indicating the first of 3 loops that I would soon have to complete) and knew I was at least within striking distance of the aid station.  1.5 miles later, I made it and sat down, exhausted and determined to keep my bad attitude to myself.  As soon as I cruised in, Pedro shows up, wearing full night running gear, ready to help fill bottles.  I packed up my vest, ate some food, and started violently shivering.  It was only 50+ degrees out, but as most 100-miler runners know, thermo-regulation goes out the window at this stage.  I drank some broth and headed out with Pedro to tackle the Red Loop: 4.7 miles.  I put on my rain shell to warm up (was already wearing all my other night gear) and within a half mile was warm again and hiking well up a very runnable climb (for someone who is not a broken shell of a 100-mile running man).  3.2 miles of climbing, and 1.5 miles of descending later, we were back at the aid.  I felt pretty good and was running the descent well.  I was in great shape for running sub 24!

White Loop.  Oh fuck.  We did a sub 1-minute aid to avoid the shivers and set out on the 6-mile white loop.  Wind started blowing.  Rain started falling.  My rain shell over arm warmers and wet shirt, even with hood up, gloves on and buff on, was not keeping my core warm.  I was fucking freezing.  My hips started to hurt and IT bands started to get tight.  Pain seared into my right leg as I kept my head down to keep the rain out of my face while I zoned into the headlamp circle to keep hiking.  50 degrees with wind and rain is nothing if you can move well and have sufficient caloric intake/thermo-regulation, but in my state, I was a shit show.  No words were spoken.  I just kept my head down and got passed by at least 3 runners as I took a 2 hour, 6-mile loop.  On the 2 mile descent back to the aid station, the pain got bad enough that I started limping until I found a weird walk-stride-turkey-gobble-something to move downhill faster than a walk but slower than a run.  This may have been the worst I've ever felt in a race.

With all that being said, race management is, I think, my strong suit.  Adapting to challenges and creating new plans to overcome adversities, so I created a plan in my mind of things that I needed at the aid station, and related it to Pedro who was patiently plodding behind me.  I always feel bad for a pacer who is dealing with a fucked up runner...pacers generally love running but are forced to walk at a snails pace on what is ostensibly great trail.  He even chose to pace AND crew me out of his own accord...I had planned on solo running the whole thing.  I was and am immensely grateful that he decided to show up because it helped me out of a really tough spot into a lot more comfort.  Here's how:

At the aid station, I headed into the warming tent (yes, they had an enclosed tent with chairs and heaters in it!) and took 4 Tylenol.  Then I stretched...everything.  Anything I could think of.  I dumped my trash, changed my headlamp battery, reloaded gel (not just for the next loop, but for the entire race, including Fluid as well).  Then Pedro came in from the the car, where he had grabbed my fleece pants and synthetic mid-layer jacket.  No rain pants to be found, since I left them at Goosebump like an idiot.  Idiot.  He also brought my hiking poles.  I knew that if I was going to be stuck at a hike again, poles would help a ton.

We headed out onto the trail for the final Blue Loop of the Virgin Desert section of the race.  6 miles and then another 6 to get to the finish.  It was 2:20am.  I knew that if I was going to hit 24 hours (6am) I needed to hike HARD.  So I started hiking fast.  I moved along downhill away from the aid station, waiting for the Tylenol to kick in so I could try to run.  About 10 minutes in, Pedro stopped to change flashlight batteries, and I kept on moving.  The trail steepened, and I decided to try and run it.  I picked up my poles and holy shit I could run again!  No pain!  I ran.  I have no idea what pace, not incredibly fast, but at least I could stomp some trail.  Curve after curve, I descended down to the Hurricane Canal.  Still no sign of Pedro, so I kept moving as the trail started to climb next to the Canal.  Pedro finally caught me with an exclamation of relief, thinking he had lost me because I had started running and he didn't expect me so far ahead.  We threaded and wound our way through the desert and light rain back up to the aid station by 4am.

Next Time: Plan for contingencies.  At least a long sleeve, if not a jacket to go under the shell at night.  Don't leave the rain pants at the last aid.  Just run them down and stuff them in the next drop bag.  Have everything I need in drop bags, not in the car.

4. The Finish

I really thought that I would need 2 hours to give myself some buffer space to finish the race in under 24 hours.  A runner told me I should ditch the poles, so I gave them to Pedro and took off by 4:01am.  I hammered the first 3 miles downhill to the road.  I think I covered this section in 35 minutes at which point I knew I had it in the bag.  Only 3 miles to go in 1.5 hours.  I can do this, especially feeling this good!  I took down my Fluid, and continued eating gels to keep my energy up.  My legs were holding up surprisingly well, and I reached the culvert at SR-9 ready to climb.  Unfortunately, the rain had started to fall heavily as I descended, and by the time I crossed under the road, the trail was a slip-n-slide!  I navigated upwards, attempting to pick the least slippery lines up climbs and skate/ski down the descents to traverse the terrain from the highway back around to the finish.  I lost a ton of time on these sections, but my watch kept me confident that I wouldn't be out of luck.  I wasn't, and after a slippery last 2 miles, I crossed the finish line with a time of 23:32.
It was a poorly executed race on my part, but I managed my self-made difficulties well to get to a sub-24 hour finish.  I think on a good day, I could approach 20 hours on this course, but not this day.

Pedro was at the finish, and after a cup of water, we headed back to camp and I crawled into my car to get into dry clothes and sleep.

The Aftermath

I've thought a lot about the race and what I could do better for AC.
  1. Consistency in the mountains.  It's tough to replace mountain running and be fast and comfortable in the mountains. Especially over 100 miles.
  2. Core & stability cannot be neglected.  I have a herniated L5/S1 disc from my college rugby days, and I think I have a wonky gait, because no matter how much PT I do, I have to be diligent with my stability and core work to support mileage and vert.
  3. Nutritional consistency.  Keep on with the tried and true nutrition plans.  Take that out of the equation as something that is likely to go wrong.  I'm adding pickles and sweet potato/salt to my AC100 list.
I think with a focus on these items, I should be able to eliminate some of the unnecessary suffering of my Zion experience so that I can fully focus on the necessary suffering.

The Main Gear

  1. New Balance 1210v2 Leadville - 1 pair of shoes the whole way.  No issues.
  2. Injinji Trail 2.0 Socks
  3. North Face Better Than Naked Long Haul Shorts
  4. Ultimate Direction AK Mountain Vest 3.0 w/ Soft Flasks
  5. Julbo Aero Photochromic Glasses
  6. Clif Shot Gels (Some Shot Bloks) and Fluid Performance Drink
  7. Garmin FR310XT w/ HR Monitor
Photo: Pedro Martinez