Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Race Report: 2016 Angeles Crest 100 Mile

Leaving the Western States lottery empty-handed in December 2015, I knew I still had my work cut out for me. The previous summer, Bob Shebest was on the Trail Runner Nation podcast. Bob said "sign up for the race that scares you." I pulled the trigger. It would be the final year of open registration  for the Angeles Crest 100.

Founded in 1986 (one of the "original six"), the run traverses the San Gabriel Mountains from the rustic town of Wrightwood to Altadena. The course features plenty of mountainous terrain. Sections of the beginning follow the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Unlike my previous 100 mile races, the 18,000+ feet of climbing spread out along the course, remaining above 6000 feet for the first 35 miles. The last 25 miles contain a third of the vertical gain: ~8,000 feet. Over 23,000 feet of descent opened the door for some running, I hoped.

2016 Angeles Crest 100 Mile course

2016 Angeles Crest vertical profile

A few months before the race, I agreed to take part in a research project for a Bay Area graduate student. Rachel wanted to study the role of "grit" during 100 mile trail races. Using a small electronic voice recorder, I answered three questions every ten miles: What is going on mentally? How will this effect my ability to finish the race? What else is going on with me physically?

Sciatica immediately derailed my training until February. Family medical issues thwarted a training race at Miwok 100k. Victor convinced me to run the Broken Arrow SkyRace as a tune-up. It went well. I was able to log almost 100 miles training at altitude between Broken Arrow and the race start. I fell three times in that period, bloodying my right knee each time. In Wrightwood the Wednesday before the race, I was unsure if the bulk of  the challenge lay ahead, or behind me. On Friday, I sliced my big toe open while wearing flip flops. I ended up super-gluing it shut.

I flipped the switch on my race goals. My "A" goal was to finish and get the Western States and Hardrock qualifiers. My "B" goal was to break 30 hours and my "C" goal was to set a 100 mile PR. I found this mindset served me well in planning and setting my expectations for the race. I planned my paces based on training runs at altitude on the PCT and TRT in Tahoe, focusing on ascent rate. I set ambitious goals for aid station transitions, just in case I was feeling good.

The best laid plan

In the final few days, my anxiety levels were off the charts. Under-trained, with no experience on the race course, I poured over maps and the race book. My crew, Twirly and Junior, helped me plan crew car logistics and race day strategy. I jogged around Wrightwood, bemused by the density of "Make America Great Again" signs. Friday check-in was mellow, and the pre-race meeting was short.

The calm before the storm

My race-morning rituals went well. Runners congregated in the Wrightwood Community Center parking lot. As the crowd counted down to 5 am, I could feel the nervous energy culminating. The guy next to me, Jon Vanderpot, reminded me of Hunter S. Thompson...if he were about to go up the Nung River. The run down Apple Avenue to Acorn Drive felt good. The start of a 100 miler is always such a relief. All the training and planning has ended. Nothing to do but run. Simplicity, manifest.

I climbed steadily, keeping my effort in line with my plan (heart rate below mid-zone 3). Noe Castanon and I compared notes. It was the first AC100 for both of us. I passed Amy Palmiero-Winters adjusting her prosthetic leg. I wished her well; she would drop at mile 25, vowing to return with a more appropriate leg! The rising sun set the sky ablaze. Sometimes smog is pretty.

I gained the PCT about 70 minutes into the race; it felt good to finally turn my legs over on the rolling ridgeline trail. I made some new friends and found some old ones along the single track. The first aid station, Inspiration Point (9.2 miles), came into view. I was about 5 minutes ahead of my planned split. Twirly exchanged my bottles and gave me a kiss. It would be my fastest transition of the race.

Easy early miles near Inspiration Point, photo by Paksit Photos

Mile ten: I'm executing well, holding back. Pre-race jitters are gone, confidence is back...

Vincent Gap, photo by Andy Noise
The next section lost more elevation, and I took care to contain my effort. Even so, these miles were spectacular! Runnable switchbacks brought my freight train conga line into the aid station. Arriving at Vincent Gap (mile 13.8), I was about fifteen minutes ahead of my splits. I would need the buffer on the long climb up Mount Baden-Powell. Twirly helped me switch into a hydration pack, as the next section was just under 12 miles without aid. In my haste, I ran out of the station without my handheld bottles full of Tailwind. She got my attention and I returned to grab them. It would have been a tall order to get over that mountain missing 400 calories. About ten meters out of the aid station, I felt a sharp stab in my foot. Further investigation revealed a nail poking through my insole! I returned to the aid station and found a volunteer with a Leatherman. It took him a good 30 seconds to pull the nail out of my Altra Olympus. At least I wasn't halfway up the mountain when it made itself known.

Princess and the pea? Try an Archmold insert, an Altra Olympus and the nail!

Climbing Mount Baden-Powell
Avoiding "burning a match" on the 2500' climb, I crested the high point of the race course in about an hour and a half. NorCal runners Katy Gifford and Karen Pierce kept me company. Jon Vanderpot gave me great beta on late-race splits. I struggled to stay present instead of dwelling on what lay ahead. I kept my effort easy in the thin air. The rolling single-track descended to Islip Saddle (mile 25.4).

Mile twenty: Pushed through "the wall", in a little bit of a low, starting to feel fatigued. Maybe a little doubt creeping in... Hamstrings are a little crampy, knees and ankles are a little sore...

Descending into Islip Saddle, photo by Paksit Photos

Arriving at Islip Saddle, photo by Andy Noise

The course was changed weeks before the race. A long stretch of highway running would replace the Mt. Williamson and Cooper Canyon sections of the run. I decided to change out of my trail running shoes and into a smoother rolling road shoe at Islip Saddle. Russell Lane, whom I met at Gorge Waterfalls 50k, staffed the medical tent. I sat down while I changed my shoes and Twirly assisted. A runner was getting an IT band massage on a cot nearby. I had a lacrosse ball in my Victory Sportdesign Grizzly crew bag. I offered it to the medic; she ended up putting 'massage tools' on the inventory for the following year. I attempted a pit-stop, but failed to launch. Leaving the aid station I asked Co-RD Hal Winton how far it was to the next station. "Go that way!" he said, pointing down the highway. I consulted my split sheet, and set out to put some pavement behind me.

Highway 2, photo by Louis Kwan

Pokemon Go! photo by Louis Kwan
The heat radiated from the asphalt. Efficient movement was my goal. I ran when I could, and hiked the rest of the time. Just before the highway passed through two tunnels, Twirly drove by. She honked and confirmed she had the lacrosse ball. After the tunnels, a mile of single track brought me to Eagle's Roost aid station (mile 27.7). My struggle to stay present continued. I was ready for some ice in my hat and arm sleeves. Four and a half miles of highway followed; I slogged through much of this section, managing my core temperature and hydrating. Twirly surprised me with a dance party at a wide spot in the road. Louis Kwan was taking pictures along this stretch dressed as Pikachu. Things were getting surreal.

Mile thirty: Feeling a little uncomfortable.

At Cloudburst Summit (mile 32) I assessed my situation. My legs felt great. I was only 25 minutes behind my planned pace, due in large part to extended aid station transitions. I was hitting my planned splits for each section. It was getting hot. My stomach churned. I drank some Coke with ice (heaven) and begged a few Gin-gin chews from another runner's crew. On my way out I stuffed my hat and sleeves with ice. A short section of trail spit me out onto the highway again, for what would be the last mile and a half of Highway 2. I tried to keep my legs turning over on the gradual descent. By the time I got to the next section of trail I was entering the pain cave. Water and Tailwind went down okay, but I had to force myself to eat gels and Clif Foods. The stomach was shutting down. My momentum  carried me to the Three Points aid station (mile 36.5). I ate some baked mac & cheese and quesadilla. They refilled my ice supplies while I wiped off my face. I finally had a successful pit stop before departing the aid station. Although I did have to use my TP kit, as the latrine was... wiped out.

Wheels coming off... Photo by Paksit Photo
I rode a fine line between discomfort and running on the new section of the Silver Moccasin trail. The volunteer at the exit of Three Points indicated it would be 5 miles to the next aid station. My sheet said it would be 3.5. It ended up 3.25! Mt. Hilyer #1 (mile  40) was the launching point for an 8.5 mile out and back climb of Mt. Pacifico. Runners who were 8 miles ahead of me rolled into the station on the return trip. It was good to get a sense of the climb from them. Most were pretty worked. "Exposed," "brutal" and "not fun" was the common consensus around the station. I went through my drop bag, preparing for the long fire road.

Mile forty: Fighting off a deep low. Apathy is setting in. Lost my high gear.

I filled a small zip lock with some calories and hit the road. The out and back gave me an opportunity to say hi to those I knew in the race. Chris Jones was looking good as he jogged down the hill about 4 miles in front of me. Katy Gifford and Karen Pierce were looking comfortable about a mile in front of me. At the Mt. Pacifico aid station (mile 44), I filled up with ice. A runner lay motionless on a sleeping pad, medical staff at his side. I turned to run down the road, and failed. With every running step, my stomach would cramp and a side stitch would flare up. Then the hiccups started. Hiccups and I have a hateful relationship: I have had them for hours at a time. I was able to reign in my diaphragm with careful breathing, drinking water and relaxing. I resigned to use my power hike to make my way off the mountain as fast as I could.

Climbing Mt Pacifico, photo by Chris Jones

At Mt. Hilyer #2 (mile 48) I figured the round trip took about 2:30. Despite not having any reliable elevation or mileage data for this section, I had planned about 2:15 for the out and back. I was still executing my planned paces, but I was losing time refueling in the aid stations. I continued to use the zip lock baggie to carry food with me. After some soup I tackled the climb over to Chilao aid station.

Mile fifty: Very frustrated. Bonking. I don't like being in this head-space.

The sun was getting low in the sky, and temperatures were cooling. I began to feel better as the trail descended into Chilao Flats. Twirly would be handing off crewing duties to Junior, and I would pick up my first pacer Kenny Ringled. Here I was at mile 52, and I was just beginning to get my second wind.

Looking for that second wind, photo by Twirly

I got out of my wet shirt and hat, changed into my newest pair of Vibram Olympus 2.0's and got ready for the dark. Having four people crewing at the same time got a little hectic. Between the shoe change and shuttling food to me I kept everyone busy for the fifteen minutes I was there. The Otter Pops saved me. Kenny and I set out into dusk, and by the time I needed to turn my flashlight on I felt I could run again. Having a pacer helped distract me, and I was moving well.

I picked off a few spots crossing the Big Tujunga River canyon. When I arrived at Shortcut Saddle aid station (mile 59.3), Junior was ready with a new pack for me. I was ready for another pit-stop, but to no avail. There were no porta-johns between Chilao and Chantry Flats. "The world is your toilet" one volunteer exclaimed with outstretched arms... I had a couple servings of soup and some more soda, filling my zip-lock with pretzels and GORP.

Mile sixty: Stomach problems diminshing, frustration abating. I think I've got this one in the bag.

"Five miles down and three up" was the salutation from the volunteer as I left the aid station. Kenny pointed out the lights of Newcomb's Saddle aid station (mile 67.9). A string of headlamps made their way across the canyon. It seemed far. I found a pile of rocks to do my business behind. We continued to make our way to the canyon floor, running when practical. The hiccups returned a few times. I was able to gain control each time by stopping, drinking and relaxing. The three mile climb up to Newcomb's Saddle was my second low point of the race. I reached the aid station on the verge of bonking, and took about 20 minutes to refuel and regroup. I had hoped Junior and David would be at Chantry in time to talk to them via the tele-link, but they had not arrived yet. The hiccups continued to manifest, but each time I fought them off. 

Chantry Flats with David and Kenny, photo by Junior
The stretch between Newcomb's Saddle and Chantry Flats (mile 74.5) reminded me a lot of Cal Street at States. Descending single track, not too technical, found me running when footing allowed. I passed a couple of runners, and had to slow down as we neared the canyon floor. The trail became rocky and I did not want to trip. After a short climb into the aid station, I collapsed into a chair and collected myself. I changed into a dry shirt and buff, switched out my pack and ate as much as I could. Another pit stop and forty minutes later, I was finally ready to tackle Mt. Wilson. David took over pacing duties, and Junior was off the hook. I would not see any crew until the finish line almost nine hours later.

Mile seventy: Another bonk-driven low. My legs feel good, but the hiccups are killing me.

Dead Man's Bench, photo by David Leeke
I had not memorized the elevation profile. As we began the climb, the trail would take a turn and go downhill. This frustrated me. I knew that every foot I lost was a foot I had to climb. We gained the Winter Creek Trail and began climbing in earnest. Earlier in the race, atop Mount Baden-Powell, I had met AC veteran Jon Vanderpot. He had given me some splits from Chantry to the finish. Getting to Dead Man's Bench before the sun rises had eluded him thus far. I had his words in my head as I raced the sunrise to the ridge. I stopped to pee about an hour and fifteen minutes into the climb, and here comes Jon hiking like a bat out of hell. I asked him for some info on the rest of the climb and he told me he never remembers any of it. Ten minutes later we were at the bench. The sun had not broken the horizon yet. I'm glad I got to share that spot with Jon, he is a class act (more on that later.)

Sunrise from Wilson Toll Road, photo by David Leeke
Mile eighty: Very tired, beginning to do math in my head... Still suffering GI issues. The hardest part of the race is behind me.

Little climbing remained before we arrived at the Mount Wilson Toll Road, a rock strewn but runnable grade coming off the mountain. The marine layer carpeted the valley obscuring the city below. It was gorgeous. Instead of returning to civilization it gave the impression we were still far afield. We ran above the clouds and continued to pick up carnage. One of the walking wounded was Chris Jones. I passed him about a mile and a half above Idlehour aid station. He had been running with Alison Chavez, who had put a gap on him. We rounded a corner, and I heard Chris behind me yelling to Alison over the cliff to the aid station below. Their call and response was cute. #sufferbetter

Wilson Toll Road, photo by David Leeke

Knowing that pancakes were on the menu at Idlehour aid station (mile 83.5) lit a fire under my ass. I ran the last mile into the aid station feeling fresh and rejuvenated. My form felt strong. I had strength reserves on tap. I devoured a few pancakes and thanked Lawrence Miller (a Cat I met at Gorge Waterfalls) and crew for an outstanding station. Five and a half miles up the final climb. The barn was just over that hill...

Smelling the barn. Wait... Nope... That's L.A. Photo by David Leeke

Mile ninety: I can smell the barn. I'm in a hurry. The more I move, the less my feet hurt.

Returning to civilization, photo by David Leeke
It took me about two hours of steady climbing in the morning sunshine before I arrived at Sam Merrill aid station (mile 89). I continued to stuff food in, and the breakfast sausage at this station hit the spot. I left with a bottle of Tailwind and a bottle of Redbull. I had saved my legs for this stretch. I knew it was going to be technical. In the end, it was my tender feet which prevented me from attacking this section. After a couple miles of semi-runnable forested trail, we dropped into the high desert. The marine layer had burned off, revealing the humanity below. Tourists, day hikers and fresh-smelling trail runners grew in density. The eroded trail required close attention to footing. I did my best to keep my momentum up and not trip. After another two hours I found myself at the final aid station, Millard CG (mile 95.6). I put my pack in my Victory Sportdesign Cougar II drop bag (the new model has an expansion feature). I put on a fresh shirt and hat, and got out in about seven minutes. Less than five miles to the finish, with a decent descent. I could smell the barn BIG TIME.

Happy feet, photo by Andy Noise

Feeling stronger as the finish line grew near, I ran hard. Single track gave way to fire road. Fire road gave way to pavement and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. David said it felt like we were running into a sort of Mad Max industrial complex. We climbed a short dirt section, and then we were on the streets of Altadena. Suburbanites cheered us along, and I could see a string of runners in front of me walking it in. I kept running. All the way into Loma Alta Park, across the grass and through the finish line. I threw my bottles into the air and ran into Hal's arms, thanking him for the experience. Tearful hugs from Junior, David and Twirly followed.

The final miles, photo by Louis Kwan

The unbearable relief of finishing, 31:32:57, 97th place
Hugging it out with Dad, priceless

David and I have been enabling each other for many miles

2016 Angeles Crest 100 award ceremony

The community surrounding this race is what left the biggest imprint upon me. The encouragement and support I received (I often heard a surprised volunteer say "Wow! You look great!") was fantastic and uplifting. The visceral experience of running these 100 miles faded away days later. The love and support these runners and organizers share is boundless.

Naomi Ruiz finishes just after the cut-off, p/c unknown

A SoCal runner named Naomi Ruiz finished about 15 minutes after the cut-off. Her joy mixed with the anguish of the effort scrawled across her face. At the awards ceremony, Jon Vanderpot gave his buckle to Naomi. That selfless act embodies this community. I feel fortunate to have shared a few miles with him. The race had some obstacles to overcome this year. It is obvious to me that there are many people who care about the event. That stewardship will carry it far into the future. Angeles Crest holds onto the old school trail running atmosphere. There were no PA systems or music blaring at the aid stations. Overall, the event feels pure.

I do not feel I have anything to prove on this course, and as such may not return. I will cherish the memories and friendships that came out of this year's race. Congratulations to all who attempted the distance. Heartfelt thanks to all the volunteers and organizers. Good luck to all who will consider the Angeles Crest 100 Mile in the future.One anecdote I have to share before I go:

Whenever I asked how far it was to the next aid station, I received a different answer. Different from another volunteer at that station, different from the race book, different from what my Garmin clocked. The experience was remarkably consistent. I began to think that they were just messing with me, so I talked about this with other runners. They agreed it was happening. But every time an aid station volunteer would answer the question, they always padded the distance. That made all the difference.

See you on the trails...

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