This was my “A” race. The race I’d been looking forward to all year. The race that all the others were in preparation for. As you may have gathered, this was a rough year for me as far as running goes. I’d been fairly healthy over the past few years, but the ankle injuries suffered in March really set me back and made me realize I’m not invincible out there. I had 3 races between March and April. One of which I sprained my ankle, and the others in which I hobbled through, just gritting it out to get to the finish line. I learned a lot about myself in those races. First, whether for better or worse, I’m not very good at backing down from a challenge. And second, that getting to the starting line healthy is more important than getting in one more long run or workout.
Although I was underprepared for TRT, at least I was healthy. And who really ever goes into a race feeling totally prepared? This was my opportunity at redemption. To race well and feel strong out there. As much as I tried to be positive during training, on almost every run I still had a flashback to my ankle sprain and would feel my whole body coil. I would tell myself “strong ankles” over and over again as I hit the trails, whether technical or bike path. I had visions of starting TRT and re-spraining the ankle in the first couple of miles. So I prepared, and visualized positive thoughts of crossing the finish line, and prepared some more. I made sure I started the race with a headlamp to be able to spot every little rock in the trail even though it was probably unnecessary. I even did my volunteer trail work hours on the same trail we’d be starting the race on. I forfeited using my favorite cushy Ultra Olympus shoes in favor of a lower profile Altra Lone Peak in order to increase my stability on the trail. I was worried about the altitude. I had never done a long run at altitude so I made a few trips to Tahoe and the Eastern Sierras to get in some runs at elevation similar to the Rim Trail. I locked in an experienced pacer, runner and friend to help me get through the second 50 miles and give me advice on the first 50. I got micro spikes and went for a few runs on the Pacific Crest Trail as there was still a lot of snow expected on the course. I had Michelle, my wife, crewing for me just like my first two 100 milers. I did what I could to help my chances of making it through this race, and this is what happened….
I arrived on Friday to packet pickup, dropped off my bag, and got weighed in. 183. Not bad, I think I lost about 15 pounds in the last 4-5 months with all the training. Pretty much my high school weight that I never thought I’d see again. I thought it may also put less stress on my ankle. Excellent. I saw a friend, Jacob, who was pacing another runner, and fellow Coastside Running Club members, Ron and Paula. We chatted and snapped a few pictures before the pre-race meeting where the RD let us know that there was far less snow on the course now than had been there the week before. No micro spikes needed. Perfect. Things were lining up nicely.
It’s always good seeing familiar faces at the start line. I saw Ron again, Gary who was also running the 100, and Megan who is a machine and is at almost every race. It puts me at ease until the gun goes off. I start at the back of the pack. I’ve been forewarned that everyone tries to go out fast and that its a bottleneck one you get to the first single track anyway so I hang back with Gary and we plug along slowly. This is good. I feel relaxed and excited. It’s an easy pace, maybe too easy as we hike in a conga line. Gary turns to me and says, want to go around them? I enjoy running with Gary so I say “sure” and we start passing people on the narrow single track. I have to step off the trail at times and realize that this is exactly what I should not be doing. The uncertainty of the unstable footing puts me in place. I get back in line where it’s safe. As we approach Marlette Lake, I recognize the surroundings. I had mountain biked here about 15 years ago with Michelle, and another friend. It brings back good memories and makes me feel more relaxed. Perfect.
Gary and I find each other again. This happens in every race we are in together. Our paces are very different on the ups and downs, but they always average out to be around the same. He tells me he’s seen Ron who is a few minutes ahead. We get to the first aid station, Hobart, at mile 7. It’s already set up as a bar, but I decide that I drink enough when I’m not racing, so I grab some electrolyte and a gu instead. My stomach is feeling unsettled so I use the restroom. Okay, that’s out of the way, only 93 more miles to go. I see Ron already climbing the uphill out of Hobart. I expect this will be the last I see of him all day. He’s run the 50 mile course and is planning on going much faster than me. I feel comfortable running some rolling terrain and we cross our first snow fields on the way to Tunnel Creek aid station. The views from up on the ridge leave me breathless. Oh wait, that’s actually the lack of air up here. I keep going and hit a nice long downhill with lots of switchbacks. Now, this is what I love. I’ve been enjoying the run so far, but this gives me a taste of why I’m really our here. It’s technical and I’m chit chatting. Focus, remember, “strong ankles”. I feel light on my feet and cruise down the hill letting my body pick up speed. I don’t feel like a runaway freight train like I sometimes do, I just feel relaxed. I see Ron and we start talking. He informs me that we’re ahead of 22 hour pace. Part of me thinks “uh oh, I need to slow down! I shouldn’t be up here with him!” and the other part thinks “who cares, I’m just feeling the flow!”. From what I can tell, Ron and I are very different in our running styles. I’ve always run by feel rather than thinking about pace, but Ron is a much more experienced and talented runner and seems very calculated with all aspects of his races. Although I know its not a wise decision, I decide to keep on cruising as the downhill just keeps on going.
I get to Tunnel Creek aid station at mile 12. This is the main aid station where I have left my drop back. We will hit this 6 times during the course of the race due to various loops that are run. The Red House loop comes next. This race is called “A glimpse of Heaven and a Taste of Hell”. Well, this loop is what is referred to as the hellish part. I head down a steep sandy hill and get passed by someone that’s literally bounding down the hill. Another runner and I look at each other and conclude that he must be the race leader for the 55k that started an hour later than us. I catch up to another runner, Israel, that I recognize from Canyons 100k and Lake Sonoma 50. We seem to have done many of the same races and enjoy catching up. We have to cross a few streams and some people are trying to tip toe around them. I know that there is a creek crossing soon that is supposed to be thigh deep so I just head straight through the mud and streams. The Red House aid station is well stocked and I head back up the hill. I know that I’m way ahead of pace and its still early in the day, and maybe that’s why this loop feels ok. I know there’s a mile steep climb back up to the top, but the rest of this loop is quite nice.
I get back into Tunnel Creek at mile 18 and decide to take the time to change my socks and shoes. I’ve never done this so early in a race before, but my feet got really torn up at Canyons and I knew I just went through the only creek crossing on the course so I decided to go for it. Michelle had made the 3.5 mile hike up to the aid station as well and greeted me with great big smiles. Phew, that was a relief. I always under estimate what time I will be at the first crew stop. Mostly because I know I shouldn’t be going that fast early on, but at least she knows me well enough at this point to not really listen to me so she got there way before I told her I would be there. I refuel and head off towards Diamond Peak. I keep flip flopping with a couple of guys from Virginia. One of them informs me that his friend ran an 18 or 19 hour 100 miler on the east coast. That “uh oh” feeling comes back again. I don’t feel like I’m going too fast, but these signs keep on popping up. When I get into Diamond Peak aide station at Mile 30 I’m 35 minutes ahead of 24 hour schedule. I was planning on finishing in 27-28 hours meaning that I was about 1.5 hours ahead of that schedule. Maybe I should look into this pacing thing a bit more.
I had run out of water on the way to Diamond peak, despite a full 2 liters in my hydration pack. What can I say, I sweat a lot and it was hot out. Michelle is there again and helps me refuel. I down some OJ, Ensure protein drink, a gu, and some cantaloupe. The cantaloup tastes so good I bring a baggie of it with me, and fill a bandana and my arm compression sleeves with ice. I see Ron fly through the aid station and head up that beast of a hill, Diamond Peak’s Bull Wheel. Man, he’s fast! I start heading up the hill. I’ve been warned about it many times and was cautioned to save some energy for the second time we have to do it at mile 80. I’m hiking at an easy pace and Gary comes flying up on me. Man, he’s fast too! He warns me that what we are climbing is nothing compared to how steep the hill gets and that there are multiple false summits. He takes off and attacks it. This leaves me in awe every time I see it. And I’ve seen it a lot. I think Gary passes me on every steep hill of every race we’ve been in together. But this hill is different, even bigger and meaner than Willow Camp on Mount Tam. As I start heading up the steep sections, I keep losing my footing in the loose sand. My body is melting under the sun, and my confidence is being crushed as runner after runner keeps passing me. There must have been 20-30 runners that passed me on this hill. One of them, an older man, turns to me and says “don’t worry, it will be easier the second time around”. I let out a pathetic laugh and he reassures me that once the sun goes down, it will be easier. I don’t believe him and wonder if I’ll be back to test his theory. This hill felt like it was never going to end. I tried telling myself that most of the people passing me must have been doing the 50 mile course, but I knew that wasn’t really the case. I finally got to the top and felt deflated. I tried to be so prepared for this race. I did everything I could. Except for this. I knew how bad this section would be and I ignored it. It makes me realize how important race specific training is. If you are going to hit something like this in the middle of a long race, twice, then you had better prepare for it. Do hill repeats on Montara mountain as a long run next time. Do more stair workouts. Train in the heat, more than a couple of runs. Train with poles like everyone else had. But I didn’t.
I tried to pick up the pieces and started to make my way back along the Rim trail to Tunnel Creek Aid station where I see another CRC friend, Stanley, who’s doing the 50 miler. He looks strong and I follow him out on the way to Hobart. My pace has dropped a lot. My stomach was upset again with significant cramping and discomfort. Was it the heat? the altitude? Poor pacing? the Shmorgasboard of stuff I just put in my stomach? Who knows. That long downhill that I enjoyed so much on the way out sucked the last bit of energy out of me on the way back. It just never ended. What was I thinking. I should’ve gone slower. We’re only at mile 40 and I’ve barely got anything left. My “A” race, slipping away after all I had done to prepare for it. Gutting out those other races with injuries in order to get here knowing that my window for training would slip away. I slowly made my way up the last climb of the first loop to get to the Snow Valley Peak aid station at over 9000 feet and mile 43 of the race. It was incredible up her, but still everything just felt worse. Ralf, my pacer, was waiting for me at the 50 mile mark. I can say I never really considered dropping, and I think that he is a major reason why. He drove up to Tahoe just for this and there is no way that I would leave him hanging. I know there are ups and downs with these things, I just needed to make sure I did everything I could to put myself in a position to recover. It was an easy 8 miles of downhill to get back to Spooner Lake. It rejuvenated me a bit, but by the time I made it back to the aid station I was feeling pretty down.
I saw Michelle and Ralf waiting for me. Michelle could tell things weren’t going well and Ralf looked somewhat stunned. I’m not sure if he was just surprised seeing me in such bad shape at the half way point, or seeing Michelle running around in a flurry tending to every need I had, desperate to help get me patched up and back on course. I changed socks again and we tried to tape up my feet that had some hotspots and looked macerated, like they’d been in the bathtub for hours. I had a bite of grilled cheese, a bite of pasta, some broth. I know I need more, but the cramping in my stomach doesn’t want anything. Seeing what other people had gone through at Western States a few weeks earlier makes me realize that this should be no big deal, at least the food is staying down, even of it’s not much. But it’s not enough to rejuvenate me.
We get out after 15 minutes. This is a big point in the race. Numerous people drop here. It would be so easy. All your crew is there, it almost feels complete because it’s where you started the race many hours earlier, you’ve come full circle. But that’s the demon of this course. The real taste of hell. It’s being able to overcome this that is the real challenge. I get out and hope for a new beginning. Ralf does too. He’s training for Wasatch 100 in September and I know he wants this to be a good training run. He’s relentlessly trying to encourage me to jog, to get a rhythm going. I tell him time and time again, I just can’t. I need to save it. I know he’s just doing what pacers are supposed to do and is trying to help move me along. This 4 miles of gradual uphill will suck the life out of me. I’m too close. I could easily sit down on the trail for a little while and walk back to Spooner lake and drop. It’s around 5:30 and it’s still really warm. I’m still overheating and I can barely breathe. I try to jog a little to appease him and fail. The altitude and heat won’t let go and I feel my chest constricting, just needing more air. I keep on stopping and bending over to try and take a deep breath. It doesn’t happen. Ralf continues to push me and I tell him to be patient. I know there’s a 1/2 mile of downhill at the end of this section that will let me open up my lungs and get that elephant off my chest. I have been here before. In this dark place in a race. I know that I have the ability to dig down and when the time is right, to be able to pull from that and keep going. I will push it, but it has to be when I’m ready. He relents and we hike until the uphill starts giving way to flat and then the downhill comes.
Photo credit: Ralf Elssaeser
We start running and I think he’s surprised. I think he had resorted to the fact that this was going to be a really really long night of hiking for 50 miles. But we were moving, not fast, but fast enough to give us both some more hope. The air starts to cool as the sun is descending and a slight cloud cover is sheltering us from the sun. My lungs also start to recover, maybe from being at lower elevation again, maybe not. Who knows, but at least there is hope. We pass through Hobart aid station gathering a few supplies. Ralf suggests coke. We fill a 500 ml soft flask for the first of many times during the next 10 hours. Along with chicken broth, it becomes my lifeline for the rest of the race. We climb to the top of the Rim trail again and get the most stunning views over the next few miles. The sun was setting and it began to light up the sky and the lake. It continued to morph into what is probably the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. Sure, maybe it was because it was a turning point in the race for me, but maybe it was a turning point in the race because of this. It made me realize how lucky I am to be out here doing this. How many people got to enjoy this sunset from this perspective on this night. Thankfully, Ralf was able to capture this moment along with many others through the night and morning with pictures like this…
We kept the pace going and cruised down that long downhill into Tunnel Creek. I really got moving again during this section and my confidence built. Even though I didn’t have much energy and my stomach was still a little wonky, my legs still felt strong. I hadn’t had any cramping all day. I wish I understood cramping more. I had been having minor muscle cramps the whole week leading up to the race for no reason so I was concerned as to what might happen during the race, but I didn’t have one single cramp. Weird, but I’ll take it.
I see Michelle at Tunnel Creek. She had hiked up the 3.5 miles again, in the dark to see me. That would put her at 14 miles for the day, while also hauling stuff around for me. How awesome is that! We refuel and hit the red house loop for the second time. It’s quite pleasant again, even at mile 60 something, but my feet are wet again after another few creek crossings and they aren’t going to dry for a while. I feel a couple more hotspots and can tell my feet are not in great shape. I was also concerned about the constant sand, the decomposed granite, that apparently tears your feet apart. So, with some encouragement from Michelle, we decide that it’s best to take some time and get my feet taped. I just happened to get the kindest and gentlest med student ever, who was very meticulous about every little part of the whole process. My energy had improved and I was ready to roll, but now I was sitting in this chair for what seemed like an eternity waiting for my feet to get tended to. If I was going to have surgery I would definitely want this dude as the attention to detail was impeccable! After putting me all back together, I thanked him, and off we went! Even though it took a long time, throughout the rest of the race I realized that this was the right move and that protecting my feet was probably the best thing I did all day.
We continued along the Rim trail on our way back to Diamond Peak, my nemesis. It was rolling hills for much of the way and difficult to get a rhythm. Ralf was leading the way and would start to jog. I would try to follow but as soon as it turned to a slight uphill I didn’t have it and became discouraged time and time again. We tried switching so that I was in front and this worked much better. Contrary to the typical pacer/runner relationship, I needed to push myself, not be pushed and Ralf adapted to this perfectly. As I would see an opportunity to start running, he would call out “YES! Good job! NO! GREAT job!” and then I would push it as far as I could until it the trail would tune upward again. Then we’d repeat the process. It worked. We were moving. Getting closer. The miles were chipping away. We got to Bull wheel aid station at mile 71 and kept on moving. Then finally, the long winding downhill section into Diamond Peak. I felt like I was flying. My legs were strong and my energy was on fire! We were passing runner after runner on this section. It got foggy and was difficult to see in the dark with our headlamps highlighting the moisture in the air, but we pushed it. Through the technical terrain, we kept going and arrived at mile 80, Diamond Peak aid station for the second time. I saw Gary inside the lodge with his wife. It didn’t look good. I hadn’t seen him since he flew up diamond peak the first time, but it looked like his day might have been over. I wanted to go inside and talk to him, but I knew his stomach had been having issues earlier in the day and figured it had cost him the finish. I also ran into my friend Jacob, who was pacing another runner, Juan. He was having an incredible day, but had miscalculated his sodium intake and appeared to have hyponatremia. The medical staff was tending to him, but I figured his day was also done. I needed to get out of here ASAP! A gu, more coke, broth, who knows what else, and we were off. I had visions of proving that guy from earlier wrong. “Yeah right, like the second time would be easier. What a bunch of BS!” But we started climbing and it got steep, really steep, again. I used each course marker as my goal. Just make it to the next one. 20 feet. 30 feet. 50 feet. Shit, that’s far. I alternated muscle groups at each segment. I found myself walking like a monkey at times, swinging my arms in front of me, swaying from side to side, doing anything I could to keep my momentum moving forward. On occasion I would lose that battle and feel my body start to fall backwards. This is ridiculous. We “joked” about crawling up on our hands and knees. What Ralf didn’t know was that I was serious. There were lights behind us, approaching quickly. How many people would pass me this time? All that effort over the last few hours, seemingly gone as this hill keeps on winning the battle. But the lights never passed me, and the hill didn’t beat me. We fought our way to the top for the second time of the day. I did it. And it was easier. That guy was right. It was hard, and I still could barely breath, but it was easier than before. A quick recovery at Bullwheel aid station and I could smell the finish, only 19 miles away. More hiking, more running, more “good, no, GREAT job”. and we were almost back at Tunnel Creek. I was still running the downs well, but it was challenging being a technical, single track trail with large and small boulders everywhere and runners going in both directions. I let up my focus for a second and sharply kicked a rock on the side of the trail. It sent me flying. In that moment I saw my race ending. Going from feeling so high, to then, making one silly mistake and smashing my face on a rock. But it was a miracle. Somehow I landed with my arm stretched out, stiff-arming the boulder, protecting me from the end of my race. Ralf came to check on me and was shocked to find no blood. All was ok! Phew!
From tunnel Creek, we hammered away at the never ending switchback climb up towards Hobart, again. I was getting passed, again and again. But not for long. Other runners started to pull over to rest and let us go. My legs still feel strong. Most people see my legs and think rugby, football, biker (strangers literally say this to me at almost every race). But this is where they excel. Mile 85. They still feel somewhat fresh. Ready. This is what I have been waiting for. Maybe I could’ve pushed it up those slight hills earlier, but I didn’t. This is my form of pacing. Feel. Leaving some in the tank, and the legs for the finish. 15 miles still feels far, but I know I can start to pick up the pace.
Photo credit: Ralf Elssaeser
We work our way towards Hobart and catch an amazing sunrise. It gives me more energy. We start to pass more people and I have a couple of close calls with rocks again, but all is good. Nothing can stop me at this point. We climb towards Snow Valley Peak again, following a guy that climbs these hills like a goat. But he’s still in sight, can’t quite drop me. We get to the aid station at mile 92 and it’s all down hill from here. We pass the goat, the guy in the blue shirt, other runners. It all becomes a blur, all I see is the trail, flowing in and out and over the rocks. It’s technical, but its fun and I feel like I’m on top of the world. We keep it going, but both of our watches have died and the last aid station at mile 98.3 never seems to arrive. Ralf spots the guy in the blue shirt again. He’s gaining on us, keep it going. I’m finding any last ounce of energy that I can at this point. I pride myself on my ability to finish a race strong and I won’t let this guy pass me. Not on a downhill, not with only a couple of miles left. And then, it happens. The guy in the green shirt comes charging up behind us. We have no idea where this guy came from, but he’s going fast. He tells us he’s been trying to catch us, and we chat for a minute and tell him to pass when he wants, but he declines. He says he wants to run it in with us. We run through the last aid station together and keep going. Ralf has taken the lead at this point and is really pushing the pace. I’m not sure if we’re trying to lose the other guy or go for a time, but I’m running on empty. The green shirt guy is struggling to keep up, but I’m struggling more. I know there’s one more mole hill to climb going around spooner lake and I had already given myself permission to walk this when I walked it during the first loop but I couldn’t stop now. We passed another runner who was walking and kept charging for the last mile to the finish. We crossed the finish line together in 27 hours and 24 minutes, completing over 20,000 feet of elevation gain over the course of 101.5 miles and good for 48th place. I was so happy to hear that all the people I thought had dropped out, Juan, Israel and Gary, all battled through their own struggles and finished the race. So inspiring!
Photo credit: Ralf Elssaeser
Thanks to Gabriel (green shirt guy) for letting me keep my pride intact and to all the people who told stories or listened to my stories during the race. But most importantly thanks to Michelle and Ralf for getting me through this insanely tough race, physically and mentally. It couldn’t have happened without either of them. You can never take running a 100 miles for granted. Each race is different, each day is different and you never know what its going to throw at you or how you’ll respond. This race could’ve turned many different ways, probably like everyone’s story out there, but it all worked out. Hopefully this is something I can draw from in the future to continue to build on what I’ve already learned from this awesome sport and this amazing community.