My first hundred is in the books. I can’t explain how under-prepared I was for this race; because all the training in the world, all the miles, all the elevation gain, all the proper eating and sleeping and recovery days and stretching and mental preparation can not prepare you for spending 25+ hours on your feet.
The only thing that prepares you to run a hundred miles is to actually go out and run 100 miles. There. It’s that simple.
All the back-to-back 25 milers in the world can’t prepare you for that second sunrise.
All those 50k’s used as hard training runs don’t adequately prepare you for the aches and pains at mile 72 and beyond; and knowing you might be out there for another eight hours.
All the climbs up Tam and Diablo can’t prepare you for the climb out of Pine Creek at mile 64. Or the climb up Stonewall Peak at mile 90.
You just have to experience it. The actual race is the training; it’s going out and doing the distance even if you’re not ready.
And I don’t think we’re ever completely ready, we just have to take that leap of faith and go out and hammer away at the trail, rack up the miles, get queasy, get mad at your nutrition plan, get dehydrated, feel the pain in your feet and ankles and calves and knees and quads, freak out a little because you haven’t peed in 3 hours, let your crew keep you at an aid station until you can eat and finally pee, listen to your pacer’s advice, watch the sun go down and know you’re not even close to done, eat the soup they give you at the night-time aid stations, take that extra shot of pickle juice, down another nasty Mountain Dew, eat just one more terrible cherry lime Roctane, let the people you love try to cheer you up, feel worse than you’ve ever felt in your life, be a zombie and then cross the finish line.
I thought the nine 50k’s, six 50-milers and one 100k race would have me ready for my first hundred. The only thing they got me ready for was being in shape to run those distances AND the ability to run for a long time, say between 5 and 13 hours.
The difference in running a 100-mile race isn’t even comparable to those shorter distances, it’s exponentially harder by orders of magnitude; whereas a 50k might be about 25% harder than a marathon and a 50-miler maybe twice as hard as a 50k, a 100-mile run is probably 10 times harder than a 100k.
I thought, “yeah, it will probably hurt as twice as much as a tough 50-miler like Lake Sonoma…” when in fact it hurt probably 20 times as much.
“Yeah, I’ll probably be out there 8 hours longer than Miwok…” when it was almost exactly twice as long.
They say expectations lead to disappointments, but I’m not disappointed at all. I think by ballparking some ideas like pace, time on feet, expected caloric needs, what it might take me to run this climb, my pace between these aid stations, et. al., I wasn’t necessarily setting myself up for disappointment, I was trying to prepare myself- no, “protect” myself.
I found myself saying “if I have a perfect day I could go somewhere around 21-22 hours. If things don’t go so well, maybe 25. If things go completely haywire I might be racing that 32-hour cutoff…” These were all distinct possibilities. I was going to let the race make my decisions for me, and I learned very quickly that I really had to listen out there. To my body, to the trails, to my crew.
I’m probably boring you out of your mind with little to no details of how the race actually went, so here’s an actual chronological breakdown of the hours before the race:
3:43 AM – woke up like a shot, a full half hour before my alarm. It’s definitely going to be one of those days. As I readied the camp stove for my morning coffee, I kept thinking of that Crazy Horse quote before the Battle of Little Bighorn: “today is a good day to die”. That’s being a bit melodramatic, but imagine me thinking that and then smirking at myself.
4:11 AM – Jimmy (crew chief and pacer from miles 56-79) is rustling around in his tent, so he’s now awake and shuffling off to the shower. He probably senses my nervousness. This coffee is good.
4:26 AM – off to empty myself out; check the Facebook, Twitter, my fantasy baseball team’s performance Friday night, throw some kudos to Strava runners, basically do my morning toilet reading, and get in some last minutes of feeling connected to the outside world before I retreat within.
4:41 AM – getting dressed in the tent. I remember thinking, “man I’m already sweating a lot, I better drink a little bit more water just to stay ahead of my nerves and the impending heat…” I was kind of shaking, couldn’t tell if it was nerves or the strength of the coffee. Probably both.
5:09 AM – leaving for the race. Allyson had woken up around 4:30 after going to bed super early (she got a migraine and puked her brains out at the Crew Meeting Friday night, right after the Race Briefing). She was feeling pretty good now, and I felt good knowing she was going to be there for me for the next 30 hours. What a tough cookie.
5:15 AM – took my first Vespa of the day, followed a few minutes later by drinking my first serving of Vitargo. I felt really confident about my nutrition plan today, it had been working really solidly for me since last year at Dick Collins 50-miler. My plan today was to take a Vespa every three hours, and a serving of Vitargo every hour for the first three then every 45 minutes after that. Then at somewhere around 15 hours (or whenever I ran out) I’d switch over the the sugary aid station junk to bring me home. This plan had been working really well for the last three 50-milers, a 50k and a 100k.
…an then the next 45 minutes were a total blur. There was a check-in, a fumbly bib pinning, some gear fixing, water bladder filling, some nervous “hey, how are you doing?” to the people around me, all that stuff I do before a race to feel somewhat human, especially before running a distance I’ve never run.
6:00 AM – we start, and I immediately feel better. I stayed towards the middle of the pack because I figured this is where I’d be running most of the day, so might as well settle in now and be okay with it.
(I’m going to use the splits from the race to tell this part of the story)
The first climb is about 2 miles long and more than 1,000 feet, just skirting the summit of Middle Peak before descending down a solid mile. Here you can see some fire damage from the last big one, and all the amazing work they’d done on the trails to get them ready.
I basically power-hiked a huge portion of the up and ran the down really mellow. I kept going over the mantras “respect the distance” and “run within yourself” right here, not wanting to get all crazy and fly out on a pace that would blow me up. At this point I noticed I was going to have to make an unscheduled pit stop; and nothing will make you run a bit slower like tightly clenched ass cheeks.
I left Paso Picacho 1 at 1:29 after taking a few minutes in the bathroom, and feeling like a million bucks now. I had my Camelbak pretty well full from the start, just sipping a little here and there in the cool morning, so I could fly through that aid without taking anything.
Funny story about why I went with the Camelbak instead of hand-helds: I basically forgot to bring my hand-helds. I brought the straps but left all 5 Ultimate Direction bottles back home in my fridge. I noticed that Friday night right before my little shake-out run. Oops. So Camelbak it is.
I also thought I’d listen to some music, just a little something to keep me within myself and slow me down. Fighting the urge to put on something that would make me all hyper, I opted for The Mountain Goats “The Sunset Tree”, one of my favorite records of the last 10 years. I could go for some stories right about now, and nobody tells them like John Darnielle.
So that album took me for a ride up and over Stonewall Peak and into Chambers 1 at 2:31, pretty much all downhill and really mellow as it flattens out. I was feeling really good, still had about 20 ounces of water and seeing that the next aid was only six miles I decided to just check in and go.
The next section here is basically a fire road through a meadow-type area with little bumps, if you can even call them climbs. I found this section to be the most runnable in the early going. I also noticed that with my pace here I was getting a little low on calories, so I opted to take that next Vitargo at 2:45 (15 minutes early) just to stay a little ahead of my caloric needs. I could go every 45 minutes from here on out I’d run out earlier but I’d be able to push it just a little more. So I thought.
I hit Pedro Fages aid at 3:35, feeling so good. I gave a few “whoooops” as I saw the lovely folks come into view, there was a little descent into it. I filled my entire Camelbak, high-fived the aid station folks, told them how beautiful they were and was off to Sunrise 1 to see my crew.
I told them to expect me at around 4:30, and when I pulled in there five minutes early and looking fresh I had the first moments of “today can be a good day if I keep doing everything right”. So far I had done everything right; run within myself, hydrated properly, been on a tight eating schedule, etc.
So I was in and out in five minutes, right on my expected pace. I told them I’d see them at Pioneer Mail 1 in about two hours so when I pulled in at just over 6:00 they may have been a bit surprised. Looking back, this may have been my first mistake- I figured, “I got my crew now, I’ll be seeing them pretty often, I can just take it aid station to aid station and they’ll pull me through” I think I ran that section a little bit harder than I should have but I was letting my pace be decided by how I felt. And I felt great.
I don’t know who that bro with the umbrella is, but he is the man.
So I left PM1 at 6:07 and continued on, hitting Penny Pines 1 at 6:59. My friend Kevin was pulling in just ahead of me, having puked a few times between PM1 and here. The medical staff attended to him, he told me how strong I looked, so I gunned it out of there.
The next time I’d get to see my crew would be at mile 44.7 aid, Red Tail Roost. I figured I’d keep hammering away at the trail, just building a solid lead on the pace chart I came up with so that I’d be well ahead if and when the wheels come off.
Welp, the wheels started to come off right out of PP1, maybe 10-15 minutes later. This was a pretty steady climb along the PCT here, gaining about 800 feet or so. Add the fact that the sun was in full rage mode, being directly overhead now (it was 1 PM after all). I should’ve known something was up because I got an ice-sponge bath at Penny Pines (which felt awesome) and within a few minutes of leaving there I was totally dry. It was like suddenly I felt awesome and from out of nowhere I was as flat as a board, couldn’t generate any power on the ups.
I couldn’t drink enough water and suddenly it was sloshing around inside me. It wasn’t emptying from my gut. Then I started feeling a little queasy. It felt like all my Vitargo was in there, too- not being digested? What was going on inside me?
By the time I hit Todd’s Cabin aid at mile 39.6 I was ready to puke. S-Caps weren’t really helping, the Vitargo tasted awful and I could barely choke any down. I was in a slight panic mode- this had never happened to me before in a race. My stomach is always pretty solid, what the hell was happening?
My buddy Kevin had caught up to me by now so I lingered for a long time at Todd’s; there were 3-4 guys in chairs in the shade looking like a MASH unit. I was telling jokes, flirting with the older ladies volunteering there, just generally trying to put on as happy a face as I could to hide how wrecked I felt. I’m the type of person that if my mental frame of mind changes for the better, my physical rebounds with it. I was trying to “fake my way” to happiness and then into “good running”.
I also figured it might be time to abandon my nutrition plan- I had to start taking in easily digestible calories, and fast. I opted for Clif ShotBloks (which have never bothered my stomach) and a little bit of Mountain Dew.
I left Todd’s feeling a little better, running along with Kevin and remarking how he’d rebounded in such a major way since seeing him at Penny Pines. I could only keep up with him for a few minutes and quickly found myself getting passed by everybody and their mother. It was now 8 and a half hours into the race, I’m barely past mile 40 and the wheels are fully off.
The next section was mild and cooler, however because we were now deep in the pines among Mount Laguna, we were up over 6,000 feet. I walked a lot of this section, just feeling as awful as I’ve ever felt in a race, probably worse. I don’t think it had anything to do with the elevation, I’ve done some runs on the John Muir Trail and didn’t really notice the marked effects of elevation until being up over 10,000 feet, so as much as I would love to blame elevation 6,000 feet is not that high.
Just then, The Jester Guy (Ed Ettinghausen) came up on me, he’s moving pretty well and I am straight up walking.
“What seems to be the problem?” he asked.
“Man, I am done. I got nothing. Can’t generate power, hopefully I can puke…” was all I could offer.
“Well, there’s going to be a lot of highs and a lot of lows today.” he countered, and with that I watched him jingle away down the trail.
If you’re not familiar with Ed’s story, he’s going for the record of forty 100-milers in a calendar year right now. SD100 was #15 for him, and he’s got twenty-five more to go. Amazing.
Also, he wears a full jester’s outfit while he runs.
I figured I’d get to RTR, hang out as long as possible (until I felt better) and keep going. I’m not going to take a DNF because “I feel bad”. The only way I will drop from a race is if something is broken, and it has to be a bone on the lower half of my body, at the very least my pelvis or a leg. Maybe a compound fracture would stop me, but not “feeling shitty”. I’ve felt awful during really short races, like the Woodminster or that Table Rock race last July. Hell, if I can walk I can run. And if I can run, I’m going to fucking finish.
So Red Tail Roost at 44.7, I rolled in at 9:55, almost a full hour later than my pace chart. It was hot, and my crew informs me that “people are dropping like flies” from the race. I don’t doubt for one second that this course is taking a body count, and I tell them I’m going to stay here as long as I can until I feel like running again. I tell them I’m going off my nutrition plan, I’m heading straight for the sugary aid station crap and to put 6-7 Gu in my race vest. I hand them my remaining Vitargo and Vespas.
I also changed sunglasses, those expensive Tifosi ones were annoying and fogging up and make me look like a triathlete.
So they feed me bacon(!), bananas, watermelon, salt pills, ShotBloks, salted potatoes and a lot of icy cold water. I just sit and laugh at how shitty I feel. Allyson applies sunblock as I lube myself up. Carl (pacer from miles 79-94, seven-time Boston Marathon finisher with a 2:55 marathon PR) wears a look of concern, while Jimmy is getting my hydration bladder filled and generally being awesome. We sit.
Then it happens; my stomach kind of unfurls and I realize I have to take the biggest dump (again). I hop in the porta-potty and unleash my guts. I am rocketed to the 4th dimension of existence. I feel great. I t was like the scene in Superman II when he goes into that transformation chamber thing and everyone on the outside loses their powers and he regains his. Well, not quite because that’s at the end of the movie and I’m not even halfway through this race, but you catch my drift.
Anyway, I check out of RTR and power along the trail. I am moving now, it felt like it did in the first few miles. Those 25 minutes did me right, and I’m again passing runners and feeling amazing. There’s a solid downhill section here and I let it rip.
I had a chance to run with this really nice guy named Steve that was going for the San Diego Slam, it’s basically all the races in this general area of the Laguna Mountains (the Noble Canyon 50k, the PCT 50-Miler, the Cuyamaca 100k and the SD100). That’s a huge achievement, I was able to tell this guy that he’s pretty awesome.
I’m wondering what the Bay Area Slam would be? Maybe Skyline 50k, Dick Collins 50-miler, Miwok 100k and Headlands 100?
Meadows aid at mile 51.1 comes and goes, I’m in and out in a few minutes. I don’t want to lose the momentum. I leave there at 11:55. I pass another 10 runners, including my buddy Ed (The Jester) and get a chance to introduce myself and say “thanks” to him on my way to Penny Pines 2, hitting that at 13:08 and ready to run with somebody. In steps Jimmy and off we go, down into Noble Canyon (and an almost 1,900 foot drop along the way).
The sun starts to set as we descend, and we go from a mountain meadow scene into a deep green riparian wilderness, the deeper we descend the darker it gets and the noises of the night start to to unfold. Frogs chirp. Water trickles. We throw on our headlights and go into hunt mode, passing another eight runners down to Pine Creek aid.
Those 7.7 miles didn’t go as fast as expected since I didn’t want to blow my quads just yet, and I knew that “what goes down must come up” so we’d most likely be hands-on-knees hiking back out of this deep canyon after the aid station.
Pine Creek did not disappoint, it was a weird-ass hard rock dance party. They had guacamole (too spicy) and finally I could get my hands on some chicken soup, crushing potato chips and salty potatoes into it and chasing it with Mountain Dew. It was now pitch black and we were likely at the deepest part of Noble Canyon, and facing an 8 mile, almost-2,000 foot climb out. This would be gut-check time.
Jimmy and I jammed this section, alternating some shuffling-type running with extreme power-hiking. Two hours and 36 minutes later we were at Pioneer Mail 2. I remember sitting here for a while and giving my Garmin to Carl to charge in the car because it had died a few minutes before we got here, right at 17:00. We got into PM2 around 17:20 (we checked out at 17:28) and got moving up the trail.
Then, maybe two miles or so out of the aid I’m eating a Gu, not paying attention and wham! I eat shit. Landed in a bed of super soft but coarse sand, right on my shoulder. I was kind of stuck in there, it felt good to lay down for a second. Then Jimmy helped me out, I think he may have thought it was slightly more serious than it was. I had to laugh at myself, both for falling and then for the fact that I had been running for almost 18 hours. That just seemed very silly at the time, and it felt surreal, like someone else was doing it, not me.
The next few miles were pretty uneventful, the trail here goes along the edge of a super-steep canyon, winding its way in and out, alternating stillness and a fierce tailwind. We could see strings of lights both ahead and behind us, people we planned to catch up to and people I didn’t want to catch us.
In to Sunrise 2, it’s now 19:15 on my feet. Jimmy calls it a night and Carl steps in to pace me. We check out at 19:30 and proceed to gingerly trot down the trail, somewhere in the general direction of Chambers 2, almost 9 miles away. My pace for this section hovers between 12-and-18-minute miles. I’m just wrecked; the lack of sleep coupled with the pounding on my feet has taken its toll on me.
It takes about 2+ hours to hit Chambers 2, and when we do it looks like a mobile MASH unit. There’s some sleeping runners on the cots in the huge tent. There’s guys taking off their shoes and socks (one guy’s foot looked like the skin was melting off); people just didn’t look good. We decided to hang out, have some soup, just relax a while.
After 15 minutes we felt good enough to go. Carl ate way to much in there and was complaining that he now felt like me. Then he was talking about all the food he ate that day and I was like, “damn I want real food…” I would’ve killed for a cheeseburger or a couple slices of pizza.
We were in pretty good spirits right up until the climb up Stonewall Peak, just about mile 90. This would be the toughest part of the race for me, by far. The relentless switchbacks just keep coming and coming. We also got passed by 2-3 runners and their pacers right here, but at this point I didn’t care as much as back around mile 75.
We were treated to a really nice sunrise just before the top, we stopped and enjoyed that for a minute. Then we hit the summit and dropped down the front side. It’s a really nice, mellow and long downhill (lots of switchbacks) but the best I could manage here was about a 12-minute mile, and that felt like I was really working hard.
6.5 miles later and about 2 full hours since leaving Chambers 2 we hit Paso Picacho 2. All I can say is real chicken soup and pickle juice shots might be the best breakfast I’ve ever had. The aid station volunteers were awesome here. And that lady with the dog was pretty funny.
At this point, Ally was ready to pace me the final 5.8 miles. She was chatty and chipper and I was absolutely miserable. I just let her lead me out of PP2 for the final climb of almost 600 feet in those first two to two-and-a-half miles, there was some intermittent shuffling but really the most I could manage was some power-hiking.
I realized I could probably power-hike at this speed literally forever; I think the idea that’s been in my head for a while to go out and do the John Muir Trail or the Tahoe Rim Trail (or any similar long, mutli-day scenic trail) in an ultra-light, fast-packer sort of way way has now been fully cemented- no matter how tired I was during this race I always kept moving forward. “Relentless Forward Progress” is the term (maybe coined by iRunFar’s Bryon Powell? I don’t know…) and as long as you’re moving forward you’re gaining ground. Miles on the legs is still miles on the legs.
Anyway, after that climb we crested and were both able to run the mellow downhill, it felt like it lasted forever. Then Ally did that thing that Jimmy and Carl had been doing- “look, there’s a guy! Let’s pass him!”
I wish I could say I had a ton of fight left in me and was ready to really run, but that would not be anything close to “honest”. I was filled with 1) pain 2) an overwhelming sense of “just wanna finish” and 3) hunger. Like real, deep down in my stomach, “let’s go to an all-you-can-eat buffet” hunger.
So we passed this guy, and I took no solace in the fact that he was hurting way worse than me. He had a look on his face that said “please kill me now”. I asked him if he was okay, if he needed anything, and continued down. We crossed the last road crossing and basically ran the last mile-and-a-half through the dry lake bed. My last two miles were a 9:56 and a 10:53 (and an 11:31 for the last .2)
photo by Jimmy McCarthy
So that’s my first 100-miler.
25 hours, 24 minutes and 8 seconds.
38th place out of 142 finishers (229 starters).
I think that’s a pretty telling number of the actual brutality of the course; only 142 finishers. I can say I definitely underestimated a few things, one being the weather; both the low humidity and the 86-degree heat was way worse than I imagined; that and the 12,000+ feet of climbing really takes a toll. Add the similar amount of downhill and my quads were like “this is ridiculous”.
So of course I went through the ultralive.net stats, and here they go:
142 finishers out of 229 starters (62% finish rate).
First timers 100-mile attempt (40 out of 73 for a 55% finish rate).
Rest of the field (second or more 100-milers) 102-156 for a 65% finish rate.
There’s a lot of things I can take away from this race; the experience of it was both insanely brutal and staggeringly beautiful- that fact that my a few of my closest friends and future life partner were there to help me was amazing; getting to see that sunrise (which I was dreading) actually turned out to be totally cool, my mind had never been so empty and so ready to receive that moment and just take it as it is.
So I got the belt buckle, the huge medal, a Finisher’s mug (coffee tastes better out of it) and a really nice embroidered hooded sweatshirt. Those were the tangible things I got; and some I’ll lose, or break, or misplace in my next move.
But the things I’ll always get to keep are the beautiful memories, the camaraderie with the other runners, my awesome crew waiting on me hand and foot all day and night and the fact that I moved my body with just my legs, lungs and heart 100.2 miles.