Thursday, February 6, 2014

Returning to HURT: My HURT 100 race report

My first run at the HURT 100 was in January of 2013. I went with a friend who was my pacer and crew, and ended up dropping at mile 53. If you don't run 100 mile races, you may think 53 miles is a lot, but it is not. It is early. If you have to drop from the race by mile 53, it typically means you are injured or something has gone very wrong for you in the first half.

I didn't know what went wrong, and left Hawaii not really knowing. I didn't really want to think about it. It hurt a lot inside when I did so, and I didn't have the desire or the energy to face that ache head-on.

We always tell ourselves it's just a race, and that is true. But this one lingered with me, and there was no reasoning my way out of it. I didn't want to fuss or fret about it, I just wanted to go back and do it again. Even if I still got beaten by the trail, I wanted to go back and be open this time, be open to what the experience had to offer.

The last time I went, I had been closed.

I showed up at the race unhappy; I was just in a bad place emotionally. In a way I was already defeated. By the time I got to the starting line, I just wanted to finish the race so I could go home. That's not how you start a race like the HURT 100.

But I did get to go home, hey, I even got to finish early. Reeallly early. And as closed-off as I was for the majority of the race, at least I got to sit in that aid station at mile 53 mile and watch as some of the other runners came through.

What I saw helped form an impression that I would look back on numerous times during the following year. That was what convinced me I had to go back, and do it right. I wasn't done yet.

Photo: Angel King
 January 2013: HURTing the year prior

Saturday night on the HURT course, mile 53. We had been on the trail for over 17 hours. I sat at the Nu'uana Aid Station with absolutely no idea what was going on.

I was in a lot of pain. It felt like heartburn, but stronger than anything I'd ever had before. It was an increasingly overwhelming burning that I could not get rid of, not by eating, drinking, taking TUMS, abstaining... it only grew worse, and I felt weaker.

An aid station volunteer planted himself firmly next to my chair and tried to encourage me to get back on the trail. His words were sincere, his face focused but kind, yet as I listened I felt like the biggest fraud in the world because I knew there was no way I was getting back out on that trail.

"There are 120 other people out there right now who feel just as bad as you do," he told me earnestly. That statement moved me, because I realized he was right, yet I felt unable to find the strength to move. I sat defeated and watched others hike in, then run back out. Why should I sit here, while they drew on their inner resources to push forward?

But still, I did not believe I could do it.

If I tried to go back into the trees, I did not know how long it would take to get to the next station - perhaps hours and hours. It had already taken so long just to get here. Reaching this station after the last push had felt like salvation, I could not fathom leaving it now.

I looked past the volunteer; more runners were coming in every moment. Runners who needed help filling their packs or to sit down for a moment. I could not in good conscience take up any more of this man's time.

"Help someone else," I pleaded the volunteer who stood beside me still. "You need to spend time with someone else." It was hard to look him in the eyes.

"Tell me what you need," he insisted gently. "My main goal right now is to get you back out on that trail."

I finally met his gaze, then stood. "You need to give this chair to someone who deserves it." I said, and stumbled over towards the tents.


I slept at the station for a while, but that moment in the chair had marked the end of my race. I did not know how many more steps I could have taken, but I was unwilling to find out. When I woke up the next morning and tried to go for a walk, the intense burning in my stomach returned and I had to go back to bed - at that point I knew I had made the right decision to drop, but at 11PM on the course, I did not know that, I only knew I did not want to continue.

Photo by Angel King

So, I dropped. It felt cowardly. You might say I'm over-thinking it, but I don't think so. Looking back, the words of that man at the aid station kept coming back to me: "There are 120 other people out there right now who feel as bad as you do, or worse." But they had the tenacity to keep going. Even if they ended up dropping later, most would stick around for longer than I had.

But I had been unable to do so. In the grand scheme of things, it's just a race. But it was still a bitter pill to swallow.


I was ecstatic when my name was pulled in the lottery for HURT 2014. I didn't think I deserved it and had fully expected it would not be pulled - my plan was to go the the race anyway to volunteer, support, and learn about the race and the aloha spirit that it is renowned for. I knew I had to be at this race in one way or another until I could go back and complete it, it was just something that was pulling at me.

But then my name was drawn in the lottery. I would get to run after all.

Preparing for the HURT 100

I'm no good when it comes to formal training plans - my basic principles are to run as much as I can in the spare time I have, which can vary greatly from week to week. I don't keep track of miles or time, just run as much as I can. On weekends I try to visit places that are rugged or further away, or answer to local trails that sing a siren song.

Having said that, I had no intention of going to the HURT 100 and failing again because I had underestimated what I was getting myself into. When I thought about what to do to prepare, I came up with the following:

(1) Continue seeking out technical terrain with lots of climbing - loose, rocky climbs and descents.

(2) Continue to work in 35-mile training runs when possible - the goal here is to normalize high mileage and get  familiar with the myriad of issues that can happen the longer you are out there.

(3) Back-to-back or overnight runs - to become as comfortable as possible with the idea of spending longer and longer blocks of time "out there."

More on Point #3:

After I DNF'ed at the HURT 100 in 2013, one thing I realized is I had to get over my fear of being "out there" for too long. In the context of this race, it could realistically take me from 30-36 hours to finish - I wanted to get as comfortable with that idea as possible.

Prior to that, I almost had a fear of spending that amount of time on an ultrarun. Anywhere getting upward of 28 hours made me start to feel a bit antsy - I knew it sucked more the longer you were out there, or such was my belief. More hours translate into you feeling worse, everybody knows that. You feel exponentially worse as the sun climbs higher in the sky on your second day, like an alcoholic stumbling home in broad daylight after a manic all-nighter.

As such, my goal at the 2013 HURT was to get it done in 28 hours or less, as I believed anything more than that would start to feel completely awful. I would be tired. I would be loopy. I would be unclean. I would be really, really unhappy. 

I HAD to be done in 28 hours or sooner - I could expire, otherwise. I might turn into a pumpkin. I had to be done sooner.

But in the 2013 race as I sat there late at night and watched the other runners, I realized that they were all of the things I was so worried about - tired. Loopy. FILTHY. But they were also resolute, and they were getting it done. They didn't care what their time was, and they had many hours to go. On they ran, walked, or trudged, getting in and out of the aid station while I could only sit there looking miserable.

If I was going to come back and do HURT, I realized I had to be completely comfortable with the idea of being "out there" for longer. Because that was what it was going to take.

Getting comfortable with being filthy: overnight training runs

For my back-to-back and overnight training runs, I did the following:

(1) An overnight trip to Mt. Whitney where I ran and climbed for 22 miles one day, slept for 3 hours in my car despite a raging altitude headache, then got up at 2AM and did another 10 hours as the sun came up.

(2) A 136-mile run on the Backbone Trail where I ran overnight for the first night, then took a nap on a picnic bench in the early morning of the second night. I got rained on, scavenged through the trash and bushes numerous times when I ran out of water, and wandered in circles for hours due to hallucinations from being sleep-deprived. I finished after 51 hours, with about 3-4 hours of sleep.
After those two training weekends I wasn't afraid of being tired, loopy, or filthy anymore.

Ray Miller trail, tired and wet. I was so weary I accidentally took a picture of my feet.
 The layout of the race

The HURT 100 consists of a 20-mile route that runners complete 5 times. There are three aid stations per loop: the Nature Center, where the race would start and end, Paradise Park, decked out in a Pirates of Paradise theme and where runners opting to drop could "walk the plank" into a child's wading pool, and Nu'uana, the station where I had dropped the year prior.

The distance between the three stations is roughly 7 miles, 6 miles, 7 miles. Repeat 5 times, kiss the sign, ring the bell, and Bob's your uncle.

The race is held in the mountains north of Honolulu. The majority of the course is under a dense tropical canopy, so the air is warm and damp, and it is often dark. Movement of air can be fleeting. The total elevation gain is from 24,000 - 25,000 ft.

This canopy is your permanent view
Those are some of the challenges. On the plus side, the route takes you through landscapes that are lush, vibrant, and varied. As my pacer and great friend Christi would later say, "It's like it was designed by a child." As I would say, "If you don't like the section you're currently going through, just wait, because it's about to change."

Bamboo forests, mossy creek beds, fern-covered walls, banyan trees with trunks so wide you felt like Alice in Wonderland after she drank the potion to make her tiny - all these scenes and more, and they hit you one after the other in rapid succession - bam. Bam. Bam. Bam.

If you don't like the section you're going through, just wait.

It was pretty fantastic. Could I run this route five times over without getting bored? Oh yes. Oh yes, just try me.

Local fare and flair

Finally, there are the aid stations - between the volunteers and the food, visiting the aid stations was a treat every time. People were kind, attentive, professional, efficient. They've done this before, you could tell. They came ready to play, and they cheer just as heartily on your first lap as they did for your last, despite being up all night themselves.

A peek at the Pirates of Paradise aid station. Photo: Angel King

The tables held such offerings as sesame-seed rolled peanut-butter balls, chocolate-covered almond clusters, cherry-coconut-chocolate bites, miso soup, macaroni and cheese cupcakes, pumpkin pie, baked sweet potato, sushi - a veritable smorgasbord of local fare, along with all the usual standbys.

I tried to sample every bit of it. I wasn't disappointed.

The plan for the race

My plan for the race was pretty simple. Per the notes I'd scribbled down on the plane ride over, this was as follows:

Loops 1 and 2: Don't push. See what you can do without pushing. 
Loops 3, 4, 5: Hang the fuck on.

This seemed like an excellent plan.

Friday January 17 - the briefing before the race

At the afternoon briefing we were given updates on what to look out for, what to bear in mind - nothing too unusual. The humidity would be about 85%. The course would be well marked.
John, Jeff, and Stan - race directors and volunteer
We were also introduced to a new feature this year - typically when runners finish 100 miles, they kiss the sign stating "We wouldn't want it to be easy." This year, we would also get to ring a bell, or our pacer could.

I could only think of how great it would feel to ring that bell - then I tried not to think about it.

The last thing that remained before going home to rest was the activation of the elastic HURT bracelets that came with our bibs. These bracelets are worn by each runner, and "activated" at the orientation meeting when runners take turns dipping it into some sacred water (ok, it's tap water, but it's in a cool wooden bowl).

The idea here is that when you dip it in the water shared with the other runners, the bracelets are now empowered with a group energy that you can draw upon in your low spots and pass on to others when they are having struggles of their own.

If you DNF, the bracelet is cut, and the energy dissipates to the other runners on the trail. If you finish, you carry that energy with you, or you can give it away to another runner that is still going.

If this sounds silly, you should know it's not. Ok, it is a bit - but really, it's not. And yes, I'm wearing mine still.

Race bracelet, ACTIVATE! Photo: Angel King
Shaking the unease

As for my mental and emotional state this year, I was feeling excited, but harbored a definitive sense of unease. I really had no idea how this was going to go.

My memory from the previous year was a blur - I had been so busy pushing and following in the first loop I had not paid attention to the course, then had felt so sick after that all details were lost - I could remember little that was tangible. When I tried to imagine how the race would go, I could only draw a blank.

To add to that, I was going into the race with what I'd call a very strong taper - due to my schedule, I had run very little in the prior 3-4 weeks. In my head I knew this would be ok, but it did not help ease the disquiet in my brain.

Ultimately however as I lay in bed the night before and searched body and soul for the source of my unease, it all magically occurred to me that everything was going to be ok. I thought about the things I had gone through in my training runs and the entire year prior, then considered what faced me here.

It would be tough, yes. And long. And muddy and damp and tricky and dark. But it would be ok. I could handle it, whatever was going to happen, I could deal with it. And I absolutely believed that.

The realization woke me out of my sleepy state, and I lay there with eyes open wide, suddenly wide awake.

And that was when the disquiet went away.

Morning of the run

On the morning of the race I didn't feel nervous at all - I felt happy, content, and ready to go for a run. It felt natural, like I would be at home. It would be nice to get out there.

I had little to fuss over, just one drop-bag that would stay at the Nature Center for me to return to every 20 miles. I had an extra change of clothes and some other supplies, but I would end up needing none of it. I ran the entire race in shorts and a tee shirt, but it was good to have extra clothing in case the weather had taken a turn for the worse.

With the longest stretch between aid stations being 2-3 hours at most, I carried 2 handheld bottles the entire race, and stashed food and Power Bars in their side pockets. This worked well and I never needed my pack, which I thought would be annoying to wear in such a humid climate.

Gathering at the start

At 5:50AM, Race Director John Salmonson called us over toward to the starting area, and we stood in silence as the National Anthem was sung, and then a song in native Hawaiian.

I looked up at the stars and considered how native Hawaiian islanders used to navigate by looking up at the same stars we looked at now. I don't know what made me think of that except in that moment standing before the trees and looking up at the sky, the connection to the island and those that lived there felt real and strong.

After that he guided us over to the bridge leading up to the Maunalaha trail. We said quick goodbyes to our crews and pacers - I shared an excited exchange with my friend Christi, who would be coming back to check on me at mile 40 - then we gathered on the bridge. We made small talk and laughed as the minutes counted down - I felt no butterflies, just ready to start running. Then they blew the conch shell, and off we went.

The course starts out on the Maunalaha Trail, and within 1/4 mile, you're into the first major climb. This climb is known as Hogsback, so-called for its bumps and ridges.

It was still dark on loop 1, but I took a few pictures of this section on the second loop of the course:

I like this climb very much as it is not too long, and it is so singularly interesting - the root system is dense and complex, and the rocky drop-offs on either side as you get higher were an interesting contrast. As I looked ahead on loop 1, you could see the lights of runners taking various lines through the trees. It was a great view. It's a great hill.

We were all in good spirits and joked back and forth, but overall I was not feeling like talking too much - I just wanted to settle into it and keep myself to myself. There would be plenty of time for chatter later. Right now I wanted to settle in.

We climbed and ran down, climbed and ran down, climbed and ran down. I felt comfortable and not in the least bit like I was pushing. It felt good.

As at Born to Run, my plan was to use the earlier loops to take note of trail features to stay focused and oriented on later loops, when everything tends to blend together. By loop three, there was a comfort in the familiarity. It was reassuring, and I liked that it made me take a closer look at the trail.

Roots, rocks, mud, moss - we covered and slid over all of it as we made our way to the main intersection where the trails to all three aid stations meet. This was Pauoa Flats, a lengthy stretch of forest where the floor is covered with roots. This was tricky to run across, though you did your best.

Pauoa Flats. Photo: Rob Lahoe
When tired, you would step through the roots and into the dirt hollows between them, trying not to distort your foot too much by cramming it into that space. When trying to go faster, you'd step on the tops of the roots and hope not to slide.

In some areas you could also see routes off to the side where the ground was slightly flatter or less rooty - these routes were always a good idea, as any path of least resistance is over a 100-mile distance.

A race volunteer is stationed at these Flats day and night to help direct runners. The trail is well-marked so it is clear which way to go, but it was nice to see them for a smile, joke, and wave - these are the little things that become so important!

From Pauoa Flats the course heads past some of the most expansive Banyan trees on the course. During each daylit pass I would glance furtively up into their branches as if I expected to see the Swiss Family Robinson making their home up there - they seemed the perfect place for a treehouse, or just to hang out. 

From there the course descends via the Aihualama Trail, which is mostly dark, damp, and rocky. You get a few nice long switchbacks where you can start hustling downhill; it feels good to run and to pick up a few minutes in your descent so most people bomb down these sections in the day as much as possible, though at night they became more slippery and treacherous.

There were a few metal pipes that marked the descent through the jungle (ok, it felt like a jungle); when I saw them I knew we were getting closer to the bottom and would be hitting the gravel section soon.

Once you start seeing gravel on the ground, the trail widens and leads to some steep stairs; you are now on the Manoa Falls Trail. Once you descend the stairs (that are laughingly tall, wonky, and rimmed with jutting metal lips that seem designed only to trip weary runners, small children, and hapless park visitors) you can again pick up some speed on the gravel, with provides blissful traction beneath your feet. 

Large stairs with metal rims

Wide gravel trail - what? Crazy!

The gravel path descends past a waterfall (which I shamefully did not look at one time, not once) then turns into an asphalt road taking you to the Pirates of Paradise Aid Station.

To get to the next station from there, you had to turn around and go back up that big climb - past the waterfalls, over the gravel, up the metal-rimmed stairs, past metal pipe 1, 2, 3, over the dark slippery rocks and mud, up, up, up, to the lookout where the boulder crashed through, keep hiking up further on the switchbacks, run/step through the bamboo forest, through the mud and fallen bamboo stalks, then make your way back to the Pauoa Flats intersection.

At the intersection you'd say hi to the volunteer sitting in the chair, wave and promise to be back to see her again soon, then head down towards Nu'uanu aid station on the trail marked with orange tape.


Descending to Nu'uanu

This descent was my favorite as it contained two awesome sections on the course. The first section is the trail along the Nu'uanu ridgeline - the trail here was surprisingly well manicured for a short section, but it was also deceiving as you had to be careful to stay on the trail itself, and not step off to the side on what looked like dense matted foliage.

As Luis Escobar had told me the year prior, this dense foliage is actually just roots growing out of the side of the mountain - step on it, and you have no real ground beneath your feet, just a matted root structure. You could see places where people had punched right through the foliage, but as there were no people-shaped holes or cries of distress from below, I assumed no-one had actually fallen all the way down at this point, so that was reassuring.

Besides watching your step there, larger tree roots were still roiled and knotty in random arrangement beneath your feet, but there were small sections were you could still hustle. It was also nice to be out in the open for once and see the sun and sky overhead, and it was one of the rare places where you could feel a breeze.

I looked forward to the section on every loop. I look forward to it again next year, if I'm lucky enough to get in.

From there, the course connects to the Judd Trail and goes back under cover of the canopy. There are three brief spots in this section where ropes are available to aid your crossing or descent over the rocks, but in each case it can be easier to climb - this depends on your level of comfort climbing, I suppose.

As on other descents, the rocks here could be dark, mossy, and slippery. You'd work up the confidence to run faster down some sections, but in other spots it felt like suicide - the drop-off was quite sheer in some places and there was nowhere good to break your fall. You just had to be careful and slow down when you saw the drop-off was more serious.

After this middle darker slippery section, you start hitting the pine trees. Ah. Another favorite section. When I got to this part of the course on loop 1 this year, I remember looking up at the trees and yelling out something unholy - that's just the kind of reaction it evokes. Massive, beautiful trees, with the sun shining through. Paradise. 

Finally, this section is fun because you can run. Watch your step, lord knows, but you can run. It felt good.

As you got closer to the aid station you had to scramble down some rocks, past another waterfall, go through some trees that seemed like massive mangroves, and then you'd get to the creek crossing before the Nu'uana Aid Station. This was not too tricky but there was one massive rock on one side that was slippery as hell, then the rest could be fairly confidently hopped over.

Did not get wet once. Did slip rather unceremoniously once though. What do you expect, it's the HURT 100.

This aid station was as great as any other, with the same delicious fare and efficient volunteers. After checking in and out, you then had to turn around and go back up the way to you came - this climb never felt too long and it was always fun to reach the top of the ridge which was marked by Bien's Bench.

Heading back to Pauoa Flats

From there, back to the Pauoa Flats. Say hi to the volunteer at the intersection. Head south to start going back to the Nature Center.

On this stretch you'd climb back over some slippery rocks and roots, then get to a gate that you'd passed by before on your earlier loop out, but this time you'd go through the gate, not past it.

From there it was another series of runs, hikes, scurries, clambers, and hustles over rocks, bamboo, bridges, mud, up steps so tall they met your knees, over and along creek beds, on and on and on... the scenes were constantly changing.

If you don't like the section you're going through, just wait.

Finally, you'd get to the final two bridges before the Nature Center. One bridge, two... you could smell it now and would keep on running as it was getting so close. Then you'd bomb down the final main trail to the Nature Center, wave and smile to any volunteers and spectators who were hanging out and supporting, hit your drop bag, reload on water and food, then thank the volunteers for their help as you headed out of the station on your next loop.

On the way out, you'd read some of the signs they had posted for motivation.

Then, do it all again 4 more times.


It was just awesome. It never got old. It NEVER GOT OLD.  Each lap was different and interesting, they were never the same. There was always something different to be uncovered, someone new to meet, some aspect of the trail you had not previously struggled with that would suddenly sit up and announce itself.

Runners you were constantly meeting got slower, more spread out. Some got faster, but most got slower. The look in their eyes became less chipper, more beaten-down. There was less joking, but just as much heart and encouragement.

It was really nice to see people on the out-and-backs near the aid stations. At times I felt like I had not had a conversation with anyone in a while, then someone would pop up and we'd have a quick exchange - even these little exchanges had an impact.

Also, it was nice to see who was getting close to you, and who you were catching up on - true to my race plan, I did not push during the first 1-2 loops. It was hard at times as you feel obligated to charge the downhills any time it's possible to make up for all the slower uphills, but I reminded myself that in that climate, I did not want to push too hard early and perhaps get all out of whack with my hydration and electrolytes. I just didn't want to do it.

I still felt like when it came to this course, I still didn't know what the hell I was doing - I wanted to hold back, not get too excited. I thought 40 miles was a good amount of mileage to get under my belt before re-assessing what was up.

Dehydration, reality sets in 

As it turns out, Loop 2 was a bit of a tiring one - I think I was a bit dehydrated and behind on my calories, so I felt a bit drained for a good portion of that loop. I accepted it and just put myself into recovery mode, just trucking along monitoring my hydration and calories and hoping I would start to feel better soon. 

Loop 2 - smiling, but feeling drained. Photo: Rob Lahoe

It was at that time that friend Diana Treister and a few others ran past me at what seemed like effortless pace - what the hell? I thought, as yet another runner trotted past me easily. I wanted to push on, to not give up so many places so easily, yet I knew I was not feeling any energy, and it still seemed foolish for me to push. Also, I had nothing to give.

I stuck to my plan, beit very grudgingly.

By the end of Loop 2, I was starting to feel better. Aches and pains had faded away, and my energy felt steady again. By then it was past 5PM at the Nature Center, and my pacer and good friend Christi asked if I wanted her to join me then - you can pick up a pacer at mile 60 or 5PM, whichever comes first.

I was glad she was there, but I wanted to go another 20 miles by myself. I was enjoying the challenge and the time spent in my own head and didn't feel like breaking that format just yet. But I looked forward to when she would join me, and seeing what she thought of the trail.

Loop 3 took a while - I'm not sure how long. I didn't wear a watch, and never asked what time it was. I knew I was moving fine with regard to the cutoffs, and I was moving as fast as I could or wanted to go, so my time did not matter.

I took bites of food when I felt hungry, or reckoned that it had been a while. I sipped water periodically, and when I was physically thirsty I would drink 1-2 cups as I figured I was already behind. I kept an eye on my hands for signs of swelling, which would indicate my salt and hydration was off - at one point I noticed some swelling, and felt more bloated in general, like I was carrying too much water. I had a little bit to eat, pulled back on the hydration, and kept running - after a while, the puffiness went down and I felt more normal.

Loop 3 was also slippery as hell. By now we were into the nighttime, and rocks that were damp by day became like as slick as ice by night. It was a bit more tricky, but still fine. You could keep moving. It was a tough combination though as by night you are starting to get weary, plus you cannot see very well, plus the rocks were even more slippery. It made for some slower moving. I tried to keep hustling though and reminded myself that Christi was waiting for me back at the Nature Center.

Emotionally, physically, I felt fine. I was not sleepy, and the legs felt good. And I was pretty pleased with myself and how good everything was feeling in general.

At some time around mile 54 as I ran from the Nu'uanu aid station, it struck me - this time last year, I had gotten no further than that station. I went in, but I never left. This time I left. I ran away easily, feeling like I was leaving something behind me. Then I focused on the rest of the course and didn't look back.

Loop 4: Running with a pacer

At mile 60, the start of Loop 4, I picked up Christi and off we went. It took a little adjusting to get used to running with someone again - I had spent the last 60 miles talking with people here and there, but spending much of it alone, and I had somehow steeled myself mentally to some degree to make that easier.

As I climbed up Hogsback with Christi I realized I still had my guard up mentally. I was being grouchy, resistant to conversation. That's fine with some runners, but this was one of my best friends. I realized I needed to let my guard down down to enjoy her company and embrace the fact that I was out running on an awesome course with my dear friend who had travelled all that way to support me. ME!

It took a few minutes to adjust, but after a while we settled into it - just two friends out for a run! It very quickly felt like fun again, and I was glad she was getting to share in everything I had seen.

Crossing the creek, Christi behind me. Photo: Rob Lahoe
Christi and I leaving the aid station. Photo: Rob Lahoe

Christi was an awesome pacer. She is intelligent, thoughtful, funny, speedy, and tough as nails. It was an honor it have her pace me through 40 miles. The conversation was great as always, and she put up with my occasional mood swings with remarkable patience, and the time passed - dare I say it? - somewhat easily.

Ok, so maybe on the last lap it dragged just a little, but if that's the first time I noticed it, I think we were doing pretty well.

Lap 5: the final 20 miles

By lap 5 I was still feeling good all-around, but at around mile 87 it suddenly hit me that I would like to be done soon. I was still loving the course, but I was looking forward to finishing soon.

By then we had worked our way up to what we thought was 4th female - I was actually in 6th place for the women, as we did not realize there were 2 more women ahead (waaaay ahead), but that mattered little - our focus was on chasing the woman in front, and not letting anyone come up from behind.

As we left Pirates of Paradise for the last time, I saw that there was another female runner about 5-10 minutes behind. In front of me, I knew there were at least 1-2 women fairly close, but it was the one right on my tail that bothered me the most. I did not want to drop any more places.

I felt strong leaving that aid station and focused on hiking with determination up the hill. By the time we got to the next aid station and turn-around, I wanted there to be a big enough gap between me and the girl behind me that she gave up any hope in her mind of catching me on the last leg.

We ran past Bien's Bench, down the Judd Trail, past the 3 ropes over the slippery rocks, through the Ewok forest for what would be the last time. We were hustling. We were running. It felt easy and painless when I actually let myself go and relax into the trail. And as we reached the mile 93 aid station, I realized we had actually caught up to the next woman in front of us - she was only just leaving now.

The runner we had caught was as surprised as we were, and we saw her hurry out of there with her pacer as quickly as they could manage.

That's it - it was go time.

We filled our bottles, grabbed some food, dumped our trash, yelled our thanks, and got the hell out of there.

Race to the finish

We thought we were chasing the 3rd-place female - came to find out later she was actually in 5th place, but you know what? It was still freaking fun. We ran hard back through the mangroves and the Ewok forest. We hustled up the switchbacks as the trail started climbing. Up ahead, we heard the woman's pacer say to the other runner and pacer they were with "You stay with him; I'm going to go ahead with her."

They were making a push for the finish.

We kept climbing... and that's when it hit. I was freaking tired.

All of a sudden the tiredness hit me, I was out of breath. I was fine, nothing was wrong, just tired. That last push had taken it out of me, and we were only just starting to climb. I looked up - the next runner and her pacer were pulling away.

I did not have it in me to follow them at that time.

I called up to Christi, and let her know as much - she understood. We settled back into a steady hike. We were sad to watch the other runner go, but also laughed that it had gotten exciting there for a while. It's always fun when stuff like that happens late in a race to remind you that maybe you still had more in you than you thought you did.

But still, there was the woman behind us to contend with. I wasn't too worried, she had seemed much further back at this turn-around, but you never really knew. We hiked consistently up the hill and over the top of the Nu'uanu Ridge one last time, then back through the Flats. There was no-one here at this trail intersection any longer. Any volunteers would be back at the Nature Center. We hustled to meet them.

We hit the gate, climbed up, ran down, went through the second gate, ran down, climbed up, ran down... we were getting closer now, probably 3 or 4 miles to go. For the first time all run, my body started stiffening up. My feet were hurting. The downhills became less easy, more painful. Some 20 miles earlier I had proudly told Christi that my body felt tired, but my legs felt great - this was no longer the case.

"What was that?" Christi called back.

"What?" I asked her.

"I thought I heard something. A female voice. I think the next woman is coming."

I glanced back behind us; I saw and heard nothing, but visibility is so poor on those covered trails, that was meaningless. No, I didn't want anyone to make a run of it now. Don't make me fight for it. Just let me finish.

"I think it was hikers," I called up to Christi. Yeah, hikers, that was the ticket. 

I went on: "Wait, you know who that was? It was that guy who was the next person behind us. He had a female pacer."

Yeah, that's who it was. A female pacer.

"Oh yeah," said Christi. "I was going to say, I don't think it was hikers, though - they were moving too fast."

We fell into silence and kept hiking and running when possible.

I thought about our exchange; the unease was back in my gut. My answer to Christi did not sit right at all. What a cop-out. Maybe it was hikers? A female pacer? That's not how you finish this race.

I called up to Christi, and started running uphill. "Let's not leave it to chance."

We ran as much as possible in the last 3-4 miles of the course. It was painful at times and very rocky, and I stopped to hike in sections where the trail became so treacherous I feared tripping, but everything else, we ran.

Christi ran with renewed vigor; I ran more gingerly, but I tried to let go, especially on the downhills. We were so close. I was getting teary just thinking about it.

Why are you getting teary? I thought. This doesn't have to be emotional. Don't make it some big dramatic thing. But I wasn't making it anything, it just was. I felt happy to be finishing. I was glad. I had really wanted this. 

Second-to-last bridge: less than a mile from the finish.

By the time we hit the first bridge, I was feeling no pain. It was going to feel so good to run into that aid station. I hit the second bridge, then ran like hell up and through the main trail head and down towards the Nature Center. I ran up the concrete steps like it was a 5K sprint and this was the finish. Then I rounded the corner and could no longer hold back the tears.

HURT 100: Done

I finished; I got to kiss the sign and ring the bell and put my bottles down and take my shoes off. I got to stop running for a little while, and just sit on the grass in the sunshine and just be, and watch the other runners come in.

The people at the finish were very nice. Everyone cheered, and clapped, and asked you 57 hundred times if they could get you anything to eat or if you needed anything. The volunteers were wonderful, the race organization was wonderful.

The other runners were wonderful - I had great conversations on different loops with my friend Andi, and with Luis, with Mauricio, who stomped me mercilessly on the downhills, and briefly with Sylvia, who was out there running her first 100 miler. 

Luis Escobar, 11-time HURT finisher and winner of the very first HURT 100.

Andi, 1st time HURT finisher.

The winner Gary Robins astounded all of us and none of us by doing what he does best and flying over the trail with astonishing speed and abandon while still taking a moment to holler out an encouragement and greet you by name.

It was also beyond valuable to run the last 40 miles with Christi; I would have been fine by myself but spending that time with a friend took it to a whole different level.

It's a very special place, the HURT 100. It is so much more than five 20-mile loops, so much more. It is beauty and fun and challenge and dirt and patience and perseverance. It is all of these things, yet to get it done I had to remember it's just one simple thing - it's just heading up into the trees and going for a run.

Final thoughts

At the end of the day, my story was not a dramatic one. There was no epic battle between me and one of the  leaders, no calculated risk-taking or early blow-ups or meltdowns to be overcome later on the course.

My risk-taking was when I signed up for the race; my epic battle was with myself, not only on the course but for the entire year prior as I struggled amidst other issues to maintain focus, sanity, and above all my sense of self. 

It was only a race, yet such things never are. That's why we care about certain races so much; why it hurts when they go wrong, and why it's important to go back and look them in the face.

As for me and the HURT event, I feel as though I have made a friend. I love the course, the people and the spirit. It's a friendly place, and a beautiful course. It demands your strength, your heart, your stubbornness and your humor, but if you are willing to but that forth and be open to what you will receive in return, good or bad, you will be rewarded. It's a very special place. I hope to go back next year to run, to help, just to be there. 

We're not done yet. 

Photo: Angel King
Photo: Angel King
Photo: Angel King
Photo: Angel King
Photo: Angel King

Monday, June 24, 2013

Hot and Happy at the San Diego 100: My Low-Drama Race Report

The San Diego 100 was hot. I wasn't expecting it to be. "We got so lucky with the weather, should be some really great times tomorrow!" I said to my pacer Chris Gilbertson the night before.

Snowballs would have been nice.
On the day, it was a different story. I tried the same "we got lucky" comment to another runner and they gave me an odd look and said "You weren't at the race briefing, were you?" It turns out that it can be hard to get an accurate weather forecast for this race, but it was set to be a scorcher.

And, it was. Race management did an impressive job of keeping the aid stations well-stocked with ice, but over the weekend there were 82 finishers and 96 DNFs. The majority of those drops came relatively early in the afternoon heat, but others came as heartbreakingly late as 91 miles.

By early Sunday morning the race had its winner - returning champion Jeff Browning took first in 16:59:24, just 21 minutes over last year's time and in much hotter conditions. The women's race was won by Jenny Capel in 20:57:35 - it was her second visit to the race, having placed second in 2011.

Among my friends and others I saw there were some disappointments but also many stories of success. Two themes seemed to emerge: the importance of being flexible, and of not giving up too early.

Being flexible came into play early, as many started the day with a certain goal time in mind. As the day went on the heat challenged those goals and demanded that they be modified.

The important of not giving up too early became increasingly clear as the heat of the day yielded to a cool, balmy night. Many expected that the evening would be cold (similar to the year prior), but instead those that made it through the day were rewarded with ideal temperatures at night, and the opportunity to recover and still finish.

Running from mile 80 to 88 and feeling great. Photo by Chris Gilbertson.

I had several friends that were feeling awful by mile 51, but they were able to recoup in the aid stations and pull it together to make up time overnight and finish with a strong second half. It was an excellent reminder that you can never assume that how you are feeling for that hour, that mile, or that minute is how you will be feeling for the rest of the race.

The Plan

As far as my expectations, I was not at all certain how the day would go and was therefore setting the bar pretty low. I was just going to start out steady and see how it felt.

I was meeting my pacer Chris at mile 51, so my biggest concern was getting there in pretty good shape so we could actually enjoy the rest of the race - I enjoy having pacers, but it's not so much fun when you arrive to meet them feeling miserable, somehow that makes the whole thing that much worse. Also, I had invited Chris to pace as he will be running his first 100-miler later this year, and I hoped the experience would provide good exposure to some of the things that can come up during a race of that distance.

Of course, I realized that this could go a few different ways. I hoped it ended up being a positive experience, but I knew we'd just have to wait and see.

Envisioning the Course

I looked at the map and elevation profile ahead of time and had broken the course up into sections that made sense to me to help keep me oriented. From the start to mile 24, we would run down through the meadows, around Little and Big Laguna Lake, then make our way east to join up with the Pacific Crest Trail and follow it north to mile 24.

For miles 24 - 51, we'd drop from Penny Pines down to Pine Creek, do a 5 mile loop, hit Pine Creek again, climb back up to the rim, then follow the PCT for 7 miles to the Sunrise Aid Station at mile 51.

From 51-80, we'd do a counter-clockwise loop west, hitting Stonewall Mine, Paso Picaho, and Sweetwater before coming back to the Sunrise Aid Station to pass through one more time.

For miles 80-100, we'd follow the PCT south for 15 miles along the ridge before cutting over west and hooking up north to head back to the Al Bahr Campground, and the  finish.

Thinking about it this way, it actually sounded quite pleasant.

At the Start

I felt a little unnerved at the starting area as I felt I should be fussing more, but after checking in, there was nothing left to do but listen for announcements, say hi to friends, and wait. 

Waiting to get started. Picture by Chris Gilbertson.
Hanging out at the start with some good, good people. Photo by Lynn Cao.

Soon enough, Scotty called us towards the starting line. It was a pretty busy area, and crowded at the front. From the back I could not hear Scotty very well and hoped there was nothing important being said, though I was sure he would not have saved any critical details exclusively for that moment.

No, likely he would have also sent them in a pre-race email. I wondered if I had read all the pre-race emails.

Jeff Browning and other leaders at the start. Photo by Lynn Cao.

Then, we were off. The dust kicked up and my spirits starting lifting as we settle into a happy, easy run.

On the trail

It usually takes me about 10-20 miles to feel settled, but in this race I felt relaxed almost immediately, probably due to having little to no time expectations. Miles 0-14 were just lovely. The course was almost entirely single-track, and ran through meadows with tall pine trees on either side, then up through trees, rocky hills and some scrubby vegetation before winding through more open fields and forests. It was pretty wonderful, and I knew I had picked the right race.

Red Tail Roost, Mile 14. Pic by Chris Gilbertson

I saw Chris at mile 14, and he let me know he'd see me at mile 44. I knew the hottest and most challenging part of the day lay between me and that point, and I settled into the idea that I would be facing that section sometime soon.

Then from miles 14-18, things started feeling not so good.

Worry sets in

I was already feeling like I was pretty far back in the field, and as much as that did not matter, it was something I was aware of. "Patience," I said to myself over and over. "Steady."

I also found myself muttering something that I had heard two runners discussing as we had run towards the meadows... they had been talking strategy and how they might be taking it easy in consideration of the forecast. One said "I was thinking about going faster for the first part to try to get some miles in the bank, but you know, there is no bank."

It's an expression I've heard a bit recently, and was first brought to my attention in an interview with Karl Meltzer after he won Run Rabbit Run.

"There is no bank," I thought again as I tried to keep up my pace. There is no bank.

More than my place in the field, what worried me more was that some tightness and strain were beginning to creep into my legs. The trail was rolling on this section, through the same beautiful trees and rocks, yet my heartrate was climbing. I felt out of breath. I started walking up slopes that others were running, and moved to the side to let even more people pass. I felt worse with every additional person.

It doesn't matter, I told myself as I stepped back onto the trail to keep walking. This is your race. Steady. Patience. 

Still, I could not help but question my decision to run this race so soon after my last 100-miler. Three weeks had not seemed like a big a deal, yet now it seemed like a foolish mistake. How could I be out of breath so early? I would have to drop out before even reaching Chris to have him pace me; he would have driven out here for nothing. I would be lucky if I lasted another 20 miles.

Stop, I told myself. Stop. Be here. Don't think about what might happen. Be here, and run this race. 

 I wasn't trying to run fast at that point, I was just trying to make it. Pushing myself harder in the first 20 miles because I "should" be going faster was not going to lead to anything good. I signed up for this race to run it and see the course, I reminded myself. Relax and see the course.

I calmed, and brought my mind back to the game-plan: first get to the mile 24, then focus on the next section. But before anything, get to mile 24. I relaxed, cleared my mind, and kept moving forward.

Cramping up

Feeling happier, mile 20. Photo: Lynn Cao
From Miles 18 to 24, the course was gorgeous. By this point we had joined the PCT, and it headed north through bright green brush over peaks and hills with sweeping views of the valley to the east.

I was feeling better, but a little crampy in my calves. I checked the rubber band on my wrist - it was loose, my wrists were not swelling. I had been doing a good job so far of taking in some salt and electrolytes in the form of food at regular intervals, so I just needed to keep that up, and continue to observe the heat. 

As I marveled at the views I heard a familiar voice behind me, then looked back to see my friend Anton, who was running his first 100-miler.

Anton looked fantastic and fresh. His pace was relaxed, and his long legs give him a wide stride so he seemed to cover the ground effortlessly. Based on his pace I expected him to disappear down the hill, but he and Brent (his companion, who turned out to be someone who helped greatly at one of the aid stations at Born to Run) hung out for a while and we chatted as we ran.

I was glad for the company as we ran and checked out the views, then doubly glad they were there when I kicked a rock and my calf seized up. It was a tight cramp, and they helped me stretch it out as I made unhelpful gasping noises. It was better after a few minutes and we carried on, though I could not run as fast.

Anton dropped back to check on me and hung out for several miles even when I tried to shoo him away so he was not slowing down for me. He headed down the trail soon, but only after making sure everything was fine.

In the meantime, the twinging in my calf had spread into shin and right quad. I was well hydrated so would try salt next, but I had none on me and worried that I would cramp before making it to the aid station. So, I started scanning the ground for salt pills. People always drop salt pills during trail races, it's just something that you will see on the ground, so I searched the trail for them now.

Within a mile, I got lucky and found a salt pill lying on the dirt. I scooped it up, then put it in my mouth and bit down. It tasted gritty but salty, and I felt a wave of relief. Just one moment later did it occur to me: I just picked a random pill off the ground and put it in my mouth.

Only in trail running.

As we approached Penny Pines at mile 24, I ran into my buddy John Hockett. Like many other runners, John was not feeling too great, but we had some fun running together for a few miles into the aid station, speeding up every time we saw a photographer then slowing down again once we were out of view of the camera. It was pretty silly, but one of the highlights of my day. It's the little things, I guess.

John Hockett leads the way to Penny Pines. Photo by Milan Kovacevic.
View from Penny Pines. Picture by Chris Gilbertson.

I was in and out of Penny Pines quickly, then started the descent to Pine Creek. This was the section where I would feel the most uncomfortable all day, and for some, it was the end of their race.

Bringing the heat: The descent to Pine Creek

The stretch to Pine Creek was 7 miles down Noble Canyon Trail with some patches of shade. No big deal, right? Well, kinda. I had two bottles, yet ran out of water with several miles to go. To add to that, the last few miles towards the bottom were exposed, with temperatures rising the closer we got to the floor of the canyon.

On the bright side, I knew there were 2 miles or less to go, and the aid station was being run by my local running group and good friends. I looked forward to seeing them and was glad we would hit that aid station twice.

In the meantime, it was hot. I took the tops off my bottles to pour the last few drops onto my tongue, then started scanning the bushes for palm fronds or something to put over my head... it was HOT. I looked at the leaves and ground around me - no big leaves anywhere. Only teeny tiny leaves. It figured. I thought about taking off my shirt and draping it over my head, but then considered that my torso would be exposed - would than be better or worse? I didn't know, but decided I would stay the way I was.

I looked ahead; no aid station. It was hot. How else to stay cool? I thought for a moment, then licked the inside of my wrists and blew on them. My wrists tasted salty. I licked them again. I ran some more, then looked down the trail and saw the blue tents of the aid station.

I howled, then yelled "We got the aid station!" I was not sure who I was talking to, but it just seemed like good news to announce in general. I then summoned my energy and ran down the hill.

Pine Creek was the busiest aid station I saw all day, as it should have been. It was the hottest part of the course, and runners would pass through twice. Every volunteer in constant motion, so I just helped myself, then got out on the 5-mile loop so I could get out of the way and back to what I was supposed to be doing.

I was still feeling a bit overheated, so the plan was to use the next 5 miles to rehydrate and get focused for my 8 mile climb back up to the PCT at mile 44.

The loop was ok. I was slow. I tried to keep running but it was mostly exposed, and I had to walk and occasionally pause in the shade to cool off, though I never sat. In that fashion I eventually completed the loop. It was unspectacular (my running, not the loop). The loop itself was single-track, and up and over and down and through rocks and brush and trees. It was interesting I suppose, just very very hot.

After hitting the Pine Creek aid station a second time, I waved goodbye to my friends and headed out for the climb up the hill. I was happy to be tackling this section, as it was expected to be the toughest section on the course. I had grabbed an extra plastic bottle for the climb and felt that this would be enough to get me to the top - it turned out to be just fine. The climb was long and some sections were not very interesting, but I was pleased to be able to hike at a consistent pace and felt increasingly strong the higher up we climbed. My legs did not feel tired towards the top and my pace was steady. All of that was encouraging.

At the top it felt cooler and the trail leveled off - I felt unbelievably pleased to have reached that point. From there the trail wound along the ridge towards the Sunrise Highway, and I could see people gathering by the road to meet the trail. I howled as loudly as I could, then ran. 

Running up to Sunrise Highway, mile 44. Photo: Chris Gilbertson

It was fun to run this section after climbing for so long, and the trail was rolling and fun. As I got closer I could make out individuals, and I waved and howled - they waved back and cheered. Awesome. I ran up to the road, met Chris, then crossed the road to the aid station where we refueled.

With Chris, mile 44. This is my coy look; that's his everyday face. Pic by Erin Chavin.

From mile 44, it was a wonderful and uplifting 7 mile run along the PCT to the Sunrise Aid Station. The sun was getting lower and a gentle breeze was picking up. The trail was rocky and bumpy but curved along the ridge and provided views of the valley and mountains to the north and east. As we went further, large rocks dotted the hillside, which was covered with vegetation in varying shades of green. It was spectacular, and I felt glad that we would get to run this stretch again on the way back.

Approaching the Sunrise Aid Station I could again see folks cheering and waving, and again was very happy to be at that point. It had all seemed so doubtful around mile 16 or so, but it was looking better now, and while we still had the entire night ahead, I was glad to have the first half of the race down and still be feeling so good.

Coming into mile 51, Sunrise Aid Station. Picture by Chris Gilbertson.

Chris was ready when I arrived, so I got organized my gear, filled up on water and food, and we hit the trail. We got lucky, and overnight there were not many challenges - unlike the previous year, the temperatures were moderate and I rarely had to put on my jacket as long as we did not dilly-dally too long at the aid stations.

With Chris the focus was on completing the 30 mile loop that brought us back to Sunrise, then go 20 miles to the finish. For the 30 mile loop, we alternated running and walking when there were climbs or when I needed a break, but overall I was pleased with our pace. We mostly ran, and felt good. We went through fields and along single track, then up some rocky and hilly sections as we got closer to Stonewall Aid Station.

At one point we caught up with Josh Spector, who had been having a very tough day, and we chatted for a bit with him and his pacer Elan. Ok, well mostly it was Elan and Chris doing the talking, as Josh and I focused on running... I didn't feel bad about that. I don't think Josh did either.

At one point they dropped behind us, but we would see them again several times through the night. For me, my only rough point came just a few miles out from the Sunrise Aid station, around mile 77 or 78. I had been feeling fine and that section was runnable, yet I was hit with drowsiness that became harder and harder to fight and I was reduced to stumbling and weaving on the trail.

At first it was just annoying and I tried to hide it, but then felt the need to say something as I was slowing and stumbling visibly. I checked the rubber band around my wrist - no swelling. Electrolytes seemed ok. I didn't know what it was, nor how to shake it. I knew I had been awake for some time so the tiredness could be natural, but it had such a sudden onset that I wondered what had shifted.

All I could do was keep moving, but I was frustrated by my slowness. As I could not shake it, I instead tried to focus on reaching the aid at mile 80. We would get coffee there, and the sun would be rising - I had faith this would revitalize us and bring new-found focus. 

For the first time all night, I felt cold, and started shaking. I mentioned the chill to Chris and he told me he wasn't cold, but he had not been out all day like I had. I pulled my jacket around me tightly and tried to keep moving.

We saw flashlights behind us then watched helplessly as Josh and Elan overtook us easily. I wanted to follow them, but could not find the agility to run. We exchanged words of encouragement, then watched them leave. I hoped we might see them later, but suspected it was the last of them. I was glad for Josh but still frustrated, and felt like I was letting Chris down.

All that was left though was to keep moving forward. It made no sense to dwell on anything else. 

The Final Stretch: Sunrise to the Finish

I was excited to get to Sunrise, and was greeted there by Christine Bilange. Christine gave us updates on runners, then gave me coffee even though the ladies at the aid station said it wasn't ready - they looked on with outrage when she grabbed the pot and poured me a cup regardless of their gestures. I was estatic to drink it.

Happy to be at mile 80. Picture by Erin Chavin.

After shedding some gear and filling our packs, we caught up with Erin Chavin, who was waiting to pace our friend Amy to the finish. After getting updates from Erin about the rest of the Coyotes, we hit the trail again - this time, heading south towards the finish.

Fiddling with supplies while Chris holds my coffee. Pic by Ein Chavin.

The run back along the ridge from mile 80 to 87 was pretty awesome. I knew it would be. The sun was coming up, the breezes were light, and the views were inspiring. Every now and again I would just have to look around and yell, "I mean, come on!" We felt pretty lucky to be out there.

Headed south along the PCT from Sunrise AS. Picture by Chris Gilbertson.

We also had to laugh as the sun came up, for while it was energizing to see that sight, within a few minutes of the sun getting higher, reality set in. I turned back to Chris and said "As great as it is to see the sun rise, your next through is always, 'Oh crap. Here we go again.'"

He laughed, but we both knew it was true. Within a few hours the trail would start getting hot. I was glad we were getting as close so it would not have to be too much longer.

To the left, a steep drop-off with great views of the valley below. Pic by Chris Gilbertson.

We saw Anton at Pioneer Mail - he looked weary, but seemed ok, and I knew he was going to be fine. The sun was getting higher, and I felt impatient to finish. We had nine miles to go. I wanted them done.

"Chris, you ready? Let's get the hell out of here." We hit the trail and started running.

From mile 87 to 91 we ran a lot, taking breaks as I needed to catch my breath, but pushing forward the majority of the time. Chris ran behind me and encouraged me through the uphills. "You can run this part," he would say as we approached some rolling slopes. I looked no further than the trail directly in front of me and just kept running.

We overtook a few more people, each time with Chris gently encouraging - "Keep going... there are a few more people up there I think we can say hi to." We kept moving forward. By the time we reached mile 91, tiredness had hit. I was pleased we had just pushed, but needed to recover. Chris let me know he would let me recover, but then we were to hit the last 4-mile section hard. "Deal," I said.

From miles 91-96, we hiked quite a bit - I tried to run when I could, but felt sapped of energy. I just accepted that I would walk a bit, then try to run to the finish. Around us, the views were amazing. Cliffs of layered brown and red rock jutted over the canyon, and lush green vegetation covered the hillsides and the valley floor below. We hiked up and over one tall peak, and I dug out my map for the first and only time all race so I could officially check before announcing to Chris that it was indeed the highest point of elevation on the course.

We cheered, then carried on.

To the finish

We finally arrived at the last aid station, the romantically named "Rat Hole." I had some soda and a snack, then we got back on the trail. I was really tired, and my emotions also felt very close to the surface. When Chris would talk to me or tell me to do something, I would either not respond or would get teary-eyed, or both. And it was not because he was being mean, just because I was tired. At times he would look back or wait for me, and I would have to remember to smile or say something positive, but it took effort. 

We had trouble finding the trail at one point and I used that as an excuse to walk, as I did up several hills, but other than that, we ran... slowly. I tried to go faster but it wasn't there. I didn't hurt, I just felt tight, and I was having trouble catching my breath when I went uphill.

At the same time, I was pleased. I was running, and overall, it had gone well. My time would nothing to dance about, but I was happy to be finishing. So many had dropped. We had gotten through, and were feeling good. 

As we got closer to the finish, I just kept running - at that point, I would not be taking a walking break on any account. Chris, for his part, was getting more and more excited to be close to the finish. He had run behind me for most of the race, but now he practically skipped ahead to scout out the trail and encourage me on. It was pretty funny to watch his new-found energy.

With less than a mile to go, he saw another runner with his pacer several hundred feet in front, and he beckoned me to speed up - "Come on! You can catch this guy!"

My voice was failing me, so I raised my hands like a traffic cop, as if to say, "Stop - you need to stop." He got the message, but his enthusiasm refused to die. He scurried ahead some more, then looked back with big eyes to make sure I was still following.

He dropped back as we ran through the campgrounds, so we ran side by side and reflected on the race. I think I apologized at that point for not having a faster time, so it was more exciting - I don't think he cared. I didn't really care either. I was very happy to be finishing. We ran over the bridge, then up towards the finish, and he dropped back again to let me cross the line.

Trying not to cry so I can see the finish; Chris to my right in red. Picture: Lynn Cao.

It was nice to reach the end. I got to stop running, and take seat. I got a cool medal, and a hug from a bunch of people. And it was nice to sit and talk to the other finishers. We were all pretty pleased to be done.

Getting a finisher's medal from Scott Mills. Photo by Lynn Cao.

Anton finished just behind me, his first 100 miler! Photo by Lynn Cao.

Yes, all was well... until I tried to refuel with a fruity protein drink, that is. It was handed to me at the finish, and while it was delicious and refreshing on the tongue, it was a little too acidic for my tummy, and after about five minutes I had to get up and wander over to the bushes so I could vomit. But I wasn't quite ready to vomit, so I just sat there on the porch, unable to move, hanging my head down every time I felt the urge to hurl.

Man, this was not cool. I couldn't even watch the finishers. I was suddenly having flashbacks to sitting on the curb on early mornings outside of so many clubs, trying not to vomit as my head spun from too many drinks. But I shook off that bad feeling, and reminded myself that I wasn't outside a club, and this wasn't alcohol, it was running. This was a race weekend, and I was among friends. I would just sit there for a little while, until the world stopped spinning.

Chris Gilbertson walked over wearing an expression of concern, then handed me some water and crackers. "Do you want me to hold back your hair while you throw up?" he asked.

I laughed, rolled over on the porch, and tried not to vomit.

Final thoughts

This race was not only fun and a great way to see some trails, but it also helped build experience in running in the heat, as well as providing me with what will continue to be a never-ending lesson in how much electrolytes I need, and when to take them.

It was also fun to experiment with having a pacer. I go back and forth about having pacers during a race, and think it's good to try both experiences. Really, there is no one right answer about when you need one, or when you don't, as it will vary from person to person, and race to race. On that weekend I was ready for some company, and grateful for it.

Finally, I was impressed with the other runners and the solid performances of friends that struggled with serious challenges through the day, but were able to hang in there and come back harder than ever to finish the race. It's cool to be out there with those folks, and encouraging, and an excellent reminder not to base how the rest of your race will go considering how you feel at a certain section early on. 

But that's not all. Other things I learned: Race wrists are salty. Dirt tastes gritty. Carry salt pills (they weigh next to nothing anyway) unless you like the taste of dirt. Wear a hat with a flap. Elan talks a lot of smack. Chris is an awesome pacer. Elan is also an awesome pacer. Chris is super competitive, so if you are running against him, don't let up even if you can smell the finish. Josh has tough feet but a tougher spirit. David is terrible at drinking water but excellent at suffering.

And whatever you do, stay away from the fruity protein drink.

Bye-bye, San Diego. Until next time.