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.