Last month I finished my third AC100 in 7th place in a time of 23:14. Within a minute of my 2013 time and in the same finish place, it was nevertheless a very different race. I find myself reflecting on how each time I’ve entered this race I’ve had such different experiences.
My first finish at AC100 in 1991 had been a case of the dog that caught the bus: At 25, I was fast but as a new ultra runner I had had no idea of what I was getting myself into. After a great run through Chilao, I blew up by Newcomb, mile 70 ish, and had struggled through a 32 mile death march to a hard earned 28:34 finish. I lay on the couch for a couple of days afterwords unable to climb stairs: Evidently, speed wasn’t everything.
In 2013 I came back to this course after a 15 year absence from long ultras and fulfilled a lifelong goal by earning a silver buckle. I’d finished in 7th place in a time of 23:13. It was an ecstatic run in perfect conditions (2013 AC100 Race report). I’d learned how to train again without getting hurt and was so jazzed about it that I had started a blog with the ill-fated title “Ultrarunning Injury Free” to record my experiences that year.
Excited to race again in 2014, the hubris of my blog title caught up with me and I DNS’d, having fractured my pelvis in a freak fall while training (Training run gone bad). It was a memorable walk out of Idlehour and its cellphone dark zone on a broken hip socket. My wife took me to the Huntington ER where I grayed out. Admitted for surgery to screw my hip socket back together with a couple of steel plates, I’d spent seven weeks non weight bearing and wondering whether I would be able to run again. It all hinged on how well my surgeon, Dr. George Tang, had been able to fit the hip socket back together, what had happened to the cartilage and would it heal, and whether the head of the femur would survive given the impact it had sustained in my fall.
I spent the AC100 race weekend that year on crutches as a UMT volunteer (2014 AC100). Earlier that week my doctor had reviewed my X-rays and gave the OK for my goal of entering the 2015 race! Thus began a year of rehab and training focussed on this year’s AC100 (http://fredippides.blogspot.com/p/2015-training-log.html).
The first step had been to rename my blog. (No more “injury free” to tempt the Trail God).
My surgeon, Dr. Tang, had been a master, I had been incredibly fortunate. My PT, Dr. Mac Kwon at Select PT, pushed me just hard enough, taking me from walking with a limp in early August to limited running by October. After innumerable step exercises, lunges, RDLs, glue bridges and clamshells, and religious attention to twice-daily stretching routine to restore lost range of motion, I was able to start a training ramp to build my running strength back by December. X-rays in April were clear: I ran the Leona Divide 50 miler that month in a reasonable time with no hip pain.
And so I found myself in race week this year ready to run. I had achieved my primary goal - being able to start the race —and I felt that everything from that point was gravy. Still, I did have a secret “A” goal of matching or beating my 2013 time; I felt that an A+ day could see me in under 23 hours.
Nevertheless, I did have one red light on the dashboard going into the race; amazingly the fractured hip joint not being a problem. I’d developed synovitis in the second toe of my right foot- like turf toe —that had gone from uncomfortable six weeks previous to excruciating in the two weeks before the race. I’d addressed this first by switching to Hoka “medicine boots” (aka Challenger ATRs) and then by adding a carbon fiber plate to splint the toes of my right foot a week before the race. The carbon plate effectively splinted the toes by preventing them from bending upwards. I’d also bought a pair of Stinsons for even more protection in case I needed it. The air quality was also a concern. Whether due to smog or poodle dog bush or whatever, long runs in the backcountry had been leaving me with burned lungs painful to inhale more deeply than a pant and with a tight feeling in my chest. I'd seen the doc and had gotten an asthma inhaler for this. But my expectation was that like in 2013 while this would limit uphill speed it wouldn't compromise downhill speed, where my race would be made or broken.
Although nervous on the days preceding the race, I had slept well on Thursday night, the key night to get sleep. On Friday morning my friends Dale Capewell and Tina Shamah and her son Ethan had met me and my son Zack in Pasadena to drive up to Wrightwood. After a fretful day of registration and trying to stay chill despite uncharacteristically hot, humid weather and predictions of more tropical humidity for race day, we had a huge pasta dinner on Friday night and I crashed at 930pm. Sleeping solidly I woke at 230am ahead of my alarm. I washed down leftover linguine with an Ensure with chia and turmeric mixed in. I felt great and refreshed, ready to race.
Dale and Tina helped me and Zack pack up and then, collecting a still-snoozing Ethan, we all headed off to the start arriving at 4:30. A few pics with Zack, Nick Nudell and with Dale and Tina.
|At the start with Zack- photo: Tina Shamah|
Then the line up -a quick prayer for safety and courage— and we started!
|Photo: Ulysses Chan|
I ran from the start a bit faster than in 2013 to avoid the pileup on the Acorn Trail. Soon we had hit the single track and I caught up with my training partner Alexandre De’ Sant-Anna. Power hiking up the blue ridge we made good time up the hill and I felt great although my hamstrings were uncharacteristically tight. We started the downhill which was at times unbelievably stoney and rutted from the rains the previous week. Alex saved me from a missed turn as we transitioned at one point from fire road back to single track. Reaching Inspiration Point, mile 9, at 6:53 I was right on my 2013 split. I ran through, handing off my pack to Dale and picking up a water and a Gubrew in hand bottles.
|Inspiration Point, Dale crewing. Photo: Tim Hendricks|
Off for the 5 mile jaunt to Vincent gap. Uneventful, beautiful running ..until I caught a toe and hit the deck cutting my left knee: Pay attention! Shaking it off I ran on to Vincent Gap: There was my son Zack smiling, "you're doing great Dad!" A quick pitstop and then I put on my belt carrying 4 bottles for the long stretch to Islip Saddle.
Starting up the switchbacks leading up Baden Powell, I made good time. After a while Ashley Nordell caught and passed me with a smooth walking stride, making it look very easy— just amazing.
|Baden Powell switchbacks: Photo: Ulysses Chan|
Topping out there was Larry Gassan and it was great to see him. Then on to the stunning runnable contour past Mt. Burnham, Throop Peak, and Mt. Hawkins. It was getting warm but not nearly as hot as expected. I felt great. My legs had finally warmed up and I felt like I was making good time. A couple other guys had passed me but I was moving comfortably and had caught a couple other guys so I was holding my position…not that it mattered.
At last there was Islip saddle (mile 25.9) and I was overjoyed about reaching the quarter point of the race. 12 minutes ahead of my 2013 target pace, I ran right through the A/S to my crew, handed them the belt and drank an Ensure and some cold soup.
|Into Islip Saddle: Photo: Tim Hendricks|
A quick touch up with a handful of Skin lube with Nick Nudell providing a blocking screen (thanks Nick!) and then Dale handed me a couple hand bottles for the 4 mile leg up and over Mt. Williamson to Eagles roost, mile 29. Donning my pack again for the hot stretch down Hwy 2 and into Cooper Canyon, I made good time to the Burkhardt Trail and ran easy down into Cooper. Then on to the feared switch backs climbing up to Cloudburst. I was feeling good but as in 2013 I was feeling the air quality at this point. I practiced a bit of pursed lip breathing as I ran the uphill section and it seemed to help. When my GPS indicated mile 37 I expected to find the aid station but to my disappointment it was still nowhere in sight- I’d forgotten that the course was longer with the PCT section. I caught up with Tim and Hugo at about this point.
|Towards Cloudburst: Photo: Ulysses Chan|
Finally I reached Cloudburst and there was Geoff Cordner and Uncle Hal offering help with my bottles. Zack showed up and guided me to where Dale and Tina had set up a chair. I sat down for a shoe change: The Hoka Challengers were bugging my left foot and I was developing a hot spot. Dale, good friend that he is, gooped my nasty foot with a handful of Skinlube without hesitation and I switched to the Stinsons with carbon fiber insoles for the easy downhill contour to Three Points. I was now 26 minutes ahead of my 2013 goal pace.
|Into Three Points: Photo: Ulysses Chan|
|Chilao with Zack: Photo: Ethan Shamah|
|Chilao: It was hot! Photo: Ethan Shamah|
Here I made a mistake. I finished off the last of my Clip 2. I didn't want to drink any more Gubrew so I had a V8, some cold soup and an Ensure - it was a bad combination and more than I needed. I'd pay for this later. Pressing on I ran through to Charleton Flats.
|Heading out of Chilao. Photo: Ethan Shamah|
Heading off the ridge at Charleton down the switchbacks towards Shortcut I remember being struck by how much my quads and knee hurt, since ordinarily I think of this section as an easy cruise. The Hoka Stinsons felt bulky and unstable on the rocky switchbacks, like trying to run a party barge down white water rapids. Bottoming out I passed a runner and headed up the short climb to the Shortcut A/S where my crew was waiting. The legendary Flaco Mendoza was there and we chatted for a few minutes while I changed out the Stinsons for my Challengers: I knew I needed the more nimble shoes for the single track coming up once I hit Newcomb Saddle. It was 5:10pm and I was now 38 minutes ahead of my 2013 pace.
At this point in 2013 my legs had felt gone, but the easy cruise down into the West Fork canyon had recharged my legs, so I wasn’t worried that my legs felt shot. I kept a steady pace down on the fire road and finally reached the bottom. For the first time in the day the air felt extremely muggy- I was now in the front range. Starting the uphill climb, my plan at this point was to rest the downhill legs with a solid powerhike up to Newcomb Saddle just as I had in 2013. I reached the top I was moving reasonably well despite increasingly painful and stiff legs and a growing sense of nausea. I was completely soaked in sweat from the humidity. But I had arrived at Newcomb Saddle, mile 67, in broad daylight, at 7:07 pm, 40 minutes ahead of my 2013 split.
I trotted into the A/S and walked to the table —these guys jumped to help me. I looked at everything on the table and an Ensure from my drop bag but ughh, nothing looked appealing. One of the crew offered me Mountain Dew and I thought, why not? ….It tasted OK on ice. Filling my bottles with ice water and diluted Mountain Dew I went looking for an acetaminophen which I had stashed in my pack, but it was gone, evidently having fallen out when I loaded lights at Shortcut. One of the crew gave me a Tums and I was ready to go.
"Hey look up, you're on camera" the guy at the aid station was pointing over my shoulder. Turning around I saw the quad copter hovering, and replied "Awh, you're gunna make me run out of here aren't you?" Raising my hand bottle in thanks to the great aid station crew, I headed off on the trail towards Chantry. I found that as uncomfortable as it was, I was still able to fake a run. Only 34 miles to go! The quad copter followed me for about a quarter mile down the trail but thankfully peeled off -my guts were writhing with a sick slimy feeling.
It was still light out and I was excited by the fact that I could see the twisty single track without a flashlight - time to make tracks and get as far down the 7 mile trail towards Chantry as possible before having to break out lights. Periodically I doused my head with the ice water as it was hot and muggy even at 7pm. While the Mountain Dew was the only thing at the A/S that had appealed to me I was having a trouble getting it down now.
I was making steady progress but my quads and right knee and IT band hurt like hell. Every mile the GPS watch I'd donned at Shortcut would buzz off the mile. .69....70..., only 50k left to run....71 ... now it was dark but I was off the hairy single track and running through the campground. I was hurting and nauseous and found myself thinking about what excuses I could make to sell a drop to my son Zack and friend Dale waiting at Chantry... Surely the quad pain must be indicative of rhabdo. I stopped at the outhouse for some relief ... straw colored - keep going.
Feeling better I headed on and hit the climb up to Chantry, mile 75. Dale had ferried my wife and kids up to join him and my crew. It was great to see them at long last having missed them all day. Dale and Tina changed out my bottles and tried their best to get me squared away.
|Pit crew at Chantry, Tina and Dale, mile 75. Photo: Ethan Shamah|
My pacer Joe Tholt was ready to go but I was feeling quite green. I was looking for a caffeine tab but couldn't find it and I took an acetaminophen - after settling on carrying plain water I was finally ready to go. Hugs for the kids and then Joe and I set off. Right after we got to the upper parking lot and out of sight of the kids I had to stop — I bent over and heaved; heaved again and then yet again. Joe nimbly danced out of the way of the great lake of vomit flowing his way; it was clear that everything I had eaten since Chilao was now decorating the tarmac. “Hey, should we go back and get some water for you?” he asked with real concern.”Nope, I feel better already, lets go” and off we went. I really DID feel a lot better. I was now 34 minutes ahead of my 2013 pace.
We took it gingerly at first up the Wintercreek Trail and started to jog once it was clear that my stomach had settled. Hitting the steep section after a couple miles I was sure that someone had steepened the trail, but we continued to move well and passed Tracey and his pacer Angela about halfway up. It was great to see Larry Gassan again at Deadman’s bench, then on up to top out at the Toll Road. Finally a chance to make up some lost time.
Soon after we started running down the Toll Road my stomach was gripped with cramps like it was going to split open. I didn’t even bother mentioning it to Joe. Just run through it I thought, as the cramps spread to my back. This isn’t real, there isn’t anything wrong with my back or stomach. Sure enough after a mile or two the pain just went away. At last we arrived at Idlehour aid station, mile 84, where my friend Dave Flan and the A/S crew cheered us in. These great folks got me some dilute ginger ale and some dilute iced broth and i was able to get this down without incident. Clearing the aid station at 11:36, I was now still 23 minutes ahead of my 2013 goal pace. Joe took point as we ran the steep switchbacks into Idlehour, being as I was still feeling a bit gun shy about these trails through Idlehour— notwithstanding the fact that I have never been able to locate the spot where I fell last year- its a bit of a blank.
Crossing the stream we got a bit spun around due to lack of trail markings and overgrowth, but we found the trail and headed up the switchbacks towards Sam Merrill. Looking back we saw lights moving fast; We hit the 89 mile aid station just as Kenneth Ringled and his pacer rolled in after a super fast drive though Idlehour canyon. Refueling on watermelon and water we cleared the station now just 16 minutes ahead of my goal split. Kenneth and his pacer left shortly after we did and caught us about a mile down trail just as we were starting the drop down the upper Sam Merrill trail.
Upper Sam Merrill was badly rutted by the recent rains and littered with loose rocks. With my shot legs I just didn’t have the strength left to run some of these trashed sections safely so Joe and I slowed down and walked them- better to finish a bit slower than to break a bone! We hit the cutover trail to the Mt Lowe railway and trotted down to the Sunset trailhead where I was startled by a large African rhinoceros which fortunately transformed into a couple of large bushes. The Sunset trail was in similarly bad shape and we took it carefully. At one point Joe shouted out to watch out for the owl sitting in the trail. Just as I was telling him to wake up from his dreaming, the bird took flight! Into the Millard Canyon A/S at 3:04 we were still 5 minutes ahead of my 2013 pace; Gregory Benson and his pacer came in with lights off and cleared the station as we were still getting water.
Reassured that we were still on track to goal pace we set off up the fire road and then down the El Prieto trail. Again it seemed steeper this night than I remembered it! We steadily pushed and with relief we hit the Arroyo. Settling in to an easy trot we cruised down to the Atadena crest trail and over to Lincoln; at last there was Loma Alta Park and we were in!
|Totally spent! Photo: Ulysses Chan|
|Hug with my wife Steph. Photo: Tina Shamah|
|Jean was everywhere on race day, Thank you Jean! Photo- Ulysses Chan|
My wife and Zack were there at the finish with Dale and Tina and my pal Al, and friends Jean Ho and Nick Nudell. I was so glad to be done, completely spent, and when they told me my time, 23:14, less than one minute off my 2013 finish time, I got a good laugh.
|Photo: Ulysses Chan|
In hindsight I realize that I had taken in too many calories relative to what I was used to in training; I ran the last 25 miles pretty much on water after I'd been sick and I really didn't feel a calorie deficit. The lead on my goal pace that I had built up by mile 67 had evaporated due to nausea and sore legs:
I also think next time I do one of these I will taper less; although given the trouble I had had with my foot this year the three week taper that I had done was probably necessary.
When I finally sat down I had trouble getting into the chair. The guys helped me hobble over to the kitchen tent and after a couple of the world’s greatest cheese burgers I was feeling better. With some help to get out of the chair we headed home.
|Photo: Ulysses Chan|
After an espresso and a couple diet cokes at home, I weighed myself in at 149lbs, 6 pounds down. I lay down for a minute and when I woke up two hours later I was amazed to find that I could get out of bed and walk reasonably normally.
I am so grateful to have been able to run this year! Grateful to my wife and family for their patience with many many hours of PT and training, Dr. Tang for a perfect job screwing me back together and Dr. Kwon for helping me with the PT; Dale and Tina and Ethan and Zack for an absolutely superb job crewing me all day like an indy 500 pit crew; To Ken Hamada for convincing me three years ago to try this game again and to Uncle Hal, Nick Nudell and the UMT, Dave Flan and all the many dedicated AC100 volunteers for making this great race what it is.
I decided not to enter AC100 next year but look forward to being a race volunteer in 2016; I hope to run something earlier in the season maybe with cleaner air and spend a bit more time with my family in the summer months.