Tuesday, June 17, 2014

San Diego 100

With Sister/CrewMaster, at Lake Cuyamaca

Contrary to popular ultrarunner sentiment, I have to inform you that 100 miles really is that far. Which leads me to wonder, as so many people do, why I want to run it.

I generally have pat answers for this inevitable question: It keeps me sane, It’s my form of relaxation, It gives me focus, It allows me to eat more ice cream. 

These answers, however, while true enough, only answer the question of why I run ultras. Fifty miles, 50K, 100K – all of these, I will grant you, are actually not that far. Sure, they’re not easy. They require training. But once you’ve done them, going back is not especially scary.

One hundred miles? That will always be scary.

This is exactly what I was thinking at mile 91 of the San Diego 100, as I grunted my way up a technical climb. (Another thought was – Seriously, who routes a course over a brutal mountain at mile 91? Masochists! All of these people!) With a handful of hundred milers under my belt, I would have thought they would get easier. But they just never do.

Something else presenting a particular challenge for me was the time of year of this race. Advice to school teachers: Don’t choose a 100 miler that falls during the last week of school. Not only does the school year get increasingly crazy-busy as it nears its end, but I also picked up a last minute gig as head track coach this spring. Coaching track takes a massive amount of time! I had no idea.

So, training? Yeah, May was not my best month. There simply wasn’t time. My only saving grace was that I had jumped into the Bishop 100K three weeks prior to San Diego, and it had functioned as an excellent training run. I would have to rely on that, and the fact that March and April had been acceptably decent months for training.

Friday morning, the day before the race, I headed off to work in a sundress and heels for eighth-grade graduation. Did I mention this was a poor weekend for a 100 miler? My last student had barely finished giving her speech when I was out the door. Sorry, kids, no congratulatory hugs. My flight leaves in 45 minutes!

This was where my crew/pacer team already started earning their status as rock stars. My sister Laura was making the drive down from Pasadena with all of our gear. Oh yes, we would be camping, lakefront, at the start/finish line. An excellent choice if you’re not trying to jump on a plane with just a carry-on, or if you have a generous sister with tons of camping gear. Jamie, who was flying down from Sacramento, also had many extra race day needs tucked into her checked bags. So, luckily, the three gels that I could squeeze into my liquids bag in my carry-on didn’t have to last me the full 100 miles.

Laura and Jamie, rock star crew extraordinaire, at our camp.

Laura picked us up from the airport in San Diego, and we made our way east to Lake Cuyamaca in plenty of time to set up camp before the pre-race briefing. Most pre-race briefings are also a little party – an excuse for everyone to gather and socialize before heading off down the dusty trail. This one was no different, and it was especially fun to have so many friends present. There was a solid contingent from Reno, plus a few friends from the other side of the hill.

Jenny and Mariam

The Dream Team

With JT at check-in

I was chatting up my dear friend John Trent, busily explaining how my training had been less than what I’d hoped for, so my goals were correspondingly conservative.

“I’m hoping for sub-24,” he confided.

“Really?” My eyes widened.

I didn’t doubt John’s goal was possible. It’s just that, in addition to a lack of training, I’d done a lack of homework. I had really thought the course was too hard for such times. John and I have shared plenty of race miles though, and our finishing times tend not to be far apart. He definitely got me thinking a bit.

Laura, Jamie, and I slept well that night in our outdoor retreat. I woke up well before my 4:30 alarm though, and took the opportunity to head out to a point jutting into the lake directly before our tent door. I shared a calm, sunrise breakfast with the bats flitting about the lake surface – hard boiled eggs for me, mosquitoes for them. I contemplated the task before me, knowing I was a bit undertrained, but also knowing that fact would compel me to start conservatively. This could only work to my advantage, and I felt confident that I would finish.

Well, okay. Sort of confident.

A perfect breakfast spot!

I gathered at the start with my friend Abby and 260 or so others, said hi to Jenny and a few more friends, and soon we were off. I found myself getting a little teary-eyed, and I was surprised. A hundred miles is still epic, no matter how many times you’ve done it, and I hadn’t run this far in a long time. Plus, I think maybe I always cry at the start of 100 milers. Yes, that sounds about right.

Ready to start!

Things started with a fairly mellow climb. There was some walking, but mostly running. I made a few miles with Abby and a few other folks. I got to briefly chat with Erika Lindland before we both had to jump off trail in opposite directions for a pee break. I came back on trail about a hundred yards or so behind Erika and Abby. As much as I really wanted the company of both of these awesome women, I also knew I needed to be careful about trying to stay with them. If I could let them go a little, I would be better able to focus on the pace that was right for me instead of potentially running too fast. As much as I hated to do it, I knew it was the smart choice, and I watched them slowly pull ahead.

Next, we climbed up and over Stonewall Mountain. An auspicious name for a mountain, no? Yeah, no. I knew this was the very mountain we would go back over at mile 90, so I paid attention to the terrain. It’s funny how terrain appears so much different when your legs are completely trashed. At this point, I was thinking it wasn’t so bad. Ha!

Heading to Chambers.

The mile 12 aid station at Chambers has a short out and back, and I saw both Abby and Erika on my way in. They were still close, but not close enough to pull me along too fast.

The terrain at this point was open and grassy, with plenty of stickers for your socks, oh joy. It was beautiful though, and quite mellow running. The sun climbed higher into the sky, but it wasn’t yet hot out. I felt great, and reminded myself constantly to keep it mellow.

I ran alone, playing a bit of leapfrog with a couple of men, but mostly seeing few people. This state would hold steady all day until I picked up Jamie at mile 56, and it suited me just fine.

I was cruising along the PCT now, very runnable terrain. My water consumption increased with the heat of the day, and it appeared I would finally drink more than one bottle full. They had Tailwind at the aid stations, which was awesome, and I had a bottle of that and a bottle of water with me. Mostly though, I had been drinking from the Tailwind bottle.

Suddenly I saw Abby ahead. She must have been struggling a little bit because I caught and passed her almost before I knew it. I actually started passing a number of people through this section. I worried about my pace. My watch said I was too fast, but honestly my body said this pace was just fine. I could still see Erika a few minutes ahead as we neared the Sunrise aid station at mile 23.

Sunrise was the first stop for my crew, and they were amazing. Jamie simply handed me a cold V8 without even asking, and I chugged it happily. After eating and refilling my bottles, I put on my arm coolers, tossed a little ice in my sports bra, and I was out of there like a flash.

Still on the PCT, I looked around, trying to see if the terrain looked at all familiar from my 1996 through-hike. Not really, but then, that was practically a lifetime ago. Plus, I was going the opposite direction.

The day was really heating up, (I heard later that it reached 90F.), and I picked up my ice bandanna at Pioneer Mail (mile 30). My crew, again, was totally dialed with getting me out of there quickly – spraying me with sunscreen, handing me food and drink, etc. I soaked my shirt and my arm coolers and loaded my sports bra and bandanna with ice. By the time I left, I was a walking ice bath and feeling lovely. Was it hot out? I wouldn't know. Felt fine to me!

Aid Station Magic

I managed to maintain my pace with the same effort level while others, it seemed, were slowing down. The entire course so far had been completely exposed – no shade whatsoever – and this would continue to be the case for most of the day. I was glad I’d chosen my Big Truck hat which has a generous brim. (Plus, it got me a few "Go Truckee!" cheers from people I didn't even know!)

I continued to slowly but steadily pass people as I cruised along, still on the PCT. I was loving this race, managing the heat, and still feeling good. When I got to Penny Pines, I couldn’t believe it had already been nearly 35 miles. I thought about my last 100 miler, Hardrock, and being 35 miles into that race at the top of Virginus Pass. That had taken me about 12 hours. By contrast, this had taken me less than 7. The miles seemed to be flying! It was kind of making me nervous, actually.

Happy runner!

At Todd’s Cabin, around mile 40, I continued my routine of icing and soaking. A volunteer squeezed ice water from a sponge onto me while I squealed and another volunteer teased him about having too much fun. I just laughed. You didn’t know that ultrarunning was just one big wet t-shirt contest, did you?

Somewhere before the Meadows aid station at mile 51, I saw Scott Mills, the race director, coming towards me.

“So, um …” he started gravely.

Oh no, the race has been cancelled. Something happened. There’s a huge fire. An attack bear. A freak snow storm.

“We had to reroute the course a little bit because of some vandalism with the course markings, but it’s all been reflagged, and you’ll see where to go.”

Oh, thank God! The race is still on!

“That’s terrible!” I sympathized. Not to mention it’s a horribly stressful thing for a Race Director to have to deal with.  I would see Scott again about six hours later, telling us about another section of vandalized trail. Apparently some mountain bikers were having a field day trying to mess with us. Honestly, what are people even thinking when they do something like that? I just don’t get it.

Pine trees! At last, some meager shade.

Jamie joined me for pacing duties at mile 56. I couldn’t believe how fast the day had gone by! Next, we would head down eight miles of technical trail into Noble Canyon. Apparently this was a scorching section last year. Luckily, it came later in the race this year, and we were heading down at dusk. I had already stopped icing and getting wet, knowing that I would need to dry off before the temperature dropped. Even though it was still warm, I was advised by other crews at the aid station that it would get cold fast. I tucked my arm warmers into the back of my sports bra, knowing I could pick up more layers when I would see Laura again at mile 72.

Last shot with sister in the daylight.

My crew is all prepped for my arrival.

The scenery through this section was awesome. The canyon was tight for stretches, with narrow walls following a creek and treating us to hidden glens lush with ferns – little oases in the desert. When it opened up, we were graced with beautiful sunset vistas. I constantly reminded myself to enjoy this beauty because I’ll tell you, that downhill hurt! My legs were finally starting to feel the miles, and I had to take this trail at a slower pace than I would have liked. By the time we reached the aid station at mile 64, food was starting to sound like a pretty terrible idea.

I had been an excellent eater all day, eating some solid food at every aid station, plus a lot of Tailwind. I’d taken only one gel up to this point, but it seemed like now I would need to make the switch to more easily digestible calories. I managed a couple spoonfuls of guacamole at the aid station and made sure my pockets were full of gels for the climb back up. I also had a small bite of espresso brownie just because they were homemade and an inspired choice for a mile 64 aid station at the bottom of a long climb.

We began the eight mile climb back up, and I will say that I was happy not to be going downhill anymore. The fading light of day bathed the hillsides in a soft, golden glow, and it was still plenty warm, making this quite an enjoyable section of trail.

We arrived back at Pioneer Mail (mile 72) at about 10:00 for what was to be my final crew stop. I still wasn’t wearing my arm warmers and decided against picking up additional layers. I was actually feeling hot, and if it got cold later, I had a drop bag at Chambers (mile 87). As it turned out, I finally got rid of my arm warmers at Chambers because I had never even put them on.

I sent Laura off to get some sleep until my finish. Although there were other crew accessible aid stations down the trail, I knew I didn’t really need anything that I couldn’t get from the aid stations, and I wanted my sister to get some sleep. She had done an amazing job during the day, and came through big time by bringing all the gear and driving us around. (She would also continue amazing crew duties later by being the primary person to pack up our camp sight and load the car while I languished in exhaustion during the morning heat. Sometimes being a mom never ends!)

“So, you might have to look for me at the finish earlier than I had thought,” began my parting words to her. I had told my crew to be prepared for a 10:00 AM finish, which would have been 28 hours.

“You’ll probably finish before 6:00, right?”

Yeah, this may have been her first time crewing an ultra, but she’s no dummy.

“That’s what I’m hoping for at this point.” I finally allowed myself to say it out loud. I knew I was slowing down, but I thought I still had a solid shot at sub-24. All day I’d been thinking how insane that was.

Maybe I’m running too fast? How is this possible? I’m just not in that kind of shape!

But now? It was clearly possible.

I set off into the night with Jamie for some long stretches of nothing but starlight. It had been awesome seeing Jamie and Laura at so many aid stations during the day; I’ve never run such a crew-friendly race before! Not only was it a mental boost, but they really helped things happen more quickly, like getting me ice and presenting food that I might want.

Nighttime in a 100 miler though is so different. For one, I had Jamie to keep me company, so the mental boost of seeing crew was less necessary. Everything is quieter – the runners are spread out, so you don’t see many people out there, and because the pace is slower and I didn’t feel much like eating, getting through the aid stations was pretty relaxing. I just topped off a little Tailwind, put Gu in my pockets, drank some ginger ale, and tried to eat at least a bit of something. (One of these late aid stations had red finger Jello – brilliant!! I ate three squares after surviving the previous nine miles on ginger ale alone.)

I did my best not to slow down too much, and for much of the night Jamie ran in front and set the pace. This isn’t the way we usually do things. Typically we have the runner lead and the pacer follow, because it’s just so dang hard for the pacer to know how fast to run. For us, we primarily just have a pacer for company anyway, not to push us to a faster time. I found, however, that following her was really working for me, and I felt like I was running more than I otherwise would have. She had to constantly look back to see when I slowed or started to walk and adjust her pace accordingly, so I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her. The challenge in this scenario is for the pacer not to get too far ahead.

We watched the desert moon rise and set, gloried in the wide open, star-filled sky, and even enjoyed the wild howls of distant coyotes. There had been much talk of the dangers of this course, rattlesnakes being the one that had me most concerned. (I had a good laugh over the fact that I was more afraid of snakes than of mountain lions, but yes. It’s true.) While we didn’t see any rattlesnakes, (or any bees, which were apparently another hazard), we did have plenty of scorpion encounters. Was there ever a creepier little creature than a scorpion? Eewww!

We spotted our first one when Jamie almost peed right on it. Don’t worry; it escaped, as did she. Several more skittered across the trail as we ran. The biggest one almost chased Jamie right over a cliff. Seriously, that sucker was huge, and it was coming for her. I thought she was going to jump over the side for a second there.

Further disaster was averted when a skunk (with raised tail, no less!) waddled off into the bushes without spraying us near the Chambers aid station.

What do you think is scarier, a skunk or scorpion?

I had mentioned multiple times to Jamie how I was so sure all day that John was going to pass me at mile 75. It’s not that I wanted to beat him, not at all. In fact, I would have liked very much to see him and share some miles on the trail with him. It’s just that I was sure he was running a smarter race than I was, and I didn’t want to end this thing regretting my early pace. John was my measuring stick for wise racing.

As we neared the Chambers aid station (mile 88), I announced triumphantly, “I would just like to point out that John Trent has not yet passed me!”

We both knew this was just a joke, as Jamie is a huge fan of John’s as well, but it gave us the appropriate laugh. As it turned out, there was a long out-and-back section to the Chambers aid station. When I didn’t see John on my way back out, I was a little disappointed. I wondered where he was and how his race was going. Apparently, he was busy having a great race, if just a bit short of his sub-24 goal, running with his awesome daughters Annie and Katie. I have to thank him though for giving me the notion that sub-24 was possible on this course.

And then there we were, at mile 90-something, going over that damn Stonewall again. What can I say about this part except that it was brutal. It hurt. It was slow. I saw sub-24 slip away before my very eyes. I landed at the final aid station feeling defeated and flopped down in a chair for the first time in 94 miles. Ginger ale was all I could get down. (I really could have used some red Jello squares!)

“So,” one of the volunteers instructed, “you guys are good for sub-24, but you can’t hang around here.”

“No,” I argued, my voice deflated, “I don’t have sub-24 in me anymore.”

“Yes!” he countered. “You’ve got plenty of time; you just have to go do it!”

He did the math out loud that I was too brain dead to do, and he convinced me. He described the next section of trail, how it was so much friendlier than Stonewall, and he made me believe. I owe that guy even more thanks than I owe John.

It’s a good thing I really believed, too, because I was hurting. A lot of this course was very runnable, including this last 6 miles, but even the easiest terrain is hard to run with 94 miles on your legs. I’m sure it was a snail’s pace, but I was quite focused on pushing myself. I never truly thought sub-24 was in the bag until we made that last road crossing with 1.4 miles to go. Then, I finally breathed a sigh of relief.

The finish line was extremely quiet, but my sister was there to cheer us in, and that was all that mattered.

Scott Mills, too, was there, and he loaded me down with prizes and swag, including a plaque for being female Masters Champion. (“It’s a mountain lion!” he insisted. Not a cougar. Okay.It's beautiful either way.)

I finished in 23:33:30, 3rd female, and 20th overall.

“A lot of ‘3s,’” my sister noted.


"Oh no, Gretchen, you're not a cougar. You're a lion!"

I was immediately ushered to Ultralive TV to be interviewed. Sheesh, it was like celebrity status. You can see my interview here.

We found our way to a glorious coin-op shower at the campground, and then I tried for a nap in the tent. My legs hurt way too much to sleep, in spite of my exhaustion, and by 8:00 I gave it up and headed to the pancake breakfast at the finish line.

Firefighters served up eggs, sausage and pancakes, and I finally eased my leg pain with two Tylenol and a beer. If you think a beer at 8:00 in the morning is bad, you should know that Jamie had her first one before 6:00 AM. That girl is my hero.

Probably my favorite part of an ultra is sitting at the finish with that immense sense of accomplishment, stuffing my face with greasy food, and cheering more runners across the line. I was relieved to be done myself, and so excited for the other runners that I kept crying every time another one crossed the line. The finish line of a 100 miler is a pretty emotional place.

“Do all race directors wait at the finish for every runner to cross?” my sister asked, seeing Scott there still greeting each finisher with a medal and belt buckle.

“No,” Jamie said, “just the good ones.”

We all agreed that there had to be a fair amount of satisfaction in seeing the runners finish your race, and I know Scott worked so hard to make this happen. He overcame a lot of adversity to make this an incredible experience for us.

For myself, I still have a hard time believing how well things turned out. Everyone I talked to before the race probably thinks I’m the world’s biggest sandbagger, but it truly did not seem reasonable to think I would run nearly this fast. It was also a perfect weekend logistically, with help from two amazing women. It was a beautiful venue for camping and running squeezed into an insanely-busy-but-wonderful time of year. Could it have been more perfect? Probably not.

I owe massive thanks to everyone who made such a great weekend happen – to Scott and all the volunteers (especially the guy at Paso Picacho who convinced me I could still make sub-24), to my dear friend Jamie and sister Laura for taking such good care of me, and to the many friends who made the trip to San Diego for their own racing and crewing. Without this community, running 100 miles would not be nearly as awesome.

I’m still not 100% sure why I run 100 milers, although the community is certainly a part of it. I know it has something to do with reminding myself that I am alive and awake. I suppose if I had an exact answer for why, the experience might not seem so enticing.

Kickin' back at the coast, post-race.

Best team ever!