August 1st, 2015 I joined 172 other starters at the 28th running of the Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run in the San Gabriel back country, along the Pacific Crest Trail. The race is one of the six original 100 mile races in the United States, and remains one of the most difficult courses to master, with approximately 22,000 feet of climbing and 25,000 feet of knee-crushing downhill over several rocky and technical mountain peaks in elevations of over 9,000 feet. To further increase the roughness of the conditions, the race takes place in the high heat of the Southern California summer.
AC100 Course Profile
Last year I volunteered over twelve hours working with the Ultra Medical Team at Angeles Crest and that weekend I fell in love with the grittiness of the event. I wanted more than anything to feel the same passion I saw exuding from each runner's eyes. It was for these combined elements that I desperately desired a chance to conquer the beast and earn the coveted AC100 buckle.
Matt and I arrived in Wrightwood on Friday morning to pick up my bib and attend the mandatory pre-race meeting. We said hello to friends and enjoyed the quaint mountain town atmosphere. Later that evening we grabbed some dinner and loved exploring the farmers' market the town had set up specifically for all the race attendees; we enjoyed a fresh veggie tamale and homemade kettle corn. Pretty sure we are in this for the food! Then we headed to the hotel for an early sleep followed by an even earlier alarm clock that woke us the next morning.
Race morning I felt humbly confident and prepared. My mind accepted the fact that I was going to suffer and it would test my every ounce of strength and willpower. I never doubted my training though, and I was anxious to enjoy the beauty of the trails. I said goodbye to Matt and we were off at 5 AM, heading on asphalt through Wrightwood where dozens of local families stood on porches with full mugs of coffee yelling praises for a successful race.
The Acorn Trail picked up about a half mile from the start and we began our first of many climbs. I enjoyed the cool dark air, the brilliant full moon, and the chance to slow down and let the legs warm up. From here we were greeted by a stunning sunrise as we dropped onto a very runnable section of the PCT. I knew if I didn't take advantage of this early less-technical section I would lose valuable time, so I allowed my legs to find a comfortable yet quick rhythm.
The next section involved a 2,800 feet, 41 switchback (seriously!), 3.6 mile climb up Mt. Baden-Powell. At nearly 9,400 feet in elevation, this is the second highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, and thus provided gorgeous views of surrounding Mt. Baldy and several other peaks. I recall that the sun beamed down hard during this climb and the heat contributed to a brutal few hours.
Following this climb came more switchbacks and I recall falling three times on the rocky path. To one side was a sheer several-hundred feet of drop off. The third time I fell I landed hard on jagged rocks, tearing up both knees and hands into a bloody mess, and tossing both of my handhelds down the cliff. Since this was a long section of over 10 miles between aid stations, and the temperature was hovering above 90 degrees, I knew I couldn't continue without at least one handheld so I carefully hiked a few feet down to obtain the one bottle still within reach. The other was out of sight at the bottom of the ravine. Despite the blood gushing from my knees and rocks embedded in my hands, I remember laughing as a fellow runner told me I looked like I was "coming out of a mine shaft" as I climbed back onto the trail to continue anxiously on to Matt waiting at the next aid station.
Blissful on the PCT.
From here we entered the most notoriously hot section known as Cooper Canyon, and its reputation was retained. It was in this hell hole around mile 30 that I did run out of water with two miles to go and I started to bonk. I crammed a few handfuls of Jelly Bellies into my mouth, gritted my teeth, and held on, knowing I would see Matt at the Cloudburst aid station and he would know what to do to get me rehydrated. Even while suffering through this low point, I still had undying confidence and recognized that this feeling of despair would pass. I was still well ahead of cut off times and knew I could spare time at Cloudburst to replenish and so I did, consuming my beloved seltzer water, diet coke, and leftover fried rice from the previous night's dinner, all from our cooler that Matt had hauled down to the aid station for me. Fully recovered several moments later, I pressed on.
I am not sure if it was the combination of the scorching sun and rugged terrain or what, but this day was the first time I have ever experienced foot blisters. Interestingly, after the race, several friends told me they suffered from the same issue. By now, my feet were developing hot spots and I knew I should stop to mend them before it intensified. At the next aid station (Three Points) I stopped and used one of my race number pins to pop the angry blisters, covered them with bandaids and pushed on in hopes that would be enough. The next several miles were a blur of just one foot in front of the other, repetitive forward motion, GU and Snickers consumption, sips of water and repeat. We climbed up an oven-like blacktop paved section to Mt. Hillyer and it was just a few more miles to the major aid station around mile 54 known as Chilao, where I knew Matt and my first pacer Todd (TBone) would be waiting, and several friends were volunteering, ready to feed us much-needed hot food. Truly, I was lured just knowing I would see their smiling faces. The terrain down to Chilao was delicious in itself though, an interesting maze of elephant-sized sandstone boulders that forced every runner to feel child-like as we bounced up, down and around the meandering intricate trail.
Chilao was indeed an oasis of positive ultra-minded supporters waiting amidst the cool shade of towering Sequoias. I immediately caught Matt's eye and he hustled me to where he had our cooler and supplies set up. TBone was there with his signature huge hug and an In-n-Out Double Double cheeseburger. I swear I let out an audible swoon upon first bite of that SoCal trademark concoction; a much-needed fix for my 54 miles of calorie depletion. Both guys selflessly peeled off my rancid socks and slathered on a fresh layer of foot lube, then rolled on new socks. We conversed a bit, grabbed our headlamps as we were about to lose the daylight, and together TBone and I checked out of Chilao and went back to work.
Nobody Touch My Double Double!
All I can recall about the next section is several bats scurrying eye-level as we picked our way down the canyon, and the overgrowth of Purple Poodle Dog Bush, an invasive plant similar to Poison Oak that thrives in post-fire ravished environments. We weaved around the Poodle, making sleep-deprived jokes about Poodles, hoping we wouldn't find ourselves covered in welts the next day. From the next aid station we plowed down, down, down and then up, up, up a long fire road which seemed to wrap around another mountain. In hindsight, I wish I had appreciated this non-rugged terrain more but at this point we were happily in conversation, just enjoying the full moon and checking off miles rather quickly. I continued to fuel well, occasionally choking down a GU or a PayDay and multiple quesadillas at each aid station.
At the "no crew access" Newcomb's Saddle aid station (mile 69ish) I felt great, especially knowing we had just a few more miles to go to the second large aid station called Chantry Flats. One of the most memorable moments of the race occurred here as I was so surprised to hear Matt and my friend Jenny yelling hello to us. I turned around to see a video camera and two large TVs revealing a live feed to Chantry Flats! TBone and I waved and blew kisses and our spirits lifted even further just visualizing the nearby aid station via 2015 ultra race technology. After downing a cup of soup, we were warned that a Mountain Lion had just been spotted a few miles down the trail so we nervously laughed and headed down into the Big Santa Anita Canyon en route to Chantry (mile 75ish). Along the way we frequently made random robotic noises and sang a few childhood camp songs and 90s rap verses at the top of our lungs to ward off this elusive Mountain Lion apparently looming in the soundless midnight stillness. Our headlamps along with the brightness of the full moon reflected brilliant patterns of light on the cliffs that aligned the trail and it truly was a spectacular sight (or was that my moment of sleep deprivation?). Now deep at the bottom of the canyon, the sheer walls echoed with the sound of a trickling stream and nearby Sturtevant Falls. We never did see the predator but we did catch a green set of owl eyes watching us and an interesting looking white spider of prehistoric proportions.
Finally we reached Chantry at 2:51 AM and I was tired. Even the blinding lights and party-like atmosphere of the aid station couldn't wake me up. Or perhaps I was just starting to feel nervous for the notoriously difficult final quarter of the race. My feet were destroyed. My mind was numb and my eyesight was faded from the previous hours spent focusing on the downhill technical terrain aided only by headlamp lumens. The sight of Matt made me smile and I could see he was anxious to begin his pacing duties. My adorable friend Chantal was volunteering all night at the aid station and she thrust a cup of some unknown noodle dish in my hand which I robotically consumed. I washed it down with my standard ultra event caffeine fix of a Starbucks Double Shot espresso can. I said goodbye to TBone the same way we greeted 20 miles previously, with a gigantic hug. TBone, I am so thankful for your company out there; I enjoyed our deep thoughts shared about band-aids and railroad track adventures, camera-shy scorpion trail buddies, and neon yellow hair, and I promise to return the Double Double delicacy at the halfway point of your next event. True love is middle of the night juicy blister popping without even making a disgusted squeamish face.
As you can see, I am not a woman of few words when it comes to writing, but if I was forced to sum up the AC100 course in seven words, it would be this: The real work begins at mile 75.
As we left Chantry, Matt described the next section to me as a gradual climb followed by a steeper climb up Mt. Wilson and it was exactly that. Although the Mt. Wilson trail was only 3.5 miles, my legs were by this point trashed and I began to unravel. I whined. I may have even cried a bit. I stifled continuous bouts of nausea. I failed to take in calories and neglected the water in my handhelds. My bloody knees screamed at me, the blisters on my feet felt like demonic flames. I was incoherently exhausted. We maniacally wrestled hordes of murderous mosquitos. But Matt is my rock. He provided the perfect pacer combination of whip-cracking "let's do work!" mentality laced with positive encouraging compliments. This man knows me.
Dead Man's Bench, Top of Mt. Wilson
To further extend my dire suffering in this section, it is an everlasting ten miles between Chantry and the next aid station, Idlehour, and this distance of just 1/10th of the entire race took me four hours to complete. Four hours! But I never lost confidence in my ability to finish, it simply was never an option. I remained present in the mile I was currently in and pushed through the pain knowing the climb would soon end and the suffering would ease. And just as it did, the sunrise beckoned us, its rays reawakening my sleepless mind and recharging my spirits. After nourishing our bodies with much needed calories, Matt and I carried on past Idlehour (mile 84) while resuming our usual silly banter.
Gutting it out.
Again Matt warned me that this section to Sam Merrill Checkpoint would involve climbing and I naively answered that "Nothing can be worse than Mt. Wilson!". At first the trail weaved around a lush green oasis alongside a delicately flowing stream, and then I swear, the second the sun decided it was time to turn up the thermostat, the endless exposed switchbacks commenced. Enter bonk moment number two. With each turn I felt more dehydrated, more overheated, more exhausted and weak. And again Matt knew exactly how to lure me to the aid station, intermixing terms of endearment with forceful orders. We climbed and climbed and I began to recognize this section of trail from my required trail maintenance back in June. My Garmin had long since expired (I forgot to charge it at Chilao) so I asked him how much further, knowing I was growing critically overheated. His answer of just a half mile did not match what I knew this section to be and I became angry. This was the third time the length of the trail drastically differed (by more than a mile) from what we were told leaving the previous aid station. All I could do was put my head down and trudge through the 90+ degree heat to the ice I knew that would be waiting at Sam Merrill. I recall reassuring Matt that once we got a few minutes to rest and refuel and cool down at the aid station I knew I would be okay, and he trusted me.
However, when we arrived at that mile 89 pit stop, they were out of ice and my heart sank. My amazing pacer did his best to cool my core by dumping water on my head and rinsing off my legs and that was sufficient. I felt further relief knowing that the remainder of the race would be downhill, I knew I could handle that. I pushed down a GU, stomached some crackers and a banana and we exited Sam Merrill, positive that I could finish the final 11 miles within the necessary time frame.
We began a gentle turkey trot, a pace I could maintain through the searing pain of my shredded feet and bruised knees and I felt confident and relieved that the worst was over, but no less than a quarter mile later, I realized I was mistaken. Sure, the final ten miles were down a slope, however, the trail was distraught with harsh rocks, made further difficult by the recent flooding that washed the smoother surfaces into a craggy foot-placement nightmare. My uphill pace now outperformed my downhill speed, as every single step ignited abominable pain. "Just do the work. Get legs." I kept repeating to myself. I frequently asked Matt the remaining distance and calculated and recalculated the required pace needed to finish by cutoff. I did this over and over and over, as we tediously made our way towards the finish line in Altadena. Several times he'd look back at me to see me gritting my teeth, eyes squinted, a look of pure pain on my face. The heat grew ever oppressive. The awareness that we were just a 10k away from the sweet finish line instinctively caused our cadence to increase. All we had to do was finish. We got to the Millard aid station at mile 95.5 in better spirits and stood there for about a minute, pushing a GU and downing some Coke, even laughing a bit.
The final five miles were awash in positivity and reflection. Thoughts about all the hours I'd spent training for this event over the last year circled in my mind: Several climbs up and down Mt. Baldy, four training races, a year dedicated to improving my psychological well-being, of escaping the dark grasp of depression. Every step of this 100 mile journey was earned, through grit and grind and gratitude. Tears of both happiness and relief clung to my dusty eyes as we hobbled up the streets of Altadena and into Loma Alta Park where the finish line coaxed. I could hear the crowd and could no longer hear even a whisper of the negative voices that filled my head throughout the previous night. Finally, at 1:14 PM, with just 46 minutes to spare, I crossed that illustrious finish line, earning my position as one of only 98 finishers (21 females!) of this year's AC100.
Coming into the Finish!
I could not have finished without the solid assistance from Matt. He had the difficult pacing duty, when my brain was mush and my attitude was far beyond lively conversation. Even though he had just finished the extremely difficult Tahoe Rim Trail 100 only two weeks prior, he was there wholly for me, to work together and that is utterly what we did. He is the definition of selfless. I am forever indebted and thankful.
Pasadena, just after finishing.
Anyone who runs long distances is frequently asked, "Why do you run 100 miles? Why do you choose to subject yourself to such pain? What is it that you are seeking?". My answer is always this: It is not about the pain. It is seeing how far you can push yourself, to escape known comforts and strip yourself down to your raw core, to discover who you truly are, when all you have is your instincts and courage. It is also aesthetically beautiful out there on mountain trails, more beautiful than anything you can capture on film, and the only way to discover this richness is to escape society and get dirty on a trail, to put in work. Can't wait for the opportunity to capture these emotions again. Resilient.
Additional pictures from this adventure can be viewed on my Instagram @smushtush