The San Diego 100 was my first 100-mile attempt last year. Though I dropped at mile 64, I vowed to return in 2015 and avenge my DNF … and this past weekend, I did just that.
After finishing the Zion 100 in April, I knew the name of the game would be to take it easy between the two races and focus on cross training and short, hilly runs. From Zion to SD I bet I only put in 50 miles on the trails. While my legs were still tired, my mind was ready to go. I’d been thinking about coming back to the SD100 ever since last year, where I found myself in the back of a pickup truck at 2 a.m., being driven out of Pine Creek (mile 64) with a truckload of others who had dropped.
Fast forward to 6/5/2015. C and I were once again on our way back out to Julian to get checked into our hotel before the pre-race brief. Once again, Race Director Scott Mills outdid himself. Check-in was smooth, and all runners were greeted by an incredibly kind army of volunteers, not to mention one of the best swag bags I’d ever seen at an ultra. But while all the swag was great, I wanted to come home with one thing: a buckle.
After the race brief, a few of us went out to dinner before calling it a night. Though I’d slept well all week, the only thing I could think about the night before was that I was back … at the San Diego 100 and that I desperately wanted to cross that finish line.
231 runners showed up to test their mettle against the challenging-yet-beautiful course. The race has 13,000+ feet of gain, a 32-hour cutoff and takes runners through Lake Cuyamaca, Mount Laguna, the Pacific Crest Trail and Noble Canyon, before returning to the start line. Exposure, wind, challenging terrain and almost always unpredictable weather add another layer of difficulty to an already demanding course. According to the forecast, we were in for some of the best weather the race had ever seen. So, we had that going for us.
At 6 a.m., we were off … and I quickly settled in toward the back. I knew if I wanted any shot at finishing this thing I needed to be honest with myself about my pace, nutrition and the fact that I still had “Zion Fatigue” in my legs.
This Looks Familiar
Runners were faced with a long, steady climb up Middle Peak right out of the gate. I fell in line with my good buddy Mark and we talked about our strategies for managing the day (note: both “strategies” would be blown up by mile 40). Once atop Middle Peak, I took some time to take in the view before running down the back side and right into and through Paso Picacho aid, mile 7.1. I was right on pace with last year.
From Paso it was up and over Stonewall Peak, and then a nice stretch through the meadow to Chambers 1. By now the party of the conga line had all but disappeared and runners were beginning to settle in for the journey ahead. I left the pirate-themed and ever-so-gracious Chambers aid station and headed across some rolling fire road and single track before arriving at Pedro Fages (mile 18.6). With about an hour in the bank, I was feeling good and continued on. Before I knew it, I was running into Sunrise 1, AKA “The Dog Pound”.
The pound is awesome. When you come in there it’s hard to tell who is having more fun, the runners or the crew and volunteers! This is the first spot where I could see C and she had everything ready that I needed, so my time here was brief.
Leaving Sunrise 1, runners head out on an unbelievably scenic stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail that overlooks the Anza Borrego Desert, nearly 5,000-6,000 feet below. It’s quite the site. It’s also the stretch that can crush unsuspecting runners with a brutal mix of elevation, wind and exposure. Last year I remembered seeing a lot of runners struggling through this stretch and adjusted my pace/nutrition accordingly. Before I knew it, I’d made it to Pioneer Mail (mile 30) and was more than an hour ahead of the cutoff. All was well.
The next point for crew access was Red Tail Roost (mile 44), so I made sure I loaded up on food/water and hit the trail, sneaking in and out of Penny Pines before making my way to Todd’s Cabin. I was proud of how I’d managed myself on this stretch of the course, as it ate several of my friends. I left Todd’s knowing that the worst was behind me (in terms of exposure), and cruised to Red Tail Roost with not a care in the world … except for the debilitating blisters that had formed over the last 10-15 miles.
I let C know that my feet were in pretty bad shape and she and our co-crewing friend Willie wasted no time locating one of the members of the Ultra Medical Team to help me patch my feet. The gentleman’s name was Jim, and he no doubt saved my race by lancing some pretty nasty blood blisters that had formed on my feet.
Sidenote: The runners of the SD100 (and many other races) are so, SO lucky to have this fine crew of professionals out on the course. They do an AMAZING job watching out for the safety and well-being of all the runners. Hats off to you, Ultra Medical Team!
With new feet and a full stomach, I felt like a million bucks and left Red Tail Roost slightly ahead of where I was last year at that same time. While I felt great physically, memories of the same stretch last year started to creep into my mind. This is where things started to go wrong last year.
I couldn’t let it happen again.
I ran some of the most “conscious” miles of my life from Red Tail Roost (mile 44) through Meadows (mile 52) and on to Penny Pines 2 (mile 56.2), where I knew C would be waiting to start her pacing duties. As runners, we can often vividly recall some of our most profound sections of a run. This was definitely one of those for me. With a renewed spirit, I flew shuffled into Penny Pines 2 … grinning from ear to ear.
Into the Night
C and I took off from Penny Pines about 45 minutes ahead of the cutoffs. With C pacing it out we were able to get down Noble Canyon in a hurry and into Pine Creek with no real issues (other than an eye on the clock). I was so thankful to have her accompany me on this stretch, as it helped keep my mind off my DNF at Pine Creek Aid (mile 64 last year).
When we got to Pine Creek I saw Jim, the Ultra Medic who helped put my feet back together at Red Tail Roost. I told him thanks again and that they were holding up well. He said “That’s great. Now all you’ve got is a long climb up Pine Creek Road before getting on the Indian Creek Trail, where you’ll have another long climb up to Pioneer Mail 2.” My response?
In all truthfulness I knew what was coming. I was just dreading it. I’d hiked this section on an overnight training run last year and knew it would cost me a lot of time. After refueling, we were on our way up from the lowest point on the course. It was 1:15 a.m.
“Dlaaainggg” my Garmin ticked off a final mile before dying. It read 25-something minutes. Not good. With 8 miles to go and a 4:30 a.m. cutoff at Pioneer Mail, I knew it would be close. But C was all over it, and by pushing the pace (and keeping me distracted) we got to Pioneer Mail with 30 minutes to spare. She did an amazing job.
At Pioneer Mail, Mark’s friend Stephen said he’d jump in with me for the next stretch. With C acting as a 1-person crew/pacer, I knew she had been working super hard all day and could use the rest.
After thanking Stephen profusely for the kind gesture we were off … headed toward Sunrise 2.
Just Another Day
As we ran back towars Sunrise 2 on the PCT, we were greeted with one of the most amazing sunrises I’d ever seen. As the sun continued to rise, so did my spirit and before I knew it we were moving at a pretty good pace.
We got to Sunrise ahead of schedule, ate some food and then Stephen said he’d go with me again. I couldn’t believe it, but took him up on the offer to run the 8-mile stretch to Chambers 2. By now it was morning and the sun was out in full force, which forced us to slow down a bit.
As we approached Chambers 2, I couldn’t help but think of being there almost a day ago on my way out. Now I was returning … only in a little worse shape.
The Home Stretch
After about 20 minutes at Chambers 2, C and I took off for the final 12- mile stretch. The final miles send runners BACK over Stonewall Peak at mile 92-ish. I’d heard my friends who finished last year talk about how brutal this was … and I can now agree with them. It was killer.
But the surprises weren’t over yet. As I stumbled into Paso Pichaco 2, I was greeted by my friend, Ultra Medic Nick, who had some “unplanned” news for me.
Nick: “So, you’ve got an easy few miles through the meadow, then a mile, mile-and-a-half climb back up Middle Peak before you run down the mountain to the finish.”
Me: “Sooo, you’re telling me we’re not running a lap around the lake this year?”
Wow. Shame on me for not checking the map closer. It turned out that they had changed the end of the course and added the substantial climb up Middle Peak in lieu of the lap around the lake.
My 45-minute buffer seemed a lot less comfortable now, so C and I high-tailed it out of the aid station with all hopes of making it to the finish in time.
The Final Push
As we started the final climb, it was pretty apparent I had nothing left. We were moving at a snail’s pace and the mental blow of not anticipating the final climb was stinging pretty bad. As we climbed up (and up and up and up), we ran into a few other people who were experiencing the same unplanned joy that we were. We had another thing in common … we were all growing more and more worried about time.
As we continued climbing, I became convinced that we were going the wrong way (the course had been subject to vandalism in prior years, in the form of people moving ribbons and mismarking the route). I didn’t think we were supposed to go all the way to the top. After confirming with a few other runners, we all agreed the way we were going HAD to be right. After what seemed like an eternity, we FINALLY saw the junction for the final descent.
Normally I’d be happy, but instead all I could think was, “Tick tock. Tick tock.”
It was 1:20 p.m. The course closed at 2 p.m. We still had a little more than 2 miles to go.
All I’ve Got
The final two miles were a big blur. C and I descended the Sugar Pine trail in a hurry, before looping around and putting the finish line in our sights.
Thanks to C’s ability to keep calm, run hard, and stay positive, we crossed the finish in 31 hours, 48 minutes … 12-minutes before the course closed.
I couldn’t believe it. We’d done it. Finished the San Diego 100!
Sitting in a folding chair, watching the last few runners come in, I couldn’t help but reflect on the day (and night … and subsequent day). C paced me for nearly 30 miles … almost all of which were unplanned. Mark’s friend Stephen was kind enough to jump in and pace a complete stranger. Ultra Medical Team gave me the feet I needed to have a fighting chance … and all the runners gave each other the strength and encouragement to keep moving forward.
What. A. Journey.
I’ve had people ask me which finish mattered more, Zion or San Diego. The truth is they both are two of the most important and memorable days of my life, but for very different reasons. Zion for being my first buckle, and for truly showing myself that I have the grit it takes to finish … and San Diego, for having the guts to go back and try again after dropping the year prior. My SD100 finish was also almost 2 hours FASTER than my finish at Zion, which I ran just 8 weeks prior.
Proof you can do anything if you want it bad enough.
Looking forward, my plan is to ease back into things and focus on putting in some high-quality, purposeful training. With a few races left in the year I’m hoping to make some improvements in my speed, and transition from a goal of just finishing to more time-based goals.