The start, Photo: Ivan Buzik
There's no better feeling than being ready to run on your favorite course in the world, yet as we drove up to the start line at 4:15AM, I had early morning nausea. For some reason, my stomach gets confused when I'm awake before it's light out. I munched on cucumbers to try to settle the stomach, and hoped for calmness. The energy in the community center was electric and the small room made it feel like there were a thousand people instead of the 120 that were starting the race.
My crew was decked out in custom New Balance unicorn shirts, and I had the feeling of a really special day on tap with the excitement they all exuded. Guillaume didn't know he'd soon be screaming and cursing me onward into Chantry to catch Ruperto, Pauline didn't know she'd be chasing me around with a cucumber, Eli didn't know I'd soon have some version of his exercise induced asthma, Jesse didn't know he'd have to walk so much through Chilao, Chris didn't know that the "I believe in Unicorn" shirt he wore would soon be tested, and Erik didn't know how stressful the last 26 miles with me would be. In the end, they all did an amazing job and they were the tactical difference in my 30 mile battle with Ruperto to the finish.
Chris is Estatic.
The first climb up Acorn went very well, I run-hiked strong and put a little time on Jorge. I still had trouble with my stomach though. I tried to avoid 2011's puking and put down as many calories as possible and slowed down. Jorge caught up as I was tying my shoe and we ran together for a few miles enjoying the amazing purple, pink, blue, and yellow sunrise together. I pulled ahead on the downhills and came into Inspiration point a minute early.
Inspiration Point, Photo: Mike Epler
Guillaume and Erik grabbed my headlamp and bottles and handed me a fresh bottle in a flash. As I ran and hiked the hill out of the aid station, the excitement got to me again as it had in 2011 and I threw up as I crossed over to the other side. Frustrated and mad, I slowed down and gradually took in two gels on the way to Vincent Gap (mile 13). I remembered a voluminous amount of performance food exiting my mouth in 2011 here, and I slowed down as I came in and sat for a second to take down my 4:1 carb-protein PowerBar Recovery drink and some Tums that would prove to be an essential combo over the day.
I had been reading about stomach PH and randomly decided to buy some Tums on Friday. They proved to be very effective at keeping food down the rest of the day. I took in enough sugar throughout the day to normally make my stomach an acid pit, but a single Tums tablet at each aid station kept my stomach relaxed. I hiked up the first hill out of Vincent Gap with a stomach refilled to the top, and eased into the climb trying to forget about the race. I knew this would be a terrible early sign if I couldn't run the first 26 on record pace, but I also knew I couldn't ditch my race plan to have strong nutrition at the start. So I let Jorge pass me and hiked along with Ruperto.
Climbing to 9,300ft. Photo: Ivan Buzik
Eventually the stomach settled and I got to work run-hiking up Baden-Powell. The delay at the bottom proved minor and I polished off the climb in an hour. Larry Gassan's lens came up as I crested the trail and headed over towards Throop Peak. The huge views went on forever: Baldy, Mount Wilson, the LA Basin, the southern Sierras, and the high desert. The rollers went very well and I ran-hiked near Jorge up the short climb toward Throop. We swapped spots on the downhill to Windy Gap and I blended speed and calories for a fun downhill into Islip right on time with Jim O'Brien's ghost at 9:20 AM.
The scene at Islip (mile 26) was a bit chaotic. Cars were everywhere, my crew was running around every which way, and my weigh-in included a blood pressure reading that seemed to last forever. I took down some more recovery drink as the sleeve slowly tightened and my crew grew angry as the medical personal didn't check Jorge's blood pressure. Finally they let me go and I swapped shirts out and got onto the Williamson climb, 3 minutes behind schedule.
Islip blood pressure boiling, Photo: Suzy Degazon
I knew training splits would never include a perfect aid station split, but the blood pressure reading had really angered me as I had fast goals for the next section. The stomach subsided 2 minutes into the climb and I ran a large amount of the climb hitting 24 minutes (28 with the aid station delay). I saw Jack Chang and a flutist at the top and dove into the downhill splitting :48, 5 minutes behind my goal. Though it wasn't the hottest day, the heat was starting to turn up as I was hammering to keep up with the ghost.
Cresting Mt. Williamson while being serenaded, Photo: Jack Cheng
At Eagle's Roost (mi30), my crew got me so wet and cold I got a headache. I got out of the aid station determined to put up a good fight in Cooper Canyon. Keirra yelled some incredibly motivating words at me and I put the hammer down on the road though my actual splits weren't blazing. I ran as much as I could up to Cloudburst, but the 34 previous miles zapped some pep out of my step and I ran 90 minutes for the section, 10 minutes slower than my goal. I fought hard all the way up the climb and I was gassed when I got to my crew. They pumped me with more recovery mix and cold water and I got after the downhill with a heavy heart realizing my first two important race goals had slipped away.
Cold shower, Photo Jayme Burtis
The legs felt mediocre on the gradual downhill and I pushed them to keep within my goal pace. They didn't respond and I plugged away making do with what I had. I stopped to go #2 and I realized I was already late to Three Points (mi43) with a couple miles to get there. I arrived at the aid station at 12:25, thirty-three minutes behind Jim. The record was out of reach if the legs didn't respond soon.
I kept my nose to the grindstone and sailed through the traverse to Sulfur Springs at the base of Mt. Hilyer. My plan was to get to the road and jog every step up, but my lungs had begun to tighten and force me to walk every couple minutes. These were the nails in the coffin for the course record dream. I normally would enjoy the 5% grade and run it like it was flat, but I couldn't catch my breath. By the time I got up to the aid station at 1:30PM, I was 40 minutes behind. I took down cups of Coke in between my hyperventilating. Something was definitely wrong.
My favorite downhill into Chilao (mi52) was a nightmare. The slightest uphills caused me to walk and I was scared that I wouldn't even finish in 24 hours despite covering the first 50 in 8:30. I wondered if I would walk in with Katie if I couldn't get my lungs back on track. At the aid station I was mobbed by the documentary crew and everyone else wondering what was going on. I sat for 3 minutes gasping for breath and the blood oxygen meter only read 88%: the same reading when I had hiked up to 13,000ft on Muir Pass. Chilao is only a little over 5,000ft and I knew something was seriously wrong for my lungs to have seized up so tight.
No fluid in the lungs, but a very low 88% reading from the blood oxygen meter on my finger.
Photo: Colin Cooley
I can only guess that since I've never had exercise induced asthma and the doctors could hear no fluid in my lungs, that my lungs were extremely irritated by the purple poodle pollen that had started showing up on the course since Three Points at mile 43. Though this wasn't a problem in training, I wasn't running as hard as I had run that day. The strain placed on my lungs made them more vulnerable to the pollen of the Turricula.
Jesse hiked with me through the thick of the poodle dog bush country around Chilao. We did breathing exercises to try to stretch open my lungs and cough out the pollen, but the air was so thick with Turricula pollen that it was a zero sum game. My downhill legs kept the section from taking 2 hours as I crawled through in 93, some 29 minutes slower than Jim for that section alone.
Begging my lungs to open up, Photo: Mike Rafferty
Gasping and jogging at Shortcut, Photo: Mike Rafferty
Guillaume came in and assured me that we would recover as the poodle thinned out on the way to Newcomb (mi68). Yet, as I looked over the side of the fire road, I saw huge blooms of it growing tall and odorous. We slogged along as my body would occasionally speed up with the massive amounts of caffeine I had taken to kick start my lungs. However it also caused diarrhea and we had a couple pit stops. At the bottom I washed in the river to cool off and start a fresh climb up to Newcomb. The lungs still were tight and we shuffled along for a few seconds at a time before I succumbed to a hike. If my race was going to die, I was going to make it kill me first. We reached Newcomb in 1:45 and I buried my head in my hands wondering how much uglier things would get.
The descent into Santa Anita was more of the same. A suffocating feeling throughout my body that seemed to get better for a bit before the lungs would tighten up. Just as I was thinking how strange it was that it had been over 20 miles of hypoxia with no one chasing me, Ruperto came flying down the trail. He'd stalked me for a few switchbacks and decided to make his move with all deliberate speed (in all fairness, I'd have done the same thing). The only thing he didn't plan on was an adrenaline rush kickstarting my lungs, freeing me from my hypoxic prison.
My first thought was "shit, I'm going to get second, I hate second place," then my next thought was "I've got to try to chase him, right now is my only chance." So I trotted along gingerly with a little more vigor as Guillaume got excited that I still had fight left in me. I had no clue how to explain things to my him, all I could do is try to follow Ruperto for as long as possible and maintain contact. Guillaume excitedly shouted instructions and exclaimed that I was Geoff Roes in Unbreakable. At first I thought, "no you're mistaken, Geoff comes from behind chasing Tony and then he passes him", then I realized he was just trying to say that I could win if I kept fighting. So, inspired by JB's footage of the 2010 Western States 100, I fought on pushing my legs back faster and faster keeping Ruperto just within 50-100 yards as we raced through the technical singletrack.
Guillaume exclaimed that we were hitting 6:15 pace, and I knew that this was as legendary as it gets. I was terrified to imagine going this hard all the way to the finish (another 30 miles), but something made me believe that I was ready to bleed out every ounce of training I had put in. Emotionally I felt strong thinking back to the 153 mile peak week I finished that concluded with a fast sub 5 hour final 25 miles of the course. If Ruperto wanted a Ram, he was going to have to go low 5 hours or better to beat me. It would be terrorizing to keep looking over my shoulder for 25 miles, but this was nothing different than what Tim dealt with at Western States. This was a proper foot race for this historic course.
Rocky speech by Jesse, Photo: Ivan Buzik
We ran almost every step up the climb to Chantry as Ruperto started to hike. He came into the aid less than a minute ahead of me and we entered a complete chaotic rodeo. Guillaume was shouting at my crew both to let them know I was coming and to let Ruperto know I had not gone away. My crew swarmed me and swapped in a pair of 890's while I downed some more Recovery drink and broth. There was nothing else I needed so I started hiking out figuring Ruperto would be following any second.
Tension at Chantry (mi74), Photo: Ivan Buzik
Erik and I ended up getting a 2 minute head start and we made the best use of it running most of the way to Winter Creek. I knew Ruperto had hiked very fast earlier on Baden-Powell and put my head down doing my best to match his pace uphill. Still my lungs were 75% and I couldn't run anything but the short flats going up Winter Creek. He gradually reeled me in at 2/3rds of the way up and the terrifying feeling of having a 20 mile drag race crept in. He didn't pass me so I continued to fuel up with a bottle of recovery mix and 3 gels mixed in. The fuel reved my energy levels back up and we powered over the top 15 minutes later. We ran hard as the sun set, pushing the pace all the way down to Idlehour (mi83). A small 5 minute lead on Ruperto was all I had for another 17 miles.
Idlehour. Photo: Victoria Williams
I didn't know how close or far he was at Idlehour so we barked out orders at the aid station workers to quickly get me water, coke, and my headlamp out of my bag. Trey, Tiffany, Luis, and a bunch of coyotes were excited and confident I would win, but I had nothing but fear and competition on my mind. The Idlehour section is especially technical and overgrown at night and I had to nail every switchback and every climb to hold on to the lead. Erik and I focused on pure efficiency, running every descent in control and fast, and power hiking the climbs until I could run and then quickly switching back to a fast hike when I couldn't. I thought we were making good time and in the end it proved to be enough to put 6 more minutes on Ruperto (:11 lead).
As we reached the aid station (mi89) I mentally prepared myself for the worst case scenario in the last 11 miles. I would have to destroy my feet and quads to hold onto the lead, so I better get used to the idea of being cripple next week. We left the aid station with high hopes but I quickly had to go to the bathroom. The momentum couldn't be stopped and I started making good time running down the technical Sam Merrill Trail. Eric would call out warnings of dangerous spots, but I would find a way to keep moving fluidly without pausing.
We were constantly looking uphill searching for Ruperto's headlamp. There was no way he could be turning it off on such a technical downhill, but we still couldn't figure out where he was. As we neared the traverse over to the Sunrise trail, we saw a headlamp a good 10 minutes uphill. I didn't know for sure if it was Ruperto or if he'd dropped his pacer, but I felt a degree of confidence that I had ran a solid split.
Erik and I dived into the Sunrise trail in good spirits, but as I stopped to go to the bathroom yet again. I worreid to myself "this race is too important, he must still be fighting to chase me down." I got back to business and asked Schulte to call in and get and update on the splits at Idlehour. Michael Ryan got back to us and said 7 minutes which scared me into believing a minute a mile was possible for Ruperto to reel me in. Erik told me "run this last section into Millard like you're trying to drop me" and I did my best to push ground back as fast as possible. We breezed in and out of Millard (mi96) dropping off my pack and refilling with sugar water. We committed to running every step of the small climb out to the Arroyo. As we rounded a corner, I looked back at the headlamp above Millard and I felt as confident as a hunted man could possibly feel.
There was not ambient light under the canopy in the Arroyo and Erik and I guessed on a lot of the terrain, trying to pull memories out from past runs. We sliced, diced, leaped, dodged, and hammered every last stretch of trail until we hit the fire road and knew the work was nearly done. Still, Erik pushed me along and as we crested the small climb up to the streets of Altadena we were shocked to see two lights come up behind us. A fit of cursing and yelling at Erik to go identify them persisted for 20 seconds until we realized it was Rony and a friend cheering us into the finish. My Peroneous Longus Tendon (outside of my midfoot) started to flare up as we flew through the streets, but I didn't care as the finish was so close.
My crew was shocked by my 44 minute split from Millard but excited to see me in front. The cheers that I'd waited to hear all day finally came, and I crossed the finish line in 19:06:03, the 9th fastest time in race history.
Finished, Photo: Rony Sanchez
I can't say the race was a success because I missed out on my CR goal, but I can say that it taught me a lot about myself and about the course. There is a vortex on raceday that takes strong runners and grinds them down. If you're capable of a 17:30, the raceday conditions can add a lot of time to that value. I believe it's a combination of stress and the relentless layout of the course that gives that 17:35 CR the equivalency of a sub 17 hour effort. I know Jim O'Brien's progress was much quicker than mine-banging out the CR in 3 years of experience, but I still value this journey I'm on. I'm 26 and I have a lot of time to hone my experiences. My body (other than my Peroneous Longus Tendon) feels very good and I have big training goals for 2014. If I can find a way into Western States, I'll take my chances there as well as AC. I also have a mindset of pure dedication for 100 mile season next year, the speedwork, the base mileage, the committment is all apart of my master plans for bigger mileage for 2014 (and killing every Purple Poodle Dog Bush on the course).
Ramicorn. Photo: Gareth Mackay
I'm extremely grateful to my crew and all those that believed in me on Saturday. I wasn't the most obvious runner to take down the record on paper, but I think a lot of friends knew how much this race meant to me and how hard I trained. I'm more resolute in 2014 to only focus on races I care about and run my very best. I can't say enough about how thankful I am for this community, my tenacity and committment are the result of all the support I get. Thank you all.
In my head for many miles: The Alabama Shakes - Ain't the Same