Angeles Crest 100, 2011 Race Report

Sunday, 31st August 2011

I've been known to make some wild statements before. Things like, 'never again, ever', or 'how hard can it be, really?' One of the more common ones is, 'that is the hardest thing I have ever done'.

Well after racing the Angeles Crest 100 mile Endurance Run in Southern California this past weekend (23rd July), I can confirm without doubt that although most things I have done in my racing career to date have involved to a degree a certain level of discomfort, the AC100 is incomparably, the hardest thing I have ever done – ever.

Because annual leave tends to be somewhat of an issue, ie; I have none, time spent away from home for the interim racing, needs to be kept to a minimum. In March when I raced at Moab, I left Australia on a Wednesday for a race start on Saturday morning. This time around I figured that as the race was literally an hour out of Los Angeles, and that there was no real travel involved in the US, I would postpone my departure date for a Thursday.

So I departed on Thursday morning, and as is always the case when traveling to the US, I got there before I left on the same day. Pretty cool. Managed about 7 hours sleep on the flight over, so the rest of the day was about re-hydrating and catching up with my good buddy Slater Fletcher and his wife Monique. I met Slater and Monique at Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii at the end of 2010. In fact Slate and I raced against each other. This time around, they were crewing for me at the AC100 and would be my hosts for the weekend.

I stocked up on a few items for the race on Thursday arvo and we then left for Monique's folks house much closer to the race start. Friday was pretty leisurely. I drove myself to the race start at Wrightwood – an awesome little mountain village nestled at 5,000ft. Most of the day was about registering and then sitting through the pre-race briefing. As the day dragged on the nerves started to kick in. Suddenly I felt alone. There is something different about being in a foreign country on your own just about to embark on an epic mission, where you are not confident of the course, the distance, and your ability. From the talk at the briefing, I knew that what was ahead was not going to be easy. Sure I had read about it in magazines and blogs, but now I was here and living it, and the reality became apparent. 100 tough vertical hot technical miles.

I managed to grab 5 hours sleep on Friday night. These were a deep 5 hours. It was just a case of me only getting to bed at 10pm and then having to wake up at 3am for breakfast and then a 45min drive to the race start. I typically have my best night's sleep in the days leading up to a race. In fact I am normally horizontal I'm so relaxed the night before. I realize that there is zero I can do at that point that will make any positive difference or change the outcome. Tomorrow will be what it will be. In fact, over thinking it is more detrimental to the process than beneficial.

3am alarm goes and I'm up. A bowl of porridge and honey, two slices of toast with peanut butter, and a cup of strong coffee. Then I'm into the car and driving the 45mins to the start, sipping on a double strength NUUN. Just before the gun goes, I have a Cliff Bar, and some more water. Now I feel as though I am ready to rumble. The taper had worked, and I was feeling fresh. The nerves had gone and I was committed to a long day.

One hundred and sixty runners had entered the race – only one hundred and twenty three toed the start line.

It was 5am and the gun fired. The front guys took off like it was a 10km race – mind you after the first checkpoint I was only 5mins behind the leaders pace, which meant that I was running pretty hard too. The old saying, 'go out hard and hang on' was ever present in my mind. The only problem was that you climb, 2,000ft odd in the first few miles. Now you are starting to delve into altitude. Whilst I never really felt out of breath during the first few ascents, I could feel that my legs were burning a lot more than usual. I ran to the first aid station at Inspiration Point with a guy called Mick from Salt Lake City. We were less than a minute through the aid station after 9miles of running. Our next big climb was up to Mount Baden Powell. I had read somewhere that there was something like 41 switchbacks up this climb....I never actually counted them but it felt like more. By now I was feeling the pace. This climb takes you up to around 9,900ft (or about 3,000m) in altitude. Once at the top I had a splitting headache and it felt as though I had been running forever. The air was thin and my mouth was dry. The aim was to get down the other side as quick as possible and into some normal elevation. It is amazing how quickly one recovers when descending again to lower altitudes. The difference for me was remarkable.

The first 38miles of this race are brutal. I finally made it to Eagles Roost where I met Slate and Monique for the first time. From here on was hard yakka. I had gone too hard to early and was paying for it. Until that point I was still ahead of 24hr pace, but things were sliding downhill dramatically. The next lovely surprise for a first timer is the long descent into Cooper Canyon, and then the mineshaft climb out to Cloudburst checkpoint. This was happening around 11:30am, by now the sun was directly overhead and we were cooking. I ran out of water here and was forced to drink a few bottles of creek water. I am still awaiting the consequences, although with each day that passes, I hopefully reduce the potential onset of Giardia. Regardless, the main point is that I didn't dehydrate.

Once out of Cloudburst the rest of the race is relatively runnable, with some really awesome flowing single track. On leaving Three Points aid station we headed into a real desert landscape. It was along this section that I happened to stumble across the hind leg of a deer. Hide and hoof still attached, severed off from the hip. An interesting find, considering you are miles from nowhere and human intervention is unlikely. My suspicion was Cougar.......although I thought that Cougar's generally hung around shopping malls. Anyway it was best not to think of what the consequences could have been – I was just glad that it was still broad daylight.

I arrived at Chilao at 5pm. 12hrs of running and 52miles in the bank. Although I was glad to have broken the halfway point, it was certainly a low point for me in the race. I knew that I was never going to get faster, so a sub-24hr was out, but more than that, I now had to endure another whole 12+ hours in the dark to finish. A sobering thought. My buddy Slater ran with me from Chilao to Shortcut Saddle. About 2miles out of Chilao, we were running a great little piece of sand trail when at the last minute I veered off to the side and leapt about a meter forward. I had just missed stepping on a rattlesnake. He was cocked and ready to fire. Coming from North Queensland, snake encounters are an extremely regular occurrence on my runs. However, there is something different about hearing a full bore rattle and hiss at the same time, and seeing the snake coiled and ready to strike. It would have been slightly unlucky to have DNF'd due to rattlesnake bite – although I am sure it must have happened before.

We arrived at Shortcut Saddle just before it started to get dark. I was feeling good but knew that the race would start to get tougher from here to the end. We had a 5-mile descent into a valley and then a 3 mile climb up to Newcombe Pass aid station. At Shortcut, I was fortunate enough to gain the support of a pacer. Two in fact! Rob, a veteran ultra runner and local to the area was originally going to pace for someone else in the race, until they pulled out. It was at Shortcut that he offered his services and said that he would meet me at Chantry aid station. Between Shortcut and Chantry was 14 miles passing through Newcombe Pass on the way. I was grateful for Rob's offer, and knew that I had something to look forward too – or so I thought!! In the meantime people at Shortcut managed to arrange for a pacer to help me get to Chantry. They told me to start running and that the pacer would catch up to me shortly. About a mile into the next leg, Luke arrived. Luke had been volunteering on car parking duty all day and said that he was keen to help out with pacing – and here he was. We clicked and the miles rolled past fairly easily. We were overtaken, we overtook, and then finally after a mammoth climb we arrived at the Newcombe Pass aid station. By now I was ready for some chicken broth and something solid to eat. Two chicken broths' later and some Teriyaki chicken strips we were off. They had a live feed to Chantry and Rob was online. This gave us the opportunity to coordinate our estimated time of arrival. It was 10pm at Newcombe when we left. The descent from Newcombe was technical single track and took us down to the bottom of another huge valley. We crossed through a campsite and then started our climb up to Chantry.

Finally Luke and I arrived at Chantry. It was a little before midnight and I knew I still had another 8 hrs ahead of me. To put that in perspective – my longest training run before I left for the race was around 7hrs 40mins. To do this, I had not trained on the Friday and ate a huge dinner that night. Woke up the next morning and ate a huge breakfast before reluctantly leaving the house. Here I had been running / walking for 19hrs already and was totally depleted. Add to that, leaving Chantry, you climb about 4,000ft odd over 5 miles. The first of two major climbs in the last 25 miles of the race. If that doesn't want to make you pull the pin and go home, nothing will. It is undoubtedly one of the most demoralizing moments of your running career.

At this point my new pacer Rob was in charge. His constant banter, positive feedback on my pace, demeanor and his enthusiasm literally dragged me up the hill. I don't know too many people who would hang around until midnight, before then kicking off on an eight-hour run to help someone else achieve their goal. Unselfish, passionate and positive are a few words that come to mind.

The early hours of the morning are tough. I was now starting to dig my heels in, as I was tired and cranky. Rob was always good and just ignored any negative comments. It is an amazing feeling to run from the previous evening as the sun set, to watching the moon and stars come out, and then to watch the sun rise again the next morning, and still be going. We made it to Sam Merrill aid station at 5am, spent about two minutes stocking up and then out again. We now only had 11 miles to go – 7 of which were down hill. Time to open up the stride a bit. My quads were trashed and my feet were sore. I had a few patches on my feet that had rubbed a raw patch, but considering I don't run with socks on and that I ran in an awesome pair of Saucony Kinvara racing flats, I consider that my feet pulled up really well.

Finally we bottomed out at the last aid station. As we were descending we could see that there were still other runners fairly close behind. By that stage I didn't care who beat me, but that didn't sit well with Rob and he basically forced me into running a few 10:40 min / miles in the last 4.5 miles. We actually overtook another two runners and then had to hang tough for the final 2 miles. The pace was glacial, but still quicker than a walk. I called him Nazi Rob.

Crossing that finish line for me was one of the most rewarding feelings ever. It was a race of epic proportions. Probably not a good choice as a rookie in the distance, but the lessons I've learned over that 27hours and 24minutes have been invaluable.

Thanks to Slater and Monique for their hospitality and support. Thanks to Luke for his enthusiasm and willingness to get involved, and thanks to Rob for his never say die attitude, course knowledge, and confidence in my ability to push hard enough for a strong finish.

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