90 miles of heaven, and 10-11ish miles of hell
The Angeles Crest 100 is one of the oldest and most iconic 100 milers in ultrarunning. A beautifully challenging course traversing the Angeles National Forest from Wrightwood to Altadena, AC provides a variety of challenges to test even the seasoned veteran.
Started and still ran by Ken Hamada, AC has received some recent scrutiny because of the way in which its registration process occurs. Signups for the following years race occur on the Monday after the event. Until this past year, it was also “first come first served,” so the likelihood of getting in was based on your internet connection speed, and ability to peel away from work at the exact time registration opened.
With no waitlist established, no refund policy, a very soft 50 miler qualifier and an incredibly long window of 363 days before the start of the following years race, there is an undoubtable impact to the DNS/DNF rate. Race directors are usually not in this sport to make money (except UTMB), and if you don’t want to support a race you don’t have to run, so I tried to put all the arguments aside and focus on enjoying a fun day in the mountains.
My dad and Erik traveled down with me to Wrightwood on the Friday before the race. They would help crew, and Erik would pace the last 25 from Chantry to Altadena. After a brief pre-race pickup, we made our way out to the Table Mountain campsite to set up our lavish accommodations. Forgetting the poles to my tent, we’d be spending the evening under the stars.
The race briefing was uneventful, but the pizza we had for dinner was excellent. Ran into Ian at the pizza place, as he’s two races into the Grand Slam coming off an excellent Vermont. He would be pacing a friend for 30 miles the next day, and I was baffled that he’s been able to hold up so well throughout these first two events. After talking through some logistics and providing a very rough estimate of aid station arrival times, I hit the sack early.
After a surprisingly good night of sleep, the 3:30am alarm went off and the pre-race routine went into full effect.
Write aid station mileage on arm… check!
The morning started out relatively calm, as we made our way through the darkness towards the first climb of the day. A serious flash flood had ravaged Wrightwood on Thursday evening, so the first mile through town already felt like we were on the Acorn trail, with tons of rocks and branches strewn throughout the streets.
Deciding to start without a headlamp, my plan was to relax further back in the pack, and tag along to someone carrying a torch. Unfortunately, the one guy I decide to follow blows through the first turn off the single track and heads up the wrong hill. Hoping this wasn’t a foreshadowing of the day to come, we thankfully didn’t lose too much time, and hustled our way back into the pack.
Racing with a HR monitor for the first time in an ultra, I was very interested to check the early morning data as we headed into our initial 2,500ft. climb out of Wrightwood. To my surprise, my HR was nearly 20 beats per minute (bpm) higher than it should be on a climb of this gradient. Setting a cap of 160bpm to stay in “all day mode,” I cruised into and straight past this threshold in the first few minutes of our climb… while hiking! Since my breathing was entirely controlled and it didn’t feel strenuous, I instantly thought back to all the ultras that I undoubtedly started too quickly without feeling the slightest strain.
The first 1-2 hours were spent trying to feel out my body as it related to HR. I’d slow down until 150bps, and then speed up to feel the difference of 155 – 160. Once my HR and pacing felt in control, I settled into my nutrition and hydration plan. With a couple cases of hyponatremia at Leadville and Wasatch, I wanted to be very cognizant of how my body handled fluid intake. I also decided not to take supplemental salt, no matter the temperature, as this always increases my sense of thirst regardless of fluid balance.
On the second large climb of the day, I ran into Rachel Ragona, the eventual women’s winner. We had ran together for some early miles at the Santa Barbara 100 before I made a wrong turn and got our lead pack lost. Really hope I didn’t repeat the mistake this morning. We chatted about recent races, and how she had some unfinished business at AC, DNF’ing the year before. Glad to see she was able to pull through for the win on a difficult course.
Climbing with Rachel at a controlled but steady pace and based on where we were within the pack (15-20ish), I didn’t expect to see any runners move up on us as we headed towards the top of Mt. Baden-Powell. To both our surprise, two younger guys started moving up very aggressively. Not expecting anyone to start as conservative as I did over these first 15ish miles, I had to tip my hat to these two for staying within themselves for so long. After letting them both pass, thankfully they shouted, “Don’t worry, we’re not in the race. Just doing an 11 mile run.” As they climbed out of sight, I responded with “If we pass you later, you owe us a beer.” They both nodded in agreement, and disappeared up the mountain. Rachel and I took our time heading up the climb making small talk.
Maybe it was the hours of acclimation, the deeper controlled breathing, or likely the guarantee of a free beer, but as we climbed closer to the peak at 9,000ish ft,, I began to feel stronger at a much more stable HR.
Uh oh, looks like the young guns are coming back…
After blowing past the boys sucking wind, I told them they could drop off our pints at the next aid station. Shortly after, Rachel had a bit of a low point, and I wished her well heading off to the first main AS of the day at Islap Saddle (mile 26).
Hitting the peak and right before our decent into the IS aid station, Larry Gassan had hauled his ass up to quite possibly the most beautiful location I’d ever seen a photographer make his/her way to. Trying not to trip off the mountain, I stopped to take a quick pick at what he was shooting behind us.
When I find this pic, it’s going here!
Descending into IS, I ran into runner that had stopped to take a leak. We spent the next 1-2hrs running together chatting about the trails, our goals for the day and all the other crazy topics that come up when running 100 miles. With three Pine-to-Palm finishes, I knew he’s be a strong competitor as we continued throughout the day.
Pulling into IS was the first time I saw Erik or my dad since the start. They were absolutely dialed in, as we did a quick switch of bottles, V-Fuels, ice bandana, chug of Physiophyx and face wipe. Erik said we were at approximately 5hrs, and I responded with, “this is the most conservative I’ve ever started a 100.” He said to keep patient (good advice) and to not worry about racing until much later (15ish place)
The next 6-7 miles would be on roads and we would begin descending below 8,000ft, so I expected my HR to fall substantially and be able to make some good time on these sections. Thankfully, my heart responded by dropping to the floor (thanks Joe Uhan for the race plan), and I was able to make great time without even remotely pushing the pace. The gallons of water I’d been drinking definitely helped as well, as this is the most I’d pissed during any ultra to this point (5-8 times in the first 26 miles).
Hearing from some veterans of the race, AC is supposedly 50 miles of “easy” running sandwiched between 25 miles of the high country, and 25 miles of ridiculous climbing and technical descents. Using the term “easy” when explaining a 100 mile race is a relative term, but the middle stretch of this race played right into our game plan.
With nutrition, hydration and a crew absolutely dialed, we made excellent time between miles 26-75. Outside of a missed turn that cost around one mile, a section of 3-4 miles without a single trail mark that I had literally thrown the towel in as the end of my race, and a three mile climb outside Redbox AS with thousands of vicious gnats (swallowed about 30 and my shoulder is still sore from nearly an hour of arm swings), this was likely the most uneventful of any of my most recent 100 milers.
Pulling into Chantry Flats at 15:10ish (mile 75), I decided to dump my pack and singlet, as the straps had led to some serious collarbone chafing. Switching out for a waist pack and handhelds, the first big mistake I made was forgetting to lube up as the night crept in. With the temperature dropping and not having to sweat as profusely as the 15hrs prior, rookie mistake to not lube up properly. The second mistake I made was popping a couple ibuprofen, as I thought it would be good pain relief for the last quarter of the race. Cooling quickly, I also put on a top as I began to shiver. Thanks Erik for literally carrying my damn shirt for 24.99 miles, as I took it off immediately after leaving the aid station.
Priding myself on not being passed the entire day, outside of the numbnuts that were literally running up Baden-Powell before blowing up… hey, they still owe me a beer, Rene Dorantes and his pacer literally flew past Erik and I like we were walking up Mt. Wilson. We weren’t slacking, mixing in a significant amount of running with power hiking, for this late in the race. We even passed Jorge Pacheco a few minutes later, so we knew we weren’t dogging it. Rene was just dropping the hammer. Running with him earlier in the day, I was so excited to see Rene crush his first 100 miler in under 21 hours and 4th place overall.
Climbing up Mt. Wilson, Erik and I started chatting about a variety of subjects. As much as I get into my own head late in 100 milers, it was great to have someone to talk with to help pass the time over the most difficult section of the race. I was surprised to hear him say, “Hey man, don’t flip out if you look back here. I just smacked my head on a branch.” Of course I immediately turned around, and saw a decent size chunk of Erik’s melon bleeding from the tree attack. No blood was squirting, so I told him to wrap it up with my shirt and let’s go. There’s not much room for sympathy in the late miles of a 100.
We made excellent time up Mt. Wilson, and then saw the legendary Larry Gassan again in the middle of BFE, waiting for lost souls to make their way up to Dead Man’s Bench. Erik and I talked briefly about taking a quick seat for a picture, but not having sat the entire day and not wanting any negative Karma, we decided to keep moving and finish as quickly as possible. With an updated goal of 21-22 hours, we felt this was an absolute lock if I didn’t do anything else stupid.
We descended and climbed up to Sam Merrill, the AS at mile 89 and the top of the last big climb, and I was ready to make a serious push on the last 11 mile descent to Altadena. As we began pressing downhill, my right calf began to seize up and started to have significant pain. Thankfully the pain was somewhat dull to really F’ing ouch, but there wasn’t a pop and I could still put some pressure on it. Unfortunately, it got worse the more pressure I exerted, so we made an executive call to take it easy on this last descent. Making so many right decisions throughout the day, I was pissed that I couldn’t open up over the last 2ish hours of the race.
Coupled with a bum wheel and losing the trail for several minutes, I wasn’t too stoked to realize the ibuprofen had definitely worn off. What we chalked up to bitching and complaining, and I’d do a hell of a lot of this over the last 3+ hours, I can at least blame the ibuprofen for the slight onset of hyponatremia that crept up again somewhere near mile 93-95. Pissing five (5) times over the last 11 miles without a sip helped, but compounded with a shitty stride, mushy head and technical decent, I was sure ready to get off the damn mountain.
How we made it back to civilization without being passed by 47 runners still blows my mind, but we were able to get our shit together enough… sorry, I was able to get my shit together enough to finish in a respectable 22:31 for 6th place overall.
Erik and my dad we absolute studs, as they woke up at the crack of dawn to follow me around and care to my every whim throughout this long, hot day. They were the stars of this race, as I was so happy to have them share this awesome day with me, albeit it a wee bit longer than we all expected at mile 75.
What I learned:
- AC is a challenging course that rewards patience and penalizes early mistakes
- The high country (first 25 miles) is majestic, with some seriously breathtaking view… just don’t trip while looking
- The aid stations were well run and stocked, but bring your own gels
- Altra King MT’s can survive a 100 miler, but be prepared for some late mile soreness and swelling
- Patience is not always easy at the start of a race, even an ultramarathon, but its rewarding to see a race plan payoff in the later miles
- Outside of the calf issue, focusing on form throughout the day kept my quads intact and stride relatively efficient