What a tough race. A heat wave hit the mountains for a 48-hour period during the heart of the race to create one of the lower 100-mile finish rates in the past few decades — 45%. In contrast, San Diego 100 usually has nearly a 70% finisher rate. Conditions with the heat and the exposure — a large chunk of the race being at 5,000-6,000 feet with no shade — made for a very challenging day.
The course is about 50 miles inland from San Diego with approximately 15,800 feet of climbing at elevations ranging from 4,000-6,000 feet. The terrain is rocky, exposed with very little shade for a majority of the race. The course’s main vain is on the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) and other trails the spur off the PCT. Temperatures tend to be in the high 80s to low 90s with higher temps in Noble Canyon (mile 25-44). This year’s heat wave made sure those “norms” were not the case. It was a scorcher.
At 7am sharp, we were off from Al Bahr Campground and Bandit (aka Rod Bien) took it out at a pretty healthy clip. First mile was 7:15 pace. I told Rod, “I’ve been worried about Dave (Mackey) taking it out hard, when all along it’s you I should worry about.” A little surprised by his fast pace, I gave Rod a little space, took it back one notch and settled into running behind him about 50-60 yards and Dave doing the same behind me. This stayed status quo into the first aid station at 7.5 miles with Rod gapping Dave and I a bit, as he kept on the slightly quicker pace. My split into Meadows Aid Station was 54 minutes (5 minutes faster than last year). WAY too fast. This had me pace check myself leaving the aid station. We left in the same order and off down the trail. Dave caught up to me and we ran together chatting about mountain biking. We could still see Rod on longer, open sections, but he was definitely still putting time on us every mile.
Dave seemed antsy with Rod pulling away, so when we hit some double track, Dave pulled up next to me and took the lead on a mellow climb. We had pretty much quit chatting at this point and as we went into a series of little grunt ups, I quit trying to run Dave’s pace, as it felt like he’d picked it up a bit. I figured he was itching to go after Rod. So, I settled into a more comfortable early pace and took a deep breath. I felt like the race had now sorted the 3 of us out and this evening we’d see where we were. We were only 10 miles in and I felt the heat hitting and didn’t want to push too much too early. After letting Dave mentally go, I relaxed and just concentrated on taking care of myself and not racing yet.
We soon came into Red Tail Roost Aid at 13 miles with Rod, Dave and I about a minute apart. Still ahead of last year’s splits. Josh Nordell was there and gave me some words of encouragement. I just gave him a “mellow, it’s early” comment. More to verbalize this to myself than to him. This was my mental reminder over the next few miles as I ran down the double track to pick up the trail and run the PCT to Todd’s Cabin.
I got into Todd’s aid and they told me Dave had taken the lead by 1 minute and Rod was 4 minutes in front of me. I was still over 5 minutes up on last year’s splits and it was much hotter, which meant they were 9 and 10 minutes ahead of my course record pace from last year. I felt like we were pushing too hard for this early. And, to reinforce this, a little mental math also told me that Dave had run the last section over a minute a mile faster than me and Rod about 40 seconds a mile faster. It being a 100 miler, this is where I really had to trust my own pacing and not get caught up in racing. I felt like I was moving well and if I went faster, I’d be pushing too hard. Hopefully those guys were pushing too hard. Time would tell.
Getting close to the 3rd aid station, Penny Pines, There is a sweeping switchback and the trail backtracks up a ravine then back up another bare ridge where you can see the trail across the ravine well ahead of yourself. I happened to catch a glimpse of Mackey climbing. I made a quick watch check and a mental note of where he was. When I arrived at that spot, he was about 9 minutes ahead of me. Still going faster and it was getting hot.
I arrived Penny Pines (23.6 miles) still ahead of course record (CR) splits, got into my drop bag, new gels and was off with Mackey up 10 minutes and Rod up 9. The next section was where the heat hit hard. It’s a long downhill into Noble Canyon that gets increasingly more rocky, technical and more hot. When I got 2/3 of the way down, I passed some hikers at a creek crossing where I was stopping and dunking my hat and taking the time to get my shoulders, neck, and quads wet before leaving. They told me Rod was only a couple minutes in front of me. Early hot pace was catching up to him looked like. I was carrying two 24 ouncers and I was draining them by every aid station.
When we were just about a 1/2 mile from Pine Creek aid station (mile 30) I saw Rod ahead. He was in the aid station when I arrived. I had been rationing water for about the last mile or two but had not run out. Rod said he’d run out of water and looked at me, “you?” I said, “No, but it’s really freakin’ hot.” With that, we both went to the task of getting ourselves taken care of. This would be the last I saw of Rod, he had a rough time in the heat and his stomach went south and was throwing up. He dropped at Sunrise 1 (mile 51.3) — his first DNF ever in over 80 ultras. My heart goes out to him on that one. Rod is a fierce competitor and I really, really respect that dude. He’s a stud and hated to see it get that bad for him. He had a stellar and commanding PCT 50 miler a month ago where he crushed the course record.
Volunteers sponged cold water over my quads, neck, shoulders and head while I chugged 3 glasses of Gu Brew and got moving again for the hot 4.5 mile loop back to the same aid station in a very toasty Noble Canyon (NOTE: temperature reports were varying, but Noble Canyon reports were anywhere from 101 to 107 at the aid station. I would wager hotter pockets existed on the 4.5 mile section we loop, especially on the south facing side of the butte the course loops around).
This section I ran in just over 43 minutes last year and it was probably 15 degrees cooler. I felt I was moving pretty well and sure enough, came through this split 3 minutes faster than last year. I arrived back to Pine Creek just finishing my bottles and got really cooled down with the help of volunteers. I chugged water, ate a banana, and left with ice in my hat to grind out the 8-mile, 2,200 foot climb back up to the PCT.
I got moving up the old single lane paved road with some hiking and running transitions and let all the liquid I chugged settling in. About a mile up the road there is a bee hive in the base of an old dead tree right on the edge of the road. I was skirting that side of the road trying to grab any tiny bit of shade I possibly could get when I walked within 2 feet of the hive. I was immediately swarmed with at least a dozen bees. I started running up the road swatting bees away. Once I was a good distance, they gave up the chase only to be stung — BAM — by a single bee another mile up the road, right in the middle of my back.
I shook it off and was almost out of water 2 miles up the road when I hit the water/popsicle minimal aid station. Filled bottles, grabbed a mango popsicle and started up the road. I kept plugging away and soon was getting close to Pioneer Mail aid to pick the PCT back up. Hard climb in the exposed sun and heat. I was again rationing water the last 2 miles.
I arrived Pioneer Mail at mile 44.1, 19 minutes behind Dave. My crew said Dave was looking hammered and weaving. I was hot, but felt like I had got through the crazy heat in semi-one-piece. I knew Dave’s style and he likes to push it and was sure he’d keep putting time on me through through halfway, then I’d hopefully be able to start closing that gap. I got my core temps cooled down and drank a ton of water, I ran the next stretch to Sunrise aid 1 minute slower than last year. It was hot for sure at this point. I was just getting close when I had some hikers tell me Dave was 28 minutes ahead. Dang. he’d run that section pretty fast. But, my crew said he’d arrived and sat for 10 minutes and I’d only been there less than 3. So, he’d only really gained another 3 or 4 minutes on me…a little more than 20 minutes ahead, not 28. Manageable.
I took time to really cool down, left with a bandana with ice (thanks to Patagonia Teammate Denise Bourassa). The next section was REALLY hot as you run toward Lake Cuyamaca into the afternoon sun with absolutely no shade. I kept plugging along and focusing on taking care of myself. Again, rationing water the last few miles.
I was looking forward to hitting the the climb up Stonewall peak, after Stonewall Mine aid station. It’s the first spot you start to get a little tree cover, albeit sporadic. I got into Stonewall Mine Aid station (mile 58) to find out that Dave had taken a wrong turn at the main intersection of the start of the 29 mile northern loop just after the last aid station. This really surprised me. A veteran like Dave taking a wrong turn at a key spot on the course. It was marked well, with at least 4 or 5 ribbons and chalk dots on the ground. Not sure how he blew through it. Bummer for Dave.
I would like to give the course marking folks a little credit. It was marked. Brett Rivers — who ended up in 2nd place — confirmed it was well marked too. This was before they went out and “over” marked it. A good to reminder to everyone. This is a very important part of running 100 mile trail races. Not only studying the course to know key intersections, but also stopping at intersections to make sure you make a good choice and go the right way. Making good decisions, course recon (via in person or via map) is essential.
I spent the next section over Stonewall Peak just really going slow, I hiked most of the climb and ran the down at a mellow pace in kind of a distracted mental state, reflecting on how bummed I was for Dave and the fact that I wasn’t getting a chance to beat him fair and square. I’d held back in the heat and was ready to roll on this 29 mile loop and had started to see him come back to me at the last checkpoint. So it goes.
I arrived Paso aid station at mile 64 to a huge entourage. George, a good fried, Patagonia Team rep and crew master at last year’s race, was attempting his first 100. However, he had dropped early due to some stomach issues and was there to greet me with my crew. Awesome to see him. Scotty Mills (the RD) was there to ask me about course markings and I told him it was marked with chalk and ribbons. He seemed relieved. Knowing Scotty, he’ll OVER mark that spot next year. He also said Dave was making his way around the loop backwards.
I had some avocado, resupplied my gels, and got headed for Sweetwater. About a mile out of Sweetwater (about halfway around the loop) I ran into Dave coming the other way. I apologized to him and gave him a hug. As I jogged off, I stopped, looked back and asked “Rematch at Run Rabbit Run?” Hopefully he’ll take me up on it. I really meant it. He’s a good guy and I was bummed he took a wrong turn.
I cruised along the next section still reflecting on Dave and that situation. I guess I ran that section okay, even though I felt like I wasn’t pushing at all. I ran 3 minutes slower than last year (where I felt like I was really pushing that section). At sweetwater, I sat down to eat. The only place I sat all day. It really mirrored my mental state. With Dave out, I was not pushing at all. I was just cruising along, finding reasons to take walk breaks and generally not having my head in the race. Enter George…
He bends down as I’m eating, looks me square in the eyes and tells me Brett gained 10 minutes on me on the last section and was in and out in less than a minute at Paso looking very good and very focused. He later told me my entire countenance changed at that moment and saw complete focus. I immediately got up and left and proceeded to run 85% of the next 8-mile climb back up to Sunrise 2 aid station. 5 minutes faster than last year.
I arrived mile 80 at Sunrise 2 at 8:11pm, at dusk. I got my lights, soup, new bottles and gels and was out of there with Jesse pacing me the last 20. He’s only the 3rd pacer I’ve had in fifteen hundreds, but he wanted get in a long night run so I was fine with having some company. We ran really hard until we had to turn on lights. I told Jesse at this point, we should have a good enough lead on Brett to just cruise it in. My quads were sore from fighting some form of dehydration on and off all day and were more tender than normal at this point in a 100. I knew from the last 10 minutes of going hard I could bring it if I had to, but wanted to save my legs and coast it in. He said cool and we silently cruised with me in front. The rest of the run was pretty uneventful besides a couple of good wildlife encounters.
On the way to Pioneer Mail 2 on the PCT, we stopped to check out a huge Tarantula on the trail that went down a hole in the middle of the trail. Then, at mile 97 a skunk jumped onto the trail in front of us running down the trail about 20-30 yards in front of us. Jesse jumped in front of me and tried to scare it off the trail. It wouldn’t budge, just kept running down the trail. It’s a section of tall grass and shrubs and every time the skunk would run around a bend in the trail, we’d slow to a hike. Jesse would peer around the corner, then wave me to proceed. This went of for a 1/4 mile, until we hit a double track section and he threw a rock at it and it hissed and ran off the road so we could run by (fast).
Then, less than a mile later, we were traversing the meadow in the trees when I caught movement in my light to my left. I looked over just in time to catch a long brown animal on top of a big granite boulder jump down and look at me—green eyes. Cat. Brain processing…cougar! I yelled back to Jesse, cougar! He said, where?!” I yelled, “40 yards in the brush!” We were walking and looking and he caught it in his headlamp too. He yells, “I see it, I see it!” We started grunting loudly and making a bunch of noise as we hiked and Jesse picked up a large size rock. Just in case. I started running again and yelled back over my shoulder, “stop and check behind us every once in a while to make sure it isn’t tracking us!” He did and we didn’t have any other issues. I heard later that a cougar had been sighted in the campground the night before. This was less than a mile from the western edge of the campground, so I’m sure it was the same one.
We kept plugging away and I glanced at my watch to see that I had a shot at sneaking under 17 hours. I didn’t mention it to Jesse, but this was in my head, which helped me push a little through the last mile to the finish. We soon had the finish line in sight and I crossed the line in 16 hours, 59 minutes, 24 seconds for my 10th 100 mile win and 15th 100 mile finish. Hard but good day.
At the finish, a little girl came up and said in a cute little voice, “Congratulations.” I have a daughter about the same age and held my hand up for a high five. She kinda missed so I held my hand out to her level and asked her to “give me five.” She gave me a little slap and I said, “Oh come on, give me another!” She did but it was still a little weak cause she kinda missed. So, I said, “C’mon, ONE MORE TIME!” This time she had gained some confidence with practice and laid a hard SLAP on my hand. I said, “Ah YEAH!” and she walked away beaming. KIds are so cool, great way to end a 100 miler, connecting with a future little runner. Giddyup.
Big shout out to my wife and kids for all their love, prayer and support during the race and putting up with my training. I do try to minimize the impact on the family time as much as humanly possible and I appreciate their patience and understanding. Thank you, Jennifer. A special thanks to Patagonia and the decade of support they’ve given me…awesome pocketed shorts and some wickedly sweet shoes for this race…and the old school duck bill cap is back, baby! The gear is awesome. It’s an honor to represent such a responsible company. Big thanks to Keira Henninger and Jesse Haynes for crewing and Jesse for jumping into pace the last 20 miles.
Thanks to Rocho at Black Diamond for the stellar bright lights so I could get a good look at that cougar. Ultraspire for awesome handhelds and night time running would be a lot blurrier without Rudy Project glasses. Also, Barlean’s for the supplements. What a cool suite of products they have. Teague and all the folks at FootZone in Bend — if you’re in Bend, check out their new expanded space downtown. G5 for a long leash during the business day so I can live life. Mark DeJohn for the ART (Active Release Technique) and massage both pre- and post-race. Tracy at Ruby’s Lube (this stuff rocks the house, all natural anti-chafe balm…no gross, cancer-causing ingredients like all the other lubes out there), check it out. And, especially the Big Man upstairs for keeping my path safe, stink-free and avoiding being kitty dinner.