Mt Laguna in the Cleveland National Forest sits at almost 6000 ft above the sea. Two nights ago I nearly froze in my tent so I bought an ear warmer headband for the night portion of today’s 100 mile race. I’m sitting nervously in a rustic lodge waiting for the race to start. I’m early as usual so I position and pin my bib #110 on my shorts and then re-position and re-pin it. This goes on for a good 10 minutes.
For the last time before race start I ponder my “what-if” list. What if I twist my ankle, what if my Camelbak leaks, what if I get bit by a snake, what if it gets dark before I pickup my headlamp, what if there is an earthquake, wildfire, the sky is falling? After all, if you run long enough something is bound to happen, right?
SInce I have nothing better to do, I go outside to the starting line where Liza Howard, the ultra-running mom, offers to take my picture in my Team Red, White and Blue shirt. I remind her that we ran together once in San Antonio shortly after she had her baby (the only way I could ever keep up with her). She has no idea who I am, but is warm and friendly all the same.
|Photo by Liza Howard|
Finally after months of race preparation (qualifying, applying, volunteering, planning, not to mention training) 178 runners set off on the San Diego 100 Mile Endurance Run. The first leg is through a flat open meadow surrounded by conifers with an occasional shallow lake. Runners snake along the trail in single file, so I settle into a conservative pace and go with the flow.
It doesn’t take long before I notice that I’m sweating more than usual. The humidity must be higher here being so close to the Pacific Ocean. Am I really going to need that ear warmer tonight? We run past some giant granite boulders with the mountains as a backdrop. Once in a while, I stop for a quick picture of the beautiful landscape.
In a short while I arrive at an aid station (mile 7.5) where my wife Cara and two year old daughter Maddie are waiting. I take care of my hydration and nutrition needs and say good morning to my girls. Maddie can only focus on the Ritz crackers in my hand so I give her one and remind her that she is on her way to see the harbor seals at the beach today while her Da-da runs for a ridiculously long time. I bid them farewell and am on my way.
Once out of the aid station I run through the meadow again; the morning sun flooding in. I cross a couple of cattle guards, make a few turns along the fence line and eventually enter the forest where I enjoy shade and some wildflowers that line the path. I’m on auto pilot until a chalk line across the trail alerts me to pay attention to course markings. A left turn takes me onto Gatos Ravine trail where a sign warns of technical mountain biking features. So far, I’m feeling strong.
I make it into the next aid station (Red Tailed Roost) where I’m at the half marathon point in a little over three hours. I think to myself, all I have to do now is run seven more half marathons. A volunteer announces that she has freshly made breakfast sandwiches so I grab a few and put them in a baggie to eat on the trail. I take care of business and am quickly out.
Soon I’m on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that leads hikers from Mexico all the way to Canada. I’ve been intrigued by our National Trails System ever since I first stepped foot on the Appalachian Trail in my birth state of Virginia years ago. I nibble on my sandwich and have some chia seeds and juice to keep my energy up.
The views up here are absolutely stunning. Green forested mountains give way to the brown otherworldly desert far below. The change in climate zones is dramatic here; going from extremely hot and dry on the desert floor to comfortably temperate the higher and further west you go. So far I’m running comfortably but the temperature is definitely rising. After 18 miles, I reach the next aid station (Todd’s Cabin).
A runner comes in after me, plops down on a chair and swipes a flat hand across his throat to let the aid station captain know that he his dropping out. Too bad; so early in the race. Another runner comments on my Team RWB shirt and I immediately recognize him as Joe Pruisaitis, the race director of the Tejas Trails series. The last time I saw him he was presenting me with my first ever finisher’s belt buckle at the Bandera 100K. He is very friendly and a big supporter of Team RWB as he, along with Liza, will be presenting clinics at their trail running camp in November.
I take some time to put on sunscreen; eat boiled potatoes, watermelon and some salty snacks; bid Joe farewell and am back out. Pretty soon a jester wearing tights, long sleeve shirt, gloves and a crazy hat passes me. Seriously? In all this heat? It is Ed Ettinghausen who set a world record in 2011 for running 135 marathons in one year. Furthermore, he ran them in Skechers. That’s right, Skechers!
|Ed "The Jester" Ettinghausen|
After running for a while I suddenly hear someone moaning in agony. When I turn a corner I see a guy on the side of the trail puking his guts out. “Owwww...that’s violent. That really hurts...I’ve never been sick in a race before,” he groans. I stop to try to help him. “It’s really hot today; it’s probably the heat,” I say. After he stops hurling, I get him to move into the shade and ask if he needs someone to come help him. He sits for a few a minutes and then assures me that he can make it to the next aid station. I realize that the weather is starting to take its toll on runners and become a little concerned about what else the day will bring.
When I roll into the next aid station (Penny Pines) at mile 23, I get my drop bag and pull out a flask of dry chia seeds. A volunteer fills it with sports drink so, in about 15 minutes, I’ll have some more gel to keep me going. I hit the smorgasbord and scarf some melon and potatoes and then sit in the shade for a minute to try to cool off. Before leaving, a dedicated volunteer fills my 3 liter Camelbak with ice water.
I start my 8 mile descent into Noble Canyon where shade should bring some relief from the heat, but it just doesn’t. The lower I go the hotter it gets. Soon I can hear the trickle of a stream which calms my anxiety. I cross the stream and dunk my hat in the cool water which helps for a little while. After passing several small waterfalls, I leave the shelter of the trees and emerge onto an exposed trail running along a deep vegetation filled ravine.
I continue on this for what seems like an eternity; the sun beating down and also radiating back up off the trail. Once again I see a runner, a young lady, crouched by the trail. I try to ask if she is OK, but nothing comes out, but a croak. It appears that I’ve lost my voice from running in a kiln for the last several hours. I can only laugh at my plight.
Anyway, the lady informs me that she’s been throwing up and is still very nauseous. I remember that I have some candied ginger in my pack for such an occasion so I offer her a piece. “No, I can’t keep anything down. It’s only another mile to the aid station. I can make it,” she says. Runners are dropping like flies in this inferno and I become more and more anxious. All I can think about is getting down and then making the 8 mile climb back up to the PCT where it should be a bit more refreshing.
When I finally arrive at mile 31 (Pine Creek 1), I’m reminded that I have to run a 5 mile loop down here before going back up. It’s a little disheartening, but I’m well taken care of by volunteers. They give me a freezing cold sponge bath that takes my breath away, fill my hat with ice, and check on my well being. After resting for a few minutes, I assure them that I can continue running.
The ice in my hat seems to help, so I try to get as much distance behind me before it all melts. Several other runners are on the loop with me including a thin frail lady wearing a straw hat who appears to be in her 60s. She looks more like a gardener than an ultra-runner but passes me anyway. I try to keep up with her, but she melts into thin air like a mirage. My legs are beginning to cramp and I’m just not able to run very fast. I’m putting out a great effort, but feel like I’m standing still.
I pass another girl sitting in the shade. “I’m just resting until my nausea passes,” she says. I rasp out a few words of encouragement with my heat parched voice and keep going. I’m in no shape to try to help anyone. I look forward to a few minutes of rest when I make it back to the aid station.
Following an hour and a half on the loop, I return to the aid station (Pine Creek 2) at mile 36 where a race official greets me with, “You have an eight mile steep climb to the next aid and three hours to do it in. If you steadily hike you may make it.” This is the first that I realize how dire my situation is and how close I’m going to be to the cut-off. He then asks if I’m going to continue on with a sort of “your crazy if you do” tone in his voice. But I’m not ready to throw in the towel yet, so I announce that I’m going to go on.
There’s no time for a breather, so I fill my pack with water and take off up the paved road. My legs start to cramp some more, but at least I’m moving forward. In the distance I see a runner crouching in the shade beside a steep cut bank. He walks a little further and kneels down again. I pass him and then another lady. I settle into a steady groove, but feel miserable. Half way up the hill a tent comes into view and I remember a rumor about a popsicle stand. Is this another mirage? No; a lady hands me a lime green frozen treat when I arrive. I suspect it’s mostly high fructose corn syrup with a touch of green dye #3, but I don’t care. I collapse into a chair.
Sitting across from me is April, who I met at the pasta dinner last night. I’m surprised to see her because she has finished this race before and is an experienced 100 mile runner. “How are you doing?” She asks. “I’m in really bad shape,” I reply. “Me too.” Unfortunately, along with many others today, she hasn’t been able to keep any food or fluids down.
The popsicle lady sympathetically advises, “Well, as long as your still moving...sit for a minute...not too long though or I’m going to kick you out of here.” I nibble on my popsicle and April gets up to leave so I ask if she wants company. We commiserate up the trail where I try to talk, but my voice is almost completely gone. We’ve transitioned to a dirt road and have a few stretches of downhill where I’m able to run. The popsicle has helped lift my spirits and I wonder if I may recover and be able to continue the race.
Once we start to climb again though, my good feeling is squashed. I’m simply moving too slowly and realize that I‘ll have to drop at the next station. I start to feel nauseous and then come to a bush surrounded by tiny fluttering butterflies. I decide to sit and enjoy my surroundings. April also stops to check on me.
No matter how miserable it gets, there is always something to remind you why you are here. A few runners approach us and April says, “Look at all these butterflies. I ordered them for you.” I have some ginger candy and lay back to see if my stomach may settle.
Before long I’m back on my feet and have a bit more energy. I’m able to run the downhill sections and eventually hear people cheering from the road above. My watch reads 7:50. By the time I arrive at the Pioneer Mail aid station (mi 44) I hear a race official yell, “TWO MINUTES!” I made it in on time, but would have to be out by 8:00. I let them know that I’m done and sit down with a cold cup of ginger ale.
At least I’m in good company. I learn that more than half the runners dropped out because the temperature was over 100 degrees in the canyon today. I gave it my best, made it to mile 44, but was too close to the cut-offs to continue. The journey was amazing and is always more memorable than the finish. Despite all the misery, I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge and the opportunity to run. I love this sport and will continue to push myself!
|Gareth Williams finishing in 25:31|
Congratulations to the 82 finishers. Thank you to all the staff and volunteers for organizing a premier race and a very special thank you to April and her family for the good company and ride back to base camp. Of course thanks to Cara and Maddie who are always supportive of my running adventures.
See you on the trail.