Hike the long climbs hard, run easy on the flats and downs. That was my strategy heading into my third Angeles Crest 100. I knew I could hike hard and fast uphill all day, thanks to the time spent on my fourth John Muir Trail backpacking trip at the end of June. Running and hiking in the San Juan's of Colorado for 9 days and pacing my friend, Chris Price, at Hardrock 100 didn’t hurt either. Indeed, it helped establish my confidence heading into the 29th edition (my 3rd) of this historic local race.
After sleepwalking my way to a 29:45 (my slowest time) finish at the 2014 AC100, the race stomped whatever confidence was left to be able to run these races well. I could come up with a million excuses but the fact was I’ve always experienced big lows that have taken forever to get out of. My belief was that it was simply not taking and digesting enough calories, so I went back to my tried and true method of GU gels and salt pills. Thanks to the book “Waterlogged” by Tim Noakes I had stopped taking salt for the past few one-hundred mile races and experienced lows I was barely able to recover from. So I decided to go forget what I read and go back to what had worked in the past. Science schmience.
Race day arrived. The past few days in Wrightwood were relaxing. I was taking my time preparing for the race and enjoying the quiet moments. I made sure to sleep well, eat well, and be mentally prepared over the last couple of weeks. I was hoping it would pay off. My goal had always been to be able to break 24 hours and this year was no different. The only thing that was different was that I was coming into the race healthy, mentally and physically the best I’ve come into it, and WANTING to race.
|Wrightwood: The start (with an Uncle Hal photobomb!)|
Wrightwood to Islip Saddle (miles 0-25):
The customary “Get out of here!” was yelled at 5am and we all started to make our way up through Wrightwood before hitting the Acorn Trail. The very last house passed before the trail was Dom and Katie’s cabin. For the last 3 weekends (and, coincidentally, where I am typing this up) and in previous months they have generously opened their doors and we’ve taken advantage of being able to jump out on the trails right from their doorstep.
I stuck with my strategy of hiking uphill comfortably hard and conserving the running legs for later. I was moving well and putting distance on people who were running and hiking. I got to the top of Acorn in :53. I cruised the rest of the way to Inspiration Point letting the people who were keen on the downhill pass me and I arrived at the raucous aid station that is Inspiration in 1:53. Quickly but calmly refilling my water at the aid station I walked to the far end and started my hike out to Vincent Gap. I was really happy not to be in a line of runners anymore and I quickly settled into my own groove with some quiet time. I arrived at Vincent Gap (mile 13) happy to see Dave Daley’s crew as they were helping me out until I met Marshall at Islip Saddle, mile 25. I hiked the entire climb up Mt. Baden-Powell in 1:03-04, catching folks, and staying within myself. After the customary photos by photographer Larry Gassan at the highest point on the course, I cruised all the way to Islip, again letting a couple runners go by me on the way down. I usually run the downhills well so letting a couple people by was not easy. I arrived at Islip to meet my cowboy-hat wearing crew in Marshall. We exchanged a quick hug, got my necessaries and I was off. I felt calm and good. 5:12
|Up Mt. Baden-Powell|
Photo: Paksit Photos
Islip Saddle to Chilao (miles 25-53):
I have always felt terrible arriving into Eagles Roost (mile 30) but this year was going to be different, I tried to convince myself. I again hiked the climb up Mt. Williamson comfortably hard and cruised into Eagle’s Roost in :55, my fastest split ever. The best part was that I was feeling really good. I was very excited on the inside but I showed no external emotion when I arrived at the aid station. This road section which I have loathed in the past was just fine. I let a couple eager beavers by but I soon would regain position on the trails and the climbs through Cooper Canyon. I felt great, the music and caffeine were working, and I hiked up to Cloudburst (mile 38) happy. Feeling this good this far into the race was unchartered territory for me and as soon as I let myself think it was going to be a good day, I quickly thought about ultrarunning rules number 2 & 3. You’ll have to ask legendary AC runner, Fenton Cross, for those golden nuggets. The next section to Three Points has always been terrible to me and this time I did a decent job of getting there although I started to feel a little worked. The next hot and exposed section to Chilao was the start of my downswing. I arrived in Chilao faster than I ever have but I was starting to crack. I plopped in a chair. My first sit down of the day. 5:57
|Chilao: Dave Daley in foreground with myself being tended to in background.|
Photo: Dominic Grossman
Chilao to Chantry (miles 53-75):
I consider the next section to be the easiest “25” of the course. After 6 minutes at the aid station, I picked up my first pacer, Marshall, and headed out. I was slow. Very slow. I knew it was a calorie issue and I had a brief 2 min window where I felt like I was coming back but it was short-lived. I arrived at Shortcut (mile 60) tired. I spent 12 minutes there resting and trying to bounce back. I rested my eyes and just sat. I was starting to worry that all the good work I had done in the beginning was being wasted. This is where I notoriously fell apart last year and I was wondering if it could happen again. The long fireroad descent into Westfork is something to take advantage of. The grade is perfect, the sun is starting to go down (although it’s still hot), and you’re starting to really drop in elevation. It didn’t matter for me however, I was barely making it down. The climb up Newcomb was also slow and laborious. I started to feel sorry for myself and doubt about my ability to perform in 100s reared it’s head. “Marshall, I suck at 100’s.” “I’m sorry for being this slow.” “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” I’ve started to learn more and more that when I get like this there’s usually only one reason: sugar. I don’t have enough of it and it’s not getting to my brain. Physically I felt great, apart from some left tib anterior tendinitis that was starting to bother me. The trick though is to convince the mind to take fuel in while it’s screaming “Hell no! Get that crap away from me!”. It’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way. I begrudgingly ate a PowerBar and somehow made it to Newcomb at the tail end of daylight. I sat there for 11 minutes. We finally got out and I gingerly made my down to Chantry. I usually love running this section but I was still in a funk and was barely plodding 16 minute miles on the rutted out trail and the entire field seemed to be passing me by. On the final ¾ mile climb up the pavement to Chantry I finally started to get some life back. On the downside, my left shin was starting to concern me as it was quite painful with every foot movement.
Chantry to Loma Alta Park (miles 75-101.5):
I was coherent. That was a good start. I was picking up Jimmy Dean Freeman, who I consider one of the best consistent closers on this course. That’s why I asked for his services one day after finishing AC in 2014. I gave Marshall a well-deserved hug and thanked him for staying so positive out there while I wasn’t at my best. I left Chantry at 10:26pm and I started to doubt I could make it to the end in under 24. I was definitely feeling better but was down on myself. Jimmy laid out the plan and I’ll quote him:
“Mike, I think we can do this. You need to run some of the inclines, hike the shit out of the steep stuff, and maintain a consistent pace on the downs. We need to get a lot of calories in you, not waste any time at the aid stations, and focus on catching and passing people to help pull us forward. I believe we need to average 19min/mile on the climbs and 11min/mile on the descents and 2-3 min or less at aid stations.”
It was set and I started to feel better as we kept moving. The 2 mile section from Chantry to the Upper Winter climb, where I had done multiple repeats the prior year (contemplating dropping), was where I started to run with JDFs encouragement.
Me: “My shin is really hurting and it’s really affecting my running.”
JDF: ”I don’t care. You can turn this into a negative thing or you can accept it and keep going.” Although the pain was sharp and really wearing on me psychologically, I knew it wasn’t more than tendinitis and it wasn’t going to kill me. So I accepted the pain for what it was and started not caring although present at every moment. “Food, two gulps of Coke, wash it down with water.” That became the nightly mantra. I tackled the steep climb with almost the same vigor as I had early in the race and maybe all the early conservative running started to pay off. I cruised down the Mt. Wilson Toll Road, really wanting to finally open up my stride, but sharp spasms from the tib anterior kept me in check and I kept the stride short but consistent. I had passed 5 people on this section and truly started to believe that sub-24 could be mine if I ran like this until the end. I suddenly became hyper-focused, pain became secondary, and there was no way I was going to waste this opportunity. I was out of Idlehour Aid Station in 4 min and worked my way down into the vortex that is Idlehour Canyon. The climb up to Sam Merrill was a strong hike intermixed with running. I got to the aid just as a runner was leaving. 10 miles left. My watch had died at the last aid station and I was asking JDF for time updates. From what he was telling me we were going to be cutting it really close. I didn’t panic but I was running with my eyes wide open. Upper Sam Merrill was a trail I’ve known well over the past couple months and was aware how technical it was, especially on tired legs. I passed that runner and ran it as well as I could under the circumstances. I ran up the Mt. Lowe Railway trail and all the way into Millard keeping my eyes peeled for headlamps. We were approaching Millard and I asked for the time again. I don’t remember what he told me but I knew there was no way I was stopping at the aid station. After taking my last gulps of Coke at the base of the last climb I ran the whole thing hard. I wanted to be under 24 so bad and I wanted to catch whoever was in front of me. Down El Prieto, I ran the best I could from Millard to the Finish (:52). As we hit the final road stretch through Alta Dena I desperately asked JDF for the time of day wondering if we would make it. He smiled and held up his watch. It was 4:32am. He had been lying to me the whole time. I briefly chocked up. It was going to happen. Finally. I saw the next runner just ahead. I fell 1 min short of catching him after a 48 min head start from Chantry. It turns out it was my buddy Dave, who avenged his DNF last year spectacularly.
I crossed the finish line and I couldn’t contain my emotions. It was over and I had done it. What a journey. In the ensuing days I look back and of course wondered how much time I left out on the course. What could I have done better? It’s the joy and curse of the hundred miler. It’ll always pull you in for more. This particular race is more than just a race. It’s a historic path through wonderful mountains that will teach you things about yourself you couldn’t have known otherwise. Thanks to Marshall and Jimmy for taking their time and energy to help be a part of this journey. Thank you to all the volunteers on the course and the special local ultrarunning community for making this race one to always come back to.
6:10Final Time: 23:36
|Finish: A hug from Sally McRae as I let my emotions get the best of me.|
Photo: Michael Everest Dominguez
|Congratulating Colin Cooley on a pacing and crewing job well done for Dave Daley|
|Reunited with my pacer/crew at the finish|
|Tired but happy with the sub-24 buckle at the award ceremony|