Friday, July 6, 2012

Return from the Dead

Heading back to San Diego was serving two purposes:  (1) Visiting some old friends in San Diego and (2) running a mountainous single track at altitude against some pretty talented “mountain goats”.  When we had lived in the area 7 years ago, I never took advantage of all the terrain that Southern California had to offer.  Only once had I run up a true mountain with 5000’ vertical gain over 10 miles with my then training partner (Marty Ellison).  I still remember that day, starting at the base of Nate Harrison Grade, Marty and I climbed Palomar Mountain in 85 minutes and descended in 60 minutes.  Living in Southeastern Pennsylvania, this terrain is non-existent.  The best the area has is 750ft of cumulative gain over a 3.9 mile loop within Valley Forge National Park.  So…that mountainous single track at altitude was going to present a significant challenge.
We arrived in San Diego on Thursday, 2 days prior to race day and set up “camp” at the Orchard Hill Country Inn in Julian.  Two days wasn’t going to be enough to adjust to the altitude difference between Phoenixville, PA (200ft above sea level) and the Laguna Mountains (4000-6000ft above sea level) however, I would have to make the best of it.  Luckily, I assembled the best crew for this event.
The San Diego 100 Miler covers ~20,000 ft of elevation gain on rugged single track through the Cleveland National Forest.  If you should know anything about the San Diego 100 course, you should know that you will be exposed to the strong San Diego sun for more than 12 hours and staying hydrated will be a key factor to success.

On the starting line, I lined up behind Jeff Browning, Luke Nelson, and Adam Hewey with Tim Long on my right.  It would be a challenge keeping pace with these talented runners, especially on their type of course.
Start time!!!  Me in the blue shirt and blue bandana behind Jeff Browning.

  The race started at 7am sharp with Jeff, Adam, Tim and a slew of others taking off at 7 min pace.  I stayed back around 8 min pace to try and settle into the elements.  The first 7.4 miles of the race was pretty uneventful.  I was running behind Shawna Tompkins for most of this section.  There wasn’t much conversation, owing to the simple fact that the altitude seemed to be causing me a bit of unrest in the early going.  An 8 min pace felt like 7.  My breathing never really felt comfortable, which was a sure first sign that the day was going to be a long one.  I reached the first aid station at “The Meadows” in 64 minutes averaging ~8:30/mile and in about 13th place.  I noticed that one of the pre-race favorites, Dan Olmstead, was trailing behind a little bit, which weighed on my mind for the first few aid stations.  I would later hear that he dropped very early on with a stomach virus or something.  Anyway, as would be the norm for the day, I would spend too much time in aid stations refueling with my Ensure, restocking gels, and preparing for the next stage.
The next couple sections went by pretty painlessly, presenting little challenge.  I stayed with Shawna most of these sections and was happy trying to keep the pace easy.  But, again, the feel was all but easy, despite the pace being such.  We would again enter Todd’s Cabin at about the same positioning with 2hr55min into the race and 18.6 miles clicked off.  With a quick refill of my water bottles, which I was not close to emptying at any aid stations, we were off again.  I left the aid station first and headed up the steepish climb back onto the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  It would be on the PCT where I would hit my first snag.  As I headed down one of the numerous switchbacks, I didn’t quite clear a rock and went flying, body first with a nice shoulder slide into the dirt.  I would lay there for what seemed to be minutes, but was more like 15 seconds with cramps in both my lower legs.  This, as many know, is a sure sign of dehydration.   Which #147 was sure to point out as he hopped over my cramping carcass and my two water bottles, without offering any help.  Runners out west are slightly less friendly than those out on the east coast.  On the east coast, runners seem to offer some help to the fallen ones.  On the west coast, they kick dirt in your face, hide your water bottles, and make nah-nah-nah-nah noises as they run on by.  Of course, I am exaggerating a bit, but only a little.
Heading into Penny Pines 1, I would see Teri taking some pictures and offering some verbal support.  She asked how I was doing and I think I responded, “Eh…okay…I fell about 2 miles back, but not too bad”.  This aid station was no crew access, so I refueled from my drop bag and prepared for the long descent into Noble Canyon, where temperatures would start to rise.  Suddenly, at mile 27, I started to fell nauseous.  I stepped off the side of the trail and began a nice session of dry-heaving/puking.  This actually felt pretty good (Not really).  At this time, Shawna passed me back and commented, “Feel sorry for ya man!”  Again, the love and support of my fellow ultrarunners was mindblowing.  These people really know how to help a brother out with some words of support!   Anyway, after my little throw-up session, I continued down the canyon, somewhat refreshed.  I soon came upon Shawna and passed her again and would catch David Brown for the first time.  I sat next to David and his family at the pre-race briefing and we exchanged pleasantries.  I think he was feeling me out, but didn’t want to ask the question about past running history or anything to look too obvious.  Anyway, I said, “Hello” as I passed.  He seemed to be having similar dehydration issues as many others, but would appear to have them under better control than myself.  After reaching the mile 31 aid station at Pine Creek 1 in 4:56, I quickly refilled and headed out onto the 5 mile lollipop loop.  Did you hear me….I QUICKLY headed out of the aid station!  After cramping at mile 22 and puking at mile 27, I still failed to recognize sure signs of dehydration.  I think if I was going to win anything this day, it would be the “Stupid-Idiot” award.  As I headed about half a mile down the lollipop stick portion of the loop, Jeff Browning was heading back up.
I started to fade after another mile or so and would be passed by a few more runners, including Keith Knipling from Virginia and some others.  I got back into the aid station at mile 36 (6:03) and rested for a short time, refilling my water bottles with ice water, not chugging down water, which I needed to do, but just refilling them.  In fact, they probably didn’t need much in the way of refilling, since I wasn’t drinking nearly enough to stay hydrated.  After a few minor morsels of food, I headed out for the long climb up to Pioneer Mail over 8 miles and 2400 ft of elevation gain.  Again, I was being an idiot and not giving my body the proper needs, such as WATER!  I walked every single step of the next 8 miles to Pioneer Mail, some of it with Andrew Heard, who would eventually drop at mile 44, but most on my own, with exception of the handful of seconds when another runner would pass me on my slow hike up the mountain.  It was also over this section where the flys/bees were unrelenting.  Someone has got to inform these suckers that when you spray 100% DEET on yourself, they should go bother someone else.  One of the buggers stung me right on the top of my head and the F$%ker hurt like a beotch.  I MacGyvered my bandana to protect my head from any future drive-bys by the fly-boys and that did the trick.  As I arrived closer to the mile 44 aid station, I started to think about how wonderful it would be to stop running, head back to my bed after a nice cold shower and chalk this one up to a good ol’ failure.  This was my plan, after all, I wasn’t going to make the cut-off if I kept moving like this.  It was bad!!  My stomach started to cramp.  I had stopped eating and was trying to conserve any fluids that I had, just to survive.  I arrived at the aid station only to be met by Todd Braje (my coach and the second half of my crew).  I informed him that I was done and could not continue.  Live to race another day.
Todd wasn’t having it.  He sat me down in my chair, ask me a few questions and surmised that I was definitely lacking fluids.  So, knowing this, Teri and Todd started to feed me loads of liquid.  I must have drank 2-3 bottles of water, 1 bottle of powerade, 1 bottle of Ensure, ate a few fig newtons, PBJ and whatever else I could stomach.  This rest took at least 30 minutes, if not more.  After a long rehydration and body temperature cooling using ice bandanas, Todd and Teri decided to send me off on the next leg.  Todd said, “walk the inclines, run the flats and declines.  Take your time and recover.  Let’s see how you do”.  So off I went after a little porta-john stop and headed out toward Sunrise 1 in 26th position.  After about 5 steps of walking, I gave running a try.  Wow…do I feel good.  I continued moving along the PCT along the imposing cliffs to the desert floor.  Soon I was passing 1 runner, 2 runners…..6 runners.  I glanced at my garmin.  Hmmmm…8:30/mile.  I approached Sunrise 1 and covered the 7.2 miles section in 75 minutes, with what would be the 3nd fastest split of the day, only to be bested by Jeff Browning and Adam Hewey.  I arrived into the aid station and looked around for Todd, Teri, and Marty (my first pacer and ex-training partner).  They were not expecting me to arrive that quickly and were chatting by the cars.  Todd had predicted at least 2 hours.  Boy…did I surprise them.  I WAS BACK!
A quick refuel and refill, and Marty and I were off over the next 7.6 mile section to Stonewall Mine.  I continued to blaze the trail, passing 4 runners in the process, including #147.  I again arrived at the next aid station in 75 minutes with the 2nd fastest time of the day.  At the Stonewall Mine aid station, I quickly refueled and prepared for some of the tougher climbs of the day.
The “speedy” legs had to take a break as we started to climb Stonewall Peak, a 800+ ft climb in about 1.5 miles.  After cresting the peak, the descent didn’t happen to quickly owing to the rocks and steep decline of some sections.  Soon enough, we arrived at Paso Picacho at mile 64 in about 17th place.  The sunlight had descended quickly and it was here where we picked up our headlamps.  This was a bit earlier than I had planned, since I wasted about 3 hours with stupid dehydration problems.  Originally I had thought I would be getting my headlamp around mile 80 as in my 2 other 100’s.
At Paso Picacho, they had the best grilled ham and cheese, of which I quickly demolished 4 quarters.  I could have stayed there all night, but had some unfinished business to attend to.  So, Marty and I headed out toward Sweetwater.  The trail and it’s markings got harder and harder to see, which is probably why Marty took the header about 4 miles into the section.  It was a pretty good dance move, which probably would have gotten him a ticket to Vegas (you won’t get this if you don’t watch “So You Think You Can Dance”), however, no rewards in this sport, unless you consider a huge bruise a few days later.  As we approached Sweetwater, I ended up passing another couple runners and moved into 15th by the water crossing.  Unfortunately, there were no dry ways to cross, so the quickest route was straight through.  At the Sweetwater aid station, I was surprised to see 3 other runners sitting in the aid station resting up for the climb to Sunrise 2.  A quick refuel and change of shoes and socks and we were off on the climb now in 12th.
Despite the sustained climb on loose sandy soil, we were able to run the majority of the hill where we passed another couple runners, including Keith Knipling of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club.  Keith seemed to be suffering with the chilly temperatures that started declining after sundown.  Sunrise 2 came quickly and was a welcome sight.  Marty had done his job, getting me through the last 30 miles.  Now, I was to be joined by Todd for the final 20 miles.
We quickly headed out onto the dark and cold PCT overlooking a long way down to the Anza Borrego Desert.  The wind was pretty vicious blowing out of the west and made for an even more treacherous trail to Pioneer Mail.  A couple miles in, I was able to climb into 9th place which is where I would stay for a few miles.  We would run the majority of the trail, when the trail conditions would allow, but many sections required a slightly slower walking pace.  Arriving at Pioneer for another rest stop was nice.  With only 12.5 miles remaining, I had no doubt I would finish this one.  Over the next 12.5 miles, we made our way along the trail as best we could, up over some hills and down other ones.  Quick glances in the rears would keep my pace honest, seeing as several other groups of headlamps seemed to be closing in the distance.  We arrived at the final aid station of the day and quickly rolled through the aid station.  This final 3.6 miles seemed like an eternity!  Over these miles, I couldn’t tell if I was hearing voices of real runners approaching from behind or if they were just hallucinations.  Fortunately, we made it back to Al Bahr Campground in 1 piece and in 10th place.  I crossed the finish line in 21hr40min.  Much slower than I had expected, but with the problems I sustained early on in the race, I was lucky to finish at all.