San Diego 100 in the bag. This was an adventure that I’m really proud of, so I’m going to write about it long form. Read on if you want to hear about the whole race. It’s long, though. You’ve been warned. Seriously, it’s like 12 pages. Skip to the conclusion for the short version.
It was never going to be enough to have the San Diego 100 “in the bag.” I “bagged” this race last year in what could best be described as the ultra running equivalent of an older sibling grabbing your hand and hitting you with it while yelling “Why are you hitting yourself!?” In 2017, I completely screwed my nutrition plan and wound up sitting at Meadows aid station pondering failure and wondering whether this was going to be my first DNF. It wasn’t. I trudged my way through to what became my slowest hundred yet at 26:01.
What frustrated me more than anything was the knowledge that I could have done so, so much better. The weather had been great in 2017, at least by comparison to other years. There were more finishers that year than in any previous year on the current course. The mistakes had been all mine to make, and they had all been simple: drinking water rather than electrolytes, not hydrating defensively, eating too few calories. All of it came together to ruin the middle 40% of the race.
So when I came back this year, I came back for blood, so to speak. My goal was sub-24 hours. In any given year, something like 10% of the field will manage this. The twist was that the forecast called for temperatures around six degrees hotter than last year. Let me be clear: I’m not a heat runner. I do terribly in high temperatures. To come back “for blood” on a year when the course itself was going to bring its A-game seemed… well, a little idiotic.
But, then again, I am an idiot.
The race started as expected: with the cold conga line through the marsh on the south end of the lake. When I was a kid, my mother and I would come up here for spaghetti dinner on Wednesday nights, and I’d sometimes play down here in the reeds. The area is much more “formal” now with benches and trails, but it still activates my kid adventure sense.
From the beginning, I could feel the difference from last year. Simply put: I was slower and more measured. There was less of an air of panic every time the conga line slowed at a bottleneck. It was nice. I was cruising along, knocking between 10 and 14-minute miles, depending on the incline. I spent most of the race’s early miles with Kevin Wolf. The company on long runs can be great, as it gives you something to focus on outside the endless miles. Together we navigated the early miles, which loop around the Cuyamaca basin in various ways before joining the PCT at Sunrise Aid Station, mile 21.
Even early in the race, the heat was intense. The San Diego 100 course is about 90% exposed, with only brief respites under canopy. The sun is a constant presence for the first half, and its effects must be mitigated somehow. Fast runners can semi-reliably use the increased airflow from their speed as a cooling mechanism. For slower, trudgier runners like myself, mitigation must be more active. I opted for a drape and sun sleeves, and a ventilated shirt. Even so, by 10am (4 hours in), I found myself wanting ice at each aid station. By six hours, I was filling my hat with ice, and had picked up an insulated handheld whose only purpose was to carry ice water to douse myself with.
The section between four and six hours for me was the PCT, which runs along the high ridge where high desert drops precipitously into true desert. It could not be more exposed, being entirely treeless and east-facing at a time of day when the sun is still in the eastern sky. The sun/shade dichotomy along that ridge is extreme, and in the few times the course loops and momentarily shields the runners from the sun, the relief is palpable. This is where a lot of unprepared runners begin to go off the rails. It’s a long section, rolling with a slight net uphill. It can be –but shouldn’t be– taken fast. It shouldn’t be –but often is – underestimated. It’s one of the rare places where you feel connected to the experience of the pioneers who braved this area long ago. Below you is white sands that stretch to the edge of vision, studded with black, rocky mountains. The Anza Borrego looks as deadly as any desert really is to an unprotected mammal. You realize that if it weren’t for the vast infrastructure of survival laid out for you, this area would mean death to all but the most adapted.
That section ends with Pioneer Mail, where I caught up with Sean Nakamura, who somehow never seems outwardly affected by heat or really any external discomfort. Kevin and I had parted ways just a bit before the aid station. That stretch of PCT is over seven miles long, a pretty average distance for this course. One thing people don’t often consider in the difficulty of a race is the number of aid stations that they’ll get. Cruel Jewel is famously difficult, but you get 21 aid stations (including the finish) to help you along. That’s more than one per five miles average. Tahoe Rim Trail has 24, Orcas Island has 20, Rio Del Lago has 18, and Zion has 17.
But San Diego has 15. At a 24 hour pace, that means you’ll run on average 40 more minutes between support than you would at TRT, or 30 more than Cruel Jewel. When the heat index never really drops below 100 and the humidity is less than 20%, that makes a huge difference. It’s the difference between carefully planning your aid stations and just kind of winging it. It can be the difference between discomfort and real medical danger.
In the section immediately after Pioneer, aid station gaps become a big deal. The race up until Pioneer is mellow, if a bit deceptive. You’ve steadily climbed about 800′ net to 5400′ elevation (250m and 1650m respectively). From there, the race drops practically off a cliff. You drop 900′ in about 2 miles, then after a short incline you drop another 900′ in another 2.5. After such a prosaic beginning, this can be a bit of a shock. The whole thing takes eight miles to unfold. All the time, the heat is steadily building. This is the hottest part of the course, both because it’s reached in mid-afternoon, and because the steep walled canyon acts like a sink that hot air just sits in.
At the bottom of this downhill (which many people choose to bomb through and both kill their quads and overheat in the process), sits Pine Creek Aid Station. From Pine Creek, the runners turn into a steep-walled river canyon and, after some meandering, begin reversing that huge downhill they just took. This is Noble Canyon.
Noble Canyon is famous in East County SD running circles. It’s brutal. The initial, exposed meander will take you about 200′ net upward, but then you’ll climb 1400′ net in the next 4.5 miles. This isn’t much compared to alpine races, but the difficulty here is not in the climb. It’s in climbing while dealing with heat and sun exposure for 7.6 miles between aid stations. The heat index at the nearest weather station was 102, but that’s in a considerably milder location. Indexes in Noble Canyon itself were likely 105+.
This section nearly ended my race last year. After bombing down into Pine Creek, I then proceeded to plow my way uphill, chasing a runner who I had formed some kind of competitive symbiosis with over the early miles. That was stupid. We both kind of blasted ourselves to smithereens on that climb, and I don’t even know if he ended up finishing.
I came into this section this year with the knowledge that preparation and proper expectations would be key. I had my ice bandana (thank you Joanie!), and my ice-filled handheld, I was fully covered and I made sure to drench myself before I left. Even so, it was a struggle, and I passed at least a few people who seemed to be having a tougher time of it than I was. If you decide to run this race, make no mistake: Noble Canyon can end it for you. Take it seriously.
At the end of the 7.6 mile climb is Penny Pines. It comes at the end of a half-dozen “false summits” where it seems you’re almost there, only to be thrown another section of rolling, net-uphill exposure. I’ll admit that I might have been a bit too exuberant during this section, as I took two of the final hills at a run. This would come back to haunt me shortly. All said, I spent too little time at Penny Pines. In an ideal world, I’d have fully doused myself, given myself about five minutes of rest, and taken in a lot of calories. Instead, I just filled my bottle, iced my hat and handheld, and left. Big mistake.
See, the climb doesn’t actually end with Penny Pines. It’s actually part of a larger climb that, collectively, takes you to the highest point in the course over a period of about 20 miles. And in the 5 mile section between Penny Pines and Meadows, I had my first nausea attack. The first one actually wasn’t so bad. I had to sit for about two minutes and just let myself cool down. The weird part of it was that my stomach seemed to have triggered the issue. I tried to take in some food, and my whole body had just reacted as if I had eaten poison. Oh well, I thought, give it some time and it’ll work itself out. I took the rest of the trip to Meadows more slowly, and I yoyo’ed back and forth with Tom Nielsen for most of the section. When I got to Meadows, I was in not the best mood. John Scarborough, who I had run with at Canyons, was at Meadows waiting for Kristin Carbajal, who he was crewing for. I asked him to take my handheld back to the finish for me, perhaps with less patience than I should have. The acronym CREW (cranky runners, endless waiting) is bad enough without having to deal with crankiness from someone who isn’t even your runner.
Sometimes, when things feel like crap, we reach for any change we can find. We think that the problem must be X because X is what I’m doing right now and I feel like crap right now. That was part of why I got rid of my handheld. It felt like dead weight in my hand, and since Meadows to Red Tailed Roost is almost all under canopy, surely I could do without it. But the problem at this point wasn’t exposure. It was the steady buildup of heat. I had been racing now for 11 hours, much of that in 90+ degree heat, and some of it above 100. And that was steadily taking its toll. I felt fine in the short term, but my mood was tanking, and I knew from the Meadows section that something was beginning to go wrong. An intelligent runner could have stopped and diagnosed it, seen the encroaching signs of heat stroke, and done something to mitigate the oncoming crash.
Did I mention I’m an idiot?
The Meadows section of the course is appropriately named. The course circles the high mountain meadows around Laguna Lake. It’s cooler than previous sections in the sense that a hot oven is cooler than the sun. The parts in the meadow are still genuinely hot, and even under the canopy it’s still warm. To top it off, that section gains about 600′ net and a lot more total as it winds the final six miles to the highest point in the course. And it was in the second of the three climbs in this section that the wheels really fell off. It started when I tried to eat something. As before, the result was nearly instantaneous. Nausea that just stopped me in my tracks, accompanied with dizziness that made my attempts to lie down turn into a barely-controlled fall.
When I got to the ground, all I could do was lie there. I’ve never actually been able to vomit during a race. All the nausea in the world won’t trigger it. So all I can do instead is just lie there and take the gasping breaths that accompany severe nausea. Eventually, the gasping breaths lead to hyperventilation, and my lips begin to go numb, then my hands. The light-headedness gets more severe and I can’t lift my head. Several people pass me and express concern. I wave them off as best I can (I can put on a good show in short bursts), but really I’m not in a good place. Eventually, I get up and drag myself to the start of the next hill, but halfway up that (and only a mile from the aid station) it happens again. More people pass me. Seven in all.
Laying there the second time, uncomfortable on a weirdly shaped pile of dirt, watching ants pass, I wallowed in a whole lot of misery. Though a little different in cause, this felt a whole lot like last year. The buffer for 24 hours was completely gone. I had wasted almost 30 minutes crashing out here. I really wondered if it was worth finishing. If the rest of the race was like this, definitely not. After about ten minutes, I picked myself up off the ground and made my way the final mile to the aid station. I proceeded to eat and change into my night running clothes, as the sun was now setting. On getting up, though, the nausea from eating hit, along with a spell of dizziness that sent me to the ground right in the middle of the aid station. This time, because I had a bit of an audience, I had to hold it together. I asked for ten minutes, and then laid my head down. An aid station worker offered me a towel as a pillow (we were on asphalt), and for that I’m extremely grateful. After four minutes lying there, I got myself up and shambled out of the aid station.
After that, it was off to the big out-and-back: the descent into Cibbet’s Flat. Unfortunately, on the way out of the aid station, less than a mile in to what should have been an easy downhill, the nausea hit again and I just flattened. It was worse this time. Worse than it had been at any of the previous times. I sat down again, hyperventilating and salivating enough to drool. Again my lips went numb and everything just turned to misery. More people passed me, both going up and down. Jadd and Thomas came by on the way up, looking strong. Jon Gunderson passed me on the way down, looking a bit worse for the wear but still strong. The trail was rutted such that I couldn’t lie down without blocking runners, so I bunched up with my head on my knees and waited for it all to pass. These are the moments when a DNF looms large in your mind, and you wonder what you’ll need to do to just get the hell out of there. Will someone be able to drive me to the finish? Will they have some way to keep me warm after I inevitably pass out? Why the hell did I do this?
The things that come to mind at times like this are, I believe, largely out of your control. What came to me at this point was the memory of Thursday at check in. Scott Mills, the amazing RD to this hell of a race, came up and greeted me in a way that was clearly personal and not just dealing with another runner. He asked me if I liked my number this year. My bib number is 100, a number I had figured was just a fun accident. Usually, they’re in alphabetical order after the elites and automatic entries are put in the beginning. I probably just came by 100 because, well, someone had to.
But now that I’m back at a computer and looking at the entries, I can do all sorts of things like, for example, order the entrants by bib number. And when you do that, 100 falls right in the middle of the C’s. A Handloser shouldn’t be in there. “I gave you that number on purpose, because of your goals next year,” Scott told me (paraphrased) at check-in. I laughed at the time, because I thought he was joking. It’s only now that, looking at the entrants and seeing that he really did shove other names aside to give me that number, I realize how incredibly cool that was. That he remembered me, knew of my 2019 goals, and thought enough about it to give me a kind of commemorative number. Indeed, all day I had been getting comments about the number as I came through aid stations. People loved it! And I had Scott to thank for that.
And it’s the memory of what that number meant, and of why I had it, that got me back up off the ground. I can’t DNF. Not with number 100.
And so I got back up. It wasn’t pretty. Hell, it wasn’t even useful at first. I just had to stand there for even longer with my hands on my knees. I had lost something like 45 minutes to these crashes, and that only counts the stopped time, not the time I lost going slower while recovering. The 24 hour buffer was beyond gone, and now I was almost exactly at the 24 hour cutoff. And with how I felt, that meant that the goal was pretty much gone.
The descent into Cibbet’s is one of those things that looks brutal on paper, but is actually pretty easy. The fastest runners will hit it in the day time, but for all but the fastest, the sun will be at least down behind the hills for most of it. Over the course of just under eight miles, you drop nearly 2000′ net into a river valley. For the most part, the descent is well-behaved, not too technical, and very runnable. I wasn’t in much of a running state at first, and even though I was moving again, I was still passed by a fellow runner, Dave Ashton. Eventually, I sped up and resumed a good downhill pace.
As this is an out-and-back, so long as you enter sometime around sunset, you’ll get a good view of most of the front of the race. I didn’t pass a lot of people on the way down, and I figured I was probably somewhere in the top 50 (I would find out later that I was 40th through most of the descent, and 38th by the end). I knew I was out of contention for the 24 hour finish, but I had determined to finish as strongly as I could. To give myself something to be proud of. I ran into Ken Zemach (who I had first run with at the Tahoe 200), making his way back up. He was on the way to a strong finish in 5th place, but he took a second to stop and ask how I was doing, and to tell me that he thought the 24 hour dream wasn’t quite dead yet. If you read this, that was appreciated, Ken; it gave me the energy to try.
Cibbet’s is a fun little oasis in the desert, lit by particolored string lights with pop music accompaniment. Mona, whose flower hats are legendary, and who I had first met at Miwok, was working there and we exchanged about as much witty banter as I was capable of. I found out I was able to keep down food. And so I did. A lot of it.
I left the aid station having gained a few spots, and began up the hill. The trip up from Cibbet’s to Dale’s Kitchen is just under eight miles, nearly all uphill, and mostly runnable. It feels interminable, but (and this might sound odd) it also feels really, really good. Last year, I took this hill with the amazing Jeri Ginsburg. This year, I took it solo, passing a few people on the way up, but more importantly getting to see all the runners coming down.
I could go on forever about the people I got to see on the way back up. This race had so many cool people I could be here for days mentioning them all. Instead, I’ll just mention a few: Jesus Garcia-Fernandez was pacing a runner about two hours back from me. Shawn Sullivann was looking strong, coming down the hill with his poles. Nathan Dib was having some headlamp issues, so I stopped to use my headlamp to give him enough light to change his batteries by (what an interesting situation I hadn’t considered!).
In the end, I made it back up to Dale’s Kitchen right around midnight. I was still a bit low on calories, so I shoveled food down my throat while I chatted with the Aid Station folks. Though I wanted to believe Ken, some mental math convinced me that the 24 hour mark was only possible if I ran a damn fast final section of the race. Dale’s is just past mile 70, meaning I had about 30 miles left to go and only about 6:30 to do it. Running a 13 minute pace might not seem hard, but considering aid station stops, hills, and the technical sections ahead, I’d have to be faster than that whenever possible just to keep the average up.
On the bright side, Dale’s Kitchen is the highest point in the entire remaining race. Rollers and small hills aside, it’s literally all downhill from there. The remainder of the race goes through many of the same aid stations from earlier in the race, just cutting directly across along the PCT to Sunrise rather than looping far into the hills as happened on the way out. Because of that, Penny Pines and Pioneer Mail are revisited, while Meadows, Pine Creek, and Red Tailed Roost are not. The way back is about as magical as it gets. Winding across the PCT at night, the pale desert to one side and the pine forest to the other. I made my way through Todd’s Cabin (a beautiful little cabin right on the PCT that acts as a single-shot aid station; it’s the kind of place many dream of retiring to), then to Penny Pines.
The approach to Penny Pines the second time is a bit strange. The PCT runs along the cliffs BELOW the aid station, so in order to approach it, there’s a brief climb, then a turnaround, then comes at the aid station from the far side. If the aid station feels different the second time through, it’s because it is: Penny Pines is actually TWO aid stations, one on either side of the street. Ironically, I didn’t know this until writing this just now, as my GPS tracks clearly go to two different places about a football field apart.
Just after Penny Pines, I ran into Steven Bailey, an experienced ultra-runner from Minnesota who I’ll have the pleasure of running the Tahoe 200 with later this year. Together, we made it through Pioneer Mail, and across the nearly interminable 7.2 mile section back to Sunrise. His conversation and commentary helped me make it through that section, and for that I’m grateful. During that section, my watch finally died, and I ran from mile 88 onward totally number-blind. I kept looking at the dark, dead thing on my wrist anyway, because of course I did.
I know now that Steven and I left Sunrise into the final 9 mile section with about 1:30 for the 24 hour cutoff. The last section is *flatter* than most, but not like road marathon flat. Those of you used to ultra-math know that if you’re told you have to make it through a section at nearly a 10-minute pace, it had better be the last section, because it’s going to take a lot out of you. Luckily, I didn’t know any of that information. All I really knew was that this was the last nine miles, and if I left ANYTHING in the tank, I’d be disappointed in myself.
So, after a short hundred yards or so to tamp down the bean burrito I had eaten, I opened my stride. I figured Steven would come along, but I think he was a bit more tired at this point. I honestly didn’t know how long I could manage an open-stride run, but I figured I’d take it strategically. Still power-hike the hills. Don’t kill yourself over the small stuff. Make it up on the runnable parts, which would be at the beginning and end of the section.
And let me tell you, that nine-mile section seemed so, so, so very long. I ran as hard as I had in me while still protecting my ability to make it nine miles. My legs hurt, but they were good for it. They’re always good for it. God I wish I could keep up with what my legs are capable of. I ran every flat section with the kind of open stride I would on a road marathon. As I went, I sipped down the half-full bladder of Tailwind and hoped my calories would hold out. I hoped also that the sun wouldn’t crest the mountain. The sky was now as light as day, but so long as that sun wasn’t up, it was still frigidly cold. The grass was frosted and the air was cold enough to make my hands numb, but that would only last until the moment the sun crested the hill. I tried to gauge time by what it had looked like yesterday when we started, but that really went nowhere. I’m no boy scout, that’s for damn sure.
In a way, the dead watch and the nebulous time were about the most positive thing that could have happened. I had exactly one focus: run until you can’t. Every section you have to walk, make up for with a solid run. Don’t be stupid, but don’t be too cautious either. Cross. The damn. Finish line.
As I strode my way around the lake for the final time, I was actually thinking how good a story it would make if I finished at, say, 24:01 or :02. “My goal was sub-24, and man look at how close I got!” When I got within visible distance of the finish line, I saw something that shocked me. And no, I don’t *just* mean the six foot Jester shaking a cowbell at me (Ed Ettinghausen, you’re a legend):
That was the time on the clock. I had to make a football field or so of distance… in five minutes.
I had done it. Somehow I had rescued that sub-24. I’d find out later that this year had the second lowest finish rate on this course. Only 43% of the starters finished the race. The course had brought it’s A-game indeed, but despite that I had knocked over two hours off my previous course time and pulled off a respectable if not amazing 23:56:13.
And I have no idea how. Still don’t. I still haven’t really processed it. Hell, I just wrote nearly 5000 words (that’s almost 15 pages!) and I still don’t know how I pulled that last section off. I sure as hell didn’t care at the time, though. I just sat there for most of the rest of the morning, watching the amazing finishers come in and congratulating them. Chatting with the volunteers. Eating the free burritos. Generally making a nuisance of myself. And smiling like an idiot the whole time.
After this, I don’t have a “major” race again until Ouray in the last week of July. I’ll be using the time in the middle to resume a more sane and focused training schedule, and to begin to acclimatize to the 13k elevation I’ll have to face there. Because of San Diego, I get to go into that break happy, but also feeling massively thankful for this secondary family I have in ultra-running. You guys are the reason I’m hooked on it. You make me feel like I’m missing out every time I skip a weekend. You’re incredible and weird in all the right ways. And I can’t wait until I see you all again.