- Beautiful from start to finish
- Excellent aid stations and volunteers
- Very hard and gets harder as the race goes on
The Long And Winding Version:
The Angeles Crest 100 race starts in Wrightwood, crosses the San Gabriel Mountains, and finishes in Pasadena (originally at the Rose Bowl, now at a park at the edge of the mountains). There’s roughly 20000 feet of climbing and 24000 feet of descent – it’s similar to Western States in many ways – hot, lots of big hills – but harder based on typical finish times (roughly 90 minutes longer at AC100).
Point-to-point races have logistical challenges, e.g. the start and finish are pretty far apart and there’s always stuff (e.g. a rental car) that you need to move between the start and finish while you are running. I signed up for AC100 as a Solo Runner – no crew, no pacers – which meant I had no team with me to help with these logistics. I lucked out though when I looked at the entrants – Paul Hooge, who I met before and after UTMB when we both ran it – was running too and might have the same issue. In the end, we all stayed in Pasadena, I drove Paul and his wife Robin to the pre-race stuff on Friday, and they took me to the start early Saturday. I left my car in Pasadena, Robin crewed Paul and drove their car back – everyone was happy.
At pre-race check in Friday, we were given a big bib and a little bib – and told we only had to wear one. (Why two? Maybe in the past you had to wear both?) Anyway, having two bibs proved useful. As we were driving to the start Saturday at about 3:30am (race starts at 5am and “home” is 45 minutes behind us), Paul suddenly asked aloud “where’s my bib???” Not on him, and not in the car. I was wearing my big bib with my name on it, but I brought my extra little one just in case everyone showed up wearing two bibs . After a solid hour of anxiety about his missing bib – I know exactly how that would feel – Paul finally got one of the RDs to say it would be ok for Paul to draw his own number on the back of my spare. Problem solved.
The race started as expected – a bunch of people moving off slowly in the dark, up a road and eventually up a trail. Like Western States, we started with a 2000 foot climb in the first 4 miles. The sun gradually came up, we could see the desert behind us, and in about 45 minutes the headlamps went away.
The first 25 miles of the course were amazing. After the initial climb, we turned north on the Pacific Crest Trail and ran/traveled about 20 miles along a high ridge with the Antelope Valley desert to our right/east, and the Los Angeles basin on the other side of the mountains to the left/west. It was clear enough that I could see all the way to the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base where our son is doing field exercises now – I waved to him and hopefully he saw me from 100 miles away. We ran past the occasional car camper on the ridge but mostly it was empty. After passing through a couple aid stations, we started the grind up to (almost) the top of Mt. Baden Powell – climbing about 3000 feet in a few miles, at elevation. At the top of the climb near the summit, we ran past 2000 year old Limber Pines.
One thing I’ve learned from the hot races I’ve done is that running too fast early when it is cool is a set up for disaster. I did not want to go into the hot part of the day feeling warm already, so I kept my heart rate really low and went Full Ice at Vincent Gap/8am just before the climb to Mt. Baden Powell.
Due to some permitting challenges this year (described in Things To Know way below), after the Islip aid station we had about 8 miles of on-and-off-again road running on the Angeles Crest Highway 2. The Highway name makes it sound bad, but there wasn’t much traffic (and a lot of it was race-related, e.g. crews for runners heading down the course). When we drove the road sections on Friday, I thought a lot was flat or downhill, but on foot it all seemed uphill. I moved along keeping my heart rate down and the ice on my body up, and generally felt great.
After the road, we had passed through the Mt. Hillyer aid station and then had a new out-and-back on a long fire road up to Mt. Pacifico. This section was added to replace some miles lost due to the permitting issues. I liked this section for two reasons. First it gave me a chance to see most of the other runners in the race (a few at the very front had already passed by and maybe I missed a few at the very back). Second, I was feeling really good at this point so I was able to pass a few people going up and several more going back down. But… I made the first of 4 race mistakes at the Mt. Pacifico aid station.
About a quarter mile down the hill after leaving the Pacifico aid station, I realized I’d had left my handheld dowsing bottle at the aid station. Through the hot part of the day, I used three bottles – one filled with Tailwind/carb drink, one filled with ice only so I could have sips of ice water for most/all of the way between aid stations, and the handheld to wet my sleeves/bandana if/when the ice in them melted and they dried out. When I realized the dowsing bottle was still at the aid station, I stopped and briefly considered what to do. Option 1: turn around, go back uphill, and run an extra half mile round trip. Option 2: Just leave it. It was already about 3:45pm, I was heading downhill, I had lots of ice on me, and the next aid station (with more ice) was less than an hour away. Option 2 it was! In retrospect this was a mistake because I gave up some control in keeping myself cool.
Mistake 2 was running that downhill a little too fast. My heart rate was pretty low but I moved along and passed some people. But I should have backed off a little bit – I think. I arrived back at the Mt. Hillyer aid station short one bottle, a little warmer than I needed to be, feeling good, and thinking everything was going great.
And then it turned out this was the only aid station that was running out of ice. (It was the only aid station people passed through twice, most of pack had passed through once already, and a bunch of us had passed through twice). Some of my Mt. Pacifico ice hadn’t melted, and I didn’t want to take more than my share of a scarce resource, so I continued on – no dowsing bottle, limited ice, 4:30pm on a hot afternoon, but still feeling good and thinking that things would cool a bit in the coming hours.
The section from Mt. Hillyer to Chilao was really fun – lots of twisty trail through sandstone boulders. I imagine that’s what running at Joshua Tree National Park would be like. One of the great things about the AC100 course is the variety of trails – each section is different and I could probably divide the course up into 8 or 10 different kinds of runs. It was never boring (which is not to say it did not suck at times – but that was me and my fatigue, not the course).
Still thinking things were going well – I was roughly on 24 hour pace, although I knew it got harder at the end and didn’t think the pace would last – I arrived in Chilao and got ready for the night. It was only 5:15pm but my the next drop bag opportunity was at Newcomb Saddle and there was a decent chance it would be dark before I got there. (And I did need my headlamp for about 15 minutes before getting to Newcomb Saddle.) Mistake 3 was thinking things would start to cool, and removing some ice stuff. E.g. the hat came off instead of staying on and getting filled with ice. And after putting my headlamp in my pack, I didn’t think it would be good to fill the pack with ice. I left Chilao and headed into heat that was only slightly cooler than the afternoon.
Things still went pretty well. Poison oak and Purple Poodle-Dog Bush started appearing, but the running was fun and I felt ok. We climbed up to Shortcut Saddle, and I sat and cooled for a few minutes. I had run with a woman – Jenny Welch – early in the day and came into the aid station with her and her pacer. She left a couple minutes before me, and I heard one of the aid station people say “she’s only about 5 minutes behind the leader, and the leader is struggling”. I left the aid station, dropped down the other side of the road, and started a long descent into the valley.
Mistake 4 was running that downhill too hard. Again, it felt easy and I passed a few people (including Jenny Welch who was running smarter than I was – and she ended up winning the women’s race). But losing 2500 feet in 5 miles is tiring, and when I reached the bottom and started the climb up to Newcomb Saddle, I had nothing left. And… I started to feel slightly nauseous whenever I drank or ate. So I stopped doing that with fairly predictable results – major bonk.
I arrived at Newcomb Saddle around 9pm, drank something that didn’t sit well, walked across the road, emptied my stomach, sat back down in a chair, and tried to recover a bit before heading to Chantry Flat. I don’t really remember much of that section – long downhill in the dark, past some cabins or tents, not moving very well. Sitting hadn’t solved my stomach problem, and I was starting to feel really sleepy. (Waking up at 1:30am after 4 hours of hotel sleep isn’t a great way to start a long race). When I got to Chantry Flats (mile 75), I asked to lie down somewhere – I was hoping that would fix my stomach and maybe I could close my eyes for a moment. They found me a pad and a blanket and I lay down for about 15 minutes. I never fell asleep but after I little while I could feel (or more accurately, hear) my gut working again, so I got up, scalded my tongue badly on a cup of hot tea, ate some, and headed off into the darkness again.
The climb from Chantry up towards Mt. Wilson is sort of the crux of AC100. It’s steep, it’s long (about 2500 feet up) and it comes 75 miles into the race in the middle of the night for most of us. (It’s a long segment too – it’s about 9 miles between Chantry and the next aid station.) Although my stomach was working again, I hadn’t taken many calories in 4 hours, so I was moving really slowly and feeling very sleepy. I sat on a log for a few minutes and managed to drop off for a few seconds. I felt much better as I started back up but the progress was slow. At mile 79 I reached Deadman’s Bench, where Larry Gassan had his camera set up as he always does. Every 30-60 seconds his flash would go off and he’d capture us. I sat there for a few minutes, then shuffled up the last 500 feet of climb, and set off down the Mt. Wilson dirt road. “Dirt road” sounds kind of wide and easy to run on, but this had lots of rock all over it and it took focus to weave through the tripping hazards. I rolled into Idlehour around 3am, with one large climb still ahead. By now I was eating fine and slowly working out of my calorie backlog so I sat for a bit to prep mentally for the climb to Sam Merrill.
On paper, the climb to Sam Merrill looks easier than the climb from Chantry Flats. But my legs were more tired and I was more sleepy, and it’s not that much easier – 2000 feet in about 5 miles. My biggest issue during that climb was falling asleep while I was moving. That sounds funny maybe, but the trail there is a series of switchbacks climbing up the side of a steep hillside. It wouldn’t be hard to get rolling very quickly down the hill if you went off the trail – which my sleepy body tried to do occasionally. I wanted to sit down for a short nap somewhere, but one side of the trail was a dropoff and the other was a steep hillside with no spot far enough from the dropoff to be safe enough for a short nap. So I stumbled on. At some point I had the brilliant idea of listening to music again – I’d taken it off several hours previously to hear the night sounds – and from the moment the music came on I had no problems staying awake.
Dawn came shortly before I arrived at Sam Merrill. I sat down and saw another guy who’d been struggling with stomach problems also – he’d recovered too. A few other people staggered in. We sat there, thinking about the “easy” 11 miles ahead of us, descending 3000 feet to the finish. I set off, feeling good, and really enjoying the next quarter mile of runnable single track trail. “This is going to be great!” I turned a corner and could see the entire Los Angeles Basin covered in fog/clouds way below. And I started down.
So much for easy. Of those 11 miles, about 10 are pretty technical, ranging from poorly-maintained fire roads, to very rocky and twisty single track, to 6 inch wide downsloping/eroding trail above large dropoffs. I guess local runners often do their AC100 training simply by running the last 25 miles of the course – two big uphills followed by this technical descent. I ran when I could and picked my way through. Then I did it some more. And then some more. It felt like it took forever, and I thought I might go over a cliff at several points, but about 90 minutes later I came out of the woods and saw NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab on my right. From there it was a short uphill, a little bit of road, and a short jog across the grass to the finish line. 27:32:04 minutes, good for 51st place out of 130 finishers.
I want to give some shoutouts:
- the race volunteers were excellent and amazing. Basically, the entire Los Angeles ultrarunning community comes out to support this race. People knew what they were doing and were very helpful. These volunteers were as good as any I’ve seen at any race.
- Ruperto Romero – 5th overall, 10th finish (including some victories), 20:26:28. And at 52 years, only 2 years younger than me. Dang…
- 9 people completed the California Triple Crown. Kudos to Tyler Garawal, Timo Saltanen, Chris Jones, Ace Ewing (from that picture above), Michele Pauly Clode (first woman to do this), Chihping Fu (another weekend, another 100 mile race for him…), Greg Frye, Sean Nakamura, and Edward Wang (who ran off from me when the biting flies got bad on the way up to Cold Springs at Santa Barbara).
- Tim Christoni (another CTC person who also DNF’d at SB100, like me) way exceeded his goal of running sub-24 hours. I saw him coming down from Mt. Pacifico, towards the front of the pack. Given the little I know about his running, I couldn’t see him maintaining that pace in the heat. Wrong. He came in just under 23 hours.
The one lesson/thing to work on from this race is figuring out how to get nutrition when my stomach goes off. I tried to handle it in this race by staying cool and keeping my stomach working – and was successful while I stayed on top of the heat. But it seems to be common for me and most racers, so maybe I should start assuming it will happen. Gin Gins? That seemed to help me this time. Some other comfort food? Packets of honey?
Here is some video footage from others:
Steven Labranche: Sunday morning, 90 miles in, looking down from near Sam Merrill at the fog over LA
Nhut Tran’s movie showing the race as viewed by crew: (It catches me briefly at 2:29 – green arm sleeves in aid station – and again at 3:25 with Ace Ewing just ahead of me.)
Things to Know (for a non-LA person considering this race):
There are some things non-local first-timers might want to be aware of going into the race. You will probably learn these things yourself – I just want to mention them so they aren’t surprises. These will have very little effect on your race day but they might create some anxiety and ambivalence beforehand (they did for me). Having been through the whole experience now, I know that once you toe the start line these things are non-issues.
Things to go into with open eyes:
- This race is run by people who have been involved with the race for a long time (and/or are local). For many remote races I’ve done, there have been some common things – registration through UltraSignup, a pretty good overview of what to expect on the course and at aid stations, pre-reqs (volunteering and/or trailwork) that can be done locally to me, tracking (if any) through UltraLive, etc.. AC100 is different. It has its own registration and tracking – easy enough to figure out and at times a bit better, but at times frustratingly different. Race information has to be pieced together from the race book (which is incomplete and at times inaccurate), official Facebook posts, comments on Facebook posts, and a parallel unofficial Facebook community. Questions from Outsiders are at times met more with attitude than information. Trail work is set up in a way that racers anywhere near the course tend to end up working together on the AC trail. For anyone who has done the race previously, none of this is an issue and in fact some of the things (like the trailwork parties) help build the local AC community. For first-time runners from elsewhere, it won’t prevent you from having a great race. But prior to the race it might feel like heading out into the Santa Cruz surf crowd as an outsider – you may not feel super welcome and you might even get beaten up a bit (at least on Facebook – in person everyone was great).
- Major kudos to whoever designed the course over the first few years of the race. It is spectacular – crossing a mountain range, wild, rugged, beautiful, lots of single track, very little pavement. For good and bad, the course now has its challenges. Issue 1: Part of the traditional course passes through wilderness areas where events are not allowed. For several years the race was allowed in on an exception basis until it was resolved more officially, but after several years with no resolution the Powers That Be chose not to grant an exception this year. This resulted in some single-track mileage being replaced with pavement and fire road miles. The race is working towards a permanent exemption (like Western States) but until that happens I suspect this year’s change will stay in place. Issue 2: A few miles of the PCT that AC100 used are closed (for all users) for habitat for an endangered mountain frog. This results in a few more single track miles being replaced with paved road. Issue 3: With climate change and the increase in wildfires, the course is threatened seemingly every year by fire. A huge fire broke out 2 weeks before our race this year – it got within maybe 10 miles of the course before being controlled and then the Forest Service issued a massive closure for recreational use with the border of the closure landing just a couple miles to the west of the AC course. The race was already moved forward into August (from October) after fires threatened/cancelled it in previous years. Based on my one data point, it looks like fire will be an annual risk. (Two weeks after this year’s race, as I write this, the town of Wrightwood – where the race starts – has been evacuated due to another fire.) Also, in addition to the possibility of course closures, fires promote some noxious stuff for several years afterwards, in particular the Purple Poodle-Dog Bush – think poison oak but worse. The Poodle-Dog was pretty mild this year and hopefully that consequence of the 2009 Station Fire (which cancelled the race that year) is over. But if there is a fire on the course in the future, it may have impact even if it happens at a completely different time of year from the race. Issue 4: I thought the course I ran was pretty amazing in an absolute sense – 100 miles of beauty, more than 90 miles of dirt, but people are pretty attached to the old course and there is a lot of negativity about the recent course changes. It takes some effort to ignore this negativity and appreciate what still exists. As an example of how people feel about the current course, I heard this exchange after the race:
- Runner: “Even with the pavement, I thought the course was great”.
- One of the Race Directors: “You’re probably the only one”.
- This is the only race I know of where there is open hostility between some of the people with longtime race involvement. Fundamentally I think they all love the race. The breakdowns visible on Facebook probably come from different views on how to address the challenges above. There are only a few people in the thick of this stuff and none of this will affect someone’s run, but it is a little surprising when you see it the first few times.
Do I think this race is worth doing? Yes, I consider myself lucky and privileged to be able to do the race this year. And most races have their quirks – AC100 is no different.