Casting my mind back to December 2012, I'd just finished the North Face Endurance Challenge 50-mile race in San Francisco. It had gone pretty well, but already I was contemplating the next adventure. Realising that my birthday fell on a Saturday in 2013, I decided that it might be fun to think about a destination race, somewhere where I could combine a holiday with a fun racing experience. So I headed over to ultrasignup.com and looked for events taking place on June 8th. There wasn't a lot to choose from except... San Diego 100.
One hundred miles. A few years back I'd not even heard of such events. But as I gradually started to learn about - and then become involved in - the ultra-running scene, I was at least aware that people - crazy people - ran races a hundred miles long. I swore I'd never attempt anything so absurd, but now my resolve was being tested. Well, I thought, it'll make a memorable birthday.
Registration didn't open for another month so there was still time to think about it. At the VFAC Christmas party, I approached my good friend Alex. We'd established a close relationship over the past year, largely based on a shared love of making questionable life choices and terrible navigational skills. And we'd both just found out that we'd somehow scored a sponsorship deal with the FITS Sock Co. After her third glass of wine I told her my plan and asked if she'd like to come along and act as my crew and pacer. She thought it was an excellent idea and agreed immediately. I asked her again the next day, through the fog of our raging hangovers and she agreed, albeit slightly more cautiously.
Registration - and a potential lottery for places - didn't open until the end of January, yet I started the year as if my participation was a certainty. I didn't know exactly how to train for a 100-miler, but I reasoned that the training for such a ridiculous distance should be equally ludicrous. On New Year's Day, I convinced Kneeknacker champ Nathan Barrett to run with me on the Club Fat Ass New Year's Day 50k. It's supposed to be a relaxed, fun way to start the New Year, but we went out hard and claimed the two fastest ever times for the run. (Nathan's was considerably more impressive than mine, and would probably have been even more so if I hadn't been holding him back).
And so the absurdity continued. I ramped up my mileage. Rest days were rare. "Easy runs" became two hours long, and long runs... got longer. I raced a 50k every month, and threw in training runs of similar distances. It wasn't easy. My body felt permanently tired and creaking. My speedwork sessions required increasingly longer warm-ups before I could coax anything other than a shuffle out of my shot legs. And sometimes the body fought back. I missed most of February and a chunk of March after ignoring a minor niggle in my left calf that turned in a nasty strain. I badly rolled my left ankle and fell into a vicious cycle of re-injuring it because it was too weak to support me on rooty trails. So instead, for a time I just ran alone on the hilly paved roads of North Vancouver.
Nevertheless, I could feel myself getting stronger. Running on tired legs wasn't difficult any more, because that was all I knew. I felt like I could go all day, which was handy, as this is what I was training for. The first real test was a 50-miler in April, at Capitol Peak. It went well; for the first time over that distance I felt strong throughout, no fading towards the end. In May we ran across the Grand Canyon and back again. With breaks for photos, food and drinks it took us around fourteen hours. I figured this would be a good training run for San Diego, with similar rocky, dusty terrain and hot temperatures in the middle of the day that springtime in the Pacific Northwest doesn't prepare you for.
As I approached the final few weeks, the mileage gradually tapered off and I could feel the life starting to creep back into my legs. I switched focus - daily sauna sessions that would hopefully trigger the physiological adaptations to help me cope with the midday heat of Noble Canyon. I started eating a low-carb diet with the aim of coaxing my body into becoming a more efficient fat-burning machine in preparation for the long, long run that lay ahead. And I spent many hours in the evenings poring over maps, elevation profiles and race reports, so that I felt as if I knew the entire course before we even set foot in California.
In the last few weeks, Alex was sensational in preparing me for the challenge ahead. From figuring out the logistics of crewing to acquiring special spray-on lube, I couldn't have asked for a more enthusiastic accomplice. She seemed at least as excited as I was. When I met her at the airport the day before the race, she'd had entirely appropriate t-shirts made up to celebrate the occasion.
|Sounds about right.|
A change to our flight times made for a tight schedule. This was only exacerbated when our landing in Los Angeles was delayed because President Obama was passing through at the same time, but we made it to the mildly chaotic car rental office more or less on schedule. Following the routine stop at Whole Foods to stock up on more food and drink than we'd ever need, we continued the drive down the southern Californian coast, gradually leaving the vast urban sprawl of LA behind us.
|We're a long way from home...|
As we skirted the edges of San Diego, the road swung east, gradually climbing 3,000... 4,000... 5,000 feet and the landscape changed. The hills became redder and browner, in places scrubby, with a smattering of pine trees. We made it to the pre-race briefing slightly late, at about ten minutes after 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Stepping out of our air-conditioned cocoon of a car, the afternoon heat engulfed us with a suffocating insistence. Race Director Scott Mills made numerous mentions of the heat - the forecast was for the hottest day of the year so far and temperatures were predicted to be considerably higher than normal. The level of his concern sat with me slightly uneasily. As if this wasn't enough of a challenge...
After the quick, de rigeur, pasta dinner, we finally checked into our motel a few miles down the road. The entire place was, unsurprisingly, filled with other runners and as we sat out in plastic chairs on the grass behind our room, we met Ken, who was also running the race, being crewed and paced by two of his good friends. He'd run this, and many 100-milers before, so I greedily plundered his brain for information. He warned me that although the first 24 miles were very runnable, the canyon section that followed was much more of a challenge and that I'd be well served by saving my energy for the later, cooler, night-time stages.
|Obligatory amusingly-named pre-race wine.|
Relaxed by a couple of glasses of wine, we turned in early and I surprised myself by sleeping quite soundly. I awoke, at 4 am, on my 38th birthday and after wolfing down the usual oatmeal and banana, attempted a brief Skype chat with my parents in the darkness of the motel porch that provided the only internet access around. We drove to the race start for 5 am, and despite there being two more hours before the start of the race, the scene was bustling.
Runners were finalising their drop bags, sipping coffee and contemplating the various bagels and cookies on offer. The range of humanity that had gathered was fascinating. All ages seemed to be present, some with the relaxed confidence of an old hand, some - like myself - with the nervous excitement of a first-timer. The early morning air was still cool in the shadows, but straying into the sunlight provided a noticeable, and at the time, welcome rise in temperature. By the time we lined up at the start line, it was easily warm enough to be standing around in shorts and t-shirt.
|Well, here we go.|
And perhaps I got a little too comfortable. Around six miles in, I heard shouting in the distance. I glanced at my Garmin, confused, knowing that the first aid station was still some way off. A minute later, the reason for the shouting became clear as I came upon a fork in the trail with no indication of which path to take. I'd clearly missed a turning, already. Still, I was sure that I'd seen markings not so long ago, and after an embarrassing back-track I was back on course. I'd lost maybe a couple of minutes, which seemed a worthy exchange for the wake-up call and the reminder to concentrate.
There were crowds cheering as I passed through the first aid station at 7 miles, providing a welcome morale boost after the previous irritation. Alex wasn't here; there were no opportunities for crews after mile 13 and until mile 44, so I suggested she return to the motel and get some sleep in preparation for the long night that lay ahead. Over the next few miles I gradually reeled in the runners who'd passed me during my diversion; we joked about how it was good to get this out of the way now, early on, and I thanked the small group that had tried to alert me to my straying.
Somewhere around 11 miles I stumbled on a loose rock and hit the floor heavily. No damage done, but a little shaken, I felt like I'd had my fair share of reminders: watch for trail markers and watch the trail. I paused at the next aid station for some welcome ice-cold water as the day was rapidly heating up. After a couple of miles down a dirt road, the route abruptly jack-knifed on itself and the trail gradually rolled upwards on the Pacific Crest Trail. Three hours into the race and I was feeling good. I felt like I'd figured out a good pace; running comfortably for the most part, switching to a power-hike whenever the grade felt too hard to run up, but still plenty of gas in the tank.
Dropping down to the third aid station, I paused while the magnificent volunteers refilled my hydration pack with ice-cold water. Another runner entered a few minutes later, looking somewhat distressed. He immediately headed over to the bucket of iced water and began sponging himself down. I reflected that maybe all those uncomfortable sweaty hours I'd spent in the sauna were starting to prove worthwhile. At this stage, I wasn't feeling too affected by the heat.
I headed back out on to the trail and was still feeling comfortable enough to take in the spectacular occasional views of the Anza-Borrego desert that opened up to the east. I passed a a group of hikers, but things were otherwise uneventful and I hit the fourth aid station, about 23 miles and four hours into the race. Until this point my stops at the aid stations had been brief, but with a drop bag in place here, I allowed myself the luxury of a few minutes to regroup.
I refilled my stocks of jelly beans that I'd be happily munching on for the last few hours, ate some banana and orange slices and briefly chatted with the Injinji socks rep who had a surprisingly in-depth knowledge of the Vancouver trail-running scene. Before I left, I raised the one issue that had been nagging at the back of my mind. Somehow I'd forgotten to tape my nipples that morning and the strap from my hydration pack was rubbing - ever so slightly. As soon as I mentioned this, the aid station team sprung into action stressing how important it was that I deal with this now. There were no band-aids in the station itself, but one of the volunteers trotted off to his car and retrieved a pair. I was a little skpetical about how well they'd hold on my skin that was now slick with sweat, but it looked like a good short-term solution.
|A photo I haven't got round to paying for yet.|
Gradually the surroundings became increasingly arid and desert-like and the temperatures continued to rise. The scent of sage in the air was almost overwhleming, bizarrely reminding me of the stuffing that accompanied childhood chicken dinners. My pace slowed to the extent that even the slightest of inclines I now walked and I became anxious to arrive at the next aid station for some respite from the heat.
I eventually arrived at this oasis, and was greeted by a bikini-clad young lady, clutching a beer in one hand and an icy-cold sponge in another. This all seemed a little unfair, and I contemplated dropping out of the race at this point and joining the party that was in full swing here. After all, it is my birthday...
|Did I mention that it was hot? No? Well it was. Very.|
I was also a little surprised to see that I had arrived at this point slightly ahead of Colin Miller, a talented Vancouver ultra-runner. I introduced myself and we chatted about the usual things that runners chat about for a couple of miles. But I could see that he was coping with the heat much better than me, as he gradually pulled away and seemed to be running with Jenny Capel, the lead woman who'd passed me at the aid station.
Ordinarily, this short loop would be fairly unremarkable. The terrain and climbs were relatively trivial. But the heat. Oh, the heat. That hot hot hot hot heat. I don't know exactly how hot it was, but I've heard estimates ranging from 101 to 107 °F. In the metric system that's... also really hot. I felt like I was crawling along now and had to stop on one occasion in the shade just to let my heart-rate settle. I was at least grateful that I didn't stumble across any of the rattlesnakes that apparently called this hell-hole home.
Eventually I completed the loop and arrived back at the aid station to find an altogether more chaotic scene than when I'd left around an hour earlier. The bulk of the runners were now arriving, many of them suffering badly. Despite the aid station having had several hundred pounds of ice at the start of the day, supplies were now running low and cars were being dispatched to pillage local grocery stores. I stood for a while trying to regain some composure, and eventually left with a hydration pack full of ice.
While the loop had been unpleasant, the next leg was unanimously regarded as being the most challenging of the entire race. The climb out of the canyon is an exposed 8 miles long climb with in the order of 800 m of elevation gain to contend with. The first couple of miles are on a steep paved road, and as I trudged up this hill I reflected on how my mood had deteriorated from only a couple of hours earlier. It was only slightly comforting to know that everyone else was sharing in my misery.
After half a mile I noticed a frantic buzzing in the air and remembered the bees nest that I'd read about in the race instructions. The "aggressive" bees nest that we were urged to move "briskly" past. Realising that I was in fact surrounded by a number of these angry insects, I attempted, rather pathetically, to pick up the pace to escape, only to be slowed within a few seconds by the unforgiving heat and the steepness of the hill. I resolved to let them sting me if they wanted to. Maybe they took pity on me, because I escaped unscathed.
Shortly after this I was caught by another runner, Nic Hollon. I didn't feel too bad about this when I realized that he was the winner of this year's Barkley Marathons and had twice completed the Badwater 135-mile race in Death Valley (to which he compared the hill we were currently struggling up). We trudged together for a little while before stumbling upon the only respite in this part of the race, the "secret" popsicle stand that everyone knew about. While it was refreshing to get the icy treat on board, I didn't really enjoy it immensely as my stomach had been feeling a little off for perhaps an hour at this stage, at least in part because of the sheer amount of liquid I'd been taking on. I was vaguely uneasy about the effect this was having on me as I realised I was eating and drinking less than I ought to be.
Nic left the popsicle stand ahead of me, and I was to continue the next few miles alone. Even though I was slowly gaining altitude, the heat seemed unrelenting and the lack of shade was becoming increasingly unbearable. When a rare spot of tree-cover presented itself I paused for a few minutes until I felt able to continue. A concerned fellow runner was kind enough to check in on me as he passed, but I assured him I was just fine.
Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, the climbing started to come to an end and the air felt a little less suffocating. The trail flattened out enough to be somewhat runnable, and excited by the thought of an aid station in a couple of miles, I put my head down and pressed on. Of course, I should have kept my head up, because then I'd have noticed the trail markers off to the right, that I witlessly jogged past. And I should have noticed the lack of confidence markers, but hey, this is an obvious major trail we're on here, so maybe they didn't feel the need to flag it so thoroughly. When I looked at my Garmin and realized that I should have hit the aid station by now- and clearly there was no such thing anywhere nearby - I was sickened.
It didn't help that the last mile or so had been a joyous descent that now turned into a deathly uphill trudge. Cursing when I finally rejoined the trail, I calculated that this mishap was much more costly than the previous one and I'd wasted at least half an hour. An additional half an hour in the heat of the day without any shade. The next mile-and-a-half along the correct trail dragged on, probably not helped by the fact that I could see the cluster of crews alongside the highway long before I'd actually reach them. Finally, I came to a short climb that took me on to the highway. Alex was there, resplendent in "Team Barry" shirt and yelling encouragement at me.
When I reached her she offered me a bottle of iced water. I didn't want it. I was confused because we weren't at the actual aid station yet. "Just get me to the aid station" I mumbled bluntly . As we trudged across the road to the assortment of vans and the shade of a canopy I updated her on my race thus far. It turned out she'd already seen a number of ugly scenes while waiting for me, and that already a significant number of people had already dropped out. I was quickly getting the impression that things had been much tougher than they usually were, which was vaguely comforting, yet disturbing at the same time.
Alex set about me with an ice cold sponge, repeatedly dousing me with freezing water. I think she noted with some concern how full my hydration pack was after two-and-a-half hours since my last refill. She did all the things we'd discussed she should do. She told me to drink. I didn't really feel like it. Eat some food. What do you want? Nothing right now, my stomach's been feeling a bit off, but I think it's getting better. Don't sit down, beware the chair. Okay... actually, I'm going to sit down.
In short, I was a complete pain in the ass. Totally uncooperative. Which we were expecting to happen at some point in the race, but hopefully nearer mile 80 or 90, not mile 44. I was hoping to start feeling better once I'd got in the shade, but instead I'd started feeling worse. I felt spent, done. I wanted this to stop. I didn't feel like I could run any more. Alex tried her best to cheer me up. She pointed out that our motel neighbour had walked from this point last year and finished inside the cut-off. The prospect of a 20-hour 56 mile walk didn't really inspire me.
A few days after the race I read an article on irunfar.com describing the symptoms of hypoglycaemia in a race, specifically:
"a reduced ability to concentrate, a sudden feeling of weakness, and the intense desire to stop running. Typically, the athlete senses the impossibility of completing the race"Which described the way I was feeling perfectly. And in hindsight it's so easy to say that what I should have done was to have sat down, taken on some sugar, drank some fluids and then got going again. Instead, I trudged out on to the next stage feeling thoroughly dejected, with the thought in my head that I was just going to walk to the next aid station to satisfy Alex, and then I could drop out.
Unfortunately, I only made it half a mile before I realized that my chances of actually making it that far in my current state were remote. And it was doubly unfortunate that an easy escape route presented itself. This part of the race was close to the highway that the aid stations were dotted along. So it was all too simple to stop my watch, trot down to the road, and flag down a passing vehicle.
The kind family that stopped for me had a minivan packed to bursting. Yet somehow they managed to find space and escorted me to the next aid station a few miles down the road. When we arrived at the roadside party known as "The Dog Pound", I first met with a disappointed Alex before informing the aid station captain that I was dropping out. Initially she tried to talk me out of the decision, but when I pointed out the unconventional means that I'd used - for a running race - to get there, she agreed that she had no choice but to disqualify me. Race over.
|I spent quite some time here.|
I sat for a long time in the shade of the medical tent, draped with a wet towel, drinking cup after cup of iced water and gradually cooling down. Eventually I moved on to coke. And then I started on the stacks of grilled cheese sandwiches. After a couple of hours I decided I was actually feeling quite a bit better. I chatted with Alex about her options - there will still plenty of people in need of pacing and then we hit upon the idea that she could pace Ken. He only had a pacer lined up from mile 72 onwards, so Alex would pace him for the three legs from mile 51. By this point, I decided I felt well enough to drive, so I'd help crew Alex - a curious role reversal.
So rather unexpectedly, I spent the next five or six hours driving to the next three aid stations, cheering on Ken, Alex and the remaining runners. One of the volunteers made me a margarita - it was my birthday, after all. It was a fascinating experience and one I'd definitely recommend to anyone contemplating running a 100-miler. The scenes of human endeavour I witnessed were compelling. People in varying levels of distress and discomfort, crying, vomiting, limping. Yet inspirational in the way that they carried on through every adversity. Ken and his crew were particularly impressive. As soon as he'd arrive at an aid station they'd sit him down and immediately begin feeding him, changing his clothes if necessary, finding out what he needed before pushing him out on to the next section. He frequently looked, frankly, terrible, yet his persistence was his great strength. He certainly wasn't the fastest runner there, but he ended up finishing in 17th place out of nearly 200 starters, to some extent through sheer force of will and a steely determination.
After Alex finished her crewing stint we headed back to the motel room and drank wine from plastic cups. We chatted, and tried to make sense of the day. I'm not sure that we did. When we headed out the following morning to collect my drop bags from the aid stations we were struck by the fact that there were still runners out there, obviously, 26 hours after the race had started. Some of them still had hours to go before they'd finish. The idea of a race with a 32 hour cut-off suddenly became a lot less abstract. And the accomplishments of these people, that much more impressive.
We still had a day-and-a-half to play with; our original plan assumed that I'd be lying foetal in a hotel room, but actually, I felt fine. It was simultaneously annoying and reassuring that my body didn't feel too bad at all. It suggested that I my fitness was good enough to have run much further, but also that I'd not had the chance to really test myself.
So we drove to San Diego and relaxed for a while. We had an excellent brunch and far too much Mexican food for dinner. The next day I was ready for a quick jog around Balboa Park before we headed back to LA. We still had some time to kill, so we grabbed an early dinner at Venice Beach, basking in the pleasant late afternoon sunshine, engaging in some world-class people watching. Throughout this, I was still trying to make sense of everything that had happened, and still not coming to any real conclusions.
|Acutely aware of the importance of proper hydration.|
Things hadn't really turned out as I'd hoped they would. But I don't regret trying. I've heard and read a lot of quotes talking about the value of failure and the lessons we learn. I won't repeat them here as they'll just come across as pompous. But I'll be back one day to try and conquer this mythical 100-mile beast. Maybe San Diego - I feel we have unfinished business - or maybe somewhere else.
There are so many people to thank for making this experience possible. Scott Mills and his army of volunteers put on a truly first-class event. Every single person involved with the race was good-humoured, supportive and utterly committed. My sponsors, FITS Sock Co. helped make the journey possible, and once again their amazing socks kept my feet in unfeasibly good shape under extremely challenging conditions. My friends and family, particularly those in VFAC and Pacific Road Runners who put up with my obsession with this race for so many months. But most of all I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Alex who was the best crew, organizer and friend anyone could wish for. I was particularly impressed by the way she hid her disappointment at not being able to accompany me for eight slow dark hours, trying to coax me into eating, drinking and keep moving up that damn hill. Oh, and if you've had the stamina to keep reading right to the end of this, you're probably a good candidate for a 100-miler yourself.
San Diego 100 official web site
Alex's excellent race report
Jeff Browning's winning race report
Jimmy Dean Freeman's report (from an aid station captain's perspective)
Official race report