San Diego 100, June 9 – 10, Laguna, CA
Many of you have seen the move about the Leadville 100 bike race “Race Across the Sky.” During the pre-race briefing, the advice of the race director to the racers is “One word: dig deep.” That was helpful last weekend and was expanded to include dig deeper, dig deeper than that, scrape the bottom and keep digging. The race was humbling, challenging, inspiring, amazing, difficult, epic, breathtaking, exhilarating, and 100 other adjectives.
I chose SD100 because I wanted something epic, but not too epic, i.e. not Leadville. I also didn’t want to run loops (Umstead) or run something in my backyard (Pinhotti). This was at a good time of the year, near one of my best friends, and the terrain sounded challenging, but not demoralizing. The elevation gain was around 16,000ft. Temps would be warm, but it’s a dry heat. The chatter on the interwebs about the RD, Scott Mills, was incredibly positive. I ran a qualifying 50 miler in December and signed up for SD100 in February. At least 6 months of training had gone into this race – I knew I would finish, but also thought a sub-24hr time was within reach. I reminded myself numerous times over the months and during the race that the journey is more important than the destination – I had no idea how true that would be.
I arrived in San Diego on Thursday and picked up my pacer, David, at the airport. David and I have been friends for years and when I sent out an email asking (begging) for friends to crew and/or pace, David said “yes” almost immediately and booked a flight from SLC, UT. He’s a fast runner over a variety of distances and this would be his first unofficial ultra (distance over 26.2mi) and exposure to trail racing. He assured me repeatedly he’d do whatever he could to help me finish and was super-excited to be part of this experience. I tried to give him as much information as I could about what the race was going to be like, what I would need, but I think it completely exceeded his expectations and even restored his faith in humanity.
Friday we had a leisurely morning drinking coffee and chatting with Siri, who was moving to Hawaii in a week. Perfect timing! After an easy run to work out any cobwebs, I started packing my drop bags and planning out what I anticipated that I would need / want along the way, including Infinit (powdered drinks), gels, pop tarts and Bonk Breaker bars. It was starting to seem real and my nerves were getting to me. It was also about that time that I realized the race was going to be at elevation (relatively speaking – David lives in SLC so it felt normal) starting at 5600 feet, going up to 6,000ft.
The drive east towards Julian, CA and Cuyamaca State Park was gorgeous – big mountains, wide vistas, few trees. The high desert looks nothing like GA! We checked in at the Eaglenest B&B, our home for the next 3 days. Jim and Julie truly made us feel special. We met their awesome golden retrievers and noticed slices of apple pie (that Julian is famous for!) in our rooms – delicious bed time snacks. J The race site at Al Bahr lodge was 25mins away along more gorgeous roads. I picked up my race packet and waited for the pre-race meeting to start. Loved the sign that read “moderation has its place – it ain’t here!” The sense of possibility and positive energy was awesome! At that moment (and the next morning) everyone was going to have a great race – no one could anticipate the various struggles we’d encounter on the trail. The pre-race briefing helped to calm my nerves and confirmed that Scott was an exceptional RD. The only question David and I still had was how he was going to meet me along the trail. There were 15 aid stations, 5 to 8 miles apart, some accessible by crews. I could pick up my pacer after mile 50.3 – but I thought we’d try to meet at mile 59 or 64. We only had the 1 rental car so his job on Saturday was to be chatty and hopefully arrange a ride. After the traditional pre-race pasta meal, we went back to the B&B for final preparations. The race vortex was winding down.
The 4am alarm wasn’t too painful – I was still on Atlanta time and had slept well, thankfully. David knocked on the door with coffee and we grabbed the awesome breakfast to-go from our hosts. I ate as much as I could knowing how important it was to start well-fueled. Once at Al Bahr, it was time to hurry up and wait – but I wasn’t nervous, just calm, excited and looking forward to the adventure. 196 people lined up at the start – I met Gerri, a fellow runner who had paced an acquaintance last year so was excited to meet her. She would go on to have an awesome race!
And then at 7am, we were off! I did my best to start conservatively. Scott had warned us that this course can easily fool runners due to the relatively easy terrain and gentle elevation change in the first 30 miles. The first 25 miles passed easily – we ran through meadows and I was well-within my time goals, eating and drinking regularly. The field spread out, but I got to chat with runners as we ran the same pace or passed each other, including Gerri. Most were from CA, many first timers and many experienced 100 mile runners too. I took pictures and ran with a smile on my face. We started a long, gradual downhill into Aid station 4 – the last 2 miles very pretty technical and rocky, not too different than GA trails. It took lots of concentration not to fall.
Aid station 4 to 5 (mile 31 – 36) was a lollipop loop that was tougher than I was expecting – about 3 miles uphill and 2 miles down, all on exposed trails (no more shade like the morning!). I power-walked the climbs and kept enjoying myself. Before I left, the amazing volunteers loaded me up with ice in my camel back, sports bra and in my hat – that saved me!
Aid station 5 to 6 (mile 36 – 44) was going to be brutal – Scott warned us that this section is the hardest for most people. It was an 8mi climb, 2mi on pavement with some steep pitches, almost no shade. And the temps were well in the 80s at this point! I love sections like this and Scott was right – it was tough. He also said we’d have a surprise waiting for us – part way up, we were blessed by a trail angel handing out POPSICLES.
Aid station 6 was the first time I got to see David. I was still looking and feeling good and it was so helpful to see a friendly face. He met some awesome people, Doris and Rick, who were going to help him out with a ride later in the day. He said he was having a great time. Eventhough I had written out what was in my drop bags and when I’d get them, I got confused – I was thrown off when my bag wasn’t there and improvised with water and gu. David assured me everything would be OK. More ice and I was off! The run to section 7 was WINDY – tail winds (loved that!), head winds and cross winds.
Aid station 7 to 8 (miles 51.3 – 58) was at sunset. I saw David again at mile 51 and knew I’d see him again at 59 and at 64 we’d start running together. The sunset was gorgeous! I was struggling the last few miles up a gravel road and caught up with a fellow runner, Ali from OR. He was awesome – told me about his previous 100mile run and had lots of positive energy. We really helped each other get to the next aid station in good spirits!
I started to slow down from aid station 8 to 9 (mile 59 to 64). The sun had set and I needed my headlamp – but very quickly, the batteries were failing. The temps were dropping to the 40s too. There was a bit of a climb, which I walked, but then ended up walking the downhill too – I just couldn’t see and wasn’t confident in my footing. The trail at this point was large boulders and kind of sandy. I really was not keen on falling! Better to be safe and slow, I thought, even if I was getting passed by many others.
Aid station 9 at Paso Picacho was where I would meet David and have company for the rest of this journey. I was still feeling good, but really looking forward to having someone to tell stories, make jokes and pass the time. I switched to new shoes and finally figured out where all my drop bags were – so easy to get confused! We put on the layers we had and left, mostly walking. David put in new batteries in my headlamp – that made a huge difference!
By Aid station 10 (mile 72) I was not in good shape. I couldn’t run due to what I thought was tendonitis at the top of my quad / hip. I was in pain. We just crossed a stream and my feet, socks and shoes were wet. And it was really getting cold – someone said it was 36. I was prepared for 40s, but I didn’t have gloves and neither David nor I had a wind breaker. The volunteers were busy helping a runner who was violently shivering under blankets – I did not want to end up like him! But I did not want to DNF either. A crew member who’d earlier DNFd offered a ride if I wanted to stop – she didn’t encourage quitting, but was concerned. But I’m stubborn so reluctantly left the warmth of the heaters. The next section was 8 miles – the car was there. If I could just get to the car, we’d be OK. Think warm thoughts!
Aid station 10 to 11 was the most difficult section of the race. My first few steps were agonizing – I realized I couldn’t run, but I was worried we wouldn’t be able to walk fast enough to stay warm. We prayed for uphills. 8 miles…the mind plays with you – on the road, that should take 1hr10min or less, earlier in this race, 2 hours or less. We were looking at 3 hours, and it would be cold, dark and windy. The temps kept dropping and we were shivering. We kept checking on each other, doing our best to keep moving and stay warm. My quad/hip was killing me. With about 2 miles before the next aid station, we were walking through a warmer pocket of air. That saved us! Although, with a mile to go, my walking had slowed to a crawl – it probably took us 25 minutes or more.
Aid station 11 was both the lowest and the highest point of the race. I walked in and held out my wrist so they could cut off my bracelet. I didn’t think I could finish. I was crying and in pain. What did I do wrong? Why did this hurt so much? How could I disappoint all of my friends? How could I let myself down? The volunteers are experienced at seeing runners in this mental and physical state and staged an intervention. Thankfully, they did not cut my bracelet off, but helped me over to the medical tent and another trail angel, Anna. Anna is an experienced trail runner and was convinced that my race was not over. I lay down, warmed up, she massaged my quad some, gave me advil, helped me stretch and most importantly, gave me a pep talk. She was the California Kena!! It never occurred to me that I would DNF – looking back, I’m disappointed that I considered it, but I also remember how much pain I was in. The mind is powerful. One of the many lessons I learned is how much of ultrarunning is mental. Some of the pain was most certainly from being cold and having tendonitis, but also from being scared – I’d never run/walked 80 miles before, doubt was manifesting itself pretty severely in that tendon. In addition to Anna, 2 other “miracles” happened that gave me the strength to leave – coffee and sunrise. David and I thanked Anna profusely. I was still hurting, but determined to get to the next aid station and then re-evaluate. David gets choked up explaining how Anna brought me back from death (that’s an exaggeration, Mom!!), but I wasn’t her only miracle of the night. Just before we left, a guy looking extremely fresh thanked Anna and started moving. He had walked in 2.5hrs earlier, incoherent and unable to eat – after sleeping he woke a new person, ate and finished. Anna said many other runners before me had chosen to DNF and weren’t able or willing to work through their issues. I owe my finish to Anna, her positive energy, and her belief in me that I could finish when I was doubting myself.
Aid station 11 to 12 was 7miles, with some climbing. If I could get to aid station 12, then there were only 3 more aid stations and the finish. One aid station at a time. And there was still plenty of time if I kept moving so I wouldn’t get time cut. Gradually, the pain was a bit less, I was walking faster and before we knew it, it was hot again. It was great for David to see some of the amazing views that I had enjoyed the day before.
By Aid station 12 (mile 87), I knew I was going to live and finish. I was even able to run for the first time in over 25 miles. Run might be an exaggeration – maybe shuffle? And at first, only for 10 seconds at a time. But gradually it was 30 seconds, a minute – run to the next rock, the next ribbon, the next bend. Run with the rolling terrain, use that to my advantage. David was constantly encouraging and telling me how awesome I was doing. I said he was a good liar! But I was incredibly thankful for his company. I owe my finish to his support too.
Aid stations 12 to 15 are sort of a blur. Someone actually said “it’s mostly downhill from here.” I wish people wouldn’t say that! We still had 2 or 3 power walking climbs that seemed to take forever. We caught up to other runners and got passed – some were looking rough, but everyone offered encouragement and we knew we would all finish. I started doing math – could I finish in sub-28? Sub-29? Sub-30? Just keep moving and don’t worry about that was David’s response. At the last aid station (Badger Hole), we saw Doris again – great to see a friendly face and another trail angel. We loaded up on ice and cookies so we could make it to the finish.
5 miles – FIVE MILES. Longest 5 miles ever. And then the terrain looked familiar, running through meadows. And there were people cheering runners in. Someone said we had less than a mile to go – I started running. I was determined to run the entire last mile. The 11mn/mi pace felt like we were sprinting! And then there was the bridge and cars and the finishing banner and clock – sub-29! I burst into tears. I couldn’t believe I had finished. And that I was alive. I congratulated fellow runners who had just finished and they shared the same sentiments. It was an indescribable feeling of accomplishment. Who knew I would be so excited about a belt buckle? And a hoodie and coffee mug! Over 50 people DNFd during the race – I was so close to being one of them and so incredibly thankful my friend and strangers for pulling me through.
Some answers to common questions…yes, I have all of my toenails – it’s a miracle. Yes, I would do this again – it didn’t go so badly or so well that I don’t want to do this again. I definitely think I can improve – it’s tempting to do this course again, but I know it will be a different experience and a different (even better?) race. I drank most of my calories – I brought Infinit with me and left it in drop bags. I love my customized formulas and wouldn’t have finished without it. Probably half of runners coming through aid stations were having stomach problems and I thankfully never had any issues. I did supplement with grilled cheese, quesadillas and chicken soup at night. J I wasn’t tired (or sleepy!) but did temporarily lose wakefulness for 5 minutes at aid station 11 while Anna was helping get warm. And no, I don’t know what’s next – not a 200 mile race or badwater for sure! Probably some other fall ultras (50k, 40miler, 50miler) and lots more mountain biking this summer / fall. I will continue enjoying the journey – running new trails, getting faster, being outside and meeting incredible people – instead of focusing solely on one race. The SD100 was an amazing experience, but it’s not the end point, just a stop along the way.
A week out from the race, the whole experience seems surreal. Thanks everyone for your emails and words of encouragement – you’ve all been incredibly patient over the months asking questions during training and checking in during and after the race. I truly could not have completed the race without you and felt your positive energy on the trails.