I had been preparing for this race for quite some time. Since the Pemberton 50K in February I really jacked up my weekly miles and continued to do speed work and running hills. Everything was coming together rather well. I had just finished this semester of school, work was fine, and I was feeling good. I decided to make a bit of a vacation of it and took off Friday and planned on leaving Thursday evening and camping for a few days.
All systems were go until Wednesday when I got one of the strangest emails ever. It was from the race director, John Martinez, stating that a military helicopter had gone down on the course and the race may be cancelled. (News report at: http://www.sandiego6.com/news/local/story/Military-helicopter-crashes-near-pine-valley/k5E7ArndaE23hvqpIdwfpg.cspx) The next day I got another email that they had worked out moving the course to a new location and all systems were once again go.
On Thursday evening I headed out with the tingling under the skin one has at the beginning of a journey. I pulled off Hwy 15 just south of Victorville, CA and found a really nice campground at Silverwood Lake which is a junction for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). I hadn’t run in two days so I got up early Friday and jogged an easy 4 miles or so on the PCT. Afterwards, I headed south to San Diego. After reaching my campsite at Lake Morena I grilled some dogs, grabbed a beer, and a book. Things couldn’t be better. (Well, add hottie that didn’t speak any English could have improved the situation slightly I admit.)
Despite some yapping ass dogs I got a pretty good night sleep woke up at 4am feeling fresh. I went about gearing up and got to the starting line just about 5am. All the logistics were out of the way; all I had to do was run. I didn’t know anybody there at the race but I was content just lazily making final preparations for the race; sunblock etc. After a few instructions and a moment of silence for the two Marine pilots that died in the crash we were off.
I started out with an easy pace as the race pack slowly spread out. Before long I had to take a pit stop, the squat varietal, off the trail. Getting back on the trail I continued a moderate pace and took in the scenery. The course was spread across the Cuyamaca Ranch State Park. The endless canyons of the area are really pretty in the early morning haze. Throughout the day we ran through a smorgasbord of changing scenery. I reached the first aid station, 5.9 miles, at right about one hour. My goal for the race was to finish under 10 hours so this was a good start. In fact, this was much faster than my expected average but I wasn’t worried. Leaving the aid station I was pleasantly surprised to see the PCT signs along the trail. About a half hour later I once again had the “urge”. A group of runners was pretty close behind me and the dense but low foliage offered no privacy, uh ho. Right about when I reached code red, however, I was presented a gift of seclusion and once again did my business with efficiency. We passed through several miles of canyons before entering a large and beautiful meadow. Running in Las Vegas we don’t get to frolic in meadows too often so this was particularly nice for me. As we left the meadow I looked up and saw the next aid station. Looking down at my watch I was shocked to be right at two hours. This last interval was 6.7 miles and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I didn’t worry and just decided to stick with my plan of eating an energy gel and a salt tab every half hour and an ibuprofen every hour or so.
It was now about 8:30am and I could already tell it was going to be a schwitz that day. All I could do was keep drinking fluids and taking in salt and hope for the best. Although I didn’t feel I needed to I forced myself to walk some of the hills in the next section to save energy for the rest of the day. This soon paid off after reaching a 3 mile downhill that I ran pretty aggressively. Never having run these trails I had no frame of reference of distances. Turning on a dirt road I was once again shocked to see the next aid station, also the start/finish, right about the 3 hour mark having covered around 19 miles. I asked the volunteers what mileage this was because I thought I took a wrong turn somehow. This wasn’t the case so I just shrugged my shoulders and kept going. I wasn’t tired in the least and had no noticeable soreness. Things were going well and I was really enjoying myself.
The trail really narrowed during the next section and I enjoyed the great single track trails. About 15 minutes after leaving the last aid station I came across a group of about 3 runners and greeted them as I passed. Shortly thereafter I came across a couple more runners and then a few more. Finally, just before the next aid station I passed one more runner, 8 in all for section, reaching the half way point in 4hrs 11 minutes. I won’t deny I was pleased with how things were going but I also knew I had another 25 miles to go and things were getting hot in here, or there I guess is more accurate.
After a bit of climbing the trail descended through a grassy section spotted with decent size trees. I was cruising on a downhill section at a pretty good clip when I spotted a snake just a few feet in front of me. Now realize that when running down a rocky trail you are pretty much watching your feet constantly. The snake was red, black, and whitish. As I lept up into the air I simultaneously yelled “shit”, tried to spot my landing, and had thoughts of Discovery Channel episodes of snakes looking like this one running in my head. I knew it was either totally poisonous or benign depending on if it’s stripes were red-black-white or red-yellow-black, or something like that. (Later my friend Dan reminded me it was a coral snake and the rhyme goes “Red on Black-Venom Lack, Red on Yellow-Kill a fellow) Nobody was around me to share the experience with so I just kept going. I’ve been hiking and running in the desert for a few years and had never come across a snake. I thought, well there’s a first time for everything. So I was even more astonished 30 minutes later I was jaunting down the trail and heard the unmistakable rattle. I’d never seen or heard a Rattler Snake in the wild but there was no question when you hear one. It was loud, violent, and it scared the shit out of me. In fact I once again leapt in the air and yelled “shit”. (At least I have the reaction down pat) With that over I kept my head in the race and kept eating, drinking, and generally being merry.
I came upon another runner just before the 30 mile mark and was shocked to see it was the beautiful Michelle Barton who is a top female ultrarunner. She was struggling a bit at the time and I tried to give her a little encouragement. This was a little ironic because she is known for being a cheerful spirit to everyone and I’m…well not. I left the 30 mile aid station at 5hrs 14min. Reality soon came back into focus because this next section surprised the hell out of me with a pretty relentless 4 mile climb. It took about an hour and fourteen minutes to cover the six miles to the 36 mile mark, not bad. While not close to being done, the light at the end of the tunnel began to appear. I started doing the math and I had two and a half hours to do the final 14 miles to finish at 9 hours. Once again I was feeling good but there was still a ways to go. One of the aid workers who also marked the course asked how the markings were and I said it was impossible to get lost. (May want to remember that statement)
Showing her true prowess Michelle come up from behind me. I was walking uphill at the time and she said “Let’s go”. How could I resist? At the very least speeding up meant I would get a rear view for longer. I was glad for the company because I had been running largely alone for the last 20 miles. It never hurts when that company is of a hottie either. Shortly thereafter a friend of Michelle’s, Pam who is rather a hottie herself, caught us. We fed off of each other for several miles but they pulled away a little just before the final aid station. While they didn’t waste much time, I sat down for a minute and drank some extra water for the final 8 mile push.
I knew I couldn’t hang with them so I just kept my head down and ran when I could and walked when I couldn’t. My stomach really started bothering me and I vomited when I tried to finish my final gel. No worry, I only had a few miles to go and this actually cleared my stomach. Apparently, I kept my head down a little too much. I blew by a turnoff that I never saw. It took quite a while for me to realize my error. I just kept plowing up this hill that never seemed to end and I was saying to myself how sinister it was to have such a brutal climb right at the end. Eventually I stopped dead in my tracks and looked for a pink ribbon that marked the course, didn’t see one. I went ahead a little more…didn’t see one, uh-oh. After about 2 seconds of panic I weighed my options. I saw a signpost for a camp about .5 miles ahead. I could either see what was there or backtrack. In retrospect I should have retraced my steps but I wasn’t too excited about the idea of it. I hoped someone would be at the camp and I could get some water and maybe a lift out. Reaching the camp my dreams were further crushed when I realized it was a rarely used trail outpost and not a soul in sight. At this time I knew my race was over and it was survival time. I had little water left and I was already dehydrated, tired, and deficient of calories. A map showed a trail that headed back to the road. It looked shorter than retracing my steps so I took it. I really wasn’t worried about my safety. I knew the trail would lead me out and hopefully I would come across somebody before then. This pipe dream about being rescued by someone on a horse didn’t happen. Instead I got to bushwhack through some dense foliage that covered me in yellow pollen.
While I was able to keep the trail this took a lot longer than I expected. I was out of water and it was approaching 2.5 hours since I left the last aid station. The last thing I wanted was to cause an incident and to have people looking for me. My friend Dan was waiting at the finish line plus the race organizers mark you entry and exit out of every aid station so I knew I wouldn’t be forgotten about at least. The slow progress through this trail started to take a toll and I really wanted this ordeal to be over with. Eventually I saw a dirt road ahead and some older folks walking along it. I hollered at them and when I reached them they let me know the start/finish was just ahead about .5 miles.
I hobbled back into safety holding back a little emotion about my embarrassment of the situation. I went to the race director and let him know what happened apologetically. Someone marked me down and I said DNF for “did not finish”. The race director took pity on me and said he’d count me official at that time since I’d covered an extra 4-5 miles (Plus at least another 1000′ of elevation). He said it happens to just about everyone eventually which helped some but I was still ashamed. The other disappointing thing was that I was running such a good race. I would have finished at or around the 9 hour mark beating my 50 mile best time by over 2 hours. Even with the extra miles and bushwhacking I still beat my time by 30 minutes.
I saw Dan relaxing in a chair reading and I plopped down on the ground next to him. I explained what happened and felt like I may cramp up into rigamortises. After chilling for a minute I downed a couple sodas and rinsed off. After a slice of pizza I started to feel pretty good again and we set off for our campsite. Once there we grilled some dogs, had a few beers, and enjoyed our usual entertaining conversation. Rowdy neighbors sort of ruined the evening playing loud music until about 11:30 when someone finally asked them to turn it off. Once I finally got to sleep a bunch of dogs went crazy barking their asses off and I never got much sleep. As an encore a phone in the truck next to me, with it’s windows open, started going off every 5 minutes beginning at 6am. I gave up and packed my stuff and made some coffee. Oddly, I enjoyed some quiet reading time before Dan got up and we walked down to the lake. Considering everything I actually felt pretty good and suffered mostly from some hurting toes.
Despite all that didn’t go well I am happy with the race and enjoyed my mini-vacation. Two days later and I am surprised at the speed of my recovery. My legs feel good and the only real pain is due to a couple of pretty messed up toe-nails. Having had a couple days to think things over I realize my ordeal was a lot more of a success than a failure. A few veteran runners have assured me everyone gets lost which does help. Not particularly caring about my official finishes I know I ran a 50 mile race in 9 hours. A year ago my best time for 50 miles was 11h 9m and 7h 30m for 50k (31miles). Even more the effects of my training seem to have paid off with the quick recovery. While I’m nothing near 100% I think I’ll go for a run now. I’ll try not to get lost.