“I can’t believe we’re going to be late!” I mumbled, half to myself and half to my wife, as she pushed our Prius C up the windy road toward the summit of Mt. Wilson. On our right was a sheer rock face, to our left the San Gabriel Mountains stretched out toward the horizon, undulating across the vastness.
I glanced at the clock on the dashboard, then at my watch. Yep, it was 6:38am. Race check-in ended at 6:30am and the Mt. Disappointment 50k started at 7am. She was giving the Prius just about as much as it could handle on these tight mountain roads (when you’re getting 55 miles to the gallon, you sacrifice a bit of top-end climbing power). We came careening around a bend, just over a mile from the summit when a boulder the size of a small refrigerator came crashing down 25 feet in front of the car as we skidded to a stop.
A dense dust cloud— way too thick to see through— plumed up across the road like a mini mushroom cloud. We both sat back in our seats, mouths agape, processing the scene in front of us, wondering what might have been had we rounded that corner 10 seconds earlier. When the dust cleared, the exploded pieces of boulder were still to big to drive the Prius over, so I rushed out to move them, hoping there wasn’t a second boulder coming down on top of my head…
We were a little shook-up as we pulled into the parking lot atop Mt. Wilson (5,712’). Not exactly the most auspicious beginning to a race day. It was 6:44am. Luckily, I was able to get checked-in, get dressed and hit the port-o-potty just in time to hear the awesome Gary Hilliard give his pre-race briefing. Without much time to think, let alone get anxious, we were off, leaving the Summit of Mt. Wilson, only to return 31 miles later.
Unbeknownst to me, the race began with a two-and-a-half mile downhill stretch of asphalt road. There wasn’t a shoulder, but there also wasn’t any traffic so we all just bombed down the middle of the road. The majority of the Ultras I have run typically begin with climbing and and end on a decent. The Mt. Disappointment 50k started with a sustained downhill and ended with a three mile, 2,600’ climb up the Kenyon Devore trail back to the Summit of Mt. Wilson and the finish line.
The course record for this climb on Strava was over 40 mins. And presumably that person was fresh, not 28 miles into a run. I could easily see myself getting to this final climb depleted, on the verge of bonking, with the full heat of the day upon me and getting buried, taking 2 hours to make the summit and effectively destroying my time. I wanted to avoid this result at all costs. It had been over a year since I finished a race (a couple DNFs and stress fracture had made sure of that) and I wanted to get a good finish under my belt.
I resigned to go out slow, force myself to get a bunch of calories down and have plenty left in the tank for the final climb. Looking back at my splits on Strava after the race, I ran my first two miles at 6:45 and 6:30/min pace, respectively. Not exactly the “slow” pace I was looking for at the beginning of the race and probably the reason why, as I write this four days later, my quads are still sore as hell. It’s hard to hold back on a downhill section of road, especially right after the gun went off, with a couple hundred runners all around you, everyone’s adrenaline spiking.
We got off the road soon enough (to never return, thank god) as we arrived at the Eaton Saddle and continued up toward the Markham Saddle. Leaving the Markham Saddle we were provided with our first of several stunning views, a panoramic shot of a handful of San Gabriel peaks, including Mt. Disappointment herself. I was continually awed throughout the race and spent a good deal of time chastising myself for not spending more time in this mountain range. It’s too close to my house, I gotta get out there more. But I think this experience sealed my 100-miler fate. My first attempt at running 100 miles will be the 2016 Angeles Crest 100. It’s in my backyard and it’s GORGEOUS. Only makes sense.
I pulled into the Red Box aid station (mile 5.2) at 44 mins elapsed feeling good. I filled my bottles, drank a couple dixie cups full of coke, said a quick hello to my wife and our dog Frank and I was off. I wasn’t really sure where I was as far as placement at this point but I kept myself from asking any of the volunteers about the runners in front of me. I was determined to run my own race, listen to my body and not worry about where I finished.
I headed down the Gabrielino Trail toward the Switzer Falls trailhead, turning and climbing a fireroad a few hundred feet up to Highway 2 and the next aid (mile 10.3). I arrived here just under 90 minutes and I felt really good, surprised that the weather was staying so mild. I had fully expected 95-degree temps by 10am, so the breezy 70-degree weather we were now experiencing was most welcome. I filled my bottles, drank a few cups of coke and stuffed the back pockets of my Patagonia Strider Pro shorts with Cheeze-Its and Pretzels and took off again, munching my way up the 1,500’ climb to the next aid station only a couple miles away (mile 12.8).
From this aid we were looking at a 7.8 mile stretch that circumnavigated Strawberry Peak (6,164’), back down to the Red Box aid station (where I knew my crew was waiting). I drank a lot of water at this station, filled my bottles, put a handful of ginger snaps in my shorts and decided that if I was going to make a move in this race and improve my position, now was the time. I bombed the single-track down toward the Josephine Saddle, keeping my pace hovering right around an eight minute mile, picking off a couple of runners here and there, falling in to chat with some before running on by.
The next section of the race was amazing. We began to round Strawberry Peak on a exposed stretch of single track with huge granite faces— at least 1,000’—on one side and 5,000’ drop down to the valley on the other. The whole Northwest side of the peak was amazing, as I ran on this little silver of winding trail carved into the side of the mountain, beautiful views all around as I ticked off the ridges wrapping Strawberry. Not really that hungry, I forced myself to get a couple Justin’s Maple Almond Butter packets into my system (I’ve never been one for gels or GUs, my stomach doesn’t seem to handle them well) and continued to feel really good.
It started to get a little hot during this section and with my slightly increased pace, I drained both my 20oz bottles of water with about three miles still to go to the next aid station. Luckily the views kept my mind off both the heat and my burgeoning dehydration as we ran right past Mt. Lawlor and dropped back into the Red Box aid station at mile 20.6 (3:42 elapsed). From this point, I was looking at five downhill miles to West Fork, the final aid, before beginning the roughly five mile, 3,500’ climb back to the finish, including the final push up the Kenyon Devore trail to the summit of Mt. Wilson.
I handed a bottle to my wife (who, as an ultra vet by now, was savvily posted in the shade in her comfy chair, next to the cooler, reading a book) and asked for coke and ice before I made my way over to the table and started eating potato chips. I knew if I was going to leave this aid station with only one bottle of water and the other full of coke (I wanted calories for the final climb) I had to get a lot of water in me here. I slammed six or seven cups before my wife made me slam a couple more and I left the aid with a full stomach, feeling good, ready to attack the last 10 miles.
The five miles down to West Fork went by quickly. I was able to keep my pace sub-8/min for the majority of this section and drank almost my whole bottle of coke. I passed one more person on this section, chatting for a moment about the climb looming ahead, before I pushed on and arrived at the West Fork aid station alone (4:18 elapsed).
It took a lot for me not to ask the volunteers about the runners ahead. I knew I was somewhere in the top ten, but I had no idea how close I was to the people in front of me. I still didn’t want to know. I kept telling myself I was running my own race. They didn’t matter. How I felt was what mattered. I filled my bottles, stuffed my pockets with pretzels and, for the first time all day, dumped a cold cup of water on my head. I had been holding off dumping water onto myself up until this point— we’re in one of the worst drought cycles in history in the state of California— but I figured one cup could be justified at this point, so I stood over some plants and emptied a dixie cup onto my head. It felt awesome.
The final climb ended up being somewhat anti-climactic. I had been thinking about it for almost five hours, effectively scaring myself into sticking with my race strategy. When I finally hit it, I was feeling good, had plenty of energy and was able to stick the Strava section in under an hour (58:44). Despite maintaining a running cadence and a decent pace, I never saw the runner in front of me, and looking back down the switchbacks at least 1,000’ below me, no one was in sight. My position was pretty much locked in. I just kept moving, pushing as hard as a could, hoping I would miraculously catch someone in front of me. It didn’t happen.
When I finally hit the parking lot and thought I was done, I realized I still had to run up the observation deck to the finish line. It was probably only 50’ of elevation gain but it seemed like about 500. Running through the finish line I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed (5:38 elapsed). I finished in 7th place, nothing short of respectable, and from a management standpoint, I did a great job: I was never on the verge of bonking, I consumed a proper number of calories and kept myself decently hydrated.
The problem was that maybe I didn’t suffer enough. If there was never a point where I considered quitting, does that mean I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough? Part of the reason I run these races is to go to those dark places, find out a little something about myself, and then push through to the other side, becoming a stronger person in the process. I didn’t feel like that happened here. Did I hold too much back? Did I really give my best effort?
At the end of the day, I think it was a good thing. My last few races I’ve been way on the other side of the whole bonking spectrum (i.e. trying to drag my cramping ass through the dirt because my quads are so completely locked up that I can’t flex my knee), so I think this was a great learning experience. I’m starting to learn how to execute a race properly. I’m learning to listen to my body and give it what it needs. I’m beginning to become less reactive and starting to stay on top of things. I’m growing as an ultrarunner.
All in all, it was a great day and a great race. Gary Hilliard and his wife did a great job. There were awesome volunteers all over the course, the race was well marked, the course is gorgeous and the atmosphere was perfect. High energy and fun all around. I highly recommend this race.
One day, it’s all going to come together for me. I’m going to find the perfect balance of calorie consumption, hydration and race effort. I’m going to deftly toe the line between redlining and bonking and come out victorious. It’ll probably only take me 40 or 50 more races to get it all figured out.