Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Rejoice at AC100

I am a doctor, a scientist, and a Meyers-Briggs INTJ; I make decisions based on logic, facts and research. I am certainly not the type of person to be looking at tea leaves for life's answers. However, mid way between Western States and Angeles Crest, my Stash tea bag contained a message that somehow resonated with me: "Intuition is your best friend." Two things became clear immediately:
1) I need better friends; and
2) I need to rest, because that's the only thing that felt right. I was tired going into Western States, tired running Western States, and even more tired after it was over. It is pretty obvious to me that I went in on cooked legs. I don't think it was entirely due to the high training load, rather I don't think I accounted for the stresses of all the kids' activities and the diminished sleep I had this year as opposed to last and it eventually caught up to me to the point that even a long taper wasn't enough recovery for race day. But I knew I was fit - I just had to trust that the fitness would still be there if I let the legs recover.

And so I rested. In the five intervening weeks I ran 85 miles. Yeah, total! Add in three yoga sessions and sauna time to keep up the heat training, and that was it. Of course, I am not good at truly resting. Our family spent 9 days in Yellowstone, the Tetons and Craters of the Moon with 3-5 miles of kid paced hiking most days (but no running!) and I put in lots of time in my garden. July is when there is tons of stuff to start harvesting and there are always plenty of weeds to pull and other projects to do. But running was kept to a minimum and the more I didn't run the better I felt. It seemed a little weird going into a hundred miler having done only one run over ten miles in the preceding five weeks, but I was trusting my new best friend, Intuition. Although, I didn't actually trust it enough to have full confidence for a great day at Angeles Crest. I sent a warning text to my pacer, super-star Meghan Arbogast, a few days prior, letting her know that I planned to finish no matter what and there was a possibility that could mean 30 hours. It was important to me to finish because I DNF'd my first attempt at AC in 2010, and this was another one where I felt like I needed redemption.

But the rest did seem to be the ticket, and I felt significantly better in the opening miles than I did at WS. Still, a bad race rocks the confidence and there are always the doubts, the doubts that whatever happened last time will be back to take you down again. I just kept telling myself "You're fine!" as more of a stubborn inner-bravado than inspirational message. But to make sure I was fine, I made sure to take things very easy in the opening section, hiking the majority of the Acorn Trail, Mt. Baden-Powell and Mt. Williamson. Despite the easy pace I nearly caught Tommy Neilson on the Baden Powell climb (and then he buried me on the downhill) and I was right on Angela Shartel's course record splits from the previous year. My tea bag the day before the race said, "Let things come to you," and that was my plan. Oh, Stash Tea, you are so wise! Who needs a coach when I can get all the ultra-running advice I need from twelve cent tea bags?? When Mac asked how I was feeling at the first few aid stations, I only had one answer: "I'm fine."

Mile 9- Inspiration Point
Mile 25 Islip Saddle - I feel fine enough to smile! (photots: Sally McRae)

In 2010, I hated the section between Eagle's Roost and Cloudburst (mile 29.9 - 38) with the dreaded Cooper Canyon. It starts with a 2M detour along traffic ridden Hwy 2 to keep runners out of the endangered yellow legged frog habitat. It is somewhat uphill, right as the day is heating up and the tarmac just bakes. There is a nice little section down to the bottom of the canyon and then 4-5 miles of relentless should-be-runnable-but-soul-sucking uphill with no air movement at all in the canyon. But this year I was ready to battle and was soaked to the bone before I left Eagle's Roost with ice in my hat and bandana and three bottles of fluid. I caught and passed three guys in this section, including Tommy. At this point, the legs really did seem fine!
Heading to Cloudburst (ph: Pam Everett)

Cloudburst (38M) lived up to it's name and dark grey clouds filled the sky and the wind began to gust. I was still getting wet from time to time and I used lots of ice in my bottles, but I didn't use any more ice in my hat, bandana, or clothes for the rest of the race. Quite a surprise given the weather forecast of 98 degrees and cloudless skies for the day! By this point, the rest of the women's field was over 45 minutes back and it seemed like the real race would be against the ghost of Angela and her CR pace, which I was now under by about ten minutes.

The whipping wind on my wet clothes almost made me a little chilly on the next downhill, but the weather wasn't the only thing out of the ordinary. About a mile and a half later, there was a man in jeans and a leather jacket spread eagle across the trail. Another well dressed man was directing me to go around him carefully. As I tip-toed around, I noticed dozens of pieces of shattered plastic, all pieces of a destroyed motorcycle. At first I had actually thought this was some sort of rescue simulation (the sprawled guy looked remarkably clean and he even lifted his head to look at me). But Hwy 2 is known for fast driving motorcycles on the curvy mountain road and this guy had obviously missed a turn and hurled over a small cliff. The well dressed guy told me Search and Rescue was already on their way, so I just continued on. However, serious kudos has to be given to David Villalobos, who left Cloudburst only 5 minutes before me. He was the first to come across this guy and without a second thought, he scrambled up the embankment to flag down crew and get help. That embankment was so steep he didn't feel comfortable going back down it, so he back tracked up the highway to rejoin the trail and continue on with his race while one of his crew (the well dressed guy) went down to help. When I asked him about it afterwards, David just shrugged and said, "It was good to let you get ahead because then I could stop worrying about when you were going to pass me."  David not only played hero, but went on to finish 7th overall with an impressive time of 21:59. Unfortunately, I heard the victim did not have the same good ending as David. Several later runners were stopped for a couple minutes while the guy was evacuated including 24:00:20 finisher, Billy Yang. Kudos to Billy, too - that guy deserves a sub-24 buckle!

Motorcycles may have been wrecked, but I was still chugging along. The sun popped out again climbing Mt. Hillyer, but I was moving so well, I finally told myself, I wasn't just doing fine; I was doing great! At Mt. Hillyer (Mile 49) I was so thirsty. I downed as much icy cold water as I could and some ginger ale, too. Oh so, good! Well for about two minutes, that is. 100 meters out of the aid station it all came back up and I was violently watering the lush purple poodle bushes in this area! Umm, maybe I am not great, but I am still fine! 

In 2010, I dropped at Mt. Hillyer and last year I paced a friend from mile 52 to the finish, so there were only three miles of this course that I had never seen before, and just guess where the only unmarked turn on the whole course was. Fortunately, there was a sign at the junction pointing to the Silver Moccasin Trail and I was pretty sure we stayed on that for a while. I passed a group of Asian women out for a hike, but when I asked them if they had seen runners, they just did a lot of nodding and smiling, clearly not understanding what I was asking. So it was actually a relief when Jorge Pacheco passed me a few minutes later, but the unmarked turn, getting passed and not eating left me a little grumpy coming into Chilao.

Mac ran with me for the next short section, and I guess I was still a little grumpy, because I kept getting annoyed everytime he would tell me to eat something. He is the perfect crew, because he is always trying to take care of me, but I really didn't want to be taken care of out on the trail. Our running group has a joke about how one's running is inversely related to how one's relationship is going, and I guess that applies to the short term, too, because I had a great split through here and picked up a few more minutes on the CR.

Meghan was ready to go at Short cut Saddle, down, down, down the five miles of dirt road. I was starting to feel the stiffness of 60 miles, but there were a few 7:30 miles in there! Halfway up the other side a cat-like animal darted into the brush in front of us, it's long tail swishing twice before completely disappearing.

"Whoa! Did you see that bobcat?" Meghan asked.
"Did you see that long tail? That wasn't a bobcat!" I answered back. Though the size was not very impressive, we agreed it must've been a juvenile cougar (Google corroborates no other long tailed wild cats in So. Cal). How cool is that, we saw a cougar!!

I still felt great all the way to the base of Chantry, passing an ailing Jorge back. But that 0.6 mile paved road to the top just sucked all the life out of me. I got to Chantry at 7:46pm, 28 minutes ahead of CR pace, but I felt completely spent and a bit overwhelmed by what lay ahead. But I was touched to see Mac's sister and uncle out there to cheer me on. Mac did what he does best, and once again took care of me and I ate quite a bit, including stealing Meghan's soup from right out of her hands. And then Mac gave the best pep talk ever: "Just decide how much pain your willing to endure for the course record and then go do it. You've got this. I know you can do it."

And with that we set off on the long climb to Mt. Wilson. At this point I let Meghan run ahead, and told her to make me run everything she thought I should. After the race I joked she was a slave driver, because she worked me so hard!! But it is everything I could've hoped for and exactly what I wanted and needed. She knew what the goal was and as a top competitive athlete herself, she knew not to let up on me, even when I was gasping, grunting, and moaning in pain. We talked little, and I just followed her lead, even it if just meant a few steps of running here and there. And I don't think she told me to eat even once!

The first two miles out of Chantry are quite gentle and we ran almost all of it, eking out the last bit of daylight, before turning on to the steep 4 miles to the top. Ugh! my legs were toast for this steep stuff and I knew I was struggling. But I was still moving! And then something even more unusual than motorcycle accidents and cougar sightings: it started to rain in August in Southern California! There was something refreshing about the rain.

On the final climb to Sam Merrill, I was dying. It all seemed so gentle, so runnable and yet I had to walk pretty much every step. And the aid station taunts you with its flickering lights that are visible for almost a mile before you actually get there. Again, I was so, so thirsty, but icy water just found me with my head in the garbage sack brining it all back up. The volunteers tried to offer everything (except soda- why is there no soda at this AS??) but I was ready to be done. 11 miles to go, but I had lost a few minutes to Angela.

The technical downhill section hurt, but then Meghan really put the hammer down on the downhill dirt and paved road. My quads were screaming, but I wasn't about to say anything. Frankly, I didn't have the energy to talk! I just did my best to try to stay with her. They were cheering loudly at the last aid station, but we weren't stopping. Meghan basically had the task of trying to squeeze water from a rock at this point as my energy was so low. My Garmin had died with 7 miles to go, so I was relying on her to keep us on pace and to keep track of distance.

"How much do we have left?" I whined.
"3.3 miles," she answered.
We ran in silence for what seemed like a long time.
"How much farther now?"
"2.9 miles," Meghan replied.
"Are you shitting me??!" How could we have only gone 0.4 miles! My toes hurt, my feet hurt, my hamstrings hurt and my quads and calves were just wrecked. Please just let this end! I started grunting and panting to "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" - anything to take my mind off of how slowly the distance was ticking down.

The last half mile is on the road. There is a small grade that even road marathoners wouldn't call a hill, but I needed a walk break! Finally, the park was in sight and we ran to the finish- 21:04:18, a 17 minute course record.

At some point in the night, Split Master AJW tweeted that I should be able to do Chantry to the finish (26 M) in 6 hours and break 21:00. But looking at the splits of the top runners this year, I think that was way too aggressive for the time I was running. Here are the top 7 runners finish times and final splits:
1. Ruperto Romero (19:28) - 5:33
2. Michele Graglia (20:25) - 6:02
3. Dominic Grossman (20:41) - 6:32
4. RandyVander Tuig (20:49) - 6:15
5. Christophe Sigel (20:55) - 6:14
6. Pam Smith (21:04) - 6:15
7. David Villalobos (21:59) - 6:40

So while it would've been sweet to break 21:00, I really don't think a sub-6 split was feasible for me and I know I absolutely had nothing more to give on that last section. I will point out that Angela ran the last 26 in 6:04. I can offer two explanations for why her final time was faster than mine.
1) Angela Shartel is a badass! Though she lost the CR, I think she deserves a huge amount of recognition for her CR last year. She basically re-wrote the women's standard for this course and shifted the focus from low- 22 to low-21 for what top women can do on this course. And she finished so strong. Not to mention she is a total class act, cheering for me on course and being one of the first to congratulate me at the finish.
2) I was really fricking tired! I did my best to recover after WS, but there was no denying a little bit of lingering fatigue from running 100 miles five weeks ago. Additionally, this type of terrain takes a lot more out of me because I don't have anything like this to train on. The biggest "mountain" I train on is McCulloch Peak at 2,100' and 1,500' of climb and those are gentle buffed out Oregon trails, not steep rocky stuff. My calves and quads were shot! So I think the women's CR could get lowered below 21:00 in the next couple of years, but I feel like I gave it my all and am very happy with my 21:04.

Rejoice for the chance to sit! Angela is not only a class act, but she is super brave. Do you see how dirty and sweaty my legs are and she is touching them without even flinching! (ph: Carl Siechert)
At the finish, several family members came out to see me (I grew up in So. Cal and still have family there), but I wasn't much for socializing. I just wanted a chair and please, somebody bring me some ice water. Uh oh, I should've known better on that! All I wanted to do was sit, but I finally agreed to have my picture taken by Larry Gassan. He said he would do another one with my crew, if I wanted, but I was too tired to keep standing. I made my way over to a park bench, where I promptly hurled. Then I laid on the bench like a homeless person (only stinkier!) for the next 20 minutes or so while Meghan chowed a hamburger and Mac chatted with family.

At the award ceremony the next day, I got a special belt buckle for breaking the course record, with a scripted word in 14k gold at the top.
"See, it says 'Record'", I showed Mac.
"Umm, No. It says 'Rejoice'", he laughed at me.
"They all say 'Rejoice'", Katie DeSplinter pointed out, "Yours just says it in gold."

Rejoice?!?? Who wants a belt buckle that says 'Rejoice'??!?, I thought at first. But then I realized maybe that is the perfect thing for the belt buckle to say. Because in running this race I had plenty of things to rejoice: a great day in the mountains, a win, a course record, the support of friends and family,  redemption for a DNF, the preciousness of getting out and living when a motorcycle accident reminds you how fragile life is, a cougar sighting, and even my intuition being right. Thank you, Angeles Crest, for all of those things. For that I rejoice.

Rejoicing with RD's Ken Hamada and Hal Winton (ph: Pam E.)


Carl Siechert said...

Great report, Pam. Having hiked all of the AC route (not in one trip), it was exciting for me to follow your progress on the map during the run, and to read your account. (How appropriate that the trophy features a lion.) It was a thrill to see you at the finish line too--at least up until you started tossing cookies!

Olga said...

Told ya so!!! No crap day! Believe!

Pam said...

Carl- The AC trophy is a mountain goat; WS has the cougar.

Yes, Olga, you were right!

Anonymous said...

No mere mountain goat, a Bighorn Sheep.

Rob said...

Pam, you keep me inspired to continue working up to a 100 miler. (And that my wife will go running with me again!) Congratulations on another Win to you and your "ultra"-supportive crew!

Unknown said...

Great race report and an even greater race!

Carl Siechert said...

Oops. Yeah, wrong trophy. But Anonymous is right: it's a bighorn sheep...just like the ones you sometimes encounter on the ridge south of Mt. Baden Powell.

Sabrina Little Ultramarathon said...

Ah, I'm an INTJ, too! I've never been more proud to be one. :)
Congratulations, Pam! You rock.

Pam said...

Sabrina- We should be pen pals! That way we could spend hours in a room by ourselves carefully crafting letters which we find off the charts witty and then be so glad we never have to talk to each other in person! ;) (or is that just me??). Just kidding - looking forward to seeing you at camp *in person*!