Get to the Finish or Die Trying: The 2015 Angeles Crest 100

It is really difficult to move happily through life without adjustments along the way. Stagnation is a key component of misery. It is important to understand what makes you happy, what goals you need to achieve to become happy, and what you are willing to sacrifice to meet those goals. Odds are that happiness will be a moving target throughout your lifetime.

I have often struggled to figure out exactly what makes me happy. I have a lot of interests. I have a “noisy” brain that seems to constantly throw thoughts at me at a speed that can be overwhelming at times. I’ve also had a lifelong goal of building a career and life that is fulfilling and stress-free as possible. These factors have contributed to me suddenly taking drastic measures like moving to Central America, moving to California, leaving a very well-compensated position at a consulting firm during the worst point of the recession to go into business on my own, and deciding to run ultramarathons.

Me with Howie Stern and Billy Simpson before the start of the 2015 Angeles Crest 100. Photo by my wife.
Posing with two extraordinary multiple Hardrock 100 finishers. Me with Howie Stern and Billy Simpson before the start of the 2015 Angeles Crest 100. Photo by my wife.

That last nugget, running ultras, has also been subject to my uncertainty about how to proceed. Training for ultra-distance events appropriately takes a lot of time. While I spend more time outdoors than is even required to train for these things, it is not always my preference to spend the majority of my time outdoors moving through the environment at speed. While I certainly enjoy doing that, or else I wouldn’t have even taken up trail running, I most cherish the time spent moving slowly through the environment and enjoying every view, finding as much wildlife as possible, and closely examining the flora. That said, when it comes to things that I really want to do, I also resent failure.

While bromides such as “failure is not an option” are frequent at endurance events, they do not magically propel your ass to the finish line even with the greatest of your efforts. As I have written previously, I have failed miserably at the Angeles Crest 100 in my two attempts prior to this year. The 2015 race was probably the greatest in-race effort I have ever put forth, yet I made it the shortest distance of my three attempts.  The reasons for that certainly tie in with the rest of my life outside of running, and this write-up is my effort to look at that in some detail. With that, I will give a recap of my race, and then close with some discussion of my plans for the next year.

Bed Time to Race Start

The night before the race is really important to the race itself. After having the spent the evening relaxing in a chair outside of our hotel, I attempted to go to sleep at about 9pm. As expected the night before a big race, finding sleep was extremely difficult. I finally got there about 10:30pm, when I was promptly awakened by a loud and frantic “valley girl” sounding voice right outside of our room, apparently having boy trouble. I stayed in a bed for awhile, hoping it would just go away. It didn’t. I peeked out the window to see a 20-something tattoo and piercing-heavy woman sitting on the bench in front of our window while having a very animated phone conversation. This was not a hotel guest, but someone passing by who decided the front of our room was a great conversation spot. I opened the door, got a shocked look back from her, and politely told her we were trying to sleep. She said “sorry” and walked off to take her troubles elsewhere.

Sleep did come in fits and starts. I planned to get up at 3am. I instead woke up at 2:45. We walked to the race start at 4:30, joining in on the nervous pre-race banter, hugs, and well-wishes.

Race Start to Islip Saddle

The first 25 miles of the race, as usual, were relatively uneventful. I hiked at a comfortable pace up Acorn Trail out of Wrightwood. Once we got to the top of Blue Ridge, I ran at an easy pace on the level and downhill sections. There is a steep and rocky technical downhill section near Blue Ridge Campground. This is where my left knee (or really, the upper and outer portion of my left calf) started hurting. It was surprising it began so early, as it never bothers me during training runs. I just continued on, altering my gait on steep downhill sections to take pressure off that leg. I mentioned it to my wife at the first aid station at Inspiration Point (9.3 miles), and asked her to have Advil ready at Vincent Gap (13.85 miles).

I noted prior to Vincent Gap that the elevation was affecting me. This was not a surprise, as the landslide-caused closure of State Highway 2 kept me from heading up to Blue Ridge to camp in the nights before the race as I did last year. What surprised me was how strong I felt on the four mile climb up Mt. Baden-Powell. I locked in on a pace that felt comfortable, two other runners locked in behind me, and I led a push at a pretty decent pace for about three miles up the mountain. We passed a good twenty runners in this section. As often happens, however, when I’m not acclimated to these heights, I could feel my heart rate and breathing suddenly escalate somewhere between eight and nine thousand feet. I caught that immediately, told the runners behind me to pass, and just dropped my pace to where the breathing was comfortable. The remaining ridgeline climbs and descents after Baden-Powell were rather uneventful, except for my leg bothering me. As Howie Stern had advised prior to the race, I just pushed through it as best I could, and noted that it would get extremely painful at times, and then let up. This happened frequently throughout the remainder of the race.

I descended into the aid station at Islip Saddle (25.9 miles) feeling pretty decent, but with some cramping in my lower legs and a lot of tightness in my quadriceps. Aviva Williams, who is a friend and is trained as a massage therapist, happened to be at that aid station and was talking to my wife and sister-in-law (who were crewing me). She offered to help massage my legs while I was being fed and otherwise babied by my crew. The massage made my legs feel immensely better, and I headed up Mt. Williamson behind David Chan feeling completely rejuvenated.

Posing with my wife before heading up Mt. Williamson. Photo by Maleeh Molstad.
Posing with my wife before heading up Mt. Williamson. Photo by Maleeh Molstad.
Islip Saddle to Eagle’s Roost

It is commonplace to start really feeling the effects of the race on the Mt. Williamson climb. This climb, your last in the race at the 8,000-foot level, is only 1.5 miles and absolutely enjoyable on a training run with fresh legs. It is steep, rocky, and pretty exposed. It also comes at point in the day when it is starting to get warm. My race began to fall apart here in 2013.

In this year’s edition, I headed up behind David Chan. I’ve known David for years, and it is unfortunate that the only time we see each other is during races. We climbed at a pace that was comfortable for both of us to converse. We caught up to another runner and just stayed with her. Someone else caught us, and also stayed in line. Sometimes its nice to just tackle these challenges together for awhile.

About a half mile from the top of Williamson my heart rate suddenly spiked. I started feeling like I was having trouble breathing. I told David I was going to drop back and wished him luck. This was the first point in the race for me, as often happens in ultras, where things really started to go bad. You just have to push through as best as possible, and work on rectifying the problem. It still amazes me, however, how quickly things can go from fine to bad, and how bad it can get. I eventually felt extremely faint, and stopped to lean against a tree because I was afraid of falling over. I took in more calories, drank some more water, and pushed on to the top. I felt better shortly after the descent started, and made it into Eagle’s Roost (29.98 miles) running pretty well. I told my wife that I had died and was reincarnated on Mt. Williamson. From a racing perspective, that was not far from the truth.

Hydrating at Eagle's Roost. Photo by Maleeh Molstad.
Hydrating at Eagle’s Roost. Photo by Maleeh Molstad.
Eagle’s Roost to Cloudburst Summit

This segment of the race is probably the most important one for mid-pack runners. The terrain, heat, and exposure make it extremely challenging in and of itself. The tight time cut-off at Cloudburst Summit (37.54 miles) adds to the challenge. On a hot day, the climb up Cooper Canyon to Cloudburst Summit (which I wrote about here) can seem like hell incarnate.

I left Eagle’s Roost feeling OK, but not great. This section of the race opens with several miles of road running on the Angeles Crest Highway, and I always find it somewhat demoralizing. The first half is a gradual climb. I walk all of it. Then, a gradual descent. Another runner I had been chatting with leaves me behind on the descent, running all of it. I choose to run two snow plow markers at a time, walking one. The other runner fades at Buckhorn Campground (where we rejoin the trails), while I refill my bottles at the campground water supply, pour some on my head, and descend Burkhart Trail. On the descent, I start feeling a little nauseous and notice that my stomach isn’t processing what I’ve put into it since Eagle’s Roost. At the bottom of the descent, I jump into the creek to cool off and prepare to ascend Cooper Canyon.

The creek plunge was cold and invigorating. I climbed strong on the first half of the Cooper Canyon climb. I passed a friend, who I won’t name, who was heaving at the side of the trail. Puking can sometimes be contagious, and my stomach started bothering me again. I tried to put it out of my mind and went on. The climb started becoming painful. Monotonous. I just wanted it to end. We finally hit the mostly level section at the transition from Winston Ridge to Winston Peak and I started running, pushing a bit, but not too much. Time for calories. I take in a Cliff Shot block and it goes down rough. I take in a second (I usually do three at a time) and my body said that was too much. I stopped at the side of the trail and brought up everything I had consumed since Eagle’s Roost. Looking at it as I was heaving, I noted undigested stuff going back to the first aid station at Inspiration Point.

“That’s not good,” I thought.

After the heaving was done, I felt drastically better. I took a drink, downed an energy gel, and had a pretty good climb to Cloudburst Summit. I got there with about a half hour remaining before the cut-off, and spent a good 15 minutes trying to get my body to calm down and get some calories and hydration to stay in.

Trying to recover from Cooper Canyon at Cloudburst Summit. You can see it in my eyes. Photo by Maleeh Molstad.
Trying to recover from Cooper Canyon at Cloudburst Summit. You can see it in my eyes. Photo by my wife.
Cloudburst Summit to Three Points

The section from Cloudburst to Three Points is mostly downhill, and gives you a chance to recover for a bit. I started the section feeling OK. I headed out with Larry Rich (who toughed out another finish) and we chatted for awhile about how our races were going. He noted that he wasn’t feeling great, and we agreed that it seemed our bodies were acting as if it was a hot race when it didn’t really feel hot so far. I suddenly felt pretty good and pushed ahead. That didn’t last long.

“Oh… buddy!” or something to that effect, shouted Larry as he rounded the bend to see me hunched over, spewing copious amounts of yellow liquid on the side of the trail.

I decided to fast walk the rest of the distance to Three Points, to again try to get my body to settle. I needed to get calories and hydration to stay in. The walk, though mostly downhill, felt demoralizing. I faded. Not mentally. That certainty that I had to get through this and soldier on was 100 percent there. But the physical part was hard. It took extreme determination to continue walking by the end of this section. I arrived at Three Points a shell of my former self. A zombie. For me to finish this race, I had to get what my body needed to stay in my gastrointestinal system and process, but I was working on limited time. My options were narrowing.

I had 25 minutes or so before the cut-off at Three Points. I found out after the race that my wife and sister-in-law were pretty freaked out about how bad I was when I got there. I never picked up on that, though. They worked their hardest to get me what I wanted and needed. I got chicken broth, which has worked for me in the past. I got a massage. I got ice to cool me down. They said nothing but positives to me, and I gave nothing but positives back. I was determined to somehow work my way through this. I left when they announced ten minutes to cut-off, with one bottle of ice water, and one bottle of chicken broth, and literally stumbled down the trail, vision blurring, and extremely unsteady on my feet.

Three Points to Hillyer 

My walk was slow, certainly much slower than I needed it to be, but it was all I could muster. On some downhill sections, I tried to do some gravity-assisted running, but I inevitably tripped shortly after starting. At the end of one, my vision blurred and I felt like I was going to faint. I leaned against a tree, for a moment, in an effort to regain my balance. Finally, the very last runner out of the aid station finds me.

“Are you alright?”

“Not really. But are any of us at this point?”

Much of the remainder is a blur to me. I know we stayed together. I know I kept telling him that I was trying to move as quickly as possible, but I felt really dizzy. Unsteady. I kept stumbling, even at a slow-paced walk. I puked once more. I wasn’t certain I could even make it to the road that climbs to the Hillyer Aid Station. I had to, though, and eventually we did. With a half hour remaining to the cut-off, and a couple miles of climbing, it was not possible to make it on time. I collapsed in a heap on the side of the road, with the other runner promising to send someone from the aid station to get me. Shortly thereafter, the course sweeper came across me, gave me a Coke he had with him (which I kept down, barely), and kept me company until a truck came to get us. 

My stomach never recovered all night. I went to bed, low on blood sugar and dehydrated, and slept as deep a sleep as you can possibly sleep. I woke up starving. I woke up thinking my attempts to run the Angeles Crest 100 were over.

The After

I had gone into this year’s race with extreme determination to finish. “Get to the finish line or die trying” was my mantra. I ended it with the shortest distance I’d covered in three attempts, down 16 pounds from my pre-race weight, and so completely physically drained that I spent nearly the entirety of the day after laying in bed, except for a trip to a local eatery where I had two egg and sausage breakfasts. My wife drove, because my cognitive abilities were too impaired for me to safely do so.

While I couldn’t make the finish to cheer on friends like I wanted, I did follow them on the race tracking website. Some made it to the end. Some didn’t. Some, who ran with me late and skirting cutoffs, recovered for remarkable finishes. 

I was particularly happy as Howie Stern, whom I consider a good friend, fought to a finish only a few weeks after finishing Hardrock. I messaged him with some congratulatory words. I was surprised to get a response, not immediate but while he was still at the finish, offering to crew and pace me to help me get a finish next year. I told him I wasn’t planning on running next year, but he gave me something to think about.

Unfortunately, there was little time to think about it. Registration for the 2016 Angeles Crest 100 would be the next day at noon. The race sells out almost immediately after opening for registration. No wait list. By evening, I decided that having Howie on my side was an opportunity that was too good to pass up. I entered at noon the next day, and received my confirmation.

The next morning, I went for a hike on the Gabrielino Trail at Switzer’s. I spent this time thinking about my previous race efforts, and what really needs to change for me to get over the hump in this race. 

  • I need to come into the race hungry to race. While that wasn’t an issue in 2014 or 2015, I did quit with time on the clock in 2013. I think, if I hadn’t completed the Zion 100 a few months earlier, I probably wouldn’t have done that.
  • I need to race more often. I’ve hardly raced at all the last two years, and racing gives me the opportunity to test race strategies and see where my fitness is at.
  • I need to fix my annoying and sporadic knee issue. It has not escaped me that my Zion 100 finish, where the problem didn’t occur for once, was during a period that I got regular massages. I haven’t had a massage in two years.
  • I need to lose weight. Weight has a large effect on your ability to run. This year’s race was the heaviest I’ve been at a race start. You can see it in the pics. A big reason for that is:
  • I need to train harder. I don’t think of myself as an athlete. I am a biologist that runs trail races. Over the past year, I’ve increasingly eliminated flat out training for just enjoying myself for miles on end in the mountains, looking at views and wildlife, and documenting it all. This put me in a position where I could go on my feet all day and all night without too much trouble, but my speed had gotten so slow that race cutoffs were a serious issue.

So, given that I enjoy nature, and that is why I’m a biologist, how do I get into the mindset of being an athlete and training like one? That goes back to my opening discussion about what makes me happy. While simply being outdoors makes me happy, and studying the world around me makes me happy, being an ultrarunner and part of that community also makes me happy. Not struggling at races (and I’ve had a few decent outings) makes me happy. Finishing the Angeles Crest 100 will make me happy. 

So, the path lies in front of me. Work harder. Cultivate an athletic side. Really nail down my dietary intake, training, and what kind of high intensity outings I’ll do and with what frequency. Increase my cross training. Talk is cheap, though. It is up to me to make it all happen, and be successful in 2016.

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6 responses to “Get to the Finish or Die Trying: The 2015 Angeles Crest 100”

  1. Good luck! I’ll be following and rooting you on

  2. […] Time spent in final race preparations for another failed attempt at completing the Angeles Crest 100 in August. […]

  3. […] had some issues on this front in the past year, which I won’t rehash as they are discussed here. My goals for 2016 include the […]

  4. Soon-Chul Choi Avatar

    Great race report Marcus, I admire your determination and honesty. Thanks for sharing! See you in a few weeks for an epic weekend.

    1. Thanks for the comment. You will, indeed, see me there, but not as a runner. I have a multi-faceted injury to my right knee and under the advice of a physician, I am not running at all right now. I will be there to crew one of my friends.

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