Make it Count

Dear Angeles Crest 100 newbie,

Last Saturday, I stood at the top of 9,407-foot Mount Baden-Powell hoping to view much of the remainder of the San Gabriel Mountains, as well as the Angeles Crest 100 course. Unfortunately, a relatively rare weather phenomenon known as a haboob left the air densely hazy, with visibility much lower than you would normally expect up high in the mountains. Nevertheless, I sat on the summit for awhile and pondered things. I came to the conclusion that I should write this letter aimed squarely at the runners fortunate enough to run this year, especially those who are running this for the first time, especially as your first hundred.

The Angeles Crest 100 has been a significant part of my life for some time. The Angeles National Forest for much longer. I have always been active as an outdoorsman and a biologist. I even ran from time to time. I was not prepared, however, to increasingly be stuck in an office as I made my way up in the consulting world. A confluence of too much eating, too much desk sitting, and not enough activity led me to stare at my reflection in my Jeep window after a hike in the Angeles National Forest, note my portliness, and wonder how in the world I had gotten to that point. It was 2010. I entered the Seal Beach 10K as a goal to keep me motivated to run, and while training for that, I heard about this crazy race called the Angeles Crest 100 on National Public Radio. While I didn’t think even running a marathon was all that realistic because of chronic knee problems, a seed was planted in my mind.

Trying to recover from Cooper Canyon at Cloudburst Summit. You can see it in my eyes. 2015  Angeles Crest 100. Photo by Maleeh Molstad.

That first year saw me train for and successfully run the Los Angeles Marathon. I did much of my training for that race on the trails, and built my distance level through the Xterra trail race series. The 2011 Bulldog 50K was going to be held on my birthday, so I decided to give that as a present to myself. It was, so I’m told, the hottest year in the history of the race. I only got through it with the help of other runners with whom I am friends to this day. I fell in love with ultrarunning with that race, and entered the 2012 Angeles Crest 100 shortly thereafter.

To prep for the 2012 Angeles Crest 100, I ran my first 50 mile race in the form of the inaugural Ray Miller 50. I did a lot of things wrong, but I finished. I also didn’t understand post-race recovery, overdid it, and got injured. I never recovered right and had to DNS the Angeles Crest 100 that year. I volunteered at the Idlehour Aid Station instead. I had a great time and made many new friends that day.

I decided to run the Zion 100 in 2013, as I thought it would help to have a one hundred mile finish prior to running the Angeles Crest 100. I finished the Zion 100 in 30:32. I came into that year’s Angeles Crest 100 in excellent shape, and intending to do all of the same things that worked at Zion. Those things didn’t work. I started puking on the climb up Mt. Williamson, and I wasn’t able to recover. I gave in 25 miles later as I didn’t care enough to suffer that hard. I was overly satisfied with my Zion 100 finish. ‘There’s always next year’.

My preparation for the 2014 Angeles Crest 100 was the best I’d ever had. It was the first time I ran 100+ mile weeks in race prep. I did a lot of upper body strength work. I came in lean and mean. I had, until Shortcut Aid Station, a dream race. I ran evenly. I felt constantly strong. I came into Shortcut feeling almost as if I hadn’t run a step. I will admit that I possibly, in a fit of over-exuberance about how I felt, took the descent from Shortcut too fast. I was passing a lot of people, and some of them by a significantly faster speed. About two thirds of the way down I felt a familiar twinge in my leg behind my left knee. By the bottom of that descent I could barely walk. I used a construction stake as a hiking pole to make it as far as Chantry. I managed to make it there just ahead of cutoff, but I couldn’t even put my full bodyweight on my left leg. I ended my day at 75 miles.

AC100 2014
Arriving at Chilao during the 2014 Angeles Crest 100. Photo by my wife.

2015 was different. Over the winter of 2014/2015, I started having a series of health issues, the most significant of which was severe tinnitus, possibly caused by a rare Eustachian tube dysfunction that began at the same time. It was (and still is) severely aggravated by distance running. It badly affected my sleep. I fell into a pretty severe depression. I was a mess, and this wasn’t helped by medical experts being unable to find the cause or a solution. I gradually became accustomed to the new state of things in my head, and started training again. It was late, however, and I did not believe that I could run the race. I had friends convince me to give it a go since I managed to qualify. I entered very out of shape, carrying some excess belly fat, and knowing I was unlikely to finish. That said, if I didn’t finish, it was NOT going to be because I gave up. I didn’t give up. I came up, for the first time ever, right against the Cloudburst Summit cutoff in very bad shape and throwing up. Pushing against the cutoffs didn’t give me enough time to recover. I was barely coherent when I stumbled out onto the trail at Three Points right at the cutoff. I made it to the road that climbs to Hillyer way too late to make it on time, and stumbling like a drunk. A runner that was with me told me to stay at the road and he’d send someone back to me. The course sweeper showed up shortly thereafter.

I was going to take a year off from this race in 2016. A friend convinced me to enter. I worked hard. I dropped weight (even now, I am lighter than I have been at any AC 100, but I still have a ways to go to get where I want to be). I’d been battling minor to severe but constant knee pain since last fall. Significant breaks didn’t rectify it. Near the height of training this season, I went to see an orthopedist. I have a variety of problems with my right knee. None of them render me crippled at the moment, but they could without proper treatment. No Angeles Crest 100 in 2016 for me. I am in physical therapy and in a training program suitable for distance running under the advice of the therapist and the orthopedist. I should be able to start working running back into my routine in another week or two and, with the root cause of my knee issues now identified and found to be fixable (a significant muscle imbalance rendering me concurrently as “quadzilla” with a “weak ass”), things are looking up.

In a few hours, I will pick up Dennis and head to Wrightwood, where my role this year will be to crew his Angeles Crest 100. During this race weekend, I will meet a lot of you, or at least see you run by me as I hang out near an aid station. Many of you will succeed. Some of you will fail. It’s part of the game. If you are new to the one hundred mile distance, I will offer you some advice:

  • Do not take running this race for granted. I am not the only one who would gladly trade places with you.
  • Things will suck. Keep moving forward. As long as you have time against the clock to work things out, things will ultimately get better.
  • Don’t be me in 2013. I called it a day with 45 minutes left on the clock because I hated life. I’ve regretted it ever since.
  • Don’t be me in 2014. Don’t push harder than you should because you are feeling good. Just because you are feeling good doesn’t mean your body isn’t trashed. Yes: take advantage of the good to gain time, but don’t overdo it like I did.
  • Enjoy the atmosphere of the race. Be part of the community of the Angeles Crest 100. Respect its ways, even if they sometimes seem odd. Listen to those that were part of this race before you. Understand that this race, moreso than most, is constantly under threat to not continue.
  • Enjoy your time in this forest and these mountains and respect this place. It was here long before us. It will be here long after us. It is a wonder of nature, and you are lucky to be here running in it.

Saturday morning is the start of your opportunity to do something most people will never do. And some, like me, have tried and failed to do. You learn more with failure than you do with success. Learn from mine. If you see me in Wrightwood, feel free to ask me more about them. I’m more than willing to be an open book about it.

Enjoy your weekend. Succeed. Buckle up.

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2 responses to “Make it Count”

  1. Nice story! Hope you come back to get that AC100 finish. You did run the hottest Bulldog 50K in 2011. Temps were read at 109 at the aid stations and probably hotter in the canyons with no air flow. Hope you will come out on 8/27 for the Silver Anniversary either to run or volunteer!

    1. Thanks Nancy! There is a chance of that. Being my first ultra and well-run, that race holds a special place in my memories. I did return a few years later and run almost three hours faster.

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