Faces of Death – The Angeles National Forest Trail Race

Sometimes you have great races. Sometimes you have bad races. Often, they are somewhere in between. This is the tale of one that was incredibly challenging because of what Mother Nature decided to throw at us. Commemorating the event is why I decided to reawaken my blog after a period of silence.

I am not sure why I had never run the Mt. Disappointment 50K. This year, looking for something to keep me motivated to run more regularly than I had been at the time, I decided to finally enter it as races of that distance are a little easier for me to train for during my busy season as a biological consultant, and I absolutely love race directors Gary and Pam Hilliard. Mt. Disappointment (which is the name of one of the peaks on the course, and an awesome name for a race) was rebranded for 2018 as the Angeles National Forest Trail Race (ANFTR), with distances of 25k, 50k, and 60k. Being a 100-mile runner, I decided to step up to the biggest challenge available. I had an outside goal of implementing an ambitious training plan and perhaps getting one of my better race times here (I am not fast at all, but have had some decent outcomes in 50k races when I train enough), but I figured I would at least run more regularly in the process of training and be able to get to the finish line if work, life, etc. got in the way of my reaching my training goals.

Anyone who knows me or my wife Emily at some level knows that we are both ultrarunners. She took up running after hanging around at the finish line for my first 50-mile race. She hasn’t decided to make the leap past the 50k distance (yet), but has completed 50 miles at a 12 hour loop race. We train together often. We will often run the same races, sometimes running them together the whole way, sometimes separately with our own race goals. She decided to enter the ANFTR 60k as well, as a stepping stone to 50 mile trail races. We agreed, at the time, to run our own separate races.

The Training

I approached my training in a pretty similar fashion to my successful preparation for the Chimera 100 last fall. I mapped out a fairly intensive training schedule, one that was perhaps suitable for a difficult 50-mile race. I also went back to getting regular massage therapy treatments from Tricia Strawn at Vision for Enrichment, whose magic touch kept the injury bug away during my last training cycle.

Work, however, is always a factor. I am well aware that there are plenty of ultrarunners with busy work and family schedules who get things done. Everyone is different, though. People have different jobs, different schedules, and different priorities. When I am doing intensive remote fieldwork as I did for two weeks in Oregon this spring (during the training cycle for this race), or trips like a few weeks ago for a project in Trinity County, training is simply not an option as I am in the field or, sometimes, driving all day. When I am doing single-day field stints from home, which often involve a lot of driving back-and-forth, I usually have documents to write when I get home, various home responsibilities to take care of, etc. I have difficulty, in many cases, finding the energy or making the time to get a run in. I try. Often, if I do get out, the mileage falls short of what I planned to do.

In training for ANFTR, I fell way short of what I planned to do. I made adjustments during the process to make sure I’d avoid injury, but didn’t manage to get my weekend long runs to greater than 20 miles until I decided to force things two weeks before the race in a do-or-die effort, when I ran 25 miles on Saturday and 10 on Sunday. I knew my ultimate goal of striving for a competitive race was out of reach, but I still planned on starting the race conservatively and seeing where the day would take me, perhaps to a respectable time.

Emily and I during happier (race) times, at the Big Sandy river crossing in the Sierra National Forest on our anniversary during the Shadow of the Giants 50K. Photo credit: Unknown.

The Weather

I don’t do well running in the heat. I am certainly like any other human being and can become more heat-acclimated, especially with specific training for it, but my heat tolerance has never recovered fully from a fairly serious heat-related incident on a training run a few years ago, the scope of which would go too far beyond this story. I did make every effort to prepare for the usual level of hot weather that is expected at ANFTR, making a point of running (as my schedule allowed) in the heat of the day. I got plenty of training runs in during typical hot weather for this time of year. I also, obviously, had plenty of fieldwork days in the blazing sun.

None of that, however, could prepare you for the weather event that managed to coincide with the race this year. In what some agencies referred to as a “heat storm”, we had the hottest day in southern California history the day before the race. Actual temps, of course, varied from location to location. At my home, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Mt. Washington, we measured a temperature of 117 degrees Fahrenheit. It was over 120 in many foothill and valley areas. The next day – race day – was expected to be cooler, but only in relative terms: temperatures were still expected to be in the hundreds over most of southern California. In the mountains, temperatures would vary considerably with aspect and elevation.

The Race

We left our house for Skyline Park on Mt. Wilson at 5am. It felt ridiculously warm walking to the car. The drive up the Angeles Crest Highway was a bit intimidating as my Jeep’s thermometer regularly showed outdoor temperatures of greater than 90 degrees; atrocious when the sun isn’t even out. We arrived at about 6, checked in, spent some time socializing with friends, and started the race promptly at 7. I kissed my wife and wished her luck before running.

The first 2.5 miles of the race are downhill on the paved Mt. Wilson – Red Box Road. You expect it to be easy. It didn’t feel that way for some reason. My legs felt as if I had just completed a long run the day before. I felt sluggish. Tired. My legs had zero “pop”. It stayed that way until we got off pavement at Eaton Saddle. My legs felt better as we began to climb the singletrack up San Gabriel Peak. The shaded side of the mountain had some cooler breezes as we ascended, which felt really good after being charbroiled in our home the previous day. There was lot of fun chatter on the way up, as there often is early in race when everyone still has energy, excitement about the event, and the pack is still fairly clustered together.

This portion of the race tops out at a saddle between San Gabriel Peak and Mt. Disappointment, then follows a paved service road for a short distance before hitting a very steep and rugged descent on the Bill Reilly Trail. The upper portions of the trail make me a bit squeamish in a few spots, as the trail is fairly narrow and sloped toward the downhill with a steep rock chute. Another runner fell in front of me and went over the edge. I grabbed her arm and pulled her up. We continued on. Near mile 5, we reach the parking lot along Mt. Wilson – Red Box Road and run the short distance on pavement to Red Box Aid Station.

The Red Box Station is a large one, and was staffed mostly by people who I count as friends, some of them close ones. It was nice to chat for a second, get a water spray-down, and ingest some early calories. It was too early to hang out at an aid station, though, and we’d be through there again at around mile 21. I headed down the Gabrielino Trail toward Switzers.

I’ve always enjoyed this Gabrielino Trail segment, except for the noise from the Angeles Crest Highway on the opposite side of the canyon. There is some beautiful scenery here, and the trail’s gradient is such that it is runnable whether going uphill or downhill. I managed to get into the middle of a classic early-race “conga line”, which is something I often get annoyed by, but I just stayed with it since it was a comfortable pace and I didn’t want to push too hard early. Usually, there is a lot of chatting when these lines form. Sometimes friends are made. This line was very quiet, which had me puzzled the whole time I was in it. I tried to start a conversation, but it didn’t go anywhere. While the trail was not sun-exposed, it felt remarkably warm (maybe even hot) in places and very humid, and I wondered if the somewhat oppressive feeling that early was weighing on everyone’s minds.

We suddenly had space at Switzer’s, as we left the singletrack for a bit and climbed the entrance road toward Nature’s Canteen Trail which would take us to Clear Creek Junction. I ended up doing that climb mostly alone, except for passing another runner as we approached Clear Creek, and ultimately running into another friend (and many-time finisher of the race) at the parking lot. The Clear Creek Aid Station was set up here to prepare you for the climb up to Josephine Saddle. I used this opportunity to get some more calories into me and get cooled off with ice in my water and ice water on my head.

I dropped to a snail’s pace, feeling like a zombie, and knowing I needed to do something to dissipate my body heat, but nothing was going to happen on that slope as there was no breeze, no shade, and no respite from the glare of the sun.

Those of us who climbed Josephine in this span of time were fortunate as there were some clouds hanging around and they did a decent job of blocking the full sun. The sun would come out in full force at times and it felt excruciatingly hot, but then it would hide again and become more manageable. I passed a number of folks on this section as I felt good and climbing is one of my few strong points. There was another aid station on the top, and a friend that was volunteering took great care of me, putting ice in my electrolyte bottle, in my water bladder, and in my hat. She gave me some words of encouragement and I headed across Josephine Saddle.

The section of the course from Josephine Saddle to Strawberry Meadow is one of my favorite trail sections in the front range of the San Gabriel Mountains. It is mostly very runnable terrain with outstanding views and some nice open forest dominated by live oak and Douglas-fir. A lot of this is what I call “roller coaster-y”: undulating up and down in a way that’s a lot of fun on fresh legs. The heat was starting to wear a bit, however, as the sun gained more prominence and miles accumulated on my legs. I was teetering just outside of hitting a low point, and dropped my pace a bit. By the time I descended to Strawberry Meadow with a view of the spectacular granitic north face of Strawberry Peak, I was feeling pretty good again and happy to have avoided a meltdown.

Past Strawberry Meadow is the long and, at least initially, very steep ascent for several miles to Lawlor Saddle. Most of this is sun-exposed (south-facing) and is where I expected I’d be most likely to run into my first significant problems. Indeed, it was time to take in some calories at the start of the ascent and I was having trouble chewing on solid food while power-hiking a steep climb. I felt fine at that point, but my mouth was a bit dry and the food just wasn’t going down easy. I stopped in the shade to get my energy bar down, then continued on.

The first half of the climb went well, though the ratcheting up of the heat was noticeable. It wasn’t helped by the open and light-colored decomposed granite surface that reflects the sunlight back at you from below. Eventually, the heat started to get to me. I stopped for a second in a ravine area where there were some trees and took my hat off to let some body heat out. It was a short stop, and I then continued. I was then in a long stretch with no shade at all. The heat felt hotter. I eventually started feeling dizzy. I was losing control. I dropped to a snail’s pace, feeling like a zombie, and knowing I needed to do something to dissipate my body heat, but nothing was going to happen on that slope as there was no breeze, no shade, and no respite from the glare of the sun.

to see my wife again and finish this beast together were my new goals

I finally made it to Lawlor Saddle, and knew there would be a shade patch ahead at some point as the trail hit a western slope. I bypassed a couple small patches because there wouldn’t be room for others to pass, and finally found a wide rock outcrop with room to sit down. This spot even had a cool breeze. I took off my hat and just let my core cool, reassuring other runners as they passed (and they all checked on me, with no exceptions, as that is how the trail community is) that I was fine and just needed a break. One runner even tried to grab my hands and told me to come along with her. I appreciated the offer, but wasn’t quite ready to go. We are now friends on Facebook.

I wasn’t timing it, but I sat there for a good 15 or 20 minutes. I decided then and there that I was not doing the out-and-back portion of the course between Shortcut Saddle and West Fork that made the difference between 50k and 60k. That would be the hottest part of the course, and I simply could not handle that kind of heat exposure on that day. I was also not the only runner that was having problems with the heat at that point, and my concern for my wife somewhere behind me became overwhelming. I made up my mind to wait for her at Red Box Aid Station, no matter how short or long the wait, and work with her on finishing together if, and only if, a finish was what she wanted as I also did not care to potentially get a race finish if she did not. So, in short, to see my wife again and finish this beast together were my new goals.

I continued on toward Red Box. The last couple of miles were mostly downhill and mostly blazing hot. I also, mostly, walked as I was sapped and really unsteady on my feet. I passed another runner who was keeled over and asked him if he was OK. He said he was, and I believed him, so I went on. A Sierra Madre Search and Rescue person passed going the other way and checked on me. I was thankful to get to Red Box (mile 21) where friends were waiting.

At Red Box, I sat in the shade (where it was still stupidly hot) and let people take care of me. Dennis, his wife Sarah, Diana, Jose, and a couple other folks helped to cool me down, get some cold fluids into me, and get my mind working again. Our friend Summer was there for support. Though she had fallen and busted her knee earlier in the day, she hobbled around getting me whatever I needed. I announced my plans to wait for Emily, and just hung out even after I felt better. They tried to kick me out, saying they’d tell her I’m fine and they’d take care of her, too, but I refused. I simply was not leaving that aid station without my wife. The time ticked away. They announced 10 minutes until cut-off, and we were getting concerned that she hadn’t shown up yet. Finally, with 6 minutes remaining, she appeared looking every bit as bad as I am sure I did. She collapsed in a chair and asked for ice. She asked me what I was doing there. I told her I decided that in these conditions I wanted us to get through the race together, assuming she wanted to continue. She said she wanted to but she absolutely needed to sit. With one minute left, they said if we wanted to continue we’d need to leave the aid station and rest on the trail. With that, we started the long walk down Rincon – Red Box Road. She didn’t stop. At least, initially.

It had been relayed to us at Red Box Aid Station that the race directors decided to remove the separate 50k time limit (two hours shorter) due to the weather conditions; as long as we finished within 12.5 hours, we’d have a finish. While we wanted a finish, or else we wouldn’t have continued, heat management was the primary concern so we managed the rest of the day accordingly. We mostly walked the five mile open and exposed fire road descent to West Fork. As the elevation got lower, it got hotter. Emily struggled here more than I did, and frequently needed to stop in patches of oak tree shade and just sit in the road.  The course sweeper eventually caught up to us, told us we had plenty of time and were fine, and stayed with us as we went down the road for quite awhile, adding some nice conversation to a difficult trek. We eventually caught up with another runner who was barely moving, and he stayed behind with him as his job was to stay with the last person and make sure everyone is accounted for.

Ever since my meltdown near Lawlor Saddle, I had fantasized about jumping in a swimming hole near West Fork that had deep water just a few weeks prior. When we reached our first crossing of the West Fork of the San Gabriel River, there was plenty of water flowing so I was excited by the prospect of water in the swimming hole. Finally, we got to the hole and it was dry. Completely dry. I was crushed. Fortunately, the West Fork Aid Station was nearby. They had a shower system set up with cold water from a nearby spring and it was refreshing. We hung out at shady West Fork for quite awhile, preparing ourselves for the climb up Kenyon Devore back to the top of Mt. Wilson; the biggest climb of the entire race.

I thought I felt pretty good, all things considered, at the time we left West Fork. My stomach had been feeling a bit queasy so I had been using liquid calories only for awhile, but I hadn’t thrown up. This changed as we started the climb out of West Fork. Waves of nausea poured over me. I kept stopping and dry heaving. We deviated off-course a bit at the Kenyon Devore – Gabrielino trail junction to hit a stream for cold water. Past that, the climb got steep. Much of the climb went like this:

  • Power hike .25 miles or so
  • Stop to take a break
  • Drink a bit
  • Retch

There were some variations where I retched while hiking.

A little ways up the trail we saw a downed runner being tended to by a friend and training companion (McKinley, who is a fast guy, a trained EMT, and was running the 60k) and a Search and Rescue person. We were going to rest close by, but McKinley recommended we continue on since a helicopter was on the way. Both, of course, checked if we were OK. We stopped a few hundred feet up the trail, and another runner joined us there on the rock pile. Further up the trail, the helicopter had finally arrived and we had gained enough altitude that we were above it. It was impressive to see that pilot maneuver into the narrow and steep-walled canyon.

Just then, my guts spewed forth like a florescent yellow waterfall. It was loud. It was disgusting. It was impressive. I’m certain everyone within five miles would have heard the retching sounds if the helicopter was not there. It went on for awhile, and I’m probably not the only runner who examined what was there to figure out what calories my body kept and what it lost. My wife just asked that I throw some dirt on it. Regardless, I felt better. For a little while, anyway.

We continued on in the same fashion for what seemed like the longest five miles on earth; an eternity, not helped by the continuing waves of nausea and the swarms of insects flying into our mouths, nose, and eyes. We spooked a male Mule Deer with a nicely-developing rack of antlers. He only went ten feet away and just stared at us, seemingly unafraid. Perhaps we looked like ghosts, and no longer the humans he normally feared.

Our arrival in the Mt. Wilson parking lot didn’t feel real. We were both completely and utterly exhausted. You usually take pride in running strong to the finish, but there would be none of that today. We walked to the finish, mustering up a smile for the friends taking pics, happy as hell to be done after 12 hours. I collapsed onto a rock wall as friends brought me stuff to drink. I needed to be prepared to bring it back up. And my body tried. I deeply appreciate everyone that was there, at least trying to help me at the finish (especially Mark, who spent a lot of time with me), but I was pretty delirious and felt absolutely horrible. I eventually got down a tiny bit of rice and small pieces of chicken, along with some Sprite, and managed to get the strength to go back to the Jeep and change clothes.

After sitting for awhile, I told Emily I felt strong and clear-headed enough to start driving back. Waves of nausea hit me as I drove and I kept stopping at pull-offs to throw up. The first 6 or 7 times I stopped, either nothing happened or I dry-heaved. Finally, about half way down the Angeles Crest Highway, pulling off was an emergency. I jumped out and gave much-needed nutrients in copious quantities to the roadside vegetation. With that out of the way, we continued home.

Emily and I crossing the finish of the Angeles National Forest Trail Race. Photo by Jack Cheng.

My thanks to Pamela and Gary Hilliard for an excellent event and for being all-around great people and ambassadors of the sport. I also want to thank all of the volunteers, not just the specific ones whose names I know and were sometimes mentioned here. This includes the folks from Sierra Madre Search and Rescue. I am glad we didn’t need their services, of course, but it was nice knowing they were there. Last, but certainly not least, I want to thank my wife Emily for being my partner in this sometimes ridiculous but always rewarding stuff.

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2 responses to “Faces of Death – The Angeles National Forest Trail Race”

  1. […] familiar with West Fork via my frequent trail runs in the area (such as last weekend’s race documented here), I’ve never camped in the San Gabriel Mountains away from the high country. In my work as a […]

  2. […] spent much time in the high country this year because it was not a good way to prepare for the Angeles National Forest Trail Race. I decided yesterday was a good time to scratch that itch and visit a new place. That new place was […]

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