It’s not often that I sit at home on a Monday afternoon drinking a delicious beer with my lunch. Then again, it’s not often that I’m laid up after running for 27 hours straight.
I did it. I freaking did it. I ran 100 miles – 101.4 to be exact, but more on that later. As expected, it was a (sub) 27 hour rollercoaster that pushed my mind and body to the brink over, and over again. It was the most fun I never want to have again. Warning: this will be a longer post, so I’ll skip to some of the highlights before diving into detail:
- I finished in 26:56 – a few minutes inside the 26-27 hour rough estimate I provided to my awesome pace team
- I’ve qualified* for the fabled Western States Endurance Run (finishing this event gives me one ticket in the WS 2016 lottery for the 2017 race. All WS runners must finish a qualifying 100k/100m race under the race’s cutoff time)
- My “bad” foot that I broke earlier this year held up just fine. My “good” foot/ankle are the size of a grapefruit. I finished 100 miles less than 9 months after breaking my foot
- I won’t forget watching the sun rise on Saturday, set, and then rise again on Sunday anytime soon
- Whoever coined the 100 miler phrase “the first 50 is all physical, and the second 50 is all mental” is a genius
I signed up for Rio Del Lago the week after I finished North Face 50 miler last year. After my bikes were stolen while Taylor and I were in Hawaii, I wasn’t prepared to reinvest in bikes, and didn’t bank on getting anything back through insurance. I decided that after a good 50 miler – my second to date, I would chip away at adding more volume throughout the 2015 season and shoot for RDL100 as my last race of the year.
True to life, nothing that I planned for came through. I got my bikes back, I broke my foot, and the rest was history. On the plus side, I recovered from my injury quickly, and resumed to racing at full intensity in September. Knowing that stringing together a couple good half Ironman results and a PR marathon over a 2-3 month span wasn’t enough to benchmark 100 miler fitness, I signed up for a 50k last month. I completed the 50k with 7000′ of climbing in just under 7 hours. Most importantly, I did it at a pace that I thought I could sustain for a (very) long time, and barely felt sore/fatigued the following day.
At that point, I decided that I was fit enough to attempt my longest run ever. Of course the goal was to cover 100 miles, but even if I came up short, I was confident that I could go longer than 50. It was on.
My training between the time I was cleared in full and now has been similar to my approach in the past. My weekdays are primarily focused on cross-training – hard indoor bike workouts, a swim or two, and a run or two. Weekends were reserved for long efforts – sometimes back to back runs on Saturday/Sunday, but typically a long bike and long run.
I read a lot about 100 mile races. What to eat, how to choose/implement a successful crewing strategy, how fast to go, when to walk, you name it. I read a lot about the course – the weather, what to wear, terrain/climbs/descents to look out for, the 8.7 mile gap between aid stations between mile 87 and mile 96, and common pitfalls. I even practiced running on terrain similar to the course – extended flat/rolling sections mixed in with extended sections with unstable footing.
The logistics were also a massive time investment. Between planning sleeping arrangements, making things as easy as possible for the crew, procuring the right mix of supplies, and accounting for potential worst case scenarios, my brain and car were stuffed to the gills. I’ll publish a post at a later date that covers what worked/didn’t work, and more importantly, things I wish I knew about running 100 before I tried it.
Miles 0-50: the calm before the storm
After a 3:30am wakeup, I shoveled down breakfast and made my way to the start line. The pre-race vibe was reminiscent of North Face – energetic, but low key, and not super intimidating if you were able to temporarily bury the thought of embarking on a 100 mile run.
Taylor was there to see me off, and I was hit with a wave of emotion as soon as I crossed the timing mat knowing that I wouldn’t be back for at least 24 hours. The first 19 miles of the course is a giant loop that follows the course for the popular American River 50 Miler. The temptation to run fast on this loop and bank time was high – it was net downhill, mostly on paved bike path, and I knew that I could easily put down some “quick” miles to build a buffer.
I resisted temptation and settled in at an easy ~11:00 minute pace, taking walk breaks to eat and drink. The early miles were simply amazing – the air was crisp, the sky was clear, and it was eerily quiet – something we don’t get much in San Francisco. The path was sporadically lit so sighting wasn’t much of an issue, and we were greeted to a beautiful sunrise about an hour into the “race”. The early miles ticked by and were effortless. We hit a couple nice patches of single track along the American River, but it the terrain was otherwise uneventful in a good way. I reached the 19 mile mark about 3.5 hours into the race, and was greeted by my crew, (Taylor + 3 friends) who did an awesome job of organizing all of my gear/food at the aid stations.
I topped off my pack, grabbed my sunglasses, dropped my gloves/jacket and went out for a very long stretch: all I had left was a 50k and a 50 miler – back to back.
There were a few modifications to the course this year, and the consensus was that this year’s race would be “easier” than years past – if that’s a thing for 100 mile races. A major climb was cut out, but more importantly, the 19 mile loop was added to offset the elimination of the “Meat Grinder” – a ~7 mile stretch laden with rocks and roots where stable footing is prized real estate. Prior to this year, runners went through the Meat Grinder 4 times – 3 in the dark for most runners. This year’s race only made 2 passes through the Meat Grinder – miles ~23-30, and ~89-96 – the latter of which was particularly cruel.
When I approached the Meat Grinder at mile 23, I was mentally prepared for my pace to plummet. Sure enough, after a few smooth uphill switchbacks, the Meat Grinder was in full effect: 11 minute miles turned into 13-17 minute miles. Even though I knew it was coming and roughly how long it would last, the slog through the Meat Grinder was demoralizing. I think most of us have a tendency to think about how many miles remain at some point during a race, but the thought of 75+ more miles after just completing a marathon was just wrong. I went very slowly and payed close attention to my footing – the last thing I needed was another ankle roll. The miles slowly ticked by – I hit the marathon split in ~5 hours, but knew that I was in great shape once I left the Meat Grinder.
When I hit mile 30, my mental state changed dramatically: the first of “major” aid stations at mile 35 was coming up quickly, and hitting the 50k mark would a major psychological boost. Moreover, I hit the 30 mile mark at 11:00am – exactly 6 hours into the race, which left me with 24 hours to complete 70 miles. Barring a disaster, I was well aware that I could walk 70 miles in 24 hours. My focus shifted to remaining patient and controlling my effort to ensure that I’d have enough energy to at least walk 70 miles – ~20:00 minute miles/3.1 mph. I came to the realization that the key to this race would be problem solving: addressing issues as they arise, and finding ways to preempt potential flare ups.
I came into the Rattlesnake Bar aid station at mile 35 and was greeted by the entire crew. Between the crew and some spectators, the consensus was that I looked strong and healthy compared to the runners who came in before me. I opted for a shoe change – the uneven footing in the Meat Grinder made my feet swell quickly, and I went from my trusty Brooks Cascadias to my new Altra Lone Peak 2.5s for the extra width in the toe box. I changed my shirt, socks, topped off my pack, and made my way back on course. The major climbing section started around mile 36 and ended at the halfway mark, and I felt strong heading back out.
I powerhiked the climbs, talked to some fellow runners and got some valuable intel from locals familiar with the trail network. Powerhiking was essential – it gave me some reprieve from the pounding of running, and also allowed me to vary my stride length and engage different muscles.
We hit Auburn’s legendary No Hands Bridge at mile 48, and a runner pointed out river otters swimming below the bridge. I cruised into the Cool aid station at mile 51 – in the daytime, and the 11:25 50 mile split marked my fastest 50 mile time in 3 attempts. The crew was ready for me – I topped off the pack, picked up Taylor – my first pacer of the night, and off we went.
Taylor and I set out on an 8 mile loop around Cool, and it was awesome to run part of the Way Too Cool 50k together; we both missed the race due to injuries earlier in the year. Not long after we started, we were greeted by an amazing sunset that rivaled the sunrise 13 hours prior. We enjoyed the final 30 minutes of running sans-headlamps, and caught up on how challenging our days were – both running and crewing.
By the time it was dark, we dialed back the pace a bit and kept an eye out for rocks. I fired up my headlamp; Taylor was planning to use my secondary lamp, but it unfortunately didn’t turn on. 8 miles wasn’t the end of the world, so we shared my lamp while Taylor carried my iPhone. I was beyond stoked to finally spend time with Taylor. The first 50 miles were desolate at points to say the least. Between running by myself for extended periods and a surprisingly high volume of runners who didn’t wish to converse, there were only a few instances where I actually spoke over the 12+ hours elapsed.
We powered through – my pace was gradually dropping, and the swelling in my left foot (the one I didn’t break) was becoming very evident. My depth perception was also starting to go: between the fatigue I felt from being awake all day and the obvious exertion, the day started catching up to me. We powered on, and eventually made it back to Cool at mile ~59 where I picked up my second pacer.
My pace was noticeably dropping, and I took extended walk breaks to make sure I was adhering to my nutrition strategy of eating every 30 minutes, and drinking every 15. Dane and I backtracked toward No Hands Bridge, and were greeted by a sky full of stars while we climbed back to the ridgeline.
Around mile 70, we walked by a pond that I recalled passing earlier in the day. We stopped to look around, and happened to see animal eyes only ~200 yards away from us. Its eyes were far apart and on the front of its head – strongly implying that its head was large, and it was a predator. We think it was either a bear or a mountain lion – multiple bears were spotted on the course, and mountain lions are also native to the area. Frankly, we were very scared. I’d covered about 70 miles, felt exhausted, and the prospect of encountering a dangerous predator in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night was terrifying. Seeing my friend visibly nervous about the animal only exacerbated my fear. My friend and I walked back to back for the next mile. He faced backwards while I kept watch in front. We eventually saw a few more runners/pacers catch up, and we were mildly relieved to have relative strength in numbers.
We continued on – by this point, I was completely transfixed on forward progress and had to keep moving. We endured a rough stretch with ~8 miles without aid, and cruised into mile 83 to a smorgasbord of anything you could ask for. The crew was there in force, I swapped out my headlamp batteries, chugged 2 cups of broth with potato chips, and soldiered on with my 3rd and final pacer.
Our first ~3 miles (83-86) were relatively painless. We knew there was an aid station at 86, and we power hiked most of it knowing that it was the smart thing to do in the middle of the night when we were both exhausted. We were expecting to finish the race somewhere around 26 hours, and a walking pace would do the trick. Unfortunately, we got some bad news at mile 86: the next aid station was 8.7 miles away. Really? 8.7 miles without aid would be ridiculous in a half marathon, but at this stage of such a long race, it was just cruel.
I sipped my water carefully for the next few hours knowing that I had no way to replenish my supply. My ankle was throbbing uncontrollably, and every step was painful at this point. I knew that I “only” had a half marathon to go, and even a walking pace would suffice; regardless, positivity was a constant struggle.
Seeing mile markers on my watch – 80, 90 something miles elapsed was a joke at this point. I could have read 150 miles elapsed and reacted the same way; it was unreal to truly embrace how much ground I’d covered. Seeing my watch hit 5:00am for the second time in two days floored me. I’d been moving for 24 hours straight, and only sat down to change my shoes! The temperature steadily dropped over the course of the night, and it bottomed out right before the sunrise: ~35 degrees Fahrenheit. We trudged along for another hour, and we caught first glimpse of the sunrise around 6:00am. We also passed the rumored aid station at this time, and I took full advantage of the spread of food and drink knowing that it would be the last time I had to suck down more endurance fuel for the day. Err, weekend. The sky lit up – yellow, blue, red and purple streaks filled the sky, and I felt myself coming back to life just in time for a final push to the finish.
By 6:30, I was done with my headlamp for the first time in 12 hours, and started recognizing familiar landmarks that I hadn’t seen since I started over 25 hours ago. I received word that Taylor would be meeting us on the trail when we were about a mile away, and I knew the end was near. By 7am, I had finished running 100 miles. I couldn’t believe it, and still can’t wrap my head around it. I had 1.4 miles to go, and felt elated. We saw joggers out for their morning run, heard faint rumblings from the start/finish area, and a spectator informed us that we were under a mile away. Under a mile away! We climbed the final switchbacks, and Taylor appeared seemingly out of nowhere. We saw the dam back to Beal’s point – the final landmark before the start/finish area. Each step was excruciating at this point – my left ankle was killing me, but I was determined to run the very last stretch.
We turned a corner into the parking lot. The final stretch of the race was a 400m lap around the sidewalk in the park, and spectators were out in force. I was at the end of my rope, but once I saw the full crew, I picked up into a jog at the fastest pace I could muster. I crossed the preliminary timing mat and the announcer started to rile up the crowd by informing them that I was about to complete my first 100 mile race. I couldn’t help but tear up at this point – it was incredibly emotional. I truly felt that this was the culmination of my running/athletic career to date, not to mention a showing of mental strength. Between thinking about my comeback from injury, seeing the sincere expressions on my crew’s/spectators’ faces, I was starting to appreciate the gravity of what just took place. I crossed the finish line in 26:56 – right at the upper boundary of my prediction, and wanted nothing more than to sit down. I was handed a belt buckle, a medal, and a really cool finishers’ jacket; just like that, it was over, and I did it. I nailed my first 100 mile race.
After crossing the finish line, I immediately made my way over to a picnic table to shed my shoes and take a load off. A few local restaurants joined forces to cook up a massive finishers’ brunch, and I had not one, but two breakfast “sandwiches” that consisted of english muffins, pancakes, eggs, sausage, and bacon. I washed them down with a warm mocha and some orange juice. The simple pleasure of sitting down to eat after such a massive expenditure was something I’ll never forget. I laid in the grass, elevated my legs to try to reduce the swelling, and eventually sought medical attention just to make sure I didn’t hurt my swollen left ankle. I iced, continued to rest, and before I knew it, my amazing crew had the car all packed. 36 hours sleepless hours later, we made our way back to San Francisco, where I proceeded to sleep for 12 hours straight and move a total of 100 yards the following day. The offseason never looked so good!