Monday, October 13, 2014

Cuyamaca 100k Endurance Run - October 4, 2014

For me, 2014 has been chocked full of lofty running related goals.  Qualifying for the Western States 100 Mile Endurance run, for the third year in a row, has sat firmly atop the list.  My original plans to do so involved qualifying at the Miwok 100k in May.  The ankle sprain that ended my American River 50 Mile run and endangered my Comrades run, eliminated my opportunity to run and qualify at Miwok (if you're interested in that story, bounce around on those links ;).

Enter the Cuyamaka 100k Endurance Run, nestled in the Cuyamaca Mountains of Southern California, a challenge that has piqued my interests since it's first running in 2012.  My sister lives nearby and I have become quite familiar with running in the dry, hot desert air, on exposed, rocky and sandy terrain.  I also gained some insight on the race and course from my friend Billy's race reports (2012, 2013).  My swollen ankle encased in an immobilizing boot, I submitted my registration on April 28th, and allowed the October 4th date to loom.

After intensively nursing my ankle injury, and successfully completing the Comrades Marathon, I took some time off from running, while enjoying some wonderful opportunities to travel around Europe.  Roughly 7 weeks after Comrades, with essentially no running, October 4th was starting to feel very near.  I felt my fitness for the race was in question, it was time to do something about that.  Essentially, my training for Cuyamaca went as follows:
  • 08/03/2014: Skyline 50k - 7:13:10
  • 08/23/2014: Tamalpa Headlands 50k - 6:56:15
  • 09/06/2014: Overlook Endurance Run 50k - 6:42:17
  • 09/13/2014: Headlands Marathon - 5:06:43
Throw in a few 18-22 mile runs in the heat on the Pioneer Express Trail, some blissful and challenging runs in Northern California's Sierra Nevada (Mt. Rose, and a few trips to Castle and Basin Peaks), and the inevitable passing of time, and I found myself feeling primed and ready to line up at the Cuyamaca 100k start.  I averaged ~50 miles per week in the 8 weeks preceding the race (with some good back to back training days), lower volume than I would have liked, but sufficient.

A group of friends from my local Folsom Trail Runners group were running the race as well.  We rented a couple of small cabins and a condo near the race start and had a superb time unwinding and relaxing leading up to the race.  We wallowed in good company, great food, and a totally unbelievable Cuyamaca sunset.  Tomorrow would come and we were ready.

The calm before the storm.  Sunset at Lake Cuyamaca.

Winding down after a relaxing day and nourishing race-day-eve meal with a fantastic group of friends.
I slept like a log in the two nights before the race, notching up 9 hours and 8 hours, respectively.  I woke without an alarm at 4:00 am and dozed in bed for a half hour before getting up for breakfast.  I tossed on my Brooks Pure Grit 3's, grabbed my race pack, stepped outside to the neighbors (Edd and Jen L) cabin, and we all hopped in the car for the 5 minute drive to the start.  Upon arriving at Camp Cuyamaca I grabbed my race number, pinned it on, and found a nice place to sit until it was time to start.

Hopes are high and legs are fresh, pre-race, ~6:20 am.
I meandered towards the back of the 200 person field, didn't hear the starting signal, but noticed everyone around me moving, and headed out on the trail.  I had 16 hours to finish in order to qualify for Western States.  Not wanting to go out fast at all, I enjoyed a brief bout of trail congestion and some conversation with my friend Terry, who ran ahead after a mile or so.  Knowing it would be a long hot day, I welcomed the pleasant, cool morning air and the shadows cast by the not-yet-fully-risen-sun.

Running calmly and relaxed, before I knew it, I had arrived at the first aid station, 8.2 miles in, where I was happy to see Jen L.  I grabbed a couple chips, a quarter of a PB&J sandwich and without having stopped for any notable amount of time, headed back out on the trail.

Not surprisingly, the sun continued to rise and while the warm shine felt pleasurable to my skin, I knew that feeling wouldn't last.  Of course, no need to panic, the day would bring what it had for me.  I gained my first glimpses of Cuyamaca Peak, high above me and far in the distance, I tried not to remind myself that it's summit lie only slightly further than one third of the way through the course.

Long runs make for long shadows.

Cuyamaca Peak, far in the distance, roughly marked the 1/3 point of the course.

Plodding along happily, mile ~11

I continued running comfortably and after an hour or so, I moseyed in to the second aid station at mile 13.6.  Knowing that the third aid station was 9.0 miles away from and ~3,000 ft. above my current location, I made sure to take in some calories, drink up some beverages, and fill up a sack of ice to take with me.  In addition to doing that, I should have stuffed my running pack bladder with as much fluid as it could hold (mistake).

For the first time, during the journey to Cuyamaca Peak, I started feeling the heat.  My ice had melted within a couple of miles and I drank the last of my fluid (water + tailwind) while I was still 4 miles from the summit, with ~1,500-2,000 ft. left to climb.  Growing weary, I stayed in the moment and focused on the trail in front of me.  I only ran the flattest portions of trail at this point, aiming for a steady and purposeful hike towards the summit.  The distance was passing slowly and I was feeling weaker by the moment.  Finally, the trail gave way to a section of pavement where a volunteer directed us to veer left up a steep 1/2 mile, paved road, to the Cuyamaca Peak summit.  I had faded badly and desperately wanted water.  It took all of my effort to slowly trudge up the steep road towards the aid station.  Maybe a hundred yards from the top, I even sat down on a rock for 30 seconds or so, before getting back up and dragging myself to the top.

At this point, I felt just about as bad as I've ever felt as a result of running.  I was overheating, my heart rate was up, I felt nauseous, and most concerning of all, I just felt a deep fatigue throughout my body.  My muscles were spent, my body wanted to quit, and I think my mind did too.  I was looking for a place to lay down, but all the good spots were taken by weary runners.  A runner came up to a volunteer and proclaimed he was done for the day, without question, he dropped, removing his bib and handing it over.  For an immeasurable fraction of a second, it sounded like a wonderful idea.  I was only 22.6 miles in and had FORTY MORE MILES to run, the hottest part of the day was not yet here, and I was spent.

At that point, I turned my gaze from the runners who were lying down and dropping and made an about-face to the aid station table.  I drank 15-20 ounces of soda, topped off my running pack bladder with ice water, refilled my sack of ice, and ate some stuff.  I heard a volunteer telling a runner to use the 4.9 mile downhill stretch to the next aid station to recover and I decided I would try to do that.  I turned around and started walking back down the mountain towards the trail, bringing all of my fatigue and despair with me.

On my way down, I was happy to see Charito and Jen C.H. making their way up to the summit.  My walk began transitioning to a shuffle and shortly thereafter, again to a run.  Miraculously, 15-20 minutes after one of the lowest spots I've ever hit in a race, I was feeling fine and was running down some steep technical downhill trails with efficiency and maybe even a bit of a smile on my face.

Looking back uphill at some of the steep, technical terrain we were treated to after gaining the Cuyamaca Peak summit.

I passed my friend Mitch who, unfortunately had a tough race and a handful of miles later would end up dropping at the 31.5 mile mark.  Having descended 2,500 ft. from the summit, I imagined (and likely was realizing) the extra oxygen molecules revitalizing my body.

At mile 27.5, I heard my name being called and was overjoyed to see my friends Maggie and Kristina, who offered me support and encouragement.  I was still hot and tired, but things were feeling manageable and I was back to focusing on arriving at the next aid station as my only goal (my race strategy was "make it to the next aid station, repeat").  At Paso Picacho, I was showered with ice water, I ate some, drank some, and chatted for some moments before heading off.  I was excited for the next aid station, because I knew my sister, who was experiencing her first ultramarathon, would be there.  I was greatly looking forward to seeing her.

Arriving at Paso Picacho aid station, mile 27.5.

Feeling rejuvenated after a harrowing trip to Cuyamaca Peak. 

The 4.0 miles back to Camp Cuyamaca went by in a flash.  I had finished the first of three non-overlapping loops at the tail end of my time estimate.  It was just before 2 pm, about 7 hrs, 25 mins for the first (and most difficult) loop of 31,5 miles.  I'm pretty sure my sister thought I was done (had reached the finish line) at this point, but I quickly broke the news to her that I was only halfway through and needed to get the heck out of here so I could start on the 12 mile loop.  I spent a few minutes, drank a protein shake, topped of my tanks, and headed out for a 12 mile run.

Back at Camp Cuyamaca after 31.5 miles, love my sister!

My not-finished finish-line photo.

31.5 miles down, heading out for a 12 mile loop.

Orange loop done, blue loop beginning, yellow loop next!
The second loop started out well for me, my feelings of overwhelming fatigue, nausea, and mild (or was it severe?  I forget) hopelessness had waned.  I plodded along relatively comfortably, climbing several hundred feed up before heading back downhill towards the next aid station, 8.0 miles away.  About 4 miles out from the aid station, I met up with a friend and he and I were running strong together, so I just went with it.  We ran a few 9-11 minute miles on the flats and easily run-able downhill sections.  Eventually, he pulled away and I wasn't willing to risk increasing my pace any further.  Unfortunately, I passed him a mile or so later, as he was vomiting aside the trail.  Things seemed to be going really well for me and then my right calf began to cramp.  I would ease up my pace to try and hold off the cramping and it was working well enough, but before long, my calves, quads, hamstrings, and some muscles in my upper/inner thigh were all threatening to cramp up on me.  I would battle this for the rest of my race.
Feeling pretty good, but feeling the heat at mile 35.
As I finished the 12 mile loop, I saw my sister and friends and called out to them, begging if someone could massage my calves for a bit.  Thankfully, after tracking down some rubber gloves, Jen L. and my sister obliged (my legs were horrifically dirty).  I drank another protein shake, ate a couple of bananas, swallowed an Endurolyte or two, grabbed my headlamp, and headed out for the final loop of 18 miles.

44.1 miles down, needing to recharge and head out for the final 18.2 miles.
As the sun mercifully began it's decent back behind the mountains, I noticed that my friends Jen C.H. and her crew-turned-pacer, Maggie were a few hundred yards behind me.  I was happy to see Jen was still trucking.  The course began to climb 1,000 ft. or so towards the Sunrise aid station (6.8 miles away) and I started doing the math on how fast I needed to move in order to finish in less than 16 hours and qualify for States.  As the remaining miles slowly ticked away, 18, 17, 16, 15, and my exhausted mind continued calculating the minute-per-mile pace I needed to maintain for my goal, I slowly and grudgingly came to a realization.  It was entirely possible that the course was longer than the advertised 62.3 miles (my first 100k race turned out to be ~65 miles).  At this point, barring injury, there was no doubt I would finish within the 19 hour race cutoff time, but I was here to qualify for States.  Tired and alone in the remote darkness of the Cuyamaca Mountains, my mind was trying to convince me that it was OK if the States qualifier wasn't in my grasp today; that maybe running Western States wasn't in the cards for me.  It would have been very easy for me to succumb to these thoughts and in some ways, I desperately wanted too.

I battled within my thoughts.  I thought of myself looking back at this moment and wondering if I could have pushed harder, I wondered if I would look back at these final miles and be proud of my effort, or if I would regret submitting to the voice that didn't want to try as hard as I could.

With 12 miles left, I stumbled through the darkness over the rocky terrain with a dim headlamp and the LED flashlight from my iPhone to guide me; frequently tripping and wanting more than anything to be done.  Occasionally, a cramp would jolt my calf or quad, causing my leg to suddenly straighten and jut awkwardly into the rocky trail.

I wanted to achieve my goal and I wanted my sister to see it happen.  I decided to stop trying to calculate the slowest pace I could move at while still finishing under 16 hours and to just run.  I didn't have to run fast, I just had to run.  It was that simple and was a little enlightening.  I didn't have to run fast, I just had to run.  And that's what I did.  I ran slowly through the night.  I counted down the miles, I passed several runners, and every time I found my self walking (never remembering the moment where I made a decision to start walking), I said to myself: "I don't have to run fast, I just have to run." and I ran.

As it goes when running distances of incredible length, at some point, magically and mysteriously, almost as if the enduring race itself was a fleeting moment, out of the darkness, the finish line comes to light and after 15 hours, 46 minutes, and 47 seconds, that is what it did today.  At 10:16 pm. (13 mins, 13 secs ahead of the Western States qualifying cutoff time).

After 15 hours and 33 minutes of running, this sign looked GOOD.
Soaking up some recovery.
Afterwards, I was happy to see that I improved my position in the field at every checkpoint.

Within minutes of having crossed the finish line, Jen C.H. and Maggie came running in, also under 16 hours.  Terry had finished about 20 minutes ahead of me.  Charito and Edd finished a short time later.  Our crew had succeeded.  124 runners would finish and it has been marked that we are among them.  We stared demons in the face, conquered them all, and celebrated each other's successes and company.  We shared stories and laughed until after 3 am.

Cuyamaca 100k was a terrific event.  The course was well marked, the advertised distances (between aid stations and to the the finish) were spot on, the volunteers were great, and the trails were awesome.  I'm so glad to have run and finished the race and I'm looking forward, optimistically, to the Western States lottery on December 6th!

Shiny new smiles and medals.

Love this.

A friend at work and I were guestimating how many steps one takes in a 100k race... looks like about 119,000.

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