rabbitELITE Branden Bollweg tackled the brutal Angeles Crest 100 mile endurance race just over a week ago, flying through the course in hot and unseasonably humid conditions to beat nearly everyone in the field, coming in 2nd place overall and first place solo. Below is his recount of the memorable day high above Los Angeles!
August 7th 2016 - On an early Sunday morning, I had finally come to Loma Alta Park in Altadena to finish the 2016 Angeles Crest 100 mile endurance race. I was thankful I had gotten the finish, but that finish was bittersweet as it was my worst performance thus far in my ultrarunning career. I could go on and on about what went wrong and what I could have done better that race, but suffice to say that shortly after I crossed the finish line I wanted revenge.
This year would be different. At the start of this year I essentially started getting back to the basics again. Track work, hill work, incorporating more body weight exercises and whatnot. I did some prep races in increasing intervals and by the time the real meat and potatoes AC 100 training came, I felt good. This has been an excellent year and I have been extremely lucky. A month before 2017 AC100 I got married to my soulmate in a wedding that I could only dream of, job prospects were changing and race results were my best yet! I had carefully planned my training for AC the best I could (I will write a blog on the training later) and had even incorporated my wedding as a rest week! Things were feeling really good.
As my close friends could tell you, I had really high goals for AC this year...one may say unrealistic. I had gotten 23rd last year, I hadn’t run sub 24 in a year, and I was running it solo again. For those of you unfamiliar what running “solo” is for AC here you go: You don’t get a crew or a pacer for the entirety of the race. Why would anyone do this? To me, I personally like the challenge of being self sufficient and responsible. With crews and pacers there are just too many moving parts….I just wanna run! I also like the mental challenge, being alone with your thoughts. To me ultrarunning is a very personal and sacred experience for me, so most the times I like to run alone because let’s be honest ...in a 100 milers...it’s all up to you for the most part.
The training before the race went amazing and was very structured. My friends and I ran at some very crazy hours. This year I had become an ambassador to rabbit running apparel and that really helped my confidence. I re-ignited the flame in me. I was excited to represent a company that I believed in going into the race, and to be honest I didn’t want to let them down on my first race wearing their gear!
Onto the race! Last year I stayed at an airbnb two days before with my friends and we dropped my car off at the finish and drove back on the HWY 2. I got pretty car sick and felt like crap all the way up until the race started. So this year I figured I will just drive up to the start line in Wrightwood the morning of the race. My wife and mother-in-law piled into my car and we left at 3 am. Once again I had a ton of friends running the race and wished them all good luck and before we knew it the race started. To note, the ultra community lost a giant, Hal Winton (Co-RD of the AC100) earlier this year and we all miss him immensely. Gary Hilliard (another ultra giant!) took over Hal’s helm with such respect, class, and humility that it makes me a little teary eyed just thinking of the whole thing.
Back to the race! I knew from last year that the climb up Acorn trail is steep and narrow, sometimes it can get really crowded and hard to pass people. I decided to get out into the front early to avoid this. I’m unsure what place I was at, but I knew I was good to climb Acorn without slowing down too much. The climb went beautifully and by the time we got to the PCT I just let gravity do the work all the way to Baden Powell. At Inspiration point I filled up on some water and kept the calories coming in. I was planning on using GU Roctane for the whole race, but when I had a cup of the Carbopro, I was so shocked how it just tasted like cold water! I decided I would cut some weight and just use Carbopro the rest of the race. Some of you may remember my bad experience with Carbopro at Chimera 2015 but they totally redeemed themselves in my eyes after this race.
The weather was super nice and next up was the dreaded Baden Powell climb to the highest point on the course. As everyone might know this climb is steep and has an ungodly amount of switchbacks. I caught up with my friend and eventual winner Jerry Garcia and noticed he was going particularly slow. Not the usual Jerry Garcia way, I thought either he may not be feeling good or I am going out way too fast. I felt great climbing Baden Powell, ran most of it and then the fun part started. From there it was a beautiful descent to the Islip saddle aid station where I caught up to Jorge Pacheco. Jorge is an ultrarunning legend (4x AC champ) and has one of the most impressive records in the game. I have a tremendous respect for him. He kept ahead of me as we went into the Islip aid station. Some others caught up to me, but since I was solo I had to really make sure I piled on the calories and felt good at aid stations. I donned my second Buff and filled it up with ice around my neck. Then I made off onto the HWY 2.
I like to break the AC100 course up into three sections. The first part is survive and feel good at altitude. The second is learn to cope with the heat and beat it. The third is just to try to run the dreaded last 25 or so miles. I was entering the second section at this moment and I knew it was time to get into how my friend Peter Brennan describes it “full desert mode”. I tired to stay as cool as possible. Heat for me really kills my stomach. Last year I had run this next section a little too fast….just forcing myself to run. This year I ran all of it with barely any hiking. I was feeling great. I kept thinking to myself when is it gonna start getting hard? Everyone knows that the dark places always await in a 100 miler. My knee was giving me a little issue but other than that I just kept running, not really thinking of much. Just one foot in front of the other Branden...at all costs. Pretty soon I caught up to Jorge and 2X AC champ Dominic Grossman (another legend) at Cloudburst aid station. I had no idea that I was that high up in the race. I was worried a little bit as these guys are experts at this course and I thought I may have been going well beyond what my engine could give me and later I might blow up. I had to trust in my training and just believe in myself.
I loaded up the ice again, made my way to three points aid station feeling pretty good. Jerry came up as I was leaving the aid station. I thought for sure he was gonna pass me but it never came. As I made my way to Mt. Hillyer took a really good fall. I flew face first and twisted on my side after catching a rock. I was all dirty and cuts and bruises everywhere. Much to my wife's chagrin my butt was pretty badly scraped up. I just got up, stayed positive and kept going. My neck buff was doing an excellent job at distributing cold water around my body and am not just plugging them because I represent them, but my rabbit apparel was doing an amazing job of staying cold and wet with absolutely no chafing issues. I got up to Mt. Hillyer and got some medical spray on my hip/butt area and Jerry was catching up. I thought he would pass, but still it never came. As we started the descent down to Chilao aid station I saw my friend and 2016 AC champ Guilluame Calmettes. He was super positive and had some really encouraging words! To note, Guilluame was actually a huge inspiration for me. If you watch his hilarious video of his 2016 win he stayed super positive during the entire race. I made that a priority for this race, so thank you Guilluame! Anyone who knows me knows I can get too into my own head and snowball a little.
We got to Chilao and my friend and fellow mountain man Vincent Juarez was there and all he had to say was “Branden what are you doing man?!”, I replied “ No clue!”. Vince was crewing for his runner Sergio Medina (who also finished the race, congrats!!!). I loaded up on watermelon and carbopro. Jerry had picked up his pacer and passed me. Next up was the really hot part.
The trail to shortcut saddle is technical and very hot. If it wasn’t 50 miles into the race I would love the trail...but it’s not. I felt a blister forming and my feet started to hurt just a bit, but I remembered to stay positive. Soon enough I got to shortcut and sat down for a little. Last year this was the place I had gotten the closest to a DNF. I’m not gonna lie, I was nervous going into this race as it had completely destroyed me in a way that no course had and now I was at that point where I had hit my lowest last year. I knew I had to take my time at this aid station. On top of this, the course itself had changed from last year and we were heading into a section in which I had never ran before. I had no idea what was in store. (Supposedly it was harder than last year as it had anywhere from 20-21k of gain) I saw Jorge and Jerry take off, but I still took some time. After getting some sunscreen and feeling a tad better I made off into the unknown.
The descent to the bottom of the canyon was amazing. I was starting to gain ground on Jerry and Jorge but I needed to take a pee break. Believe it or not but pee breaks are an extremely important health indicator for ultras. I took my time...all clear! I was feeling better and caught Jorge going down. I was super respectful and positive. We got to the bottom of the canyon and I’m glad I got lost on a Tenaja canyon run a few months before because it was almost the exact same terrain! I caught Jerry and his pacer and they let me go right ahead. Once again, uncharacteristic of Jerry. I knew Jerry was working with the legendary Tom Nielsen before the race, could this be a strategy? I wasn’t sure, but I had to run my own race and I was feeling pretty good. The climb is where I hit the pain cave….that dreaded damn point in a race in which there seems to be no out. Also it was about 9.1 miles between shortcut aid station to red box. After running a 200 miler last year I really have learned how to run with minimal supplies between long distances (some aid stations in those races are 25 miles apart), so that wasn’t the problem. The problem was my lower back was really starting to hurt. Soon enough I was really getting scared of Rhabdomyolysis, an ultrarunners biggest fear. I started thinking about my wife and what she would do if I died (you really go to dark places in ultras). I knew if I had coffee colored pee it would be the end of my race (hey it happened to AJW during this race). I kept looking down at my wedding band and kept thinking of my wife. It was like she was with me. Soon enough I slogged my way to the red box aid station where I could barely speak. Once again Vince was there and was stoked to see me. Since they had a gong being rung whenever a runner would come in and I had lost my voice, Vince started telling the aid station workers what I needed. He told me I was in first.I spoke to Vince that I was worried about Rhabdo and he just said well if it happens it happens and it’s probably your vest hurting your back, not your kidneys. Turns out he was right! I asked what happened to Dom? And he pointed to Dom laying down on a blanket. Pretty soon Jerry came into the aid station and first,second and third were just all pretty wrecked. Vince looked at me and said hey you might as well go and too be honest I did not want to. I was hoping Dom or Jerry would go. I was feeling it and I knew the Newcomb climb was coming.
Well...then I found myself in a position that in a million years I never thought I would be in. I was first place at the Angeles Crest 100. It was kind of surreal. I kept running the downhill and was amazed no one passed me. Last year the climb up to Newcomb was a sufferfest, so I knew it was going to be slow going for me. What I did not know was that we would be climbing the shorter way up to Newcomb saddle. I kept wondering why the landscape looked differently and I actually started slowing down to see if any runners were coming up on me. I thought I may have gotten lost (I’ve done it in the past), but the yellow ribbons kept coming. Pretty soon Dom caught me on the climb and I asked are we on the right trail. He said we were and he proceeded to run up at a great pace while blasting some Lionel Richie! It was kinda funny. I was expecting to get passed on this uphill and the flies were dreadful on this climb, but pretty soon I saw the aid station. What the hell? It came sooner then last year! I told the aid station workers I was super stoked because I thought we were going to have to climb up the last years route. They all laughed and I gained a second wind. Dom took off and I sat there for just a tad to enjoy the view and get my legs back. The next section was my favorite section of the race and I would get to do it in the daytime!
If anyone has not ran the Chantry to Newcomb route I would highly recommend it. It is some of the most beautiful running that I have ever ran on. I started the descent feeling good as someone was just coming in. As I descended I actually got a bug or leaf in my nose. I couldn’t get it out and could feel it vibrating in my sinus cavity. I kinda got worried, but then it just went away. Pretty soon I caught Dom and his pacer. Dom and I really got after it on the downhill. I knew from Chantry on it would tough so I just let Dom do his thing. Pretty soon we caught up to the Chantry tarmac and we walked it together. Dom and I had raced a few events together and never had never gotten a chance to talk and we finally got that chance. I’m honored to have shared that moment with him. For a small while we were just friends talking and pretty soon we got to the Chantry aid station.
For you that have not run the race, Chantry represents the brutal last 25 ish miles of the race. From Chantry on it would be a 2700 ft climb up Mt. Wilson trail with a cameo by the grim reaper (Larry Gassan) and his bench, a descent into the poison oak riddled Idlehour, a 1800 ft climb up to Sam Merrill aid station, and the last 10 miles of highly technical descent to the finish.
I knew Jorge, Dom, Jerry, and whoever else was coming could climb this section pretty fast. Last year this section destroyed my friend Matt Kafka and I. We were puking and just doing a death march all the way up...it was terrible. I will admit that climbing is not my strong suit, but if I could just get as much time and distance on these guys on the climbs I could really hammer the downhills. Knowing that the next few sections would suck anyways I spent barely anytime at the aid stations. Also Gary Hilliard gave me great advice the previous year and really got me out of Chantry really fast. I refilled on carbopro and told Dom I would see him on the trail. I proceeded to hike/run the entirety of the Mt. Wilson trail and much to my surprise I did really well and felt really good! Once again I was in first, it was crazy.
Looked out through the darkness of the woods and as I got higher I could see Los Angeles. It was beautiful. Pretty soon I saw lights...then the feet….I knew it was the Grim Reaper and his bench. For those of you that don’t know Larry Gassan (another ultra icon) has his photo gig set up every year at something called Dead Man’s Bench (and I put that in caps out of respect for that bench) where he photographs people at the moment they lose their soul to the bench. I would highly recommend looking at the photos as they are hilarious and harrowing at the same time! “Welcome....take a load off” he said tempting me. The previous year I had given my soul to that damn bench. This year...no way! I proceeded to give the double bird to the bench as Larry took a picture. He then said “ this is your gimme section, you’re going to have to book it!” I didn’t know what he had meant at the time. Pretty soon Mt. Wilson trail ended and still no one had passed me. This was better than I had expected. I booked it down to Idlehour aid station, got my carbopro and went. By the way, I did not need a jack or anything as once again my Rabbit gear had dried perfectly with once again no chafing. I proceeded to bushwack through the poison oak and started the climb up to Sam Merrill. As I climbed I saw some lights wading through the Idlehour bottom. I booked it up Sam Merrill at a respectable clip and got to the aid station without being caught by anyone. They gave me carbopro and had some awesome words of encouragement. I proceeded to book it down some of my favorite downhill.
At this point the rails kind of came off a little. My feet were really starting to hurt from the technical downhill and I was starting to catch my feet on the rocks. I didn’t want to have to go to the hospital this late in the race. It was really hard to gauge the terrain depth. It was dusty and a little bit slippery. My body was starting to really ache and hurt. I kept hearing voices but I thought it may have been hallucinations. Pretty soon a saw a headlamp. I hate racing this late, I thought it must be Dom and Dom knows this race really well. I kept booking it, but pretty soon my knee and feet were pretty wrecked. I caught my foot and fell again covering me in some dirt, luckily not as bad as my fall at mile 30-ish. Pretty soon I heard the sound of footsteps. To my surprise it was Jerry and his pacer and friend of mine Jon Clark! They were moving at a blistering pace! Turns out Jerry was holding back most the race! They both told me how far Dom was and had some great words of encouragement.
A lot of people have been commenting how bummed I must’ve been at that moment. I can honestly say I was 100% without a doubt not bummed out in the least bit! In fact, I was inspired by Jerry to not get third! Also I was extremely happy for Jerry and I couldn’t imagine a better person to pass me this late. Jerry and I have raced a few races together and have done a few training runs a few years back together with Vince. I am honored to call him a friend and couldn't be more happy for him. I cannot help but think back to Western States when Anton Krupicka got passed by Geoff Roes so late in the race. Even I thought “How could someone let that happen?”. Now I know. I had hiked only about 20% of this race and mile 95 ish and solo…my body was ready for this race to end.
After seeing Jerry and Jon going at the pace they were I would give it my best, but I knew I couldn't go at the pace they were. I booked it the best I could and before I knew it I was at JPL-NASA, as sign that you’re pretty much done. Usually I get teary eyed around this moment in races, but I literally had given it my all. I got to the finish line and hugged my wife like I never hugged her before! My official result was a new 100 mile PR for me at 20:13:49 for 2nd place overall first place solo! I congratulated Dom and Jerry once we were all finished. I am honored to have shared such a fun and amazing race together. I gave Gary Hilliard a big hug thanking him for the advice he gave me last year at Chantry. He was wearing Hal’s shirt so every finisher got to hug Hal again! What a class act Gary Hilliard is! After that I went home for some sleep and then came back for the awards ceremony! I feel had gotten my revenge on the course!
There are way too many thanks and I apologize in advance if I forgot to include someone. First and foremost I would like to thank my wife Andrea Bollweg. It really killed her not to be crewing me and I really missed her presence.I am so lucky and honored that you have decided to pick me as your husband! I look forward to all the crazy adventures we have to look forward to for the rest of our lives. I love you!
I would like to thank rabbit running apparel for giving me the opportunity to represent them. rabbit gear is honestly the best gear I have ran an ultra in. I have ran in tons of gear and usually have some sort of chafing issues, or breathability issues. I highly recommend them and I look forward to representing you guys even more! I would like to thank our families. They always have my back and am so happy that I have a bigger family now! I would like to my friend and training partner Aaron Ophaug, congrats on your first 100 miler and impressive 14th place at the race!
Another training partner Kris Jensen for helping me with advice for this race and all the hard training run we did. Kyle Fulmer for being a solid training partner, congrats on an unbelievable 9th place sub 24 hour finish! My fellow ultra besties Joe, Matt, Mike, and Mark, for all you inspiration and advice! The OC Trailies for giving great support and words of encouragement. Lastly I would like to give a special thanks to Ken Hamada, Jakob Hermann, and Gary Hilliard for putting on such an amazing event. Congratulations to everyone who earned their 100 mile finish!