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June 28, 2018

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Part II: San Diego 100, The Race

Paksit Photos

rabbitELITEtrail team member Wes Judd dives into 'The Race' in part two of this three part series on his experience training for and racing the San Diego 100 earlier this month.

I arrived in Julian, CA, a small town an hour east of San Diego and 20 minutes from the start/finish line, two days before the race, just enough time for my sea-level lungs to adjust to the slight altitude. The conditions were forecasted to be hot, and I spent the day before the race chasing down extra ice and jugs of water in Julian.

The race started at 6am Friday morning. My instinct was to run out with the lead pack, as I usually do. I hung with them for about two minutes though before I realized that their pace was faster and harder than I wanted to push. I was playing the long game today.

The race begins by wrapping around Lake Cuyamaca and through a flat meadow via single track. It is a calming, serene way to begin the race, and it was so quiet during the early miles that you could practically feel the tension and nervousness in the conga line of runners.

The first climb began at mile two, on a winding fire road that was exceptionally runnable. Honestly, it was the worst type of in-between grade to face early in a 100 mile race, as walking it felt utterly absurd, but running it seemed like too big a risk. I opted to run it as conservatively as possible, keeping a respectable pace but with the absolute easiest effort. On this climb, I actually passed a few folks, some of whom were huffing and puffing. This gave me confidence that my fitness was in a good spot. However, on the subsequent downhill, which came four miles later (still on the winding fire road), I was passed a dozen or so times. Each time, the ego took a small half-second hit—my racing instincts kicked in and I wanted to chase. But I took a deep breath, reminded myself that this race is long, and repeated what my coach had told me earlier that week: you can’t win the race in the first 50 miles, but you can lose it. That race doesn’t start until mile 50.

The next 20 miles were an undulating series of climbs and descents through piney and rocky high desert terrain. The climbs were mostly runnable, but that didn’t prevent me from taking it super easy, keeping the effort at about a three out of ten. We were mostly running in the shade, and I took time to appreciate the early cool temps.

Coming into the first crewed aid station (Sunrise 1), I felt wonderful, like I hadn’t run at all. I took a little longer than I would have liked to, as I had to rub Squirrel’s Foot Salve on the ball of my right foot, where I felt a hotspot forming around mile 15. It wasn’t bad, but I thought about the advice I’d been given a thousand times: small problems quickly become big problems over 100 miles. Besides that, though, the transition went smoothly. My crew, which consisted of two friends and my sister, none of whom were ultrarunners and were witnessing the absurdity of this sport for the first time, told me that the leaders had come through almost an hour earlier, which blew me away. An hour! In 21 miles!

The initial plan was to wait until mile 28 before putting on my ice bandana, when I would drop down into Noble’s Canyon in midday heat and run for 20 crew-less miles. But feeling the early heat I decided to audible and do it there. I was using a bandana from Zombie Runner, which is sewn together to conveniently hold and retain ice while running. When fully stuffed with ice, it initially seemed unwieldy and cumbersome; I felt like a dog with a cone around its neck. But as the day grew hotter, and the course took us along the PCT for seven miles of exposed, rolling, technical running, I was overwhelmingly grateful to have ice cradling my neck. I cannot overstate this. It was revelatory to discover what a difference an ice bandana like that can make, both practically (as it melts, it drips down your back and chest to keep you core temp down) and also mentally. I locked into a solid pace and gave thanks to whomever first decided to package and sell frozen water.

At the next aid station (Pioneer Mail 1, mile 28), my crew was absolutely dialed. They had everything I needed, no questions asked. I quickly downed a 26oz bottle with a GU electrolyte tab—turns out I was losing a lot of fluids—grabbed an additional handheld bottle, and took off again. This next  section of the course down into Noble’s Canyon—a gradually descending bit of rocky, exposed, technical trail—was the first of the day on which I had previously run. It was confidence boosting to be in familiar territory. I settled into a good groove and by the time I hit the bottom of the canyon—which near the end torturously necessitated running on a steep downhill road—I felt concerningly great. Almost euphoric. The aid station volunteers commented on how fresh I looked as they sprayed me down with water and filled my bandana back up with ice. This was exactly the spot I wanted to be in—feeling great before facing Noble’s Canyon, the longest, hottest climb of the day.

It was at that point that I also noticed a few of the guys who ran off the front crumpled in folding chairs, struggling to get food and fluid down. While I was certainly concerned and checked in on them before taking off again, it was confidence boosting to see that my early conservative pace was paying dividends. In my euphoric state, I decided it was a good idea to eat a rice krispy treat before starting the climb up Noble’s. Spoiler: it was not a good idea. I certainly didn’t bonk nor get sick on the subsequent climb, but it was the first instance of the day’s effort manifesting itself. The stomach reminded me that it needed to be treated well (no more rice krispy treats); the legs told me that they already had 36 miles in them, and to take it easy up the climb; and the body advised me to stay cool.

The climb up to the next aid station was about eight miles. Noble’s Canyon, in addition to being hot and humid, is also a bit claustrophobic, with steep canyon walls, dense high-desert shrubbery, and arching trees closing in around you. The terrain is technical as well, and the climb, while objectively not that steep, seems to never end. Despite having an extra handheld bottle in addition to the two in my Ultimate Direction vest, I ran out of water just over halfway. By the time I reached Penny Pines 1 at mile 44, which marked the end of the Noble’s Canyon climb, I had come around and was feeling great again. The aid station volunteers commented on my apparent freshness, which was great to hear. I grabbed more water, gels, a banana, and with a bit of added confidence, hit the trail again.

The next stretch was through the meadows, probably my favorite section of the entire course. It was rolling, lush, green terrain, almost all on single track, that reminded me a lot of where I grew up in the Midwest. It was also a section of the course that I had run before. The combination of the two factors put me in a good mood. I was approaching the halfway mark and felt great—exactly what I wanted.

The Meadows aid station (mile 49) was the best my crew was all day—and they were phenomenal the entire time. I grab what I needed, which wasn’t much, as I was going to see them in another seven miles, and began running again. This next bit had the steepest climb of the day—not the longest, but pretty damn steep. It was a section I had run with Race Director Scotty Mills during a training weekend a month prior, which not only gave me confidence facing the climb again, but also a little energy remembering how special it was to have those 30 minutes alone with an ultrarunning legend.

I came into Red Tailed Roost (mile 55) feeling good, not great, but very good. And happy! I was so excited that the day was going this well, that I was eating and drinking consistently, that my crew was seeming to have a good time and were absolutely nailing it, that the conditions weren’t debilitating, that the stars were somewhat aligning. I grabbed my music for a change of pace and began the slow descent down to Cibbet’s Flat, the course’s farthest southern end and a symbolically important turn around point for the day.

Chalk it up to endorphins or just the abuse I had put my body and mind through, but on that run down to Cibbet’s, I found myself in a very emotionally charged state—which is a bit unusual for me. The music moved me in a way I had never been moved before. “When The Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin seemed like the most sonically meaningful thing I had ever heard, and “Coexist” by Tontario and Leo Islo nearly made me cry. Made me cry! What was happening, I could not tell you. In retrospect, I think that I was in an emotionally and physically delicate state, because not ten minutes after my rapturous moment with Led Zeppelin, I hit my first genuine low point of the day. I didn’t bonk, but boy did the previous 60 miles settle in all at once. My pace slowed and my energy disappeared. The nine mile descent in Cibbet’s is not the most technical thing in the world, but it’s rocky enough to prevent you from ever getting into a consistent groove. This was demoralizing, and certainly contributed to my emotional low.

I shuffled into the aid station (my crew later said that they saw me approaching and were concerned by how slowly I was moving) and told them that I was no longer on cloud nine. I warned Kevin Cody, a strong ultrarunner from Santa Barbara and my first pacer for the day, that we would likely be hiking the whole climb out, which we did for the first mile or two. But about two-to-three miles into the climb, just shy of mile 70, a switch flipped. It was like a bolt of lightning: I could physically and mentally feel, over the course of 30-60 seconds, the fatigue drain from me and life re-enter. Maybe it was the company, maybe it was the cool air (the sun was setting), maybe it was the fact that I was officially on my way back towards the start/finish line, or maybe it was the caffeine (I switched to a GU Roctane drink mix with caffeine), but Kevin and I started running most of the uphills. I felt phenomenal. On the climb out, we passed Michele Graglia, an incredibly talented ultrarunner who, I was told, had been leading most of the day. You never like to see someone struggling, and we gave him and his pacer some words of encouragement. But it also functioned as the last sign I needed that I was in a good position to actually compete. The race was on.

We approached Dale’s Kitchen at the top of the climb (mile 75) and I was still on top of the world. I joked with the aid station volunteers that I had literally never felt better in my life. I acknowledged that running a 100 miles felt like a rollercoaster, and I was at the top, and what goes up must come down. Which, not one mile later, felt prophetic, as I noticed the euphoria slip away. It was more an unsettling feeling than an uncomfortable one—recognizing what’s to come and that life can not, in fact, continue being this blissful forever. But as I grinded and retraced my step along the PCT—up and down over semi-technical terrain, via the same exposed ridgeline that I had run earlier in the day—I slowly passed a few more runners. While I was not feeling 100 percent, it appeared that no one was. It was now a war of attrition.

I made it to Penny Pines 2 (mile 80) in the same state that I would end up finishing the race in: not bonked but utterly exhausted. I picked up a new pacer, Nick Kopp, who lives in San Diego and whom I had met just a few weeks prior on a training run. I told Nick and Kevin this repeatedly, and they were quick to deflect the credit, but I sincerely do not think I would have finished as strong as I did had they not been there. It was my first time having a pacer, and I learned just how valuable they can be.

The last 20 miles was a dark, painful exercise in perserverse. I could barely see the ground (turns out my headlamp is only able to stay on its brightest setting for about 30 minutes) and, as it was pitch black, I had no geographical point of reference. All I had to focus on was the next step. In this sense, my world become insular—there was nothing else to focus on except perpetual forward progress. Up, down. Hike, run. Eat, drink. Repeat.

I went through two more aid station with Nick over the last 20 miles (Pioneer Mail 2, mile 84, and Sunrise 2, mile 91), both of which seemed like a blur. He handed me soup, I mindlessly took gels from my crew, and we shuffled off again. I was amazed and pleasantly surprised at my ability to keep taking gels every 30 minutes all the way until the end of the race. I certainly lost my appetite but my stomach cooperated the entire time. This of course  isn’t news to many ultrarunners, but I cannot overstate the importance of remaining vigilant with your calories, especially later in the race as your stomach turns and the finish line is in sight. This is different for everyone, but for me, taking a gel once every 30 minutes (I set a timer on my watch) was perfect. That may make some of you want to gag, but, as I was told many times, it’s not about what your body wants, its about what it needs. GUs deliver that.

Around mile 90, I could feel that I was losing both my big toe nails. I tried not to focus on that and just kept moving. After a very gradual but seemingly unending fire road climb—which, thanks to the ignorance that my dull headlamp afforded me, we ran the entirety of—we approached the south side of Lake Cuyamaca, I could see the lights across it, on the north side. It was the finish line. However, since it was so dark, we couldn’t exactly see the footprint of the lake, and the course ended up taking us west, far past the lights on the other side of the lake. In retrospect, it’s obvious what we were doing: running around the lake. But in the moment it was torturous. We were heading in the wrong direction!

But finally—finally!—we made it. I almost didn’t believe it, nor did I have time to really process what was happening. I thought that I might be emotional as I crossed the finish line, especially since I nearly cried while listening to music earlier that day. But all I could do was hug Scotty Mills and my crew and follow their directions. Sit down—sure thing. Take this bag of goodies—okay. Eat something—whatever you say. It was a type of post-race exhaustion I had never felt before. In the past, it was an aerobic exhaustion—the lungs and legs burned and endorphins pumped through my brain. This, however, was physical devastation. It was beyond running fatigue, or a pain that I had ever associated with exercise. It was a type of mental and physical battery that was more akin to, well, running 100 miles. I don’t know how else to describe it. But I also recognized that this was it: the feeling of truly ultrarunning. I had heard dozens of athletes talk about how, in their minds, ultrarunning doesn’t become ultraunning until mile 80, when the body is almost literally shutting down but you have to keep moving, when you nearly lose conception of time, and hours either vanish or drag on for eternity. That was where I had brought my body to. That is what I had asked for. And that is what I had gotten.

I ended up finishing in 20:51, good enough for 4th place and first in my age division. But honestly the best part of the day was seeing Scotty’s face and genuine admiration for what I had done. Maybe he was just being nice, but if not, having the respect of that man made the whole day worth it. I felt like I ran a race that would have made a veteran like him proud—slow, smart, consistent, with a strong finish—and that’s what I’m happiest about.

Follow along with Wes' training & adventures on StravaInstagramTwitter and catch all his stories at Outside Magazine. Look for part three of the SD100 series in the coming days.


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