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June 12, 2017

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100 Miles in (Under) 17 Hours

It's always nice to get a new job off on the right foot. Our newest rabbitPRO, Kris Brown, did just that this weekend, snagging the win at the San Diego 100, his first 100 miler. The race didn't get off to a perfect start, but patience and strength won the day. Kris shares the story of how it all went down. 

The race started, like all ultras, with an eerie quiet covering suppressed tension. On the track or roads the starting gun has a cathartic effect because as soon as it goes off racers are immediately able to begin the release of the nervous energy they've built up. But in a 100-miler the start just signifies commitment, irreversible momentum toward the pain for which they've prepared but which they won't actually confront for another several hours. Runners hear "GO!" but it actually means "WAIT!"

This time, though, things got weird pretty quickly. About 500 meters in the course split into a Y: the right fork was the way out; the left fork would eventually lead us back. It was well-marked, I was leading, and I took the correct path. But as the leaders snaked along the single track we heard shouts from a photographer who had camped out on the other side of the fork -- the return path -- telling us that we had gone the wrong way. The field was one giant conga line at this point, and the whole thing stopped in place. We turned back, took the other fork, ran a few dozen meters, and stopped again because some more knowledgable runners behind us had taken the first fork. The correct fork. The nervous silence was replaced by nervous chatter: "what in the fuck was going on?" The race director's most repetitive advice had been to pay attention to course markings and not to follow the person in front of us, but the scenario in our heads for when that might occur looked different from this. Maybe at night, alone, delirious after 14 hours of running. Then we might miss a flag. Not now. We must have looked from above like an oddly-clad Yale marching band. The photographer never retracted his advice, but we retracted our faith in him and left with him the knowledge of our unambiguous opinion of his general worth before turning back once again to the correct path. Because of this occurrence and a bit of stumbling at aid stations I'm pretty confident my GPS data will read 101 miles for the race.

Some of the former and future (but not present) leaders with whom I was running opted to tromp through the high grass to cut off the 100 or so runners who had managed to overtake us during the confusion. Wary as I was of early effort I decided to play the long game and wait it out. I ran-walked probably three miles in the middle of the pack and lost nearly five minutes on the leaders before we finally made it to a fire road where passing became possible. "Perfect," I thought, unironically. Now that I was out of the lead group I had no temptation to worry about anyone's pace but my own, which had been my goal going into the race. Down five, sure, but not racing yet. Not for a long while. Right about this time we passed a rotting deer carcass that really felt like an omen. 
Still, though, by the first aid station I was in the top five, and the lead runners had separated from the rest. I ran with two guys in the 3-4-5 spots and we yo-yoed for nearly 40 miles before the first major obstacle—Noble Canyon—broke the race apart. We had been warned about this section, and that warning turned out to be fair. While this year was the mildest on record for the SD100, Noble Canyon was still hot, and the climb out was technical and grueling. It was still very early in the race so I forced myself to stay relaxed, keeping what felt like an overly conservative pace on the ascent. I'm not used to walking hills that early in a race, but I forced myself to do so for maybe a fifth of the climb. At this point my legs were starting to ache a bit and my energy was not great. I was beginning to confront the distance, I thought, and if I was feeling even remotely bad at this point then I had reason to fear the later stages of the race. After all, I had felt good through about 50 miles of a 95-miler last summer before the wheels fell off and I endured what in hindsight was a total DNF situation for the remaining 45 miles. 

But as soon as I crested the climb and started running on rolling terrain again, my energy changed and my legs felt better. This happens all the time in ultras: you can feel absolutely terrible and assume that it's all for internal factors, only to reach a summit, begin to descend, and feel a radical transformation in mood. This still surprises me in every race I run. In this case my energy turned upward around mile 45 and it never really went back down.

The once-leader of the race had not fared well in the canyon and I passed him while he walked the flat sections on his way to a DNF. I had dropped another runner at the bottom of the climb. I was now in second and the leader was not far ahead. Still, though, we were only 45 miles in, so I wasn't racing yet. Kind of. But as I kept ticking off miles that my body wasn't seeming to acknowledge, I started to feel really confident. By 55 I felt ready to start pushing, but I held off a little longer. From 55 to 64 the course descended before climbing back up along the same route. I figured if I could stay relaxed on that climb and feel fresh at mile 71 then I could finish comfortably, which was my major goal. The guy I was running with was looking strong-ish but had stopped running on the uphills, which I took to mean that I felt better than him. I picked up a pacer, rabbit enthusiast Kevin Cody (who also provided these photos), at the bottom of the hill as I had just pulled into the lead and we gently pushed back up. By the top we had a minor gap which then grew a little over the next couple aid stations, but it wasn't as big as I had expected considering how much I had expected to gain on the climbs, so I started to feel the urge to push around 75 miles. 

The sun started to set and with it's departure came some of the strongest winds I've ever experienced. Dangerous-feeling winds. Push-you-off-a-cliff winds. The sort of winds that would have lead me to cut a run short had it not been a race. A beautiful and serene day turned into a chaotic and violent night, but by then I was engaged. Aid station volunteers (wonderful as they are) kept giving me conflicting and often worrisome information on how far back my competitor was, so I pushed a little, trying to stay relaxed but efficient, trying not to listen to my legs, which, believe it or not, felt ready to start sprinting. The end felt near but I had to remind myself that 20+ miles was more than enough time to ruin my race. 

I had planned on meeting my second pacer at 84 miles. Kevin would stop, Julian would continue, and I would put on a warm layer over my singlet. Coming into the station I found myself wishing that I had packed a warm layer the last time I saw my crew. It was already dark and I was beginning to feel cold, so I had picked up the pace a little to try to stay warm for a couple extra miles. When we arrived at the aid station my crew wasn't there. No second pacer, no warm gear. Kevin was worn out so I had to push on alone. He gave me his gloves—the only warm gear either of us had—and I took off out of the station alone, shouting obscenities into the night. Kevin followed at a slower pace behind me. Sixteen more miles, feeling as good as I did now, was probably not long enough to get serious hypothermia, I figured, but I did still expect that the next section was going to suck. It turns out that my crew—my mom and second pacer—was actually at the station I had just left, but they were sitting in the car looking down the wrong trail at the suggestion of another aid station volunteer who was apparently confused about from which direction we would be coming. 

For the record, I love and appreciate all of the volunteers at these events, but fuck...

The last two sections were seven and nine miles long. I was on the second to last one, absolutely flying. The terrain was especially technical so my pace wasn't noticeably different from the rest of the race, but I ran miles 80-91 at close to the same speed that I would have run an 11-mile training run over the same section. I was hauling ass. Part of me knew that second place wasn't coming back, but my racing instincts are conservative in this regard so I wasn't willing to let up. Someone had told me at 84 miles that he was eight minutes back so if he could run 30 seconds per miles faster than me—possible if he felt great, which I wasn't willing to rule out—then he could theoretically catch me. I did this sort of mental math for hours.

When I got to mile 91 my mom was there, a mile down the trail toward me, worried about something that I assumed was the fact that I was cold. I had certainly been fixated on it, and she understands the stakes in these sorts of races, so I figured she was kicking herself for missing the last aid station. It turns out that it was a little more complicated than that. When she and Julian realized that they had missed me at the last station, Julian tried to take off after me while my mom high-tailed it in the car for the next aid station. It didn't take Julian long to realize that he wasn't going to catch me, so he went back to the aid station that he had just left and hitched a ride to the next one. Meanwhile my mom had the realization that if Julian DID catch me, then I would have two pacers with me, which would be a rules violation and would disqualify me. When I arrived at the next station Julian was there and we took off down the last nine mile section together. He had arrived right after my mom and she didn't know it, so at this point she thought that I might be DQed, and/or that either or both Kevin and Julian were lost in the wilderness at night. I was hurdling through the darkness totally unaware of this.

(An aside: I was aware of the rules regarding two pacers, and I was prepared to leave the final aid station without Julian, since Kevin was still on the course. But I talked to the aid station captain who said that he approved of me going forward with an un-bibbed pacer [Kevin was supposed to hand off his bib to Julian but he was well behind me] and that he would vouch for me if the race director had an issue with it.)

Over the last nine miles I eased off the gas a little bit. I allowed myself to realize that there was no way second place was going to catch me if I stayed reasonably efficient considering my pace over the previous two sections. So I started counting down every mile and tried to stay comfortable. But as often happens in long races, as soon as I accepted that the race was almost over my body started to announce its once-suppressed aches. The last three miles were a little wobbly, and I even took my only fall—a full somersault—with about a quarter mile to go. I saw the finish line clock way too late to have been able to do anything about it, but luckily even with the easy running over the previous few miles I saw that I was going to come in just under 17 hours.

When I crossed the line I clarified with the race director what had happened with the pacers, he verbally OK-ed the situation, and he handed my my first 100-mile belt buckle. Still walking and talking reasonably well, I primarily felt thankful not to have experienced the same level of pain as I had in my 95-mile attempt. And now that I have one well-executed 100-miler in the bag, I'm excited to get started on a bunch more.

Course: The San Diego 100 course is regarded as "sneaky hard." The terrain is mildly technical, the climbs are gradual but sometimes long, the altitude is just enough to become a factor, and the heat and wind wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the almost total exposure. While not major obstacles on their own, all of these factors add up to make a hard course.

The trails are not totally dissimilar from Santa Barbara, but the grades here are steeper and usually more technical, so the SD100 trails feel familiar but easier.

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