I do not like the heat. I do not like running in the heat. I do not like sitting in the heat. The only thing I do like about hot weather is complaining about it. So, with that, I have no idea why I chose to run my first 100K in the middle of Southern California. Obviously, the main reason was because it counted as a Western States Qualifier, but there were other races I could find in less oppressive climates. But for some reason, I chose to run the Cuyamaca 100K.
After spending a few days in San Diego complaining about the heat, lounging on the beach, and drinking some amazing beer, it was October 3rd and I was about to run my first ever 100K. As always, I was nervous. Even with the amount of racing I have done in the past year, I still never feel ready for a race. Each start, I think back: whether or not I have had enough training, whether my taper was adequate, if I thought of my nutrition and race day plan. Regardless if any of those were true, I was at the start and it was almost go time. Cuyamaca is a state park in Southern California with a school campground in the center of it. This meant that there were great facilities for bib pick up and a massive start / finish aid station.
After showing up about 30 minutes before the start, I went into the building closest to the start and picked up my bib and shirt. On the drive up from the city, I had commented that I could never be a race director because I would spend hours obsessing over things like if I had remembered safety pins. Right after I picked up my bib, I was informed that they were out of safety pins. Luckily, the race directors were super resourceful and were writing bib numbers all over people to help keep track, and right before the gun went off they found the misplaced pins so everyone was able to attach their bibs. A quick race briefing happened and all the runners shuffled outside to the start line. The race was going to start at exactly 6:30 AM, so we had a few minutes of time to kill before we took off.
Before getting into the actual race it is worth explaining two things. First, Colleen is an absolutely amazing crew. She took the entire day (on the day before her birthday) driving around the park and making sure I had absolutely everything I needed. She was constantly ready with sunscreen, water bottle swaps, and more food! Second, the Cuyamaca race course is set up as three separate loops that only slightly overlap. The first is around 50K and climbs to the highest point in the park – Cuyamaca Peak. The second loop is a short 12 miles but has no crew access points so it was the longest I went without seeing Colleen. The last loop is 18 miles that shares a few miles with the Pacific Crest Trail.
Knowing what was ahead of me and that Colleen had my back, I took off! The first 8 miles to the first aid station was a mix of rolling single track and fire road that was extremely runnable. The one thing that I had not considered at all coming into the race was how much fine dirt and sand the trails would have. While it wasn’t as exhausting as running on the beach, it did take its toll on my ankles and hips over 63 miles! I decided that I was going to try and run a smart race and not blow up, so I made a point to stay behind people and not to pass early. The pace felt comfortable and I exchanged a word or two with several runners but the pre-race jitters still had not completely settled so I mostly kept to myself. After about an hour or so I came into the first aid station to hear Colleen cheering and ready to swap out supplies. I quickly swapped a bottle of Tailwind and downed a Gu. My nutrition strategy was pretty simple. Take a gel every 40 minutes, finish a 100 calories of Tailwind between aid stations, and eat as much real food that I could at the aid stations. I would occasionally mix things up with a nut butter or Gu Chomps, but for the most part it was that easy. The simple strategy was easy to remember, left me with plenty of energy, and for me just works. While I don’t love the taste of Gu after 11 hours, I can still stomach it late into the race so it really is not an issue.
Leaving the first aid station we went back up the fire road we had just descended before heading into some technical single track. The next aid station was only about 5 miles, so I decided to pick up the pace slightly as the runners thinned out. Starting to gain some elevation made me feel a bit more comfortable. I have always considered myself a really good power hiker and long climbs seem to suit me. I passed quite a few people on this stretch and came up to the second aid where I made a quick bottle swap and put on some music.
After the second aid station, the course began the climb to the high point of the course. It was about 9 miles to the peak (which did not have crew access) so it would be another 14 miles until I would see Colleen again. I used the music to motivate and began to climb with purpose and focus. When I was looking at the course map, I knew the 9 miles or so of climbing with one or two small descents was going to gain some elevation, but I did not put together how gradual the climb would be. After the Rut, I was used to near vertical climbs. This climb seemed tame by comparison, but at the same time just steep enough to keep me from running for most of the time. After all, I wasn’t even 25 miles into a 63 mile race, no sense blowing up so early! Right before the end of the arduous and slow climb to the summit, we hit a paved road. This last half mile of trail to the summit had a small aid station with water. That was a good thing since I had run out during the 8 and a half exposed miles. The last half mile to the top was steep paved road that I made my way up as quick as possible to afford a few extra seconds at the full aid station. At the peak I started to realize how long of a day it was going to be. I felt incredible, but roasting in the sun was zapping me of water and my clothes were absolutely caked in salt already. I had to make sure I stayed on top of electrolytes and water. By the time I reached every aid station from there on out, my bottles would be empty.
From the summit, it was mostly a downhill run of technical single track that I took my time descending. While I usually feel comfortable on technical terrain, the fear of taking a hard fall with over 50K left to run made me hesitant. It was only 5 miles to the next aid station where I finally got to see Colleen again. I ate some food and picked up some more gels before taking off on the final four miles of loop one to the start. The last 4 miles were all rolling single track that I was able to run the entirety of. It was a blast and I was able to run almost all of it with the woman who I believe wound up coming in second!
I only needed a short bit of time before taking off on the second loop. While it was only 12 miles, there was no crew access so I would not see Colleen at all. It was also the hottest point of the day with exactly zero shade. At the start/finish, in addition to my nutrition, I filled up my pack with ice. Instead of carrying a hydration pack, I was sticking to two water bottles and planned on using the pack as a way of keeping cool in the heat. As it turns out, a liter of ice pressed against your back feels amazing in the scorching sun!
However, even the ice was not enough to keep me from having a miserable second loop. The heat was not agreeing with me, and while my stomach wasn’t upset and my legs weren’t dead, I just lost a lot of steam. The second loop is essentially two climbs and two descents. The first climb is right after you leave the start. After the climb, there are some rolling exposed hills before descending to an aid station 8 miles later. At the aid station, I refilled my ice pack and empty water bottles before heading back to the start/finish. It was only 4 miles or so back to the start and the aid station had warned “there is a 400 foot climb over about a mile”. 400 feet over a mile didn’t seem too bad, but what they really meant to say was there was 400 feet of climbing over about a quarter mile of technical trail. I felt defeated. It was definitely the lowest point of the race for me. I ate the last gel I had been carrying and marched up the hill. Thankfully, the trail after that was runnable back to the camp, but I was already feeling pretty demoralized.
I came into the aid station feeling ready to run but certainly not happy about it. My legs felt great but mentally I was starting to lose focus and determination. Thankfully, the day was starting to cool down. Just to make sure I stayed cool, I filled my pack up with ice one more time and refilled on supplies. Heading out on the last 18 mile loop was a fire road for 7 miles up to the Sunrise Highway aid station. Looking back, I should have torn through this section as it was insanely smooth and only had a gentle climb, but the race had taken its toll. I walked a lot of those 7 miles. I had to take out my iPod, as music just was annoying more than motivating at this point.
As I marched up the gentle climb to Sunrise I saw someone running down the trial towards me. I thought to myself “that person runs a lot like Colleen” and 30 seconds later Colleen was standing in front of me! She met me about two miles before the aid station and it was exactly the pick-me-up I needed! I did not start sprinting up the hill, but I started to move with a bit more purpose. The 2 miles still felt long, but it went by so much quicker! At some point during this time Colleen asked enthusiastically how I was feeling to which I replied “I don’t feel awful”. More than 50 miles into a race, the farthest I had ever gone, I certainly expected to feel much worse. After coming to the top of the hill we could finally see the aid station where I was welcomed by incredibly enthusiastic volunteers. At this point my stomach still felt fine but my taste buds were mostly done with Gu so I ate much more solid food. The lifesaver for me were rice balls which were nothing more than packed white rice. They may have been the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. I shoved about 7 in my mouth and ate one gel before taking off on the 4 and a half mile stretch of the PCT to the last aid station. Knowing that it was such a short distance to the next checkpoint gave me a burst of energy and I took off running to the cheers of Colleen and the amazing volunteers.
The PCT miles flew by as I was able to run all but the steeper uphills. The section was rolling hills that ended with about a mile through an open meadow with wind ripping through it. The cold air was revitalizing and as the sun was setting I finally started to feel like a human again. Before I knew it, I was at the last aid station. I had 7 miles left to run. I had an hour and 30 minutes if I wanted to break 13 hours. Right then I knew I could break 13 hours. It would be brutal, but the course was rolling single track before a long stretch of downhill fire road. I put on my headlamp, ate a potato or two, and took off into the hills.
I was completely burnt out moving up so I hiked as fast as I could up even the slightest incline but ran everything else. Even though I got passed by a handful of people I was determined to make my own time goal and not get demoralized. I kept charging forward as it got darker and darker. My measly headlamp felt inadequate in the open fire roads. Maybe it was the lack of contrast on the trail from it mostly being sand, but I had trouble seeing the trail in front of me and my pace slowed. I was incredibly nervous of falling and hurting myself with only a few miles left to go. Regardless, I kept moving. I kept checking my watch. I kept moving forward. With about 15 minutes to spare, I saw the lights of the camp. I could no longer see many course markings so i kept moving towards the light. I was nervous that maybe I had missed a turn but soon I was at a gate with a course marking that started the last few yards of paved road. I took off as fast as I could and passed through the finish in 12:49 – good enough for 25th place.
Under 13 hours. Western States Qualified. When I started the race I really had doubts if I was going to finish. I felt like I did not have the right training. The heat was going to kill me. I did not have a sophisticated enough set of tactics. But in the end, I exceeded my own expectations. Without a doubt I did more than I thought I could with the help of Colleen’s amazing support and all the kind words of encouragement from my friends. 63 miles is a hell of a long way, but I look forward to trying to run 100! Ideally it will be Western States next year, but even if I don’t make the lottery I will be running 100 miles somewhere!
- Nike Terra Kiger 3
- Salomon Adv Skin3
- Garmin Fenix 3
- Gu, Roctane, Chomps, Tailwind
- Ciele GoCap