Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Pulling The Upset of Upsets at the Kodiak 100

BIG BEAR LAKE, CA -- If not for a chance meeting four years ago, I would never have known about a new 100-mile race set to debut this year in Big Bear Lake, CA, called the Kodiak 100-Mile Ultra Marathon. Four years ago, on the first day of Spring in 2009, I was climbing Mount Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48, with a friend when we ran into Paul Romero, who was on Whitney with his 13-year-old son, Jordan, training for what would be their epic and record-breaking summit of Mount Everest later that year, when Jordan became the youngest person ever to stand on top of the world. When I meet interesting people like that, I like to maintain a friendship with them. That day I was climbing with Zachary Bookman, whom I had met on a volcano in Mexico the year before. I had stayed in touch with him, and have since gone on a five-day hike through Yosemite and climbed on Rainier with Zac and his brother and dad. I stayed in touch with Paul, visiting their house in Big Bear Lake the following winter when I was rolling through, and again this past March when I dropped in on him at his camper on Lake Mead in Boulder City, NV. It was then that Paul told me about the awesome new 100-mile race he had planned for September on the "sick" single-track around Big Bear Lake, and, knowing that I was an ultra-marathoner myself, he invited me to come out and run it. The timing of the race was perfect for me, it appeared, as it fell during mid-September, when I knew I would be on a three-week layoff from my job driving for UPS in Keene, NH, and at a time when I had planned to be out West anyway. Sp I quickly signed up and began training. However, some time during the summer it was drawn to my attention that new rules being instituted by the Hardrock 100 regarding qualifying to enter that lottery had left me, apparently, without a qualifying race and without the ability to enter the Hardrock lottery for the 2014 race, which is always my target race. In four years of applying for Hardrock, I have gotten in just once, in 2012, and wound up dropping at 85 miles with blisters. At the time, I was assured that if I dropped from that race, my status for reapplying would not be any different than if I had completed the race, but that turned out not to be true and I suddenly had a dilemma on my hands. Kodiak, by virtue of it being a first-year event, was not a Hardrock qualifier, and the only race that was which had not already filled was The Bear 100 in Utah. The only problem with that was that The Bear was the week after Kodiak, so how could I possibly run both? Some people suggested that I drop out of Kodiak to run The Bear as getting a Hardrock qualifier was more important, and others suggested that I drop down to the 50-miler at Kodiak so I would have something left to run The Bear the next weekend. But in the end I decided to sign up for The Bear despite also being set on the Kodiak 100 and I just prayed that somehow I might be able to recover in time to run two 100-milers in back-to-back weekends. Considering I had only finished two 100-milers in my life, I'm not sure how I thought I was going to be able to match that in just eight days. The reason I did not want to drop out of Kodiak or drop down to the 50-miler is that I had a feeling that something special was going to happen at the race. Perhaps not to me, but something special enough that I would want to be a part of it. Though I must admit, I had a deep-seated, nagging feeling that I was going to have an incredible race, though I certainly was not confident enough to say anything to anybody. Especially not to Paul when I arrived the Monday before the race to start acclimatizing to the 7000-9000-foot altitude that would be running on race day, which was Friday night at 6 p.m. under a full moon. That was another reason I was excited for this race! When I arrived, I asked Paul what I could do to help and he quickly got me busy putting together some chairs and tables he had purchased for the finish line area the night before at IKEA. Then he had me run some errands and bring supplies to his course-marking crew of Matt and Eric, who had been out on the course for days marking it for the race. A couple days later, Eric Sullivan arrived from Aspen, CO, and it was clear Paul had brought Eric in to beef up the quality of the field for the race, as first-year events tend not to attract particularly strong fields. Top runners wait for a race to establish itself and work out any kinks before entering. In fact, based on the rankings on UltraSignup, I was seeded sixth coming into the race, which was what led me to secretly believe I could have myself a strong result with a good effort. "Sully," though, was a strong runner, having recently placed seventh at the Leadville 100, and it was clear that he was the favorite going in. On Thursday, I drove back to Orange County Airport to pick up Nancy Hobbs, who was going to crew me for the race. Most of you know that Nancy and I had been living together in Colorado prior to our breakup in May and my return to New Hampshire, but many of you are also hopeful that we will be able to work things out and get back together. This would be our second weekend spent together working on this, though both were at races as she had come to New Hampshire in August to crew me at the More & More Difficult 50K (a fat-ass event in the White Mountains with 17,000 feet of climbing), which I had won as well. I certainly didn't tell Nancy that I had secret notions of a top finish, either. I woke up on race day with a pounding headache which I did not seem to be able to shake. But I have found in the past at ultra events, the worse I feel before the race, the better I end up doing in the race. Not sure why. Anyway, I got to the starting line for the 6 p.m. start feeling a little better. We began the race by making a one-mile lap around "The Village" as the course had come up a mile short at 99 miles so the problem was resolved by having everyone do a "warm-up" lap at the start before heading up the first of many fire roads to a high point, where darkness fell and the single-track began. I ran this section slowly, walking much of it, and then picking it up only slightly on the single-track. I ran for a while with my friend Keira Henninger, whom I had met at a previous race in SoCal, through the first water station which was located in a neighborhood next to the zoo. I would not have wanted to live here, as the animals in the zoo were howling and screaming continuously, perhaps because of the full moon, but it was quite overwhelming to listen to. The first aid station, Camp 1, was located about 12 miles into the race, and marked a spot where we would start to climb to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain, at 9,900 feet the high point of the course. This was about a five-mile climb up to a saddle and then out-and-back along a ridge to the summit. I had been to the saddle on Wednesday checking things out, and I saw that much of the footing was loose shale and sharp rock -- not the place you want to fall while running in the dark. As we approached the summit, I started counting the returning runners and saw that one person was well out ahead of the field already, but the next four were closer together. Suddenly, I saw someone sitting on a rock pile atop a little rise and I asked how far it was to the summit. When he said, "This is it!," I was quite surprised. Not only had I gotten there sooner than I expected, but I was both surprised and elated to discover I was in sixth place! It was at this moment that I thought perhaps something special might be possible after all. The descent back to the aid station takes a different route from the saddle and I quickly passed the fifth-place runner as he was being cautious on the rocky footing. Arriving back at the aid station, I quickly refueled and headed out. Because of an unexpected course change that brought us back to the first aid station a second time, it was only about five miles to the second aid station at Camp Oakes, a YMCA camp nestled in the ponderosa pines. I arrived there quickly, had some soup, and got back out in fourth place, passing a runner still in the aid station. From here began perhaps the best part of the course. For then next 35 miles or so, we would be on the Pacific Crest Trail, in the middle of the night, under a brilliant full moon. It was exquisite! I had told Nancy I would probably be hiking most of the next 20 miles to the next aid station, Camp 3, at the 50-mile mark, where the 50-milers would be waiting to start their race at 6 a.m. However, the PCT along this section was so immaculate and well-groomed, and all rolling single-track, it was completely runnable, and I found myself running almost the entire 20 miles. I could see the lights of two other runners behind me, but none in front of me, so I even turned mine off from time to time to trick my pursuers into thinking I had pulled away out of sight. But I also saw that I was moving very fast and feeling strong, and it was then that I determined that if any of the three runners ahead of me faltered, I was going to catch them. That meant a podium finish was possible! It buoyed my spirits and carried me onward. I knew one of the three runners ahead of me had to be "Sully," and, unfortunately for him, this was confirmed to me when I happened upon him lying beside the trail groaning. A mountain biker patrolling the course was with him and Sully told me he had twisted his ankle and fallen into some cactus bushes and was pulling out thorns. I did not stop, but I also did not discount Sully's ability to rebound from this mishap later in the race. Now in third place, I pushed on, and came into the Camp 3 aid station at Holcomb Valley Campground sooner than Nancy expected, as she was not there waiting for me, having gone to find the outhouse in the dark about 800 yards from the aid station. She came running when I called to her in the darkness and I got resupplied, but I also noticed that the second-place runner, Ken Ringled, has also in the aid station, and he left with only about a five-minute lead on me. From the aid station, you run a mile or two down Van Deusen Canyon Road and get back onto the PCT for another long, beautiful section of single track. I had reached the 50-mile mark in under 10 and a half hours and still felt great as I headed back out intent on hunting Ken down. However, he was also determined not to be caught, and it was a couple hours, it seemed, before I first saw his headlamp. I would guess it took me almost 10 miles to catch him, which I did during another nice single-track section of ponderosa pines just as the first signs of dawn were creeping over the valley rim. He was not moving particularly fast when I passed him, so my guess is that he was fading and would not be a factor later in the race. But I also knew the first-place runner, a German named Harald Zundel from Cardiff, CA, had been well ahead at the turnaround atop Sugarloaf so many hours ago. Not long after I passed Ken, I came upon a fire road crossing where two women were sitting on the hood of a car cheering on runners. I asked how long ago the leader went by, and the response was, "Oh, about 15 or 20 minutes ago!" About what I expected. Not that I yet thought I actually had a chance to win this race. But certainly even if Sully were somehow able to come back on me, that would not knock me off the podium. However, everything changed moments later when I arrived at a remote water stop at mile 59.5 at the Coxey Truck Trail. I was reaching for some food at the table and asked how long ago the leader came through. The woman responded, "He's right over there," pointing to a nearby car, "and he's not feeling too well!" I looked up and saw Harald looking like he had just thrown up. I dropped whatever I was holding and immediately took off, wanting to take advantage of this incredible opportunity. "Oh, my, God," I thought, "I am in the lead of a 100-mile race!" We were quickly back on rolling single-track and as I got about a quarter-mile or more down the trail, I looked back and saw that Harald was just leaving the aid station, but was not running. I took off as fast as I dared, not really knowing how far it was to the next aid station. In fact, this section of trail was not very well marked and I ran long sections without seeing any course markings. As it turned out, there was only one trail and no way to get off it, but when you are unfamiliar with the course, you begin to doubt whether you might have missed a turn somewhere, somehow, and are always in need of a "confidence" marker on the trail. There was no way I wanted to stop or even go back to make sure I was on the right trail, so I pushed forward, and every time -- sometimes after a seeming eternity -- I would come upon another flag to indicate I was still on course. At Crab Flats Road, at mile 65.5, we left the PCT and started climbing up some fire roads that were too steep to run, but I was confident no one else could run them either. Until I got near the top and suddenly turned to see someone running past me. "The gig is up," I thought. "Oh, well, it was great while it lasted." But in talking to the runner, it turns out he was the first 50-miler, though I found it hard to believe anyone of the 50-milers, who started an hour and a half behind me just 15 miles ago, could have caught me so quickly. His name was Michele Graglia from Italy, and he would go on to win the 50-mile race in 9:32:28, crushing the field by nearly two hours. I was so elated not only to find that he was a 50-miler, but also that he told me my two nearest pursuers were also walking and not looking so well. This buoyed me even more! We got to the next water stop at mile 70 and I was shocked to discover I still had six miles to the Rim Nordic aid station -- Camp 4 -- at mile 76. I was sure that I had to be much closer, but it was still a long ways away, with more climbing on fire roads -- not my favorite terrain -- and then a sharp downhill to the aid station. I arrived to much fanfare from the crowd assembled there and took some additional time there to get a complete resupply and even a quick leg massage before heading back out, crossing Route 18 and heading for the crux of the entire race, the section affectionately being called Hades by Paul and his crew. Hades was a section of trail called Siberia Creek that had not been open for like 40 years! Matt and Eric had spent countless hours down in this steep ravine clearing the old trail of overgrowth, but they could only do so much and the trail was still incredibly thick with overhanging debris ... Matt, it turns out, is only 5-8, so anyone taller than that was going to struggle with the canopy. I am 6-1, and was constantly leaning one way or the other to avoid the roof of the "tunnel" we were climbing through, even losing my sunglasses at one point, only to have them returned to me by one of the 50-milers at the final aid station. Leaving Camp 4, first you must descend more than 2000 feet on narrow switchbacks to Bear Creek, the creek that comes out of the Big Bear Lake Dam above you. This is the low point of the course, at about 5000 feet where you cross the creek on a log bridge while holding a safety rope, and then begins the long, six-mile, 3000-foot climb out of Hades into the Siberia Creek Canyon. This is where I thought I had blown the race. I got to the top of the first long climb through all the overgrowth and somehow, in my constant push to keep moving forward, I got off trail. Now, this happened to me in the dark at Hardrock in 2012 and ruined my whole race, because I pushed onward not knowing where the trail was and soon found myself on top of a ridge on the wrong mountain! And now I found myself on a steep side hill with lots of loose, sliding scree and caught up in the buckthorns -- thick, unrelenting, needle-sharp bushes blocking my path. It did not immediately dawn on me that I was off trail, because I knew this was a recently recovered trail, but also because I saw a flag marker up on the side hill that simply should not have been there. I am not sure how it got there, but it caused me to believe I was still headed in the right direction when I was not. Soon, I realized that I could not possibly be on the trail and started to climb higher up the ridge to my right in hopes of finding the trail. But that was not the right direction -- the trail was actually below me to the left -- yet I bushwhacked through the buckthorns to climb higher, and my legs and hands were getting sliced to ribbons. About the time I got thoroughly dejected, I heard some voices far below me and called down to them, but they did not answer. So then I busted my way back through the buckthorns, getting cut up some more, as I headed down toward the voices, calling out as I went. Suddenly, someone responded and told me they were on the trail, so I headed straight down the scree field, getting my shoes full of rocks as I went. I reached the trail just as three runners arrived and while I was relieved to be on the trail again, the news they gave me discouraged me -- I had told them I had been lost for a half hour up there and had surely blown the lead I had worked so hard to build, and they informed me that, yes, there were two runners ahead of me somewhere. We still had about 1500 feet of climbing to get out of Siberia Creek and while I felt I was still climbing well, I could not shake these three runners. So I accepted the fact that I could not be gaining on the two runners they said were ahead of me. But, hey, if I could hold them off, I could still finish on the podium, I thought. As far approached the top of the climb and the steepness leveled off, I caught two runners and was encouraged again. I asked them if they were the two 100-milers the others said I was chasing and they said, no, they were in the 50-mile race. I was confused at this point, thinking perhaps there must be two other runners still ahead of me. But all six of us reached the water stop at Champing Lodgepole Pine at the same time and when I asked the woman there how many 100-milers had come through, she said I was the first! Turns out the 50-milers had all thought I was the lead 50-miler, not the lead 100-miler, so they thought we were all in the same race! When they learned I was the lead 100-miler, all came clear, and they said they had indeed passed the second-place 100-miler -- Harald -- soon after the crossing at Bear Creek and he had been sitting beside the trail not looking very well. Suddenly, I was encouraged again! From here, we had a long, mostly descent into the Camp 5 aid station at Aspen Glen Picnic Area, at mile 91.5 or 92.5, depending on which mileage chart you looked at. Anyway, I arrived there still feeling pretty good, though my feet were starting to hurt as my shoes were still full of rocks (which shredded my socks, it turned out, but only gave me a small blister). At the aid station, I had expected to find out that my getting lost had cost me any chance of breaking 24 hours, which had been my goal since before the race. But Nancy informed me it was only 3:53 when I arrived and I still had more than two hours to cover the remaining eight or nine miles. She also had been talking to Catra Corbett, who was at the aid station, about finding me a pacer for the final section, and Catra's friend, Corina Smith, was pressed into duty to pace me to the finish, even though she herself had been throwing up earlier that day. We left the aid station not knowing exactly how many miles were left to go and not knowing how close my nearest pursuer was. But we had a 1600-foot climb over the next five or six miles to complete our big loop around Big Bear Lake and a three-mile decent to the finish line. I was climbing well, and Corina, who was a retired 21-year veteran of the LAPD, was perfect for the task of pacing me, as she set a strong pace which I was able to maintain for the most part. We went through the final water stop at the top of the climb and got onto the single-track of the Skyline Trail, which would take us to the final turn and the decent to the finish. The problem was we didn't seem to be getting anywhere, and then suddenly there were no course markers anywhere to be found. We went several miles not knowing if we had somehow taken a wrong turn, but we knew we were still on the Skyline Trail and even though I was about 96 miles into the race, I was still cognizant enough to remember that we took the Skyline all the way to the Coyote Trail, which I had been on at the start of the race almost 24 hours ago. I told her we needed to keep going until we reached this turn, which I would recognize, but she wasn't so certain. Corina ran ahead on a straight line, while I stayed on the trail, which was a mountain bike trail and wound back and forth on itself like ribbon candy. Suddenly, I heard a whoop from Corina, who had found the Coyote junction and she yelled for me to get up there. Only thing was, with all the twists and turns of the trail it still took me a while to reach her and to being the final decent. I had calculated during the ascent that I needed to be at the top of Coyote by 5:20 p.m. in order to assure myself a sub-24-hour finish, and would prefer to get there by 5:10 so as not to have to push it. However, we did not arrive until 5:32 and I felt there was no way I had enough left in the tank to cover the final three miles in less than 28 minutes. But Corina got me to start running and I found I could run faster than I thought. But, still, I could not imagine that I would have enough time to break 24. As we neared the bottom, we saw Catra coming up the road, and she said we still had about a mile to go, but that included a short little uphill section as well. But I kicked it in, and ran harder down the final grade to the paved road and then shuffled up the hill to reach the final turn to the finish, still more than a quarter mile away. I told Corina that I needed two minutes and did not expect that I still had two minutes left, but she said I had four minutes left and I kicked it in. Soon, I saw Nancy and could hear the crowd at the finish line yelling. Matt was on the microphone whipping the crowd into a frenzy to cheer me on to a sub-24 finish and I was running as hard as I could as I made it into the finish chute amongst all the calamity. Nancy was there, and she said I might have just missed 24 hours, but then Matt came on the mike again and announced my winning time: "Twenty-three hours, 58 minutes and 55 seconds!" I had made it with 65 seconds to spare! I was so excited and the moment was too surreal. I could not believe I had just won a 100-mile race! Corina later congratulated me and told me I had turned in a 7:55 final mile in order to get in under the 24-hour mark. I sat for a while, enjoyed my complimentary Dos Equis, and was helped to the car by Nancy so I could go take a shower at our cabin about a mile away on the lakeshore. Then I came back to the finish area to learn that Paul Jesse of San Diego had rallied to finish second in 24:42:28, meaning I had won by almost 45 minutes. Harald Zundel, despite his stomach issues, held on to finish third in 26:12:48 and Ken Ringled, who had been second when I passed him would up fourth in 27:44:14. Sully, it turned out, had dropped at the 50-mile mark, as had most of the field. As it turned out, only 19 of the 73 starters finished the race, the high attrition rate being because the race was much, much harder than even the race directors anticipated. Before the race, Paul had suggested that the winning time would be about 19 hours. I knew better. I thought maybe 21 hours. But I also knew that I was capable, on a good day, of doing this course in under 24 hours. I was right about that, but what I did not know was that that was going to be good enough to post the greatest achievement of my running career. Because so many people were still out on the course, there was no way to hold the awards ceremony Saturday night as anticipated, and Paul rescheduled it for Sunday morning. By then, my legs were feeling the effects of going 100 miles, but I was still so euphoric that I somehow did not notice. During the awards ceremony, Paul said never in a million years would he have picked me to win the inaugural Kodiak 100. I understand his point. How many 53-year-olds are winning 100-mile races? "It was like the Cubs winning the World Series!" Paul exclaimed as he brought me onstage for my award, which was a beautifully hand-carved wooden bear that I will treasure forever. Nancy and I flew back to Colorado after the race and began getting ready for The Bear the following weekend. We drove nine hours to Logan, Utah, for the race, and I felt pretty good considering. But I was lacking the mental edge I would need to cover 100 miles again with just six days of rest. I was moving fairly well for quite a while, however, getting beyond the 45 miles which is where I dropped at this race last year. Unable to run much, I was mostly power hiking, but sometime around midnight and the 18-hour mark the wheels came off and I limped into the aid station at mile 61 with nothing left. Nancy and Steve Pero helped me to the truck and we drove back to Logan and a hot bath at the motel. It was a long drive back to Colorado that afternoon, but my disappointment of not finishing The Bear -- and in not securing a qualifying race -- paled in comparison to what I had accomplished the week before at the Kodiak 100. And to think, none of it would ever have happened if not for a chance encounter on top of a mountain four years before! You meet so many people in your life, but you just never know which of them are going to have an impact on your future. Thank you, Paul, for your friendship and for inviting me to the inaugural Kodiak 100. I will treasure the moment forever.