“Up for doing a bit of running in San Diego in June?”
I had quite a few big training runs on the schedule leading up to my first 100 km race, the Waldo 100k later this summer, so when two friends asked if I’d crew and pace at the San Diego 100 miler, it sounded like a great excuse for a vacation.
My friends Hozumi and Jeremy, both much more experienced and talented runners, have been really great in mentoring me over the past year as I transitioned from road to trail and in training for longer distances, so I was happy to help.
I also figured it would be a great way to experience first-hand what’s involved in a 100 mile race in case it’s something I might want to do myself one day (I definitely learned a thing or two about how to prep drop bags from Hozumi).
There was originally going to be a big group of us heading down but it ended up being just myself and Jeremy’s girlfriend Mandy who could get away from work. While SD100 would be Jeremy’s first 100 miler, it was Hoz’s third and he had a fairly aggressive time goal of around 21 hrs. This meant trying to crew for two runners who would be fairly spread apart with a single vehicle, so we’d be bouncing back and forth between aid stations quite a bit.
The plan was for Mandy and me to crew for both runners until around mile 72. As the sun set, I was to hop in and begin pacing Hoz through the night until the finish. I was then going to take a short break before catching up with Jeremy who, at that point, would still have a few hours of running left to go, so that I could pace him to the finish.
“No more than 50 miles!” I had repeated this, only half-jokingly leading up to the race. The truth is that, after having just run my first 50 miler a month or so before, I didn’t want to push it any further on what was supposed to be a training run for me.
Barry, another runner from Vancouver, would be there running his first 100 miler as well (with the help of Alex to crew and pace all on her own) who I had met on a few occasions earlier this year. What all three runners from Vancouver were really lacking was any form of real training in the heat.
The biggest take-away from my experience in San Diego? In a 100 miler, things don’t always go as planned.
While the San Diego 100 miler typically expects a roughly 70% finish rate, brutally hot conditions greeted us on race day which, unbeknownst to us at the time, would lead to less than 50% of runners crossing the finish line.
After seeing them off from the start-line, Mandy and I met our runners at the first aid station, 7.4 miles into the race, which was a turn-around point. Everyone was looking great, with Hoz and Jer having settled in mid-pack, taking their time early on in the race as planned. Then we had some time to kill so we headed back into town for lunch and some supplies.
Crews weren’t allowed after the 2nd aid station until the 7th, 44.1 miles into the race. By the time we returned, things had really heated up (literally) as runners were making their way from Noble Canyon where it was reportedly well over 100°F.
Hozumi eventually came running through, looking and feeling surprisingly well, and was pretty quickly on his way. Many others wouldn’t be so lucky and we heard some had already started to drop.
Being now almost halfway through the race and with very different time goals, he and Jeremy would be separated by quite a bit which meant Mandy and I now splitting up. I took the car and made my way to the next aid station while she waited for Jeremy to come in.
The 8th aid station, Sunrise (or “the Dog Pound”), at mile 51 was pretty amazing. A huge variety of hot foods and drinks, music, lifesize themed decorations, superb first aid, and a ton of volunteers await runners coming off the hottest part of the course. It’s the point at which pacers can join in, if needed.
Barry arrived first and, unfortunately, by vehicle. He had dropped after a few mishaps and having succumb to the heat and hitched a ride to the next aid station from a passing car. We were pretty surprised as he’d been in around 10th-15th place for much of the race.
Hozumi arrived about 10 mins later, still looking and feeling okay although a little behind schedule. He switched from his hand-held water bottles to his pack from the first of his two drop bags and grabbed a hand-held flash-light, just in case. We’d be passing through here again at mile 80.3, so most runners had a separate drop bag with gear for at night.
I made my way back to the previous aid station to pick up Mandy who, it turns out, was still waiting with Jeremy as he attempted to cool-down and re-hydrate after running through the canyon. We hadn’t planned on the two runners being this far apart and a quick calculation made us realize I’d have to again leave Mandy there so that I could catch up with Hoz at the next aid station in case he needed anything.
Hoz had been sure he wouldn’t need me until the 11th aid station at mile 72.3 when it would be dark, but the 9th aid station at mile 59 presented a chance for him to re-assess so that, worst case, I could jump in at the 10th around mile 64.
I was counting on still having time to pick up Mandy so she could take the car for the rest of the race. But when Hoz eventually arrived, now a couple of hours behind schedule, he hoped I could immediately join him.
I frantically tried to call Mandy to let her know what was happening but she had no reception.
“Do you have my headlamp?” Hoz asked.
“Your headlamp? That’s in your second drop bag at Sunrise, remember?” With him having been behind schedule when coming through Sunrise the first time, I should have known to grab his headlamp since he now wouldn’t have time to make it back before dusk. But not to worry, because I had my big headlamp, a smaller spare headlamp and Mandy’s small headlamp in the car, so I of course offered him mine instead.
“Where’s my headlamp?” Hoz asked again.
“Dude, it’s back at Sunrise. Here’s one of mine.” I was still trying to get ahold of Mandy while getting my gear on.
Suddenly, Hoz was off in the direction of the outhouse (or so I thought) and, as it would turn out, the direction of the course. Turns out people do get a little cranky after running for 12 hours… So I quickly made my way to the next aid station so that I could be completely ready the next time he came in.
I heard back from Mandy who gave me the bad news that Jeremy had decided to drop. He definitely didn’t take the decision lightly, after spending a couple of hours trying to rehydrate and regain his strength. She assured me that she’d find a ride to pick up the car and not to worry about them.
Headlamps ready, hydration bladder filled, I stashed the keys and waited. Hoz arrived (now back to his usual whimsical self), had some soup, put on one of my headlamps and we were on our way around 8pm for the final 36 miles as dusk began to settle in.
You could see dozens of headlamps far off in the distance behind us and we saw a fox on the trail that we could have sworn at first was a house cat. We stopped at one point to fuel on a section of the PCT and sat on what turned out to be a fake rock on the side of a dirt road (not sure what that was about). I was having a great time and it felt good to be running in now cool temperatures after standing around in the sun all day, and I’m sure Hoz appreciated the company.
The miles began to tick away and we were making excellent progress but, slowly but surely, the earlier heat of the day was finally catching up with Hoz as it had with so many others. He started having stomach problems and couldn’t keep anything down which meant that he’d be soon running on empty.
Our run eventually slowed to a run/walk; our run/walk eventually to a walk/rest.
Hoz, showing incredible resolve as always, knew he had to keep moving and asked me to keep him on the clock. As I mentioned, this wasn’t his first 100 miler – he was here to compete, not simply complete, and knew he’d have to keep moving if he was going to at least break 24 hrs. The goal now became simply getting to the next aid station, which tended to be about an hour and a half from the last; or roughly 5-6 x 20 minute sets.
“Let’s power hike the climbs and run the downs for 18 minutes, then take a 2 minute break.” I was having a bit of fun giving Hoz his marching orders, to be honest. In addition to helping me on the trails, he’d actually been coaching me on a weekly basis in my speed work at the track with the Peak Centre Vancouver. Now it was my turn to call out the splits!
At one point, I heard a noise behind me and Hoz informed me that he may need to lie down as he was actually starting to fall asleep on his feet. But we still had 8 minutes left in this set before the next break, sorry bud.
With his stomach having only gotten worse, Hoz was amazingly now running on a completely empty tank. He’d been good at staying hydrated and taking in salt but it was now a game of experimenting with different foods, trying to keep down whatever he could for as long as possible to get just a bit of nutrition from it. The odd pretzel or chip seemed to do the trick, although one too many and we were in trouble.
I, on the other hand, had made flat Mountain Dew my new best friend, along with coffee, chips, pretzels, rice balls, watermelon – whatever I could get my hands on. Unlike the shorter 50k and 50 mile races I was used to, in a 100 miler you can justify taking a little more time at the aid stations to enjoy the buffet – something I could get used to! It was a great chance for me to experiment with some different foods.
Hoz was somehow able to push through and keep moving until, eventually, we were running pretty steadily again – albeit in 18 minute increments.
This had been my first time running trail at night and I was really enjoying the experience. Running back through the canyon, I could only imagine how beautiful it must be in daylight (easy to imagine far from the heat of the day).
I may have gotten us lost at least once… Or twice. But what’s another 500 meters?
We saw Jeremy and Mandy for a second and then a third time who, after managing to retrieve the car, were waiting patiently to support us. They told us about how so many people had dropped earlier in the day.
The sun was beginning to come up, setting the scene for one of the best sunrise photos I’ve never taken. Hoz was still cursing and probably suffering quite badly but, by the time we hit the last aid station, we were really running and aiming for him to finish in under 23 hours.
We continued to pick up speed and ran the final leg of almost 4 miles in just over 44 mins. Hoz finished in 23:05:49 for 15th place out of 82 finishers (and 178 starters). I ran with him for roughly the last 10 hours, from 8pm to 6am; from sunset to sunrise.
They say in a race this long, you hit several walls. I’m really impressed by all the runners who challenged the heat and conditions in San Diego, especially those like Hozumi who were successful in finishing the race.
He has assured me that they’re “not usually like this” but I suspect it may have been even tougher than he let on and I’m not sure I would have made it had I been in his shoes. Still, we’ll have to see how Waldo 100k goes for me in a few weeks, but I’m thinking a 100 miler of my own might not be too far off. It just may not be in San Diego.