According to Greek mythology, the Chimera was a monstrous fire-breathing lion, with the head of a goat arising from its back, and a tail ending with a snake’s head. According to the website for the race of the same name, those who have run the course refer to it simply as “The Beast”.
The Chimera 100 miler takes place on a figure eight course that starts and finishes at Blue Jay Campground, in the Trabuco region of the Cleveland National Forest southeast of LA. With over 22,000′ of elevation gain, it’s rated one of the toughest trail 100 mile races in the country.
I had originally planned on running Cascade Crest in August as my first 100 miler, but after being side-lined for two months from an injury during Diez Vista 50k earlier this year, I was forced to look for an alternative in late-Fall. My buddy Dave suggested I join him for this fairly small race with what would turn out to be a big reputation, and I didn’t hesitate for long. “Chimera eh? I hear that course has got some bite!” was the reaction from another friend. “Just remember to save something for the last 30 miles.”
My goal would be simply to finish feeling strong and hopefully in under 27 hours, although that was very much an arbitrary time goal. The truth is I would have been happy with anything just under 30 hours so I could get the special nickel buckle (and well under the cut-off time of 34 hours). But the change in schedule made it difficult to wrangle a crew or a pacer, so Dave and I would be on our own.
It turns out that mine wouldn’t be a story of pain, suffering, or any of the horrible experiences common with first 100 mile races. No puking, no bonking, and not a single blister. I wish I had a better story to tell, like having to dig myself out from the darkness after an epic low point to come back to slay The Beast. The best I can do is tell you about what I think went right in my training and in my execution during what was a difficult but overall a very enjoyable and memorable race.
And So It Begins..
Dave and I had flown in to LAX the Thursday before the race and spent a night in Long Beach before making the 3 or so hour drive to Blue Jay Campground the following day. With compression socks on, we’d focussed on hydration, while trying to minimize stress and time-on-feet.
We setup camp in one of the designated campsites near the race start, and took a short tour of the area to get a feel for the terrain and lay of the land. We actually managed to get a full 8 hours sleep before our 4am alarm – the most sleep I think I’ve ever had before a race.
The First Half
We lined up at 6am and, after a few words from the race director, the 125 of us were off and on our way through the campsite to the single track that would make up the first 46 mile loop. The goal was to just take it really easy for the first half of the race. I kept thinking back to some advice I had heard somewhere, “if you think you’re running slow enough, slow down”. I really had to hold back on the downhill sections to save the legs, but I pushed a little harder than most on some of the climbs.
Dave and I were doing a little bit of yo-yoing, but eventually settled in side-by-side where we’d remain for almost the first 80 miles of the race. We had similar time goals and recognized there’d be a strategic advantage in running together as long as we could. Who needs a pacer or crew when you’ve got a good friend to run with for 21 hours? Especially one with as much ultra experience as Dave.
At about 24 miles in, we did some quick math and realized we might be a little ahead of schedule – on closer to a 21 hour pace, to be exact. I figured that would be a good time to send a quick update using the Delorme inReach SE that I was carrying in my Salomon 5L pack to allow friends and family to track me online the whole way.
The weather during the afternoon had been perfect – not too hot, probably somewhere in the mid-20 degrees celsius. I had taken a slightly longer taper, with almost 4 weeks of relatively lower volume but where I did keep up the intensity and, after have only run a few times the week before, I was feeling a little stale coming in to the race. But I was starting to find a groove and the legs were feeling alright.
Before we knew it, Dave and I arrived back at the campsite again where we had our headlamps stashed along with spare clothes and food. We were back on what we thought would be roughly a 24 hour pace – although it turns out that most of the hard climbing really was in the second half.
14 Hours of Darkness
The course had been re-routed from previous years to include 12 additional miles of singletrack, but almost 40 miles of jeep track still lay ahead, mostly in the dark. In fact, we’d end up spending about 15 hours of the race in darkness, including the first hour or so which we’d run by headlamp as well.
I had gotten used to running in the dark, between running the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier completely unsupported over a 39 hour period (32 hours of actual running) two months before, as well as a 21-hour all night slog in the backcountry the weekend before that. The difference now was that my pack was about 15 pounds lighter, and I was being catered to at fully stocked aid stations – and we made sure to stop to enjoy each one!
Pringles, Red Vines, chocolate pretzels, freshly grilled cheese sandwiches, miso and tomato soups, fruit, avocado wraps – the variety at the major aid stations had us always looking forward to the next. In between, I was alternating between Clif Bar Shot Gels, Bloks, and Energy Bars while on the run. I’d also taken a few electrolyte pills during the day, and was now relying on 200 mg caffeine pills every few hours to help get me through the night. Every time one of us ate or drank, we’d remind the other. As the saying goes, we’d been eating early and eating often.
We managed to take one wrong turn on our way out of Silverado Canyon to Bedford Peak, taking a right and running an extra KM down a jeep track instead of a left before second guessing ourselves and doubling back. Overall, the course hadn’t been quite as well marked as some that I’m used to, but I realize it can be a challenge in races of this length and the turn-by-turn directions that were provided were a huge help. It turns out that people had been pulling flagging as well, assumed to be mountain bikers (or maybe people mistaking flags for trash?).
Summiting Santiago Peak around midnight, a ferocious and cold wind picked up (had we awakened The Beast?). This is where I suspect that many of the 48 DNF’s had dropped. At least a few admitted afterwards that they just weren’t used to the cold, having done most of their training in typical Californian heat. Fortunately, Dave and I were well prepared, with jackets, gloves, and toques in our drop bags, and maybe just a little more used to dealing with weather.
The Last 30 Miles
While I wasn’t finding the terrain particularly difficult, what was mentally challenging about the course were the ‘out-and-back’ sections, some as short as a mile. I’ve come to prefer courses that give you the feeling of covering large distances, not running around in circles or back-and-forth. I was feeling really tired and more than a little grumpy. Dave had prepared me for the fact that I would come to a point where I’d have to have a conversation with myself, where I’d have to ask if it’s that I “can’t” run anymore or I just don’t “want” to. In this case, it was definitely just the latter.
But soon enough, we were on our way back down and our spirits were lifting. Almost three-quarters done and I found myself rejoicing the fact that we had “only” 6 or 7 hours left to go (time becomes relative when you’re used to 20+ hours runs), but another challenging section of the course still lay ahead: The 7 mile out-and-back from Indian Truck Trail to Corona. 7 miles of truck trail down; the same 7 miles of truck trail back up.
I’m not going to lie, given how runnable the terrain was and how great my legs were still feeling, I ended up really enjoying this section. I’m not sure that Dave agreed though, saying that he’d never had to “run” this much in an ultra before and encouraging me to run ahead and “do my thing”. His ankle wasn’t feeling great, so he decided not to push it.
It felt pretty good to be passing runners this late in the race who had passed us earlier on. I even managed to run most of the climb back up, passing some who’d been reduced to walking even on the downhills, casualties of 80 hard miles.
I’d been looking forward to doing a bit of running on my own, just getting inside my own head a little and really soaking in the whole experience. This is what I had come here for. It was time to drop the hammer, but I’ll admit that I was finding it difficult to keep the pedal down and to stay focussed now without anyone in sight to chase or to run from.
Coming in to the aid station at Indian Truck Trail for the second time, I overheard talk of shutting the race down due to the high winds. The tents were getting blown over and there were concerns for the safety of both runners and volunteers. Someone suggested that I might want to be on my way, just in case that call was made, so I didn’t hesitate for a moment – there was no way I was getting pulled from this race at mile 97!
The rest of the race pretty much flew by. With the sun rising, it felt like just me and the mountain. I ran my heart out and did manage to pass two more runners along the ridge. As I ran up the hill to Trabuco Trail, the volunteers were at the top clapping and cheering me on and looked more than a little surprised as I ran right past and began sprinting down the final descent.
With a huge smile on my face and the biggest runner’s high I have ever had, I was hitting a 4 min./km pace on legs that felt almost fresh. The short stretch of pavement at the bottom felt almost as good as the final stretch of single track through the campsite – just a moment of panic as I realized the flagging had been pulled at a key intersection, but managed to guess the right direction before seeing another flag – crossing the finish line in 25:30 for 17th place overall, my first 100 miler in the bag.
I pretty quickly made my way back to the tent to nap for a couple of hours, before coming back for some burgers and beer, and to see Dave who had finished just an hour after me.
In the days that followed, I ate an absolutely ridiculous amount of food and slept even more than I had in the week leading up to the race, but my legs felt great. I did take almost an entire week off from running, and have still been keeping my mileage quite low even now, almost 3 weeks later, in an effort to give my body the rest it deserves.
I wouldn’t change anything in the execution of my race, nor in my training. I think the fact that I felt so strong in the last 30 miles is thanks to smart pacing through the first half and having really focussed on my nutrition. We got lucky with the weather; it wasn’t too hot during the day, and the cold didn’t bother me at night. It may have just been the adrenaline and dopamine, but I really did feel that I could have kept going – which is good, considering that I’ve signed up for a 120 miler next year 😉
A huge thank you to Salomon, Suunto, CLIF Bar, and inReach Canada for the support throughout the year to help make my race such a success. Thank you as well to the race organizers and the amazing volunteers, and to Dave Melanson (couldn’t have done it without you!). See the full race results here.