2003 Angeles Crest 100 Race Report

Flying into Los Angeles and not being able to see the ground because of the smog was definitely strange. Why the heck am I coming to this place to run 100 miles I asked myself? YUK! How do people live down here, let alone run 100 miles in this stuff?

The reason I am here is because I did not get accepted into the Western States 100 lottery. Even though I finished 14th man in 2001 (20:20), 13th man in 2002 (19:44), and worked at the Dusty Corners Aid Station for 10 years I was not let in as a special consideration. Am I bitter? Not anymore. Since WS is really the only 100 I’ve wanted to run I figure I better at least run a 100 miler that will help me do better at WS when I do get in. AC100 seemed to be the logical choice. It has more climbing and descending than WS: 21,000+ feet of climbing and 26,000+ feet of descending. It has some heat, although I was told by many people that it wasn’t nearly as hot as WS. It also is in the fall which allows for a whole summer of mountain running in Oregon. And, there were a lot of Oregonians going down which would make it a lot of fun for all us. I had quietly predicted a sub 21 hour finish.

So begins my adventure at the Angeles Crest 100 miler on September 27, 2003.

Mt Baden Powell with Joe Kulak

Mt Baden Powell with Joe Kulak

The 5:00am start at Wrightwood was a little cool (maybe 48-50 degrees), but the 2150′ climb up Acorn St and Acorn Trail to the PCT was alarmingly warm, especially since we climbed to 8000′. I settled into a comfortable walk/run behind the lead pack. When we got to the PCT and ran through Inspiration Pt and Vincent Gap I could not believe how absolutely stunning the terrain was. We could see Mt. Baden-Powell from the ridge and it was difficult to imagine that the ugliness of LA was only a short ways away. Gorgeous single-track with views everywhere. I’m running very comfortably as I get to the Vincent Gap aid station right before the second big climb of the race, Mt. Baden-Powell, at about 9200′. I’m probably in 11th place as I eat my first can of Pork and Beans.

The walk up Baden-Powell was real good. I caught and passed Joe Kulak just before the top. As soon as we started down he passed me again and I wouldn’t see him until after the next aid station, Islip Saddle. Right after Islip is another 1300′ climb up Mt Williamson. It is up this climb that it begins to feel a little more than warm. Not much shade in these parts and we have now covered more than 25 miles. I pass Kulak on the way up and Angel Perez, who I will see a lot of this day, catches me and we talk as we near the summit. Angel is a local, knows these trails and is very free with beta. Very nice guy.

After Williamson is the dreaded Cooper Canyon, which I had been told is not hot for the front runners. Either 10th place is not in the front, or this is a much hotter year because I am getting cooked. Angel pulls away and Kulak and Ken Gregorich catch me in the sizzling canyon. Now, I lived and ran in Phoenix for 8 years so I know what a dry heat is like. But I was not prepared for the combination of dry air, altitude, and no shade that I was experiencing. It was brutal. And I had told several people before the race that the hotter it was the better because I know I can suffer. I carried two big bottles in my hands and one on my waist for this 8 mile section and was dry the last mile or two. When John Ticer, one of my crew/pacers, saw me coming up to Cloudburst he asked me what I needed. “A chair,” was my answer. I sat down at Cloudburst and got completely doused and iced up. I could not believe how hot I was.

After cooling off at Cloudburst I run 10:00 minute pace through the easy terrain to 3 Points. Again, though, I sit down at the aid station and get iced and doused completely by Ticer, my brother Chris, and my wife Laurie. I am even complaining to them how hot it is. Ticer tells me that those ahead are also suffering and to slow down and wait for the cooler air of the evening. That was the piece of advice I needed. Forget the sub-21 hour pace for now. Embrace the heat. On the next section to Hillyer (49 miles) I took it very easy and tried not to overheat. I got passed by the salt-encrusted John Pearch who had started easy, but was pushing in the heat. Soon, I see Ken Gregorich who left Cloudburst before me, sitting on the side of the trail. “I just puked so I figured I’d better sit and eat.” There is a slight upgrade on a paved road up to Hillyer and I walk probably 90% of it. Still, no shade. Don’t they have any damn trees down here?

I can see Pearch most of the way to Chilao, the halfway point at 52 miles. We’re sitting in the chairs together, our respective crews attending to us. I was saying outloud how I was “embracing the heat like Jurek says to do.” Yes, I really was OK with it at this point and had confidence that I could pick up the pace again when the sun went down. A fast time was out the window, but there was still some racing to do. Pearch picks up his pacer and my friend, Kelly Woodke at Chilao and we go out together. I begin talking with Pearch about his hydration and electrolyte situation. I expect that we’ll chat for a bit, but Kelly wants no part of this and thus encourages Pearch to start running. They drop me. Whatever. If they want to race I’ll see them later. But this definitely has an impact on me when I see them again later in the race.

At Shortcut Saddle

At Shortcut Saddle

I am still surprisingly very hot on the section to Shortcut Saddle (mile 59). I’m told that Pearch and Kelly had caught Angel and Adaberto Mendoza and were about 15 minutes ahead of me. Pearch put 15 minutes on me in 6.5 miles! I eat a burrito and some soup and sit down and cool off. It is getting toward the evening and I pick up my lights as planned. For this section, I have a Rage which lasts 75 minutes and a backup LED. I was hoping to make it all the way to Chantry (74 miles) before darkness set in, but because I slowed down it was going to get dark sooner on me. Chantry is the next place we can see our crew, 14 miles away.

My brother Chris starts pacing me here, and we walk the first part of the downhill after Shortcut so I don’t puke up the food I just stuffed in my belly. Eventually, we begin running down the hill. It is pretty easy running and I’m feeling OK but still not great. We get to the bottom of the big long downhill and begin the walk up to Newcomb’s Saddle at about 68 miles. The gnats, which have been a problem since Chilao, are just a pain in the butt. I use my hat to swat them away from my face. Running, they can’t keep up, but walking, they are all over our faces. Chatting with Chris we wonder out loud when we’ll see Pearch. We’re walking fast up to Newcombs in the final minutes of daylight. I see Kelly’s bright orange shirt and get a shot of adrenaline, realizing that we caught Pearch. First thing Kelly says to me is “do you have flashlights?” “Of course,” I say. He asks if I have any extras and I tell him that I have a backup for me. He tells me they don’t have any lights and needs my backup. “Nope,” I say immediately. This surprises me later as my natural reaction would be to help, especially since these guys are my friends. Logistics/planning are a big part of running a successful 100. Sorry guys. (They do get a light from an aid station person).

Now I’m full of piss and vinegar and start running down the hill from Newcomb’s to Chantry pretty fast. We have lights on and soon see three ahead of us. I tell Chris that we are going to pass these guys fast. It is Angel, Adaberto and his pacer. They step off the trail and we fly on by. This is very rare for me to run so well on a downhill late in the race. This is fun. I think we are in 5th place when we get to Chantry and sit down and fuel up, but we really are in 6th.

At Chantry, I’m feeling really good about my legs, stomach, and what is to come – the biggest climb of the race. The two Mexicans are in the aid station with me but I’m taking my time to make sure I get everything I need to run these last 25 miles hard. I won’t see my crew again until the finish.

Ticer begins pacing me here and we walk/jog the road out of the station. Angel quickly joins us and stays right on my tail. It is mostly runnable for the first 3 miles out of Chantry and the three of us are close together, chatting. We begin the big 3100′ climb up Mt. Wilson and Angel is right on my butt. This is kinda strange. I thought I had passed him for good before Chantry. But instead, he is walking up Wilson with me step for step. I pride myself on my ability to walk uphill, especially late in these 100s, and am wondering how this is going to play out. Angel continues to be free with the beta and gives me a blow by blow of the upcoming terrain. Very close to the top Angel suddenly drops off the pace. “OK. Let’s go,” I whisper to Ticer. He doesn’t know what is happening, but when he looks back he sees that Angel has dropped off the pace. We walk the last of the uphill very hard and begin hammering the downhill section to Idle Hour. It takes us 2:20 to go up and over Wilson. We are back on sub 21 hour pace.

After Idle Hour we get the last big climb to Sam Merrill and are still moving well. From Sam Merrill, the last 10 miles are mostly downhill, dropping from 4700′ to 800′. The quads are still surprisingly good and I’m able to run at a decent pace. Then suddenly the trail markings get sparse. We get to a junction that is completely unmarked. We look down both ways for ribbons but there are none. We choose the wrong way and end up backtracking several minutes so we can try the other way. I see lights behind us and am now really pissed. Not at anybody in particular. Just at the fact that we are less than 10 miles from the finish and we are wasting time and effort by adding miles and stress and people are catching us. We eventually see a ribbon and realize we are back on the course. I am hammering the downhill again. Ticer has to work to stay with me. I have never run this well in my other 100s this late. Several more intersections are unmarked, but we make the right decisions and luckily don’t get off course again.

We get to Millard and they don’t even have any food or drinks out on the tables! What the hell is that all about? No big deal with so little left in the race. We get some cokes in the cans and they put water in our bottles and we are out of there. We did tell them that the trail was not marked from the last aid station. They wanted details, but we couldn’t give many since we had no idea where we were.

The last few miles into the smog/fog of Pasadena were fairly easy downhill, although there were some technical trail sections. We finish in Johnson’s field at 3:31am for a time of 22:31. 6th place. Got a buckle. I don’t expect to come back.

This was my 4th 100 miler, and I learned a lot, especially about being patient and adapting to the conditions and situations that I found myself in. Once I was able to let go of my expectations of running a certain time, I was able to concentrate on taking care of myself and didn’t stress about being late to aid stations. My crew massaged my quads with ice throughout the day and I really think that helped them from going south. My crew had never done that before. The competition was great, especially when Angel walked up Mt. Wilson with me step for step. Someday it will help me when I’m racing for the win at one of these 100 milers.

Craig Thornley
Eugene, Oregon
October, 2003

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