Picture this: A car coming to a screeching halt, exhaust fumes everywhere and nothing but pure burn. “Can you breathe,” I hear someone ask.
I’m disoriented, unable to respond. My eyes search for Amanda, my pacer. There is a mixture of exhaustion, adrenaline, euphoria and the question ringing in the back of my head: What the hell just happened?
I see Amanda. I’m crying. I give her a hug. The next thing I know, I’m sitting in a chair, my lungs are on fire and I’m having trouble regulating my breathing. I hear someone say, “Call the medic. Her mouth is purple, and she’s having trouble breathing.” An ice pack drops on my head, cold water pours over me, and someone shoves a cup in my hand and tells me to drink.
Then I hear the medic, “Can you breathe?”
Me: “Yeah, I just need a minute.”
The guy is standing there, watching me.
Me: “I’ll be fine.”
I’m not sure how long I sat there before I realized the clock had struck 2 p.m., and, as I look up, Wanderley Reis comes across where the finish line of the 31st annual Angeles Crest 100 (AC100) used to be just 7 minutes and 46 seconds before.
Wanderley had missed the 33-hour cutoff. I’d hopscotched the last 50 miles of the race with him and his pacers, and I couldn’t understand how he had missed the cutoff. I was devastated for him!
This is the year, I had said to myself. I’m going to push every physical limit while I’m still able to do so, and here I was sitting on a chair after having crossed the finish line in a time of 32:55:20. Never before in my five years of ultra-running had I had to chase cutoff. This was a new and interesting feeling.
My journey to AC100 began in August 2017, when on a whim I had entered the lottery for the 2018 race knowing little more than it was a classic and I wanted to check it off my “to do” list. Ever heard the saying “What you seek is seeking you?”
Fast forward to August 2018. I’m nursing Achilles Tendinitis coming off a rollercoaster year with some of the hardest ultras out there. I’m questioning my sanity, but, still, I begin to prepare for AC100. My crew and pacer Amanda Smith and I get to Wrightwood, California, on Thursday, August 2, and find out that logistics for crewing and pacing at AC100 are just nuts. Amanda assures me we’ll make it work!
Race: Angeles Crest 100-Mile Endurance Run
Race Directors: Ken Hamada, Jakob Herrmann and Gary Hilliard
Location/Course: Race starts at downtown Wrightwood and ends at Loma Alta Park in Altadena, California. While the runners find a way to thrive on the high alpine ridges of Baden-Powell summit at 9,300 feet, the rocky trails of high country, and the deep canyon surrounding Mt. Wilson. The terrain is extremely technical, with a mix of rocks, roots, lots of loose dirt and ridgelines as you traverse sections of the single-track trails and a solid mix of pavement. It’s HOT! Thrown into the mix is 21,610 feet of cumulative climb and 26,700 feet of descent. The ascents are steep and the descents even steeper!
Difficulty: AC100 is considered one of the more challenging running event in the world!
Time Limit: 33 Hours
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Pacer/Crew: Amanda Smith
Goals & Training: Coming off Cruel Jewel 100 at the end of May, followed by Cry Me A River 100K in July, I had ample training for hills and heat. (Or so I thought.) My goal for the race was to finish in 30 hours, but this isn’t my first rodeo, and I always stay fluid with my running “goals.” Ultimately, I wanted to come home to St. Louis with a buckle. Finish before DNF, because DNF sucks.
Start (0.0 Miles) to Islip Saddle (25.6 Miles)
The race began at 5 a.m. on Saturday, August 4. I don’t remember much other than I said goodbye to Amanda and the next thing I knew we were climbing. (The uphill trek had begun within the first half-mile of the start line.) It was still dark, so my head was down. I was eerily aware of my heart rate and my slow hiking pace as we climbed from 5,942 to 9,260 feet within the first 16 miles. When I finally looked up, the sun was rising in the distance — Blue Ridge in all its morning glory and the promise of a gorgeous day ahead.
I needed to steady my breathing in order to be able to run the downhill, as I was clearly sucking on the uphill. By the time I hit Vincent Gap aid station (13.8 miles), my breathing had settled a bit and I was running steady. I filled up my water, because the next aid station at Islip Saddle was 11.4-mile trek and the sun was starting to beat down on us.
Soon after leaving Vincent Gap, I found myself at a standstill while I waited for the first rattlesnake of the day to cross the trail in front of me. Onwards! About 1.5 miles before I hit Islip Saddle, I had drunk through my entire 16-ounce handheld and 2-liter bladder and was completely out of water. WTH!?!
At this point, I was well ahead of my projected 30-hour finish pace, and, despite being hot, I felt good. I saw Amanda at Islip Saddle, filled up my water, refueled and once again began to climb.
Islip Saddle (25.6 Miles) to Chilao (44.4 Miles)
In short, everything in between Islip Saddle and Chilao pretty much sucked. In length, this is the section when all hell broke loose. We hit several sections of pavement on the highway, weaving in and out of dirt trails, then pavement again and no tree cover. We were baking. Baking well!
Technically speaking, I should have been able to make up some time running on the pavement and its lighter inclines, but the heat rising from the asphalt could be seen from a distance. No amount of ice or water helped. It felt like hell, or what I imagined hell would feel like as I tried to divert my brain from going into a dark place. In my head, it sounded like this.
Me: I don’t ever want to go to hell if this is what hell feels like.
Myself: Maybe there are tiers in hell. Tiers of HOTNESS.
I: Tiers or not this is HELL! Damn it, my ink is getting burnt!
I tried to make myself run from one siderail to the next on the road, then hike in between. At some point, my brain just gave up and I started a death march on the pavement, not giving two shits about my pace and time. I just need to get through this and wait for the sun to go down to pick up pace!
Chilao (44.4 Miles) to Chantry (74.0 Miles)
By the time I got to Chilao, I was an hour ahead of the cutoff at that aid station and fully aware of the fact that my so-called 30-hour finish goal was currently hanging in the balance of “get your shit together” and “get the hell out of this aid station.” I saw Amanda at Chilao for the last time, knowing the next time I would see her would be at Chantry (74 miles), where she would be jumping in to pace me for the last 26.2 miles to the finish.
I was in and out of Chilao, stocked up and ready for the sun to go down. Some of my better running happens at night. I’m much more in tune with myself and can focus on powering through. Plus, I figured the drop in temperature would help me make up some time, so I was looking forward to hammering the run and hopefully getting ahead.
Shortly after leaving Shortcut (50.7 miles), my headlamp was turned on and I was starting to enjoy my run as I marveled at the sunset and the expanse of where I was. I couldn’t help but think how miniscule and insignificant we are when thrown against nature. One misstep and I could be engulfed in the nothingness of the mountains!
The miles went by fast, and as I ran hard down a tight switchback I suddenly noticed that I wasn’t alone. In front of me stood Cesar Salas and Tristan Jones, both of whom I had chatted with earlier in the day as we hopscotched each other during the race.
Me: What’s up guys?
Me: That’s number two for the day!
After the snake had crossed the trail, we started to pace together and a few minutes later I broke away from the boys and kept rolling down a steep descent. But it was soon over, and I was hiking a steep hill when I heard someone behind me. It was Cesar sitting down on a rock.
Me: C’mon man! Don’t sit. We have got to keep moving.
I was fully aware of the fact that sitting at this point in the race would be futile, and time was not on our side. So, just like that, Cesar, Tristan and I became the three musketeers.
By the time we left Red Box (59.3 miles) I was starting to feel some hot spots at the bottom of my feet and reluctant to accept that I was nursing some massive blisters. Just then, we passed Morris De La Roca. I was so focused on running that I didn’t even notice that Morris had no headlamp. I heard Cesar exchange a few words with him. I asked Cesar what was wrong, and the long-short of it was that Morris’ headlamp was out of battery and he feared being disqualified if he asked for help. As a result, he was now “running” in the light of his cell phone.
Me: Huh!?! That’s crazy!
Cesar and I waited till Morris caught up to us, and we asked him to run in between the two of us until he got to the next aid station and could ask for batteries there. We finally made it to Newcomb (67.6 miles)! I sat there while the aid station crew helped me patch up my blisters and change my socks. As I contemplated whether to change my shoes or not at Chantry, I heard someone say the course sweep were at Newcomb already. Sheer panic set in! What!?!
Me: How far ahead of the aid station cutoff are we?
Cesar: One hour! We are waiting on you, let’s go.
Me: Don’t wait on me, not sure I can keep up. My feet are done!
Cesar: Let’s go!
So, with that, Cesar, Morris and I were back on the trail while Tristan tried to piece himself together. Every step felt like a stab, and I just couldn’t hot-step the downhill as fast as I would’ve liked. As Cesar and Morris broke away from me, I knew I would be running alone once more. But I was looking forward to picking up Amanda at Chantry, so all was not lost just yet.
Chantry (74.0 Miles) to Finish (100.2 Miles)
“You Can, You Will.” That was what was written on the pavement as I turned the corner to Chantry, and that was what became my mantra from Chantry all the way to the finish. I saw Amanda at the aid station, ready to roll. I filled up water and food and tried to eat while the medical team worked on my feet again. Time was ticking away!
Chasing cutoff is not conductive to effective stress management, and I knew getting my feet patched and changing my socks and shoes had eaten into some of the time cushion that I had when I rolled into Chantry. By the time Amanda and I hit the trail again, I was 40 minutes ahead of cutoff. We were anticipating the last 25 miles to be the hardest, as I had heard all day Saturday from some of the veterans on the course. I wondered how hard this section could be. We were about to make the infamous climb to the “Dead Man’s Bench.” Aw shit! That’s right, I thought I had died and gone to hell for sure.
Dead Man’s Bench was graced by my rear, and I sat there taking in the marvelous view. It was worth it! I didn’t sit there for too long, though, as I was aware of the time constraints, so we climbed some more. It was Sunday morning, and the air was still a little cool, so I hammered the downhills like a mad woman, hitting a 7:55 pace. I could feel the blisters in my feet pop. I didn’t care!
Quick stop at Idlehour (83.4 miles). I had made up some time, but not enough to stop and lollygag. We hustled to climb once more. The temperature was hitting 97 degrees, the trail was exposed, I could feel dehydration setting in and I was running out of water again. It felt like I was on fire. I was having trouble regulating my breathing, and, pretty much since having left Red Box, I had been hacking and coughing dusty mucus. At this point in the race, my lungs were shot. I was acutely aware of the tightness in my chest that had gotten worst.
Sam Merrill (89.1 miles) was a blessing! As I sat there, I was doused with water, ice dumped in my buff, sunblock sprayed all over my body. Sam Merrill was like a mad lab of volunteers! Fully stocked and ready to hit the trail once again with Amanda in lead, my brain just felt like soup. Hot boiling soup. Sigh! I can’t do this anymore. I think I tried to speak, but I couldn’t form any words. “We have to run” is all I heard Amanda yell as she continued on a really technical downhill switchback. I rolled my ankle three times and stood at one of the switchbacks with tears building up in my eyes…or was it because I was squinting so hard that I had lost all depth perception on the trail? There was no telling what was happening. I felt like I had lost all control. The combination of heat, sun, dehydration, fatigue and blisters hurt. Everything hurt!
Just then, we had to stop again for a snake. C’mon!
By the time I rolled into Millard (95.6 miles), I had officially lost my shit. Everything was happening so fast. Volunteers at the aid station were talking fast, my head was spinning and then I heard Amanda. “We are 7 minutes ahead of cutoff at this aid station and we can’t stop.”
I needed to stop. I was crying, either in pain or shock or at the enormity of the task that laid ahead: 4.6 miles of running in an hour — not hiking, not walking, just running hard to the finish. I have never felt so broke down in my life, and everything was out of my control. All I remember saying was I can’t breathe. Before I could utter another word, Amanda was off again and edging me to follow. I wanted to yell and say I couldn’t and I wouldn’t, but I knew that was bull.
“You Can, You Will.” I repeated those words in my head, and we ran. We ran hard! Amanda and I turned the corner to the last 1.2 miles on pavement and I could see Yoshio Otaki struggling to run about a quarter-mile ahead of me, he was chasing cutoff just like I was. It can’t be, I wanted to scream. This isn’t right. Why can’t I breathe? My legs felt fine, my brain was operating on adrenaline, but my lungs were just about giving out on me. Just then, Amanda turned to look for me. I was stalled.
Amanda: You can’t stop, not now! You need to run! Don’t freakin’ stop! You have to finish!
I could see the panic in Amanda’s face, and all I heard was yelling. “Let’s go, 3 minutes.” I ran. I have never run so hard in my life except for when I’m angry. It was anger, it was fatigue, it was madness, and it was running like my life depended on it.
“It’s only running” some will say, not life or death. Choosing to quit is easy, but in choosing to continue moving forward, knowing that the odds are stacked against you, there is a rush like no other.
It’s been over a week since I crossed the finish line for AC100, and I can still feel the tightness in my chest when I run. I’m still coughing up mucus. Is that weird? I’ve caught myself asking that multiple times.
I can’t explain what happened, but when I look at the race results and see that only 100 of the 190 runners who started the race finish it, I feel good. I was one of the 100 runners who got to experience the “golden moment wrapped inside the exhaustion,” and I get to savor it.
There is a time for holding onto and there is a time for letting go. AC100 was my time to hold onto. There will come a point in my running career when I will have to let go, because we can’t ride the high for too long, such is life. But I’m not there yet!
To My Pacer
Amanda has paced me at a couple of 100-mile races and never before had I acutely felt the need for a pacer until AC100. Words will probably never be enough to say thank you!
Amanda, in the moments when I stalled and broke down, I wouldn’t have made it out had you not pushed me, pushed me to dig deep, pushed me to not give up and pushed me to finish. Thank you for being my friend, for pacing my sorry arse and for not letting me give up when every attempt to take a breath made me want to drop dead. The buckle for AC100 will forever hold your name on it!
Our blog writers are members of Terrain Trail Runners, local athletes just like you, who want to share their love and knowledge of the sport.