Wait, I was not supposed to finish this thing…
It was almost Saturday midnight, March 22, 2008, and the darkness was broken by only my flashlight and the full moon. I’ve been moving on my own for over 31 hours covering 83 miles and 44’000 feet elevation change so far. My map shows me that I should be on the 2nd last aid station soon and I look up trying to see any lights. While doing that I got scared to the bones because I’m looking at a big tree which has dozens of human faces staring at me. In an instant reflex I jump back and hold my flashlight against that tree, and with my eyes wide open I recognize that they’re just leaves.
Honestly, I am about to freak out. It’s dark, I’m alone and I’m seeing faces all over the place staring at me. It’s making my tired, beat-up body tremble and every single hair stands up while goose-bumps attack my body over and over again. Soon I realize that I am heavily hallucinating and all I can do is to stare at the floor, ignore the product of my imagination-gone-wild and keep moving. I have read about these events in other runners’ race reports and always thought that it would be an awesome adventure to experience it myself. Now I do and all I want is for it to stop because it’s not as much fun as I thought it would be.
This all started when I was looking for a challenging 100 mile race for my Run4Ryan fundraiser; a race to support Ryan, who is a 2 year old boy who was recently diagnosed with Regressive Autism. Zombierunner Don Lundell told me to try this race called Coyote2Moon. I’ve read about it before but found it to be too difficult for me since it has a monster elevation gain of over 28,000 feet; about 10’000 feet more than Western States 100! After all I’ve been running since only 3 years and started doing hill training sessions just 8 months ago. Sure I’ve done the Rio del Lago 100 in 2006 but that one had only 9,000 feet elevation gain; moreover, I DNFed at last years San Diego100 at mile 50 because of an swollen ankle. It was clear to me that there is no way I could finish such a race and being an ultra runner I immediately signed up.
I had about 2 months to prepare for this race since January was fully booked with my parents visiting us from Switzerland. However, that should give me enough time to come up with lots of excuses I can use once I dropped out. No problem. However, deep inside my brain there was a corner who was thinking: what if? What if I can finish that thing? I definitely was ready to give it my best shoot.
Starting on February I kicked-up my training runs and Zombierunner Don gave me many useful tips and tricks how to prepare for this race. I also went to the website and started to study their hand-drawn course map. For me that didn’t really help much so I spend a few hours tracing the route on Google maps which made me realize that the course is indeed more difficult than I initially thought. In the meanwhile I posted my maps in the race’s discussion forum for others to see.
My maps were good but not good enough. I needed more data. I’m a number junky and I wanted to have an exact schedule planned out. I wanted to know everything there is to know so on race day I can just shuffle along, trust my schedule without thinking numbers and getting confused. With that in mind I started to create a schedule map I would carry with me during the race. It took me several hours but once it was done it was to my liking. It was broken down from aid station to aid station. I knew how many miles it was to an aid station, how long it would take me to go there, how fast I had to move to get there at that time, how long I was allowed to stay there and when I had to be out of that aid station. It also showed me the overall passed time, the elevation chart and where my drop bags were. I knew when it would get dark and when daylight broke, how the temperatures would be during the day and night and that my average pace was 22:12 a mile.
Every day I was thinking about that race. I even dreamed about it. In that dream I was relaxing before the race start and Zombierunner Don knocked onto my car’s door yelling that the race already has started and that I’m late. I told him that my wife is not here yet with my stuff and that I had no running shoes. In that dream I started to freak out and wanting to go run the race with my flip-flops. Luckily I then woke up realizing with great sense of relieve that it was just a dream.
Race day approached fast and soon I found myself driving to beautiful Ojai. I arrived at the Rancho Grande around lunch on Friday. First thing I did was placing my 3 drop bags to their appropriate places. During check-in Cindy asked me if she could nail me. Looking at her a bit perplexed I said “sure” and she gave me 2 nails which I could trade in for food. It’s a funny race, alright, and I already liked it. After a very delicious lunch race director Chris Scott explained how things worked during the pre-race meeting. I also had the chance to chat to a few familiar faces like Don Lundell, Gillian Robinson, Barbara Elia and Carol Cuminale. Around 2 PM I went back to my car to relax and I had to smirk because right then I recalled my dream.
Unlike in that dream I was too nervous to sleep so I just sat there letting my mind wander. Months of preparations came down to this moment and it will the moment of truth because perhaps I am really not supposed to finish this thing. One hour prior the race start I started to tape my feet. I also brought along a list with all items I had to take so I geared up making sure I had all the stuff I needed.
Sure enough at 4 PM sharp we were all off and everybody started to run except me. I promised myself to stick to my schedule, which gave me 3 hours for the first 9 miles, so I found no reasons to start off running. Moreover, this first section had an elevation gain of over 2,000 feet and I was determined to take it easy. Once running on the ridge the first friendships were formed and I talked to Chau (Joe) Pham and Mylinh Nguyen.
Along the way I also spoke to Mark Metcalfe and he guessed we were about 2 miles from the mile 9 Ridge Canyon aid station. Right after he said that we made a right turn and sure enough the aid station was right there. I checked my watch and saw that I am already 45 minutes ahead of my schedule. I ate some watermelon, filled up my Nathan hydration bladder and was out on my way down to the next aid station 8.2 miles away.
This section was fun and we dropped from about 4’900 feet to around 1’800. After a few miles on the fire road the sun went down and our first night started with the full moon peeking out from the mountain range. It was a beautiful clear night and along the way I chatted with Chrissy Weiss. With laughter we found out that we actually lived pretty close to each other. It’s a small world after all. After carefully navigating through my first stream I arrived at the Sisar Canyon aid station. With a bit of a surprise I found out that I was a full 2 hours ahead of my schedule. I unconsciously pushed it too hard on this downhill and perhaps would pay for it later.
I was in and out that aid station within a few minutes. I felt great and was ready to tackle one of the hardest part of this race; the 7.5 miles and 4’300 feet elevation gain to Topa Peak which, with 6,100 feet, is the highest point of this race. Along the way I am talking on my cell to my wife Linda who was at home and it was great hearing her voice. 10 minutes after 11 PM, after walking on stones, sand and snow, I arrived at Top Peak and the views were fantastic. I took one of the playing cards from the pile which we have to bring down to prove that we were on top, took a picture, and listened to the ghost of Topa; a toy monster face inside a glass bowl which upon pressing a little button moved his head, light up his eyes and brain and was talking about something. I sure found that amusing but it was pretty windy and cold so I was ready to go back one mile to the Lyon Canyon aid station. Just when I was about to leave Chau and Mylinh arrived at the top and I was happy to see them.
The downhill was easy and at 11:40 PM I arrived at the 26.1 mile aid station now 2 hours and 15 minutes ahead of my schedule. While being there I marveled that I already did one quarter of the distance. I chatted with the awesome aid station people and thanked them for being here in the cold night supporting us doing this crazy thing. Without them we wouldn’t be able to do this race and I was really thankful.
Shortly before midnight I checked my schedule and learned that my next section is a 6.3 mile, 2’700 feet downhill run which I was supposed to do in 2 hours; meaning I’ll have to move in a 19:02 minute a mile pace. Armed with that knowledge I got off the comfortable chair and went on my way.
This section was a bit more challenging than I thought fighting my way through wild bushes with sharp thorns, small sandy trails on almost vertical cliffs, and a couple of streams where I successfully tried to keep my shoes dry because wet feet and running just does not work for me. For the first time the distance felt longer than it actually was but I did not let that disturb my good mood. Every time I felt that I get irritated or moody or in a bad temper I called out loud my “Bad Mood Alarm”; basically stopping my bad thinking and overriding it with positive karma chanting rhythms like “You feel strong, you feel great”. I’ve used this strategy for the first time and it worked pretty well helping me stay in a positive mood for the whole duration of the race.
Upon arrival at the Rose Valley aid station, a 50K distance into this race, it was bitter cold. Later they told me that they recorded lows down to 22 degree Fahrenheit. I immediately searched for my drop bag because I had clean and warm clothes in there. With shock I discovered that I mislabeled my drop bags and that I won’t be able to change my clothes. Immediately my “Bad Mood Alarm” went off inside my head. While standing there shaking, waiting for a hot melted cheese sandwich, a volunteer offered me a blanked. However, I declined because I knew that if I am getting too comfortable I would stay here too long. I got my sandwich, thanked for it and made my way out of the aid station with my wet and stinky clothes. My strategy worked because a mile up the trail I warmed up enough to feel comfortable.
Almost two miles out the aid station I came by another runner who was making his way down badly limping on his right leg. He twisted his ankle many miles back and obviously was in a lot of pain. While he was passing me I told him to “hang in there”. Unfortunately, right then he twisted his ankle again and instantly shouted a very loud “FUUUUUUCK! I’m so tired of this shit!!” into the darkness expressing his frustration. I felt bad for him because I knew that this race was over for him.
After 12 hours and 15 minutes of leaving the starting line I arrived back into the Lyon Canyon aid station for the 2nd time; 38.7 miles into the race. From there the longest section started which was 12 miles without any aid stations. First the trail went downhill for 2.5 miles, then uphill for 4.5 and lastly downhill again for 5 miles. During the uphill portion I got pretty restless because an aid station volunteer told me that I’ll have to take a sharp left turn after going uphill for about 2 miles and while actually walking the uphill the turn didn’t show up. I was afraid that I missed the turn knowing that I’ve gone much further than 2 miles. Eventually that left turn did show up and I was pretty relieved. One main goal of mine was not to get lost at this race because I did loose over 1.5 hours at the Rio del Lago 100. I eventually reached that goal because I never got lost at this race.
Two minutes after 8 AM Saturday morning I arrived at the 7th aid station Thacher School. It also marked the half-way point of this race being at mile 50.7. I now was 2 hours and 50 minutes ahead of my schedule and I simply was waiting for the big event where I would crash and burn badly. In my mind it was clear that this should happen soon and it sounded like a nice excuse for me not being able to finish this thing. “It was just too hard!” or “I’ve pushed it too much at the beginning!” would be all valid excuses after my DNF.
However, I strangely felt great with no aches whatsoever. I also was surprisingly awake not feeling tired at all. Apparently I was about the 4th or so runner into this aid station and they weren’t set up at all. Luckily they had food and water and while I was there I even helped them setting up their tables. Unfortunately, our drop bags didn’t make it there yet so I wasn’t able to separate from my stinky clothes quite yet.
On my way back up to Ridge Canyon, which also was our 9 mile aid station, it occurred to me that it took me 16 hours for the first half of the race and I had 24 hours left to complete the second half. Smiling and with big thinking eyes I wondered if I indeed had a shot of finishing this thing. Only time will tell because I had a long way to go.
About 2 miles before the next aid station the first 100K runners passed me on their way down to Thacher School. They all were great telling me words of encouragements which was awesome and gave me a good rush. Ridge Canyon aid station came and went by fast. There I got some sunscreen courtesy of zombierunner.com which was awesome because the sun was starting to get hot and I didn’t want to get burned. Running west along the ridge towards the Rose Valley aid station was pretty much uneventful. Along the way there were patches of snow. I kneeled in some of them and the cooling effect felt awesome to my tired legs. I was looking forward to my 4th descend because according to my schedule it was only about 2.5 miles long making it look an easy one. Once there I recognized that the downhill was so steep that I wasn’t able to run it at all but had to walk it all the way down, which I did.
Arriving at that aid station the 2nd time it was way nicer than 11 hours and 30 minutes ago when it was dark, windy and cold. This stop also marked the 100K distance into this race. Interestingly, that aid station offered pickles, Jack Daniels and a delicious ham and cheese burrito. Those volunteers are so awesome! There I also met Nick, who’s from the UK, and we chatted for a bit. I saw that he printed out my maps I’ve posted at the race’s discussion forum and I told him that I created them. He was really thankful for it and told me that they helped a lot.
Together with Nick I left that aid station power-walking back up that steep hill. He told me that he is doing a race every weekend and that simply amazed me. Half-way up the hill he took off strong and I fell behind because I had to conserve my energy. I was still 2 hours and 45 minutes ahead of my schedule so I wasn’t too worried going a bit slower.
Once I made it to the top of the ridge I ran west towards the Gridley Top aid station and arrived there within 2 hours and 5 minutes after leaving the last aid station. My schedule gave me 1 hour and 40 minutes for that section so for the first time in this race I lost some time. No big deal, I thought.
On my way down to Gridley Bottom Karl Meltzer passed me fast and looking strong. He eventually finished this 100 mile race in 19:24:16, which is ridiculously fast. Upon coming into Gridley Bottom I saw my wife Linda and my 2 month old daughter Sophie waiting for me. What a surprise! They decided to come up for the last part of this race to support me and I was mighty happy to see them. I spent 30 minutes in that aid station which was the longest break ever since starting this race. There I also chatted with Steve Ansell and he told me that in 3 weeks he’ll run the challenging Diablo 50 miler. WOW! Sharp at 5 PM Saturday evening I left that aid station and also saw the sinking sun for the last time.
At 8:20 PM I got back to the Gridley Top aid station where I refueled my hydration bladder for the 12th time. Again, I’ve lost some time but I’m still way ahead of my schedule. As I was about to leave an aid station volunteer asked me how I was doing. I told her that I have a blister on my right foot and she told me that her husband could fix it. Rick Miller indeed fixed it and he did an awesome job because that blister never ever bothered me again.
The way down to Cozy Dell was more difficult than I thought. It was dark and the full moon was shining down on us once again. I was walking a lot in order to be careful. The last thing I wanted was to stumble and fall or twist my ankle so late into this race so I took my sweet time. Within the last 1.5 miles to the Cozy Dell aid station I started to heavily hallucinate which really scared me and I was happy to arrive at the aid station almost at midnight. By now I have lost a lot of time and was only 30 minutes ahead of my schedule.
It was windy and cold there and I made the mistake of sitting inside Linda’s car for a few minutes. When I was getting out of the car the cold hit me I started to shake violently. It was so bad that I was not able to screw back the lit of a water bottle. Linda looked worried but I knew that I’ll warm up once I get moving. I got myself a hot tea and was out the aid station to conquer my last uphill in this race.
I still felt good. I was a bit tired but not as bad as the first night and I experienced no pain whatsoever. Little did I know that all that was about to change within the next 7.7 miles. About a mile out of the aid station I felt a big blister on the heels of my left foot which started to hurt pretty badly. For a while I was limping, putting weird pressures onto my foot and sure enough my ankle, which I previously hurt at the San Diego 100, started to act up. On top of that some chafing started inside my thighs. And if that wasn’t enough both of my flashlights started to die on me and I was afraid that I’ll have to wander about those trails in the dark soon. The uphill seemed never to end and it was the hardest thing I ever did on any race. One of my strategies was to listen to Endurance Planet’s “Tales from the Trail” during that uphill and it worked out very well keeping me motivated to move forward. Especially hearing the story from Ben Holmes and how badly he was chafing at his 6th attempt of the 2007 Rocky Racoon didn’t give me any rights whatsoever to whine or complain.
Slowly but surely I arrived at the Gridley Top aid station for the 3rd and last time 94.6 miles into the race. I only had 3.8 miles to go (yes, this race is actually 98.4 miles long). Race director Chris told me that I’ve done well this year and with those words echoing inside my brain I was out on the last part of this race. Luckily some volunteer back at the aid station was able to lend me a flashlight which helped me a great deal.
I had 4 hours for 3.8 miles. I could push myself along the way with my eyebrows and still make it. Unless I fell somewhere to my death or some wild animal is eating me for a late dinner I actually could finish this thing. This realization kicked in fully when I arrived at my last downhill about 2.5 miles to the finish line. On the uphill from Cozy Dell I gave everything I had and by now I was running on raw and empty. I was beaten to death but I didn’t care. Within the hour I would finish and strangely enough I was in no hurry to have it pass. I’m an emotional wreck and some tears are running down my salty cheeks. I have not the slightest desire to sleep despite being up for over 37 hours and moving for about 96 miles. I intentionally wanted to move slowly and let the realization of my complete race fully sink in. Right then and there I came to understand that the most fulfilling part of this race was the actual journey and not reaching the finish line.
It took me 1 hour and 40 minutes to cover the last 3.8 miles. Many other runners passed me on that section and 37 hours and 43 minutes after I started I crossed the finish line. I was only 43 minutes behind my schedule and I was pretty darn proud of my accomplishment. I got some compliments, took some pictures and headed straight to my car to take a nap, which I did for about 2 hours.
Around 8:30AM Sunday morning Linda and I got served some awesome breakfast. They even had a Champagne Mimosa table set up. We chatted with other people and Chris made the award ceremony fun. All 100 mile finisher got their belt buckle and way too soon it was time to say good-bye. My wife and I drove back to Anaheim Hills in our cars; however, along the way I had to pull over and take another couple of hours rest because I was afraid I would fall asleep while driving. I eventually made it home safe where my family was waiting for me.
I stepped into the door, looked at them and said: “Yeah, I guess I did finish that thing!”