My Fourth and Fifth 100 Miler | by Peter Lawson
[About the author: I’m 54 and live in Claremont, CA, at the foothills of the San Gabriels, not far from Mount Baldy. I’m strictly a mid-pack runner (ultrasignup score of ~64%) and I think I fit the stereotype of the average ultrarunner pretty well.]
Two and a half years ago, I ran my first 100 mile race (Indiana Trail 100) and described my preparations and experience in an article I wrote for URP. I really like mountains, hiking, altitude, and the feeling of gratitude, well-being, and humility that comes with being outdoors, being healthy, and on the trails. This summer I ran the Hardrock 100 and only three weeks later finished the Angeles Crest 100. In the following I’ll describe how I got there, and what I’ve learned since my first 100.
My Second 100 miler: A Hardrock Qualifier (Wasatch 100, September 2015)
I spent Christmas 2014 with my family at Mammoth Lakes, California. For a small town it sure has an amazing selection of craft beer, which might partly explain why I mailed in my application to the Wasatch 100 Lottery even before I’d run my first 100. When my name was drawn for Wasatch in February 2015, I switched all my training to hills – even though my first 100 would be almost dead-flat. I followed Bryon Powell’s training plans in “Relentless Forward Progress” and very methodically planned and completed the Indiana Trail 100 in April. I then started doing my long runs up and down Mt Baldy (Mt San Antonio), near where I live in California, and in September 2015 completed Wasatch.
Wasatch beat me up. I had tripped about half-way into the course, spraining my ankle badly, and most certainly cracking a rib. I gingerly tried to walk, hike, then run and although it was uncomfortable, it all seemed manageable, and I eventually finished. When I lay down on the grass by the finish line, I found that my rib was too painful to let me get up again – so I asked for help and seemed to manage after that. The next morning I had to go through contortions to get out of bed at the hotel (hold the upper thigh on the leg nearest the bedside, and keep a firm grasp and a straight arm, and swing the leg and cantilever into a sitting position). By the end of September, the pain was gone and I was back to normal – and I now realized that I had a Hardrock qualifier.
My Third 100 miler: Another Hardrock Qualifier (Fat Dog 120, August 2016)
In November of 2015 I put my name into both the Western States 100 (WS100) lottery and the Hardrock (HR100) lottery for the first time, and of course was chosen for neither. I wanted to run another qualifier for WS100 and HR100 in 2016 and signed up for the Fat Dog 120, which had the additional advantage of being a UTMB qualifier. I’m sure there was beer involved in this decision as well, but I honestly don’t remember.
I hallucinated mildly on day two of the Fat Dog 120. I was pretty much completely spent by the time I arrived at the Cascade aid station. Going down the highway on the next section, in the heat, being passed by diesel trucks and every other runner on the course was the low-point of that race.
I wanted to pack it in, but I reasoned (very slowly) that I could hike/walk the remainder of the course and still finish in under 48 hours. So, I continued. The hallucinations appeared in the form of signs by the side of the trail that I saw from a distance that weren’t there, or the back of a pick-up truck in the middle of nowhere, or a tape deck on the ground: all of which were either rocks or random alignments of grasses, branches, or twigs. By the time I saw the octopus up in the tree, I knew I could safely ignore it. I finished in 44:31 hours. The next day, before getting on my plane in Vancouver, I had a beautiful lunch at the Teahouse in Stanley Park and was already thinking of what I might do next.
Which brings me to my second attempt at the WS100 and HR100 lotteries in November 2016. I knew that I still had zero chance of getting into either, so back in early August I had already signed up for the 2017 Angeles Crest 100, which is the least expensive HR100 qualifier for me to run because it is so local – though offers no money back on cancellation. A very safe bet.
I never panic. I’m extremely methodical (though close friends use a different adjective). On December 2nd, I watched the WS100 lottery come and go without my name being mentioned. I switched to the HR100 lottery and expected the same, but my name was pulled in the batch after Michael Wardian and I froze. And panicked. And then I scrambled to arrange accommodation in Silverton for July. At heart I’m very frugal (though close friends use a different adjective), so I was now headed for both Hardrock and the no-money-back AC100. I knew that I was deeply over my head and needed help.
A Coach for My Fourth and Fifth 100 milers
I contacted Nickademus Hollon and asked if he would coach me. I knew he was advertising to coach new clients, so I sent him an email. I had first become aware of Nick through the Tor des Geants interview he did for URP. What stood out for me was not only his obvious passion for the sport, but his choice of ultras and his fascination with the mental and even spiritual aspects of ultra-running. I was also intensely curious about the Barkley Marathons he completed in 2013 and was starting to have delusional thoughts that I should apply. We talked on the phone, he agreed to take me on, and soon after he began putting me through a battery of initial tests and workouts, and then laid out a long-term plan.
Understanding Coaching: Level-of-Effort and Time, not Mileage
He suggested that to understand coaching a good place to start is “Training Essentials for Ultra-running” by Jason Koop: training goes through several phases, with the least race-specific workouts occurring earliest in training. This would mean that speed-work was to begin right away, and that strength training (hiking up mountains) would happen just before the pre-race taper. Although speed had never been part of my race-strategy, I learnt that it would improve my aerobic capacity and would enhance all the training that followed.
My daily coaching instructions were often “run at this perceived level-of-effort for 60 minutes.” My own plans had simply read “do this many miles” – with the intensity left up to my imagination. The perceived level-of-effort generally increased from one phase to the next, culminating in the peak phase prior to the taper. I used my heart-rate monitor to gauge level-of-effort, and worked to peg those numbers. Surprisingly, this was easier on the family than my prior training, because training-by-time meant that my evenings were very much more predictable.
Train to Weaknesses: Glutes and Running Form
Other aspects of my training included attempts to improve my running form. I run with a shuffle that my son, the varsity runner, finds very amusing. I over-stride and heel-strike. My posture matches my gaze as I move forward while I stare at the ground in front of me. Although I can hike uphill almost forever, I’m very slow and grumpy running downhill. The underlying problem seems to be that I haven’t been using my glutes in running. I have to continually think about using them (left, right, left) or they’re dormant, just along for the ride. So, my training included glute exercises that involved running with a metronome (iPod), watching my heart rate (GPS watch), and keeping track of a time (Timex Ironman watch), and thinking about glutes all at once. Running form is still one of the most difficult skills for me to master. My son has now headed off to college and is still very amused by my running form.
This past year I’ve been mostly injury free. In prior years I’ve had runner’s knee, tronchanteric bursitis, pes-ansurine bursitis, piriformis syndrome, and IT band problems, but I now have a feeling for their warning signs and also an understanding of the pre-emptive repair work and maintenance I need.
This past year I discovered the concept of mobility-work through Kelly Starrett’s books “Ready to Run” and “Becoming a Supple Leopard.” He lists standard quantified tests of range-of-motion, and provides tools beyond just the foam roller. He demonstrates more extreme stretching, exemplified by the Couch Stretch, and provides endlessly inventive ways to strip, separate, unglue and otherwise torture and loosen stiff muscles. When I see my physical therapist, his workouts are verbatim from the relevant sections of those books.
Thoughts on Being Coached For a 100 Miler
I often have the impression that my coach is using me as an experiment. That he hasn’t quite done this before, and that maybe it might work. It might be fun even. Regardless, on most days, I do whatever I’m told to do. I think I’m pretty consistent that way. Once in a while the instructions are complicated, or I don’t have the right gear, or the list of tasks is just overwhelming and I run out of waking hours. In those instances, I abbreviate the list, email my omissions, and thus manage to preserve my sleep. I have found myself aborting a speed-work session because something really didn’t feel right. When that happens, I feel guilty and mildly depressed, but I know training is always a very, very long process, and better to be cautious than injured.
I get by with a bare minimum amount of exercise equipment (yoga mat, foam roller, lacross ball, jump rope, and thera-bands). My wife is very vigilant about limiting the clutter in the house – I get an earful if I suggest I need a Bosu ball, so I stand one-legged on a stack of pillows instead. I also don’t have a gym membership, thus on the rare occasions that I need more complicated equipment, I pay for a day-pass or use the gym at work.
My training for Hardrock peaked in late May and early June. The workout instructions started tracking vertical gain instead of miles. I had several 20,000 ft weeks, which saw me going up and down Mount Wilson or Mount San Antonio. I had some work travel to Mammoth Lakes and did a run nearby up into the still-closed-for-the-winter Tioga Pass and into a snow-filled Yosemite National Park.
My wife is generally very patient with me, but she made it abundantly clear there was no way we were getting a hypoxia tent. After I processed that disappointment, I planned a hypoxia vacation that the whole family could enjoy on the way to Silverton, Colorado. I booked 5 nights camping at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (9,000 ft), about an hour’s drive from Ouray, followed by 5 nights at Collegiate Peaks Campground (9,800 ft), near Buena Vista, Colorado. My son and I had a couple of days hiking to 12,000 ft on the Hardrock course near Ouray and Telluride, and from the Collegiate Peaks campground we had a hike and picnic up to Mount Yale, above 14,000 ft.
Mental Toughness, Sharks, and Hypothermia
While camping, I read Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Whyby Laurence Gonzales. The book emphasized that people who get into difficult situations often have the resources to rescue themselves, and yet somehow fail to do so. Also, it seems that having a Positive Mental Attitude is what makes the difference between those who live and those who die. The examples he cites involve ship wrecks and stranded mountaineers. It all sounded just like ultra-running.
The Day Before
As recommended by Sunny Blende, I put myself on a liquid diet the day before the race. I had bought three 6-packs of Ensure diet-replacement drink, and drank most of them that day, then had the rest for breakfast on race morning. As a result, I had absolutely no GI problems.
Tape the nipples, two cups of coffee to clear the lower digestive system, and grease the crease.
Pacing turned out not to be a problem. In preparation, I set two virtual pacers on my “Ambit 3 Peak” GPS watch: one for a 39-hour finish, and one for a 44-hour finish. I also used ultrasplits (sasworks.com) to predict when I would arrive at aid stations, based on results from past races. It proved relatively easy to keep to an even 39-hour pace from the start through Pole Creek, but when I checked the splits on the way down to Sherman it became obvious that I had fallen 2 hours behind a 39-hour finishing time. From then on I mostly ignored my GPS watch but checked my splits at aid stations.
The sun set as I was heading down off of Handies peak. I gave a shout out to Sarah Lavender Smith as I entered Grouse in the dark (whose URP voice I recognized), then headed up Engineers pass.
Navigation: Are We There Yet?
Not knowing the course can be demoralizing. HR100 is very well marked, mostly. I had loaded Kilian’s GPS track from the 2016 course into my watch, but my watch died as I headed down towards Ouray. The path above Bear Creek is cut into the cliff-line and for me was very slow going. This is the sort of place where Bullwinkle pulls Rocky back from a sudden death. Although it’s impossible to lose that trail, as you approach Ouray and leave the canyon, the trail seems to meander senselessly – as if you’re lost. I was tired, the course markings were sparse, my watch was dead, Ouray was out of site, and I was really not having fun anymore.
It turns out it’s very, very important to brief your crew – even if your crew is your wife. I have never had a crew before, and to be safe I packed my drop back as usual. I met my wife and son at Ouray at about 2:00 am. Whereas I usually know where everything is and what I want, my wife’s presence made it very hard to concentrate. She had my drop bag all laid out and waiting for me: Have a seat. Do you want some of this? Some of that? Can I help?
I couldn’t think straight, and after a change of shoes and socks, I managed to leave my left orthotic behind, as I headed out. But I was refreshed, in better spirits, and now had my son as a pacer.
My son is a more accomplished runner than I. He set his high school record for the fastest mountain climb during his 2016 summer camp. He was also the youngest winner of an ultra in 2016 (Bandit 50k). I wasn’t so much concerned about whether he could finish the HR100 with me, but whether 20+ hours with a teenager was a good idea.
The Most Democratic of Sports
We did a strong hike up the Camp Bird road, slowly passing people in the dark. Dawn broke as we approached Kroger’s canteen. When we got there, a very tall curly-headed man coached me on how to begin the descent to Telluride, keeping hard to the right. Ultra-running is the most democratic of sports. I can’t imagine a swimming meet that would have me in the same pool as Michael Phelps, and yet here I was in the same event as Kilian Jornet, now being coached by Scott Jurek. After a good cup of chicken soup, we headed down to Telluride.
Drop Bag Strategy and Foot Care
I should have carried more dry socks and at least one more change of shoes. I had drop bags at Sherman, Grouse, Ouray, Telluride, and Chapman, each with a change of socks, a small kit for foot care, and food. I had a change of shoes at Sherman, Ouray, and Chapman. What I didn’t appreciate is that the course would be very, very wet, with frequent ankle-deep stream crossings. As a result, my feet were always on the verge of blisters. Heading down the scree on Oscars Pass was very slow going.
In the latter-half of the course, I fell off my nutrition plan and shifted to more real food. I had set my watch to beep every twenty minutes to remind me to eat. My plan was half a bar, then a gel 20 minutes later, then another gel 20 minutes after that, and repeat. This had worked well for previous events, but not for the HR100. Going up from Chapman, I put a Tribery Gu in my mouth and had a gag reflex and nearly threw up. I then started eating chicken soup at every opportunity. Hardrock has the best chicken soup. My son quietly ignored my nutrition plan, and had no issues whatsoever.
No salt tablets. Chicken soup has lots of salt, and Hardrock really does have the best chicken soup ever.
The most confusing sections of HR100 are the entries into Ouray and Silverton. I had expected the trail down to Silverton would be straightforward and that the final stretch would be a short jog into town. After we crossed Mineral Creek and the highway close to midnight, instead of a victory lap into town, we headed up a trail across a scree slope with Silverton nowhere in sight.
My pacer was now in his “not having fun” moment. I was wet, shivering, very tired, but relieved when we eventually arrived at the finish.
My wife took charge of us and we headed off to the B&B. I had three breakfasts before the awards ceremony the next day.
The HR 100 Mile Awards Ceremony
Physical and Mental Fatigue in a 100 Miler
In retrospect what was remarkable, and a tribute to Nick’s good work, was that I didn’t feel as beaten up after the HR100 as I did after Wasatch or the Fat Dog 120. I had been much better prepared. I didn’t have any sore muscles the next day, but had a full-body tiredness that took more than a week to shake off.
Physical soreness is only part of the problem. My wife drove us out of Silverton the next day and we headed off to Gallup, New Mexico, on our way to Petrified Forest and Painted Desert National Park. She eventually asked if I would drive, and I did, but it became immediately obvious that I was in no condition to drive, and I pulled over as soon as I could. My sense of balance on the road was completely shot.
Angeles Crest 100
My transition from Hardrock to the AC100 was mostly pool work. I have very understanding neighbors, who were happy to have me thrash around in their pool, much to the amusement of their ten-year-old son. I now understand that pool-work allows you to stretch muscles without pulling other muscles, losing your balance, or breaking your still-fragile back. By Thursday the swelling in my feet had disappeared and I started to feel normal again.
Pacing to the right cut-off
I was much, much more apprehensive about the AC100 than Hardrock. Whereas I slept well before Hardrock, I only slept 3 or 4 hours the night before the AC100 – awake worrying about meeting the cut-offs. Not all cut-offs require the same pace, and I had had to figure out which ones mattered. I again set virtual pacers on my watch: one for 29 hours and one for the limiting cut-off pace to the Chilao campground. Keeping to the 29-hour pace, I soon found myself being passed by most everyone and falling towards the back of the pack going through the first aid station. I stayed stubbornly slow even on the downhills of the Angeles Crest Highway during the heat of the day, but I managed to slowly gain an hour over the 29-hour pace and arrived through Chilao with a comfortable margin.
Darkness, Breathing, Footsteps, Meditation, and Musical Mantras
It was very dark when I headed up the valley to Red Box aid station. I started to pass people again. I was also tired and so to keep focused, I began paying attention to my breathing and my footsteps: breathing out on every fifth footfall became a meditation for a long while. I also had the Jonathan Coulton song “Future Soon” stuck in my head. It didn’t help that I knew almost (but not quite) all the lyrics, which I recited for seemingly 50 miles – rewinding again and again. I never hallucinated, though this was not entirely sane behavior either.
Course Knowledge and Altimetry for a 100 Miler
Although I had developed a blister that would nag me for the rest of the course, I was happy and determined when I left Chantry Flats at 3:00 am. Being that I live not far away, and having previously trained on that section of the course, I knew it well. There would be no surprises. I knew that the next few peaks would be at about 4500 ft, so I kept an eye on the altimeter of my watch to track upward progress. That night I lost what I’d gained over the 29-hour pace, and was now aiming for a 30-hour finish. I was daylight by the time I went through the Idlehour aid station, I had my blister expertly bandaged at Sam Merrill, and then headed for the final downhill. At the finish, I was spoiled by my family, the aid station crew, and even Bill Kee, the finish-line co-director. I had three hamburgers before the awards ceremony.
The Off-Season and Retrospective
Something Frightening to Look Forward to
I have felt very strongly that I should always have a goal that scares me; something beyond normal that lies some distance over the horizon. I have continued to treat each event, no matter how difficult, as a training run for some future more interesting event. Having a longer-term vision helps give purpose to daily training. But brute force isn’t enough – some skill is required.
“Adventure is just bad planning” – Roald Amundsen
Even though I’d previously finished three 100-milers, I did so having no idea of the principles of training, though following a reliable mileage plan and putting in as much vertical trail as I could. I was nonetheless starting to feel burnt out, and at the same time wanting to take on something more challenging. Taking on a coach helped me reset my perspective and also put my training back on track. This summer I was better prepared: I didn’t crack a rib; there was no octopus in a tree. Asking for professional help was the right thing to do. I highly recommend it.
Work in Progress: Dormant Glutes and Well-Developed Scar Tissue
As I’ve alluded to earlier, years of sitting on the way to work, sitting at a desk, and sitting at meetings has left an almost indelible mark on my running gait. From what I’m told, my left and right pelvis is canted at slightly different angles, my left side is stronger than my right, my glutes are almost entirely dormant, and my quads and hamstrings are overworked; I have what seems like well-developed scar tissue deep in my right calf muscle (soleus) trying desperately to hold things together on that side. No amount of gentle yoga or rolling has made any difference. Fixing this has become a long-term project for me and my favorite physical therapist.
I probably have another 10 years or more of this nonsense ahead of me. I’d really like to run the Ronda del Cims in Andorra. It looks just outrageous and so beautiful. But for now, I’m locked in Western States lottery purgatory until my number is drawn – I have a 10% chance of getting in this year. If I do, I’ll apply for the Grand Slam (Western States, Vermont, Leadville or Old Dominion, and Wasatch), which is scary for me not because it would be four ultras back-to-back across the summer, but because all but Wasatch have 30-hour or faster cut-offs. I’ll have to become a better runner. I’ll also put my name in for HR100, and as a returning runner I have a 20% chance of getting in. If none of those work out, I’ll apply for the Ronda, if there’s still an opening. I’ll know in December.