“When was the last time you did something for the first time” Sean Corvelle of Tough Mudder.
My answer: the Santa Barbara 100
The SB100 was a rough introduction to the world of ultra running. My facetious but true statement when people would ask me if I had run a 100 before was, “I have never run a race without obstacles more than 13.1 miles.” Of course, I decided to change that by running one of the hardest 100 milers in Southern California. Here’s how it went (spoiler, the kitty was a lie):
About 2 weeks prior to the event, I started going into Taper Mode. All the strength and body weight motions that I built into my training schedule for obstacle course races (OCRs) were dropped as I let my body prep for the event.
The week of the event, I actually started getting nervous. One hundred miles is really far. I’ve run more than my share of 24+h adventure races, OCRs and other endurance events but I’ve never covered that actual distance. I trusted my coach, Dennis Wayne Welch, that I had prepared as much as I could for it. All that I could do at that stage was just relax, do the school and research work I needed to do, and wait. It just so happened that my wife was away that week in France for vacation so I really didn’t have much to do. That week went by really slowly.
The morning of the event, I tried to wake up as late as I could, but I woke up before my alarm at 7am and couldn’t get back to sleep so I meandered around making breakfast and getting things done before a test in the morning that ended at 1pm. I hopped in the car after and saw that there was a crazy accident on the 101N so the trip that usually would take 2h now takes 3h and I hadn’t eaten yet. I drove through an In-n-out for a vanilla shake and double-double (pre-race meal of champions?) and got on site at 4:15, changed into my race gear and was there for the pre-race briefing at 4:30pm.
After the briefing, we got things organized for race time: 6pm. We transferred everything to Joanie’s car (my crew chief). I vaselated my vaselator (aka Vaseline everywhere), did some like stretching and tried to relax as much as possible. Starting gear: Athletes vs Epilepsy purple hat, sunglasses, SISU IRON buff, white Athletes vs Epilepsy shirt and arm sleeves, red tights, Hylete compression underwear, Zenzah calf compression, injinji ankle high socks, a couple toe caps, Hoka Bondi’s, my Garmin 310XT, F*CK CANCER wrist patch and wrist audio recorder for a study I volunteered to be a part of (more details below). I had a Camelback hydration pack with 3L of berry Tailwind at 1.5 scoops/12oz, salt pills, two protein granola bars and my Black Diamond headlamp. A note about the rules: there were two types of aid stations. About half we were not accessible to crew, whereas four of them were crew-accessible. The course was a 50.1 mile out-and-back.
Immediately before the start, we all congregated around. As a competitor, I have a habit of making sure I am at the start of the corral. I noticed that I was one of 6-7 people that did so and everyone else left about a meter of space between them and us. We made small talk as we waited for the timer to countdown.
At the horn, we were off at a reasonable comfortable pace. I looked at my watch and saw we were running 8:15-minute miles, including uphills and purposefully, slowed my roll considerably. After the first 5 miles, I was in 5th and had run too fast: 48 minutes. I downed a cup of water at the first aid station. After that, I slowed my roll some more but was still around 5th-6th at the first crew aid station at 10.25 miles: 1:45. My thought: “Ahead of pace for a 20h total time, and by too much.” At that crew aid station, I ditched my sunglasses, switched out the hydration bladder with another bladder at the same recipe even though I had not finished the previous one.
My base strategy was to run for placement where the other runners show me the proper pace. They were starting at sub 20h pace when only one person had finished the race sub 24 in the whole history of the event. That guy had run 20:40. At that point, I slowed my roll more and made the decision to run a nice conservative race. I didn’t know how 100 miles feels but I know what 24h feels like, so I went at a comfortable pace for the first half with keeping in mind where the others are, and all will work out from there. Total aid station time <60 seconds.
I realized after that first crew aid station that I hadn’t taken a salt pill or eaten real food, so I took a salt pill and ate one granola bar. My pre-race plan was a salt pill and granola bar every 1-2 hours. 15-mile split: 3:48ish (slowed to 20h pace) and 9th place. At around mile 15, I started getting some abdominal cramps. It didn’t slow me down, but it hurt and felt a little funny. When I came upon the crew aid station at mile 17, I downed three cups of free water and one cup of Sprite in hopes to recalibrate my electrolyte to water balance. I thought I was too high on electrolytes and that was causing nausea and abdominal discomfort. Total aid station time: ~90 seconds.
After the aid station, I still wasn’t feeling better. I was still feeling the pain in my lower abdomen and it just wasn’t going away, so I decided to see if a bowel movement would help. I popped a nice little squat a few paces off the road, covered my business and cursed myself for not having toilet paper. I kept on running, hoping that things would get better, and they did, mostly. 20 mile split: 6:00-ish and 10th place. I got to the 22-mile aid station, took more free water and got some toilet paper from a nice volunteer. I wiped in privacy a little further on and put the paper back in my pack (carry-in, carry-out). Around about mile 24, I started getting a little more abdominal pain and decided to pop one more squat along the single track area. I went into a bush and faced towards the trail. Of course, one I was done, two fellow racers (Jeff and Ken) ran right by me and I said, “Don’t mind me.” Current place: 12th.
At this point, we were coming up on the first large incline of the race. My rules for ultrarunning is power walk the uphills and jog the downhills. I ran to catch up with them and started walking with them. They pushed me to the front for some reason, and I led them up the incline doing my usual power walk. We had some great get-to-know-you conversation during the incline, but I realized at mile 28 that our group of three had become a group of two: incline Jeff and myself. We also were powering past a few of the people in front of us so that when we came upon the 30-mile aid station at the top of the incline (49k), we were 6th and 7th with a total time of 9:15. I took quick pit stop where I continued to drink free water and was instructed to eat watermelon and oranges. I hesitated briefly because of my sensitive stomach but quickly learned that watermelon is wonderful. We switched out my bladder of Tailwind even though it wasn’t empty, and I went along my way. Total pit time ~90s.
The next section of the race was a massive decline over some technical ground. As much as inclines are my weakness during races usually, downhills are my jam. My total kryptonite: technical trails. Where I live in Century City, the best long trails are fire roads. I also value my ankles, so I don’t spend lots of time on highly technical trails where you constantly fear for your ankles. I also had rolled my left ankle three times already. As a result, I did my best to go down the hill quickly but was passed by a few people including my friend who went up the incline with me. I got to the aid station at the bottom of the hill and continued my pattern of free water and watermelons. Total pit time: <60 seconds.
After that aid station, there was yet another incline to the turnaround point. I managed to ultrawalk that incline well and passed a couple of the people that had passed me on the downhill. Two of the guys were running with poles. On a few technical downhills, they’d pass me, only to be passed by me on the uphills. They started calling me the climber. I called them “pole guys.” By around mile 37 or 38, it was mostly climbing so I left them totally behind. I was feeling nice and relaxed like I was running a good conservative pace.
I came upon the last aid station before the turnaround (43 miles) in 6th place. At that point, we were allowed to have pacers so Kris Mendoza joined me to help me keep up motivation as the sun was about to come up. I didn’t really need him for the incline, but I knew that I wanted to take the pace up a notch after the turnaround to run negative splits. (Negative splits is where the second half of a race is run faster than the first half.) I felt like I had run a smart race and had more in the tank to spend in the second half, and I was happy about that. The way back from the turnaround was a downhill, and I knew that Kris is freakishly awesome at downhills, so he’d help me find the best routes down. I told him that I didn’t really need him on that leg, but I would need him on the way back for the last crazy incline. Him, being an awesome person, volunteered to do both. I continued by usual free water and watermelon plan while switching out my Tailwind bladder. Total pit time: <60 seconds.
Going up to the turnaround, we had the opportunity to cheer on the people ahead of us, and also mark how far ahead they were. First place passed us at 4km to the turnaround at 11:28. Second and third were close behind. I saw incline Jeff with 600m before the turnaround. We came upon fifth at the turnaround and he was looking rough. We pitted quickly (<60 seconds) and enjoyed the watermelon. 50.1 mile (81.0km) split: 11:51.
HALFWAY! 50.1-miles in
Kris knew that my plan was negative splits, so he knew that we were going to bomb down these nice fire roads until the crew aid station. We proceeded to run between 8-9 minute miles assisted by the kind incline for those 7 miles. During that whole time, we kept on seeing incline Jeff just around the corner, and kept on wondering when we were going to catch up. Surely no one was running as fast as we were. About 800m before the aid station (57 miles), we passed incline Jeff and encouraged him. He was keeping a nice steady pace. Current place: 5th. I had made up 12 minutes on first place.
At this point, the sun had come up and I knew that it was going to get hotter. I switched out of my purple hat and headlamp and into a white hat. I had come up with a plan called “Operation FIREHOSE” where I was on fire and my crew was the hose. The plan was to dip my white shirt and hat into ice water at each aid station and to switch my Tailwind formula to 1 scoop per 12oz. I felt really good at that point and empowered to keep on going strong. Those negative splits were going to happen. Total pit time: ~90 seconds.
We continued to bomb down the next leg to the next aid station and made it there at around 14:30. I had taken 8:30 to get to that aid station on the way there, so I was on pace for a 23-hour total time if I could repeat that first section the same as I had before. In my mind, the only thing that stood in my way was this last crazy incline of about 3500ft to mile 30. Since that aid station didn’t have crew-access, I didn’t refill my Tailwind bladder. I just drank free water and ate the trusty watermelon.
The first part of that leg went okay, but then it started to get hot. At around 10-11am, I really started feeling the heat. Did I mention that I hate heat? Combined with the incline, I got demoralized. Instead of getting angry, I just got quiet and had difficulty keeping up the power-walk. The kicker: I ran out of Tailwind with about 3 miles left. Three grueling miles. We were walking 20 to 25-minute miles. At that point, my Garmin 310XT ran out of battery and we switched to Kris’s Tom-Tom. Because I work in kilometers and he works in miles, it was difficult to know exactly how far we had to the top. It just felt an infinite distance away, but we kept on trucking. Kris did an amazing job of trying to cheer me up and keep me going. I responded by not talking for about 40 minutes.
At one point, we passed a group of nice ladies who were walking the opposite way. I asked, “how far to the top?” and they responded, “40 minutes.” Of course, I then asked, “but how far?” They took a little to respond, and added, “1 ¼ miles.” We thanked them and really hoped that their estimate was correct. It was 0.15 miles too short. I really hated those 0.15 miles. The trail was such that the tree cover made it impossible to see up to the peak, so we had no idea how much further it was. When we came upon the trailhead, I burst out into tears and jogged a good 10-minute-mile pace for the 200m to the aid station.
At that aid station, we refilled my hydration bladder and I took some extra time trying to replenish all the hydration that I had lost. I must have drunk 1L of water and electrolytes in about 2 minutes. Unfortunately, their watermelons were dried out. The 4th place person was also there and looking rough. I was mentally demoralized but still feeling okay. Just hot. We were still on pace for a 23-hour finish. We just needed thirty 15-minute miles. Kris knew this and volunteered to run yet another leg with me. I tried to keep my pit time short, so we were out of there in about 3 minutes.
That’s where everything came to a grinding halt. We set off from the aid station looking strong, but in about 5 minutes the heat sucked all my energy from me. The Santa Barbara mountain range goes East-West so there is no cover from the blaring sun. The trees are low, so shade was few and far between. The shade was about 15F cooler than the exposed areas. Even on the downhills, I felt like I couldn’t muster a jog. We started walking, and not even ultrawalking. Walking 21 to 25-minute miles. We did about three of those then Kris realized that his hydration pack hadn’t been filled completely, so he was out of water. I didn’t have a reserve to donate to him, and he was doing okay in the heat, so I really needed my water. Incline Jeff had passed us during that time and he looked awesome. We were in a very hard place because I felt like I couldn’t muster anything faster than a slow walk, and I knew we had 5 more miles till our next aid station at 78 miles. I did the math that if we kept on our current pace, we’d need about 10 more hours to finish. I had no idea how I could keep on going. I embraced that suck for a while, feeling stuck and horrible.
Then I decided to “take charge.” I ignored that I was overheating and that I was tired. My mind was telling me that I couldn’t run at all, but I ignored that. I asked to go ahead of Kris and well… I learned that when I can barely walk a 20-minute mile, I apparently run an 8-flat mile. So I did that, for 5 miles in over 90F heat. (It was downhill, so that helped.) We passed the guy who used to be in third, who was also not doing well in the heat. We got to the wonderful aid station at 22 miles and refilled our hydration bladders and soaked ourselves in water. I got some Vaseline for my butt crack from a volunteer (it had started chafing during that 5-mile craziness). We hung out there for at least 15 minutes trying to cool down and no one showed up behind us at the aid station. Everyone was coming to a grinding halt in that heat.
At that point, I decided that I didn’t care about my time. I was committing to DNDNF (Do Not Did Not Finish). I mustered the energy to set out to the next aid station, planning on living between the aid stations. (Kris was doing okay in the heat.) The volunteers told us that the next aid station was just 4 miles away. On the mild uphills and the flats, we were walking around 20-22 minute miles. During some of the downhills, I tried to muster a run at around 10-12 minute miles. It happened maybe 50% of the time.
At 4 miles away from the 78-mile aid station, we realized that the volunteers lied. We were running along the camp road and were expecting the aid station at any point. It was a full extra mile down the road, at mile 83. At that aid station, we took a good amount of time because my crew was there. I could re-vaseline everywhere including my crack. After about 20 minutes, I decided that I was still really hot and wanted some more rest.
My feet hurt, so we took a look at them to see if there was something we could do about that. When I took off my sock, we saw that I had some horrible blisters on my heel and ring toe on my left foot. Joanie said, “I don’t think you have a toenail anymore” because the blister had taken over the entire toe. Joanie was a magical angel and popped the ones that needed to be popped (a very painful process: see video). While we were there, the 5th place runner came up and initially tired to quit, but then decided to keep going. He left after a few minutes and I let him go, because at that point I was just going to finish. I didn’t care about times or places.
I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to finish, but I didn’t want to give up. I stopped thinking about the total distance and thought about going aid station to aid station. The next one was 7 miles away, so Kris took a break and Dave Lokey accompanied me. We kept the same slow pace of trying to muster the effort to jog on the downhills, while doing what I could on the uphills. After about 4 miles, we saw the 4th place guy who had gone off ahead of us. He had run the wrong way and got directed to run the route backwards. Overall, that added 1.5 miles to his total distance, which wasn’t horrible considering he ran about 6 miles off course. (We later learned that he quit before finishing.)
About a mile from the aid station, we were jogging down a flat portion and I saw a black and white monarch butterfly sitting in the middle of the trail fanning it’s wings. It wasn’t moving much, so I was very confused why it was there. As I got about 2m away, the monarch butterfly suddenly turned into a triangular shaped rock. The butterfly was never there. I had just hallucinated. In the realm of hallucinations, seeing small animals in places where there are things slightly resembling their shape isn’t too bad, right?
As we reached the end of the 7-mile stretch, it was approaching 2:30pm and the temperature was going down. That gave me the effort to average 15-minute miles over that stretch, bringing me to the last crew-aid station with 10.25 miles to go. Total time: 23 hours.
At that point, I was too close to the finish to give up, but 10 miles at 3 mile-per-hour (20-minute pace) was going to be rough. We rehydrated and celebrated. I took about 10-15 minutes at that aid station and set off with Kris by my side to tackle the last stretch. There was an aid station in the middle, so there was good hope for success. There was 1,700ft of gain and 1,700ft of loss in the last section. Most of that gain was in the first half, so if I just got to that last aid station, I’d be free and clear.
Even though the temperature was lowering, I was still exhausted and could barely muster any speed to my name. We finished those 5 miles to the last aid station in 90 minutes. I made the decision to take a 10-minute break, then continue on. While we were there, my crew radio’d a kind message over: “Motivate that posterior!” (They’re not allowed to swear over the radio.) To which we responded, “Suck it, b***es.”
After that 10-minute break, I felt like I had an okay amount of energy. The temperature had been steadily decreasing. I was starting to get worried that sunset was at 8pm and we were projected to finish around 8pm. I had forgotten my headlamp, so I didn’t want to be disqualified for not having a light. We needed to actually keep pace to finish.
We kept on my usual plan of ultrawalking the hills and jogging the downhills. I was managing to ultrawalk a 15-16 minute mile up those hills though. The jogging part was at about an 8:45-minute mile. I had almost come back to my former glory before the heat stopped me. The main thing that slowed me down was fear of the technical parts of the trail and my ankles.
The last 1.25 mile of the course was mostly on fire roads, so we were able to run at a decent clip without fear of breaking my ankle. At one point, we were jogging down an open trail and I asked, “Is that a kitty?” I saw a light tan kitty with darker shades along its belly. The kitty turned its head back and licked its side. When we got within 5m of the kitty, the kitty magically disappeared. The kitty was a lie. There wasn’t even a rock there that took the shape similar to a kitty. I had legitimately hallucinated a full, moving kitty.
Once we started getting to the portion of the course that I recognized from the very beginning, my energy started returning and the hope of finally finishing swept over me. We managed to run most of that section. About 500m from the finish, Kris pointed out the final ranger stop that signified we were just about to get to the end. That was my signal to start running, and to start running fast. We accelerated up the hill, then I saw the finish. The pace started going even faster and we raced through the final stretch of the race. My GPS watch says we finished that last 200m with a 7:20 minute-per-mile pace after running 100 miles!
Total time: 25:52:31
Total distance: 100.5 miles
Final place: 4th
Things I learned:
- 100 miles is really far. You must respect the distance no matter what, or it will chew you up and spit you out.
- Run a conservative race to start with. There’s no sense in blazing out fast. You cannot predict your future.
- Planning saves.
- Heat is one of my weaknesses.
- Change your socks and shoes more than you think you need to. Future you will thank you.
- When I can barely walk a 20-minute mile, I can run an 8-minute mile. How: Mental grit.
- Vaselate the vaselator! Then Vaselate some more. Identify key hot spots, then make sure to cover the basics, like butt cracks, nipples, and genitalia.
- If your race is on trails and single tracks, try to maximize your training on trails and single tracks.
- The kitty is a lie.
What do you think?
Would you take on a 100-miler?