It was just after midnight and I’m sitting at the top of one of the toughest climbs of the race, located in the San Bernardino Mountains, shivering uncontrollably. I’m at mile 38 on the Kodiak 50 mile trail run, with the hardest part of the course behind me, I sat down to eat some hot soup and decide whether or not I wanted to continue on. It didn’t take me long that I decided I was done. My feet were trashed, it was 36 degrees at the top of the mountain, I didn’t have any warm clothes, and my motivation faded. Yes, DNF is what you’ll see after my name in the results of the Kodiak 100 and 50 mile Ultra distance trail race, my first attempt at a 50 mile trail run!
At the start of the race I was estimating that I’d finish around 15 hours, worse-case scenario I’d finish within the 24 hour cut-off and quitting wouldn’t be an option. Fast forward 18 hours, sitting at mile 38, I was changing plans. As I stood up from the chair, shivering and hobbling on my broken feet, I realized that I may have underestimated the climbs on the course, could have trained a little harder, and taken foot care more seriously, whatever the reason, I called it quits and didn’t finish. I was disappointed that I was quitting, but at the same time felt satisfied with the adventure.
If it would have been any other 50 miler I don’t think it would have been as big of a deal, but this was my friend Paul’s race and I wanted to at least finish. Paul not only put together a spectacular race (as expected), he’s a master of endurance, and has been an inspiration and motivator for me since I first met him.
I’ve done several marathons and a couple 50K trail races in the past and always finished respectably, so I set my goals to run a 50 miler to bump up the stakes. This year, my friend Paul put on the Kodiak 100 mile ultra-distance trail marathon that included a 50 mile option. Paul has been trying to convince me to come out to Big Bear California for years and since he was putting on this race and I wanted to run a 50 miler, I couldn’t think of any reason not to make it happen. When I first knew about the race I had plenty of time to train and put in the miles.
As time drew nearer to race day, I was feeling pretty fit and healthy, but my training mileage was less than optimum for a 50 mile race, with my longest run being 28 miles, not the 35 miles I wanted. I told Paul I’d be glad to come out and just help out with the race, and skip running it; Paul’s response was “You’re signed up already to run, just come out early and you can help out and acclimate, before you race”. I was committed! Now all I needed to do was to plan my trip out to Big Bear Lake. Typical of me, I waited to the last-minute to get tickets and figure out my transportation.
My friend Beto, from Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, was signed up to run the 100 mile distance of the race and he would be driving up from Ensenada to Big Bear Lake. I could hitch a ride with Beto, but he wouldn’t be passing through San Diego or Ontario until later Thursday evening, my flight was scheduled to arrive early Thursday morning.
Beto lives in Ensenada, is a good friend of mine and one of the best people I know. Beto has so much passion for life and adventure, I get inspired every time we connect! Beto is the owner and operator of Baja Elements, which offers the most amazing, unique, custom experiences into the backcountry of Baja California, Mexico. I’ve been on a couple of trips with Beto and Baja Elements, gaining experiences that no other guide could offer.
Since my flight would arrive in LA in the morning and I didn’t have to meet Beto till 9 p.m., I’d have the whole day to check out the beach near L.A. and even get in some surfing. I found a great deal on a one day car rental from Dollar Rental, which I’d pick up at the LAX and drop off at the Ontario airport, where Beto would pick me up. As it turns out, every other person travelling to Los Angeles found the same great deal. My first sight as I stepped off the shuttle bus and into the car rental office, was that of 100 people snaked across the lobby like you’d see at a popular ride at Disney, all waiting to get a car. I took my place in line with the other cattle, waiting for my turn. An hour and a half later I was on the road, heading to Malibu. It was a beautiful California day!!
I lived in California for 4 years when I was younger and spent most of my time on the beaches of Southern California, either swimming, surfing or diving, but I never made it up to Malibu Beach. I was excited to finally visit Malibu and experience the beach and smells of the Pacific Ocean again. The one thing that I miss the most about living in California is the Ocean. Since there wasn’t much surf, I went for a swim out to the end of the pier and back, followed by some epic Thai food, it was a perfect day.
After swimming eating and hanging out on the pier watching the fishermen, I decided it was time to head out to the Ontario airport to meet up with Beto. I took the canyon road east to Hwy 101 heading south. I didn’t think about the time, till I found myself at a dead stop in 4 lanes of traffic. I realized then it was close to 5 o’clock and I was in the thick of LA traffic. It took me 2 ½ hours to travel 27 miles, at which time traffic started to move a little faster. Luckily I gave myself plenty of time to meet up with Beto at 9 p.m. Beto was right on-time, we met up at the airport exit where Beto followed me to return the car. It was good seeing my friend again. We caught up on the latest as we started down the road to Big Bear Lake.
On our way to Big Bear, Paul texted us saying he had a cabin for us to stay at, but the office was closed. He told us we could sleep on the floor of the rec room and check in the following morning. He sent an address that we only briefly looked at. It was my first time to Big Bear but Beto had been there, spending time with Paul many times before. He was confident that he knew where it was at. When we arrived at the office we didn’t see a car in the parking lot and it looked like the place was shut down for the night. We walked around the building looking for that open door, which we found in the building next door. It was a small cottage that was set up as a conference room office, the computer was on and the place was warm. We were tired and ready to get to sleep so we brought in our bags and made ourselves at home.
The next morning we noticed a car pulling into the office parking lot. Beto and I looked at each other and almost simultaneously said “let’s get out of here, just in case this wasn’t the right place”. Just as we were rolling up our bags, Paul texted “where are you guys at?” I told him we were in the office packing up and heading to his house in which he replied “???” Turns out we may have been trespassing. Oh well, aside from taking a few almonds from the dish on the table, we left the place just as we found it. I knew then that this was going to be an awesome adventure! After we left the office, we made our way to Paul’s house, which turns out, was 2 blocks down the road.
Paul is the most gracious host, as was evident by all the people staying at his house. We had the cabin because there was literally no more room at Paul’s house. It was 8 a.m. and the place was bustling with racers just waking up, neighbors and friends cooking up breakfast and volunteers coming and going as they prepared for the race. Paul as always is the epicenter of high energy. That’s what I’ve always loved about being around Paul, it’s contagious!
The 100 mile race started at 6 p.m. that evening and after helping out at Paul’s for a couple hours Me, Beto and Sully decided to head to the cabin to get some rest and gather their race gear before 100 mile start, which was in the downtown After a few hours, a short nap and some food we headed to the start line of the 100 mile race. Racers were waited anxiously for the start of the race as they made all their last minute preparations, taking inventory of their packs. I made my way around to all of the vendors that were promoting their products and took pictures.
As the racers lined up I wished Beto luck on his run, then ran ahead to get some pictures of the start and again as he and the other runners came back around the 1 mile start-lap. After snapping some pictures, I headed back to the cabin to take one last inventory of my gear and nutrition, for my 50 miler, starting at 6 a.m. the next morning. I didn’t spend too much time going through my gear as I felt confident I had everything that I needed and as usual, much, much more. I had more nutrition and water and weight than I needed, and it would catch up with me later on the run.
As I lay in bed trying to sleep, I was starting to realize that this race may be a little more than what I trained for. Most of my miles were on the North Country Trail in Lower Michigan and I think the biggest climbs were 200 feet in elevation and maybe ¾ of a mile in length and I skimped on total miles each week. I tried to talk myself down and convince myself I’d be fine, holding a steady 13 minute mile pace and to keep moving forward.
The 50 mile racers were instructed to meet up at the race start by 5 a.m. Saturday morning to catch the shuttle to a campground on the other side of the Lake, which would be the start of the 50 mile run. Naturally it wasn’t until 3 a.m. that I finally fell into a deep sleep, getting in an hour sleep before the alarm went off at 4. When I woke, my stomach was killing me and I felt nauseous. I kept telling myself that it was only my nerves and it would go away. I had some coffee and loaded my stuff into the truck and drove to the start/finish line. After parking, I walked to the shuttle area and grabbed the last spot on the “heated” bus, heading to 50 mile start.
We arrived at the campground at 5:40, leaving 20 minutes to wait before the start. The shuttle ride was pretty quiet, but as we got out and mingled waiting for the start, the level of energy began to rise. It was cold and the racers were stretching, bouncing and moving around to keep warm. Paul was there to send the racers off. To make it official, volunteers strung a Start banner across the dirt road that we were standing. At 6 a.m. exactly Paul sounds the start! All at once we fell into motion and filed down the road. I was still not feeling the best but at the same time excited to begin!
The dirt road that we were starting out on was the same road that we just travelled, on our way into the park. We followed it for a half mile or so before taking a right onto a single track leading into the mountain park. Once on the single track, I started to feel better as my nerves settled. The trail continued for a few miles before leading us onto the PCT trail. The section of the PCT Trail that runs through the mountains near Big Bear Lake, offers some gorgeous panoramic views of Big Bear Lake and great running. I started into a great rhythm and began to enjoy the trail and the mountains.
The first water stop was around mile 15 with not only plenty of water, and supplements, but fresh cooked bacon! I’ve never seen bacon at a water stop before, but after smelling it from a mile out on the trail it was the first thing I wanted when I arrived. I filled my water bottles, a few more pieces of bacon and headed out. I was feeling great so far.
After leaving the first water station and a few miles out, I approached the first tough section of the run that headed up 6 miles of steep fire road. Starting out I was trying to run for 5 minutes followed by walking, but soon I found myself doing more walking than running. It was at this point, I started to feel blisters forming on my feet. I was right on my time schedule up till this point, halfway up the road I slowed to a 25 minute mile, and started to feel the heat. Finally after 3 hours I reached the top of the long climb and the second water station. I walked up to the table and to my surprise saw coming out of a van my friend Cyril. Cyril is a world class adventure racer from Los Angeles, who’s won races around the world with his team “Dart Nuun”. I met Cyril almost 10 years ago at a Michigan Adventure Race, the same time I met Paul. Cyril, like Paul is a master of endurance and a machine on the mountain bike and just about every other discipline you find in adventure racing.
Cyril is a great guy, but when it comes to training and racing he’s all business and totally focused, which makes him a natural leader. When I crewed for Team Sole in Michigan I was in awe watching these masters methodically crush all of the competition. Cyril is the epitome of discipline, when it comes to endurance. Cyril is also the owner of Feed The Machine, an online distributer and source of all information of supplements. I highly recommend “Feed The Machine” as a resource if you want someone who truly knows the business. As we briefly talked, I filled my water bottles, grabbed a couple gels, and raved about how awesome the course was up to this point. Before I arrived at the water stop I was feeling some pain, but just talking with Cyril for those few moments somehow energized me again. I was feeling good!
The climb wasn’t over yet, but leveled off some moving forward. I had another 4 or 5 miles to go to reach the next aid station at mile 28. From the water stop the course continued up the mountain for 3 miles to a campground, eventually heading back down to the next aid station. The last mile before reaching the aid station, I could feel that my feet were seriously blistered and starting to hurt. I tried to run as much as possible but it was becoming difficult. I walked in the last ½ mile.
When I arrived the first thing I did was to find a seat and take my shoes off. The volunteers working the aid station were amazing; one woman brought me a hot hamburger, while the medic worked on my feet. In total I was there for almost an hour, during which I contemplated dropping from the race. I might have dropped if I didn’t feel I had the energy, but my only problem was my blistered feet, which were feeling much better. I decided that I’d get back out on the course. One of the volunteers told me that the next 10 mile section was the toughest and once I committed to it, there was no support for the next 10 miles and it was the toughest climb of the race. I wanted to continue on, so I thought I’d head out for a mile or two and then I’d make the call to continue on or turn back.
Two of the volunteers led me to State Hwy 18, walked me to the other side and explained where I needed to go to pick up the trail heading through the Snow Valley Ski area, which would connect to the established Camp Creek Trail, leading down an almost 4 mile descent to Bear Creek. I started out with a good pace, as I climbed to the top of a ridge overlooking the valley and the mountain that I would be crossing. It was dusk and the view was spectacular, but at the same time I was becoming hesitant as to whether I should continue on. I kept moving forward at a slow pace trying to decide. After a half mile descent, I made up my mind to go for it. Just as I started to pick up the pace, two runners came crashing down the trail at a pretty good clip. One of the guys I had just seen at the aid station, not doing too well and I’d thought he dropped from the race. As he passed he said “come on let’s knock this section out”. I dropped in behind them but after a short distance I fell off, feeling I couldn’t continue at the pace they were moving. I slowed back down to a comfortable speed focusing on my feet which were starting to hurt again.
At around mile 2 on the descent, I found myself all alone on the trail, as the sun was beginning to set. I thought to myself, “This is going to be a long hike”.
Just as I thought I was going to be alone for the next couple hours I heard some voices, coming from back up the trail. Oh yes, I might have some company, unless they’re speedsters like the first two guys that passed me by. I slowed some to allow them to catch up with me. In just a few minutes I could see two people coming down the trail. It was two women runners, one was running the 100 mile race and the other was her pacer. As they finally approached, they introduced themselves and asked if I minded some company. I probably answered “NO I DON’T MIND” before they even finished asking the question; I was elated to have the company. They introduced themselves as Cheryl, the 100 miler, and Laura, the pacer. I introduced myself and mentioned it was my first 50 miler. For a split second I felt a little guilty for still being out on the course, I mean I was 15 hours into the race and only at mile 31, but they were encouraging to me and didn’t think anything about it.
Fortunately, Cheryl was ok moving at my pace, we continued down to the bottom of the mountain to cross Bear Creek and begin our arduous climb up the newly cut and re-opened Siberia Creek Trail (literally JUST finished days before the start of the race). Siberia Creek Trail is approximately a 6.8 mile trail with a 3000’ ascent, dubbed “Hades” by the race staff, which seemed eternal!! As we climbed at a snail’s pace I fell to the rear and we talked some, bitched some at each log crossing and every time one of us would get stabbed from the tip of some arid plant that was chopped off with a machete. I was miserable but thought “I can’t think of any other thing I’d rather be doing right now, what an awesome adventure!!”
I couldn’t have asked for better company than Cheryl and Laura, they were both very pleasant to be with and, as I found out later, very humble. As it turns out Cheryl was a competitive bodybuilder, turned ultra-runner and oh let’s see, did a few little events such as “Badwater” and “Double Badwater” and Furnace Creek and many other amazing distances. As we talked on our way up the mountain, I was saying how I wanted to finish this 50 miler and do more ultra’s, with Cheryl saying “yeah I haven’t done too many 50 milers and I did some 100 milers but it’s been a while”, at which time Laura blurted out “did you know Cheryl just did a Double Badwater?”. In case you don’t know the “Badwater” is one of the grand daddy’s of Ultra-distance racing, that’s 135 miles of desert running in Death Valley in tremendous heat, followed by a mountain climb in freezing temps to the finish at the top. Ok do that twice and you’re a “Badass”!! I said “I knew you were holding back”, with a laugh. I think Laura just couldn’t stand hearing her friend NOT boast a little bit about such incredible accomplishments.
Laura just happened to crew and pace for Cheryl on those events and is equally as tough. In fact Laura, with her fresh legs could have sprinted up that mountain at an 8 minute mile, or less, pace, I’m sure of it. I knew that she was holding back in order to keep her runner on task with nutrition, water, and encourage her just enough to get to the finish line. That sometimes can take some patience especially in the few cases when their runner is hitting a wall. I think the Kodiak course was taking a toll on Cheryl this time, which can happen to even the best. I was still in awe of her perseverance and mental toughness, as she kept moving forward at a steady pace. The true sign of a world-class athlete. You’d never know she was past 80 miles, and almost 24 hours into a race, she was as pleasant being around, as if we were out on a hike. It was a beautiful night with a full moon and every so often Cheryl would stop, turn off her headlamp and look up in amazement at all the stars and constellations in the sky, or the cloud seen below, that was floating, 3000’ below, above lake Elsinore and illuminated by the light of the full moon. That is a person who has a passion for life!!!
As it turns out Laura was scheduled to run her first 100 mile race in the next weeks (which she at this time has completed very respectably) and Cheryl was crewing for her. They seemed to be great friends and it was Cheryl’s way of giving back to Laura to help Laura in her journey of accomplishing her own amazing ultra-distant runs.
We trudged our way up the mountain to within a mile and a half from the top, when I started falling back. They would have waited for me but I told them to move on, I just needed to take 5 minutes to sit and get off my feet. I stopped, but only for a minute because I couldn’t find a spot on the side of the mountain that was flat enough. Everywhere I tried to sit I’d find myself starting to slide down the mountain. I decided to suck it up and get to the top. Every so often I could see the flicker of Laura and Cheryl’s lights, but only for a moment, before disappearing behind a rock or bend in the trail. Finally the trail flattened out and I started to pick up the pace. I was determined to catch up with them, but I imagine they were feeling the same relief and also picked up the pace. I was all alone for the last 45 minutes, moving through the lodge pole pine forest, a little skittish of any noises I heard.
Finally, I could see lights through the trees coming from the water stop and aid station. I was so happy to be close, I started into a slow run. It was around midnight and the temperature at the top of the mountain was around 36 degrees, feeling even colder. The first thing I asked when I got to the aid station was if they had seen two women coming through and did they continue on. The volunteer told me that someone picked them up when they arrived. They decided to call it a race. It was mile 88 for Cheryl, 50 more than I had and enough to gain my respect. I sat down ate some soup and told the volunteers I was done. The aid station was semi-remote so I waited, shivering for an hour, till I was able to hitch a ride back with one of the volunteers. I couldn’t wait to get back to the cabin and lay down.
My race was over! At that moment I vowed I’d train harder and come back next year and finish! I loved the amazing single loop course that Paul and Matt put together and would recommend this race to anyone looking for a world-class 100 mile race. To me it was more than a 50 mile race, it was one awesome adventure!!