Tuesday, October 4, 2016

2016 Cuyamaca 100k

What a summer it has been since SD 100! I decided to take a break from the intense training I usually do (100 mile weeks) and instead do stuff like travel and chill. That's right, No Chill Phill took a break and Chill Phill went on vacation without him to places like Maui, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. It was fun, but it meant a lot of skipped training runs with the Trail Crashers that I would normally do, and my training weeks went down to 25 miles a week (if I was lucky). I did one 50k, mainly for fun, and did surprisingly well, but for the most part, my legs lacked the endurance that I usually have and I gained about 5 lbs. So going into Cuyamaca, my main goal was to finish and redeem myself from last year's DNF. You know how that goes. I know I could do the distance, having done the SD 100 just a couple of months ago, but having a race stay as a DNF is like having unfinished business. And strictly business it was, as No Chill Phill was back and pissed at the situation that Chill Phill got us into with his brilliant idea to get a hammock. Nice job...

So given the disaster that was Noble Canyon 50k a couple of weeks ago, I knew I had to take this one easier, lest I fall victim to frying out my legs by mile 15 again. So I started off the morning in the warm room where everyone was getting their bibs and race gear. Shared some warm thoughts with the Trail Crashers that were running the race, made the obligatory pre-race bathroom run, checked out the cool awards that I had Ral work on for the race's top finishers, and headed towards the starting line.

Trail Crashers
Whitney's first 100k!!!

Back Double Bicep Shot. Why Not.

What I thought it would look like.

The awesome awards that Ral Christman from Viejas worked on for this race
3... 2... 1... GO.

I started towards the back of the front of the pack so as to avoid the conga line that happens in the first mile of this race which leads to a lot of stopping. At the end of the day, it doesn't make much of a difference time wise, but it helps not to breathe in a bunch of dust. Regardless of how decent I thought my pace was, people were still trying to pass me on the single track. I was not going to make the mistake of running anyone else's race but my own. Someone recognized me from Headlands 100, which is awesome considering I didn't even run that race. I make an awesome volunteer though, let me tell you! I was up there for Headlands 50 miler in San Francisco helping Whitney run the race and volunteering in between aid stations. It's usually way more fun to volunteer at these things than it is to run them, at least for me. You get the cool vibe of the ultra community, without all the pain and suffering, what a deal! But today, I was running, and despite my conservative pace I planned to keep the whole day, I knew to expect pain and struggle towards the latter miles. My goal was to get a time in the 12 hour range, but I knew since I hadn't been training as much that simply finishing the race would be the best goal to have for the day.

And so I watched as person after person flew past me. I couldn't be going THAT slow, right? After looking at my splits, my average pace for the first 8.4 miles into Merrigan Aid Station was about 10:57, which was actually a lot faster than I thought I was going. I swear, I thought I was doing 12-13 minute pace, but I guess when people are passing you up left and right you're going to feel like you're going a lot slower than you actually are. So I cruised into the first aid station, and right before hitting it my buddy Eli who paced me for SD 100 this year cruises on up right next to me with his brother-in-law. I believe it was both of their first attempt at the 100k distance and spirits were high as they often are in the cool of the morning. We split ways after this aid station but I would run into him a couple more times during the race.

After leaving this aid station, I began to realize I had moved from the near front of the pack, to the near back of the pack. "Wow, people must be moving quick today", I thought. I'm used to going slow, it's not a problem for me, but I'm not really used to being near the back, though I always feel a stronger connection to those in the back, as I am often inspired most by their performances.

So, I find a conga line to go up the first little climb and all the way to the 14 mile Green Valley Aid Station. I was trying to do a good job hydrating during the early morning hours as it is always important to keep up hydration especially early on, and I knew I did a good job because I actually had to stop and take a leak at around 12 miles. And so into the Green Valley campgrounds as we hear teenage volunteers screaming bloody murder at the top of their lungs. "I don't know whether that's supposed to be encouraging or terrifying," I joked to a nearby runner, "Yeah, I don't even know," she responded. Great stuff, I loved their energy and fed off of it, so I guess the answer was encouraged, albeit a little terrifying at a distance.

Pull into Green Valley Aid Station where I waste no time filling up my pack with Tailwind for the next 9 miles which would include a climb up to Cuyamaca Peak at mile 23. "Happy Birthday!" I heard someone greet somebody else with. It was actually to be my birthday in about 15 hours, so curiously I asked whose birthday it was. I had actually chosen to do this race specifically because it was the last race I would do as a 27 year old, and it had also been the first race I had done as a 27 year old last year. The leap year of 2016 caused this race to land on October 3rd, and October 1st, in consecutive years, thereby skipping landing on my birthday entirely. How cool that I was the same age last year when I did this race? So did I have a birthday twin at the race? Nah, it turns out that person's birthday was last week. But later on, I heard someone else wish somebody a happy birthday, which I also asked, and she said her birthday was today, though she wasn't running it. Cool though! I made a move to leave the aid station, before a volunteer asked if I wanted to cool off with a sponge. Perfect idea, I almost forgot! I get overheated really easily and these ice cold sponge baths helped tremendously during the scorcher SD 100, so I decided might as well use it during this race even though it was only supposed to be mid-70's the entire day. She positioned herself in front of me and squeezed the sponge on top of my head, at which point the water was so cold that I blew air as a reflex and sprayed her face with water. How embarrassing! I quickly apologized as, understandably, she was caught off-guard and wanted to be grossed out but didn't want to make a big deal about it. "It's okay, I run these things too," she smiled. Gotta love the ultra community! We do gross like nobody knows!

So the goal for my birthday runs is to run my age in miles, so anything after 28 is considered bonus miles in my book, miles to be extra thankful for. A celebration of my extreme abilities and amazing health in life. A celebration of all the things I'm lucky for, and man was I feeling lucky today as it was absolutely GORGEOUS! As I was climbing up towards the peak, I caught up with a fellow trail crasher Julieanne, who is usually pretty chatty during running events and so when I can run with her it's always makes the miles more enjoyable. We both were just remarking on how absolutely beautiful the day was and how we both felt amazing. To be honest, I think she felt better than I did, though I was feeling good, she seemed to be feeling amazing, mentally and physically. She was telling my about Gloria's Western States nail-biting finish, and her really intensive responsibilities in pacing Gloria to make sure she could make the cutoffs at each aid station. Well, with a finish literally minutes under the cutoff, you can tell it was quite the experience for Julieanne, as well as all other Trail Crashers there that day, and it was awesome hearing about it, in Julieanne's story-telling mode.

As we got closer to the top, we were fantasizing about some home-made cookies that were up there, made by Angela Shartel (Boss Lady), as we came upon a lady that Julieanne seemed to be familiar with. "Jeri, you are absolutely amazing, how are you even recovered?" Julieanne fan-girled from behind. "Oh thank you, I'm not recovered, I'm just out here doing 50k and that's it". That's when I first learned about this 58 year-young woman who had just completed the Bigfoot 200 Miler in mid-August, no more than a month and a half ago, out here doing the 100k. I just listened, in disbelief, as they talked about some of the details and how she had gotten 2nd female overall. Absolutely incredible that she was out there. That's why I love these races.

We politely made a pass, as we headed up towards the peak to get those cookies, and boy were we delighted to finally see that paved fire road after all those switchbacks. "Just a steep half a mile climb up to the top," the guys at the min-aid station said. And so I powerwalked up there, a little ahead of Julieanne, only to get to the cookies first, when I saw someone I usually see at races here in San Diego. His name is Cesar, and he probably didn't know who I was at that point, but it seemed like he was having a hard time, so I offered him an ear to talk about it as we made our way up to the top. Sometimes, that's all you need, is someone to talk these moments through with. We got to the peak, which was my favorite aid station last year, and it kept it's number one spot not only because it is more or less an oasis after that long climb, but because it's heavenly good substantive food, ice cold sponge baths, and really helpful volunteers. This race has the best volunteers at every aid station in my opinion.

In and out of that aid station, as Julieanne headed out before me, I ran to catch up with her as we headed down towards Conejos, the notoriously rocky/technical trail. This trail, I found out later, claimed its first victim, one of the top contenders Zach Bitter, who holds the US record for 100 miles at under 12 hours. He apparently took a gnarly fall and hit his head on a rock causing a pretty nasty split that caused him to unfortunately drop from the race to get it stitched up. He's okay now, and no other injuries but that's always tough to hear about. We do these races for fun, but we often forget how dangerous it can be out on the trails.

Being familiar with Conejos, I decided today to take no chances and walk the really sketchy parts. It's never worth it for me to try and go super fast on these parts as any little mistake can end up taking you out of the race. So I get down to Paso Picacho aid station at mile 28, and take a quick second to regroup. I had hit my age in miles, so anything after this point is bonus! I was feeling alright, but starting to get a little bit tired. Must've been about 6 hours into the race, less than half way done, not cramping up and feeling alright. I then take a couple of banana chunks and a couple of gels to go, not knowing that those bananas would be the source of indigestion that wouldn't resolve itself until mile 41. When I got to the end of loop 1, mile 32, I realized my stomach was feeling full still and so I wasn't that tempted to eat any of the things I had in my drop bag. Julieanne and I had pulled in together, but she had said she was going to change clothes at the end of loop 1 so I ended up leaving a little before her after getting some help and coaching from Becca, who helped quite a bit.

Julieanne and I coming into the end of Loop 1
Becca being super helpful 
Stretching the hamstrings while trying to apply Squirrel Nut Butter
The start of Loop 2 is always ridiculous. Maybe a mile climb up and almost everyone walks it. This is the most remote loop of the 3, there is absolutely no cell signal up there and it's mainly meadows and single track, so if something happens to you up there, you're kind of screwed. This is where you might feel most alone, depending on where you are in the pack and how many people are around you. This time, I fortunately had people in front of and behind me. But last year, I was in horrible shape around this point, and considered even turning around and going back down to the campgrounds halfway up the climb. There were points where I was really struggling and dehydrated and it sucked because there were very few people around, and the people who did pass couldn't do much to help me. It was so bad last year that I was waiting for a runner to come by so I could tell them to pass the message to the next aid station that number 303 quits, just so my friends would know why it had been 2 hours since they'd last seen me. But this year, I was feeling alright. Because I was more trained and properly hydrated, I knew there was no way I was going to consider dropping going into mile 41, the Gator Aid Station, aka the "No Drop Zone". Last year, I hated this aid station (in a loving way). I couldn't drop, so I walked the next 4.8 miles in maybe 2 hours before I called it quits. This year, I loved it. They poured some ice cold water on my head, filled me up, I ate some cookies and then headed out right as soon as I saw Julieanne pull into the aid station. The next 4-5 miles had only one annoying climb but for the most part I felt alright and was able to run a good chunk.

Pulling into the end of Loop 2, it was around 10 hours into the race. 1 more 18-mile Loop to do and I was going to be done! Becca gave me an update on how Whitney was doing, which I was glad to hear she was doing alright and had left for the second loop some time ago. As I was coming into the end of my 2nd Loop, I saw someone coming down the single track to start a loop. It was a trail friend, Danielle Sarna, and she looked defeated as she said she was just starting her 2nd loop after getting lost a little bit, almost missing the cutoff for the first loop. This was her first 100k attempt as well, and man, I really felt for her, to be chasing the cutoffs after getting off track. I couldn't imagine just now starting the 2nd loop. Told her to hang in there, as that was about as much as you could wish in a quick pass-by during a race. It was really inspiring to see her go out and start the 2nd loop even though her race wasn't going as she had planned, and the cutoff time was literally right behind her.

As I was talking to Becca, she was again being really helpful. I asked how Ricky was doing, thinking that he must be in 2nd place now, maybe gunning for 1st. That's when she told me he had pulled a tendon and unfortunately had to drop. I was really gunning for him to win, as I'm sure he was, but at the same time glad he wasn't stranded and injured on the trail somewhere. "This is where I dropped last year," I told Becca. "Well, you're not dropping today", she shot back as she tried to push me to get what I needed and go back out there. I was NOT wanting to go. I was feeling the fatigue of the extra 5 lbs that Chill Phill had gained this summer, and was pretty much over running. But I knew I still had something to give, so I downed some organic energy drink and reluctantly went back out there and started by just walking.

As it remained a little flat, I was able to pass a couple people that I'm sure passed me in the beginning of the day. Though I had little energy left, I was I guess still able to pass some people up which made me feel good about starting off slow. As we started that final gradual climb up towards Sunrise, I had to walk a good chunk. It's usually around the 50 mile point that things start getting tough for me, and so I start reciting out loud, the Bob Dylan poem I memorized to help keep me motivated. And it works, which is why I always suggest memorizing an inspiring poem to help you in these key moments. "When you're head gets twisted and your mind goes numb, when you think you're too old, to young, too smart or too dumb, when you're lagging behind and losing your pace, in a slow motion crawl or life's busy race, no matter what you're doing if you start giving up..." I recited out loud, tears welling up, recalling all my triumphs and the triumphs of other people that have inspired me up to this point. I was DONE, but I slowly started to get my energy back and running a little bit of the hills, all the way to mile 51.9, the Sunrise Aid Station.

"It's the Rubik's Cube Guy!" someone yelled. Alas, it was the race director from my first 12-hour run, Jennifer Henderson. It's kind of cool to be remembered for something a little quirky in the Ultra Running community. We're all a little quirky in the Ultra world, in my opinion. I mean, you kind of have to be a little bit off to voluntarily put yourself through these things for no other reason than "it's fun". Boy, every aid station of this race made me feel like royalty. They had so much good food at this aid station! I ate some rice balls, which are a favorite of mine late into the race, filled up my bottle with Tailwind, and took off.

But right before doing so, I saw someone who I wasn't expecting to see again after climbing Cuyamaca Peak. It was Geri, who I met with Julieanne earlier. She was still running even though she said she was going to stop at 50k!! INCREDIBLE! She took off right before me and I just couldn't EVEN! I had to keep up with her, it was just so incredibly inspiring to me that though I had very little left, I had to keep up with her, I just had to. She was, at the point, the only thing keeping me going at the pace I was moving at. As she stopped along the PCT to put on her headlamp, I let her know as I passed the incredible effect she had on me that day. I have no excuse to be feeling tired, she did a 200-miler a little over a month ago and what was I doing? Traveling? C'mon now, Phillip! Pull yourself together!

And so I donned my headlamp too and headed down the PCT to continue on towards the final aid station at Pedro Fages, mile 56.5. I had done a really good job not falling up to this point. I usually anticipate at least one fall during a trail race, and surprisingly I had none thus far. I had actually decided to wear cycling gloves which had gel padding in the event that I might fall during this race. Since this race was extra rocky, I thought I could use some extra protection given that I likely still have some nerve damage in my palms from previous falls and I always fall hands first causing most of the impact the shunt the bottom of my palms. As I approached 56.5 near Sunrise Highway, I started to stumble. Damn, that was close. Then I stumbled again. I didn't want to stop running because there was someone, likely Geri, right behind me, but I also didn't want to risk ruining the luck I had of not falling down the whole race. Falling down this late in the race takes so much more time to recover from for me, because if I do not start cramping up immediately I find myself just laying down in relief/embarrassment/exhaustion/disbelief etc. So I decided to just speedwalk into Pedro Fages to avoid falling.

"Phillip Espinoza! My heart is good, how are you?" Oh, what a sight for sore eyes was it to see Larry "Geezer" Putsinger volunteering at the aid station. His presence at these races creates a warm familiar feeling that always lifts my spirits, especially when it's most needed at night. Of course, it seems like he knew every runner coming in, and they, him. I decided to get some soup, a mini donut, a soft coffee cake of some kind and stayed there for maybe a good 8 minutes, way longer than I should have. "6.8 miles left? Oh, I love you guys," Geri had just pulled into the aid station and was relieved to find out that it was less than 7 miles to the finish. She took off before me, I waited a little longer, relieved at the fact that I could walk the rest at this point if need be, and still make the cutoff. If you do this race in under 17 hours, it counts as a Western States qualifier, though I wasn't as concerned with that as I had already done a WSER qualifying race earlier in the year. Still, I wanted to get done ASAP, so I took off, shuffling across the highway guided by a volunteer.

I was walking as fast as I could trying to catch up to a group of headlamps I saw not too far ahead of me. I caught up to 2 guys who were walking, one I'm assuming was the pacer, the other had hiking poles. They were in no hurry and so I decided that I wasn't either. I walked with them as a group of 5 people came up behind us, walking at a slightly faster pace. "Let me know if you want to pass," the hiking-pole racer gestured, "Nah, we're fine back here for now but thanks". What a stranger protocol to have in a "race" if you think about it, but this late into the "race", it is anything but. These distances are hardly a race against others for most people anyway, regardless of which point of the race it is. So we continued walking in an 8-person conga line, and I listened to this group's conversation. "Wow, look at the stars tonight!" one of them remarked. At this point, you could easily tell who the pacers were. They were the ones getting a real kick out of the fact that this was a really awesome experience, and the "runners", although likely just as appreciative, hardly have enough energy to express their appreciation, let alone look up towards the sky without dramatically increasing the likelihood of a fall. They were all friends, maybe 2 runners and 3 pacers, from the same college BYU. After about 0.5 miles of walking, they eventually expressed a desire to pass, at which point I, along with the 2 guys ahead of me, stepped aside. I decided to go along with them as they were starting a jog/walk series of movements. When the road opened up, that's when I "took off" and headed towards the finish as I knew it was only a couple of miles away.

As I made the final left turn of the race, there was a huge construction excavator machine just parked there. I soon realized it was recently used to smooth down this usually lumpy, and uneven part of the trail. At this point in the race, it was much appreciated, and though I'm not sure if it was done for the race itself, it was nice to be running on even terrain for the rest of the race, so good call whoever did that. I continued running by myself and was trying to pick up the pace a little, knowing that this final stretch of trail leads to the finish. My headlamp kept turning completely off, leaving me in the dark a couple times, causing me to stop to try and fix it. After knocking it on my hand a couple of times, the light would come back, but much dimmer than before. Great, I thought. My battery is dying? Already? It's only been 2 hours. I'll probably have to wait for those guys behind me to catch up and run in with them. Oh-- wait-- it's back on. Apparently, my headlamp was being finicky and needed me to keep it in a certain position to be back to normal, so I continued holding it with my hand as I ran towards the finish.

Finally, I get onto the road that connects to the beginning of this 3rd loop and I knew it was the home stretch, so I really picked up the pace and ran up the slight little incline passing somebody up before finally seeing flashing red lights signifying the finish. I felt sooo damn happy to see those lights. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I didn't think I would make it for some reason. Maybe it was the fact that this was a race I DNF'd last year that caused me to be super proud and happy about this finish, but either way, so much happiness upon seeing the finish line. "YESSSS!!!!" I yelled as I ran quickly towards the finish, greeting the Trail Crashers who were all there waiting. Becca of course was one of the first to greet me and cheer my name as I came in, then Julieanne came up and congratulated me, having finished not too long ago herself. "I thought you were behind me!" I joked, "Had I known you were ahead, I would've gone so much faster," knowing that I probably couldn't have, actually. It's funny though, we ran most of the race together, likely within a quarter mile of each other at all times.

14:34 ended up being the final time. A bit off from my goal of 12:xx but EVERY finish is always something to be thankful for. What a great day it was. What a great way to spend my last day at 27 years old, and to celebrate 28 years of being alive. Thankful for every single one of those years, though some years were greater than others, they all lead up to this point. Awe-some.


Now to wait for Whitney to finish and watch the rest of the runners come in, and try not to freeze.
Changing clothes and trying not to freeze
As we were waiting, I saw Eli come in looking tired as heck around 16:00 after apparently getting off track and doing an extra 10k. "I always do things the hard way," he said, hands on his knees, "Apparently!" I responded, "Geez man! You did the Cuyamaca 110k! Congrats!"

More and more runners came in as it got closer to midnight. 1:30am was the cutoff, and the last update we had was that Whitney left Pedro Fages at 10:48pm. "She should be here soon then," I comforted myself. I'm always worried that something bad will happen to people I care about. I get it from my family I guess, natural worry worts. "Yeah, she should definitely finish in time," Becca assured me. And in true Trail Crashers fashion, we waited for every last Trail Crasher to be finished. Nartaya came in, then Robert, then Daniel I believe. Now, all we were waiting for was Whitney to finish her first ever 100k race. Last year she crewed me and was there to see how much pain I was in when I dropped at around 12 hours into the race having covered 45 miles. For some reason, she was inspired by that and decided to herself that she wanted to do something just as stupid next year. So she signed up this year, before I did too. That takes guts, courage. She didn't think she was going to be able to finish, yet she signed up, put in whatever training she could, toed the starting line and hoped for the best. And as midnight passed, it was looking more and more like she could be the last finisher, receiving the prestigious "Tenacious Lanterne Rouge" award. This race is so awesome that it provides something special for first AND last place finishers, because really it is arguably just as much of an accomplishment to be out there for close to 19 hours. 

Midnight passed and I realized I was spending the early hours of my birthday with the Trail Crashers. What a great group of people to start off my birthday with. But as the clock ticked on, I became more and more nervous. What if Whitney doesn't make the cutoff? I mean, she would have still covered the distance, but I know it would be disheartening to hear that your attempt didn't "officially" count. 12:30am came, 18 hours into the race, 1 hour left before cutoff. We had planned to do a tunnel for Whitney as she came in, and each headlamp we saw coming in we got up in anticipation, only to realize it was a false alarm and that we left the warm of the gas heater for nothing. 

Then a headlamp came bobbing in really oddly. Number 15, "It's her, it's her!" I shouted. Our tunnel didn't work out the way we envisioned and I think Whitney looked a little confused as to why there were so many people waiting around this late into the race, but we all congratulated her and watched as the last finishers came in minutes after her and got presented with the Tenacious Lanterne Rouge award. "You mean, if you would have waited just a couple of minutes and slowed down a little bit, you could've had that award?!" I teased her. From the looks of it, she didn't want to be out there any longer than she was. 18.5 hours is a long time to be out there. I've never been more proud of her. It truly is incredible what you can accomplish if you set your sights on it. After a certain point in the race, it stops being fun, and you start having to dig deep and mentally will yourself to keep moving forward. It takes a lot, especially for your first go at the distance. Hell, it took a lot for me and I've covered the distance 3 times earlier in the year! So huge kudos and congrats to Whitney for finishing her first 100k and being the 2nd to last finisher to complete the race. That says something. That says a lot. 

Great day!

Whitney crossing the finish line of her first 100k

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU to all the volunteers and people out there. Thank you to the Trail Crashers for being awesome. And THANK YOU for reading.

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