In early July, I threw my name into the hat when Coach Ken from Running Stupid put out the call for San Francisco 100 Mile pacers and crew. I was stoked when he tagged me for pacing on the third 25 mile loop of the washing machine (every other loop changes direction) course. Ken and I had been trying to get together on a run for a while, and the course covered some of the trails I have coming up in the Tamalpa Headlands 50K, and the North Face Endurance Challenge.
Ken, true to his form, set a sub-24 hour goal for the race, and put the hammer down on an overcast Saturday morning. His first loop time of just over five hours banked some time toward his goal. I slept in, resting up for the evening's duties. Ken wanted me ready to run at 4:30 pm, and he wasn't far off his planned pace. Of course, he had counseled us all not to tell him he went out too fast; in hindsight that should gave been telling.
|Race Start, photo by Brenda Blinn|
|Feeling Good with crew (Nate Dunn) in the Early Miles, photo by Leigh-Ann Wendling|
|The Fenix TK-22 Flashlight worked perfectly|
|The EOS headlamp I wore on my chest didn't last the night on fresh batteries|
|During Loop One, photo by Josam Mulinyawe|
We got him turned around without sitting down, as other 100 mile runners were in the aid station and his competitive juices were still flowing. "24 hours is off the table, but a solid PR is reasonable", he said as we prepared to set out on the climb to Hill 88. Ken had his sights set on the runners in front, and he plotted to pass them.
|Ready to Start Loop Three, photo courtesy of Alvin Lubrino|
My biggest challenge while pacing Ken would be to keep the talking to a minimum. While talking passes the time, it also slows one down, and I could tell by Ken's answers to my initial probes that he was laboring as we climbed towards Wolf Ridge. Once I had assessed his condition, I kept the chatter scarce.
We gained the ridge, and the course followed a long rolling descent to the Tennessee Valley aid station, which Ken would visit eight times during the race. He set a good pace through this section while I entertained the idea of a seven hour loop. "Time to fly", I joked, and he really turned up his pace.
At Tennessee Valley, we quickly resupplied, including lights and night clothes, as the sun would set within a half hour. I dropped off my long sleeve merino crew, as I was comfortable in a merino tee. Ken forced down as much food as he could, and we set off for the Coastal Trail and Pirates Cove en route to Muir Beach. This is one of my favorite stretches of trail in the Headlands, but I had never run it in the dark.
Ken admitted that the previous descent was not sustainable, and we walked about a half mile down the road as he waited for his stomach to settle. He had taken a Zantac at the aid station, and was waiting for it to kick in. We picked up the pace on the runnable valley floor before power hiking into the darkening fog. Ken's energy level was good, and we made good time on the technical single track through Pirates Cove; by the time we were picking our way down to Muir Beach, I could tell a low was coming.
"Coat, chair, soup, Tylenol, coke" Ken listed his wishes as we approached the aid station. Unfortunately, there was no soup or coke to be had at Muir Beach, but we did get him some more calories and soda. Ken sat under a blanket, and had a hard time eating. I could see that the next leg could be a struggle if he did not get enough calories, so I let him sit until Mrs. CK began encouraging him to get back on the trail. We had to climb Coyote Ridge to Miwok, and he had been talking about how long and grueling the climb would be. Once I had my pack situated, we got him up out of the chair, and moving once again. This aid station was a tough stop for most of the runners on this third loop. Rumor has it that the race winner spent a half hour in a sleeping bag!
The fog grew thick, and dew condensed on the surrounding flora. The wind held steady, blowing the dew out of the trees as if it were raining. We both had donned jackets, and the time approached midnight. Ken grunted and laughed his way up the climb as I lead the way, trying to keep his pace respectable. Soon enough, we crested the ridge and joined the Miwok Trail. Ken picked up the pace again with pretty good form for almost 100K! I reminded him to pick up his feet whenever he scuffed the ground, and by the time we were descending to Tennessee Valley aid station his spirits were high again; he'd made it through the low.
At Tennessee Valley, Ken sat in the car with the heater on while he quaffed a cup of lentil soup. I had exhausted my supply of Tailwind, which worked spectacularly. I had absolutely no GI issues for the first 4.5 hours, having only the 400 calories of Tailwind and aid station fare such as pb&j squares, boiled potato with salt, and potato chips. I mixed up a packet of dehydrated coconut water for my bottle and topped off my hydration pack before coaxing Ken out of the car and back onto the trail. It was almost midnight, and we had one of the longest legs of the loop before us.
Ken brought a cup of soup out onto the trail, and we hiked up Marincello. The wind continued to blow and the trees continued to rain dew. A young buck watched us go by as I shone my 680 lumen flashlight at him. With only 90 minutes of battery life on the highest setting, my new flashlight was working perfectly. It fit in my hand well, never became an encumbrance, and when I needed that high beam, it lit up the fog like a lighthouse. Ken finished his soup and resumed running.
By the time we gained Bobcat Trail, conditions had worsened. The fog was sensory-deprivation thick, and it was getting cold on the ridge lines. The glow sticks marking the course danced in the tree boughs and frequently looked like someone running from far away. Ken was slipping into another low, and the runnable fire road that was taking us gradually down into Rodeo Valley provided good running terrain. I realized that Ken's pace, around 20 minutes per mile, was slowing. I kept using words like "momentum" and reminding him that he was killing his PR pace.
We arrived at the Rodeo Valley aid station around 12:45 am, and Ken plopped into a chair and refueled while I grabbed my gloves, an extra hat to keep my ears warm and my arm sleeves. The next leg, Rodeo to SCA Trail to Conzelman Road, would be the most exposed, cold, windy and foggy. With eight miles left in the loop, we expected to run into the front runners before too long.
I let Ken run out of the aid station while I finished up with my drop bags and took a bathroom break. Monitoring the color of my pee in the dark proved "interesting" near the aid stations, as I shone my spotlight down to investigate. All clear, and still no stomach issues. I was beginning to recognize just how much value I was getting in return for pacing this night. My lighting gear and nutrition were working, and I was feeling strong (although my previously injured hip spoke up as I left the aid station). Heck, I was even getting used to running in the limited universe that was our pool of light.
Talk was cheap, and we had a hill to climb, so Ken put his head down and soldiered on while I futzed with my chest-strap light, which worked fine when I turned it on leaving the Rodeo Valley station, but would dim quickly. Turning it off and on restored the brightness, but it would fade again within a minute. Mental note: batteries!
Seeing a flashlight illuminate the ridge above us through the fog, I alerted Ken that the leader was coming down the hill. Sure enough, leader Lucas Wojciechowski, a 20-year old from Massachusetts, came bounding down the trail with his pacer, Penny MacPhail. I looked at my watch, and told Ken that I thought Lucas was flirting with the 24 hour mark. He thought otherwise, as Lucas was running well, but I sensed he was hurting and might struggle to cover the almost 20 miles remaining before 7 am.
We crested the hill and Ken stretched for a moment before we resumed running down the SCA Trail towards the Conzelman aid station. This section was by far the least hospitable, and any views of San Francisco we may have had were obscured by the fog. One section of trail cut through a dense stand of trees and felt like we ran through a small rain forest. "Suddenly we're in Oregon," I said as we splashed through the mud puddles. Then, just as suddenly, we were back in California on dry dirt.
We passed the second place runner with his pacer (who would not finish in second) shortly before descending to Conzelman Road and the final aid station before I would hand Ken off to Tony Dunnigan, the last loop pacer. Once again, Ken sat in the car eating soup while I munched on potato chips and had some Coke. The wind was biting at this station, and I felt cold, but with just over 5K to the start/finish line, I didn't want to get too cozy, so I sat on a log and waited for Ken to be ready for the last leg.
Before long, we were back on the trail and descending towards the valley floor. Two groups of headlamps were coming up the trail and after a few minutes, we crossed paths with third place, Steve Ansell. "I keep falling asleep while I'm walking! I'm fine while running, but I keep catching myself sleep walking...", he said. He must have compensated by running the rest of the course, because he caught second place and missed the win by 18 seconds! His last loop was almost 2.5 hours faster than anyone in the top 5. Shortly after Steve we came upon Chris Jones and his pacer Bem Jones-Bey. We commiserated for a second before heading our separate ways.
With one short climb left, Ken put his head down and focused on getting the job done. By the time we hit the pavement and had under two miles to go, Ken was hurting pretty bad. I offered him an Ibuprofen, which he initially refused, but after a few minutes spent pounding the pavement, he changed his mind. We cruised this last section, me smelling the barn and Ken fantasizing about hot food: pizza, burgers, anything.
We rolled into the start/finish area around 3:45 am, and Ken crossed the timing mat before sitting in the car to warm up while he ate a couple spicy Italian sausage we scrounged from the barbecue. I quickly changed into dry clothes and pounded my recovery drink after I had briefed Tony on Ken's condition, and gave Ken a high five on his way out for the last loop.
Tony got some good footage and pictures of Ken during the last lap:
I asked the crew to text me with his estimated finish time, and then headed home for a shower and a nap. I managed to make it back to the finish line about 20 minutes before Ken finished, and boy, was it worth it! We could hear him coming down the hill from about a mile away, and his exuberance crossing the finish line said it all:
Ken and Tony shaved fifteen minutes off the third loop and turned in a sub-29 hour finish! Going into the race Ken knew he had to save time at the aid stations. According to my Garmin, we spent an hour and a half not moving. I guess if he had never stopped a sub-24 was possible, but it was plain to see that the rest he got at each aid station both provided him the energy to continue, and motivation to get to the next aid station. Good lessons for aspiring 100 milers: take the race in small chunks, and know when rest is a good thing!
UPDATE: Crew member Nate Dunn posted this video coverage of Ken's SF100 at Ultra Sports Live.
For inquiring minds, the Garmin details for the third loop: