Am I racing to win? Or am I racing to test the limitations of the human soul? Or in the midst of competing is that where the limits to my soul lie? Is my call in running me vs. other humans or me vs. nature and the elements? I am not sure anymore…And the San Diego 100 only clouded that concept more for me. The race takes place in the low lying mountains in eastern San Diego County. Much of the course is run near, at or on the border between the mountains and the desert. Which meant very hot exposed sections with little shade or relief. Relative to other hundreds I’ve competed in the course is flat, fast and mildly technical. It’s a great faster ultra and a first time 100 miler for many. Similar to the Leona Divide 50 everything was ‘runnable’ and I began to wander as I toed up at the starting line standing next to Dave Mackey and Jeff Browning what I was doing out there with all these ‘runners’. I hadn’t been much of a ‘runner’ since the HURT 100 back in January. Barkley had converted me into a fast hiker with some navigation skills, neither of which was useful at the San Diego 100.
I started the run wearing a heart rate monitor with the idea that if I kept my HR between 60-80% of my Max Heart Rate (MHR) I would be able to do a negative split for the second 50 and maybe even throw down with the leaders towards the end of the race. During those 35 miles I felt like a race horse who was zapped every time I tried to move ahead to stay with a group. I eventually settled down somewhere in 23rd place when I began to descend down into the hot stagnant depths of Noble Canyon. I made a bad mistake of listening to this heart rate monitor in these early miles, although I was keeping my HR at or around 150BPM I was moving at 9-13min/mile, much slower than normal, which in stagnant canyon heat meant more exposure.
This really came into play at the bottom of Noble Canyon when I left for a five mile section of the course with about 64oz of water in my handhelds and noticed a dark yellow color in my urine on the far side of the loop, despite the fact that I had been adamant about drinking and salting. This was an early sign of bad things to come, as the day would only heat up from there on.
The following 8.5 mile section from Pine Creek 2 to Pioneer Mail 1 (mile 36-42) was really rough for me. I was moving slow and took off the heart rate monitor at this point, it was beeping too much. My HR was somewhere near 160+ and I was walking…HR monitors are great but are an unrealistic way to measure exertion in hot weather because if you accurately follow it during a race you’ll be doing a 30min/mile just to keep your HR at 150BPM.
Several painful and slow miles later, I was nearing pioneer mail where I got to see my girlfriend, pacer and good friend Von as well as my Mom and younger sister who had driven out from inland San Diego, it was a nice short reprieve from the soaring temperatures and exposed, dry, dusty trail.
Shortly after leaving the aid station, I pulled off the trail to urinate…dark red…not good. This had never happened to me before, I was drinking, I was salting, I didn’t understand why my kidneys and bladder were all of a sudden not working. I considered walking back down to the aid station to tell my crew but figured I would just tell them when I got to mile 52.
Things went so quickly at the mile 52 aid station, getting food, changing shoes, water, pills and pacer. Before I knew I was back on the trail and had forgotten to tell my Girlfriend about the discolored urine. It wasn’t long before I urinated again, dark red still, despite the fact that I had upped my drinking. I was getting pretty worried and my friend Von suggested that about 1-2 miles out from the next aid station that we walk until we figure it out more. I discussed the idea of dropping out of the race with him, it was just a training run for me really and peeing blood red was obviously a serious issue. This certainly wasn’t going to be the last 100 miler I was going to do be doing and I did not want to treat it as such.
When we arrived I was ready to drop and call the race quits, nausea, blood red urine and some malnutrition (under calories) were a lethal combination for a bad runner’s low. I talked to Jeff the aid station captain and fellow San Diego runner and he shared with me a few stories of other runners I knew who had urinated blood as well during 100 milers and gone onto finish with no further complications. It was good to hear, but that meant that I had to go another 48 miles still and dropping out sounded so nice. Then my girlfriend said to me, “Nick, you don’t drop out, that’s just not what you do” She was right, that’s not what I do. “Von, let’s get going, at least to the next aid station.”
I drank like a fish, 64oz. + over a sixty minute period, and literally ran up and down Stonewall Peak (one of the tougher climbs of the race, but an anthill compared to most stuff at Barkley, which of course is what I compared it to in my mind). The aid station captain at Paso Picacho (mile 62?) happened to have a medical background and told me to just keep chugging water and if the red urine went away that I could continue the race, but if it persisted that he would highly recommend I drop out. He told me if it was up to him he would have pulled me back at the last aid station. I’m not proud of this and not trying to make a point here by being like ‘hey look I’m a bad-ass and can run even if my body isn’t working” No I’m a dumb-ass and should have never allowed my body to get to this point, I continued the race because I don’t like not finishing what I start. DNF- Do Not Fear or as Scott Mills said “Did Nothing Fatal” both acronyms still held true at the time.
“Coca-cola!” I yelled out to Von, my urine had turned back to brown, which was a sign it was getting better as I continued to chug down my 32oz handhelds. We started increasing the pace now and picking back off runners who had passed me miles back. I was following my pacer down the trail when he suddenly yelled “snake!” Immediately I jumped and as I looked underneath me a nicely coiled California Kingsnake laying in the middle of the trail, and nothing wakes you up better than a coiled snake. Two miles out from the aid station I caught a runner named Jeremiah and his pacer, I went to make a quick pace and disappear around the corner but to my surprise Jeremiah and his pacer picked up the pace and started following me. From there on out we made some good conversation and for the first time in a long time, I started to really enjoy just running, just being out there with some good company.
Leaving the next aid station Jeremiah’s pacer pointed out that we had ran just past a field of skunks, I was thankful we weren’t skunked as even though I was now urinating yellow…I think getting sprayed would have been justifiable reason to drop. The four of us kept a tight, strong pack as we picked up the pace on the fire road back up to mile 80. For parts of the run, the four of us looked like what we described as a ‘semi-truck’. Hanging with them really took my mind off of the race, off of the competition and I was able to really genuinely enjoy the beauty of eastern San Diego at 10:00pm.
The four of us arrived at mile 80 together and I was quick to get in and out, having enjoyed Jeremiah’s company, I was now ready to hammer out the last 20 miles and go hard as the night had brought with it, much cooler, more reasonable temperatures. Von after having paced for 30 miles was out and my buddy Keshav jumped in, fresh and eager to motivate me to get going. We tore off down the trail.
Somewhere in the vast and many switchbacks on the way back to Pioneer Mail (mile 88) I started to really pick up the pace and got the jams going on my iPod. Someone told me that I was near 8th place back at the aid station and that the first female and a Canadian guy I had ran with earlier in the race were only about 15mins ahead of me. I started running every uphill and I began to hammer the downhills. Keshav and I were jamming quick. Fifteen minutes into the loop we caught the first female. I went quiet, picked up the pace and dropped around the corner and out of sight before her and her pacer even realized I was there.
The strategy was the same but a bit more viscous for the Canadian guy we caught up to. We had leap-frogged for a while in the earlier miles, so I knew if I didn’t make a swift pass he might be a fighter. Keshav and I dimmed our lights, crept up silently and passed him clocking a 6:30min/mile as we disappeared around the next switchbacks and were gone from sight.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t long until we caught up to 5th place. I had been gaining ground on everyone and running the fastest splits for this final section of the course. We could see him a ways out and Keshav and I decided to run up to them but not pass them, just screwing around. We got right up on them and stayed about ten feet back, just hovering, not passing or saying anything. When we noticed their pace start to waiver we made a swift and silent pass, disappearing again around the corner and maximizing the demotivation factor. It’s strange how competitive running is deeply psychological at times.
I was worried that the 5th place guy (now 6th) was going to compete with me for this place in the remaining 3.4 miles of the race, so I turned on the fire and got going. First mile was partially uphill, 7:30min/mile. Second mile, downhill 6:50min/mile (my fastest mile of the race!), third mile was moderately flat and I clocked a 7:45min/mile before running across the finish line at 20hrs and 10mins into my tired girlfriends arms. On the walk back to her car, I felt surprisingly fresh, as it seemed strange to have ran 100 miles in only 20hrs where on the drive back home I couldn’t help but to think that if this was Barkley I would only be in the midst of pissing rain and fog, hopelessly lost somewhere near mile 35.
Although my performance at the San Diego 100 (was for my standards) sub-par, I learned some valuable lessons:
- Drink, drink, drink, drink & drink (take an equal amount of salts too to avoid hypernatremia)
- Go slow at the first half of the race, but not so slow that you trade intensity for exposure (especially during a hot race)
- The first 80 miles has really nothing to do with the ‘race’ it’s just a matter of survival, if you run the last 20 miles fast, you’ll end up in a decent finishing position, sooo many people run their first 20 fast and throw away their last 20, this is a big mistake!
- Don’t expect to win a race that doesn’t emphasize (or even utilize) your skills. Not to say that you shouldn’t try other types of races, but if you want to do well, look for a race that fits your skills, for me I think that’s obscure races that no one’s ever heard of like Barkley, Arrowhead 135, Death Race ect…
A huge thanks to Jade Belzberg my wonderful girlfriend, Von & Keshav some of best friends and pacers, Scott Mills for putting together such a well-organized race, my sponsors Carbo-Pro and Injinji and all the aid station volunteers and staff who not only motivated me to keep going but endured just as many sleepless hours as I did on that run. Will I be back? Possibly one day, I’m kind going to back to the drawing board and really looking at what Ryan Hall, Max King and others are doing for their training. I’m also as you noted above in a bit of a quandary trying to figure out what my ‘niche’ in the sport of running is (separate blog post on this to come out soon). Tour Des Geants is on the horizon and in about three months’ time I’ll be going neck to neck with Oscar Perez Lopez and many other talented European endurance athletes, so I need to get into the best shape of my life by ASAP. I’m recovering for a while then I plan on hitting it hard, time to get going, this ain’t no sob story, no excuses, today is someday, not tomorrow.