Chimera 100 Race Report (2014)
Or: How does it feel like to run for 30 hours straight.
I think the above subtitle pretty much summarizes what this post is going to be about. But let's start at the beginning. Few days before the race. For most race reports I try to reconstruct chronologically what happened. This time it was such a long endeavor that there are gaps in my memory that stretch for hours. So instead, I'll try to talk about different aspects of this race, in short sections, only roughly sticking to the timeline of the race. There we go.
On traditional pre-race bad luck
Before almost every race things tend to go wrong. It happens so much that I even came to the conclusion that it's not that things go wrong, it's just that I'm more acutely tuned to problems and I notice them more. Screw this theory. Things do go very wrong before races. If you don't believe then listen to what happened to me on Thursday and then tell me that I'm wrong.
During the day I went to wash my car and the day before I re-stocked my collection of movie vouchers (10 or so). In the evening when I came back from work I saw that the vouchers were gone and realized someone must have "borrowed" them in the car wash. Beautiful.
But that was nothing. Also earlier that day I reported that garbage disposal in my apartment was not working. When I entered my home I saw a note from maintenance saying that it was fixed along with the leak in the bathroom. Leak? What leak? I entered my bathroom and sure enough the floor was covered in water. So much for fixing a leak (again, what leak?!?). Now, with movie tickets, upsetting as it was, it was just something to get over and forget. Not so easy with this. I put a container under the leaking pipe but it was leaking so badly that it'd fill in approximately 2 hours. So that meant I did not get much sleep that night, having to get up every 2 hours or so. The following night was the last one before the race and I had no illusions that I'll get much sleep then either. So my plan was to get plenty of sleep in the week leading up to the race to compensate for that. Well, after the night spent on guard over the leaking pipe, this plan went to hell...
To cap it all that very same day (Thursday) I was unpacking the suitcase that I was to use for the trip and was so pissed from the other things that I cut myself pretty badly. What a great beginning...
On waking up before the hens
People who know me know that I love to sleep. And hate to get up early. For this race I had to get up at... 3am. That meant I barely got few hours of sleep on top of all the sleep deficit that I collected during the week.
At least the drive to the start was adventures' free. I got there early enough, had something to eat, chatted and exchanged last minute observations with Yohann, who was also bravely at the start, even though his knee was troubling him. Then, right on time, at 6am, when it was getting just bright enough to run without headlamps, this big (or rather: long) adventure started.
On pacing... not
Yohann had an impressive plan for the race with everything figured out down to nutrition details and pacing. I was doing it "my style". Meaning, yes, I glanced at the course description and I gave a passing thought to pacing and nutrition but had nothing even resembling a plan. I honestly don't know what it is with me and racing plans. In general I like to think I'm rather well organized. But with races I seem to be unable to do them properly and always end up improvising and making it up along the way. Which is fine for short events. For 100 miles, though? Not so much...
So obviously I started too fast. Way too fast. I felt good and was going at a pace that seemed comfortable, but obviously that was going to be too fast in the long run. By the time I finished the first 36km long loop I was on pace for a 21h finish; and my most optimistic plan for the race was 27 hours.
When I finished the second loop and was on the 70km mark my projected finish time dropped to approximately 23h, although I was completely unaware of that at the time and thought I was going as fast as on the first loop. But the second loop was very technical so perhaps that was understandable.
In any case, at that point it was getting dark so I put on my headlamp and braced myself for the third, by far the longest loop. This was the point where the race was about to start for real.
This was the most lonely race I ever did. Few times I stick with one or two runners but never for longer than half an hour or so. Most of the time I was on my own. Which is fine. I'm used to running alone. But last year at night I seem to remember always seeing headlamps' lights in the distance, giving a false sense of company. This year that was not the case. For hours on end I'd not see or hear anything. Many people had pacers and at certain points during the race I envied them their company and support. I was on my own. In the dark. Getting tired.
On getting lost. Twice
Okay I'll admit it: my track record when it comes to not getting lost is probably not the best. But last year I managed to avoid getting lost and so was optimistic that I can repeat this accomplishment this year. Na-ah.
First time I messed up at the end of the second loop. During the loop I realized that although I did remember to print and bring the turn by turn directions I... printed the ones from the previous year. Drum rolls. Applause. Yes, thank you, thank you. Still I thought I should be fine as at the end of the second loop we were coming back to the start and I was convinced that I could get a copy there for the most important part of the race that we had to do at night.
And yet. At the end of the second loop there was a very tempting shortcut and somehow I convinced myself that we were supposed to take it. When I discovered my error not much later I still thought it was not the end of the world: we'd get to that point at the end of the race and I swore to myself that I'm going to do this missing bit then. (Btw. it's funny; I just read my report from last year and I made the same mistake then; perhaps that's why I did it this year too? If only I read the last year's report before the race...).
But that was nothing. 90 kilometers and 14 hours into the race I got really lost. To this day I'm not sure to what extent to blame myself for this error. The turn by turn directions we got where in general pretty good, telling us at all major turns which one to take. When I was approaching this turn I needed a bathroom break and wasn't at my sharpest. The turn by turn sheet had a blank for the direction of the turn so I assumed we'll be going straight. But when I got to the intersection there was no straight; there was only left or right.
However, we just finished the Holy Jim trail and the directions indicated that next up was Upper Holy Jim. There was a sign (not from the race) pointing that Upper Holy Jim is to the right, so a no brainer, right? I took right. Almost right away I saw chalk arrow on the ground and race ribbons on the trees confirming that this was the way to go. What tipped me off that something is not right is that I was supposed to be only half a mile away from the next aid station. However, I ran much longer than that and there was no aid station in sight. I explored one trail, backtracked, explored another climbing, technical trail and still nothing.
I was becoming desperate and decided to go back to the original left/right intersection. When I reached it there were some people there who knew the course and knew we were supposed to be going left, so I followed. However, my little detour costed me one and a half hours (sic!!) and 6 extra kilometers. Not to mention the frustration (more on that below).
As to the arrow I saw it was there because we were supposed to take that trail later in the race. When I finally got to the aid station and told volunteers there that I got hopelessly lost they offered me their sympathy and told me I was certainly not the only one to get lost at that point. And when I was passing this same spot much later in the race I saw a clear chalk arrow pointing left. Was it there when I took the wrong turn? (making me the blind idiot) Or was it put there after I (and possibly several others) reported getting lost? I guess I'll never know.
On running with your head
You hear it everywhere that ultras are run as much with your head as with your legs. In other words: mental strength is as important (some go as far as to say that it's way more important) than physical strength. I got a clear sample of that.
Until I got lost everything was going great. I was 90 kilometers into the race, going at a good pace and felt just fine. Then I got lost and started panicking and frantically trying to find my way. When I finally reached the aid station it was as if I was a balloon and someone deflated me completely. It was the turning point for me and nothing was ever the same again in this race.
What was a great adventure and fun turned into a struggle. I'm not going to say that I felt like lying on the ground and crying; I was way too determined to finish the race for that. But there is no denying that something has died in me after getting lost.
And then I was freezing. Finding my way after getting lost has marked the point in the race where I switched from mostly running (except for uphill sections) to mostly walking (even on downhills). It was the middle of the night and although it wasn't very cold the wind was having a field day. As I learned only after the race it essentially blew away one of the aid stations and at some point the question of canceling the race was looming in the air. But I was completely unaware of that. I was also completely unprepared for that; seeing people in winter gear while all I had were shorts and a long sleeved shirt.
When I reached one of the aid stations I decided to sit for few minutes to rest but then I started shivering so badly that I had little choice but to get up and get back on my way. I was looking forward to the morning. Sun. Some warmth... I was also looking forward to the end of this race.
On blisters and gaiters
Last year blisters pretty much prevented me from completing the race (in the end it was the knee, but the blisters did their share of damage). So this year I was hoping to address this problem. My answer: gaiters. I bought them few weeks before the race, tried them on few longer runs and races and indeed they seemed to help prevent stuff getting into my shoes and, by extension, blisters.
What I failed to notice was that before I even started using them I occasionally had blisters after my longer runs/races. And that pretty much never happened to me before (excluding last year's Chimera). I now think that this was a sign, which I ignored, that my shoes were giving me trouble.
Anyhow, for a while everything was fine (and I thought that maybe gaiters indeed made a difference). And then it wasn't. It pretty much coincided with my getting lost and finding my way back. Afterwards my feet were hurting from blisters and were getting worse with every mile. I did not think I had any debris in my shoes so I did not dare to take off my shoes/socks for the fear that I would not be able to put them back on. Part of the problem is that I expected the fire roads that the second part of the race was mostly on to be rather easy, technically. Instead they were very rocky and over the course of many miles destroyed my feet (I kicked rocks countless times which probably accounted for toe blisters that I later discovered on my feet).
And then there was the stretch to Corona. 77 miles into the race we were greeted with a 7 mile long downhill and then turn around point and back up those 7 miles. By that point there wasn't even a question of me running and even on the downhill part I had to walk gingerly. Good thing is that by the time I was reaching the aid station at the bottom I was welcome by daylight (and grilled cheese sandwiches) and I wasn't cold anymore.
Bad thing is that large stretches of this trail were sandy. Add to that the fact that I was really, really tired, my technique was shot and I'd occasionally stumble or kick in the sand... Gaiters were pretty much useless there as the sand was getting to my shoes through the mesh in front of the shoes. And trust me, my feet were not happy with this sand; not one bit.
It was on this stretch to Corona that I met Yohann, which made me very happy. I was afraid that due to knee problems he might have had to quit early. But seeing him that far (and knowing him) I knew that he wasn't planning on giving up and that he'll finish (which he did, congrats mate!).
The interesting thing is that I kind of expected my feet to have huge blisters on the soles of my feet, like last year. Instead, when I took off my socks after the race I saw my feet completely covered in blisters. Not a pretty sight. Was it a mistake not to use toe socks like last year? Perhaps. I'm still not sure what the right solution is to this problem. But I know that if I were to ever try something like that again, I'll have to find out. Just like in the saying that the chain is only as strong as it weakest link? Well, my weakest spot seems to be my feet and blisters.
If you read the above paragraph on blisters then you can imagine that I was not in a very good shape pretty much from the point when I found my way after getting lost. At that point I still had 65km (40 miles) to go. And I covered it walking. Ups, downs, flats... I was walking it all. It took me almost as long to do that as it took me to the first 60 miles.
What's interesting is that at least 10 hours before the finish I started calculating expected finish time. It seemed that if I was able to keep steady walking pace then I should be able to finish under 30 hours. That was relevant because all sub-30h finishers were getting a special silver buckle :). So that became my goal. All those long hours I was walking glancing frequently at my watch and making calculations in my head trying to figure out what my chances are. Did I make it? Read on, to find out :).
On monsters (or: tripping without drugs, or: hallucinations are fun)
You hear those stories of runners in ultras being so exhausted that they start hallucinating. It never happened to me before. And now it kinda did.
It wasn't anything super drastic. You know how sometimes you get fooled by a shadow or some tree branches, forming some unexpected shape? It was kind of like this except for a while (15 minutes? 2 hours? I'm really not sure) it was happening with super high frequency. And rather freakish intensity. Funny thing is that I was totally aware that it's my mind playing tricks on me. And yet I could not stop it from happening. And it was an interesting mix of being amusing and annoying.
On the other hand I never really felt sleepy during the race. Yohann later told me stories of him sleep-running but I was more or less alert throughout, which was rather surprising given that I was mildly sleep deprived already before the race. Could be that caffeine I got in fair amounts of Coke that I drunk throughout did its trick.
I thought a lot about finishing this race. I thought about it in the weeks leading to the race. And I thought about it during the race. Whenever I did the image was always pretty similar: me crossing the finish line overwhelmed with joy; perhaps on the verge of crying.
I also had my marathon experience from 10 years ago to look back to. Back then I was so happy when I crossed the finish line. It was my first marathon, I did not train so much and I honestly had no idea whether I'll be able to make it. When not only I did but I did in a fairly good time (3:23) I was filled with joy.
That was probably my most joyous experience ever in racing. And I thought that finishing this 100 miler might be as good, perhaps even better.
Was it? Honestly not really. When I finally reached the finish line the emotion that was by far the strongest was relief. Relief that it's over. Relief that I made it. Relief that I don't have to run (or walk) anymore. A bit anticlimactic, huh? I'm not sure to what extent my blister problems and inability to cross the finish line in any way other than walking at a snail's pace was responsible for that.
Looking at it now, few weeks after the race, I'm happy. I finished it. I got the silver buckle. I did a 100-miler. But my visions of finishing crying with joy will have to wait for another race ;)
On sleep driving
The tricky part was that as much as I'd love to do it I could not hit the bed after the race. My better half was coming to CA and I had a flight back to San Francisco to catch. So after the race I rested for half an hour or so, jumped in the car, drove to the hotel, took a quick shower, did a quick shopping and... started driving towards the airport.
This was the most scary drive of my life. It was only 90 minutes long and thankfully traffic was rather light. But after running 100+ miles and not sleeping for close to 48 hours I was really on the verge of falling asleep. I drank a redbull, I cranked up the volume of the radio and I set the air-co to a very low temperature to prevent me from falling asleep. Still, it was close.
Gladly I made it safely to the airport. There, a lady driving this car to transport elderly people throughout the airport saw me, took pity on me and gave me a lift. My gate turned out to be just around the corner but I was eternally grateful :).
And then I had another funny incident that makes for a great story but unfortunately I was sworn to secrecy on that one :)...
On doing it again
Natural question after finishing a race like this one is: what next? It's almost legendary that people tend to say "Never again" just after the race only to canvass the net for another race to sign up for, just few days later. Heck, it happened to me, too.
Not this time, though. Just like last year, I took few weeks away from running. Just like last year I felt that perhaps I'm done with running for good... although this time I knew better than to trust this feeling.
I don't know what'll happen in few weeks' time. But for now running is still low on my radar. I don't have any big plans for next year. Or rather: I do, but they don't involve running. Two things that I'd love to devote more time to are: piano playing and swimming (with an eye to perhaps doing a triathlon one day).
If I ever change my mind, you'll be the first ones to know but for now this blog is going on vacations :).