Angeles Crest 100 for 2010: The Race That Almost Wasn’t

Posted on 14 September 2010

By Racetwitch ProTeam member Cheryl Zwarkowski

The Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run (AC100) is rated the 9th most difficult ultramarathon (actually tied for 9th with Tahoe Rim Trail) in the USA, according to Gary Wong of RealEndurance.com.  From this runner’s perspective, it lived up to that expectation.

The first AC100 was held in 1986.  This year, however, was only the 22nd running of the race because it was cancelled in both 2002 and 2009 due to forest fires.  Last year, the devastating “Station Fire” consumed 160,577 acres (251 sq. miles) and burned “uncontrolled” for over six weeks.  Countless structures including 89 homes were lost and two firefighters (one a husband of an acquaintance of mine) lost their lives battling this fire.

Approximately 30 miles of the AC100 course were affected by the Station Fire; and the aftermath in the burnout areas—including downed trees, barren mountains, and rockslides—is nothing less than sobering to view.  There was much talk about whether the AC100 would even take place in 2010 because of the condition of the trail, or, as was often the case, the “lack of trail” where there once was one.  Many runners, including myself, literally and figuratively wept as we watched our beloved forest burn to the ground last year.

In my humble opinion, the fact that the AC100 race even happened this year was due in great part to the hard work, dedication, and tenacity of Hal Winton, the co-race director.  Hal rallied the troops to “clean up” the forest and in some cases carve “new” trail; he personally spent countless hours “out there” working and correcting the damage done to our beautiful San Gabriel Mountains.  The race directors were able to secure a special one-day permit allowing the runners (and pacers, as the case may be) to run through approximately 15 miles of what is still “CLOSED forest.”  So the very fact that the directors were even able to have a race in 2010—after this major disaster in our beautiful Angeles National Forest—was truly miraculous.

I considered it both an honor and a privilege to be running this year on what I hold to be truly “hallowed ground”—and perhaps even more so after the Station Fire.  I have had my eye on this race for several years; but felt as though I needed to get a few 100s under my belt, so to speak, before I tackled this one.  The completion of the AC100 is my tenth 100 (or 100-plusses, as I’ve also finished two Badwater 135s) in my approximate four years so far as an ultrarunner.

Another reason why this race has been on my “to-do list” for several years is that it is held, quite literally, in my own backyard; the start of the race is 40 minutes from my front door.  The San Gabriel Mountains are also my summer playground.  I have run every single inch of this course over several years and am particularly familiar with the first 30 or so miles, which include two of the big seven climbs and are the highest areas of elevation on the course.  For this reason, in some ways, I thought of running the AC100 as my having a “home court advantage.”  Additionally, several of the running groups to which I belong were going to be out on the course supporting and cheering us (me and other runners) along, so I developed the attached “Race Plan.”  I don’t generally do such a detailed plan; however, since several fellow runners and friends were going to drive out on the course to see me, I wanted to give them an idea of the approximate times I would be at specific locations.  I was also lucky enough to have two pacers, with whom I run regularly (their reports are also attached), and my husband as crew for the entire race.  I am also sharing my race plan in order to show just how close, if not prophetic, I ultimately came to meeting the exact goal I had set for myself—just 7 minutes and 52 seconds off is pretty darn close for finishing a 100-mile footrace J!!!

The race starts in Wrightwood proper at about 6000 ft. elevation.  In the first four miles, the runners climb Acorn Trail which is about a 3K climb.  The second big climb comes at about mile 13.5:  Baden Powell, which is the second-highest peak in this mountain range (behind Mt. Baldy which is over 10K ft.) and tops out at 9399 feet.  However, the race takes a turn slightly before reaching the summit of Baden Powell, and so the runners peak at about 9200 ft.—and, as they say, it’s all downhill from there.

The runners actually traverse several ridges and, of course, lots of ups and downs in between, with an average elevation to about mile 26 up to around 8K.  The third climb at mile 26 is Mt. Williamson, and it is relatively short (only 1.7 miles) when compared to those first two climbs and to the other big ones coming up.  A visual of the climbs in the AC100 can be found on the race’s website at: http://www.ac100.com/pdfs/course_desc.pdf.

I picked up my first pacer, John Marnell, at mile 52 (Chilao Flats).  Having a pacer is such a treat, and one I’ve not often had the good fortune of having.  I often travel alone to races and crew for myself—no biggie; it’s just what you do as an ultrarunner.  John and I have run together for years, so it was a pleasure to have his company for almost the next 23 miles.  We were pretty much walking the uphills at that point, and running the flats and downhills as my body allowed.  John’s report is also included with mine.

At mile 75, John’s “duty” was over and I picked up my second pacer, Laura Gregg.  This was Laura’s first experience pacing at an ultra event as compared to John who has paced multiple times, including many times at the AC100.  John also paced me at my two Badwater 135s and is pretty familiar with my needs during these long(er) events.  I heard afterwards that Laura was a bit nervous, not knowing quite what to expect.  She did have a goal of sorts for this run, which was to run at night and see the sun come up.  I got to Chantry Flats (mile 75) around 0100 and didn’t cross the finish line until approximately nine hours later.  I had “figured” about nine hours to do the last 25 miles of this race for several reasons:  first, and most obvious, is that I would have 75 miles on my legs; second, it is the most technical part of the course; and third, there are two big climbs after reaching mile 75:  Mt. Wilson (about mile 80) and Sam Merrill (about mile 84).

I have climbed Mt. Wilson many times, but was really dreading it with 75 miles on my legs; it was, however, not as “bad” as I feared—just one more mountain to get up and over.  Our next climb was Sam Merrill, not nearly as menacing as Mt. Wilson; however, after passing over a streambed twice, we “lost” any and all markings on the course.  We began to doubt if we perhaps missed a turn or maybe should not have crossed the stream a second time, and we were “discussing” this very thing when two runners came upon us.  They too were “unsure” if we were on the course or maybe missed something somewhere.  After discussing for a bit, we decided that Laura would run ahead to look for markings; and Blake Wood, who was there with his daughter Heather, doing her second 100, would track backwards to see if we missed something.  It was during this process that a fellow runner I have known for years came up the trail.  I asked him if we were on the correct trail and he answered, “Yes, absolutely!”  Since he has been on this trail countless times, I trusted him, and so we proceeded onward.

As is often the case in 100-milers, for me—as day becomes night and then day again—the hours go quicker and the miles go slower. What makes the last 25-mile section of this course particularly challenging (besides the two aforementioned climbs) is that, once you “get over” those, a good portion of the last 10- to 15-mile section is downhill.  The caveat here, however, is that much of it is very technical (i.e., rocky) and footing is fairly unsure; so we trudged along carefully downwards… until we reached the very last section of the race which is on the road.  I had been dreading and dreading running on the road, but we were somehow, someway, able to run a 9-minute pace for that small portion (about three-quarters of a mile).

And finally—there it was:  the park, the finish line, my GOAL… finally!!!

The highlight of the race for me, besides finishing, was having my granddaughter Taylor there.  She ran across the finish line with me, and this is the third ultra event during which she has “run with me.”  For the first two, she finished ahead of me and, in her words, “won me.”  For this race, however, in talking to her about it beforehand, she told me she wanted to hold my hand as we crossed the finish line together.

“WOO-HOO!!!”

2 Responses to “Angeles Crest 100 for 2010: The Race That Almost Wasn’t”

  1. Johnwtaylor3 says:

    Way to go Cheryl!!! I enjoyed the race report too. I’ve had that race on my list for awhile. Maybe next year…

  2. Mmmpapi says:

    Wow! That’s an outstanding feat and story. Congratulations again on your victory of finishing this unbelievable tough course!


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