Chimera 2013: my first 100-mile ultramarathon.

(Disclaimer: it’s a long post but hey, trust me, it’s been an even longer race!)

I get up at 3am after few hours of restless sleep. Excitement quickly kicks in so it’s not too bad. I got everything ready the previous night so I quickly dress, jump in the car and I’m on my way.

When I’m getting close it starts to rain. Badly. I get there with plenty of time to spare and on top of that registration opens late, so I end up sitting idly in my car watching the rain and wondering if this is the weather I’ll have to put up with for the next… well, 100 miles.

The start is delayed by 30 minutes so when we set off at 6:30am it’s already bright and headlamps are not needed. The next 18 hours are a bit of a blur, but I’ll try to recall few things that are worth mentioning and that I still remember.

After a short time the rain stops and never comes back. In fact weather-wise the race was close to perfect. Some people complained that it was too cold, but they were clearly hard-core Californians surprised by what was a chilly day for Los Angeles standards; if you ask me it was a perfect running weather.

The first one third of the race consists of two loops, different but partly overlapping. When finishing the first loop, together with a bunch of people, we make a mistake and end up taking a short cut of around 3K. Fortunately I’m back at the same spot during the second loop and I take a “penalty lap” to make up for this.

It’s funny how little I remember from those first 33 miles of the race. I wonder whether it’s that the details are lost on me because of the total length of the event, or is it simply that it was pretty uneventful? Probably both. I do remember strawberries at one of the checkpoints though. They tasted divine.

Contrary to my pre-race plans I was frequently looking at my watch. And I set its pace for a target finish time of 24 hours. (I know, stupid). In any case one third into the race I was quite a bit ahead of time and was thinking that even with the usual (for me) sharp slowdown in pace it wasn’t totally unrealistic to finish within 24h. (Stupid stupid).

Some 11 hours into the race it got dark and it was time to switch on my headlamp. The idea that I will have to run for at least 12 hours in the dark was freaking me out a bit.

I also had a problem with food. In such a long race it’s really important to eat enough as you need calories to go on. I was drinking sport drinks (sweet) and trying to eat gels that I had with me (super sweet and sticky), but I had a hard time doing that. I don’t like this stuff and eating more than few was tough and I felt sick from all this sugary stuff. Gladly they started having soups at aid stations so I tried to eat them whenever I could.

I’m not sure anymore when it was but at some point I felt that some gravel has gotten into my shoes and was bothering me. For a long time I didn’t do anything about that because I didn’t want to stop (STUPID!). Eventually I did take off my shoes but could not find anything. I was on a downhill section and it was very frustrating that I had to walk. For once there was thick fog and visibility was terrible and moreover the stuff in my shoes was giving me a hard time.

Eventually I stopped and took off my shoes and my socks. I was putting it off for so long because I had compression socks on and taking them off was quite an operation. I think it took me around 10 minutes to get it sorted but it did help.

I have no idea how the gravel got under my socks but it did. It was very stupid of me to postpone it for so long, especially that 10 minutes for such a race is a drop in the ocean. And I was to pay for this mistake gravely.

I don’t remember anymore how much this was related to the gravel issue but I do remember that at some point I hit a wall and I thought I was done. I was still determined to finish though and didn’t see a reason why I shouldn’t. It was a long way but I’m a fast walker and my pace until then was good so it could be done.

And then later on I caught second wind. It was a totally amazing feeling. It never happend to me before. In all previous races when I hit a wall things were getting progressively worse. This time I recovered and it felt as if I was given a second life.

I left the Maple Springs aid station at mile 53 and I felt totally invincible. Deep down I knew that sooner or later the second crisis will probably come and will most likely be much worse. But for now I was going at a great pace, passing people one by one and it felt totally amazing.

But I was slowly paying the price for my earlier mistake: I developed serious blisters on the soles of my feet. They were giving me a lot of pain and I was running funny because of that to avoid too much impact; not an easy thing when you’re on your feet, running.

When I reached the aid station at mile 60 I decided to try to do something about that. I asked around for advice on blisters and the consensus was: duct tape. Problem was: no one had any. This was when a spectator lady came to my rescue. She offered to get some special tape from her car and then continued to tape my feet (see photo). I don’t think I can express with words how very grateful I am to her. The whole procedure took around 20 minutes but I started to realize that in such a long race this is time well spent.

The next section was the toughest climb of the race. Little over 3 miles long but steep as hell. I felt great though. My freshly taped feet were hurting less and I passed a number of people on this short climb.

Unfortunately when I reached the peak I had another problem to deal with: my right knee was in pain, exactly like I had in the Coyote Ridge race. Back then the problem went away on its own so I was hoping that maybe it would now too. I walked the remaining downhill bit to the aid station at mile 63 and continued walking further on.

Unfortunately, if anything, the pain was getting worse. At that point I was walking real slow and was being frequently overtaken. It was extremely frustrating as my energy levels were good and I felt I could go on, but the knee was holding me back and all I could do was to limp slowly.

It was time to consider the unthinkable: quitting. If I continued there were essentially three options: 1) the pain would go away and I’d be able to finish (victory), 2) the pain would remain the same and I’d manage to walk until the end (misery) and 3) the pain would get worse and I’d injure myself (tragedy). Out of those three only in the first case it made sense to continue and at that point that seemed an unlikely scenario.

I don’t think my thinking at the time was as organized as that but in any case I eventually reached the aid station at mile 70 and decided to quit. It felt like a shame given that I was so far into the race, but on the other hand I still had 30 miles to go and that’s a lot of miles ;). With my knee the way it was it just didn’t make sense to continue.

So how do I feel about that race? It was my first DNF ever so I guess I should feel terrible. I won’t pretend, I do feel a certain amount of bitterness about the fact that I didn’t make it. But to be honest more than anything else I feel that it was the right call and I’m glad I was able to make it. There’ll be more races and hurting yourself or having a miserable time just to cross to finish line would not be good.

I’m also aware that my training for this event was far from adequate; indeed, normally I’m not one to consider not even giving it a try and the fact that this time I did is saying a lot. So given the fact that I ran 70 miles (112 km) at a very decent pace (at my stop to deal with blisters, shortly before the 100k mark, I had a projected finish time of 23:30) can be considered a pretty good performance.

Also I talked with some people and the conclusions from those conversations are clear: DNFing in this type of races is a fact of life (almost half of the people did not finish this race) and also not many people finish 100 milers at first try. So: next time.

Indeed, will there be a next time? I guess so. Just after the race I thought not, I thought that 50k - 50 miles trail ultras are the sweet spot for me and I’d rather stick to them. And I guess I will, but at the same time I’m sure that one day I’ll want to raise to the challenge of the “real ultra” and I'll take another stab at this magical distance.

In fact being driven back to the start by one of the volunteers he said that he’s sure that the following day we’ll be all over UltraSignup looking for a next race. He was wrong -- it took me all of 3 days :).

I made many mistakes in this race, some of them pretty grave. I’m not going to give myself hard time about them but I do want to identify them to avoid them in the future.

Non adequate training. That’s clearly the worst. Of course there wasn’t much I could do about the injury that I got but once I recovered I should have either gotten my shit together and trained super hard or decided not to run. Instead I was doing an half-assed attempt at a serious training and ended up running the event after low-mileage training; not smart. If I ever stand on a starting line of a 100-miler ultra, I’ll make sure that I’ll have a more solid training base to rely on.

Wrong shoes. That’s a close second. I had this “brilliant” idea of taking old shoes so that I’d be able to just leave them behind after the race. How could I be so stupid? Obviously for a race like this you want your best gear. The fact that the shoes had little holes might have contributed to the rocks getting into them and me getting blisters. It’s also possible that that in turn contributed to my knee problem as I was running “funny” because of the blisters. Moreover, next time I’m in a race like this I’ll make sure I wear gaiters.

Running against the clock. This is my huge problem; I’ll admit it: I’m obsessed with time. This may be ok for road marathon racing but in a race like this you have to forget about the time. If you need to stop for whatever reason you must be able to do it without fretting over lost minutes. And if you need to slow down you must be able to do that too without worrying about not making some arbitrary time. This problem seems to be deep in my DNA, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to address it, but I know I should if I want to be successful (and enjoy!) serious ultras.

Not having a chest strap. Objectively probably no biggie but in my book almost as bad as all of the above combined ;).

Logistics. Few mistakes there. I did not have drop bags as I wasn’t sure how to arrange them. Instead I was carrying a fairly heavy backpack with me. I’m sure its weight wasn’t helping me any and also over such a distance I ended up with serious pain in my upper back and shoulders. This was a well supported race so instead I could have gotten away with little more than 2 bottles with liquids on me (and many people had even less than that).

Not studying the map. This is amazing; I don’t know whether I have aversion to maps or what but I just got into this habit of hardly taking a glance of the course maps before races. Knowing where aid stations and climbs are can greatly help one’s morale. Not to mention of course the obvious fact that it can help one not get lost. I think it’s a total miracle that I did not get lost in this race (apart from the one mistake I made but was able to correct). Many people weren’t that lucky. There weren’t many turns on this course but in many places they were badly marked (or often: not at all) so I guess it’s just my sheer dumb luck ;).

That’s it folks! Expect a silent period on the blog: I may be running-hungry again one day but for now I’m in the mood to lie with my belly up and read some nice books instead :)


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