Last Friday afternoon I drove up Ortega Highway to Blue Jay campgrounds with my oldest son. Volunteers were already setting up in lower Blue Jay (actually, they had been setting up since Wednesday). I met Darryl from the Holy Jim aid station crew. He came in to load his truck with gear and drive back down the mountain. (Holy Jim is one of two Chimera aid stations located off the mountain). Anyway! Very quickly after unpacking our gear, we realized that we didn’t have tent poles. Doh! Had I been thinking (that sometimes leaves me, thinking that is), I would have opted for my son and I to sleep in the truck. Or perhaps we should have asked Steve Harvey (Chimera RD) if he had an extra tent, which come to find out he did. Double doh! But we didn’t know this, so my husband drove up with our two younger sons to deliver the tent poles. And he pitched the tent up for us in the dark. Dinner was a quick drive to the sandwich shop across the street from Hell’s Kitchen on Ortega Highway. Expensive, but seriously, the best sandwiches ever!
While my son studied chemistry, I went to bed at 9:30 Friday night. I fell asleep quickly. At the back of my mind, I wondered about the Kodiak crew. They were aid station 1, located twelve miles into the race, and I had planned to load their truck up that night. But it was not yet time to actually worry. I slept well. Bundled in a warm sleeping back atop an air mattress, I felt like I was in my own bed.
4AM I was out of the tent, leaving my teenaged son to sleep, as I walked Falcon Trail into lower Blue Jay. It was a creepy walk through the woods, too dark for my headlamp to provide much comfort. In my pocket, I held onto a knife sharp enough to cut off your fingers. I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Isn’t this just about the time that mountain lions hunt?”
At race headquarters in lower Blue Jay, volunteers were already busy. They were signing in runners, laying out a breakfast spread which consisted of muffins, coffee, hot chocolate. Net Control, stationed in a trailer a short distance from the start line was already rustling about. The timing tent was setting up for a 6 AM start. Up the road a bit, Howard Cohen and Mike Epler were directing traffic. Medics were standing by. Headlamps bobbed around everywhere.
5:30 AM, Steve Harvey briefed the runners on the course. Most importantly, he warned of trail vandalism. The trail markings had already been moved around twice in the past two days. He urged runners to refer to their “turn-by-turns.” At first light, about 6AM, the runners were off, up Long Canyon Road, headed to San Juan Trail where they would embark on a twelve mile run into Hot Springs Canyon. Those of us left behind, ran uphill through the forest, and cut off the runners to greet them at the entrance to San Juan Trail. We stood there, cheering every last runner as they made their way onto that rocky single track. We would not see them again for a few hours.
Back at race headquarters, we loaded up Ryan’s car, our first driver of the day. He headed off to The Candy Store on Ortega Highway at about 8:30 AM. Chimera’s second main aid station was across the street from this candy store, where the runners would be greeted after returning to Blue Jay and then running out on Chiquito Trail, past the falls to finish up what we refer to as “The Candy Store” run. (Molly, RD of Whoo’s in El Moro, headed up this station, with her own crew, and much of her own supplies).
Everything seemed to be running smoothly. The weather was nice – cool, but not cold. The Kodiak crew showed well before the runners even took off. They loaded up and headed out to set-up aid in Hot Springs Canyon. Jessica Deline (RD of Twin Peaks) took up the rear to sweep the first 12 miles. Scott and Jimmy were manning Cocktail Rock with water and directions for runners so that they would stay on course onward into the Hot Springs area. Leonard, Sam and Mike (the same parking attendant Mike) had hiked into Chiquito Falls to set up aid, and Leonard had checked course markings to make sure they were not messed with.
And then we hit some rough spots. Our sweep for the back portion of San Juan Trail (miles 12 through 24) did not show. I drove up to the only little patch of dirt that I can get cell reception, but couldn’t get in touch with the no-show sweep. My concern was that Scott Mills and Jimmy wouldn’t know when the last runner passed and therefore when they could leave the rock. (Turns out that Scott, RD of SD 100, was ahead of the game, brought the list of bib #’s, and did not leave until every runner who had passed him on the way out, had passed him on the back).
The next rough spot was some aggressive trail vandalism. Some jerk had come in after the race had started and moved markers, redirecting several runners off-course. Some runners dropped due to this, and we had some awesome acts of kindness when those frontrunners who had been directed off-course, returned to mark the course correctly. This was not our only course vandalism, sadly. Some of the trail markers I placed on Trabuco were moved as well. (Word is there was an eye-witness to this account, and a license plate number was recorded).
As the morning and afternoon rolled on, aid station crews arrived, trucks were loaded, and volunteers moved up the mountain. The timing crew was busy in their tent as numbers came in on the radio. Net control was busy taking constant information in from the aid stations. And workers busily took care of runners as they raced back through lower Blue Jay at miles 24 and 47.5.
These were Chimera’s stations:
- Lower Blue Jay (start & finish line, also miles 24 and 47.5)
- Viejo Tie (hike in location Cocktail Rock, water stop at miles 6 &18)
- Hot Springs Canyon (mile 12)
- Chiquito Falls (a hike-in station, miles 31 and 40.5)
- Candy Store (mile 35)
- Trabuco Trailhead (miles 50 and 98)
- Holy Jim (mile 55)
- Bear Springs (miles 60 and 75.5)
- Modjeska Base (miles 68.5 and 70.5)
- Maple Springs (mile 67)
- Indian Truck Trail (miles 78 and 92)
- Corona (mile 85)
- Horsethief (mile 95)
At 3 PM, I finally started back down the mountain to drop my son at home. I stopped by the Candy Store to buy him some treats to pay back for all the loading he had done through out the day. We also drove across the street to check-in with the Candy Store Aid Station. They were a lively, out-going group.
I rolled back into the Candy Store Aid Station after dark, around 6PM. Aid station volunteers loaded my truck with gear, leftover water and trash to bring back to Blue Jay. I also drove back three sweeps and one dropped runner. I had absolutely no room in the truck to fit everyone – yet, we squeezed in and somehow managed. When I arrived to Blue Jay, I was handed a piece of paper with a runner’s name who had dropped off the radar. It had been several hours since a HAM operator had called in her number. So, I hunted down her emergency number, drove back up to the one tiny spot I can find cell reception at, and left a message on her phone. Meanwhile, Jean Ho (Timer and amateur detective ) checked the runner’s facebook page, then checked Strava to find that she had uploaded a 37 mile run from today. This pretty much confirmed that she had indeed dropped from the race, most likely at The Candy Store. Later, I drove back to that cell spot to find two voicemails from the lady, saying that she had indeed dropped from the race. Confirmation, that’s what Net Control needed.
The night turned rather cold back at Blue Jay. Jimmy the Sweep (Jim Tello), went back out on the trail to look for the last runner making it into Blue Jay. He found her and brought her back in, staying with us all much longer than he had planned. Looked like Jim wasn’t to make it home early enough to run a half-marathon the next morning. The runner was visibly saddened having learned that she was an hour past cut-off. Other dropped runners lay on cots beneath the big tent, where massive heaters supplied by propane tanks warmed us all. This would be the beginning of many running disappointments and triumphs throughout the night and next day.
As the hours passed, I grew increasingly attached to our wonderful drivers. They are part of the unsung heroes of Chimera. Working around the clock, they delivered volunteers, returned dropped runners, delivered gear and more. They slept in their trucks for short bits, and were back on the road at a moment’s notice. There was Kim and Mike from Just Runs, there was Ryan, Justin M., Michael, Angel, Steve, John and Jacobus, and new recruits Shaun and Justin W. They never said No, or even flinched at a request. And we requested and requested of these guys. I love them all. Even though they weren’t doing all this for me, it felt like they were. And I felt overwhelmed with gratitude.
Some of our drivers. I wish I had pictures of them all! (From left to right: Justin W., Shaun, John, Justin M. (with Steve Harvey), Angel, and Kim (with Steve Harvey)):
I also grew attached to our HAM operators – they were invaluable in keeping everyone safe. They were Chimera’s ears, voice and eyes tracking everything in the race. There were times when I just couldn’t stand the suspense back at the big tent, so I went and sat with Net Control. Here that I could listen to all the radio chatter and piece together everything that was going on. When did these guys and gals sleep?
About 10PM, we got the call that Holy Jim had three dropped runners. Now, I have worked Holy Jim for Chimera for the past two years, and we had never had drops. This year though, Holy Jim, was 12+ more miles into the course. The drops were a problem. A problem why? It was late, and Holy Jim is in Trabuco Canyon, which is at the bottom of the mountain, with further driving northward, and some slow off-roading. It’s probably about a two hour drive! Well, there was no reason to fear, because as mentioned already, our drivers were dang heroes. John took off around 10:30 PM for the long haul into Holy Jim Canyon. About that time, another unsung hero, Graham Lambert, took off running down the rocky Trabuco Trail for a 17 mile sweep in the cold and windy darkness!!
The wind was so strong, and the night so cold, I decided not to sleep in my tent Saturday night. With my big strong son back at home, I just didn’t feel completely safe. And so I decided to sleep in my truck in lower Blue Jay. Before slipping away, I asked Shaun (pictured above) to make sure that Greg Hardesty and his son got up the mountain when they arrived. Greg was our sweep from Maple Springs to Indian Truck Trail – he was arriving to Blue Jay around 3AM to do this too. Can you believe that? (Wow! I do not have the words to adequately express how touched I was by the things people did.)
Back at camp, I didn’t feel like I slept at all in my truck. But I felt warm. And I felt less anxious being so close to race headquarters. When I finally emerged around 4AM, I felt slightly rested, but still exhausted.
I missed much during my short sleep in the truck. I missed the 60mph winds coming in. I missed the first place runner, Fabrice Hardel crossing the finish line. And I missed the second place runner, Jesse Haynes, as well. I missed John returning from Holy Jim with the three dropped runners. I missed Greg and his son coming in and going up the mountain for that long cold sweep. And finally, I missed the news that John’s truck had broken down on The Main Divide. When I heard this, I wanted to cry. At least he was safe, and when I finally saw him again, he was in amazingly good spirits.
Those hours after I woke were tense. Steve was debating whether or not to shut down the race. He had every one of our drivers on the mountain, all of them at the stations, prepared to evacuate. Crews in Blue Jay had been waiting hours to go up and relieve their counter-parts. But the race director wasn’t allowing more volunteers up into those winds at this point. There was constant contact between Net Control and the aid stations to determine whether it was safe to carry on. If one aid station captain would have said they thought his or her volunteers were not safe, Steve was going to call the race. Turns out, not one aid station captain reported such. Though structures were blown down at Bear Springs, Trabuco and Maple Springs.
At first light, I returned to my campsite to find my tent blown from its spot in a tangled mess. I struggled in these high winds getting my gear out from the tent. And then finally in frustration, I grabbed up that tangled mess, poles and all, and threw it into my truck bed. I was so frustrated by this and so not looking forward to the untangling, that if I had been a little richer, I would have just thrown the tent in the trash.
For the next few hours, I waited for crews to return from The Main Divide, WAY past their shift ending time, while practicing patience as I untangled my tent. These volunteers really went above and beyond their duty, being trapped up on The Main Divide. Shaun and Justin pulled up behind me with three dropped runners in their truck. Two were sleeping, one was still shivering. Kim pulled out for yet another trip up The Main Divide, and I went back to Net Control to find out where Greg was on the mountain.
Slowly, but surely, trucks returned with dropped runners and crews looking worn. By now, my tent was neatly folded in the back of my truck. I was hugging everyone coming back down from the mountain. I felt like I had added a hundred people to the list of people I love. It seemed like we were all part of a moving, grooving family. I continued to track Greg back at Net command, and because we are facebook friends, I recognized his son Rio, who had finally returned to the base. He seemed to still be shivering from the night. All the while, runners continued to cross the finish line, and dropped runners were continuously brought to the circle drive on the other side.
I waited anxiously on aid station crews that I had not heard much from, but knew they were taking the brunt of the wind, mainly because I really know that mountain and its vulnerable spots. First, the crew at the base of Modjeska Peak. They surely had a difficult job. Completely exposed on the mountain, this group, not being an actual aid station, could not even offer food and such to the runners. Yet, they took in three drops and gave up their down blankets and warm spots in the truck. The wind was so tough they had to eventually take down their tent and use their truck as a barrier against the wind.
As the morning wore on, runners continued to cross the finish line, exhausted and overwhelmed with emotion. Other runners crawled out of the back of trucks, aching and disappointed. Volunteers returned from long hard hours on the mountain, and I drove up to that little spot of cell reception and called a couple of runners that we hadn’t heard from in a while. I spoke to a wife on the phone to learn that the runner had called her not so long ago, and was headed back up the mountain from the Corona aid station.
Meanwhile, Maples Springs aid station rolled down the mountain and unloaded. I drove back up to my cell spot to try and phone another runner. (He was later located on the trail.) Modjeska aid returned. Sweeps Graham and Greg were safely off the mountain. After researching Ultrasignup, we found another phone number to try and contact a runner that had not checked in since 2:30 AM (I had phoned his emergency contact number earlier with no response).
And then, late in the morning, Bear Springs aid finally rolled into lower Blue Jay. I had been eagerly awaiting this crew, because my friend Tom Bychowski captained the station – and word was they were really taking a beating from the wind. I looked into the truck windows as they slowly moved in, tired wind blown faces peered back. I said to Tom, “How are you?” He grinned and said, “Why do you say it like that?” All I could think of to say was, “Do you hate me?” I was relieved when he laughed loudly and said, “You know I’ll always love you Lauren. BUT you owe me big time.”
The last of the volunteers went up to switch out shifts for Horsethief and Trabuco. I tied up loose ends, grabbed a cheese burger and finally headed out back down the mountain at about 1PM on Sunday. As I drove the windy road that hits Ortega, at a spot that I NEVER get cell reception, my phone rang. I hit the brakes quickly, not wanting to lose that reception and answered. It was a runner – the guy we hadn’t heard from since 2:30 AM. He was returning my call. And, he was safe and sound, having dropped from the race at mile 75. Turns out that he was in John’s truck when it broke down on The Main Divide. He said there was a wind/sand storm, and with all the confusion, his dropped must have gone unrecorded. Happily, I turned around and one last time drove into Blue Jay to give Net Control the news. Thankfully, no search and rescue was needed.
All was good. My shift was over. The runners still had another 3 or so hours to cross the finish line. I drove home feeling confident that all was going to end well -- that is thanks to all the capable hands they were in.
How lucky am I that I met Steve Harvey those years back on the trails? How lucky am I that I have this story to tell? This blog entry is much too short to tell the entire behind-the-scenes story of Chimera. I wish that I could relay a story that included every single volunteer. The best I can do is include a list of names – all of these people, and even more (several names missing, no medics, crews or pacers on the list) did an extraordinary job working to aid and help Chimera runners along 100 miles. For days afterward, I teared up when I thought about all the hard work these wonderful people put in. THE PARTIAL LIST:
Alexa D, Ali P, Alison C, Amy B, Angel P, Annie H, Art S, Bill H, Bill R, Bob F, Bonnie H, Brian E, Brian L, Catherine M, Charles E, Chris D, Chuck S, Darryl S, Dave D, Dave L, David B, Dean, Desi K, Diana S, Diane D, Dustin K, Elizabeth K, Eric K, Erin C, Frank A, Fred C, Fred P, George T, Glenn O, Gloria D, Graham L, Greg H, Hank G, Howard C, Jacobus D, Jason M, Jean H, Jen B, Jennie C, Jessica D, Jessie, Jim G, Jim T, Jimmy D, Jody R, John A, John E, John M, John S,Jon, Jonathan R, Julia H, Justin M, Justin W, Justus M, Kim A, Kim P, Lan B, Laura S, Leon G, Leonard V, Lindsay J, Lori H, Lorraine, LT, Mark, Mark R, Mark U, Marthie D, Mary M, Mary W, Maureen C, Melanie W, Michael A, Mike C, Mike E, Mike F, Molly K, Nancy I, Natosha H, Nicole, Pam M and daughters, Pat M, Pat R, Patrick W, Paul H, Pedro M, Pete E, Pete P, Rachel H, Randall T, Regina P , Richard B, Rio H, Ryan L, Sam M, Sam S, Sandy W, Sarah E, Scott M, Selina N, Shaun F, Shauna B, Sheryl L, Stefan B, Steve F, Steve L, Sundar V, Susy G, Tania W, Taylor K, Telan, Thomas K, Tim C, Todd V, Tom B, Tom T, Trish T, Vanessa H, Vanessa R, Victoria, Yen D.
Not including runners’ crews, the volunteer total tops 150.
A super huge thanks to everyone, especially Steve and Annie Harvey, who made all this possible!