I woke earlier than the crack of dawn Saturday morning. 3:15 AM I was up and dressing for the Sycamore 100k relay. 3:45 AM Hank and I were driving in my truck to Poway, a city I’ve never traveled to, which is a good hour and fifteen minutes away. (Often when we talk distance in my parts, the measuring system we use is time. )
Once I exited the 5 Southbound, I was in unfamiliar territory. I drove the 78 in the dark, in the rain, and then onto the 15S, still in the dark, and in the rain. Of course we missed our turn-off into Sycamore canyon. Did I mention that it was dark and raining?
Our first stop about 5 miles after missing the turnoff was a gas station. When I was young (so very long ago) a gas station was exactly where one went when needing direction. Apparently, that’s not the case any longer. The employee at this station pre-5AM had never heard of Sycamore Canyon. They also didn’t have public restrooms. Grrrrrr.
Next stop, a 7-11 convenience store. Neither of the employees could give me directions. And again, no public restrooms. It looked like we were going to have a problem. That is until Hank suggested going into the pawn shop a couple doors down that was open at 5AM in the morning. Well, I thought it was a pawn shop because the pawn shop in that strip mall was so brightly lit, it looked like a casino. The establishment that was actually open at the time was East County Bait and Tackle. Hallelujah!! There are some things that fisherman and trail runners have in common. First off, we are apt to get up at “ass-o-clock-in-the-morning.” Secondly, we are interested in canyons and other wilderness areas, and generally enjoy helping people figure out how to get to their destinations. We both love an adventure.
Not only did the gentlemen (there were two) behind the counter tell us how to get to Sycamore Canyon, they printed up a Google map to aid us on our journey. They definitely saved our morning. (If you happen to be in the Lakeside/Poway area – give them your business. )
We pulled into Sycamore Canyon at approximately 5:20 AM, in plenty of time for check-in and race directions. For the moment, rain had ceased. I wasn’t that nervous because I feel confident that I can trudge through almost any misery.
This 100k course consisted of 9 loops along a figure-eight route. Each loop measured about 7 miles with 1,000’ of elevation gain. My strategy for HL2PY (our team) thankfully was agreeable to Hank. That strategy was, he took the first loop to get us out ahead, then he took the last loop to catch us up again.
The rain began to fall just minutes after the first runners went off, taking the loop counter-clockwise. About a half hour later, the early starters began to dwindle in from their first loop.
Hank came in from loop #1 slightly earlier than I had expected (1:15), so I felt good about the course not being overly difficult for me.
I was wrong. I took the course clockwise, up a rocky terrain, stumbling some in a light drizzle. Though I encountered difficulty on the downhill portion where I was hoping to make up some time, I finally found my groove and was able to keep a decent pace for several miles.
The mood was festive, even with gloomy skies. I saw lots of runners that I know, or know of. Twenty-two of the runners ran solo. There were seven 4 person teams, and three 2 person teams. HL2PY was the only mixed gender 2 person team. It was going to be tough for HL2PY to make the cutoff (last lap by 7:30PM). But based on Hank’s first lap, and my first lap (which was 1:50), we would be able to make it, even if we slowed a bit. Problem was, that first lap for me was tough. Really tough, and I worried that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up a 1:50 (or even a 2:00) lap.
I welcomed the rest after lap two (my first lap). Rain poured down as soon as Hank took off for lap three, and I bundled up in layers beneath the E-Z up belonging to a very friendly 4 man team (all who were Navy men). With rest, my doubts about completing lap #4 (my 2nd lap) vanished. Taking in lovely views as the rain departed, I sat by the timing table waiting for Hank to come in. Before he arrived however, the weather grew colder as drizzle set in. In addition to my running jacket, I put on a “rain” jacket fearing that a downpour would return.
With Hank’s first two laps coming in well under 2:00, I felt good that we could make it, especially if I could stay around 2:00. It was cold when I took off. But within a mile, I began to overheat, TERRIBLY. I struggled to tie my rain jacket around my waist while running the rocky terrain, and dropped my beanie in the process. I back-tracked a bit to collect my beanie, then took off downhill, still overheating tremendously. Within the next mile, I had my running jacket also tired around my waist, in addition to gloves and a beanie in my pocket. I felt so miserably hot and muggy in this drizzly weather, that if I would have passed a campfire I would have gleefully threw all my warm clothes into it. I was aggravated me that much.
I tossed my jackets, beanie and gloves at the aid station which was located at the center of the figure-eight. As I ran to what is called “Cardiac Hill” (Not “Cardio”, but “Cardiac”), I felt so fatigued that I wondered how in the heck I was going to manage another lap. I struggled up that last hill back to race headquarters, coming in at around 2:05. I felt on the verge of tears. I didn’t think that I would be able to manage another loop.
The rest and camaraderie did wonders. After calling home and taking in some refreshments, I felt confident that I could pull off another lap at around 2:00 (but hopefully less).
My rest and wait were long. It was so long that I began to worry.
I knew that something had to be wrong with Hank still not back an entire hour longer than his last loop. I imagined the worst. He turned an ankle and was limping his way back. Eventually, Jessica sent a runner out to check for him. She knew that 2:25 was much too long for Hank, and pondered that perhaps he had gotten lost. Meanwhile, a runner occasionally dropped from the race for various reasons. Though the rain had ceased, we were wet, and some suffered from chaffing and the pure difficulty of the course. Though it was not a excruciatingly difficult course, it was nowhere near easy, and some parts were pretty dang tough. My typical 7 mile run is an out-and-back to Top of the World in Aliso Wood Canyons, and this course was much more difficult than that.
Turns out that Hank took a wrong turn, resulting in running one portion of the figure eight twice. This added at least three additional tough miles to his loop. With my usual slow pace, this put us in the deficit, especially since I wasn’t going to be able to make up time. Turns out for me, loop six (my 3rd) was terribly, TERRIBLY difficult. Pain in my right heal flared up, and I experienced a slight tinge of pain in my right hamstring as well. I put us in the hole even deeper, coming in around 2:10 (perhaps even later – I stopped looking at my garmin at a certain point – I felt too low to deal with the facts).
Hank took off on loop seven at approximately 5:15 PM. He looked strong and good to go. Even with no rain, I felt that it was impossible for us to make the time requirements. He wanted to give it a try, so I hunkered down and waited his return under darkness. Runners continued to drop as the night grew wetter and colder. Hank would need to run a record loop 7 if we had any chance (record as in, better than his first lap). Even then, honestly, I do not think I could have performed a pace good enough to make the cutoff. I knew that we had no chance and resolved to call this inaugural Sycamore 100k a DNF.
As we waited beneath headquarters' cover, I chatted with many wonderful runners, watched other wonderful runners drop, and yet others finish triumphantly. Jim Tello and a lady whose name I know on paper and on the internet, but only met for the first time on this day (Desi Klaar) both urged race director Jessica Deline to allow Hank and I to complete laps 8 and 9 simultaneously. Can you believe that she agreed to that? I can believe it. I can believe it, because Jessica genuinely wants people to finish her races. She shows no outwardly joy for low completion rates. Believe me though, her agreeing to let us run the final laps simultaneously does not come as great news when one has already resolved to a DNF. The rain had stopped, but who knew if it would pour again? Besides that, it was cold and wet, and I really didn’t think that I could do a 2:00 loop. And quite frankly, I didn’t want to disappoint myself again. But I dug through my gear and put on my headlamp nonetheless. And if Hank would have come soon, I would have headed out for lap #8 (my 4th).
Now, if Hank pulled of a great lap 7, he would come in about 6:30PM. That hour came and went with no Hank. 7:00 PM hit, and the rain fell in a down pour. That’s when I made the mental decision that I could not go out there again. Hank was already at a 1:45 loop, which meant something was up. I didn’t see things heading toward an upward momentum. 7:20 rolled around and Jessica advised that runners should really head out by 7:30 on the last loop if they planned on finishing on time. The park had a hard cut-off for locking the gates at 9:45PM.
There was no way we were going to make it, even with running laps 8 and 9 simultaneously. I started packing up the truck. Hank came in at around 7:30 PM.
I was relieved that he was “done” as he put it. Turns out, he missed the turn off to climb out of the canyon, which accounted for his 2:10 lap. He was in good spirits, and hopefully he wasn’t too disappointed in not finishing. The race had to be called. We were done. The only team to DNF, though 60% of the solo runners had DNF’d.
I am a-okay with not finishing. I got in a dang good workout. And quite frankly, I would have never gotten in 21 miles under off and on rain left to my own accord – especially with that elevation gain (3,400’). Heck, who am I kidding, doesn’t matter what elevation? I would have stayed home bundled up if it wasn’t for Sycamore 100K. I am at the point now in my trail running that I am grateful for the experience, and even more so for the camaraderie. I loved being in the atmosphere. My team partner Hank was a true champ. He was supportive all the way, and I never saw him lose his cool concerning the extra mileage he put in due to the wrong turns (his mileage totaled around 31 miles).
Next year, I think a 4 “man” team might be best.