There are so many reasons we run, I have found the hundred mile ultra distance to be one of the most gratifying ways to spend the 24 hours we have in a day. So much so that on August 17th I lined up in Big Bear, California for a 102 mile journey around the lake for the Kodiak 100.
2018 has been quite a year already, I have had major non-running related milestones that have brought infinite joy to my everyday life. I started a new career as a coffee shop owner with @yaliscoffee as well as moving back to Berkeley with Gabi. I spent the first half of ‘18 building up fitness with Sean O’Brien 100K in February, Lake Sonoma 50M in April and Miwok 100K in May. Both Sonoma and Miwok were new races for me, and all three went well. Gabi came out and supported me at each one, and even paced me the last 13 miles of Miwok to a PR at the 100K distance and a top-10 finish. We thru-hiked the 165 mile Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) together in June and loved every minute of it.
I hit my stride in training after the TRT as Yali’s moved into summer hours (one of the benefits of owning a coffee shop on a college campus, the summers are mellow with so few students around). With long sunny days and a less demanding work schedule I started looking around for a summer 100. While Kodiak was not originally on my radar, after looking at the calendar and chatting with my buddy Guillaume, who had run the race multiple times, I realized Kodiak had everything I loved in a 100 and fit perfectly with my schedule. A low key, mountainous loop with elevation and a mix of technical single-track and fast fire-roads, I was in.
As race day neared I knew I was in great shape, but I also drew strength from having had such a great year in both my personal and professional life. I couldn’t wait to spend a day circumnavigating Big Bear Lake.
Start to Aspen Glen (Mile 13)
We arrived in Big Bear Thursday evening with our good friends, Rebecca and Travis. Guillaume and Pauline came up from LA and Gabi’s parents flew in from the Bay. Kodiak presented a few new elements in that both Gabi and I would be racing. I’ve grown to love having Gabi in my corner for racing, and in turn I get so much joy (and nerves) when she races and I get to support her. But over the summer with training so much together we thought it could be a fun adventure to both run the same race. Our friends jokingly bet on which of us would finish faster (as Gabi does have the fastest 100 mile time in our household), but secretly all I wanted was for us both to have great day. She is the most talented and hard-working person I have ever met, and deserves all the success that will come to her in both ultra running and life.
Kodiak was my first race that had a “Prize Purse” meaning that to be eligible for money there were two separate starting times for the race. An 8 AM start for the general field, and a noon start for the Prize Purse. I elected to start at noon, not so much because I thought I could earn money, but more so to be in the thick of the competition. I had never started a race at noon, and knew that this meant I would certainly be running through my first entire night and into the next day.
Sleeping in and getting a full nights rest was great, but by 10 AM both Gabi and I were ready to get the show on the road.
I have never loved the first third of 100’s. Pacing is such a difficult aspect of long-distance ultra running. The patient are almost always rewarded, and as every runner knows, it is much easier said than done. As we climbed our first hill I knew the most important element of my day was to not go out too fast. I repeated this to myself the entire climb and as we crested the hill and I watched a dozen guys run off the front. I relaxed into my pace as easy as I could. Within the first hour of the race the sky opened up and it actually started raining! Being a Californian I practically never get to run in the rain, and with our mid-day start I was nervous that we would be running through the heat. The rain carried all the way through Aspen Glen as I rolled in to see my crew for the first time.
Apsen Glen to Rim Nordic (Mile 31)
As I left Aspen Glen, the rain continued and I could feel myself just starting to settle into the race. We continued running on rolling single-track that doubled as mountain bike trails as well. While the terrain was runnable, and the rain kept the temperature reasonable I mixed in lots of hike breaks and tried to walk as many of the small climbs, even though I felt I could have easily run them. I was determined to give myself as much of a chance to have a strong finish today.
Twenty-five miles in we descended into our first major canyon and I started to catch some of the front-runners. A few of the guys I passed looked like they were already starting to hurt and I felt for them, there was a long night ahead of us. As I hit the creek, even though it wasn’t hot, I took a few minutes to soak my shirt and body as I knew I had a 2,000 ft. climb out to the Rim Nordic aid station. I settled into an even climbing rhythm and before I knew it popped out to the highway to see my crew for the second time. While only 31 miles in, I knew this was a major crew support moment, as night would hit before I saw my team next at mile 59. While it felt a bit odd to be changing clothes, packing a headlamp and doing a big “re-fresh” when I left the aid station I felt awesome! I had absorbed so much energy from both my and Gabi’s crew and was starting to feel very strong.
Rim Nordic to The Dump (Mile 59)
I had heard from Guillaume that these middle miles at Kodiak were quite runnable terrain and he couldn’t have been more right. As night started to descend I opened up my stride on the rolling fire roads. It was awesome to start catching up with runners from the 8 AM start and I pulled energy from their enthusiasm and grit. They had started four hours ahead of me, and some would be running well into the next day.
At this point I was fully engaged in going the distance at Kodiak. It can vary, but at a certain point in 100’s there is a mind and body alignment. I no longer had to focus on moderating my effort, my body and mind were in sync. I did get a small bout of nausea reminiscent of my Leadville race last year, but fortunately it passed as quickly as it came. As night time descended I pulled on my fancy new Petzl Headlamp (thanks Rudy!) and was impressed by how much light it really gave off. With our noon start I knew I would be running through my first entire night and decided it was time to step up my headlamp game. I had always dreaded the night portion of 100’s, but with the format of Kodiak I decided I needed to embrace the night. With a brighter headlamp and miles of smooth fire-road I started really flowing and the competitive side started to surface.
I heard a runner coming up from behind. It was the first time I had been caught by another runner all day, and was surprised as I was feeling quite strong. I matched his pace for a few miles, but he was really pushing the seven-minute pace and I didn’t feel like it would be sustainable for another 50 miles. As he pulled away, I felt confident I may see him again, not knowing how true this would be.
The Dump to Sugarloaf 1 (Mile 71)
As I can into The Dump Aid Station I took a seat in the back of my crew car. I asked for some broth and within a minute had a hot cup of soup in my hands. They had laid out gear and nutrition to get me in and out of the aid station quick. Sitting quietly, Guillaume asked if I was still competing or just trying to finish. I immediately laughed and told him as long as we were out here I was going to compete! I took off a couple of minutes later and the race started to get interesting soon after.
A mile or two outside of the aid stations I saw three headlamps coming back towards me on the trail. At first I thought I may be hallucinating but quickly realized they were the three race leaders. My gut dropped, had I gone in the opposite direction? Was I running in circles? Fortunately for me this fear was dispelled, as Ruperto told me they had been disqualified for going off trail and were going back to the aid station. My heart went out for them, they had been running 45 minutes ahead of me all day and seemed like they were in great shape. You never want to see runners drop because of course issues. I gave them each a hug and Ruperto told me to go out and get the win, and that the first place guy was only 10 minutes ahead of me.
As I continued on I realized I was now in second place and felt a shot of adrenaline course through me. Things had definitely gotten more interesting. I was still feeling really strong and had plenty left in my legs, but knew I had some big climbs left in the race.
The first of these climbs came suddenly and with a vengeance. It was a mile straight up and was a bit of a shock to the system after so many runnable miles. After 15 minutes of hands and knee scrambling I got to the top and was rewarded with a beautiful 360 view.
Sugarloaf 1 to Grandview (Mile 97)
I came into the Sugarloaf aid station with big cheers from Travis and Guillaume. They confirmed that I was indeed now in second place, although the first place runner had put time on me and was now a solid 30 minutes ahead of me. This was where I fully clicked into racing mode. I had big nerves heading into Kodiak for the upcoming Sugarloaf climb: 3,000 ft. of gain in five miles and peaking over 10,000 ft. Fortunately I now had Guillaume to pace me to the finish and he was ready to rock.
If you’ve never had the fortune of running with Guillaume, I feel for you. He is one of the most high-energy and all-around awesome person I have ever met. He and Travis had my crewing needs down to a science and we made quick work of the aid station. As we started our ascent Guillaume also began an almost non-stop verbal onslaught of encouragement for both me and the race in general. He set a strong climbing pace and I couldn’t believe how well we were moving on a seriously difficult climb. I continued to catch runners and we made great time to the top of the climb. As I neared the summit I saw Uldis (the 1st place runner who had passed me at mile 50) making his way down Sugarloaf. Guillaume estimated he was 20-25 minutes ahead of me and I knew the race was on.
We flew down Sugarloaf and I banged my toes a few times, enough to know I would be losing a few toe nails. By the time we returned to the Sugarloaf Aid Station dawn was rising and I was looking forward to dropping our headlamps and continuing the chase. I took a quick minute to shed a few layers and then Guillaume and I were out of the aid station and pushing the pace.
Leaving Sugarloaf Aid Station for the second time I was now over 80 miles into the race. I could feel the sun coming up and while I had pulled energy from my crew, pacer and other competitors all night I didn’t feel much energy from the sunrise. I had always heard you get a second wind when the sun comes up, but for me I was starting to feel the miles and sleep deprivation. Although feeling tired, Guillaume and I continued to push our pace, running all the miles whether uphill, downhill or flat, I was cruising. He was marveling at my consistency and I agreed that I was excited by how strong my legs were still moving.
We saw Travis again at the Skyline Aid Station, mile 91, and even though he had been crewing me for more than 18 hours, he was amped. He couldn’t believe how well we were moving and said Uldis was only 15 minutes ahead and looking tired. He gave me a big hug and I told him I would see him at the finish, feeling so grateful to have a great friend to crew me all day.
As Guillaume and I left Skyline I was really starting to run hard. I ran all the rollers and Guillaume told me we had a long five-mile descent, followed by a nasty two-mile climb to the last aid station, before five miles of rolling downhill fire road to the finish. We knew if we were going to catch 1st place it would likely need to happen before the final aid station.
As we hit the long descent my quads were officially checking out of this race. The lead in my legs was setting in and each downhill step burned deep in my legs. The descent seemed to go on forever and with each downhill foot I could feel the heat rising in the canyon and knew the climb out would be a monster. As we hit the climb it felt like we were going straight up. I had stopped talking a few miles ago and Guillaume could sense I was deep in the pain cave. I pushed as hard as I could, but didn’t feel like we were moving very quickly at all. Not to mention Uldis was nowhere in sight I started realizing that I would not be catching him and resigned myself to holding on to 2nd place.
Grandview to The Village (Mile 102 Finish!)
We finally saw the top of the climb and saw the aid station volunteers peeking down at us. I told Guillaume I needed a minute to refresh at the aid station and we figured since we hadn’t caught Uldis it was fine to relax to the finish. As we got into the aid station we both drank coke and enjoyed knowing it was mostly all downhill to the finish. After a couple minutes of bumming around Guillaume said it was time to head home. Out of nowhere one of the volunteers remarked that first place was only 10 minutes ahead, as a passing comment. Both our heads shot up, and the next thing I knew Guillaume was screaming, “ALLEZ ALLEZ ELAN!!!”. He frantically started pushing me to get back to running and after a few moments of shock he convinced me to give Kodiak everything I had.
I have never seen anyone that motivated, and his drive to push me to my best was inspiring. I knew the odds of making up at least 10 minutes in five short downhill miles was quite long, but as we started moving I stopped caring. At first I started shuffling a 10-minute pace, with Guillaume in front constantly shouting encouragement back to me. After a few minutes I called for him to let me lead and summoned all the energy I had left. My legs started to turn over, my pace started to quicken and within a half mile of the aid station we had just left I was running. I could feel we were down to a seven-minute pace and could tell from Guillaume’s voice he was starting to get truly excited.
I have thought a lot about what happened over the next five miles. To summarize, it felt like a combination of an out of body experience and the culmination of years of training, both physical and mental that had unknowingly come to a head. My pace continued to quicken, and I could feel my heart slamming through my chest. Guillaume was shouting now, “SUB 6 PACE ELAN, YOU”RE INSANE!”. I didn’t feel insane, in fact I didn’t feel much of anything other than a primal instinct to run, to chase, to move in one fluid motion down the mountain. I had gone to a different place, I wasn’t really hearing Guillaume anymore, just my body moving as quickly and as efficiently as I could. We were absolutely flying down the mountain and my face was taught with strain and concentration, any moment I could lose my focus and knew I wouldn’t be able to slip back into this other world. As all this was going on I started to see a red figure out ahead. I couldn't believe it, we were actually going to catch Uldis! A handful of moments later I moved to his left, and in an instant flew by him.
We had done it, I was now 100 miles deep into Kodiak and if I could hold on for a couple more miles would win my first 100-mile race! Guillaume was still shouting, and at this point he may have even been crying with joy for me. I could feel pride welling up inside of me, but told him I simply couldn’t stop flying. I knew if I slowed down I would likely shut down so we continued to hammer the pace. A handful of minutes later we were rounding the final bend in the trail and then we hit pavement.
A few moments later we came around the last bend in the road and I could see the finish line. My crew, friends and Gabi were going totally nuts. I’m still not sure who was more shocked, them or me? Either way it was a truly special moment. I crossed the finish line and right into Gabi’s outstretched arms. I told her how much I loved her and how sorry I was her day didn’t go as planned. I felt both the utter elation of winning, and the stinging bite of her drop. I have been there and knew how tough of an experience she was going through.
We all continued to celebrate my victory and I couldn’t stop thanking everyone for all of their love and support.
Kodiak put on an awesome awards ceremony in which I received quite the oversized check for $2,500! They put on one hell of a race, and it really came together for me. Looking back I couldn’t have been more proud of my performance. I went into the race with a goal of running 22 hours, and finished in 22:02. I executed patience all day, and loved having legs for the final third of this course, in which they were absolutely needed. It was great to be able to execute from start to finish and I feel grateful for having a body that was both ready and willing to give everything on this day.
It’s been an interesting few months since Kodiak, between work picking up, a new school semester, some fun travel, and unfortunately breaking a few bones in my hand, I haven’t been running quite as much, but I know i’ll get back into the swing eventually. I’m not sure when my next race will be, but I will be putting in for Western States (for the fifth year!) so fingers crossed, again, for that one.
Thanks for reading,