The Virtual Swiss Alps 800: Running Motivation During a Pandemic

I am not necessarily a highly self-motivated distance runner. I love running for hours on the trails. I love being outdoors. I also love to do lots of other things outdoors. Without races to motivate me I tend to do… lots of other things that aren’t running.

I had a decent slate of trail races scheduled for this year. The first was the Bishop High Sierra 50 mile race in May. Next was the Angeles National Forest Trail Race 50k in July. After that was the Angeles Crest 100 in August.

All were canceled.

Most of the easily-accessed trails were closed.

Running around the neighborhood, while doable, was not the same.

Lacking the training need to run and lacking fun places to run at, I was hardly running at all. A lot of race directors started “virtual races”, but none of those interested me. Outside of my work, I was spending a lot of time sitting around, gaining weight, and losing fitness.

Enter the Virtual Swiss Alps 800.

Continue reading “The Virtual Swiss Alps 800: Running Motivation During a Pandemic”

Horned Lark with California Poppies

I’m spending a little of my Sunday morning playing around with my photography workflow on an iPad Pro instead of a laptop. My experimental subject is this Horned Lark I photographed this week not far from the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. The Horned Lark is a bird of fields, low grasslands, and other open habitats found from Arctic Canada to central Mexico at elevations from sea level to 13,000 feet. They form large nomadic flocks during winter, often associating with other species such as longspurs, American Pipits, and Snow Buntings. While still a common species, their population numbers have declined by 71% since 1966 according to data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey. If so inclined, you can get prints of this image here:

Hoyt Mountain

It was Sunday, January 26, 2020. My planned outing for the day started like most new routes: sitting at my computer looking at Open Street Map (which has an amazing amount of trails digitized), trying to find a route that looked interesting enough to do, and researching recent reports on the internet from others that have done the trails involved. I finally settled on a route that focused on Hoyt Mountain (4,404 feet) starting from the Grizzly Flat Trailhead, traversing fire road to the saddle west of the summit, down again on the “Telephone Trail” (which is listed in most sources as “unmaintained”) toward Clear Creek, then up an unnamed switchback trail to the east summit ridge, up to the Hoyt Mountain summit from the east, down the west side back to the western saddle, and back to the car. At least that was the plan.

Continue reading “Hoyt Mountain”

Memories of the Pantanal: The Bridge

It was September 14, 2003. I was leading a birding tour throughout Brazil with the great Juan Mazar Barnett (who died way too young in 2012). We had just left the boat we’d spent a week on in the Rio Negro outside of Manaus and were now in the Pantanal. We had already faced many challenges on the trip, including local guides provided by the Brazilian co-operator who didn’t know birds, the lack of field identification guides at the time (I carried guides for Colombia and Peru), and a nasty fall down the stairs by one of the tour clients resulting in several broken ribs. On the bus ride to this point, the bumpy road had dislodged my spotting scope propped up in the luggage, it fell against my shin, and chipped the bone in my leg giving me a nice bump I will have the rest of my life. Then, we hit the bridge.

Continue reading “Memories of the Pantanal: The Bridge”

On Distance Running and Goal Setting: Making the Infinite Finite

[Featured image: my wife Emily and I during the Shadow of the Giants 50K]

There has been a “Ten Year Challenge” thing floating around Facebook of late. I decided to participate, which got me thinking in the larger sense about the concept of a challenge in and of itself. The “Ten Year Challenge” focuses on showing how you have changed over the course of ten years. In my case, I’ve change quite a lot in many ways. One of the primary reasons for that is that I love to challenge myself, both personally and professionally. There are many ways that these things are intertwined, and many similarities to how I approach both personal and professional challenges. Key to both is breaking up a seemingly infinitely difficult challenge into a series of finite and attainable tasks.

Continue reading “On Distance Running and Goal Setting: Making the Infinite Finite”

On Becoming Intimate with Mount Hillyer

This was supposed to be my year.

Until it wasn’t. Angeles Crest 100: 4 / Marcus England: 0.

I came into this year’s Angeles Crest 100 feeling confident. I had completed the extremely difficult Chimera 100, the secretly challenging Javelina Jundred, then – this June – the Mohican 100 in extremely difficult conditions. Sure, I had some issues with my legs and feet when trying to train in the gap between Mohican and Angeles Crest, but I made up for that with a lot of hiking for work, and a lot of grueling time at the gym. I hit the start line in Wrightwood with absolute confidence in my success.

The San Gabriel Mountains, as they often do, had other ideas.

Continue reading “On Becoming Intimate with Mount Hillyer”

Mud, Sweat, and Tears: An Annotated Social Media Accounting of my 2019 Mohican 100

June 15 and 16, 2019 were the dates of the 30th running of the Mohican 100 at Mohican State Park in Loudonville, Ohio. I chose to run this race as I was born and raised in Ohio and Mohican was an important part of my upbringing. I also DNF’d this race at around mile 55 in 2015 due to the effects of heavy rain.

I came into this race with absolute certainty that I was going to finish it this time, if not for myself, then for my family members that were there to provide crew support. Included in that were my wife as an overnight pacer, and aid station support from my mom, aunt, sister, and her husband.

Continue reading “Mud, Sweat, and Tears: An Annotated Social Media Accounting of my 2019 Mohican 100”

Bird Notes: January 2019

Los Angeles County Life List

As noted in my end of the year blog post, it is a goal of mine (likely an impossible one) to boost my Los Angeles County life list of bird species observed to 400. I started the year at 302. I brought the total to 310 by the end of January. Here are the species I added this month.

303: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher along the Los Angeles River south of Willow Street on January 4, 2019.

On January 4, I chased reports of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher along the Los Angeles River south of Willow Street. This was my second time going after what was presumably the same bird, which has wintered at this location before. On this trip, I finally saw it and even managed some photographs.

304: Clay-colored Sparrow

A Clay-colored Sparrow at Madrona Marsh on January 4, 2019.

After observing the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, I headed to Madrona Marsh to chase reports of a Clay-colored Sparrow. While I am certain I have seen Clay-colored Sparrows in the county before, that was prior to the era of eBird and I didn’t keep a really organized life list. After spending a bit of time combing through the numerous sparrows in a flock on the west side of the reserve, the Clay-colored Sparrow came from somewhere and landed no more than ten feet away from me in a tumbleweed and posed for a picture. I wish they all were that easy.

305: LeConte’s Thrasher

A LeConte’s Thrasher at Rancho Sierra Golf Club on January 7, 2019.

On January 7, I was working in Palmdale and took that as an opportunity to chase a couple of new county species in the area. After missing a Long-eared Owl at Apollo Park in Lancaster (a bird that is still reported there almost daily as of this day), I headed to the west side of the Rancho Sierra Golf Club, where a LeConte’s Thrasher was reported the previous day. The bird was easily found. I have seen plenty of LeConte’s Thrashers over the years, but never in Los Angeles County. I don’t go birding recreationally in the desert often, and most of my desert species sightings are associated with work.

306: Harris’s Sparrow

A Harris’s Sparrow at Hahamongna Watershed Park on January 18, 2019.

January 18 was my second day looking for a previously-reported Harris’s Sparrow at Hahamongna Watershed Park, and the first without rain. Along with a half dozen or so other birders, we finally located a flock of White-crowned Sparrows (which it had been associating with) and watched for quite awhile to no avail. I wandered around and found a larger mixed flock of White-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos (the bird was usually reported within a flock of both), got the other birders to join me, and another member of my group found the bird. It foraged in the open long enough that everyone got good looks.

307: Northern Pygmy-Owl

A Northern Pygmy-Owl in the San Gabriel Mountains on January 19, 2019 during a trail run.

On January 19, I was running (not birding) on the Angeles Crest 100 course between Red Box and Newcomb Saddle. Near West Fork, a Northern Pygmy-Owl flew low and just a couple of feet in front me, landing in a nearby tree where I got really crappy – but identifiable – cell phone photos. This was my second pygmy-owl in two weeks, the other being observed during a survey in the southern Sierra.

308: Zone-tailed Hawk

A Zone-tailed Hawk over Monrovia’s Grand Avenue Park on January 21, 2019.

While I have seen Zone-tailed Hawks plenty of times in the tropics (where they are supposed to be), January 21 was the first I’d seen one in Los Angeles County. The bird had been present and observed by many over multiple days at multiple locations in the area. I tried for the bird on January 20 and, along with many other birders that were present, failed. I returned the next day to Monrovia’s Grand Avenue Park and, after several hours, finally observed a Turkey Vulture flying along a distant ridgeline that didn’t quite look like a Turkey Vulture. As it got closer, I could eventually make out the feathered head. I then reeled off a bunch of shots with my camera for documentation.

309: Mitred Parakeet

Mitred Parakeet is an exotic species that is not countable by American Birding Association rules. It is, however, countable within eBird. While I am certain I have seen them a number of times, I never paid a whole lot of attention to them. With my effort to increase my county list, and with a flock being reported in my neighborhood on January 21, that changed. On January 22, I observed a flock of 20 fly over my house. Unfortunately, my camera was not ready. I have since seen what is probably the same flock fly over my house several times, including yesterday morning.

310: Grace’s Warbler

It was happenstance that I was working in Long Beach on January 26, the day after a Grace’s Warbler and a Pine Warbler (both of which would be new for the county) were reported at Long Beach Recreation Park. After spending some time looking alone, then with another birder, the other birder frantically motioned for me to come over. He found the Grace’s Warbler at the top of a tall pine. It was calling repeatedly. I got a variety of non-satisfactory looks at different parts of the bird at different times (the head, the tail, the chest, etc.) always shrouded by pine needle clumps. Fortunately, I have seen the species plenty of times elsewhere. It was good enough to count for my county list. I didn’t manage to turn up the Pine Warbler.

List Summary

The following summarizes my life list species totals in different regions as of today:

  • Global: 1,111
  • North America: 912
  • AOU Area: 924
  • ABA Area: 535
  • USA Lower 48: 525
  • United States: 544
  • California: 344
  • Los Angeles County: 310
  • Home: 113

Expanding the Home List

I am trying to answer eBird’s challenge to submit at least one “complete checklist” every day in 2019, the reward being the chance at a pair of Zeiss binoculars. The only way to really do that, when you have a lot of non-birding days, is to do things like ten minute observations at your home or work. Doing so many home observations has gotten me thinking about my yard list, which currently sits at 113, which is good for the 82nd largest yard list in the state of California and 2nd largest in Los Angeles County.

In order to expand that list, it is useful to understand what new species are most likely to be found, which helps focus you in on when to look and even where to look (focusing on the sky for flyovers during migration, for example). The following is a list of things most likely to be found for my yard:

  1. Any waterfowl besides Canada Goose and Mallard (a variety of waterfowl occur along the LA River near my house, so could occur as flyovers)
  2. Costa’s Hummingbird (watch hummingbirds closely during migration)
  3. Any Larid besides Western Gull & California Gull (most likely to get Ring-billed Gull, as they occur along the nearby LA River)
  4. Double-crested Cormorant (common along the river and I have observed them as flyovers from the park next to my house)
  5. Any Heron (I am certain I have seen Great Blue Heron and Great Egret from my house prior to the era of eBird, so I guess I need to find them again)
  6. White-tailed Kite (I have seen them in my neighborhood before)
  7. Northern Harrier (would be during migration as a flyover)
  8. Bald Eagle (another I have seen as a flyover at my house, I am certain, while doing yardwork… but I don’t have a written pre-eBird record. Oddly, one was photographed perched in a tree a block from my house last week as reported in a local paper).
  9. Red-breasted Sapsucker (seen by me a number of times in the park adjacent to my house)
  10. Lilac-crowned Parrot (associates with Red-crowned Parrots, which are seasonally common here)
  11. Red-lored Parrot (same as above, but far less frequently observed)
  12. Horned Lark (common in some years at Rio de Los Angeles park on the other side of the hill from me… would be a flyover)
  13. Tree Swallow (would be an uncommon occurrence in the large swallow flocks that I sometimes see over my house)
  14. Violet-green Swallow (same as above, most likely observed while they are migrating, which is when I got them last year at the park next to my house)
  15. Barn Swallow (I am not sure how this isn’t on my yard list. I just need to find one. This will likely be one of the first birds added this year during migration).
  16. Red-breasted Nuthatch (sporadic winter lowland visitor which I recorded once in the neighboring park not even a tenth of a mile up the hill behind my house)
  17. American Pipit (extremely common in winter at Rio de Los Angeles park and calls frequently while flying… should be obtainable as a flyover)
  18. Chipping Sparrow (sporadic winter visitor, most likely to occur in the mess of pines and shrubs just over my backyard fence where the juncos hang out)
  19. Western Meadowlark (like pipits, also extremely common at Rio de Los Angeles in the winter)
  20. Red-winged Blackbird (flocks occur along the Los Angeles River. Just need a happenstance flyover while I’m looking, like the Brewer’s Blackbirds I added to my yard list last year).
  21. Great-tailed Grackle (occurs sporadically in the area)
  22. Pin-tailed Whydah (occurs sporadically in the area)

Edit: Right after I wrote this, I went outside to do my eBird list for the day and had two Great Blue Herons fly over less than a minute after walking out on my patio. That brings the yard list to 114.

Turning the Page

I’ve never fully endorsed new year’s resolutions, opting instead to try for continuous self improvement. I’m not saying I always achieve that, but I do try. That being said (er, written), the start of a new year is a good time to review what has been accomplished and to set goals that have a time component. Let’s take a look at some things I’ve done in 2018, and things I’d like to do in 2019.

When Less is More

I am fortunate I was raised with a strong work ethic. I also strongly believe in the old wisdom that you should work smarter, not harder and that if you enjoy what you do, you will never work a day in your life. The former is generally achievable, but sometimes constrained by programs and processes that you are forced to work within on a given job. The latter is something that has been a primary career goal that I’ve largely – if not entirely – achieved.

In 2018, I was fortunate to work on some excellent projects, many of which I’ve summarized here. Perhaps the greatest of these was the continuation of my relationship with Oregon Parks, which gave me the opportunity to work and camp on the Oregon coast for two weeks in May as part of work on a wildlife assessment for the suite of parks within the Harris Beach Management Unit. I returned north a month later for fieldwork along the Trinity River in northern California which resulted in a biological assessment that I wrote for a Section 7 consultation under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Through on-call relationships with SWCA and Bargas Environmental, I have continued my years-long relationship with Southern California Edison, which has allowed me to perform some amazing surveys throughout southern California.

My camping set-up at Harris Beach State Park during my work on the wildlife assessment for Oregon Parks.

I have recently updated my resume and information about my biological services for 2019. These updates include improvements in how I am presenting myself to potential clients and how that meshes with other things I do such as wildlife art and nature photography. You will see “England|Ecology” next to my logo on more things in the future. I’ve also transitioned my website from Squarespace back to WordPress, with the art and photography pages on Smugmug. I’ve found nearly identical base website templates on both systems, and was able to tweak the two sites so that visiting different parts of mcengland.com is an almost entirely seamless experience. It also saved me a ton of money on website fees and a lot of labor in working with digital images.

As far as the work I will conduct in 2019, much of that story remains to be written, but things were already looking bright before the year even began. In late December, I won a year-long contract with Descanso Gardens to conduct wildlife surveys and develop a wildlife management plan. I am very excited about this work, as it is an area I already spend a lot of time in, focuses on what I really love (amassing as much information about the biological resources of an area in the time available and interpreting it for others), and it continues my streak of being undefeated in competitive bids. I am sure that will end at some point, but not right now. I will be wrapping up the massive Harris Beach Management Unit report by the end of the first quarter of 2019, just in time for the start of the busy season in biological consulting.

It’s More Than Just a Number

Three hundred and four. That’s the number of bird species I have observed in Los Angeles County as of this writing. Sounds pretty high doesn’t it? I thought it was a decent number until I checked on eBird and realized I wasn’t in the top 100 birders for the county.

That’s just not acceptable to me.

The reason for that is that I have never been much of a “chaser”, otherwise known as one of those birders that runs all over to see a specific species in a specific location. I am a serious birder. I do list. I have never been serious about chasing stuff.

This Clay-colored Sparrow at Madrona Marsh today was my 304th bird species recorded in Los Angeles County.

I do feel that given I am known as a bird “expert”, I need to have a better showing than the 116th place I am in now. It does not matter that most of the things I could get as new species for Los Angeles County are species that I have seen elsewhere, I need to have a better showing in my home county. For this reason, I am setting an ambitious goal of trying for 400 species in Los Angeles County by the end of the year. I would do that using the eBird report on species that have been reported that I have not seen. I will do those trips around my work on my non-running days of Monday and Friday. There may not be enough new species in the county over the course of 2019 to even get me to 400, but I will give it shot, and it will at least boost my list total substantially.

Speaking of Numbers

One hundred. As in miles. That is my preferred trail racing distance. In 2018, the only race I ran seriously was the Javelina Jundred at the end of October, which I finished in 28:19. As I documented in my post race write-up, it was a struggle, likely because I didn’t train as hard as I should’ve. I hope to not make that mistake again in 2019.

At the finish line of the Javelina Jundred. Photo by Howie Stern.

After taking more than a month more or less off from running, I’m now preparing for my biggest challenge to-date: running the Mohican 100 in June and the Angeles Crest 100 in August. That would be nothing for a lot of folks that I know, but I’m not those folks. To me, doing both of these races is a big challenge, and I’m looking forward to it.

The most difficult part of it will be how I manage the training schedule in the peak of my field season. The physical part of the work I do is training, to an extent, for sure. It is not, however, the same as running. I have learned that I can’t do my job and do a full training schedule. Sometimes, there is literally no time to run at all unless I want to sacrifice sleep, which is also important to training and recovery. Running too much can be problematic for me to work. I will have to figure out where that balance is, which will best be judged by how my long runs feel on the weekends. Of course, sometimes I work on the weekends.

I’ll figure it out. I have to.

That Jurt Like Jell: My Javelina Jundred Story

[Featured image: Overwhelmed with emotion at the finish line of the Javelina Jundred. Photo by the incomparable Howie Stern.]

A 100 mile trail race is much more than just the event itself. It’s a journey. It’s the decision to enter the event. It’s the long training process. It’s life that happens along the way. It’s the ups and downs of life that are encapsulated in the highs and lows of roughly a full day of non-stop movement on the trails. This is the story of my path to the finish line of the 2018 edition of the Javelina Jundred, a 100 mile trail race at McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Arizona. This was my third 100 mile race finish and, for a variety of reasons, perhaps my most challenging.

Prologue

After my finish at the Chimera 100 in November 2017 ended a series of 100 mile race disappointments, I was determined to set upon a “revenge tour”, looking to complete races that I previously had not despite trying. I set my gaze upon the January 2019 HURT 100, as my attempt at the 2017 version ended at mile 40. That race has a lottery to determine the entrants. I was not selected, and was too far down the waitlist to possibly get in. Feeling the need to run a hundred in fall/winter 2018/2019, I assessed my available choices against my schedule. The Javelina Jundred was the only race I could get to work.

I was pretty familiar with Javelina. It is a big race, known for being very well-run, with a somewhat fast course and a unique Halloween party atmosphere. A significant number of my running friends have run the race. Many run it every year. I had not previously had much interest in it. My lack of interest was primarily because I prefer real mountain races with significant terrain, and generally don’t like races with large fields of runners and a lot of people on the course. I like more of a wilderness experience; a chance to explore a lot of rugged and beautiful terrain with the safety net and support of the race infrastructure, spending some trail time with old friends or new ones, and experiencing the challenge of finishing something so difficult. I’m not a runner that is particularly motivated by running itself, or running-based achievements, most of the time. It’s more of an extension of my life and interests as a biologist and naturalist.

With that in mind, I was somewhat hesitant about registering for the race. After I did, I laid out my training plan in a similar manner to Chimera. What was not expected (though welcome in the bigger scheme of things) was how busy I got at work, often working on projects that allowed no time for regular training at all, unless I wanted to sacrifice sleep, which would make my work incredibly difficult to do, and would also ultimately cause problems in training. I had a series of biological monitoring jobs, often working in the field from sunrise to sunset (with long drive times before and after), with weekend days often included. Sometimes, I would have a break of a couple days between those work outings, but I needed to catch up on other things.

In the end, I generally managed just 25-45 miles of running per week on most weeks. I did very little upper body strength training. I managed one four day stint a month before the race where I put in 60 miles. My original plan was 75-80 miles in my peak weeks. Nearly every run in my last couple of weeks felt bad. My legs felt flat. I did not come into the race with a good feeling about it. I was absolutely determined to succeed, I just was not confident I had properly prepared my body to get the job done.

IMG_1303
My wife, Emily, relaxes at our campsite near Javelina Jeadquarters the evening before the race.

The Set-Up

The race is held at McDowell Mountain Regional Park, a natural area northeast of Phoenix, Arizona. The race is a series of five loops, with the first loop using a trail segment that makes it longer than 20 miles, and the remaining four using a different segment but all identical. Each loop is run in the opposite direction of the previous. The beginning and end of each loop passes through “Javelina Jeadquarters” and runners go through an area called “Tent City”, where runners can have a camping set-up or a personal aid/crewing station. The race also includes three aid stations on the course, with the biggest one, “Jackass Junction”, being roughly at the mid-point. We arrived at the park on Friday and established a campsite next to the course.

My wife, Emily, was my primary crew support and cheerleader. Literally. Many attendees dress up in Halloween costumes, and my wife wore a cheerleading outfit with “Go Marcus” on the front of it. She was also to pace me overnight on loop 4 (miles 60-80). Adjacent to us was the set-up for another friend running the race, McKinley Murphy, whose entourage included his girlfriend/ultrarunner Summer Wesson (also my wife’s best friend) and his parents. Their support also ended up being key for me.

Loop 1 (4 Hours and 12 Minutes)

I started in the second start wave of the race at 6:10 am, purposely toward the back of the corral as I wanted to go out conservatively. My goal was to try to be consistent. After toying around with a number of things during training, I settled on a one minute run/30 second walk scheme that is managed by my Garmin Fenix (vibrating at each interval). I wasn’t able to implement it for awhile, though, as the race quickly got onto fairly narrow singletrack trail and I was stuck behind a long conga line that was mostly walking, even on runnable terrain. My training pace was about 12:30, but I saw my in-race pace gradually slip to more than 16 minutes per mile at about two miles into the race. We finally switched onto a wider trail where passing was easier and things started to open up. I was finally free to manage my race how I wanted, and not feel dictated by what was in front of me or pressured by someone behind. My average pace started dropping.

As soon as I got that freedom, I noticed something highly significant: my legs felt “springy” and energetic for the first time in about a month. Running felt fluid and effortless. I felt strong on hikes. On the few steep uphills on the course, my breathing and heart rate barely budged. I took this as a fortuitous good sign. My negative thoughts about what may lie in wait for me during the race dissipated, and I started to enjoy touring this largely unfamiliar desert environment. The giant saguaros are kings of this landscape, with various other cacti, smaller trees like acacia, and a few small flowering plants. Curve-billed Trashers, Rock Wrens, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, and Gila Woodpeckers made their presence known near the trail. Common Ravens watched, perched atop saguaros, perhaps curious what we were doing out there. I also got to enjoy some trail time and extended conversations with some of my friends from southern California who were also running the race.

The last trail section on this loop was only on this loop. It was rocky and exposed with a lot of climbing and descending. It was starting to get warm. I was glad we wouldn’t see that section again. I arrived at Javelina Jeadquarters 4 hours and 12 minutes after I started, feeling pretty good about things, and in no way cognizant of what was to come.

IMG_2955
Emily greets me in her “Go Marcus” cheerleader outfit, preparing me to head out on Loop 2. Photo by Summer Wesson.

Loop 2 (5 Hours and 36 Minutes)

Loop 2 felt good at the start. For the first couple of miles, I kept up the alternating run and walk strategy that I used on Loop 1. It was maybe two miles in that the heat started to get noticeable. My legs started feeling heavier. While a lot of the opening of this section was very runnable but barely uphill “douche grade” (in ultrarunner vernacular) that I expected to walk/run on in this race, the grade started feeling like a climb up Everest to me. I started walking some steps during my running splits. I then started looking for strategies to mostly run when my watch said run, and walk when it said to walk. I ended up settling into counting 30 run steps, then 30 walk steps, then 30 run steps, etc. Of course, I hiked anything with a significant gradient, but what counted as significant changed as the race went on.

Per my plan, I still bypassed the first aid station. I had everything I needed, and things weren’t bad enough yet that I needed a rest or significant assistance. I thought I could work it all out while on the move. By the time I got to the mid-point at Jackass Junction, I was feeling pretty horrible. I was getting a lot of general muscle pain and fatigue, various sharp pains in my hips and feet that I wasn’t used to, and while I wasn’t losing my stomach yet, I no longer felt I could tolerate eating anything I wanted to. I sat at the aid station for a few, ate something or other, rehydrated a bit, sheltered from the sun, and then headed back out feeling a bit better.

Upon leaving that aid station is a short and steep climb, and it’s there that it instantly felt like everything was unraveling: the body aches, the intolerable heat and glare of the sun, the first feelings of nausea… it may be the worst I’ve felt with only 30 miles on my legs. From there it was a slow deterioration until I made it back to Jeadquarters at the end of Loop 2, a little over 40 miles into the race.

Hey, look! It’s Marcus in a zombie running costume!’ thought somebody, somewhere, probably.

When I got back to Emily, I told her she had a lot of work to do and that I would need to be there awhile. I needed to get a lot of things fixed to possibly continue onto Loop 3. McKinley’s family was kind enough to let us use their space, and I laid on their hammock/cot in the shade while Emily gave me a cold Guiness (something magical I discovered courtesy of Howie during Chimera last year) and a deep all-over massage, Summer helped ice me down, and McKinley’s dad got me a pepperoni pizza. These things brought me back to life. No, I didn’t feel as fresh as the start of the race, but certainly good enough to head out with hope instead of despair, and knowing that in 20 miles it would be dark and cool and my lovely wife would be my companion on the trail.

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A massage and an ice-cold beer. What more is needed in life? Photo by Summer Wesson.

Loop 3 (6 Hours and 16 Minutes)

To be honest, I don’t remember much of Loop 3 (roughly miles 40-60). I started this loop just within the range of feeling I could continue on. That doesn’t mean I felt good. I didn’t. It was a struggle as my body deteriorated. I do remember the ecstasy of the sun disappearing behind the mountains, and that gave a huge psychological boost for a time. Every runner I came across was ecstatic and talking about it. I remember different groups of Coyotes howling near the trail. I remember a monstrous-looking moon rising in the east over the mountains. My stomach – almost always a problem in long races – eventually started to give up and solid food became nearly impossible to eat. I would start to try to push some to keep my pace up, then I’d feel nauseous, then I’d dry heave, feel better for a moment, then press on, and eventually repeat it all again. My main driving force was having my wife by my side after I returned.

Six hours and 16 minutes after I started the loop, I returned to Jeadquarters in the dark. Emily was ready to go. She gave me a bit of a massage, I had another Guiness and something to eat, and we headed back out onto the trails to tackle the night together.

Loop 4 (7 Hours and 9 Minutes)

It is entirely possible that having my wife with me was the only thing that kept me going on Loop 4. That said, I did insist she stay behind me (instead of the more common pacing from the front) because I knew how much time I had, and I wanted to push my progress as much as possible, but not overtax myself with too much effort as that made things worse. Especially my stomach. We made it to the Jackass Junction halfway point in a relatively slow time, but largely unscathed. I don’t recall how much time we spent there, nor how much I ate.

Between Jackass Junction and the next aid station is where things got bad. Shortly after passing a runner sleeping on the trail with her pacer watching over her, then another who was asleep on her feet and stumbling around, I started doing the same. In contrast to Chimera, where I never really got sleepy overnight, I completely lost my mind with exhaustion. I couldn’t run anymore. I started staggering from side to side. We were in a rocky section of trail, and every small rock became a serious obstacle. I was tripping. I could barely talk. Then, I violently puked along the trail. Repeatedly. That woke me up for a bit and things improved, but then it got bad again. My wife was concerned I’d fall into a cactus. The 5.6 miles between aid stations seemed like an eternity.

The aid station finally appeared in the distance and I told Emily that there was no stopping it: I was going to nap at the station. As we approached, I noticed a prop tent that was erected as a Halloween decoration. I took off my running vest, threw it inside, and plopped face down onto it. My head was next to a loudspeaker blasting music at levels likely unsafe for my hearing at that proximity but it did not matter whatsoever. It was as if I fell into a coma.

At some point, Emily shouting my name pierced the darkness in my head, and I awoke to see her standing there with coffee. She said she let me sleep 15 minutes. I sat in a sheltered area out of the wind with a blanket on and drank my coffee. My world and my race outlook had changed drastically for the better.

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Feeding the wildlife via regurgitation. Photo by Emily Molstad.

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The most comfortable place on Earth for 15 minutes. Photo by Emily Molstad.

Loop 5 (5 Hours and 6 Minutes)

After a short bit of recovery time at Jeadquarters, I knew I needed to really move if I were going to get it done. And I was absolutely filled with determination to get it done. The end was in sight. While 20 miles is a long distance generally, in this case it is the last 20 of a 100 and a distance I run minimum on most weekend outings before doing other things. Mentally, it seems like nothing. Given my propensity to be able to get down calories and push well based on adrenaline after puking, I decided I was going to push my pace with every single ounce of determination I could dig out of me, even if my stomach started to go. I’d just make myself puke really quick and continue on. I did this once, about three miles in after the sun started rising, then never had to do it again. As the sun rose, so did my spirit. My legs seemed to loosen. A lot. I was able to actually run for extended periods. I switched off the buzzer on my watch and ran based on feel and terrain, taking my running stretches as far as possible, and just walking if I needed to. It worked. I was somehow able to maintain it through the majority of the loop, bypassing every aid station along the way (except for a quick water refill) and passing a lot of other runners in the process. It was a great feeling.

It was in the last two miles that a combination of the building heat and my extended effort came to a head and I was forced to back off. I walked most of it. I even paused for a moment to check out a Western Diamondback rattlesnake along the trail. As I rounded turns in the trail I kept expecting to see the marker for the turn-off to the finish, but it seemed to never appear, like so many false summits on an arduous mountain climb. I started talking to myself, telling myself this would all be over soon, and I needed to get it together to run it strong into the finish.

Eventually, finally, I found that trail junction. I ran the initial downhill stretch, and then hiked the short uphill toward the entrance to Jeadquarters. I saw the first crowds of people cheering and the emotions of finally getting to the end started to fill me, as they are now while writing this. Those emotions buoyed me to run hard, and I charged the long loop through the Tent City and across the finish line, where I nearly collapsed with emotion. These races strip everything from you, then make you whole again. I felt this race, this time, did so more than any other. Those tears were for a lot of things, only one of which was being a finisher.

Acknowledgements

It should be obvious here that I want to thank my wife, Emily, for being my “partner in crime”. We once said “‘til death to us part”, and that nearly happened here ( 🙂 ). Critically important was the support of Summer Wesson and McKinley Murphy’s parents. Howie Stern’s friendship and advice is always a welcome part of this. Also: FUMS. I also got great advice from Ken Lewis (who brought up this race while on a short visit to my house the same day I first looked at entering it), and Diana Treister. I enjoyed extended quality trail time with Naomi Ruiz and Stephanie Fraser. Tricia Strawn at Vision For Enrichment is my massage therapist, and is instrumental in keeping my body working. She does magic. If you’re an athlete in southern California and don’t have a massage therapist, you should. You should give her a call.

I know too many folks that I spent time and chatted with before, during, and after the race to name everyone. It all added to the enjoyment of the experience. Also, thanks to the volunteers and staff at Aravaipa Running for putting on a great event.

Now onto the Angeles Crest 100…