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.

The first 25 miles of the race are challenging. They feature 7,500 feet of climb and 6,750 feet of descent at elevations mostly between 7,000 and 9,300 feet above sea level. Getting through this key part of the race intact was the majority of my focus between my two summer races. I thought it paid off.

My crew was efficient in getting me through Vincent Gap Aid Station (mile 13.8) before the big climb up Mt. Baden-Powell and 12.1 high country miles without support. Photo by my wife.

I entered Islip Saddle Aid Station, mile 25.9, feeling completely fresh and as if I hadn’t run a step. I told my crew “this is my day!” as they helped prep me for the sun-exposed road section ahead. The tingling that had been in my throat for awhile – a product of the dry mountain air, the dust of other runners, and my diagnosed exercised-induced asthma – prompted me to take a hit on my inhaler before leaving the aid station. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a likely precursor of what was to come.

The next 2.5 miles didn’t seem like a big deal. The sun was beating down on me, but I took the section easy and had an ice bandana around my neck. I felt fine. But I was having trouble swallowing. Trying to take in my calories, which were in liquid form, was making me feel like gagging. I mentioned it at the next aid station – Eagle’s Roost (mile 28.4) – but got back on the road as quickly as possible.

It was in the next 4.6 miles to Cloudburst Summit (mile 33) that the calorie intake and gagging problem got much worse. Still, I chugged along at a conservative pace and got to Cloudburst still feeling pretty good about things but wondering about my options. I hit my inhaler again. My crew recommended I sit in my running Jeep with the air conditioning on (since there was no shade) to keep cool while they restocked my running pack. I asked for a beer since things were starting to feel a little off, and that had helped me every other race. In other words, a beer was always followed by energetic miles where my stomach felt better.

Not here.

One sip and I hurried the door open. That sip of beer and everything else in my stomach spewed forth like a horizontal geyser in several violent eruptions.

My crew helped me wipe my face off, I put my pack back on, and headed back out for the next section.

This sport is fun, isn’t it? Photo by my wife, who is good at commemorating me puking during races.
Enough with the puking… time for more running. Photo by my wife.

The next 4.8 miles to Three Points (mile 37.8) were where things became… “challenging”. Ultimately, nothing wanted to stay in me. Everything I took in, whether calories, hydration… air… came back up in abundance. I’ve puked in races before. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve puked in all of my hundreds at some point (except HURT in Hawaii and the rain year at Angeles Crest when I dropped at mile 75 with a knee injury) but never have I ever puked like I did here and in two of my prior Angeles Crest starts. It’s some kind of black magic I tell ya. I swear that more came out than I was putting in.

I arrived at Three Points a shell of my former confident self.

I spent 25 minutes at Three Points, much of it laying on the ground, just trying to get my body to settle down, get some kind of calories into me, and get my race somewhat back on track. Ultimately, it does not matter how bad you want the finish as that finish can not happen when you have zero going in.

Again, this is fun, right? Me laid out at Three Points. Photo by my wife.

I left before I was ready because I had to. It was 15 minutes to the aid station cut-off (you’ve probably heard this same story from this same aid station before). I felt a little more perky because I got some fluids into me. I still felt like a steaming pile of shit, though.

I wasn’t a quarter mile from the aid station when the geyser erupted again. And again. And again. Yet, I trudged on, as that is what you do. I took a sip from my water bladder because I was parched. I immediately vomited. Then dry heaved. The miles felt interminably long. I got dizzy, for certain the result of the lack of calories and hydration as well as my electrolytes being off, and stumbled into Mount Hillyer Aid Station (mile 41.1) with, perhaps, 20 minutes on the clock but barely knowing my name.

There was no wont to quit. There was reality. I couldn’t do a quick turnaround and safely get over Mt. Hillyer proper and on to Chilao. I was too weak. I decided the factor would be whether I could get anything to stay down. What I tried was ginger ale.

Nope.

I tried again.

Nope.

My race ended there.

Oh, Mt. Hillyer. Oh, how I both love and loathe thee. You can be oh so beautiful. I love to run on you. I used to hike your boulder-strewn slopes before I became a so-called ultrarunner. I have also spent way too much time in your shadow, particularly in August 2013, 2015, and 2019 collapsed in chair, dead to the world, nary capable of uttering what the date is.

Hillyer is not a crew-accessible aid station per the race rules, but you can drive to it on a narrow and winding public road. The HAM radio operators reached my crew at Chilao and sent them to pick me up. I lay shivering in a chair, wrapped in a blanket, feeling the faint edges of death.

My crew eventually arrived. Dennis gave me a hug and told me I looked like E.T. in his near-death scene. I later googled it and determined that he was correct.

Me at Mt. Hillyer. Image used without permission. Sorry.

I have nothing else to offer beyond this: it was what it was. I clearly have a problem that strikes me only at Angeles Crest and at the same point each time. I think I know what it is, I have some ideas on how to tackle it, we will see if I can do it. One thing that was different about failing to reach Altadena this year, however, was that I really felt the support from the community afterward. It was deeply appreciated.

I will be back next year.

Thanks to my lovely wife Emily Molstad, Tricia Strawn, and Dennis Williams for crewing me. Thanks to Monica Morant for a lot of laughs in Wrightwood before the race. And thanks to everyone else that helped along way, chatted with me on the course for a bit, or is reading this now and will comment somewhere. I’m not the most gregarious person in the world – I’m the first to admit that – but I absolutely love the ultrarunning community and how we support each other.

Published by marcuscengland

I am a wildlife biologist, artist, photographer, writer, and sometimes trail ultrarunner based in southern California.

6 thoughts on “On Becoming Intimate with Mount Hillyer

  1. Marcus first thanks for sharing your story! I had no idea of how badly you were in distress after Islip. You obviously pushed farther than most would have tried, you should at least recognize this as an accomplishment. I have no doubt you can conquer AC , forget the past and start over. Your crew was there for you and that says a lot. If I can help you in any way next year let me know😎

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  2. Brutal! Thank you for sharing your experience. Your gallows humor is greatly appreciated and reflects further your mental and physical toughness. Further updates on what you believe may have been the core problem or problems would be enlightening. Thanks!

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  3. I could not believe my eyes reading this when I had access online (that you DNF at Hillyer). I’m sure you can recall when I mentioned to you before Islip Saddle (or even maybe at Grassy Hollow) how good you looked and you confirmed that you felt really good…

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