By Bob Adjemian
It happened in a moment of insanity while I was relaxing after my second run of the Angeles Crest 100. I thought to myself, “that was fun. I’ll do it again next year.”
Next year became next week as the race approached. My pre-race jitters demanded to know why I was doing the race again. I didn’t remember that the course was so hard (such is memory). There was just a vague memory of the difficulty going up to Mt. Wilson after 75 miles. But I was strong the previous year. Still the dread continued. Why do it again?
Years later after a total of 7 finishes and three DNFs, I wonder, why do it again, indeed?
The AC course was laid our by veteran ultra runners who wanted an especially tough run. The final route was set up in theory as a 30-hour course, but people said that there was no way it could be done in that time. The time was extended to 33 hours.
Tough it is. Only a handful are able to buckle each year in under 24 hours. People who easily buckle at other 100’s have a serious challenge here, yet the course record is an astounding 17:35, set by Jim O’Brien in 1989. To this date, no one has beaten it. There is now a special buckle waiting for the first person who breaks the record. Jim was also the first person to complete the course in the same day. He also proved, as race directors Ken Hamada and Hal Winton enjoy pointing out, that the course is runnable.
This article is an account of the race for those who have never run it. The narration is meant for the middle and back-of-the-pack runners
The race starts in the small town of Wrightwood California, nestled at 6000 feet elevation in the Angeles National Forest, just North of Los Angeles California. It’s dark and cold as you wind your way up a very steep road that leads to the Acorn Trail. The trail is narrow and the runners band in groups as they walk to the top a mere 2000 feet higher. Most of the climb will be in the dark. As dawn begins, the runners hit level ground for scenic running on perfect single track trails. The weather is still cool and the wind may knock you around a little but enjoy this section while you can as you gently go up and down and around and end up at the first aid station, Inspiration Point, 9.3 miles. Most of the runners will take around 2 hours to get here.
The trail continues to go up and down, at times rather steeply, but everyone is still fresh and the trail is usually delightful to run. Eventually you end up at Vincent Gap, 13.8 miles. You can have a drop bag here. Grab an extra water bottle or two, shed your jacket, put on the sun screen, eat some food. The honeymoon is over. Time to start working. It’s about 12 miles to the next aid station
Now begins a long climb to almost the top of Baden Powell. The trail is in perfect condition but the thinning altitude and continual uphill takes its toll. (Once in my younger and faster days during a training run, I decided to run all the way to the top. By 8000 feet it was the impossible dream.) You’ll be able to mark your progress by looking at the altitude signs put up by the Boy Scouts. With 4000 feet to climb from Vincent Gap, the progress will be slow. You can burn up too much energy by pushing too hard. The climb to the top is a long haul. Try to enjoy the view. If you are towards the back of the pack, try to carry 4 bottles of water since you will otherwise run out of water. This is not the time to get dehydrated!
After what seems to take forever, you finally crest out on the trail and run at the top. Smile, it’s time for the race photographer to take your picture. You come to two trails, one goes to the top of Baden Powell. Save that for a training run at another time, you can now thankfully go downhill on a good trail.
The downhill feels so good that the body forgets what it just went through, until, the uphills start yet again. They are steep and unfriendly but they don’t last long. Up and down you go until finally the downhill must begin. Once you descent below 8000 feet, your outlook on life will improve and there’s lot of altitude to lose in this section. The trail is very good here, just use the normal precautions as you run downhill. Watch for trail markers since there are more than a few side trails. When you get to a cool free flowing spring called Little Jimmie, you only have a few miles to go. Finally after a few dramatic turns, you can see some tiny figures below that are the people at your next aid station, Islip Saddle, 25.9 miles.
Islip Saddle has a major medical check where you can see how hydrated you are by weighing your self on the medical scale and drop off the extra water bottles. The sun is now in it’s full glory and it’s time to take back the altitude that you lost and follow the trail for a few miles to the top of Mt. Williamson. The trail is steep and fully exposed to the sun, but for me, the time goes quickly and before I know it, it’s time to go downhill. The trail down requires careful running since there are many loose rocks and you don’t want to twist an ankle during the descent. In due course, you are crossing the Angeles Crest Hwy and have one mile run to the next aid station.
Finally you end up at Eagle’s Roost, 29.9 miles. They have plenty of ice here, so cool off as much as you can and take some ice with you, for a tough section is coming. If the climb to Baden Powell is the first tough section, the trail from Eagle’s Roost to Cloudburst Summit is the second test of your moral fiber. It begins innocently enough going downhill for a rather pleasant jaunt through the vegetation. What you’re doing is going into a canyon that has collected the heat from the day. Once you reach the bottom of the canyon so to speak, a serious climb begins that can tear at your soul. It’s hot and the going is slow. You will in time follow the remnants of a dirt road. (This part of the course has been changed due an endangered specie called “yellow legged frog” habitat, runners will take a brief detour on paved road.)
Years ago, we use to follow the dirt road to the aid station at Field, so race officials had to move the four miles lost somewhere. At first, we did a 4-mile loop at the beginning of the race on a dirt road. It was boring and tedious but pretty easy, too easy. Aha, said the officials, we know just where to add back the miles. Thus did the climb suddenly lengthen on one of the toughest parts of the course. You have the advantage of a beautiful view as you have more climb in the heat. This is not fun. But the race is all about endurance, and so you endure till at last you reach Cloudburst Summit, 37.5 miles. Not incidentally, you have climbed back up to 7000 feet. For me, my energy level is low, and it’s hard to recover, but keep on running. The next section is relatively easy. There’s lot of downhill, you are leaving the high altitude for good from here on, and the temperature will start decreasing. If you have marshaled your energy well, this is a good place to make up time. For me, this is where my stomach makes a grand statement about the contents within and the real endurance begins. The race directors say that this is where altitude sickness strikes and that’s what I catch.
The weather is still hot but you can catch a breeze at times and enjoy the good trails. Great single track trail running. This is about as good as it gets.
Finally you reach Three Points, 42.7 miles. This is a straight forward aid station. They don’t have drop bags but if you have a crew, this might be a time to grab a light jacket and small flashlight (if you are one of the slower runners). You hopefully won’t need the flashlight, but there are some nice tiny LED lights you can bring, just in case.
The section from Three Points to Mt. Hillyer is interesting because you start by following the trail as it often goes up and down and finally descent into yet another canyon. This section is runnable for the most part. And run you should, especially if you are within an hour of sunset. There is a section with huge boulders that you do not want to run at night. The section is difficult during the day with markers, not to speak of at night. I found that if all else fails, you can look for the bicycle tire trails to stay on course. It’s too easy to get lost among the boulders. Just watch closely for trail markers.
Finally, the trail takes you to a paved road. By now, most people feel pretty tired and walk this section. It seems like a long way, but finally you arrive at Mt. Hillyer, 49 miles. At this point you go back to the trail. There’s even more climb here, at times very steep, but short. The downhill is nice but the trail gets tough as you negotiate quad-busting downhill sections with many loose rocks to hop around. The middle-of the pack runners will be here in daylight so it isn’t so hard. The back of the packers will be running in the dark facing an additional handicap that the fast runners don’t deal with. Here is another section where it pays to watch for trail markers since there are many opportunities to go on the wrong side, trail.
Finally, you make it to Chilao (half way into the race), 53 miles, and it is a welcome sight indeed. You weigh in, pick up your drop bags and pick up your pacer, if you have one. Even the best runners look very tired here. Depending on their speed, the 30-hour finishers will arrive here around dusk. Sometimes it can be cold and you need to pick up a good jacket, and other times, it’s been so hot that I didn’t wear a jacket through to the finish. Most runners will need a good flashlight from here on. The faster runners should carry a small flashlight just in case.
The next section takes you up and down dirt roads and trails so there is a lot of walking with brief stints of running. The trail and dirt road seem desolate, when you suddenly come across a paved road which you follow a short while, till you pick up yet another trail that takes you uphill, then down – down – down. At times the trail is not nice. The quads are not pleased with the awkward downhill but the view is incredible since suddenly you have a clear view of the area – for most people, at night. Your descent leads you to a canyon where you feel you are so near a stream that you can smell it. The vegetation is lush and as you progress on the trail you are surrounded by a dense growth of trees. There maybe a dense growth of Poodle Dog Bush as a result of the Station Fire. Do not brush up against any vegetations in this section which may cause a rash similar to Poison Oak. Now begins a very steep climb of about a mile up to Shortcut Saddle, 59.3 miles. Progress is slow here and it is very dark for most of the runners as they almost crawl to the top (read, walk slowly). After the dense brush, it is suddenly clear and you’re at the aid station.
A word of warning to the faster runners. For some of you, there is still plenty of daylight at this point and it is tempting to run without a flashlight. The problem is that after Newcomb, there will be sections that are dark, heavily canopied and unless you’re running at the front, a small flashlight is good insurance and likely needed.
After Shortcut Saddle, you cross the Angeles Crest Highway and descend on a dirt road for about 4 miles. If you’ve conserved your energy and the quads are working, this is a great area to make good time. Sometimes it’s a bit steep, and the rocks are often in the way but you are on a dirt road going downhill. This is an area that is rarely used by anyone for most of the year.
One year I was in this section not feeling so good with stomach upset and I stopped and chatted with my pacer. He called my attention to something dark on the ground saying it was a owl. I looked at it, and said, “I think you’re hallucinating. That’s a rock.” “I guess you’re right,” said my friend. The rock then opened his eyes, looked at both of us, and flew away. After a long way down, you start to hear a stream, you cross a concrete bridge, and the downhill is over. Now comes a steep and tough climb up to Newcomb Saddle. You’re still on a dirt road that is dark and desolate.
“How high can a mountain go? There have to be physical limits. We can’t go uphill forever, can we?” Such are the thoughts the exhausted mind entertains as the climb continues. The electrical power towers near the top are your sign that the aid station isn’t far away. The sound of a Honda generator never sounded so sweet as you enter the brightly lit Newcomb Saddle aid station, 67.9 miles and the eager help of the people there. The aid station is on top of a peak with a wide view of the city of Los Angeles at night. Don’t think about how close or how far the city is or how many hours you have to the Finish.
You leave the aid station saying goodbye to the dirt road and head in on one of the most interesting part of the course. You will run mostly along the side of the mountain but not always downhill. One false step looks like it could be a disaster, but no one has suffered a serious fall along here to my knowledge. There is a lot of Poison Oak in this area, but the runners are covered with so much dirt from many hours on the trail, that I don’t think anyone gets a reaction.
This section is sort of runnable but caution is advised since the footing is difficult at times, there are surprise turns and there isn’t whole lot of room to fall. I rather like this section since it’s so different from the other parts of the course. Of course, it seems to take forever to go downhill, then you inexplicably start climbing uphill, unless you need to go downhill. Oops, now we go up again and away from the riverbank. My sense of direction is totally confused along here but you are going downhill and finally when you are near crossing small streams along the way, you can look forward to another aid station. This can be a very dark section with canopy of trees blocking the moon light. This section needs careful attention since it is easy to get lost, if you don’t spend your time looking for race markers. You need good head lamps in the sections. At night, you’ll find bright chemical lights along the way. They are great since, you can see them from a distance and feel more confident that you are on the course.
Finally, you hit a paved road and will be happy that the aid station is near. But you have to suffer a bit before you get there. The paved road goes steeply uphill for about a half mile. Any runner who expects to run into Chantry Flats is in for a rude awakening. Maybe the lead runners can run this, but mortals must walk.
Finally, we get to Chantry Flats, a major medical aid station at 74 miles. It is the last accessible aid station before the Finish. Many people drop here, since it is not convenient to drop later (this is the last aid station that is accessible by crew, when you leave Chantry Flats, you have to make it to the Finish on your own or be driven out by aid station volunteers the next morning). The climb coming is on a steep and difficult trail, not at all friendly. But if you have any experience in ultra runs, you know that excepting injury that is health-threatening, you have to keep going. Take two water bottles at least since you won’t have an aid station for several hours. Slow runners might want to take 3 bottles.
The trail quickly takes you above the aid station till it becomes a small spot of brightness, then fades away. The trail is all right but steep and it takes all of the little energy you held in reserve. You did hold energy in reserve didn’t you?
You have a 4000 foot climb in 6 miles. This section will be your moment of glory – in retrospect. Now it is for many, a survival shuffle. As with all the trails at this time, it takes forever. At 4 miles you will see a sign that says you have a mile to go. This is good news, except there some even tougher uphill ahead. It’s relatively short but you won’t be enjoying yourself too much. Several years ago on the old section along here a called Manzanita Ridge was so steep that my pacer was worried I would fall backwards! Not to worry, since race officials later put in a trail that bi-passed that section that at times was more a scramble uphill than a walk. Some of us helped build the bi-pass trail as part of the Trail Maintenance Requirement.
Finally, you get to the dirt road (Mt Wilson Toll Road) and about a 3-mile downhill to the Idle Hour aid station, 83.7 miles. This section is very runnable, but by now, many people can only walk. It will depend on how you ran the race. This is another good section to make up time, if you can. If you are there while and it is still dark, you get an incredible view of the Los Angeles city lights. Your whole being has been focused on the race and below you are millions of people not knowing or caring about your travails.
Such is life. But that’s just a passing thought as you are hopefully running downhill.
When you finally reach the Idle Hour aid station, it’s a good feeling to know that you only have about 20 miles left. For some of you, the sun is just rising at this point. Better to travel as far as possible before the morning’s heat begins. For many of us, the sunrise is a rejuvenation of spirit and we need it. We go back to a steep and narrow trail that goes up and down through a rather beautiful canyon. You’ll wander on the trail through some fields and over medium-sized rocks, climbing here and there, till a serious climb begins again. The trail gets better and you traverse some long switchbacks. Those who are here at night will think they are approaching the aid station, then take it personally when the trail switches back the other way. The good news is that this is the last major climb. The end of the race is near, sorta. Once you get to the next aid station, it’s almost all downhill to the Finish. The switchbacks take forever. For many of us, the sun is up and it is hot again. The winners who finished the same day may be just awakening from a good night’s sleep. We mortals have to work harder.
Finally you reach Sam Merrill, where the REAL downhill begins. At this point, it looks like you may just finish.
You’re going to traverse down the side of the mountain that overlooks the Los Angeles city area. The trail is narrow and at times rocky but the attraction of the Finish gives you new energy. Be careful how you place your feet as you go downhill. As you pass the ruins of the old observatory, you are nearing the remains of the old Mt. Lowe hotel. This is an historic area. History buffs have put up signs along the way where, if you have time to stop and read them, tell the history of the area. You will be running on the old railroad bed of the rail line that took people up from Pasadena. In some places you’ll see the old railroad ties. Had you turned left at the junction, you would see parts of the old railroad and ruins of the hotel but that’s for a future training run. We’re heading home. Go right. There’s one aid station to go, then 5 miles or so to the Finish.
The old railroad trail will lead you to a paved road which you take downhill and switch to the trail when it comes up on the right. There’s more Poison Oak along here and the rocks in the trail will challenge your quads. For the most part, this is a good place to run, if you can. You’ll change trails several times before you end up at the Millard Campground aid station, 95.8 miles in a scenic wooded campground. Just a few miles to go! I might see you there.
You now have a wide dirt road that is uphill (sorry) but in good condition. After a little more than a mile, you turn left onto the El Prieto Trail. During normal training, this is an easy to run trail that goes a little up and down through a scenic area. But on race day, the trail seems rough with impossible climbs. Most of this section is runnable and after about a mile, you end up at a dirt road that leads to a paved road. This is it – the last section. It’s mostly level as you run along what is a popular hiking area. You’ll see the Sunday hikers and cyclists, some of whom will applaud you as you go by. Run along the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) parking lot and see in the distance parked cars and the Finish. In the past, this would have led you to Johnson Field and the Finish but you aren’t done yet. You’ll hang a left for a brief rocky uphill trail to civilization. You’re now on city streets and suburbia. The arrows and chalk will take you around a few corners to the Finish maybe a mile away at Loma Alta Park in Altadena. When you come to the grass, slightly uphill section, you’re almost there. Put on the speed for an impressive finish. You’ll be glad you did. Some even do pushups at the Finish. Why not?
Congratulations, you’ve made it. Now, as you’ enjoying the pleasure of sitting, are you saying “never again?” or “hey, that was fun. I’m going to do that again next year.” For some reason, the most of the ones who say “never again” do the race again. Welcome to the club. Posted: June 24, 2014