I ran Kodiak 100 which is in the San Bernardino Mountains at Big Bear Lake, California. This was the third year for the race that by name makes you think it is run in Alaska. I don’t know why this race is called Kodiak, perhaps because grizzly bear cousins of the Kodiak bear were once found in these mountains. With all the 100-milers I have run, this would be my very first time running a 100-miler in California.
Two weeks earlier, I had a poor race at Wasatch 100 and dropped out at about mile 75. The unusual heat affected me poorly and I was sick for the next few days from heat induced difficulties. I realized that pulling the plug on that race was the right thing for me, but I was anxious to make amends and get my next finish soon, so I signed up for Kodiak 100 just a few days before the race.
I would classify this 100-mile course as one of the easier mountain 100-milers. It has about 16,000 feet of climbing along the way and is run most of the way above 7,000 feet. It has two steep climbs of about 3,000 feet and one of 2,000 feet. What keeps its difficulty down are the miles of dirt roads and quite a few miles of pavement thrown in. The finishing rate was only about 62%, pretty low, but fairly typical for newer races that attract newer ultrarunners. Tahoe Rim Trail 100 to the north has a similar difficulty level to this 100.
This 100 has a noon start which allows 50K and 50-mile distance races to be held concurrently and finish together. Big Horn 100 has a similar format with a late morning start. Recently I have had bad stomach issues hit me after dusk in 100s that start in the early morning. I was very interested to see if those problems would hold off and perhaps go away with a noon start, allowing night running earlier in the race.
Preparing for the race was difficult because of the lack of any written directions for the course. That is my only major problem with the race, which can be easily corrected. Without detailed course directions, I would have to wholly trust the race markings and the footprints on the trails. Maps provided were not detailed and of little help. Also, runners who live near the course were able to preview it, but those of us living far away were at a great disadvantage, constantly wondering if we were headed on the right roads when markings were infrequent.
The weather was a worry as unusual summer heat persisted so late in the season. I didn’t want to experience another Wasatch heat disaster, so I planned to attack this race more carefully and take wise precautions. The temperature would rise to near 80 degrees in the afternoons.
With the noon start, it was wonderful to have a good night’s rest for a change before running. My drop bag approach was different this time. Usually I minimize what I pack in them, but this time I tried something new. In three of the drop bags that I would hit during the night, I included a thermos in each of hot soup to my liking. I believe having this made a good difference. I also prepared breakfast sausage and included a bag of links in all my bags.
As I waited for the start, I reflected on the different feel an ultra has in California. With an expo at the start, an announcer, and loud music making noise, it felt much more commercial than the races in the Rockies with their quiet simple starts. It wasn’t bad, just a much different feel. The California runners were very friendly. Away from the Rockies where I see the same set of runners over and over again, I was pretty anonymous at this race and only a small handful of runners recognized me, those who were from out of state. I discovered that my name was “Buddy.” During a race I’ve never been called “buddy” so often by young runners. It just seemed odd for a young runner to call me, an old man, “buddy.” I laughed at that.
At noon, we were away, about 60 runners, first doing a parade mile on pavement in the town. Elementary students came out of their classrooms to cheer us during the first mile. Several years ago, I would always go out fast and keep close to the front-runners for the first ten miles or so, but now at age 57, if the early stages of a race include a climb, I just can’t push the pace that hard anymore. I settled near the front of the mid-pack and kept a solid pace on the first 1,000-foot climb. Quite a few runners from Mexico came, the Tarahumara, and a few went out quickly to the lead.
For the first few miles we climbed a dirt road that rose above Big Bear Lake below. The course would take us all the way around that large lake. We became spread out and I strived to put some distance from the chatty runners. I was breathing so hard just to stay alive that I couldn’t chat and really didn’t want to listen to the conversations very long. I looked forward to peace and quiet. One runner in particular could talk non-stop loudly and was very friendly. I could tell he was well-respected. It seems like everyone knew him, Mark Jolin. I would see him on and off for nearly the entire race.
We reached Grandview (mile 5.5) at 1:04, which was a point on top of a ridge giving views to the south, away from the lake. I didn’t stay long, wanting to run ahead of the chatters on some nice single-track down the other side of the ridge. The trail was great fun but the lower we went, the hotter it got. Thankfully there was plenty of shade along the way and occasional clouds. Once descending about 1,700 feet, we were faced with an exposed dirt road that used switch-backs up the mountain, climbing 2,000 feet in about four miles. I kept a solid uphill pace going but was still passed by several runners including a runner who looked about my age, Steve Fry who was indeed age 57. I was impressed by his solid pace and did my best to keep up.
We reached the top at Radford (mile 12) at 2:46. The volunteers there mentioned that they had heard many complaints from runners about the long climb. “It wasn’t that bad,” was my reply, “except for the heat.” Thus far I was managing the heat well and being very careful not to push the pace too hard during the afternoon. I had prepared a pacing chart for a 29-hour finish. Thus far I was 16 minutes ahead of my pace goal, doing well.
We were above ski slopes and for the next section we descended down into a residential area at the base of some ski slopes. I was surprised when we hit pavement, running through residential areas and even by Big Bear Alpine Zoo. With the pavement, there was no longer footprints to follow and without a course description, it was somewhat worrisome if I was going the right way with infrequent flagging. But I stayed on course and soon was climbing back up the mountain, out of the housing area. At times I wouldn’t see another runner for quite a while. I stopped for an 8-minute bathroom break in the woods. Feeling much better, I was able to make up the time during the next hour, repassing several runners.
I was able to get to know Ernesto Cruz along the way. He was very friendly and nice. He had noticed my strong uphill running along the way and was very complimentary. I had been running the uphills much better than the downhills causing leap-frogging with other runners. I would see Ernesto for many miles and hours ahead. He always cheered me up.
The late afternoon cooling was noticeable and much appreciated. I arrived at Wildhorse (mile 20.4) at 4:34, 46 minutes ahead of schedule. I was in 30th place. Next we would climb to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain and back, a long eleven miles that involved 2,700 feet of climbing. From my drop bag, I grabbed a camelback, a rare item for me to be seen wearing during the race. I wore it for the extra water during this stretch.
I had read descriptions of this section as being rocky and rough and I envisioned some hairy sections of ridgeline to cross near the top. The race director at the race briefing mentioned rocks from mile 19-36. So my mind was prepared for the worst. But as I climbed, I started laughing and thinking to myself that what is rocky in California was not rocky sections in the Wasatch Mountains. The trail was fine and I would face no exposed sections at all. As the rocks did get a little bigger, I noticed runners slowing way down. I happily enjoyed the more technical trail and kept up my speed. With the cooler temperatures and uphill running to challenge me, I was able to push the pace hard and passed runner after runner. I hoped to reach the top before dusk and was successful. At the top I was in about 25th place and when I arrived back down to Wildhorse (mile 31.6) at 7:43, I had climbed to 23rd place.
I took a long 20-minute stop at Wildhorse, changing for the night, getting all that I needed, and making sure I ate plenty. Normally I would do quick in-and-outs of aid stations at this point, but for this race I insisted that I not leave an aid station without a full stomach. The soup I brought hit the spot.
My one other criticism for this race is the silly “no cups” approach. Yes, I know it is politically correct for those extra environmental conscious, but it just doesn’t work in a 100-mile race. Cups are needed to consume the soda. I saw no one using portable cups. I saw attempts to use bottles and watched fizz spill out all over tables. I saw people drinking from soda containers (sharing germs, health code violation) and eventually volunteers just used tiny Dixie cups, styrofoam soup cups, and even soup bowls to help runners drink. It was terribly inconvenient and so silly. Wow, we saved a landfill from few biodegradable paper cups but at what inconvenience cost? That is my no-cups rant.
I eventually pushed my way out of the very active aid station and went out into the dark. The aid station volunteers were telling people that the next section was 12 miles long. I was fairly confident that they were wrong, that it was seven miles. I tried asking others, but they didn’t know for sure. Again, a written course description would have helped. Just in case, I took with me two water bottles in one hand and my green flashlight in the other. I ran again through another paved neighborhood with some cheering neighbors and climbed back up to the top of a ridge.
Once on top, my second wind arrived and I could really fly again. For a few miles I passed about five runners, climbing into the top-20 for the race. The runners were still going at a fairly slow pace on the rocky dirt road, but I just ignored the rocks, took longer strides and tried to float over them. Soon I was leading a pack of about six runner spread over a quarter mile. I could look back and see their lights chasing me.
Then I made my first course blunder. At mile 39, I missed a turn that was poorly marked without a good reflector or sign. Others followed me, including Ernesto. But the footprints looked wrong so I stopped. Another runner and pacer caught up to me and I expressed the worry that we were off course. The flagging had been pretty spotty for the past couple miles so I was uncertain. The pacer said he would run ahead and check things out. But as I continued, I showed the other runner that all the footprints were gone except for his pacer. I turned back and he called ahead to his pacer. Running back, I turned Ernesto around and we eventually found the junction where we went wrong. I only wasted about five minutes with this blunder, but it always is discouraging. It didn’t take me long to repass another runner and again be at the lead of this pack. But a pattern started. I could run hard and fast after an aid station, but within a mile of the next station, my pace slowed. I reached Burns Canyon (mile 39.5) at 9:53, 12 minutes ahead of schedule. I stayed only three minutes and was on my way again.
The next 4.5 miles included a couple miles of pavement that really slowed me down. Again without footprints to follow and no flagging, I kept wondering if I had missed a turn in the dark. I could see no runners around me and started worrying, which slowed me down more. I wished that I had a course description. But eventually the next aid station came into view, The Dump (mile 45). I arrived at 11:05, ten minutes ahead of my schedule and was now in 24th place. I stayed for eight minutes, trying to recover and eat. Thus far my stomach problems had stayed away. Each time I felt them coming on, I forced myself to eat and was able to avoid any bonk.
The runners who I had passed about seven miles earlier were now far ahead and I could see their lights climbing the next ridge. It was yet another dirt road climb. All the dirt roads we ran on during the night were getting rather annoying. At night it seemed to be the same ups and downs over and over again on these roads. I wished there was a way to experience some single track. The last I could recall was back at mile 5-8. But I grinded on. Soon my uphill speed returned and found a good pace to run through Holcomb Valley. A nearly full moon was out and occasionally I could turn out my light and run by moonlight. I caught up again with Ernesto who was running with Cynthia Rivera and her pacer. They were speaking in Spanish but when I arrived they all shifted to English for me.
I slowed again within a mile of the aid station, arriving at Delmar (mile 53) at 13:08, seven minutes ahead of schedule and stayed for five minutes. It was more of the same for the next few miles, a dirt road climb and descent to Hanna Flats (mile 57) at 14:28, now just two minutes ahead of schedule. I was now in 20th place and it was 2:28 a.m. Here I had a drop bag with soup and I stayed for a long 12 minutes, eating well. Thus far the night temperatures were pleasant, near 50 degrees on the ridges and ten degrees colder in the lower sections. I had a jacket with me and I only wore it for a couple miles during one cold stretch that made me worry that a chill would kill my stomach. I avoided those problems.
The aid station volunteers told us that the next section was eight miles but they were wrong, it was about 9.5 miles. I eventually figured that out, but it would mess with my mind. At the eight-mile mark with no aid station in view, I really worried that I had totally missed a turn miles back, seeing no flagging for several miles. But there were the foot prints. If I goofed, many others did too and no one was heading back. But this section was generally a good one for me. I had several miles where I was really flying as the dirt road traversed around Butler Peak. I would see a runner’s light and push hard to catch them. Some had already reverted to walking on easy stretches. I could still find top speed on demand. But while it felt like I was flying, everything is relative. My fastest mile in this stretch was only 12:39, but I did have some 7:30 pace spurts. After I passed one runner as I was running fast, he started matching my speed. With each turn I could see his light about a quarter mile behind, still on my tail. I believe he was Donald Buraglio.
I arrived at Green Valley (mile 68.7) at 17:19, now 19 minutes behind schedule. I was now losing time to long aid station stops. I stopped for another six minutes. Donald arrived and I assisted him with a couple of Tums. On my way again, I started thinking about the 50-mile runners who would start at 6:00 a.m. When they started, I had about an 18-mile lead on them. They would follow our course to the finish. I estimated that it would take the front-runner about five hours to catch up to me. Dawn was arriving as I finally hit some rare single-track, more of a bushwhack, for a change. After a climb I descended down, finally catching up with Mark again who at one time was about an hour ahead of me.
We arrived at Snow Valley (71.3) in the morning light at 18:36, in 16th place, 21 minutes behind my planned schedule. (One factor is that the course is a bit long, some extra miles that I didn’t account for in my pacing plans. Snow Valley was supposed to be mile 69). I took a very long stop of 15 minutes, shedding my night items and preparing for a hot day. Mark, Donald, and I left together and ran the next mile near each other.
Next up was a massive steep decent down Camp Creek Trail to Bear Creek then up the other side. We would start at 7,000 feet and descend to 4,500 feet, then climb to nearly 8,000 feet. This, by far was the most difficult section of the race. I wanted single track and I got it. I ran down ahead of the two guys, but before the bottom I had slowed and Donald went on. The big problem was the branches and brush. It became an obstacle course. Cutting back the branches would have been very helpful but quite a chore. I understand why it wasn’t done. I passed Cynthia again who was going through the brush slowly. I reached the bottom creek crossing, Bear Creek (mile 74) at 20:08, now 23 minutes behind schedule. Some very kind volunteers had backpacked down and had a nice little aid station going.
Now for the climb! I was thankful that I would be climbing mostly still in the shade. The sun was rising and now was heating up the slope that I had just descended. I was glad that I had avoided that. But now was the worst, nasty section of the race. The flies arrived. Little tiny flies that liked to try to get in your ears, eyes and mouth. Also more brush. It was bad and required me to have to stoop through branch tunnels to avoid having my hat knocked off all the time. My back muscles were starting to ache from the stooping.
I started the climb with Donald, but could tell that I could no longer match his pace. After he disappeared up the trail, I tried using my hat to swat at the flies, but as I did, I swatted off my sunglasses and they tumbled down a very steep slope. I stopped, look down sadly, almost continued on, but knew I had a very hot and long day ahead. I needed those glasses. I placed my bottles on the trail and started down to retrieve the glasses. The slope was so steep that I started a slide down the slope, cutting myself up. I eventually came to a stop just above the glasses. After retrieving them, I took a longer, safer route back up the trail. That was a wasted ten minutes.
The continued climb up wasn’t very fun. The trail switched back and forth through the trees and did not climb very fast. If I pushed the pace a little faster, I could get some relief from the flies for a few seconds. Oh how I wished that the trail would just go straight up. The views were poor, obscured by trees, but at least I was staying in the shady part of the slopes. Mark caught up and passed me, offering encouragement.
The trail traversed into the next valley where I made a blunder, missing a turn, continuing on what must have been an older trail. My trail ended in brush. That was frustrating. I had no choice but to turn around. I had no idea how far back that I blundered. Thankfully I found the turn I missed and only wasted about five minutes. The trail improved, became much more interesting with rock formations but also was sun exposed. My pace and energy increased. I was surprised to get passed by a very fast running 50-mile leader. Wow, he was running crazy fast up the trail. I caught up and passed Mark and finally arrived at Champion (mile 81.5) at 22:51, in 17th place, now 41 minutes behind my 29-hour finish schedule.
I felt pretty thrashed now and stopped for 8 minutes. The volunteers there looked at me and expressed concern, but after five minutes I was cooling off and feeling better. I continued on but soon stopped again to clean my feet for eight minutes. I knew there was still a long 20 miles to cover and the pain level had increased as usual after 80 miles. After more dirt roads, the route joined the single-track Skyline trail that gets heavy mountain bike use. It was a nice rolling trail on a ridge top that usually I would just love, but at this point it was hard work with the climbs and descents. The heat was a problem. After Wasatch 100, I asked Matt Van Horn how he ran so fast in the heat. He mentioned constant pouring of cold water over himself. Now, I was doing the same. I carried two bottles, one with ice water that I continually squirted on my head and back. It was working. I still had to stop and rest in the shade a couple of times but I was maintaining and moving forward.
I arrived back at Grandview (mile 87.8) at 24:50, still 50 minutes behind schedule. Boy, I felt hot, but my stomach was working and I wasn’t throwing up. My feet were very sore for some reason and I had to prop them up for several minutes just get the pain to go down. I joked with the guys there as mountain bikers were also using the aid station.
The end seemed to be within reality, with about 15 miles to go. Thoughts of quitting entered into my mind but were quickly dashed away. I could endure the heat and pain. My goal was to at least finish before dusk because I had no headlamp to use on the course ahead. I could cover 15 miles in five hours and even still beat 30 hours.
I descended with a solid pace, dropping nearly 1,000 feet over the next 2.5 miles back down to town. I arrived to Aspen Glen (mile 90.2) at 25:40, improving to 40 minutes behind my pace goal. I was overheated and stayed for 13 minutes to cool down. There was a ton of activity there with crews waiting for their runners. I’m sure I looked like a beat up old man. But feeling better, I jumped out of my chair, announced that I was leaving and headed up a trail to climb another 1,000 feet back to Grandview. My pace and strength were great and I could keep up with 50K or 50-mile runners heading back up. At one point three young mountain bikers came down the trail with alarming fast speed. Up to this point all bikers yielded as they should unless I waved them on. These didn’t care going at great speed using me as just an obstacle to speed around. I yelled out to them but they didn’t care. I really worried about them crashing into runners or families hiking further down the trail. They were total jerks.
I returned to Grandview (mile 93.4) at 26:58 in good spirits. I propped my feet up again for four minutes and then was off. I had caught up and passed 57-year-old Steve Fry again who was struggling, but he would pass me for good in a few miles. The next several miles were continuing along the rolling Skyline Trail which at this point just was too much work to enjoy. I reached Coyote (mile 96.4) just wishing that this was all over. We needed to do an out and back for 3.5 miles. I groaned, not realizing it was that far but pushed on ahead. The late afternoon temperature was cooling and that helped a ton. I returned to Coyote (mile 99.9) at 28:54.
I drank my last cups of cold Gingerale, realizing it was all downhill now to the finish. My finishing miles were respectable, about 12 minutes each. The lake and town finally came into view. I tried to catch a runner ahead who I thought might be Ernesto but whoever it was took a wrong turn ahead of me. I stopped to ask some bikers which way the finish was. They checked the map on their phone and I concluded that I shouldn’t follow the other runner. Just a mile to go.
The finish line came into view and I felt no pain and had a good hop in my pace as I ran quickly across the finish line in 29:42 at about 103 miles. I was pleased. That course was deceptively difficult and at least 23 runners wouldn’t finish. I finished in 17th place out of about 60 starters. I kept up a solid pace but was very careful with the two afternoons of heat. I ended up spending about a total of two hours in the aid stations which is very long, but the time investment was good to finish strong. I did it! Yes, I DNFed Wasatch two weeks earlier, but I proved I could still do it and finished my 9th 100-miler of the year and my 72nd of my running career. My race was solid, run without crew or pacers to help, and I avoided dehydration and the usual stomach issues.
I didn’t stay around at the finish, needing to get to my motel room in Barstow to rest up to catch a plane in the morning from Las Vegas.