By Kati Laan
Before I even start, I am actually wondering how do runners remember details of a long race to write a race report. Pretty much all I remember is that I made a measured effort from the start, the race was long and technical in large parts, there was uphill and downhill and some not so hilly parts, I did not like some sections and I did like some sections and it was not really very hot this year but it got sort of hot and then it was not hot any more but windy and a bit cold. The end! Ok, not the end. I’ll try and write it out a bit.
In 2019 San Diego 100 was my first 100mile race, I ran it solo and it took me 26 hours 3minutes and 49 seconds. I took it cautiously then and walked a lot among other things but also made the mistake of doing a sauna session only two days before the race, not smart I tell you and had a rather dehydrating effect for days which meant there was no time to recover by the start of the race.
So this year, since I felt like I have a little bit more experience I was going to try and go for under 24hrs. I knew the only way to achieve this was simply to be faster than I was last time in pretty much every section of the race. At the same time trying to not over do it while making sure I ate enough to not crash before the race is actually complete.
In addition to the regular runs leading up to the race I did plenty of sauna and some hot yoga as heat training and made sure I did not do any of that about 4-5 days before start of the race to not be over doing it and be dehydrated for the actual race like last time. I knew it is going to help me to adapt better for when the temperatures rose and it really did.
About the race
San Diego on paper looks like it is a great runnable 100 miler with not as much climbing and elevation gain and being not at as high of an altitude as many other mountain races. However, these stats are a little if not a lot deceptive. In a good torturous way. While the trails are absolutely beautiful and a lot of it is runnable there is also what feels like a decent amount of climbing, most of the trails are exposed and technical and the weather really can get hot enough to fry an egg on your head and then get swept away by gusts of winds — like some serious winds.
At least in my case, I purposefully chose to forget how technical the course really is and how the weather being either hot and/or windy can really affect performance here. Then again there is also nothing like the experience of running a beautiful tough 100 mile race and in that category San Diego is top choice.
The course has between 13,000 and 14,000ft of climbing and is about 85% to 90% technical single track trails, I think about 3% paved road and you start at over 4000ft of altitude and and the highest point is at 7000ft. However, once you start running you realize what you have gotten yourself really into. Honestly, several times during the last 30miles I was wondering where is the “nice gradual downhill” to the finish since it seemed to me there was a ton of climbing still. However that is when one is tired so most things that are not directly downhill seem like climbing.
If I did not say already then the course is so very beautiful. A lot of the course reminds me of dreamy country music album covers from the 80s, with a cowboy holding a lasso on horseback and riding into sunset between big rolls of rocks hanging on to the side of the mountain for dear life and somehow stay put and don’t fall while views of rolling hills just go on and on and on.
The race starts at Lake Cuyamaca at an altitude of 4,613ft. Almost immediately you enter a long line of runners over a marshy meadow and continue to start the first climb on a fire road at about a mile into the race. I was determined to do more running and less hiking this time around so did sort of a run-hike-shuffle combo all the way to the top of the first climb. Few miles in I knew there was at least one woman in front of me and for a split second thought about pushing and catching up but realized how stupid it is at this point of the race to do anything but what feels comfortable and so decided to not worry at all about what is happening around me but just do my best and that meant not catching up to anyone.
After the first climb you get a nice downhill and even a little bit of tree cover to the first aid station and to the start of the second climb.
I had decided to breeze through the first aid but ended up stopping for a moment to get some extra water in my bottle that I carried in addition to the bladder just in case. The climb out of Paso Picacho was probably my favorite. The trail here is smooth and there are these big rocks that seem to just hang on to the sides somehow and since you’re not tired yet, it’s also nicely runnable. After all this niceness you get another nice downhill section to the next aid station.
The second aid station is Chambers at mile 12.5 and this was also where my friend, coach, crew and pacer Jess Mullen was volunteering checking runners bib numbers before heading out to help me in later aid stations. It lifted my spirits and made me smile. I grabbed some watermelon, filled my bladder halfway and headed out. There is a little flat out and back section that leads to this aid station and you can see and say hi to a lot of runners on your way in and out of the aid. I feel like both me and a lot of other runners are either with big smiles at this point or like, “oh wow, this is stressful to see how close everyone are to me,” and possibly something like, “I don’t think I can catch up to anyone really”. This is also just when it starts warming up and it hits you that there is a long long long way to go.
The distance to the next aid from here was 9 miles and honestly it is probably my least favorite section of the race. It is sort of all out in an open field and you’re almost all the time going slightly uphill with some rolling rocks under your feet for the single track sections . It is also all exposed and I got passed a lot. Ok, that is probably why it is not a favorite section of mine. The only good thing about this is imagining that you will be running most of it back to the finish and then it is actually nice slight downhill most of the way.
When I reached Sunrise 1 at mile 21, I followed my plan of filling my bandana with ice even tho it was not really hot at all yet and also filled my bladder with some ice and water. I like to always memorize a simple plan and it was also in my plan for here to apply sunscreen and possibly grab some extra gels since so far I had carried my load of gels from the start and consumed one about every 20-25min. However, I saw that Kenna Brock had caught up with me and both looked and was strong, so I decided to skip the sunscreen and extra gels and head out. Not really very wise but luckily my gels lasted until the next aid and who cares about wrinkles anyways during a race. Despite of my efforts from now on both Kenna and the 4th place female were right at my heels at the following 5 aid stations, it truly felt like a race. It was sort of stressful but at the same time also made me keep up an effort.
At Pioneer Mail, mile 28.2 I was greeted by my crew Jess, we switched out my hydration vest and filled my bandana with ice again, since all of it had melted in the last 7 miles and I tried to head out as fast as I could. The rule for me and many of my friends really is that there can be no lingering at an aid station unless a limb is falling off or blood is bursting out of an open wound or you’re clearly delirious. Jess could help assess those things promptly and since none of this was happening, I had not excuse and headed out towards the worst heat of the day.
Ok, surprisingly it was actually not that hot. I mean it was hot but probably not the usual 100 degree hotness of Noble Canyon but more like 90 degree hotness. Kenna caught up with me right away and passed me. We sort of passed each other back and forth for a while and also the fourth woman Kelly Fruth caught up with us. It was a bit demoralizing but I tried to stay happy about the fact that I still seemed to be on track for under 24hours.
I am trying to remember how the miles to Pine Creek (mile 36.2) and Penny Pines 1 (mile 43.8) felt but I just can’t remember. I know it is a lot of downhill to the bottom of Noble Canyon plus I remember that we almost went the wrong way at one point in the canyon, Kelly, Kenna and I, but luckily there was a runner (I am sorry, but I did not get your name) just behind us who steered us the right way over the creek and onto correct path. I guess someone had messed with markings there since none of us could see any for a while. Noble Canyon felt not as hot as I imagined it would be and I felt strong hiking the uphills, so was able to make a tiny bit of distance between me and the two ladies I was running with. That did not last long tho. Both of them caught me nicely by Penny Pines 1 and Kenna was right at my heels at Meadows (mile 48.8) and also Red Tailed Roost (mile 55).
The Meadows section and section leading up to Red Tailed Roost are the two other sections that do not belong to my favorites. This is maybe because by Meadows you have just finished most of the climb out of Noble Canyon but there is still a bit of a climb left to the highest point of the race and it actually feels like sort of bad dream where everything around is really pretty but you know something is off and you just can’t wake up, can’t get out of it. I blame accumulation of heat, altitude and the snake I almost stepped on. It really was a snake, not a stick. I promise.
What made me feel happier tho was seeing Jess at Meadows and the fact that this time I did not crash at Red Tailed Roost like I did in 2019. Volunteers here as in all the previous aid stations and the aid stations to follow were amazing and helped me in every way they could to get going again. This is also where I decided that the following section down to Cibbets Flat is the only chance I have to make a little more distance between me and others. I am usually pretty decent at a technical downhill and also can hold my own at hiking the uphills. I had decided to go for it, clearly forgetting that it is about 3 miles of mostly flat fire road with tiny little uphills to the start of the technical downhill and honestly, I am not that great at running flat or running fire roads, period. I almost gave up and by the time I passed Dale’s Kitchen, which is the aid station where we are allowed to stop only on our way back up from Cibbets and here is where the downhill part to towards Cibbets Flat really starts.
It somehow helped me to think that maybe just maybe others at this point are also not feeling most amazing ever and that thought helped me slowly pick up the pace going down. To my surprise a couple of miles into the downhill I caught up with Jian Springer who had been leading the ladies race so far, we said hi and I continued on. By the time I got to Cibbets Flat I was suddenly in first place which is definitely a new feeling for me and I honestly can’t say whether it was a nice feeling. It was more like, ok, well now you have to push and do the best you can every step of the way to the finish to be able to say you gave it your all and feel ok even when you will be passed again. I knew that with 36miles to go anything could happen.
I got to Cibbets Flat around 7:15pm, over 13hrs into the race. This is also where Jess was waiting for me and she would pace me to the finish. I could not be more happier about this. She had everything ready, we switched my hydration vest and I grabbed something to eat from the aid station I think but we pretty much headed out right away, maybe only spending a minute to two at the aid. I kept on eating my gels and little bit of tailwind but by this time I was getting really tired of this one sided diet regime that I had decided on. Usually and previously I have eaten way more solids and real food during long races.
What surprised me the most going up Cibbets was how runnable a lot of it was. Not that we ran a lot of it but we did jog up a solid amount of it. We had some runners pass us and we may have passed someone, I can’t really recall but no ladies caught up by the time we made it to Dale’s Kitchen at mile 71.7. I was a little out of it by this time, it had gotten dark and not eating real food had caught up with me. Jess could see it before I did and told me to eat real food here. I grabbed a potato and had two cups of chicken broth with bit of noodles in there. I also got coke in one of my bottles and hoped that it will give me both the caffeine kick and some extra calories. Next aid was only 3.6 miles away so I naively thought I’ll eat while we run and I feel well by the time we get there. I ate my potato little bite at a time and drank some coke and said to Jess, “we should be there soon I think” and Jess said, “we have gone 2 miles since last aid”. Honestly, I thought we were running and I guess we were, just really painfully slowly. I promised myself not to ask or mention again any mileage that I think was left to the next aid station or to the finish so that I would not be discouraged by the reality of how slow we were moving. I was concentrating so much by this time to keep up the best effort I could manage that when we got to the next aid all I could say was “chicken broth” and “thank you” and same at the next aid. I think all I could do was literally drool from the corner of my mouth and mumble something like “ggggggloooo” when a nice volunteer at Pioneer Mail 2 asked whether I am aware that I am first place female.
The winds had also picked up by the time we left Todds Cabin or at least I think that was when I most felt it. I had my Houdini jacket but could not muster enough energy to put it on nor did I have the energy to even pull up my sleeves that I still had on around my wrists. Jess and I did not talk and I tried to keep up a pace where I would not get cold. I know at some point the wind gusts were so strong that Jess hit her knees against one another and for some reason this was very funny especially looking back.
Between Pioneer Mail 2 and Sunrise 2 I was looking back occasionally trying to figure out if the lights we saw were headlamps of runners catching up with us, or maybe some other lights or simply imagination. It was a special form of torture. Even though Jess assured me there was no one catching up with us I could not help myself.
To the finish
We got to Sunrise 2, no one had caught up with us and we sort of knew if we could keep mostly running the miles to the finish that would be it, I would be able to take the women’s win. This was something I did not dare to dream of before the race nor during most of the race. In my most positive dreams I somehow made podium but never win. I was hoping to not break now but I was not feeling most amazing nutrition wise. After Dale’s Kitchen, all I could eat was chicken broth with bit of noodles and coke.
We headed out of Sunrise and kept at it for the nine miles towards finish, I think at some point we decided we don’t care about being under 22 hours because we just could not make the extra effort. We eased off a little so that when we made it to the finish we had done it, I was first female and 9th overall with 22hrs 1minute and 11 seconds.
I am forever grateful for this experience. Grateful for the race organizers Angela and BJ and all the wonderful volunteers and runners, for Howie Stern for photos and for Jess for too many things to count and for Kertu for meeting us at the finish and my husband and kids for always supporting me, my friends and community back home and last but not the least for San Francisco Running Company for providing me with the best gear from shoes to hydration vests that was just right.
All photos by Howie Stern.