My AC-100 Mile Endurance Run or...How I Gave Birth to a Buffalo After 32 Hours of Labor
by Nancy Shura
On September 29, 2001, at 4:58 AM, I stood under the START banner of the Angeles Crest 100-Mile Endurance Run. This was my third attempt to run 100 miles. My '97 Vermont 100 earned me a finish and my first tattoo. At Western States in '98, I succumbed to the effects of snow and not having access to my crew for the first half of the race. I swore to myself that I wouldn't return to WS until I had done something tougher. The AC-100 qualified, ranked by most among the four toughest 100s in the country. Some veterans have rated AC second to Hardrock with Leadville and Wasatch close behind. Having not attempted any of these races before, I contemplated a comment made by a friend... "compared to AC, Vermont is Sesame Street!". I was about to see if that was true.
100-mile endurance events have been likened to childbirth by many, the main difference being that childbirth pain is inflicted upon the body while ultrarunners self-inflict. I consider myself an expert on childbirth, having spent 25 years as a Lamaze educator, teaching women to relax through pain... breathe... push--you get the picture! Standing there in the dark, holding my little flashlight, I faced the first obstacle--FEAR! Yes, I was definitely shaking in my running shoes. Remembering the advice I had given so many pregnant women to take it one stage at a time, I pictured the first 9.3-mile stretch, and told myself to set small goals. "5... 4... 3", the race director counted. Families and friends were beginning to clap and cheer. Some runners were hooting out loud. "2... 1... GO!". A little wave of 112 flashlights bobbed along as we immediately began the first of nine major climbs in the race. Positioning myself near the last quarter of the group, I began to power walk, putting into practice another important survival technique... energy conservation. As we worked our way up the switchbacks, climbing 2,150' in 3.5 miles, six runners formed a little train behind me. I was anxious to find myself in the lead of this pack but no one wanted to pass, so I maintained my own pace. There was seriousness in the air as the night sky began to lighten. The idea of 100 miles and 33 hours, was too much to comprehend, so I allowed myself to only think about getting to my first goal. Years of Lamaze coaching echoed in my brain, reminding me to inhale, exhale, relax.
At the top of the mountain we turned off the flashlights and I glimpsed the panorama of Mt. Baldy to my left. As we turned onto the Pacific Crest Trail, someone mentioned that if we got lost, we might end up in Canada. No one laughed. I managed my breathing, even on the downhill sections of the trail, knowing breathing is the built-in heart rate monitor. My crew seemed jubilant to see me at Inspiration point;I secretly wondered if they were surprised that I'd made it that far. I arrived in good condition, but told myself that it was still early. The 4.5-mile run to Vincent Gap had some technical downhill sections during which I began to feel my feet slide forward in my shoes. I left Vincent Gap (mile 13.8), loaded up with fluids for the next 12-mile stretch without aid. The climb up Baden-Powell was one I fully prepared for... 3.6 miles, 2,800' gain, up to 9,399 feet over 41 switchbacks. I'd done the climb up and down twice each Sunday for the last six weeks, and had it down to a science. I immediately fell in between two men who kept a good pace and I hit my 30-minute training splits right on target. The quiet voice in my head still coached... "conserve, breathe, drink". I was starting to take pee breaks every half-hour, a good sign. At the top of the climb I saw Baldy for the last time before we descended to Islip Saddle over nine miles of mostly downhill running.
The downs and flats must be run on this course to stay ahead of the cut-off times. It was here that my feet began to spell trouble as my toes were again jamming into the toe box of my shoes. This was a new problem that didn't happen on my training runs. I arrived at Islip (mile 26) and seeing the look on my face, my crew inquired what was wrong. We changed shoes and socks and decided to use a foot file to roughen up the felt on my new insoles. Whatever damage was done to my feet was completely covered by the taping job I'd done before the race. I left this aid station turning to tell my crew that I was also starting to get a terrible feeling likeI'd been punched in the stomach. The next 4 miles were tough for me.
I came into Eagles Roost (mile 30), where my crew tried a fancy lacing technique to keep my feet from sliding, a concern that was now competing with the heat factor for my attention. My crew sent me out with an iced bandana and encouragement to keep moving. I'm sure their fingers were secretly crossed behind their backs. The next 7.5-mile stretch was downhill into hot Cooper Canyon, then uphill to Cloudburst Summit (mile 37.5). The shoelace technique was helping but my feet were definitely on fire, and the uphill increased my "punched in the gut" feeling. I began sucking on pieces of ginger and forcing down more liquid. I knew I was slowing on this section but I was unsure how much, as runners around me were holding their positions. I finally passed one guy on the climb up to the aid station, but I'd kept my crew waiting an extra half-hour. They walked me to the chair where only my lips were moving, "You guys, this isn't gonna happen... feet... stomach... 60 more miles". Larry reminded me to think only of the next section. I obeyed, I didn't have a vote. It was 4:12 PM and cooling as I left Cloudburst, 18-minutes before the cut-off.
I reached the aid station at 3-Points (mile 42.7) on time. I'd made my crew very happy! I considered this a false sense of security knowing I was feeling every bit as bad as I had for the last several hours. My crew forced me to sit and eat two pierogies and drink Ginger Ale. "You guys... I'm really hurting!". An examination of my feet showed that everything felt good under the tape. I was apparently suffering the effects of the rocky trails. A tough section lay ahead, 10 miles without crew, and I was one hour away from darkness. They pushed me out, wanting me to at least make it to Chilao. It was a comforting thought; drop with dignity at Chilao. Just before leaving, I was taken to the side and told to throw up, if I could. I tried, without success, and noticed the race officials shaking their heads as I checked out.
My crew was concerned enough that they split up into two groups at this point. One group went ahead while the other waited, in case I turned back. There is a no-crew checkpoint at Mt. Hillyer (mile 49). My crew later told me they would not have bet money on my making it to Hillyer in time. On the trail again, I became an ultrarunning robot. "Eat, drink, walk, run". I think the coolness after sunset helped my stomach and I was able to eat more on the way to Hillyer, where I decided not to use my drop bag and quickly filled my bottles with water and chicken broth. I left Hillyer with 10 minutes to spare. Maneuvering through the boulders toward Chilao was a bit scary alone in the dark. I passed three runners sitting down and was tempted to join them, but I had promised myself that I would go down running, not sitting. I thought of how worried my crew must be knowing I might miss the cut-off. They later told me that they were ecstatic upon hearing that I'd passed through Hillyer. It's a strange power to hold the emotions of 6 people in the palm of your hand.
Arriving at Chilao (mile 52.8), my crew whisked me to the scale, then into the chair. I'd made it more than halfway and I really wanted to quit. "Please... let me drop... this isn't working", I pleaded. Larry was holding my head and Heather was rubbing my feet. Mmm... it gelt like bedtime. Then suddenly I was up and out of the chair with just eight minutes to spare. My pacer, Jane led me up the trail-- in a hurry! Jane was in a tough spot with me. I was sure I could talk her into convincing the others to let me drop, and proceeded to try, but still we kept moving, into the dark. Water bottle, flashlight, pierogies-- I couldn't coordinate them all and down I went, hitting my left hip on a boulder and pulling my right calf. This would give me something else to think about for the next couple of hours. As we arrived at Shortcut (mile 59.3), I worried that this was the last stop before heading into no-man's-land. The next 16 miles would be without crew, then Chantry at mile 74.5, then no more crew until the finish. This would be the point where I must drop to avoid being stranded all night in the canyon. Sitting in the chair eating noodles and Jell-O, I gave it one more try..."You guys... I'm sorry... I can't make the cut times, I'm gonna get pulled". I whispered to Larry to let me drop but he told me I'd worked too hard and I needed to get tough now. I closed my eyes and put my head back. This is the point when the pregnant woman begs for an epidural. When I opened my eyes, my new pacer Teresa was standing over me, looking like she was ready to head into battle. Oh man, I really didn't want to do this, but we were hustled out of the aid station with just six minutes to spare.
What followed was sixteen miles of Teresa guiding me along. "This is flat... run Nancy... power up this hill... faster Nancy". The little voice in my head was telling me "this is the pacer from hell... she'll either get you there on time or kill you... but you'll go down running". Pounding my feet into the ground on this section seemed to help. My breathing became a hypnotic Lamaze type... breathe in the good... breathe out the pain... in... "ouut"... in... "ouut". The hours became a blur of water, salt and Power Gels. When I finally noticed the little glow of light around the bend, we were at Newcomb Saddle (mile 68). While Teresa filled bottles, I headed for the chair to remove my left shoe. The intense foot pain of the first 60 miles was now a dull burning numbness. I looked at several runners seated across from me, then noticed a few cots with sleeping bundles. Someone said we were 30-minutes ahead of the cut-off. We'd made up time. For the first time in 21 hours I was eager to leave an aid station.
Teresa and I moved steadily toward Chantry, enjoying occasional glimpses of city lights as we worked our way along the mountain trails. Upon reaching the road to Chantry (mile 74.5), I felt a combination of urgency and relief. We arrived a full hour ahead of the cut-off. I felt energized but my crew imposed a scheduled break. I headed over to the chair where Heather again removed my shoes and massaged my feet, as I ate more noodles and Jell-O. The air was a warm 75 degrees. Sensing it was time; I laced up and headed for the checkout, looking for my pacer, Greg. My crew was happy and smiling but I remained cautious, knowing how easily things can turn bad again. I stopped at the bathroom on the way out... what a feeling to sit on a real toilet after 24 hours! I'd averaged 8-hour splits for each of the 25-mile sections of the course. I now had 9 hours to finish before the deadline.
Two of the major climbs in the race began here. The first was 3,000' over 6.5 miles. Greg was really happy about how much energy I seemed to have. Indeed, we passed a couple of runners on the endless climb up to the Mt. Wilson toll road. Running down the road was a painful reminder once again that the flats and downs must be run to keep the pace. Breathe in... "ouuut"... in... "ouuut". This was definitely "transition time" and there was no turning back. I was going to finish this, hopefully before the curtain fell. Greg encouraged me to swear if I needed to. It's the same permission that I gave him while pacing here in '99. Idle Hour (83.5) was a quick stop for ice and watermelon. The last major climb, 2,000' over 4.5 miles to the Sam Merrill aid station (mile 90) was intense. The temperature was rising and my right calf was beginning to throb from the earlier fall. I asked Greg how we were doing on time but he answered to keep moving... no talking.
I sat for 2 minutes at Sam Merrill (mile 89). Three runners were already sitting in the aid station. I followed them out, grabbing more watermelon on the way. The next 6.5 miles were mostly downhill, with some technical single-track trail and lots of sun exposure. Greg and I worked our way down, exchanging positions with the other runners who eventually stayed just ahead of me. Near Millard, Greg suggested I back off a little as we were definitely on our way to a finish, barring a disaster, which he didn't want to happen. Approaching Millard (mile 95.8), I was suddenly aware that we were at the last aid station and I fought the impulse to cry. We stopped long enough to get cold bottles and filla bandana with ice. The last stretch was blistering hot with no relief from the shade. In the last few miles we were greeted by people coming out to look for runners--the end was close. Finally my friends appeared to greet me, then I found myself on the paved road. I was filled with the same burst of energy that women have when it's time to push that kid out. After all those hours, there was energy left. I was running the home stretch... pushing... pushing... towards the finish. I knew there was time to walk, but I was so happy to end this ordeal. Finishing even one minute sooner seemed like a blessing.
Nancy Shura, AC-100 Finisher, Buffalo Award winner (age group 50-75). Heartfelt thanks to my sweetheart Larry, and my team, Heather (my daughter), Greg, Teresa, Lorna, Jane, Jim (my dad), and Kevin Setnes.Back to story index page