The Angeles Crest 100 Mile Race 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, ďthat was fun. Iíll do it again next year.Ē

Next year became next week as the race approached. My pre-race jitters demanded to know why I was doing the race again. I didnít 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 Course
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 100ís have a serious challenge here, yet the course record is an astounding 17:35, set by Jim OíBrien in 1989. To this date no one has beaten it. There is now a special gold 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 Hammada and Hal Winton enjoy pointing out, that the course is runable.

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 Start
The race starts in the small town of Wrightwood California, nestled about 5000 feet in the Angeles Crest Mountains. Itís 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 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, or 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. Itís 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.) Youíll 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, itís 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 donít 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 thereís a lot of altitude to lose in this section. The trail is pretty good here, just use the normal precautions as you run downhill. Watch for trail markers since there are more than a few sidetrails. When you get to Little Jimmieís, know that 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 medical check where you can see how well hydrated you are, drop off the extra water bottle, etc. The sun is now in itís full glory, and itís 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, itís time to go downhill. The trail down requires careful running since there are many loose rocks and you donít want to twist an ankle during the descent. In due course, you are crossing the Angeles Crest Hwy and have a miserable one mile jog to the next aid station which is maybe a quarter mile if you could take the road. But you canít.

Finally you end up at Eagleís Roost. They try to have plenty of ice here so cool off as much as you can, and take ice with you, for a tough section is coming. If the climb to Baden Powell is the first tough section, the trail from Eagleís 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 youíre 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. Itís hot and the going is slow. You will in time follow the remnants of a dirt road.

Years ago, we use to follow the dirt road to the aid station at Cloudburst Summit. But the race finish was moved from the Rose Bowl to Johnson Park, 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. Not incidentally, you have climbed back up to 7000 feet. For me, my energy level is low, and itís hard to recover, but keep on running. The next section is relatively easy. Thereís a 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 RD says that this is where altitude sickness strikes, and thatís what I catch.

The weather is still hot, but you can catch a breeze at times and enjoy the good trails. Running will not be as easy as it was.

Finally you reach Three Points. This is a simple aid station. They donít 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 wonít need the flashlight, but there are some nice tiny LED lights you can bring, just in case.

The section from Three Points to Hillyer (49 miles) 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 runable for the most part. And run you should, especially if you are within an hour of sunset. There is a section with rocks 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. Itís too easy to get lost in the rocks. 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 this point you go back to the trail. Thereís 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 isnít so hard. The back of the packers will be running in the dark facing an additional handicap that the fast runners donít deal with. Here is another section where you want to pay watch for trail markers since there are many opportunities to go on the wrong trail.

Finally, you make it to Chilao, about 53 miles, and it is a welcome sight indeed. You weigh in and can meet your crew and pick up your drop bags. Even the best runners look pretty 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, itís been so hot that I didnít 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 thereís 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 Ė 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 have a clear view of the area Ė for most people, at night. Your decent 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. Now begins a very steep climb of about a mile up to Shortcut Saddle. 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 youíre 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 and unless youíre running at the front, a small flashlight is good insurance and likely needed.

After shortcut, you cross the Angeles Crest Hwy and descent on a dirt road for about 4 miles. If youíve conserved your energy and the quads are working, this is a great area to make good time. Sometimes itís 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 the rest of the year by anyone.

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, ďI think youíre hallucinating. Thatís a rock.Ē ďI guess youíre right,Ē said my friend. The rock then opened his eyes, looked at both of us, and flew away.

After a long way down, after you start to hear water, you cross a concrete bridge, and the downhill is over. Now comes a steep and tough climb up to Newcomb Saddle. Youíre still on a dirt road that is dark and desolate.

ďHow high can a mountain go? There have to be physical limits. We canít go uphill forever, can we?Ē 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 isnít far away. The sound of a Honda generator never sounded so sweet as you enter the brightly lit aid station 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. Donít think about how close yet how far the city is, nor how many hours you have to the finish.

You leave the aid station saying goodbye to the dirt road and head on a most interesting part of the course, You will run along the side of the mountain mostly 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. Thereís a lot of poison oak along here, but the runners are so covered with dirt from many hours on the trail, that I donít 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 isnít whole lot of room to fall. I rather like this section since itís 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 the level of the water, you can look forward to another aid station. This section needs careful attention since it is easy to get lost if you donít spend your time looking for race markers. At night youíll fine the chemical lights along the way. They are great since you can see them from a distance and feel more confident that you are OK.

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 wall.

Finally we get to Chantry Flats, a major 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. 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 wonít 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 OK, but steep, and it takes the little energy youíve held in reserve. You did hold energy in reserve didnít you?

You have a 4000 foot climb in 6 miles. This section will be your moment of glory Ė 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. Itís relatively short, but you wonít be enjoying yourself too much. Several years ago on the old section along here, I was going up one section 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 that trail as part of the trail requirement.

Finally you get to the dirt road, and about a 3-mile downhill to the Idle Hour aid station. 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 it is still dark, you get an incredible view of the city lights. Your whole being has been focused on the race, and below you are millions of people not knowing nor caring about your travails. Such is life. But thatís just a passing thought as you are hopefully running downhill.

When you finally reach the Idle Hour aid station, itís 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 morningís 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. Youíll 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, itís 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 nightís sleep. We mortals have to work harder. Finally you reach Sam Merrel, where the REAL downhill begins. At this point, it looks like you may just finish.

Youíre going to traverse down the side of the mountain that overlooks the LA 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 youíll see the wood crossings.. Had you turned left at the junction, you would see parts of the old railroad and ruins of the hotel, but thatís for a training run. Weíre heading home. Go right. Thereís 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. Thereís more poison oak along here, and the rocks in the trail are a both to your challenged quads. For the most part, this is a good place to run if you can. Youíll change trails several times before you end up at the Millard aid station in a scenic wooded campground. Just a few miles to go!

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 Ė the last section. Itís mostly level as you run along what is a popular hiking area. Youíll 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 Park and the finish, but you arenít done yet. Follow the trail/dirt road a little longer to a brief uphill trail to civilization. The arrows and chalk will take you to the finish maybe a mile away. When you see the finish line, put on the speed for an impressive finish. Youíll be glad you did.

Congratulations, youíve made it. Now, as youíre sipping your drink and enjoying the pleasure of sitting, are you saying ďnever again?Ē or ďhey, that was fun. Iím going to do that again next year.Ē For some reason, the most of the ones who say ďnever againĒ do the race again. Welcome to the club.