Chimera 100 Nov. 12, 2016 –
Surviving the Beast
“The Chimera is a figure out of Greek mythology. She is a fire breathing animal comprised of a lion, a goat, and a serpent... and those who have participated in her race refer to it simply as "THE BEAST"” – Chimera Ultrasignup page
2016 proved to be a good year of running but not so great for documenting my experience here on these pages. It has been nearly 9 months since my last entry. I’ve found myself drifting more and more into the abbreviated world of social media (https://www.instagram.com/jeff_h_liu/) . Does anybody still write?! Then again sometimes, a few photos and captions alone just aren’t enough to express an experience, especially one that is colored with great emotions.
Since Beyond Limit Ultra in March, I completed another Nanny Goat 100 in May. It was not planned and I ran it because it was convenient (close to home) and I wanted to have a 100 miler (not timed event) in 2016. But the race left me with more than a half year of no ultra planned and too much time to think about “stuff”. This seem to always lead to trouble.
Up to Nanny Goat 2016, I’ve run the 100 mile distance 5 times along with a 188 miler under 72 hours. But, I still considered myself a rookie in ultra running. Four of my finishes (NGx2, BLU, and BTR) have been loop courses. The only point-to-point race (GY100) was flat as a pancake. The two trail courses were mild at best (LH: 6,500 ft., BTR 12,000 ft.). My only attempt at a legit trail ultra resulted in a DNF. And the taste of the Pinhoti DNF lingered bitterly in my soul. If I were to be honest with myself, I sometimes felt very much like a fake, a JV player, and someone with something to prove.
I don’t know why I think this way because it doesn’t make sense logically. I should be content with this shit and stay home with these few buckles. But like other ultra friends, some of us are cursed with the desire to do more. Go further and do harder stuff to prove to (imaginary) others and (ultimately) ourselves that we can keep chasing for more. Am I a fake? Am I just a flatlander? Well, there was only one way to find out; and that was to go up the mountains again.
Now that was one half of me talking (well, thinking). The other half was filled with “logic”, doubt, and pretty much scared shitless. When Chimera came up in conversation with my friends Andrea and Joshua I think I said that I felt like throwing up in my mouth. The 100 mile race is set in the Cleveland National Forest about an hour south of my home in So Cal with an advertised elevation gain of 22,000 feet. I paced Andrea 3 years ago at Chimera and know (at least 25 miles) first-hand the rocky trails of the race. I’ve also run other portions of the course that were challenging even in small doses. Even strong runners considered the course “hard.”
It took some internal mental debates and prodding from Andrea for me to finally decide to take the dive. Weeks of “just sign up,” and “Don’t be a pussy (#DBAP)” was basically what Andrea kept telling me. I should have known better, then again, if I did, I wouldn’t into this madness in the first place. I felt physically and mentally strong. I have put hours and hours on the trail since Pinhoti so I know if there was ever a chance for me to make the push it would be now. My game plan for Chimera would be simple; dance gingerly down the monster’s back and hope that it would sleep through my finish. No time goal. Finish the course under the 35 hour cutoff.
To better my chances of finishing, I asked for pacers. Crewing and pacing is a big commitment and I hate having to trouble my friends with the responsibility. But what I learned from Pinhoti was that having a crew and pacers can make a world of difference. When I asked, and without hesitation, my friends Michelle and Lori stepped up to the plate. The week before the race Lori got sick and her husband Lee stepped in to fill her spot. I am so very grateful for their friendship. I apologized in advance for any whining, swearing, farting, burping, and whatever else the trail may bring out of me. Michelle would be there for me at mile 47-70 and Lee would anchor the last 30 miles to the finish.
Night before the race I had everything packed and was in bed by 8:00PM. It was the best I’ve ever prepared for a race and I slept like a baby. Aud drove me to the start in the morning for the 6:00AM start then returned with Michelle in about 12 hours when I’ve reached mile 47. It was kind of a surreal feeling arriving at Bluejay Campground and gathering with other runners at the start. I saw a lot of unfamiliar face at Chimera. Aud and I agreed that we were amongst different company (from our loop running friends).
I did my homework prior to the race and studied each section. I focused on elevation changes visualized going through each part of the course. First half consist of single tracks and the second was mostly jeep roads. Gear packed used for the run:
UD PB pack with 2L bladder
Altra Olympus 2.0 1-47
Altra Olympus 1.5 47-70
Altra Olympus 1.5 (second pair) 70-Finish
Black Diamond Z-Poles 85-Finish (used only from 85-92)
Nitecore HC50 headlamp
Nitecore P12 handheld flashlight
I also set a change of clothe for the night at 47, additional clothing at 70 (ended up not needing), and a final day time set of clothing at 85 in Corona.
I did more homework for Chimera than I have ever for another ultra. It was to be respected and properly prepared for. But I think amongst all the preparation, the most important part was the mental preparation of sticking to the game plan. Run within my ability, run what course allows me, and do not wake the monster Chimera.
The race started a few minutes past 6:00. Gave my final goodbye to Aud and we were off onto the San Juan trail dimly lit by the glowing ruby skies. I took a position in the back of the pack by starting slow and allowing several more runners to pass within the first few miles. The beautiful mountains and sunrise along with the downhill of the first section can easily make one forget the long journey ahead. I reminded myself frequently in this section to ease off the downhills and walk over rocky section. I also took many mental notes of the decline knowing that I would have to retrace my steps on the return trip.
|Aud and me at the start|
The first 24 miles, out-and-back, single track section was beautiful and with spectacular views of sunrise lit mountains and clouds. Feeling fresh, I only took a few minutes when I returned to Bluejay. Knowing that the temperature would warm up, I filled my bladder and took only a few bites of what was available at the aid station. There were just a few PB&J sandwiches and pretzels and candy. I packed my vest with other food items I had brought to get me to the next major aid station 11 miles away at the Candy Store aid station.
|Beautiful San Juan Trail|
From this section (Bluejay-Candy Store-Bluejay; 24-47), I begin to notice the small aches and twitches in my legs. It’s not unusual for me to notice these things at this early stage of the race. I’ve often said that it starts sucking after 30 miles for me in any given 100 miler. But knowing the miles and miles of mountain ahead I wanted to preserve my legs and feet as well as possible. This section included views as beautiful as the first section. Single tracks with giant boulders lined the trail. Again, we’d descend down towards Candy Store and then would climb the same trails on the journey back.
Several parts of the Candy Store section were pretty technical. I walked, crawled (hands required) through these sections with care. I encountered a gigantic 5-6 feet bright copper/brick colored rattle snake near the bottom. It stopped me dead in my track. Backing up about 10-15 feet, I found rocks and begin throwing at it. It was pretty angry but slowing slithered sway from the trail. This took several minutes but I thought it was time well spent.
As the temperature heated up my water supply was depleting fairly fast. I got a partial refill half way down to Candy Store (water is limited as it has to be brought on the back of volunteers to the middle of nowhere), so I had to really watch my consumption. When I arrived at Candy Store I was completely out of fuel and water. The volunteers there were wonderful in assisting me with water refill. I had really hoped for real food at this aid station but none were to be found. Just bars and candy. I fought very hard to go off the rails and into the dark end. I asked and packed several bars and took my trek back up to Bluejay.
The skies began dimming soon after I left Candy Store. At about half way up the trails to Bluejay, it was perfectly dark with only a few distance flashlights up high throughout the switchbacks. I had properly anticipated the darkness and was lighting my way with my handheld flashlight. Throughout these climbs, I managed a decent effort. Nevertheless, I remember some doubts began to crawl into my head. The internal voices went something like, “just get to Bluejay”, “yeah but how will you do another 53 miles” “I’ll have a nice meal and my pacers after” “you’ll just embarrass yourself when you have to drop in front of your friends”. I was annoyed at not having food at Candy Store and I was alone in the dark. Then I remember having these exact feeling and doubts on the trails of Pinhoti. That’s when I said to myself to suck and up and keep moving.
I was so happy to see Aud and Michelle at Bluejay and they shared the same excitement upon my arrival. This was a long break. I took about 20 minutes to change into my night gear and finally had a proper meal. ½ of an In-n-Out burger and a cup-o-noodle. I tried to bury my doubts and put on my best brave face. But I think I said to Aud “this is hard” many times over the 20 minutes. We packed my bag with as much food as possible (I complained about Candy Store, a lot) and we were off again soon after. Aud said “you got this.” I smiled. Not sure if it was able to hide my doubts as Michelle and I left the station.
|Michelle is excited!|
Chimera was Michelle’s first experience pacing at a 100. She is a strong marathon runner and we’ve done a lot of trail training together over the last months as she was preparing for her first 50K race. She was super excited as we started and it was what I needed. Once we left Bluejay and after a short section on paved roads, we started climbing what seemed to be some endless jeep roads. I apologized for the amount of walking we were doing but it was all I could manage.
These miles in the darkness were long and I spent a lot of time talking about how stupid ultra running is. I told Michelle that “I’m never doing this shit again” quite a few times over the hours we spent together. That venting seemed to really help. Section by section, slowly we chipped away at the course. Even with my obvious suffering, Michelle was enjoying the experience like a new addict finding the new high. She even declared her intention to run Chimera in 2017. Well, I guess I may be pacing this shit next year.
We passed the 100K vs 100M split shortly after we saw a few 100K runners running towards us. At that point I turned and half-jokingly asked Michelle, “Can I drop to 100K?” “NO, we already passed the split” “it’s still shorter for us to backtrack and towards the finish than it is to continue on the 100 miler.” She was firm in her answer and so I resigned to my whining and accepted the fact that she was going to get me to 70 where she said her job would be complete. “When I hand you over to Lee, then you can drop all you want, but he’s not going to let you.”
Going up 8 miles on Holy Jim to Santiago Peak after 60 miles of running is vastly different than when you do it with fresh legs. It was a grind. And for the first time in all my ultras, I felt sleepy hiking up these thousands of feet of endless switchbacks. “I’m tired” become my favorite phrase over many miles. To Michelle’s credit, her positivity and the cans of coke she fed me kept me going in these very dim moments. I wondered out loud if I can just curl up and take a nap on the side of the trail on Holy Jim. The answer from my pacer ahead was always “NO”. My watch dies before I am able to charge it at my next drop-bag. We past Maple Spring, I saw Diane and Melissa there. Thank you both. The quesadillas and chicken soup were out of this world. The tent was full of dropping runners.
Mile 64 was when we were supposed to see Lori/Lee’s Santiago Station for the first of three times. We didn’t get there until about 66 miles based on our Garmin. These kinds of discrepancies often happen at ultras but were nevertheless frustrating for me. When we finally got there I found yet another tent of runners who have decided to drop from the race. I looked at the cutoffs and I was only 1 hour ahead of the ever pressing DNF line. It was great to see my friends Sonja along with Lee and Lori. Bless her heart, even with a bad cold, Lori was up there volunteering and working the station. I was reminded again about the cutoff so I quickly plugged in my watch and changed my shoes and Michelle and I were off again to Maple Springs and Modjeska before returning back for a final time at 70.
When we returned, I sat and had a solid meal of cup-o-noodle and coffee (thank you Sonja!). I thanked Michelle and everyone else. I overheard that there were some issues with transportation for Michelle to get back down the mountains. I tried to ask more but was told by Michelle to not worry and go finish the race. Lee was ready and I took a deep breath and off we went down the mountains. The sun was a few hours from rising but you can see in the very distance some colors starting to come back into view. I found some renewed energy and although we ever moved very quickly, we kept moving. Lee was a great pacer and kept us on pace and at every station we encountered we kept that one hour lead on the cut-off.
|With Lee at 70|
I’ve only known Lori and Lee for the past two years but because of our shared love for ultra running it seem like we’ve known one another forever. We joked and asked why we couldn’t just see sunrises from mountain tops like normal people. That is by driving up the mountains instead of climbing them. As we talked and joked, Lee ran ahead and pointed out best lines to run on those FUCKING ROCKY jeep roads. With my sore feet and legs, there were only a few “runnable” sections from the 70s forward. We made the best of what was runnable and I shuffled forward. I determined that this race sucked balls.
|Second Sunrise - Santiago|
I was really surprised on how well Lee knew the course. After having done Los Pinos and paced at Twin Peaks, he knew this back section like the back of his hand. It helped and I am sure I asked “are we there yet” more than was necessary. A lot of mindless chatters kept my thoughts off the blisters and the stabbing pain in both knees. The sun peaked and there were few clouds in the sky. It would be warm and I would stay over dressed until I got to Corona at mile 85.
When we arrived at the top of Indian Truck Trail (mile 78) we had managed to keep our one hour cushion. This was a section that I was familiar with from pacing Andrea three years back. The view from the top was spectacular. It was like the serpent tail of the Chimera winding its way miles down to Corona. It looked less spectacular and more daunting after 80 miles. But I sucked it up and we averaged roughly a 15-16 minute mile pace in this section. In the second half of the race, I moved the fastest through this section, shuffling to a mild jog whenever the trail would allow it. But it would be the last section that my knees would allow me to move beyond a fast walk.
Aid station Corona, mile 85 called for a longer break. I finally changed out of my long sleeve and pants and into my final daytime clothing. A volunteer at the station offered me a fresh spam musubi that almost made me cry for joy. I asked the station if they had any lube and they did not. Another crew waiting for their runner saved my life by offering some fresh towels and lube. I cannot imagine those last 15 miles if I weren’t lucky enough to run into them. Last thing before leaving Corona was taking out my hiking poles from the drop bag. It was time to wrap this shit up.
“Poles are for pussies” says Andrea and Josh. I thought about that as I hike up those 7 miles from Corona back to the top of Indian Truck Trail. “Do I give a shit?” “Hell no, because they are helping big time right now” I thought. Lee became the drill sergeant up these hills. “Come on Liu!” “ooohhhh, yeah, let it out Liu” I got to be honest, I was loving and hating him at the same time all the while climbing those hills. The sun was at full blaze and we cherished every little corner that afforded some shade. I dug deep in my mind and with my poles and we made our way back to the top of Indian Truck Trail. Time check at the top of ITT showed that we were now 1:45 ahead of the cutoff. Just 8 more miles to go.
|Poles are not for pu$$ies|
Andrea said that this the part of the race that made her say “fuck this race” and unfortunately I found out first hand that was entirely true. "When you think you're through with climbing out of Corona, you've got to climb again," she said. After a very brief break we turned left out of the ITT aid station and onto what I considered the most miserable 10K I’ve ever done. Rocks and climbs. Rock and climbs. For the next six miles the hills kept coming and the jeep road got no smoother. Lee kept promising that some downhills were coming until I just said “Lies” whenever he would speak of downhills. Then finally we hit the last aid station at Trabuco. “It’s just downhill from here” they said at the aid station. True to their word, the last three to four miles were all down hills on steep fucking rocky tails.
I was now wishing for climbs. My knees would no longer bend. My blisters had blisters. My pace slowed to a crawl, other runners passed us. Lee continued to holler and cheer up ahead. Then it happened as it has in before during 100 milers. I felt at peace. I felt as if I was just watching myself. I felt divorced from the pain, fear, and anger during what seemed like a lifetime in those last few miles. I think we continued to talk but the conversation become muffled and dropped to the background. I was filled with indescribable joy and fulfillment. Physical suffering is strange gateway into these glimpses of spiritual awareness. Then it was gone. Before I knew it, the trails turned to pavement and we were coming in near Bluejay to the finish.
I rounded a few of the last corner inside Bluejay and a few of the runners who had just finished were by their cars and cheering. I recall yelling to one of them in passing, “it was hard” to which he responded “Fuck yeah its hard, this is Chimera, its ain’t for pussies.” That statement filled me with pride as I thought, "I am going to be a Chimera finisher." Aud and the kids along with Lori were at the finish line. Lee said “come on Jeff, lets finish this” and we started jogging towards the finish. I held up Lee’s hand and we crossed the finish together. I just thanked him and said that it would not have been possible without him (and Michelle). Audrena and the kids were there and I can see the pride on their face. I was so glad they were there to see the finish.
I’ve had some time to digest the finish and given some more thought in the passing weeks. The need to chase bigger, harder, and more is difficult to fight. But I truly recognize that at some point I need to draw a line and find the moment to stop chasing. Perhaps part of the problem is that I still don’t know exactly what I am chasing, or running away from. I am taking the Chimera experience and parlaying it into the biggest race year yet next year. The Tahoe 200. 200 miles, 4 days in the woods. I hope I can find what I am looking for out there and perhaps find an end to the ever calling chase.
One race, one mile, and one step at a time,
One race, one mile, and one step at a time,