By Chris Jones
In May of 2012, I met this fella named Andrew Ewing, aka “Ace” in Riverside, California, at a 24-hour running event called Nanny Goat. Both of us were pretty new to the sport of ultrarunning but with that came the excitement of being open to just about anything! Shortly after our finish at Nanny Goat, Ace asked me if I wanted to pace him at a race called Western States 100. I enthusiastically said yes, and from that short conversation, we began running dozens of trail races together over the coming years.
After Ace successfully completed Western States in 2012, we began learning about the various race series, challenges, and “Slams” that were established and evolving as the sport was growing. We quickly learned about one of the most famous slams, The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. The Grand Slam consists of running the four oldest 100-mile races in the United States. These races include Western States 100, Leadville Trail 100, Wasatch Front 100 and either Old Dominion 100 or Vermont 100 (depending on the year). This piqued our interest, but we knew we would have to wait a few years to have a chance in the Western States lottery. So in the meantime, we began running other 100-mile events on the West Coast such as Pine to Palm 100, Tahoe Rim Trail 100, Santa Barbara 100, and Angeles Crest 100.
In 2013, as I was thumbing through the AC 100 Race Book, I read a small blurb about a race series called The Last Great Race. I had never heard of this before. So what is the Last Great Race? Ken Hamada, the AC 100 Race Director, conceived this idea in 1989 when AC 100 was run two weeks after Wasatch Front 100 in late September. The Last Great Race consists of running the first six 100-milers in the United States in one summer:
Old Dominion 100
Western States 100
Angeles Crest 100
Leadville Trail 100
Wasatch Front 100
Initially, Ace did not show much interest in attempting the Last Great Race as his focus was on completing the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. This made sense, since the Grand Slam is the most popular Slam out there, but I just could not let go of the idea of running the Last Great Race. So I began running AC 100 year after year, only to be passed over by Western States four years in a row. In 2016, Ace eventually got the AC 100 bug and ran it as well.
By the 2016-17 race season, four of the six races of the Last Great Race were lottery, but one by one, Ace and I both got into the four key lottery races (AC 100, WS 100, LT 100, WF 100). Ace was still focused on only attempting the Grand Slam, but after some serious interventions with some former Last Great Race finishers, we got Ace on board and registered for OD 100 and VT 100.
Old Dominion 100 Mile Cross Country Run (OD 100), June 3-4, 2017
Fast forward to June 3, 2017. We have six 100-milers to run in 14 weeks beginning with the Old Dominion 100 Mile Cross Country Run in Woodstock, Virginia. This race was not terribly hard on paper, but the 28-hour time limit added some additional pressure to not have a bad day out there. Additionally, only sub-24 runners earned the coveted pure silver belt buckle. Sub-28 finishers were also official finishers, but received a duffle bag and water bottle but no belt buckle.
Ace and I wanted to go sub-24 and ran the first 30-plus miles together in beautiful horse country. But by lunchtime, we had split up and would run alone for the next 65 miles or so. About halfway through the race, I began burping up blood. Not good, but it was better than vomiting up blood, so I was content. Ace was also having his share of problems during the race. Ace had hurt his back doing trail work several weeks prior and as a result was on muscle relaxers. This back pain had caused a change in his gait, which eventually would lead to a tear in his left calf muscle.
While we were both somewhat uncomfortable during our run, we both realized that a little pain comes with the territory. Things are going to go wrong throughout a 100-mile race. The question is, how will we handle the adversity throughout this race and the five additional races later in the summer?
As the day turned to night and night turned to the early morning, we both finished OD 100 under 24 hours and earned our first buckle of the summer. Upon arriving home, we both went to the hospital. I had an ulcer that had made me anemic and Ace had severely torn his calf muscle. We were both given “do not sue us” medical advice to take the rest of the summer off from running.
Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run (WS 100), June 24-25, 2017
We both came into this race injured, but at the same time, more excited than ever, since Western States is somewhat of a hometown race for us NorCal boys. This year was deemed a “Fire and Ice” year with heavy snowpack in the high country and 100-degree temps in the canyons. This led to the high “Did Not Finish” (DNF) rate of 33%.
While the conditions were tougher than normal, we were lucky to have our families and friends cheering us on from the beginning until the end. At nearly every single aid station, our friends who were volunteering did everything from feeding us, icing us down, and even singing us songs as we crossed Rucky Chucky. On top of the volunteers, this was the only race Ace and I both used crew and pacers. This was a nice change, and was a great way to give our crew and pacers some good and entertaining experience throughout the race.
After some bouts with barfing and sleep walking during the witching hour, Ace and I both entered the track at Placer High School well after sunrise. We were met with our family, friends, and volunteers that jogged the final 300 meters around the track to the finish line arch. This one was kind of ugly, but we got it done!
Vermont 100 Endurance Race (VT 100), July 15-16, 2017
VT 100 is the only 100-mile footrace run concurrently with a 100-mile horse race and an athletes with disabilities division for runners who are blind and/or missing limbs. Both the horses and athletes with disabilities fall under the same 24 and 30-hour standards as the regular runners. This is also the only race that does not allow headphones/earbuds due to horses sharing the trails with runners. While Ace rarely listens to music, I like having my iPod shuffle blasting out tunes, so this race was going to be a challenge. But the lack of music was a relative minor issue compared to the real issue; humidity! With a fresh rain that Saturday morning, the humidity was extremely high, along with the sunny temps.
While the VT 100 course may not have the same amount of technical terrain like Western States 100 has, VT 100 still has over 17,000 feet of elevation gain (Western States has roughly 18,000 feet of elevation gain). This makes for some steady climbing throughout the race.
With a 4 a.m. East Coast start, and Ace and I being from California, the start of VT 100 was the equivalent to a 1 a.m. start for us. As we ran through the day and into the night with dozens of horses trotting next to us, we never actually shared a single mile together, but after 100 of them, we finished just nine minutes apart.
Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run (AC 100), August 5-6, 2017
Roadtrip! As the clock strikes 4 a.m. on Friday morning, Ace and I head south in my Toyota Prius to the mountain town of Wrightwood, California. Now as our Grand Slam brethren have a nice five week break between Vermont 100 and Leadville Trail 100, Ace and I have this tiny little speed bump called Angeles Crest 100.
When I tell people we are running a 100-miler in Southern California, most people do not think mountains. Instead, they think beach. But for those of you who are familiar with the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California, you understand why AC 100 is one of only 26 Hardrock 100 qualifiers out there.
The first 50-plus miles of this race is run between 5,500 – 9,000 feet, mostly in exposed dry SoCal heat. But once the sun drops, the race gets easier. Nope. Not even close. While the temperatures do drop, the climbs are relentless. Just ask any AC 100 runner about Deadman’s Bench around mile 80 and you will quickly learn why this race is considered one of the toughest races on the West Coast.
While a dozen or so runners are fit enough to finish before the second sunrise, the majority of us (Ace and I included) must face the Sunday morning heat. This can be a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that when the sun comes up, your body’s internal circadian rhythm works its magic and wakes your body up. The curse is that those somewhat pleasant 60-degree temperatures through the night are about to turn into 80-plus degrees under the Southern California sun.
Although the race has a 33-hour cutoff at 2 p.m., Ace and I were lucky enough to finish early to mid-morning to avoid the afternoon heat. Ken Hamada, the RD in charge of the Last Great Race, made a short announcement about us at the awards ceremony and wished us luck for the final two 100-mile events.
Leadville Trail 100 Run (LT 100), August 19-20, 2017
Historically, if there is one race that can knock a runner out of the Last Great Race, it is LT 100. While the Leadville course itself has the lowest cumulative elevation gain of the six races, the altitude is the game changer. The lowest point along the LT 100 course is at roughly 9,200 feet, with Hope Pass peaking out at 12,600 feet. With Ace and I coming from sea level, we knew we had our work cut out for us.
There are two schools of thought when approaching a high altitude race. Get there two weeks early and acclimatize or get there the day before and shock the body. Due to our work schedules and family commitments, Ace and I had to do the latter. Upon arriving to Colorado, we had to rent a car for the weekend. Luckily for us, the car rental agency was all out of cars and all they had left to give us was a glitter purple Dodge Challenger! Needless to say, we got from Denver International Airport to Leadville in under an hour.
The town of Leadville sits at 10,200 feet. We were huffin’ and puffin’ just walking around town. But as 4 a.m. came on Saturday morning, we were sucking in what little air we could for the next 102 miles. To have a shot at the “big buckle” we knew we had to make it to the halfway point under 11.5 hours. Ace made it in 11.75 hours and I made it in just under 12 hours. We were behind the 8-ball, but still had a shot if we could keep a decent pace at night, but within five miles, reality hit as I was clocking 45 minute miles on the back side of Hope Pass and barely making it to mile 60 as the sun gave way to the moon at 8:30 p.m.
The next 20 miles were lonely and cold, but during the final 20-plus miles, I linked up with a fellow Grand Slammer, Jake Rankinen, who had also slowed down due to the altitude. We joined forces and basically hiked the final 20-plus miles in together with his pacer, finishing around 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, just 30 minutes before the cutoff. Whew! The altitude took its toll on Ace as well, but Ace finished about an hour and forty minutes before the 30-hour cutoff and was at the finish line waiting for me as I walked the red carpet to the finish line arch.
Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run (WF 100), September 8-9, 2017
At this point, running 100 miles seemed to be becoming routine. This was our last and final 100-miler for both the Grand Slam, Western Slam, and Last Great Race. While Leadville is known as the “Slam Killer”, Wasatch Front 100 is considered to be the hardest overall of the six races. This is due to the fact that the entire race is run at altitude between 4,900 – 10,400 feet and has a cumulative elevation gain of over 26,000 feet with a large percentage of the course run on technical single-track trail.
On the plus side, we had a generous 36-hour cutoff and were surrounded by some of best views any runner could ask for. As the race began, we quickly climbed 4,500 feet in the first eight miles. The climbing was tough but once the sun came out, we were rewarded with gorgeous mountain views and fall colors as far as the eye could see. While the scenery was breathtaking, I had to deal with a couple of bee stings and a bout with diarrhea in the early morning hours. But after the GI issues were under control, I fell into a nice groove for the next 60 miles. Ace and I ran about 10 miles together, but Ace was on a mission and took off ahead of me with a sub-30-hour goal in mind.
As day turned to night, we had to climb to the high point of the course, Point Supreme, at 10,467 feet at mile 70. This climb was painstakingly slow and technical. I felt like I was back on Hope Pass in Leadville logging in 45 minute miles. While this was the high point of the course, we still had two additional 9,000-plus-foot ridges to climb before descending to the finish at 5,500 feet.
At this point Ace and I were separated by about 30 minutes but as the night wore on, I was sleep walking and was barely averaging a 19 minute per mile pace. I was coming to the realization that I was not likely to finish under 30 hours. But unlike Western States, I did set secondary “B” and “C” goals that would keep me motivated through the finish. Once I hit mile 85 at sunrise, I adjusted my goal to go sub 31 hours and headed out in the morning sun to do just that. While stopping at the last two aid stations, I got an update on Ace and he was not only on track to go sub-30, but to go sub-29 hours. Ace did just that, finishing Wasatch Front in 28:31:34. I finished in about 2 hours and 20 minutes later with a time of 30:52:12.
The hardest part of these slams was getting into the races themselves, as four of the six races are lotteries. The odds of being selected for AC 100, WS 100, LT 100 and WF 100 and being able to register for OD 100 and VT 100 relatively injury free in a single season again are slim to none. Ace and I consider ourselves extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to literally follow in the footsteps of the past 39 runners who have completed the Last Great Race. I am sure it will not be long until Old Dominion 100 and Vermont 100 both become lotteries as well. In summary, Ace and I became the 340th and 342nd finishers of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, the 44th and 45th finishers of the Western Slam and the 40th and 41st finishers of the Last Great Race. When asked if we would ever do it again, we both triumphantly said “No!”, but time will tell. As most ultrarunners know, we love a little pain and love a good challenge. While the Grand Slam will move forward as the most popular slam, and the Western Slam will continue on as the tougher four-race slam, the Last Great Race will remain as the somewhat-obscure Original Six Hundo Challenge for those lucky enough to get the opportunity to run all six 100-mile races in one summer.
Last Great Racer
|41||2017||Chris Jones, 45, CA||22:09:23||28:31:23||22:12:12||26:40:14||29:28;24||30:52:12|
|40||2017||Andrew Ewing, 39, CA||23:19:29||28:42:02||22:21:12||27:11:29||28:18:56||28:31:34|
For clarity, if you are registered for all six races of the Last Great Race, you meet the requirements for the Western Slam and Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. Registration for The Last Great Race and Western Slam is through the AC 100 Race Director, Ken Hamada. Registration for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning is through the race committee of WF100. The current costs are: $125 Last Great Race (plaque included), $125 Western Slam (plaque included), $80 Grand Slam (trophy, hat or visor, gender cut polo shirt included). Last Great Race and Western Slam t-shirts may be available in the future.