Inside the life of Pro Ultra-Runner, Dominic Grossman
The Angeles Crest 100 is not an adequately known or understood gem of a race. Thirty-three years ago, Race Director Ken Hamada met with local running friends who believed it was time for the San Gabriel Mountains to be the site of the fifth 100-mile mountain race in the country. Hamada, a Northrup B-2 Engineer, fell in love with ultra-distance trail running as it began to take shape in the early ’80s. He loved running in the mountains and understood the value of giving runners a backyard Mount Everest; something that was incredibly difficult but within the realm of possibility given enough training and grit.
The Angeles Crest 100 High Point: 9,300′ Mt. Baden-Powell
The course itself is a point-to-point ascetic line from Wrightwood to Pasadena. When you fly into LAX, the landing pattern gives passengers on the right side of the aircraft a good view of the rugged and steep San Gabriels. One might assume they’re inhospitable, too steep and dry to sustain trails or roads. Yet, the 62-year-old Angeles Crest Highway winds through the ridgelines and allows access to thousands of miles of trail cut into the steep slopes. Pine forests, 10’000′ peaks, rivers, and deep canyons make up the racecourse that visits the most scenic corners of the mountain range.
I was born the second year of the race in 1987, and occasionally visited Mountain High to go snowboarding, but never had a clue of its existence until I returned from college in 2008 and read a book about ultrarunning. In 2010, with a few 100’s under my belt, I took on the AC100 and found my north star for my career in the sport, the 1989 race splits of Jim O’Brien’s 17:35 course record performance. The best in the sport, Scott Jurek, Hal Koerner, Jorge Pacheco, and many others had barely even come within an hour of the record. Still, after my humbling 23-hour finish in 2010, I knew it was an incredibly special record. I went on to win the race twice in 20:21 and then 19:06, but I still found so much to strive for each year in preparing for it.
Twenty months ago, my wife Katie and I moved to Wrightwood. Situated at 6,000′, and surrounded by 8-10,000′ peaks and a vast trail network, it is a trail runner’s paradise. Once we moved, I realized these were my “golden 30’s” after having spent my 20’s spending all too much time in traffic and the office. I had finally found the dream job at General Atomics – ASI that would enable us to move to where we were happiest. Training each day on the AC100 race on the course itself filled me with joy and gratitude for the chance to chase the storied 29-year-old course record. I had finished the race 6 times and won it twice, but never met my A-Goal of breaking the 17:35 record. I was finally living deliberately and doing workouts on the course that gave me the confidence to go after the record again.
In the fall of 2017, Katie admitted it was time to start trying to have a baby. I knew it would be tough to train and have a baby right before the race, but my optimistic attitude thought it would be amazing to have my newborn at the race. I knew it would change my life, but after running dozens of tough ultra-marathons, I didn’t fully comprehend the saying “it’s the toughest and best thing you’ll ever do”.
Our baby girl, Lindy didn’t come on time, but she was worth the wait. An induction was scheduled for July 16, and we arrived at the hospital to begin a 40-hour game of watching Katie’s contractions and Lindy’s heart rate. On the 18th, Katie began pushing, but after three and a half hours, the doctor recommended we consider the C-Section as Lindy’s heart rate was starting to drop below the 110 BPM safety threshold. As Katie and I prepared to welcome our daughter, her heart rate dropped again, a code C boomed over the speakers, and I was forced to wait for 20 of the longest minutes of my life as they worked to put Katie under and deliver Lindy via an emergency C-section.
My anxiety was at an all-time high. After supporting months of Katie’s painful pregnancy, I was sitting in a sterile hallway unsure of my family’s safety or immediate future. We were in a very good hospital that would do everything possible to keep Mother and Daughter safe, but when you are left alone for 20 minutes, contemplating everything that could happen, you realize how fragile life is. I had prided myself on coping with extreme emotions through my 20’s, rationalizing that I couldn’t worry about things I couldn’t change, but this was larger than anything I could explain away. I was extremely worried about my wife and daughter deep in the danger zone. Finally, I saw my daughter and got to hold her as I silently wept tears of joy and relief. Katie woke up another 15 minutes later and my “golden 30’s” suddenly became more luminous than I could have ever anticipated.
I was outside of my mind for the first week we had her. She was beautiful and sweet; just listening to her breathing made me glow. She had wrapped around her tiny finger and felt every emotion for her. Somehow, fourteen days after we had left the hospital, I was at the pre-race briefing for the AC100. I’d missed a few hours of sleep, but caught a few cat naps here and there to make sure I was ready for race day. Even though she woke me up a few times the night before the race, I felt calm thinking about my love for her and our family.
Saturday morning, at 3:50 AM my alarm went off. I packed a few last items into the truck, drank a strong cup of coffee, and drove the 1.4 miles from our house to the start line with my wife, my daughter, and my mother-in-law. I smiled and chatted with all my friends in the race, and at 5 AM we took off up the Acorn Trail to join the Pacific Crest Trail and head west towards the finish line in Altadena. My COROS Pace tracked my heart rate, which coincidentally matched my daughter’s during labor, somewhere between 110-165 depending on the incline and terrain. I felt a connection thinking about her little heart beating along, and daydreamed of holding her at the finish.
Photo by Ron Bijlsma
For the first time in 7 races, I lead the race almost entirely alone for the first 37 miles. I reached the start of the Acorn trail (my home) and as I ran and hiked just under 165 BPM, I slowly pulled further away from the chase pack of runners. I ignored all other data on my watch and focused on lowering my heart rate by breathing slowly and hiking strong. I still managed to reach the PCT in 44 minutes, right on pace with the course record, and sure enough, I casually jogged through mile 9.3, Inspiration Point at 6:33 AM, exactly on record splits.
Inspiration Point, Mile 9.3, Photo by Ulysses Chan
Moving through the first aid station is always exciting, and sometimes overwhelming. Yet today, I felt calm and confident that I was doing fine and whether runners were trying to chase me or not, I was in my own race with the ghost of Jim. Over the years, many people have told me that I should run slower at the start of the race to be conservative and race for the win instead of the CR. Most years, no other runners attempt to or are capable of breaking 18 hours, so it becomes a decision point: go for the record or hold back and run just a little faster than second place. I had tired of the latter.
I ran another identical CR split to Vincent Gap, mile 13.7, and I stopped to give my stomach a chance to relax by putting my legs up for 30 seconds to gear up for the 3.8 miles climb up to 9,300′. As I left the aid station with my pack, I sipped some coke and handed a cup off to Katie, but forgot to grab my handheld. I chatted with Billy Yang and his camera as I hiked up and didn’t realize the missing bottle until the first switchback where I was committed now to making it 10 miles over the peak on 50 ounces of water. I had an ice bandana as it was already a warm morning and thought that the lack of water would force me to slow down below 160 BPM, which might be good for my legs for later in the race. I made it over the top of the climb in just under an hour with ample hiking. My hero, Jorge Pacheco, was just behind me, but he eased back on the downhill as I danced along the scenic ridge. I made it to Little Jimmy Spring just as my water was running out and took a minute to cool off and refill a few ounces in my pack for the two miles down to Islip.
At 9:27 I came into mile 25.5, Islip Saddle, mostly past the mistake of forgetting my handheld bottle. I switched from trail shoes to the road to give a bit more cushion, and finally took a moment to see my daughter and give her a kiss. I had thought I was going to be a tough competitor, but I immediately melted down thinking about her and felt intense urges to hold her more.
Islip Saddle, mile 25.5, Photo by Ron Bijlsma
Everything that had happened to get to this point began to hit me, and I fell victim to three of the most basic psychological rules in ultrarunning:
- Stay present, don’t think about the finish
- Fix your problems, don’t ignore them
- 3) Don’t admit you’d rather be somewhere else, ignore those thoughts
In just a few seconds, I had broken all those rules with a soft kiss on her forehead. I wanted so badly to already be at the finish line and lay down with her in the grass. I was a little hungry from not having enough water and calories over Baden-Powell, but I just wanted to get further down the course and be closer to holding her. I was happy to be leading the race, but it suddenly seemed so small when I thought about how lucky I was to have her. The nine-month pregnancy and the 20 minutes I spent waiting for her during the C-section were rushing over me. She was merely 20 days old, struggling to stay awake for more than an hour at a time, but here she was out in the middle of the San Gabriels with a “Go Dad!” shirt on. I ran on with pride and intense love for her as tears streaked down my face.
Photo by Ron Bijlsma
I made myself limit when I could see her and kiss her at aid stations, but it was already too late. She was in the forefront of my mind, and even just thinking of her for more than a few seconds would get me choked up. I began to make more mistakes as the day wore on. I sipped some protein fruit smoothie at the next aid station, but pushed on too quickly and felt nauseous over the next 4 miles. At mile 34, I laid down, put my legs up, and drank a Red Bull to try to restart my stomach, but didn’t eat much. I was behind on calories but hoped my stomach would open up over the next few miles to mile 38. Though the obvious solution was to take a solid 10 minutes to refuel at the next aid, I felt an unreasonable pull to get down the course to the finish to finally rest with my daughter. I was 1/3rd of the way there, and when my thoughts drifted to her, I ran harder, digging a deeper caloric hole for myself.
Photo by Ulysses Chan
Even worse, I had already made mistakes before the race. Ten days before, I had attempted to run the final 25 miles of the course at 5 PM (my goal split). I underestimated how high temperatures were still in the evening, and I roasted in the high 90-degree heat. I carried as much water as I could, but neglected to bring a filter to drink from streams. By the time I made it to the final 2 miles, I was severely dehydrated and had exacerbated an old ulcer. I tried to rest up and rehydrate before the race, but as the heat crept up, I began to feel the ulcer again.
Jogging slowly to mile 38, I arrived at Three Points, at 11:18, 13 minutes behind my goal. The course was about to get much hotter and smokier as we left the high country’s canopy. Smoke from fires in Yosemite had drifted down in a brown haze filling the canyons. I sat down and drank a Gatorade as 2nd place Renee Dorantes came into the aid. Despite eating several Tums, my body was already tired of sugar. I should have grabbed my protein bar, but I opted for a handful of tortilla chips. This hurried decision proved to be the most fateful of the day.
I kissed Lindy as I left and felt a wave of emotion pour over me again. I was going 6.5 miles until I’d see the crew again, and even though I knew I had a job to do, my body felt beat already from getting behind on calories. A mile later I threw up and watched Renee race by. I felt an adrenaline rush and tried to hurry up to the next aid station to get refueled. A minute behind Renee now, I drank a Coke and hoped I could get back on track at Chilao in 4 miles with my crew. Hiking over Mt. Hilyer, the heat, smoke, and excessive sugar overwhelmed me and I was reduced to a walk/jog on the downhill. My ulcer tightened up my entire stomach greatly slowing my progress to mile 44. Now in 3rd and 13 minutes back with severe stomach cramps, I took the 10 minutes I should’ve taken earlier to eat a protein bar.
Unfortunately, timing is everything and the damage was already done on my stomach. My wonderful pacer Brian Blair kept me company and helped me pick my head up, but every footstep radiated pain through my abdomen. The chase pack continued to pass me, and by the time I had made it to Shortcut Saddle, I was overheating and bonking again. I spent almost an entire hour at the aid under ice bags until I overcame my fear of the next 9-mile canyon, and left not for any reason other than wanting to make sure that I had completely emptied myself.
Arriving at mile 50, Photo by Ron Bijlsma
As I jogged and hiked along with Brian, I came to terms with some powerful thoughts:
- I had pushed my stomach so far and it was not allowing me to eat and run
- I was finally going to understand what it was like to DNF AC
- My relationship with running was still maturing as well as defining success in new ways
In the last year, I had made strides in how I defined failure and success in running, and I was now tested with my most difficult realization that I could be a good human being and fail at a running goal. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I took so many training weeks in my life in terms of sheer discipline and focus. If I didn’t hit my mileage goal, I was failing to capitalize on ample opportunities that were no fault but my own. If I didn’t take care of myself in a race, I was foolish and self-destructive.
Photo by Tyler Graim
Yet as I sat in the chair and held my daughter, the second clicking by on my COROS, my stomach in physical and emotional knots, I felt a sense of pride as I looked down at Lindy. I had chased the record, I had felt every emotion for her, I had made mistakes, and I was strong enough to walk away from them and save my body for another day. The old me had caused the ulcer from stubborn training and race tactics and would have pushed on exacerbating it for another 42 miles. The father in me was looking ahead to all the opportunities I would have to share more moments with her: to teach her to live, to dream, to strive, and even to walk away from a destructive day. Life is not only about success, but also about your long-term approach to problems. I am in the sport for the long haul.
There are still many more races ahead of me as a dad. I’m 31 which in ultra-running is like turning 21; the age where you might have enough wisdom to handle alcohol. The addictive nature of long-distance running requires patience and wisdom to last more than a few seasons.
My love for Lindy is new and wild, but as we grow together, I will find ways to understand how she affects me. I understand my body more thoroughly than ever, and with every mile, my strength grows along with the probability of finding a faster performance on this course. I’ll get back on the horse and go after the record again. My daughter is watching me (and next year she might be old enough to remember it).