Tom Nielsen’s Master Class: The Story of the 1999 Angeles Crest 100

AJW's TaproomBack in 1999 there were 19 100-mile races in the United States. Two, in fact, Cascade Crest and the Bear, had their inaugural events that year. Given the relative scarcity of opportunity, a few events attracted much of the competition. It was an era during which most North American ultrarunners raced exclusively in North America and the trail running scene was just beginning to expand. On the West Coast, Western States was certainly king, but in late September most eyes turned to the Angeles Crest 100 in Southern California as the second most competitive race of the year. And it is at Angeles Crest where this story begins.

Angeles Crest 100 logoGoing into AC in 1999 there was tremendous hype, at least by pre-social media standards. The four-time champion, Ben Hian, was taking a year off from the race and four runners were coming into Wrightwood riding the tide of extraordinary seasons.

At the top of the list was 25-year-old Scott Jurek. Having won Western States in his debut at the race in June, Jurek was attempting to become the first ever winner of the Grizzly Award, an award which, at the time, was one of the most elusive in ultrarunning. Offered up to the runner who wins both Western States and Angeles Crest in the same year, the Grizzly was certainly on Jurek’s mind especially on the heels of his second place at AC in 1998.

Next on the list was Kevin Sawchuk. Fresh off a seventh-place finish at Western States as well as wins in four other ultras, Sawchuk was known for his meticulous training and conservative race tactics. Having finished third at AC in 1997 and fourth at Wasatch in 1998 gave Sawchuk the confidence that he could hang with the front group in 1999.

The hottest runner coming into AC was undoubtedly 26-year-old Ian Torrence. Having already won an incredible nine ultras in eight months including the rugged Massanutten 100, Catalina 100K, and Zane Gray 50, Torrence was the biggest story of the year. Known for his push-from-the-gun racing style, most observers were guessing that Ian would go hard from the start and the other guys would have to chase him down for the win.

Then, there was San Diego’s Tom Nielsen. Coming off his second-consecutive third-place finish at Western States and the veteran of four Angeles Crests, including two second places and a third place, Nielsen has local knowledge on his side. In addition, of the four contenders for the win, Tom was perhaps the freshest as he was the only one who had not raced since Western States in June.

From the start in Wrightwood, the race began to play out as expected. On the initial three-mile, 2000-foot climb to the Pacific Crest Trail, Jurek, Torrence, and Sawchuk ran every step while Nielsen walked. By the time they reached the base of the first major climb of the day, Mt. Baden Powell, Jurek had 5 minutes on Torrence and Sawchuk and 12 minutes on Nielsen. On the four-mile, 3000-foot ascent up Baden Powell, Jurek stretched his lead to almost 20 minutes and by the time he reached Islip Saddle at mile 25, he was comfortably in the lead.

Tom Nielsen - Kevin Sawchuck - 1999 Angeles Crest 100 - mile 9

Nielsen running with Sawchuck early in the 1999 Angeles Crest 100. All photos courtesy of Tom Nielsen.

On the steep climb up Mt. Williamson, for the third time already, Jurek, Torrence, and Sawchuk ran, while Nielsen walked. Cresting the climb at mile 28, Nielsen decided, for the first time on the day, to test his legendary downhill legs by opening things up a bit. Descending the 2.3-mile stretch from the summit to the aid station at Eagle’s Roost in under 14 minutes, Nielsen caught Sawchuk and closed to within four minutes of Torrence and 15 minutes of Jurek. At that point, he knew that he was descending better than his rivals and he could just bide his time.

Tom Nielsen - Tarahumara - 1999 Angeles Crest 100 - mile 26

Tommy with a Tarahumara runner at mile 26.

Climbing and descending for the next 23 miles, Jurek gradually extended his lead to 18 minutes over Torrence and 28 minutes over Nielsen. Leaving Chilao at mile 52 sitting in third place during the hottest part of the day, Nielsen said to his pacer, Oscar Diego, “Time to get to work.” Between Chilao and Newcomb Saddle, Nielsen’s energy yo-yoed as he battled tight quads and a questionable stomach. While downing three cups of soup at the 67-mile aid station, Tom decided it was time for a little gamble. Now behind Jurek by 30 minutes and Torrence by 15, Nielsen knew it was now or never. He put his head down and hammered to the long descent into Chantry Flat at mile 75 as hard as he ever had. Arriving at Chantry, Tom received the news that he had made up 10 minutes on both guys in front of him. Additionally, he was told that both Torrence and Jurek had spent a good 10 minutes at the aid station. With the long grinding climb up to the Mt. Wilson Toll Road looming ahead, Nielsen wasted little time getting out of there. He was now on the hunt!

Tom Nielsen - 1999 Angeles Crest 100 - mile 75

Tommy getting a tune up from his crew at Chantry Flats at mile 75.

Two miles out of Chantry, with his long-time pacer Dana Taylor by his side, Nielsen reeled in and passed Torrence. Judging by Ian’s labored breathing, Tom knew he was moving into second place for good and he immediately set his sights on Jurek. Knowing that the road descent off of Mt. Wilson was smooth and steep, Nielsen once again capitalized on his downhill prowess. Arriving at Idlehour (mile 83), Tom felt great. He quickly grabbed food, filled his bottles and asked how far ahead Jurek was. At that moment, Taylor tapped Nielsen on the arm and looked across the aid station, there was Jurek and his pacer just leaving the aid station.

“We just closed 20 minutes in 9 miles!” exclaims Nielsen, “Game on!”

On the relentless climb up Sam Merrill, the last significant climb of the race, Tom moves into first place. For the first time all day, he feels the victory is in his grasp. Several times on the climb up Sam Merrill, Tom is moving so well he begins to put a gap on Dana, his pacer. At the 90-mile aid station, Dana looks back to see if he can see any lights on the ascent, nothing. On the screaming descent to Altadena he tells his good friend, “It’s in the bag.”

Nielsen ultimately extended his lead to over 40 minutes and crossed the finish line at Johnson’s Field in 19:07:50, which is, to this day, the 10th fastest time in the history of the race and his PR over ten finishes. Scott Jurek held on for second in 19:51 and Torrence and Sawchuk finished third and fourth, respectively. Old timers at AC still talk about the 1999 race as “one for the ages” and Dana Taylor summed it up best when he told his good friend at the finish,

“This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in ultrarunning! Thanks for letting me share it with you!”

Bottoms up!

Bryon’s AJW’s Beer of the Week

Yuengling LagerThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from America’s oldest brewery. That’s right, raise an ice cold Yuengling Traditional Lager and let out a “Go birds!” in celebration of the Philadephia Eagles first-ever Super Bowl victory. Yuengling Lager is no hop bomb, elegant saison, or well-balance coffee stout… this is an American adjunct lager at its best. It’s got a pleasant, malty if slightly skunky flavor that totally refreshing. I’d call it lawnmower beer, but there’s a tad more substance to Yuengling Lager than the typical lawnmower beer. No, this is a sit on the couch… or in the stand and watch sports kinda beer… particularly if Philly’s your city.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What do you think of this “race for the ages?”
  • Do you enjoy taking a look back at ultrarunning history?
  • If you’ve run the Angeles Crest 100, please share your story!

There are 14 comments

  1. 18342772

    Great article, and I’d like to see more like it. If you’re taking requests, I’ll mention Leadville 2004, which this reminded me of. Billed primarily as Carpenter vs Jurek, won by Paul Dewitt in CR time, but mostly remembered as the motivation for what Carpenter would go on to do. Of course Leadville is famous for a lot of reasons–Born to Run, Anton, Trason, the corporate thing, etc.–but I think 2004 deserves a little larger place in the narrative than it tends to get.

  2. Guy Cheney

    While we are on AC, I definitely think a recap of one of the long standing records in ultrarunning is in order: Jim O’Brien’s 17:35 in 1989, the third year of the race. Walmsley is on the list to run AC in 2018, but with course changes over the years, it’s hard to draw a comparison…

  3. John Vanderpot

    Through another one of those wonderful winks of fate I seem to enjoy, Tom, Pam and I have become pretty friendly these past few years (come to think of it, I owe them both a shout!) and one day while out on the PCT this story came up, what made such an incredible impression on me was how Tom, all these years later, recalled, instantly, who spent how much time in the aid stations, and of course that’s what made all the difference…

    It was like those chess grandmasters who can recall every move made at the board from games played 20 yrs. ago —

    JV

  4. Troy Windsor

    “Do you enjoy taking a look back at ultrarunning history?”

    I absolutely love this! Once a month is barely enough. To all at irunfar, keep up the great work.

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