Chasing Jim: The 25-Year Quest to Break the Angeles Crest Course Record

A look at Jim O’Brien’s Angeles Crest course record and Dominic Grossman’s pursuit of it.

By on August 2, 2013 | Comments

AJWs TaproomIn 2000, the Angeles Crest 100 was my first 100-mile race and, as such, it has always held a special place in my heart. This Saturday the 26th running of this great race will take off from the Wrightwood Community Center in Wrightwood, California and end up a day and half later in Pasadena, California.

Angeles Crest has a long and storied history as the fifth oldest 100-mile run in the country after Western States, Old Dominion, Wasatch, and Leadville. Started in 1986, AC follows a pure Alpine line across the San Gabriel Mountains from east to west and along the way traverses one of the most remarkable, semi-urban mountain ranges in the country. Over the years, the point-to-point course has maintained its character and integrity with only minimal changes that have largely been the result of bureaucratic or environmental issues. Additionally, the race has been canceled twice due to fire and the date of the race has moved around as well, as the fire danger has required.

Today, the organizers have settled upon an early-August date that allows them to get out before the brunt of the fire season, but also creates the potential for significantly warmer weather than the race once experienced with the late-September start date. Nonetheless, through all these changes, one thing has stood the test of time, Jim O’Brien’s 1989 record.

From my perspective, O’Brien’s 17:35 is the most extraordinary 100-mile course record on the American 100-mile scene. Certainly, arguments could be made for Matt Carpenter’s 2005 Leadville record and Kyle Skaggs’ 2008 Hardrock record but, for my money, the record of all 100-mile records is O’Brien’s 1989 AC record. Here’s why:

Beginning in 1992, Ben Hian, a young, brash, San Diegan, started an assault on Jim. Logging 180-mile weeks and countless hours on the course, Hian did everything he could to dial in the race. As one of Montrail’s first sponsored athletes, Hian had the look and the attitude of a revolutionary trail runner. Long before YouTube, Twitter, and Trail Runner magazine, Hian was capturing the imagination of the Southern California running public with his free spirit, colorful tattoos and go-for-broke attitude. Yet, in his four victories at AC, Ben never got closer than 64 minutes from O’Brien. Winning the race four times, Ben clocked times of 19:11, 19:05, 18:50, and 18:39.

In the late-90’s, along came another San Diegan, Tom Nielsen. Tommy made up for a few less miles than Ben with textbook-like course knowledge and in 1999 and 2000 translated that wisdom and experience into back-to-back victories. However, in each case, after flirting with O’Brien’s course record splits over the first part of the race, Tom came home with times of 19:07 and 19:09. Certainly good enough to win, but clearly several steps away from O’Brien’s standard.

Into the next decade, LA runner Jorge Pacheco burst onto the scene. Known for his go-hard-from-the-gun style and seeming obliviousness to heat, Pacheco won the race in 2001 in a time of 19:05 and, then, in 2003, became the first man since Ben Hian on 1996 to run under 19 hours when he won in a strong 18:52. However, this run, as well, while being on course-record splits through Chilao (Mile 52), ultimately fell over an hour short.

In the latter part of the decade, a fourth runner, Hal Koerner from Ashland, Oregon, began his own assault on O’Brien’s record. No stranger to going out hard, Koerner ran the second-fastest time ever in 2006 when he won in 18:37. Then, in 2008, after coming in rested due to the fire cancellation at Western States earlier in the summer, Hal was primed for a shot at the record. But, alas, it was not to be as he came up 54 minutes short in another second-best ever time of 18:29.

Netting it all down, Koerner, Pacheco, Nielsen, and Hian hold 11 of the 12 best times ever run at Angeles Crest. O’Brien, of course, still holds the #1 spot and at #13, in the fastest ever second-place time, is none other than Scott Jurek, who ran a strong 19:15 in 1998 just nine months before beginning his unprecedented “Seven-Peat” at Western States.

The devastating 2009 fire and subsequent date change has meant that the last four years have seen winning times between 19 and 21 hours and the conventional wisdom has been that it may be getting harder and harder to chase down O’Brien’s record. However, one runner, 2011-winner Dominic Grossman, has set his sights on going for the record this year. Documenting his training in detail on his blog, Grossman, an LA runner who has gone to school on the course and studied the splits of these past champions, sat down for an interview with me earlier this week.

Andy Jones-Wilkins: Tell me a little bit about your training over the past few months? How much time have you spent on the Angeles Crest course?

Dominic Grossman: I feel really good about my training over the past few months. First off, moving from Orange County to Brentwood in January really helped me incorporate more tempo runs with fast West LA runners. My last three months of training were solid: I hit 388 miles with 81,000 feet of climbing in May, peaked at 532 miles with 113,000 feet of climbing in June, and tapered back in July to 260 miles with 59,000 feet of climbing. Almost every weekend was a three-day camping/running trip on the AC course of 20 to 40-mile days. This year I focused on pushing myself to run course-record pace on back-to-back-to-back long runs. Two years ago when I won, my body could only handle one or two days at course-record effort in training. This year I saved my peak mileage for June, only running 70 to 100 miles through the winter. It paid off because my PR’s all got lower during peak mileage, which doesn’t normally happen for me. Additionally, the sheer amount of time on the course has helped me figure out how to run each section efficiently and how they’re all connected and related. A good example is running from Throop Peak (mile 18) to Mt. Williamson (mile 28): if you don’t eat on the downhill, you can’t run CR pace over Williamson. Jim O’Brien’s split of 43 minutes tells you the strength of his legs as well as his nutrition plan, so I learned to adapt.

AJW: How do you think your pacing jobs at Western States and Hardrock have helped in your preparation for AC?

Grossman: At Western States I was really impressed and inspired by Timmy Olson. I relate to him in how his running isn’t just raw talent but more so hard work and race-day courage. We were running really well down Cal Street and he still refused to give up an inch to Rob Krar for a second of comfort. He bombed technical downhills that audibly tortured his quads, and he crushed the climb up Bath Road in the 110 Fahrenheit heat. His fearlessness, intensity, and smart nutrition were the only reasons that he held Krar off, and the experience convinced me that a course-record day at AC will require the same combination. At Hardrock, Chris Price had the “eye of the tiger” going over Oscar’s Pass. We were getting rained on and blown around at 2 a.m., and we noticed Ted Mahon’s light coming up on us. I looked at Chris and asked him “Is there anywhere else you’d rather be than at mile 76 at Hardrock getting soaked and chased in the middle of the night?” He smiled and proudly replied, “NOPE!” I pray for that sweet spot on Saturday of being exhausted and miserable but still incredibly motivated.

AJW: What sections of the AC course do you think you’ll be able to “bank” time on Jim’s record and where do you think you’ll lose time?

Grossman: My race plan for the first 26 miles will be focused on strong caloric intake. If I come in early, on time, or a little behind 9:21 a.m. at Islip (mile 25), I won’t worry as long as I’m feeling fueled. Then I hope to match Jim’s split over Williamson to mile 30 which will be my first real indicator of my day (no one has ever matched Jim’s 43 minutes over that section on race day). I will lose at least 10 minutes from 30 to 38 in Cooper Canyon due to the extra 1.15-mile detour for the Yellow Legged Tree Frog PCT closure. Additionally Cooper Canyon (mile 33) is the start of the heat, so staying wet and cool is everything. From Cloudburst (37) to Newcomb’s Saddle (68) it’s essentially a track meet with Jim’s ghost (although Saturday is likely to be hotter and more exposed than ’89). The terrain is gentle and fast and Jim ran splits on his record run that a lot of runners couldn’t even do on fresh legs. Then from Newcomb (68) to the Finish the pace slows as Jim outran the aid stations and ran low on calories to Chantry (75). Even though Jim’s last 25 miles are at a lower intensity, his final 25 have only been outrun once (by Troy Howard when he was second in 19:25). My goal is to run the last 25 smart and bank 15 to 25 minutes between Chantry (75) and Sam Merril (89). Miles 89 to 96 are more technical than they were in ‘89, but as long as I maintain pace I can bank 15 minutes on the last stretch as the finish line has been moved up to Loma Alta Park which is almost two miles closer than the Rose Bowl in 1989.

AJW: Going into your record attempt is your strategy to run Jim’s splits? And, do you think you’ll have anyone else around to push you?

Grossman: Jim’s splits have inspired me as to what anyone who works hard is capable of achieving. A healthy respect of Jim’s huge training volume, revolutionary race tactics, sub-2:30 marathon speed, 1989 gear, and cool conditions on race day is necessary to put the course record in perspective as slightly different but fair. I think it’s comparable to a general having to decide what sections to take and what sections to surrender in order to win the war for the course record. I’ll be willing to believe I have a shot at the record even if I come into Chantry 30 minutes behind (5:30 p.m.) because of how much harder the heat makes the middle of the course and how well I’ve run the last 25 on tired legs in training. Whatever happens, I’m chasing my splits on race day. Jorge Pacheco (2008 Ultrarunner Of The Year) and Ruperto Romero are two good friends and competitors that have tons of experience running fast on the course (13 fast AC finishes between them). Jorge’s a quiet storm and not many people know Jorge’s huge training volume and his hidden ability to run the record if he beats the heat and his stomach holds together.

AJW: For almost a quarter century people have tried to match Jim’s pace and only one guy has even gotten within an hour. It’s a noteworthy group of guys to say the least; Ben Hian, Jorge Pacheco, Tommy Nielsen, Hal Koerner. What do you think will be the key for you to get within an hour or to actually break the record?

Grossman: This is the hardest part mentally for me: out running my heroes. I really respect that elite group a ton, and I think my only Achilles heel will be nutrition. I’ve felt really strong this summer with my PowerBar gel and recovery mix, so I’m hoping that all my nutrition decisions on Saturday are perfect and I take in the right ratios of carbs, protein, fat, and electrolytes at the right time. I can say that I’ve run every section of the course as smart as I can and as dumb as I can in training, so I know what to avoid. My biggest strength is knowing where to take in calories and where to drop the hammer to make splits. I’ll be running with plenty of water, and some cushioned road shoes from New Balance, the RC1400TO and the 890v3. The lesson learned from previous years is ‘don’t be stupid light’; use enough shoe and water to avoid blown quads and overheating. Although at the end of the day, I have to admit that I’m going to be doing something really hard, and if I do everything right I should be in pain and moving fast.

To Dominic and everybody else running from Wrightwood to Pasadena on Saturday good luck and…

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week
Breckenridge 471 Small BatchThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Breckenridge Brewery in Breckenridge, Colorado. Their small batch 471 Double IPA is a smooth drinking DIPA that packs more of a punch than expected. It’s reasonably hopped (70 IBUs) and not overwhelming in any way. A great summer DIPA!

Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.