Martine Sesma stood out from the crowd of 178 runners gathered early Saturday at the start of the 30th running of the Angeles Crest 100. Her Wonder Woman skirt – shiny gold stars on a field of blue – was hiked up just enough in front to show her race number, 224, pinned to one leg of her shorts. Despite the superhero garb, she was there for vindication after last year’s race when she had the all-too-human experience of dropping out midway.
The AC 100 is an unforgiving course that takes runners from Wrightwood over rugged but spectacular trails in the San Gabriel Mountains to a park in Altadena 100 miles away. All told, participants face 22,000 feet of total elevation gain.
The race got underway at 5 a.m. Cheers diminished to excited chatter among the runners as the race veered straight uphill. It was dark and a little bit cold. The air was thin due to the altitude.
“Right now we are running through the dark and quiet streets of Wrightwood,” Sesma said. “We’ll be on these for like a mile, mile and a half, and then we’ll head straight up into the mountains at that point.”
That climb was 2,000 feet, the first of many steep ascents and tricky downhills.
The athletes knew that as the field stretches out, they would spend much of the next 19 to 33 hours on the trail running, hiking and powerwalking in near solitude, with perhaps only one or two runners in sight. Most were already walking, just a few hundred yards into the race, conserving their energy for the difficult terrain ahead.
This was Sesma’s second attempt to complete this notoriously difficult race. She purposely kept an easy pace to stave off the exhaustion, injuries and pain that caused her to drop out last year.
“I like to say 'heart and soul.' Anytime I’m in a lot of pain, I’ll say, 'heart and soul' to myself,” Sesma said. “And remind myself that it’s not how my body feels, it’s where my mind’s at.”
Sesma’s journey to this year's AC 100 started six years ago when she ran one mile at a girlfriend’s suggestion. It was just a few months after her oldest son was born. And it was exhausting.
“I was definitely not in shape," she said. "But I was hooked immediately. It was a weird kind of painful joy. I had done something that I didn’t realize was possible for me.”
Sesma found the painful joy of running helped her deal with the lingering effects of some painful episodes in her life.
“I'm a rape survivor. And also child abuse,” she said. “I have had PTSD for a number of years. And for me running is the most effective therapy I've ever found.”
Less than a year after that first mile, Sesma finished the 26.2 miles of the 2012 Long Beach Marathon. She flopped down on the grass and told her friends she wanted more. More miles, more of that feeling.
A few months later, she ran her first ultramarathon.
“When I start feeling the kind of fog and density of the depression, I know that if I run 30 miles, my brain is going to get back on track,” she said.
An ultramarathon is any race longer than a standard marathon. The hundred-mile distance is growing in popularity. Snagging a spot in the venerable Angeles Crest 100 is in such high demand, would-be participants enter a lottery, and if chosen, validate it by doing volunteer trail maintenance work.
Since that first marathon, Sesma has completed one 100-mile race and racked up more than 100 miles in a multi-day race, winning her division.
Her sons, ages 2 and 6, often come out to races and occasionally accompany her on training runs. The older son, Orion, can run a few miles with her, and Sesma carried her younger son Sagan (nickname: Trail Baby) on her back in a sling during training runs.
The next step was to go for an Angeles Crest finish.
As she passed through the mile 9 aid station at Inspiration Point along the Pacific Crest Trail, Sesma described the best sight of the morning.
“The sun was red coming up over Acorn. I love a red sky in the morning, it’s very dramatic,” she said.
Five hours later, at the mile 26 aid station at Islip Saddle on Angeles Crest Highway, she called out to her crew of helpers: “Alright, I need my breast pump, I need to empty my shoes out.”
Sesma has been breastfeeding since before she started running. She pumps at every race to keep her milk ducts clear. The milk would spoil if she tried to save it, so she threw it out and rinsed the pump so it could be ready a few hours down the road.
While she used the small portable hand pump, her crew members emptied the rocks out of her shoes; they handed her packets of sports drink powder. She carried avocados and potato chips and other real foods to keep up her energy on the run.
She had 74 miles more to go. She was determined to finish, but had some health issues to manage. She sprained her ankle at mile 6 and had stomach issues since mile 13. She worried that the symptoms of endometriosis that knocked her out of last year’s race might be back.
“I was feeling fantastic,” she recalled of the 2016 race. “I had no nutritional problems. I wasn't dehydrated. But I have a disease that causes heavy bleeding with my uterus.”
Ultrarunners learn to handle discomfort and pain, but this was something else.
“What really did me in was the hallucinations,” Sesma said.
Runners had until 2 Sunday afternoon to reach the finish line at Alta Loma Park in Altadena where each was greeted by cheers, cowbells and applause from family, crew members and runners who had already finished.
But that welcome was not for Martine Sesma. The stomach pain she had felt at mile 13 was accompanied by uterine bleeding, she said. She couldn’t take in enough calories and she collapsed alongside the trail outside an aid station.
When she was late arriving at the station, her crew ran out to find her. They brought her to the aid station and fed her rice to restore her nutritional balance, but by then, so much time had passed she missed one of the cutoffs to continue on. Her race was over at mile 51.
This is the very essence of ultrarunning. You go, you try, and often, you drop. More than one-third of the Angeles Crest starters did not finish. But you also learn what it takes to keep going.
“My takeaway is that my body is just not capable of doing this particular 100 mile race yet but that I'm going to give myself a few years and then try again,” Sesma said.