Ethan Valdez was overwhelmed with emotions as his brother, Ean, stood beside him.
Ethan had just finished the final climb of a race at the Marine Headlands west of the Golden Gate Bridge on Sept. 15, and could see the finish line and hear the cowbells from 1-1/2 miles away.
For Ethan, a Waterford High School senior, this wasn’t an ordinary race.
He was standing at Mile 98 and was about to finish the Headlands Hundred Race.
“At that point, I knew this was it, I could do it,” Ethan said. “I sprinted as fast as I possibly could.”
Less than 15 minutes later, he was at the finish line, crossing in 32 hours, 58 minutes, becoming only the 16th person under the age of 18 to complete the 100-mile distance, according to Ethan.
“It was very special,” Ean said. “He was suffering from so much pain, both physically and mentally and when he came sprinting through the finish line, for me, it was emotional and everyone in the audience as well.”
Valdez finished in 41st place but was the only person under the age of 25 to complete the feat, and one of only three under 30.
Pacific Coast Trail Runs was the organization in charge of the race and the location of the Headlands Hundred in Marin County is known as “Trail Running Mecca.”
“It’s definitely one of the hardest 100-milers in the world,” said Greg Lanctot, one of the race directors. “It’s unique in that there are very few flat sections.”
A 100-mile race is challenging in itself but add to the fact that Ethan climbed 23,000 feet throughout the four 25-mile loops (two in each direction) and it seems even more incredible.
“Now, I know that I am capable of so much more than I thought,” Ethan said. “I was overwhelmed by the distance and had never been so challenged in my life until last weekend.”
Eighty-five runners were registered fore the race, and 78 started. Only 48 finished.
Ethan comes from a running family.
His mom, Diana, and dad, Todd, are runners and Ean ran cross country in high school.
In seventh grade at Hickman Middle School, Ethan said he fell in love with distance running.
“One day, we ran two miles and I remember after the run,” he said, “I felt really good and did it fast and it was the furthest I had ever gone.”
The next year, Ethan joined Teens Run Modesto and ran his first marathon, the Modesto Marahon, in March 2016, finishing in 4 hours, 12 minutes. He said he has run at least one marathon every year since.
Last summer, Ethan wanted a challenge.
“I had no idea ultrarunning even existed,” he said. “It amazed and shocked me to see people could actually do this and I wanted to be like them.”
Headlands Hundred was the closest race so he entered, it but started training for 50 kilometers (31 miles) and finished in 26th place at the Saratoga Trail Run in Oct. 2018. He ran another 50K in May before running a 50-mile race in July.
Ethan said he would do a lot of night training, starting at midnight and running throughout the night to get him ready for the race.
Also a member of the Wildcats’ cross country team, if the team ran four or five miles, he would add more after practice, sometimes 12 a day.
He felt confident on raceday
Ethan woke up at 4 a.m. on Sept. 14.
The race started at 7 a.m. and he said while he had some nerves, he felt confident.
Early on, it was smooth, just running and running.
Ean said Ethan was really optimistic at an aid station at mile 43.
“He said he felt like he had only ran 20 miles and didn’t understand why he felt really good,” Ean said.
Ethan was hydrated and fueling up on Spring Energy Gel packs when he was on the course, and eating bean burritos, fruit, and lots of candy and drinking Coca-Cola and Ginger Ale at the aid stations, where he also would change clothes and shoes.
“Those (gels) were the biggest thing that helped me,” Ethan said. “I could eat two of those and they had 250 calories so I can consume less fuel but get more energy. It was more efficient to have that than actual food.”
Then the night came.
Those next seven miles were the hardest part, he said.
The sun had gone down and Ethan, who was wearing a head light, was alone on the trail, running through the marine layer as Saturday had turned into Sunday.
He hadn’t slept and didn’t sleep throughout the race.
“It was solitude,” Ethan said. “There weren’t any runners close to me.”
Ethan hit Mile 50 and he got a big boost. From mile 50 to the finish, racers were allowed as many pacers as they wanted.
His dad ran with him for miles 50-60.
“Those were the hardest 10 miles I have ever seen him master and overcome,” Todd said. “He started to lose his edge and it was the technical part of the course and the concern was he was not going to be able to pull off another 50 miles.”
Todd told his son to just put one foot ahead of another and keep going.
All of the sudden, Ethan had pushed through.
“By mile 58, he started running down the technical trails without his light and I was having a hard time keeping up with him,” Todd said. “His body needed to recalibrate.”
After his aunt, Flora Eppler, ran with him from miles 60-75, Ethan was joined by Ean for the last 25.
When Ean joined his brother on the course, he said he knew Ethan was tired.
“We were on the trail and he had to tie his shoes and he said ‘If I lay back right now and blink, I will fall asleep,’ ” Ean said.
Ethan pushed through it, running miles 83-86 at an eight-minute pace while stopping every 10 minutes to eat and drink.
Ean said what Ethan did was inspiring.
“He will be able to inspire other runners and I am still blown away,” Ean said. “I know I can’t run that type of distance.”
‘It was incredible’
Todd said when the crowd saw Ethan at the top of the mountain with 1-1/2 miles remaining, everyone started cheering.
“It was incredible,” Todd said. “I started filming him and he was sprinting like a gazelle and had a smile on his face.”
When the family embraced after the finish, Todd said there were plenty of emotions and tears.
“There was a sense of relief, of ‘he did it’ but also he didn’t get hurt or have any metabolic issues,” Todd said.
Both Greg and Todd said there were skeptics, saying Ethan was too young to run the race and the biggest challenge would be how would Ethan’s body handle the overuse but the skepticism was gone as he ran through the finish line.
To pass some time during the race, Ethan said he talked on the phone for 30 minutes with a friend and also listened to music.
He also took pictures and was able to see the sun rise from the hills.
Time to celebrate
After the race, the family celebrated at In-N-Out.
Ethan got a 4-by-4 burger while Ean only got a 3-by-3 because he said he didn’t really do that much as 25 miles isn’t that much, apparently.
In the car, Ethan fell asleep the second he buckled his seat belt and when he got home, he didn’t make it to his room and fell asleep on the couch.
Ethan — who wants to attend either UCLA, UC San Diego, or UC Berkeley — was remarkably back at school on Monday but only could finish half the day before telling Waterford Principal Peggy Herndon he had to go home to sleep.
Ean said it will be two or three weeks before his brother is done feeling the effects from the race.
“It hurts to walk and every time I sit down, it’s hard to stay awake,” Ethan said.
Greg, who said he has run several 100-mile races, said the key for Ethan will be to rest, ice, do light stretching, and walk around.
While Ethan said it will be a long time before he does a 100-mile race again, he wants to do a couple of 50K and 50-mile competitions before he goes to college.
Todd said it was important to Ethan to leave a legacy at Waterford and his son has the fastest half-marathon and marathon times and is the only student to ever complete a 50K and 50- and 100-mile races.
Ethan said he plans on helping his team win a Southern League cross country title next month.
And he is also already signed up for the California International Marathon in Sacramento on Dec. 8.