Morning came early at 4:30, but we got our respective gear together and shlepped across the road to the local market. Our goal: Buy beer for the finish line. However, the clerk informed our broken hearts, they couldn’t sell alcohol before 7AM. This, in a town called “Zig Zag”. I bet if we’d walked 2 blocks in any direction, we could have purchased something far more potent to celebrate with.
45 minutes later, we were parked at the start finish, changed, picking up our packets, and ready to roll. Ruben introduced me to Lanny: A member of our running group (by which I mean, the running group I’ve never actually run with). He’d been nursing a hip injury and had only decided at the last minute that morning to chance it on the run.
“If I have to drop at mile 28 (an aid station located at the start/finish), then I got in a 28 mile run.”
Ultras at 50+ miles are such a hodge-podge of equipment planning: Some people are loaded down with gear/water packs/clothing/bandanas; others carry only water bottles, and then, then there’s Ruben: One handheld bottle and a Snickers bar. That’s it. Snickers must TRULY satisfy.
A few hellos to trail-pals, I wished Ruben and Lanny luck and made myself to the center of the pack, not wanting to get in the way of the big boys n’ gals. After all, I was taking this one nice, slow and easy. As if I am capable of running an ultra any other way.
3, 2, 1, and we were off, whooping and hollering up the 1/10 mile worth of road to the singletrack Pacific Crest Trail. I saw Ruben and Lanny sprinting ahead of the pack while the rest of us hit a bottleneck that could rival the 10 and 405 FWYs on any given day of the week. I said to the slowly walking train ahead of me, “I can handle this pace!” as we wandered along for a good 3 minutes. Then, everything opened up, and the shuffling commenced.
It was 6~miles to the first aid station at Crater Lake; a tiny, crystal clear body of water alongside a trail constructed of wooden planks. I made chit chat with a runner named Burke in from Colorado as we ran along, and before I knew it, I had checked in, grabbed some snacks, and immediately checked back out. This was an in and out aid station, and the wooden planks made passing one another slightly difficult. I knew that when we came back through 22 miles later, growing fatigue our legs would make it slightly more difficult. But before I knew it, I was back on the PCT and headed out to the turnaround aid station at Frog lake, 3 .5 miles away.
Settling in to a comfortable pace, I soon caught up with Mike, a local Portland runner, and a funny, affable fella. I mentioned that I had driven out the prior night with the guy I was pretty sure was going to take this race, Ruben. He laughed and said, “I know Ruben!” As it turns out, Mike and I are BOTH members of the aforementioned trail running group that has yet to run with said trail running group. I also suspected that he and I would be seeing a lot of one another during this race, as our paces were nearly identical. I sure was hoping so, because I knew that late in a 50 miler, having someone you get along with running the same pace as you can save your ass.
My dear friend Kate had taken the early start offered by the race directors. Once again, I wondered when I’d be coming across her, and AGAIN, she magically appeared! We hugged, she told me to get a move on, and we parted. That gave me a nice charge and boost, I gotta admit.
We soon crossed a highway and ran another 50 yards to the second aid stop. I refilled, checked out, and made my way back across the road, feeling fantastic at mile 14.
Yeah. Mile 14. In a 50 miler. I knew that feeling would last MAYBE another 25 miles, so I decided to enjoy it while it lasted.
The temps were cooler at the elevation we were running at (4,000’), but word was we’d be facing mid 80s by early afternoon, and if we passed through any canyons, or if tree cover disappeared, it’d be an ass-kicking.
My – ahem – “G.I. tract” had been “talking” to me for the last several miles (ultra speak for: I had to take dump), so I hiked off-trail, found an amicable tree, did my business, and hit the trail, feeling much “lighter” (ultra speak for: My dump made me feel better). Lo and behold, there was Mike, jogging along. We ran a bit with each other, but my legs were feeling strong, so I ran ahead, catching and passing a few runners here and there, hitting Little Crater aid stop in what felt like no time. I gobbled down a ton of watermelon and cantaloupe (which would become my mainstays as the heat grew) and headed back out, the next aid stop being at the start/finish at mile 28.
I passed a few more runners here and there, one of whom was having stomach issues, came across three riders on horseback who informed me that I was 1/8 of a mile from the road. Bam, I hit the road, hung a right, and there I was, at the mile 28 aid stop in 5 hours, which looked a bit like a M*A*S*H unit. People were digging through drop bags, changing shoes, smearing on sunscreen, sitting in chairs. All I could think was, “I gotta get the hell in and out!” I gave myself 3 minutes to refill bottles and hang out as a reward, and I was off.
About 1/10 of a mile worth of singletrack greeted me, and then I popped out onto – drumroll – FULLY EXPOSED JEEP ROADS. Holy shit. The sun was beating down on me like Stan Getz. Or Tommy Lee. Wait: Which one steered a boat with his erection? I forget. And digress.
This road was DEATH. It climbed mercilessly, and you could see at least ½ a mile ahead towards the hot, blinding nothingness that awaited. I mused with a couple of other runners about the “Army of the Damned” that we saw up ahead, cresting a hill: Sweat-soaked runners in a death march, packed tightly together. I knew we’d be joining their ranks soon.
Finally, the Road to Nowhere was marked with a bright pink flag at a trail intersection (remember this fact for later, as I didn’t), showing us with open arms a trail to ease our wearied bodies/brains. We enthusiastically leapt onto the trail and began an ascent. One that made our calves burn and scream in abject terror.
The climb carried on for quite a good bit, and then I finally caught the “Army”, following the train of five for 10 minutes before feeling I needed to run more (we were power-walking as hard as we could). I scooted past and ran when I could, which wasn’t very often, as the climb carried me to the aid station at Red Wolf. The first runner coming back from the second turn around descended at an insane pace. It was LANNY!
“Are you in the lead?!?!”
“Yep!” he breathed, blazing past me. I guess he hadn’t dropped at mile 28. Thinking back, I ‘m sure I saw him after the first turn around, in the lead. Ruben wasn’t very far behind, as he’d screamed, “Rustyboy!” my way as he tore past.
The climb continued not too much farther when I began seeing signs planted beside the trail:
“My, grandma, what big EYES you have!” the first one read.
A few minutes later:
“The better to see you with, my dear!”
A few minutes later:
“My, grandma, what big HANDS you have!”
Minutes passed, and another sign:
“The better to fill your bottles with, my dear!”
Okay, if you know me, you’re more than aware that I’m prone to get teary-eyed. In fact, the theme song from “Welcome Back Kotter” can get me sobbing. And I actually teared up upon seeing those signs. I love this sport so damned much, and little gestures like these at mile 32 of a 50 can really keep your head even and light. And I KNEW what I’d be seeing at the aid stop.
I pulled in whooping and clapping, pulling my bottles from my waist pack and handed them off to “grandma” herself: A worker dolled up in granny glasses, nightgown, wolf ears and tail. Everyone was joking, filled with energy, although I knew that coming back through after the turn around would be a different story, when this would be the mile 45 aid stop. The heat was growing and fatigue had rolled out the red carpet. But I wasn’t done. Business was still to be settled.
And then I saw Ruben trotting back, firmly in 2nd place, shirtless and smiling! But as we high fived, he revealed that he hadn’t planned on 50 miles feeling this tough.
“It’s a different game, right?” I asked.
“I just want to get to the finish. 5 miles, right? I’ve run 5 miles before,” he muttered, convincing himself.
I slapped him on the back and bade him best of luck. I couldn’t tell him quite yet, but I was so damned proud of him. He informed me of what was to come until I’d hit the turn around: Lots of downhill followed by a bit of uphill, then the aid station. I was grateful to know what to plan on dealing with, but I also knew what “lots of downhill” on the way out meant for the way back. I shoved those thoughts to the rear of my mind, where lingered images of my parents having sex (shudder) and memories of the Bush administration (shudder-puke-shudder).
Off I trotted, and the downhills came...and came...and came, and HOLY SHIT a creek!!!! A couple of runners I'd been yo-yo-ing with all afternoon and I dunked our hats in it, it's ice-cold goodness sending yelps from our burning brows.
"Nothing as refreshing as a hat-full of mosquito nests!" I announced, with the stinging, sweet cool water dribbling in my eyes.
We continued, crossing a jeep road, and then the climbs hit. I think it was here that I took my first header: I scooted aside to let an oncoming runner pass, literally standing still, when I "tripped" and ended up in the brush (which, BTW, covered the trails at certain points).
"Man down!" yelled the guys behind me. I have no idea how one stands still and trips, but I'd accomplished just that.
We climbed to the dead-end aid station/turnaround, and the heat was tearing us new assholes. Several runners were seated in chairs in the shade. I'd call this my "dark patch" right here, as I began imagining the 3+ mile climb that was awaiting, knowing the heat was gonna hammer down harder on us.
I could drop here. It's mile 40. Do I want to push during a training run and possibly mess myself up?
That little voice makes periodic pit stops in my brain, so I have to remind The Voice Called Doubt™ what we're doing.
Uh, NO - it's only 10 miles left of 50, so screw off.
We had to run a little out and back beyond the aid stop, so I pounded up the hill, hit the turnaround, and headed back, regrouping. I gobbled tons of refreshing watermelon/cantaloupe and readied for the adventure back home, downed several Sprites, then saw Mike - from earlier - roll in.
"It was great running with you, man!" he yelled.
"You aren't getting away that easy. You're gonna help me drag ass up that mountain on the way back!" I called to him as he headed to do his out and back.
Now, I was energized and ready. It's amazing how little mind games like that can flip a switch during these big runs. I bounced in place, waiting for his return. When he came back, he filled his bottles.
"Let's rock this thing," I told him, and off we patted, on our short (ooohhhhh, TOO short) downhill.
Okay, I may have mentioned above here, but, well, THAT UPHILL WAS OUT TO KILL US ALL!!!!! Holy hell, it was steep. Steep, as in, power-walking wasn't even an option at this point. I'm a sea level dweller, and the race started at 4,000'. One runner, on our way down, told me his Garmin said we'd lost 800' in 1/2 a mile, so here we were, making it back up. As the air grew thinner, my stomach began doing cartwheels. Very BAD cartwheels, like ones you see on a playground that make you wince when a kid bashes his head on the asphalt. We pushed, caught two female runners who were looking none-too-pleased about the grade, and basically stayed with them the entire 45+ minute climb. Conversation dwindled to a dull series of grunts and moans, and it seemed like 5 days passed until we hit the last aid station. I stumbled in behind Mike, filled up again from Grandma, and gave myself a pep talk.
"YOU'RE THERE. Finish this!!!"
The workers were SO sweet and supportive, and as I charged out after Mike, they hollered and cheered as I yelled, "I can almost smell the beer at the finish!"
Then, the downhills began. I had been looking forward to them for over an hour on that mother-trucker of a climb, and here they were. I jogged most of them, my energy returning slowly. Mike had carried on ahead, as the only thing left to do was claw our ways to the finish. I popped in my earbuds and landed on the song that is absolute magic when it comes to picking up the pace for me:
I really wanna know
As soon as Pete Townshend's guitar blasted through the smashing of Keith Moon's crashing drums, I found my pace quickening. And I mean QUICK - I passed about 6 runners (including Mike) as I beat away at air drums, the tears coming, the thrill of racing in the woods overtaking my being, and down, down, down I cascaded, hitting the gravel road, hanging a left, certain that the finish was a mere 2 miles from my hands.
And about 4 minutes later, the road ended.
Then I saw Mike bounding towards me. I yelled, "Is this it?!", to which he responded, jokingly, "It has to be. It would SUCK getting lost this late in the race."
Another 4 runners approached. This settled my nerves and at the same time sealed it.
"This ain't it."
We turned on our heels and began shuffling back to the singletrack that had dumped us onto the gravel. Lo and behold, there was an entrance to more singletrack, poorly marked, but there it was.
"DAMMIT!" one runner yelled, grabbing his pacer and heading down. "If I finish in 11:02, I'm gonna be pissed." He told us that we'd added exactly 1 mile to our run with our detour.
Now it was every man for himself. Mike took the lead, and the above runner and pacer took off ahead of me, angrily pounding the trail. I was just relieved to be on track. Relief would last all of 15 seconds...
Blam! My right instep hit a rock.
WHUMP! I did a full forward flip onto my back.
ZAP! as a charlie horse gripped my calf.
"Hey, are you okay?" asked the runner ahead of me, who'd seen the entire spill.
"Yeah, just this cramp," I winced, massaging my calf as I lay prostrate on the trail.
"Dude, that spill was RAD!" he smiled, taking off.
My scrapes and cuts would later confirm it: Not one part of my arm or shoulder had touched the ground. I had pulled off what we breakdancers back in the day called a "suicide".
Relentless forward motion dictated that I assess my condition immediately (nothing broken or sticking out from my skin) and keep moving, so I did. Seconds later, I hit the actual turn and headed out on the long, arduous, painfully steaming road. I caught two runners and saw Mike on the horizon. Shuffling up to him, I realized we were both cooked, and that in NO WAY had we just run 50 miles.
"I'm putting 54 in my running log," he snorted, and I agreed. I've run 50 miles. This was NO 50 miler.
Mike peeled away and we walk/ran to the singletrack that would pop us up on the road, only 1/10th of a mile to the finish. Through the trees, I heard the cheering for Mike, and my energy immediately returned, as did my running. I climbed up out of the woods, where 3 onlookers pointed me toward the finish. I trotted past the cheers of, oh, a dozen people (yeah, this sport draws the spectators, aka, family members) and saw Kate about 20 yards from the finish. She acted as though I was chasing her, so I hammered a out sprint, caught her, and she grabbed my hand just as she did when we'd finished her race at Headlands Hundred last August. We charged across the finish in 11 hours (maybe less, I didn't see the clock) and she gave me a huge hug, asking if I wanted anything.
"I just need to find a place to puke."
Yeah, that last sprint had sent all the blood from my guts into my legs, and I was feeling it. I dry heaved twice and felt better. Kate came over with a bucket of ice water and washed me off (did I mention already that she's an amazing human being? No? Well, there. I just did.) Ruben ambled over and shook my hand.
"How'd you do?"
"2nd place. 7 hours and 15 minutes or somethin'."
OR SOMETHIN'?!?! The guy is a machine.
Charles, one of my pals who was volunteering, came over and shook my hand, as did Mike, echoing what he'd said 10 miles prior.
"It was great running with you, man."
Ruben led me to a creek, where I soaked my swollen feet, and I rinsed off at a water spigot, grabbed a Coke, changed, and climbed in the car. We were SPENT.
"Now run it again," I smirked. "That's what I'll be doing in the fall."
Ruben shook his head as he shoved the car into gear.
"Dude, I am so sorry."
I called the garage where my car was being healed, and the owner said it would be later in the week, as he was waiting on a part. At least I think that's what he said. My brain was tapioca pudding at that point. I really need to call him today.
Overall, I'm pleased with how it all went down. I had to dig a little, which will happen more than once during the 100, so it's reassuring to know I can easily tap into that part of me, plus I got to see more of the 100 course. I awoke on Sunday with minimal soreness that faded altogether by day's end, so I know my training's on track, and I put in 5 miles yesterday on the elliptical with perfectly strong legs.
Okay, September: I'm ready for you!!!
(thank you to ALL of the workers, Bushwacker Mike, Monika, and Olga for putting the event together, and my fellow runners, who continue to amaze and astonish me with their strength and fortitude and humor.)