Wednesday, July 30, 2008

This past Saturday, Kate and I swept the course at the PCT 50 miler. I'd never had the honor of sweeping an ultra before, which involved, for this particular race, a run from the 25 mile turnaround point to the finish, picking up ribbons used to mark the course, snag any dropped trash, and make certain that all runners have been accounted for. Kate has run this race and swept the course before and made sure to tell me that we were about to have a blast...but if we pick up a slow, stubborn runner, our day could get a hell of a lot longer, which had happened to her last year while sweeping.

We met at the start/finish and left her car so she could shuttle us back after we'd finished. Kate is running the Headlands Hundred in a week and a half, the final 35-40 of which I'll be serving as her pacer. So this 25 miles was my last, longest run and her shortest long run prior. We knew we'd utilize the time wisely, chatting strategy for the 100 miler (Kate: "My plan - to keep moving until I finish.") and getting to know one another better. Where else do you do that, other than on a 5+ hour adventure across mountain terrain...right?

We manned the 25 mile aid station, planted firmly midway up Mt. Hood, and it was an amazing experience. Watching runners wander, stumble, dash, or crawl in was truly an inspiration. I thought of the many aid station workers who've watched my sad ass confusedly grab for food and liquids at stops, only to gently ask me, "Can I help you find something?", which, I discovered is code for, "You look really fucking lost. Here, let me help."

A man named Tim introduced himself and informed us he'd be tagging along down to the start finish, as he was vacationing nearby and had asked the race director if he could squeeze in a long run on the course. Before long, 2:00 rolled around, and we all strapped on our gear, shoved a dozen cookies in our faces, and trotted off.

We began grabbing ribbon from the tree branches as we slid across snow banks, which, Kate informed me, was odd for this time of year (I plan on giving Al Gore a call to get his insight). We made light chatter as we ran down the mountain on some of the most beautiful singletrack I've ever run on. Leapfrogging as we each stooped to tear off ribbon, we came across not a single runner, and before we knew it, were rolling in to the 6 mile aid station (HWY 35).

After some confusion on the radio about missing runners (who had dropped earlier), I introduced myself to a shorter, squarely-built aid station worker named Tom and quickly realized I'd been reading his blog for the last 2 years. He's a amazing ultra-runner, and an incredibly friendly, enthusiastic guy. He welcomed me to Oregon (just as everyone has - people LOVE living here!) and promised we'd be seeing each other again.

Off we dashed again, keeping a pretty good clip as we rolled along the trail. Kate wanted to stay slow and steady so as to not screw up anything so close to the 100 (like taking a header blasting down a downhill), so we 3 chattered some more as we wove and dove up and down the mountain terrain. At one point, a large female deer stood on the trail ahead, staring us down. Suddenly, she gracefully leapt off and into the woods above us, showing us the secret of how you really run in the mountains: By having 4 legs.

We'd been grabbing small bits of trash accidentally dropped during the race (but not very much. Everyone had been very conscientious) when we came upon a pair of thong panties dangling from a trail marker. We opted to leave the discarded remnants of a likely high school-aged tryst and sped along to the next aid station only to find 10 workers, all with thong panties on their heads. You see, they called themselves "thong distance runners". I confessed that I was wearing one as well and it was getting uncomfortable, as the chafing was out of this world. I was assured I looked pretty without visible pantylines, and I took solace in the news as we thanked them and ran off.

So far, we still hadn't encountered a straggler and were making pretty decent time considering our slowish pace. As we emerged to the next-to-last aid station and refilled our bottles, we were informed that 2 runners had left about 10 minutes ahead of us. The sun was setting behind the towering firs, and I admit to thinking, "Well, shit," at the thought of sweeping suffering runners to the next aid station and making them drop, which would slow our pace considerably. Then I reminded myself: That's your job, buddy. Doy.

Soon enough, we came up behind an older, speed-walking runner. We informed him that we're more or less The Grim Reaper, and if he didn't make the cutoff time at the next aid station, we'd have to make him drop. That put some fuel in his furnace.

We approached the final aid station before the finish (Little Crater Lake), and Kate showed me her watch, which read the same as mine: He had missed the cutoff at the last aid station, but they let him slide, but this time, he was a full 5 minutes past the cutoff. I think the three of us were relieved, as our pace had slowed to a walk, and night was settling in. Sticking with him would easily add an hour or more to the final 10k.

As we walked him to the aid station, Kate announced to the workers, "This is the last runner, and he didn't make your cutoff." Another runner was picking up food from the table, readying to finish the run, but we informed them both that, sorry, but you missed it by nearly 10 minutes. The second runner was confused at first, but as we were explaining to him that he'd need to hitch a ride back to the finish, our other (original) runner we'd picked up took off! We yelled to him that he missed the cutoff, but away he power-walked.

After taking more food and fluids with us, we caught up with him in no time, and he was slowing as the miles ticked by, the sun set, and the mosquitos came out, but Kate and I enjoyed the slow pace and took looks around Timothy Lake and the river inlets (Tim had taken off about 2 miles in to the final 6, with our blessings, naturally).

We were at a crawl, and I could tell our runner was hurting as he grunted stepping over fallen tree limbs, but soon, we popped out on to the service road that was a 10th of a mile from the finish. We lagged behind so our he could trot his way through the finish area and then we ran it in, stuffing garden burgers in our faces within minutes after stopping.

Olga and Monica, co-race directors, put on an astounding event. Everyone was incredibly friendly and helpful. And who knows? They're putting on a 100 mile version next August.