AN ALTERNATE UNIVERSE
One of the things I enjoy about endurance racing is putting myself through the emotional ringer, almost in complete self-deprecation…overcoming the second-guessing and nagging self-doubt, even lamenting the outcome before race day. When things go normally, meaning life just drops your silly meticulous plans in the shredder, it just seems natural to fret. That’s what can happen when you remove yourself from the comfort zone of everyday life and escape to another powerful, visceral reality before coming home, getting up, and going to work again the following Monday morning. Like visiting a weird, alternate universe.
So, it’s all about the journey, right? But which one? Training for Bishop began with coming back from de-trained complacency after a decent Grand Canyon R2R2R with Rebekah in October ‘17. By Thanksgiving I had decided to see if I could break myself with Tahoe 200 the following September, in ‘18, winning the CRC admin slot after feeding T200 runners with Cesare, Mor and Ron’s daughter Claire, while our daughter Riley checked-in runners, and Rebekah found her niche helping runners, and their feet, over 24 hours last September at the Sierra At Tahoe aid station at mile 63 of 200. But with so many body parts demanding attention through perceived discomfort after long runs, the question was “how do I get past the pain to modify the old family station wagon to run the Indy 500?” The answer was increased frequency and decreased duration, at least initially, and by the time late January rolled up, Rebekah and I were planning a good 20 miler. And all seemed possible on that date-night run from the Hyatt on the Embarcadero in San Francisco up to the Headlands and back. Until I got the flu from that wretched Sports Basement bathroom in the presidio.
Emerging mid-February four pounds lighter and fully depleted from being the sickest in 20 years, I trained up again through March, but now with new-found honesty offered by (finally) using Strava, and I pushed myself through to taper for the Woodside cross-over 50K on April 7. Note: it’s hard to make excuses when Coastside Running Club’s best post their daily awesomeness on Strava as benchmarks. Huddart was fun, I bettered my last 50K time by 10 minutes, while Pete Briggs grabbed 3rd, and all felt good at the finish. Like everything was going right, a seeming rarity. And then my pop went critical after his relentless 3 year battle with the emperor of all maladies.
Getting the call on race day that he was finally sliding away opened a new chapter, and the ensuing 3 weeks became a haze of determination, compassion, sleepless nights and empty calories, as the family struggled to honor Pop’s request to pass on his own terms instead of connected to machines. By the time we toasted his transition to otherness with his favorite of a shot of jack, the reality of all of those sleep deprived nights and easy, empty carb-calories combined with the sedentary sentinel watch became apparent: here I was, de-trained again.
If you let it, fate can be a bricklayer that builds a wall of worry. So, get the sledgehammer. And have gratitude. By late May I again felt I executed well, considering our every-day reality of kids, alternating out-the-door training runs, and work/commute. At one point Rebekah and I were neck and neck out of roughly 84,000 other runners in the Strava monthly climbing challenge – within 24 feet of each other at around 1450 meters, working hard to out-do each other in our wacky and supportive running relationship. Reigning in my intensity to taper was difficult, I was so freaking excited about Bishop, and by the time I took the kids camping in the Sierras the weekend before while Rebekah worked, I was exhausted yet satisfied. But acting the single parent with 3 kids over a four day camping trip with a 6 year old who wakes you up 5 and 6 times each night after your wife catches a cold 1.5 weeks prior can only mean one thing: a virus that executed ITS plan perfectly through cough, congestion and plugged ears 4 days before a training race at altitude that tops out at nearly 9,400 feet. And the circle was complete.
So what do you do about that? I got the sledgehammer and decided to not care, and on the Tuesday before the race, at my nadir and feeling like garbage, I got up and went to work as usual, ignoring the cold and every other annoyance, and acted like everything was just fine. Because really, it was all just part of the plan.
The road to Bodie
THE DESERT Bishop sits along highway 395 at the northern end of the Owens Valley, at the base of the Eastern Sierra at an elevation of 4,125 feet, bracketed by Mount Humphrey’s at 13,986 feet to the West, and White Mountain Peak at 14,482 to the East; stark and beautiful, with contrasting scales of perception – both high, and wide. The race forecast offers highs in the 90’s in town and at the finish, with 70’s up at elevation, where we are to spend the majority of our time. Seeing from the 100K race topo maps that runners will start the race by running through the edge of Brown’s Millpond Campground at roughly 4,500 feet, I have booked a tent spot only .3 miles from the start in confidence that all will be tough yet easier, in a quest to prove I can live 3 feet above sea level and run in heat at altitude and camp both the night before and after 62 miles. Like some dirt-bag, trail-wrangling weirdo. But as soon as the other campers roll in, regrets begin to pile up like driftwood on the beach after a storm: yelling, semi-abusive, co-dependent family on one side, and Ernie Rangel, a young, fast 50 miler training for Angeles Crest 100 on the other; is that balance? Insane, dog hoarding family behind and to right, with sedentary woman who begs and pleads with her dogs to stop barking as she treats them like spoiled children while they snarl and bark and attack neighboring animals. Neighbor’s smoke filling our tent, with yelling and crying children, and the illumination on our tent from the flashlights and headlights of the last stragglers arriving at the campground near 9:30 P.M, well after ideal bedtime for an 0400 alarm with a 5:30 start. Ear plugs and a sleep aid help me drift away…but Rebekah will share at the sound of the alarm that she was awake until 11 and never really slept, after a tough work week with no sleep: it is going to be a long day. (Let me say this about Brown’s – I will stay at Brown’s again, for following and later reasons; that place is not horrible: a snow-melt stream runs through the middle of the campground, offering great background noise and lush trees and grass, the place is clean, the owners nice, with hot showers and ice on premises; it’s fine. We just struck the lottery with the Adams Family moving in next door, making an early, pre-race crash time impossible. Next year we’ll request runners on either side, well in advance)
RISE AND SHINE Coffee and breakfast with headlamps. Gear. Darkness, stumbling; where’s my watch? Ouch, there’s the table. Rush – crikey, it’s 5:05, and we haven’t even left for the race start… Drop bags, sunscreen, gators, hats and bottles, and we jog to the park, arms full, in a pre-race warm up, gravitating toward the buzz of other dirt wrangling weirdos full of the expectations of 62 miles of altitude and beauty.
Omar, me, Rebekah and Margaret – ready. Or, not.
With just enough time to toss the drop bags in their designated spots, we find Omar – here to run the 50 miler, with Margaret for the 50K, and it’s pre-race, CRC camaraderie; damn cool.
As we approach the start, and then chant the count while looking at the distant mountains, I know anything is possible. And then it dawns on me that I have no watch; oh man, you have got to be kidding. The chant crescendos with a count to one, and we move forward as I ponder the first major problem of the day. Where’s the sledgehammer? Oh, right: we run THROUGH THE CAMPGROUND! Thinking it’s too early to run up my HR, I bolt ahead and peel off to our tent, before the car, then the tent again, juggling two handhelds as I scramble back toward the line at 7 pace while fighting to put on the watch and HRM I need to capture the day’s details (my runner’s brain will be fried later), and I meddle with everyone’s focus and mood and determination at the back of the pack as I move up to mid, asking with comic amusement in a near-cartoon voice “excuse me, have you seen my wife? Excuse me…WIFE! WIIIIIFE! WHERE are you, WIFE!?!” No one answers, but Im sure someone wants to punch the clown in the head.
On my way now. Sandy road. This is work, and its mile 2; WTH? We live 3 feet above sea level – no, no, NO, DON’T go there; what’s my pace – no, DON”T even look. Run to feel. Feel your heart rate. Breathe, oh, why is it harder to breathe at only 4500? Long day ahead; 12 hours? Hah, you fool, it’s all up from here, you’re looking at 13, 14 hours easily…nah, I feel good. But this effort….
Gollum’s voice haunts me, as I lurk behind Rebekah, who deploys her nurse-speak with Alexandra, who is here to run the 50K. Alexandra is a first responder who lives at altitude and has perfect form in the sand, all fore-foot and peppy, with minimal arm swing. As I admire her ease, I try to get my hands around the neck of the voice to strangle it until its last gasp, hoping I don’t have to listen to it all day. “My precious…”. I shrug it off and join the chatter, and before long it’s Rebekah who drops back, now fighting a similar battle, no doubt; race day is our altitude training. The road is a constant, low-grade incline asking effort at nearly a mile above sea level, before a short drop of roughly the same 300 feet we’ve already climbed, and after about five miles, finally turns left to invite us up and away along a winding, semi cobbled incline to infinity. And as the moon takes aim at snowy, Eastern Sierra peaks, I marvel at the line of people ahead and behind, all inhabiting various states of acclimation and conditioning, from everywhere. These are my people; this is where I’m supposed to be…
The road to higher ground
Rebekah eventually drifts back a bit, and I know I am slowly leaving her. After States, we vowed to run our own respective races, always starting together, but making choices as to what best suits our body or mind; with TRT50 and T200 ahead, we have plenty of chances to work through this new idea. Today though, with not one good night’s sleep in a week, I know she’s feeling the elevation. And I slowly pull away, as the love of my life fights the voice on her own terms.
Why do my legs ache already? I try to pick the question apart at mile 10, baffled, while not once thinking to check my HR, distracted by a cough that was deep and productive until race start, but which has now become shallow and, at times, uncontrollable; unfounded thoughts of pneumonia and the letters D, N and F now begin to prairie-dog, popping up intermittently; no, don’t go there. Finally, the trail goes off road for a scramble through brush and low trees on a semi well marked cut off, and as I push up the technical incline with a scramble up some rocks, I’m pushing toward a woman in a bright striped running skirt. But her legs: something’s wrong; please forgive me for this. I engage with a “pardon me” as I push upward toward the woman, and find a man. Okay. This guy’s serious and hard to catch, me being ever competitive and always looking to pass. As we start the banter, he asks where I’m from. When I mention CRC, he says “do you know Snow? Kristin?” “LYNN?”, I exclaim, “Heck ya”, and I bomb him with my story of Kristin’s perfect late night pacing from Forrest Hill to Pointed Rocks last June, and my eventual dash to the finish at the Auburn track. And he proceeds to share that when Kristin was training for San Diego 100, and then down in SD to run the beast, she was great, with the best attitude, always a beam of pure light. He yells “Hey, Cristy, you remember Snow, Kristin?”, and as Cristy, run-focused up ahead in the same matching skirt and socks struggles with the question for a moment while pushing upslope, I ask him his name. “T-Bone, man. Tell Snow it’s T-Bone – SHE’LL remember”. He goes on to share that both Kristin and her daughter were noteworthy for their amazing and positive attitudes. And that sounds like the Kristin I know.
T-Bone and Cristy, here for the 50
I’m drawn to T-Bone and Cristy, and match their pace and banter; they’re REAL. States comes up again, and I ask Cristy if she’s running it this year, before she confesses that she’ll be pacing Traci Falbo on June 23rd – and I am somewhat in awe at this, remembering the two-page photo in Ultra Running mag a couple of years back, showing Traci after she has collapsed while setting a record on track of some 223 miles (I think that’s the distance), with her crew/coach husband holding her head, the head of an incredible super-heroine doing incredible things; I must have stared at that picture in admiration ten times that month.
As we move upslope, I notice they repeatedly slow to hike, before picking it up to run again, and ask about it. They offer that it’s all about conservation on the uphill so they can bomb it later on the down. And the light bulb finally flashes. I look at my HR and see 153, above my lactic threshold, and now the calf pain makes sense: I haven’t slowed from a constant low-key run since the start, and through the haze of effort at altitude, it all makes sense now: dumb-A! So, I do the same, and we continue ever upward.
The way to Edison
From Buttermilk Aid, at 6,500 feet, the incline steepens as intermittent trees replace the sage brush, offering proof that it really does feel a bit cooler up here. I have moved ahead of T-Bone and Cristy, they’re running their own race and I’m feeling frustrated that I’ve had to back off my already slow goals due to the altitude. It’s harder to breathe deeply, but deeply beautiful up here, as I’m both chasing and being chased. Eventually we move into some of the few areas of forest on the whole course, and they are stunning – deeply bright green aspens and pines, and occasional snow-fed streams that cross the road and offer mud now and again, with wind-whipped leaf-flutter and gurgling water replacing the crunch of foot strike. And it is on my way up to this more verdant place toward 8,000 feet that I meet Lora Zagnoli.
Other-worldly forest amidst the high-desert landscape
Lora is ahead, and sometimes I catch her on the hike up, but always on the down, my strength. Another 100K-er, she is hard to catch and each time we play leap frog, she eventually leaps ahead. Chasing Edison aid at mile 18 and 8,000 feet, she finally pulls away by running uphill, which is disheartening: she is strong and determined and above 8, I don’t have it in me to do more than hike with purpose. Thoughts of altitude training in races that require good altitude training swirl, and I wonder how people do it, how they get away to the mountains when they have kids and jobs and everything else that makes life “life”. I want to be that guy, the one who can take off and GO, and I guess I could just ditch my family..and my job: who needs it, right? Shut up, Gollum….
At Edison Lora is already there, and I really dig into the offerings, noting differences in fare, such as no plain ruffles or pringles, but plenty of bright orange and blue and other colored chips flavored with who knows what, flavors that may offer the right runner relief after a long climb, but which provokes no interest in me (I remember my staple of ruffles until they turned to dust somewhere before the down to the base of Devil’s last June, having relied on the savory salt, sugar and fat until it all just became sand; I have to experiment with other flavors now, something I avoid). As I inhale watermelon and cantaloup, Cristy and T-Bone arrive, and we greet each other with glances as food now becomes an imperative; I still have my appetite.
Lora takes off, and I follow upward with intent but no deep reserves. We eventually banter, sharing simple truths of running your ass off at 8,000 feet. She shares that the course is a little different after the fire, letting me know she’s been here before, and I consciously acknowledge the burned out trees that dot the landscape from a blaze some years back. I ask about the golf ball on her knee, a big, raw, swollen area missing scab, and she offers that that ain’t nothin’, that she has nerve damage and can’t feel her right leg, for the most part. This is basically right before I let her go to bring my HR down, and as I watch her freaking run away from me uphill, I wonder who the heck this tough lady is. As she moves upslope out of view, I see Cristy, alone and closing from behind. Another intense woman whom I am coming to respect today. She shares a little about T-Bone having run the PCT the week before or something, and things make a little more sense. At some point I find a little something within and hike away into solitude, seeking the turn-around at Overlook aid at 9,354 feet.
OUTPOST This is work. I’m chasing Lora, who is out of sight up ahead, but gaining on two guys I can see way upslope; there is no way I can run. I start the count, one of the little Jedi mind tricks I employ to distract me from perceived discomfort and the lack of deep reserves, chanting in my head “one foot in-front-of the other, one, two, three, four; one foot in-front-of the other…”, and put my head down and breathe. The cough has long worried me, and I’m only approaching 20 miles, and I look up now and again in search of something, a marker, that will allow me to say, “okay, run from THAT marker, c’mon, go..”, in an effort to summon the strength to catch the two guys upslope. But that opportunity only comes once on a slight flat, and after fifteen feet, I back off, dejected, and accept that right now, it’s all about the hike: there’s no way I can run uphill at 9,000 feet. eventually, Lora approaches from the turn-around on the down, and I know I’m close to home, and rounding an arching turn up toward the right, I finally see aid and it is a speck in the middle of a grand expanse of slope with low sage and a rising wall of tree speckled stone capped with snow rising up behind this amazing spot. To the left is an abyssal drop away into a valley. And I find a little run in me, the slope having flattened as I finally reach my goal at the highest point on the course, where I can finally have caffeine; yay.
Two beautiful people operate this little slice of heaven on the edge of space – an older couple that I am sure have never run a trail EVER, and I thank them profusely for taking the time to be here for us. Cristy and T-Bone pull up and we exchange greetings as I guzzle my first coke of the run, and after some melon, I’m off on the chase after Lora.
Running. Oh man, this is it – 9,400 feet, and I’m running. It’s still effort, but gravity is finally my friend, and I’m flying now, 9 before 8 and then 7, as I bounce back and forth between both really cruising on auto, and worrying about my ankles. Seeing the course would be similar to Ordnance 100K – mostly wide, cobbled jeep roads, I had elected to wear my Stinson 3’s instead of my 4’s, thinking my legs might appreciate the extra cushion near the end of the day, but that comes with a little risk. Eventually I sense T-Bone and Cristy on the hunt behind, and turn it up on the down as I find a good groove swerving around the ruts and cobbles and bolstered by the coke, and before long there’s a turn to the right with a small climb, and I’m up and away, on it, as I hear T-Bone call Cristy and glance to see that she overshot the right turn and has to back-track. After the short climb, it’s down again, and now there’s no trail. But there are ribbons, markers tied to different things, bushes, rocks, and it’s different now, no road, but also no trail. This goes on for a while, the descent twisting over and along hillsides, around downed trees and bushes, before I come upon the most inspirational trail marker I have ever seen: the cow patty trail marker.
Truly inspirational at 8,000 feet
This is awesome and prompts me to laugh out-loud, joyous in the turn of my mood and energy level, and motivates me to go, go, go, and now I’m stomping down-slope as the hillside falls away, plowing through tufts and past logs, inviting real danger, and I don’t freaking care, I’m high and feeling my chemistry and light headed and oh man, THIS is why I run. I see Lora up ahead now, moving deliberately, and I know i’m doing what I love and what I’m damn good at in this screaming descent through the dirt and cow patties, but Lora wants none of that, and pulls off to the side, making me feel like I’m acting dangerously. So, fine. I slow and apologize before I accelerate again, but sorry, this is what i’m here to do, and I’m doin’ it, and then it’s back down to the tables at Edison.
Aid. Drop bag. Kinda hazy, fuzzy really, and I think wow, i’m not even half way there. Lora pulls up, and I’m high energy now, bristling with “oh man, I LOVE these, thanks!” as I reach into bowls, happy at every morsel, and “wow, thank you for being here!!I love you guys!” One of the aid workers produces some ginger ale when I ask and it’s “OMG, I love you!”; I’m high: high on running, high on the descent, high on life. One of the volunteers announces in smooth appreciation: ” he’s FULL of love today..” as I quench all my thirsts, and after a flurry of thank you’s later, I’m off with Lora right behind as Cristy and T-Bone arrive, and it really feels like a race now; this is why I’m here, this is what I live for.
Now it’s real. I’m strategizing my escape as Lora and I move through the aid station chip reader, and then I hear a clatter behind and turn to see Lora on her hands and her KNEE on a pile of rocks, on the knee that looks so damn painful, and I gasp in horror, feeling disappointment for her. And then she offers a most sublime statement, completely calm in the face of potential disaster, with not one shred of emotion and merely the flavor of distaste: “it figures”. I’m frozen, seeing this could be the end of someone’s race, a shattered knee…but the woman of steel just gets up and comes at me, and I’ve got to get a move on, and holy mackerel she’s like the terminator, and I can’t shake her.
The road goes up now, a wide, boring fire road, and sure we finally dropped to 8,000 feet again at Edison, but now we’re heading up and away, and I curse as I wrap to the right up a ridge-line. Cristy and T-Bone join me after Lora runs uphill away from me again, freaking criminy, and I love this, it’s my own freaking nail biter; there aren’t too many 100K-ers ahead of me, and I’m RACING, feeling alive and heady. Finally, at the top of another descent, a sign greets us with a solemn word of honesty that perfectly describes the day:
Word of the day
From the top of the drop, I whoop and take off, and I don’t actually know why this seems to be a good idea at the time but I do, and the lesson comes soon enough, when I realize I have very little in the tank and slow at the bottom, as Cristy and T-Bone catch me. I quietly digest this latest slap in the face delivered by my old friend common sense. We march, we jog, we march, we run, and it’s down toward a lake and aid at Intake 2.
PICKLES As I briefly cross a campground and make my way to aid, I notice signs in various locations stating “Please do not remove the pink ribbons”, and briefly reflect on a CRC’ers battle with vandals on the T200 course a couple of years ago, and silently thank the Bishop RD. I’ve moved ahead of T-Bone and Cristy again, who seem hell-bent on energy conservation. I’m on fire though, and finally smelling water, and pick up the pace as I approach the table, excited. A crowd cheers my arrival. Fuzzy, I want water and no sports drink, which is Hammer today, but nothing else is an absolute. Chips and fruit, a little sugar, and since I endured a decent cramp on the way down, I go for the pickle jar, and the crowd of volunteers suddenly cheers, yelling “hooray, PICKELS!!“. The apparent ring leader approaches, and he is a big guy, looking like a contractor who must work in SOME trade for a living, maybe a hunter at heart, and I picture the stuffed head of some poor, surprised and unfortunate beast mounted over his mantel…except for the pink, star-shaped, rhinestone encrusted rave glasses that make me think of Elton John that he OWNS with swagger and ease, and damn, it’s halloween in June. This is now weird, but not unexpected in my alternate universe of race and altered states of mind. I grab a big pickle, and depart, making my way along the lake as the group cheers, pickles apparently being the joke of the day, and I suspect they have no idea why a dumb-ass runner way up in the mountains that is too stupid to call a cab would grab a pickle in the mid-day heat. This all crosses my mind as I pass guys, families, kids, all fishing in the cool lake as they drink soda or beer, or sitting along the edge in shaded outgrowths of reeds and trees with their feet in the water, and then I begin to wonder if my suspicions merit serious consideration.
This is tough now. Sure, it’s down again from the end of the road that rings the dammed lake, not damned, mind you…and it’s a cool, weaving, technical twist and turn after twist, around tufts of grass and rocks as I close in on the valley floor…but with a good ascent again on another climb up to 8,300 feet now in the mid-day sun, well damn (it IS damn), it’s all just up again. I hike, I run. It’s easier to run now, even up, at this new, improved low, low elevation approaching 8,300 feet, and at the time it doesn’t dawn on me that this is good thing. Following a road after brief stints hidden by tall vegetation to some kind of lodge, I focus on that goal of the next turn around up the road. And Lora approaches on the down, and we greet one another as I turn it up on the up.
Elevation just beneath the fish’s tail: 8,300 feet. Again.
Aid. Kids run the show here. And the coke is hot, so thank goodness for ice. But as my taste buds have become a little more finicky by the 29th mile, the kids earn my praise by way of chicken noodle soup, and I do feel gratitude as I begin to search a little bit harder for things that taste good. Cristy catches me now, but No T-Bone, and then I’m off on my way to Edison for the 3rd and final time before the monster down. I feel good, making good use of gravity and a gentle slope as I retrace my steps.
Effort and purpose. I run the downs, and hike the ups. I see Ernie Rangel approach as I hike upward at one point and offer “hey man, there’s chicken noodle soup up there!”, and am slapped by his glib response “hey man, I’m Vegan”; oh yeah. I knew that. Dumb-A. On the climb through the low bushes and the rocks, slowly weaving upslope on the dam in determination, Rebekah approaches from above, and oh man, I am so glad to see her after 25 miles! Altitude is a real butt-kicker, and she has slowed and is enjoying the ride more, sharing that she now has no definite plans regarding sticking to the 100K and might drop down to the 50 miler; but maybe not. Re-affirmation, affection, centering. The woman I love. Fuzzier, things are indeterminate. I found myself conserving water miles back between aid stations at lower elevations, and with the heat comes fuzziness. I can’t clearly recall in retrospect whether I see Omar come by as I’m talking to my R, or if it is further upslope after R and I say goodbye, but when I see him he is determined, and his hand slap knocks mine back like he’s possessed. I offer giddy support, thinking he’s hammering it, and I’m happy for him.
Intake 2 again. Carbs, sugar, another pickle and a cheer. I leave and move upslope and across the highway, driven, up past the sign with the word of the day searching for the next down. When I finally crest the last hill, I’m relieved and start the hard work of making up pace as I retrace earlier difficult steps but now with Edison in my mind’s eye. I begin to pick the most efficient path that will ask the fewest calories and least effort, always taking the inside of the turn, smoothly negotiating rocks as I invoke my own conservation of energy, and I do not once slow for any reason. Eventually I see the back of someone, but after a minute I see it’s not Lora. All the same, it’s a pass if I want it, and I want it badly. As I gain, I observe it’s a guy, younger, maybe 20’s or 30 and covered with ink, everywhere but his face, and he doesn’t look good. This is Jon, from Las Vegas, and he’s after his first 100K. I ask how he is and he confesses he isn’t built for climbing, and may not make it. I check in with him on his water and nutrition, and get that he’s just depleted, and try to boost his morale with “good job man, first 100K! Awesome!”. But really, he’s just another hundred K-er, and as I now move past with the knowledge I’ve got a young guy behind me who’s hungry for his first 100K victory, and having confessed he’s never finished a 50 miler, I have to turn it up; old guy in front of young guy behind terminator.
Edison. Last of three stops, and everything I relied on earlier has turned to dust – the bologna sandwiches I packed before the race, chips that aren’t ruffles, the fruit and pickles and odd, sugary morsels; I tsk that it’s too early for this and take off. Down, flats, trees again now…other-worldly and green, a color in short supply today. I cross the streams and briefly relish the mud and slam another gel, caffeinated now, and start to feel like I’m meaningfully making up pace. Rollers, but mostly down as I head for McGee Creek aid, which I barely noticed on the way up but now need. As I approach a stream, I glimpse a brief snippet of a memory from my way up, and then McGee is right there. I ask for chips or crackers to calm the creeping suspicion in my gut, and am gifted with pringles. Two guys have just dropped down from the 100K and are heading out, and I relish their good judgement as I mentally tick off two more obstacles: that’s 3. Departing after, I shortly come up behind them and call out “Hey, passing on your right”, and as I approach, the guy on the right side dodges further to the right, directly in front of me, forcing me to dig in and push left and thread the needle between the two at 9 pace – no speed in the real world, but this is somewhere else, another universe, and everything now is deliberate…everything is effort; precious calories, gone: that’s how I think, approaching 40 miles. The guy who jumped in front of me announces “sorry dude, I’m dyslexic”, and I hear the snark in his voice, maybe frustration that he can’t get the job done and had to drop down to the 50 miler, and I think: good riddance, and take off satisfied.
Long, straight sections now; it’s all just go. The heat increases with the decrease in altitude and now I can breathe, and I gulp the O2 like a vampire. Buttermilk is only 3.5 miles, but the descent is hard and fast, and I’m in my element now on the down, and I smell old guy making top ten, and I want this. I start thinking 12, 12.5 hours again, and Gollum’s voice is nowhere to be found, only determination and a vague awareness that things that are within grasp; anything is possible.
I come up on a guy who is barely moving, and check his expression as I engage. His name is Brian, and as I question him he confesses he hasn’t pee’d all day, which is definitely not good this late in the game. When I suggest he drink more water to push it through and offer him MY water, he tells me his stomach is sour. I give him my last Tums, having popped the other on the way down from McGee, and suggest he really check in at the next aid. To thanks, I move on and pick it up again, relishing the down that was so relentlessly in the wrong direction in the morning.
Another half mile, and I approach another man, older, who is moving really, really slowly. I engage again, slowing to walk and talk, and John proudly offers he is the only guy in the 70+ bracket for the 50K and last ran the race in ’14, the last year of the prior incarnation before the race was on hiatus for three years. I ask if he has enough water, and he says he does, and when I ask about food, he waves off my help, although I see no belt, no pack and no bulging pockets and know he’s probably carrying next to nothing to go along with his single, half full hand-held. Eventually satisfied he knows what he’s doing, i’m off again, doing a dreary inventory of minutes spent checking on the safety of fellow runners today.
Buttermilk. It comes up fast, and it’s a blur, and there’s work to be done as the heat increases into the high 80’s and maybe 90; each day has been getting hotter this week, and it’s really beginning to hit me now. I’ve had a buff around my neck today, but my ears bother me and I don’t have the energy to deal with sunscreen as I fill my bottles. Suddenly, Cristy is there, standing next to me. I reach out and squeeze her shoulder and ask how she is, and she acknowledges me, but she’s all business now; there’s no T-Bone anymore, no jokes or quips. I go, with nothing in the way of food that interests me here, and I’m off at a 10-pace jog, and then she’s freaking FLYING PAST ME AT WHAT MUST BE 7 PACE, and I watch her disappear downslope like one would watch an 80 yard rush by the opposing team for a touch down; and then I get it. All day, I have sort of wondered how the heck she is going to pace Traci Falbo at Western States in a month, and now I see a runner, a beautiful gazelle, and it all makes sense. Right now, I envy her on that down; I certainly don’t have it in me to run 7 pace.
Nausea. Just deal. I grab a gin-gin from my waste pack and chew through the flavor burst and pound out the pace and before long, Junction aid is right there, and it is disorienting; didn’t I just leave aid? As I’m forcing myself to eat something and find it completely un-pleasurable, I ask for ginger ale, of which there IS NONE, and then I suddenly have to go: Jon from Las Vegas cruises up, no longer looking like death, and he says with a smile when I ask: “man, I can’t climb – but this downhill is GREAT”, and now I’m both nauseated and irritated and I bolt, after congratulating him.
Heat. The road veers toward my right for about 4 miles, and the air is hot, but now the sun really beats down on my ears; so glad I wore a hat. But I have to do something more and I’ve got to keep moving, and it’s then I decide to pull my buff up over my ears so it covers my neck and my head up to half my hat, which already covers the TOP of my head, and now I’m really hot, but not in danger of second degree sunburn or worse; I can spray water on my neck and back, and I start to meter my small bottle in squirts to cool the machine and drink from my large. As I approach a small stream and strategize which route is best to avoid any knee pain on the short scramble downward and back up, I hear something behind, and it’s Jon, about 30 meters back, and no freaking way, I can’t let this guy pass me, he was near death up there, and I put my head down into it and jump – both across the depression, and from what must have been ten pace, now up to eight and I don’t look back.
It’s all in your attitude. And your experience. What do you want, and how badly do you want it? I haven’t raced 40 or 60 times like some people I know or see on Ultrasignup or during big races, but I’ve gone the distance, and compartmentalizing discomfort and especially heat is something I’m okay at. But the stomach is its own beast. I’m running out of ideas regarding what to eat, having tried two of my go-to bars that I normally gnosh on long runs and found them to be like partially hardened tar. I ponder another gin-gin and am out of Tums, again, and after peeing about every ten miles today I haven’t gone in 12, with the heat and my effort now out-stripping my metered water intake. And things start to break down as my mental field of vision narrows, and as far as my estimated time; 13 hours now? 14?
Hwy 168 is two tables on a hot, dusty plain at mile 46 and 5,489 feet. It is now in the mid-90s, and I’m in no mood for the music the young guys keep changing up over and over while I’m there…like my concentration is constantly being interrupted by commercials. I’m parched, having emptied both my bottles and my reserve soft flask a mile back, and I have no desire to run again; But there is the fire, the finish. I eat what I can, and finally leave by walking, after a young woman comes through and leaves me standing there. Make it work. I finally catch her after I start the jog, and I have just enough energy to comment about just getting this thing done, to her murmer of agreement.
And now it’s time for caffeinated gel number two. I don’t usually run with caffeine except when I race, and up to this point I metered caffeinated beans until my stomach started to sour. But now I need a kick in the pants, and the 100 mg flavored with chocolate is pretty ugly, but it gets the job done as I slowly feel things shift and pick it up until I’m hitting 8+ pace again. I block the hiss and feedback of the self-defeating voice that pops up as I approach a woman using poles, and she calls out that I’m flying, which throws water on the voice and bolsters my now-caffeinated self confidence – and I feel strong. But eventually I slow as the temperature increases in some weird micro-climate, and I can’t keep up with my pace and hydration anymore. (Note: my Suunto log shows an increase from the mid-90s on the way down from Hwy 168, to 103 degrees at this point on the descent to 4,800 feet; A-kicking hot). Things flatten on this wide, dusty road, and then I’m at Tungsten City.
I can’t get an answer that makes sense. “Go up the hill, grab something from the bucket, and drop back down here and show us what you brought back, roughly 13 miles; what? What about the finish? I’m speaking with Marie Boyd, race director for this course for 14 years, and she is friendly but all business, and I try to assimilate the instructions as I grab my coke and my nibble of who knows what. By this time as well, I am missing roughly a thousand feet of gain from my watch verses the course advertised gain, but I can’t add 2 + 2 right now, and I just want ice. She gives me cold water, and I surmise she has run out of ice, which irritates me, but it has been HOT down here at the bottom, and I’m glad I don’t have to manage that. A few Gin-Gins, and I move out.
The view from Sage Summit
A young guy passes me. This is the dedicated 100K section, the last 12 (or 13, or whatever) miles, and everyone I see now will be a factor in my finish. And then it’s Jon from Las Vergas. Oh man; what has happened to me? What have I done? I engage, positive and patient as he slowly moves past, but I don’t feel my words, and it’s just irritating and nowhere near zen. He follows the other guy who I swear is freaking PRANCING as he talks about how hard this whole thing is, and both of them younger and in front of me and full of some energy I can’t seem to channel, and for a minute I just hike, with nothing in the tank, no fire and no spark. But then Jon’s words come back to haunt him, and I recall he told me he can’t climb, and that is what I LIVE FOR, living at the foot of a 2,000 foot rock in Pacifica, and I turn it on as we meet a steep section that is brutally honest in its request for attention. As I climb, I am moving 1.5 times his pace, and before long I have solitude again among the rocks and the sagebrush leading to Sage Summit. But the math offered by Marie Boyd makes no sense, and when I reach to top, I curse the numbers and my run-stupid intellect and I thank the gods for the stark beauty of the high desert as I make my way to Sage Summit aid.
A couple of tables, three guys, a few beer bottles and I suddenly brandish a deep longing for something like a cold one, but really, more than anything, SOMEthing that will calm the storm in my stomach. And then the news hits me like a brick: “follow the road down to the DESCENT, drop the thousand feet and grab the thing from the bucket – bring it back, and climb back up and we’ll see you soon.” Yeah; just like that. Crap.
Okay. I have had some serious pains in my gut for some time now, having substituted Gin-Gins for real food for miles, and I have worked to channel any available distraction. But this really sucks. No pee for the last 16, and what I first detected as the ache of my kidneys a few hours earlier (I passed two small kidney stones at Pine To Palm 100 in ’16, so always on alert), has morphed into real pain up front. The downhill is okay, as I finally get myself moving along the switchbacks to the bottom, and I almost feel like a freaking beast as I briefly ignore the pain and use gravity to my advantage. At the bottom, though, I hike, and I feel lame as my focus returns to whatever is unhappy in my right abdomen and radiates sharp, almost debilitating, pain. And I let the voice take me, let it back me into a corner and control me: Oh, no; I’ve never had a problem with my appendix; please, please, please don’t do that now; how will they get me out of here? How will they drag my lifeless body uphill to aid once I’ve fallen unconscious. As I make my way back toward a portion of our original route upslope from the start roughly 14 hours earlier, to now retrace a couple of hundred yards, I begin to get the vagaries offered by Marie Boyd, but now envision starting all over again for the full 62, and it just destroys my morale as cramps ricochet in my gut. And then Dean Karnazes is running at me.
On his way back from the turn-around, Dean K. is puffing along and pouring sweat as he approaches. “Hey Dean!” I yell as he passes, and he slows and turns. I continue: “Hey man, I met you at North Face; we talked about Terri Schneider” (why the hell do I need to introduce myself, just freaking ASK HIM!). He has now stopped and looks at me with the patience he must waste on every guy who bugs him on a run (Go ahead, ASK HIM! hisses the voice). And then I ask him. “Hey – do you know which side your appendix is on?” (Oh, man, why the HELL did you ask him??!?). And he looks at me for a minute with what must be a thousand yard stare, before he points at his gut right in the area where mine is stabbing me with an 8″ kitchen knife and says: “I think here. Hey man, I’ve gotta get going”, and I tell him thanks without explanation, leaving that one of the most random exchanges of 2018..and I know I look like a madman…and I can’t believe I just freaking did that…to Dean Karnazes……….
Now the pain is worse as I get moving, due to the power of suggestion, and I don’t get it but what the hell has happened to me, where is that other kind of tough? Am I out of it? Did I run dry? I now hike up the slight incline I ran up 14 hours earlier while punching my gut like a guy with tourettes, and before long I see a post with a flacid little ribbon that hangs in the heat without the slightest puff of breeze to waggle it, and I make my way over to this travesty of a final turn-around, grab the small plastic container and open it in search of the great prize that awaits, and it’s…it’s a…wait for it………………a sheet of little smiley-face stickers; have a nice day.
This is a test….
I pick a green one and apply it to my bib, take a deep breath and turn around to look at what awaits:
…and so is this.
OK, I admit it. I love this. This is hard. This is a test. This is an alternate universe with a weird plot line that cuts through the crap of every day life and gives you a chance to earn some kind of penance in your tiny mind for everything you’ve done that bugs you, or may ever do so; this is me negotiating; this is everything I’ve worked for, for the past six months, and this is only a freaking training run for bigger and better things come September, and I’ve gotta get my head around it or I’m not going to finish. So I begin the task of replacing the hike up with a short run down powered by fumes, and now the shooting pains have subsided and the nausea decreases as I get my butt moving. I make the right turn to head toward that pile of switchbacks with my head down, and look up to see Jon from Las Vegas. “Hey Alan, it’s been good to run with you man. Have a good one”; I guess Jon has already taken the climb into account. I wish him well, and start the hike. But with no run to distract me, the queasiness takes control. The sun is heading toward the Sierras on the other side of this massive valley that commands a grandeur that pictures just cannot capture, and it can’t get there fast enough as it bakes me on this slow climb. But I am climbing. Until I finally have to stop and retch with no success. I look across the expanse of desert and now see a dark wall of relief slowly approach as I get my ass moving and trudge up the incline until it levels out, and then I can see Sage Summit aid.
I sit down in the chair. The guys are great, patient, and I can’t move because I just want to throw up after 17 miles of upset stomach. Finally, I opt for “the great reset”, as one of the aid workers calls it, and I move to the side of the road and lose everything….all six Gin-Gins and water; no freaking wonder, nothing but ginger that has refused to submit; how volatile. And I sit again, and I’m a little better. They give me Saltine crackers, and this is good. Now I have some carbonated coke, and this is much better. Wow: the great reset – I’m a believer! Some more crackers, and I just start walking, better with each step, and it gets easier, and then I’m running.
Along the ridge, I now begin to reflect on other things for the first time in a long while, since I have no more distractions from my gut, and take it all in, everything. And now it becomes clear that Rebekah has dropped down to the 50, because she’s not hiking up to Sage Summit, and it hurts a little; we trained so freaking hard for this, but I know she must have made the decision for important reasons. And sometimes that’s just how it is. Down the hills and the flats, 8 pace, 9, and I didn’t grab my headlamp when I envisioned 12 or 13 hours, which lights a fire and forces me to pick it up in the deepening twilight. 4 miles later, it’s Tungsten City aid and 4810 feet again. Marie Boyd approaches as I pull up and ask for ice like one asks for that suitcase full of hundreds, and now there is ice! And Pringles, and I am a happy man, with 1.5 to go. Marie now asks with obvious pride “how’d you like that last climb, eh?”; the glint in her eyes is plainly visible in the flat light. I tell her it’s an ass-kicker, and I’m smiling, because I passed the test and made it back down to talk about it. She says “I added that to the course some years ago, that’s my idea” (at least that’s how I recall her words at that point; man, I bet she was a beast back in the day). I think I hug her, and I move to go, and now the ham radio guy says “Alan? Hold on a minute”, and he makes a call asking for Rebekah, and whaaaat? A moment later, she’s on the radio telling me she’s at the finish after the 50, and to hurry up. And that she loves me. No freaking way, the love of my life always finds a way to show me how lucky I am. After a few tries with the sticky mic, I tell he I’m OK and on my way. And I go.
It’s much darker now. I’m moving well with coke and Pringles, and I’m carrying so much food – sandwich, bars, gels, blocks and other morsels, that have turned to crap, and I just ignore it all and run. The negotiation at this point when I don’t want to eat is how far do I think I can get without eating; how far can I run with only a bite or two? I eat the chips one by one as I descend toward the lights of the campground and the finish, and I’m moving at 8 minute pace the whole time and I’m amazed and I feel strong, and good and it’s almost over. The path leaves the road and now I’m negotiating a trail in the darkness, and it meanders right and left and back and it dawns on me that this is a stream in the winter, and it’s all sand and rocks, and in the darkness I can barely make it all out as I knock it out. Onto the pavement, and now the trail is marked by glow sticks, and this is cool, and I’m making my way through the campground now, which is weird, and I want to tun right and head for the tent, but bummer, no I gotta cross the line. Along the road, and I make out a guy in the darkness, and it’s Omar who asks me if I’m ME, and I acknowledge him, but we are both on separate missions, and I continue through to the end. And as I cross, the weight lifts, and everything floats for a moment, in space. And my wife is waiting with a hug and a hamburger. And what more could I ask?
My finish was sweet, 7th and only a little more than a minute behind Lora Zagnoli, the terminator I just couldn’t quite catch, and 3 off of Dean Karnazes. I worked hard for this, have a real sense of satisfaction after a hard day’s work, and learned more than a few lessons, which I will come back to again and again. And I will celebrate my feet, with not even one single hot spot over 62.9 miles and 11,227 feet of gain and loss.
Rebekah and Marie Boyd in the morning, coffee in hand
Todd Vogel, the new Race Director who brought Bishop High Sierra Ultras back, along with Marie Boyd – and everyone else, all of the volunteers and obvious veterans of the area and prior races really put on a great event. Previously, I had my eye on this as candidate for my first 50 miler before the last RD quit, and I am so glad they brought it back. The aid stations had everything I needed, even when I didn’t know what I needed, everyone was awesome, and the views were stunning. And the hard work the course requires has left its mark in positive ways. Best of all, the race is a non-profit benefit for Inyo County SAR and the Eastern Sierra Youth Outdoor program, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a day than to help worthy organizations and earn some altitude training the hard way; I will be back next year.