“Oh, father of the four winds, fill my sails, across the sea of years -
With no provision but an open face, along the straits of fear … “
- Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir”
Before we get to the Firetrails recap, here’s some free advice I learned last Saturday: if you’re ever looking for a good steady guitar riff to echo through your mind during a long run, it’s hard to do much better than Led Zeppelin’s classic “Kashmir.” That song was playing on my friend’s car stereo as we drove into the parking lot on race morning, and those repetitive chords bounced around my head for most of the next nine hours.
Now on to the race report – but first, some background as to why exactly I was running this ultra in the first place.
As I’ve said many times, 2007 was all about triathlon for me. And if I hadn’t done any other race besides Vineman, I would have considered it a successful year. But I never relinquished my longtime desire to compete in the event that passed me by this summer: the Western States 100-Mile Run.
The catch, as any ultra runner knows, is that you need a qualifying race in order to enter the WS lottery – and if I didn’t do an ultra this year, I couldn’t apply for the 2008 WS race. So Firetrails was basically a means to that end for me – nothing more, nothing less.
Truthfully, I knew I probably wouldn’t have a great race. I was fairly lazy in the weeks after Vineman, dragging myself through a lot of uninspired workouts, trying to coast on the aerobic fitness I had built up over the summer. I banged out a few long trail runs, but otherwise did very little in the way of focused preparation for this event. I figured that my residual fitness combined with a smart, conservative race strategy would get me through Firetrails somewhat comfortably, and earn me the WS qualifier I needed.
At least, that’s what Smart Donald figured. Unfortunately, Idiot Donald had a different plan.
I’m not sure how to explain it, other than to say that whenever I put on a race number, there’s some crazy transformation that takes place, like Bruce Wayne putting on his Batsuit. I get this unshakable urge to push myself as much as possible, to test the limits of my ability on that particular day, regardless of whatever sensible plan I had come up with beforehand.
It wasn’t really the idea of running fast enough to qualify for Western States that screwed me up; I was fairly confident that I could come in well under the 11-hour standard. Rather, it was the fact that I had done this race before that caused me to throw my sensibilities out the window. On some level, I knew that if I ran slower than I had two years ago (8:56), it would feel like a disappointment, whether justified or not.
So that was the story of the day: it wasn’t one person against 50 miles, or against a WS qualifying time, or even against several weeks of laziness - it was Smart Donald vs Idiot Donald.
(OK, we’re getting to the race report now, I promise … )
When I did this race two years ago, I intentionally walked just about every incline on the course, including the first several miles. My plan was to do the same thing this year – but it only took about 10 minutes before Idiot Donald started trying to get a few minutes in the bank by jogging up some of the hills I had walked in the past. I kept what seemed like a conservative pace, but pushed into slight discomfort at times in hopes of lowering my overall pace when averaged with the larger climbs and slower miles that lay ahead.
The first realization of my overexuberance came at about mile 10, as I was alongside one male and one female runner who each had “the look” – you know, the type of bodies you notice at the start line and think to yourself, that guy (or girl) is the real deal. A brief conversation confirmed my guess that they were both top-10 caliber ultra runners. Then we had the following exchange:
Girl: OK, so I know if I’m pacing well … what time are you guys aiming for today?
Guy: I’m thinking sub-8 – going real easy now, and I’ll crank it up after about 30 if I’m feeling good.
Girl: Yeah, that sounds right - I was hoping for 7:45 to 8:15.
Me: Um … it’s been nice running with you two. I’ll be fading back now. Have a great race.
In hindsight, that little conversation was probably the best thing that could have happened at that point of the race - because as I compared my effort level to theirs, I realized there was no way I could hang at that pace for 6 more hours. I guess humility is a good thing sometimes.
I purposely slowed my pace, and shortly found myself in a group of 6 or 7 similarly-paced guys who stretched out and regrouped like cyclists over the next 10-12 miles. But even after my early warning, I found myself running harder than I wanted to, just to hang with the group.
Here’s how ridiculous I was acting: on any portion of the course that wasn’t singletrack, I tucked in as close as possible behind whichever guy was ahead of me. That’s right – I was drafting. In a 50-mile race. Is my idiot moniker making any sense yet?
The net result of this effort was that eventually, I started to feel terrible. Beginning at mile 22, there is a 4-mile downhill stretch to the turnaround point of the race, and it was all I could do to keep jogging through this section of the course. My muscles were aching all over, and there were long sections of mucky mud that made it feel like I was wearing ankle weights. The wind was completely out of my sails, and I couldn’t muster any forward momentum. Additionally, all of the people I was pacing with seemed to glide away from me, and I was feeling discouraged and frustrated about my foolish approach to the first half of the race.
In other words, Idiot Donald was kicking Smart Donald’s butt.
I finally made it to the turnaround point aid station, and spent nearly ten minutes there trying to drum up some enthusiasm to return to the course. I really wasn’t in the mood to run another 24 miles (the turnaround is at mile 26), but I somehow resigned myself to heading back up the long hill I had just descended.
I walked almost all of the 4-mile hill, and felt certain that people would start passing me in droves. This was the darkest stretch of the course for me – so bad that I even started questioning my rationale for being out there.
I have always told myself that I want to run Western States. But as I was struggling up that hill, the thought of doing another 75 miles on top of what I had already traveled so far seemed absolutely impossible. And if this was the way it was going to feel, I didn’t want any part of it.
In the midst of all this frustration, the two Donalds had an internal dialogue that I’ll probably look back on as a turning point if I ever decide to run 100 miles:
Idiot Donald: This sucks. Why are you doing this?
Smart Donald: So I can get into Western States.
ID: What makes you think you want to run Western States? That will suck worse, and for more than twice as long.
SD: Because it’s a challenge.
ID: Yeah, well, so are getting a law degree or rebuilding a car – but you don’t have any interest in those things, right?
SD: But I love trail running.
ID: You love THIS? This sucks! You feel like crap!
SD: Yeah, but … for some reason I think it will be different. It won’t be like this.
And that’s when my mindset shifted – when I realized that if things were going to be different, I was the one who had to make it that way.
The key question I pondered was, how would I run Western States if I ever got the chance? I certainly couldn’t survive the “damn the torpedoes” approach that I left the start line with this morning. I’d have to slow way down, parcel my effort out much more incrementally, and stay focused on the long term task instead of collateral developments from one hour to the next. I would need a complete mental overhaul - and the second half of Firetrails seemed like a pretty good place to start.
Basically, I set everything aside during that long climb: my finishing time, my overall place, my expectations of what parts of the course I should run and who I should be able to hang with. With no provision but an open face, I let it all go, and decided to simply enjoy the day.
(I know, I should have come to this realization about 30 miles sooner, but really – this is what it takes for me to practice common sense sometimes. Remember this if you should ever feel like envying me.)
Before I knew it, I had crested the hill, and broke into a little jog towards the Steam Trains aid station at mile 30. From that point on, the race became more enjoyable with each passing step. I was still aching, and I was still tired, but I was completely in the moment, and blissfully ignorant of all the other concerns I had carried to that point.
My sails were filled again, and I was in a much brighter mood when I rolled into the mile 33 aid station, which is where I heard the following exchange between two volunteers – one of whom was making PB&J sandwiches:
Sandwich guy: Hey, do we have any tri-berry Gu over there?
Other guy: No, but we’ve got a bunch of others – does someone over there need them?
Sandwich guy: Nah … it’s just that I’m out of jelly. I was thinking I could use Gu instead, and they’d never notice the difference.
I couldn’t help laughing out loud, for the first time all day. And that laughter at mile 33 was one of the best feelings I’ve had in a race for a long time. It was like an affirmation of the positive mindset I now possessed, despite feeling like a dead man walking just a couple of hours earlier.
(But for the record, I declined the PB&G sandwich – that just seemed a bit too strange, even for an ultra.)
Whether coincidence or not, miles 33 through 47 were the best miles of the race for me. The course passes through beautiful single track trails, then underneath a redwood canopy that provided shade for most of the day, and I spent most of these miles running in quiet solitude. In other words, it was everything I love about trail running.
The race didn’t suck anymore. And Smart Donald was having a great time.
That’s not to say I didn’t want to reach the finish line as soon as possible, though. The miles gradually wore me down, and the last few miles were a struggle against a body that was loudly protesting the continued effort I was asking of it. But eventually I crossed the line, unlaced my shoes, and sat down in the grassy sunshine of the finish area to watch some other runners come in, and to take in the scene around me.
I was satisfied with my effort during the race, and my ability to come through a pretty rough patch – but the lingering question in my mind was whether I would ever want to go out and run another 50 on top of what I had just done.
It was a frequent topic of conversation for me at the post-race barbecue, as I picked other runners’ brains about making the jump from 50 to 100. (Predictably, everyone there was in favor of it – let’s just say that common sense isn’t in abundant supply among a group of ultra runners). It was discussed among the three other Monterey County runners who traveled to the race with me (two will probably apply, the other won't).
But what freaked me out the most was when I couldn’t sleep the night after the race. After driving three hours to get home, taking a shower, having dinner and watching some TV, I finally crashed into bed, but was too tired and sore to even fall asleep. Sometime after 1AM, I glanced at the clock, did some quick math, and suddenly realized: Wait – if I were doing 100 miles, I’d still be out there! At that point, the whole idea seemed unfathomable.
And yet, the following morning, I printed an application to Western States that now sits blank on my desk. Whether it ever gets filled out and mailed is still somewhat uncertain. Of course, Idiot Donald now thinks it’s a great idea, while the rational side of me says I should probably find something better to do with my time.
I haven’t officially decided yet … but if you know me at all, it should be a foregone conclusion about which side will prevail.
October 17, 2007
“Oh, father of the four winds, fill my sails, across the sea of years -