“Life for you has been less than kind -
So take a number, stand in line.
We've all been sorry, we've all been hurt -
But how we survive is what makes us who we are.”
- Rise Against, “Survive”
Normally I’d tell you to click and play to hear these lyrics by my current favorite rock band … but it’s a pretty rowdy song, complete with a few big fat F-bombs for good measure. If you’re OK with that, then by all means – please click and enjoy after the post.
Or maybe you’d rather think it over for a bit – which is OK, since this is such a long report. You'll have your chance later - but for now, let’s get down to business.
First things first: I’m not going to bother apologizing for the length of this post. You know how these race reports go nowadays - and it’s only going to get worse after Western States in June. So I’ve just decided not to worry about it anymore.
Truthfully, “no worries” turned out to be a pretty good theme for the day. I encountered some difficulty along the trail, but nothing that ever seriously threatened my ability to finish. I’ll explain this in more detail later – but for now, I’ll just say hakuna matata, and start telling (and showing) you the whole story.
The day started early – and cold. When you’re standing outside at 5:15AM, dressed in running clothes and shivering, there’s not much else to do but look around at the other runners huddled around you and try to guess who’s who. At ultras, this is especially fun, because in the pre-dawn darkness, the world-class folks aren’t always easily distinguishable from regular chumps like me in the crowd. For example, my friend and I had the following exchange:
Me: Hey, that’s Scott Jurek over there.
Him (squinting): I can’t tell … are you sure that’s him?
It was him. And this is how you get your picture taken with Scott Jurek if you’re too bashful to actually approach the guy and ask properly. This is also what your shirt looks like when you forget your bodyglide and have to use Vaseline on your chest instead. All things considered, this photo isn’t exactly one of my proudest moments.
The first quarter mile is a dash across Rodeo Beach, before coming to a dead stop as the field gets bottlenecked at the start of a singletrack trail. So … why were we running so hard on the beach again? Amazingly, the leaders were already out of sight by the time I finally made my way up the trail.
Climbing the first hill, we enjoyed some stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge at sunrise. Unfortunately, this was about the same time that I realized I hadn’t replaced the batteries in my camera. The “low battery” warning came on, and I couldn’t take any photos that required a long exposure.
I couldn’t even get a good picture of Olga, despite a few attempts. I feel really bad about this, because it was great to see her early in the race. Predictably, one of the very first things she said was, “Why are you so afraid of Western States?” before chastising me - in a friendly way, of course - about worrying too much. (By the way, if you didn’t see her comment after my previous post, go back and give it a look – it’s classic Olga.)
I wanted to spend more time chatting, but she had some other concerns bothering her (that’s her story), and I was stupidly preoccupied with fixing my camera. By the time we reached the Bunker Road aid station at mile 6, we had each diverted into our own race, and I reluctantly stuffed the camera back into my pocket.
At the top of the next climb, I pulled off the trail and stubbornly tried to get some life out of my Nikon. After adjusting the settings a bit, I found that I could get 10-20 seconds of function out of it, if the battery had enough time to rest in between pictures. It reminded me of the Seinfeld episode where Elaine was forced to consider whether or not a guy was spongeworthy before using items of hers that were a limited commodity. There were a lot of scenic views out there – now I just had to determine which ones were cameraworthy enough to drain the remainder of my batteries.
Here was an obvious choice: the view looking north from the top of Tennessee Valley, before heading down to Muir Beach. I was still being pretty choosy about my pictures, though – because I knew there was still a lot of race to go. However …
THIS sure seemed interesting: the wreckage of a truck, halfway down the slope in the middle of nowhere. From what I can tell, there’s not a road within about 5 miles of this spot. Somebody must have a fantastic story to tell about this – and if any of you Bay Area runners know it, I’d love to hear from you.
Looking north to Point Reyes. As the morning got warmer and the views got nicer, my camera seemed to gain some energy. Unfortunately for me, I was having the opposite sensation. In fact …
A girl named Leslie took this picture for me, and I managed to smile, but it was right about here that I was beginning to struggle (and that was before I saw that my shorts were pulled up like an old man’s trousers. So far I’m 2-for-2 in the embarrassing self-photo department). Not long after this, she pulled away from me – and she wasn’t the only one …
You have to click to enlarge … but there's a guy in a light colored shirt on the distant hillside. He’s my pacer for Western States, running at least a mile ahead of me. It occurred to me at this point that he and I might need to have a talk about the role of the pacer on race day.
Shortly after the Pan Toll station (Mile 21), I started having all kinds of stomach discomfort, which became so severe that I had difficulty running downhill because of the increased jostling and cramping. I spent most of this section walking alone, with only the occasional brief companionship of runners approaching from behind to pass me.
It continued like this all the way along the 7-mile out and back on this tree-lined fire road. I rallied briefly after the turnaround point at Randall Trail (mile 35), but it was very short lived. The nausea during miles 37-41 was so persistent that I figured it was only a matter of time before I’d be emptying my stomach contents at the side of the road.
The only problem was, it never happened. The only constant was extreme discomfort – so I decided to take matters into my own, um … fingers. I considered it a preemptive strike – and don’t worry, I wasn’t taking pictures at that point.
Once I got my bearings, that little bulimic episode turned out to be the smartest decision I made all day. It only took a few minutes before I could jog again, and when I reached the Bolinas aid station at mile 42, I was able to start over with my hydration and food intake – and my stomach didn’t really protest. However, I grabbed a few Tums on my way out just to be sure.
I picked up the pace on the long, gradual climb back to the Pan Toll station, and runners started coming back to me in droves. For example …
The guy in the gray shirt is my WS pacer. To his credit, he made it more than 40 miles before slipping back through the field, and he’s only on the hook to do 38 with me at Western States. So I guess I’m in pretty capable company with him … but we still might have that little chat I mentioned earlier.
Passing a large number of people during this stretch did wonders for my self-esteem. It took more than eight hours into the race, but it finally seemed like things were falling into place.
This part actually seemed too good to be true: at the Pan Toll station (mile 49), they were giving out ice cream sandwiches. If I thought about it for a while, I might be able to come up with some things that sound better after running 50 miles on hot, hilly trails than an ice cream sandwich … but it would be a pretty short list. Needless to say, it tasted delicious.
I ran with a group of other runners through this stretch of single track on the way out, but at mile 52 on the return, I was on my own. I kept expecting to run into Jacob's cabin or to encounter a black smoke monster, but luckily, neither of those things happened.
Miles 50 to 60 featured an incredible amount of climbing, but I stayed strong and jogged all but the steepest inclines. I was feeling awesome – and the song that introduced this post was rocking in my head the whole time. Here’s why …
(Warning: philosophical tangent ahead!)
I’ve done enough of these ultra races to realize that tough times are pretty much part of the deal – and that’s probably the biggest difference between ultras and my other passion of triathlon.
In triathlon, at any distance – up to and including the ironman – there’s reason to believe that with proper preparation and execution, everything will happen the way you want it to on race day. In fact, there are all kinds of strategies and articles out there dedicated to the goal of having the perfect race.
In ultras, there’s no sense in even hoping for such a thing.
It’s practically impossible to cover 50 to 100 miles of trail without something going wrong. Nobody will have the perfect race. We’ve all been sorry, we’ve all been hurt. What distinguishes ultrarunners is their ability to accept physical or psychological distress as part of the objective, without getting discouraged away from their overall goal. How we survive those stretches is what makes us who we are. Difficulty is inevitable; misery is optional.
(Come to think of it … that’s a pretty good 6-word memoir! Does that get me off the hook for that tag now?)
So it was with that mindset that I completed the final climb at mile 60, and soon spotted the finish area off in the distance below. I honestly felt like I did my strongest running in the last 15 miles of the race, like I could have kept rolling up and down these hills well into the night.
But that’s a race for another day. For today, I was happy to cross the finish line at 11 hours, 48 minutes and head to the food tent. They were out of hamburgers when I got there, which was a bummer, but guess what else they had?
Yahoo! I must have stood by this strawberry bowl for a good 20 minutes or so while runners lingered around swapping stories of their day on the trails. It was a classic ultra scene: the top finishers and midpack clowns like me hanging out together, with easy conversation and no pretense whatsoever.
In particular, I spent several minutes talking to some guy from the Pacific Northwest who acknowledged the difficulty of the course, and was happy have set a small PR. He was amazingly friendly, and I eventually got up the nerve to ask for a picture:
Let’s just say I’m much happier with this photo of Scott Jurek than the one taken 12 hours earlier. It feels a lot better to do things the right way, even if you have to work through a little discomfort to do it.
Of course, the same thing could be said about ultrarunning – as I’m learning better with each passing race.
“All smiles and sunshine … a perfect world on a perfect day.
Everything always works out … I have never felt so great.”
- Rise Against, “Survive”
(Click to play … same disclaimer as above)