Not much to say right now, other than I'm going crazy with anticipation over watching the Spelling Bee - so much, in fact, that I had a momentary panic attack when I learned the contest started today (instead of tomorrow, as I thought), and briefly contemplated faking a seizure in order to get out of work early and watch it.
Luckily, it was only the preliminary rounds that were held today (Thursday), and I'm still on track to watch the final rounds tomorrow (Friday), blogging from the edge of my seat the entire time.
As for today's post, it’s the 5th installment of my Western States diary, which is actually a modified version of a blog post I wrote a couple of months ago about running in the dark. If you’re a consistent reader, I can’t honestly suggest a plausible reason for reading on, except perhaps to see how the same content is written differently for the newspaper than it is for a blog.
Otherwise, check back here next week, when I’ll have a full report of the National Spelling Bee, and I'll hope to report victory in my wager against Momo.
Journey of 100 Miles: A Western States Training Diary
Part 5: Dancing in the Dark
"The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”
- Muhammad Ali
In my preparations for Western States over the past several months, I’ve spent a lot of time running in the dark. It’s an inconvenience that just goes with the territory.
Running 100 miles takes most runners 24 to 30 hours to complete; therefore, I’m expecting to spend at least eight hours running through the night of race weekend - which, thankfully, coincides with the summer solstice, making the night as short as possible.
However, those final 30-35 miles of trail are just as rocky and treacherous as the first 70. Most runners use headlamps and flashlights to help light the way, but maintaining your balance during this stage of the race – which is also when your body is the most fatigued – is a significant challenge. Consequently, many ultrarunners practice running in the dark to develop the necessary skills to “keep the rubber side down” and avoid falling during the night.
Truthfully, logging mileage under cover of darkness isn’t that out of the ordinary for me. For the past decade or so - coincidentally, about the same length of time that I’ve been a father - running has always been a “do it early or don’t do it at all” proposition. Most of my weekday runs are completed by 7 AM, although on weekends I’ll stay out a little later.
On most Saturdays, I finish my morning workout by 9:00 AM. Under normal circumstances, this allows plenty of time to get in whatever mileage I need for the day.
Unfortunately, training for an ultra isn’t usually considered normal circumstances.
Over the last few months, my long training runs have stretched into multiple-hour jaunts through the hills and canyons of Garland Ranch Regional Park. And the longer I want to run, the earlier I have to leave the house.
As a result, on any given Saturday or Sunday (or, with increasing frequency, both) I walk out the door into pitch darkness, equipped with lamps to light my path on the trails.
I mentioned that running in darkness has some practical application for me: in developing balance and dexterity on unpredictable terrain; gaining confidence and familiarity with the lighting systems I’ll rely upon on race weekend; and learning to accommodate the uneasy, ambiguous possibility of becoming a mountain lion snack somewhere deep in the forest (honestly, I haven’t fully accommodated that feeling yet). It’s also a good chance to experience the solitude and isolation that runners frequently grapple with throughout such a long event.
That’s why I don’t mind setting out on my own into the darkness – well, that, plus the fact that it’s hard to convince people to wake up at 4:00 AM to run on dangerous trails in the dark. Like I’ve said before: other people can surprisingly reasonable sometimes.
The main entrance to Garland Ranch is a 4-mile drive from my house - but less than one mile from my street is an alternate entry from where I can access trails that eventually connect to the park’s visitor center. The only catch is that you have to go up a couple of ridgelines and down into a couple of canyons to get there.
After entering the park, my first climb takes me about 1400 feet up a winding fire road to the first ridgeline. The climb takes me most of an hour, and when I reach the top, the only view I’m rewarded with are a few distant lights flickering to life in the homes of all the non-crazy residents of Carmel Valley. In other words … it’s still dark out.
Descending into the first canyon before sunrise always seems to take about 10 times longer than it would in the light, mainly because I’m terrified of falling and breaking an ankle in the dark wilderness (that whole lion bait thing I mentioned before). But eventually I bottom out, and start climbing over the second ridge that takes me toward the park entrance.
This climb levels off in a meadow about 800 feet up, and as I hit the open space, I finally see the first signs of daybreak over the valley. That initial sliver of daylight on the horizon is one of the most welcome sights I ever see in the middle of a long run. No matter how tired I am, daybreak always energizes me to the point that I feel like I can run forever. Sometimes, I’ll continue climbing another 1000 feet to the ridgeline, and by that point, I enjoy the first light of morning from one of the highest vantage points in the whole valley.
That feeling alone is almost enough to make the early wake-up alarm worth the trouble.
After the second climb, it’s another long descent towards the main entrance, and a network of wide, flat fire roads that circumnavigate the visitor center and the Carmel River basin. By the time I get there, the sun has officially risen, and I finally see other souls who woke up early to enjoy a peaceful journey through the park.
I’ll see an older guy with walking poles heading out for a long hike. A twenty-something couple jogging, each one with headphones. A chatty group of women who always smile and wave. And a lot of people taking their dogs for a leisurely stroll.
As I’m passing, there’s nothing that really distinguishes me from the rest of the crowd. With my flashlight tucked under my vest, and my headlamp stowed away in a pocket, there’s no indication that I awoke any earlier than the rest of this group. With several miles on my legs, my cruising speed remains very pedestrian – for all practical purposes, I look like some big, slow guy who rolled out of bed to jog off a few beers from the night before.
Which is just the way I like it, really. I don’t need witnesses to understand the kind of tasks I’m undertaking right now, and these sunrises at Garland aren’t the lights that I’m meant to dance under. I remind myself that all the hours I’ve spent laboring before dawn are merely preparations for the larger battle that awaits me at the end of June.
So I circle the lower trails anonymously, then turn and climb back into the hills to start the long return trip home. This is where my fight is going to be won - behind the lines, out there on the steep climbs and deep canyon trails of this park, in solitude and under cover of darkness.
And when the time comes for Western States, I’ll be more than ready to dance.
May 29, 2008
Not much to say right now, other than I'm going crazy with anticipation over watching the Spelling Bee - so much, in fact, that I had a momentary panic attack when I learned the contest started today (instead of tomorrow, as I thought), and briefly contemplated faking a seizure in order to get out of work early and watch it.
May 26, 2008
A somewhat scattered collection of thoughts today - I'm having a hard time maintaining focus …
* First, in regards to the previous post, I’m leaning toward the hypothesis that the word written on the side of the Mystery Machine says “mean” - which also makes me reconsider my plan to approach the van’s owner to ask for sure. I’m guessing he might not be the most approachable guy in Salinas. But you know I’ll probably do it – because once my curiosity kicks in, there’s no turning back.
I also find it amusing that the first person to ring in with the consensus best answer to deciphering gangster-style graffiti happens to be a pastor. Blogging cracks me up sometimes.
* The National Spelling Bee will be televised this Friday, May 30th, with preliminary rounds in the morning on ESPN, and the final rounds in prime time on ABC. They made a couple of changes to the telecast this year that bear mentioning:
Most significantly, the day of the final rounds was moved from its traditional Thursday schedule to a Friday – which means we’re one step closer to something I’ve been recommending for years: a weekend showcase on par with Super Bowl Sunday or the Indy 500. Personally, I can’t wait until this happens – because it’s getting harder and harder to make up excuses to ditch work each year to watch the opening rounds.
Less importantly – but perhaps more interesting – is who ESPN has assigned as a “sideline reporter”. Remember last year, when I complained about how sports radio hosts Mike & Mike would clown around like jocks and make jokes at the kids expense? Well, this year, the network has taken a different approach.
Instead of Mike & Mike, ESPN and ABC will utilize Erin Andrews, whose drop-dead gorgeous looks have made her one of the hottest commodities – if you don’t believe me, just Google her - in broadcasting. For the record, Andrews knows her stuff – at least when it comes to sports – but I’m not sure what kind of a speller she is. But for one night, the spelling kids (well, the boys, anyway) will be the envy of nearly every collegiate and professional athlete in America – which is as unlikely a scenario as you could ever imagine at the Bee.
And, like we did last year, Momo and I have cast our fates with these awkward young phenoms, with a wager riding on whose contestant advances the furthest. Before you ask – yes, we’ve actually researched the competition, and yes, there’s a lot of pride on the line for us. As Momo said, we’re kindred souls that way.
Finally, some running-related items …
* I’m at the point now where I feel ready to take on Western States. The only problem is that the race is still almost five weeks away – which seems like too much time to just coast through the rest of my training. I need to keep the high mileage up for at least another 2 weeks, but I’m so fatigued lately that the prospect of doing so seems terribly daunting. What I need most of all is to stay focused and disciplined.
On that note: the new video - appropriately titled “Discipline” - from Nine Inch Nails is on the sidebar, and it’s, um … interesting. Kind of funny, very campy, and a little creepy at the end. Give it a click and see what you think.
* I didn’t go to the Western States training camp this weekend. I had every intention of going for at least one day, but another opportunity came up that I considered a much better offer. So instead of spending time on Devil’s Thumb and Michigan Bluff, I spent three days admiring this:
That would be Half Dome, at Yosemite National Park. My son’s 4th grade class took a field trip to the park last week, and I went along as a chaperone. I returned on Friday, and the prospect of getting right back in the car and driving 4 hours to Auburn seemed awfully unreasonable - not to mention, hard to justify to the rest of the family.
It was an incredible time to be at Yosemite: the weather was perfect, the crowds were below normal, and the waterfalls were raging with hurricane intensity. On our second day there, the entire class did a challenging 8-mile hike up the cliffs to the tops of Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall, and back down on the John Muir trail. On the other days, we hiked to Yosemite Fall, Bridalveil Fall, Mirror Lake, and through the giant sequoias of the Mariposa Grove.
So even though it meant skipping the WS training, I wouldn’t have missed the field trip for the world. I mean … how many times do experiences like this come along? For that matter, how many elementary schools take kids to Yosemite for 3 days? I’m certain that I’ve mentioned this before, but under the circumstances it bears repeating: sometimes, it’s very cool to grow up in California.
Truthfully, it's not such a bad place to be a parent, either.
May 22, 2008
It’s been a crazy week, so I just have a couple of brief hits before heading into the weekend …
· The Underwater 50 quest continues with each passing swim workout, although the rate of progress has become maddeningly slow. I can fairly consistently go across the pool, push off the wall, and come back as far as the 6th out of 8 bottom lane lines. On one occasion, I made it to the 7th lane line, which I calculate at roughly 42 or 43 yards, but I haven’t been able to repeat that since it happened 3 weeks ago.
I’ve started to think of it this way: once I’ve gone 40 yards underwater, making it through those last 10 yards to reach 50 are like climbing through the death zone at the top of Mount Everest, where all of my body systems begin to self-destruct because there isn’t any oxygen to maintain them. I’m already incredibly fatigued just to reach that point, whereupon my survival instincts start screaming for me to return to where I can get some air (in this case, above the surface), while my inner drive wants to keep pressing ahead toward the goal, even if it risks my overall well-being.
Maybe that’s not the most optimistic analogy for me to have in mind about this task, but there you go. I’m determined to make it happen someday, though – I’ve come too close to turn away from the objective now. I’m like a mountaineer with summit fever - which probably isn’t the best analogy either. In fact, this is starting to get depressing. Let’s move on …
· Almost every day when I leave my swim workouts from the community college pool, I see a very distinctive van parked somewhere on the street. It’s quite visually arresting, and sometimes I find myself staring at it for 30 seconds or so before moving on. One day, it was parked directly across the street from me, and I spent several minutes staring at it.
It’s not that the van is particularly attractive, or that the design on the side is remarkably artistic. Rather, the graphic has me absolutely baffled – because for the life of me, I can’t figure out what the heck it says.
I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in Los Angeles; I’ve seen my share of graffiti, and I used to be pretty skilled at interpreting it (as well, occasionally, as drawing it – but that’s another story). But clearly I’ve lost my touch – because for as long as I’ve stared at this design, I’m not any closer to deciphering it than I was 6 months ago.
I’ve already decided to ask the owner of the van if I ever encounter him coming or going, but I’ve been unsuccessful in that regard for almost a month. That’s why I’m posting the picture here along with an appeal for help. Click the photo to enlarge it, and if you have any credible guess as to what the heck it says, please let me know.
I’d like to tell you how much time I’ve dwelt on this stupid question, but I have loved ones who read this blog, and they’re already worried enough about my sanity. I’m sure they’d thank you in advance for your cooperation, as I do as well.
May 19, 2008
As if the soreness, fatigue, and burnout of the past two weeks wasn’t enough, I’m suffering one final indignity from all this Western States training: it’s totally screwing up my tan lines.
I’ve mentioned before how I’ve been pretty consistent about swimming twice per week to complement all of the trail mileage I’m running. The Olympic-sized outdoor pool within 5 minutes of my office is an ideal situation: I get a great fitness boost from the workouts, which also blast away any work-related stress, and my skin gets nice and brown under the midday sunshine. It’s a win-win-win, where all of the winners are, you know … me.
So I’m usually reluctant to skip a swim workout, especially when the weather gets unseasonably warm. And when an intense heat wave rolled through our state last week, I was mentally calculating how many laps I should spend doing backstroke to ensure even browning. (Who says there are no practical applications for math?)
Then a training partner dropped me an e-mail that ended with this: Enjoy the weather this week. It should be great heat training.
Heat training. Darn it – I should have remembered that.
Although I live in California, the Monterey Peninsula is renowned for its mild coastal climate, so we rarely see the type of heat that is commonplace on the Western States trail at the end of June. 100 degree days are few and far between, especially before July rolls around. When I learned that record highs were being forecast, I knew that my friend was right – I needed to take advantage of the opportunity.
That’s why on Friday, as the temperature climbed into triple digits, instead of diving into a cool, shimmering pool, I made my way to the hilly, wide open fire roads of my training ground. Instead of stripping down to a swimsuit and goggles, I wore a full complement of running gear. Instead of a refreshing, invigorating workout, I incessantly took in fluids just to sustain myself against ravaging dehydration.
I eventually slogged through 12 miles in the sweltering sun – and sure, I was pleased to have done it, but I have to say I was a little dismayed by the aftereffects on my finely manicured veneer.
My feet and ankles had a clear line of demarcation from where they were covered by my socks. The t-shirt I wore made my forearms noticeably browner than my shoulders. My hand-held water bottle carrier left a stripe across my left knuckles one shade lighter than the rest of the hand. And my visor created a slight disparity between the colors of my forehead and cheeks.
There’s a reason I’m not including pictures with this post. I mean … you can’t even look at me now. I’m hideous.
This week, we’re back to our regularly moderate climate – temps in the 70s instead of the 90s – and I’ll head back to the pool to undo some of the damage that’s been done. But if you needed any further indication of how seriously I’m taking Western States, let this story serve as a reminder of the lengths to which I’m willing to suffer in pursuit of this goal.
I’m keeping my eyes on the prize – even at the expense of my vanity. Don’t let anyone tell you that training to run 100 miles doesn’t require great sacrifice.
May 14, 2008
As promised, today’s post has nothing to do with the Western States 100. Instead, it’s something of a look back, as well as a glimpse of what’s to come; it’s my report on the 2004 Scripps Spelling Bee.
I still remember this event like it was yesterday – it was the day I got hooked on spelling bees. I was transfixed by the competition, and knew it was a story that deserved to be written.
Of course, in 2004, I didn’t have this blog, and didn’t have a newspaper gig … basically, I was just an idiot runner who liked to write things. Eventually this report was sent by e-mail to about 10 friends and family members, most of whom replied with some kind of concern regarding my mental well-being, or made thinly-disguised suggestions of more meaningful ways to spend my time.
(I also had linked to this article once when it was on my old website – so if you were very industrious about 3 years ago, you might have seen this before. But for some reason I doubt it.)
I knew better, though – and every year since then, the Bee has been Must See Television for me. One of the first articles I posted to this blog was my report on the 2005 Bee, and the event has become one of my favorite things to write about over the years.
The other cool things at my disposal now that I didn’t have back then are all the bells and whistles of blogging: links and pictures and video clips and other stuff that that four years ago would have made my head explode. So now instead of taking my word for it, you can watch the pivotal event of the 2004 Bee for yourself, and then tell me if I was exaggerating the drama. (I’ll say no way.)
The second to last paragraph may be esoteric to all but the most hardcore track fans; I considered deleting it from this version, but decided to leave it alone, if for no better reason than to demonstrate what a nerd I used to be for the sport of running.
Two final notes: first, this collection of Bee posts is getting big enough to justify its own sidebar category, so if you’re interested in reading past episodes, I’ve stored them there.
Second, the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee is on Thursday, May 29th, with a daytime telecast on ESPN, and prime-time coverage of the final rounds on ABC. Set your TiVos now, and thank me later.
“Great Moments in Spelling” June 2004
I’ve always considered myself to be a closet geek (although the more I write, the less applicable the “closet” part becomes). Especially when I was younger, most of your garden-variety school-age stereotypes of the nerdy, oddball kid were apparent in me to some degree.
Exhibit A is that I am a very good speller. Not only that, but I think about spelling a lot, like normal people ponder their careers or families.
One of my biggest pet peeves is poor spelling, especially the intentional kind in countless businesses like Quik-E-Mart or products like Froot Loops. If I hear a word spoken and don’t know how it is spelled, I start twitching like Rain Man until I can get my hands on a dictionary.
Imagine my delight, then, when ESPN decided to broadcast not just one, but two full days of the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. last month. Yahoo! Thanks to TiVo, I had recorded six full hours of the Super Bowl of spelling at my disposal, to watch at my leisure and play along with at home.
Yes, I get excited about these things. No, my wife wasn’t impressed.
The defining moment of the Bee happened relatively early, on the first round of the 2nd day. 13-year-old Akshay Buddiga, from Colorado Springs, stood at the podium, asking clarification questions for his assigned word, alopecoid (like a fox, vulpine). Akshay’s brother was a previous Spelling Bee champ, and no siblings have ever won the Bee. While the camera was focused on him in this round, the TV commentator ominously declared, “Akshay is trying to make history here.”
As his preliminary time expired, Akshay’s pupils dilated, his eyes rolled upward, and he fainted onto the floor with a thud as the crowd uttered a shocked, collective gasp. He was only on the floor for a few seconds before he stood up, stumbled to the microphone, and spelled the word correctly- all within the allotted time.
*2008 update: Watch it for yourself! (click to play):
At home, I’m thinking … is this for real? Has a kid ever fainted in the Bee, and stayed in the competition? The audience nearly sprained their wrists clapping for the kid before he took his seat.
In the next round, a Bee official brought him a stool to sit on as he considered his word – and right away, I’m wondering: doesn’t this violate some kind of rule? Like not being allowed maintenance assistance for your bike in a triathlon, or having to walk the course in golf? This stool isn’t considered an unfair advantage somehow? I’m wondering why none of the other kids are having a fit and protesting this. Obviously, they don’t care like I do.
Anyway, Akshay sits in the chair, looking dazed and lethargic, and proceeds to nail lyophilize (to freeze-dry, as with tissue or serum). In successive rounds, he correctly spells hudibrastic, effleurage, oyez, lagniappe, and tralatitious to make the final round. It was like watching Michael Jordan stagger around the court, hitting jumper after jumper in his “flu game” of the 1997 NBA finals- I kept expecting the kid to wrap a wet towel over his head between rounds like Jordan did during the timeouts. By this time, the audience is giving him standing ovations, growing more excited with each passing round.
Finally, it’s down to only two- Akshay against David Tidmarsh, from South Bend – and now I’m thinking, how would you like to be this other kid? As if the pressure of the Bee itself isn’t enough, he can be absolutely certain that every single person in the building, except for his own mother, is cheering for his opponent to win. This is how the Soviet hockey team probably felt in the 1980 Olympics.
David is so nervous that when awaiting his turns between rounds, he slumps in his chair and hides his face behind his numbered placard. In the darkness of the rear auditorium, Bee officials were probably already on the phone to the Disney Company, consulting on who should play Akshay in the movie version. The two spellers trade correct words as the tension mounts.
And then suddenly, the unthinkable happens, as Akshay trips over schwarmerei (excessive, unbridled enthusiasm). The crowd is stunned- how could this happen? He was in the zone! The story clearly wasn’t scripted this way.
The audience momentarily loses its collective schwarmerei as David approaches the microphone. His composure is slowly eroding as he listens to his word, and it’s obvious that he’s perilously close to coming completely unraveled. At home, I’m wondering again - has there ever been a faint and a nervous breakdown in the same Bee?
Mercifully, David finally starts spelling, and takes nearly 60 seconds to correctly say the letters of the winning word autochthonous (native, original), pausing several times to sob and hyperventilate, his voice quivering with equal parts excitement and fear. After winning, he shuffles slowly across the stage, arms limp at his sides, and collapses into a hug from his mom. He needs help from the MC to lift the trophy for the cameras.
Akshay sits down with his brother, ironically cursed to be the second best speller in America, yet only the second best speller in his own house. Seriously … can the Olympics top this sort of drama?
Needless to say, while watching the Bee unfold before me, I thought of many parallels to running.
I recalled runners who have came back to win races after a fall (John Landy, Lasse Viren), and runners who have overcome unforeseen physiological hardships in races to win (Bob Kempanien, Uta Pippig). I thought about the pressure of measuring up to a sibling legacy (Jorge and Edward Torres), and the pain of coming tantalizingly close to victory, only to see it slip away at the last possible instant (Hicham El Guerrouj). I thought of runners trying to succeed when the crowd is against them (Zola Budd), or pushing themselves beyond the point of physical and mental exhaustion to achieve a goal (any ultramarathoners).
*2008 addition: I thought of linking to all of these runners - but remember, I'm in burnout mode. If you want a giant dose of historic running stories, do yourself a favor and wiki search any of their names.
I thought of weaving them into the story to show off the fact that I can make almost any topic relate to running. In the end, I decided to let the Bee narrative stand on its own. Some stories just don’t need outside embellishment to be worth telling.
See other installments of this series on sidebar at right.
“Apathy has rained on me -
Now I'm feeling like a soggy dream -
So close to drowning but I don't mind …
I'll live inside this mental cave -
Throw my emotions in the grave -
Hell, who needs them anyway …”
- Green Day, “Burnout” (click to play – language advisory)
So, um … have I been talking about Western States much lately?
Looking back through my last several posts, that seems to be all I’m fixated on: preparations for the race which is now only 6 weeks away. As Olga predicted, Western States is coming like a freight train - and for the most part, I’m OK with its impending arrival.
OK, that is … except for the fact that I’m completely burnt out.
Ever since Miwok, I’ve struggled with chronic exhaustion that’s almost certainly a byproduct of several high mileage weeks stacked upon one another. It takes tremendous force of will to get out of bed in the mornings. Mile 2 of a routine training run feels like mile 40 of an ultra. I’ve cut some workouts short, skipped others entirely, and this week's planned 80 miles will probably end up closer to 50.
I’ve also become profoundly disinterested in the workings of the world around me. Things that would normally excite or interest me instead conjure nothing more than apathy, and I’ve pretty much been emotionally flatlining over the past two weeks.
(American Idol is still going on, right? Is my rocker guy still in it? Have any tweener girls thrown their underwear onstage while Archuleta was singing yet? Is Britney still crazy? Is Mariah still married? Has anyone seen Jacob on Lost yet? See, I'm not myself - I should know these things.)
All of this is normal, of course – an occupational hazard of the prolonged, increasingly intense buildup to an event that has been the focal point of the last six months of my training. A challenge of this scale certainly requires a measure of tunnel vision to eliminate any distractions from the task ahead. It’s not the first time this has happened, and it almost certainly won’t be the last.
So this is to be expected … but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. In fact, occasionally I just want to hide - to think (and write) about something else, anything else. Therefore, I’m forcing myself - hopefully starting tomorrow – to include some posts as intentional diversions, and to remind me that there’s still more to my life than an ultramarathon.
(As to whether those other things have any tangible merit on their own is highly debatable. I didn’t say there were important topics coming up – just other topics.)
I’m also planning a few rest days next week, before charging full speed ahead with the freight train bearing down on me. I’ll be the guy running alongside the rails before hopping onto the platform of one of the final cars, then hanging on for dear life to enjoy all the excitement of the ride.
And don’t worry – I’ll be sure to tell you all about it.
May 11, 2008
In the fourth installment of my Western States training diary, I explain the rationale for having pacers during 100-mile events, and describe how I came to decide on my own pacer for the night of June 28th.
When I first thought about doing Western States, I didn’t think I’d bother with having a pacer. It felt like too much of an inconvenience to ask of somebody, and I also had this notion that the point of the race was for the challenge to be undertaken alone, without external assistance of any kind.
Eventually, a couple of things changed my mind. First, every runner on the course gets some sort of external assistance, whether it’s taking fluids from aid stations, getting a blister lanced and taped, or having dry shoes transported to a drop point. It seemed silly to deny myself a pacer based on a principle that I would already have broken several times during the course of race weekend.
More importantly, there was this: ultrarunning is an extremely selfish, solitary endeavor. Very few opportunities come along where somebody else might actually benefit in some way from our obsessive athletic pursuits. It occurred to me that running the final miles of an ultra with somebody might be one of those chances.
If someone is willing to accompany me through what might be – literally and figuratively – my darkest miles, whether it’s because they want a taste of the race experience or are just extending a goodwill gesture, it just seems like bad form for me to deny such a request. There was one important stipulation, however – the person had to be a good match.
I clowned on my pacer a little bit in my Miwok race report – but honestly, I feel very good about the miles we’ve covered so far, and how we’ll work together at the end of June. And that’s the main idea I wanted this article to convey.
**Journey of 100 Miles: A Western States Training Diary
Part 4: Tell Me Thy Company
“Tell me thy company, and I will tell thee what thou art”
- Cervantes, from Don Quixote
Over the previous three articles, I’ve spent a great deal of time describing all manner of potentially dangerous elements encountered at the Western States Endurance Run. As if running 100 miles wasn’t hard enough, athletes worry about becoming lost in the wilderness, getting bit by a rattlesnake or attacked by a mountain lion, suffering accidents due to sleep deprivation at night, or succumbing to any number of medical conditions that can cause an untimely end to their race.
So … you get the idea. There’s danger everywhere.
It’s all pretty intimidating stuff to novice ultrarunners – not to mention, a good number of veteran ones. Sometimes it seems like you need to be some kind of superhero just to attempt such an adventure. Either that, or you have to be delusional.
If you’re a superhero, you need a dedicated partner. If you’re a delusional nobleman, you need an agreeable squire. Either way, I knew that if I was going to take on this Western States quest, my preparation would include not just training, but also recruiting a faithful sidekick: a Sancho Panza to my Quixote; Robin to my Batman; Chewie to my Han Solo; Tennille to my Captain.
(Believe me, I could go on …but they’d just get sillier.)
At ultramarathons, sidekicks are officially referred to as “pacers”, and play a significant role in helping a runner successfully finish the race. They do not travel the entire distance with the runner, but join in the fun during the later stages of the race. At Western States, pacers are allowed beginning at mile 62, and will typically cover the final 38 miles with their designated runner.
Those miles correspond to the time that darkness envelopes the course, and when the runner’s fatigue level can potentially lead to a catastrophic error in judgment. The period of the race when a runner feels the most sluggish is also the most important time to remain mentally sharp – and that’s where a pacer comes in handy.
(As a historical sidenote, the very first pacer in a 100-mile race was one Gordy Ainsleigh, the endurance pioneer whose solo run in the Tevis Cup horse race gave birth to the Western States Endurance Run, and by extension, the sport of ultrarunning. In 1976, two years after running the WS trail for the first time, Ainsleigh paced his friend “Cowman” Shirk through the final stretches of the same course. When looking for a pacer, it’s nice to know someone who’s just as crazy as you are.)
Finding a suitable sidekick is a much harder task than it first appears. The person has to be a pretty solid runner – because although he’s only doing a portion of the 100-mile race, that portion (38 miles) is still pretty darn long. He has to be selfless, attentive, and considerate – and, as mentioned earlier, perhaps a little bit crazy.
You’d be amazed at how few people respond favorably to the following proposition: “How would you like to drive up to the mountains to run for 38 miles with me on rocky, hilly trails in the middle of the night?” OK, maybe it’s just amazing to me. People can be surprisingly rational sometimes.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to look very far to score an ideal sidekick. In fact, I didn’t even have to look at all – the right person simply volunteered.
Richard is a fellow Carmel Valley resident who runs with me on a regular basis, and is one of a group of local runners who did a 50-mile race together last fall. He and I both applied for the Western States lottery – then after I got in and he didn’t, he offered his services as my pacer.
It seemed like a good fit: he was someone I already know and – even more importantly – get along with. (When you’re considering spending 12 tiring hours with somebody, that person had better be someone you actually like.) His volunteer gesture demonstrated a willingness to put aside his own interests on my behalf, which seemed like an impressive quality as well. So I gladly accepted his offer.
Just like that, I found my Sancho. The next step was to figure out exactly what I’ll need him to do for me on this fantastic journey.
In some ultras, a pacer can carry extra food or drink for the runner to consume along the trail – a service often referred to as “muling” (quite fittingly, since a mule is what Quixote’s Sancho rode. Who knew ultras could be so literary?). However, to my great disappointment, the Western States Run specifically prohibits this practice. So my initial plan to have Richard push a cartful of ice cream sandwiches alongside me would have to be revised.
I started to compile a list of reasons I wanted another person out on the trail with me in the middle of the night, and here’s what I came up with:
* Someone to carry extra lights to see the trail. Like, maybe 20 extra headlamps and flashlights strapped to various parts of his body.
* Someone to stand between me and any bear and/or mountain lion we might encounter on the trail. And maybe …
* Someone who can tell some good jokes.
Admittedly, it wasn’t a very thorough list – but like I said, my ice cream cart idea would be illegal. I wasn’t sure what else to consider.
Seeking help, I contacted a few veteran Western States runners I know. I inquired about what tasks they request of their pacers – and their responses surprised me somewhat. They mentioned a couple of logistical details I hadn’t thought of - such as having an extra set of eyes to find the trail markings, or helping to get water bottles filled at aid stations – but the overwhelming opinion was that the benefit of having a pacer isn’t so much for physical conveniences as it is for psychological benefit.
Some of the suggestions I received about the role of a pacer were:
* Keep me entertained with conversation, or …
* Respect the silence when necessary
* Be patient with my mood swings throughout the night
* Assist me to unleash my best powers, and to find my inner strength (Hmm … is Tony Robbins available?)
* Keep me encouraged, positive, and/or distracted
It all sounded a bit strange at first – I mean, this isn’t exactly stuff you can learn from a manual. And I really enjoyed these next two items:
* Be positive or shut up
* Make me feel like a rock star
I was starting to think that instead of a runner, what I really needed was a self-help guru. However, the final e-mail I received told me this: “Training partners and good friends, the ones who know you well, make the best pacers.” That seemed to make a lot of sense.
Richard’s a good training partner, a good friend, and he knows me well. I think I’m in pretty solid company with him. As to whether he makes me unleash my inner strength or feel like a rock star … I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
After reading those e-mails, I’m finding the idea of having a sidekick to be a pretty nice thing – and I think I’ve got the right guy to help me chase my windmills. I’m confident that Richard and I will do great together - so much, in fact, that I feel like we need some kind of catchy nickname. Unfortunately, most of the cool ones have already been claimed.
The Dynamic Duo is taken. Butch and Sundance has been used. So has Dumb and Dumber. Maybe we’ll just rip off a famous ‘80s movie, and call this whole thing “Donald and Richard’s Excellent Adventure” – or perhaps something better will come to mind at some point further down the trail.
Then again, I suppose the name we come up with doesn’t matter. What’s important is the way we’ll be focused on the same goal, and how we’ll work together to reach the finish line in Auburn on June 29th.
It also occurs to me that having a pacer alongside you during a race such as Western States might be symbolic of a larger life lesson – namely, that we all benefit at some point from the goodwill of others.
Sure, it’s possible to run a 100-mile race solo – and some people do. But it seems that doing so would make the whole process a little scarier, a lot more lonely and difficult, and potentially more dangerous. On the other hand, sharing the adventure with someone close to you makes everything more enjoyable and rewarding.
This summer I’ll be on the receiving end of generous kindness – so when the time comes for me to reciprocate similar assistance, I’ll be more than happy to provide it. Some days you’ll be the runner, other days you’re the mule – but as long as us crazy people always stick together, we’re both certain to enjoy the journey.
May 6, 2008
“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)
May 2, 2008
As I was writing the latest installment of my Western States series, one pervading thought stuck in my mind: Olga's going to hate this.
She and I have exchanged enough blog posts and comments and emails for me to understand that she’s about as tough an ultrarunner as you’ll find anywhere. It must have something to do with her being Russian; in all likelihood, while I was growing up watching Bugs Bunny cartoons and eating Fruity Pebbles, she was doing … I’m not sure what, exactly, but probably something much more strenuous and character-building. Probably in the snow.
By now I’m used to her race reports describing determination and perseverance through conditions that would leave most of us curled up on the ground. And every time I write something about how difficult Western States might be, she slaps me with a comment like, “Stop complaining – it’s not that bad.” Her experiences have helped me temper the impending sense of doom I sometimes feel when thinking about all the things that could possibly go wrong on my journey from Squaw Valley to Auburn.
But I also felt that the topic of this article was an important one: namely, the staggering degree to which ultrarunners depend on countless medical personnel and other volunteers to provide a safety net around what frequently amounts to a 100-mile tightrope walk.
The runners need the medical folks – but in recent years, the medical community has also come to rely upon ultrarunners as a valuable source of information to enhance their learning. That’s why it’s unfortunate when members of the two groups find themselves in adversarial positions – as sometimes happens in the middle of an ultra.
If nothing else, I thought it was an interesting story to tell.
As for Olga’s reaction – I can’t tell you for sure what it’s going to be, but I’m happy to say that she and I will be able to discuss it in person. We’ll both be running at Miwok this weekend, and we’ll have a lot of miles to talk it over.
One final note before today’s article: instead of linking back and forth at the end of each post, I’ve started keeping an archive of this series on the sidebar at right. Check there to see previous installments, today or anytime.
Journey of 100 Miles: A Western States Training Diary
Part 3: Wild Western Medicine
“You look into their eyes and see if the soul is separating from the body.”
- Bob Lind, Western States Endurance Run physician, commenting on when to pull a runner from the race
One major distinction between road racing and ultrarunning, besides the obvious difference of race distance, is the degree of danger that competitors encounter on a regular basis.
All road racers, from 5K runners to marathoners, contemplate risk from time to time. We all know stories of runners who have suffered dehydration, heat stroke, or even heart attacks during the course of competition. Fortunately, the occurrence of severe incidents at road races is somewhat on par with the odds of getting struck by lightning.
Nearly every runner lining up at the start of a road race is reasonably certain that he (or she) will make it to the finish line; the only questions are how long it will take, and what condition he’ll be in once he gets there. Marathoners are often aware that something life-threatening can potentially occur, but such danger is typically only a small whisper in the back of their minds once the starting gun sounds.
For ultrarunners, on the other hand, that danger is a full-throated roar. It’s a threat that competitors have to stare directly in the face for hours on end, and one that frequently gets the better of many runners by the time the race is done.
At last year’s Western States run, more than 30 percent of the runners who started the race in Squaw Valley were unable to make it to the finish line in Auburn. The year before that, only 53% of the starters finished the race. Any year that sees a finisher percentage greater than 70% is considered a “good” year. These numbers aren’t unique to Western States – in fact, some ultras have drop rates approaching 50% annually.
Throughout the Western States course, there are medical checkpoints where runners are weighed and examined, and they must be deemed suitable to continue the event. This is another remnant of the race’s origin as a horse race; the Tevis Cup features veterinarians stationed at regular intervals to inspect the well-being of the horses.
(Interestingly, the annual dropout rate is slightly higher for the horse event than it is for the human one – which probably speaks both to the sensibility of horse owners, and the mule-headedness of ultrarunners.)
Running 100 miles in temperatures that frequently top 100 degrees isn’t something the human body is normally equipped to perform. There are countless physical maladies that can befall athletes attempting the feat – so many, in fact, that all manner of healthcare professionals are utilized to ensure runner safety. On race weekend, approximately 50 physicians and 100 nurses are available on the course along with podiatrists, paramedics, EMTs, chiropractors, physical therapists and massage therapists.
On a related note – if you’re a healthcare provider looking to drum up a little extra business, you’d be well advised to hang out in the Sierras during the last weekend in June. New clients might literally crawl out of the woodwork.
While the runners are in extremely capable hands during their 100-mile adventure, there’s definitely an element of frontier medicine practiced on the dusty trails during race weekend. Take blisters, for example – the bane of any ultrarunner’s existence, sometimes growing so large as to span the entire length of the foot or ankle. At Western States, the tried-and-true remedy is to: 1) lance and drain the blister, 2) squeeze a tube of super glue into the blister to fill the space once occupied by fluid, and 3) cover the whole thing with a big piece of duct tape. Isn’t that just how Doc Holliday would have done it?
(Before you laugh, consider this – it’s effective, and a lot cheaper this way. I mean … who needs medical supplies when you can accomplish the same result for $3.95 from the local hardware store?)
Speaking of blisters - Western States runners also make for such unusual case presentations that the race is included as part of graduate school study. Podiatry students monitor the course at various stations to witness all the disgusting injury manifestations that can result from running for multiple hours under scorching heat, through river crossings and across rocky trails. So I guess if the bottom layers of my feet start peeling off, my agony will be somewhat comforted by the knowledge that I’m making a small contribution to science.
Over the years, word has gotten around that common sense-challenged ultrarunners make for good lab rats. Consequently, many medical researchers have jumped at the opportunity to attend these races and conduct studies documenting how the body responds to various types of extraordinary stress.
Over the past few years, no fewer than 10 published medical studies have focused on Western States runners, featuring such ominous topics as immune system suppression, respiratory tract cell destruction, muscle wasting and severe inflammatory syndromes, and cardiac damage incurred during the course of running 100 miles. Researchers invariably find runners with physiological markers which under normal circumstances – say, if they wandered into an emergency room - would get them admitted to the hospital with IV fluids, a full metabolic workup, and a surgical consult.
The potential medical conditions that can develop are almost too numerous to mention - but a list of the most prominent concerns would include heat stroke, altitude sickness, renal (kidney) shutdown, dehydration and hyponatremia (low sodium balance), persistent nausea and vomiting, heart failure, hypothermia, and injuries from falling. Fortunately, most of these conditions are easily preventable if symptoms are treated quickly; the problem is that ultrarunners tend to ignore small problems – or for that matter, very large ones - even if their overall well-being is jeopardized.
The concern is magnified after darkness descends upon the race, when minor complications can rapidly escalate into threatening situations due to the runner’s increasing fatigue (both physical and mental), and the added difficulty of locating a runner in the darkness should assistance be needed. Therefore, medical personnel often find themselves with very difficult decisions to make when it comes to deciding whether to pull an athlete from the race. Usually, the person who argues against them the loudest is the runner.
Keep in mind that the folks who sign up for 100-mile events aren’t usually the type to withdraw from a race simply because they feel tired. Remember, these are crazy people we’re talking about. More likely, they are so driven and focused on reaching their goal that they will overlook or ignore potentially harmful symptoms in order to press ahead at all costs.
They’re used to dealing with pain. They can handle an enormous amount of physical discomfort. More than likely, they are willing to trade several days or weeks of recuperation for the chance of reaching the finish line under their own power. And when they get tired, they don’t often think rationally about the consequences of refusing the intervention that’s offered on the course.
Further complicating the issue is that most doctors who work the race have been shocked by the runners more times than they can remember. Nearly every aid station volunteer has a story of some runner who looked like death warmed over somehow finding the ability to rebound, gain strength, and finish the race after everybody had recommended a dropout. Ultrarunners are typically of the mindset that “it doesn’t always get worse” – meaning, if they can somehow ride out an extremely rough patch, they’ll feel better at some point further down the trail.
This philosophy is often a direct contradiction to a physician’s conservative instincts in protecting his or her patient from harm. So how do they determine when to pull a runner?
The introductory quote is about as accurate, specific, and scientific as you’ll find – which is to say, not very much. I guess they hope they’ll know it when they see it. And I hope I won’t find myself on the receiving end of such a decision.
A friend of mine is an emergency medicine physician. We’ve commented to each other that while it’s nice to have each other’s acquaintance, we hope to never encounter one another in an official capacity. When it comes to the medical personnel at Western States, I tend to feel the same way.
I’m thankful and grateful that those folks are out there, and I’m indebted to them for providing an environment that’s as safe as possible for runners under such unusual circumstances. Beyond that, I hope to never have the pleasure of benefiting from their expertise.
After all, I’ve got a race I need to finish.