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August 28, 2008

Olympic Depression

Given that the Closing Ceremonies wrapped up almost a week ago, it’s somewhat late to write a postmortem on the Olympic Games – but when you have a newspaper column that only appears only a couple of times per month, occasionally the timing gets screwed up like that.

Additionally, in light of all my 100-mile hysteria, I managed to neglect posting anything about the Olympic track and field events that I so passionately promoted in this space just before the Beijing Games got underway. Make no mistake, I was still watching as many races as possible – but unfortunately, the majority of the coverage left me feeling dissatisfied.

Those issues are the topic of this week’s Monterey Herald column, in which my friend Mike and I were more specifically focused on our perspectives as fans of distance running (and then, as is our custom, we got a little bit silly towards the end). Actually, the running contingent wasn’t even the most afflicted fan base at these Games; God help you if you tried (like me) to watch any of the triathlon or open-water swimming events.

Anyway, the column is below – which all likelihood will represent my first and last words on the Beijing Olympics for the foreseeable future.


Running Life 8/28/08 “Olympic Depression”

Runners are used to being misfits — so it will be no surprise to us if we're in the minority with the opinion we're about to offer: namely, that we didn't enjoy watching the Beijing Olympic Games very much. Instead of being impressed by all of that "faster, higher, stronger" stuff, we found ourselves depressed about the competitions that interested us the most.

See, here's the thing about being a distance runner: no matter how old you are, or how fast you are, you get extremely little recognition for your accomplishments. Even when you're among the best in the world, you're doomed to an anonymous, impoverished career. You can even be overshadowed under the bright glare of the Olympic flame.

This wasn't always the case. There was a time not too many Olympiads ago where the 1,500m run was the premiere event of the Games, with the 10K and marathon a close second and third. While we understand the interest in the seemingly huge variety of sports that have attained Olympic status recently, we hate seeing our beloved events kicked to the curb. (In a related story, we're puzzled over NBC's determination to make every person in America a platform diving fan.)

We've always known it was tough to be a competitor in distance running events — what we didn't realize was how difficult it would be just to watch these races at home. Most nights, we waited patiently through synchronized diving and trampoline gymnastics and preliminary BMX heats (called "motos" — See, we were actually paying attention) without any idea when our coveted events might appear.

Unfortunately, TV listings weren't much help to us, either — they'd only list "track and field" without mentioning whether it was the 5K final or the prelims of the women's shot put. Our options were to record and wade through 20 hours of coverage each day, or take our chances that some of the high-profile distance races would be shown in prime time. You already know how that one panned out.

Even when we found our races, the coverage was sadly limited. For example, the women's 10K was televised at 2 a.m. — and even at that late hour, NBC only aired the first four minutes and last four minutes of the race. Consequently, most U.S. viewers missed an incredible performance from Shalane Flanagan, who won a bronze medal in an American record time of 30:22.

It's almost certain that nobody at NBC suspected Flanagan was going to medal, which explains how the coverage got buried in the middle of the night. It also illustrates another sad truth of distance running: if there aren't any Americans competing for medals, you have zero chance of seeing the event on TV. During the women's marathon, American cameras didn't even show the finish of Blake Russell, the only U.S. woman to complete the race, who came in less than one minute behind world-record holder Paula Radcliffe.

However, fans of distance running enjoy these races even if U.S. athletes are not involved. It's like being an American soccer fan who enjoys watching David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo. We always cheer for American favorites like Kara Goucher, Ryan Hall, and Dathan Ritzenhein, but we also enjoy the brilliance of Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, Aussie Craig Mottram, Kenyan Catherine Ndereba, and other foreign distance running heroes.

Unfortunately, we realize that these folks will always play second banana to marquee names like Phelps, Nastia, or Walsh and May (all very attractive to look at, by the way — which is no small factor in TV exposure). So it's clear that distance running needs a bit of an image makeover. At the same time, maybe we could infuse a bit of running's old-fashioned sensibility into some of the higher profile sports.

For example, it seems like there's always a controversy about gymnastics scoring. This year, Nastia Liukin lost a gold medal to a competitor with the exact same score. If runners were in charge, we'd alter the events to eliminate any scoring issues. Take the balance beam; instead of 90-second routines that are different for each competitor, we'd set up a row of several parallel beams that are about 50 meters in length, then have the gymnasts race on the beams simultaneously. They'd still be required to do four back flips and two pirouettes and other tricks before they dismount at the other end — but in this case, the fastest gymnast who gets across without falling wins. Controversy solved!

There's no question that swimming is one of the most popular events at the Games, even when Phelps isn't in the pool. Some runners might find it strange that swimming has several races over the same distance using four different strokes. For runners, the object of races is to reward the person who gets from point A to point B the fastest, regardless of what type of stride they use — but maybe this is an area we could tweak to our advantage for next time.

We're thinking that the runners could have competitions at all the standard distances, but include hopping, skipping, and backward running categories in addition to the usual "running forward" technique. They could also have medley events for those who excel in all four disciplines. Throw in a couple of relays (forward-style and medley), and a talented guy like Usain Bolt could definitely win eight or more gold medals.

It's sad that we may someday need to resort to carnival-style stunts in order to attract viewers to what were once the most prestigious events in the Olympics. What we really need is a stunningly beautiful, overwhelmingly dominant, American-born runner who can enter 10 different events as the odds-on favorite — but sadly, that wish may go ungranted for quite a while.

In the meantime, we'll continue to hunt around the TV dial in the dead of night, resigned to our pitiful fate as frustrated fans of long distance running.


August 26, 2008


*with apologies to Steven Levitt, who probably never envisioned such nonsense …

**and to anyone who doesn't like looking at gross foot pictures. You might want to skip this post.

As soon as I took off my shoes following the Headlands 100, I knew that both of my big toenails were doomed.

They bothered me a bit during the race, but never to the extent that I felt the need to stop and deal with them on the course – so I made an ongoing decision to just power through those issues and deal with the aftermath, um … afterwards. Call it a rookie mistake. In the ensuing weeks, both of the nails started to wither, and they've had that “dead on the vine” look for many days now.

The right one was the first to fail, coming partially detached, and prompting me to finish the job after I came home from work earlier this week. In the midst of my pulling and wrenching, my 7-year-old daughter strolled into our bathroom, which led to the following exchange:

Daughter: What are you doing?

Me: I’m pulling off my dead toenail.

Daughter: Cool!

Me: I know – it’s totally cool. How many of your friends have ever seen the back side of a big toenail?

Daughter: Hey! I’ve got an idea: you should put the toenail under your pillow, and see if you get money for it, like when you lose a tooth.

Me: You know what? … That’s a fantastic idea. How about if I give you the toenail, so you can put it in your tooth blanket tonight? Let’s see if we get some money.

So that’s exactly what she did. And to our shock and delight, the next morning she found a dollar bill wrapped up in her blanket where my toenail had been. My lost toenail became my daughter’s financial gain – and after she explained as much to her 4-year-old sister, the younger sibling now wants to get in on the act once the other toenail falls off.

Luckily, before it disappeared into the fairy ether, I took a picture of my foot sans big toenail (don’t act like you didn’t expect this):

In regards to the photo, allow me to answer a few inevitable questions:

1) Yes, I shaved my toes for the photo. This should shock exactly nobody.

2) It doesn’t hurt nearly as much as you might think. The sensation is more of a mild downward pressure, like if somebody were lightly stepping on your big toe – that’s what it feels like all the time when I’m wearing shoes.

3) So far, it hasn’t prevented me from running or swimming, but my cycling shoes are a bit uncomfortable because of their narrow toes. But that shouldn’t be a problem, since I don’t have any triathlons coming up for … oh, wait. Bugger.

Those questions are the easy ones to answer; more challenging are the ones my two daughters are considering for the potential return of the Tooth and/or Toenail Fairy. This recent development has turned their comprehension of the whole fairy system completely inside out.

Accordingly, my 7-year-old is currently compiling a list of questions to tuck in with the next toenail, chief among them:

Dear Toenail Fairy –

Are you the same as the Tooth Fairy?

It seems like a simple enough question - however, for my daughter and me, it’s only a conversation starter, as these follow-up questions illustrate.

If so: how did that occur? Is it part of your regular job description, or did you improvise when you saw the tooth pocket filled up? Is collecting toenails like cross-training, or simply a moonlighting gig to earn a few extra body parts on the side? Which are more valuable: teeth because they’re cooler looking and last longer, or toenails because they are so rare (albeit somewhat disgusting)? And should we call you by a different name?

If not: that means there are separate Tooth Fairies and Toenail Fairies, right? Who decides what kind of fairy you’ll be? Is there a regular rotation, or are there tryouts and a selection process? Is it more prestigious to be one type of fairy instead of another, or is it a classless society like Fairy socialism? If there’s a hierarchy of positions, does more extensive education and/or training improve your place in the pecking order? Do you have to pay your dues as a Toenail Fairy (assuming those are the lower rungs) and climb the corporate fairy ladder before being promoted to a Tooth Fairy? Is there some kind of Fairy CEO in charge of the whole conglomerate, or is the system completely deregulated? And why don’t you pay as much as the Tooth Fairy?

OK … so I took a bit of literary license with the wording of some of those queries – but trust me, these are the discussions my daughters and I are having lately. To them, it's some sort of fairy riddle, hidden in a fairy puzzle, wrapped in a fairy enigma.

I haven’t the foggiest idea what any of the correct responses are, but I know one thing for certain: time is running out on my other big toenail. And when it finally succumbs to its own mortality, it will be tucked inside a blanket pocket alongside a note demanding some answers.

The clock is ticking.


August 24, 2008

Sign of the Times

(Admin note: as predicted, I've got a few more loose ends to tie up before moving on from this month's 100-miler. This will be the final Headlands post before getting back to business as usual, I promise.)

“Come mothers and fathers throughout the land –
And don't criticize what you can't understand -
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command –
Your old road is rapidly agin'.
Please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand –
For the times they are a-changin'.”

-Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”

Before you get the wrong idea – this post won't incite any sort of social protest: it's about the minor, but somewhat symbolic changing of the guard around my house in the wake of this month’s Headlands 100. (But in my defense, there's never really a bad reason for including what might be the best song lyrics of all time.)

Anyway ... back to the event. One of the items included in our goodie bag on race morning was this:

It’s your standard-fare plastic license plate frame produced by many races and athletic companies. I’ve had other ones given to me in the past, and they usually go into the recycling bin very shortly thereafter. If PCTR had been charging for them, I almost certainly wouldn’t have bought one.

But since I got this one for free, and since I had such a great experience there, and since I feel like I’m headed down a new road of sorts … I went ahead and put the frame on my car. But that’s only half of the story.

The second, more important half involves the plate that my new frame replaced:

It’s a Big Sur Marathon frame that I actually paid for, more than ten years ago.

The frame was placed during a phase in my life when the Big Sur Marathon meant everything to me. It was the race that defined me as a runner, the one that I built each year’s race schedule around, the one that preoccupied my thoughts during almost every single training session.

Over a period of more than a dozen years, Big Sur gave me my greatest challenges, my greatest joy, and my proudest moments as an athlete. I attached a far greater portion of my identity than I’m willing to admit to my participation and performance in that race. Back then, if anybody had told me that there would be a day when I voluntarily walked away from the Big Sur Marathon, I would have called him insane.

But now, that old road seems rapidly aging. I skipped Big Sur this year in order to concentrate on my buildup to Western States, and I’m 99.9% certain to skip it again in 2009. What’s surprising to me is that I don’t feel one bit of remorse for this change of focus. I guess the lesson here is that having a passion for events is OK, as long as it doesn’t blind you to other opportunities that may come along later.

Finally, I received the following item in the mail this week:

It’s a ceramic coaster - my award for finishing the Headlands 100.

Apparently the PCTR race directors have earned more belt buckles than they know what to do with – so in order to spare novice 100-mile runners like me the same awful fate, they purposely don’t award buckles. Um … OK then. I suppose I should be grateful. At least, that's what I keep telling myself.

So I’m now the very proud owner of a new ceramic coaster. It’s pretty cool looking, I guess. But as I stared at it a bit more, another thought occurred to me: it’s really not that much bigger or heavier than a belt buckle. If I slapped some glue on the back and attached it to some kind of strap, don't you think I could strut with it around my waist for a day or two?

Sure, people will think I’m an idiot … but at least they’ll know I’m an idiot who can run 100 miles.


August 20, 2008

Leaving the Shore (Headlands 100 Diary)

As you can imagine, I’m taking one or two more posts to wrap up this Headlands 100 business before focusing on other events – one of which, according to my sidebar, is rapidly approaching in less than two weeks. So indulge me with the ultra thing for a little bit longer, and then we’ll move on.

Today’s post is the conclusion of my Monterey Herald training diary, renamed - and perhaps drawn out a bit past its welcome – after the cancellation of Western States at the end of June. I mentioned a while back that I felt guilty for writing a series that ended so anticlimactically; so this column was my chance to write the ending I had in mind all along.

However, once I got started, it proved more challenging than I expected, in that I wasn’t sure what the focus should be. I couldn’t really stuff a 4500-word race report into a 1000-word column - and since I couldn’t realistically ask to run photos of foggy hillsides and steep staircases and wonderful friends and dudes with purple Mohawks, the report wouldn’t have been very fun to do anyway.

So I tried to tackle the question that came up most in conversation throughout this whole series: namely, why do we do it? Remember, this series was targeted at everyday newspaper readers - as opposed to bloggers or magazine readers or local endurance athletes who already know me – and for that crowd, there’s almost no rational explanation for this compulsion of ours. Whether the series were printed in ten parts or a hundred, that simple question would always be the lynchpin binding all the other stories together.

I still don’t know if I answered the question to most people’s satisfaction, but at least I gave it an honest shot.


Journey of 100 Miles: A Western States Headlands 100 Training Diary

Part 10: Leaving the Shore

"The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore."
- Vincent Van Gogh

It’s relatively easy to write about the what, where, and how of a 100-mile trail race. The difficult part is trying to describe the why.

Such as … why does anyone want to do such a thing? What’s the appeal of a sporting event that takes a full day and night to complete - one that grinds your body down and tears your willpower to shreds, all for no tangible reward? What’s the point of this whole sport, anyway?

Truth be told, I was asking a lot of those same questions myself on August 9th, as I stared out into the sea from Rodeo Beach in Marin County, the start area of last weekend’s Headlands 100. Over the course of the next 24 hours, I came up with some reasonable (to me, anyway) answers to the “whys” – but first, let’s get the what, where, and how over with.

The short story is, I finished the race. It took 22 hours and 55 minutes of constant forward motion, up huge climbs and down treacherous descents, through the heat of day and the cold darkness of night, fighting off a handful of problems that threatened to derail me along the way. 40% of the runners who left the start line on Saturday eventually dropped out of the race; fortunately, I wasn’t one of them.

(However, I can’t claim that I came through all in one piece; as of this writing, I’m one toenail short, with another one that appears equally endangered. All things considered, that’s not such a high price to pay for the experience I enjoyed.)

In almost every regard, the race unfolded exactly like I hoped it would. I ran the first 50 miles conservatively, enjoying the beautiful day and the scenery and the company of those around me as much as possible. As the sun went down and the miles wore on, I kept a steady pace, then finished strong, even completing the last 25 miles faster than the previous 25.

My favorite memory will probably be the hours between midnight and daybreak, running through pitch blackness, fighting off fatigue and soreness, with nothing but a flashlight and headlamp to light my way. The miles were lonely and quiet, with only the occasional flickers of other runners’ headlamps in the distance for company.

It reminded me of playing flashlight tag when I was a kid: dashing around bushes and down dark pathways, watching for flickers of light that revealed someone else’s location, while being cautious to conceal my own position in the process. Best of all, this game continued all night long, without anyone’s parents making us come in for the night just when things got exciting.

I suppose that’s as good a point as any to start answering the “why” of ultrarunning – namely, it makes me feel like a kid for a while. It satisfies my sense of adventure, and indulges my inner explorer – not only in discovering the natural beauty of my surroundings, but in pushing towards the limits of my physical ability.

And just as a child experiences countless challenges and difficulties while struggling toward maturity, the most trying miles of an ultramarathon provide opportunities for personal growth. Iron is only forged by fire, and diamonds by pressure; so too is inner strength built by overcoming hardships.

There’s an overwhelming cultural mentality today that difficult tasks should be avoided; that volitional discomfort is an indication of some psychological oddity. Meanwhile, ultramarathons promise exactly the opposite; the expectation is that the race will be strenuous. Your body will get battered, your spirit will get broken, and you’ll question your sanity and emotional stability. (What’s more – you’ll pay somebody a lot of money in race fees for this to happen. If it weren’t for ultrarunning, there’d be a huge boom in masochism support groups. Clearly, we need this sport.) It’s no wonder most people think we’re insane.

But here’s the good part: our gain for suffering through all of this is something akin to enlightenment. We understand that our bodies and minds are capable of far more than most people ever realize - that the primary limiting factors in life’s journeys are the extent to which our minds can dream, and to which we’re willing to work to achieve them.

These truths we discover about ourselves are what keep us coming back for more. In that regard, ultrarunners are the fishermen leaving the shore: we’re fully aware that the storms might be terrible – but the rewards we harvest by venturing into the sea are always worth the hardship.

Now, I’m the first person to admit that ultrarunning is a crazy sport. It’s time consuming and physically draining and profoundly trivial in comparison to most other things in life. While I take pleasure in this activity, I’m probably not the healthiest of role models for someone to emulate. In light of that, you might wonder why I’ve been writing about the whole thing so much.

I guess the best way I can explain it is to say that I enjoy watching documentaries about expeditions to Mount Everest. I like seeing open heart surgeries on television. I love to watch rock climbers scale the face of El Capitan with nothing more than the gear on their bodies.

None of this implies that I have any desire to be a mountaineer or heart surgeon or rock climber. In fact, I’m 100% certain that I’ll never do any of those things. But it’s inspiring to know that they’re possible – it gives me a sense of the amazing things that everyday people are capable of.

And trust me: guys don’t come more everyday than me. I’m a regular dude with faults and weaknesses who usually has a hard time putting matching clothes together. I don’t have any special abilities; just big dreams, and a determination to work diligently towards accomplishing them.

In the final analysis, perhaps that’s the lesson you can take from this series: It’s OK if you don’t want to be an ultrarunner - but perhaps you can try to be a hard-working dreamer sometime. If you’re able to figure that part out, most other things will probably fall into place.

Finally, on the subject of leaving the shore – it’s time for me to sail into the sunset for a while. I’m done with trail racing for the year, and I’m taking some down time before considering race plans for 2009. The option of entering the Western States Endurance Run next summer is out there, but I’ve got a bit of time to decide for sure. For now, I’ve got some sore feet to tend to, and a weary body to pamper for a few months.

Thanks to all who shared this Journey of 100 Miles with me. It was a wonderful run.


August 14, 2008

Headlands 100 Race Report

As you should expect by now, a race of epic distance is going to inspire a post of epic length. I thought of breaking this into parts, but decided to plow through the entire 4500-word report in one steady push – in that regard, it’s not unlike the ultra I just completed.

Given the length, I’ll spare you any further intro and just get right to my report from the Headlands 100. Take it in doses, or all at once – it’s your choice. It’s time for me to get some rest.

Part 1: Leaving the Shore

"The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore."
- Vincent Van Gogh

Rodeo Beach, Saturday morning, August 9th. They say the ocean is unchanging, but I’ve always found a certain reflective quality to it, as if it mirrors my thoughts or emotions at any particular time. When I took this picture, it seemed full of hope and possibility – and more than a little danger.

Race directors Wendell and Sarah making pre-race announcements. Sarah’s not only a RD, she’s a blog commenter! She dropped by here before the race to wish me well, and again to congratulate me afterwards. She also managed to somehow be at every single aid station I passed through – in fact, I started to see her at so many points on the course that I wondered if she might have a twin. The girl's a human whirlwind - it’s no wonder PCTR races are always so successful.

Self-Portrait with Gray Felt Hat, 1887

There’s a popular theory among art historians concerning my favorite artist, Vincent Van Gogh: namely, that the painter’s many self-portraits reflect a steady progression of mental anguish across the years of his life. While his early portraits depict a well-groomed, confident craftsman, his image in later portraits gradually becomes more disheveled, reflecting an emotional urgency and weariness that would eventually drive him to madness.

The reason I bring all this up is that I think I look pretty cool and collected in this first self-portrait on the start line (even though my friend Richard, who entered the 50-mile race, is looking at me like I’m an idiot). But 100 miles has a way of changing a person – so keep this Van Gogh theory in mind as we go along.

For the first few hours of the race, most of the scenery was some variation of what you see above: very dense fog, with no view beyond your immediate vicinity. Since there wasn’t really anything picturesque to gaze upon, I occupied myself by looking around at some of the other runners.

That’s about the time that this guy passed me, looking like a human art palette. His name is Troy, and he has all kinds of ink that I spent at least a couple of miles inquiring about. I also spent those miles trying to think of a casual way to tell him that I have a blog and like to post a lot of pictures on the Internet. Luckily, he was cool with it – he even pulled off the trail to pose for me.

We ran together through this section that was one of the prettiest on the course – only we couldn’t see any of it because of the fog. You can’t really tell in the photo, but the wind was blowing like crazy through here, as well. San Francisco is one of the only places I know of that can be both windy and foggy at the same time. As we continued along, the fog also lent a hint of mystery to the proceedings.

For example, on every major climb, there was absolutely no way of knowing how high the hill would take you. We would reach what appeared to be the highest curve, only to look around the bend and see the trail still rising into the mist. This seemed to happen about a dozen times on this climb from Rodeo Valley at mile 9.

On the descent to the Tennessee Valley (TV) aid station at mile 12, I’m still looking pretty happy, don’t you think? I’d make several passes through TV during the day and night, and it would be the scene of two crucial turning points later in the race - but on this first visit, I just filled my bottles and continued on my way.

Leaving Tennessee Valley, I was running very conservatively, and many of the 50-mile runners were just starting to hit their cruising speed; as a result, I was getting passed by a ton of people. However, there were occasionally a few hikers like this on the trail, whom I was eventually able to reel in and pass. I really liked dropping the hikers - it made me feel tough.

This steep stairway is at the base of the descent to Pirate's Cove, which has quickly earned a reputation as the signature climb of the Headlands 100. By the end of the race, 100-mile runners would have to climb up this hill three times.

This is my “We have to climb this thing three times?” face. If you look closely, you’ll see the first marks of the Van Gogh effect taking shape.

After another short climb, we had our first view of Muir Beach, which was the location of another aid station. Approaching the station, I saw what was becoming a very familiar sight on the course …

It was Olga, taking pictures. She was crewing for her boyfriend, and she had been snapping photos at every road crossing and aid station since the beginning of the race. She was good for a smile and a laugh every single time I saw her, and frequently gave me quick advice or recommendations that turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Hey, the sun is coming out! It only took about 22 miles or so. Welcome to the race, Mister Sun.

Can you follow the trail here? The first 50-mile loop features a long out and back section on this narrow section that locals affectionately call the “half-track” – meaning it’s about half as wide as a single track in long stretches. Sometimes the only way I could spot the trail was by seeing a returning runner approaching from the opposite direction.

Guess who was at the Bolinas Ridge (mile 29) aid station! By the time I got there, Olga was working the crowd like Eddie Murphy. I also noticed that she was wearing less clothing each time I saw her, and there was a rumor going around that she’d be flashing people during the night. All of a sudden, the evening couldn’t arrive fast enough.

She also took this picture of me adjusting my gaiters, as the Van Gogh effect grows more and more apparent. Although I still felt OK, I was definitely looking a bit frazzled – and judging by the lady’s face behind me, I was apparently starting to smell pretty badly as well.

On the return trip to Pantoll (mile 35), the sun was out in full force, and we enjoyed beautiful views like this one. However, we had to be careful …

Because we were still on the half-track, with steep drops down the hillside awaiting anyone who lost his footing. It’s definitely a “good news/bad news” scenario.

At the Pantoll station, I found my friend Richard getting a massage from Olga. He looks pretty satisfied in this picture, doesn’t he? Unfortunately, his day was starting to unravel – by the next aid station, cramps and muscle spasms would force him out of the race. In hindsight, this picture might be the highlight of his day.

This would have been a nice picture of Olga and me, if I didn’t have such a large head.

From Pantoll to Muir Beach (mile 40) the course descends about 20 crazy switchbacks on the Heather Cutoff trail. This is just a small portion of them; there’s another cool picture on the Headlands website. Although they beat up my legs, this was definitely one of the funnest parts of the course.

Leaving Muir Beach, we get to enjoy this little warm-up hill …

Before tackling the return climb from Pirate’s Cove at mile 42. It was somewhere along this stretch that I realized that this course is no joke; the hills just keep on coming, each one seemingly tougher than the one before.

At the top of the climb, we finally glimpsed some city views that were lost in the morning fog – views that would get even better on the second lap around.

Returning to Tennessee Valley (mile 46), Pamela was working the aid station, and as is her custom, she went out of her way to lie to me about how good I looked. I didn’t have time to explain the Van Gogh effect just then, but I could definitely feel it coming over me. The sunglasses come in handy to mask it a bit, though.

Tennessee Valley is only 4 miles from the start/finish area, but you have to go over a giant climb to get there. Once you reach the top of Wolf Ridge, you finally catch a glimpse of your destination, which still seems more than 4 miles away.

The descent to Rodeo Beach is very similar to the Miwok 100K course, including this steep staircase of various surfaces (wood and rock) and irregular step heights. When I came down this staircase to finish Miwok, it seemed like a cruel way to end an ultra – I couldn’t imagine anything more difficult.

That was before I realized the Headlands course made us go down these stairs three times: at miles 49, 74, and 99. The lesson, of course: there’s always something more difficult. So I stand corrected.

Rodeo Beach, Saturday evening, August 9th. The sun was out, it was a beautiful day, and it felt like there was a party going on. Unfortunately, I was only halfway done.

This all-star group of pacers was awaiting their runners, whom they would join from the 50-mile point. I took my time leaving the station, just so I could soak in some of the atmosphere.

I also took a picture with Rick, because I didn’t think I’d see him again during the race. As you’ll see later, I was completely wrong.

Leaving the start area for the first of two 25-mile loops, I was finally able to see the views that were missed early in the morning.

This was taken from the spot where I complained about the fog and wind about 20 pictures ago. It was still totally windy through this section, but it didn’t bother me nearly as much as before.

In some ways, however, seeing the course can be somewhat distressing. This is a view of the climb from Rodeo Valley that was hidden in fog earlier. Let’s just say it’s not the most encouraging sight to see while approaching from the adjacent hillside.

A pleasant surprise awaited me at my next stop at Tennessee Valley (mile 62): Pamela had waited an hour past her volunteer shift to see me come through once more. This is where I had stashed my evening gear, so I spent a few extra minutes listening to her well-wishes and encouragement for the night ahead. It was a relatively small gesture, but it sure felt nice to have a friendly sendoff into the unknown. I really needed it, because …

Shortly after leaving TV, the shadows grew long on the hillsides as the sun started to fade, and I understood that my race had only just begun. I also knew that this was the moment I had been anticipating for over six months.

Prior to this race, whenever somebody asked me what concerned me the most, I replied that it was all about the night. Throughout my months of training, the night of race weekend remained the biggest X-factor in the whole process. After all, I knew what it was like to run all day long. I knew what it was like to run in the heat, and on killer climbs, and with nausea and blisters and dead legs. The only thing I hadn’t done was run continuously from evening to morning.

Sower with Setting Sun, 1888

But now, as I ascended the climb out of Tennessee Valley and watched the last sliver of sunlight dip into the ocean, I knew that finally, the unknown was about to become known. So after 13 hours and 40 minutes of running, I flipped on my headlamp, and continued into the darkness.


Part 2: The Richly Colored Night

"I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day."
- Vincent Van Gogh

As you would expect from a trip into the unknown, the night was full of surprises. Fortunately, most of them were pleasant ones.

The first thing to that caught me off guard was how warm I felt after the sun went down. The previous night, as I drove through San Francisco with my windshield wipers sweeping away the fog, then stepped outside to the windy chill of the city, I was convinced that conditions on race evening would be downright bone-chilling. However, after reaching the summit of the first dark climb, I took off the windbreaker I had donned at Tennessee Valley, because I felt like I was overheating.

It stayed tied around my waist for the remainder of the night.

By the time I reached Muir Beach (mile 66), darkness had completely fallen, and the aid stations had switched into night mode, offering warm food and lots of caffeine. However, this station had one thing that set it apart from all the others: fresh strawberries!

Needless to say, I spent a few minutes gobbling all of the strawberries and Coke I could stomach (I know that sounds odd, but trust me – the combination worked like rocket fuel). I also paused for a picture before hitting the trail with another handful of berries for the upcoming climb:

By this point, the Van Gogh effect was in full force - but with a belly full of strawberries, I didn’t even care.

Starry Night, 1889

The next major surprise the night offered was a full display of constellations in the sky above. Running along the coast, far removed from any signs of civilization, the night was pitch black - but the fog had yet to roll in, so the starry night was as clear as could be. Ursa Major, Polaris, Cassiopeia - it seemed like I could reach out and touch the entire northern triangle shimmering brightly overhead. I thought of the old mariners who navigated by the stars, and envisioned that these lights were illuminated tonight to guide me safely home as well.

The mariner analogy seemed especially fitting, since I had returned to Pirate’s Cove again, to face the climb a second time. For the record, the stairs were just as difficult in the dark.

I made it up the hill – and as the night wore on, the surprises just kept on coming. The best one of all was awaiting me at Tennessee Valley.

It was Rick! The runner he was going to pace ended up dropping from the race, so he ran over 11 miles to this aid station with another runner friend of his, who he had parted ways with at Tennessee Valley.

So I was more than 71 miles into the race and looking for some kind of boost, and he was all geared up for a long run and looking for someone to accompany. It took us about 2 seconds to decide to run together.

The welcome addition of an unanticipated pacer did wonders for my spirit as we made the last grueling climb to the start/finish area that also served as the mile 75 aid station. We stayed just long enough to check in at the split table, down a cup of chicken noodle soup (my rocket fuel #2 for the night, right behind strawberries and Coke), and to take one more picture:

Ladies and gentlemen, the Van Gogh effect! God, I look like a train wreck. But you know what? I felt fantastic. My body was holding up well, and I had a newfound companion to help me through the toughest stretch of the course. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I was going to make it through this race.

However, in my weary mental state, there were a couple of things about Rick that I hadn’t quite realized: 1) He’s an experienced and talented ultrarunner, and 2) He had resolved to help me finish the race as strongly as possible. If I had known either of these things, I might not have felt quite so fantastic.

Up to this point, I hadn’t paid any attention to my overall place or projected finishing time – but as Rick and I crossed Rodeo Beach (the third time for me), we realized that I was on pace for finishing under 23 hours, and began strategizing about the best way to accomplish that goal.

Rick’s suggestion – which made perfect sense, even if I didn’t want to hear it – was to push the pace on the paved, relatively flat sections of miles 75-77, where it would be easiest to make up some time compared to my previous 25-mile loop. So that’s exactly what we did – and that’s when we found our next surprise.

Once the city lights disappeared over our shoulders, we could make out the headlamps of a couple of runners on the trail in the distance ahead of us. Since I hadn’t seen any other runners on my entire previous 25-mile loop, I knew I must be drawing closer to them than I had ever been. Suddenly, we had a game on our hands.

The whole situation reminded me of playing flashlight tag when I was a kid: dashing around bushes and down dark pathways, alertly watching for flickers of light that revealed someone else’s location, while being cautious to conceal your own position in the process. Rick was in full game mode too, even suggesting that we dim our lights and breathe quietly as we approached the first runner from behind, so we could take him by surprise and pass more easily.

As it turns out, nothing at this point of the race came easy – but on the 8-mile stretch to Rodeo Valley (mile 84), I managed to pass two runners, and the guy at the aid station told us that I was in 6th place.

In all honesty, that might have been the worst thing I could have heard – because from that point on, I was completely paranoid about getting passed by anybody. At the top of every climb, and at every bend in the trail, I was glancing over my shoulder to see if there were any traces of light behind me to indicate somebody reeling me in.

We ended up passing one more runner at Tennessee Valley (mile 87), and held onto 5th place for dear life on the steep climbs to Muir Beach, and back up Pirate’s Cove. Somewhere through this stretch, the game stopped feeling like flashlight tag, and felt more like a stalker movie, as the guy we had passed for 5th simply wouldn’t fade into the distance.

In fact, he was close enough behind us to pass me while I was making a pit stop in the bushes at the top of the Pirate’s Cove climb. When I returned to the course, neither Rick nor I said anything, but I knew we each had the exact same thought: Game On.

I don’t think I’ve ever run downhill in the dark as fast as I ran the remaining 2 miles to Tennessee Valley (mile 96), but somehow we were able to regain 5th place and put a small cushion between us and our relentless pursuer. This is when having the benefit of Rick’s experience paid off the most.

As we were approaching the station, he whispered a strategy that seemed a bit risky to me, but made perfect sense: we were going to blow through the final aid station. I wouldn’t fill up water bottles or take in food, but stop only as long as it took to slam down a Coke and keep moving up the trail. Rick would grab my drop bag with the visor and glasses I wanted to wear to the finish (instead of driving back for them after the race).

Like I said, it made perfect sense – I just didn’t know if I could do it. But we stuck to the plan, and I reached for a cup thinking God, I hope this Coke is strong, and we continued up the last killer climb before the finish.

We jogged as much of this stretch as possible, but by this point, I was a dead man running: my legs were wobbling, I was hyperventilating, and my body felt like it was made of lead. Even worse, every time I looked over my shoulder, I saw the faint glow of a headlamp – close enough to be seen, but too far away to estimate the distance.

After what seemed like an eternity, we crested Wolf Ridge, which left us with only downhill miles to reach the finish. Unfortunately, I had no idea what the mileage was, or what pace I was running – I just looked at my watch at saw that I had 24 minutes to break 23 hours.

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe, 1889

I didn’t know if that would be enough time, and I didn’t know how close the guy behind me was, and I didn’t know if I could run another step at the pace we were maintaining down the hill. (Basically, I was experiencing full-throttle, ear-slicing paranoia. I’m just glad nobody was there to take my picture.) That’s when I found the final surprise of the night.

Near the top of the hill, we passed a couple of guys who were cheering the runners towards home – and as we did, one of them called my name. It started the following exchange:

Richard: Donald? Is that you?

Me: Richard?

Richard: Yeah – how …

Me: Richard I’m trying to break 23 hours and hold my position and there’s a guy who’s been chasing me for three hours and he’s not slowing down and my legs are dead and I can barely breathe and this hill is killing me and I just want this to be over right the eff NOW!

(And then, after a brief pause)

Me: So … what are you doing here anyway? It's good to see you.

I later learned that Richard woke up at 4:00 AM to arrive at the course at 4:30 in hopes of seeing me come through the finish line. Keep in mind, this is after he dropped out of the 50-mile race because he could barely walk. Now he was here, two miles up the trail, waiting in the dark for an hour for me to arrive, just to share the moment.

I mean … if I were the one who got hurt, you can bet that I would have spent the next 4AM sleeping it off, or too depressed to worry about how anybody else was doing. Luckily, not everyone is as self-centered as me.

Richard was even able to accompany us down the final hill, and took the “looking over our shoulders” responsibility away from Rick and me, so we could just focus on making it down those final gruesome stairs, and through the last agonizing, seemingly endless mile of the course.

Finally, 22 hours and 55 minutes after the start, I crossed the finish line. My 100-mile race was over. (I also managed to hold onto fifth place, and ran the last 25-mile loop 5 minutes faster than the previous 25. Clearly, Rick’s strategy worked to perfection.) I didn’t go more than 3 steps beyond the finish line before I stopped dead in my tracks, gave Rick a well-deserved hug, and shook Richard’s hand, still marveling at how he showed up precisely when I needed it the most.

That’s when one of the volunteers and I had this exchange:

Her: Nice job! Can I get you anything? What do you want?

Me: Um … nope. Nothing. I don’t want anything.


Part 3: A Series of Small Things

"Great things are not done by impulse, but a series of small things brought together."
-Vincent Van Gogh

It was true in the physical sense as well as the spiritual one: there wasn’t a single thing I wanted anymore. After I crossed that line, I was completely happy, and completely satisfied – and nothing I could have asked for would have made the moment any better.

However, I immediately understood that the moment wasn’t mine alone. Yes, I had just put together the best race I could have dreamed of, but it was only with the aid of many others that I was able to accomplish it. If I hadn’t had the support and encouragement of friends along the course to keep me in good spirits during the day, and if I hadn’t stumbled into the best pacer imaginable who just happened to be looking for a runner in the middle of the night, there’s no way I would have finished as fast as I did, or enjoyed the experience nearly as much.

Finishing the 100-miler wasn’t simply one enormous event; rather, it was a series of small events that came together and built upon each other to become something wonderful. Something artistic. Something beautiful.

Rodeo Beach, Sunday morning, August 10th. It was the same beach I gazed upon the previous morning, yet somehow, it looked different now. 24 hours later, hope had become joy; possibility had become promise; danger had become empowering.

Then again, the ocean is supposed to be constant – I guess that means I’m the one that’s changed. Perhaps you can even see it on my face.

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