Thursday, May 7, 2009

Best of Times, Worst of Times, Part I - The Worst of Times

American River 2006

Dude must have been at least 70. 75 maybe. I think he may have been using a walker. "What dude?" you may ask. The old dude who was passing me at mile 48 of the 2006 American River 50, that's who. He wasn't the only one. I'm reasonably certain I was also passed by a woman with no legs and large box turtle. It was one of the "worst of times" indeed. I was worked. Spent. I had nothing. Where did it all go wrong? Maybe it was because I let the first 26 flat, paved miles lure me into a too-fast pace. Maybe it was the next 20 miles of mud and ankle-deep water that comprised the "trail" portion of the race. Maybe my training sucked. Maybe it was all that and the fact that this particular race ends with a lovely 1000 vertical foot climb over the final 3 miles. Yep, 1000 feet, 3 miles. In retrospect, it certainly isn't the toughest climb in these sorts of races. Most of the vertical gain came in the first mile and the last 2 miles were pretty tame and on pavement. But at the time for this flatlander, it was definitely the hardest ascent I'd ever faced. And at mile 47 in only my second 50 mile race, it was an eye-opener. It was the hardest physical thing I'd ever done & I couldn't imagine feeling worse.

Miwok 2007

But feel worse I did. Much worse. For example, Miwok, my first 100K finish. At alternating points in the race I felt wonderful (even giddy) and then (sometimes just minutes later) . . . utterly crappy. But that's the nature of the beast. There will be ups. There will be downs. And they will be repeated and even amplified the longer the race goes on. So what makes Miwok special? Well, Miwok was where I first experienced the uber-bonk. If you've run marathons, you've probably had your experiences with "hitting the wall." 18, 19, 20 miles in, the energy is gone. Your glycogen stores spent, the body begins to feed on itself. It's hard to run. Maybe you walk a little. It sucks. Well, this was hitting the wall on roids. Hitting it and having it fall on top of you. My pacer Chris and I had just come off a long but fun descent (about 1400 vertical feet in 2 miles or so) from Pan Toll (Mile 49.5). I'd made it through some rough patches earlier in the race and was feeling pretty good, especially considering I'd already covered over 50 miles. Once the big descent is done, you've only got maybe 3 and half miles to the next aid station (Highway 1). Not far at all. Unless, that is, you've not been taking in enough (or really any) calories over the past few hours and your body sort of, you know, runs out of fuel. When that happens, especially 52 miles into a race, the hammer comes down shockingly fast and brutally hard. One minute you're okay. The next it's a struggle to put one foot in front of the other. And I don't mean one foot in front of the other running. Or even walking. I mean just managing to move the body forward at all becomes a monumental struggle. Any small roll in the terrain is magnified tenfold. The brain, deprived of fuel, begins to struggle too - the mind goes blank. Everything is fuzzy. You are reduced to your reptilian essence. There is no multitasking. Only singular thought.

In my case that thought was . . . Coke. Make it to the aid station so I can have Coke. Get aid station for Coke. AidstationCoke. Sure, Chris would do what good pacers do and say positive things. "We're close." "You don't look too bad." "Do you realize this is that longest you've ever run? That's awesome." At least I suspect he was saying things like that. I know his lips moved. But all I knew was . . . Coke. Here's the funny part. We knew the aid station was maybe only 3 miles away. Probably less. But in my frame of mind, units of measure begin to lose relevance. They become unmoored from the tangible, the known. To me, 3 miles was a loop around Memorial Park. 3o minutes on a bad day. But this 3 miles was not that 3 miles. Seriously, this 3 miles shared not one similarity with that 3 miles. Because, you see, this 3 miles NEVER FUCKING ENDED. At some point, even Chris's positive pacer demeanor failed as he began to wonder where the fucking aid station was, to proclaim profound thoughts like "3 miles my ass." And then hours (days?) later, when I literally was on the verge of passing out on the trail, we caught sight of it. The Highway 1 Aid Station. A shining beacon on the hill. Well, really just a folding table and a couple of dudes chilling out. The volunteers (saavy ultra veterans no doubt) would not let me sit down ("beware the chair"). Instead, they treated me to multiple cups of, yes, COKE, the miracle drug. And PopTarts (frosted, with sprinkles). And then they sent us on our way.

I felt only marginally better as we walked out to tackle the final 8 miles or so, but caffeine and sugar are God's gifts and they did not let me down. Soon, I was reborn yet again. Maybe we didn't run much during those final miles, but we ran a little. I finished. Called the spouse to let her know I was alive. Ate some real food. Got some swag. Cheered for the very few runners finishing after me. All was right in the world. That is, until a few months ago and the Rocky Raccoon 100 miler. But that's a subject for it's own post. For now, I'll let the picture at the top of this post suffice: Mile 60. The end of my day.

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