A walk break along the trail

April 9, 2011

At around the 4.5 mile mark, the sun was rising and beginning to melt the mist drifting over the surface of the American River. My brother was at my side, and the dawn had come. This was our first run together since our cross-country days in high school. I remember thinking that this was a magical place and time to be, that we were with an amazingly optimistic and inspiring group of runners. We had 45.5 miles left to run…

Spectators lined the bike trail, and though at this hour of the morning most must have been there to cheer friends and family, they nevertheless enthusiastically cheered every runner. With such a good vibe around us it didn’t feel like running. It felt like floating through the air.

The first aid station was at Watt Avenue at just over 5 miles. This would also be the first brief walk. Still wearing running gloves, I found I couldn’t unscrew the lid of my water bottle so that it could be topped off. Then, the first of many gracious and unexpected moments occurred.

‘Here, let me help you,’ said a volunteer.

But my water bearer couldn’t pry the lid off either, at least initially. I smiled at the relief knowing I wasn’t yet an uncoordinated mumbling wreck, and I realized my pre-race nerves caused me to ratchet the top on too tightly. I thanked him, and it was on to the next aid station. The goals today would be measured in aid stations. Just make it to the next one, and eventually, the day would be over.

William Pond became next goal, and it came quickly. At 8.5 miles, this was the first aid station with food, electrolytes and other goodies. Not to mention another wonderfully supportive crowd. Rob pulled out his tunes and wired himself up. I grabbed a few GUs and a rice crispy treat, put on my sun glasses and on we went.

Now the course crossed to the south side of the river, and immediately after crossing the bridge there were turkeys – lots of them. They seemed as amused as turkeys could be at seeing 630 runners jog past. Presumably, they were early risers and were not inconvenienced.

As we passed through Goethe Park, groups of runners coming the opposite direction cheered us on.

‘Way to go 50-milers!’

This did not fail to boost our spirits. We waved back with smiles on our faces.

The distance from William Pond to the next aid station at Sunrise was almost 6.5 miles, which was long enough to cause my mind to ponder the day that lay ahead. Our pace seemed reasonable and sustainable. And the encouragement just kept pouring forth from those along the bike trail. Just before Sunrise, a woman holding a sign saying “marathons are for wimps” cheered my brother and me. We were floating along once again and grinned at each other.

At Sunrise (14.9 miles), I grabbed a coke and PBJ (peanut butter and jelly sandwich) from the feast upon the table. A man standing just off the bike trail asked how I managed the distance.

‘Just one foot in front of the other.’ Relentless forward progress as the book says.

Next up, the Hazel Avenue station at the fish hatchery (17.5 miles) yielded more PBJs. We crossed back to the north side of the river at about mile 18.

‘This is where the wall is in a marathon’ Rob observed.

‘What wall?’ was all I could manage with a mouth half-full of a PBJ. Rob nodded knowingly.

Instead of a wall, we had our first proper hill, and for me, the first walk outside of an aid station. Rob ran it, and after reaching the top, I was able to briefly catch him. But this was where we parted. He felt the need to put on some speed.

‘Do it. See you at the finish.’

I wished him well, and he pulled ahead eventually finishing 1 and ½ hours in front of me.

I was starting to feel it a bit, so all the fabulous cheering at the Negro Bar aid station (mile 22.6) was welcoming. But there was to be no more floating on air, and it was starting to feel like hard work.

The next stretch to Beal’s Point was my least favorite. This was because a short portion of the bike trail was next to a heavily congested road. I have never liked running near traffic. The stress and tension caused by hurling along in metal containers is damaging and unnatural which is very apparent when you are on foot watching cars go by. From an evolutionary stand point, we are all still runners on the grasslands of East Africa.

But thankfully, it was a short jaunt, and a colorful sign soon marked the marathon distance (26.2 miles) with Beal’s Point just a bit further at 26.8 miles. The clock showed my time at 5:15. I located my drop bag but had trouble opening it. I had tied the knot too tightly (remember to make a note for next time about tightening things).

My drop bag contained several items including trail shoes and a change of socks. But the old feet were holding up well, and since I could feel no hot spots, I decided against changing anything. Fueling the body was a different matter.

During my twenty mile training runs, I had been using Perpetuem (a source of calories for competition lasting more than two hours) in my water. I remembered liking it on these runs and had started the day with it. Why the stomach wasn’t keen on it today I couldn’t say. So rather than pull more Perpetuem out of the bag, I fished out some Shot Blocks

Now, where do I place my drop bag? Ah, must be this pile of bags here. Time to get moving…

After Beal’s Point, the course started on proper dirt trails which, they say, is where the run really begins. The trail lifted my spirits, and Folsom Lake looked inviting. This was what I came here to do – to run along a beautiful trail on an absolutely perfect day.

A nice rousing cheer awaited me at the Granite Bay station (31.6 miles). Feeling like I needed something different to eat, I started on a banana. My body instantly thanked me. I pulled the cell phone out of my pack and phoned in a progress report to Debbie. It looked like I would finish just the other side of eleven hours.

But the banana revitalization did not last long, and I began to feel nauseous. To accompany the nausea, there was the first of many muddy pools of water. I stopped and began sucking on Gin-Gins (which contain 30% fresh ginger) to address the stomach issues, repositioning them on my vest to be within easy reach, since I felt more would be needed. Then I plodded through the mud. There was no use in trying to keep the feet dry. Feeling sympathetic to the cause and like it ought to be contributing to the effort, my nose began to run and would not stop doing so until nearly the finish.

Buzzard’s Cove (34.6 miles) came next and was a water only aid station. This was a good thing, since I didn’t feel like putting anything solid in the tank. The water tasted great, which I should have realized indicated dehydration.

Still on the Gin-Gins, I again took only water at the next aid station which was Horse Shoe Bar (38.1 miles). In retrospect, I was also becoming seriously deficient in caloric intake, since I was not eating.

The thinking about fueling the body during an ultra is that you should “eat early and often.” The rule of thumb is to consume between 250 and 400 calories an hour through some combination of energy drinks, gels and solid foods. Glycogen and fat stores in the body usually last about 2 1/2 hours, which is why fueling is not such an important issue in a normal marathon. Nausea can be caused by dehydration, eating too much, high temperatures, or a stomach that just won’t keep from sloshing about.

Fortunately, my nausea began to clear up, and I felt like eating again. Ahead of me was a volunteer just to the side of the trail who had a face that naturally beamed goodwill into the ether. As I approached him at around mile 40, he laid on me the most amazingly uplifting comment of the day in a late night, 70s FM jazz voice.

‘Wow man. You’ve just run 40 miles. Not many people can do that.’ Groovy!

‘Thank you.’ I knew I could finish this thing. Just a 10 mile run left.

But there were still more mud puddles to negotiate. I was convinced they weren’t too bad if you were one of the first runners through. But after 500 runners have waded across, they became something special. Engineers should study their unique physical properties…really. The man just ahead of me slipped and, doing something close to a pratfall, went down. I stopped and offered my hand.

‘Do you need any help?’

His head was resting in his hands.

‘No, I think I’m just going to sit here awhile.’ And I knew he meant it.

Next on my agenda was Rattlesnake Bar (40.9 miles). I grabbed a banana for the road and another act of random kindness enveloped me.

‘Would you like some peanut butter on that?’ the woman behind the table asked.

‘Sure, why not?’ It was a most delightful combination.

You see, I am what Debbie would call a picky and predictable eater, and bananas have never been a favorite. But this tasted like a rare delicacy that had been carefully transported over vast distances for just this moment of enlightenment. I couldn’t wait to tell Debbie. Make another note for next time.

The stretch after Rattlesnake Bar was beautiful – relatively flat with wild flowers blooming and black butterflies darting about. Although, it felt like the next aid station was taking its time in arriving. I wondered if the mileage indicator was correct. And then, at Avery’s Pond there were horses – a nice diversion. So much so that when I stumbled on some rocks, I thought nothing of it.

Manhattan Bar was the penultimate aid station at 43.9 miles. Someone asked if a cutoff time was coming up. No, there was time enough left. Shortly after departing Manhattan Bar and on a slight downhill stretch I stumbled on rocks again but this time lurched forward to arrest a fall.

‘Ouch!’ F@$#ing H&¥£!

I strained my adductor. A quick assessment informed me that I must walk the last five miles. So be it. I was determined to finish and had enough time left on the clock.

At mile 47, the AR 50 climb started, which is a one-thousand foot gain in elevation over about 2 and ½ miles. I continued my brisk walk and passed a woman and her pacer.

‘You look like you know what you are doing.’ Really? I thought.

‘I am feeling the love. That’s very kind of you.’ But my body was telling me something different.

Last Gasp (47.5 miles) was the most literally named of the aid stations. Fit young men wearing not much more than running shorts come sprinting down to greet you. Rock music blared from speakers.

‘Would you like some ice in your water?’

‘Yes…thank you indeed!’

Last Gasp is an oasis alongside a beautiful trail, alongside a gorgeous river. You’re almost there. The woman and her pacer are now running and pass me. They really do look like they know what they are doing. I pull my phone out to let Debbie, Mom and Dad know that I’ve just a ‘wee walk’ up the hill left to do.

At the top of the hill, spectators kindly tell me the finish is just around the corner. And then I hear the announcer call out a name. Hey, that’s me. Since I am still walking, he adds…

‘It is a time honored tradition in ultra-marathon running that no one crosses the finish line walking.’

I stop and give the man a blank stare, then summon up the energy, smile widely and say “OK,” jogging the last few steps which gets a nice laugh from the crowd. Time, 11 hours and 54 minutes.

I am hooked.

I collect my finisher’s jacket and scan the crowd for Debbie. And there she is. A more beautiful vision I have never seen. Her smile lights up the shade now descending over the American River. It is the dawn again.

It has been often remarked about the spiritual aspect of ultra-marathon running. There are moments when you feel wonderfully self-sufficient and deeply connected to nature. But truthfully, you are supported by the hundreds of volunteers, the other runners and something deep inside that you didn’t know was there. You come to understand what is really important in life. What you really need to get on – a loving family and friends waiting for and welcoming you at the end of a long journey. And that is humbling, yet reassuring.

Until the next time…From the song Saints & Angels is this Irish blessing:

It could be months, and it could be years,
Before we find one another, once more standing here.
And until then, my beautiful friend, I have a wish for you.
Many hearts to keep you warm
Many guides to speed you through the storm
And may the saints and angels watch over you.

I am certain that I have mixed up some of the chronology and aid stations in this account. So please forgive any inaccuracies. Mostly, I would like to thank Debbie, Mom, Dad and Rob who agreed to accompany me in what must have been a moment of weakness. And finally, the great staff at Fleet Feet on J Street in Sacramento. Particularly Diane Forrest – good luck at Western States in June!

11 hours and 54 minutes

With Rob at the finish