Santa Barbara 100k -- July 14, 2017
Word on the Internet was that the Santa Barbara 100k could be a hot race -- which, though a sweaty way to spend a day gallivanting through the mountains, generally plays into my strength as a runner.
Up to a point.
I draw the line at running through a forest fire.
Driving into Santa Barbara, plumes of fire leapt hundreds of feet off the mountain peaks just north of town, maybe 3 miles west of the 100k race course.
Ash rained from the sky, a giant mushroom cloud of brown smoke hung over the area and the automatic lights on our truck turned themselves on in the middle of the day. On a micro-scale, this wasn't dissimilar to how I imagined nuclear winter.
As my wife Laura and I pulled our Airstream into the RV park, Laura asked, worried, "Are you sure you should run this race?"
Don't Worry About The Fire. Now The Smoke -- That Could Be A Problem
Sitting in the stands inside the Westmont College gym, waiting for the pre-race briefing from the race director, Laura and I sat near Dave Barkdull and his wife Callie, both of whom I had met in a fortuitous coincidence just a few days ago during a training run in the hills near Laguna Beach.
The day I met Dave and Callie, I was taking a water break in the middle of a 20 mile training run. Dave, a lanky 30-something, was leaning on a car, sweaty, wearing dirty trail shoes, standing next to a backpack -- a telltale look for a member of the ultra runner clan -- or a homeless person, now that I think of it.
During our short conversation in the parking lot, I learned that Dave was originally from Idaho, he was exceedingly nice, and we were both signed up for the Santa Barbara 100k.
"What? What are the chances!?" I remember exclaiming in surprise.
I don't believe in destiny, but had I known that day how this race was going to unfold, I might have become a destiny-disciple right there in the parking lot.
Because of the nearby fire, Dave and I chatted nervously about the risk of being barbecued and then hushed up and listened intently as the race director gave the pre-race instructions.
Paraphrasing, the race director said: "Yes, there's a giant fire nearby. No, the course isn't going up in flames today. But, if the smoke starts suffocating people, we may terminate the race." Or words to that effect.
Sounded reasonable to me. If at any point, the air ceased to be breathable, I wouldn't want to run very far anyway.
And We're Off:
Adrenaline pumping hard, most of us hit the narrow single track trail and, ushered along by the need to keep up, we ran the first couple miles at a half-marathon effort -- which is always problematic in a 100k race.
Fortunately, the runners near me realized our folly and dropped off the Helter-Skelter pace, allowing me to declare victory before I, myself, grudgingly slowed down.
The scenery calmed me as the trail snaked through heavy growth, leaping over creek beds and reverse-waterfalling up and over boulders.
My legs found a rhythm and a mere hour or so later the first first mountain top rolled by at mile 6. I felt great.
The next 12 miles of trails flowed underfoot equally uneventfully.
Well, mostly uneventfully.
OK, not so uneventfully, now that I think about it.
At mile 10, the trail dropped off a mountain, arriving a T intersection. I didn't know it at the time, but there were course-marking flags both to the right and to the left. One of these directions was the correct way, the other was the way I ran. A few minutes later I found myself running up a really steep hill that wasn't part of the course, cursing the race organizers for making us run up such a crazy hill this early in the race.
It took a mere 10 minutes of running in the wrong direction before I realized that I was completely alone and that I was lost.
But destiny continued its sales pitch.
When I found my way back to the course 20 minutes later, my new friend Dave Barkdull just happened to be dropping onto the intersection where I made the wrong turn.
"Hey Steve!" Dave said, surprised to see me. "Where'd you come from? I thought you were ahead of me."
"I took a detour up that hill for a ways. I followed that flag over there," I said, pointing.
"Weird. I wonder why there's a flag there?"
"Not sure. But don't follow it. It takes you to a very tiring, steep place." I said.
Then, "Gotta go make up for lost time, Dave. See you later."
So that's one eventful thing that happened before I arrived at mile 18.
The second notable thing happened after I left Dave for the second time that day.
I joined up with a small pack of runners working their way up the second long climb of the day. Running with this group for nearly 90 minutes, we enjoyed a series of conversations about the beautiful views, the nearby fire, and the challenge of running up the infernally long climb we were on.
Unfortunately, and to my great surprise, no one in this pack of runners other than me spoke English.
In my defense, my Japanese friends fooled me into thinking they were fluent English speakers by smiling, saying "OK," and giving me an occasional thumbs up as I obliviously foisted my conversations on them.
Romero Aid Station: Mile 18. The Suffering Has Not Yet Begun, But It's Gonna.
Laura greeted me at the aid station at the top of the mountain and said that our gang was among the top 15 or so runners. "You're probably 5th or 6th in your age group," she said. "You're doing great. Looking good."
Re-supplying me with 5 bottles of drink mix, she said that I needed to be careful. "It's hot. Drink a lot. Some of the first guys look like they're already dehydrated."
I smiled, gave her the thumbs up and said "OK."
From the Romero Aid station, the trail turned into a wide, runnable, downhill dirt road.
The Japanese guys and I were all thinking the same thing:
It's time to pick up the pace.
And so we did... for about 2 miles.
And then we hit a wall of heat unlike anything I've ever felt before.
As we descended from the 4,000 foot high mountain, every step got hotter. The top of the hill was 70 degrees, but after only five miles of downhill running on the fire road, my watch read 102 degrees.
Fire road indeed.
It was like metaphorically running downhill into Hades -- except it was really happening.
The trail rolled into a breeze-less, shade-less canyon with the sun pounding from directly overhead. With the exception of the first place female, who ran by like some sort of alien looking fresh and happy, the rest of us went into survival mode.
At mile 26, shuffling along at a 12 minute mile, I came upon one of the race leaders sitting under a bush, mumbling, "I'm done. Totally done."
"You gonna be OK," I asked?
"No. I think I have heatstroke. Tell the volunteers at the next aid station I'm not moving until a car shows up."
"You got it."
Fortunately for him, word of his collapse had reached the volunteers before I got to the aid station -- because if it had been up to me, "Mr. Collapsed Under A Tree," would have died of heatstroke before I relayed word of his predicament to anyone with access to transportation.
As I staggered into that aid station at mile 28, the collapsed runner arrived in the back of a van.
This was serious.
Taking advantage of this little aid-station-oasis with its beautiful shade-giving tree, I gratefully allowed a volunteer to soak me with water while I downed a half-dozen cups of water mixed with coke and ice.
A few of my disheveled looking Japanese buddies made it to the aid station minutes later and collapsed in various camping chairs, making eye contact with me that conveyed a tinge of worry. No words were spoken. Not that we had the words to express our shared misery. Certainly, "OK" wasn't going to cut it.
I screwed up the energy to get moving.
About to exit the aid station, a volunteer said loudly to the runners littering the folding chairs: "Fill up your bottles! It's really tough for the next couple miles. The footing is crap, the trail is really steep and you're going to have to fight through some trees and bushes to get to the top."
My Japanese crew stared blankly at the volunteer, not comprehending.
I considered performing a pantomime to explain what had been said. But try as I might I simply didn't have the ability to envision, much less act out "tough terrain, steep hill, lots of bushes." Not being much of an actor and having always been lousy at Charades, odds were good that my Japanese friends would have thought I was saying: "Be wary. There's a man out there sneaking through the bushes. He might be dangerous."
They're better off not knowing, I decided.
We smiled at each other. I gave them a thumbs up, pointed at them, pantomimed a drinking motion, and trudged out of the aid station alone.
It quickly became apparent within a few minutes of run/walking, that, if anything, the volunteer's warning did not adequately express the horror the course was about to become.
After crossing a stagnant creek that smelled like deviled eggs left to rot in a hot garage, I dunked my hat into the greenish water for whatever coolness I could derive from a smelly wet hat.
From that point on, the trail did everything in its power to trap us in the valley.
Sandy soil, gravity and steep pitch conspired. Every exhausting step was like hiking up a giant sand dune -- a sand dune covered in dense brush -- the kind of brush you might use to pull yourself up the mountain if it hadn't diabolically been covered in sharp thorny stuff.
To make matters worse, when the trail at times became less so narrow that it made more sense to maneuver around the back side of a tree or bush, you quickly found yourself knee deep in poison oak.
Whether I was following a trail became a matter of debate. For half an hour I followed the faint path and battled slowly up the mountain, ignoring the hundreds of scratches welling up on my arms and legs.
Not having seen anyone in quite some time, it startled me when a couple runners came crashing down the hill from above, stopping just before slamming into me face first.
"Hey!" A young, fit guy wearing race number 13 said. He was accompanied by the second place female runner (who had passed me in the last aid station). They both looked a little worried.
I replied, "Hey."
"Are we going the right way?" He asked. "We haven't seen a course flag in a while."
"Now that you mention it, I've been so busy following what I now realize are your footprints, that I stopped looking for flags."
"Yeah. Well, on the bright side," I said, "I figure we have to get to the top of this mountain. And this trail is doing nothing if not going up. Also, since I refuse to go back down, that leaves one option."
The runners turned and headed up the hill faster than I wanted to move, leaving me alone again.
Fifteen minutes later, as I rounded a corner, the guy wearing number 13 was laying in the shade of a bush taking a break.
"You OK?" I asked. He said, "I'm just cramping and need to take a break."
Handing him some electrolyte pills, I wished him well and kept moving.
"Hey, yell down the mountain if you see a flag," number 13 shouted as I rounded the next bend in the trail.
Ten minutes later I found a flag. "Flag!" I yelled down the mountain. It's our lucky day number 13!"
Energized by having found the course, I jogged past a competitor who was using a boulder as a hammock and charged out of the overgrown canyon back into the sunlight, back into a hotter, more miserable form of heat.
Suddenly, I missed the shade of the poison oak shrubs.
The last two miles had taken 90 minutes.
Romero Aid Station, Mile 38
Desperately hot, dehydrated and fatigued, I plodded and jogged for the remaining 8 miles of the 20 mile loop from mile 18 to mile 38, returning to the Romero station where Laura had been waiting patiently.
The loop had taken me 7 hours to complete -- about 3 hours more than I would have anticipated.
I staggered into the aid station, announced that I had, against all odds, returned, and then promptly walked to Laura's Tundra and collapsed into the front seat. My eyes shut themselves involuntarily for a few minutes.
When Laura began wiping some of caked dirt from my battered, sunburned face and legs, I groaned, "I'm toast, honey. I've done a lot of stupid shit, but I've never felt this worked over in a race, ever. My stomach feels awful, my left shin and hamstring are cramping and I've been suffering bad for the last 2 hours. What time is it?"
"It's 6 p.m. You've got 22 miles to go. But the sun is going behind the mountains pretty soon and there's a long downhill coming up. So things should get better."
From her concerned tone, it sounded to me like she thought I might quit and was trying to give me positive reinforcement.
"I'm not quitting, if that's what you're thinking. This race will not beat me. If I have to walk for the next 13 hours, which seems pretty likely considering how crappy I feel, I'm getting to the finish line."
"You can do it, Honey. And by the way, I think you've moved up from 6th in your age group to 2nd."
"How the hell did that happen?" I asked in disbelief.
"Tons of people are dropping out."
"Speaking of dropping out, have you seen Callie?" I asked. "How's Dave doing?"
"Dave's in the aid station. Callie said he looks pretty tired. He's not in any rush to get going."
"Well if he doesn't drop and I can get moving before he takes off, I might see if he wants to run with me. I could really use someone to distract me from my misery."
Choking down an English muffin left over from yesterday's breakfast, my stomach agreed to a temporary cease-fire. No longer dry-heaving, I informed myself that this would be an opportune moment to disconnect myself from the front seat of the Tundra.
"I'm heading out, Sugar. Wish me luck."
Walking to the trailhead, strapping on my newly reloaded pack, I turned to run down the trail when Laura shouted, "Hey Dave's coming! Dave! Steve wants to run with you."
As Dave sauntered up to me, smiling, he looked surprisingly relaxed, happy and strong.
"Hey Dave! You wanna team up? I'm not going to be moving fast, but I could use some company."
"Absolutely. Let's do this. I thought you were way ahead."
"Yeah, well the last 20 miles have been pretty much the most painful 7 hours of forward motion in my life. But you look good. You sure you're ok moving at my pace?"
"Yep. You set the pace. I'll follow."
For the next few miles the trail snaked downhill along a narrow ledge clinging to the south side of the mountain.
Overlooking the vast Pacific Ocean from up high, the sun setting to the west, my mind was transported to a far more serene place than the place I had spent all day suffering. Suddenly, despite the hardships, I was thrilled to be sharing this experience with another person.
As we ran down the mountain in tandem, Dave and I spoke about our experiences during the day. Our conversation revealed that the words "hot," "dehydrated," "tired," and "miserable," described the day for both of us.
With the Dave's camaraderie, time flew by. In what seemed like mere moments, we descended off the ridge line from 4,000 feet, 7 miles downhill into a valley and arrived at the mile 45 aid station just as dusk approached.
Mile 45 Aid Station -- The Dark Hours Begin
Seventeen measly miles to go. Piece of cake, I lied to myself as I gratefully took a cup of delicious lukewarm noodle soup from a kind volunteer.
While we were still in the aid station, Dave and I took the opportunity to strap our headlamps onto our heads. Darkness was falling and here in the valley deep in the forest dark happens quickly and completely.
Not wanting to get lost, we listened with great care as one of the volunteers detailed the next part of the course.
"The next aid station is just 5 miles from here. So look for it at mile 50. And the next stretch of the course is over rolling terrain. It shouldn't be too tough."
Sounded good to us.
Which made it that much more frustrating when none of it proved to be true.
As a consequence of having placed unshakeable faith in the volunteer's information, three unfortunate things happened:
First, with the promise of more noodle soup only 5 miles away, Dave took the lead on the uphills and, with his long, easy stride, he put me into a fair bit of discomfort as I struggled to hold his pace.
Second, because we thought we'd be able to reload our bottles after a mere 5 miles of rolling terrain, we didn't completely fill our bottles at mile 45. This meant that we ran out of water long before the next aid station.
Third, when the "rolling terrain" described by the volunteer revealed itself to be a never-ending series of incredibly steep, 20 to 30 minute ascents followed by technical, quad-slamming descents, we were more than a little worked-over when we arrived at mile 50 and discovered an empty ridge devoid of human habitation.
The line from a Seinfeld episode: "No soup for you!" popped into my head. But here, when I really needed soup, it was less funny somehow.
Dave and I used our headlamps to search the length of the ridge for couple minutes, hoping to at least find a jug of water or a half-eaten watermelon. Nourishment of any sort would have been gratefully received.
But meeting back up at point where the trail dumped out onto the ridge, I said to Dave in disbelief, "Dude, there's no aid station here. This is bad."
Dave said "Maybe we made a wrong turn somewhere."
"Nope." I said. "We didn't miss a turn. I see a flag reflecting off my headlamp. It's at the start of the trailhead heading down the mountain. And we aren't anywhere close to an aid station. If we were, we could see the lights or at least a glow from lights. But there's nothing out there."
Dave agreed. "We've got a pretty good view from up here."
From where we stood on top of "No Soup Ridge," we could see the lights of Santa Barbara far below, maybe 5 miles to the south. And to the west was an imposing silhouette of yet another ridge, perhaps four miles away and at least a thousand feet above our current 2,000 foot ridge.
"Crap," I said.
"Let's just keep moving," Dave replied. "The aid station has to be out there somewhere."
For the next hour or so, I took the lead as we wordlessly and slowly picked our way over and around boulders and tree stumps littering the narrow forested trail down the ridge.
Each mile took an eternity. What would normally be a trail where we could average 8 to 10 minutes per mile, took nearer 25 minutes per mile. In our exhausted state and in the flat light of our headlamps, it was a challenge to avoid even the smallest boulders.
But with just a few stumbles and no injuries, Dave and I managed to descend off the ridge into yet another heavily forested valley.
Eventually Dave broke the silence. "Hey, do you hear music?"
"Yeah, sounds like someone's having a party."
"I see lights in the trees. Maybe it's the aid station."
The trail dropped down onto a small, road. And there, like a beautiful mirage, was Laura's truck. "Dave, that looks like Laura's truck."
Staring in wonder, not sure if I was thinking clearly, I doubted what I was seeing. But after a beat, I said, "That is definitely our truck. How many bright blue Toyota Tundras would be parked in the middle of the woods at 11 o'clock at night? Laura must be here. And the only reason she'd be here is if there was an aid station nearby."
Dave and I hiked up the road a few hundred yards and there it was -- a pop up tent decorated with twinkling white Christmas lights.
It was like having wandered the desert for an eternity and then stumbling on an oasis.
The Mile 50 Aid Station At Mile 52 -- Or Is It Mile 54?
Laura and Callie greeted us excitedly. "You guys are awesome! Way to go!"
Dave and I flopped happily into a couple folding chairs, took off our packs, and exhaled.
Laura and Callie had arrived at this aid station hours ago and had been helping the volunteers take care of runners. Now it was our turn. They asked us what we wanted, -- "Sprite, noodle soup," I mumbled -- they quickly made it happen.
From across the tent, Dave asked, "what happened to the mile 50 aid station? Did we miss it?"
One of the volunteers answered, "No, this is the mile 50 aid station. But we're at mile 52."
"The way today is going, that makes perfect sense," I said to Dave. He just nodded, too tired and too nice to complain.
"By the way, my watch says we're at mile 54. What's your watch say, Dave?"
"Weird." I wonder why my watch shows that we've gone two more miles?
"Yeah. Strange. Maybe one of our watches isn't as accurate as the other. We've been in a lot of trees -- could affect the GPS signal."
Of course, by now we were both too mentally drained to remember that I had taken that unfortunate 2 mile detour at mile 10, which accounted perfectly for the discrepancy in our mileage.
After a luxurious 20 minute break in what otherwise would be annoyingly uncomfortable camping chairs, Dave and I dragged ourselves to our feet and prepared to head off into the night up the looming 2,000 foot ridge to the mile 55 aid station.
Someone, maybe Laura or Callie asked, in a moment of clarity, "Are you sure you don't want to drop out of the race? It's almost midnight. It's been a long hard day and you guys are studs no matter if you make it to the finish or not."
Had I been alone at the aid station without Dave, I would have had a serious conversation with Laura about whether attempting to finish the race was worth the risk. We still had over 10 hard miles through the wilderness, in the dark, including a brutal 2,000 foot climb to the top a mountain that rose like a giant silhouette over our aid station. But knowing that I could rely on Dave's support and that perhaps he was relying on me, pulling out of the race never entered my mind.
And Dave was fully on board.
As we were about to depart the aid station, we were asked by an older gentleman assigned to checking runners into and out of the aid stations whether we were "out."
"Yep. We're out of here," I replied.
"So you're dropping out, right?"
"No!" Dave and I said in unison.
"We're not dropping out. We're just 'out,' as in 'out of here.' As in, leaving the aid station. Heading to the next aid station. We're still racing," I babbled unnecessarily, I thought.
"So you're dropping out?"
I had a flashback to my grandpa messing with me, just for sport.
But just in case, I smiled and said "We are not dropping out. We're just out of here."
Dave said, "Thanks everyone. Where does the course go from here?"
One of the volunteers, the guy who made us noodle soup, said "I'll show you the way. It's tough to find the trail," and walked us into the underbrush, directing us to the trailhead.
He said, "Good luck guys. The next climb is tough. Be careful."
I told him how much I appreciated him being out here in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night taking care of us. We shook hands and Dave and I headed together into the dark.
If memory serves, the hallucinations began somewhere during this next 2 hour climb.
At first, Dave, who was leading the climbs, started seeing multiple giant tarantulas and miniature scorpions sitting dead still in the middle of the trail.
Fortunately, it turned out that these were real.
Then about 30 minutes into the seemingly endless climb, Dave stopped abruptly and pointed to a spot a few feet in front of his face and said, "Careful! There's a wire across the trail."
I couldn't see anything. "You sure? There's nothing there Dave."
"It's right here. Can't you see it??"
"Up here, just above my head."
I adjusted my headlamp to point upwards, and sure enough. There, reflected in the light was a silvery wire -- like heavy fishing line pulled tight across the trail. The kind that might decapitate you if you were riding the trail on a dirt bike.
"OK, I see it. But what's it doing here? It's rigged like a Guillotine. We should try to take it down."
Dave and I ran our headlamps along the wire see where it was tied off on the right side of the trail. It disappeared into the trees. Not wanting to leave the trail and enter the dark, scary woods, we then followed the wire to the left.
What we saw as we scanned left was just short of terrifying.
Hanging off the wire, about 5 feet above the left edge of the trail, was a handkerchief-sized triangular web. A palm-sized albino spider sat dead center in the web, looking for all the world like it wanted to spring off the web and attach itself to someone's face.
"Holy crap!" I yelped.
"Wow," Dave said.
"I say we leave that thing alone and get out of here."
"I'm glad you're leading the way up the trail, Dave. Keep up the good work. And keep pointing out all the stuff that might want to kill us."
After a seemingly endless climb through this dark, spooky world of Jurassic insects, the trail dumped us out onto a road on top of a mountain. Following this road for a mile, we eventually arrived at the mile 55 aid station where bad news awaited us.
"Number 48 and number 7 are here!" This announcement was made loudly by a guy sitting inches from another guy who, in reaction to the announcement, was checking stuff off in a spreadsheet.
The note-taker-guy looked up at us and said, "What are you guys doing here? I show that you guys dropped out of the race."
"What!?" Dave and I said in unison.
Indignantly, I asked, "If we had dropped, what are the chances, do you think, that Dave and I would have just hiked up that giant mountain at 1 a.m. at night?"
"Yeah, we get it," said the first guy. "Let me try to figure out where you guys dropped."
"We didn't drop!" Dave and I said again.
Walkie-talkie-guy got on the radio and spoke to someone for a few minutes while Dave and I stood, waiting in nervous disbelief.
"So, they say you dropped at mile 50."
Dave and I looked at each other and smiled.
I said to the two volunteers, "There was an older guy checking people in and out of that aid station. He thought we were dropping out when we said that we were 'out' -- as in 'out' of here. Dave and I, did our absolute best to explain to him that we were not dropping out -- we were just using the phrase 'we're out' casually. But apparently he didn't grasp what we were saying. Or maybe his hearing was bad. Whatever. We did not quit. Nor are we quitting now."
Radio guy said, "Ahh. I know who you're talking about. He's 83 years old. It's late. He probably misunderstood. Let me see if I can figure out what the race director wants to do."
After a few seconds of radio chatter, he looked at the guy with the spreadsheet and said, "Mark them back in."
"You guys can keep going. Sorry for the confusion."
Dave and I exhaled.
"Let's get going," I said. "You know the way?"
"Yeah, I think so," said Dave. "We keep going up this road for another mile and then make a left onto a single track trail through a park down into the city. Look for course flags."
Every few minutes we spotted another octopus-like, reflective orange flag hanging off a tree or a bush, letting us know we were on the right path. At some point, these course flags would guide us to the trail where we would begin our descent, so we paid close attention to the markers to make sure we didn't miss the entry to the trailhead.
Suddenly, Dave stopped, alarmed, and turned to his left. He held up his hand to make sure I stopped.
I froze, not knowing exactly why, but sensing my life might depend on becoming unnaturally still.
"Look. There's someone with a bow and arrow in the bush over there," Dave said in a hushed voice.
Startled and a little scared, I hunched down, pointed my light into the darkness and looked hard in the direction he was pointing, trying to make out someone holding a bow and arrow. "What the hell is someone doing bow-hunting in the middle of the night," I thought to myself, slightly terrified of being mistaken for a deer.
"Uhh, Dave, I don't see it," I whispered.
"There. In the bush. Next to the curb."
"You mean by the course flag? I don't see anything."
"You don't see it? The orange bow?"
"That's a course flag, Dave."
"No. Wait. It is? Am I hallucinating?"
"Yeah, maybe. I mean, I can see what you're looking at Dave, but that's just a course flag with one of the tassels bent around a bush."
"Man, I was positive that was a guy with a bow and arrow."
"We've been running for over 18 hours, I think we're both a little delirious. We need to be really careful that we don't get lost out here. Only 7 miles to go. We can do this"
After our run-in with the invisible archer, our senses were riding a razor's edge of sanity, but the trailhead into the park proved easy to find even for crazy people. Unfortunately, it wasn't easy to navigate or to run the trail itself. The trail was narrow, overgrown and littered with boulders and river crossings.
In our deeply fatigued state, we tripped a lot and were slowed to a crawl.
Along the way, I spotted a non-existent man hiding in the dark and my over-reaction scared the piss out of us. This made Dave feel better about his invisible archer sighting.
Yet despite our hyper-awareness, we began struggling to find the trail every time it crossed a creek. And we lost the trail countless times when the trail dropped over a pile of boulders.
The next 3 miles took 90 torturous minutes.
Stumbling out of the wilderness onto the Santa Barbara city streets, Dave and I were a vision. Two filthy men, one tall, one short, one older, one younger, shambling through a manicured suburb at 3 a.m. We were so completely out of place it seemed a given that law enforcement would soon be asking us to put keep our hands where they could see them.
Instead, 3 miles from the finish, a woman in an SUV pulled alongside us, slowed to a crawl and rolled down her window.
"Yeah!!! So impressive that you guys are out here getting in a jog in the middle of the night!!!" shouted she who -- the smart money would say -- was on her way to the bars for some late-night binge drinking. "You're inspiring me."
Dave and I waved and smiled. "Thanks," we croaked feebly as she accelerated away.
"I think we inspired her to go have a drink." I said smiling at Dave.
"Yeah, she didn't look like she was going running anytime soon," Dave said.
The finish line crawled towards us at unimaginably slow speed as we crossed dozens of deserted intersections on our crooked path through the increasingly urban sections of Santa Barbara.
I knew however, that we were close to the finish when I spotted my Airstream trailer parked at a roundabout a block ahead.
Gleefully, I exclaimed, "Hey, Dave. We're almost there. Laura parked our Airstream behind that roundabout. She must have gone back to the campground and pulled it over here. She wouldn't have parked it too far from the finish line."
Dave gave me a quizzical look, but kept moving purposefully, saying, "Yeah, we should be pretty close. I show 61.5 miles on my watch."
As we approached the roundabout, the Airstream disappeared. Poof.
I looked up and down the streets to the left and right, wondering whether Laura had towed it to another parking spot while I was talking to Dave, but it was gone. Just like that. Vanished like a mirage.
"Dave, it's gone. The Airstream isn't there. Is that it on the side of the road up ahead?"
"I don't think I see it, Steve. You sure it was there?"
"It was real, Dave. Like seriously. I saw it as clear as day. I'm totally hallucinating, aren't I?"
"Don't worry, we're almost there. I think I see the school where we finish up ahead," Dave said reassuringly.
Filling the uncomfortable silence I said, "Wouldn't it be weird if after all this time out here on our own, someone tried to catch us at the finish line? I'm not even sure I can run at this point."
Just then, in the weirdest coincidence of the night, from behind us, we both heard it. A woman's voice said the word, "run."
Spinning around, Dave and I spotted two headlamps bouncing urgently towards us. Someone, maybe 50 yards behind us, was, against all probability trying to overtake us at the finish line at 4 a.m.
Some primitive instinct kicked in and overrode our exhaustion, delirium and the give-a-shit attitude that had pervaded our every step since the Romero aid station 22 miles and 10 hours ago.
Without a single word to each other, we ran. There was no logic to it. We were certainly among the very last finishers, so what was the point?
But everyone who has ever run a race knows that getting passed in the finishing chute without putting up a fight disrespects the race and your opponent. If we were going down, we were going down swinging.
With 20 yards to go, it was clear that Dave and I were going to hold off our worthy challengers. We slowed to a walk and crossed the line together, attempting to synchronize our steps to finish at precisely the same time.
Crossing the line, I said to Dave, "That's the hardest thing I've ever done. I couldn't have made it to the finish without you man. Thanks."
Dave said, "Same here. We did it."
A few seconds later, the third place woman ran across the line alongside her pacer. Smiling at us, she said, "Damn it, I thought we were going to catch you."
"We panicked when we heard someone say 'run.'" I said.
"I knew I said that too loud," she laughed.
In the end, Dave and I finished tied for 21st in 20:57 and assorted seconds -- about 5 hours slower than either of us imagined -- a terribly disappointing result if you were a person wedded to your expectations. But at some point during the day, both Dave and I hit that emotional point where we forgot about pride and began to appreciate the rare opportunity to trudge to the finish as friends. And that made finishing this race far more meaningful than meeting any time goal.
Post script: A few days later, Dave messaged me. He had looked at the Santa Barbara 100k results online. Only 39 runners out of the original 119 managed to finish the race -- about a 33% finishing rate. Dave and I were both still too sore to run, but we agreed to make plans to get out on the trails together to train for some future races. I think he'll make a pretty awesome training partner. It's always useful to train with a friend who's good at spotting deadly things lurking on the trail.
Oh, and what about my Japanese friends? Well they made it to the finish line before the 24 hour cut off too -- though I didn't have the energy to wait up for them. But if I had managed be there as they finished, I would have given them a big thumbs up.