Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A River Runs Through It, Unfortunately.



Saturday morning, 10 days ago:  As I was drinking coffee and enjoying the sunrise, I glanced at my training plan — the one bending my 50 plus year-old body into shape for an upcoming 50k Ultra Marathon in Auburn, CA.  Coach Laura had assigned me a 25 mile trail run for the day.

Wanting to avoid the mental grind of running the same old training routes, I asked rhetorically and loudly — “What better way to get in shape for my race than to do the training run on the actual race course?”  

My cat, Kona, who was busy napping in my lap until my booming voice startled him, turned his head, looked contemplatively into my eyes and appeared to acknowledge the logic of my plan — at least that’s what I read into his furry facial expression.  

The race is from Foresthill, CA to to Auburn, CA, mostly on the Western States trail along the American River.  The river has spent millions of years dragging rocks and dirt from the Sierras downhill into the Pacific Ocean and it now sits deep inside a canyon of its own creation.

I had never run on these remote trails inside the canyon before, but the course route was available on a running app that purported to give spoken turn-by-turn directions for the entire course.  

So what could possibly go wrong?

A couple hours later, Laura dropped me off at what would be the start line and gave me some last minute tips, like “don’t run too fast, don’t trip on a rock, and make sure to drink — it’s hot out here.”  

“Yeah, yeah, and look both ways before crossing the street, don’t take candy from strangers.  I get it,” I thought, impatient and eager to get started on this exciting little expedition.  

I had loaded up my hydration pack with enough gear, food and water to support an invasion of a small, laid-back country, so I felt certain that I had every contingency covered.  

Kissing my coach good-bye, I took off down the narrow single-track trail towards Auburn. 

Life was good.  The legs felt fresh, I was running fast and I still had a little shimmy in my hips jumping over the odd rock or root.  

Not bad for a 51 year-old, I thought.  

Looking at my watch, I guessed that I would arrive in Auburn in about 4 hours and 30 minutes. 

At mile 13, about 2 hours into the run, I had dropped 2,000 feet of elevation from the northern rim of the American River Canyon (now way above my head up an almost vertical cliff), to a few hundred feet above the river.  From here, looking down over a steep slice of earth, the river was mighty impressive.  And impressively mighty.  Had we really had that much snow in the Sierras last year?  I wondered. 

You could literally see the gushing, roaring river sawing the earth open.

I took a picture of the river and texted Laura, letting her know that I was crushing this run and that I was already only 2 hours away from Auburn.  Not that the text message had a chance of escaping this geological pit of cellular impossibility.  

I was pretty sure that I was the only human within 10 miles in any direction. 

Running west along the trail, I stared transfixed down the steep drop-offs into the river.  The terrifying view distracted me from the work of running and made the next few miles seem easy-breezy.  But breeze-wise, the Canyon was seriously lacking.  The lower I went, the hotter it got.  And by mile 18, I had completely emptied my hydration pack and both of my emergency water bottles. 

Still, I wasn’t worried.  According to the map, I was coming up on a place called the Poverty Bar.  And since bars need to have an ample supply of water to make Gin and Tonics, I figured I’d take the opportunity to reload my hydration pack.

I even brought my driver’s license in case I got carded.

Also, according to the map, at the Poverty Bar, I would cross the river — and where there’s a bridge there’s civilization, right?  Maybe I’d even find a 7-Eleven and treat myself to a Slurpee.

The trail dead-ended into the river.

No bar.  No 7-Eleven.  

And, most disturbingly — no bridge.   

Poverty Bar, it turns out, is just a rocky shoreline along the American River.  I still haven’t Googled it, but I can now safely assume that the word “Bar” has multiple meanings — and that the person who named this desolate excuse for a beach “Poverty Bar” wasn’t the alcoholic I was hoping for. 

Incredulously, I explored the shoreline for a way across the river — and found nothing.  Not even a lousy abandoned inner tube.

And my running app, which had guided me to this spot with amazing accuracy, was no longer my friend.  “You have arrived at Poverty Bar.  Make a left across the river.” 

Irritably, I answered “How?!  There’s no bridge, idiot.”

Unfortunately, the app had not achieved Artificial Intelligence status.  It ignored my question.  

But she didn’t completely shut up.  In fact, she was a regular chatter-box. 

“Make a left across the river,” she said every time I walked near the spot along the river where the bridge should have been.

Now, you may reasonably wonder why I didn’t just kick off my shoes and ford the river holding my backpack over my head.  

The reason was simple: I would have been bowled over and launched into the rapids within 5 steps after entering the river.  This thing was to people crossing rivers what a 5 alarm fire is to buildings without sprinkler systems.  

From where I was standing, I’m not sure I could have crossed this river in a rubber raft with an outboard motor without getting swept into the rapids — which were inconveniently lurking a mere 50 yards to the west. 

“Options, what are my options?” I thought. 

With the “River of Death” blocking my way forwards, I looked back the way I had come.  Perhaps I could run back towards civilization?  

The impediment to that route out was the inconsiderate 2,000 foot high canyon standing between me and the nearest road or cellular connection.  I remembered a dirt road that crossed my trail maybe 5 miles back, but I couldn’t be certain that it would take me out of the canyon.  For all I knew, that dirt road was a driveway to some cranky survivalist’s armed encampment.  And even if that dirt road did lead somewhere promising, the run would take hours and the climb out of the canyon would be monstrously hot. 

And I was out of drinkable water.  

I could fill my pack with river water to get me through, but there had to be a better option than to risk a long, hot run up the canyon wall, fending off diarrhea in search of a sucker who might consider picking up a smelly, filthy ultra-runner hitchhiking his way to Auburn. 

Exploring the shoreline up-river I searched desperately for an easier place to make the crossing.  But except in this few-hundred yard stretch of pebble beach and the area directly across the river, the canyon walls along the river were completely impassable.  

I paced back and forth along the river bank, unable to make a decision.

“Make a left across the river!” the app insisted for about the tenth time.  The app-voice was getting annoyed with my pacing and felt compelled to order me across the river every time I walked near the river.  

I was angry at myself.  And, if I’m honest, the app was starting to get on my nerves as well — like it somehow knew the best option here.

Although, to be fair, the app never promised me a bridge.  

“Make a left across the river!”  

Dehydrated and hot, delusions began replacing clear-headed thinking as I became increasingly desperate.

Maybe the app knows best?  Maybe the app is telling me that it believes in me.  Maybe, just maybe, the app had googled my triathlon results and was telling me, with its limited vocabulary, that I needed to stop being such a baby and that I should swim across this raging torrent. 

“Make a left across the river!!!!!”

“Ok, fine.  I’ll think about it!” I said, now casually conversing with my $1.99 friend.

According to the map I had reviewed prior running myself into this mouse-trap, if I could cross the river, I would have 6 relatively easy miles of running to my destination in Auburn — where I would have an air-conditioned ride home.  

Even without water, that part of the adventure was doable.  

But man this river…

I waded tentatively about 3 yards off shore, up to my waist in glacial runoff.  Standing here, bracing myself against the violence of a million gallons of water rushing downhill I could see a little farther around a bend in the shoreline.  

Still no bridge. 

In its center, the river was clearly much deeper than a human.  And it was rushing by at an impressive speed.  To gauge what I was dealing with, I timed a butterfly surfing by on a tree branch at a speed of about 100 yards in 20 seconds.  

At least 50 yards separated me from the beach on the other side.  In my triathlon glory days a 50 yard swim would take me about 35 seconds.  So by that math, I’d make it to shore about 100 yards to the right of wherever I entered the water.  

This seemed increasingly doable.  Except that I had never swum across a raging river wearing running shoes, loose clothes and a giant hydration pack.  

Oh yeah — and I had never swum in water this cold without a wetsuit.  

Check that — I had never swum in water this cold, period.  You’d have to be nuts or desperate to spend even 10 seconds in water this cold.

Fortunately, I was desperate.

But then, logistics reared its ugly logic. 

What was I going to do with my iPhone?  What about my earbuds?  

I tried to put them under my hat, thinking I could keep my head above water as I breast stroked across the river.  But being the owner of a phone the size of a small television, and possessing a head sized on the Cantaloup end of the melon spectrum, my hat wouldn’t stay on my head with the phone inside it.

This was fortunate, because looking back, breast stroking across the river would have been a terrible decision.  I’m a slow breast stroker under the best of circumstances. (Cool the raunchy jokes, people.  This is life and death stuff here.)  And slow breast stroking was just a fast way into the rapids.

I dug through my pack for something waterproof.  And there it was.  The solution to all my problems.  I had a small sandwich bag that held my Ibuprofen.  But as I tried to jam my phone inside the bag, the bag tore.  

“Ugh.”

I sucked the last drops of water out of my hydration pack to console myself.  

And that’s when it hit me.  The bladder of the hydration pack was water-proof.  I mean, logically, that bladder keeps water from spilling all over me when I run, so it followed that it should keep water out as well.  I threw my electronic gadgets into the hydration pack and sealed it tight.

“I’m a genius,” I realized.  

And now, on a roll, I just kept getting smarter.  

Blowing air into my hydration pack through the straw, I created a first-of-its-kind life vest.  And after I blew into the two soft-bottles on the front of my vest, I was guaranteed not to drown — though I was not guaranteed to survive an impact with the rapids.

But, with my balloon-filled vest likely to slow me down, I realized that all bets were off as to whether I could swim the 50 or so yards in anything approaching a minute.  Which meant that I’d be swept at least 100 yards downstream by the current as I attempted the crossing.  

I set out to find a departure point about 100 yards up-river, settling on a rocky beach with a gentle entry. 

“Make a left across the river!” the app shouted from inside my hydration pack.

“Yeah, yeah.  You win.  We’re both making a left across the river.  You might want to hold your breath.” I said sarcastically.

I walked out slowly into the rushing ice-water.  Numbness came on quickly.  With great mental effort, before I lost all feeling in my lower extremities, I plunged into the river.  

Like in every cold-water triathlon I’ve ever done, my head nearly imploded when my face hit the water.  And as usual, I had to consciously stop myself from gasping in a lung full of water.   

Swimming directly for the other shore, trying to keep my face out of the water, I could see the trees moving quickly from right to left.  The river was ripping me downstream even faster than I expected.  Either that, or I was swimming slower than I expected.  

Realizing it was the latter, I made the difficult decision to abandon the lifeguard swim-stroke.  

I stuck my face in the water and called upon 14 Ironman’s worth of near-drowning experiences to get moving as fast as possible through the churning river.  

Halfway through the river, the effects of the cold took hold.  The exposed skin on my face, arms and legs were starting to burn.  

On the positive side, I was making progress.  The other shore was getting closer and the river was dragging me on a perfect arc to the beach on the other side.  I just needed to keep up the pace and I would be free of this unplanned mid-run ice-bath.

That’s when one of the water bottles in the front of my vest popped loose and launched upward like a sea-to-air-missile, smacking me painfully on the tip of my frozen nose.  This sequence of events also had the unfortunate effect of making me more buoyant on the right side of my body than the left, completely destroying what little rhythm my rusty swim stroke had possessed. 

“Not good,” I thought. 

But I’ve been a mostly bad swimmer my whole triathlon career, so having to overcome a crappy swim stroke is nothing new to me.  And, half a minute later, my hand hit pebbles on the bottom as the river bank approached.  

Suddenly, miraculously, I was staggering, gasping, shivering onto shore, like Leo DiCaprio surviving the frozen river in The Revenant.

Elated at surviving by own stupidity, I did a short celebratory dance.   

But the celebration died a sudden death when I glanced around my new beach and couldn’t spot a trail up the side of the canyon.  

Panic, and not a small amount of nausea suddenly set in.  Was I going to have to swim back across the river to get out of here?  I desperately hoped not.  I wasn’t sure I could do it again.  

And if I got back across the river, my app would just tell me to “make a left across the river.”  I didn’t think I could take the disappointment in her voice.

Besides, she wouldn’t have sent me here for no good reason, I argued to myself.  Other than not having a bridge waiting for me, she had been on course all day.  I trusted her.

There had to be a trail around here somewhere.

Squishing around in soaked shoes, clothes dripping, I started walking gingerly down-river on frozen feet, along the bank, looking for a way out.  

“This might be a trail,” I thought, following a windy, sandy patch of ground.  But a quarter mile later, the “trail” died out into a field of boulders.  

On the bright side, I found myself standing in the sun — which was nice — and warm. 

With the sun eating away at the hypothermia and my clothes quickly drip drying, I took off my hydration-pack/floatation-device, and extracted my phone and headphones, emptying the air out of the balloon-sized bladder. 

“Make a right turn on the Western States trail,” gurgled my app-friend from a somewhat moist iPhone.   

“Oh oh,” I thought.  “That doesn’t sound right.”  

While the phone was still working, I quickly fired off a text message to Laura, announcing that I was going to be a little delayed because someone had forgotten to build a bridge across the river.  Remarkably, the text message latched itself to a stray radio-wave and was delivered.  

Laura responded almost immediately with, “Ha ha, I wondered about that!”  

Not, “Oh my gosh, thank God you survived, you poor dear!” Or, “you’re so brave.  My hero!”  

That’s my wife.  Tough to impress.  Funny how I love that about her.

With my core temperature stabilized and my brain thawing out, I headed back to the place where I had climbed out of the river.  There had to be a trail here somewhere.  Otherwise this race course wouldn’t make any sense.  And my app would be wrong.  Which was impossible. 

Valiantly, as she fought off her watery end, the app gargled, “make a right turn on the Western States trail.”  

I searched for packed dirt like I was an archeologist hunting a lost civilization.  And then, looking up cliff, I saw it.  A razor thin trail climbed steeply up the face of the cliff.

“Hey there it is.  It just goes straight up the cliff.  Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. 

“Make a right turn on the Western States trail.” 

“Yep, so you’ve said.”

I was back on the trail. 

And there ends the adventurous part of the adventure — at least the part of the adventure that involved me facing peril and near doom.  Because the rest of the run involved nothing more than a 6 mile run with no water — except for the stuff squishing in my shoes, of course.

Sadly, my phone and my friend the app did not survive the expedition.  Apparently there had been a bit of sports drink lurking in the bottom of my hydration pack when I threw the phone inside for the journey across the river.  

The last I heard from my app was “continue straight on the Western States Tr… .”  And then she was gone.  

It was a lonely few miles to Auburn after her unfortunate passing.  But I took consolation in the knowledge that my app had fulfilled its purpose in its short life — to get me to the destination safely.  And as I ran up to Laura there at the end of the trail, I could almost imagine my app saying to me proudly, “You have arrived at your destination.”     


The end.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Bryce Canyon 50k Race Report, June 19, 2016.


It's been nine months since my last race report, so you're probably wondering whether at the age of 51, these crazy endurance races had finally killed me off.  Well, not quite, but it was touch and go there for a while at the end of last year.

Last September's race across the Alps at the Gore-Tex Transalpine event took a toll.  Instead of making me superhumanly fit and ready to crush the Cuyamca 100k a month later, Transalpine left me with the physical equivalent of a car bomb wired to my ignition switch.  

Not realizing that I was going to vaporize myself, I took the Cuyamaca race out somewhat heroically.
That turned out to be the worst decision since since the Donner Party opted for the short-cut across the Sierras.  

About 10 miles into that 62 mile race, the Steve bomb exploded, by legs shut down, my brain went haywire and I lost the capacity to follow the flags marking the course.  Twenty-two miles of staggering and weaving later, I showed up back at the start line, handed my bib to someone who may or may not have been associated with the race and went to bed for about a week.

So as a mental break this winter, I skied a bit, snowboarded a little and found an outlet for my hyper-competitive side by playing old-guy pickup basketball at the community center.  

I didn't run or bike much, but I told myself that skiing and hoops were fantastic substitutes for offseason endurance training.  

They are not.  But my jumper is the deadliest it’s been since my junior year in high school.

In fact, if I may go off topic for a moment -- the 65 year-old guy with the double-knee replacement who guards me on the basketball court won’t leave me open for even a fraction of a second — that’s how dangerous I am from behind the three point line.  

And if you're surprised that a 65 year old with a knee replacement can guard a young stud like me, don't be.  His defensive strategy consists of grabbing a fist full of my shirt and having me tow him around the court while he tells me how miserable his life is since his wife began remodeling the kitchen.  If we had referees, he'd foul out before either team scored its first basket.  

But this blog isn’t about my budding basketball career.

So with the snow melting and the NBA having once again failed to draft me, in April I shifted my training focus and began the long process of losing weight and recapturing some endurance.  I raced a couple small events, the Goldrush 50k and the Knickerbocker 35k, suffered a lot and realized that skinny people run faster than chubby people.  

And relatively speaking, I was a chubby people, judging by the number of people who ran past me at the ends of those races.

The Bryce Canyon 50k was going to be my first somewhat serious race of the year.  And I hoped to at least finish strong, if not fast.  

But the race was going to be run at between 7,300 to 9,000 feet elevation, with 6,000 feet of elevation gain, technical trails, and a weather prediction for loads of heat.  

So Bryce was going to be a challenging race.  And I certainly wasn’t counting any chickens — for fear that they might not hatch, or that they would come home to roost, or cross the road — or whatever it is that chickens do to ruin your day.


Traveling to Bryce Canyon

It is not a simple trip.  Bryce is rural and it’s a considerable drive from the nearest major airport.

Despite the difficulties one might encounter traveling to Bryce, I’m confident that no one since the over-dressed people with the covered wagons ever devised a travel plan to Bryce that was more complex than the one my wife concocted — masterful logistician that she is.

To fully understand how this trip to Bryce became so convoluted, you need to understand an important detail for which I blame much of the confusion that ensued:  Before we could travel to Bryce, we had to pick up our sports car from my mom’s driveway in Southern California, where it had spent the winter enjoying sunshine and hiding from the Northern California snow.

With the snow melting, it was time now for our little car to return home.  And for whatever reason, we decided that there was no better time than now, a few days before the Bryce Canyon 50k.   

So the simple-minded among us might say, “Hey, Honey, let’s fly to So Cal and drive the sports car to Bryce Canyon."

Not my wife.  Her mind is unique.  It thinks in three dimensions — maybe four — or whatever the maximum number of dimensions is these days.  

Having learned that the race hotel was fully booked and that our only option was to camp, the truly simple option of driving the sports car to Bryce was dead on arrival.

“Honey,” she said, “I have an idea.  Let’s make a bed in the back of our hatchback, drive it to your mom’s house, leave the hatchback in her driveway, pick up the sports car, drive it home, book a flight back to your mom’s a week later, pick up the hatchback and drive it 8 hours to Bryce Canyon, camp, race, then drive home from Bryce Canyon.  I mean, it’s a 10 hour drive to Bryce from here, but it’s only 8 hours from your mom’s house.”

My brain was unable to keep pace with Laura’s Stephen Hawking-like understanding of space and time, so I tried to look contemplative for a second, before saying earnestly:  

“Well that makes sense.” 

I’m good at being married.  And sometimes when you want to stay married, you memorize certain sentences that you fall back on when the conversations gets particularly confusing.  And those sentences should always express agreement with your wife and implicitly heap praise on her thoughts — but not too obviously.   

Hence I am copyrighting, "Well that makes sense."©  Learn it, men.

And so it happened that two days before the Bryce 50k, on Thursday, June 16, 2016, Laura and I found ourselves waking up at 2:30 a.m., driving an hour to the airport and catching the 5:30 a.m. flight to Orange County.

An hour later, our flight to Orange County landed in Las Vegas, where we spent a depressing hour watching punch-drunk travelers pump quarters into slot machines.  Fortunately, just before I realized that I too had a wallet full of quarters begging to be set free, Southwest Airlines announced boarding for the next leg of our flight.

In Orange County we were picked up at the curb by my lovely mother, who drove us to our hatchback with the bed (made up of our couch cushions) in the back.

So, leg 1 one of the journey to Bryce was completed in a mere two car rides and two flights in 7.5 hours — and it wasn’t even 10 a.m.

Laura and I repaid my mother for her kindness with breakfast at Coco’s.  Then we went into maternal debt again, borrowing a few pillows, a cooler and a blanket for our makeshift hatchback-RV.

We jumped into our car and commenced an expected 8 hour drive to Bryce Canyon.

Four hours later, we were back in Las Vegas for the second time that morning.  Fortunately, I had spent my quarters on a 44 ounce soda at a gas station in California, so I was not tempted to pop into a Nevada 7-Eleven for a little impromptu convenience-store gaming.   

Four hours after blasting through Vegas, we checked into a hotel in the hamlet of Canyon City, UT, 90 minutes short of our campground in Bryce Canyon.  I feel like we could have made it to Bryce that night, but ever since I ordered reading glasses, Laura thinks my driver’s license should be restricted to daytime driving.

And besides, we both knew we would have killed each other had we been forced to set up camp in the middle of the dark of night.  Score one for team marriage management skills.    

The next day we found a local combination coffee shop/used book store, went for a jog, filled the cooler with ice and then, just before noon, we resumed our pilgrimage to Bryce Canyon — still blissfully married.

A mere 40 hours after having begun this journey two days previously, we arrived in Bryce Canyon at the Ruby Inn RV campground ready for some ultra running.

“Voila,” I say.  It turns out that Laura is a genius after all.

A few short hours later, exhausted from travel, Laura and I crawled carefully into our just-larger-than-a-coffin homemade RV and closed our eyes for the night.  

And with the sound of Tupak Shakur bumping from a nearby Winnebago we were spared from having to sleep through the disturbing sounds of nature lurking just outside our car window.  We passed out immediately.    


The Race

The Bryce 50k is a point to point race.  And so, on race morning, I was deposited in a remote location next to a beautiful lake, along with 200 nervous runners.  Standing there in the wilderness, we who were about to run far speculated among ourselves where the start line was, how steep the terrain would be and how hot it was going to get.  

Bryce Canyon 50k Start Line

I remembered from the promotional video on the website that the race seemed to start with a gradual uphill and then opened up into a steep downhill through an amazing red rock canyon filled with cliffs and “Hoodoos” — which are these totem-pole looking rock formations.  

I was really looking forward to running through the red rocks — and running downhill.  I like downhill.  

The start line at an ultra race is generally a great place to meet people -- and in the peaceful surrounding of the Bryce 50k start line, this was certainly true.  In those uncertain moments before the start we all welcome a human connection before the suffering starts.

After all, you never know who might find you half-dead on the side of the trail at some point.  And when that happens, it can't hurt to have one more individual out on the course who cares if you make it back out of the wilderness.  

I was lucky enough to have a chat with a lanky, cool dude named Jordan.  Jordan looked a lot like what we all envision Jesus to look like, and ironically, he was wearing a “I run with Jesus” shirt.  He seemed totally relaxed.  Of course when you run with Jesus, what's there to be uptight about?    

Extrovert that I am, I like to meet as many people at the start line as possible.  And so I also struck up a conversation with someone named either Jenna, Jennifer or Kristina from Salt Lake City.  This person, whose name I have rudely forgotten, but who I will call Jennifer for purposes of making this story make sense, was about to run her first 50k and she was anxiously checking out the assembled runners.  

I asked Jennifer whether she was nervous.  She confided: “I’m not sure what to expect.  So, yeah.  A little bit.” 

“You’ll be fine,” I said trying to comfort her.  “Have you ever run a 5k?”  She smiled and said, “Of course.”  

“Then this is going to be no big deal,” I said.  “50k’s are exactly like 5k’s… except precisely ten times farther.  Although I hear that this course is a mile too long, so 10 times longer plus a mile.”  

That got a laugh and seemed to loosen her up.  The next thing I know she’s got jokes for me.  Looking at Jordan in his “I run with Jesus” shirt, she said, “you should trade shirts with Jordan and run next to him.  People will think you’re actually running with Jesus.” 

With the sun getting more intense by the minute and the weather heating up quickly, I thought that Jesus might be the perfect running partner.  

Suddenly, a dude with long blonde hair and a beard stood up in the back of a pickup truck and said, “Attention, please!”  (As an aside -- for those not immersed in what’s trending in the ultra-running world, the Jesus/Grizzly Adams look has become “the in-thing” in this sport ever since a super fast guy named Rob Krarr began dominating a couple years ago, sporting the “I know I left my razor around here somewhere…now where is that thing?….ahh, whatever… ” look.)

From his seriousness, I could sense that the dude in the back of the pickup truck was about to share some vital, perhaps life-saving information with us.  And since running 32 miles in a blast furnace at 9,000 feet is not something to be taken lightly, I pulled out my pen and paper and prepared to take detailed notes.  

Ok, not really.  But he definitely had my full attention.   

“Ok, everyone, listen up!”  He said.  “First, get behind the pickup truck.  Second. When you start running, follow the orange road cones through the park, then follow the green flags.  Then, when you see pink flags, follow the pink flags.  That’s when you merge with the 50 mile and 100 mile runners.  And yeah, and sometimes we painted chalk arrows on the ground.  Follow those too.”  

He pointed up a hill.  “You’re going this way.” 

“Go!”

And with those words of wisdom ringing in my ears, I ran, hoping someone faster than me, but not too much faster than me would lead the way.  At the moment I started running, I had already forgotten everything except for the part about green flags. I hoped some of those other forgotten memories could be recovered along the way. 

“Follow the green flags, follow the green flags…” I said over and over.  

Looking around, I noticed that, despite trying to run slowly to pace out the race evenly, I was instantly in a small group at the front of the race. 

Bryce Canyon 50k race start.  I'm on the far left, not running conservatively.

Adrenaline is a remarkable hormone.  In any other situation, running uphill at 8,000 feet elevation would have you gasping so hard that you’d consider whether walking wasn’t the better alternative.  But in a race, running fast can seem deceptively easy — until your brain figures out that your body has lost its mind and turns off the adrenaline spigot.  

“So much for the ‘go out slow’ strategy,”  I thought.  Or maybe everyone else was implementing the same strategy and they were better at it than me.  It was hard to know, since I had promised myself that I would not look at my GPS watch during this race.

With so few people around and the field spreading out, it dawned on me that my top priority needed to be not getting lost.

“Green flags,” I thought.  Looking around for green flags, I noticed that there weren’t any.  

“Wait a minute, where are the green flags?” I asked a husky guy chugging along nearby.  

“Puff, puff, pant, pant… road cones… then green flags,” he gasped.  

“Right,” I said.  “Then the flags change color right?  Red or purple or something.  Right?”  

But the husky guy was crushing the first mile and had moved ahead, out of ear-shot — on purpose, I think.    

A few minutes later, my husky buddy’s adrenaline hormones hit the wall and I passed him as he started to walk.  Fortunately, simultaneously with his first mile bonk, a group of about six runners moved past me.  I happily settled in at the back of that group.  

With three of the six runners in this group being super-fit women, it looked like this was where the front of the women’s race was going to take place.  In fact, I could see some intensity in the ladies’ faces as they sized each other up.  This could be entertaining, I thought.

But then, predictably, the 3 guys in the group began chatting up the women and everyone started giggling. 

Bummer.

I backed off so I wouldn’t have to listen to the witty, flirty conversation.  Not because I don’t enjoy a good inane conversation, but because I needed to save all of my energy for running.  

Oh yeah, and I’m married to a beautiful woman who might pop up along the course at any moment.  

At mile 3 or so, I began to notice green flags.  This made me happy.  

I settled into my own pace cruising up a very long fire road, anticipating popping out into the red rock canyon I had seen on the race video.  Life was good.  The future was bright.  

Every now and then a runner would come up from behind and pass.  More often, someone would realize that this hill was actually a mountain and he or she would start to walk.  I passed at least three people this way.  And every time I passed someone who was walking, I felt smart.  And strategic.   

I’m easily impressed by me.

At mile 5, the climb topped out and we were able to shake out our legs on a downhill to the first aid station at mile 8.5.  

“Hmm, I wonder where that steep downhill through the Hoodoos starts?” I thought, looking around at the woodsy and pretty, but definitely not red-rock-looking surroundings.  This lack of Hoodoos and downhills where Hoodoos and downhills should have been was setting off alarm-bells in my head.  But what was I going to do?  


But what was I going to do?  File a protest because the race topography wasn’t meeting my needs? Question the intelligence of the green flags?     


"Just be glad that the green flags are where they are supposed to be and run -- and stop thinking," I said to myself in my head.

The descent continued for some time on technical, gravelly single-track — a particular specialty of mine early in races.  I don’t like it quite as much late in races, but who does?

As we ran out of downhill to run down, I found myself behind what remained of the group of giggling guys and girls, running through a field.  The chit chat in the group ahead had ceased as the trail had strangely turned into a a foot-deep, foot wide rut, which was all but un-runnable.  At least for me.  My feet weren’t narrow enough to pass by each other while running in the rut.  

After some dangerous stumbles, I learned that the trick was to run up, along the top edge of the rut where the grass was mostly dead and then, if the grass got too deep on the side of the rut where you were running, to leap across the rut and to run along the other side.  

For the first couple hundred yards, I enjoyed the “rut jumping.”  It was like play time — and another vindication of my basketball-as-endurance training.  But after a couple miles of rut-jumping, it got less fun.  

And after I face-planted into a rut, I cursed whatever natural phenomenon had caused the rut to exist, whoever had routed us along the rut and even the tall grass that was forcing me into and over the rut time and time again.

It wasn’t until after the race that I realized that the rut was actually a horse trail.  Not that that knowledge made the rut-running any less miserable.  But I do like knowing who or what to blame.  

Stupid horses.  

Just kidding.  I love horses.  But like cats, I think we should keep them indoors.  It’s safer for everyone that way.  

I wasn’t the only one struggling with rut-running.  The group ahead had mostly scattered and it looked like two of the girls had gotten serious, dropping the other 4 runners.  

And a guy in an orange shirt looked to be having some trouble with the uneven footing and was slowly falling behind the other three in the group.

As I closed in on him, sizing him up like the guy who predicts your age at the circus, it looked likely that he was in my age group.   I pegged him for mid-fifties. 

After topping out over a twisty, technical climb, I caught the guy in the orange shirt on a screaming descent into the mile 14 aid station.  I also caught a young super-athletic looking guy — although to be fair, the young guy was puking into the bushes and didn’t seem to care who passed him. 

I hustled through the aid station, grabbed half of a very dry PB&J, spit most of it out after it stuck in my throat, and after a quick refill of my hydration pack (which I had been religiously emptying into my tummy in anticipation of needing all the hydration I could get today), I took off up a steep hill with my hydration hose firmly between my teeth.

Mario Andretti in his prime didn't do pit stops faster than I was doing them today. 

Out of the mile 14 aid station, we began the steepest climb of the day, and I was happy to have my trekking poles.  Looking back over my shoulder, it appeared that the orange shirt hadn’t arrived at the aid station yet.  I felt strong.  And soon I was catching one of the 3 women from the initial group of 6, which group had now completely disintegrated.  

As I caught and passed the woman, whose name is Susanna, I figured that my conservative pacing was paying off and I thought that I’d have the strength to run through a bunch of racers from this point on.  

My plan was coming together.

But I couldn’t drop Susanna.  She appeared to get her second wind and hung on behind me for a few miles.  Then she passed me on an uphill, and from this point on until the last aid station Susanna and I yo-yo’d back and forth, each of us taking the lead for a while before falling back.  

At one point, around mile 22 Susanna slowed down considerably on a steep climb and I asked “how are you doing?  Do you need anything?”  

“I’m getting hot, but the aid station should be coming up pretty soon, right?”  I had no idea where the aid station was, so I said, “I hope so.”  Which hope was sincerely held, since I had completely emptied my hydration pack a mile ago and I was starting to get worried that the intense sun and heat were causing me to get dehydrated. 

I handed Susanna an electrolyte pill as I passed her.  She said, "thanks," and we continued on our way.

But the aid station wasn’t “coming pretty soon.”  We still had nearly 30 minutes of hilly running and one massively confusing intersection ahead of us.  For mile after mile through the heat, over seemingly endless technical, twisty single-track trails, we ran.  

And then our trail hit a very confusing fork in the road.  Fortunately there was a chalk arrow pointing the way. 

Unfortunately, the chalk arrow was pointing back up the hill we just came down.

This was mind-boggling to me.  My head nearly exploded just thinking about it.

It's one thing to show up at a split in a trail and not be able to find markings.  But to have a marking literally screaming at you, "you're going in completely the wrong direction!"  (And then, adding implicitly..."idiot,") was not something I was prepared to deal with this deep into the race.   

Susanna, who had closed the gap once again at this point, stopped to assess the absurd chalk arrow with me.  

"Well it can't be back up the trail we were just on," I said.  That wouldn't make any sense at all.  Not unless we've been going the wrong way since we left the last aid station 5 miles ago."  

Despite being hot and tired, Susanna seemed pretty clear-headed about this and agreed. 

Exercising zero self restraint and having no reasoning skills, I said "screw it."  Defying the arrow's authority over my direction of travel, I ran over the arrow directly in the opposite direction that it was pointing.  And yes, I stomped on it on the way.

Susanna followed me like I was Columbus and she was on a ship to America.  Which is an apt analogy, I think, because I had no idea where I was going and there was a very real chance Susanna and I would find ourselves in the West Indies in a few days.    

It later turned out that I was right to defy the idiotic chalk arrow, which made me feel smart and not humble, which lack of humility, later caused chickens to come home to roost and not hatch.  

The first of many punishments I suffered was that I starting to feel that worms-crawling-in-your muscles, pre-cramp sensation.  Even my arms were cramping from using the trekking poles.  

Fortunately, I had a really un-original thought to take my mind off the cramping -- like, hey,  “And where the heck is that red-rock canyon downhill!?”  

The final aid station appeared at Mile 24.  Refilling my hydration pack to the brim, I overheard another runner ask an aid station volunteer, “so when does the big climb start?”  

“Big climb?” I wondered. 

“It starts right here,” the volunteer said.  “Miles 24 to 28 are straight uphill through the red-rock canyon.  It’s wide open and pretty exposed, so bring plenty of fluids.” 

“Uhh, excuse me?”  I said to the volunteer.  “I knew we had another climb coming, but I was under the impression that the run through the red-rock canyon was downhill.  At least that’s the way it looked on the video.”

“Oh yeah, they flipped the course.  The course used to be north to south.  Now it runs south to north.  The part through the canyon used to be down, now it’s up.  It used to be at the start, now it's the finish.”

Well isn’t that a kick in the teeth to those of us who don't read the race course trail maps.

I tried to look on the bright side.  I hadn’t missed the most beautiful part of the course.  And since we were going to have to climb up the canyon walls, I supposed we were going to get to enjoy the views for quite a bit longer than I anticipated.

“Ok.  Time to reset expectations.”  I lectured myself.   “The last 8 miles are going to be slow.  But they’ll be slow for everyone.  Here’s your chance to push hard and catch some of the 10 or so people up the road who are probably bonking.”

At this point, Susanna arrived at the aid station looking hot and dehydrated.

I knew how she felt, I was pretty hot, crampy and miserable myself, but despite it all, my legs still felt relatively strong.  And now that I had a full hydration pack again, my optimism was intact.  Heck, I had made every pass stick for the last couple hours, I was probably leading my age group, and the guy in the orange shirt had been dropped a long time ago.

If I could just start this climb in an easy gear and get rehydrated…, I thought, sliding my heavy pack onto my shoulders and striding out of the shade of the aid tent and into the inferno.

I started up the mountain.  

A quarter mile later, I was rewarded with spectacular views of the massive, slab-sided, red-rock canyons as they loomed magnificently or malevolently — either word applies.  The sheer verticality of the wall of Hoodoos was spectacularly beautiful and yet forbidding all at the same time.  

A small outcropping of Hoodoos, certainly not the massive wall we faced in the race.

“Wait a minute,” I thought.  “How do we get up this thing?”  

But there really wasn’t a choice.  You either went up or you went back to the aid station and waited for a ride.  “Time to enjoy the climb,” I figured.

And for the first mile, I did.  I was completely alone.  Just me and lots of rusty dirt.  And the occasional mountain biker careening out of control down the steep, sandy slopes trying to gore me.  But I had plenty of agility left and deftly avoided the mountain bikers like a Matador.  I briefly considered using my trekking pole to finish off the bikers with an “Ole’” as they hurtled by.

But, as I learned in law school way back in the 90's, that would be a battery and it would be wrong -- satisfying, but wrong.

Suddenly fantasy time was over and the race got real again.  As I looked over my shoulder on the trail, I could see Susanna a few minutes back.  And she was gaining on me.  “Wow, that’s amazing,” I thought.  “She’s crushing it.”  

But a few hundred yards later, I looked down the cliff again and my age group competitor in the orange shirt had suddenly, out of nowhere, made an appearance as well.  

And that’s when I realized that I wasn’t moving quite as well as I had thought.  My breathing was definitely coming a little less easily.  And I wasn’t really running much of this climb.  

I sucked it up and forced myself to run a moderately steep, but runnable chunk of the climb up to mile 26.  But that’s when the engine room delivered the unfortunate news that dehydration, exhaustion, cramping and heatstroke were all converging in a perfect storm of bad things.

And the climb up the red-rock cliffs was offering no respite — it was relentless.  With two miles to go to the top, I realized that no amount of determination was going to allow me to put in a race effort.  Heck, I’d be lucky to get to the top of the climb without a forced time-out on the side of the trail.  

So I slowed down, slammed some electrolyte pills and drank as much as my now twisted stomach would allow.  I figured that if I could crest this cliff face and get to the last 4 miles, which I had been told were slightly downhill, perhaps I’d recover enough to give the guy in the orange shirt a race to the line. 

Slowly, but inevitably, Susanna and orange-shirt guy made up ground.  And just before the summit, they both made the pass.  

“Damn, this is going to hurt,” I thought as I became the chaser.  And with the terrain becoming runnable I had no excuse for not giving an effort.  

After running a across a plateau, we hit a downhill and there at the bottom, like a pretty apparition, my wife Laura appeared on the side of the trail.  I slowed to a shuffle and said, “Hey.”

“Way to go Honey!  How are you?  You’re in 12th place, I think.  Do you need anything?” she asked excitedly.

I was too wasted to crack a smile.  “I can’t speak,” I said, searching for oxygen in the thin super-heated air.  “I just need to focus.  And breathe.  But I’m ok.”  

“Ok.  There’s a guy just ahead.  Keep it up.  I’ll grab my stuff and I’ll see you at the finish line.”  

I knew all about the guy just ahead.  And unfortunately, he knew about me. 

I began to run.  Painfully.  And not quickly.  

Looking ahead on the serpentine trail, the guy I was stalking in the orange shirt was also hurting.  Susanna was dropping him and I could see him hiking the uphills a hundred or-so yards ahead — same as me.  

A part of me — the part that now had a race on his hands — wished he had just dropped the hammer and left me for dead.  

But no such luck.

The next 4 miles were a lesson in frustration.  Every so often, I’d put in a burst and close the gap on the orange shirt, only to have him look back and respond by running again.  Searching for a reason to be optimistic, I realized that he was carrying only one water bottle.  There was no way that was enough water.  He had to crack eventually, right?  

So with that thin lifeline of hope, I was still in the race.  And I did seem to be running the downhills pretty well.  

With a couple miles left, from somewhere behind me on the snaking trail, I heard Laura speaking to a girl I had just passed, a girl running the 100 miler, offering her some water.  Crazy.  That girl was something like 33 hours into her race and here I was feeling sorry for myself after a lousy 6 hours.

I picked up the pace.  Or at least I thought I picked up the pace.

Just a few minutes later, Laura ran me down like I was sitting on a stump fishing.  As she ran by, she described what the upcoming last sections of the course looked like — I heard something about the last mile being a downhill fire-road.  

All I could say was, “Wait a minute.  How far to the fire road?”  

“Not far.  7/10ths of a mile.”  

That seemed pretty far to me.  But I was too tired to argue.  And she was out of ear-shot anyway — and gaining on the guy in the orange shirt, I noticed.

“If she can do it, I can do it,” I thought.

I pushed for about a minute.  

Nope.  I could see him a few hundred yards ahead as we reached the fire road at mile 31, but I was completely out of gas.  

Ninety seconds might as well have been a thousand miles.  

I watched him cross the finish line, gave him a mental tip of the cap, then crossed it myself.  The guy was just too tough today.  

I approach the finish line boss.
No, that's not dancing -- I'm just obeying the boss' "spin" command and making sure she sees my number.
Laura was standing at the finish line, smiling.  “Way to go, Honey.  That was a tough race.”  

I agreed, nodding — teetering precariously on dead legs.  If I hadn’t propped the trekking poles in the tripod position, I would have fallen flat on my face, I was so tired.

Just resting.  And yes, that's a small salt farm on the brim of my cap.

It turned out that the guy in the orange shirt, whose name was Mike, I think, was in my age group and that he and I were in fact racing for the age group win.  So it was comforting to know that I hadn’t expended all that energy pointlessly.  We had also been racing for 10th place in the men’s overall competition — so he took a double victory of sorts.  

Susanna came up to me, looking way too rested and said, “Congratulations, great race.  That was a hot one, right?”  

I’m not sure what I said in response.  I’d like to think I said, “You were great.  Awesome race.”  But who knows what senseless drivel came out of my baked brain.  For all I know, I could have said, “Mom, is that you?"     

To this day, everything from that moment until about 10 minutes after Laura sat me down in the medical tent and force fed me icy Pepsi are still a little blurry.

Jordan in his "I run with Jesus shirt" finished about 30 minutes later, looking like he cruised the course in the back of a limousine.  I’ve never seen anyone run 32 miles and look that fresh at the finish.    

So that’s the way it went — another memorable day of doing crazy things, jamming as much life into life as possible.

And the upside of not winning is that now, 4 days later, I’m highly motivated to get fitter and stronger -- and to do something even stupider.

Like my dad used to tell me when we would play golf together.  On the rare occasions when I would Birdie the first hole and start celebrating what I was sure would be the round of my life -- he would put his arm around me and say, “Son, never Birdie the first hole.  When you Birdie the first hole, its all downhill from there.”  



So there you go dad.  We’ll call this one a Par.