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.  

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Transalpine Race: Day 8. The Final Day.
September 5, 2015, 6:30 a.m. We are in St. Valentine — Italy, I think. My confusion is mostly about the country not the town.
I'm still exhausted, and we’ve been crossing a lot of borders and I’m completely turned around. There are no border checkpoints at the tops of these mountains where the land magically changes possession. And the cows up there don’t seem to care if they’re Italian, Swiss, Austrian or German citizens. They seem content enough to poop on whatever country they’re standing on at the time.
But what really throws me is that the people in this apparently Italian town all speak German, look German and act German. Our hostess at the hotel is gruff and angry and announced that as punishment for her bad mood she’s serving breakfast at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., depending on how she feels.
As a man born in Italy, it’s very unsettling to see Italians behave like this. Particularly, when they’re barking these words in German.
In any event, these are thoughts a mile too deep for a man who can’t choose from two similar pairs of black running shorts in the morning. Right now I'm just happy to be at the start line on time, wearing clothes.
And I’ll be overjoyed if I am one of the few who, today, completes the 25 mile run, 5,100 feet climb to Sulden, Italy and is rewarded for his achievement by being allowed to triumphantly pop his head through the big hole in the magic Finisher's T-shirt.
Unfortunately, that achievement is a long, long way away. And it’s raining. It’s dark. And it’s cold.
How cold? The mountains we are scheduled to cross are completely covered in fresh snow.
Laura and I have 9 hours to make it to Sulden — over those very mountains. And we didn’t bring skis or snow shoes.
If we make it, it will be the culmination of a seemingly impossible journey. There will be unbridled, drunken, dim-witted, spastic joy.
If we don’t make it. Well, the world will keep spinning, but I’ll be crushed and I might join a monastery where I, like Batman before me, will spend a few years searching for the meaning of life and picking up martial arts.
Standing at the start line in the freezing rain, wearing three layers of clothing, a windproof jacket and a rain jacket over the aforementioned assemblage of upper-body coverings, I pull on a 12 lb. backpack containing 2 liters of liquid, rain-pants, a first aid kit, a space blanket, a third jacket, spare socks, two cell phones, a knife and my wallet containing my passport in case we make a wrong turn and find ourselves back in Switzerland, or Austria, or wherever it is that we came from.
My legs feel… well, normal. Which, to be clear, is different than my legs feeling good. Normal is now just a dull pain — the type of pain that makes it impossible to tell where your legs end and the pain begins.
Arriving at the start line, we are happy to learn that the race directors have noticed the same snow on the mountains that we have. And with rain and blizzard conditions predicted today, they wisely re-route the course to a trail below the snow-line. I hear that their insurance company leaped for joy.
At the gun, we start among the last third of the approximately 400 or 500 remaining competitors. We are surrounded by new, close friends who we have met in the crucible of this race. We shout encouragement and pat each other on the back as the slow stampede picks up pace.
But while others are warming up slowly, Laura takes off like we’re running a 10k. I follow her mindlessly. It is clear that her legs are mostly back — which is remarkable considering that just two days ago she couldn’t lower herself down on a toilet without rappelling gear. I’m fascinated watching her run away from me. Then I realize I have to follow.
I don’t feel my legs at all, really. But I do feel a knife stabbing me in my damaged ribs. My ribs are badly bruised or broken. And my hydration pack is punching me in the sore area with every step.
On the bright side, the rib pain is distracting me from my mangled toe, which is covered in so many layers of tape that I’m honestly not sure whether there’s a toe in there any more. For all I know, I’ve cut off it’s circulation and it fell off days ago. There’s time to check the status of that toe later, I decide. (And yes, the same tape has been on that toe for 3 days — I couldn’t bring myself to change out my lucky toe-tape on the most important stage of the race. Gross, but true.)
For the first few miles, I’m kept busy trying to keep pace with Laura as she launches herself downhill, weaving through dozens, probably hundreds of runners.
The first cutoff today is at the first feeding station, 7 1/2 miles into the run. We have 2 hours and 15 minutes to get there. Approximately 1 hour and 8 minutes after the start, we literally leave a vapor trail through that first check-point and pass about 30 more people standing around grabbing drinks and food.
Laura is so focused, she doesn’t even glance at the delicious, free chocolate cake at the feeding station. This is probably wise. On stage 6, she ate so much cake at the last aid station that she ran the last 5 miles mumbling miserably that she had “Cake-Tummy” pains.
Emotionally, getting to this checkpoint so quickly eases my worries about making the time cutoffs and I mentally relax, expecting Laura to throttle back the pace a tad.
But she doesn’t.
With a knot in my stomach, I realize that she means to not only finish this race, but to run a stake through its heart in retribution for all the pain it has caused for the last 7 days.
A mile later, though, it seems that we will need to stop to fix some equipment. Laura's hydration pack has suffered a catastrophic malfunction. It simply refuses to give up any of its water, no matter how hard you suck.
I ask whether we should walk while I try to fix it. But Laura isn’t interested. She just waves me up to her side, grabs my hydration hose and takes a long drink while holding an 8:30 pace.
From this point on, I become the running equivalent of an in-air refueling plane. Whenever she’s thirsty, she waves me up. I pull alongside, she grabs the hose, drinks, releases the hose and I fall back into my drafting position, a few steps behind her.
We complete this complex refueling maneuver about ever 5 minutes, except when the trail is so narrow that I would fall off a cliff with her lips stuck to my hose.
Checkpoint two, at 12.5 miles, rolls by in about 2 hours. In other words, the time-cut offs are of no further concern to us. We are 2 hours ahead of the cutoffs.
Between checkpoints two and three, as we are running on a narrow single track overlooking a valley, I take advantage of our blazing start to shoot a picture of a stunning river far, far below us. (As an aside, it is surprisingly difficult to operate a fogged over iPhone with wet hands — particularly when there’s not a dry piece of anything attached to your body. What isn’t wet from the rain, has been soaked with sweat from the inside. Literally, everything that was dry has been assaulted and conquered by a two-fronted, inside-out, outside-in, dampness-attack. And iPhone’s, I learned hate water.)
As a consequence of my fumbling with the iPhone, when I look up, I’ve lost Laura’s feet and I’m following a team of two guys who have filled the gap between me and Laura.
The guy in the front is named Daniel. He is stocky. He is also clearly at the limits of his ability on every uphill, trying to keep up with Laura. Conversely, his teammate is an athletic prototype, tall and lean and seemingly filled with endless reservoirs of oxygen readily available to fuel his powerful muscles. Oddly, his name is also Daniel.
As if to demonstrate just how easy this all is to him — or perhaps to motivate his struggling teammate, Athletic-Daniel is carrying a sizable blue-tooth speaker system in his hydration pack. As I hop on to his heels, I am intrigued and amused to hear the speaker pumping out German rap — some lyric about Indiana Jones — which seems appropriate, I think. I have attached video of this bizarre moment for your amusement.
Unfortunately, as you will see from the video, this distraction from the serious business of finishing today’s stage does not last long as the less-athletic-Daniel hits a steep switchback and gives up the chase, watching Laura glide up the next hill with ease.
But don’t worry about the Daniels. They ended the day with medals around their necks.
Back to my own misery however. We reach mile 18, still moving very fast. But, I am hanging on by a thread. While Laura is still light on her feet, I am clawing for the last reserves of whatever powers a person this many miles over this many days.
To keep moving, I’m relying on a form of hypnosis or perhaps meditation (I don’t really know the difference — and in truth, I wouldn’t know how to relax my brain short of eating Ambien like Chicklets). But I’ve come up with something appropriate for the moment. I call it “Monkey see, monkey do” -- see what the feet ahead do. Then do it. Don’t think. If I think at this point, the odds of that thought being constructive is 0%.
This is particularly necessary over the last eight miles of the stage, because what’s up the road is a torturously steep 3,000 foot climb. It’s like the race organizers have decided that this is where the final battle for the Transalpine T-shirt will be fought. They have placed before us a 4 mile long mud ladder that, in places, ascends so steeply that you could turn around, sit down and slide hundreds of yards back down the hills on your @ss.
About half-way up the climb, we find ourselves catching up to a mixed team. They are incredibly fit, but the woman is in huge distress and, but for her partner pulling her up the hill, she would be doing Michael Jackson’s moon-walk move on the side of this mountain.
Laura moves past them easily. I day-dream about Laura pulling me up the hill, but when I look up, I realize that I’d have to catch her to ask her. And I’ve got some hard work ahead, if I’m going to catch her.
As we go by this mixed team, I notice from the woman's race-shirt that she’s on the Solomon Mountain Running team — the equivalent of the New York Yankees of trail running. I consider mentioning to Laura that this is a sign that we should slow down. But if anything, Laura seems buoyed by this pass and is climbing even faster.
Soon, we are climbing the mud-ladder, looking up at the soles of some familiar shoes. I recognized these soles as belonging to my Spanish buddies, Enrique Martinez Acosta and Ruyman De Armas . These are two very good runners who I have only seen when I’ve run stages alone.
Laura and I have never caught them — until today.
This makes me smile. Broadly. Not because I’m happy that we’re doing so well, but because I want to see them. These two are what this sport is all about. They have radiant smiles and joyful dispositions that defy this rugged, painful adventure. They are like a fueling station for the soul to anyone lucky enough to interact with them.
The Spaniards and I have a special bond. Every day that I catch them, they loudly serenade me with a truly horrible, heavily accented version of “California Dreamin’’”. This makes me laugh so hard, that I put my arm around whichever of them is nearest to hold myself up. Inevitably, I then spend a few minutes running with them just to soak up their positive vibe.
But today, this stairway to hell prevents them from breaking out into song. We just slap each other on the back and nod and smile as I continue to follow Laura uphill. There is time for joy at the finish line. If we all make it.
As I knew it eventually would, the steep climb ends. I mean, there just wasn’t any more mountain there to climb and even these race organizers couldn’t keep the ascent going above terra-firma — gravity being an immutable law of nature even in Italy — or wherever we are — as far as I know.
But with only 5 miles to go, things get truly treacherous. The last five miles are narrow, cliff-side rolling trails, slick and muddy from the ceaseless rain. What is worse is that the trail is canted towards the drop off. To make things worse still, the trail also consists of a random amalgam of roots, slick granite rubble and switchbacks requiring quick reactions and agile changes of direction.
And me, all out of agility and quickness.
As I follow Laura’s nimble, dancer-like footwork through a section of roots that looks like a tire drill that NFL running backs do in training camp, my dance moves are found lacking. I slip off a root sideways and land heavily on my injured ribs, my left elbow ensuring that maximum force is delivered to the tender area.
But with people following close behind me, I instinctively jump up and keep running. The severity of the injury has to be diagnosed on the fly, lest I get trampled by a group of runners with no means of stopping in the slick mud. And the last thing we need at this point is a 6 person pile up so close from the finish.
My diagnosis is that the ribs hurt badly — worse than when I broke a couple ribs and a scapula a couple months ago.
Stupidly, I rush to catch back up to Laura and almost immediately trip over another rock, doing a superman pose in the mud. But miraculously, this time, I manage to catch myself before landing on my chest and I sort of body-surf the mud into an upright position and continue straight into running. I’m like a face-planting savant, I think to myself.
The 4 km sign appears just as the trail becomes a wide dirt road. I do the math. We have 2.6 miles to go. “How am I going to run nearly 3 more miles, I think to myself. And, enhancing our suffering pleasure, we are now running in the deepest mud of the day. There’s no dry ground in sight anywhere. Our only choice is to stomp through the shoe-top high mud, squirting brown goop in every direction — like we’re stomping grapes.
As an aside, even in the best of times a strange dynamic plays out in these races — when you’re at 10 miles to go, it seems like the finish line will never come. Oddly, you have the exact same feeling at 9 miles to go, 8, 7, 6... And so on, and so on, right up until you get into the finishing chute. I just thought I’d share that, in case anyone was wondering how great it felt to hit the 4 km to go mark.
But there is one thing that will change your perspective on whether you’re going to make it — and that’s catching sight of the finish line.
I could see it down in the valley. That beautiful yellow balloon arch, glistening in the rain, calling like a beacon.
We ran along the ridge for a few minutes and then the orange arrows gloriously pointed straight downhill in the direction of a bridge that crossed a beautiful river that ran parallel to the magnificence of the balloon arch.
As we plummeted downhill, feet flying so fast that our shoes didn’t have time to slip in the mud, I was overcome with joy, sadness and a few dozen other emotions. Tears welled up in my eyes as we crossed the bridge pointing directly at the finish line.
But then, in a last cruel joke, the race course turned left and made a horseshoe-shaped turn parallel to, and then back to the finish line. I could hear the music and the cheering very close by, then it got faint and then, as we turned back, it increased in volume again.
Through the tears, I saw that Laura was speeding up into a full fledged sprint, while at the same time waving me up beside her. But I didn’t have the strength. I tried, but there was no unused burst of speed in me. We were essentially finishing a marathon with a 5100 foot mud mountain planted right in front of the finish line in about 5 hours and 30 minutes — after running roughly 150 miles in the days before. Crazy. But because we went so hard, I had nothing left.
Laura turned and saw me lagging and, like she did when we ran our first marathon together a dozen years ago, she waited for me.
We both had tears in our eyes as we approached the finish line, which was when I noticed that we were running down a finish line without fans. In fact, we were being herded into a giant building. “What the heck,” I thought, "did we make a wrong turn? Where is everyone?”
Nevertheless, we entered this giant glass building and were overjoyed to find it filled with cheering spectators, friends and families. Apparently they were giving away free beer, because the crowd was having a wild party — and they gave us a huge cheer as we crossed the line together.
We crossed the finish line and hugged and kissed with tears in our eyes — cameramen and video cameras surrounding us. We didn’t care. Ok, we didn’t notice. At least not until a guy tried to stick his zoom lens up my nostril. At which point, we moved along and were given medals and plenty of coke, gummy bears, cheese and salami. Yeah, recovery food is different here.
Over the next hour, after Laura and I shared a tender, private moment we wadded out into the crowd where we hugged and were hugged by scores of new friends — my French buddies Jo and Jono, Enrique and Ruyman, Stephanie and Brennan from Detroit, Mike and Laney from New Jersey, Clive and Jacquie from Sausalito, Iago and Helena from Tenerife… the list of names too long to mention. But I would be remiss not to try. For all the support they offered, for all the warmth they gave, to not put their names in this memoir would be a tragic omission even though it adds little to the story.
A few hours later, I was called to the stage and presented with the magic T-shirt, which I gladly accepted on behalf of Laura and me. This shirt is her as much as mine. Though it fits me better. As you will see from the pictures. I am wearing it around town. Fortunately, it seems to be a durable shirt, since it's going to get a workout this week.
Thank you all for reading. Your comments are so, so humbling, and Laura and I so grateful for them. I wish I could give you all a great big hug. Instead, though, if anyone wants to to Transalpine next year, just get in touch. Maybe, just maybe Laura and I can be talked into taking a group over.
Post Script:
I woke up this morning and said to Laura that it’s lucky the race is over — because I can not -- I repeat can NOT run another step. We dragged our luggage onto the return bus chartered for us by the Transalpine race organizers (amazing logisticians that they are) and reveled in the thought of motorized transport and a nap.
Precisely 7 minutes before the bus was scheduled to leave back to Oberstdorf, Germany, Laura asked “Honey, where’s your backpack?” I stared back blankly. “Oh no, I think you left your backpack and your computer in the Hotel restaurant,” she said.
“Oh, crap," I said.” It was now 7:54. The bus was scheduled to leave at 8:00 a.m. I searched in vain for the bus driver and then made a split second decision. Looking up the hill at our Hotel, half a mile away, I said to Laura, “I’ve got 6 minutes. I can make it, but if not, try to hold the bus!”
Miraculously, just like every day this week, I could suddenly run — and run well. Which was fortunate, because if I misplayed my hand here, I might have to run back to Oberstdorf.
I vaulted out of the bus without touching a single step. I then sprinted out of the finishing chute backwards along the finishing straight we had run yesterday. Except today I ran it nearly twice as fast. I ran across the finishing bridge, pushed hard up the muddy hill, hit the street and strode like Usain Bolt through the Hotel door in literally 3 minutes. 7:57, it said on my watch. My legs never felt better.
Like a mind-reader, our most excellent Innkeeper (the Hotel Cristallo is getting a 5-star yelp review for this piece of magic) had found my backpack and had seen me coming. She had the backpack out and ready, like a baton handoff in a relay race. I grabbed it, shook her hand and shouted “Thank you! You are the best! Gotta go! I have a feeling the bus driver is going to try to leave me.”
Now some might say, “Oh come on Steve. A charter bus wouldn’t leave behind a ticketed passenger with his wife and luggage already loaded — not when the passenger is in full view and is running for the bus… you’re being paranoid.”
"Ok, you’ve got a point," I would say. In most countries, the chances of them holding the bus a few seconds or, egads, even a full minute, are probably 99.9%.
But unless you’ve seen the ruthlessly efficient (some might even say joyfully punitive) German transportation system in action during most of your teenage years, you might not understand that for a man in my position — as absurd as it sound — the chances of me getting blasted with diesel fumes at the @ss end of this bus while it rolled down the road with my wife and luggage, were in my opinion, right around 50%.
Make that 100%. According to Jodi, our new friend from Nova Scotia, who was sitting in the front row — not only did our bus driver leave on time over the objections of a number of passengers — dude left 2 minutes early. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame him — some people can’t overcome their programming. He probably drove a city bus for years before getting this cush gig and he couldn't resist the dopamine jolt he gets every time a screws over some poor sap running for the bus.
But he didn’t realize he was dealing with a black belt level rider of the German bus system. And I smelled his move coming.
And so, even before I got my backpack, I had planned to run back by a path just down from our hotel, that would cut off the bus’ exit to the main street. (Sulden is a small town. Very small.) And I planned to do exactly what I had done as a teenager in the mean streets of Stuttgart — stand in front of the bus until the doors opened. The "check-mate move” I called it — because even in Germany running over a passenger is strictly verboten. And for a bus driver in Germany it’s preferably to admit the occasional defeat and allow a passenger on the bus, than to run over the passenger, or, even worse, fall behind schedule.
But just as I started sprinting back, the Innkeeper ran to her van and shouted “Get in. I drive you.” I leaped into the front seat and she left skid marks, peeling out of her driveway and down the road — executing the same idea I had — except in a car.
She played her hand exactly right. Seeing the bus driving down the narrow road towards us and the main highway, She pulled the “chicken maneuver,” driving directly in front of the bus, head on. blocking the road. The bus driver, realizing he had been beaten opened the door wordlessly and refused to look at me as I bounded out of the van and headed for the door of the bus.
I entered the bus to great cheering from my bus-friends, a roar matched only by the cacauphony of applause Laura and I experienced the previous day, running through the finish line.
A person could get used to all this cheering. Maybe I need to try this again next year.