Sunday, September 27, 2009

Run in the Sun

SNER GPS data @

I felt pretty relaxed coming in to this one; an ominous state of mind to be certain. Somehow, after running my first 100mi up in Tahoe in July, I naively thought this one would feel "easier" by comparison. No such luck. As we know (and sometimes forget), each event brings with it many unknowns for which deal with as the race unfolds before us. Today, it was heat and the futile process of remaining sufficiently hydrated.

The Sierra Nevada Endurance Run has 4 races in one: a 12k, marathon, double-marathon, and 100k. The marathon, double, and 100k all started at 6:30. Temps were already a balmy 65deg at that time. Still relatively new to this ultra insanity, I was building on my experience from Tahoe Rim Trail 100 and thought it a pretty good idea to go out with the leaders of the marathon--while it was relatively cool--and have them (in theory) slingshot me up the trail and give me a good lead over any other competitor in the 100k. After all, I was counting on a bump in fitness from the Santa Rosa Marathon, three weeks earlier, where I felt better running than I had in years. I felt my form had returned in earnest, which it had. That race was fun!

I was running at about 155bpm there for about an hour or two cruising comfortably and loving the morning and the single-track bliss. Just about the time we arrived in Auburn with 25mi down, Joe Palubeski, caught up with me as we arrived at a triple fork in the road. With no pink ribbon in sight to guide us we headed down the wrong path for a quarter-mile and came back to the same junction and chose correctly the second time. We made our way up to Auburn.

The race was on. Joe and I both knew we would be duking it out for first and I was happy letting him lead, since I was having trouble with my right leg (hip and IT Band). I'd taken 2 Tylenol at an aid station some ways back but wasn't too confident that it was going to allow me to run the way I wanted too--on Joe's heels!

The middle of any race is the toughest in my opinion. It's where I'm weakest mentally. My IT Band and hip pain consumed me. The question of dropping at the Cool aid-station (half-way) surfaced in my mind. Joe and I had a race going here and I wanted to be there for the action, but I sure didn't want to do any long-term damage to an already ailing leg. Dropping sounded so very tantalizing indeed, with the temps now hitting 100 blazing degrees.

Auburn resident, friend, and safety runner at Tahoe Rim Trail, Michael Cook, joined me, to my surprise, as I ran north through the Auburn Aid Station. He was excited to be out on his long run with the race going on. Fortunately, runners are permitted pacer at the SNER so I was in no danger of being DQ'd for outside assistance. Though I appreciated his company, I was, at that point, drowning in my sorrows. Joe was still running ahead of us at that point but I was only thinking about making it to Cool and calling it a day. It sounded just a dandy thing to do. It'd be so easy to justify. I even talked Michael in to it. His wife, Nicole, could come pick me up and that would be that. So that's what I'd do: drop at the Cool aid-station.

I should better learn to keep my mouth shut as the situation in this ultra-running stuff changes from mile to mile. You're feeling up and the miles are clipping by, and then you're feeling down, and every step is a ridiculous reminder of what you're actually doing with your entire Saturday. Getting through this middle section is just plain tough.

And the moment to do the deed arrived. The Cool aid station. Michael and the aid station folks were filling my bottles with ice-water while I stood there in the sun contemplating my next steps. Michael asked what I wanted to do, and stated something to the effect, "I think I'm going to make this the last race of the year and just finish this blasted thing."

At Cool there's a short out-n-back stretch included to bring the race up to 100 kilometers in length. It's the same road you start out on in the Way Too Cool 50k in March. My legs found it just delightful to be running on a flat road after all that uphill trail on the way up from No Hands Bridge. Joe cruised by me on the way back from the turn-around and we exchanged some words of encouragement. And this made the race, for both of us. This moment would push him for the next 30miles, as it would me. And that's the thrill of the whole thing: the race. "Seeing who," as Prefontaine famously stated about racing, "has the most guts." Knowing your competition is just 15min down the trail is enough to keep you going for hours. And knowing that your competition is just 15min back is all you need to run as hard as possible to that coveted first-place finish. Certainly, we should have our heads examined for pushing that hard on a 100deg day. One inevitably learns where one's limits are, and steadily leans on them, stretching the mind further to allow the body to go just a bit farther.

Michael ran with me back to Auburn and peeled off. Nicole and his 2y/o son Dylan were waiting for Dad there and it was nice to hang out a bit before making my charge to the finish, some 25mi to the south.

I wasn't getting enough water in me and was running out between aid stations. I carried two hand-helds with water with a four-hour bottle of concentrated Sustained Energy in my waist pack. Erik Skaden, who I also saw yesterday serving an athlete well in a pacing capacity, carried 3 bottles at TRT 100 in July. Thinking that was pretty smart, I upgraded from 2 to 3 for this event. Still, since it was so ungodly hot, my two hand-helds were running dry between aid stations. I found myself rationing the last few ounces of life-giving H20 in each bottle--Suck-fest! The SNER folks were doing their best to adjust to the day's searing conditions and saved the day with an impromptu aid-station between two stations that were some 9mi apart. I'd been out of water for 20-30min before finding this little oasis. Without this intervention from race-management, I don't know what would've happened (and don't want to think about it!).

"And I won't back down... no I won't back down..." I'd never raced with an iPod before, due to the fact that they're not permitted in most races. SNER allows them and for that I'm most grateful. Everything from the Stones, to Moby, to Tom Petty was full-blastin' that last ten miles. With 3.4 to go I wanted to be done more than at any other time in any other race. Most of all, I was shot emotionally. Increasingly frustrated with my miserable state of existence, I did my best to turn adversity into opportunity. I could not know if Joe was still in it ahead or had dropped like so many folks did off the front on the day I ran Tahoe Rim. You just never know. Likewise, I didn't really know if the guys chasing me were in the 100k or the double-marathon. So, after all the suffering because of heat, I imagined the possible scenario of being passed by this one tough runner behind, who answered every time I surged up the trail in front of him, passing me with a less than a mile to go and win the 100k IF, that is Joe had dropped ou. That's the unnerving thing about a race with 3 races going on at once (at this point it was only us 100k and double-marathon folks).

That's the game that got me home: don't get caught by that dude right behind you. This turned out to prove enormously difficult since my electrolyte depleted body was locking up here, there, and everywhere at once. My legs felt like they were contorting into a mass of knots below me. My feet felt like the were going to trip me up and send me to the ground at any moment. And since I hadn't fallen all day (a marked improvement over Tahoe Rim!), I was fiercely determined to remain rubber side down.

The finish line arrived and while bending over to help get my chip off, the ol' legs contorted violently and I was yelping like a puppy who just had it's tail stepped on. I hobbled into the gym of the middle school, then later out to my car to call Amanda (who had called Michael to come check on me at the finish since I said for her to start worrying at about 6pm if she hadn't heard from me--it was then 6:30.

In addition to remaining upright, I didn't blow chunks on the trail all day, as was a dilemma in Tahoe. But, the body knew the race was over now and it was time to begin the recovery process, and the first order of business? That's right. It's tied to the heat. Same thing happened to me in Kona in '04--finished and the body just shuts down and next thing you know you've taken up residence in the port-o-john. Lovely! And so it goes. How I appreciate these lessons in humility.

I was laying in the back of my trusty Subaru when Michael found me (a rather hot mess) and began urging me to get up, which soon brought on my final bout of vomiting. He split to get me a Sprite and some food and while I was heaving I heard someone say, "Bob?" It was the winner, Joe Pablubeski, a Red-Bluff resident, who capitalized this day on his heat acclimatized body, living and training where he does. Joe, put more than 45 more minutes into me in the last 30miles and won it by an hour. He stated he was in much the same condition as me when he finished. He had just emerged from his sweet RV that he brought to the race. I soon came to find that Joe is a fellow teacher, which immediately dried up the left-over competitive vapors remaining from our race. We agreed that we were in such bad shape because of each other--the hunter and the hunted. I'm always relieved to be beaten by someone who seems to love the thrill of the race so much. Joe showed a lot of guts out there, running in the lead, and putting an hour into me in his process. Prefontaine would dig that. I look forward to seeing him on the trail next year. I hope I'm as fast at 43 years young!

Western States lottery sign up is Thursday, Oct. 1st. Hoping I get into it. Otherwise, may either go back to Tahoe Rim next year to shave a couple hours off my '09 time, or even think about doing a different 100miler; it really depends on the timing with school's end in May and beginning in early August.

It's not just about doing it. It's about doing it better and better, until it's a masterpiece, a work of art.

Point Positive. -b