I walked into Auburn Running Company on Saturday morning looking like Teddy Roosevelt wearing lederhosen & clown shoes. I was here because, somehow, I’d been gently convinced that I could likely power-hike my way through a 50K in the Auburn hills. And I needed my beer glass.
And why not? I did the math, and it looked really good. 10 hours to go 30 miles was 3 miles an hour, a very easy 20 minute mile pace that I could rock fairly easily around town. You see where this is going.
Once properly equipped with a race bib and gorgeously shiny glass, I was ready to head home and prepare the gear. I’d hoped to use a new pair of prototype Skecher shoes, but sadly could only get my hands on a pair a 1/2 size too small. I instead purchased a pair of the wonderful Altra Running Olympus. My pack was full of electrolyte from SOS Rehydrate in a hydration pouch, gels, bars, a battery pack to charge my phone, a multi tool, a pocket knife, toilet paper, a bottle of lube, an iphone, wireless headphones, charging cables, a water-resistant jacket, trekking poles and a pair of Luna Monos. It is possible there was a kitchen sink and a marmot in there.
My pack weighed a fucking ton.
In typical Panther style I was utterly unable to get a decent night’s sleep the evening before the race. I’d managed a few hours on Saturday, then another couple Saturday night. When my alarm went off at 4am I reluctantly leapt from my bed and began my ritual.
Lube on the feet. KT tape on the feet. KT tape on the knees (what? I figured why the hell not). Injinji socks, calf sleeves, shoes, tri-tights, Brooks shorts, Trason Coaching t-shirt (gotta rep my favorite runner!), Born to Run buff, a very special necklace and I was off.
Arriving at the parking lot fairly early I was amazed at the flurry of activity. Runners were milling, chatting, packing, dressing and generally being runners. A bus sat waiting, but suddenly I saw a tiny blur of blonde, blue and green, and was commanded to leap into her vehicle to head to the start. Which of course I did, getting to chat with a wonderful UCD Vet Med student who looked like she was going to absolutely devastate the course, and likely did.
And that conversation was the first of many incredible ones I’d have that day. It has been written and said plenty, but bears repeating, Ultra folks are some of the friendliest runners out there. Everywhere I went, people chatted me up. I met a Mas Loco as well as a mass of locals.
Soon enough, after blasting back an excellent coffee from our host shop Stones Brew, it was time to head to the starting line. I sat back, determined to start easy and stay mellow. I was still planning on keeping about a 4mph average pace as often and for as long as possible,
Suddenly we were off and at least for a bit I threw everything out the window. Everyone was zooming, it was a light downhill, my poles were feeling OK in my hands and all was right. A bit of a ways in, nervousness set in and I had to run off to water a tree. When I came back out, I was alone, the last (or nearly last) runner. Which was absolutely fine. I didn’t mind the idea of coming in last.
Setting off again without the other runners I lost a bit of my spark but my music was going and I felt good. I suddenly realized I had to turn on my GoRun app (more about that later) and once it lined me up I realized I was doing 11 minute miles.
EEK. No, bad. That was WAY faster than I wanted to be going. Unfortunately, my belief is that because I’d turned on RunGo late, it was calculating my pace as though I’d suddenly zoomed from the start to where I was. I can’t be sure of this, but in the long run it doesn’t matter. The idea of how the app is supposed to work is turning it on at the start. Error occurred between Altras & iPhone.
Still, I was definitely going fast and figured I needed to slow, when suddenly I plunged in to the first downhill. Immediately I knew something was wrong. My right knee began to twinge a bit. Not pain, not yet, but it made its presence known. Bad. Real bad. I swapped to heavy pole sets and a greatly reduced speed but I knew this was bad news. I’d been resting a torn quad tendon for a month, but apparently that wasn’t enough. The dragon was awake. The heavy pole sets began to wear on my shoulders and back a bit, but soon I was through the downhill and cruising.
The beauty of the area was not lessened at all by the heavy fog. The temps were fantastic, cool and just a bit wet. It was stunning, gorgeous. I ran for a solid 5 minutes sniffing, trying to identify what weird gel or rub I’d put on my body that was giving off that intense, almost spearmint smell, before I realized it was the scent of the forest. I breathed deep, enjoying the ride, trying desperately to ignore the growling of the knee and a deep ache that was forming in a familiar spot in my back. Then I heard voices.
Not THOSE voices, actual human voices, behind me. Quick as a shot, two superheroes came zooming in. OK, they weren’t superheroes from Marvel, but this woman and man ran like they were children of the forest, upright, strong, fast, confident. Although they’d just descended the same trail I had, which had my heart rate hitting the stops, they seemed like maybe they’d been reading a lovely book, likely about unicorns. They asked how I was doing, a common question when running into a Fat Panther anchoring the back of the pack. At the moment I felt good, knee notwithstanding, and told them so. They smiled, beamed really, and said I was well ahead of cutoff, and that they were sweeping, but that I was fine and to have a fantastic run, and then, like magical gazelle fairies, they flitted into the forest.
It may have been at this point that the little voice in my head first truly said “My dear Panther, you are doomed”. For these were not magical beasts, but actual Ultra Runners(tm). Trained, in shape, comfortable in the woods, familiar with these trails. And the difference between them and I was stark.
But this race wasn’t going to run itself, so off I went. At this point I really began to realize that if the course kept at the current level of occasional downhills, I would quickly be in trouble.
It didn’t. It got worse. The uphills started. It was at this point that the ‘real’ sweep team arrived. These guys were the kind but stoic harbingers of doom. Theoretically running at cutoff pace, they were reminders of how easily I could fall out of the race. Finally at one grueling uphill I yelled back and asked if they were really running at cuttoff pace. “Nope, you’re good, keep going. The hills get worse, stay strong.” they yelled back.
I was, frankly, annoyed. I’d been pushing to stay ahead of these “dark riders” but they were sweeping not at cutoff pace, but at the pace of the slowest runner: me. Which meant that each time I pushed a bit harder, got going ahead of them, lost them in the woods, soon I would hear their voices again. I began to grumble to myself. But it wasn’t long before I realized I was mad at myself for my sorry pace, not them. They were doing their job, keeping me safe. They never asked me to move faster, or hurry. And if I didn’t want to have shadows, it was an easy fix. Run faster than the 2nd slowest runner. Move it Panther.
We finally came through the first aid station and we all got to meeting each other. The volunteers there tried to keep upbeat, offering me food, water. They seemed flabbergasted that I didn’t need a refill on my water 8 miles in. The truth was, I wasn’t drinking or eating enough. I’d began a downward slide that I wouldn’t recover from, I just didn’t know it quite yet. I asked the time, and realized that I was 15 minutes under cutoff pace. My RunGo app was showing 30 minutes, and I finally realized what had happened (user error!). 15 minutes wasn’t bad, but then one of the sweepers dropped a bomb. “Remember that rough climb? Well there’s one a lot rougher coming up. Be ready, it ain’t over till its over. Get going.”
I grabbed some Payday bars (mostly because, dude, PAYDAY BARS) and a bag of chews and headed off. The trail was nice, and for a bit I fell into a wonderful flow. I looked off into the distance, my poles striking a staccato on the dirt. For a bit of time I was flying. I couldn’t trust my app at the moment for pace, but it felt like I was likely in the 10 minute range (aka, “wtf are you doing” pace). I didn’t care. A small part of me knew I wasn’t going the whole distance. I stopped caring about that and just faded into the forest.
It didn’t last, of course. A bit of a rough downhill came in and some rollers, and several miles later my back began to spasm badly. The knee wasn’t happy either, and it was clear I was fairly doomed. I was over 10 miles in, a 1/3 of the way, but while the mind was willing, the body was in danger of disintegrating. The sweepers were soon upon me, and I turned back to them and let them know what was up.
Immediately they were up to me and asking if there was anything they could do. I could tell, they really wanted me to finish this. They didn’t want me to drop, but as I told them about my injuries, realization set in. It was clear that 2/3 more Overlook spelled a real possibility of injury, and seeing that this was my first Ultra attempt, and my overall fitness was fairly sad, they bought in to the idea of my dropping at half.
I should mention here, by the way, that prior to today, the longest distance I’d every raced on dirt was a 1/2 marathon, 13.1 miles, in Folsom. I completed that in just under 4 hours. Here I was talking about adding 2 more miles, in far worse condition, in about an hour more. 15 miles on the Western States trail is a bit like dancing with a drunk Hulk Hogan. On roller skates.
Soon the big uphill came, and basically, the wheels came off. Back spasms. Knee. A hip flexor cramp. By this point I was under-caloried, dehydrated, overheating, in pain and basically SO ready for the Rucky Chucky aid station. But there was still just under a 10K of fairly hilly terrain between me and a ride out to a place to where there was beer & something hot and greasy.
The next 5 miles was just a big string of getting on the fail train. Choo choo. One of the fantastic sweepers realized that my idiotically heavy Camelbak was idiotitcally heavy, and this possibly saved my pathetic butt, as suddenly the back spasms went from excrutiating to “I’d rather have my toe stepped on by a llama”, a marked improvement. A couple salt pills + a tylenol dulled the hip flexor pain to just barely intolerable. Enough of the pity party though, the biggest issue I was suddenly facing was some dizziness and straight up refusal of my body to actually walk in a forward line. It was then that the same very smart gentlemen who was now carrying my pack realized that had not been drinking or eating. So he put me on a 5 minute “dude drink something” plan that definitely made things a hell of a lot better.
Then we were there, Rucky Chucky. The 1/2 way point. 15 miles in. The cut-off point at 5 hours. Except… I was somehow under cutoff. By, at most, a minute or two, tops. The proper care and feeding, and constant positive reinforcement, of this Fat Panther had resulted in the miraculous: over 2 miles where I was basically a zombie, I’d lost less than 15 minutes.
It was clear that it was complete folly to continue. “Because its there” is a fine argument for starting a race healthy, if a bit on the round side. But it is a terrible reason to continue suffering through no less than 2 injuries, and what was very obviously a slight but no less debilitating dehydration. I stood outside the confines of the aid station. If I walked in under time, I would have to literally announce my decision to drop. They were already packing the car in order to ferry me to the finish. There was no decision to be made, my body faxed it in to me bright and contrasty. My day ends here today. The rest of the course was for others to traverse.
So I stood, stoic, until the silent, invisible clock ticked over. 5:00:01. There was no deciding. I was officially out. Even though I’d texted the RD earlier to let her know I was planning to drop. And my wife, to tell her to meet me at the finish area around 1:00pm. Somehow, it was important that I stood there and let time take me under. Or, over, as it were.
My companions were raring to go. They had another 15 miles to sweep, at a higher speed, but they made sure I was in good hands. I was offered food, water, ice. I forced some down, and it was delicious. I refused to sit until a car was ready for me though. I somehow knew my back would not let me get back up. A rough ride up in a very nice Subaru Forester with some lovely ladies later (thank you for saying I didn’t look my age, it was appreciated!), and we were headed to the finish line, where my wife waited. She was glad I was upright and generally not injured. I wasn’t even limping, but it was obvious that my knee was at least part of the problem, as I was favoring the other leg. Soon we were bound for the Auburn Ale House, where a delicious ice cold IPA was ready to be poured for me.
Today was a day of learning. I learned that Ann Trason puts on an amazing race. I am stoked to come back next year, uninjured and ready for the heat and hills, so I could see the rest of the course, and the first portion without the haze of suffering I put myself into.
I learned that Ultra runners are ridiculously nice, love stories (both telling and hearing) and will do anything for folks. That they will come right up to you and say “Hey, I haven’t seen you before, who are you? What’s your story? Tell me about yourself, let’s chat”. That just doesn’t happen much these days.
Most of all, I learned that I loved running, and wanted to get back in the kind of shape it would take to actually complete Overlook. Not just “power hike” it, but really get out there and be in good enough shape to enjoy the trails. Because that was really what it was about. Look out next year Overlook, the Panther will not be dropping out at Rucky in 2016!