Perhaps it’s time to adapt to my reality: The age-old admonishment: “If I had more time, I would have written less” to “If I had more time, I would’ve at least written something.” Recently, I’ve struggled to find a happy-medium for making posts; between “I went grocery shopping at Mother Haggen” and “I ran to the bottom of the Grand Canyon”. Last weekend (4/11/2015), Brother-in-law, John and I departed for Sprague WA to run a 100K trail race. Maybe a little beyond a happy-medium, but certainly worth a post.
Off we went with high hopes of finishing a greater distance, than this senior ultra-runner had ever done, having a good road-trip to sunny 509 (telephone area code) Land and taking for granted so many circumstances and people who ultimately made us feel more humble and more fortunate, than at our departure. We could have filled an Excel spreadsheet with trade-offs:
- it’s a long ways to go for an unspectacular race venue, but it featured negligible elevation gain, a must for this old racer attempting such a long distance.
- It’s a long drive for a couple of aging Liberals in the Land of hardcore Conservatives, where talk radio is unbearable by our modest and objective assessment, but the appeal of a road trip held sway.
- It was the most amount of time that the two of us would spend alone together and in a spartan motel of my choice, but John remained in character by being the good person that he is and relieving my loving wife of her attendance at a very busy time for her.
- I was just trying to travel safely and race smart in case something went wrong. We each had our reasons, assessed the pros and cons, took a few things for granted and gave it a go with high hopes.
Pre-race day is about 40 hours and usually regimented for me. I’m uncertain whether the regimen is to insure success or to mitigate fear of failure, probably a little of both. Anxiety definitely kicks into play the week of the race and the level raises significantly on pre-race day. The two biggest fears that consume me throughout that long day are finishing my pre-race dinner about 15 hours before the START time and dealing with the relentless thought; what have I forgotten (???). After possibly 100 various races, I finally made a list this time, but I still forgot my compression tights. The key to my preparation strategy for these 40 hours is to take nothing for granted and try to prepare the same way every time.
Business trip, vacation or a race, it doesn’t matter. It’s always a relief to finally be on the road and likewise we were feeling good, while driving south on I5 under a sunny sky without much traffic. We expected about 5 hours of driving, which would put me in our motel just in time to eat my pre-race dinner and be reasonably sure that my bowels would move sufficiently before the START. This native Puget Sounder takes many things for granted with regard to 509 Land and at the top of that list is that it will be mostly desert. John, a native San Franciscan, who spent nearly his entire Professorial career on Puget Sound, but who is less familiar with Washington state geography, than I, was both surprised and thrilled, after we crossed the Cascade Divide and he cast his eyes on the expansive, sunny and arid landscape. John’s surprise and my surprise at his surprise was the first on this list of surprises due to things taken for granted that make one think twice.
No way, can two old men drive five hours without a stop to pee and consequently, we encountered at the Rest Stop staffed by two fellow seniors, who were commemorating the Civil War by reenacting vintage Morse Code messages and cannon operation (no blasting, just talking). Although the Morse Code looked and sounded quite realistic, a lift of the wooden box on which it was mounted revealed a cassette tape recorder. This obviously was their passion and they were quite happy to expound on the their respective pieces of equipment. However, their most memorable comment was more contemporary: “Look-out for the rattlesnakes! They’re out in big numbers due to our mild winter”.
Undaunted by their warning, we continued to the Sprague Motel & RV Park in the Channeled Scablands of the Columbia Basalt Region. Throughout the landscape, the basalt rock faces burst randomly through earth’s crust 15,000 years ago. Cow pastures surround those faces now. Websites characterize it as a topography unlike any other on earth. Our lodging was slightly more inviting or about what one would expect from its name; an L shaped configuration of 9 rooms around a parking lot, a check-in office 3′ X 3′ with a teller’s window protected by wooden spindles, the noise of barking dogs, once the door was opened and another door to the proprietor’s residence. The Manager appeared, a short woman with a smile as big as the surrounding landscape and as warm as a Mother greeting her returning child. “Oh, do come inside.” After we exchanged introductions, Kay was excited to tell me that the Race Director was short of volunteers. So, she had dispatched her daughter to help. Plus, she had placed directions to the Start/Finish at the abandoned Escure Ranch inside each motel room, since all her guests were race participants.
It took 62 years to find my athletic niche and I intend to continue, despite my slowing pace, since year 66. Experience has taught me to find the Start/Finish before race day, which we fortunately did during daylight. The next morning was much more challenging in the dark winding and turning on 50 miles of gravel roads guided by our turn by turn directions from Kay on not so well-marked rangeland roads. All that remained for preparation was to mix liquid food, necessary for 17 hours of running and then to bed to toss and turn until 2:30 AM.
There are several advantages to ultra/trail races over road races (i.e. marathons): easier parking, shorter lines to the porta-potties, Mother Earth is easier on one’s body, than pavement and much better views are available on trail races. Atmosphere prior to the START is like dark semi-sweet chocolate, a blend of excitement, anxiety and camaraderie. This may be the only individual sport that feels like a team sport. The trail is the common opponent and all the racers are in it to conquer the trail and are pulling and cheering for one another. Make no mistake these races are still competitive. We size-up contemporaries in our respective age groups to determine whether they can be beaten. However, with only 10 crazies signed for the 100K, there weren’t many to size-up.
Once we’ve pushed the start button on our race watches, anxiety dissipates and the search for an appropriate and steady race pace begins. Since I’ve slowed so much in the last year, I have to fight the urge to quicken my pace to remain with my compatriots and try to keep my heart rate (HR) in the right zone. My training was as good or better, than it had ever been. I was as confident, as one could be for his first 100K (62.5 miles) and I felt good. However, the Ramble course had a surprise. The reduced climbing was offset by scant and poor footing in cow pastures.
Initially, the footing was not a huge concern because my pace and cadence were good. My HR was a little high, but uneven surface was secretly taking its toll. A well-trained runner expects his/her forefoot to hit the ground and have his whole body roll forward in rhythm. My forefoot would hit the ground, plant and wobble, while my ankle would lean one way, my knee another and my upper torso another. As the strain of this additional movement became more noticeable, my mind started to wrestle with doubt earlier, than I would’ve expected.
Pain and doubt are a familiar adversaries and it’s often said, whether racing, pacing or just finishing: “It’s all in the head”. My head games were kicking into full swing. Doubt flirts, teases, nags and sometimes remains too damn long. Pain varies wildly from hardly worthy of comment to intensely feeding the doubt. Wobble, gobble, cobble together the best gait possible. What are the options! Keep going! But that resolve was weakening. Plan B emerged, do the 50 mile course. Then plan C do a 60K course. The Ramble course featured additional options because there were three separate loops and the end of the second loop passed by the Start/Finish. I figured that if I could get to Start/Finish in about 5 hours, that I could still do either plan B or C. Never mind the warning issued by another racer that the third loop was the hardest of all three.
Last October, finishing the Baker LK 50K was so painful that I swore: “I’ll never do another 50K!”. Within 24 hours, I was scheming on how I might finish another one more comfortably and successfully. Often times, pain is confined to my feet. However at Baker LK, it had rippled from my feet throughout my skeleton and I deduced that if I purchased the new shoe brand Hoka, designed especially for that purpose, that I could resume pursuit of my ultra goals. Hoka reduces the body shock by thickening the shoe platform, which actually increases a runner’s height by nearly 2″. Training in the new shoes was promising. Plus, they didn’t seem to slow me, a trade-off that I was willing to make to continue. Unfortunately on this wobbly Ramble course, a new pain had emerged on top of my foot in the instep and my old friend bottom-foot pain had returned for the first time since October.
With all this in my head, thinking about food and water resupply at Start/Finish and taking measure of my watch at 5:15, a very good sign, I decided that I’m doing loop 3! Surprise #4, Kay our motel Manager runs up to me, hugs me and says: “I just had to come out here and check on you. How are you doing?” What a lift! Now, I’m even more determined. Despite the tough going, I was a little ahead of schedule and I didn’t expect to see John, but as I’m running up the road, he’s coming down it. So, I quickly explained my status and took-off again.
The footing was certainly worse, as forewarned. I fell only once but, it’s impossible to count the number of near falls and apparently on one less graceful moment, I torqued my knee and this new pain from that strain was starting to cause me to walk to seek relief or more importantly avoid not finishing. Now, my race had devolved into run, wobble, gobble, cobble for 2 – 3 minutes and then walk for 5 minutes or more. Hence, I formulated plan D, just do a 50K, quickly selected by my knee. Regardless of negligible elevation gain and much to my surprise Rock Creek was the hardest 50K that I had ever finished and finish is the most important word.
Planned or unwitting, a road trip can be an acid test for a relationship: pass and the relationship is enriched or fail and reservations to fully engage linger. Fortunately, Dr. John and I hit it off well as evidenced by him taking the time to explain to me the specifics of his research. I’d always been interested, but he would demur, probably to spare me the prospect of being bored. The only problem was that I couldn’t to hear him. So, I asked him to drive from the slow lane into the middle lane, where the pavement’s not as worn by the trucks. The audible difference was better, but barely noticeable. So, we moved into the fast lane, which made him much easier to hear. Although I was genuinely intrigued, I probably couldn’t have passed a pop quiz on the flawed statistical analysis of research and then applied to minorities in various education studies.
All of our trade-offs were well worth our trip together. We were on our way home on I90 with good rapport, a modest success at Rock Creek Ramble and a break from our more ordinary lives at home. Back on the west (or ‘left’) side of the Cascade Divide, visiting and cruising at the speed limit, when suddenly a big black pick-up hauling a travel trailer attempted to thread the needle between us and the vehicle to our right side with insufficient space to pass. I was thinking that he would reconsider, but no! He kept hauling his long load through the minute opening and forcing us on to the road shoulder at 65 MPH. John did a masterful job of avoiding complete disaster. Nevertheless, we were hit twice by his trailer as he fishtailed down the interstate. Although victimized by a hit-&-run, we survived without injuries and only $3,000 damage to our car.
Assessing trade-offs is the antithesis of taking things for granted. If everything were assessed and nothing were taken for granted, paralysis would prevail. If everything were taken for granted, bewilderment would dominate. After a 650 mile, 50 hour road trip, we found our own happy-medium with a half-dozen surprises to revitalize us and a renew our appreciation for how lucky we are to be alive, have our health, friendship and warm home to which we could return.