“You can’t quit!” She very quietly said to me.
The look, in her beautiful green eyes, was both empathetic and dogmatic. I knew she was right. It was just pain. What is it that Lance Armstrong said “Pain is temporary, quitting is forever.”
I don’t advocate the use of NSAIDs (non steroidal anti-inflammatories) for distance running. I know the pitfalls and dangers i.e. masking pain and covering up serious injury yadda, yadda, yadda. Not to mention all the talk about damaging your liver and kidneys. BUT . . . It was 40 miles into it I had another 22 miles to go. I popped a couple of Advil and two Tylenol. I changed my gloves and put my fleece vest back on. I dropped all the excess weight I was carrying: Water bottle, camera, even some food.
As I approached the end of Nicomen Island Trunk Road my steps became lighter. My gait improved. I was able to run again. I start flying by the power poles that 10 minutes ago were like Sirens from Homer’s Odyssey begging me to stop. A smile grows on my face. The checkpoint for the end of Leg 5 is about 100 meter down Athey Road. So for about 100 meters you see people in various stages of their relay either starting, finishing, or warming up. Running the gauntlet to the checkpoint it is here I see Orange. We exchange ‘fives’, he was going out I was still going into the checkpoint. I’m encouraged my spirit picks up.
Running into Deroche you cross the bridge over the slough and take a hard right across the tracks. The train tracks! The bellowing sound of the oncoming train whistle fills the air. Why do they call it a train whistle anyway? I guess some throw back from the steam era but today’s whistle is a deafening horn, more baritone than soprano. In the distance I see Orange he’s been ‘trained’ having to wait while the 200 or so railcars cross the road. I almost catch him when the guard rail goes up freeing the dozen or so cars and Orange to the road ahead.
The road out of Deroche climbs ever so slightly. I was here that I passed Orange. He had taken a break on the opposite side of the road where his support car was. I wouldn’t say I had a killer instinct or a Type A personality but after I passed Orange I kind of picked it up. Just a bit. On the stretch of road between Durieu and the Sasquatch Inn I took very few breaks.
Now the great thing about trail ultras is you can pee just about anywhere. Some people go slightly off trail and some people just drop ‘em where they are. On a road ultra you usually wait for a driveway or a bush or some sort of privacy. At this point of the race, although my pace had improved it didn’t improve enough that relay runners weren’t still passing me. It’s one of my pet peeves about Relay/Ultra combined events you always look worse than the fresh set of legs passing you. So on this particular stretch of road there was no privacy and I had to go.
As I approached the checkpoint I saw a wall of port a potty’s. I did a quick check over my shoulder and could no longer see Orange. I thought how cool and somehow perfect. I slowed down but on the other side was a huge line up of relay runners waiting to use them. “ Shit!” I murmured and with a deep sigh I headed back for the course.
“ Hey! Do you want to go first?” A young racer called to me. “We don’t mind!” another one said.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you” My gratitude was immense. I was floored by their act of goodwill. I quickly used the facility, still no Orange, went through the checkpoint and head out for ‘the Hill’.
The seventh leg of the race crosses the Harrison River passes Historic Kilby and then winds its way up Mt Woodside. It sounds more daunting than it actually is but the hill is two miles long so it is more of an energy sapper than a quad crusher. It had been raining all day long a slow steady rain never letting up and if you can believe it on the flat approaching ‘the Hill’ it actually rained harder. It rained so hard the bouncing rain from the road was reducing visibility. To my right I saw a black Volkswagen pull over, it was another support car.
“You look great, keep it up!” the guy in the car yelled.
I did a quick wave thanking him for the encouraging words and looked around to see who this car was supporting. In the blur that was now the road behind me was a fast approaching figure . . . Orange, he gave me a big wave as if to say ‘I’m still here’. I thought, as you do when you are out there for 8 hours, that this was kind of like a suspense horror movie. Just when you think it is over some hand suddenly emerges scaring the bejeezus out of you or in my case, a guy in an orange jacket. Just when I thought I wouldn’t see Orange again there he was. I waved back.
I loaded up with potatoes and gels and set off. I have to hand it to my wife, my support crew (always), it was extremely ugly weather. Getting out of the van a person would be drenched in less than a minute. And yet every twenty minutes like clock work she would be there with potatoes, Gatorade, and gels and sometimes a camera cheering me on. I know in the days prior she would tell me “you are never doing this again”. But on this day, I could see the enthusiasm despite the rain, I could hear the pride in her voice and the sincerity of her cheer. I love my wife!
As I head into the last checkpoint I saw my wife up ahead just before the turn. In another van with her was my mother-in-law who brought out my four children. It was a busy section of road so I couldn’t stop long. I could hear their muffled cheers from the backseat.
“We’ll see you at the finish!”, my support crew in an instant turned back into a mom. I had at least an hour to go and trying to occupy and keep my four kids dry for the next hour had taken top priority, both in my mind and hers.
As I came out of the last checkpoint the unthinkable happened . . .Yes, you guessed it. My shoelace came undone. On any other run on any other day kneeling down and re-tying my laces would be no problem but at kilometer 97 of a 100 kilometer run in the cold pouring rain. . . .”Houston, we have a problem!”
I crouched down as best I could and I took off my gloves and set them down in the shallowest puddle on the road. My fingers were nearly numb. My concentration was gone but I completed the task like a machine. So when they came undone and I had to do it two more times in the next 300 ft I had the routine down. As I rounded the corner on to Harrison hot Springs the black Volkswagen pulled up. I smiled and shouted “Where is he?”
“Not far behind!”
By this point I didn’t care, sort of, I couldn’t run any faster than I was going now. I was still being passed by relay runners. I started reflecting on the long journey. Not just the last 100 kilometers but the last 4 months the long sought after dream. Fruition! In the final, hundred or so meters of the race I was overwhelmed with emotion. As I crossed the little footbridge and down the last 20 feet to the finish I heard the announcer, Steve King call my name. What he said I’m not so sure. I crossed the line in 11:37, a PR for the distance (first time too). I started crying as I crossed the line. My wife was there to greet me. She was crying too. She said,” Stop crying ya big baby.”
Congratulatory handshakes were everywhere. People I hardly knew. Other ultrarunners who passed me at some point during the race. As much as I wanted to see Orange come in I was so close to hypothermia I couldn’t stick around any longer. We bundled up the kids and went home. You draw motivation from wherever you can in ultramarathons. At different times it is different things. Sometimes it was Orange creeping up on me and sometimes it was the encouraging voice of my wife and friends. Ultras are deep soul searching journeys. They rip you apart only to see what you are made of and how you are going to build yourself back up . . .if at all. It’s for this reason I love ultras there is no other experience like it.