Sunday, August 24, 2008

First 100 miler: Success!

"Who in the hell runs 100 miles?!" was the refrain for the last 15 miles. Major blisters had formed near the ball of my right foot, my left knee was creaking in agony, and the miles were passing ever-so-slowly. Those last 15 miles, however, did eventually pass and I finally crossed the finish line at 1:19PM on Sunday: 30 hours, 19 minutes after I started. If you are a bit incredulous -- as I was when I finished -- check the results out here.

Anyway, the details from this exercise in masochism-- my first(!) race report -- follow...

On race day, Saturday August 9, Lisa and I arrived at Rodeo Beach (in Marin County) about 6AM after ~6 hours of sleep. Prior to starting off, I registered, dropped off my drop bag, made last minute adjustments to my hip hydration system (err, Nathan Pack), snapped a couple photos, urinated like, umm, ten times, and decided that Mark Twain wasn't exaggerating when he quipped, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco". Yup, brisk and foggy. In spite of the briskness, however, I stuck with my Highlands Sky 40 mile short sleeve tee, running shorts, Nathan Pack, iPod shuffle, and Salomon XPs. And then, after the race director wished us well, we were off. Approximately 60 runners toed the start line for the 100 mile distance and approximately 120 toed the start line for the 50 mile distance.
The first 8.3 miles were run largely on a road snaking its way up a ridge and although mostly uphill, many runners jogged -- rather than walked or power-hiked -- this section. For about a half mile, I walked along side a nondescript, yet tall and sturdy, 29 year old who was also running his first 100 miler. He volunteered his name -- Matt -- before he stepped off course to pee, but he soon passed me and the next time I would see him he would be several hours ahead of me en route to a first place finish and course record. Turns out that although this was his first official 100 miler, he is no stranger to endurance events: he has placed first and second in two DOUBLE Ironman Triathlon competitions in this country. Apparently, training for 100 mile ultramarathons doesn't consume nearly as much time as training for a double Ironman. Go figure. Anyway, the first half of the course entailed, essentially, a huge loop with multiple climbs, among which the longest was almost 1,500 feet during mid-day (gross elevation gain/loss was 8,000+ feet for the first 50 miles). When I arrived at the Tennessee Valley Aid Station the second time (mile 46) -- I would see this aid station six total times -- I changed my socks and shoes since it felt like my Solomon XPs were getting packed out. Turns out, however, that the makings of some fine blisters were forming on the bottom of my right foot. When I finally arrived back at Rodeo Beach (start/finish area), just over 12 hours had elapsed since I started. Lisa had met me at most of the aid stations and while at Tennessee Valley, she retrieved my headlamp and hand-held flashlight and gave them to me at Rodeo Beach. Good thing, otherwise I would have spend the better part of the next 8.3 mile segment running in the dark. And whistling. Maybe They Might Be Giants "Whistling in the Dark"?? Better to whistle, I suppose, than hallucinate.

At approximately mile 55, I caught a runner on an uphill and although I wasn't expecting to run with anyone during the wee hours of the race, I lucked out and spent the next eight hours running with him. He -- Kevin -- is a much more accomplished runner than I (a dozen or so 100 milers and, about two weeks prior to the Headlands Hundred, a 500km race that he placed first in) and, as such, his tired pace coincided with my shouldn't-have-been-so-tired-but-was pace. Running at 1:30AM with 65+ miles behind you is a feeling most don't experience and one that elicits a reverence for the gravity of the endeavour, the trails underfoot, and the resilience and strength of the human body and mind. And, strangely, when runners would approach -- headlamps ablaze -- there was a subtle camaraderie and playful tone when exchanging, "Good Morning!", since, well, it WAS morning and under ordinary circumstances, we'd be asleep or drunk. Or maybe just me. When Kevin and I finally arrived back at Rodeo Beach (mile 75), it was 3:20AM and my spirits were up -- only 25 miles remaining! Although I felt lucid at the time, I doubt that I was (only 25 more miles?). Silly, silly boy. When Kevin and I finally left, it was almost 4AM, it was chilly, the fog had rolled back into the bay, and the Starbucks Mocha Lisa had waiting for me at mile 58 had long since worn off.

While Kevin and I were hiking up the road toward Rodeo Valley, he stopped for a moment to remove the beach sand from his shoes and I dropped to the ground, closed my eyes, and immediately passed out. When Kevin woke me, it may have only been five minutes, but it felt like fifty. But I was still tired, and I spent the next couple miles trying to walk with my eyes closed. Had I been running solo, I think that nap would have actually been, umm, several hours. Damn narcolepsy. Kevin would also take a five minute power nap before we reached the next aid station and I think it -- or the knowledge that less than a quarter of 100 miles remains -- rejuvenated him and powered him to the finish. When we arrived at mile 83, Lisa joined us and officially became my pacer. Impeccable timing, too, since my body really started to break down at this point and Kevin was moving much faster than me. I didn't want to slow him down, so I thanked him and wished him luck on the remaining miles. He would finish about 90 minutes before me.

I shouldn't have been surprised, but the pain and frustration that characterized the last 17 miles really tested my mental limits. It is commonly said on the ultramarathon circuit that running 100 miles is more mental than physical. For me, however, the physical boundaries I was pushing felt much more formidable than the mental boundaries. But maybe that was because I wasn't really thinking at that point, except about how to string together different forms and intonations of the same curse word into, hopefully, a coherent thought. To wit, "What the f*cking f*ck? Dumb f*cking shoes! (I didn't realize the blistering was as bad as it was so I blamed the shoes.) And what kind of dumb f*ck thinks this is a good f*cking idea?!". Yeah, Lisa is a champ for tolerating over four hours of curse words, self pity, anger, and, finally, relief coupled with elation.

When I finally crossed the finish line, the relief and fatigue almost overshadowed the excitement of finishing. But I finished. About three hours slower than I hoped, but given the difficulty of the course and the anxiety of running 100 miles for the first time, I had no reason to complain. Curious thing, however, the gravity of running 100 miles was *much* greater AFTER having completed it -- maybe I didn't fully appreciate what I was undertaking when I toed the start line? If so, I certainly appreciate it now.