Cold Water Rumble Part II: Rumble Harder
|Cold Water Rumble: The newest scent from Old Spice|
Right around the halfway mark the course brings you back around to base camp, where there is another well stocked aid station. Having run somewhere between 25 to 26 miles under the burning, bone bleaching, hot desert sun, I thought that I had earned a 5 minute break while I rehydrated. I sat down on a bench, grabbed some sort of liquid and listened to the music blare from the sound system provided by the race directors while other runners came down the mountain and into the aid station. Having used the downhill to my advantage and pushing my quads to bring me down the mountain as fast as they could to build up some time to rest on I missed Phillip on the descent. Parched throat at least partially cured, I now looked around for him. Not seeing him I went back to my cup of whatever-I-was-drinking for another minute or two and then stood up and walked around assuming that he must be getting food or water himself.
A few minutes passed by as I wandered around base camp, now genuinely concerned that something had happened that I missed. Did Phillip roll an ankle on a switchback? Had his quad or knee blown out? He had been complaining about it earlier... What kind of a friend was I running away without looking back?? Then I spied his white visor and red singlet as he used his patented quick and choppy, short stride to propel himself down quarter mile of asphalt where the mountain began to meet the trail head. He had left me at the aid station.
|My initial reaction to finding out I had been left at the aid station. (Rain added for dramatic effect.)|
My legs felt like they were wrapped in irons and my quads protested the attempt at even a moderate jogging pace. Seeing Phillip begin to rise up and ascend the first hill I dug deep and tried not to make my pace fast, but just a little less slow than it currently was. With him power hiking and me doing my best impersonation of a penguin running a 400 meter race we were side by side in just under ten minutes. When I caught up to him he gave me a cursory glance and kept moving. I clenched my jaw and poured my will into my legs to try to keep up with his power hike. "Why the hell did you leave me back there?!?" The question burst out of my chest unintentionally. Kind of like that scene from aliens. You know the one I'm talking about. Anyway. Phillip looked back at me, incredulous. "You were sitting there for over thirty-five minutes!!" My eloquent retort filled with all the oratory skill I could muster was something along the lines of "Nu-uh!" I looked down at my watch for the first time since cruising into the base camp aid station. Thirty-five minutes definitely seemed within the realm of possibility. And explained how my legs had tightened up so much in the "few minutes" I had been sitting there.
"I tried to get your attention a few times." Phillip added, as if seeing me come around to the horrible realization. Lost in my thoughts for some indefinite amount of time, (I don't trust myself at this point) I tried to take in just how much the oppressive heat and climbing had taken out of me. By the time I refocused my legs were moving steadily again and Phillip and I were engrossed in conversation. When we hit what looked to be a gently sloping downhill somewhere in the length of a quarter mile or more I cut loose with a yell and took off. WHOOOOOOO HOOOOOOOOOO! I could barely hear Phillip yelling out, asking me what I was doing as I tore down the hill. "Having fun!" was my immediate response as I continued to zoom down. I waited at the top of the next hill, knowing that Phillip's strength lay in his ability to powerfully ascend the hills much faster than I. We continued this pattern, me zooming down and he powering up, sometimes putting him ahead, other times me, while we evened out on the flat sections. Wordlessly having established our protocol for rolling hills, we continued this patter for miles until I heard someone call out, "Hey Blerch!"
For my first ultra, I had decided to wear the shirt of the brilliant cartoonist and bestselling author who goes by the name of The Oatmeal. If you haven't read / bought his book, The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons I Run Long Distances, do yourself a favor and check it out here. Sheer brilliance. The chubby little pest convincing the author to constantly slow down, take it easy, and to quit early is called "the blerch" and is immortalized in shirt form.
|Every time you eat a piece of cake a blerch jacks a fairy's wings for itself|
Surprised and happy someone recognized the shirt I turned to see two other runners a bit older than Phillip and I who turned out to be running the hundred mile race. I gave them a friendly wave and zoomed down the next hill, eager to keep moving. Phillip, ran with them for a half mile or so and revealed to me later that the first question out of their mouths to him was something along the lines of "What is your idiot friend doing? He's going to bonk by mile 35." Phillip didn't hesitate to agree with them. To prove them wrong, I waited until mile 36 to breakdown.
*Before that happened however, we had come back along the first aid station, where I spotted the same woman who had complained about shaking before. Surprised to still see her in the race, and looking terrible at that, I muttered to Phillip that I was worried about her falling out in the desert with no one to help her. The medic she was being attended by seemed to agree with me, but couldn't seem to stop her from going on with the race. We peeled out of the aid station and caught up with the woman who would eventually win the women's division overall in the 52 mile race. Neither one of us thought that this was a particularly good sign for our pace and that we might be overdoing it a bit.That established, we kept right on, determined to make the most out of our second wind energy.
This time around we saw many more people and as we arrived at the fork in the road, we decided to go left this time and stay on the proper course. The sand proved to be no better on the actual race course and we were once again slogging through it the best we could, burning through both food and water in an effort to make it the Pederson aid station. Arriving at the top of the aid station I informed Phillip that I was going to grab some food and gatorade and to simply snatch me when no more than five minutes had transpired.
|My facial expression made page 42|
We made our way from Pederson and around to more rolling hills, both of us trying to call out random cacti that were littering the path. Sometimes they were the traditional looking ones that we all think of when we think of a cactus, but somehow having been felled and lying on the trail. Others were more sneaky, like the ninja of cacti. They were small, little, cactus-balls. I can't think of another way to describe them. They were spherical cacti with spikes protruding from all sides. While I wasn't sure these would go through my shoe, I was still careful to avoid them and lucky to have not gotten one stuck in me. Phillip, however, was not so lucky.
I heard a cry of pain come out from behind me and skidded to a stop, careful to avoid the cactus on my right side. I thought Phillip had blown out his already strained quad muscle. I turned to ask him and saw him crouched down. "Damn cactus got me." he stated without looking up. I stared blankly for a minute trying to figure out exactly where the cactus had pushed its spines into his body. When he moved his hand I looked down to see that multiple spines from the cactus balls had gone through his shoes, socks, and into his feet. "Holy crap! That looks like it sucks!" completely earned me the look that I was given right after the words left my mouth. When trying to use his hands didn't prove helpful, (the barbs simply relocated themselves) we ended up using two flat rocks to pry each spine out individually before continuing along in our run.
*Time dilation already established earlier, I am trying to relate the events as they happened in the best fashion I can. While all of the above and below events occurred, it is fully possible that they happened in a different order.
|Ninja cacti are often difficult to spot|
More caution being elicited from both of us now, we ran through harder packed earth on clearer trails watching runners ahead of us disappear and reappear as they rolled up and down the hills, often in packs of twos and threes. I wondered if we looked like like those smooth runners out there ahead of us; stride unbroken as while their legs propelled them forward and their arms pumped back and forth, rhythm and pace unbroken as they held their conversations and glided along the desert floor. I very much doubted it but didn't have to long to think it over as we prepared to weave around two runners ahead of us and I heard the familiar call of "Hey, Blerch!" We stumbled on the two runners from earlier who were doing the hundred mile race. "Hi guys!" I cheerily responded. The taller of the two, with a full head of blonde hair asked Phillip, "So he hasn't broken down yet?" I was quick to interject with a laugh that I indeed had had a mini breakdown a few miles ago. We ran with them, chatting for a few more minutes when again the taller of the two offered to run a bit faster with me if I would like. I obliged and we agreed to trade off running an conversation partners for a while.
For the life of me, I can't remember the guy's name that I ran with for that period, and thats a shame because he was such a great guy. We talked about why we were both at this particular race; for Phillip and I it was our first ultra and we wanted to run it together, for he and his friend, he was out here to support him. I discovered that he was a photographer and his wife was a chef, both of them having qualified and run the Boston marathon a few times. He confided in me that he like these events so much better because there was so much less pressure and everyone was out here to just have fun. I responded something to the effect of my definition of fun did not include running mountains and I for as long as I live I will never forget the uproarious laugh this produced from him. "Mountains?!? Is that what you call those? Back home for us, those are hills." Wide eyed, I asked him where he was from that these monstrosities were "hills." He told me he was from Seattle, and that he was friends with Matthew Inman, aka, The Oatmeal. That's how he recognized my shirt in the first place. In fact, his wife was running a race with him back home this morning. Mind completely blown that I was now only ONE degree of separation from one of my favorite story tellers and cartoonists of all time, I stuttered through asking some random question about him to my new best friend. While I don't remember what I asked, I remember the response was "Yeah, he says he's now making enough money off them to support himself with it. He's a great guy." After that he could have told me about his secret plans for world domination, and I wouldn't have remembered as I was still in shock by meeting a celebrity by proxy. And a funny, running celebrity at that!
|Its perfectly normal, we have a friend in common now|
At some point his shorter friend and Phillip caught up with us and as they did, the man who Phillip had been running with asked us about our headlamps. For ultra runners, having a lighted lamp on their head is like a marathoner expecting their to be gatorade and water on the course. In some rare instances, you might not need or want it, but you're going to be pretty surprised if its not there.
Being a first time ultra runner, and having the audacity to think that we would be finishing this race well before the sun would go down and that we would spend our Saturday siting out by the tent, drinking beer while we cheered on the hundred mile runners, the thought of getting one had never even flitted across my mind. When I embarrassingly told him that I didn't have one I didn't expect him to come to s skidding stop while the four of us ascended a hill. His heels digging in in to the ground to stop himself he looked at me and just an octave or two below yelling asked if I was insane. "It gets dark as FUCK out there!" he said motioning with his hand in the general direction we were traveling. "Run FAST to the next aid station and look for the pack with the name _____. In it you'll find two headlamps. Take the red one, its my backup, just make sure you put it in my drop box at basecamp." I'm sorry, but like so many other details from that day, his name is one of the things I have forgotten. Which, again, is a real shame because here was a man who had NEVER met me in his life, knew nothing about me, and just knew that this was something I was going to need if I was going to make it out there. Friend, if you're reading this, know that I owe you, BIG.
I nodded my head and opened my mouth to say thanks, but before I could get another word out he snapped again. "GO!" I screwed my mouth shut, nodded my thanks once and took off, the desert sand kicking up from where my midsoles landed, pushed, and turned over as fast as I could run. Its worth mentioning that while I was on my way to the aid station I kept turning over his words in my mind and while I knew it would be dark, I thought that we were far enough out on this cloudless night that I would have plenty of moonlight to guide my path and while I would take his light out of consideration, I wasn't sure if I would need it.I arrived at the aid station a few minutes before Phillip, having found the headlamp, rested and hydrated. We both talked for a few minutes about what a nice guy he was for having done this for someone he didn't even know as Phillip dug his own headlamp out of his drop bag.
About this time another young runner trotted up to us and said he had seen us a few times during the race and wondered if it would be ok if he ran with us. The two of us agreed with mutual shrugs that this would be fine, be warned him that since we hadn't seen him at all during the race, and he had clearly beaten us to the aid station, that we might be a bit too slow for him. He laughed and said he didn't think, that our pace would be fine by him. We introduced ourselves, first Phillip, and then myself, he then told us his name was Tristan. Tristan and I grabbed handfuls of gummy worms for fast calories and I even managed to keep them down for almost five full steps. In the process of the fifth step I vomited them right back up without breaking stride. I knew it was coming at some point, and was honestly surprised it had taken this long in the race. Figuring I wasn't going to be able to hold anything else, I shrugged it off and picked up the pace to catch up to the other two.
The three of us took off down the trail and within minutes the sun set surprisingly quickly. The runner who had been so kind as to give me a warning and loan his extra headlamp out had not been kidding. As I strapped the headlamp on and flicked the switch to illuminate my path I saw that even with the power of all three of our headlamps, it was difficult to see more than a few feet in front of you at any given time. In any conditions this would have made for an extremely difficult run, in a mountain course filled with cacti, snakes, and switchbacks with single track trails where a step in the wrong direction could make for a fatal drop, it would have been impossible. I said a silent thank you as we continued on.
We questioned Tristan as the three of us started to run along our last leg. Where he was from, what brought him here, and what time he was hoping to finish in. He told us he was 17, a senior in high school and hoping to go to the naval academy in the fall. He was one of the few kids in his high school that enjoyed running, and this just seemed like a fun challenge. He made jokes, kept pace with us and made a welcome edition to our duo. Phillip and I both noticed that Tristan seemed to embody many of our own individual traits and abilities.
This should have been ground that we had all covered before, but in the dark it looked like a totally different course and landscape entirely. Aside from wondering if we were off course, which admittedly none of us could answer with one hundred percent certainty, the feeling that we were running in a totally new place didn't seem to bother any of us. In fact, both Tristan and I said that it made it easier, feeling like we weren't running by the same landmarks over and over again.We zoomed up and down the hills and over the rocks, occasionally slowing for Phillip's quad on the downhills, or my weary legs on the uphills.
At some point high along the mountain side, just after climbing a shirt rise, we looked out and down to see bright lights.None of us could be sure if these were the lights of an aid station, base camp, the small town below, or far off Phoenix. Before we could get three questions in as to exactly what the source of the lights was, I asked the other two if it mattered. All it really meant is we were close to finishing! An excited cry went out from all three of us at that point, but was cut short by the howl of wolves in the not-too-distant-darkness. Our trio momentarily froze before the three of us checked our surroundings. I'm not sure what we expected to see with our limited range of light, especially with the scrub brush and rolling hills obscuring things further in the darkness. Not seeing any wolves in the five foot vicinity our lights provided, Tristan and I bounded into action leaving Phillip behind. "Guys!" he called out, "Grab some heavy rocks in case they get near us." My completely rational, dehydrated, tired, not over excited about seeing lights brain fired back, "Heavy rocks will slow us down! We'll just outrun them!" Tristan voiced his agreement with me and the two of us sped off.
We crisscrossed routes and paths and eventually Tristan and I ended up running into the final aid station where they had a small fire going. The two of us together immediately went for the fire as the weather had gone from scorching to surprisingly cool. No words were exchanged as we sat by the fire warming up, resting our legs and exchanging idiot grins. As Phillip jogged in I reversed my "put nothing in my stomach" clause, stood beside him and grabbed a cup of Mountain Dew from the aid station. Phillip met my gaze and nodded his head towards something behind me in the distance.
|Yes...yes, step into the wonderful burrito filled light...|
I stood there, mouth agape at its poorly lit wonder. My feet took on a mind of their own as I started to shuffle in the direction of the truck, sugary soda forgotten about and mouth watering. "Dude." Phillip cautioned me. "Remember? You eat that, you will end up just puking it all up and never making it down the mountain." "Yeah," an aid station volunteer chimed in, "Besides, you only have 2 miles left!" I whirled around on her. "Two miles?? Thats it, are you serious?!?" She responded in the affirmative, and I turned to see Tristan still sitting by the fire. "Yo! You hear that?? Two miles and we're done!" At this point Phillip and I having gone the wrong way and gotten lost had traversed over 54 miles, but with that exciting news I felt a rush of energy that I hadn't felt since the pre dawn hours come surging in.
"You guys ready?" I asked, almost jumping with excitement. The other two guys clearly ready to go, the same volunteer who had let us know exactly how much mileage we had left wished us good luck as we ignored the burrito truck and left its lights behind to begin the narrow switch back, single trail descent to home base and the finish line. We started all together at a decent pace, Tristan and I taking turns at the lead, each of us calling out the left over distance in quarter mile increments. Somewhere along the steep descending path Tristan moved just enough to the side to allow me to pass and I happily bounced down the dirt and rock trail ahead of him.
Now that I was leading our little group, I felt the familiar gnaw of competition begin to eat at me. I wanted above all for the three of us to cross the line safely and together, as long as together meant me crossing that timing mat first. Keenly aware of one of them right behind me I kept my pace fast and tried to use the downhill to create some reckless, break-neck speed. Feeling energized as I tore down the mountain, I felt only the inside half of my right foot catch firm ground. Not thinking too much of it I took a quick second to turn my head and shine my light to the right to discover the chasm I had almost fallen into.At that stretch the trail was only a few feet wide and given my almost race ending misstep I decided to err on the side of caution and slow down just a little bit to make sure I survived the journey.
|Pushing to make that finish line|
Done. I had crossed the finish line, Tristan 15 seconds behind me, and Phillip only a few seconds behind him. I had pictured myself coming across the line and collapsing into the nearest chair. Instead, I found myself turning to congratulate my two friends coming in. A quick man embrace, manbrace for short, and the three of us sought out chili and places to sit.
I can't tell you anything else about that evening. I don't remember if I ate anything, drank a beer, or decided to hit up the club. I really and truly have no memory of anything earlier then the next morning.
By the time I rolled out of bed the next morning the sun had rose and the majority of the hundred milers were starting to come in. Not necessarily feeling the urge to to crack open a beer at 9:00am, I confirmed with Phillip and we took our cooler full of beer and offered to some of the just finishing hundred mile runners. Two of whom happened to be the ones we ran with, and were kind enough to share a headlamp and some advice with me.
As running becomes more and more mainstream, it's almost as if a blog named 'Crazy People with Nice Shoes,' was always predestined to do at least one ultra review. Going into this madness I was nervous, excited, looking forward to an adventure, and briefly worried about having made huge a huge mistake. So how did I turn out?
|Then I was all like..."I'm not worried, I've run a marathon."|
One last thing. I do remember ONE thing after the finish line chili. Phillip and I were unable to find Tristan again. The more we talked about him, the more we realized that prior to seeing him at that particular aid station, despite his avid instance that he had seen us multiple times during the race, we had never seen him all day. The next day, we got to talking about how strange it was that he seemed to embody all of our individuals qualities and though we tried, even though months went by, he never responded to the email address he had given us during the race. We have come to the mutual decision that our friend Tristan was a shared delusion, there to get us both through the end of the race. And so, with that, I leave you with the fact that against all odds, Phillip and I have both somehow qualified and managed to get into the Umsted 100 ultra marathon. A 100 mile event with only 200 runners chosen where several thousand have applied. We'll be meeting up at the course site a day early, but I think I speak for both of us when I say we hope to see our friend Tristan out on the course somewhere.