Friday, 14 June 2013

SD 100 pacing duty

Dusk was settling in over Laguna mountain. I was running on rolling single track across fields as the sky tinged purple. I was pacing Ken, a ten-time Western States veteran, for the middle 21 miles of his 100-miler. The pace was very easy – run slowly, walk quickly, keep moving. Ken preferred his pacers to run just behind him, so there I was, keeping my eye out for trail markers and matching his pace. The heat of the day was slowly fading. I found an easy rythmn of breath, and contemplated that life – and running – has taken me to some strange and beautiful places.

This wasn’t the post I was planning to write. It was all in my head, before it happened: Barry starting his 100miler in the soft morning light, descending into the canyons, then making a long climb out in the afternoon. At this point, it would be 44 miles into the race – where my work would began. I would help crew him at this aid station, and the next two: 51 and 58 miles in. At 65 miles in, I would strap on my (borrowed) headlamp, and together we would cover the final 35 miles in the dark, finishing just before sunrise.

The reality was somewhat different.

how it started
Last year both Barry and I attended the VFAC Christmas party. I had a great time surrounded by my teammates, and celebrated with many glasses of wine. The next morning, I woke up to a pounding headache, one shoe in the bathroom and one in the kitchen (I lived in a 400 sq ft apt, so not that bad). I was happy to have made it back, and congratulated myself that the only real repercussions of the night would be the very hungover rainy run with Lucy. And then Barry messaged me: "So when you said last night you would pace me if I did a 100mile race in June, was that serious?" In December, everything seemed far off and hazy and had six months to work out. Barry and I had just triumphantly completed the North Face 50 mile race – I felt like I could do anything after running for 8 hours in driving rain and fog. So of course Barry could train for 100miles and I could train to pace 35miles.

Barry selected the San Diego 100 race, around Mt. Laguna, as his first 100-miler. The area was at a decent elevation, and June can be hot in the area – but we had the confidence of those who had never raced, let alone a 100-miler, in the heat: Barry put in week after week of 100miles, while still racing shorter distances strongly. My mileage creeped up, and I stayed injury-free for the longest stretch ever. We ran the Grand Canyon three weeks before the race, and the heat that was supposed to meet us at the Canyon floor never materialized. We finished that run tired, dirty and a bit sweaty, but no injuries or heatstroke. Barry felt ready, and, I felt, if not ready, at least in one piece.

getting there

rookie mistake: 100 miles is goddamn far.

Fast-forward three weeks later, and we are meeting at the airport before 7am. I got us special t-shirts made, because what is a race without cheesy t-shirts? We leave Vancouver with the rain streaking against the airplane windows, and land in a cloudy LA. The plan is to drive from LA to Whole Foods (which somehow became a favourite in Barry's google maps no matter the location, still not quite sure how that happened), stock up, then drive to Laguna Mountain, the race location.

We drove past strip malls and condo developments with "Immediate Occupancy!" signs. We drove past telephone poles with cardboard notices: "Will buy houses FOR CASH". We saw the ocean over the freeway, through chain-link fences. The clouds melted  into blue. The hills in the background were  faded and looming against a sky that looked painted on. The freeway flowed metallic with lane after lane of cars all  squeezed together .

Instead of following the signs to San Diego, we took the I-8 east. The strip malls faded. We saw signs for "Viejo town" and for a Casino perched outside a half-finished development. Then the buildings faded away, and we started our climb into the mountains. It wasn't abrupt like the BC mountains: all wet rocks and the smell of earth and cool breezes coming from glaciers way up on top. These were brown and red, with spiky pine trees and yellow grass. The trees were smaller. Traffic thinned out, and, as we turned onto the two-lane Sunrise highway, it thinned out some more. The road twined around the edge of the mountains, then entered the Laguna area. We saw cyclists walking bikes up some hills. We passed by one building containing our motel head office, the post office, and a general store, with a large shaded porch. Then we were at the Al Bahr lodge - the race packet pickup and start/finish of the race.

pre-race briefing
It was just before five o'clock. There was no breeze - just constant heat. The shadows hand't started to lengthen yet. We were late for the race briefing, and the room was packed. We clustered outside on the porch with the rest of the overflow. Everyone looked fit and tough. I saw race shirts from other 100-milers, compression socks, sports sandals. People looked lean and tan.

Race director and one of the under-age volunteers

inside the race lodge

The race director was in his sixties and had a six-pack. I know this because, at one point in the speech, he lifted his shirt up and then had to stop for several minutes for the resulting wolf-whistles and applause. He thanked volunteers, organizers - then cut right to the chase. The race day, the next day, was supposed to be the hottest day of the year. He stressed personal responsibility, hydration, pacing, and again - the heat. One part of the race involved an 8-mile exposed climb out from one of the canyons. This climb occurred at mile 34 - most people would be hitting it around the hottest part of the day.

Dinner was served after, at 5:30pm, in the adjacent lodge. My legs were sticky and sweaty in jeans, even with fans whirring. We finished and headed back to our motel. To enter the motel, we banged on the door. A window opened above: "I'm coming!". The owner let us into the closed shop, looked at Barry: "So you're Mr. Vancouver." Our room had two tiny beds, a TV/VCR that only took VHS tapes, and a wood-burning stove, even though it was still south of 90F.

new friends
As we unloaded the car, I saw a man in very sweaty running gear letting himself in to the room next to us. I did what any runner would - offered him some of our pre-race wine. It turned out that he was a wine distributor, and not only did he have wine, but ended up giving some to us! His name was Bill, and he had also run Western States, the San Diego 100, and several other 100-mile races. In this race, he was going to pace Ken, one of his running partners, for the last 30 miles.

Ken's wife Carola was to join and help with the crewing. This was definitely not her first time at the rodeo, and she shared with me some of the inspirational sayings she would use to keep Ken going: "I tell him, this was your choice, you got yourself into this."

The sky faded into light blue, then deepened around the edges, against the black outlines of the pines. and I could feel the temperature drop. It was time to go to bed.
outside our motel room

early alarm
At 4am, the alarm blared on. Barry ate oatmeal while pacing around his drop bags. We drove to the start area. People wore down jackets and jeans - the desert night was that cold. As 7am approached, the temperature started to rise - quickly. The start was quick: the leaders of the pack surged ahead, while the back of the pack runners walked. It was, after all, 100 miles.

all race start areas should have mounted wildlife

Then it felt anti-climactic: while Barry was to be out, battling elements, uphills, fatigue, and possibly any wildlife...I would be back at the motel room, asleep. I got up for the second time before noon, checked to see how Barry was doing online (10th place), then checked the temperatures (hot). I drank a coke under the trees, ate the sandwich, then it was time to start my shift as a crew member.

44 mile crewing
The Pioneer Mall 44mile aid station didn't officially open until 2pm. By 1:30pm, the parking lot was jammed with cars. I tried to pull in next to a large truck, only to be informed by the driver that no, she needed the extra space to open the doors, as she was planning her own mini-aid-station for her husband (who, by the way, was in fifth-place). After finding a farther-off parking space, I immediately returned to talk to her, as I admired her unapologetic type-A style...and, of course, she was an audit partner also (we know our own!) topping off a 100-hr week by crewing for her husband ("He just started doing these things, and then got good, so unfortunately he won't be stopping any time soon.").

The aid station was at the top of the exposed 8-mile climb out of the canyon. It was hot. Baking hot. Even with SPF 55, even in the shade, I ended up with a sun burn. The aid station was off the highway, and the ashphalt radiated heat. Spectators and crew members had set up lawn chairs in the patches of shade. I sat in an unoccupied folding chair next to a crew member who was losing the war against ants climbing slowly up his leg. The first runners were coming in. Some runners high-fived as the jogged up to the aid station. Some grimaced and walked, flanked by their crews. I saw one guy, one of the top finishers, hobble up towards us all bloody. He showed an almost-detached nipple with a bloody streak down his shirt. A circle of people gathered around him as he described the fall, then the next fall. He dropped at that aid station.

Based on Barry's time at the last checkpoint, I thought he'd be in around 2:30 - 3:00PM. Jeff, another Vancouver trail runner, was waiting at the station with me. He was helping crew and pace two of his friends - Hozumi and Jer. Just after 3, Hozumi clipped up the hill, looking sweaty but solid. Then I waited. I kept waiting. Runners came, each looking a bit more destroyed. Jeff packed up to go wait for Hozumi at the next aid station. I walked up from the parking lot, across the freeway, and looked down into the ridge where runners ascended from the canyon. I watched the first woman emerge, soaked through her shirt. People sat out on chairs, next to the highway, peering over. some, like me, looked every couple minutes. Others were settled in with books, magazines, coolers.

not good
My motel friend Bill was also at the aid station. Just after 4, he came to find me: he saw Barry coming over the ridge. I ran over and started yelling: "Move your ass! Looking strong! The hard part is over!" All that inspirational stuff. Because he was 1.5hrs behind schedule, it was still so hot, and I had no idea what else to do. Barry jogged along with me, and was pretty british about things: "Sorry it took me a while to meet up." It turned out that he had taken a wrong turn down in the canyon, which resulted in an extra 3 miles. He was talking easily, but looked pale. The first clue something was wrong, as we were running up a gentle incline: he mistook a camping trailer for the aid station. Second clue: as we approached, he asked "are we there yet? this aid station is far..." . Not good for someone with 56 miles left to go.

At the aid station, Barry stopped. He didn't want to eat, really. His pack was still 1/2 full. I persuaded him to have some watermelon. I gave him some water. He wanted to sit - that wasn't in our plan, our plan was for me to not let him sit - in the end, though, he won that round, as he went to the porta potty. I didn't know what else to do. Gary counselled me: he needed salt. I broke a capsule into his water, as he didn't want to take any. The aid station leader told me he wouldn't notice. The salt didn't dissolve, but instead stayed as a filmy surface. I tried to stir it - it just ended up clumping. So I added some gatorade - it tasted like grape salt.

In any event, he didn't get a chance to drink it. He had more water, and Bill and I convinced him to carry on. He started going, but said: "I might have to drop." Running has ups and downs, and 100-milers I heard had more than most, so I just figured he was going through a down.

51 mile aid station

The next aid station was at 51 miles into the race. It was huge - they had all types of food, a huge first aid tent, and (as further first aid?) margaritas. I watched as runner after runner came through. It was getting close to 5:30, but no signs of getting any cooler. If anything, it felt like the heat had solidified, settled in. Bill's runner, Ken, had come through the 44mile aid station just after Barry - he grabbed some food, filled up water, and kept on going. Gary and I settled in for what we thought would be a long wait. Except that, just a couple minutes later, Barry came up behind us.

oh no
He had gone a couple miles, and felt too exhausted and overheated to continue. He went onto the road and hitched a ride to the aid station. The race wasn't even half-over, but it was over. At the first aid tent, Barry drank water after water. He sat in the shade and slowly looked less awful. Bill suggested that, as Barry didn't need to go to a hospital, I help pace Ken, his runner, from miles 51 to 72. Barry agreed, and planned to help crew for Ken at the three aid stations we would pass through.

Carola, Bill, and me (team Ken)

plan b pacing
So, many hours earlier than expected, I laced up my shoes and started slowly. The heat was still there, and my stomach sloshed with all the water I'd been drinking that day. Bill told me the rules of pacing Ken: run behind, not in front, and don't talk too much. And it was okay to lie shamelessly. I did the first two, but didn't really have to do the second - whether jogging slowly or walking quickly, the guy was moving well. And, as for talking...well, I am a bit of a needy runner. We talked about his job (a nuclear physiscist), trail running in Northern California and their 100km, 15,000ft January 1st annual run, about running Western States, about running this race the previous year (it had gone less well). And then we didn't talk - it was all rhythm, and the growing breeze, and the outlines of runners ahead of us as the trail weaved.

58 mile aid station
We hit the 58 mile aid station as dusk was approaching - it was smaller and quieter, surrounded by woods. In the distance was the mountain we would be climbing up. After an Ensure and Red Bull, we were off. As we ran alongside a small lake, the sunset turned the water electric. We could see the headlamps of other runners, below us, as they climbed up the mountain. At the top was one bright line of orange on the horizon, and stars. As we descended, I cold feel the cool air flowing downhill with us.

64 miles
The 64 mile aid station emerged through the trees. Lanterns glowed overtop of a table with quesidillas, beer, candy, and hot soup. Ken sat down, drank an Ensure, and threw up. He paused, and ate some more food. His wife looked at him: "You better get up and start running now". So he did.

71 miles
The trail climbed and fell. I stumbled sometimes - not because it was too technical, but because the stars were so bright and close I couldn't help looking up. Some of the downhills had sharp, choppy rocks, so we walked them. Some of the uphills were long and gradual, and we ran. Sometimes the markings looked like they were impossible: veering off from the mail trail through grass, going down over a log.

We passed some other people and pacers: some struggling, some getting a second wind as the temperatures finally fell. And then we heard the cars on the highway, and saw the lights of the 71 mile aid station spread out.

post-run nutrition
By this time, it was 11pm. Barry had been up since 4am, and had crewed for 5 hours after running for 9.5 hours in the heat. Everywhere was closed. We ended up drinking wine out of styrofoam cups and eating chips for dinner.

tourist time
I slept in until almost 8:30 the next morning - some sort of personal record. A quick trip outside showed it was already baking. We went to pick up Barry's drop bags and saw people still running the race - amazing.

We drove to San Diego to stay in an awesome hotel in the middle of the gaslamp area. After eating my weight in brunch, I wandered around shopping while Barry went back to crash a bit (or whatever excuse he used to not be shopping).

totally manly

I DNF-ed on this sangria.

The next day, I pounded out my hangover with a treadmill tempo, then we headed back to LA.

Barry: "I like to wait to fill up the car." 1 mile left of fuel - legit buffer.

The early start gave us time to check out areas: the awesome, sun-drenched seediness of Sunset Boulevard and the women in leopard print with implants at Venice Beach. I loved it - the entire city was out there - too much traffic, too much make-up, too tight. I loved the vinyl stores next to the shiny news company tower. I loved the empty dirt lots across from Beverly Hills on Santa Monica Boulevard. I loved the too-bright pink flowers next to bungalows with faded curtains, the ultra-modern glass condos on Venice beach next to the wood porches. We flew back to Vancouver at 8, and I watched the city sprawl under the sunset as the first lights came on.

in the end
So we traveled a long way for Barry to not finish a race and for me to run 21 miles very slowly. Why do we do this? One of my very good friends sums it up: "Although I’m slow and unfit and I have a stupid hernia a tiny bit of me wants to do a stupid run."

The crazy is contagious. It is appealing. It doesn't always work out - which is why we do it. Racing long, racing big, racing in new places - it's a risk. And things don't and can't go to plan. This isn't a movie, and life doesn't stop at the end of a race, credits rolling at the finish line shot. I don't ever want to feel that I'm only as good as my last race. Barry left it all out there, and it wasn't enough. For the race, 56% of the people didn't finish, including several of the top runners. 100 miles are hard, and the one thing I took away is really respecting the distance, the training, and the shorter (50mile) distances I run and race. Things go wrong. Bodies break down. Nothing is certain. And in that the only real way to go is to keep smiling, try to help someone else, and look for the beauty in the situation.

In the end, I had a wonderful adventure to a beautiful place with a great friend. I really admire how positive Barry stayed, even though it wasn't the day he wanted, and particularly how he helped crew another runner in the evening. Things don't go as planned, but I know he has a great 100 mile in him and I hope I'm there when it happens.


  1. You're such a good friend Alex, and Barry is so lucky to have you. I'm sure you both have 100 milers in your future, you crazy people!! Me, I'll settle for a 50Miler...

    PS - Yep - registered for SF50!

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