March 9, 2002
If you have read my 150+ previous posts, Bravo! And now, we finally get to the first ultra.
I felt it was important to talk about all of my previous races, plus my training (or lack, thereof).
Getting ready for my first ultramarathon seemed to fall into the same patterns that I followed in getting ready for my first 5K, half marathon and marathon – that is to say, ‘nothing special.’
Some of the advice I received prior to doing the race was to plan on being out there for a long time and to walk the hills. On the latter, I made it a point that when a hill was longer than a block long, I would walk it, leading to many people asking if I was all right. Yes… I’m just walking the hill.
The only real training run that I did was one double-up of the usual Thursday night TRH training run. I went out early in the afternoon and ran 10 miles on my own, timing it so that I would arrive at the run start about 15 minutes before the run start, effectively running 18 miles in a row (8 with people).
I had this flexibility, because I had been laid off from a full-time position working for my cousin in May 2000. I hadn’t had a lot of success finding a regular job (I did do some short-term work projects, including working one day a week for the Small Business Association in Culver City.
My one day job terminated the Monday before my big race. In fact, I had planned on haring a hash in Redondo Beach that evening after work. However, when I got into work, I was told there wasn’t any more work for me and there might not be for some time… but since I was already in Culver City, and didn’t want to drive the 30 miles back home, and then 20 miles back to the hash run, I went and figured out the trail… decided to practice it again, and then ran it live that evening… so that actually ended up being my longest “training run” – because I ran 6.2 miles of my hash 3 times in one day! (Probably a pretty good simulation of being tired in a long race.)
A few days later was my 31st birthday – or the last birthday that has a calendar date (no 32nd of the month, sorry). In two days, I was going to run my age in miles! I was also probably going to still be under the weather – had a bit of a sore throat.
I flew up to Sacramento on Friday and I stayed with my good college friend Jessica at her rental house in Davis. I had made arrangements with my friend Bob Gilbert to carpool up with him to the race. Yukie and Mitsuye (from TRH) were also doing the race but staying in Sacramento, and carpooling would not be particularly convenient.
In the morning, I put on pretty much the same gear that I would normally wear to a marathon, though I suppose I wore a technical shirt rather than a tank top, just to avoid getting scratched by trees along the course. I had my trusty 32-oz. Gatorade bottle, which I would drink from when needed, and refill with water as I went along. I also put a couple of GUs (under my hat – pocket space is limited) and Jolly Rancher candies in my shorts’ pocket (the Jolly Ranchers would be like cough drops without the harmful menthol).
The race didn’t have a ridiculously early start – 8:00am – but we did need to drive about an hour and also we didn’t want to pull up right before the start (and Bob also mentioned something about the parking).
The Way Too Cool 50K starts and ends in the town of Cool (population 1000?) which is at the start of the Sierra Nevada foothills. To get there, you drive through Sacramento, and then up Highway 80 towards Tahoe. When you get to about 1000′ elevation, you start seeing signs for Auburn. On the Highway 49 exit, Auburn is one direction, and Cool is the other.
Heading down Highway 49, you are on a fairly narrow, winding road paralleling and once crossing the American River, before heading up a bunch of switchbacks into Cool. Bob pointed out a number of landmarks along the way, specifically where the first and last aid station would be (where we have to cross Highway 49).
When we got up into Cool, we turned right onto the road next to the Cool Firehouse (how’s that for an oxymoron?). There is a parking lot immediately to our right, but it was already full. The space remaining for cars is along the beginning of the route. Cars are parked on the left at a 45-degree angle. If we had arrived another 30 minutes later, we would have been a good mile down the road, rather than the 200 yards we got.
We hike back up to the Firehouse and there is a number pick-up tent set up. Besides picking up your number (some picked up theirs on Friday at Fleet Feet in Sacramento), you have to check-in – they just want to know who all is on the course (because it is very possible for someone to pick up their number on Friday and not show up Saturday – but the race doesn’t want to be out looking for them if they aren’t there!). We also pick up our goody bag, which includes a nice technical shirt (with no advertising) and a very comfy sweatshirt (also with just the logo).
I am usually very careful in the morning to completely evacuate my bowels, but then hydrate enough to get going, but because we were almost an hour early, I had to urinate a little bit, but had plenty of time to wait out in the Port-a-Pottie line before the start.
The start had a giant clock counting down to the actual start time, classical music playing, and then a very exciting cannon blast start! We immediately head down the (paved) road, by all of the cars. Some people are making stops at their cars to drop off extra clothing (it was pretty cold out, though), while others, who didn’t want to wait in the toilet line, are peeling off to water the flora.
The paved section is mostly downhill, with a little bit of uphill, which I naturally walk, but within no more than 1.25 miles, we turn off onto the trail, which we will be on the rest of the way (except for crossing Hwy. 49 twice). It looks pretty muddy.
Now, I have run in mud before, but there is almost always an alternative – rocks, dried mud, plants to the side. Here? No other option. Lots of mud or nothing. Apparently, two days earlier, on my birthday, it had rained quite a bit and softened up the course for us. It was difficult going, because you have no traction. And for me, because I am particularly tall, I am very awkward. I was a terrible skier when I was 5’7″!
The other aspect of the mud was the consistency of it. In some spots, it was merely mucky, and you could sort of slide on it, like cross country skiing. In other spots, it was clingy and sucky. If it was deep enough, it would pull your shoe off. I tried to avoid those spots, though I had double-knotted my shoes and on a couple of occasions, I felt my foot wanting to come out of shoe, but unable to do so.
Besides the mud, a lot of the early going (Mile 2 – 4) was steep downhill, with even water running down it at some points. Along with struggling through the mud, I struggle with steep downhill because I don’t have the greatest balance (my waist is at 4′, which is more than half of my 6’6″ frame), so I took my time while a lot of people ran by.
There was also some (muddy) uphill as well, which was just as difficult, especially the further back you were in the pack, because the people before me had roiled the mud and there was not as much solid footing. Even in spots where you might go a little off trail to avoid the mud, well, those spots had been converted to mud by those hitting the trail before you.
At approximately 10K, I reached the first aid station (about 53:00 – not bad). I desperately wanted to add water to my Gatorade bottle, because the Gatorade was stronger than I liked (I like it half-and-half, and this was full-and-full). I also grabbed some gummi bears and pretzels (but had never eaten in a race before…). They also had bananas, but that seemed unappetizing now, as well as raw potatoes? Yuck.
The next section of trail was on the other side of Highway 49. They were not stopping traffic for us, but there were signs on the road warning drivers about possibly slowing for racers and also, there was not a lot of traffic on the road.
The trail on the other side was single track (wide enough for maybe 1-1/2 people; two people could pass if one person leaned into the hill), and most of this section was a long line of us mostly all staying at about the same pace. This was also very muddy, but for the most part, we were all going at the same try-not-to-fall pace.
On the graphic course map (which I got in the mail 2 weeks before the race, along with the description and some other instructions) said that there were about 16 stream crossings before the next aid station. I decided to count stream crossings to pass the time. However, I didn’t know what you might term a “stream crossing.” I decided that anything that had water flowing across the course (in other words, not puddles) was a stream crossing.
The BIG stream crossing was just before the 2nd aid station, and it was waist deep on me. There were some folks who were pondering maybe taking off their shoes to cross, but I thought, “My shoes are already wet from all of the stream crossings. Why bother?” The big stream was 25, by my count, so I might have counted some non-streams. The advantage was that we would head back along much of the same section in the latter stages of the race (we had probably already had to move aside for 20-25 people already headed back), so I would have an idea of how far I had left to run by counting streams down.
At the second aid station (14.5 miles – 2:20), I diluted my Gatorade bottle some more, had some salty chicken broth, and decided to try the potatoes (to my surprise, not raw, boiled). I was starting to cough again, so I opted to suck on Jolly Ranchers for several miles. This, however, prevented me from taking GU at a regular interval, and my legs were getting very tight, almost cramping if I took a wide step across a stream.
Out of the aid station, we ascended uphill for a mile or so, and crossed over a few minor (rock steps) streams and continued ascending until we reached the Dead Truck Trail descent to the left. In the beginning, the downhill wasn’t too bad. There wasn’t much mud in this section (different terrain), but it continued to get steeper and steeper and I had to grab onto trees to prevent myself from rolling down the hill on my back.
At the bottom was another section of the BIG stream. The water wasn’t moving quite as much, but it was just as deep. My shoes had “dried” out a tad, but this just filled them right back up with water. Once across, we had about a 3/4 mile flat single-track section to the base of Ball Bearing Hill!
Ball Bearing was listed as 0.7M long and 700′ elevation gain. Because of the mud and wetness, it was like scaling a very muddy waterfall. In some spots, you couldn’t gain traction, so you opted for the slippery rocks that didn’t have mud. My problem was that I was to the point where if I took more than a 2′ stride, my legs would cramp. I then would have to bend over, try and massage out the cramp and start anew. There were several sections where I knew I would cramp, because otherwise I couldn’t get up the hill.
Everyone was struggling, but it took me 27 minutes to cover the 0.7 miles! But fortunately, less than 1/2 mile after the top, we were back to the aid station. Now Mile 20 (4:02). I refilled, refueled and recrossed the BIG stream.
The single-track back to Highway 49 seemed a lot further going back (it was, we went a slightly different way), probably because of the cramping and the sloth after all of that mud. I found myself less with groups and more with people here and there. One guy I talked to said that his birthday was in two days (mine had been two days ago) and I told him about my 31 at 31 plan (also, that Jessica was going to take me to Baskin-Robbins for “31 flavors”), and he said, “That’s cool!”
I replied, “No. It’s ‘Way Too Cool.'”
The slight variation in the trail is that after crossing a certain stream (you don’t have to touch the water; you cross over an elevated bridge), you turn left and go up the fire road instead of to the right. About a mile up this road, you turn and head up Goat Hill (at this point, it’s “Gote-eh-h*ll”), a very steep single-track climb through redwood trees to the top. Along the way are Burma-Shave-style signs of encouragement and updates (“You’re doing great,” or “5 minutes to the top.”).
At this aid station, I meet Norm and Helen Klein. Helen Klein is the grande dame of ultra racing – started running at age 55 and has done 300+ marathons and ultramarathons. Later that year, she ran a 4:30 marathon… at age 80.
The Goat Hill aid station also marks the marathon point (26.2). It has taken me 5:20, which is less than 10 minutes faster than my slowest marathon. With another step, I will have traveled my furthest distance in a race, and in another 10 minutes, I will have my longest time running at one go.
The descent from Goat Hill is interesting. It’s single-track, but there are plenty of spots where you could veer off comfortably (most of the single-track is set against a hillside and a drop-off, so you can’t veer much without hurting yourself – this section has some plant life on either side, but no cutoffs). Most of this section is REALLY wet. Basically, you have to walk through 6″ deep water ON the trail. No choice.
I kept feeling like I was getting close to the HIghway 49 crossing, but I kept mistaking the sound of water for the sound of automobiles. Finally, I got to Mile 29.4 (6 hours flat) and had less than 2 miles to the finish. I quickly filled my water bottle but didn’t hang out very long.
The initial ascent out of the aid station was on the very muddy section of trail we had been on earlier. It was slog going and wet. At the top, we were parallel with Highway 49, so you had an idea of how far was left to go. In fact, you could see the finish in the distance. The last section of trail was double-track (not a real term, but just for the idea) and had fences on both sides. This section was also very muddy. I just walked carefully through it and finished in 6:24:35 (only about 30 minutes ahead of Mitzi, and an hour ahead of Yukie).
Afterwards, I enjoyed a piece of pizza and some HOT minestrone soup (temperature). Of course, the whole day was “Way Too Cool!”
Since 1999, I had been a subscriber of Marathon & Beyond magazine (I asked my sister for a book about the 100 best marathons and she bought me an issue of the magazine – but I really liked it and subscribed to it). One year, when it came up for renewal, I sent in the form, but no money, and ended up with a great phone conversation with Jan Colarusso-Seeley, the managing editor of the magazine (when she called to ask my REAL method of payment). I said that I had some ideas for articles that I could write (I had been editing and writing articles for my running club’s newsletter since 1999 also.), and she gave me the e-mail of the editor, Rich Benyo (who I had read about his adventures of being the first to run from Badwater to Whitney Portal (135M), who would read and evaluate my suggestions.
My idea was that I would write about “Ultra Tall, Ultra Marathoner,” because I felt like I had a unique point-of-view (literally!) and different obstacles to overcome in running ultras (even though I had just started doing them). Since I am not a nationally published author, he wanted a writing sample from me to show that I had a engaging writing style and that people would want to read about MY adventures as well.
I took an article about my first Way Too Cool (the 2002 event) and fleshed it out for an audience that did not know me, because when I write for the club newsletter, I don’t do a lot of expository writing about myself – people KNOW me. I turned this draft into Rich and awaited a reply.
I didn’t hear anything for months; I assumed that he was not interested and did not want to give me feedback, either.
Almost a year later, in April 2003, I received a reply by snail mail, which included a contract. Basically, it said, “Yes, we are interested… in publishing the sample article you submitted!” What?!?!
Yep. They wanted to publish my sample article, the one showing off my writing style, in the magazine, and I would be paid for it. Whether there was any interest in reading about the Ultra Tall Ultra Marathoner, well, I didn’t get an answer on that. The contract said that it would be published within a year.
A year went by and it wasn’t published (but he told me that it was in the works, so don’t worry), but in the May/June 2004 issue, “Running My Age in Miles” appeared in Marathon & Beyond magazine. Later in the year, they published an article by my sister, Riva (who I had mentioned as the inspiration for my “running career”) about her adventures at the 1999 Chicago Marathon (where she almost qualified for the Olympic Trials).
My failure in getting an article (or regular column) about the Ultra Tall Ultramarathoner served as the inspiration for starting this blog. Too often I read Runners World magazine, and they have articles about shoe testing or clothing… but I never see anyone with a similar body type to myself. I can’t simply go into a store and get a 14AA shoe (or actually, a 13-1/2AA right shoe and a 12-1/2AA left shoe). All dress clothes are ordered out of catalogs and are usually on back-order. When RDs say that “trail work” has been performed, it rarely includes trimming branches that could poke my eye out.
Even if I lose a bunch of weight (could stand to lose a little), I’m never going to be 130 pounds (ba-ad idea anyway) and flit up those hills. My body has to work a lot harder to get blood pumping through my entire body. There is a reason why world-class marathoners tend to me around 5’ and 100 pounds.
I’m still waiting for the 6’6″ marathon champion. That’ll come in 200 years when EVERYBODY is 6’6″.