The day does not begin very smoothly. One problem, with a hiatus of 6 months off of racing, is that the routine is no longer routine. My stuff is disorganized, and after putting on my running clothes, and then layering with sweats (I glance in the mirror and realize I have a homeless air about me), I find that I'm missing a calf sleeve; the magic bullet that I purchased two days before to cure my calf woes. Great. I spend much too much time trying to find it, before abandoning the quest and attempting to gather up my remaining items before Jose San Gabriel arrives to pick me up. Jose shows up at 3:45am, setting off a cacophony of unruly chihauhaus (the stars of this tail). At some point, my son inevitably wakes up, and I'm fetching him a cup of milk, when Jose, unaware of the prison break mentality of our non-chihauhau dog, stands by an open door allowing Convict Cub to seek freedom. He has never bolted out the door at night before, and I can envision that he gets back in touch with his primal nature as he sprints around the cul-de-sac, the old smells new to him, at least temporally. There is no point in chasing him down, I would a) not catch him, and b) tire my atrophied fast twitch muscles before even setting out. After some attempts anyway, my wife grudgingly accepts the task of waiting for him to decide the outside world is not for him, and to open the gates to comfortable captivity once again.
Jose is stressed by our late departure, even though he good-naturedly tries to disguise it. We talk about running, and how it works with family life, and list of races we'd like to do while we're still able to run. I enumerate my injuries, and am rewarded with a firsthand account of his epic triumph at Western States, where he arrived at the finish line in a time of 29:58:27, with a cutoff of 30:00:00. The tale distracts us from making a turn, and panic sets in once again (I mention being late only cuts into our running time), but we still make it with 50 minutes to spare. Not quite as dramatic as his Western States finish, but kindred in spirit.
Run d'Amore is set in San Martin, CA, and while the previous weekend may have been unseasonably warm, this weekend is uncharacteristically cold. All week, I had been monitoring the weather, seeing night time temps forecast to be in the low thirties and catching phrases like "snow as low as 3000 feet." I'm wearing Vibram Treks (the original kind) because they are the only shoes I've successfully run in in the past month, but they aren't built for warmth. Oh well, I figure my toes will only be icicles for the next hour or so, and I don't intend on staying shod in them the entire race.
I drop off my aid station donation: most of the Sport Beans and gels in my stash that will expire next spring that I figure I can't use anyways since I haven't been doing much running, a Costco pack of chips, two loaves worth of PB&Js quartered, and a bottle of El Jimador blanco tequila. This race started off "Fat-Ass" style but under the direction of Alan Geraldi and Rajeev Patel, it flourished into a full-blown affair with medals, buckles, bib numbers, first aid, and well stocked aid station. I think the only thing it was short was a pre-race day expo, a live band and guest speakers. I arrive to find Alan busy handing out race packets, keeping warm by being in constant motion.
Race Directors Alan Geraldi and Rajeev Patel
Jean Pommier, looking like a runner who lives in a house
Alva Fong finds Jose and I and points the way to her tent, which becomes our home base. Yes, all my stuff becomes a disorganized sprawling stack, just like home. I got to learn about Peter Mingoa through Alva's Facebook posts and pictures. Peter had his first and only 100 mile finish on this course in August, during Run de Vous. Likeable, with an easy smile, he made friends wherever he went, and was seeking Titanium status in the Marathon Maniacs. Sadly, at 42, he died in September of a brain aneurysm. Run d'Amore honors his spirit, and his love of running. I never met Peter, and wish I had, and in many ways this race seemed like the best way to get to know him.
Alva heads out onto the course early, at 5:30, but I decide to wait for the official 6am start. Alan addresses the runners, explains some of the logistics, and then tells us how this is a relay, where all our mileage will be submitted as Peter's to allow him to attain Titanium status. A quick countdown, and we're on our way.
I start the race running, despite the calf. I'm attempting to run this two mile loop fifty times, so maybe things will start to become too familiar, but at least this first loop is brand new to me. The darkness doesn't last long, as the sun peeks over the hills that surround us. The loop surrounds a pasture with cattle who try their best to ignore us, but some come to the barbed wire fence, too curious about the day's rare sight. A thin strip of fog lines the eastern side of the course, and the dawn light paints the view in warm colours, despite the chill in the air. For the first time in a long time, my mind, which has been chaotic and noisy of late, quietens and relaxes.
I can't get my layers right. The course is cold on one side, warm on the other, and after the first lap, the air actually feels colder for awhile. I continue running for around 7 miles when I get a slight tingling in my injured calf, and start walking. As soon as I do, I get thoughts that I should be pushing myself harder, and I start to doubt my plan that I can walk such a significant portion of the course. Luckily, I catch up to Alva, who is mostly walking as well, and we keep each other company.
Alva knows most of the people on the course, and is quick to introduce me to them. Meanwhile, she tells me about her other 100 mile attempts, how well she knows about Asian guilt, and her penchant for ghost stories. After about a dozen miles, I feel like my feet are starting to get restricted by the Vibram Treks, and switch to my Altras, which have seen a bit of walking but no running yet. At one point, Alva needs to seriously eat, and I push ahead without her, and decide to do a little bit of running again.
Ed Ettinghausen, "Jester"
Adorned with a jester's cap, and a multicolor kilt, Ed Ettinghausen is hard to miss on any race course. Even as he catches up to me, the soft jingling of bells gives him away before he settles in beside me. His reputation had preceded him. I was curious why his image was chosen as both for the Run de Vous buckle, and the Run d'Amore buckle. But there was no questioning that reasoning when I found that Jester had completed 125 miles during the early start on Thursday and Friday, and was now running another 100 miles. Naturally, I had to search his race results upon learning about this, and was stunned to see that he had also run 100 mile races for the last three consecutive weekends before this one. He seemed to start running ultras about the time I became injured post San Diego 100, so perhaps it's not a surprise I didn't know about this ultra phenomenon. We talk about his last few races, Badwater, my Death Valley Cup fantasy, his ability to recover quickly, and his very first ultra. He had been doing marathons for awhile, and someone told him that he was ready to dive into the ultra scene. Under that guidance, Ed entered the Nanny Goat 24 hour race. He told me how his feet became incredibly sore during that race, where every step shot pain signals from his feet directly into his brain. Finally, he stopped and asked his wife, who was crewing for him, to peel off his shoes and socks and assess the damage. He remarked that the strangest expression came across her features, and he said, "Just tell me bad it is." "Ed, your feet are perfectly fine." He thinks he just never had that much time on his feet, and his nerve endings weren't used to it. He made it 104 miles that day.
At the next aid station, he pauses to offer words of encouragement to Danni, so I continue solo once again. After a couple of loops, I catch Alva back at the main station, and my running legs are ready for a break. I tell her we should do a reverse loop, and that I'm taking pictures. She complains that the wind and the hills work against us in the other direction, and I point out that many people who make the switch, often don't turn back around. Why would that be? This loop, known initially as the "photo loop", also gains the nickname of "the confidence building loop." The latter designation comes from my statement being confirmed that not a lot of the runners are actually running anymore, other than notable ultrarunners such as Jean Pommier, Catra Corbett, Rudy Montoya, and Leigh Moser. Alva's confidence translates back into a walk with purpose.
We join Jim Magill for a bit, who hasn't raced since Ohlone. His Scottish brogue and off color humour make him wonderful running companion, if you can keep up with him. Lucky for me, Jim had hurt his ankle, heel, and associated tendons and muscles by one twisting misstep, so he's not his typical speedy self. He remarks about how just one little thing that goes wrong can change everything. He tells me how his wife had sat down for a sandwich outside at her college, and swallowed a wasp that made itself inside of her lunch. She was stung in the throat, and immediately had a reaction. She was rushed to the hospital, and treated. Just as she was about to be discharged, she started acting loopy, and they immediately called for a CAT scan. His wife was having a brain aneurysm. She was rushed to a different hospital, where her scalp was cut open, a piece of her skull removed, and pressure relieved. Unlucky, and lucky at the same time, it's a story that has more gravity at this particular event.
Meanwhile, my feet are feeling beat up, and I begin to recognize the telltale signs of forefoot blisters. My left knee starts to feel unstable and sore, and I start to worry about the possibility that I'm not going to finish. I start to employ my post-race cane, intra-race. Alva says that our pace is still good, but I start to feel disheartened. Finally, after 46 miles, I decide something has to be done about my feet. As I pull into the aid station, I'm greeted by Danni Baird and Corinne Geraldi (Alan's wife) who make a point of thanking me profusely for bringing the bottle of tequila. Apparently, it has finally been cracked open, and condensed vapors of fermented agave is the post-race/dropped runner, pacer, and aid station volunteer beverage of choice. Perhaps an active runner or two, as well. Alva continues with "Hardrock" Noé Castanon, who has now arrived to pace her for the second half of her race.
"Tequila" Alan, "Tequila" Corinne, "Tequila" Danni, and "Tequila" Lavy
I collapse into a camp chair, peel off of shoes and socks, and find rather large blisters underfoot. I start gather up feet treatments, when Rajeev sees me and asks what's going on. Dr Patel takes one look at my feet, and fetches a foot kit. He begins piercing the blisters to drain them, while a small audience gathers around me, including Diane "Run Forrest Run" to watch. Nurse Danni fetches me a shot of tequila to serve as battlefield anesthesia. Rajeev needs to pierce my blisters in several places to really drain them, and I momentarily award him the nickname "Little prick."
Rajeev only operates on one foot, as the other hasn't quite softened up enough to be pierceable. I head back onto the course, warmed by tequila, and my right foot feels weird as skin moves beneath my feet. Suddenly, on the left foot, I feel a sudden tingling pain on the blisters that makes me stagger. I mean, I fully expected this to happen, but I thought it would be at mile 75 or something later in the race. Even mile 60 seems like a tolerable though, but I suppose since I haven't even reached the halfway mark, my mind is working against me. Some of Chef Alan's incredible camp stove mushroom risotto, and slices of pizza aren't enough to turn around my race outlook. I try my best to rouse my spirit with visions of receiving that coveted buckle, retiring my SD100 from my belt and mounting it on a plaque, but the scales have tipped in the wrong direction.
I pull back into the aid station, and state my decision to drop. The reaction is violent. "Razor Wielding Rajeev" and "Axe Wielding Alan" immediately declare that they will kill me by tying me to a car and dragging me around the course until my last living breath leaves my body to ensure that I get the remaining two miles to get a mileage count of 50 miles. I simply don't need another 50 mile finish, I try to say. Rajeev sees that I'm in pretty rough shape, and has me sit in his car with my feet up, and covers me with a blanket like a baby. I rest, shivering, and almost feel like I'm going to go into shock from the cold and inaction. I do doze off, and when I wake, my left leg has seized. Ugh. I crawl out of the car, seeking warmth in my sub-zero sleeping bag, and again tell Alan that I'm stopping. He again says that I should at least drag myself out onto the course for one more loop, and I finally agree.
This time, I enable my GPS app to check my pace. I call up my wife because I'm feeling low, and she says it's ok if I drop, and did I really expect anything different given my injuries and lack of training? Upon returning to the aid station, I treat myself to a beer, try to help out around the aid station before finally retiring to the tent and my sleeping bag.
I sleep on my side, and the ground is hard on my ITB so I wake up frequently. I try to sleep on my back, but that exposes my face to the frigid night air. I hear cheers of encouragement outside of the tent, and at one point, Alva almost steps on my head. I hear Jean Pommier finish in 14:55:15, and later in the night Stacey Costa, the female winner. Some time later, Franco Soriano shyly joins me in the tent, but luckily not my sleeping bag since I just met him. I find out later, that he just went sub 24 in his 100 mile race.
"Strange Bedfellows" Franco. I could do worse
My mind tells my body to not wake up until it is warm enough. That turns out to be eight o clock! I stumble out of my tent, and find Alan still hard at work, a little bleary eyed with only 10 minutes of sleep. I help by picking up garbage, and lap marking which proves to be a difficult task, as the whiteboard has iced over and needs to be scraped and wiped for markers to find purchase on the surface. The low for the night was 27 degrees. I get to watch Kermit Cuff win the 125 mile race. After awhile, I start to think that I'm feeling pretty good, and hey, I don't have a 100k finish yet, I might as well go out for 12 miles. I pass lap marking back to Evan "the Son of Jester" who had only taken a short break, and strap on my shoes, declare my intention to Alan, and head back out in the opposite direction.
Alva sees me and asks what I'm doing, and I tell her that I feel pretty good, so I'm going for the 100k. When I return to the aid station, she's still there, so I join her and Noe for a couple of laps. Noé and I get a chance to really talk, and I finally learn how to pronounce his name, and not come up with a theoretical pronunciation of it. I won't tell how to do it, if you don't already know, you'll have to learn from him himself. Noé wanders the course, dressed as a runner, but wearing a cardboard crown, garbage bag in his hand, as he sweeps the course, almost literally.
Anu, Rajeev, Alva, Noé, and "Thumbprint" Baldwyn
I change into a pair of Hokas, while Alva also does a shoe change, and I'm amazed how little I feel the underfoot blisters. I continue without Alva and Noe, but tell her that I'll be out on the course as long as she is, and after awhile, I try running and even that feels ok. I start running pretty speedily in fact, and I'm a little embarrassed to be lapping those poor runners who don't have the benefit of many hours of sleep like I do.
I breeze through the 12 mile mark that gives me a 100k distance for the race. Thirty hours have passed. That's 6 more hours to finish 38 miles. Rajeev quietly remarks to me that they have a permit until 7pm, and if I complete my second last lap by 6, I'll be allowed to continue on. It almost seems doable, and I decide, with the encouragement of all, to go for it.
After another 10 miles, fatigue starts to set in into my legs again, and I start to walk again. But that gives me the opportunity to walk with Jose on is final lap. He is moving well after 98 miles, even if running it isn't really in the cards. I tell him that he should just start running at the quarter mile mark. He's in great spirits though, and we're joined briefly by Catra who is being paced by her trusty pup, Truman. She tells us how she fostered Truman after he had been rescued by a woman who had hoarded dogs, and then adopted him. Truman has needed a lot of socialization, and this day he's just a sweetheart; her hard work is paying off. The time comes for Jose to run in the finish, and we do so amidst cheers by all at the finish line, including Jester, who has been resting comfortably in his camp chair, but cheering everyone on as they come through the aid station.
On my marathon lap, I come across Alva and Noé at a park bench, with one of the Red Cross volunteers checking her out. She's ok, medically, had a twenty minute nap, but her feet are beat up, and her spirits are low. She has ten miles to go. I recognize the way she's walking. Noé is stressed about the time, and we're at a loss of what to do to keep her going at the pace needed to finish. Alva looks at my moon shod feet, and begins to wonder if my Hokas can help her the way they helped me. I'm a size 11, and she's a 7 or an 8, and it's probably not going to work, although too big is much better than too small. And then I remember that Noé had been collecting donations from runners to take to Mexico and give to underprivileged communities, and talking about ultrarunning and how much it means to his life. "Noé! Do you have a pair of Hokas in your car that may have been donated, perhaps by Catra?" Noé pauses, his mind mulling that thought over before he says, "JYES!" "Go, run to your car, dig them out! I've got Alva!" I've already calculated that I won't be able to sustain a fast enough pace to make the cutoff; I have 22 more miles to run in 3 hours, my effort is better spent making sure this friend of Peter's, with a 100 mile monkey on her back, makes her way to victory.
By the time we get to the aid station, Noé is ready with a pair of shoes that has seen many 100 finishes. There is a flurry of activity around "Cinderella" Alva as magic slippers are put on, food is given, and bottles filled. Jester joins us in his Crocs, and his post 100 mile, slightly rested but not really limp, to help Alva through.
Alva's pace is much improved, and Noé entertains us with how he trained for Hardrock. Even by his own reckoning, Noé is not the fastest runners. These days, he has to qualify for Western States by completing 100 mile runs, since the sub-11 fifty mile requirement can be difficult a difficult task for him (he talks in amazement about my 9:41 American River 50M, and then 8:39 Ruth Anderson 50M two weeks later; I just say, "Well, look at me now!"). And yet, he was able to finish perhaps the hardest hundred mile run in the US. His secret? He did his homework! He trained hard, he trained at night, he trained at altitude when he could, and he trained on the course. He tells us about one harrowing excursion where he took a wrong turn on the course, and found himself at the side of a cliff, where his footfall would scatter pebbles down the mountain side, and you would hear them falling until they were no longer audible, not because they reached bottom. He took many photos of what he thought would be his final resting place, but discovered a route back to safety.
I admire Noé's work ethic, even when it comes to play, and think about how I'm often just doing enough to get by. I'm having a strange, confusing moment where it becomes apparent I could have finished the 100 miles in the allotted time with a little bit of planning. Continuing the night before may have still resulted in a painful DNF given the shape I was in, but I certainly didn't have to sleep as long as I did, and could have started running again. There's always something to learn on every race. Now I know not to give up when I have plenty of time to turn things around.
The air begins to cool, quickly, and Alva says that her little toe feels like it's going to fall off. I'm thinking I have two little toes that about to fall off, but it's a pain that doesn't impede progress. I tell her that we can cut the sides open on her shoes, but when we get to the aid station, we do some quick math and decide her pace is solid, we're going to push on. Jester and Noé make incredible pacers. Noé pushes Alva to eat and drink, and Jester's natural sense of pace, and timing is one of precision. I suggest she tries the trekking poles Noé's been using, knowing how having something to offload the feet helps, and she does, her pace increasing so much that I'm having trouble keeping up.
Halfway through her penultimate loop, Noé is talking to Jester; Alva and I are walking in silence. I turn to Alva and tell her, "I'm so proud of you. You're going to make it." She laughs joyfully, and thanks me, full of pride herself because she knows it's true. We make it to the cutoff with just under 5 minutes to spare. The last loop is windy, cold and dark, but Alva doesn't ease up on up pace. She's getting this done. For Petey. And best of all, for herself. I'm barely holding back tears as we start hearing Jose, Alan, Rajeev, Corinne, and Evan cheering, and approach the headlights that are all that remains of the finish line. One hundred miles done. She hugs Jester, and whispers to him something about Petey, that has him crying too. He rubs her back, and says, "Hey Alva! Guess what! The monkey is gone."
Picture courtesy Alan Geraldi
What an event. I'm disappointed in myself for not pushing harder, and going for my own 100 mile finish, but I am glad for my small part in Alva's. Her finish is a moment that crystallized the race; a love of running, of running with friends, and remembering Pete. On the other hand, I'm feeling rather empowered given my lack of recent running and injuries, for doing two ultramarathons in a weekend. My legs feel stronger post race, than they did pre race, and I'm confident I can start running again for real. Maybe even toss my name into the Western States Gu bucket next week, something I wasn't sure I would do without the race.
A race like this really makes me appreciate the beauty of a loop course. Ninety some souls sharing the same two mile strip carries with it a huge sense of community, grants the time to swap many stories and words of advice, and to provide inspiration. The are so many stories to tell, like about Sofie Romero, who was out there with broken toes and a knee walker, but still finished 50k, ex Marine Giovanni Guevarra carrying the American flag and Marine Corp flag during his last lap to honor Rememberence Day and Marine Corp's birthday. There's so much more, but you'll have to have to come out next year to hear and see them.
"Castaway" Sofie Romero
I am thankful to Alan for his hard work, his desire to please and take care of each and every runner, and to go beyond expectations. And to Rajeev for his work on the race, and the spirit he brings with him everywhere he goes, and handling my feet without batting an eye and trying his best to take care of me when things were low. You guys truly put on a race of love.
PS. When I got home, I peeled off my shoes and socks, and the strangest expression crossed my face when I saw this: