“Now Bob,” Mike locked my gaze to make sure he had my attention and in as calm a voice as he could muster said, “You have to finish this one in 4:40 in order to make the cutoff for the final loop.”
It took a moment for the import of his words to sink in but when they did my response was visceral. I doubled over in despair, hands on knees, tears flowing.
“I can’t do that.”
I was proud of the effort I had put forth in my last loop around the course. With Claire’s help as my pacer I shrugged off some of the cumulative fatigue brought on by the intense heat of the day. Claire was amazing as a pacer. She seemed to instinctively know when I needed to be pulled and when to fall in behind to let me set the pace. In the blackness of night she positioned herself perfectly on technical sections of trail to extend my field of view with her flashlight. In my inexperience I wouldn’t have even known to ask for these things. Together, we managed to cut over 20 minutes off of my lap times from my last several solo loops around the course during the afternoon heat and just after sunset. But four hours and forty minutes meant running even harder. There was no way.
Claire had been warning me about the cutoff, but every time she mentioned it I got a little irritated with her. What was she talking about? I had pushed hard with a continuous effort all day long. How could I be at risk of missing the cutoff? She must be mistaken. I had plenty of time.
It was the definiteness of the number, 4:40, that finally shattered the denial. I had run over 75 miles and now success or failure hinged on my ability to run the next 15 in 4:40.
“I can’t do it.”
Fortunately the despair was short lived. The next thought that crossed my mind was, “Well what do you want to do now? Quit?”
Fuck that! The very thought made me angry.
I immediately straightened up and made my way back on to the course with Claire in tow. I allowed myself a bit of a pity party during the short 1.5 mile run to the first aid station, Rattlesnake Ranch. I didn’t want to be in a position where I was chasing cutoffs, yet here I was. I started to question decisions I had made over the course of the race and struggled to shrug off the tears.
We stopped only long enough at Rattlesnake Ranch to top off water bottles and fill my pockets with candied ginger, the only solid food I had been able to keep down while running since puking twice earlier in the day. I hate candied ginger.
By the time we set out from Rattlesnake Ranch, a switch had flipped in my head. Gone was the despair. The pity party was over. All that remained was determination.
Unfortunately what lay ahead was a grueling 5.5 mile climb to the next aid station at Jackass Junction.
I had already run back and forth . . . no, I mean up and down . . . the leg of the course between Rattlesnake Ranch and Jackass Junction 5 times and this was by far the harder direction. The course reversed direction after each loop. The race directors called them washing machine loops. Odd numbered loops started with a tough 7.5 mile uphill run including a few miles of rocky, technical terrain but you were rewarded with a dreamy, well groomed and gently sloping downhill back to the start on the opposite side of the hill. I didn’t mind the rocks so much on the uphill side because you tended to be moving slow anyway. By contrast, on even numbered loops that dreamy downhill became grueling, unending incline. Since the trail was so easy, and the grade so slight, the temptation was to try to run the whole thing. That was doable but exhausting when we were fresh at the beginning of the day. During the night and now with dawn of the second day of the race approaching, it was hard to find anyone running up this side of the hill. Worse, there was no easy downhill reward on the other side. Miles of steeper and rocky trail made the downhill treacherous. It was very hard to make up any time lost while walking the first half of the loop.
Part of the reason for my distress was that not only did we have to complete loop 6 in 4:40, but we had to do it in the harder direction. I put these negative thoughts out of my mind when we left Rattlesnake Ranch and resolved to get the job done.
Claire and I pushed hard and we were rewarded with a breathtaking sunrise. I had a camera stashed in my waist belt but resisted the urge to stop and take pictures. The time for that had passed. Although I had pushed hard throughout the entire previous day, as I now reached the 80 mile mark of the race my mentality had completely changed. I was much more focused and serious. This was a race in jeopardy and I was determined to succeed.
|Dawn and my lucky stone pillar|
By now I was intimately familiar with the trail and had picked out landmarks to alert me to when we were approaching aid stations. I took a photo of Dawn while we were running together on the first loop by a stone pillar about a half mile out of Jackass Junction and every time I passed it I touched the stone for luck. Landmarks weren’t always necessary though especially when there was plenty of traffic running in both directions. Soda is so universally beloved by ultra-runners that belching runners approaching from the other direction was always a sure sign that an aid station was only minutes away.
As we approached Jackass Junction I started barking orders at Claire. On my previous trips through this aid station I stopped and sat for a few minutes to deal with various issues – tape hot spots on my toes, shake sand out of my shoes, try to down some hot soup. This time I was determined to remain on my feet and exit as fast as possible and told Claire she was not to allow me to sit down. I handed off my water bottles to Claire to be refilled, took care of some business in the port-a-pottie, stripped off the long sleeve shirt I had put on to fend off the pre-dawn chill and stashed my headlamp in my drop bag. After retrieving my water bottles from Claire I glanced at the food on the table and was surprised to find that for the first time in hours I had my appetite back. I grabbed a few pieces of fruit and a bite of pumpkin pie and we headed out. I don’t think we were there for more than 3 or 4 minutes. The aid station captain complimented us on how efficiently we were working together and it made me proud and again so grateful that I had Claire’s help.
|Claire, the pacer extraordinaire!|
I checked my watch as we exited the aid station to discover that we had run the last section of course uphill significantly faster than we had run it downhill on the previous loop. I was elated. This was a huge confidence booster. I had passed the 83 mile mark of the race and suddenly I felt great. I was full of energy and the pain that had plagued me through the night had vanished. There was no physical explanation for this. Yes, I was finally eating again, but the few calories I slammed down at the aid station can’t account for this sudden turnaround. I’m beginning to grasp the mental aspect of ultra- running.
I was only half way around the loop, but I was already starting to think ahead to what I needed when I got back to the the start/finish - Javelina Jeadquarters - for my final half loop around the course. The race wasn’t assured yet but I was confident I would make it back in time.
After each of the previous two loops I had taken a 10 minute break at Javelina Jeadquaters in a tent with a cot that we had reserved. I wanted to lie down, not to sleep, but to elevate my feet and take a load off for just a few minutes. I was fortunate enough to have a crew that I could trust to roust me when the 10 minutes were up. This was one of the decisions I questioned when I found out how close I was to the cut off, but looking back I’m confident that the rest paid dividends. 10 minutes of rest after loop 4, for example, yielded a 24 minute improvement in my lap time for lap 5, but that lap time included the extra 10 minutes of rest. The actual improvement in my moving pace was really remarkable.
|Our humble abode|
No more time for rest though. In fact, I didn’t want to go anywhere near that tent again. It was just past dawn and still cool but I knew that I was going to have to deal with heat again before this race was over. Heat was my primary concern.
I started barking orders at Claire again.
“Try to contact Mike and tell him I don’t want to go back to the tent. Meet us at the aid station with my hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and Tylenol.”
She seemed relieved and told me she was thinking the same thing.
There was a short technical climb out of Jackass Junction (Claire actually texted Mike during this climb despite my disapproval – I had visions of her tripping) and then we had a few relatively easy miles before we hit the rocks. When we reached the top I started running . . . hard. It felt incredible. I looked down at my feet moving across the desert like it was an out of body experience. It was surreal. I couldn’t believe my energy level more than 80 miles into the race. There was no pain. My legs were working as if they were completely fresh. I would speed down steep washes and have enough momentum to make it up the other side without slowing down. Behind me I could hear Claire shouting exclamations of disbelief and I swear I think I heard her huffing and puffing a bit trying to keep up. I was too focused to turn and look back.
|Spiders! Why did it have to be spiders?|
This went on for miles and I passed a lot of runners, including a few that I am pretty sure were actually zombies. It was like being in an episode of The Walking Dead. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of them are still wandering mindlessly through the Sonoran desert today.
We reached the next aid station, Tonto’s Tavern, in no time. This station had been unmanned most of the race and was stocked only with water. It had actually run dry in the middle of the day on Saturday, leaving runners to fend for themselves for 6.5 miles with no access to water or aid in temperatures that were reported to have exceeded 100 degrees. There was no shortage of complaining by runners about the snafu but I can’t say it bothered me that much. I figured, it is what it is, just deal with it. I was carrying two 20 oz bottles which was cutting it close, but just enough fluid to cover the distance if I was careful to ration it. Tonto’s Tavern was also the final turn for the finishing loop so there was now a volunteer stationed to point runners in the right direction. Runners on their final loop were adorned with a glow stick necklace when they left the start/finish for the last time so they could easily be identified and directed toward the finish line. That must have been a cool sight at night. Maybe I’ll get to see it next time.
The section of trail between Tonto’s Tavern and Coyote Camp was the hardest, including about 2.5 miles of rocky technical downhill. It was hard enough going uphill through that section, treacherous going down. My energy level was still high though and I ran through most of that section hard. It took intense concentration to navigate the rocks and I remember thinking to myself that I had been running for over 24 hours and was surprised that I still had the ability to think. I watched my feet navigate the rocks and somehow felt both focused and disconnected at the same time. I was incredulous. Claire gave me some much appreciated kudos for the effort. With the exception of a few really bad spots that slowed our progress to a halt we made great time.
|Dawn at dawn.|
Throughout the entire race I never paid attention to the total distance I had covered or had remaining. I focused solely only on the distance to the next aid station and using just the chronograph on my watch and an estimated pace was pretty accurate in predicting arrival times. For the first time in the race I was now thinking farther ahead and I was obsessed with the cutoff. I knew I had to start the final 9 mile loop by 9:30 a.m. I also knew it was 2 miles from the next aid station, Coyote Camp, to the Javelina Jeadquarters. I figured to play it safe I needed at least half an hour to cover that distance. Much less than that and I would risk missing the cutoff if I bonked again.
My watch, a simple Timex sport watch, was set to display the race clock time which was now well over 24 hours so figuring out the time of day took a little simple math. Of course simple math eludes me on a 4 hour training run so I don’t know how I expected that I would be able to do it after running for more than 24. The fact that simply pushing a button on the watch to display time of day was even too complicated to figure out at that point. I figured I was still cutting it really close. There was still a need for urgency.
We reached Coyote Camp three minutes later than I hoped. The thirty minutes I wanted to safely reach the start was now just 27 and I was worried about being able to make it. Claire didn’t seem to have the same sense of urgency about the time that I did and I remember getting really irritated with her. Shortly after we left the aid station Claire complimented my effort and told me we had over an hour to reach the start. What!?
I hit the button on my watch to switch from the chronograph to the time of day and realized my math was wrong. Of course my math was wrong. Trying to figure out the time of day from the clock time I thought the time was 9:03, turned out it was 8:03. I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe how fast we had run that loop.
I realized that I was going to finish the race and started to get choked up again. Unfortunately, with the sense of urgency now gone, the switch that had flipped in my head helping me to pull off that miraculous effort, switched back off.
“Well then I’m going to quit killing myself on these uphills,” and I started walking.
The fatigue I felt at that moment was overwhelming and worse, the pain returned. Once I backed off I found it incredibly difficult to maintain much more than a shuffle. The pain in my quads running down into the steep washes on that part of the course was intense. It was all I could do to stay upright and when I reached the bottom I came to a complete stop and had to brace myself for the climb out. The momentum that had helped me navigate these over the past few miles was completely gone.
I shuffled like this for the entire two miles back to the start.
We reached Javelina Jeadquarters at 8:41 with 49 minutes to spare. Instead of the 4:40 that I thought was impossible at the start of the loop, I covered the distance in just 3:51.
I must have been out of it because I can’t remember very much of what transpired at the aid station before I set out again for the final 9 mile loop. I know I received my glow necklace. I remember Mike and Dawn were there with the gear I requested. I remember Mike spraying me down with sunscreen. And I remember dreading going back out. It was starting to get hot again and I was going to have to turn back in the direction from which I had just come, in and out of those steep washes and then back up through miles of rocks.
I was grateful Claire agreed to go out with me one more time. I don't think she counted on having to run 40 miles with me and I know I wasn’t exactly conversational on the last loop, but I still cherished the companionship.
I shuffled back out on the course. At a road crossing near the start someone was applauding and tried to cheer me up by saying that all I had to do was maintain a 20 minute per mile shuffle to be able to finish on time. I didn’t find this comforting at all.
When we reached the Coyote Camp aid station 2 miles later my primary concern was controlling the heat. I filled my hat with ice and rolled some into my bandanna tied around my neck and then it was back to work to take on the rocky climb to Tonto Tavern.
I don’t know how but we actually passed another zombie . . . I mean runner . . . on that section.
I was dreading what was awaiting us after the turn back to the finish. It was on a section of trail we had not seen before and I worried that if it was technical I might not make it. I also was not sure of the exact distance of that final leg. I thought it might be 4.something miles and worried that if the number was closer to 5 than 4 miles I might not be able to make it either.
When we finally reached Tonto Tavern the volunteer let us know that it was only 3.6 miles to the finish. He pointed us in the right direction and what lay ahead was easy downhill trail as far as the eye could see. Flat ground. No rocks. I heard Claire cheering me on. I finally knew I was going to make it and struggled again to choke back the tears.
It still wasn’t easy going. I shuffled along as best I could and got passed by two runners on that section. I wondered if I was the one that looked like a zombie this time. When the last one passed me I looked behind and there was no one in sight. I wondered if I would be the last and really didn’t care. As long as I finished. Finishing was all that mattered.
When we reached the final road crossing I stopped Claire, gave her a hug and thanked her for helping me. I’m sure I cried on her shoulder. I know I would not have finished on time without her help.
She ran ahead as I continued to shuffle toward the finish. It felt like I mustered up a bit of a jog, but I’m sure it didn’t look that way. For some reason I got obsessed with my finish photo and started to wonder how I looked. Probably like hell. Then I put those thoughts out of my mind. It is what it is.
The final stretch was lined with campsites and people were cheering me on. They were even calling me by name which completely overwhelmed me. I rounded the final corner, saw the race director Jamil Coury snapping photos and then spotted all of my friends waiting for me on the other side of the finish line. I fell into their arms and hugged everyone. Jamil was immediately there to award me with my buckle.
And then I collapsed into closest chair I could find in the shade.
I finished in 29:41. 19 minutes under the cutoff. 151st place. I wasn’t DFL, but I also wasn’t far from it. Out of 377 starters only 157 finished. 41%. The heat really took its toll.