In 1997 I ran my first Ultra and it was not well thought out. I suffered. I had recently moved to San Anselmo, CA from Manhattan where I had started to run on trails because of the lack of sidewalks. I missed running the reservoir loop in Central Park but quickly became enamored with the trails in Marin. I couldn’t get enough of them and spent most of my free time exploring new routes. Soon I was packing a lumbar with food, gear, and cash, and was making a day of running to Stinson Beach, grabbing a sandwich and a coke while checking out some waves, then running back directly to Nave’s, a local pub in Fairfax, and the first stop to replenish my body with a cool Sierra Nevada and a burger.
One day at work I met a co-worker, named Topher Gaylord, who mentioned he was going to run a 50K event in a couple of days and asked if I’d like to join him. “What the heck” I thought, “sure.” I was in decent shape and thought I could pull it off without too much of a problem. Topher said I could meet him at his house at 5:00am and drive out with a buddy of his named Dean Karnazes.
I met Topher at his home along with mountaineer Conrad Anker who had just got off a plane after climbing in Pakistan. We were just waiting for Dean. And waiting. Dean was so late. It was only years later that I realized that this was his modus operandi. He loves efficiency. Waiting around for the start of a race makes no sense when he could be doing so many other things. Dean finally showed up around 6:15 with the race 45 minutes from starting in Point Reyes and 30 miles of foggy coastal back roads ahead of us to get there. I was beginning to stress.
The drive was absolutely “white knuckle” with visibility down to 40 feet along the steep curvy roads with the mini van’s tires screeching on every turn. We entered the race parking area as the start gun went off. We chaotically slapped our gear together and took off a minute behind the pack. CHARGE! We made it!
Dean was just out for a training run and was hanging with us while chatting the whole way. He kept telling us that we were doing so well that we’d probably do a sub five hour race. “Wow” I thought. We were only 6 miles into this and I’m feeling like we could finish in the top five. We encountered a long two mile uphill. We passed people like they were standing still. Dean said “You guys are on fuego!”
Little did I know that Dean loves the role of practical joker. He was feeding us these lines and knew we were making classic rookie mistakes. It was fun for him watching our impending demise; after all, that’s what friends are for.
After reaching the halfway point I was in trouble. I took some salt tablets that I had bought the day before and was quickly nauseated and salivating like a rabid dog. The wheels were coming off the wagon. For the next 16 miles I suffered. All those people we flew by on the uphill “spanked” me on the way back. I stumbled while descending the downhill sections on my trashed and cramping quads. Even the flat sections were torture. I could see Topher across a large field hobbling like me but I couldn’t muster enough strength to catch up to him. I dragged myself past the finish line about 5 minutes after Topher and just ahead of Conrad, who looked remarkably fresh due to perhaps living above 16,000′ for a few months and had paced himself more strategically.
On the drive back to San Francisco Topher and I could barely muster complete sentences. Our bodies were wrecked. Topher fell asleep in a prone position. I would have been able to fall asleep if my legs didn’t hurt so much or if Dean would have been driving slightly slower than he did on the drive out. I remember staring in disbelief at Dean who was on his cell phone, reaching out to fellow windsurfers to check wind conditions at the Golden Gate Bridge. I remember smiling and thinking “who is this guy” and am I going to survive this road trip.
I crossed the finish line of my first ultra but it was not what I considered a textbook example of success.
A week later I was talking to Topher about a 100 mile race called the Western States Endurance Run. I had heard that if you could do it in less than 24 hours you received a silver belt buckle. It sounded pretty cool. After completing a qualifier, making the lottery, and getting more understanding about what completing an ultra with style entailed, I became a student of this class of event. I learned that the body is an instrument that, with proper treatment, can perform exquisitely. I have memories of going out for weekend runs that were farther than I’d ever gone before, then following up the next weekend with an even longer run. Every week was a milestone. I varied my midweek workouts and incorporated some cross training. I continued weight training but focused on what would help my running. I had low points during training too, and bonked on many runs, but understood that it wasn’t uncommon and learned how to rebound. I also had numerous running adventures with Dean and Topher along the way.
One night we ran through skid row sections of San Francisco, past prositutes and drug dealers, then passed more high brow “old money” pockets before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. We continued through the moonlit Marin Headlands over to Mt. Tam and then descended the famed Dipsea Trail into Mill Valley and past “tweekers” at 7-11 coming back from raves at 4:00am. We crossed the Golden Gate again and saw the city waking up. I then went home to pass out. What other sport could I be training for that would offer such adventures in my own backyard? I truly felt like I was living.
I finished my first Western States, got that coveted silver belt buckle, and understood that the joy of doing an ultra is doing your homework and preparing for the event, getting to the starting line healthy, and most importantly having fun along the way.