“I just have to laugh. For those of you who don’t know Ken, he’s an accomplished ultra marathoner. He’s done this before” says Dean Karnazes.
I’m sitting at the Marin Marathon expo, the day before the Diablo 50. I’m a huge Dean Karnazes fan and today would be a great day for some “Deanspiration.” As usual, Dean delivers in spades. I’m sitting in a crowd of 10 to 15 people, most of whom are about to run their first half marathon while I’ll be out slugging away all day on a different mountain. Thinking of those first timers, I ask Dean if he has any recovery tips for those of us here who hadn’t done this before. I’ll admit that while I’ve gotten mud (and blood) on my shoes, I’m in no way an accomplished ultra runner. I’ve finished in the bottom 10 in every ultra I’ve run so far. Given some of the prior lifestyle choices I’ve made, I’m blessed to be able to even toe the line and I’m happy to do just that. I do have a gift for recovery. I’ll be out the week after the Diablo 50 running the Skyline to the Sea 50k. Does this make me an accomplished ultra marathoner? If Dean “ultra marathon man” Karnazes can declare it in front of an audience, I’ll take it and run with it! Run with it is exactly what I did, all day.
About the Diablo 50: My coach and mentor Jim Vernon has told me that it is the hardest 50 miler there is in the area. Last year the temperature was close to 90 degrees. The course climbs to the top of Mount Diablo.. twice, with 13,340 feet of elevation gain. After last Sunday, I can say this for certain; the Diablo 50 will leave a permanent stain on your soul.
During the start, I could tell right away, that Diablo was going to be quite an event. At every Pacific Coast Trail Runs (PCTR) race I’ve done, I stay at the back of the pack and can barely hear Wendell’s bullhorn instructions over the other runners. Today was different. You could hear a pin drop. I was starting to get concerned. I’ve never seen anything that would stop a group of ultra runners from chatting. This thing was serious! The gun goes off and I wave to my awesome wife as I pass.
The first seven miles of the race are an ascent to the summit. People are going too slow in front of me. I begin to think that maybe I’ve positioned myself too far back in the pack. Remembering the adage “If you think you’re going too slow in an ultra, slow down,” I step off the trail to retie my shoes and let even more people pass. I remind myself that I’m going to choose my battles carefully today. The first couple uphill miles in a 50 mile race aren’t the place for speed. Slowly, we climb to the summit. At the top, there is an observation tower. As part of the race, you have to climb the tower. I love a course that has a sense of humor! At the peak, I feel fresh and alive. The climb is a great warm up for things to come but I’m ready for some serious downhill!
A lot of runners specialize. There are sprinters, marathoners, trail runners, mountain runners. Me?.. well my specialty is downhill. My ability to bomb downhill is the only way I can finish an ultra. I’m overweight and a former 2 ½ pack a day smoker. I crawl up hills and make up my time on the other side, usually at the same effort level. Fortunately, Jim Vernon had advised me beforehand not to bomb any descents in the beginning and save it for later in the race. On my own I would have killed myself in the next 5 miles down. Just before the North Gate aid station the trail turns into a fire road. The funny part is that the “road” is so steep that I can’t imagine that any sort of jeep can drive it. I could see the aid station a mile or so below and began to wonder if I would be better off rolling down the hill. By mile 15, my quads were starting to feel worked. I was a little concerned. I was feeling pain that I shouldn’t feel until the 25 mile mark. ‘If this is 15, what’s 25 going to be like’ I wondered.
From the North Gate aid station there is a five mile loop back to North Gate. Somewhere on this loop, reality kicked in. Looking at my watch, I started figuring out my split times. Gauging by effort level, I figured that I was averaging a 15 minute mile or less, even with the first climb. My watch told me that I was moving at over a 19 to 20 minute pace. It was a little disheartening. I had no idea where that time went. I should be going much faster if I was pushing so hard. It didn’t strike me until a few miles later that the heat and terrain were slowing me down so much. It was so hot that volunteers would not even tell me the temperature at any aid station. Later, after dusk, I heard 95 degrees!
Now the race had turned on me. Mile 24.5 was the first cutoff. I needed to average 18:30 or less to stay on the course. During the 5 mile loop, I started to wonder what I was doing out here in the first place. “Diablo is a race for actual accomplished marathoners,” I thought. “I have no business even being here.” During this time, I started making mistakes. I went almost 2 hours without any energy gel. I “crossed the line” at the same time, somewhere between the 4 ½ to 5 hour mark. Crossing the line to me is what marathoners call hitting the wall. I can feel my body transition from stored fuels to burning whatever I can shove in my mouth. This is the point in a run where I really start to come alive. This is where running becomes more a personal matter of will. This is what I love about endurance running! It’s funny that I needed to get so low before I really started to move. I knew it would be a battle to make the cutoff but now that I was running on fumes, I was ready to fight! Maybe I am, in some small way, an accomplished ultra marathoner after all.
When I looked at the map before the race, I thought the aid stations were too close together. Naively, I had even planned on running through a few. The 5 miles of the North Gate to North Gate loop were incredible. I had 2 water bottles with me, each 20 ounces. Both were almost empty by the 3rd mile. I had to ration, which actually turned out to be a fun game. Every time I stopped sweating, I would take a sip. Within a minute, I would sweat again. A minute after I would stop.
The return to North Gate aid station was the most welcome of sights I’ve seen in awhile. “You’re the first person here today that I’ve seen smiling” I heard as I came up to the aid station table. “Are you kidding?” I replied, “I can’t think of anything in the world I want to do more than this!” It’s amazing how the aid stations really recharged me. All the volunteers were awesome. Fortunately, there was plenty of ice as well. There were a four other runners at the station. Everyone was covered in salt and looked pretty bad. Negotiating around them at the table was tough, they were like zombies. I imagined that I looked the same way, except that I was a smiling zombie.
As I filled my pockets with beef jerky, I heard one runner say “Is that offer still open for a ride back? I can’t do this.” My heart sank. We were at mile 19 and someone was dropping out. This is a tough race. As I was getting ready to leave, so was the car back to the finish line. “Does anyone else want to go to the finish?” asked a volunteer. “I do!” I replied “It’s just going to take me 7 more hours to run there!!!” In retrospect, I feel like a jerk for saying that in front of someone who’s just dropped out (sorry!). I picked up my water bottles and as I was leaving, all four runners walked off with the volunteer for that long ride back to the finish. Four runners quit at mile 19. I realized that it was going to take a lot to finish this thing. Now, alone on the trail with a cutoff looming too close for comfort, I strapped on my iPod for inspiration.
“Ok, running community on Running Stupid, All Day!” I host a podcast called Running Stupid. http://runningstupid.net/ It’s free on iTunes. A month ago, I did an interview with Dean Karnazes. I cut that part out of the interview and put 20 copies of it on shuffle on my iPod for emergencies like this one. It was 5 miles from North Gate to Rock City. My sense of timing was skewed. All I knew was that I wasn’t going fast enough. By mile 22, I was in tears. I was pushing harder than I’ve ever pushed in my life. My heart was pounding so hard that I wondered if I would be able to continue if I did, by some miracle, make the cutoff. I had no idea what distance I was at. All I knew was that the cutoff time was flying closer and closer, with no aid station to be found. I was begging myself to keep moving. Once again, I was out of water. My consumption rate was about the same for the previous five miles. The level of water in my bottles became my odometer. When I was completely out, I knew that I had to be close. I made the first cutoff with only 8 minutes to spare.
At the Rock City aid station, I was toast. I spent 2-3 minutes there, catching my breath and drinking way too much. Sure enough, everything started sloshing around in my stomach the second I hit the trail. “It’s ok,” I thought, “just keep moving forward and you’ll soon be fine.” “This next cutoff is a little more generous.” That was my second big mistake. After 15-20 minutes, I started to feel better. In that slow time, I took a look at the map and the next cutoff. Uh-0h. Sure enough, I had to repeat the first cutoff experience all over again!
Fortunately, this time around, I had company. I hear stories about people hallucinating during 100 milers. I can’t think of any during a 50, until now. Throughout the run from about mile 30 to the end, I had a pacer. My pacer was a ghost. Every time he appeared, he would mumble the same incoherent phrase and I would hear his footsteps right behind me. I stepped off the trail to let the runner pass the first times it happened , only to find that there was no one there. We just ran together after a while. I can’t explain it. At first I thought it was the blood pounding in my ears, until I realized that my pulse and his foot strike were a different tempo. Maybe I was hearing another runner further back on the course? He sounded like he was a couple feet behind. Also, his foot strike was incredibly even. He never tripped or faltered for 20 miles. Anyone who can run like that wouldn’t be at the back of the pack with me. What about the voice? For 4-5 hours, it was exactly the same every time. Either way, I didn’t have time to worry about it.
I started begging out loud this time. “Come on, Ken you have to do this.” My goal this year is to run all four of the PCTR Grand Prix races: Diablo, Lake Merritt 12 Hour, Headlands Hundred, and the SF One Day. Could I really loose that goal after only a mere 12 hours of running? There were more tears. I ran even harder than the first cutoff. I was saving a packet of Succeed pre-race vitamin supplements for mile 40. Might as well use them now, I thought. Karl King, president of Succeed Sportsdrink is a mad genius. I wouldn’t be able to run races like this without his S! Caps.
“Hurry up; you’ve got a minute and a half before the cutoff!” I hear. What a beautiful sound! Why? Because this was coming from the aid station!
The third and final cutoff was an hour and a half away. It was only 3 miles. I learned my lesson on the second cutoff and moved as quickly as I could. As the sun went down, it got cooler and I was moving faster. My Succeed vitamins were in full effect. I hit the “all day” button and made it with 10 minutes to spare! Now, nothing could stop me from finishing!!! At the Juniper aid station, I grabbed my headlamp and a couple packets of Succeed Amino drink from my drop bag. The Amino is supposed to help your endurance and alertness, especially at night. Once again, Karl, you’re a genius! The Amino worked like a charm.
The second climb to the peak, oddly enough, seemed easier. I was a little tired and sore, but full of life now that I knew that made the cutoff and would be allowed to continue. At the top, the observation tower’s aircraft beacon was glowing bright. Carol was at the top to refill my water bottles. During the race, I noticed her on the course. I admire how she adapted her running style to suit the terrain. She knew what she was doing out there. When she rounded the corner, I noticed she was wearing a Headlands Hundred shirt. “Well, I guess that explains that”, I thought. When I finally caught up to her, she told me that she didn’t run Headlands and the shirt was one PCTR gave her for volunteering. She regretted wearing that shirt, but it was the best running shirt she had. If anyone has earned that shirt, Carol, it’s you! Thanks for your passion and dedication! Here is spirit: after running the 26.2 on Diablo (go ahead, re-read how hard the first 26 miles were for me!), Carol was on top of the mountain manning the aid station! As I left my bottles with Carol to head up the tower, someone called out. “Make sure to turn the light off so we know you made it!” “Ok, where’s the switch?” I ask? I actually went into the observation room to look for it! Then again, I was at mile 42, there isn’t much that I wouldn’t have done at that point! When I came back down, my wife was waiting for me at the table. This was a complete surprise and I was so happy that I started to cry again.
Now, with 8 miles to go, there wass only one way back to the finish. I began to follow the glow sticks. Coach Jim’s advice about the downhills really paid off. Now, I get to do the part that I love… bomb some freaking hills!!! I have about a 6 mile stretch of nothing but descent. The pain is gone. It’s only me, my ghost pacer (who’s appearing more frequently now) and the glow sticks. I’m giddy. I’m sure most of the world would call the Diablo 50 insane in the first place, but I really was a little more cuckoo out there than I expected. I’ll tell you with pride that I greeted the glow sticks as I passed. Heck, I even kissed one that was at eye level! I was that happy to see them. My ghost pacer and I had a great time. He helped me to remain focused and keep moving forward. It was at this point in the run that I realized that he appeared just when I needed him to, when the trail would get tough or I started to lag. I would thank him each time I heard him behind me. He only spoke to announce himself, but that didn’t stop me from talking to him. After awhile, I could feel his presence, almost like he was carrying me.
Somehow, I passed six other runners on the way down. The finish was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. When my pacer and I rounded the corner, I saw the lights. There were rows of lights on the trail every five feet, marking at least the last mile like a landing strip. Incredible! I cried at the beauty of it. I almost wished that the race had started later, so faster runners could also enjoy running though this reception! I picked up the pace and immediately fell. When I hit the ground, I could feel both legs starting to cramp. Originally, I brought enough S! Caps for an extra 4-5 hours. I took the last of them a half hour ago. Somehow I had to figure out a way to get off the ground without using my legs. I sucked some goo, took a deep breath and got up. I was fine. To my disappointment however, I realized that the lights were another hallucination; they where the street lamps in Clayton and not marking the trail to my finish.
The most recent race I ran before Diablo was the Pirates Cove 50k. During the last 20k loop, it was cold and raining sideways. On a couple ridges, I was worried that I would get hypothermia if I didn’t move fast enough. I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes. When I crossed the finish line, I was laughing uncontrollably. Wendell asked “You’re laughing, what’s so funny?” “Right now? Everything!” I replied. This time, 16 hours and 18 minutes after the start of Diablo, Wendell asked “It sounds like you’re laughing again?” “I am,” I replied, “I finished the Diablo 50!”
The course has a 16 hour time limit. I figured my 16:18 wasn’t an official finish, but enough for me to say I ran the first of the PCTR Grand Prix! One down! That’s when Wendell handed me the Diablo 50 coaster. It was really heavy and all I could see were big green letters saying FINISHER. It turns out they didn’t really close the course right at 16 hours after all. As long as you make the 3rd cutoff, they count it! “Now it sounds like you’re crying.” Wendell says. I reply “I am!”
I came in 100th place. There were 150 starters and 106 finishers. All of you have my deepest admiration. Diablo is the hardest thing I’ve done so far. I’m impressed by everyone with the courage to toe the line.
Thanks again, Sarah, Wendell, and all the volunteers out at Diablo! I love PCTR. Recently, when I was asked what my race calendar looked like, my friend Edie answered for me: “You know the PCTR website? That’s Ken’s race schedule!” She’s not far off the mark. I love you all, PCTR! I’ll see you at Skyline. I’ll probably be only one of a couple passionate idiots wearing a Diablo 50 shirt!
-Ken Michal runs trail in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow his goal of completing the PCTR Grand Prix and check out his podcasts on his website RunningStupid.net.