Monday, November 12, 2012

Crazy endurance eyes

There's something inherently primal about the Steep Ravine Trail after four hours of running. Really, most everything feels primal after four hours of running — the murmur of an overtaxed heart, the taste of salt on moist lips, the angry throbbing of a bruised knee, the gritty film of sweat and dirt on skin. But when I take all of that to the Steep Ravine Trail — located in a small canyon of a popular recreation area and a stone's throw from one of the most populated urban regions in the United States — I'm always transported back to a primordial jungle, vaguely tropical, shrouded in mist and a cloak of creepy silence.

There's a gurgling brook, thick-leaf ferns, and ancient redwood trees blotting out the sunlight. I listen for animal sounds — in this fantasy, it's not mountain lions or coyotes, but monkeys and mastodons — as I pick my way up a staircase of slimy rocks. Another human with hunched shoulders appears in my sightline, and I strain to match his steps and maybe catch him. At this point in the run, I can't decide whether I'm the hunter or the hunted. Blood seeps from my scarred elbow and I feel much more like the latter, strung out and wild-eyed, stumbling toward exhaustion as an unseen predator closes in. A drumbeat of footsteps shuffle up from behind, and two women wearing pink pass me without a word. I'm broken, done, my heart beats on fumes, and I still have twelve more miles in front of me.

Somewhere in the recesses of logical thought, I know it's been a long season of endurance efforts and I'm just tired, simply tired. Because of this I'm not strong, and I'm not fast, and anything I accomplish on this day is going to seem pitifully mediocre, even relative to myself. "It's just a 50K. A race for fun. No reason to kill yourself." And yet, something about the women in pink sparks my primeval instinct, a deeper vein of energy within my tapped-out heart. I vow to keep up with them. Not because I could win this race, not even close, or even beat them, because I won't. But by keeping them in sight, I can assure myself that I still have the power to rage, rage against the dying of the light. Plus, that's the game, and it's fun.

While planning their California trip, our friends Dan and Amy signed up for a trail half marathon on Sunday, the Mount Tam Trail Run. Beat and I decided to join them and, true to form, never even discussed just sticking to the shorter distance and running with our friends. No, we signed up for the 50K distance, because, well, why not double the fun? There was no mention of the sore muscles and fatigue that still lingered less than a week after the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow, or the fact that this course wasn't just any old 50K, but a rather technical trail run with nearly 8,000 feet of climbing. I basically feel embarrassed about the fitness hole I'm digging at this point, so I didn't mention our plan to anyone besides Dan and Amy. And yet I really wanted to race the Mount Tam 50K. That is, I was giddy about the prospect. I had little to gain, and yet I had nothing to lose. It's these wide-open playing fields where the game truly breaks free.

Unsurprisingly, I struggled from the start. During the first ascent of Steep Ravine, I had to strain my body's higher gears just to stay ahead of my personal "No twenty-minute miles in a 50K" rule. We veered onto the rockier Ben Johnson Trail, where I caught my foot on a boulder and went down, slapping the dirt hard enough that runners who were several switchbacks above me turned around to see what happened. "Are you okay? That sounded hard," one woman shouted down to me as I dusted myself off and checked my shirt for blood. I always panic about my elbows after a crash, but the harsher pain was emanating from a rapidly forming goose egg on my knee. "I need to watch where I'm going. I was looking over there," I said as I waved at the vista of redwood-covered mountains rippling toward the sea. Despite my physical struggles, this was a gorgeous day in a beautiful place, and the combination of pretty scenery and endorphins never fails to put me in a good mood.

I saw Beat only once, near the 30K turnaround at Stinson Beach. He claimed he was feeling bad but seemed to be moving strong. I could have easily laid down right there and slept rest of the afternoon away. Any hope that my reserve diesel engine might kick in sputtered and died as I started back up the mountain. No, there would be no bailouts today. There would only be decisions, and head games. The distance had chased me into a stupor and the only play I had left was to switch roles and become a chaser. So I turned my gaze away from the dreamlike jungle canopy, fixed my eyes on the trail, and marched.

Photo by Inside Trail Racing
As the long climb stretched out, I looked up often to make sure the women in pink were still in sight. My legs and lungs were burning, a sure sign of overexertion — something I don't often do. Yes, I go outside and play for a long time, often, but I do so with a strong self preservation instinct that's difficult for me to turn off. My psyche thrives on the perception that I can do something all day, and all day the next day, and the next. Even though that's not how it works, what I want the most is to turn myself into a kind of perpetual motion machine. Speed, by its nature of breakdown and necessary time to rebuild, just can't be part of that equation. So I haven't been training at my true upper limit. On the rarer occasions that I do peg it, I feel like someone is stabbing me all over with tiny pins. And here I was, somewhere in the muddled middle of a 50K, stoking a dying fire with everything I had to burn.

Photo by Inside Trail Racing
For the past few races I've been experimenting with a few more "whole foods" in my fueling strategy, which mainly means I've been trying to skew my intake away from 95 percent sugar. During the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow, I took in a lot of calories from a bunch of bland but nutritious burritos filled with black beans, rice, salt, and avocado. During the Mount Tam Trail Run I utilized the aid stations' boiled potatoes and pink sports drink. But on my third return to the ridge-top aid station, where the women in pink had already come and gone, I no longer had the time or energy to spare on health food. I grabbed a handful of Mike and Ikes and M&Ms, stuffed them in my mouth in one big chewy chocolaty sugar bomb, and took off as fast as I could down the hill.

Running downhill full-bore is something I never do. Again, my sense of balance is too weak, and my self-preservation instinct too strong. But I had to make up time somewhere because the women in pink were stronger climbers than me, so I loosened the brakes and took, for me at least, big leaps of faith down the concrete-like Dipsea Trail. I was seeing stars by the time I started across the Muir Valley, so I had to slow my pace to save something for the final climb.

Photo by Inside Trail Racing
As I started up the Heather Cutoff, I decided that I hate switchbacks. Sure, I get that they're necessary for erosion control. And of course as a mountain biker, I prefer switchbacks to steep death trails. But if I'm on foot, give me a trail that shoots straight up the mountain any day. I'll happily march up, and then I'll march back down, because I'm a happy hiker. Switchbacks only make for long, long stretches of runnable punishment that hurt to jog at 12-minute-mile pace, and somehow hurt even more to walk at 16-minute-mile pace. I so wanted to slow to 20-minute-miles, but I couldn't let myself do that, because I was running a 50K. Also, I needed to stay ahead of the women in pink, so I alternated jogging and walking, and both hurt a lot. Another woman caught and passed me, followed by the women in pink, and I tried to keep up. Oh, I tried. I felt like I was running through knee-deep water, watching them effortlessly skim the surface and disappear into the trees.

The women in pink didn't even stop at the last aid station, but my fuel gauge was below empty so I had no choice but to take some time to stuff down more M&Ms. The first woman who passed me thanked me for serving as a pacer to help her get up the long climb. "I just wanted to see if I could catch you, and I did," she said. "But I won't be able to keep up any more."

"You think I'm a faster descender than you?" I said with an unintentional smirk. If only she knew. I'm a terrible downhill runner, and the final three miles into Stinson Beach included lots of slime-coated stairs that I usually tiptoe down. I've been passed by children hiking with their families on this section of trail in the past. "You'll be faster than me on this section, for sure." We both looked at each other with an appreciative smile, finished up our pink drink and started down the Dipsea Trail. In my mind, the race was on.

About a quarter mile down the trail, I looked over my shoulder one last time, and then don't remember much after that. The M&Ms hadn't finished processing quite yet and I was sputtering on fumes, working with some kind of primitive drive that only understood forward motion, without hope for the future or regret for the past. Somehow I made it down the stairs in one piece and started up the last little knoll only to see the silhouettes of two female runners cresting the horizon that was the top of the hill, out of reach.

I tried to catch up. Oh, I tried. Not because I really cared either way, because how could it matter? But there was something primally satisfying about coming so close to beating a weakness that I didn't believe I could actually beat. As long as they didn't fade, that meant I didn't fade. So I fought with everything I had to the very end. When I ran across the finish line, there was nothing left. I wobbled over to a picnic table and put my head between my knees in a cloud of dizziness and nausea. It was as close as I've ever come to actually collapsing at a finish line.

My finishing time was 7:18, seventeen minutes after Beat. It was one of my worst times in a 50K (although this course is, in my opinion, the most difficult that I've raced. Beat thinks the Ohlone 50K is harder, but excepting for heat on that course, I'm inclined to disagree. Mount Tam/Steep Ravine is more technical and this version even has the endless uphill switchbacks.) The women in pink beat me by two minutes and five seconds.

Still, I was proud of my performance in my impromptu pointless 50K race. Because like a pedestrian passing by a donation jar with just a few quarters left in my pocket, I know I gave it everything I had to give. And doing so made it so much more satisfying, and fun.