Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Rio Del Lago 100 Mile Endurance Run

What feats the brave mind is capable of
That the body, unwillingly, completes!
It schemes and everything else stems thereof:
Gifts of the corporeal self it browbeats!!
Ere the self had awakened, it began:
The long race to top all long foot races;
Miles enough to upset a pre-race plan
And put stress on long and drawn out faces.
So it went, all day and night, on the edge,
Living anxiously, cutoff to cutoff;
The final dusty miles making me dredge
The dark, murky depths of my courage trough!
Then it came in all its glory, the Sun,
To adorn my crown once the miles were run.

I never let the spark within me fade. I watched it all through the race, like an unbiased observer. I noticed it flicker a couple of times but it never lost intensity, buffeted as it was by storms that promised worse. I never needed to cup it to shield it from the winds.

What an amazing race this was. It promised to bring me physical pain. It did. It threatened to make me emotional. It did. This was the first race that made me cry after finishing.

The sight of my support crew, the most amazing in the world, made me choke up after running across the finish line. They had stayed up all day and all night, taking turns to support this nutty friend who was out there on the trails attempting his first 100-mile race.

Anil, Rashmi, Rajeev Char, Renuka, Sunil, Renu, Arul, Gayathri, Anu and Arun Sharma – I owe you this race.

Pallavi, Sam and Padma – thank you for showing up to see me finish.

All you folks out there who called me to offer encouragement – thank you!

Thursday, Sep 21

Anil and Rashmi showed up in Anu’s place in the evening to help me make my drop bags. After much thought we decided that I would use only 4 drop bags, one each in Rattlesnake Bar, Auburn Dam Overlook, Cavitt Middle School and Willow Creek. The Rattlesnake Drop bag contained 1 Ensure for my outbound trip in the morning. Each bag contained gels, Sports beans and Tylenol. The School bag contained a change of clothes and new socks.
I had put my Petzl headlamp and Fenix flashlight in the Auburn Dam Overlook drop bag.
Friday, Sep 22
I woke up around 8 a.m. and was on my way by 11 a.m. I wanted to beat weekend traffic on its way to Sacramento and beyond. Lunch was in a Mexican restaurant on the way.
I reached Orchid Suites at 2:15 pm. Checked in and promptly drove the 5 miles to Cavitt Middle School. I picked up my race packet and a race sweatshirt. After having my blood pressure and weight taken, I spent time socializing with Carol Cuminale, Chihping Fu and a bunch of other runners. I met Carmela Layson (coached by the Zombies) and introduced myself to Jakob Herrmann.
Norm finally got up on a table and delivered his pre-race talk. He talked about the trail work they had done over the past couple of weeks and about how he hated to have anyone quit during the race.
After the talk I went down the street to eat in the Chinese restaurant I had eaten in last year after the Helen Klein 50 miler (my first).
Back to the hotel it was where I spent some time getting my race stuff ready. I hit the sack by 9:30 after setting my alarm for 4:00 am
Saturday, Sep 23
I finally woke up at 4:30 a.m. Put on the coffee and went to the bathroom to shave and shower. Had my bagel with peanut butter around 4:50 a.m. and then spent the final 30 minutes taking care of last minute stuff. I left the hotel at around 5:35 a.m. and was in the school by 5:45 a.m. I realized that I would need the flashlight for the first hour or so.
Luckily the drop bags were still in the school. Armed with my Fenix, I was soon on my way at 6 a.m. with the rest of the racers.
The first few miles were spent warming up. I started with a 7-8 minute walk that soon turned into a shuffle that turned into a walk at every small climb. I soon found myself at the first aid station (Twin Rocks, mile 4.15) at around 6:50 a.m. Right on target.
Soon after I found myself running with Carmela. I asked her if she would like to run from there on out with me and she agreed. That was indeed the best thing I could have done. Carmela was cheerful and happy to be running her first 100.
We waltzed through the early aid stations, past the Power Plant and then onto Cardiac Hill. I don’t know why but this hill was the toughest one for me, even tougher than the feared K-2 which came later on. I could not breathe (exercise induced asthma the past 2 years) and the heat was getting to me. I had neglected to pick up ice in my bandana in Rattlesnake and I regretted the oversight.
Carmela was wonderful, asking after me up the climb and offering advice. We soon crested the hill and proceeded to run along a canal to Maidu. I finally availed of some ice and from there on, the bandana was what saved me from any further heat-related discomfort.
The next stop was the Auburn Dam Overlook (cutoff time of 12:40 p.m.). We made it OUT of that aid station by 11:40 a.m., a full hour before the cutoff. I had my Ensure again and then onto the dusty descent down to No Hands bridge (mile 26.68).
Just a quarter mile out of the aid station, Carmela and I came upon one of the teen runners who had fallen and was looking disoriented. Her forearm had swollen up. We encouraged her to go back to the aid station and seek medical help. All she could do was cry and keep talking about how much she wanted to finish the race. Poor girl.
We reached No Hands soon enough and were out of there in a shot. It was on the first climb up K-2 that we met Jakob. He joined the party and away we went up the next 6 climbs and false summits. I swear Cardiac felt worse than K-2!
We met Don and Gillian at Cool (mile 29.84) along with Anil and Rajeev Char (from my crew). I had another bottle of Ensure and off I went, following Carmela and Jakob on the 7-mile Olmstead loop.
Was this section dry and dusty! It reminded me of the Masai Mara in Kenya (I went there last year). Dry grass, belt of green trees, dry grass, belt of trees ... all the way to the horizon. Not a cloud in sight and lots of dust on the trail. This is where I made the wise (for me at least) choice of walking most of the loop. I reasoned that I would run more once it got cooler i.e. after 5:30 p.m. or so. That saved the day and the race for me. Carmela and Jakob seemed to like the strategy and we came to Knickerbocker Hill aid station (1.6 miles from Cool) where we got some more ice and Coke. We soon spotted Don coming towards us from the Cool station and he encouraged us to hurry through the Cool station (mile 36.9) and back to No Hands (mile 40.35).
My right toe was throbbing from banging against the front of the shoe by now. I decided to suck it up and wait until Cavitt School (mile 67) for a change of shoes.

The trip down to No Hands (pic above) was not down K-2 but along a slightly more circuitous but way less steep trail. We did not loiter long in the aid station and were soon wending our way up to the Auburn Dam Overlook station (mile 44.29).

I spent about 5 minutes in Auburn Dam. Sat down and took a good look at my toe. I changed the lacing pattern to prevent the foot from sliding up the shoe and left with my first pacer, my buddy from my days in Muscat, Oman, Rajeev Char. The run to Maidu. 1.5 miles was along a canal. We caught up with Carmela in the Maidu aid station and the 3 of us ran the next mile to the top of the Cardiac Hill descent. We had just started descending when we heard Gillian’s voice “I’ve come to join the party”. The 4 of us were soon making our way down the difficult slope.

After the descent, they soon disappeared. In the meantime, Jakob caught up with us. I decided to power walk as much as I could. Judging by the mile markers passing by at every 0.5 mile interval, Rajeev Char reckoned that we were doing 16 min/mile pace. Great going is what I told myself. I felt like I could maintain that pace forever!

We passed Carmela and Gillian in a few miles. We quickly went through Rattlesnake Bar (mile 55.09) and then onto Horseshoe Bar (mile 57.02). A few hundred yards from Horseshoe Bar my phone rang. My crew members and the next pacer wanting to know how far I was. Rajeev Char handed the pacing reins to Arul and off I went into the dark with Arul and Jakob in tow.

I had traipsed into Horseshoe Bar with a 56 minutes advantage on the cutoff. I lost half of that in the next 5.86 miles! The trail to Twin Rocks was one of the lousiest trails I have ever negotiated. It had been bad in April, during my muddy AR50, and it was worse Saturday night! Footing was treacherous and I could not build up any kind of rhythm.

Along one of the smoother sections, we passed Barbara Elia who was doing her 300th ultra that day!

The Twin Rocks aid station (mile 62.88) could not come soon enough. I knew that the section back to the school was very smooth and would pick up my spirits again!

Sunday, Sep 24
Sure enough, I was back in groove, power walking with Arul and Jakob. Arul was quick enough to spot a 2.5-foot rattlesnake that was directly in my path, 5 feet ahead. Had I not been alerted, I think my race would have ended at mile 66. Another mile and we were making our way down the slope to the school.

I had another bottle of Ensure, got out of my shoes and into a fresh pair of socks and my running Tevas. Anil and I left the school around 1:05 a.m., 25 minutes ahead of the 1:30 a.m. cutoff.

A half mile up, I realized that the sandals would not cut it for 34 miles! Anil graciously offered his Brooks Addictions (same as mine but a half size larger) and was I glad that I took up his offer! The rest of the race was spent in relative comfort i.e. an almost pain-free right foot (loose shoes+Tylenol!).

Jakob had taken off ahead of us with his pacer.

A couple of miles out, we realized that we had missed a turnoff somewhere. Luckily we could see lights behind us, including Barb Elia’s green flashlight. We retraced our path and found the trail opening we had missed. We soon passed Barb and a few others and from there on, both Anil and I, especially Anil, were extra vigilant about trail ribbons and chalk marks.

We soon passed Folsom Dam Park (mile 70.08) and the Negro Bar (mile 72.83) aid stations. The next cutoff was Hazel Bluff, at 4:40 a.m.

3:50 a.m. saw me in a portable toilet, 1.8 miles from Hazel Bluff (mile 77.33). I was out by 3:58 and told Anil that we had to run in order to make the cutoff. Walking would not cut it. I led the way, flying down the trail at between 8-9 min/mile. About 10 minutes from the aid station, we spotted Don who informed us that the station was less than 10 minutes from where we were. I knew I would make the cutoff then! Incredibly Rajeev Char was there, just a few hours after pacing me. It looked like he did not get much sleep but had decided to come and cheer me! What amazing people!!

I was out of the aid station by 4:20 a.m. That meant that I had until 8:35 a.m. i.e. 255 minutes to cover the 12 miles out and back to Hazel Bluff. I walked the next section to the Willow Creek aid station (mile 80.79). We made it there by 5:20 a.m. I was starting to feel a bit nauseous by now and little did I know that it would get worse before it got better!

We were informed by the volunteers there that we had to make it to the turnaround point (at Mountain Lion Knoll, 2.86 miles away at mile 83.63) and back, a distance of 5.72 miles, by 7:00 a.m.! We passed Chihping on his way back to Willow Creek and he urged us to make the turnaround point as soon as possible. It was like someone had lit a fire under my butt.

I started running again and settled into a good rhythm. Anil and I made it to the turnaround point and back again to Willow Creek (mile 86.47) by 6:50 a.m.! On the way to Mt. Lion Knoll, we caught up with Jakob and his pacer. On the way back to Willow Creek, we hooked up with Carol Cuminale and her pacer, Karen Hanke.

My nausea was preventing me from eating or drinking anything. I subsisted on water only. At Willow Creek we met up with Arun Sharma, my next pacer. On the way back to Hazel Bluff, we caught up with Sarah Dillingham and her runner George Miller. Sarah gave me the “Magic Pill” i.e. Pepsid AC and that seemed to work for a while.

I finally made it back to Hazel Bluff (mile 89.93) by 7:45 a.m. i.e. a full 50 minutes before the final cutoff. I could relax now! This is where Anu, my final pacer, joined me for the trip back to the school. She carried a bottle from which I sipped flat Pepsi now and then.

All through the night I had been worried about Carmela’s progress and her cutoffs. Don had given me good news about her every time I asked him so I knew that she was making the cutoffs. I was happy for her. She was fighting as hard as anybody out there on the course and she deserved to triumph.

A few miles out of Hazel Bluff, Don and Carmela passed us. I was walking a lot by then. I was so overjoyed for Carmela. She looked like she had gotten her fourth or fifth wind and looked great when she passed us. She went on to finish in 28:36! Way to go Carmela!

Adding to my nausea was the slightly tender state of my right Achilles tendon. I pretty much power walked from Hazel Bluff to Folsom Dam Park (mile 97.18). I arrived at that last aid station, 3.1 miles from the Finish (at mile 100.28), at 10:04 a.m. I left it at 10:06 a.m. with my crew members urging me to try and break 29 hours!

I ran for a couple of hundred yards but felt that my Achilles was not responding as I would have liked it to. So I started walking. Walked the next 0.5 miles until we turned left onto a trail. This is where I decided to gave it a last shot. I changed my foot strike a bit, to more forefoot, and tried it for a few hundred yards. I felt good so I upped the speed and continued to run the next 0.75 miles with Anu behind me, hot on my heels. We soon espied Carol and Karen, walking up the slope leading to the levee. Anu and I soon passed them and started running again on the levee.

Having run on the levee for the Helen Klein 50 and during AR50, I knew the last part to the school like the back of my hand. I could see a curve up ahead beyond which I knew was the descent down to the school. I decided to walk for a couple of hundred yards before making the final push.

Just before the left turn down to the school, I looked at my watch. It read 28:36 (10:36 a.m.) I looked at Anu on my right and asked her “Do you think anything is going to prevent me from finishing in under 29 hours now?” and laughed. She laughed too. I said “Let’s go!” and took off like the proverbial hare.

The last 0.25 miles I covered at sub-7 pace. I burst past my crew members and past the race clock which recorded 28:43:43 as my finish time.

Anu followed me into the school and I looked at her and all my crew members behind her and I could not stop the tears. Tears of gratitude at having such loving friends. Tears of relief at having made the cutoffs. Tears at having arrived at the destination of a journey I had started a year ago.

Thanks to Norm, Helen and all the smiling volunteers for a fantastic race. Volunteers are the heart and soul of ultra-running.

(Chihping finished in 27:57. Carmela in 28:36, Carol in 28:47, Jakob in 28:54 and George Miller in 29:15. Amazing athletes all!!)

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

La Vita E Breva (Life Is Short)

"Life is short... running makes it seem longer." (Baron Hansen)

This journey of mine started many, many years ago. It will, hopefully, reach its first waypoint in 3 weeks.

I have always loved sports. In my pre-teen and teen years, I played cricket for my High School. I went on to represent my college and the first company I worked for. I captained my company's 'B' team in the cricket league in Muscat in 1993 and 1994. Ah! Those days!!

I finally quit smoking in Sep 1991 ("Sep 9th to be precise" as Thomson and Thomson, from the famous Tintin comics, would put it) and took up running in order to control weight gain. Those first few steps are shrouded in the mists of memory but I remember experiencing pain in my chest after only a quarter mile. The years of smoking had taken their toll on my lungs. I persisted for a few months before finally giving up, unable to conquer Anterior Tibial Stress Syndrome, the fancy medical term for pain in the front of my legs i.e. "shin splints".

I moved to Muscat, Oman in April 1992. I started running on the stretch of sand shown in the pictures below, as a way of warming up before getting into the water to swim.

The first photo is of the beach looking to the left while the other one faces to the right. The total width was not more than 0.2-0.3 miles. It eventually got to the point where my interest in swimming diminished and my need to run grew exponentially. I was soon running on the roads in Muscat, mainly in the evenings, right after work, around 6 p.m.

Those were heady days (not that it's not heady nowadays!). Discovering the "Runner's High" and not realizing that there were millions others around the world who were addicted to the same high. My eyes finally opened to the realization that there were many scores of others who experienced exactly what I felt when running after reading Jim Fixx's "The Complete Book Of Running". It was eerie how his description of what he felt while running matched mine completely.

I would be the only one running out there on those roads. This mania soon had me in its grip and I would run anywhere from 5-7 miles daily. For days on end. No thought of resting once a week. I remember one stretch where I insisted on running for almost 29 days straight before granting myself a day of inactivity.

My first race was a 5K on the Muscat Intercontinental Beach. I remember a short, thin young man doing 20m wind sprints before the start of the race. He went on to win it in 17 minutes or so. I probably took about 30 minutes to finish the race. My progress was rapid from there on out. I entered a couple of more races in Oman, including a 15K that I finished in 72 minutes, before returning to the US in Mar 1995.

I believe in my heart of hearts that I have more endurance than speed. Nothing over the past 15 years has even come close to making me doubt that belief. The Rio Del Lago 100, whether I finish the successfully or not, is a waypoint on this running journey.

I feel most alive when I run. The longer I run, the more I get in touch with my innermost fears, desires, strengths and weaknesses. I have never run more than 62 miles in one go. The last 38 miles will be fun to experience. Will I experience what so many others have? Intense self doubt? Intense desire to quit?

I hope I can conquer those demons of darkness and emerge into bright sunlight on the other side.

Am I nervous? Not even a little bit. Au contraire, I am champing at the bit. I want to take on this test of all tests, this beast of all beasts. A race that will test my will and determination and motivation and mettle and resolve and courage like no other.

As someone said about ultras - "They are where you reach down inside you for courage and discover that there is no end to it - your courage is limitless". I want to look into my ocean of courage and not be able to see bottom at all.

Do I have doubts that I may not finish? Am I not human? It is only the fool that feels no fear. Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the act of continuing despite fear. I am not scared of the distance. I am not scared of failure. I am only scared of having this chance taken away from me, either before the start or during the race, by an injury or a mishap. I am keeping my fingers crossed these last few weeks.

I've come a long way baby! (apologies to Virginia Slims)

"Some of the world's greatest feats were accomplished by people not smart enough to know they were impossible." (Doug Larson)

"Tough times don't last but tough people do." (A.C. Green)