Summer Vacation - Page 3
Cox and Gates out for an evening spin up Sentinel Dome, Yosemite Valley. Photo by David Clifford.
The night before Western (as it’s known to the ultra crowd), the Salomon running team was gathered in a room shoveling down pasta. Having never paced anyone before and this being a race that prohibits muling (the carrying of water or food for a racer), I asked Kilian what, exactly, he expected of me.
“Nada,” he said. “Compania, no más.”
Three weeks ago he crossed the Pyrenees, coast to coast, in eight days. I asked how it was and he says, “So beautiful.” He was otherwise quiet. Something told me he didn’t even need the company.
Glen Redpath, Kilian’s antithesis, was also sitting at the table talking about just about everything so as to not waste an exhale on silence. He gave me the history of Western— something about a man without a horse. He told me the same thing I had heard over and over again for the past couple days. “Western isn’t an ultra, it is the ultra.” I asked why and he immediately responded, “Because it’s the oldest. It has tradition.”
He told me more stories. Legends of the Trail. Some old hippy named Cowman A-Moo-Ha who won the race in 1976, beating an entire field of … actually he was the only competitor that year. Glen told me that there would be 1500 volunteers for fewer than 500 runners, a third of whom, statistically, would not finish.
“When are you going to stop running those short races, anyway?” he asked me.
He was taunting me. Since when was 10 miles, 15 miles, heck, a marathon! considered short? I thought to myself. “You’re crazy,” I said.
Martin was practicing restraint, refraining from interjecting his opinion between bites of pasta. He has defended mountain running against the artillery of the ultrarunner before—this ultra-ego that compels one to tuck the front of a casual t-shirt into a pair of shorts to blatantly display an oversized, 24-hour belt buckle. After his final bite of pasta Martin couldn’t hold back any longer.
“Get off your horse and drink your milk!” he blurted out at Glen. Everybody stared at him in confusion. Despite his biases, Martin has agreed to pace a runner whom he’s never met through the same 18-mile section. He returns for another plate of pasta.
By mile 64, Tony Krupicka and his pacer Joe Grant caught back up with Kilian and me. Tony looks like he’s running on a fresh pair of legs, which, over the years, I’ve learned to be the by-product of impeccable running form and not necessarily an indication of feeling great this far into a race. Kilian let them pass for the lead but didn’t let them pull too far ahead. I heard Joe and Tony talking and wondered if we should be talking. Was that part of my job as a pacer? I hadn’t come prepared with any dialogue.
“Como estás, Killian?” I said.
“Calor,” he replied.
I told him a joke about the Englishman, the Frenchman and bubble gum.
“Ha,” he said.
Power hiking the uphills. Cranking the downhills. No water bottle. At every aid station spectators, course officials and medics asked about his lack of water bottle. An old woman at the Foresthill aid station where I began pacing Kilian begged me to convince him to take water. But he would have nothing to do with it. He was accustomed to going light. Very light. At the first stream we passed he kneeled and drank deeply. I immediately thought of cows. Maybe he has a tougher stomach than I. Tony wet his hair and maintained the lead.
We had descended to a consistent contour 300 feet up from the American River where the temperature was above 90 and the shrubs offered little shade. Joe noticed at about the same time I did that these two guys were fueling off of each other and we were better off out of their way. Dropping back, we let the two of them lead and watched them go after each other like 13th-round welterweight boxers. Kilian led then Tony led and despite the heat of the canyon the pace increased ever so slightly every mile.
Around the bends I began to notice Kilian peering ahead at the river. He’s looking for the Rucky Chucky water crossing, I thought. The point from which everything changes. I wondered if Tony had picked up on Kilian’s slight glances of desperation. If he was in the same need for nutrients and a cold dip in the river as Kilian, he was not showing it. Joe turned to me around mile 76 with marvel in his eyes, saying, “These guys are sick!” For these last few miles to the river crossing I felt that my role as a pacer was replaced with that of a witness.
When we arrived at Rucky Chucky, Kilian weighed in at 135 pounds: 10 pounds less than yesterday’s weigh-in. Due to high waters the four of us were rowed across the river in a raft rather than wading through the water as per tradition. Having run together for 80 miles, the two of them were forced to sit side by side as the raft moved gently across the river. I thought of two welterweights sharing a stool in the same corner. The situation was subtly tense as I imagine the two of them wanting the boat to simultaneously hurry up and slow down.
When we reached the opposite side Kilian collapsed in a chair next to the food station and it became obvious that he was nearly done for. “You’re looking good,” I said. I ran with him for the next mile, then Jorge Pacheco took over as his pacer. I felt bad for Kilian, but equally bad for Jorge, because if Kilian crashed, there would be nothing he could do.
By the time I arrived at the finish line in Auburn, Kilian and Tony were lying on cots in the medical tent and Geoff Roes was at the center of a large group of people, breaking the race down mile by mile, aid station to aid station. While Kilian and Tony were duking it out, Geoff was shadowboxing in a separate corner, out of sight and out of mind. He caught Killian shortly after Rucky Chucky, and at mile 88 passed Tony. He put six minutes on Tony and nearly an hour on Kilian by the finish. With a time of 15:07, Geoff broke Scott Jurek’s record by nearly half an hour.
Martin arrived in Auburn several hours later, wearing nothing but a singlet and running shorts. His distaste for the sport had only increased as he waited for his runner at Forest Hill for several hours before learning he had dropped out 30 miles earlier.
Five days passed since Martin and I steered a puttering and dying Orange into a mechanic’s junkyard garage filled with melancholy in Stockton, California. Since then, all of our running miles (80 for Martin, 60 for me) had been along the mile-long promenade lining the canal cutting into Stockton from the San Francisco harbor. At night, the mechanic lowered Orange off the lift and helped us wheel her out into the yard where the skeletons of old bugs and busses rested on deflated tires. “Project” was written on the windshields of many of them and others simply didn’t have windshields. Martin and I made up our beds and tried to sleep through the industrial howl of the Stockton night.
An undeniable tension was mounting between us caused primarily by a closer-than-marriage proximity. We had been thrashing each other silently on our runs, which is not a sustainable form of therapy. When we weren’t running, we were drinking coffee at different Starbucks. Conversation had all but seized.
As we were jogging back into the shop from the downtown canal, the mechanic shuffled over to us and showed us a Dixie cup with exhausted oil flecked with flakes of gold.
“Brass actually,” the mechanic said. “Not a good thing to have in your engine. Then like a true thespian, he folded his hands together and closed his eyes: “It’s gonna be a couple more days.”
Martin boarded the next train to Colorado. For the next few days I sat and listened to stories while the mechanic pulled bits and pieces off of different engines throughout the lot and fastened them to Orange’s engine. At a certain point, I began to suspect that he was not fixing the engine at all but rather taking advantage of a captive audience. Towards the evening of the seventh day he started telling me about cannonballing, “Like in the movie, you know, Cannonball Run. Point to point as fast as you can.”
He told me about when he cannonballed his 1964 VW Bus from Santa Cruz to Las Vegas —just over 500 miles in 9 hours 27 minutes, which is about 55 miles per hour.
“At one point I was going as fast as the engine could handle when I spotted a cop up ahead at a speed trap. As I was about to slam on the brakes I noticed that I was actually driving four miles per hour below the speed limit.” He laughed heartily.
“Most people don’t understand the appeal of driving such a slow car for so long,” he started to explain. “But, when you think about it, it’s not that different from pushing the human body.” He started comparing the two. We’re both air-cooled. We’re both pretty slow on the grand scheme of things. We both have an engine that, simple as it may be, needs constant attention and a good understanding of its workings. But lastly,” he added, “it’s a tangible endeavor. At the end of one of those long days, you can look at a map and know that a small portion of the world has passed beneath you and that you earned it.”
That’s when I started to understand ultrarunning.
Rickey and Orange made the 937-mile trip from Stockton to Woody Creek, Colorado, in 23 hours 47 minutes. He is still awaiting his belt buckle.