The Longest Day - Page 2
Women's winner Anita Ortiz of Eagle, Colorado, in her astounding 100-miler debut. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.
I launch myself into the Cal Loop (so named because it starts on California Street in Foresthill), 16 miles of trail leading down to the Rucky Chucky river crossing at mile 78. This is where the race is supposed to start (according to my now long-forgotten race plan), but I know that the last 38 miles of this race are going to be a brutal gut check. I’m running in third place at Western States, but that is far from my mind right now.
Every time I’m on the shady side of a ravine, I can run OK. When I hit the exposed sunny sections, the heat hits me like a brick wall. It is over 100 degrees, and my quads hurt so much that the only thing that even makes the pain bearable is pouring ice water (which I can ill afford to spare) on them. This was part of the race where I wanted to fly, but I’m wobbling. I run a just-fair 2:43 Cal Loop.
Leigh gets lost just before Ford’s Bar, so only beats me to the river by a few minutes (and stops to change his shoes on the other side, after which I never see him again). But Kaburaki and Jez Bragg, a stellar young trail runner from the UK, and Kevin Sullivan, a completely unknown quantity from Massachusetts who clearly knows what he’s doing, all run very well on this section, and, as I later learn, cut 10 to 15 minutes out of my lead, completely erasing any cushion I had on my pursuers.
As I start across the river, hand over-handing across a rope in shoulder-deep water, I see Leigh ahead of me just exiting the river, and three runners nearly in the river behind me. As it turns out, there are five of us crossing the river within a few minutes, and four of us in the water at once. The spectators are going nuts. The race is on.
The Home Stretch
As expected, the river crossing rejuvenates me—for all of about 10 minutes, until I overheat running up to Green Gate. I run most of it, but not as fast as I had envisioned, then hit my least favorite part of the course. The terrain is comparatively easy from here to Brown’s Bar, but is mind-numbingly monotonous, following a relatively flat trail that winds in and out of small ravines, every bend looking exactly like the one before it. And every easy little bit that I can’t run well is a nagging reminder of my failing condition.
Even so, somehow I’m running in second place at Western States. This does not last long. Kaburaki and Sullivan pass me like my feet are stuck in mud, and I go from M2 to M4 in about 10 minutes. Discouraged, I hope only to hold onto a top-10 position.
I am about seven minutes off of my desired split into the Auburn Lake Trails aid station, located on a dusty bend of the road in the middle of nowhere, and another six minutes off into Brown’s Bar, a peculiar aid station run by local hashers who look at the race as a perfect excuse for a raucous party.
Those 10 miles kill me. As it turns out, though, M2 through M5 are all within about 10 minutes for this whole interval. No doubt we are all fighting our own demons through this section.
At Brown’s Bar, the sun is finally disappearing over the hill, and I let loose and trust gravity to carry me down the steep, rocky hill to Quarry Road. Surprisingly, when I hit the bottom I see Sullivan rounding the corner just ahead, despite the fact that he had at least five minutes on me at Brown’s Bar. I surmise that his quads are shot, and that if I can catch him by Highway 49, I might have a chance to edge him out. I summon the will to run—hard.
We both run pretty much every step up a tough climb to 49, and I come into the aid station about a minute behind Sullivan. And, to my unending surprise, Kaburaki is in the aid station as well. We’re out of there in a hurry, with Kaburaki and Sullivan and their pacers jockeying, and me alone about 20 yards behind. We’re tightly packed all the way up to a lush meadow at the top of a rocky climb, which signals the start of the final downhill of the race, then Kaburaki puts the hammer down and is gone.
When we hit the downhills I catch Sullivan. I flip my lights on after a half mile or so, and do some of the best tired running of my life down to the river, but don’t even catch sight of Kaburaki. Crossing the famous No Hands Bridge, with just over three miles to the finish, I start to get a bit paranoid about Sullivan making a push and catching me on the final climb, so I turn my light off and run by the moonlight for about a mile.
Finally, I get to the climb up to Robie Point, the last aid station, and have to turn on my light. I remember reading another WS contestant Andy Jones-Wilkins’ insightful and often hilarious blog before the race, where he relayed advice from Tom Nielsen, one of the most experienced and accomplished runners around, that, “In the end, you need to race every step like there’s someone three minutes ahead of you and someone three minutes behind you.”
Sure enough, a light appears behind me. I expect it is Sullivan, and hurl myself up the hill. I am running really hard, stronger than I feel should be possible at this point in a 100-mile race. But the man behind me is stronger still. It turns out it’s not Sullivan, but rather Jez Bragg, and he passes me doing about seven-minute miles up the steep road out of Robie. I stick with him for about 200 yards and then I am done. I tell him nice job, and let off the gas before the carburetor explodes. At the finish, Jez actually apologizes for passing me so late in the race, but I don’t begrudge him. He is clearly stronger than I am, and has earned his finishing place.
I run the final 1.3 miles of paved road through the town of Auburn to the Placer High School stadium, and lay down what feel like is a 50-second 300-meter finishing sprint around the track (video evidence on YouTube will prove that I was quite a bit slower than that). Unlike the other three guys in my finishing pack, I don’t break down crying and mumbling incoherently in Japanese, or cheer and jump around wildly and hug people, or sprint madly around my little daughter to the finishing line trying to break 17 hours. All of us deserve to celebrate (and Kevin tells me later that his daughter forgave him immediately), but for some reason I just don’t feel much emotion.
Even now, almost a month later, I feel strangely numb about the whole experience. All I know is that I ran my absolute hardest and never let up for almost 17 hours, and that has to be worth something.
In the end, the top five were Koerner (16:25), Kaburaki (16:52), Bragg (16:54), Halekas (16:56), Sullivan (16:59). My Patagonia teammate Hal Koerner brought it with a vengeance, defended his title and is clearly the man at the 100-mile distance. The rest of us had a battle for the ages, and forged new bonds of respect and friendship from the shared experience.
Will I be back? During the race, I swore to myself that I would never put myself through such torture again. But we know how those sorts of vows tend to end up ...
Jasper Halekas is a space physicist at the University of California Berkeley. He accidentally started running six years ago, and hasn’t been able to stop since.