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Road tripping, a VW Microbus, a veteran Brit mountain runner and trail running and racing across the United States

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Cox and Gates air cooling in the VW. Photo by Rickey Gates.

This article appeared in our November 2010 issue.

By the two-mile mark, Erik Blake and a guy I’ve never seen before have pulled far ahead of the pack. Joe Gray is still within reach and the sounds of breathing and feet are heavy behind me. So many. I refuse to look back this early in the race. It’s a sign of weakness. The air is heavy. My legs are heavy. What’s gone wrong?

My mind leaves Mount Washington. New Hampshire. America. Am I not stronger than last year? Is everybody faster? Are we all going to break an hour this year? It feels too slow. Max King pulls up beside me, takes the lead for a stint then pulls back. I thought he was going to be taller. Max King. Like six foot five. I recall pictures I’ve seen of him on his way to winning the Xterra World Championships. Maybe this is a different Max King. He begins creeping away again, before I reel my mind back in.

Forefoot. Forefoot. Forefoot. Heel. Heel. Heel. I’ve been practicing this, switching back and forth. Sometimes, to really mix it up, I throw in a couple mid-foot strikes. I’ve come to think of them as different gears that have a time and a place, a speed and a grade.

Why then, with all of these gears, are those guys still pulling away from me?

***

In 2009, while racing my third summer in Europe, I had convinced British mountain runner Martin Cox to come to the States for the 2010 summer. Martin and I were in Chamonix at a bar that served Guinness when I told him about my plan. We’d drive around in my orange, 1974 Volkswagen bus, named “Orange,” from race to race and trail to trail. I told him about its bamboo floors and Louis Vuitton fabric-covered walls. I told Martin—a great lover of music—about its sound system with 10-inch subwoofers. I suggested a road trip from the Rockies to the Grand Canyon, on to Death Valley and north through the Sierras, Yosemite, the Cascades and into Canada before dropping back down into Montana, the Tetons and Colorado. He finished his beer and tentatively agreed.

Today he is behind me, fighting his own battle up Mount Washington. Today, having turned 40 in December, Martin had entered the master’s division, and a month ago had arrived in Denver after a spring road-running season that included a 14:11 5K road race, a time that would have set a new American master’s record. He promptly won the master’s title at one of America’s largest road races: the Boulder Bolder 10K in Colorado. Then, we hopped a plane for Mount Washington, before embarking on our road trip.

***

For over 100 years, ascending the Mount Washington road has been one of the greatest tests for an automobile. In more recent years, it has become the greatest test for a mountain runner. Not because it is the biggest or the meanest—with its feet in the swamps and its head in the clouds, it is both big and mean—but rather because it is the most consistent. Unrelenting, everybody always says. Sine quies. And, in spite of the 12-percent grade, a mostly paved and non-technical surface makes it a level playing field for road runners and mountain runners to meet.

Moments before the black-powder canon sets the race in motion, race director Bob Teschek warns the field with a hint of New England facetiousness that it’s “only one hill.” In his 29 years as race director he has seen dozens of elite runners humbled by this hill, the Everest of the East. With the exception of the first quarter mile, there is never a flat bit. There are sections that settle down from a 12-percent grade to an eight-percent grade, but there is never a true reprieve. Consequently, Mount Washington is to the sport of mountain running what Bonneville is to drag racers. It is honest.  It is where you go to face all competition, past, present and future.

And as for competition, both Teschek and the elite-athlete coordinator, John Stifler, are credited with assembling some of the world’s best mountain and road runners. “I put lots of energy into getting the best runners to the race so we have a great event up front as well as in the trenches,” Teschek told me. For this reason, there hasn’t been a single American mountain race as deeply competitive as the Mount Washington Road Race in the past decade. In addition to lucrative incentives for finishing well ($2000 for the win) and breaking records ($5000 for the course record and $2000 for the master’s record), Teschek has involved the surrounding communities by offering home stays for elite runners.

***

A knee injury has kept one of America’s most prolific runners, Simon Gutierrez, from pursuing an 11th top-10 finish and a spot on what would have been his eighth U.S. Mountain Running Team at Mount Washington this year. It hasn’t, however, kept him off the course. He leans his clean-shaved and well-tanned head out the back of one of several press cars that leapfrog at the front of the rapidly advancing race and tells me my split. “20:43, Rickey.” He can see by looking at my eyes that I am not here. “Stay focused!”

Though Joe still appears close, Simon informs me that he is, in fact, 30 seconds ahead and I’m cruelly reminded that nothing is close at this grade. Blake and the guy-I’ve-never-seen are two minutes ahead. Simon must have seen the despair in my eyes because he’s now telling me the oldest white lie in the history of mankind. “Looking good, Rickey.” It was the lie that was told to Caesar on the cold, Senate floor. To Tom Simpson on the calescent, July flanks of Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour du France.

Max drops back another couple of feet at the halfway point. I check my watch. 29:34.  What did I run last year? 29 something? 30? Why do I wear a watch if I can’t remember a split when it really counts? I look back to take inventory of the field and find a half dozen guys within reach and another half a dozen just behind them. But no Martin. He’s supposed to be up here with me, beating the master’s record …  Simon’s master’s record.  We need that $2000 for gas money.

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Cox relishing Death Valley’s 120-degree heat. Photo by Rickey Gates.

Simon gave Martin all the information he would need to break Mount Washington’s master’s record. Martin has the exact splits—when to be where at which mile—written on the back of his hand.  For the past two days they’ve been discussing race strategy over bowls of pasta and pints of beer. Which mile is the longest? Which is the fastest? Simon can’t race for the first time since 1981, and he is giving away critical advice on how to take his own record down. “Martin is such an icon in the sport of mountain running,” said Simon when I asked why he was helping Martin remove his name from the record book. “It would be an honor to have my record broken by his Royalness.” I begin to suspect he’d be helping Martin even if he were racing.

From there to the finish, nothing changed. I never caught Joe, Max never caught me and Martin never appeared. When he finally appeared at the finish, out of the top 10 and several minutes behind Simon’s record, I waited for one of the few excuses that have followed his occasional shortcomings over the past two decades—poorly marked course, bad race management, blood dopers or a mysterious injury in his left calf. Regardless of the reason for his failure, you could always count on a drawn-out and colorful recap of the race—the further back he finishes, the brighter the story. Finishing behind the first woman or dropping out completely yielded Nobel prize literature. He rubbed his calf, implying that excuse.

Though noticeably disappointed, Martin took it in stride, as we descended the mountain via the infamous Tuckerman’s Ravine.

***

An early morning flight from Boston got us to Boulder, then we drove to my sister’s wedding in Albuquerque, arriving an hour before, “I do.”

We drove all the next day to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, me at the wheel and Martin riding shotgun. A sizeable crack across the windshield obscured my line of sight and had me either sitting up extra straight and proper or slouching down low. Martin was in charge of music, as he doesn’t know how to drive and is determined not to learn. When I asked why, he responded with what sounded like a statement of fact rather than boasting: “I don’t need to drive. I run like the wind.” Along the way, Martin made clear his few requests for this road trip.

“I want a trucker’s tan.”

“You’re the navigator. It’ll be on your right arm. A true trucker’s tan is on your left arm.”

“Not in England,” he reminded me. “Also, I want to eat at one of those restaurants where you can eat and eat. And a bear.”

“You want to eat a bear?”

“No. I’d fancy seeing one, though,” he said. “Will there be bears in the Grand Canyon?”

We camped in a parking lot on the south rim and set off the next morning down the Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River. A few hours and 16 miles later, as the thermometer approached triple digits, we crested the rim of the canyon at the South Kaibab trailhead. Later that day, in need of a few more miles, Martin ran past the miles of traffic build up on the Hoover Dam while I sat behind the wheel. We pulled into a casino on the outskirts of Las Vegas in time to take advantage of an all-you-can-eat buffet.

On our way out, Martin suggested that I update my Facebook profile: mt.wash=>boston=>alb=>gcanyon=>vegas=>dthvalley. He doesn’t participate in the Facebook culture joking that it is like “one big cyber heaven where you have 294 friends and they don’t mind if you write on their walls.”

On the outskirts of Death Valley, we slept in late and lingered over coffee. Just before noon, the thermometer bumped 110 in the shade. Here, in the Badwater Basin at the base of Death Valley, 282 feet below sea level, shade is artificial, found in the outhouse, beneath cars and under shoes. Everything else is cooking in the afternoon 123-degree sun.

From the parking lot on the east side of Death Valley, a run across the Badwater salt flat to the west side of the valley appeared to be a 15-minute jaunt. If we got back here in half an hour, we could refill my two eight-ounce water bottles before shooting across again to get in an hour of running. As we set off, the salt crunched beneath our feet like corn flakes.

Martin enjoys this sort of suffering for the same reason that he loves running—it is simple and pure. While I was trying to think of things other than convection ovens, saunas and engine rooms, Martin playfully mimicked the gait of a fellow fell (British for hills) runner from the UK. I was supposed to guess who he was imitating. “John Fulton,” I said. It’s always John Fulton. He then slowed to a shuffle and extends his arms out ahead of him like a zombie.

“An ultrarunner,” I said.

“Very good,” Martin replied.

Outwardly, Martin displays a distaste for ultrarunners, mocking the gear they carry, the pace they run and the food they eat. Inwardly, though, he is as fascinated by the sport as I am. The biggest question of ours being, “Why?” Few mountains in the world require more than a few hours to ascend. So why run for 20, 30, heck, 40! hours at a time? What happened to the classic 90-minute training run? How come these people can’t be content with a good ole fashioned race to the top of the mountain? There’s beer up there, ya know. And you’ll still have the rest of the day! You’ll actually be able to run tomorrow!

Back in the UK, Martin had watched a documentary on the Badwater Ultramarathon, then read Christopher McDougall’s recent hit, Born to Run. Subsequently, it was his idea to run across the Badwater Basin. Not mine. I began to gather that the Badwater Basin is a Mecca, of sorts, for the seekers of suffering. Because of the heat, altitude gain or sheer distance (135 miles) the race represents the ultimate ultra not only to Martin but many ultrarunners as well.

“That’s the point isn’t it?  To suffer?” he asked. “At a certain point,” Martin explained, “running ceases to be about running anymore and becomes, quite simply, a means to an end.”

“And what end might that be?” I asked.

“For some, it’s endorphins. For others, it’s simply the act of going fast. For ultrarunners, I’m convinced, it’s suffering. Suffering can teach you more about yourself than a psychiatrist.”

We had been crossing the basin at a swift pace for 30 minutes. The surface lost its charm as the salt flakes morphed into serrated plates and I was forced to look down at the blinding whiteness to avoid tripping. I embraced a cloud of dizziness, thinking of how many awful stories must begin with this same cloud of dizziness. I told Martin that I needed to head back.

Martin returned to Orange half an hour behind me. He was noticeably darker in color, drenched in sweat and grinning from ear to ear. He said he got close to the other side but turned back because it could have been another five minutes, or just as easily another 15 minutes—a dangerous difference in this heat.

***

As we continued north on 395, I peered through the windshield at the road up ahead with Squaw Valley as our destination. In a few days, I would be pacing a young Spaniard, Kilian Jornet, in the Western States 100. My 18-mile section would be from miles 62 to 80, otherwise known as Foresthill to Greengate. Over the past few years, Kilian has run his way to the top of the mountain and ultrarunning circuits throughout the Alps. At the age of 20, he broke the 104-mile-long Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc record by nearly an hour. In the two years since then, he has netted course records for the crossing of Corsica, the Pyrenees and the Tahoe Rim Trail.

In August of 2009 I raced Kilian at the 36th edition of the legendary Sierre-Zinal in Switzerland. In a race that frequently has Olympians and sub-2:12 marathoners toeing the line, I was elated but nervous to be in the lead group. An hour into the race, Kilian turned to me and casually asked about the rest of the course. The calmness with which he spoke made me question if he had run the same 5000 vertical feet that I had just run. I shook my head, which was the last bit of excess energy I could muster to answer him. When our mutual sponsor Salomon asked me to pace Killian for one of the final sections of the Western States 100, I immediately agreed.

As we approached Lake Tahoe we passed a car pulled over by a state patrol. In a practiced John Wayne-English accent Martin said, “Excuse me, sir! Please step out of the car and put your hands on the bonnet.” He then added the non-sensical line, “Sir! Get off your horse and drink your milk.”

Martin swapped out Vampire Weekend for the Beta Band and turned up the volume. Looking out the window he asked if we could go search for Fredo in Lake Tahoe.

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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.

Awkward silence.

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.