“Your destination is on the right.”
No, its not, Google Maps, there is no destination on my right. Only a field, I think. I can’t see farther than 15 feet outside the car because I’m atop some random California mountain at 11 o’clock on a Saturday night. I forgot my wallet. I’m driving the car of someone I met only an hour ago. I’m from Alabama. I have a slight southern accent. There’s no way this gets explained if I get pulled over.
I’m alone, save for the small fox standing defiantly in the middle of the road staring at my car. I’ve no cell service. I’m in a Stephen King novel.
Funnily, this was not the first challenge of my weekend crewing and pacing at the Rio Del Lago 100. Just getting there was an adventure. Storms rolling across Texas diverted what should’ve been a quick flight from Birmingham to Dallas for the connection to SF. Our small commuter jet lacked sufficient fuel to circle Dallas awaiting for the airport to reopen after the storms, so we landed in Shreveport for what the pilot terms as a quick fuel grab. No deplaning, only fuel. Ninety minutes later we deplaned. Three hours after that we were back in the air each one of us fearing missed connections.
I grabbed a later flight from DFW in anticipation of a later arrival and thought I had pulled off an escape form travel nightmare alley when my later flight was canceled, having me stranded at DFW. Quick phone work while others were still stunned by the cancellation allowed me to grab the next available flight to San Francisco. The only problem was it departed the next morning at 7:15. I was stranded, along with hundreds of others who also had fallen victim to weather delays and cancellations.
The customer service line extended to Arkansas, it seemed. And I reasoned that had I even made the front of the line within an hour and secured hotel credit for a room for the night, there was no way I’d get more than 2 hours sleep before having to return to the airport for the flight. The smart play was to sleep at my departing terminal. Thankfully, the airline left cots and blankets strewn about the airport for anyone to use. I grabbed mine and settled in for a horrible night’s sleep with all the lights on and listening to the continuous loop of CNN airport news (CNN is pretty lame these days, but airport CNN is a whole new level of horrible) while fearing that I would awake totally naked, the victim of theft of all my bags and clothes as I slept.
The storms cleared, morning came, and my fight arrived in SF in mid morning, just in time for my friend Megan to pick me up, get her friend Dave, and travel to Folsom, California for the pre-race briefing and to set up our camp for the night.
After my night on the Dallas airport floor, exhausted from travel and stress, I saw sleeping in a tent with two other people on a cold California night as a treat. An early race start and the early Autumn darkness left us little to do that night other than sleep at 6:30. I mean, really, you can stare at a fire only for so long.
Crew life on a hundred mile race is at times equal amounts boredom and excitement. There’s the thrill of your runner arriving at an aid station and your crew snaps into support mode like a Formula One pit crew. Checking nutrition, racing to re-fill the hydration pack: “look out you jerks, I’m a crew member, gimme some water for my runner!” I felt like like Joan Cusack’s character in Broadcast News as she breathlessly delivers a news story videotape for the national news broadcast with seconds to spare.
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/58110822″>Broadcast News</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/tokman”>Anton Tokman</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
This is followed by the inevitable letdown as you runner moves on and you pack up and find some way to spend the next few hours as they move to the next aid station. The excitement fades and the boredom grows.
The day gives way to evening and darkness falls over crew life. Headlamps abound and one learns pretty quickly how to instinctively point the head away from the eyes of an oncoming runner or crew member lest you blind them with your beam. This is perhaps one of the more important pieces of new etiquette: don’t blind runners for crew members.
It was at one of those evening aid stations near Cool, California where the race took a three part loop around the same circuit that I ran into trail running royalty. I had just completed my first leg of pacing and had a few hours break before I was on again. As I walked to the car to get warm clothes for my downtime I ran across Gordy Ainshliegh. The man who essentially created 100 mile races.
Few ultra runners are unaware of the legend of Gordy Ainsleigh. In 1974 prepared to ride the Western States Trail Ride, his horse went lame. Nonplussed, Ainsleigh decided to run the rugged course that spans 100 miles from squaw valley ski resort to Auburn, California. He completed the run in under 24 hours and thus began the Western States endurance run. No slow ultra runner, Ainsleigh once ran a 2:52 marathon while weighing over 200 lbs.
Ainsleigh is considered the grandfather of ultra runner and has assumed a cult like status among those who gravitate toward long days on the trial. So it was a bit of a shock when I found him wearing ragged sweats and hoodie, casually sipping coffee, and hanging out with a cop who was guarding an entrance gate to aid station parking. I introduce myself and told him that it was my honor to meet the man who invented Western States, “I’m glad you’re happy that I made my run. It worked out well,” He said.
He winked and told me that the greatest benefit its that he can travel all over and run for free in any race he wants or just hang around to absorb the atmosphere. He didn’t say it, but I suspect he also enjoys the constant adulation.
I had just registered for my first 100 miler, I told him. “Do you have any advice or training tips.” I asked.
“How many fifties have you run?”
“None,” I explained, “but I have a tough 46 miler next month.”
“You’re running the 100 too early,” he remarked flatly.
“Take a year. Don’t run long on consecutive weekends. You’re no spring chicken. How old are you?”
“Oh yeah. Don’t run two days in a row. Only do long runs every two weeks,” he prescribed.
“So,” I asked, “by long you mean like 30 miles?”
“Fifty,” he corrected.
“A fifty mile run every two weeks for a year?” I asked, praying that I had heard wrong.
“Yep. Run long every two weeks. 50 miles. Do this for a year and you’ll be ready,” he said with no hint of humor. I waited for a smile or a giggle or some indication that this was a joke.
I’m no spring chicken to be sure, but if I took a year to run 50 miles 26 times over the span of 52 weeks, I’d surely have no spring in my step. I thanked him for the advice, shook his hand, and went on my way to rest and refuel for my next pacing segment while I pondered the unique allure of this trail running legend.
After Megan and Keith had finished their Cool, California loops and ended to the next aid station (get name), Eric and I started our journey to meet them. Eric was in his car and I, at the request of Keith, who was pacing Megan and would go home from the next stop, asked me to drive his car from Cool to Rattlesnake Bar so he could leave for home soon after finishing.
There is more than one Rattlesnake Bar in google maps. Google maps took me to the loneliest place it could find, atop a small mountain 25 miles in the opposite direction of the Rattlesnake Bar I wanted to reach. I knew something was wrong when the terrain became increasingly desolate but I kept the Google faith. Maybe Google knows what it is doing, I thought. Maybe there’s a magical short route it is taking me on. Maybe I won’t find myself in Folsom prison hoping for my own Johnny Cash concert one day.
Alas, Google failed me. I texted Eric when I had cell reception and he sent me a dropped pin so I could navigate my way out of the wilderness. What should have been a 25 minute drive had gone on for close to ninety minutes and more than a fair share of nervous sweat. Thank goodness I was in a Prius with a fun tank of gas and a full battery. I figured I could survive for a few days before search parties found my Fox-eaten body still behind the wheel.
I made it to the aid station, slept in the back of the Prius for an hour or so, and met Megan to pace her to the finish.
She finished strong, under 25 hours for her first hundred. We joked with her after the trace that she hardly needed pacers, she didn’t have a dark moment in the race, and she had to push us to go faster as she reached her peak near the end of the race. I’m just glad I lived through my lost world Fox encounter to applaud her finish.
1) Gordy Ainsleigh wants me to die while training for a 100 miler
2) If you find yourself on a desolate road late at night and the only creature you see is a Fox staring at you, then you are most definitely lost
3) Do not fly to Dallas if there’s the threat of any type pf weather other than sunshine and no wind. That place shuts down
4) The Shreveport airport has no capacity to feed, house, and service three-to -four diverted flights. I pitied those poor cafe workers.
5) Airport livin’ isn’t a barrel of monkeys. The weirdest thing is that I felt like those folks who didn’t sleep through the night were watching those of us who did. Eh, I got the willies thinking about that.
6)Putting contact lenses in your eyes at midnight in the back of a Prius using a one inch mirror and a headlamp is a skill only the best of us possess.