The usual woodsy sounds permeate into my consciousness here and there. But the primary noise, booming inside my head, is that of my own breathing. And behind that: the eternal sound of feet, hitting the pavement from the beginning of time… running.
In my right (or sometimes my left) hand I am carrying a water bottle with a strap that fits around the back of my palm. Stashed into my shorts-pockets are two power-gels, a zone bar, five aspirins, and some toilet paper. There’s another full bottle of water securely strapped above my butt.
Behind me also – stretching into the fogs of a prehistoric Friday – are 35 miles of running. Ahead, carrying me – far beyond the vanishing point on the road – into an indistinct Sunday, there are 45 more miles, give or take a couple of hundred yards.
My right foot hurts. My right knee hurts. Running on the slightly – but always – angled left shoulder of the road will eventually reduce a grown man to tears, if he does it long enough. Well, maybe not to tears, but evidently to limping.
My neck hurts. In the front of my running singlet a dark patch grows: scabby blood from a nipple rubbed raw. There is no civilized reason for the stupid grin on my face, but on I grin, and run.
Bleeding raw skin and screeching joints; is this what the world of ultra-marathon running is always like? Everything I ever dreamed it would be and more.
But I’m not even – properly speaking – a marathon runner. Between my first and my second marathons, there was a ten year resting period. Then I decided to pick up the pace.
Here – in the middle of my fourth marathon the day after completing my third – is where that has gotten me. Tomorrow, if I finish this silly little thing I’ve gotten myself into, I just might be able to claim – much to the confusion of whomever I make the claim to – that between my third and my fifth marathons there were only seventy-two hours.
This is the Lake Tahoe Ultra-marathon. I came upon it while idly internet searching for some new quest. I must admit I am an unsteady adventurer. I sometimes go months, even years, without seriously risking life or limb.
Yet recently I’ve been restless; by my standards anyway. Last year I joined a throng of rubberized human beings in “escaping” from Alcatraz. And earlier this year I ran the Big Sur Marathon (that was my second marathon ever), and in August I climbed Mount Shasta. Perched atop the 14,162 ft summit I called Mom, Dad, and my girlfriend relishing with childish anticipation my opening line: “Guess where I am?” I think I have too much free time.
But do the last few lines stink of self-adulation? If so, let me humbly confess – in counter-stink fashion – that I am a most unremarkable athlete; occasionally even a whuz.
The truth though, is that you don’t have to be particularly tough, nor steely-muscled to do these things. Take my girlfriend Carrie Ann, for instance. She will never run a race like this (nor for that matter, a race of any kind. I have seen her running on only two occasions, and on one of them a swarm of angry yellow-jacket wasps played a definitive role).
But my point is that she could run a marathon. It is neither physics nor physiology that stands in her way. The one and only reason why she – and most of humanity – will never do anything of this sort is that they simply can’t come up with one good reason for it. So, you see, it is incomprehension – not weak bodies – that keeps the masses safe from triathloning, mountaineering, ultra-marathoning, and all that.
And I can’t help them because, I must admit, logic is not on my side. Why would anyone – after all – want to get up at five in the morning the day after he (or she) ran a marathon – muscles clogged full of lactic acid – so he (or she) could run another one? It’s cool, I say. It even sounds cool: Ultra.
An ultra-marathon is by definition, any foot race longer than 26.3 miles. So you have your fifty k’s, your fifty-milers, your hundred k’s and your hundred milers (It does not, of course, end there).
On a hundred-miler you will start running before sunrise one day and run until after sunrise, the next day. After twenty hours of running you will – I am told – come smack-up against some respectably-sized hallucinations once night falls and you are still a good marathon or two away from the finish line. Doesn’t that sound cool as hell? It does to me.
The Lake Tahoe Ultra is not – like those fifty k’s and hundred milers – a one shot deal. Rather it consists of running the circumference of the lake by means of completing three marathons in three days. On the last day the fifty ultra-runners join a few thousand others who are partaking of any of the slightly more popular races: Tahoe Marathon, Half marathon, 10k, Fun Run, Fun Walk, Fun Crawl, or whatever.
In between marathons, you are free to go to your comfy motel room where you can carefully ease yourself into a soft bed, or a hot bath. So this race doesn’t exactly fit the format of an Ultra-marathon. But that is what they – whoever they are – call it. And this is fine by me.
It is also – and I think am being perfectly objective here – a bargain. Consider this. Running the Big Sur marathon cost me about a hundred bucks. From which hundred bucks I got a marathon to run, a t-shirt to wear, and a clay medal (somebody must have thought this was a neat idea) to loose. Worth every cent, don’t get me wrong.
But here is what I got at Tahoe: First, a free – if smallish – pasta dinner (Oh, what am I saying, it was tiny, but still, it was free); second, a nice running singlet (purple, but nice); third an ultra-finisher plaque; fourth, a marathon-finisher medal (not that I care, but one made out of shiny metal); fifth, an ultra-finisher hooded-sweatshirt, sixth, a marathon on Friday; seventh, a marathon on Saturday; and eighth, a marathon on Sunday; all that for $175.
And even though Big Sur may well be – as they claim – the most beautiful marathon in the land; I am witness to the fact that all three days of running in Tahoe are every bit as stupid-grin inducing (provided you – like me – respond in the same incomprehensible manner to the sight of a thin line of runners stretching upward for miles, whilst all about you Nature unabashedly shows-off).
I signed up almost as soon as I learned of the race’s existence. After all, there were only fifty slots, and some twenty were already taken. I sent my check anxious that it would arrive before the hundreds of already inbound-rushing checks. I over-worried a bit; the last entrant signed up the day before the race.
My so called friends argued with me. “There is no way you can justify this in terms of health benefits” one of them put in. And the old “don’t you want to have healthy knees when you are sixty, so you can play with your grandchildren?” was also dragged to the surface.
Yeah, hmmm, well… but it will be so cool!
Besides, I don’t run for health. I run because it is fun. And it is fun because it hurts. For some reason, from the vantage point of pain and exhaustion, things like breathing, feeling the sun on my skin, listening to my feet hitting the road, and looking at the mountain stretch below (and above) seem deliciously real to me. And I crave real. In the middle of some grueling undertaking I always feel like I can almost taste the beauty.
As to the need for healthy knees that will allow me to cavort with eventual and rather hypothetical grandchildren, I will say two things. First I will point out that perhaps one third of the Tahoe-Ultra runners were old enough to be grandfatherly. And I know this: if their grandkids can keep up with them, then they are a whole lot tougher than I was in my tender grand-kidding years.
Second, if my knees – or whatever – do give up, then I will have no excuse not to finally sit down and write; you know, like a book. Incidentally, unless I manage to do a lot more interesting things than I have so far, I will not have nearly enough real material to fill up that book with, and I will be – alas – forced to invent things.
One last word on health, and then I’ll kill the subject. If you were – hypothetically – to interview a whole bunch of people with bad knees I imagine you would get two philosophical outlooks. One group would pronounce “I wish I’d been nicer to my knees, they might have lasted me longer.” The other would exclaim “I wish I’d done more things while my knees still worked; now I’ll never know what its like to…” I know which group I don’t want to belong to.
Now it’s Saturday, and I have run a marathon and a half. And I’ve run side by side with real ultra-marathoners: old, young, pretty and ugly; all tough.
Every runner is friendly (at least over the brief amount of time it takes him or her to pass me and be out of sight). Maybe the reason why is that we are the only people around who know what we are up to. In a race with fifty runners, if you would like to have spectators, you have to bring your own. We commandeer no road closures, no ropings-off, and no police keeping us safe from the cheering, screaming and fainting crowds of loving admirers.
Though we are all wearing race bibs and identical purple running singlets (except for the one guy who is dressed like a high speed crash between the Mad Hatter and Uncle Sam), few of the people we pass have actually managed to connected the dots to form a coherent thought that sounds like “I think there is a race going on”. Fewer even will be moved enough by the sight of a half dozen odd runners within a half hour to utter the longed for “Hey, how far are you running?”
I admit it. I am vane. And I long for the people I pass – reading the personals and sipping on their iced frappachinos – to know how far I have come, and why I’m limping. Especially the pretty girls!
Yesterday I came upon an old lady on the sidewalk. With the help of a cane she advanced in the same direction as I. As I overtook her she declared that “you have to eat Tabasco, it opens up the capillaries.” Whether she was giving me this sage advice or was addressing Lake Tahoe in general, was unclear. I smiled at her – if a little confusedly – and ran on, and grinned on.
But this morning, in the dark, before starting, I wasn’t grinning. I did not know whether I would finish. I did not know whether I would be able to run at all. I seemed incapable of even walking proper.
Then the gun went off and suddenly there I was, running. In an out of body-like experience I looked at myself in joyous amazement: there was absolutely no pain! Unfortunately this lasted all of ten seconds.
The pain had evidently only been startled by the blast, and once it recovered its composure it summarily caught up with me, and clamped its hundred jaws onto my flesh. But it was too late. It couldn’t stop me now. In those miraculous ten seconds I had had a revelation: I would actually finish this thing!
I did. And that is my story. But I have – if I may – one more paragraph to add. It’s for me; you don’t have to read it. It’s just that when I one day pick up a magazine and re-read this, I want it to remind me of what running Lake Tahoe felt like. Yet much of what I want to remember I have – for your sake – chosen to leave off my story. So here it is: stuffed at sizzler three nights in a row; a painful accident with the Bengay (two days in a row!); The first day I was eighth for about three hours; hobbling in the sunny woods behind the motel with my dogs; day two tragedy strikes– my aspirin lost; beer at the end of the race; the massage lady ordering me to remove my socks; the guy who was addicted to marathons; the hyper couple from LA and I staring at the empty plates where only three minutes earlier our free pasta “dinners” had arrived; a sorry goodies-bag; coffee and oatmeal pancakes Sunday morning; how in 79 miles, I never heard anyone complain; the bagpipes and the view that reminded me of Brave-Heart; Peter running in the wrong direction on day three; knew-everyone-George, ran-everywhere-John, I-am-not-an-ultra-marathoner-but-can-climb-Whitney-twice-in-a-row-Judith, Delia (and her whacky husband who had to stop to look at the salmon), and of course, Avril who would walk with me.