Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Locomotion Explosion: A Rio Del Lago Race Report Part One

I’ve never actually started a race report before having started the race but that’s exactly what I am doing now. At this moment I am about 36,000 feet above Southern California on my way to Sacramento and The GeekGrl is napping quietly next to me. This report begins before the beginning because the race began before the beginning. Three weeks ago I ran Leadville in a time of 27:35 and now I will make an attempt on Rio Del Lago tomorrow morning at 6:00 a.m. Why am I doing this? Well, the answer is pretty simple. If I can ever get into Western States I think I want to make an attempt on the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. In order to complete that undertaking you must complete the four oldest 100s in one year and the pretty much fall within 4 months of each other. I have to figure out how to run a 100, recover somewhat and run again.

There is an article in the September 2010 Ultrarunning that is apropos to my task. The article is “Freedom Run” by Eric Grossman. To quote; “By running long we free ourselves in three ways: we defy the constraint of expectation, we flout the oppression of good reasoning, and we set a course from which we cannot be swayed.” Within those three main ideas there was one quote that resonated with me more than the others but I’ll have to get to it later because the pilot just announced we are 20 minutes from Sacramento and have started our initial descent. Here I sit heading toward an uncertain destiny beginning my own descent into the psychological and physical reserves that I hope will carry me to the finish line of another 100-mile run. The GeekGrl and I will land, pick up Johnny Tri at the airport and hook up with RBR a bit later and then it is go time.

So this quote I was so enamored with fell under the heading “Embracing the Unreasonable” and states “What we are striving for isn’t necessarily tangible, however, and it certainly isn’t reasonable. In fact, by eschewing reason we liberate ourselves from an insidious tyrant.”

By eschewing reason we liberate ourselves from an insidious tyrant; probably one of my all-time favorite quotes. Doing what is reasonable, what is rational is, well, perfectly reasonable and no rational person could argue otherwise but it sort of removes the LIFE from your life. I’m all for reasonable decisions but by the time you have made 20 or 30 reasonable decisions in a row your life starts to become a bit sterile and claustrophobic. You become the person who always makes the reasonable decision and then of course you become weighed down by the expectation that you will again do the reasonable thing in the future. I’ve lived in that trap and on the surface everything was copacetic and everyone was happy but inside was a constant scream covered over by the mask of banality.

In any case, on Saturday morning I set out to eschew reason by running the Rio Del Lago 100-mile Endurance Run after having run a road marathon five days earlier and the Leadville Trail 100 three weeks earlier. I was excited about the race but at the same time I felt pretty ambivalent because, well, because it just seemed like such a bad idea.

I knew the weather was supposed to get hot and I had been tracking the weather all week. The high was supposed to be between 87 and 90 but my one bit of solace was the reports that indicated the day should heat up slowly with temps gradually rising to a peak around 5:00. That seemed a little weird to me being used to temperatures racing upward beginning around 10:00 a.m. and then frying through the day but whatever, I’m not familiar with the Granite Bay area of California so I just planned on a long, cool morning to get in some good distance.

By the time the race started at 6:00 a.m. it was already 70 degrees. Pleasant enough but I was running slowly in shorts and a singlet and could tell it was going to be a hot day. The race starts at Cavitt School (using the RBR convention of naming the start location) and heads for Cool, CA; a poorly named place if ever there was one. It then heads back from Cool past the start and out through various random California towns to a huge lakeside park then back again to the start. The race is run on a mix of dirt road, single track and what appeared to be neatly maintained “single track” that was wide enough for the morning latte crowed to jog along in the pleasant morning cool with their perfume wafting through the air.

The first two miles of the race were nice and easy on wide dirt paths with only gently undulating changes in elevation and then it changed to a very deep single track that funneled runners down the trail. In some places the trail was as much as two feet below the surface of the surrounding ground and through this section it was pretty much impossible to pass. The trail also changed from being gentle and undulating to short, sharp climbs and descents with choppy steps formed of rock and roots. The effect was like running on a flight of stairs designed by a masochistic carpenter with no depth perception.

By the time I was maybe five minutes into this crap my quads gave me a good poke and said, “Hey buddy, we just hauled your ass through a marathon and Leadville before that, what gives?” I looked at my Garmin so I could note the moment when my legs started to complain; I was just into mile three. I was momentarily hit with a sense of panic and then despair started to creep in but I told myself that I was fine, that what was really happening was that my legs were just trying to warm up and that all I needed to do was get past this long line of people I found myself stuck behind for a chance to give my legs a good stretch. I made that pass and got that stretch but my legs didn’t feel any better so I told myself that if they didn’t feel worse by mile 30 or 35 then at least my legs would be appropriately sore just like everyone else. That bit of rationalization worked wonders and I was again free to just zone out and enjoy the morning.

The beginning of the run skirts Folsom Lake at sunrise and you are treated to some beautiful views. You don’t get the breathtaking grandeur of the mountain ultras but instead get comforting pastoral views of gnarled oaks on grassy knolls, spring fed grottos partially hidden under a blanket of wild raspberries and brief glimpses of a placid lake encircled by rolling hills. To add to the beauty was a scent that I loved from my days in the Marine Corps stationed at Camp Pendleton. When I was in the field, usually standing watch in the early morning hours, a coastal fog would roll in and the air would smell a lot like black licorice. That was the experience I was presented with throughout the early morning and it was pretty heavenly.

However, despite the fact that the pastoral scenery remained the magical quality did not. I would say that no later than 9:30 a.m. the temperature was already breaking 80 and the gentle morning sun became a hot eye staring fixedly at me from its perch in an empty blue sky. To make matters worse the trail was extremely dusty. Rock and sand had been pounded into fine talc that floated in the air with the passing of each runner. At one point I was looking down and noticed a dark discoloration between my thighs and though “What the hell is that?!” I am not a hairy man and the hair I do have is relatively fine and light but what I was staring at were masses of thick, black curls akin to the most freakishly coated male I have ever had the misfortune to view in a locker room. The discoloration was, of course, my own hair completely coated in a mixture of sweat and dirt and we hadn’t even come close to the heat of the day nor had we reached the first real climb.

The first climb of the day is called Cardiac Hill. It really isn’t too bad but it will get your attention. According to Garmin it climbs a little over 900 feet in a little more than two miles. Cardiac hill is also dusty and made by the afore mentioned deranged carpenter. However, having just come off Leadville training I was able to scoot up the trail without a problem while I watched other runners straining and gasping.

The climb up Cardiac takes you to a truly wonderful place on the course. The section of trail is called the flume. The flume is called such because it is a trail that runs alongside a, well, a flume. It is completely shaded by an overhanging canopy of oak trees, the path alongside is pretty much perfectly flat and the flume itself carries cool water that creates an almost air-conditioned feeling and a gentle gurgling sound. It only lasts for maybe a mile and a half at most but it is a rejuvenating experience.

The day continued to heat up but I still felt decent and was looking forward to join part of the historic Western States Trail and get to run across No Hands Bridge. On your outbound trip across No Hands Bridge you are high above the American River and look down at beautiful river canyon scenery. On your inbound trip you are baked to a crisp and stare forlornly as the cool blue river mocks you impossibly out of reach.

After crossing outbound No Hands Bridge you have to climb K2. If you look at the profile K2 is the middle, higher and steeper climb between the two climbs of Cardiac Hill. Because of this feature I took to calling K2 “the middle finger” and that’s about what it was. The climb up K2 was reminiscent of the climb up inbound Sugarloaf at Leadville except it had to pack the same amount of elevation gain into about a mile and a quarter so whereas Sugarloaf starts steep and after each false summit is less steep K2 starts steep and after every false summit gets steeper. You are never quite climbing hand over hand but near the top you are doing some serious leaning into the hill. Along the climb there are helpful signs with the posted warning “Caution – Steep Hill” All I could think was “Oh, thank god, that’s why blood is spraying out my eyes from all the internal pressure I’m on a steep hill.”

Fortunately after cresting K2 you are treated to a stroll through the furnace like heat of the optimistically named Cool California. It was at this point that I determined I had run far enough and done enough climbing that I could admit to myself that my legs were actually hurting and not just continuing to warm up. However, it was also here that I noticed something that was truly troubling; I was cold. It was so hot outside that even the dirt on the trail was trying to inch over to grab some shade and I was cold and starting to shiver a bit. All I could think of was Anton Krupicka going super nova the last two years in a row at Leadville with hypothermia during the heat of the day. What was more worrisome was that I really didn’t know how to save myself from this situation. I knew I needed to warm up but I didn’t have any extra clothing and it was already hot outside so I just fell back on an old bit of ultrarunning wisdom, almost anything can be remedied by just going slower.

I slowed my pace, kept drinking water and stopped trying to do anything to keep myself cool. I have taken to wearing a bandanna on my head because I find it keeps the sweat out of my eyes better than a hat and it cools better when I soak it with water. I took that off and left my head bare. I just kept moving forward paying close attention to any fluctuations in my body temperature. After about 20 minutes I noticed a bit of warmth returning and then a few trickles of sweat. I realized that one of my problems was likely that my sunscreen was wearing off and I was starting to burn so I determined to ask for more sunscreen at the next aid station. I was incredibly thankful that this dilemma seemed to be turning around and kept my pace easy to the Cool Fire Station aid station.

When I got to the Cool aid station I refueled and joked around a bit with the aid station volunteers but completely forgot to ask them about sunscreen. I headed out for the seven mile section called the Olmstead Loop. This section of trail is very gentle and mostly on dirt roads. It is a wide open plain of rolling grasslands dotted with groves of oak. There is only one gentle climb during the loop at Knickerbocker Hill everything else would be incredibly fast were it not for the heat and exposed nature of this section. As I was moving through this section I was thinking about all the things the body is trying to do during an ultra. You have to balance your level of exertion to effectively accomplish at least four separate tasks. You have to make sure that you have sufficient blood flow to the skin to keep you cool, sufficient blood flow to the stomach for digestion, sufficient blood flow to your muscles to keep them supplied with nutrients and oxygen and sufficient blood flow to your brain to ensure sufficient oxygen for that critical skill, thinking.

That, I thought, is a lot of considerations to manage. In our everyday life we rarely think how our bodies function in such utilitarian detail but in endurance running you push so close to the limits of what a body can withstand you need to be able to think this way or you simply won’t make it. If you don’t understand the way a body works too many things can go wrong, there become too many questions to answer; why am I so hot? Why am I so cold? Why do my legs feel like lead? Why is my stomach feeling sloshy and bloated? and the list goes on and your mind is often not sharp enough to answer these questions unless the answers have become automatic. By the time I finished the Olmstead Loop I had outlasted repeated fluctuations between feeling cold and then impossibly hot, sweating and being dry and chilled. I returned to the Cool Fire Station to the cheers of Johnny Tri and friends. I was never so relieved to see a familiar face. I remembered to ask the aid station volunteers for sunscreen and they had none but then JT said he thought he has some in his car and he ran to get it. When he returned he sprayed me down with sunscreen and I almost immediately felt better. One bad patch down. On to the next task.

The run down K2 to the No Hands Bridge Aid station was not the uber-steep climb with warning signs but it was a lazy loop around the slide of the hill. I was able to depart the Cool aid station at an easy jog and maybe a mile from the aid station I came across a runner who was really suffering. During our exchange I found out his name was Steve. Steve was probably moving more slowly than anyone I had ever seen and there seemed to be something wrong with his legs or an ankle or something. I jogged up to him and asked if he had rolled an ankle or something and he said, “No, I just can’t get any water from my hydration pack so I can’t take any electrolyte tablets.” Of course he wasn’t so articulate but I got the gist. He really looked like shit and even uselessly proffered his empty hydration pack to add weight to his mutterings. I still had water in my hydration pack and had just filled two bottles with cold water so I offered him my coldest bottle and stood there to make sure he was able to drink it down. I use Ultimate Direction bottles and if you aren’t used to their rubber nipple style tops it can be a bit of a problem.

When Steve first started to try and drink he just shot himself full in the face with a powerful jet of cold water. I’m sure it felt pretty good but was otherwise completely useless for a man with two salt tablets sitting on his dry and swollen tongue. Steve looked startled but resigned to his misery as if he were thinking “What new hell is this, a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing come top mock my suffering.” Apologetically I took my bottle, removed the cap and told him to drink straight from the bottle. Steve drank it down and finally got those electrolytes he so obviously needed. I told him the Cool aid station was only about a mile away and he could fuel up and cool off there and would feel like a new man. He just grunted and said, “I don’t think I’m gonna make it. I think I’m gonna drop.” I told him to just keep moving and try to keep his head up but I knew it would take him as much as 40 minutes to cover that short distance and they were going to be a brutal 40 minutes. Only one “Stephen” finished Rio Del Lago this year and he was 55 years old; not my Steve.

Shortly after leaving Steve to his own devices I came upon Cynthia who was making her first attempt at a 100-mile run. She jumped into this race as a kind of last minute deal basically using the same rational I used when I entered Leadville, “If not now, when?” However, it isn’t like she was untrained because she had already run four 50Ks this summer, good practice races and probably sufficient training mileage for a 100 like RDL. However, she looked really hot and tired and was moving pretty slowly but her head seemed like it was in the right place. She was just moving along at the best pace she could manage. Later I spoke with her husband, David, who was crewing for her and he said that the heat was particularly hard on her but that she was a very good night runner and so he expected that once things cooled off she would speed up and be right back in the game.

Despite all I had been through with the heat and the chills and the legs hurting I was still feeling reasonably good but ahead of me was the climb back up Cardiac Hill to the Auburn Dam Overlook aid station where I finally hoped to see The GeekGrl and RBR. I arrived to Auburn Dam feeling whipped but JT and the same enthusiastic crew of friends was there and yelling and cheering “Go Big B!” With the exception of JT the rest of the crew felt self-conscious yelling out Baboo much less Sweet Baboo so I became Big B for the day. The GeekGrl and RBR were nowhere in sight but JT was right there with me. He ferried me over to the medical check and then took my bottles and hydration pack and made sure they were refilled. He also got me to a chair and then went and grabbed my drop bag. I used cold water and my old bandana and washed the trail dust off my feet, legs, arms and face. The “bath” felt awesome! I then put on fresh socks, shoes, shirt and a hat. I also took a fresh bandana soaked in cold water and tied it around my neck. This was a long but necessary stop. I finally left for the next aid station, Maidu, feeling better. I don’t know exactly what happened but within a couple hundred yards of departing the Auburn Dam aid station I was doubled over on the side of the trail alternately throwing up and dry heaving.

I came stumbling into Maidu again hoping to see The GeekGrl and RBR but nobody was there. JT had other crewing duties and needed to move on with his runner, he had just been helping me out because I was ahead of his runner. In fact, at the outbound Cool Fire Station I was about an hour or more ahead of his runner but by the time I reached Maidu I was maybe 20 minutes behind and falling. I was still eating and drinking well and was looking forward to the pleasant stroll along the flume so I just grabbed what I needed and headed out at a walk. As I moved along the cool and shade of the flume I started feeling better and better and was finally able to start jogging.

The stretch between Maidu and the next aid station is 7.1 miles and it includes the descent off of Cardiac Hill. However, the next aid station is just an unmanned water drop called Power Plant. There really is a little hydroelectric generator right there next to a rushing stream and so nobody is allowed to be there. The only thing that race management is able to work out is to get permission for runners to use the connecting gravel road to pass by and the power plant people take in a few cases of water and drop them on the ground next to the hydroelectric generator. After leaving Maidu you get about a mile and a half along the flume and then within a mile you get the 900 foot descent off Cardiac; it beat me to death. My quads were utterly fried and I could barely remain stable going downhill. I lurched downwards as the pain in my legs increased and my stomach once again began to tighten like a drum.

By the time I reached the Power Plant aid station I was so desperate to stop that I wanted to cry. I went and sat down on the concrete footing of the hydroelectric generator, put my head between my knees and started throwing up. I opened my bottles and dumped the water out over my head and just sat there contemplating simply laying down and stopping. I figured that someone would come in and get me as some point but then again the sun was starting to go down and I still had 2.3 miles to go to the next aid station at Rattlesnake Bar where there were actual people. I knew that if I didn’t get moving soon the decision to drop or continue would be made for me so I got up, refilled my water bottles and drug my sorry butt down the trail toward civilization.

As I moved down the trail I was at least grateful that I was on a gentle section of the trail. A few people were passing me but at this point I was so far back that pretty much anyone behind me was being eaten up by the cutoffs or was dropping. The sun was going down quickly and I was moving slowly. The sun set and I resigned myself to the darkness as I saw the last flicker of light dance off Folsom Lake. I felt completely and utterly alone; it was just me and my few baubles to remind me that I was connected to anything outside the growing darkness.

After a long while a runner and pacer with headlamps and flashlights blazing came up behind me and asked if I could see anything. I said “no” and they passed me and continued down the trail disappearing into the darkness. Too late I thought that I should have told them to ask for Misty or Stacy at the next aid station and ask one of them to run back along the trail with a headlamp for me. Damnit! I trudged along in the darkness. About a half-hour later a female runner came up behind me and also asked if I could see. I said “no” and she passed me and headed down the trail. As I watched her and her bubble of light begin to disappear I yelled out, “Hey, at the next aid station would you please ask for Misty or Stacy and ask one of them to run back along the trail with my headlamp?” She said “Sure” and disappeared into the night.

I short order I saw a headlamp coming towards me at a pretty good clip and I thought “Thank god!” but then it turned out to be some random guy who said, “Good job, keep it up, you are almost to the next aid station.” And then he ran past me heading toward Power Plant. Moments later he passed me followed by a female runner with two pacers. This runner had two pacers and one guy who would drive to the next aid station and run the trail back to meet up with the group and then turn around and lead them onward. I’m sure they were doing this because the course had been heavily vandalized by random people on the trails who had busied themselves by taking down the course markings and hiding them or throwing them away.

The runner, her two pacers and her Scout soon passed me with their lavish array of lights and once again I was left stumbling through the dark. As they disappeared around a corner I heard the crew constantly reassuring the runner how great she looked and that she was “doing it” and was beating all the cutoffs. A good crew is an indispensible thing. With all this going on my emotions were getting pretty frayed and then another blow. Somewhere out of the darkness I thought I heard “Rattlesnake Bar is now closed, all participants must vacate the park” and then there was silence. I kept moving towards Rattlesnake Bar and then it came again “Rattlesnake Bar is now closed; all participants must vacate the park.” “Well, I guess my day is finally over” I said to myself. “I tried but I guess I’m just not the guy who can run two 100-mile races within a month. At least I didn’t drop; I kept going until I got pulled. That’s all I can ask of myself.”

I looked around to try and figure out how the hell I was supposed to “vacate the park” and as I was looking around I saw a headlamp coming up the trail toward me; it was the GeekGrl emerging from the darkness like an angel, a female Prometheus bringing light to humanity.

I told her that I had heard Rattlesnake Bar was closed and she told me there had been some mistake with the park rangers and the permitting and that the race director had decided to extend the cutoffs because so many of the course markings had been pulled down by vandals so I still had enough time to make it. My only thought was “Jesus Christ, this shit just never ends!” I told her, “That’s it, I’m dropping, I just don’t have anything left. My legs literally have nothing left, I haven’t eaten in about two hours and any water that I have been able to drink has been thrown up.” She told me that I wasn’t going to drop and that I just needed to eat and drink a bit and then I’d feel better and would continue. I assured her that was not the case that I was most definitely going to drop at Rattlesnake Bar. The GeekGrl simply said, “Well, ok but first you need to just sit down and eat your sandwich. We got you a sandwich at Subway.”

We got to Rattlesnake Bar and I sat in a chair for a long while, ate my sandwich and drank down several cups of Ginger ale. The GeekGrl propped up my feet on a cooler and gave my legs a rubdown. RBR went and grabbed a sleeping bag because I was complaining of being cold and she wrapped it around my shoulders. I just sat there eating and drinking trying my best to joke around with people because I was glad to finally be done.

After maybe 15 minutes I finally said, “Ok, well, I need to get out of here and head down the trail.” I asked the GeekGrl to come pace me to the next aid station and she went to get some appropriate running gear and I got up and started walking. I told her that I needed to get going or I may never leave and asked that she just get ready and catch up. As I was leaving I latched on to another guy who also had his wife crewing for him. He had wanted to drop too but his wife talked him out of it and he started to hobble down the trail. I told him he looked like shit and asked if he minded if I tagged along and we could look like shit together. He said “sure” and off we went.

We walked and talked the entire way to the next aid station, which was only about two miles away. The GeekGrl finally caught us as we entered the next aid station so I guess we managed to walk at a pretty good clip. It is amazing the difference it makes when you have someone along to talk to or simply to walk in silence with. The aid station, Horseshoe Bar, was the last time I would see that guy. As the GeekGrl and I left he was sitting in a chair, his wife rubbing his legs trying to convince him to continue but he was completely determined to drop right there.

In an ultramarathon you must have enough fight in you to keep going no matter what but at some point you can become so exhausted, so in pain, so sick, so tired that the goal of your “fight” becomes lost and all you are left with is fight without a target. This is when your crew really needs to know what they are doing and needs to “roll with the resistance.” If the crew starts trying to convince the runner to keep going and tries to “motivate” the runner they run the risk of having that blind fight turned against them and the goal of finishing. A runner can just ding in their heels and fight against continuing because they finally have one thing they can control; stopping the forward motion, stopping the pain.

The guy who dropped at Rattlesnake Bar knew exactly what I knew and feared; the almost six mile section of trail ahead of us was brutal. It was that section filled with short, steep, choppy climbs and descents and a multitude of big steps created by rocks, roots and erosion. During the cool of the morning between miles 4 through 10 this section is simply annoying but in the dark of night on trashed legs it is like subjecting yourself to an hour and a half of being beaten with a heavy wooden cudgel. The GeekGrl continued on with me but my mood was rapidly deteriorating and I was pretty unpleasant company. It was somewhere halfway through this section of trail that I found myself sitting on the side of the trail emptying dirt and rocks from my shoes when all of a sudden like a legend emerging from the mists of time Gordy Ansleigh appeared.


  1. Dude you have totally nailed everything and all the details and emotions!! Cant wait till the remaining parts...


  2. You can't leave me hanging when God walked up the trail. That's like the Noah hearing the Burning Bush and then the Bible ends....

    You had me cracking up with the steep hill comment. How many times have I thought "Jeez, thanks for letting us know, because otherwise I would have thought this was a 8% downhill and I better check my brakes, YA ASS!!" But that may just be me.

    Keep up the RR and congrats on two (no Three!) bad ass races.

    Man do I ever feel lazy!

  3. Amazing report Brian! Your description of the emotional ups and downs you went through arfe amazing. My palms were sweating and my stomach got "flip-floppy" just reading it! Great work. I'm looking forward to part duex! :-)