By testing ourselves, we assess theories and sometimes discover truths that would have otherwise remained amiss. I came to Sonoma in hopes of discovering a few truths about myself. I wanted to test my limits even at the risk of falling on my face. Be careful what you wish for.
When two of my good trail running friends asked me if I was interested in traveling across the country to California to run a 50 mile race through the hills of wine country my response was simple, “When does registration open”? A few months later an alert went off on my phone and I excused myself from a group of friends.
I quickly began mashing the registration option over and over on my phone. Within just a few minutes of registration opening, the race had sold out, but not before I had purchased my spot.
Two weeks before I was scheduled to compete at Sonoma I participated at a Thunder Rock 100 training run. On Saturday I ran 33 miles in the rain and mud at what I considered a 90% effort followed by a sluggish 17 miles of running and hiking on Sunday. My running persona resembled that of a Max King on Saturday while Sunday was more of a hungover John Belushi. I had considered backing off on training in order to get a peak performance at Sonoma, but instead opted to press the pace, screw the taper and see how things played out.
It didn’t take long for me to be star struck by some of the athletes participating in the race. Zach Miller, Sage Canaday, Rob Krarr, Max King as well as a slew of other dominant competitors were present. While getting out of my car that morning I noticed Sally McRae was being photographed by Nike right outside my car door. I pretended to be busy for a few minutes and once the camera crew was gone I approached her to ask for a photo.
She was very sweet and asked me a few questions. As if my voice didn’t give it away, I mentioned that I was from the south. During my visit to CA it wasn’t uncommon for people to give me an odd look when I spoke. I tend to regard myself as someone with respectable speaking skills “Such lovely weather we are having here today. Its been an extensive interval since my last visit” in a Sherlock Holmes accent.
This is an exercise in wishful and biased thinking. What people actually hear is something like ”Well Zippidy doo da yaw. Danged if this ain’t the sunshineiest day. I ain’t been in these parts in a coon’s age” in a ‘Larry the Cable Guy’ accent. People would often use an interpretation app on their smartphone before mumbling to a friend “It’s a form of greeting jargon based on deep south dialect”. They would then respond with slow, loud and bite-sized words that I could comprehend.
Ryan and Michael had warned me that the weather would most likely become hot and sunny early in the race. The start was chilly with thick fog. The first two miles are mostly uphill road before the trail starts. This was the only paved road section of the race and it actually served well in breaking up the group prior to the trailhead.
Several of the early miles included lush green wooded sections with huge redwood trees. I mentioned to a fellow runner “I keep expecting the Ewoks to jump of of the bushes at any moment”. The entire course is rolling hills with varying levels of elevation. On a typical section you would climb a hill for 5 to 10 minutes at which point you would be treated to views of gorgeous grassy green hills that were dressed in fog. This would be followed by another decent. I would glance at the magnificent hills across the Russian River. Many of them were lush and green with only a few grapevines or a couple of trees. It was a land where mother nature’s sense of fung shui was a perfect balance of beauty and simplicity. It made me feel as though I was running the hillsides of ancient Greece.
I was running at an aggressive pace and I knew that I couldn’t keep it up for the entire race. I had started the race knowing I was not fully recovered but I felt surprisingly well the first few hours. I would pass someone every couple of minutes knowing that they would most likely return the favor soon enough. This wasn’t like me. I tend to run races a bit conservative the first half and more aggressive the second half.
This race was different. With the Thunder Rock 100 race just a month away, I decided that it would be good training to embrace the fatigue by racing through early exhaustion then pressing through it. I assumed I would hit the wall pretty hard at mile 33 but by then I would already be on my way back and I would just deal with the pain knowing that I had less than 20 miles to the finish.
At mile 21 the fog was starting to lighten and I caught a glimpse of my friend Chris from TN. He was starting to struggle and mentioned that his legs were beginning to tighten up. I said a few words of encouragement and went ahead. Two miles later, I was happily frolicking through the trails while smiling and spouting encouraging words to fellow runners. It was around this point that Eurus, god of the unlucky east or southeast wind, blew the morning fog away. The sun became bright and the sky became clear.
I was now in plain sight of Bonkamedes (The mythical god of fatigue and nausea). My quick and careless pace was taunting him. He became angry and descended upon me. He was carrying his large metal staff (Aka the Bonk Bat) that was forged from some of the unclaimed finishers medals he has caused. His cape is long and flows in the wind. It is made of unclaimed, premium quality, moisture-wicking finisher jackets. At mile 23 I was struck by the staff (AKA the bonk bat) and I became lethargic and confused. Unfortunately the last 2 miles before the turnaround point involve a great deal of steep hills. I felt as though I was attached to and pulling a tractor tire up the mountainside.
Bonkamedes can use a great many tactics in order to conquer your will. He sometimes steals a few race gels out of your pocket leaving you helpless between aid stations. He may poke a small hole in your water pack to trigger dehydration. He will wipe his sweat on your salt pills which will dissolve leaving you with pockets full of a cocaine like substance. If these tactics are ineffective he will sometimes resort to moving rocks. If you find yourself running along in the late miles of an ultra and step over a stone only to find you still trip over it, ya, that’s Bonkamedes and his evil trickery.
And you turn yourself around…
I went through the midpoint aid station, turned around and began the long descent. At mile 26 Ryan and Michael said Hi as they headed towards the midpoint. They looked so happy, fresh and exuberant. They were smiling and whistling like Andy Griffith and I was staggering and slurring like Otis. For some reason my right foot had started aching such that if I attempted to run down the hill each step caused me to wince in pain. The pattern for the next 4 miles was jog, run, wince, walk, repeat.
Every mile or so I would convince myself that the bonk was fading and I would try to resume race pace only to find myself even more fatigued and slower still.
By the time I reached mile 30 I could feel that I was getting my second wind. I watched as the guy in front of me came to a sudden halt then began vomiting. I knew that meant that Bonkamedes was busy and distracted so I made my move. As soon as I arrived at the Mile 31 aid station I noticed a Red Bull was sitting on the table. I asked an aid station volunteer if I could have it. He nodded (at least in my memory he did) and I chugged the entire can in a few seconds.
I can’t recall the last time I drank a Red Bull, but it happens about about as often as I eat at Krystal which is to say, only in the most extreme of emergencies. As I slammed the can I had a huge smile on my face. This was my chance to get back on track and escape the wrath of Bonkamedes.
With less than 5 miles to go I was running downhill when Bonkamedes cast a stone at me. It hit my right foot and I did the flinstone shuffle for a few seconds before regaining my posture. Too surprised and tired to curse, I simply flipped Bonkamedes the bird. The runner next to me looked confused when I did this. I explained everything to him by saying “Make haste brother! The fog is gone and the gods are angry. Wine and women will be plentiful at the finish”. I didn’t mention that the wine was reserved for those who placed overall and that every woman in this race seemed to have a guy (or in some cases girl), waiting for them at the finish. Best not to dampen his spirits.
I’d love to tell you how I finished strong but I pretty much just….finished. I managed to squeak in at just under 9 hours. After a moment of recovery I returned to the finish to cheer on the racers. Nearly 2 hours later my friend Chris staggered across the finish and sat down. It was about 15 minutes before he even tried to talk. He showed me the marks he had from Bonkamedes staff. He had been hit squarely 4 times. The last blow resulted in his taking a nap / blacking out on the side of the trail.
Even with such setbacks Bonkamedes was unable to add Chris’s medal and finisher jacket to his collection. The body broke, the will did not. That evening I found out why I had so much pain trying to run downhill since mile 20. Bonkamedes had left one last mark on me. My right foot was bloated and swollen while the left was perfectly normal. I took a picture of this….I’ll spare you the visual.
Such is the way of racing. We can be conservative, safe and predictable in our efforts and the gods will often leave us be. They do not see a tame spirit as a threat to their power. But on occasion it’s nice to roll the dice. I want to tell gripping stories to my children and grandchildren. I don’t want a perfect race every time. I don’t want to hit my goal every time.
I like having a Prefontaine side to me that says, “Go for it now!” even when logic dictates otherwise. Like the race start, the line between playing and playing it safe is quite foggy. I don’t wish to emerge from the murk only to find I was on the wrong side of the line.