We drove through the Bunker Road tunnel and continued in enveloping pre-dawn darkness to the start of the 2009 Miwok 100K. The sense of descending toward something primal was unmistakable, yet I was not consciously aware of it. I was thinking about something topical, like the start time, or filling my bottle. When I got out of the car it almost literally washed over me. Wave after wave -- the amplitude was overpowering. We were across the road from Rodeo Beach, but we may as well have been right in the surf -- at least to my mid-continental sensibilities. The sea, though shrouded in darkness, beckoned me home. The siren song of the ocean: be carried, fed, bathed, lovingly drowned -- yes, yes, submit!
And then it was 5:40 am, and we turned our backs to the water. We started our long ascent. Very gradually the fog yielded light. We weren't thinking about the audacity of the day's journey. Just little things, like lifting feet quickly out of the sand, or avoiding branches across the trail. I was aware of several runners ahead, but felt completely untroubled. Can we really conceive of all the steps that are required? I never would gain much perspective, because we remained in fog for the day, but we climbed away from the ocean and then ran along the precipitous Pacific coastline. We ran all day. Climbed 10,000 feet. Faced off against a seemingly furious ocean. For all the world yet oblivious -- we suffered. Because we could? We could also have stayed at the beach. At every step we could have just stopped. Did our trespass onto the land open a world for us to plunder at will? Have we emerged from our confinement?
Michael Phelps book is "No Limits: The Will to Succeed." The pool may contain the water through which he swims, but apparently it cannot contain his spirit. Physical laws may constrain most of the world's inhabitants -- but we as humans aspire to transgress our physical limitations. Phelps' African American teammate on the Olympic 4 x 100m relay, Cullen Jones, may have an even more compelling story. He is only the third African American to medal in an Olympic games. He started swimming at age 5 because he almost drowned in the water at an amusement park. His mother decided he needed to learn how to swim. Jones had limits. He was nearly killed. So he learned how to swim.
One runner had surged to the front early but 6 miles on faded and was overtaken by the group of 3, myself among them, who assumed the lead for much of the race. What can we conclude other than that a limit had been reached? The group of 3 was led by Geoff Roes, my Montrail teammate from Alaska, followed initially by Todd Braje of California. We climbed 3 "hills" (of about 800' each) within the first 15 miles. Roes powered up, his bulging calf muscles popping, putting distance on both me and Braje. On each downhill, though, we caught back up with him. From Muir Beach at mile 16 we climbed steadily for 6 miles and better than 1600'. Braje dropped off the back, and I didn't see him again. I guessed he had reached a limit. He could be holding back though, I thought, biding his time for a later surge. I knew he had run a 50 miler in 5:30. Why not bide a little time? Because how could he know that it was possible?
From the Pantoll aid station we followed the coastal trail, terracing around the contour of Mt. Tamalpais. As soon as we emerged from the protection of the noble trees on that slope, however, we were confronted with the full fury of gale force winds racing up from the Pacific and blasting over the ridge. We had turned our backs on our own origins and now she felt scorned. We were pelted by rain born from below -- perhaps from the ocean itself. The thick grasses hung across the trail like countless fingers grabbing at our feet, soaking our shoes, filling them with water, beckoning us home.
When I looked up, Roes was one step of the trail. His feet were spread and his hands were on his knees. His head hung in front of him. I passed quickly, but asked if he needed anything. He said he was good. I wondered if another limit had been reached. I plugged on, clinging sometimes to a narrow muddy track that dropped abruptly into the steep grassy slope. I repeatedly pulled my hat lower and tighter to keep it on my head. Roes caught back up and shot once again into the lead. To hell with it, I thought. I didn't try to catch up on the downhills anymore. What was I, pushing countless times against this mud? Gravity, the inescapable, would have its way with me. We passed through the Bolinas Ridge aid station. I didn't pay much attention, but I did hear my crew say they would see me back in 14 miles. That's a pretty good run in itself. I wasn't looking forward to it in the middle of my race. The pain in my left hamstring was pulling the muscle tighter, like a wire tensioner. The hip flexor on the same leg hurt as well. I kept moving -- but it was less obviously me. I cussed a couple of puddles that were impossible to avoid. The mud wasn't as soft as I expected.
I thought "the turnaround" would be halfway. I expected it sometime not long after 4 hours. The time between 4 hours and the turnaround expanded into menacingly long dimensions. My mind simply wasn't the same as when I started. I was fatigued, and it changed my perception and judgement. Perception of effort depends upon apprehension of the distance yet to be traveled. The closer the destination the more difficult the effort. I had in my mind the turnaround -- it was my destination. The closer I got to it, the more difficult the work. But we are ultra runners. Surely we have demonstrated the human potential to transcend these mechanistic forces. We left the water. We resist gravity. We don't care if we're exhausted -- we move relentlessly.
I spoke with my buddy Bradley Mongold (ER doc, world class bow hunter, ultra runner) from the airport after the race. He is preparing for an assault on the grueling Massanutten 100. He said he is planning in advance for the calories he will need. His crew is instructed to give him those calories, and he will drink them, no matter what. He said his fatigued mind can't be trusted to choose what his body will need. So he'll have to do the choosing in advance. That, I thought, is the will to succeed. We can't possibly act like we don't have limits. We are bumping into them all the time. Our own minds can be limiting. So we negotiate. We anticipate who we will be under later conditions and plan for dealing with that person.
When the course turned to descend from the ridge I determined that the route back was shorter than the route out. As the painful descent continued I formulated a plan. I would carefully provision at the aid station at the bottom. I would be able to see where Roes was (I had started referring to him as "Roesie" by then). I would be able to see how far behind the next runners were. I would go easy but steady back up the ridge, eat a caffeine-laced Cliff Blok, and take an ibuprofen. Mostly I would re-set my clock for "less than halfway to go." It was the start of another race.
I kept my head and did as planned. Roesie was a minute up, Braje was nearly 8 minutes back. Other runners followed quickly. Seeing them re-centered me. Miwok is an event, not just a solo run. The women looked amazingly strong, and serious, as they passed. Anita Ortiz was first, then Kami Semick. Caitlyn Smith must have been close behind. Almost back on the ridge, I actually stopped for an uncharacteristically discreet pee break. I had gone several times already, but with the trail to myself I had been able to keep running. I just couldn't see confronting the charging downhill runners with a full frontal.
The return trip on Bolinas Ridge got me back up to speed. I could feel myself making up ground, and I started looking for Roesie on the hilltops in front of me. When I passed another Montrail teammate, and VA buddy, Russel Gill, he said the leader was within a minute. I was charging hard by the time I got back to the aid station. My crew handed me water and Bloks, and I was off in a flash. Out of the corner of my eye I just caught sight of Roesie, hunkered over the aid station table. He told me later that he tried to load up on the calories he had been unable to consume. He headed out but made it only a short distance before he vomited again. He returned to the aid station and dropped from the race.
My wife's lifelong friend Melody, a Mill Valley resident, and her boyfriend Grant had signed on to, and fully embraced, helping me for the day. We had discussed the kind of motivation that would be helpful. I had said the first half of the race I might actually need "anti-cheering." Sort of a reminder to stay relaxed and low-key. The second half, I said, feel free to be more evocative. On my way out of the Bolinas Ridge aid station I heard Grant say, "you've got steel wheels." The image stuck helpfully in my mind. I rolled all the way down to highway 1.
I wasn't eating much anymore, though, and I had actually gotten cold on the descent. I wasn't aware that two more large climbs and descents loomed between me and the finish. The climbs seemed interminable and I had trouble staying on the rail -- keeping my stomach together, keeping some calories flowing, and moving well uphill. I wasn't particularly concerned with getting caught from behind, but I certainly didn't want to crash and burn. So I grabbed pretzels, crackers, or potatoes from the last couple aid stations and nibbled on them to keep my stomach settled. Sweets became repulsive. At Tennessee Valley I emptied the water from my bottle and filled it halfway with Coke. I would sip on it to get me over one last gnarly climb.
The ocean made me catch my breath. The final descent of the run back to Rodeo Beach afforded my first real view of the day. She seemed tamer somehow. The waves broke between arms of rock and lapped up to the beach. The coast presented a soft bosom, as if to say, "Welcome home, son. We love for you to visit."