Today’s entry title is taken from the Grateful Dead song, Fire on the Mountain (lyrics by Robert Hunter, music by Mickey Hart.) The song always reminds me of my husband, Jeff, who is an ultra-runner. At this point, you may ask, What the heck is an ultra-runner?
Good question, reader! I will give you my best non-runner answer. (Oh, yes, I’ve tried running. I am just not a runner. Maybe if zombies or Santa Claus is involved I might be moved to run; otherwise, eh, I’ll just sit here and rest. OK?)
Here goes: Ultra-running is pretty much any long distance race that is over the usual marathon distance. A marathon is 26.2188 miles (42.195 kilometers). So, yep, for sedentary slugs like I who find three miles outside the realm of possibility, it is the sport of choice for crazy people. Some of the races go from 31 miles to the mind-boggling Spartathlon which is 153 miles. I know races exist that are even longer distances than that one and last for days. Days.
Jeff was a runner in high school but had lost the spark during his 20s. Life happens. Several years ago, he became tired of his growing beer-induced six-pack. He put on his running shoes and started again. I am totally supportive although I do not share the activity. He soon decided to try the California International Marathon with his older brother. They both finished at respectable times. Our son and I followed them through the Sacramento area. We all were very excited to see Jeff accomplish his goal. Before long, the idea of running the Western States Endurance Run became a realistic possibility. (Easy for me to say! Not like I have to do the hard work.)
Western States, which spans its way through the Sierra Nevada Mountains from Squaw Valley to Auburn, is the oldest 100-mile trail ultra-race in the world. It may not be the toughest 100-miler, but it still carries a lot of cachet among ultra-runners. It also is a bit difficult to get into. Jeff had to do a number of other long distance, qualifying runs like the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run. He also had to complete volunteer work, which entailed helping at aid stations and monitoring other runners during races such as Way Too Cool 50K Endurance Run and pacing a runner for the last leg of Western States. Additionally, he joined a group of trail runners who meet frequently in order to run through rattlesnake and poison oak infested trails around the area. (For Jeff, he sees a beautiful trail to run. I see rattlesnakes, mountain lions and poison oak – oh, my!)
Jeff did not make the lottery the first year he attempted to get into Western States. Much sadness. Every year, hundreds more people try to get into Western States than are spots available. (Since the race goes through state park lands and for the safety of runners, the number of entrants is restricted and so most runners must enter a lottery.) Jeff is not one to sulk. He figured that gives him more time to gain strength and endurance! He paced another runner for that year’s Western States because he had learned most of those trails so well. He also decided to try the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run.
I must step back here and just say how truly amazed I am by the ultra-running community. Many of Jeff’s running group friends turned out to encourage him and other runners. We were greeted by people we had met at other races. Our little support crew was glad to cheer on these very dedicated men and women.
Everything started out great for the Tahoe Rim race. Jeff was looking good, feeling great. He was smiling! (I was already tired from chasing him around to the aid stations in my car. Hard work pressing on the gas pedal.) He took off from the 50 mile point ready for the second half. We would see him again at the 80 mile point later in the evening.
And that’s where things became scary.
We were to meet him at a ski lodge at the 80 mile point so that his second pacer could join him. We had a change of clothes and other essentials ready. The aid station was set up and had a lot of warm food and drinks for the runners. Although it was July, the Tahoe area was experiencing an unusually chilly summer. At the higher elevations, snow still covered the trail. We arrived at the lodge early in the evening. We based our timing on what his pace had been throughout the day. Little did we know that we’d be waiting for so long.
At some point, around 60 miles in, his first pacer became ill. Jeff saw him to the aid station and decided to keep going on his own. Although he had followed the same trail earlier in the day, he found that the terrain did not look the same in the dark. And it was becoming very cold. He became a little disoriented up there on that mountain. The snow was cold and wet. Meanwhile, at the lodge, our crew was becoming increasingly concerned. We were seeing runners come in half-frozen, shivering, dehydrated and nearly hallucinating. I saw many feet in really, really bad condition! Time kept moving along and no Jeff.
I decided the best thing for me to do – as is my lovely habit – was to wring my hands and pace from the road back to the lodge. Over and over and over again and try to peer at every figure, real or imagined, that I saw making its way down the slope. I started planning to drive my car up the road and search for him. What if he was injured? What if he had become ill? What about those mountain lions?
Just as I was ready to make a ruckus, my friend Kristine looked into the darkness and said, “Is that a beard I see in the moonlight?” Yes! It was Jeff! And he was alone. We ran up to him. He was frozen but coherent. He is not a man to become angry or really show frustration, but I could see the loss of confidence in his eyes. He explained what had happened as we got new clothes on him, dried off his feet and got warm fluids into him. As his wife, I could see he was on the verge of saying he was going to drop out as many had at that point. Luckily, his second pacer had run many ultra races and was very experienced. He had coached us to get Jeff warm, fed and send him on his way. He would be sure to get Jeff to the end. So, we didn’t give the poor man any choice. We filled his water pack, shoved some food in his hand and told him to get moving. It worked. He made it. He finished in enough time to get his first ultra run belt buckle.
Since then, like Forrest Gump, he has continued to run, run, run. He challenges himself to run at a reasonable pace. (He has a “problem” of running too fast!) He keeps updated on what foods to eat. He helps out other runners. I am amazed by the Zen-like approach he takes to running. Ultra-runners must have strength physically and mentally. Why else would you keep running when your body is saying, “Hey! Let’s take a break!”
Best of all, he was the second to last person chosen from the lottery to run this year’s Western States. I have no doubt he will be successful. He knows that trail like the back of his hand. He has the stamina. He has the support. We will be cheering him on. I may even brave the rattlesnakes and poison oak to meet him at some of the harder to reach aid stations. Oh, my.