Saturday, May 25, 2013

Baby, We Were Born to Run

Best prize ever! Best race ever. I love Born to Run.

It was the surfboard that got my attention, but it was the spirit of the weekend that sucked me in. There really is nothing like it.

And when you get a final letter from the Race Director that starts by laying out the principles around which the race is based, you know you’ve made the right decision.

1. Be kind.
2. Be respectful.
3. Be prepared.
4. Be responsible.
5. No open fires.

These are the directions that Luis communicated to us two years ago when the even was created, and they have been adopted and practiced ever since. Or else, as Luis would put it, "Don't like it? Don't come."

Easy as that.

The Set-Up

And actually, easy was something of a theme for the entire event. It took me less than an hour to pack for for the weekend, including my camping and running gear, and nutrition. The night before the race, I drove up to ranch at Los Olivos, let myself through the gate, then followed the road to the main camping area located near the Start/Finish.

One of the welcoming signs on the ranch, night before the race. Yup, this is the crew I was looking for.

Main camping area in the daytime, with cars lined up along the final stretch

I parked my car along the final stretch leading to and from the Start/Finish area, with the plan that I would be able to hit my car for supplies each time I looped through camp.

I had a bag of extra running gear, another bag with nutrition and random accessories (Power Bars, ginger chews, body glide, extra flashlight, etc.) and a third bag containing groceries (bagels, almond butter, chocolate-covered espresso beans). I arranged these neatly at the back of my car so I could access them quickly the next day.

The night before the race I simply laid out my clothes, set the alarm on my phone, then crawled inside my sleeping bag and looked out the window on my right at the stars... and thought about how lucky I was.

Day of the Race

As I suspected, I woke early and without needing an alarm. The stars were still out, but now sounds of life were starting to emanate from the general direction of the starting area. We had to check in by 5AM, but as it was only 4:20 I just sat up in my sleeping bag, ate a bagel with peanut butter, drank some cold instant coffee from a bottle and contemplated the stars.

Over at the check in, the camp was buzzing with energy. There was a small but steady bonfire with some early-rising runners already huddled around to keep warm. Lines of brightly colored flags crossed in the space above our heads, and a large flag of California as well as the Stars and Stripes swayed gently in the breeze. I chatted in line with some of the other runners; the two behind me were there for the first time, both running the 10 mile race before heading out to the Grand Canyon later on in the week.

Runners checking in, around 4:30AM

At the desk, I checked in quickly with Beverly Escobar then ran back to my car to keep getting ready. I got to the starting line just minutes before the race was about to start and quickly greeted some friends as Luis delivered the final instructions. I love Luis’s speeches so I was sorry to miss it, and I hoped I had not missed any critical new developments... because if so, we all knew whose fault that would be.

My fault.

One of the final rituals before beginning the race, Caleb Wilson stood to deliver the oath of Caballo Blanco: “I solemnly swear that what I am about to do is stupid, stupid, stupid. If I get hurt, lost, or die, it’s my own damn fault.”

We laugh at this oath, but the intent is a good one. We alone take responsibility for what we are doing out there. It’s up to us to make good decisions, understand what we are capable of, and take ownership of our actions. By accepting this responsibility and not depending on or blaming someone else should something go wrong, we become stronger and more self-sufficient, not only as runners, but on a personal and individual level. They are good principles to have.

Two Blasts of a Shotgun

Per tradition, the race was started by the firing of a shotgun (heads down!), then we were off down the trail. Then, things went pretty much how most runs go for a while. I ran. For quite a bit. It was awesome. I was awfully happy.

The first loop is the pink one (pink tags, really). It’s ten miles long with about 500 ft of elevation gain. It’s definitely the more gentle loop of the two, with three minor hills and the remainder being flat or downhill. You get to run quite a lot, with the majority on a dirt road or slightly rocky trail, which is mostly wide open.

Running past a field of cows on the pink loop

As for the views, there are hills and trees for miles around, in various shades of gold, green, brown, grey, and red, against a blue sky. Some don’t like the grassy hills so much. I happen to love them. There’s something soothing about the landscape, and the pale gold sweeps of grass. It suits my mood very much as I’m running. It feels peaceful. It's a very special place.

Then, there’s the yellow loop. It has about 1500 ft of elevation, and the climbs are a bit more noticeable but still very slight. The terrain is also a bit more technical in some areas, but mostly due to some gopher holes or the uneven surface on some trails. This is not really a big deal but will be more noticeable at night, when every uneven surface or misstep can throw you off that much more.

Trail on the yellow loop, with cloud cover earlier in the day

It’s also variable enough to keep you interested, while offering longer stretches where you can pick up the pace and really get into a rhythm... that was the really fun stuff right there, and something I don't always get from the mountain races I usually run in.

For the first time in a 100 mile race I felt like I could really get into a zone and just get lost, however momentarily, in the running... and it was awesome. Easy, light, and free, I found myself thinking when I would hit these longer stretches... and yes, I know the expression is really "easy, light, and fast," but in my case, "easy light and free" is just a better fit.

On those sections, I could feel myself relax into the rhythm of the run and just go with it... I felt like I was gliding, like I was free. And it struck me during those moments that this experience, this feeling of flying easily down the path carrying only a single handheld as I ran, ran ran for 100 miles...that this might just be what the entire race was about.

Running free through the hillsides, with a bunch of friends, vagabonds, like-minded fools and amigos as we ran and stumbled and swore and cheered our way to the finish line... this was what was intended.

And for the tenth time that day I considered how glad I was that I had decided to come to this event.  

Enjoying the run, with Heidi Heitkamp and Ken Hughes. Photo by Beth Burrell.

The strategy? Run... pause, eat, drink... then run some more

In terms of any strategy, my main plan was to start running and see how I felt. As I had recently had some issues during races taking in too much salt (then too much water to chase down the salt), I was determined to keep a better eye on salt and water intake. This was my number one concern. Other than that, I would just keep going and take the day as it came.

There were over 200 runners signed up for the 50K, and as we all started together I wondered if this would make for a crowded first loop. I was glad to find this was not the case. The trail is wide in most areas, and we stretched along the route pretty easily. In addition, it was fun to hear the conversations and take a look at some of the characters that were running. Everyone seemed pretty happy. There were more than a few dudes wearing skirts, and one girl in a superwoman outfit. I felt good, so I zipped around some of the runners and settled into my own pace on the trail.

Aid on the Course: First Bill Kee, then Barbie World

There were two aid stations on each ten mile loop - on the pink loop, you hit Bill Kee's aid station first, at what seemed like 2-3 miles in. Then you run for about 4-5 more miles to the Barbie Doll aid station, run by Nancy and featuring some of the naughtiest Barbie Dolls that have even been branded.

Then, you run back home, hit the timing mat that will log you for your last ten miles, hit your drop bag in your car (or the aid station at the campground), and head out on the yellow loop.

Road to get to the main camp: the end of one loop, and the start of the next.

For the yellow loop, you hit the same two aid stations, but in reverse order, so you see Nancy at the Barbie Doll station first, then Bill Kee's aid station, then head back to camp to see the usual suspects. 

Luis Escobar on the main stage at camp. Running Sucks. Pic by Beth Burell.

The aid stations had most of anything we needed: hot food, cold food, cookies, candy, salt pills, TUMS, Vaseline... y'know. All the good stuff. But besides that, for me they also provided a sense of comfort, knowing we had such experienced, no-bullshit ultrarunners on the course. 

Even when nothing is going wrong, it's still good to see them out there, to know they are there. At night especially, there was a feeling of comfort in navigating down the steeply graded hilly section on the yellow loop, hanging a sharp left, then seeing the lights of Bill Kee's trailer and aid station glowing brightly at the bottom of the slope. You knew you could pause there, even if just for a minute, and get that little bit of encouragement and nourishment that you needed before heading on.

In the heat of day they were critical for water, precious water... by night, a kind word and a warm bite of whatever they had cooking. As in previous years, these volunteers were a great asset to all runners on the course.

Ok, now back to the race.

Considering the distance of 100 miles

In each race I always like to break the distance up in my head into more manageable chunks or sections, then focus on knocking them out one by one. For this race, I decided I didn't really like to consider doing ten loops (ten sounded like a lot), so instead I thought of it as three loops, three loops, four loops. That way I could just focus on one of those chunks at a time. It just felt a bit easier.

The first three loops passed quickly, as I thought they would. As mentioned, my main focus during all loops was to monitor my intake of fluids, salt, and calories so I could remain steady for the entire race... I was happy to find that I did this all race with no real issues, but replicating it again in future races will be the trick.

My other focus was to observe the course, and get to know it... not only because that's interesting, but to aid in keeping my bearings on later loops, so instead of just stumbling forward with no real sense of how far it was to next aid station, I would be in tune with where I was on the course.

I also left my watch in the car, deciding instead to just check my time every ten miles as I looped over the timing mat. This was really all the clock-watching that would be needed - regarding pace, I already had a good sense of how fast I could or should be running, and needed no watch to help with that. Regarding nutrition, I decided I would have to be more thoughtful about how much and how often I ingested anything, and just do the best I could without a watch.

I have to say, I enjoyed this aspect of the race - not running with regard to time or an eye on the watch, but just running to run, and based on how I felt - very much. 

So, that was essentially how I made my way through the loops. Focus on the first three, focus on the next three, knock out the last four. During any particular loop I tried to focus on the loop I was in, and moving from landmark to landmark. It worked very well and for the majority of the race I felt steady and happy, with no aches or pains.

Early evening at Born to Run, just after the start of another pink loop.

Even once it got dark, I was enjoying where I was. I was enjoying being out there. And I felt happy by myself, but was also happy to see runners or volunteers again. The only time I started to get into trouble was getting close to the 80 mile mark... by this time, I was starting to get sleepy, which was probably not helped by the fact that I had gotten such little sleep in the few days before the race, an average of about five hours per night (that's just how my schedule is sometimes... it's not ideal in the week before a 100-miler, but it is reality). I knew coffee might help, but didn't really want to pause to drink a large cup of it... though I think I finally did this in my last loop through Bill Kee's aid station.

And you know, it was damn fine coffee. 

One mile to go. One mile to be here.

Finally, I got to it... the last stretch. It was the last mile of my 100-mile event, somewhere close to 4AM in the morning, and I was headed to the finish. It had been great for the first 80 miles, but in the final two laps the fatigue had washed over me, and now I was ready to be done. A nap... a nap was what I was looking forward to the most. 

As I ran I could feel more body tensing up, my impatience to reach the finish line, or even just get a glimpse of it, getting to me. Where is it, where is it, just keep going... I suddenly felt my tiredness, my desperation to be done. I was making silly whining noises. I clenched my teeth to make it stop.

Then gladly, in that moment, I caught myself... I have been getting better at doing that, in those instances when I find myself searching ahead for the aid station, or looking up at the skyline for the peak of a hill or mountain top... those moments when I am not considering the journey, but just anticipating the ending.

Don’t “just keep going,” I thought. Be here, and enjoy this moment. This is something amazing.

I relaxed and let my shoulders creep down, releasing the tension in my neck. My arms and legs began to swing more easily, more fluidly. I breathed out slowly, calmly, and looked up at the sky to the right. It was dark, with thousands of stars, and I could not recall another night when the Milky Way had appeared so bright.

I listened to my breath, to the night, and to the sound of my feet on the dirt. Pat, pat, pat, went my feet on the ground. Easy, light, and free, I thought.

And then, there were the lights of the campground. I picked up the pace and swung my arms and legs faster. I felt awesome, tired but strong, powerful, and in no pain. While most of the camp lay dark and sleeping, there were a few random cheers from cars lining the sides of the course. A few folks were sitting by the bonfire. I would look at who they were just as soon as I finished.

I ran hard across the finish line mat, then looked up at my (unofficial) time of 22:00:09.

LT (Lambert Timmermans) had been in charge of the timing of the event and did a fantastic job of it, and he now looked happily at me from under his sleeping bag in the finishing tent. Then, he looked from me to the clock, and a look of puzzlement crossed his face. He turned back to me once more.

"What, you couldn't go just a few seconds faster?" he asked.

Wrapping it Up

You can guess most of what happened after that... I got my awesome finisher's amulet, and would wait until the next morning to get my plaque and surfboard, which I still find just so cool. After finishing, I was happy to sit by the fire for a while with some of the folks who had been running or helping out at the event, and they very helpfully got me some hot soup and a blanket. After about 30 minutes or so I then made my way to the car, changed, and passed out on my sleeping bag for several hours.

When I woke, it was just getting light and folks were still running. They looked cold and tired as they ran past our cars, but they were still running. I shivered from my sleeping bag and felt awed by their toughness. I had needed to nap and get out of the cold, yet they were still running... I cheered and clapped as they went by the car, then got up in search of breakfast and updates on friends.

Second day, Sunday morning... they are still running. 

My friend Jennifer Davis, nearly done with her first 100-miler. Way to go, Jennifer!

Reminiscing and Results

After the race, the event's Facebook wall was filled with messages from happy runners, crews, friends, and family. Pictures from the Thursday and Friday before the race were posted, so we could laugh and get a sense of the full spectrum of events making up the weekend.

Following that, the results were posted, and it was then that I noticed with interest the way that gender was split among the distances.

In most ultra events, you'll see a field where men are the majority, making up about 60-80% of the field, or even higher. At Born to Run - and this is something I noticed when I was out running on the course - the field was 50% women in every distance except the 100 miler. In the 100 miler, men still outnumbered women by 2 to 1, but in the 10 mile, 50k, and 100k, the field was at least 50% women, and in some cases, higher.

Now that, my friends, is awesome.

What's more interesting, I think it's likely that such gender equality comes not just from the fact that trail running is growing increasingly popular, but due to the nature of the Born to Run atmosphere itself. It's accepting. It's supportive. It's silly. It's good spirited. It's non-judgemental (unless you ask too many questions about where you can find the elevation chart, or where the GPS coordinates for the course are, and then yeah, we might judge you a little bit about that).

It's just plain fun. And that fun comes in all ages, all genders, all speeds, all shapes and sizes, from James Bonnett whipping through the course in a burning 15:58 to Cody Garnett finishing his first 100k at the age of 16.

Many other runners out there were also trying their hand (and feet) at a distance that was new to them. I ran with Vanessa Felts briefly in the first lap of the course, and while Born to Run was her first 50k, she will also be participating in a multi-stage race of over 250k later in the year. She wasn't certain that she can do it, but she is going to try... her inspiration was a friend who did the race a year earlier to raise money for charity. She felt it would be shame if the charitable effort had ended there, so she was picking up the running torch and moving forward with it... I mean, holy cow.

Great role models, all of them - and great reminders that any of us, as long as we are willing to dedicate some time for the training and to learn a little bit about the trail and what is needed, can get out there too.

You don't need to be a certain size. You don't need to be a certain age, or gender. You don't need to have the latest running shoes or arm sleeves, or use a GPS, pacer, a crew - if that's what you like to use and you want to bring them, fine, but you don't need to.

Just bring yourself. A positive attitude. Some firewood. Camping gear, and a donation to the camp. Running clothes for your drop bag, and if you're fussy about nutrition, you need to bring that too, but otherwise... you don't need a lot of stuff to do this. Anyone can get started doing this.

But you do have to be kind. Be respectful. Be prepared, and take responsibility for yourself. Leave no trace.

And by all means, run free.

Future BTR participant... because running doesn't suck. Picture by Luis Escobar.

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