"OH NO!" I thought. "NOT NOW! This can't be happening NOW!"
My pacer Josh Cox and I power hiked up a hill in the pitch-black night towards a finish line that seemed a thousand miles away. We were at approximately Mile 95 of the Rio Del Lago 100-miler, with only one aid station between us and the finish line of what was to be the performance of my life at ANY distance. Or was it? Every muscle in both of my legs was locking up. These were deeply jarring cramps that felt like I was being given electroshock therapy. After this race, I was going to need some therapy. I was now barely maintaining a 23-minute-per-mile pace, stiffly limping up the hillside, wondering if my whole race was about to unravel. I had moved into 3rd overall after rallying from Mile 62 onward in 9th overall (of 109 competitors), running an average 9:09 pace for about the past 33-miles. With approximately 5-miles to go, we had but to maintain a 10-minute-per-mile pace to crack the 20-hour barrier and there was only one big hill climb remaining after this with about a mile to go to the finish. But at the pace we were now going and with the cramps I was having, we'd be LUCKY to crack 21-hours at this rate. This part I knew for sure, if I wanted the sub-20, I was going to have to suffer for it.
**FLASH TO ONE YEAR EARLIER**
Mile 47 at the Angeles Crest 100-miler: things had been quite the up and down roller coaster throughout the day. I had endured devastating fatigue, a rolled ankle, and had survived a less than stellar start. By Mile 45 or 46, I was hitting my first groove of the day. Then it all unraveled. As I climbed Mt. Hillyer, I had the sensation of my lungs filling up with fluid, it was almost like I was underwater trying to breathe though a drinking straw. I began to pray, "Please God, let me make it to the next aid station / checkpoint BEFORE I collapse, I can not go down like this." I made it to Mile 49 and the Mt. Hillyer checkpoint, but my day was over. For the first time in my life, and some 250+ races, I had earned my first 'D.N.F.' (for you non-runners, DNF stands for Did Not Finish -- for you non-ultra running peeps, DNF stands for Did Nothing Fatal).
**RETURN TO RDL CONSCIOUSNESS AT MILE 95**
I may have been physically falling apart, but I was strong mentally. I know the vast difference between the pain of effort and the pain of something far more serious. My legs locking up was not all that different from the last 10k of a marathon. I had simply gone slightly too hard for slightly too long and hadn't maintained the proper balance of fluids and electrolytes. I might have even been in a bit of a calorie-deficit. While a part of me feared utter collapse, and being overtaken by the same two gentlemen I had just passed who now ran in 4th and 5th position in the race, another part of me knew deep down they too were hurting. I pulled some electrolyte caps (Endurolytes) out of my pack and took two, one I broke apart and placed directly under my tongue (a method I learned from one of the amazing athletes I coach, in this case my marathoner Warren Wagner, because you can learn ANYTHING, at ANYTIME from ANYONE if you are willing to have a quiet mind). After two or three more grimacing steps, I stopped and started to stretch. After another deep breath or two I turned to Josh... "3rd place will go to whomever wants to hurt the most. Let's DO this."
**FLASH TO MILE 50**
I am all alone along the winding American River somewhere between Auburn and Granite Bay. I glance down at my watch; it's 4:02pm. 10-hours into the race. I'm going to have to maintain essentially the same pace for another 10-hours as I have for the first half of the race, if I am to nail my stretch goal of running 100-miles in LESS than 20-hours. It is now in the 95-100 degree range and I can see the heat emanating off of the trail. Every now and again the trail tucks back into the hillside for a partially shaded respite from the exposed hillside. At every checkpoint in the mid-day heat, I've put ice in my hat, in the bandanna around my neck and I've soaked my fleece Moeben arm sleeves with ice water, but everything has now dried out and I'm about an hour away from the next checkpoint at Rattlesnake Bar. I know my cavalry has arrived in my pacer Josh, but he's still 5-long-miles away. I'm starting to get sleepy. This is SO not good.
**RETURN TO RDL CONSCIOUSNESS AT MILE 95**
After getting mentally wrapped around actually starting to RUN again, Josh and I crested the hill and found our way back to the bike path that made up about half of the last 4.5-miles of the course remaining. We could see we were at the Folsom Dam, and we knew that the Folsom Dam Park aid station was just about a 5k left to the finish. Every two minutes, I needed another walk break. I was back and forth between cramping and being okay, so I was trying not to go too far over the line. I got too far ahead of Josh momentarily and missed a flour mark directing me to the right. Luckily for me, just off in the distance about 100-yards, I could see the headlamps of runners who were now around Mile 71 and headed out to the turn-around point. I could see they were NOT coming directly at me and knew I had strayed off course. I doubled back about 40-yards, and found the flour marks I missed, and self-corrected. Josh and I were together again and we pushed on towards Folsom Dam Park. We were only 3.75-miles away from being home free!
**FLASH TO MILE 51**
Why am I falling asleep!? I know I am not sleepy-tired nor do I feel like I've overexerted myself thus far in the race. The only reasonable explanation is that I am officially overheating. Since this section was over 7-miles with NO aid, I elected to run with my 70-oz CamelBak, and I left my bottles behind. The only problem with that is I had nothing to pour over my head. Time to get creative... I begin to drink water from my CamelBak, which was iced, spit the water into my hands and wipe it on the back of my neck. I do this again and take off my hat and wet my hair as much as I can. Then I spit the water out on my fleece Moeben arm sleeves. I do this every 15-minutes for the next hour or so just trying to stay as cool as I can. About a mile out from the Mile 55 checkpoint, Rattlesnake Bar, my walkie-talkie starts to make noise... "Jimmy? Are you there?" I unzip my CamelBak and pull out the walkie-talkie (or in this case, is it a runnie-talkie?) and fire back, "this is Phoenix, Martini do you copy?" Kate comes on the walkie... "Hi baby! Josh is here and ready to run! Get here safe! Do you NEED anything?" and I respond, "Yeah, an ICE bath. I'm melting out here. I never intended to live out my call-sign, but I'm going to have to rise from the ashes today. Hopefully I won't get lost this time around (3-years prior, I had taken a wrong turn at this point on the course and got off course and ran an extra mile), and if not, I'll see y'all in about 10-minutes!" I came up to another trail intersection and carefully examined each possible direction... PINK RIBBONS that way! Sweet! This was the place I made the wrong turn before. Mental boost for sure. I came up and over a small and familiar hill, and saw the aid station tents of Rattlesnake Bar.
**RETURN TO RDL CONSCIOUSNESS AT MILE 96**
Every time I start walking, Josh calmly barks at me, "get through this, Jimmy, we're ALMOST there, a sub-20 is within your reach but we've got to keep it going." I glance back over my shoulder halfway expecting to see a headlamp coming toward us, either Mark rallying or John continuing his hard charge towards the finish. I've got to keep going. I come up with a clever idea! "Hey Josh! We've got to at least pretend to feel strong coming into the final aid station so when everyone at that checkpoint sees us coming, then again when they see us leave, there is no hint of us slowing down!" Josh smiles. "That's the spirit!" We take off running and settle into an 8:00-per-mile pace. While in a normal situation this would come across as pure vanity, I knew that if we came limping into the final checkpoint, the race crew for Mark & John would alert them that a wounded duck lie ahead on the course, and to make one HARD push for the finish. The bad news for me, I had to pretend that I was feeling good enough to run 8's for about 200-yards leading INTO the aid station, then again for another 200-yards heading OUT of the aid station. We close in on Folsom Dam Park and Kate and Carrie squeal. I drop my CamelBak, take a quick swig of some chicken noodle soup and Coke, and Josh and I push onward into the night. Only a 5k remains. I glance at my watch again; it's 1:22am. We have 38-minutes to cover 3.1-miles that has one big hill left, what seems like a 0.33-mile climb. Methinks this is going to be close.
**FLASH TO MILE 12**
It's still early in the race. The cool morning air permeates my running clothing. I get into the 3rd checkpoint of the day, Rattlesnake Bar (the first visit) and there are a handful of runners with me. On just the other side of the aid station, Jonathan Gunderson looks up and we make eye contact. "What's UP, Gundy!" Jonathan smiles, turns around and runs out of the aid station. Later in the day, I would finally catch up to Jonathan only to realize that he has completed the Badwater Ultramarathon (135-miles through Death Valley in the dead-heat of July), the Angeles Crest 100-miler (only two weeks prior), and he's putting together an impressive triple. Aid station people yell at me, "What's your NUMBER!?" I reply, "Thirty-Five!" and I'm surprised to hear, "2nd place 100-miler! 1st place just left!" Wait. That can't be right. I tell them they must be mistaken, as there were 5-6 guys ahead of me including the top two guys from the previous two years (Mark and Jon). Nope. Only 53-milers have come through, and relay participants. I look around. Where is Kate!? "Can I borrow someone's cell phone?" The aid station crew threw a fit! "WHAT!? You're in SECOND place and you want to make a phone call!? This is unprecedented!" Little do they know that not only is it NOT unprecedented, last year's runner-up Mark Tanaka did JUST THAT and called his wife at the Mile 67 checkpoint. Per Mark, everytime Norm (the race director) tells the story, the length of his phone call gets longer. It's up to 45-minutes now. "Yes. Please. I need to call my wife, Kate. She has all my stuff." An aid station volunteer hands me his phone and smiles. I call Kate only to find out she's probably another 5-minutes away. I tell her to come pick up my non-functional head-lamp and that I'll meet her again in two hours. I've waited long enough. Gotta hit the trail. Just then, a pack of 5 of the front runners comes barreling into Rattlesnake Bar from behind. "Took another wrong turn! There was a tree that fell across the trail and it didn't look like it usually does. We lost another 8-minutes!" As I ran out of the aid station I was again side-by-side with the legend Mark Tanaka. We ran about two miles together and chatted about life, ultra-running and this race. I finally let him go and settled back into my own pace. But it was nice to hear the thoughts of one of the faster guys out there.
**RETURN TO RDL CONSCIOUSNESS AT MILE 98**
Josh and I have put together a pretty good mile, and one mile of winding, semi-rolling trail remains between us and the FINAL hill climb up past the levy. We are recognizing a road crossing here, a campsite there, a familiar rock where I stopped to stretch on the way out towards the turn-around. Josh reminds me how close we are, "we can SMELL the barn, hang tough, almost there!" We come around another bending turn, and we can see it, the final hill stands before us. A centipede of lights comes cascading down the hill. There is a group of approximately a dozen runners headed out. They are at Mile 68, and I would later learn that they were among the final group who pushed out of the Mile 67-checkpoint right before the rolling closure on the 30-hour time limit schedule. Josh and I choked a little on the dust cloud left behind and started to power hike up the hill. Another glance over my shoulder and I notice amidst the lights moving away from us, there is one pointed in our direction... uh oh. John? Mark? I hike up the hill a little faster. I turn around and that light is gone. Maybe one of the dozen runners that just passed us had turned around momentarily? No time to worry about it. We're almost done!
**FLASH TO MILE 40**
I come into the No Hands Bridge checkpoint. It's really starting to get hot. I look at my watch, it's 1:15 in the afternoon. I throw another handful of ice into my running cap and glance over the side of the bridge at the American River below. "Dear God that looks nice" I mumble to myself. One of the aid station volunteers hears me. "There's a waterfall and stream crossing ahead about a mile. You can take a dunk there, if you like!" I thought he must be kidding. Sure enough about 10-minutes later I get to a stream crossing. I pause for a moment, then say, "what-the-hell, I might as well!" I tear off my shoes and socks, wade into the cold water, and sit down. I move a few bigger rocks out of the way to get deeper into the water. 2 or 3 runners come by and run over the rocks to get across the stream and look at me curiously. The water feels amazing. I sit and soak my legs for what must be 8-10 minutes, step back out of the water and carefully put my socks and shoes back on. My legs feel better than they have ALL DAY. When I start running again, 8:30's feel GOOD! Sweet! As I work my way towards the next checkpoint, I remind myself that I'm not going by anyone else's raceplan today. Only my own.
**RETURN TO RDL CONSCIOUSNESS AT MILE 99**
Josh and I crest the final hill. We can see the lights across Folsom Lake reflecting off the water. Only flat and fast, wide and groomed trail remains. We start to throw down 7:30-per-mile pace. We can see one final light in the distance coming towards us. We're 2/3rds of a mile from home! We pass the gate where the race started in similarly dark conditions, the spot where I stopped to stretch just past Mile 67. Josh and I pick up the pace. It's so close now. We can see the lights of Cavitt Junior High. Our journey is almost over.
**FLASH TO CAVITT JUNIOR HIGH - 5:30AM**
All of the Rio Del Lago 100-miler hopefuls, the Sierra Nevada Double-Marathoners and the relay runners have gathered in the gymnasium for the pre-race speech by Norm Klien, the race director. I am standing next to my friend and a running idol of mine, none other than Jorge Pacheco. Jorge is somewhat fresh off of an impressive victory at what is argued to be the worlds TOUGHEST footrace, the Badwater 135. Badwater is a roadrace from the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, Badwater Basin in Death Valley, where temps in the summer reach a peak of over 120-degrees on most July days. The race finishes at the trailhead of Mt. Whitney Portal, where you would complete your summit of Mt. Whitney. Jorge won and became only the 3rd person to break the 24-hour mark there running the 2nd fastest time ever. Jorge looks at me and says, "Today is your day. You are going to have a great race." I can't even hear the words. Jorge is making me nervous. I get out a broken thank you and the mass of people heads out of the gym and towards the starting line. The epic adventure is about to begin.
**RETURN TO RDL CONSCIOUSNESS AT MILE 99.75**
Christmas lights line the final 50-yards of the course heading towards what literally looks like the "light at the end of the tunnel". The light spilling out of the gymnasium at Cavitt Junior High seems heavenly. As our two headlamps come into view at the school, we again hear Kate and Carrie yell out to us. "Wooooooohoooooooo!" Can this REALLY be real?!? We come off the trail onto the pavement and I see the clock... 19-hours, 49-minutes. We break the imaginary plane of the finish line and I grab Josh. "Holy shit. We broke 20-hours and came in 3rd place! How did that happen!?" Josh smiles a Cheshire Cat like smile. "Great job, dude. You gutted it out. Way to go. You earned this. Enjoy it!" I rip off my shoes and walk to the medical check in, and lay on the table. There are a handful of UC Davis Med Students working on a study on ultra-runners and the stresses we put our bodies through. After a final round of vitals, and a blood sample, I limp back to the the other side of the gym. Somehow, we AVERAGED 9:00-9:15 min per mile pace for the final 38-miles. I don't know how that was possible, as I can now barely take two steps. But I don't have to. This journey is finally over. Moments later, Mark Tanaka crosses the line and not much more than one-minute later John Souza crosses. We all shake hands and congratulate each other. I can not wait to get back to the hotel and shower. I must smell something awful. I have cut 6-hours, 38-minutes off of my only other 100-mile finishing time. 10-months of dedicated trail running, cross training and heat acclimating. I can finally look forward to some rest. For now.
The Western States 100 is in 9-short months. I intend to train hard, peak well and taper smartly. At Western States, the sky's the limit...