Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Desert Solstice Invitational

Everyone thought I was kidding at first, when I mentioned that I had never run a single lap on a track before. Then the smiles dissipated from their faces and they looked at me with that "why is this schmuck even here" expression, as they realized I wasn’t kidding.

photo by Israel Archuletta

I can't begin to tell you how amazing it was to share the track with 21 elite athletes. I was more than a little intimidated, though every single one of them was so incredibly supportive and encouraging. This sport doesn't seem to produce any of the inflated egos that you find elsewhere.

Unfortunately, I did not have one of my best performances. You just can't be perfect for 17 ultras in a year - not if you're truly pushing your boundaries. I had done pretty well at the Ultra Centric 24 hour race, only 4 weeks earlier, so I had some high expectations.  Though I had paid for that performance with swollen kankles and an extremely irritated Achilles' tendon - price paid for 270+ laps, all in the same direction, on asphalt. Afterwards, I had a week of no activity, one of moderate workouts at the gym, one of semi-decent workouts, and a few "test" runs of no more than 8 miles. So, though I had high hopes, I was also extremely worried that I would have to drop out after a couple of hours, limping with a re-injured Achilles. Less than two weeks of no pain, and no high mileage runs, is not the best way to build confidence.

The great news is that the Achilles held up perfectly! That really would have been the worst possible outcome. Unfortunately, with the diminished activity in the previous weeks, required for the healing, I was not up to my A game (I'm sure all the holiday treats didn't help either).

In addition to the the Achilles worries, even after 16 hundreds in the past 1 1/2 years, I was more than a little nervous and intimidated. Desert Solstice is a qualification based invitational, and I had just barely met the minimum qualifications. There were some pretty impressive athletes in the field. And I wasn't even aware of the records attempts.

The race staff was great from the onset. I knew Jamil from many previous Aravaipa races, along with running alongside each other for a few hours at Tushars this past summer.  Hayley Pollack, who handled all of the pre-race correspondence and arrangements was also super accommodating. After emailing her a detailed list of all of the unique items that I normally go through during an ultra, she informed me that the only thing I needed to supply was my energy drink, Shaklee Performance, as you simply cannot buy that in stores. Everything else was provided for me - club soda, bags of Doritos, Justin's hazelnut butter, etc., in addition to the ramen, Coke, and ginger snaps that would be in the aid station area. They even arranged for a local runner, Lisa, to pick me up at the airport and drop me off at my parents' house.  They would have also arranged for a host family for me to stay with, but I was obliged to stay with my own family.

I was one of the few competitions that didn't have their own crew, but that was a non-issue. The adjacent crews were very generous in offering to fill bottles and get me anything I needed. I also realized part way into the race that with all the personal crews, the aid station workers did not have much to do. I would run by and bark out orders like a military general "ramen, lots of broth, not too hot!", or "full cup of Coke, fully fizzed, and three salt capsules!" 400 meters later, someone would be standing out there, handing me exactly what I requested. Who needs a crew?

photo by Israel Archuletta

The race started off well enough. Temperatures were in the 40's, with mostly cloudy skies.  We lined up and took off promptly at 8:00 AM. I typically like to start around the middle of the pack, but then again, that's at a normal race where there are a handful of super fast runners, a bunch of mid-packers, and a whole lot of slower runners. On this day, I found myself at the very back, literally 22nd out of 22 runners, before we even got to the first turn. I tried to enjoy the solitude though I knew people were wondering how the hell this slowpoke made it to an elite level event like this. Quite frankly, that question crossed my mind as well. As I looked around I figured, surely, not everyone here will be running over 140 miles, as I expected to. My first lap was actually a few seconds fast, the second one pretty much right on, as I settled into a pace. I was just starting to get used to everything, heading into the 3rd lap (still well at the rear of the pack), when Swish!  This guys came flying right by me. Before the lap was done, I got lapped yet again, by another guy. Soon enough, there was a constant, intermittent flow of runners passing by with the usual "good job", "nice work", though I'm sure they were thinking "get out of our way, you slug", "go walk at the mall with the senior citizens".
In reality, everyone was extremely nice, polite, and supportive.  The two fastest guys didn't really say much, but that was excusable. I didn't realize it early on, but they were gunning for records. Mark Richtman wound up breaking a number of national and world records, on his way to the 60+ age group world record for the 50K. That's right, I was there, in person, and on the same track as a world record was being set! How awesome is that? And for those non-runners out there who are imagining some old geezer tooling around with a walker for endless hours, think again. I would have had a hard time keeping up with this guy for two laps, if that was all I was running. For 50K, not a chance. I hit my 50K mark about 1 1/2 hours later. Sure, I could have sped up if I was only running a 50K. Then I would have only been 1 hour behind him.

The second speedster out there was Zach Bitter, though I had no idea who he was at the time. For those that don't know, he held the US national record for the 100 mile at 11:47. That's right, 100 miles in less than 12 hours. I say "held" because he now "holds" a new US national record, at 11:41. To see this guy flying by me repeatedly, for 100 miles, and then see him collapse on the track after breaking his own record was just so powerful. Our society is used to watching athletic achievements performed by multi-millionaires, on a big screen, from the comfort of our plush couches. Seeing this, in the very next lane over, is just so real. I heard his labored breathing for hours, felt the wind as he passed me repeatedly, saw the salt caking on his back as he shrunk into the distance. This is what sports are supposed to be about. This is the way to experience it.

As Zach was being helped off the track, I was logging my 70th mile. It would ultimately take me almost 50% longer than him to hit that 100 mile mark.

photo by Israel Archuletta

By the end, I had finished off my 13th 100 miler of the year,  only about 17 minutes slower than my previous 100 mile record, set just a month earlier.  I had also finished with the fastest lap on a 400 meter track that I had ever run, 402+ laps after having run my very first one. The biggest success by far was being able to run an entire 100 miles without any Achilles issues whatsoever, merely 4 weeks after it hurt so bad that I could barely hobble.

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