May 20, 2013

Getting Back Up at the Bishop High Sierra 100k

Me and Race Director Marie Boyd (photo Larry Rich)
(excerpt published UltraRunning Magazine Aug 2013)
Falls on trail take many forms. One of the more common is the slow motion fall. These usually happen when you are feeling a sense of gravitas on the trail, a confidence you get from being out there for a few hours. One minute you are running along feeling like you're on top of the world. The next minute your foot strikes something other than the ground underneath you and your body begins falling like a giant sequoia. Timber! Your face, perched like a nest at the top of the tree, is now approaching the ground at an increasing rate.

Your arms begin to windmill desperately. As the nest gains momentum toward the ground your reptilian mind takes over and makes a split decision: either keep flailing your arms like an idiot fighting the law of gravity, or accept your fate and protect the nest. By the time you stop windmilling and position your arms to absorb the impact, you flashback to a time when you were the age of seven doing somersaults on the beach.

Just before slamming into the ground, your reptilian mind tells your body to tuck and roll like you used to do in when you were seven. But it is too late. You hit the ground like a sack of potatoes.  

It was 2:00 in the afternoon. I had been running for six hours. I wasn't sure which was hurting more, my body or my ego. I had fallen five times. Blood, seeping from my hands and knee a few hours earlier, had become a crusted black scab of dirt and sweat. Fortunately, trickling through my veins was a nice cocktail of endorphins and adrenalin.

As I climbed the steep fire road through the Tungston Hills, surrounded by the towering peaks of the Sierra Nevada’s, my eyes took stock in the scene before me. I was deep inside a canyon looking up to the blue sky above. Low in the sky was a half moon, rising.

This year’s Bishop High Sierra 100k was the first ultra I seriously considered cutting short, if not dropping out of all together. Early in the race, around mile 20, me knee was throbbing, my calf was cramping and a quad injury I sustained a few weeks before was starting to bark at me. I kept asking myself why not just drop out now?

But ultras work in mysterious ways. As the day progressed, I noticed another runner behind me who is running strong. He was wearing a dark blue shirt and a white cap. While everyone else seemed to be slowing down, this guy was speeding up and running away from people. I pushed a little harder, attempting to stay out in front of him. Eventually, I entered an aid station and he was right behind me. As I reached for some water I noticed he didn't stop and continued on running. I gave chase and followed him through a mine field of rocks, heat and sand. I finally relented and watched him run away from me, alone and into the hills.

Frustrated, I reminded myself not to get too excited and to remember to run my race at my pace. By now I'm in total solitude and was working my way through the final section of the 62 mile course. Across the Owens Valley I saw the White Mountains, home of the 4,000 year old Bristlecone Pine Forest, which I planned to visit the next day. With about 10 miles to go, I still had another 1,000 feet of climbing, then a long six mile decent to the finish line.  

Then I rounded a bend in the trail and saw a runner laying on the ground. He was wearing a dark blue shirt and white cap. Only now he was flat on his back. When I realized he wasn't moving I assumed the worst. I quickly approached him fumbling for my salt tabs and water. I asked him questions to see if he was conscious.  He responded, telling me he needed to rest because he was really hot. I offered my water and some electrolytes. He took both. I asked him if he was OK. He assured me he was. 

I proceeded to the Sage Summit aid station which was only a half  mile up the trial. I explained the situation to the crew and suggested someone drive up the hill and offer help. But before the crew could scramble a car I looked up the hill and saw him trotting along as if nothing had happened. Wow, I'm thinking to myself, this guy is the Terminator. I moved quickly out of the aid station on onto the trail.

I hustled down the 500 foot descent and out along the trail in the valley below to the turn-around point. Here, like everyone, I grabbed an obligatory poker chip from a bag to prove I had gone the distance. The "my race my pace" philosophy was quickly succumbing to my new found urge to stay ahead of the Terminator. I took a mental note of my time at the turn-around, and I knew that for each minute that passed before I crossed the Terminator on my way back would equal a two minute lead over him. We crossed at 7 minutes and 30 seconds, a fifteen minute lead.     

As I climbed the long switch backs I had just descended I kept an eye on the Terminator. He was was getting smaller as he headed toward the turn-around and I continued to gain elevation. Other runners were making their way down the switch backs and we exchanged words of encouragement. When I reached Sage Summit aid station for the second time I had another six miles of virtually all down running to go. It was then that I finally began to relax and absorb the moment.

Thanks to the Terminator, I reached the finish line with a new found respect for pushing the envelop. I don't know what more one can do than fall to the ground during a 100 kilometer race to show resolve. The Terminator went 120%. What would I have done without him?

I offer a hearty thanks to all the volunteers who provided exceptional support to us runners throughout the entire race, and especially to Marie Boyd for her twenty years of her volunteer service as race director. Marie is stepping down this year as RD and no replacement has been identified. There is talk that this might be the last year for the Bishop High Sierra Ultra Marathons which I hope doesn't become reality. Any takers?



Anonymous said...

I don't believe for one second that you would ever drop !!! Fun read . Whatever it takes to motivate . We need photos damnit !! Good on ya

it's all about pace said...

Nice post Will... funny what a little friendly competition can do

Will Cooper said...

Thanks Bino and Pace. I meant to take my camera during the race but didn't want to be bothered. Maybe next time. Competition helps!

Jukka Kukkonen said...

Come on, you are still young enough to do somersaults when falling :) Congrats on your age group win and beating the Terminator!