I came bombing into the aid station at the halfway point covered in sweat. It was dripping from the bottom of my Patagonia baggies onto my shoes. One of the volunteers actually asked me if I had been swimming. I wanted to say, “No, I actually just ran 18 miles with 7,500ft of vertical gain in 3:12 minutes. Just off course record pace. It’s also unseasonably humid and the trail is totally exposed.” But I decided a forced chuckle and a smile was more in the spirit of the event. I started chugging the coconut water that my (amazing) crew of one put in my sweaty palm as she fished the two empty hand-held bottles out of the back of my shorts and started refilling them.
I felt good enough at this point. Plenty of energy. The rising temps were slightly disconcerting. It wasn’t even 9:30am yet and I could feel the heat rising off the dirt beneath my feet. I felt like I was somewhere on the brink of dehydration but I could be sure. The runner in 4th place was coming into view. I needed to get moving… I’d been in this aid station for a solid 90 seconds now. Tick tock, tick tock. The clock waits for nobody. My two 20oz bottles refilled and back in my hands, 36oz of coconut water consumed, my left pocket full of jelly beans, I charged back up the trail just as my closest competitor (behind me) came running in. Nine miles to the next aid. Only 5 minutes separating me from first place. Let’s get after it.
Luis Escobar—a great guy, race director and trail runner—promised to deliver a “minimal experience” today in Santa Barbara. 35 miles, almost 11,000ft of vertical gain and only three aid stations in the August heat (it was clipping a cool 105 in some of the canyons) certainly fit the “minimal” bill. This was the type of experience I was looking for: rugged singletrack, lots of climbing and a test of my self-reliance.
I left the aid feeling confident; I’d already done about 75% of the climbing, I was ready to charge the last climb and coast in to the finish (and by coast, I mean careful pick over the huge sandstone boulders consistently peppering some of the most technical singletrack I’ve seen in California).
Three miles later, both of my bottles sucked dry, I was posted on the side of the trail staring in disbelief as I watched huge craters form across my quads, the first time I have ever experienced visible, cavernous cramps in one of my muscles. I tried to grab my foot and perform a simple quad stretch and immediately found myself on the ground writhing in pain from the simultaneous hamstring/calf cramp that my stretch induced. I sat down on a rock and started trying to massage the cramps out of my quads. They didn’t want to let go. It seemed the muscle fibers were bound together like a knot. Tied by an over-ambitious Eagle Scout.
As I sat on the side of the trail, not even a marathon into the relatively short race, I started retracing my steps. What had I done wrong? Had I gone out too fast? Should I have hiked some of that vert? Should I have held my pace on the downhills and saved my quads? Should I have sat in the aid station and drank 120oz of water and let six or seven people pass me in anticipation of the long slog to the next water?
As another runner passed me without a word (yeah, I live in California, even most of the trailrunners here are assholes… as the lead runner passed me on my way into the aid station, my first chance to see a runner coming back at me, I started talking to him, letting him know how impressed I was with his performance and he literally didn’t even look up at me, let alone offer a word of encouragement. I would have been happy with a head nod of acknowledgment but apparently that was too much to ask for, it’s not like were in the same boat out here or anything…) I felt decidedly good about all the decisions I had made up until this point. I had laid it all out on the course. I didn’t save anything for later. I ran all out at any given point. This wasn’t a training run. I ran to win.
If I want to go on a training run and dick around out there, I’ll save my money and do it on my own. If I’m going to sign up for a race, my attitude is never going to be, “I just want to finish” or “I just want to get through it”. That’s an attitude for a training run. If I want to try to get through a certain distance or a certain course, I’ll keep my money and do it unsupported. If I sign up for a race, I want to win. I want to give it everything I have in pursuit of the podium, blow-up or not.
Sure, it might not be the popular point of view. I hear a lot of folks out there talking about the amazing “community” that represents the trail runners that come together at a race. Maybe at some point I’ll be able to experience that… but up until now, it hasn’t happened. Trail running for me is a solitary sport (unless I’m with Wasatch). It’s my escape, my refuge. I don’t want to pollute my favorite activity with a bunch of unnecessary people if I don’t have to. If I sign up for a race, I want to test myself against the competition. I want to see how my training has paid off. I want to hunt for the win, or bonk trying.