In the olden days, brave knights would set off on quests to slay the dragon terrorizing their town. Brave knights who trained and dedicated their whole lives for adventures like these; brave knights hardened from battle. Then there were the guys who didn’t train quite as hard as they should have but showed up to the fight anyway, no matter the consequences.
Fast Forward hundreds of years to September 5, 2015: 97 ultrarunners showed up to the starting line of the Los Pinos 50k, affectionately known as “The Beast.” Each runner set out just after 6am to cover 50 of the hardest kilometers of terrain that Southern California has to offer. Among these elite ultrarunners, hanging out towards the back of the pack, was this tall, heavy, out-of-shape guy determined to slay the beast; a man who was out to prove to himself that he could go the distance and not give up, no matter how hard the race got.
The San Juan trail (miles 1-12)
Knowing that this was going to be a tough race, and knowing that I didn’t have time to make up for all the training I didn’t do, I attempted to visualize the win. (I learned about that visualization techniques here) The night before the race I hardly got any sleep. I kept dreaming that I was out running on the trail. I dreamt that I was moving fast up and over terrain, running down the hills, and even visualized that at mile 10 my quads would be burning. I must have visualized too hard because when I woke up, my legs felt like jelly, as if I had been climbing all day.
Race day played out exactly as I thought it would. I was flying down the trail, taking in the sights, jumping over logs, quickly walking up and over hills, and at mile 10, when I was within earshot of the first aid station (Lazy W), my quads started burning. Still I kept moving until I got to the aid station an hour before the cutoff time- 3 hours total.
I was treated like a king, or better yet- a championship fighter, at the aid station with all the people in my corner making sure that I had everything I needed for the next round.
The Los Pinos Trail (miles 12-20)
And so began the toughest leg of my journey.
Just a couple months before, I had attempted to make the crossing, only to give up less than halfway in. This time would be different. I was determined not to quit. (I had a bad habit of quitting that I needed to break)
I knew that once I left the aid station and set foot on the trail, there was only one direction I could move: forward. If there was even a little doubt that I could finish, this was the place to drop out.
I headed out.
The Los Pinos trail begins with a steep staircase up the side of a mountain and then connects to a series of switchbacks that lead over the mountains towards the Los Pinos Peak. Aside from a few downhills every now and then, the trail is essentially 8 miles of climbing on an exposed trail which allows the sun to beat down mercilessly on any soul brave or dumb enough to be out there.
I began my climb. When I got to the top of the first peak, I turned to look down and back at several other racers that had started walking back to Lazy W. I kept walking. A runner on the trail, getting his butt kicked by the climbs, told me that he didn’t think he could make the cutoff and was going to turn back. I remembered that one of the mental hurdles of finishing an ultra was the temptation to miss a cutoff. I had signed up for 12 hours and I was going to keep moving forward until the mountain spit me out on the other side.
On I climbed, all alone on the mountain with no one in front and no one behind. I began slowing down. Out of nowhere, another runner (who I had passed on San Juan)passed me on a climb and quickly disappeared on the trail in front of me.
It was hot, I was tired, and I was covered in sweat. I stopped for a few seconds beneath some shade (a rare find-my attempt at carrying an umbrella failed miserably), and took a few drinks from my camelpak which was almost empty.
Two other guys caught up to me and asked how I was doing, and whether or not I was in need of any supplies. Thinking they were other runners, I just responded, “I’m good. Thanks. Go on ahead.” It turns out they were “sweepers,” the guys in charge of making sure that nobody is left out on the trail. That could only mean one thing: I was the last man on the trail and everybody else was either up ahead, had turned back, or dropped out already.
I said, “I’m almost at the halfway point. I only want to move forward. I don’t want to turn back…but I am out of water.” They gave me water, and told me that they were going to make sure I got out ok. We kept moving forward and eventually made it to the next aid station where they promised “the first 4 miles were hard but the good news is the next 4 miles aren’t any worse.” I laughed, “bring it on.”
Well, the next 4 miles may not have been any worse, but they certainly weren’t any better, and after 16 miles of travel they certainly weren’t any easier. I began slowing down big time. My legs and back were hurting. I couldn’t catch my breath. I kept asking myself “why didn’t I drop at Lazy W? Because I came here to conquer. Keep moving!”
I had to really dig deep to keep moving. I was thinking of my heroes (I had just wrote about Van Damme the night before) and how they wouldn’t give up but would keep fighting against all odds. I was listening to the Sweeper’s talk and tell stories of the times they pushed through their limits, and about how studies have shown that when a person thinks he is at his limit, he is only tapping into a fraction of his potential.
We kept walking and climbing.
Several times my body wanted to stop. I’d regret again not dropping at Lazy W, then I’d pray for the strength to keep moving on, and give thanks that I didn’t quit.
I’d start another climb, move up a few feet, take a break. Climb, move up a few feet, take a break. It was getting late. I looked at my watch and realized I missed the cutoff. Even worse, if I didn’t move faster, we’d be stuck out there in the dark. Time to really kick it into gear.
One sweeper, Jesse (Jerry, if you want to make him angry), suggested counting steps on the climbs to break up the monotony and distract from the pain. The other sweeper, Phil, gave me checkpoints to climb to. “Don’t stop until you reach the top. Little steps. Low gear! Low gear! You got it. You’re gonna be the trail king by the time we’re done with you.”
154 steps later and we made it to the top of the Los Pinos Peak. “Is this the last climb,” I asked. Phil responded, “As long as we’re alive there will always be climbs. One day, we’ll all make the last big climb but you’re not there yet. Keep climbing.” I liked that answer.
We signed the register (hidden inside an ammo can, stashed in a rock) as proof to the world of what had just been accomplished on that day.
We made our way into the aid station (mile 20.5). I thanked the sweepers for all their help, acknowledged that I may not have made it without them, and we parted ways.
I refilled on water, soda, and snacks at the aid station. I was done for the day and I sat down to relax. Then I looked at my watch- 5pm- 1 hour left in the race. When I started that morning, I told my brother Justin (read about his race here) that I was there for 12 hours and I wouldn’t stop moving until the 12 hours were up, whether or not I finished.
I gathered up my gear and started painfully running the final 2 miles down towards the finish line, laughing because I remembered what Phil had told me- “You think you’re done running but you may find a second wind once you get to the aid station.” “I doubt it.”
I flipped the switch in my head from relaxed to determined, and started moving fast down the trail, almost as fast as I did at the beginning of the race, until I crossed the finish line. I was finally done.
I didn’t receive a medal that day. I didn’t even finish the entire race, but I didn’t give up, and I didn’t drop out. I slayed the beast.
As the sun began to set on the Finish line, and I walked back to my truck, I thought about something I had said earlier on the trail. “This is my last ultra for a while.” “Why? You’re on the best training run you could ever ask for. You’re building a strong foundation. You’re gonna be the trail king.” That sounded crazy at the time, but now I agree that it would be a shame to let that foundation go to waste. Phil was right, I’m not done climbing yet.
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