Like most stories, this one could begin almost anywhere. At conception. At birth. On the day I first began running. At the moment I discovered that, more than almost anything, I loved running through the woods, feeling an integral, primitive, living part of the planet.
Perhaps the best point to begin, though, is at the moment I paid my $30 entry fee. Thirty dollars, after all, is not just three sawbucks. It is, rather, a commitment -- in this case a commitment to run 50 miles. And so I sat, a detached observer far above my checkbook, watching myself sign on the dotted line. Apparently I was actually going to do this thing.
For five years I had heard of Le Grizz, a 50-mile race in Montana. Out of love for this event, friends from Spokane had driven long distances, camped in freezing weather, avoided dangerous (although unseen) predators, and run, walked and ultimately dragged themselves to a distant finish line. Then, trek completed, they had soaked in hot tubs and consumed beer and pizza until the pain subsided, leaving only the memories of an extraordinary adventure to relate to friends back home. Most, it seemed, remained delirious for days, professing to having enjoyed themselves.
I found this interesting. I had always been fascinated with ultras, had once, while on an overseas exchange during my sophomore year in college, even considered running 70 miles from the English town where I lived to the ancient monument of Stonehenge. The point? Some sort of neo-Druidic experience, I suppose, an athletic-religious-cosmic adventure. My friends thought I was nuts, and talked me out of it.
Years later I ran my first marathon, and learned that it was not easy to run mile after mile after mile after mile. Eventually, the balance in the struggle between body and mind, in which the determined mind promised to prevail, would tilt in favor of the body which, bereft of glycogen and dignity, would simply refuse to function. Decimated, the body would always win. Or was that lose?
Strange things could happen in a race of only 26 miles. What lay in the void beyond?
"Fifty miles is a whole new world compared to the marathon," noted the Le Grizz entry form. "It is a world of new knowledge of oneself, of self-actualization, and of brotherhood."
One suspects that this line was penned in the delirium of postrace hot-tubbing. Still, its lure was considerable. It may be difficult to pin down the peculiar attraction of exploring the extremes of human athletic possibilities, whether one is talking about climbing Mt. Everest, swimming the English Channel, or doing one's personal equivalent of the absurd. It is, I think, the point of life to explore the boundaries.
For years, 50 miles sat on the burner in the back of my mind, simmering. Eventually, I succumbed.
The Night Before
On the evening before my first 50-miler, the moon that rose over the mountains behind the Spotted Bear Ranger Station was a real moon. Not a fat, lazy, mellow-yellow harvest moon or one of those fuzzy, sociable kind of orbs that smiles over urban landscapes. Rather it was a piercing, ice-cold, nasty, I'm-the-eye-of-the-universe sort of moon that scattered the stars, scared wildlife, quieted the rocks and glared at all of us assembled at the campground below. We were, the moon let us know, unlikely to get much sympathy from Mother Nature for what we were about to do.
The temperature was falling like a stone through ice water. Before dawn, it would hit 15 degrees. October at 3,500 feet in the Rockies is a gamble with loaded dice.
"There is always the outside chance, this being Montana," noted the Le Grizz entry form, "of foul, horrible weather."
Actually we were lucky. The forecast showed no signs of the snow, sleet, wind or rain that visited Le Grizz in 1984. "Runners alternated between feelings of depression and stupidity as the start time approached," noted the report of that year's event. Five people who had completed a 100-mile run that same year failed to finish.
This year it was simply cold. Naked cold. Dazzling moon cold. You could see clearly a half mile to the other side of the river. It was cold there, too.
Those who run ultras, though, thrive on extremes. It is not enough, you see, to simply run 50 or 100 miles from point A to point B. Along with that, one gains status by withstanding extremes of temperature, navigating narrow trails and scaling thousands of feet of elevation in regions where the air is too thin to permit normal aerobic activity.
In terms of ultra extremes, Le Grizz is fairly moderate. The road is rocky and uneven much of the way, but it is a real road, not a trail. There are hills, certainly, but no mountain passes to scramble up and down. The elevation is 3,500 feet, high enough for one to notice an altitude effect but not enough to whimper and wheeze about. And although the temperature that weekend would threaten to freeze eyebrows to forehead, at least it would not threaten dehydration.
Still, to enter Le Grizz I had been asked to sign the following: "I understand that participating in the Le Grizz 50-Mile Ultramarathon may subject me to injuries and illnesses, including but not limited to hypothermia, frostbite, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, physical exhaustion, animal attack, falling trees, road failure and vehicle accident."
Yes, I understand. I signed. And I paid my thirty bucks.
I wasn't alone. More than forty similarly disposed adults had signed up for Le Grizz, up from twenty-five the year before. Most of us were gathered along with family and friends within a 5-foot radius of the campfire at the Spotted Bear Campground, trying to carbo-load before the pasta froze. Five feet was the approximate range at which fire overcame cold, at least on the side of one's body turned toward the blaze.
Experienced ultrarunners in the crowd seemed strangely calm. Huddled around the fire that evening, they spoke of past 50- and 100-mile runs with less obvious passion than one would expect of runners completing their first 10K. Life-threatening situations were treated as part of the sport, major bodily failures as amusing anecdotes.
Among the group were Rick Spady and Jim Pomroy, two Montana runners who between them had won all five Le Grizz runs. Spady, the faster of the two with the Le Grizz record of 5:50:56, was in charge of firewood, a job that appeared to be a reflection of his nature rather than a specific obligation of the course record holder. From time to time, Spady would kick a spent log, sending sparks flying and settling the fire, then he'd add more wood to revive the blaze. Meanwhile, Pomroy tried to explain that running 100 miles is not really all that tough, once you adjust your attitude to enjoy the social aspects of the event.
"There's a lot more going on than with a 50," he offered.
I've stood around a fair number of campfires in my life, and they all seem blessed with the same purpose: to evoke memories, inspire philosophy and shake loose a few tall tales. Staring across the fire, one sees friends and strangers lost in thought. Their eyes reflect the glow of embers from the fire, suggesting the kindling of the mind. It is the look of human beings at peace, and it is the look one imagines in the eyes of ax murderers just before the massacre. It is a look of ambiguous calm, and it was on the faces of the ultrarunners that evening.
As the night chill clamped down, most folks headed for the relative warmth of their campers, tents and sleeping bags, leaving only a few seasoned ultrarunners around the fire to tell tales of Leadville, Western States and past Le Grizz struggles. They looked like woodsmen, hunters, or perhaps creatures that came sneaking out of the woods in the middle of the night.
But they were simply runners of long races, about to begin another. In the midst of long pauses in the conversation, their eyes gave indication of the calmness one needs to stare in the face of the long, hard road ahead. And above them, the eye of the moon blasted its icy light across the wilderness, promising nothing but the indifference of Nature to human dreams.
It was a rough night in the forest. In theory, I had the best accommodations within 50 miles of the starting line. The camper I had rented came complete with kitchen, toilet and sleeping areas for myself, my wife Bridgid, and our two daughters, Kaitlin, age 4, and Catherine, age 2. More important, it had a heater.
In spite of all this luxury, I thrashed around inside the thing all night, trying to find a spot where I could stretch out and sleep. The floor was long enough, but the heater blasted hot air through a vent there, disrupting my sleep and threatening to burn my sleeping bag. The back of the camper was quieter, but space was limited. I shifted back and forth between the two spots all night, trading kinks in the legs for dreams of setting myself on fire, and managing only a couple of hours of sleep. Sleep deprivation became one more hardship to suffer in the spirit of ultrarunning.
The Le Grizz entry form says this about the legend of Hungry Horse: "Two husky freight horses, Tex and Jerry, working in the rugged wilderness of Flathead River's South Fork area, wandered away from their sleigh during the severe winter of 1900-01. After struggling for a month in belly-deep snow, they were found almost starved and so weak that considerable care and feeding were required before they were strong enough to be led back to civilization."
This legend is reported without comment. Like most of the hard truths about this event -- the rocky road, the weather, the devastated muscles, the animals lurking in the bushes -- one need not elaborate. Awaking on the morning of the run, my thoughts turned to food. I ate cereal, cookies and whatever else seemed to speak the language of carbohydrates. Though not full, my stomach was engaged, hopefully giving my body a chance at survival.
Outside the camper, runners and friends scurried back and forth, puffing clouds of warm breath in the air while searching for food of their own. Many were dressed in custom-made yellow and black tights, the uniform of the day for those of us from Spokane. In the midst of apprehension, the gaudy tights helped lighten the load. Pulling on my own, I left the warmth of the camper and went hunting for the race director, Pat Caffrey. He was busy handing out race numbers at one end of the parking area.
Caffrey is the force behind Le Grizz. He is the race director, the starter, the man in charge of awards, one of the sport's tallest figures and, most important, the guy who writes such funny things about Le Grizz on the entry form that the reader forgets what a gruesome thing a 50-mile run can be.
"Contrary to Yuppie Myth," wrote Caffrey about the atrocious weather that plagued Le Grizz runners in 1985, "people become wild animals, not environmentalists, when confronted with such a wilderness experience."
It was easy to understand that sentiment. After picking up my number from him and hustling to the line a few minutes before the 8 o'clock starting time, as ready as I was going to be for this thing, I shivered relentlessly as Caffrey delivered instructions, jokes and, at 15 degrees, information on how to buy leftover Le Grizz T-shirts.
"Brrrrr. Grrrrrr," I muttered on the starting line. Others around me agreed.
"Today's temperature is a Le Grizz record," Caffrey noted, grinning. Our lips were too numb to comment. Finally, raising the starting weapon, a 12-gauge shotgun wound with electrician's tape, the man behind Le Grizz fired a single blast that echoed in the depths of the wilderness.
Numb, we were off.
Zero to ten miles
The start of most road races is a flurry of arms, legs, elbows and adrenaline. The start of Le Grizz was more like the opening of Macy's doors on the day after Thanksgiving. People were hurrying, but within recognized bounds of propriety. There was time, plenty of time, to complete the task.
It had been so complicated just getting going that morning -- finding food, going to the bathroom, making sure cars would start (several needed considerable coaxing), deciding on the right combination of clothing, etc. -- that I began to relate to Le Grizz as it should be. Not as a race, but as survival.
I will overcome all this. I will get to the finish.
Other than finishing, I couldn't decide on an actual race goal. To win? To break 6 hours? I had nothing to base expectations on, so I settled on simply running the distance at a comfortable pace and scaling whatever obstacles lay in the road ahead.
In any race, a runner must evaluate training, past successes, failures and present bodily feedback in determining a goal. The proximity of other runners may inspire a response. Should I run with him? In an ultra, the personal evaluation is more critical, the relationship to other competitors, irrelevant. Or at least so I found it. One must focus on one's own ability to travel the distance, not on someone else's.
After a mile or so, I was running with Spady and another runner, Jim Ryan, who was part of a two-man relay. Twenty years of trained competitive responses were suddenly meaningless. In a shorter race, one goes with the leader or gives up the victory. In an ultra, one stays with one's own pace or gives up hope of finishing. I decided to run with Spady only as long as it felt like my own pace.
As the numbness in my quads, hands and face began to subside, I found myself discussing ultra training. Spady argued the value of the weekly long run over extremely high mileage. That system had kept him generally healthy and a top contender in races of 50 and 100 miles.
"If people wouldn't worry so much about the total mileage," said the course record holder, "but would get out there and just keep going for 6 hours, they'd do a lot better."
Six hours. Just keep going for 6 hours. My own longest runs had been 30 miles each, less than 4 hours. On one, I covered my usual 20-mile run, finished back at my house, ate a handful of cookies, drank a glass of electrolyte fluid, and headed out for another 10 miles. Those 30 miles had seemed endless.
Long training runs, the kind that help ultrarunners, require a different perspective. Years ago I tried adding 30-mile runs to my marathon training. One evening in 1977, I left home in the dark on an out-and-back course, 15 miles each way. After half an hour I was running on a major highway, blinded by headlights and contemplating death. After an hour I turned onto a country road and things got quiet, with only the breeze in the trees and the pad of my footsteps disturbing the silence. It was more like a dream than any training I was used to. Suddenly an owl chimed, "Whooooooo ... " from a telephone pole.
I'm sorry, but this wasn't training, this was weird. It was my last 30-mile training run for a decade.
Other than that, my longest runs had been journeys from Spokane to the top of Mt. Spokane -- organized races of 34 miles that climbed 4,000 feet. Those had been difficult, as accumulated fatigue, dehydration and muscular tightness became problems at the same time oxygen was getting scarce and the road was reaching its steepest incline. A few soft drinks after reaching the summit, though, I felt recovered. No problem.
"Yeah, but things get really weird after 35 miles," noted Von Klohe, a Spokane friend and ultrarunner who advised me on Le Grizz training. Ultrarunners are always saying things like that. Then they chuckle.
As Spady and I ran along discussing ultra training and racing, the splits he reported from past Le Grizz runs made me nervous. The man was talking 6:10 and 6:20 mile pace, much faster than my own plans. Hearing that, I was anxious for a reason to let him go. That opportunity came at about seven miles in the form of my support crew -- my family. As we headed up a slight incline, I spotted them ahead.
Le Grizz weekend represented a watershed for the Kardongs. It was our first night of camping together, at least if an evening in a heated home on wheels can be called camping. Things had gone well so far, but Bridgid and I were both apprehensive about how well our two girls would tolerate six hours of riding in a camper while Dad slowly whittled himself to a nub. To get them in the spirit of things, I had put Kaitlin in charge of cookies for dad.
Seeing my crew alongside the road at seven miles, I drifted off Spady's pace, slowed, and stopped for aid. Kaitlin handed me a bag of unopened cookies. Bridgid was in the camper, changing Catherine's diaper.
A well-trained support crew is essential for ultrarunning success, providing quick access to fluids, food and emotional support. As I ripped open the package of cookies, I realized I had forgotten to give my crew any information about what it was they were supposed to do.
Up ahead, Spady and Ryan were disappearing around the turn.
Ten miles -- 1:06:48
I'm not sure exactly how fast I expected to go through the various mile points, but 1:06:48 at 10 miles, with one aid stop and a pee break, seemed about right. I was running steadily, comfortably. Spady and the relay runner, Jim Ryan, were nowhere in sight.
The main problem I had faced on the road so far, other than an undertrained support crew, was clouds of dust from support crew vehicles. It had been a dry summer and fall in the Rockies. As vehicles leap-frogged from aid station to aid station, billowing clouds of dust choked the air, smothering those of us on foot. The only option was to stay to the side of the road and breathe sparingly when a vehicle passed.
Spady had speculated earlier that the dusty conditions would last until about 15 miles, at which point the bulk of the traffic would be behind us, and the air would clear. That proved to be only slightly off the mark. After 10 miles, dust and traffic began to fade, replaced by the full beauty of the countryside through which Le Grizz travels.
Hungry Horse Reservoir is on the western side of the Continental Divide in northwestern Montana, just south of Glacier Park. Waters from here flow in convoluted fashion through Montana, Idaho, Canada and Washington, eventually joining the Columbia River. The Le Grizz course follows a road along the southwest side of Hungry Horse Reservoir, affording participants who are still in control of their faculties an exquisite view across to the Great Bear Wilderness area.
The sight itself is worth the drive -- though perhaps not a 50-mile run -- especially in the fall. In this part of the country, most of the conifers just hunch their shoulders and settle in for the winter with no major transformation. The tamarack, though, a species of larch, changes from green to gold, then drops its needles like any deciduous tree. At the same time, aspen, birch, cottonwood and alder are busy turning color among the evergreens, and on Le Grizz weekend, hues from green to chartreuse to deep yellow are splashed across the hills. The aspen in particular stand out among the forest giants, brilliant gold, shimmering with the slightest breeze as if charged with electricity.
On this day, too, the moon had joined the scenery, preceding us most of the way. Hanging there just above the trees, it had grown less and less harsh in deference to the ascendance of the sun and the blueness of the sky. It had, I imagined, given up glaring at us, grumbled, and simply shrugged in grudging acceptance of the lunacy of human beings.
Now that the dust had settled, running through this scenery became distinctly pleasurable. I passed ten miles without much effort. Fifty miles began to seem possible, reasonable, even easy. The view was gorgeous, my legs felt strong, and the temperature had warmed to a comfortable level. I was really enjoying myself.
The attraction of Le Grizz, the combination of scenery and challenge, became clear. It was the opportunity to run without effort through natural splendor. It was the calm of the forest and the joy of self-propulsion. It was the combination of two loves, running and wilderness, that induced euphoria. I smiled. This was wonderful. And then, at 12 miles, I hit the first big uphill.
It was no monster, just a steady, continuous upgrade of perhaps a half mile. When it was gone, though, I was no longer euphoric. I was no longer convinced of my ability to travel another 40 miles. My quads had complained on the way up, the first signal of problems lying ahead. With five hours of running left, the joy of the forest began to give way to the reality of the long road through it.
As euphoria disappeared, though, misery didn't immediately take its place. That would come later. Instead, the next few miles became a task, a goal within a goal: I must get to the 20-mile mark.
Mentally, running 50 miles is the process of putting miles behind you. Ten miles represented one chunk, 20 miles another. It's a little like filling a garbage bag with aluminum cans. Crush the can, throw it in the bag. Crush another, throw it in the bag. Crush it, bag it, crush it, bag it, crush it, bag it. It is not an elegant process, and at times it seems both endless and meaningless. Eventually, though, the bag is full.
That may not sound like fun, but it isn't agony either. There were some rather pleasant times between 10 and 20 miles, as I alternated running in sub-freezing temperatures in the shade and warmer spots where sunlight was able to squeeze through the trees onto the roadway. Gloves went off in the sun, back on in the shade. All in all, the rhythm of those miles was enjoyable.
At one point a man in a pickup truck pulled up beside me, rolled down his window, and asked, "How far you goin'?"
The response was a big toothless grin and a shout of "Good luck!" Then off he drove.
In the wilderness, where folks spend countless hours hunting deer, gathering firewood, climbing mountains, angling for fish and otherwise passing huge amounts of time entertaining themselves, a man in black-spotted, yellow tights running 50 miles was only slightly odd. In the forest, solitary human weirdness is expected, even appreciated.
At 13 miles my support crew appeared again, better prepared this time. I took a swig of defizzed Pepsi, asked them to meet me in another three miles or so, and trotted off.
I was feeling fine, though at 15 miles it occurred to me that on most days this would have been one of my longer training runs. I noticed fatigue beginning to creep into my quads, and I worried that this was too early to be having problems. I had hoped to avoid any noticeable aches and pains until much later.
At 17 miles, my support crew showed up again. Kaitlin handed me a half glass of Pepsi, while Bridgid announced that I was ahead of Spady.
"I don't think so," I answered. "He went ahead at the first stop, and I haven't passed him."
"The only guy I've seen is that other runner," she said, referring to Ryan. "I'm sure you're ahead of everyone else."
"I don't think so."
I downed the pop and headed off again. Whether I was in the lead or not seemed irrelevant. The key was to relax, conserve energy, try to go with the flow.
I hadn't even reached halfway yet, but already the tightness was growing, from my stomach to my knees.
Twenty miles -- 2:12:58
Twenty miles. A long Sunday morning training run, the kind that drains my legs for at least a couple of days. This time, though, 20 miles was only the beginning. Thirty more lay ahead.
My time, 2:12:58, encouraged me. My pace had held up nicely for the second 10. Later I would figure my overall rate at this stage as 6:39 per mile, but for now, inept as I am at midrace arithmetic, I simply realized that I was running the same basic speed I had run during the first 10, well under 7-minute pace.
Earlier, just getting to 20 miles had seemed crucial. Now, having reached that mark, the goal became 30: I've got to get to 30. Relax, forget about the miles, just get to 30.
Right before the checkpoint I had passed Ryan, and I began to suspect that Bridgid was right. I was in first place now. Spady's fate was a mystery, but whatever had happened to him, his crew was nowhere in sight. Apparently I was in the lead.
Was there wisdom in that? As a neophyte ultrarunner I was on thin ice. Was I running too fast? Was I feeling fatigue too early in the game? Had Spady figured that, left to my own devices, I would dig my own grave, and did he therefore trick me into taking the lead? That seemed unlikely.
Whatever the answer, I consciously slowed down. Seeing my support crew a short while later, I stopped for more fluid and a molasses cookie, hoping to delay the inevitable crash into the wall at the end of the trail of dwindling energy reserves.
As every marathoner knows, there is a point near 20 miles when the body sends notice that it has had enough. Running becomes geometrically more difficult, fatigue encompasses the body, collapse is imminent, depression sets in. All this happens very suddenly. Marathoners call this "the wall."
The wall seems to be primarily the result of the body's inability to store sufficient energy in the muscles to carry it as far as the mind claims it wants to go. As stored sugars in the muscles, glycogen, run low, the body secures more and more energy by metabolizing stored fats. That process feels different, physiologically and psychologically. It is much, much harder.
Training for ultrarunning is a matter of teaching the body to metabolize fat for energy, something that is accomplished through long training runs, which explains Spady's advice that aspiring ultrarunners "just keep going for six hours" once a week. Strategy for ultrarunning also depends on learning how to eat during the run. Consuming calories early can help delay the wall.
That isn't as easy as it sounds. To eat is to fill the stomach, which then asks the body to devote resources to the digestive process. That's not reasonable when the legs are fully employed. Somebody loses, almost always the stomach. I've never been able to run after eating without developing stomach cramps of one sort or another. Thus, in shorter races I run hungry to avoid stomach distress. In an ultra, though, that's risky, and most runners opt for stomach discomfort rather than collapse. In my own case, I was hoping that the combination of sugary pop and the occasional cookie, both easily digestible, would represent a reasonable compromise.
Any attempt to keep the body adequately supplied with energy during an ultra, though, can only be partially successful, and I knew I would eventually be running on empty. Even as early as 20 miles, I was beginning to feel slightly dizzy, moderately disoriented.
In an ultramarathon, one discovers that, as the Zen masters have always insisted, body and mind are inseparable. The mind does not sit in the skull, riding happily along as it pilots the body from point to point, detached from the organism's needs. As the body staggers, so does the mind. They are friends -- connected. If you don't believe me, try a 50-miler.
Earlier, my running body had helped produce euphoria. Now the body was doing a bang-up job of foisting paranoia on the mind. There were, I was convinced, predators watching me run.
The Le Grizz entry form, a.k.a. Pat Caffrey, says the following about midrace wildlife: "The road is lightly traveled in October (before hunting season) and goes through wild mountainous country where grizzly bear still roam. Other mammals, such as deer, elk, moose, black bear, mountain lion, bobcat and coyote are common."
In this year's final instructions, Caffrey had added the following: "The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has been trapping our grizzly bears from the west side of the reservoir. Six have been removed recently. If this continues, you may be running `Le Traps!' "
Ultrarunners may be able to laugh at adversity, but when you get right down to it, grizzly bears are not funny. Like sharks, they eat people, and generally without benefit of music.
"Don't worry," a ranger at Glacier Park once told me, "grizzlies will only attack if you surprise them, invade their territory or come between them and their cubs." Three things, I explained to him, that a runner could do without realizing it.
Grizzlies are both unpredictable and quick on their feet. A grizzly bear can run up to 30 miles an hour, meaning it could give Carl Lewis a head start and still feast on his carcass at 80 meters.
So there I was, running out in front of the ultra parade, a mostly solitary figure traveling through the wilderness enjoying the scenery, when it suddenly dawned on me that I was hearing crackling noises in the bushes.
I've spent enough time in the woods to know that even a tiny animal, a chipmunk for example, can make a lot of noise. A bear, then, ought to sound like a rockslide as it snaps branches, crushes dry leaves and generally bullies its way through the forest. This is what my rational mind, insisting on its ability to make an objective judgment about the cracking of twigs, wanted to say. But, I tell you, the mind is connected, in this case to a body short of fuel.
The bear could be standing very still, the mind mused, waiting to run me down. He's probably watching me right now. My black-spotted tights, which accent the giraffe-ness of my legs, are probably invoking some sort of predatory response at this very moment.
In past Le Grizz runs, one of the Spokane runners had spotted a pile of fresh bear dung in the road. Right about this point in the race, my weakening mind noted. Another Spokane runner had responded to the crackling and crashing in the underbrush by stopping to throw rocks, a sure sign of glycogen depletion.
I told myself that, should I suddenly encounter a big Yogi, I would respond appropriately, which meant ... well, anyway, I would not throw rocks. Meanwhile, as I continued toward the halfway mark, I tried to relax and imagine that the sounds I was hearing were made by chipmunks, birds and other creatures that used to delight Snow White, and not by the sort of animal that can remove a runner's head with a single swipe of its paw.
Marathon -- 2:56:14
In the 1976 Olympics, I ran the marathon in 2:11:16. Thus, a time 45 minutes slower than that should not have pleased me, but it did; 2:56:14 seemed much better than I might have expected.
There is no such thing as an "easy" marathon. Twenty-six miles of easy running still produces muscles that are sore, tight and fatigued and a mind that is tired, scattered and testy. Body and mind have had it. This, the duo agree, would be a good time to stop.
In the very first Le Grizz Ultramarathon in 1982, runners crossed this point, indicated by "26.2 miles" written in red paint in the road, and immediately observed an arrow pointing down the road with the inscription: THE UNKNOWN. One imagines Pat Caffrey on the evening before the run, grinning devilishly as he painted this.
Passing the marathon point this time, I had several thoughts.
One, I was more than half way. There were fewer miles to go now than I had already covered. The feeling was similar to what I've experienced during a track workout after completing six out of ten quarter-mile repeats. An odd sort of relief blossomed. The garbage bag was more than half full.
Two, I needed to get to 30. In an ultra, the satisfaction of reaching a mile point is short-lived. I wanted to be at the next major milestone immediately.
Three, I needed a potty stop. My stomach had been bothering me for the past 10 miles, and I thought a trip to the bathroom would help. Seeing my support crew ahead, I pulled over and headed for relief.
There is a Disney cartoon in which Goofy puts on a pair of stretch pants without taking off his snow skis. That's how I felt trying to do my business in the tiny camper toilet. I figured afterward that it had taken at least three minutes, most of which involved logistics rather than function. Another 30 seconds or so was also spent convincing Kaitlin and Catherine that they didn't need to visit me during this particular activity.
Back on the road I felt much better. The fresh runner from the relay team had passed me during my break, and I wouldn't see him again until the finish. Part of me was worried that Spady had also caught up during my prolonged pit stop. Mostly, though, I was concerned about monitoring vital signs rather than staying ahead of anyone.
During the next few miles, a collage of thoughts, experiences and observations from earlier in the run reappeared: euphoria, despair, impatience, fear of encountering a grizzly, determination to finish, and admiration of the scenery, which now included the brilliant, robin's egg blue waters of Hungry Horse Reservoir. It was difficult, though, to focus on any one of these for long.
My support crew was stopping every two miles now instead of every three, in deference to my flagging spirits. Just short of 29 miles, I came up a rise huffing and puffing, then stopped in front of the camper. Squeezing one nostril at a time, I blew my nose on the ground, something I wouldn't do in a crowded elevator but which seemed fairly acceptable in the midst of a 50-mile run in the middle of the forest.
When I looked up, I noticed Kaitlin staring at me in disgust and bewilderment. In her experience with parents, this was a new phenomenon. Bridgid noticed her reaction, too.
"Is that the way you blow your nose, Kaitlin?" asked Bridgid.
Kaitlin made no response other than to continue staring in disgust at her once-proud father.
Thirty miles -- 3:25:20
With 20 miles -- the length of my long Sunday morning training runs -- still remaining, I found little solace in reaching the 30 milestone. There were too many miles left.
My time, 3:25:20, evoked no particular response. Was it good or bad? I couldn't even figure whether I had slowed down since the 20-mile mark, though in fact I had.
More important than my elapsed time was the information I had forgotten to share with Bridgid. I had meant to warn her about the drastic deterioration of my personality that I expected to occur soon. When blood sugar is low, one begins to realize how dependent the organism is on maintaining a proper chemical balance. The "personality," a supposedly fixed set of human traits and attributes, proves to be about as permanent as Mt. St. Helens. Ordinarily reasonable, pleasant folks become nasty, whining, hopeless idiots. The runner becomes acutely disagreeable as his or her digestive system cannibalizes the body for fuel. It's best to steer clear of such folks.
My support crew, though, had agreed to stay with me, and had thus relinquished the perfectly reasonable possibility of turning me over to the grizzlies when I began to get rude. At present, we were all entering a danger zone of intrafamily relationships. When the camper appeared again, I vowed to issue a warning.
"Do you need anything?" Bridgid asked nicely.
"No, but I'm going to start getting nasty pretty soon," I answered obliquely.
Bridgid has seen me depleted before. She knew exactly what I meant.
For the next few miles the road seemed to climb steadily, until it was fairly high above the reservoir. It was hard going, and I labored. At 33 miles I stopped for fluids, nearly threw up from the ensuing nausea, and was walking to regain my equilibrium when Bridgid pulled up beside in the camper.
"I think you slowed down a bit," she said innocently, forgetting about the depletion. I stared ahead morosely and kept walking. Fortunately, I was not in possession of a weapon.
Things were getting worse now. My quads had been beaten to exhaustion, and my stomach grew more and more uneasy with each step. I passed 35 miles in 4:01:11, which meant -- miraculously, I was actually able to figure this out -- I had 2 hours to complete 15 miles to break 6 hours. That goal seemed questionable, though, and I decided to concentrate instead on just finishing.
Suddenly some kind of large bird, a pheasant perhaps, took flight from the bushes. He may have been frightened, but I was terrified. My heartbeat soared.
I began to feel the way I had at the Ultimate Runner -- a pentathlon of running events I had participated in two years earlier -- when I reached the final miles of the marathon. I would travel one mile at a time, rewarding myself with a short walking break and drink at each mile marker. I asked my support crew to leap-frog one mile at a time with me.
I was surprised at this point that, though obviously suffering from depletion, I hadn't developed a craving for sweets. That would come soon. For now, though, I just concentrated on reaching the 40-mile mark, while the thought of a nice, long soak in the hot tub later that evening buoyed my spirits.
Forty miles -- 4:38:17
I was entering a world not of sight or sound but of mind. And the signpost up ahead reads: "LE GRIZZ -- 40 MILES."
"Ultramarathons are for the patient and calculating runner," says the Le Grizz entry form. "You are expected to monitor your own well-being. You are in charge of your body, your mind, your run."
Well, maybe. At 40 miles, though, it sure as hell didn't feel like it.
My mind kept returning to Von Klohe's remark, "Things get really weird after 35 miles." That observation seemed closer to the mark.
The next five miles would be the hardest of the day. Along with the general beating my legs had taken, my stomach continued to rebel, and my mind drifted from thought to thought like an explorer without a compass. At one moment I would be convinced of my ability to win my first 50-miler in less than 6 hours. The next moment I would be struggling against the urge to walk the rest of the way to the finish, whatever the outcome.
A good part of my concern during these miles was in having Bridgid stop the camper exactly at the mile mark, not 50 or 100 meters down the road. For Bridgid, though, driving along searching for the white mile marks in the road proved to be incompatible with the job of supervising two camper-bound pre-schoolers. Mile after mile, she missed it. Mile after mile, I repeated my whining request that she be exactly at the mile point next time.
"I don't know why it's so important to me," I told her at 43 miles, "but please stop right on the next mark."
This is the kind of behavior that seems so foolish later on, when one has a Snickers bar in one hand and a beer in the other. Unfortunately, at this point in an ultramarathon, it is the sort of behavior that seems divinely ordained. It was crucial that Bridgid stop where I directed.
As I came up to the 44-mile mark, I became incensed. She was not there! After all my begging, she still wasn't on the mark! I cursed, and may have even picked up the pace a bit in anticipation of seeing the camper around the next turn. She wasn't there either. One more turn. Still not there. Suddenly I realized the awful truth: She had missed stopping at 44 miles altogether. I would have to run all the way to 45 miles!
God, what a cruel, cruel world it was, in which a man had to run two miles without a support crew. I screamed something into the forest. Something about Bridgid. To this day, only the trees and wildlife know what it was.
I wanted to cry, to stop, to lie down and never get up again. Somehow, though, I kept going, step after painful step. Finally, an eon or so later, I reached 45 miles.
"I can't believe you missed the last mile point," I whimpered.
"I'm sorry," Bridgid replied. She seemed sincere.
My time at 45 miles was 5:18:40. I drank another half glass of defizzed Pepsi and walked down the road. Ten seconds later I threw up.
It wasn't a pleasant experience, but neither was it anything to get upset about. Just one of those things that happens when you run longer or harder than you should.
Kaitlin and Catherine watched in horror, though, while Bridgid tried to assure them that everything was all right. A few seconds later, I started running again.
Running was the only thing, after all, that would finally bring peace. At 45 miles, I was a battered, exhausted, drained and nauseous wreck.
"It never always gets worse," Dan Brannen, long-time ultrarunning aficionado, had said. He advised me not to forget those words during those miles of Le Grizz when the downward spiral of bad to worse to even-worse-than-that seemed unbroken, infinite.
"Eventually," said Brannen, "something will get better."
And it was that advice, that odd nub of wisdom, which rang truer than anything at 45 miles. It never always gets worse. We're talking about life, now, not just ultrarunning. Or at least life in the downward spiral. "Survive," we tell ourselves and others in the throes of despair. "Endure. It will get better."
Perhaps the attraction of ultrarunning lies in the simple distillation of this: the ability to envision a distant goal, another time and place when things will be better, and to survive the worst until then. It is both the thread of survival instinct that unites us to other creatures and the clarity of imagination and willpower that catapults us above them. I will make it, says the determined mind, and convinces the body. It never always gets worse.
Suddenly, as if on cue, I felt better. Whether it was the simple fact of having emptied my stomach, or the realization that I was approaching the finish of this ordeal, or the final inspired gasp of determination, I rallied. I felt better. Five miles to go.
At 46 miles, I came around a turn and saw Hungry Horse Dam ahead. From there, I knew, it was only a couple of miles to the end. I felt what seemed to be a shot of adrenaline, a surge of courage, speed through my system. I was on the homestretch!
I sensed again that I might win this thing, might even break 6 hours. Those particular aspirations had been buried beneath a stack of miles for the last couple of hours. Even now, the truly relevant goal was to keep going at any pace without walking.
At 47 miles, I headed across the top of the dam. The concrete roadway felt unbelievably hard, jolting my muscles and joints.
The final miles were more or less a blur of hills, sore quads, elevated spirits, low blood sugar and human conviction. The last two seemed especially tough, as I skipped the final aid station in the hope of breaking 6 hours.
"Dad looks pretty good again, doesn't he?" Bridgid said to Catherine, who was now riding happily in the front seat with Kaitlin.
"Yeah," she answered cheerfully in 2-year-oldese, "he no throw up now."
"In a 50-miler," says the Le Grizz entry form, "one competes against one's own limits, not someone else's limits. To finish is to win."
After 5 hours, 58 minutes and 37 seconds of running, walking, pit stops, vomiting, despair and determination, it was over. I had won. I finished.
Exactly two steps after crossing the Le Grizz finish line, I stopped. As it turned out, I wouldn't run another step for five days (I would have enough trouble just walking). I had committed serious, though temporary, abuse on my legs.
Bridgid escorted me to the camper, where I found I was unable to climb three steps to get inside. My quads had simply, absolutely refused to assist the lifting process anymore. Eventually Bridgid was able to push me inside, where I crawled into a seat, pulled on warm-ups and wool clothes, and began eating.
I was very, very chilled, but an hour later, after huddling inside a blanket and nourishing my blood sugar back to a reasonable level, I began to feel alive again.
Spady dropped by, looking much, much better than I felt. He had struggled with stomach problems all day but had still finished second in 6:19:57.
"I've got some real bad news for you," he said, grinning somewhere beneath his fu manchu. "In about three days, you're going to think you had fun here today."
He left, but a few minutes later he came back and asked Bridgid, "Well, how was it out there? Did he get really nasty, like for parking 50 feet away from where you were supposed to be?" Apparently, this was normal behavior for an ultrarunner.
Spady advised that I walk around a little bit, and now that strength was returning I followed his advice. Individuals and groups were finishing on a regular basis now, and I went to offer my congratulations. Our Spokane group had enjoyed good fortunes. Other finishers, too, found the Le Grizz conditions favorable for fast running that day.
In chatting with the various finishers, I discovered that one of the relay team members had seen a bear just past the marathon point. Only a black bear, though. However, another runner had sighted a grizzly at 18 miles. So was it depletion-induced paranoia or a sixth sense that told me something was drooling in the bushes as my tights flashed by? At any rate, it was the first (and second) actual bear sighting in the seven-year history of Le Grizz.
While finishers were eager to share adventures, they were even more eager to begin eating things -- candy, pop, jo-jos, fried chicken -- that everyone realized were unarguably unhealthy. Organizers of Le Grizz, though, understand that someone who has just completed a 50-mile run is in no mood for healthy vittles. Dues had been paid, tens of thousands of calories used up. It was time to chow down.
A few of the early finishers also enjoyed a surprisingly strong brew of beer, which more or less ignored any bodily screening systems and raced to the head. Under the steel-eyed glare of the moon the night before, the keg had frozen, and the water and alcohol had separated.
Noted Caffrey in a postrace message: "The half keg that did manage to get served was up around 8 percent alcohol, in case some of you were blaming your susceptibility to the beer on the day's activities. This special brew has since been christened `Grizzly Beer.' "
Though long gone, the moon enjoyed the last word.
When beer, chicken and assorted junk food were consumed, when participants were finished watching a moose graze along the shore of the lake near the finish area, and as the sun began to dip toward the horizon, Caffrey finally called us to hobble and huddle together for the awards ceremony.
In an event as personally challenging as a 50-miler, organizers seem to feel that, since they told you, "To finish is to win," the least they can do is prove they mean it. Everyone gets a trophy.
The trophy for first is biggest, but it possesses no added significance. An overwhelming sense of communion permeates the ceremony -- a recognition that everyone, regardless of speed, has achieved the same ambiguous victory, whose reality is etched in battered muscles and tired, sweaty lines on faces.
Pain, fatigue and sweat, of course, will eventually disappear, leaving only memories and a few tangible mementos like the trophy. And with bronze and wood symbolizing a full day of painful struggle through the wilderness, it's no wonder that officials in 1983 were mortified to discover that the running figure on the trophy for that year's overall winner, Rick Spady, was broken off at the knees.
"Though it was explained that the runner had broken off in shipment," wrote Caffrey later in characteristic good humor, "the other winners demanded similar trophies and threatened to break the runners off their trophies as soon as their strength returned."
In the end, then, I received my award -- the only trophy I've chosen to display. It has a base of shellacked Montana juniper and a figure of a grizzly bear standing on its hind legs, looking fearsome. That bear has, I imagine, just spotted a skinny human being in yellow and black tights running through its domain.
Later that evening I enjoyed postrace rituals of hot-tubbing, feasting and adventure-swapping with the Spokane crew, then went to bed early. The next morning seemed a little like the melancholic final day of college, with comrades heading off in different directions, leaving shared adventures for individual lives in the civilized world. Nearly everyone took a different route home.
During the next week, I hobbled through the building where I work in downtown Spokane, hoping someone would question my gimp. ("Oh, that? Nothing serious, really, just tired legs from a 50-mile run. That's right, fifty.") Gradually, my muscles began to rebuild. In a strange way, though, I relished the residual pain, evidence of my journey through the world beyond the marathon.
And after that?
The Le Grizz entry form says this about what to expect following the event: "You might feel burned out for four days as a result of energy depletion. Then comes some euphoria."
Spady had said it differently. "In about three days, you're going to think you had fun here today."
He was wrong. It took almost a week.