In the midst of races cancelling everywhere due to the corona virus, the Pioneer 50 mile trail race, was impossibly on. After cancelled airline tickets, we piled into separate cars, and headed south.
This was a race in which the majority of the team had been training for, for nearly 5-6 months. The team was fit, almost perfectly healthy, and a day before the State of California would put a ban on groups more than 25 people.
We arrived in the afternoon the day before, visited the aid station, then headed to our weekend retreat.
Our Airbnb was perfect. It was quaint, at the end of a road, and the simplicity matched all of our lifestyles. After a short run, that was way too hilly, we found food and drink at an Alehouse and enjoyed the titled last supper.
That night everyone they sharpened their blades, and prepared for tomorrow’s suffering.
Asher had won his last three races, two of them being course records.
Russell had only ran one race in quite sometime, where there was hardly any competition.
Sam, the new kid on the block, with a boulder sized chip on his shoulder, out to prove that his last 50k in Eugene was no fluke.
Aubree, off one of her best 50k’s of her life, looked to prove that she belonged in a national championship race.
The majority of the team was up by 3:30. We left at the agreed upon 4:45 time, drove up into the hills, and proceeded to find parking in the pitch black. Pre-race was funny in the sense that you couldn’t tell who was around you as people walked around nervously from the packet pick up, to the restrooms and then back to their cars to stay warm.
Even in the darkness the major players found a way to stand out. The silhouette of a lanky and fit looking Matt Daniels. The Hoka sponsored Tim Tollefson. Ahh yes – the major players were here. Good I thought. Of course they were here, this may be the last significant race in the entire country, who would miss it?
20 minutes before the race the group started to jog around a bit. The goal was just to loosen up a tad before the race. The reality was, this was supposed to be a 35 mile run, followed by a 15 mile tempo. They would have plenty of time to warm-up.
The team stripped down minutes before the count down. 3-2-1, and they were off. Sam’s dad and I would see them four miles in. The three guys, Asher, Sam and Russell were all together. They were accompanied by 2-3 or three other athletes, making them a significant chase pack, sitting just outside of the top 10.
We wouldn’t see them for another 14 miles. This is what you can do during a 14 mile run. You can go to a grocery store, then drive 20 minutes to a cash only breakfast place. At the restaurant you can have the best eggs benedict of your life, have two glasses of tea, then go back to that same grocery store. After all of that, you can make it back to the start to just barely catch your athletes come through, now in daylight.
Asher was easy to spot out coming down the hill. His hair long and beard grown. I couldn’t whether it was Sam or Russell with him. It turned out to be Sam. They looked good I thought. They should look good, it’s 18 miles into a 50 mile race. About another minute or so Russell would come floating down. He threw me his broken headlamp which then became more broken, shattering into pieces as it hit the ground. It was clear he never played baseball. I wondered whether he was hurting, or simply just running his own smart race.
There was no “team” race plan. Everyone was to run their own individual race. The fact that Sam and Asher were together, was purely on accident. An accident that was nice to see.
21.3 miles into the race, is the famous no hands bridge, also a section on the Western States course. It was hard to not think about the possibility of having these same runners run the prestigious 100 mile race one day. Asher and Sam came in together, and knowing that the aid station was at the end of a serious downhill, I knew Russell would be there soon.
Asher was eager to get going, and Sam was getting his fill of oranges. Their 60 seconds or so at the aid station, with Russell’s downhill running ability, allowed for the three of them to be all together, once again.
I wouldn’t see them again, until 35 miles in, at Rattlesnake bar. This was THE aid station that we talked about. This was to be a 35 mile run and a 15 mile tempo. For the past couple of months, we’ve stressed the importance of being able to leave rattlesnake bar, and be able to move well.
Matt Daniels rolled into rattlesnake, and didn’t look well. Later we would learn that Daniels would drop out 10 miles later, fighting hypothermia. Daniels had clearly pushed hard somewhere on the course, and it was easy to respect his drive and effort out there in the miserable conditions. Back in Alamosa, again I thought..
Asher was the first Ultimook athlete to arrive. He sat in 10th or 11th (there were multiple distances going on at the same time, so it was tough to tell who was all in the 50 mile race). He looked great. Really great. At worst, there was maybe a single athlete who looked better than him leaving the aid station. He was doing it. The race plan was working. You could see the eagerness and hunt in his eyes. Top 10 was going to happen, the question now was just how far up could Asher move?
Sam came in looking solid. He probably set a world record for the quickest drank red-bull, chatted with me and his dad for a short bit, and was then on his way. He said his legs felt good, but he was pretty dizzy. It seemed like good news. With some food and sugar now in his system, maybe the fog in his head would clear and Sam would be able to make use of how good his legs felt.
Russell came in after sometime. He was in high spirits, but he was freezing. Russell, being one of the littlest guys out of little guys, had been cold for nearly 6 hours, and his legs were feeling the effect as well. He looked good, but that’s because Russell always looks good. There are athletes out there who have the ability to be hurting, and not show it. Everyone practices that – or at least should – but I think there are few that can actually pull it off. The reality is it creates a dangerous situation. You look at him and he looks fine, he shakes off the fact that he’s suffering, that he’s absolutely freezing.
Russell would have to sell his soul to find a way into the top 10. It’s not worth it, not here, not today. It’s my call. I tell Russell to enjoy the rest of the race, try to have fun. Stay strong, but don’t crush.
If I’m being honest, leaving that aid-station, I’m wondering whether I just made the right call or not. I always preach that there’s no room for softness – was that soft of me?
Now it was time to wait at the finish. After what seemed like an eternity, Tollefson came in, running well to win the race. What a runner. It was fun to watch a former Chico guy win. I was just a nobody at Western State the same time that Tollefson and Daniels were at Chico and Adams. It’s easy to cheer for former D2 athletes. Especially the ones that went to the powerhouses. To run for a program like Western, Adams, or Chico, it is such a unique and rare experience, that is really hard to even describe to someone that didn’t go through something similar. Tollefson and I would chat about this for a quick second before he let out a classic “CHICO”.
My thoughts were with Daniels at the last aid station, hoping that he would soon find warmer conditions.
I got a message from Asher’s mom, one of what seemed like 100 Catterall’s that were in attendance today to watch their son/brother run the race of his life. They were unbelievably proud of him, and you know that it wasn’t conditional on any result. The message read, “Asher is moving into 4th”.
Holy shit. He’s doing it, I thought.
Instantly Jim (Sam’s dad) & I got out of the car. The reality was that Tollefson rolled the field. It took a bit before a very, very freaking good Max King rolled into second place.
Next was Kallin Khan, of Bowerman Track Club who I’d actually seen finish at CIM, when I was there to support Roman. I had a strange feeling that Asher and Kallin would be seeing a lot of each other over the next decade. Two really good young guys in this sport, just starting their journey.
Christian Gering would be fourth.
Shit, where’s Asher I thought.
I saw Gering come in at rattlesnake, and he looked like he was suffering. I could only imagine what a tough SOB the guy has to be. out of the leaders, no one spent as long at the 35 mile aid station as Gering.
It wasn’t much longer when that pretty white Ultimook singlet rolled down the hill into the finish line. I held out a hand, and mouthed “fifth”. Asher, exhausted, and a different shade of white than I had ever seen him before, put his arms around me, barely able to stand up. I hugged him, then slowly walked him to his family. He and I would be able to talk about this race for a while, the finish, this was meant to be spent with family.
Sam would finish 11th. A huge run. I can only hope the chip on his shoulder remains as big as it was before the race. Here’s a kid who didn’t run in college, and wasn’t training that serious, arguably, until this fall. He has barely scratched the surface. I can’t begin to express his innate ability to grind. It’s easy to tell whether someone is going to be good at this sport, but when you aren’t sure of one’s ceiling, it is even more exciting. That’s the case with Sam. He’s gotten good, so quick, it is fun to think just how good he will be a year from now – four years from now.
Russell would finish 14th, and no soon as he finished, started scarfing down pizza, but not before he could state, “I need to run more”. That guy has so many tools, today was just okay, and he knows that. Had I let him roll from 15 miles out, who knows what would have happened, but the reality was, he finished happy, in one piece, and will be able to start training again before the majority of the people in this race. In some ways, I think this was 50 miles of shaking off a lot of rust. We start talking about future racing plans almost immediately.
Aubree would finish, unsure what to think of her race it seemed, besides being happy that it was over. But what would happen next will be hard for me to ever forget. The brilliant USATF representative, with a smile on her face, would come and hand her a medal. She glanced at it quickly, then was overcome with emotion.
She had just finished 7th in the nation. For the next few days I would send her a simple text saying “7th”. I wonder now if it has still soaked in or not.
Soon after my high school cross country coach and now friend, Barkley, would finish. An excellent run. I laughed thinking about how much worse of a state he has been in, after other long trail races. A part of me feels bad, knowing that if this race existed twenty years ago, he probably would have won. He was built for this kind of stuff. Barkley as a 25-35 year old would have beaten nearly everyone at this shit. But that’s part of the beauty of this sport isn’t it? You’ve got youngin’s like most of mine, just getting started. You’ve got athletes in their prime. Hell, Max F’ing King won the masters title. Jesus H. And you have people who are past their prime, giving the effort, maybe even more, then they would have given at any other point in their lives.
It’s not eight days after the race, and the state of California has all but shut down. I sit here drinking tea in Oregon, knowing that tomorrow, Oregon very well may likely face the same fate. As serious as we are all taking the virus, I can’t help but smile and think that as everything around us is closing & cancelling, that something was born that weekend. It was the true start of the Trail Project. A year from now, four years from now, a decade from now, I think we’ll look back at this race, in the midst of a looming pandemic, and realize how grateful we were to be able to race, to earn a few scars, then do our part in quarantining, listening to the CDC, and prepare for whatever is next, whenever that may be.
I can’t help but think of some of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite novels, Fight Club.
“I don’t want to die without any scars.”
“Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer, maybe self-destruction is the answer.”
“Without pain, without sacrifice we would have nothing. Like the first monkey shot into space.”
“I ran. I ran until my muscles burned and my veins pumped battery acid. Then I ran some more. ”
“How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”