The Marathoner

Winter 1979

50 Miles by Track

The Long Road To Running a 50-Miler Is Fraught With Many Obstacles To Overcome

Driving long distances and running long distances have much in common. There is a great vacuum in the middle of both activities where boredom could fester but where, instead, thoughts file past in orderly rows, there to keep company until they are again marched offstage, exhausted.

Thoughts were goose-stepping through my mind as I drove Interstate 5, headed for sprawling Los Angeles. It was coming on to midnight, Friday, Sept. 8, 1978. “Eleven fifty-six p.m.,” I heard myself saying. “The City. Los Angeles, California. Where crime never sleeps. My partner Gannon and I were on the night watch, Captain Haller. My name’s Friday, but in three minutes, 37 seconds it’s be Saturday.”

The batteries in my portable AM/FM radio/cassette tape-player were just about exhausted. I began to worry that my newly overhauled engine in the old ’64 Rambler was going to supernova if I picked up much more speed. So I was allowing long-distance thoughts to make their march through the empty field of my head.

They were thoughts from behind and thoughts future tensely.

I was on my way to Santa Monica, Calif., to run in the AAU 50-Mile Championships scheduled 15 hours from now on the Santa Monica College quarter-mile dirt track. I was on my way from a press conference in Palo Alto at which the results of the 1978 Runner’s World shoe survey had been announced to a handful of media people and to a roomful of shoe-company representatives. I was running behind schedule. It was becoming a way of life.

The weekend before I’d planned to leave Palo Alto by 4 p.m. o my way to the Reno Sahara, where I hoped to get a good night’s sleep the two nights before running the Silver State Marathon, which began at 7 a.m. Unfortunately, my car was coming out of the garage at 3:30 p.m. after having an engine overhaul at 120,000 miles. After I picked it up, I drove home to load it with the usual assortment of needed supplies—two cases of Band-Aids, a cooler of beer, etc. I managed 1.3 miles from the garage before the car stopped. I arrived in Reno at 3 in the morning because the car could be driven at only 40-45 mph for the first 500 miles until the new parts wore off any rough edges, thereby bringing engine friction back to normal.

The temperature was 66 degrees at 5:30 a.m. the day of the race. Anticipating the heat, I went out too conservatively. It didn’t help. I developed blisters at 20 and ran the final two miles without shoes. I was too sick to enjoy the marathon committee’s picnic. That’s mighty sick.

As the car climbed the hills that would dump me into the sprawling LA basin that weekend sat like a stale cookie in my mouth. I had hoped to leave for Santa Monica after lunch, but the press conference was more important than an early start. It had gone surprisingly well, but I didn’t leave Palo Alto until 7 p.m. I hadn’t missed any turns and I looked at that as a good sign. I also looked to Nick Marshall’s letter in my suitcase as a good sign; Nick—who’d hoped to come from Pennsylvania to run the 50-miler but was nursing his ailing grandmother in New England—had sent a letter with four pieces of advice. I’d read the letter several times and knew the advice almost by heart. I marched it out of the Survival file in the back of my mind and tried to absorb what it said:

“In a 50-miler on the track, there are four problems you may face, and this is how you should react to them:

“One. Injury. Quit if you get injured or are in imminent danger of injury. Only you can judge the severity of a physical injury or its potential, but be honest with yourself. Don’t exaggerate or imagine an injury if your real problem centers on weariness.

“Two. Cramps. A legitimate reason to stop temporarily but not a reason to quit for good, cramps can be worked out and are not indicative of a serious problem you’ll have after the race, so just contend with them. Stop, stretch, walk, get going again.

“Three. Blisters. If you are getting blisters, stop and correct the problem. Foot repair and bandaging. Change shoes if that will help—socks, too, if they are part of the problem. Don’t worry about time, just do a good repair job. Resume running. Quit because of blisters only if you’ve repaired the three times without any alleviation of the problem. In other words, don’t rip your feet apart if the blisters resist treatment, but do give them several opportunities to respond.

“Four. Fatigue. You may not suffer from any injury, cramps or blisters, but you will get tired. This is the problem most amenable to mental management. Remember you can’t quit until 11 p.m…and fatigue is not a legitimate reason for quitting in any case if your goal is simply to finish—this could be different if you had a goal of a specific time no longer within your grasp. Accept the fact that tiredness is an integral part of the ultra experience—not pleasant, but unavoidable; and not necessarily debilitating if you can handle the mental pressure accompanying it. It is okay to get tired. Take a break when it happens and you feel like you can’t go on any farther. Sit down and rest a while; drink, moan, gab a little…but accept the fact that it is only a respite. Then get moving again: walking, shuffling, jogging, running. Even if you have to go very slowly, it ain’t like you are paralyzed—you can do it!”

What it sounded like was that sickness or death were the only legitimate excuses for dropping out of an ultramarathon. Ultramarathoners are tough nuts, apparently as hard as a cramping muscle, and to stop in the midst of an ultra for any reason short of terminal something-or-other was apparently unheard of. If you joined the club, you’d best be serious. Every other thought that marched though my mind now in orderly file was labeled doubt. I knew I wasn’t yet as tough as the fabled ones: Tom Osler, Ed Dodd, Park Barner, Don Choi, Frank Bozanich Andy Gonzales. Ruth Anderson, who’d recently done a 100-miler on the track in 16:50:47 at the age of 49, had been calling me once a week assuring me I could do it. Osler had been sending advice. Nick Marshall’s last words repeated themselves like a baked-bean sandwich: “You Can Do It!”

I wasn’t so sure of that.

I started concentrating on the huge signs for various freeways that marked arrival in the LA basin. By heading west and backing off my speed and staying flexible in the meager post-midnight traffic, I soon happened upon the Santa Monica Freeway.

Pulling the envelope stuffed with pertinent information from the pile of tapes and licorice on the bench seat, I rechecked my destination: The Roman Inn, 530 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. I hadn’t been on the Santa Monica Freeway more than 10 minutes before I saw sign announcing Pico Boulevard. I couldn’t believe my good fortune; things were beginning to turn in my favor; it almost brought tears to my eyes. I’ll be in bed in 10 minutes, I told myself.

Like many exits I’ve damned in colorful language in various parts of the country, there was no Pico Boulevard when I screeched to a halt at the stop sign. I didn’t have any trouble finding Pico—it was three blocks up the street to my left—but I did have a devil of a time finding the Roman Inn.

In fact, it was two hours later, after driving up and down Pico Boulevard, before I did. I drove through degenerated neighborhoods littered with old cars and even older drunks waving at nothing in particular. I finally reached the 500 block of Pico, but couldn’t find the Roman Inn. I drove around, and still couldn’t find it. I finally went to a phone near an all-night taco stand, and the conversation that ensured with the hotel operator left me no closer to an answer.

An hour later, in pure frustration, I drove to a group of hotels nearby and asked a security guard—who eyed me suspiciously—if this was Santa Monica. “Sure ain’t,” he said. “Santa Monica’s back that way…lots’a miles back.”

I hopped back into my car and retraced my steps through a neighborhood I knew almost by heart, finding that as the numbers along the street got up to five digits they eventually stopped, then began going down when I crossed into Santa Monica.

I rolled up in front of the Roman Inn an 11-floor hotel with a red sign, at 3:45 a.m. “Where were you?” the desk clerk asked.

It’s Time to Party!

They should have called it the Roman Baths Inn.

When I found my way to the elevator to go to my room at 4 a.m., I came across three wild and crazy guys who were either coming back from a wild night or were just embarking on same. Now, 3½ hours later, there were sounds as though I had taken a wrong turn last night and had ended up oversleeping on the beach. There was a splashing of water and that shrill sound of female laughing that is intensified when it is done near water. I pulled a pillow from the other side of the king-sized bed and pushed my head under it. But before I could muffle the sound there was a new sound: something similar to Godzilla breaking the surface of the ocean…a thunderous roar.

I crawled out of bed and staggered to the window, pulling back the curtain. One floor below me was Swinger City: a group of people splashing around in the pool to my left, several young ladies giggling in the bubbles from a Jacuzzi on my right, some people sipping wine on one of the balconies opposite me while listening to rock music. For a fleeting second I wished for the other Pico Boulevard, where at this hour of the morning people were still sleeping off the night before.

In a desperation move, I turned on the television. Its babbling sound meshed with the revelers outside and both became halfway tolerable. I numbed my way through some kiddie show that featured the Bay City Rollers and, as noon began approaching, I went through The Twilight Zone (in which a World War I pilot got lost in a cloud and ended up in 1959) and Dragnet (in which Joe Friday caught the Crimson Crusader). The two shows assured me I was in LA and they also indicated to me that the trip last night was not a figment of my imagination, and that Rod Serling and Jack Webb were both involved—somehow—in the plot (and very fittingly so) that had gotten me here.

Truman Clark, a veteran of two of these 50-mile things, was scheduled to meet me so we could get some lunch and discuss strategy; he would be my handler and I would be prepared to keep him bored for a large part of a perfectly good Saturday.

He was a little late, so I went to the lobby and sat for a few minutes, thinking about leaving him a note to tell him I’d gone to the track.

Before I could get the desk clerk’s attention, however, Truman and his son Terry were there and we were off to lunch laced by some incredible stories of 50-milers past—and advice for future races.

After the story of a very able runner who had gone out at an incredible pace one year and looked as though he’d scald every record in the books, but who ended up at 40 miles, rocking back and forth in the infield with leg muscles that wouldn’t come out of a state of concreteness despite muscle-relaxer shots, Truman got to the advice:

“I think Osler’s method is good for someone who’s just starting this sort of thing. It has built-in ways of slowing you down so you don’t try to do too much too soon. Fifty miles is a log way; too many people go out as though it’s only a 10-miler. If you start slow you’ll bring most of the others back to you later.”

We finished our meal, checked my cooler to make sure there was ice left, and proceeded to the field.

Like a Three-Ring Circus, or Not

The preparation during the hour before a track meet makes it look very much like an outdoor three-ring circus. There is much electricity in the air at a marathon, and a great milling about as if a wolf was on the edge of a herd of cattle. The hour before the start of the 50-miler was similar to the warm-up for Wednesday night track practice: There was no sense of urgency; spectators and runners walked about casually; there was a great sense of relaxation.

As at every race, there was a registration table manned by volunteers. Unlike most races, there was no sense of impending doom, no feeling of urgency—and no lines. A kid began writing graffiti on my arm. In this case it was the letters OM, for Open Division, Men.

Jacqueline Hansen came by and we talked about her training. She was set to crack some records for the 50-miler. I’d seen her and Leal-Ann Reinhart in July when they had used the San Francisco Marathon as the mid-portion of a 32-miler. Jacqueline seemed ready; although it was her first 50-miler, as a two-time world record-holder in the marathon she was coming into it as anything but a novice. Her husband, Tom Sturak, was again the meet director for this event. While Jacqeline tried to get herself set psychologically, Tom tried to work out the last-minute snags.

“In England,” he said, “they run these things as invitationals. They run about 15 runners at a time. They can’t understand how we handle so many runners in a 50-miler. But it’s often the people who enter who aren’t the name ultramarathoners who make this meet what it is. Someone comes here from nowhere, someone we never heard of, and does a great run while the hotshots are falling by the wayside. I’d never want to see that aspect of this race lost by making it invitational only. On the other hand, I don’t want to see a lot of people out here who don’t start with the intention of running 50 miles.”

Many of the big guns from the ultramarathoning ranks were not present. KTom Osler and Ed Dodd and Nick Marshall and Park Barner and defending champion Jim Czachor were back on the East Coast. The big gun in attendance was the ultramuscled ultramarathoner Marine Frank Bozanich. And in the red-white-and-blue silky uniform with the Nike logo on the breast he was the center of attention on a rather calm sea. I’d never seen Bozanich in the flesh, although I’d seen more than enough photos of him and read enough astounding times associated with his running. Built like a weight-training instructor, Bozanich sported a skull with Marine-recruit hair, a hawk-like profile and that intensity in the eyes that prizefighters and Indy car drivers get just before the bell or the starter’s flag. He seemed confident, in fact just a little cocky as he was pampered by his army of handlers; he was mentally tight, like a too-tightly-wound wristwatch. He exuded the confidence that he was the strongest runner there, and certainly one of the most experienced in ultramarathons. He planned an attempt to break the world record for the distance. He thought he could do it; so did his handlers. There was almost a halo around Bozanich; because he was the in-residence superstar and because his intention to break the world record had been made public. Other runners, in drab garb compared to Bozanich’s, hushed when he walked past.

The field was far from shabby, however. Jim Pearson was there, as were Ken Moffitt and new American 24-hour champion Don Choi of San Francisco, the running mailman. And besides, if things are a little chancy in a marathon, they are downright unpredictable in a 50-miler. There are a lot of hours in which something bad can happen to the leaders while something good can click for a runner no one has ever heard of.

The field consisted of a good mix of accomplished marathoners, some relatively junior runners anxious to try their youthful enthusiasm against the rigors of 50 miles and quite a few masters runners who come in two varieties: fast/tough and steady/tough; the former outstanding masters who will destroy many of the open competitors, and the slower masters who are very patient, very hard to put down.

Tom Sturak went through his instructions to the seconds; then went about lining up seconds for runners who had come more than 150 miles but had no seconds; said that he was accepting no more late entries; made his instructions to the runners; introduced some of the notable runners who, like nervous and uncertain plowhorses thrown into the role of thoroughbreds, pranced out one by one, waved to the polite applause, then pranced back into the mass of runners at the starting line, silly grins on their faces. Frank Bozanich didn’t smile when he was introduced; he showed the style displayed by serious men who’ve been introduced before at similar occasions; he jogged out with eyes lowered, turned, put up his arms at which his crew applauded loudly, and he jogged back, his eyes still downcast. Virtually everyone was keyed as Sturak began the countdown; virtually everyone was keyed on Bozanich. Virtually everyone had made a BIG mistake.

Finally. We Move.

The start came as something of a paradox: low-key, especially because most of the runners were trying to hang relaxed, knowing the miles they had yet to travel; yet more tensed than would have been expected. Bozanich had moved away quickly into the first turn, two runners hanging with him, the rest of the field stretching behind. The pace felt good. After the walking around and trying to find something to do until it was time to start, the movement translated into a deliverance. I had planned the average a 20-minute pace for every two miles: eight-minute mile for seven laps augmented by walking each eighth lap. I went through the first mile in 7:10. Frank Bozanich went through his 5:47 with a youngster wearing Dettmer stitched on the back of his shirt hanging on one shoulder and Jim Gallup on the other. Bozanich wanted that record very badly. His two escorts were going to try to hang onto him as he went for it. Even during the first mile, their attempts seemed tragicomic.

Bozanich ran like a steam locomotive.

Imagine a Hollywood film crew shooting a Civil War movie that involves trains. To get a dramatic shot, they mount a camera on a slow-flying airplane, perhaps a converted cropduster. They get the locomotive fired up, smoke billowing from its stack, steam and water vapor escaping from its sides as it rolls along, its terrible pressure turning the wheels, chugging it along with the precision of a watch’s movements. Now that locomotive is up to speed and it would take a great mountain to stop it, we get overhead, perhaps 50 feet above the track. The train approaches, the camera is brought to speed, the film goes whirring through the sprocket wheels and the train passes underneath, a mighty engine weighing tons and tons moving as though it has always moved and will always move. The camera catches its power and glory and history as it moves past billowing smoke and water vapor, awesome in its intent.

Frank Bozanich was much like that. His breath coming like a bellows; water sprinkling off him as he passed, both perspiration and from a dousing he gave himself every few laps that kept him covered with a film of liquid. He passed three miles at 18:00, Dettmer still with him and Gallup now 10 yards behind, the three of them passing each of us as though we were cropdusters with various degrees of engine seizure. I was still going too fast, doing the third mile in less than 7:30.

Bozanich and Dettmer passed Ken Moffitt and Jim Pearson on the fourth mile. Moffitt, an experienced distance man from Eagle Rock, Calif., had covered the first mile in a conservative 6:24. In some ways Moffitt was exactly like Bozanich while being totally different. Both were squat and precisely mathematical about their approach to the race; but Moffitt was straggly-haired and his clothes seems to be too large for him so that they kind of hung badly, while Bozanich featured the Marine close-cut hair and wore that red-white-and-blue uniform as though it had been stitched specifically for his flagrantly muscled body. Bozanich went through five miles at 29:43 with Dettmer still on his shoulder. Jacqueline Hansen, on her way to setting world records at various split points, passed five miles at 35:27.

The temperature was sticking at about 80 degrees; the humidity still about 60 percent. I thought of the ocean a dozen blocks away. The temptation surfaced to go running out the gate on the next lap and continue to the ocean. Not because the run was going badly (although it was demoralizing to be passed by Bozanich every few laps), but because the ocean was there and we were so near. I was still going faster than planned, and was taking care to slow myself down as each mile passed. The seconds had settled into their duties and the crowd had quieted. Conscious that the sun can be tricky, many of the runners had begun sponging themselves on every other lap from almost the beginning. Although the sky was clear, the air was not oppressive and it lulled some of the less experienced runners into putting off taking water until later than usual and some of the runners decided that they didn’t need a sponge. Bozanich was just the opposite; he was always wet.

By 10 miles Dettmer had begun to lose his grip on Bozanich’s pace. Bozanich, still flinging off water as he chugged along like a machine, passed the 10-mile point in 59:12; Dettmer was three seconds behind. Dettmer would lose his grip entirely by 13 miles, and would be lapped soon. Jim Baker passed 10 miles in 62:11, Ken Moffitt in 64:32, 56-year-old Ed Almeida in 66:33, and Jacqueline Hansen in 72:19.

The race had settled into an almost casual regularity. Other runners could almost gauge where they would be on the track when next Bozanich passed. His crew cheered him on with toughen-up calls of “AAARRUUUUUHHH!” He passed 15 miles at 1:29:02. Dettmer, still game but realizing that he should concentrate on his own race and not play it off Bozanich, passed the same point in 1:32:03 Jacqueline Hansen came through in 1:48:16.

A slight breeze began coming in from the north. As runners passed the sponge station between the first and second turn and began heading down the backstretch, they were greeted with a light headwind. The headwind became more noticeable within several laps, however, and more work was required to get down the stretch.

The sun was dropping perceptively; runners who had muttered at the heat robbing their bodies of precious fluids more than they expected, began to breathe easier. They looked forward to the evening, when temperature would not be a factor.

Bozanich passed 20 miles at a frightening 1:59:30. Barker went through at 2:06:50. Bozanich hit 25 miles at 2:30:41, Pearson at 2:43:20, Barker at 2:43:30, Jacqueline Hansen at 3:01:49. Jim Gallup, who had hung with Bozanich at the early going, was trotting around the track wearing a hooded sweatsuit top. The temp/humidity reversed itself in an incredibly short time. It was now 60 degrees and 80 percent. I’d gotten rid of my shirt some miles back and ran bare-chested, but the quick-moving child had me requesting a fresh T-shirt from Truman. I pushed through 19 miles, realizing that I needed more than a fresh T-shirt to save me.

Going in the Wrong Direction

Although I’d been running seven laps and walking one as Tom Osler suggested, and although this method should theoretically allow me to reach distances I’d not even previously imagined, something was going wrong. I’d been taking six ounces of sugared drinks at most walking laps, as I had weeks before when I’d done my practice run on the track [in Los Altos] with Larry Tunis. Since 16 miles, though, I’d been getting stomach cramps that got progressively worse. The fast initial laps would have to be taking their toll, too. And I wasn’t sure I’d recovered all that well fro the heat at the Silver State Marathon the previous weekend.

I knew I was in bad trouble at 20 miles. Outwardly I appeared to be fine. But the cramps were worse and felt like a group of monkeys who’d been waiting to jump on me at the same time. I developed shortness of breath, tightness in both the upper (front) and lower (back) legs. It seemed to take an incredible amount of concentration to stay ear the inside of the track, my speed was dropping radically although I felt the same amount of energy per lap being expended; and when I stopped to walk I’d have been arrested by any cop in the country for suspicion of drunkenness. I remembered Nick Marshall’s suggestions for surviving an ultra. He was going to be awfully disappointed. But after I tried a few more laps of sluggish and uncoordinated jogging, I walked off the track at 22 miles and continued walking, hoping my body would come back up out of the cinders. It just barely did.

While I made arrangements to make my way to the Roma Inn to get showered and changed so I could come back to the track as a human being, Bozanich continued circling the track with terrible precision. Jacqueline Hansen had begun putting together a string of world records from 20 kilometers on:

20 kilometers—1:30:41

15 miles—1:48:17

25 kilometers—1:52:02

30 kilometers—2:14:04

20 miles—2:23:52

35 kilometers—2:37:50

40 kilometers—3:00:41

25 miles—3:01:50

As Jacqueline Hansen crossed the marathon distance, I arrived at the Roman Inn, turned on the shower and closed the bathtub drain so it would fill with water while I stood reviving myself. After soaking nearly a half-hour, I dressed and went back toward the track, stopping to put some ice cream in my stomach. The cramps were gone but it seemed as though I was just coming off a bad case of stomach flu. While I had been soaking in hot water, Jacqueline Hansen had set these marks:

30 miles—3:45:47

50 kilometers—3:51:01

Then she made a tactical mistake.

Drama in Slow Motion

My hour away from the track had proved what Tom Sturak had said about ultramarathoning: Although it takes a long time to run them, and although things seem to happen rather slowly, and although it is difficult to follow who is were on a quarter-mile track after the first few miles (unless you are kept informed by officials who are on top of things), dramatic events can occur at ultradistances that make marathons (in which stopping for a moment or two to make an adjustment is often to lose) seem tame.

Frank Bozanich was solidly in first place; still moving around the track like a locomotive, spraying water and sweat on slower runners as he passed when I had deserted the track. Jacqueline Hansen had been ticking off world records as though she were hooked into some fantastic clock. The sun had not yet set.

Now the sun was down, it was dark, the stadium lights along the frontstretch were turned on, and people continued to circle the track like dark shadows, getting lost to sight on the backstretch. The temperature, after its frightening plummet to 60, had risen to 62; the humidity was still about 80 percent. A group of spectators inside the track, near the 50-yard line, had set up a portable television on a table and was huddled around it watching the flickering white screen, wearing jackets and coats with the collars pulled up. Others were huddled around the blackboard on the grass, where officials were keeping tabs of who was where when. It looked like this:

Name30 miles35 miles40 miles

Frank Bozanich had faltered somewhere, because Ken Moffitt was now in front of him. A quick check indicated that Bozanich’s pace had done him in; he’d begun to cramp and his handlers had had to work on him. His machine-like style had become ragged; his stride seemed to be uneven and there were furrows in his forehead as he concentrated on holding pace. Much the same thing had happened to Jacqueline Hansen; she had begun to run into trouble near 30 miles and had opted for treatment from her handlers. If she had continued around the track even at a walk she would have continued to destroy records for many more miles, she had that much of a buffer built up. But she’d decided to come in for a pitstop on advice of her handlers; they hoped to get her back in shape so she could complete the 50 miles. They had sent her back out on automatic pilot. She circled the track, wearing a woolen hat and the bottoms of her warm-up suit, at a survival pace. Her glazed eyes were staring straight ahead as she withdrew into herself to handle the pain and discomfort; the strain showed on a huge vertical furrow that went from between her eyes to her hairline. She was determined to push through the pain to make her goal.

Bozanich was angry with his pain, and was attempting to tough it into submission.

Ken Moffitt, his Aztlan shirt seemingly two sizes too large from hanging with the weight of an afternoon of perspiration, continued circling the track with brazen monopoly; except for a mussy look that comes when dampness has been there many hours and has lost its sheen, he looked much as he had hours before. He still talked to other runners as he came abreast of them; he still ran loose and almost raggedly, his short, tree-trunk-like legs coming down on the dirt track surface with anything but a gentle step. His arms swung loosely, his damp hair flailing behind him. He looked like a runner who had come to the track to do some laps a half-hour ago and was nearing completion of his workout; but computer terminals were clicking behind his occasional grin. His first mile had been at 6:24. During the period when he’d begun catching the faltering Bozanich, he’d made his only pitstop at the trackside portable toilet. His time for the mile, including his toilet break, was 6:33. He turned his next mile at 6:10, the fastest of his 50 miles, to bring his average back to where he wanted it. Moffitt had his 50 miles planned to the second; Frank Bozanich had not sucked him along in his wake during that first frantic mile and he was having no effect on Moffitt now; Moffitt was running his own race; the other people circling the track were just decorations.

Ah, the other people circling the track:

There was still a menagerie of emotions in the faces and running styles of the other hardies. Some displayed impressions that would have made a Greek tragedian weep. Others, such as Jacqueline Hansen, circled almost mechanically; faces blank, eyes focused millions of miles away. Others, sensing they were within 5-10 miles of the end, were working weird little grins around the corners of their mouths. Don Choi circled the track shirtless despite the drop in temperature, his style of leaning backward distinctive even when he was out on the darkened backstretch; a tight grin caused by concentration and not by something funny he’d thought of, marked his face. Jim Barker, light-haired and slim, the classic runner with a beautiful style and light step, was tired but still moving well. Abe Underwood of the Sacramento-based Buffalo Chips club was hurting; his face went through one set of grimaces after another, and he lamented his hurts to his second when they coordinated liquid handoffs; he didn’t know if he could make it, but he very badly wanted to. Ed Almeida, a lanky dark man of 56, was still running well; there was a twinkle in his eye as he went by; he knew he was going to make it.

For some of the runners, though, the night was still young. Dr. Tom Bassler moved at an incredibly leisurely pace, stopping at his encampment every few laps to take a break in a folding chair or to pick up a pineapple concoction he drank in great quantities. The previous year, after spending all day and night at the track while Bassler still circled, race organizer Tom Sturak had turned out the lights and told the good doctor to send him the time for his sub-pedestrian 50 miles. It looked as though it would again be that sort of a night for Tom Bassler; but he seemed quite content to do his 50 miles his own way.

The leaders were coming to the final laps. Sturak had the seconds reporting to him on the track, giving him and his helpers updates on where each runner was so the one-lap-to-go bell could be rung accurately and so that they could keep the runners informed of exactly how much distance they had to go. Sturak was becoming animated after the long grind on the PA system. Two hours before he’d summed up what he finds exciting about this particular 50-miler: “Look at this,” he said, his arms folded, pointing with his nose toward the track, “look at the people on the track right now. I hardly know any of them. I love it.” The experience of seeing seeming experts at ultradistances burning out at 10 miles and seeing unknowns sticking it through the 50 miles was exciting, exhilarating. There was drama there: David-and-Goliathism. Sturak felt it now. He was all over the trak at the same time.

Moffitt knew he had it and he was grinning. He was running loose and natural, the seeming ragtag computer who’d beaten the flamboyant machine. The bell rang and when he again came out of the dark backstretch into the lighted front of the track, turning a 6:18 final mile, Moffitt broke the five-year-old record set by Martin Smith at the University of Chicago. Smith’s time had been 5:26:40, while Moffitt’s was 5:21:22, well off the world record of 4:58 but good enough to make him the world’s eighth best of all time and good enough to put someone from Sturak’s race into the world top-20 list again for the third year in a row.

Frank Bozanich continued to circle the track, gutting it out, occasionally pushing around another runner, trying desperately to end this thing. Moffitt, after stopping looked for the exit under the bleachers to get to the locker room, but he went into the wrong one on the first try; seeing his mistake, he walked to the correct exit and disappeared. His step showed no sign that he’d just run 50 miles; runners leaving a half-hour track workout are often more uncertain of their step. He would appear later, after taking his girlfriend to the airport, dressed in a light jacket, his hair combed back as though he’d just happened to be passing the track and dropped in out of curiosity to wee what was going on.

The bell rang again and the Marine crew got ready to greet Frank Bozanich. The red-white-and-blue uniform sparkled out of the darkness of the three/four turn and into the light and suddenly Bozanich was finished. He hobbled into the infield with his crew and, after a short session of walking around to prevent tightness from setting in, lay down on a blanket and let his crew begin working on his legs. While they worked on Frank and while Frank began drinking liquids, the flurry of activity at the finish line began to reach a frenzy. The modest crowd began breaking into applause every few minutes as announcements were made of other runners nearing the finish. There was a glut of runners nearing the finish line at one time. Seconds were being herded onto the track to have their charts checked by officials.

There were various reactions from the runners when the final-lap bell sounded. The most common was a pained smile as the runner realized that 199 laps were gone and there was only one to go. Some of the runners tried to please the crowd by a showmanship spring around the track for the last lap, but that was impossible in most instances; when they tried to hit the accelerator there were looks of surprise on their faces when they realized that there was no speed left to tap. Their bodies, accustomed to the pace they’d been running for 199 laps, were not about to change at that point.

Bennet Lundkvist, a nondescript runner of 30 who had developed the habit of being let go from the Santa Monica Track Club every week or so only to weasel his way back onto the roster, turned in his greatest performance; finishing third in a time of 5:54:02, the last runner to come in under six hours. From that point the runners began to come in at a furious pace and the officials had to work like sprinters to keep up with who was where. Jose Cortez of Sacramento came in next at 6:05:29, followed closely by the complaining Abe Underwood, the first masters running, now smiling and happy that he’d stuck it out; his time of 6:08:54 was an improvement over his 1977 time of 6:14:17, proving that age can indeed make improvements in runners. (Moffitt had taken second place in 1977 with a time of 5:34:16.)

The most hotly contested finish of the evening came right behind Underwood. Don Choi, who always runs at the same speed, was circling the track with one lap to go when Jim Barker took the bell; Barker caught and passed Choi on the third turn to take sixth place; Barker finished in 6:10:50, Choi in 6:10:55. Right behind Choi came El Cajon’s Mike Wade in 6:11:01.

Bob Cooper of Sacramento, who’d finished fourth in 1977 with a 5:45:12, came in at 6:12:06. Ed Almeida, the elderly finisher at 56, sprinted the last lap as though it were the first, taking 10th place in 6:13:17.

The finishers were having varying reactions to the stress. Some were led into the infield, where they were put under warm blankets and given liquids to ward off shock. Others, like Jim Barker, stood along the inside of the frontstretch letting their body heat fight off the chill of the 62 degrees, and walking about in stops and starts to keep the kinks out of their legs. When Barker finally tried to get into his sweatpants, two of us had to support him because his legs wouldn’t cooperate and they’d begun to shiver. He was happy that the run was over: “That’s going to be my last competition for a while,” he said.

Frank Bozanich was into his bright warm-up suit and was sipping sugar-free root beer along the infield, watching others finish, occasionally cheering someone from the San Diego Track Club. When Michael Wade can in, Bozanich put his arm around the young mans shoulders, gently forcing him to continue moving while helping to support him. The two of them, plus Ed Almeida, made up the San Diego Track Club’s team, winning the team championship over the Woodside Striders (Jose Cortez, Don Choi, and Bob Cooper) and the Aztlan Club (Ken Moffitt and Gary Cohen, who finished in 6:23:54, and 17-year-old Gilbert Cortez, who finished in 7:52:46.)

Jacqueline Hansen continued to circle the track, hoping to get the thing over. Her only comment for the last 20 miles came at 45 miles when she’d taken a squeeze bottle from one of her crew and had muttered a moan of “Oh man…” She had been unable to run as much as she’d have liked the week leading up to the 50, although she’d been doing megaruns for months; her knee was bothering her and the bone-deep weariness that infects 50-milers at about 40 miles had set in so that it seemed a Herculean task to take another step. She stopped some seven hours 14 minutes, and 58 seconds after she’d started the 50 miles; she disappeared almost immediately, whisked away by her crew to the medical tent near the fourth turn, where medical personnel attended to her knee.

Eight hours came and went. Many of the support crews had packed and left with weary runners. Sturak had given out many of the awards so that the runners who’d earned them could get a shower and well-earned rest.

From the street, the half-lighted track looked as though there might be a high-school football practice in progress. Or perhaps silent band practice. No one could suspect that an American distance record had been set there a few hours earlier. No one could suspect that 62 runners had logged more than 2100 miles on that track during the day.

Coming past the darkened track a few hours later, no one would suspect that there was a doctor who should probably know better out there jogging around the track sipping some exotic pineapple concoction, still heading toward 50 miles. Maybe it’s better that no one suspected.