Return to Running
Fourteen months ago, when I started running again, there was a great gasping for oxygen and great heaviness in the legs as I pushed through a mile jog. Every step seemed burned by a hot brand in my throat, even though the early morning was cool and almost chilly. My goal was to someday run five miles without feeling comatose afterward. The goal of doing a comfortable five miles seemed to be, realistically, 6-12 months away.
But running is a sort of joyful sickness. The germ invades the body, takes stock of conditions there, and the works its way up the spinal column where it lodges in the brain. At that point, strange things begin to happen.
Even though five miles had not yet been achieved, some hidden crevice in the brain began pulling numbers out of storage, dangling them just behind the retinas of the eyes so that once training had progressed to the point that not every run was a race against the anaerobic threshold, when that magic half-mile or so came on, when all body parts were in sync and the breath was into second-wind gear and the familiar neighborhood went past as though it were moving and not I, the five miles became insufficient.
In rapid succession, double digits began to find a home in the brain and then dreams of duplicating 18-mile runs from Saturday morning log runs in college. Then, in rapid succession that came faster than a side stitch, there was a plan to try a marathon. Then suddenly there were four marathons in 3½ months.
After that, there was talk of Tom Sturak’s annual 50-mile festival in Santa Monica coming up. It was augmented by Don Choi’s breaking a record in the 24-hour run at Woodside, Calif. In July; and when Tom Osler won the 100-miler at Ft. Mead, Md. 24-Hour Relay races and then by taking a run with Al Arnold who can talk about almost nothing else beyond over-distance, pizza and beer. Nick Marshall, who won last year’s 72-mile run around Lake Tahoe, was constantly writing letters telling me how over-distance runs were an entirely different kind of running.
Larry Tunis, who is as open to idiotic suggestions as anyone who runs often, became enthusiastic when I mentioned to him, half-jokingly, that I was going to try the AAU 50-miler in Santa Monica—if I could do a 50-miler in practice. The practice 50-miler would do two things: It would establish that I could, indeed, make the distance, and it would acquaint me with any peculiarities I might encounter in distances beyond the marathon. (Additionally, Walter Stack, the San Francisco messiah of distance running, had informed me that he always did a practice run equal to the distance he was going to run in an over-distance event. By doing a practice run at the same distance, he reasoned, when the real thing came and he was almost through it but feeling very bad, he could tell himself that he’d done it just a few weeks ago in practice and, if he could do it then, he could certainly do it again.)
We planned to do the run, using Osler’s methods of running seven laps, walking one; and drinking sugared liquids. So I called Tom for some last-minute advice ad inspiration. His latest advice was logical in the extreme. “Put the things you’ll need on a table so you won’t have to bend down,” he said, “because after a while you won’t want to bend down.”
Osler also advised us to reverse direction on the track about every half-hour in order to avoid putting too much strain on one side of the body. Tom was suffering from a sore ankle after winning the 100-miler the previous weekend and he attributed it t the fact that in racing a 50- or 100-miler, everyone runs in one direction for a very extended period of time, thereby temporarily breaking down and unbalancing certain muscle systems.
He also pointed out that we should drink 10-12 ounces of liquid every two miles if the temperature was hot, and to cool ourselves by putting wet towels over our heads once the sun became unbearable.
Further, he advised us to judge our drinking by the amount of urination we were prone to. “If you urinate every two miles, you’re drinking too many liquids; if you urinate every two hours, you’re not drinking enough,” he said. Knowing what happens when a body institutes renal shut-down, we decided to be very careful about drinking and brought enough liquids for a small army or a large party.
Readying for the great enterprise, we carbo-loaded like crazy the last few days and got our provisions together.
The alarm clock went off at 3:00 a.m. Saturday. At 3:34 Larry arrived and we loaded my stuff into his car and drove to the track. We had heard a few days before that we were going to be treated to meteor showers during the night. The newspaper reported that there would be 50 per hour. While I waited for Larry to arrive, I saw several falling stars and took this to be a good sign. “One of them as big as a cow will probably fall on us,” Larry said as I climbed into his car. We enter all such enterprises with positive thoughts.
By 4:04 we had our table and other supplies (two extra pair of shoes each, towels, a bucket and sponges, Band-Aids, Vaseline, dry shirts) set up along the outer lane of the track and we were off.
The first few laps were tentative and stiff, but the strange setting soon inspired some enthusiasm on our parts, and we were joking by the third lap. When we came by the table after seven laps, we decided to wait until the next stop to take any liquids. As we ended the eighth lap, turned on the flashlight and recorded our time (23 minutes for two miles), we talked about different ways of talking about our progress so we would not discourage ourselves thinking about how many miles we had to yet to go.
For some seemingly mindless reason, as we hit the portion of the track directly opposite our supplies, one or the other of us would start a sentence and end it with the Saturday Night Live line of “two wild and crazy guys.” Somewhere around the third mile a local dog, apparently disturbed by our laments echoing up from the lonely track, began howling each time we repeated our refrain. We began to refrain from making the comments after that, fearing that some woodland creature might take it for a mating call.
By the end of the fourth mile (the second set of two miles was done in 22 minutes), we had elaborate systems figured out for representing how far we had run to that point. It involved some very complex system of percentages, which I no longer recall. At the time, in the middle of the deserted track, with meteors falling every minute or so and with a rooster up on the hill making his pre-dawn call, everything we said seemed to make perfect sense. We did miles five and six in 20 minutes, having reversed our direction after the first four miles in order to wear down parts of our bodies evenly. We were consuming about six ounces of liquid (Coke, Hawaiian Punch, Lipton Iced Tea, Shasta Diet Black Cherry Soda, Lipton Lemon Tree lemonade drink) every two miles and feeling okay.
We did miles seven and eight in 20 minutes; the sky was beginning to lighten. Larry changed to a dry shirt and we changed direction on the track. It was 5:29.
There was a strange regularity that had begun creeping into our circuits. I found myself almost purposefully ignoring the number of miles we’d covered, and instead concentrated on the regular cadence of run-seven-laps/walk-one-lap. Each seven-lap portion became a complete unit and became the most important thing in our lives at that moment. Although they were each nearly identical, it became possible to gauge our condition by the point in the seven laps where we would begin to feel sore or tired or confused by the number of laps we actually ran to that point in the sequence.
Within the next few hours, two women joggers came to the track almost immediately after daylight, which seemed to sneak upon us like a pick-pocket. Then some male joggers came by to get their laps in. Our two-mile sets were down to 18 and 19 minutes each for set after set after set; our liquid intake stayed pretty steady at six ounces every two miles. It was not excessively warm and we felt that we didn’t need any more than that. We changed direction every four miles.
The heels of my shoes were wearing a bit from the rough surface of the track and my knees were starting to ache. We continued to run consistent 18 or 19 minutes for two miles. At about 7:00 a.m. some Oriental runners came to the track and seemed to take an elaborately long time to warm up. They went through extensive stretching routines. They occasionally looked at us, wondering what craziness we were up to. We continued to circle the track.
For the next hour, more and more Oriental youngsters arrived, with some adults sprinkled in. We began to feel that it was either an invasion or we were gathering a crowd through some mysterious communication system over which a cal was going out that, “Hey, we’ve got some real loonies over here. You ought to come over to see them. Make sure you disguise yourself as a runner, though, so they won’t be suspicious.”
We hoped we were not hallucinating this early in the run and therefore merely thinking that the people who were arriving at the track were all Orientals.
Little by little it began to dawn on Larry. Some months before he had taken the advertisement for the Chinese Little Olympics, which were apparently going to be held on our track very shortly.
We passed the marathon distance in 4:12, having run the 25th mile in 7:15.
“I think they’re gonna kick us off the track,” I told Larry. “There are more of them than us.” Indeed there were. The stands were filling up with people and some of the adults were putting up awards platforms. We continued to circle the track, very self-conscious as youngsters ran 100-yard sprints and jogged through the turns.
After a quick conference, we decided that it would be a dead-heat between our finishing 30 miles and them starting the first event of the Chinese Little Olympics. We estimated that it would take us until a little after noon to complete the 50 miles. The Olympics would start at 9:00. Just as we removed ourselves from the track after reaching 30 miles in 4:50, the mile-run began.
We removed our supplies from the track surface and watched the first few events of the track meet. Our evaluation of our performance was simple: We’d have been able to reach 40 miles for sure, but there would have been a battle with pains and aches between 40 and 50 miles. As we sat and watched the 440s being run off and felt the temperatures rising, we were more convinced that perhaps the Chinese invasion was the best thing that could have happened. “We should try it by starting in the late afternoon and running into the night,” Larry said. “It’s getting too hot. Just think what it would be like out there about now.”
“Yeah,” I said, seeing the wisdom of his statement. “If we’d have made it to quickly and too easily, we might have begun wondering what it’s like to do 100.”
He glanced back toward the field, where some very little kids were doing a 220. “Are you still going to Santa Monica?”
I smiled weakly.