Have You Met Ball Bearing?

4 Wheel Drive or Chains Required

4 Wheel Drive or Chains Required

I can say very little about this race, the 2010 Way Too Cool 50K. But let me say a few things. Part of the joy of racing is the anticipation, the planning, the goal setting, the “I’m going to run…”. The other joy is the memory, the looking back, the reflection. I think sometimes there is very little joy in the moment. Read the Romantic poets like Keats and you hear of the beauty in joy AND pain, how sometimes the two cannot be separated. How is it that when running and the body hurts, we convince ourselves there’s no other place we’d rather be at that moment? The battle that rages within, the civil war between mind and body can be the determining factor, perhaps even more than the hours of physical training logged before the race. So much of the race takes place in the mind.    

But the body must be ready and I witnessed that yesterday. The physical training prepares not only the body but also the mind. I hadn’t logged a run over 20 miles since the California International Marathon in December, which became apparent between miles 20 and 30. I started the day running strong, early miles clipping along well under a 7 minute pace and I was running 4th for the first few miles with the leader just ahead. But once we hit the first big climb and the highest part of the course, I could feel my heart pounding so hard. My right shoelace came undone and afraid to lose my shoe in the mud or stream crossings, I stopped and lost a couple places. From that point, it was a run through the open Cool meadows until heading down to Highway 49 and then the American River.   

Cool to Highway 49

Cool to Highway 49

Much of the course was a muddy stream where you just suck it up and forge ahead. No one was going to finish this race with their socks white or their feet dry. This year, the race had nearly 600 starters. The race is so popular, it used to sell out in a matter in minutes but now it is a lottery. So you have to be either very fast and earn a spot or lucky. It helps to be lucky. The race and all the volunteers put on a great show.  

I tried to better my time from last year, which was the first year they added almost 2 extra miles to the course to make it an official 50K. This year I used the virtual partner on my watch to race against my last year’s time: 4 hours and 13 minutes. By mile 10, I was ahead by over 2 minutes. I settled into a nice rhythm going up and along the canyon and heading to the ALT aid station just after mile 15. A few runners passed me as I tried to sustain a manageable pace. By mile 17, I was still top 10 but near Dead Truck Trail, my stomach was cramping and I stepped off the trail. Less than a minute later, I spotted Eric Skaden and another runner flying along the trail. Not a good sign.   

Now it’s damage control. Keep moving and stay hungry. At one of the stream crossings, I had another runner right on my heels and offered, “Go ahead, after you.” He jumped in and sank almost to his neck. Good call.   

About a mile later came the kicker. Maybe you’ve heard of or even run “Heartbreak Hill”. Let me introduce you to Ball Bearing. This is about an 800′ climb straight up. Every year I vow to attack and run this hill but so far each year I have failed. The guy who fell in the stream and I arrived at the bottom, he unleashed a scream “LET’S GO! C’MON!” And he attacked. My legs retreated in defeat. Oh, the mind can be so weak!   

Way To Cool 50K Elevation

Way To Cool 50K Elevation

From the top of Ball Bearing and the ALT aid station, it’s another 9 miles back to the finish. I could hear the lead female runner just over my shoulder and I wanted so badly to step on the gas. But my little engine just didn’t have the horses. I could tell the absence of any long runs over 20 miles were saying “See, we told you!” On one hand my legs were spinning in the wet mud and on the other I felt like I’m stuck in wet cement.  The lead female runner, Joelle Vaught, passed me around mile 23. She looked like she was floating, her feet not even touching the ground. She looked so fresh and relaxed. We ran together for a mile or two until I tripped over a misplaced rock. And down I went.   

When I was sitting in front of my computer the night before, it was too easy to have visions of feeling great late in the race and vowing to attack the climbs and show no mercy. But when the moment of truth came, I ran to the finish with the realization that it’s better to show than tell. And Joelle certainly showed me.   

A week earlier, I had emailed a friend some marathon day advice. I wrote:   

Mile 20 is when the work begins. The race starts here. Now the fun begins. It’s supposed to hurt at this point. It’s time to go to work. Dig deep. Now is when it matters most. Keep going. Keep pushing yourself. Whatever lie you have to sell yourself, sell it. Whatever deal you need to make with your body to get to the finish line, make the deal. At this point, focus on the moving ahead. Focus on your form. Breathe. Relax. Focus. You are floating. There is no option B. There is only option A, it’s ahead at the finish line and you must run to it. And you will keep running.
I did keep running, but not fast enough. My finish time of 4:17:53 was slower than last year. Maybe the course was slower. Maybe not. But I realize I’m getting soft and to be your best, there is no such thing as the easy button.
Congrats to all the runners out there and especially to Leor Pantilat for his winning time of 3:41. Too bad for Geoff Roes, 2009 Ultrarunner of the Year, who took a wrong turn at the Quarry Trail junction and lost nearly 9 minutes.

3 thoughts on “Have You Met Ball Bearing?

  1. Pingback: Conway Running Club » Difficult trail runs and the mental aspect of racing

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