On Saturday, I joined 250 trail runners for a hot run at the Mt.Diablo 8k/25k/50k in
I had debated all week whether it was a good idea for me to race on Saturday, due to the fact that I was emotionally not in a good place. On the previous Monday (Memorial Day weekend), I had witnessed a cycling accident devastating enough to haunt my every thought. I don't have a lot of experience with that kind of trauma up close, and it shook me pretty hard. What little sleep I had in the following days were filled with images of blood and broken bones, jerking me awake in the cold sweat every half hour. I know it’s not a good idea to race when both your emotional and physical foundation are weak, but I was desperately hoping that the trails could somehow lead me out of this state of shock, like they had led me to salvation before.
An Introduction to My Demons
I found a cell phone in her bike bag and randomly called speed dial numbers to try and get her name. The first number was “Annie”, who turned out to be her teenage daughter. The cyclist, Deborah, had gone out for a solo ride from
There were lots of familiar faces at the race, including Bev and Alan Abbs, Garett Graubins, Brian Wyatt, Kate and Keturah Morejohn, Wally Hessletime, Chuck Wilson, and of course, Race Directors Wendell and Sarah Doman. Everyone was looking forward to what this race could dish out. Garett was here to defend his
Jeff, Garett, and Jason Reid (25k) set a quick pace from the start, with the Abbs and Rob Evans in a group just behind them. The pitch got steep fast, and it didn’t take long for all of us to be whittled down to a brisk walk. I was drinking my water quickly, and at our pace, it would be over 80 minutes to reach the first aid station. As the temperature climbed above 70 degrees, we all understood
Just when I thought I was suffering in the heat, Graham Cooper went by in his “heat training outfit” – black wool hat, gloves, black jacket, black shorts – with sweat pouring off of him. I guess that’s what it takes to win States! Rob Evans came by soon after him, looking strong and running the steep hills. We made it up the steepest climb and into the saddle, and were rewarded with the first aid station (mile 8.4). I was out of food and water, so I stocked up on both.
As we headed up the next 5 miles to the observation tower at the top, I had some time to run solo. The runner’s high “clarity” kicked in, and I found myself more introspective than usual. The only distraction was the gorgeous views, and the front-runners already coming back. Jeff Browning and Garett Graubins were bombing down the hill, with Bev and Alan Abbs not too far behind.
As I reached the top, I realized I was out of water again. Perhaps even worse, I could have been out of water for quite some time since my mind was so occupied. In fact, I was having trouble keeping my mind on the race at all. The “clarity” in my head was working against me, rekindling details of the Memorial Day accident that I had forgotten, or perhaps repressed. With each corner of the trail, I remembered something new – the smell of her breath, the screams of the driver, the broken hand moving on the pavement. I wasn’t over this trauma, not by a longshot...and I had no idea how much more baggage was about to fall out of my head.
Around mile 20, Graham Cooper came by again in his sweat-inducing bank robber outfit. He sensed something was wrong, and was quick to offer up anything he had to help. That's quite a statement from a guy sweating a gallon an hour! I shared my emotional struggle with him, and he slowed a bit to talk it out with me over the next mile. I really appreciated how he listened and internalized what I said, and I could tell he knew that listening was the best help he could give. At the top of the crest, we wished each other luck and Graham charged down the hill.
I jogged for a few miles and realized I was out of water again. I hadn’t factored that all this fast-walking would take a half an hour longer to get to the aid station on the second lap, and it was much warmer this time around. But my thoughts were still consumed with Deborah, and the little details kept zooming through my head like butterflies. As the dehydration reached a new level, my walk became more of a stagger and it was difficult to climb the hill. My thinking was hazy, my face felt like it was on fire, and it was clear that I needed some help. My ears started ringing, and I heard the sound of the accident over and over in my head. I looked down at my hands and swore I could feel blood on them. But it wasn’t blood, it was vomit. My vomit. I don’t even remember puking, but the proof was all over my hands.
Kevin Swisher (a fellow TRT100 training ultra runner) soon caught up to me, concerned after watching me stagger from behind. I told him I felt drunk and thirsty, and he walked with me until I got to the aid station. Mark Gilligan was there again, and when he asked what was wrong, all I could say was “I couldn’t fix her. She was broken, and I couldn’t fix her.” Mark didn’t skip a beat and said, “Uh, yeah. Maybe you should try some potatoes and salt, and a whole lotta Cytomax”. I took a seat and started eating and drinking everything I could get my hands on. I felt better instantly. Kevin reminded me of a spot to douse my head in water just a few hundred yards away, and headed off.
Mark has a gift for finding the bright side in any situation, and quickly pointed out to me that this might be better training for TRT100 (Mark is also doing it) than a well-run race. If I could “get back to good”, then I was probably ready for anything TRT could throw at me. After seeing the training that Graham Cooper was doing, maybe Mark was right! As I gathered my senses and set up the hill after Kevin, Jeff Browning came screaming by at full speed leading the 50k. Bev Abbs was about a minute behind, saying Alan and Garett were right on her tail. They were all suffering in the heat, drinking as much as possible, but still going hard.
With new calories, full water bottles, a mini-shower at the spigot, and a mental boost from seeing the fast folks I started walking up to the top. If I could make it to the top, I was determined to leave any demons I brought on this race there for good. Rob Evans stopped to check in on me, and he was really looking strong, as was Brian Wyatt, Chris Garcia, and Charles Stevens. Each one of them flashed a smile, and boosted my spirits just enough to take a few more steps. I climbed for what seemed like an eternity, and when I arrived at the top, I unloaded all my remaining emotional baggage in one sobbing mess.
I "downhill shuffled" through the last few miles, refusing to stop until I found the finish line in 7:01:49. By crossing the line and being welcomed by my ultrarunning friends, I felt an odd sense of closure to the day. As we cheered on the fellow finishers, I felt my spirits rise with each round of clapping. Jeff Browning had won in 5:14, with Bev Abbs coming in 4 minutes later to set a new Women's course record. Garett and Alan stayed on her tail right to the end, finishing 3rd and 4th. Rob Evans had a stellar run of 5:47 for 6th place, with Brian Wyatt running an even race to finish a few minutes behind. Everyone was depleted, but smiling. If there was going to be a day I melted down, I'm glad it was here among my "people". To each of you that were there for me, you will always have my deepest gratitude.
I slept all night that night, thanks to physically and emotionally draining myself to the last drop. The next day I heard the most unbelievable news - Deborah was alive! I had been told by police officials that a cyclist had died and assumed the worst, but it appears they had likely been referring to a different cycling accident. Deborah was in critical but stable condition at Stanford Hospital. Apparently she had no spinal damage and minimal brain impact, and was already on the road to recovery. Given what I saw, that was nothing short of a miracle. I felt much better knowing that Deborah and her family still had time together.
Life is fragile, life is resilient. The body and soul can heal beyond our wildest expectations. I've left my demons on Mt. Diablo, and as Rob Evans said "got 7 hours of therapy for a $50 entry fee". So true! But I know it was my friends along the way who really helped me get through the day, and beyond my tragedy. The ultrarunning community means more to me than I ever could have imagined, now more than ever. I am grateful for all of you.