With the marathon, even if you’re hurting, it’s like, ‘Well, I’ve come all this way. Unless there’s a bone poking out, I might as well finish.’
– Al Roker, cohost of The Today Show
Clearly they see it too, because the voices now are impossible to ignore. Once a barely perceptible pinpoint in the distance, the dazzling and ever-expanding glow that beckons on the horizon now threatens – no, promises – to vanquish the seemingly infinite darkness of the Nevada desert. And the voices heed its call, compelling me onward like a single-minded moth toward a seductive flame. Move forward, into the Light, the all-knowing all-seeing all-caring Light… release your tension, confront your pain, let Its radiance guide you, yes that’s it! feel Its warmth sustain you, Its compassion embrace you, Its omnipotence protect you…. I cross the threshold from dark into light, wholly surrendering both mind and body to the indescribable relief that floods every synapse. Squinting into the soft resplendence, my gaze is met by an unblinking pair of impassive black eyes set in a featureless green, unside-down teardrop of a face. Certainly the face isn’t human, nor had I expected it to be. Yet fear, like darkness, has no place here. The wide, expressionless eyes gaze silently up at me while the soothing voices in my head continue to reassure me – Welcome home, your long journey’s over, it’s time to heal. My outstretched hand gently caresses the other-worldly face in an awkward mix of exhaustion and wonderment. I step forward unsteadily, into the light and beyond.
Little green men in the Silver State
I’m no fan of Las Vegas, but I understand its allure… who isn’t instinctively attracted to bright and shiny? And if bright and shiny appeals to you, then no place rivals the neon-powered spectacle of The Strip at night. If tackled with the right group of friends, Vegas can be a genuinely fun place… but then, even the DMV can be a fun place with the right group of friends. With each successive visit, Sin City feels more and more like a high-mileage, weather-beaten Volvo that’s spent the past 20 years parked along the curb, collecting layer upon gradual layer of dirt, pollen and neglect. Throw in some spinning rims and purple neon undercarriage lighting, and that’s how I view Vegas. Or in snacking terms, Las Vegas to me is that second donut, with the electric thrill of anticipation quickly mutating into the sickening aftershock of reality.
Hey brainiac, here’s a novel concept: stay away. And gladly I would, but where gambling outsiders like me hit the jackpot is in the city’s proximity – to Hoover Dam, to Red Rocks Canyon, to several National Parks, and to the barely-there town of Rachel, NV, site of last weekend’s E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon, organized by the folks at Calico Racing.
Why the E.T. Marathon? And why now? For two reasons: first, Chuck and Laura had run the race back in 2008 and highly recommended it. And second, given that my 2013 racing schedule had already morphed somehow into my own personal X Games – sub-freezing temperatures and icy conditions in my first two races, record-high temperatures in my next – I figured what better place to continue the “extreme” theme than in the midnight darkness of the Nevada desert. With one slight caveat: since the race each year is scheduled to coincide with the full moon (hence the name), we wouldn’t be running in total blackness.
I’ve never been what I’d call an alien aficionado. I find the subject of little green men more amusing than anything, although the presumption that we’re alone in the universe strikes me as naïve hubris. During graduate school, I discovered and watched every episode from the first seven seasons of The X-Files, with its spooky (at the time) taglines of “Trust No One” and “The Truth Is Out There.” Over time, though, my dedication to the show grew in spite of rather than because of its alien conspiracy storyline, which eventually took on an absurd life of its own. In any case, to this running aficionado the prospect of running under a canopy of stars and by the light of the full moon while dodging alien tractor beams promised a compelling and one-of-its-kind race experience. Not to mention a pretty cool medal.
So it was that Katie and I found ourselves – after narrowly escaping the crush of Friday afternoon L.A. traffic – cruising northeast along I-15N, through the no-man’s-land of unincorporated California and on the boundary of the Mojave National Preserve. Like most interstates, I-15N doubles as a steel-belted graveyard, and out here the mangled roadkill of blown tires littered the highway like neglected rubber corpses. As the temperature outside the car hovered near 110°F, I was surprised by the lack of heat haze rising up from the pavement, a constant from so many childhood summers spent driving under the blistering sun of hot and humid Texas.
We’d broken up the drive with a pitstop for gas in Baker, CA, home of the world’s tallest thermometer, an uninspiring and nonfunctional 134-foot-tall landmark built to commemorate the nation’s record-high temperature of 134°F, set in Death Valley in 1913. As if to apologize for such a lame tourist attraction, Baker paid for half our tank of gas when Katie found an orphaned $20 bill on the floor of the gas station convenience store. Returning to the car, and anticipating our upcoming arrival in the Silver State, I brought up a playlist from Sin City’s own house band, The Killers. We then hopped back on the highway and 45 minutes later crossed the border into Primm, NV, where the first of many oversized neon casino signs offered a garish reminder of what awaited us on a much larger scale in Vegas.
Thirty minutes later, we exited the highway and rolled onto the Vegas Strip, center stage in America’s own Theatre of the Absurd. Thanks to the generosity of Katie’s parents, our base of operations would be centrally located Caesar’s Palace. After arriving too late to meet several members of our Antarctica contingent for dinner, we carbo-loaded on our own and then wandered among the urban gristle of the Strip before heading up to our room for the night. “Absurd” is trying to exercise self-discipline and conserve energy in Las Vegas. In August. Welcome to the No Fun Zone.
On Saturday, anticipating the day to come, we made ourselves stay in bed until nearly 1:00pm, then ate a quick lunch and headed over to the race expo at the Hard Rock Hotel. I use the word “expo” because that’s how it was billed, though the entirety consisted of several folding tables on which were stacked registration materials, goodie bags and exterrestrial merchandise/souvenirs. At a smaller table next to the door sat a fellow selling high density foam rollers. Even factoring in the time required for mandatory alien photos, we were in and out of the expo in ten minutes, and were again disappointed not to encounter any of our Antarctica colleagues. From there we returned to our hotel room, where we packed and repacked, checked and double-checked everything we’d need for the long night ahead. After a quick pasta dinner (carbo-loading session #2), we joined our compression-clad kindred spirits outside the Hard Rock Hotel, as boarding of the buses began for a 2.5-hour ride into the heart of darkness.
Leaving Las Vegas
An hour later, Katie and I sat side by side and lost in thought at the back of a dark and quiet bus bound for the outskirts of Rachel NV, population 54. Despite its small size, Rachel has large street cred among extraterrestrial hunters as the township closest to Area 51, the mecca for UFO aficionados. And the timing for this race would be perfect – with the U.S. Government officially acknowledging the existence of Area 51 earlier in the week, I figured UFO sightings in the skies above Rachel would be plentiful, as extraterrestrials staged their own long-awaited “coming out” party. Adding to my anticipation was the recent experience of NBA player Baron Davis, who insisted just last month that he’d been “actually abducted by aliens” while driving alone from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. All’s well that ends well, though, since apparently Baron was able to calm his nerves at In-N-Out Burger after his gracious hosts dropped him back to Earth in Montebello, CA.
Admittedly, my real fear about running through Area 51 was that I’d end up like Cartman:
Once on the highway we’d quickly left behind the billboard advertisements for vasectomies, hangover cures and pole-dancing classes, and had transitioned into darkness interrupted only by the occasional pair of oncoming headlights, the Christmas tree-like incandescence of the sporadic refinery, or the distant bolt of lightning greeting arid desert terrain. I’d momentarily regretted boarding one of the “chatty” (vs. “quiet”) buses when the two fellows in the seat behind us began to discuss loudly and in graphic detail the plot progression of Breaking Bad. Admittedly it’s my fault I’m five seasons behind and have yet to watch a single episode, but I do intend to watch the entire series at some point, and so I quickly jammed in my iPod earbuds to stem the tide of plot spoilers.
As our bus hummed smoothly along through the desert darkness, round overhead lights spaced at regular intervals bathed the upholstered seats in a soft green glow and cast each passenger in a Hulk-ish sheen. Enhancing this effect was the neon green compression wear sported by many of our fellow passengers. Though I myself wouldn’t be decked out in full alien regalia, I’d be tipping my LED-equipped cap to our otherworldly homies by running the (Area) 51K rather than the shorter marathon distance. This only seemed right… if the race had been held around San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, I would’ve chosen to run the 49K.
Approaching our destination on Nevada Highway 375 – rebranded as the “Exterrestrial Highway” in 1996 – our human driver kept the crowded vehicle well below the unofficial speed limit of Warp 7. At last the bus slowed to a halt, signaling an end to this leg of the journey and the start of the next. Both literal and figurative electricity filled the suddenly lively bus, as anxious and excited runners decked out in blinking, flashing multihued running apparel stretched their legs, gathered their belongings, and prepared for what promised to be, one way or another, an out-of-this-world race.
We deboarded just before 11:30pm. Diffusing away from the glare of bus headlights and into the shadows, I made my way toward the very manageable lines forming in front of the eight porta-potties. After that mandatory stop I triple-checked my gear and nutrition, reminding myself where I’d stashed everything in the UltrAspire Alpha hydration pack I’d purchased two days earlier. I’d decided to leave the bladder reservoir in the hotel room and use the pack strictly to carry bottles and gels, since the Alpha allows easy access to its front pockets without having to physically remove the pack.
I’d be carrying two bottles, one filled with Skratch Labs hydration mix and the other with Skratch Labs powder sans water, which I planned to fill once I emptied the first. Normally one bottle would be plenty, particularly for a road race, but on this night my nemesis and leading sponsor Hammer Labs would be stocking all aid stations with their unpalatable HEED drink. I assume they chose a midnight race so that runners wouldn’t see what they were drinking; in any case, I decided to play it safe and carry my own concoction.
Two water bottles? check. Headlamp? check. Blinking red light to give those behind me something to chase? check. Garmin on and satellites found? check. Green glow bracelet? check. And iPod just in case those last few miles got really lonely and I needed a musical pick-me-up? check. I was ready-ish. With that, Katie and I wished each other luck, and she boarded the 11:45pm bus that would transport her to the finish line, where her 10K race – an out-and-back course that would double as the last 6.2 miles of the marathon – was scheduled to begin at 1:00am.
I spent the remaining few minutes before midnight wandering through the sporadically lit start area, searching in vain for the five members of our Antarctica expedition who I knew to be running the marathon. How could finding five people in a crowd of less than 200 – even in these dimly lit conditions – be so difficult? That failure behind me, I mulled over my race goals one last time. By simply finishing I’d shatter my previous 50K PR, a sun-baked 6:33:45 set at the Harding Hustle 50K in June. That, barring an alien abduction, was more or less a given. But my unspoken (mainly because no one had asked) goal-that-must-not-be-named was an ambitious yet realistic five hours, a 9:27/mile pace. It was a goal I wanted, and even in the lingering heat and nearly mile-high elevation, one I should be able to attain.
My glow bracelet popped off my wrist as race director Joyce gathered us around for her prerace announcements, the highlight of which was her congratulating one runner on this being her 200th marathon (cue well-deserved applause). Then without further ado Joyce wished us luck, counted down the seconds… and as the calendar flipped over to Sunday, the 7th annual E.T. Marathon was underway!
The dark night rises
All race distances would overlap and run similar courses along the Extraterrestrial Highway. With no turns other than the 51K turnaround at mile 26, the course would be among the straightest (and most straightforward) I’d ever run. Or so I thought until, less than 100 yards from the start line, my iPod bounced out of the front pocket of my shorts and clattered to the pavement. Quickly reversing course, I swept it up and jammed it in my calf compression sleeve before the oncoming stampede of runners could bear down on me. So much for that genius idea… mental note: never again with the iPod.
Almost immediately I could feel the dryness of our surroundings in my parched throat, and by the first mile marker I could already feel myself sweating more than usual courtesy of the 88°F desert heat. Luckily a cool intermittent headwind kept the night pleasant and my mind focused. As I ran hugging the shoulder on the left side of the highway, my shadow ran alongside me in the left lane thanks to the full moon, which sat low on the western horizon. As appealing as the idea of running by moonlight might sound, the idea of treading on an unseen rattlesnake sounded significantly less appealing, and ‘twas the latter concern that kept me running diligently in the arc of light created by my headlamp. Under the faint glow of the moon, and with nothing but time to let your mind run wild, every tar snake on the highway might as well be the real thing.
Other than the occasional wafting odor of cow manure, I’d encounter no sign of non-human animalia, alive or dead, along the course. And for natural scenery, the rolling hills silhouetted against the moonlight on either side of the highway would have to do. Apart from the blinking, glowing and flashing of other runners, this would (not surprisingly) be one of the less visually satisfying races on record.
I reminded myself to blink frequently and not fixate on the arc of my headlamp. During the Davis (CA) Moo-nlight Half Marathon three years earlier, I’d become so entranced by the beam of light directed at my feet that my left contact lens had dried up and popped out of my eye, forcing me to run the last ½ mile or so with my desiccated contact stuck to the eyelashes of my lower eyelid. Battling a left eye that in its uncorrected state is only slightly more functional than a marble, I’d accelerated along the final darkened straightaway in a half-blind haze, as if someone had covered my world in a thin layer of Vaseline. Amazingly, after crossing the finish line I’d recovered the contact which had remained stuck to my eyelid, and popped it back in without further incident. “I was wondering why you made such a wide and wobbly arc coming around that last turn,” Katie later admitted.
Back to the Nevada desert, and after five miles of what felt like comfortably strong pacing on a slight uphill, the highway began a more pronounced ascent that seemed to steepen once I passed the mile 11 marker. I knew from the course profile that this ascent – a climb from 4,523ft at the start to just over 5,600ft climb at mile 12.8 – would be the “gut check” miles, after which the course would change trajectory and carry us back downhill to mile 20 (and for half marathoners, the finish line).
Somewhere near mile 9, I began to pass the brightly lit and colorfully costumed back-of-the-pack half marathoners, a welcome distraction from the dark and quiet sameness of the first eight miles. I allowed myself a celebratory moment as I passed the double-digit mark at mile 10, and continued to maintain a solid pace as I chugged up the hill, the density of half marathoners increasing as I neared the summit.
As I reached the peak at Coyote Summit, the course changed trajectory, and my downhill muscle groups gradually awakened to the joys of eccentric loading. Two other runners flew by me on the right and were quickly engulfed by darkness. At the same time I struggled to pull back on the reins and control my downward momentum after 13 miles of uphill running. Somewhere along the way I made my second aid station pitstop of the night for water, thanked the faceless volunteers, and before I knew it the mile 16 marker was bathed in the harsh glow of my headlamp. Halfway home! Despite the 13-mile ascent in my rearview mirror, I knew the second half of this 51K would be the toughest, as carbohydrate stores ran low and muscle fatigue set in.
I had no way of knowing that a mile later, I’d be longing for the simple discomforts of lactic acid buildup and carbohydrate depletion.
Where ankles fear to tread (Down but not out)
Soon I crossed the first of two cattle guards, the left edge of which was covered with a slender wooden plank to allow runners across. I consider cattle guards a necessary evil… several can be found along the Nimitz Way trail in Berkeley’s Tilden Regional Park, and they’re the single biggest downside to trail running in Tilden. I’d hoped never to run across another cattle guard after leaving Berkeley – and now I remember why.
The second cattle guard appeared in the vicinity of mile 17. A reflective sign just before the guard warned of its existence, and I prepared to cross the wooden board in the same place as the first guard. Except the board wasn’t there, and my brain momentarily hiccuped as it registered that the board – roughly the same rust color as the guard – was displaced a couple of feet to the right relative to the first guard. I planted my left foot and cut sharply to my right in order to access the board and negotiate the guard.
And that was when my ankle – as well as my race – took a literal turn for the worst.
I’m no stranger to sprained ankles. Indeed, the sprained left ankle has been the bane of my running existence since high school basketball, and I’m well versed in the pain and shock that follow a tweaked ankle. I am, literally and figuratively, a loyal alum of RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) University (go Owls!). But it had been at least two years since I’d last sprained an ankle, and I’d hoped that all my ankle strengthening exercises had signaled an end to the familiar treatment regimen that had become almost second nature.
Given my history of ankle injuries, I knew I was in trouble even before I hit the ground on the opposite side of the cattle guard. But for the sake of both race and psyche my pride kicked in, and I immediately transitioned into denial mode, telling myself to “rub some dirt on it!” (coach speak) while at the same time trying to convince myself that 15 more miles was eminently do-able. As much as I wanted to hop over to the side of the road and collapse in a bitter heap, I knew from experience what the consequences of that decision would be – if I were to stop running even momentarily, the ankle would rapidly swell, I’d be unable to put any weight on it, and…
Through the rapidly descending fog of swirling emotions – pain wrapped in anger, swathed in disgust and shrouded in uncertainty – the decision was an easy one. I hadn’t driven over five hours by car, ridden another 2.5 hours by bus and completed 17 miles including 13 uphill, just so I could go home with my first-ever DNF (Did Not Finish). Truth be told, I still cringe at the thought of my tendinitis-induced DNS (Did Not Start) at Leadville last summer. No, I’d come to run. And barring the ankle coming detached from my leg and rolling off into the sagebrush, I planned to run across that finish line under my own power.
At the same time, I did intend to run – I had no interest in watching slower runners pass me by as I ambled along in “race-saver” mode and eventually finished well off my prerace goal of five hours. So as I fought my way forward, I focused all my remaining energy on maintaining my ~9:00/mile pace.
I rationalized my decision to continue by telling myself that I couldn’t very well stop running and just lie on the side of the road, staring at the stars and elevating my ankle until someone found me and drove me to the finish line. But as I concentrated on my footfall one uncomfortable step at a time, the conflicted voices in my head each argued its case, until finally my self-preservationist side struck a deal with my competitive side: I’d run the race, and I’d finish the race, but the race I’d run and finish would be the marathon, not the 51K. The marathon, to my mind, seemed a perfectly reasonable endpoint and the ideal compromise. And admittedly, I shed not a single tear at the realization that I wouldn’t have to run an extra 5.5 mind-numbing asphalt miles in the dark.
In any case, this would be a different sort of challenge than any I’d faced before. And from the moment I staggered to my feet on the far side of that cattle guard, the tiresome distraction of running along a desert highway under a full moon gave way to a single-minded determination to keep going, to maintain pace, and to avoid another glitch. I had no idea how stable my ankle was or how long it would allow me to continue this charade. Worst case scenario would be the ankle calling it quits far from the finish, thereby ensuring a DNF and leaving me an easy target for an alien tractor beam. At the same time, I tried to find and focus on this cloud’s silver lining: Sure every step is painful… but at least it’s a consistent, reliable pain. Ok, so maybe more of a lead lining?
The unanticipated shock to my system also sent my in-race nutritional strategy out the window. My stomach was now in such upheaval that it was all I could do to stomach the occasional swallow from my bottle… and I knew I wouldn’t be needing any of the gels I’d brought along.
Reaching the brightly lit mile 20 marker, where the half marathoners turned in to the finish line, my headlamp momentarily blinded Katie, who was waiting on the side of the road to cheer me along. Being careful to let neither face nor gait betray my discomfort, I quickly informed her I’d decided to drop down to the marathon distance. She nodded in perplexed agreement, wished me good luck and off I went, one painful 10K out-and-back standing between me and rapture – as well as the blowback from one very pissed-off appendage.
Those final 6.2 miles were a hardcore lesson in perseverance, and I would have sworn that a sandbag now hung from my left knee. But as the field thinned out and the blackness of my surroundings became more complete, I was able to admire and appreciate the stunning celestial landscape that filled the canvas of the eastern sky. At last, here was the argument to be made for running in Rachel. The last 6 miles of a marathon is a difficult time to focus on anything, let alone our place in the universe, but only in Southern Utah and Yosemite National Park could I ever recall my naked eye wielding such power over the night sky. Keep going, the questionably supportive voices implored. You’re almost there.
Slowly, in what felt like the running equivalent of water torture, each successive mile ticked by (did those mile markers keep moving back?), as the heaviness in my ankle diffused up my leg and into my entire body. This was a very different “wall” than I’d hit in any previous race, but even so it was a wall… my brain knew it, my body knew it, and only a finish line at this point would shut them both up. And then it’s there, in the distance, undeniable and unwavering, a life-affirming beacon that draws closer with every edema-inducing step – my wish being granted.
Clearly they see it too, because the voices now are impossible to ignore. Once a barely perceptible pinpoint in the distance, the dazzling and ever-expanding glow that beckons on the horizon now threatens – no, promises – to vanquish the seemingly infinite darkness of the Nevada desert. And the voices heed its call, compelling me onward like a single-minded moth toward a seductive flame. Move forward, into the Light, the all-knowing all-seeing all-caring Light….
As the eventual 51K winner glides by me looking very much the gazelle that he is, I momentarily entertain the thought of chasing down the marathoner roughly 20 yards ahead of me. Stupid thought, I decide… what if he or she wants to race me to the finish? A shredded ankle and public humiliation, in one fell swoop! I must have sprained my brain on that cattle guard, too.
Release your tension, confront your pain, let Its radiance guide you, yes that’s it! feel Its warmth sustain you, Its compassion embrace you, Its omnipotence protect you…. Gingerly I make the right turn off the Extraterrestrial Highway, and 20 yards later I’m crossing the blue finish line mat, that symbolic threshold from dark into light. At the same time, I’m wholly surrendering both mind and body to the indescribable relief that floods every synapse. “3:56:40,” silently announces the impassive red-numbered clock timer above the finish line, in agreement with my Garmin. So at least I’ve avoided any “missing time” from a UFO encounter or alien abduction.
Squinting into the soft resplendence of finish-line lighting, my gaze is met by an unblinking pair of impassive black eyes set in a featureless green, unside-down teardrop of a face. Certainly the face isn’t human, nor had I expected it to be. Yet fear, like darkness, has no place here. Gratefully I accept the alien-head medal presented to me, and surrender the timing chip on my shoe to a second volunteer. The wide, expressionless eyes on the medal gaze silently up at me while the soothing voices in my head continue to reassure me – Welcome home, your long journey’s over, it’s time to heal. My outstretched hand gently caresses the otherworldly face in an awkward mix of exhaustion and wonderment. Was it worth it? I ask myself in that same moment, though I have no doubt it was. I step forward unsteadily, into the light and beyond.
What happens in Rachel…
As usual, Katie’s smiling face and boisterous cheers greeted me as I crossed the finish line. She’d had a strong race of her own, running the entire 10K and surpassing her goal of 80 minutes with a finish time of 1:16:51. Given the darkness, the warm conditions and the fact that she hadn’t run as much as four miles since 2011, it was an impressive performance. And she admitted to being glad she’d run, rather than riding the bus as a spectator or even staying behind in Vegas.
She couldn’t have been as glad as I was. Because I knew that for my crippled ankle, what happened in Rachel would not stay in Rachel. After letting the official timer know I’d dropped from the 51K to the marathon, I confessed my predicament to Katie and hobbled over to the folding tables set up in the finish area just outside the Little A’Le’Inn (say it aloud), a three-room motel, souvenir shop and restaurant that serves as the hub of Rachel’s tourist traffic. And there I collapsed in a chair, where highly competent EMTs mobilized by Katie wrapped my foot and ankle in a large ice pack held awkwardly in place by several iterations of tape. The human body, it occurred to me as they worked, isn’t conveniently built for icing. Thanks again, fellas! Much appreciated.
After 20 minutes I removed the ice pack and, in an effort to increase my comfort level, lay flat on my back on the graveled concrete with my ankle propped up on a chair. The ankle was now throbbing aggressively – even the most short-lived comfort was illusory, and I being to shiver violently in a brutal mix of residual chill from the ice pack, and shock at the damage I’d knowingly inflicted on myself. Now the voices in my head, once encouraging, began to abandon their sinking ship. WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING? they demanded. They had a right to know, though unfortunately I had no good answer.
As I lay on the ground listening to the sounds of finish line celebrations and reunions all around me, Katie brought me Gatorade and took pictures, and I discovered two pieces of uplifting news on an otherwise dark and emotionally stormy night. First, the pain and swelling in my ankle were largely confined to the lateral (outer) rather than the usual medial (inner) side, meaning my diligently strengthened ankle hadn’t simply betrayed me to the same injury I’d suffered so many times before. No, the “good” news was that I’d injured the ankle in a whole new way! And second, I’d managed to maintain a respectable 9:23/mile pace after spraining the ankle (8:54/mile before), enabling me to finish 12th overall and second in the men’s 40-49 age group.
Despite Katie’s positive review, my bitterly uncooperative stomach wanted nothing to do with the Little A’Le’Inn’s postrace breakfast buffet. Even more telling, on the bus ride back to Vegas it would take me 15 minutes to finish a single banana, in contrast to my usual 15 seconds. Clearly postrace nutrition was going to be an issue. Fortunately I’d done a solid job of prerace carbo loading, which very likely carried me through those final miles as I tried to find my happy place.
From my vantage point on my back, I heard Joyce announce fellow Antarctica traveller Rich Ehrlich as the winner of the men’s 60-69 age group in 5:07:35. Congrats, Rich! And then it was time to board the bus for Vegas. Awkwardly pulling myself up off the ground, and now unable to put any weight on the ankle, I relied first on Katie and then on a benevolent volunteer to help me over to and up the steps of the bus.
Thus began the long and sleepy-eyed ride back to Vegas, the calico hills now peacefully rendered in the first golden rays of the rising sun. While many passengers quickly assumed the “eyes closed, mouth open” position, I spent the better part of the ride trying to elevate my ankle and alleviate discomfort, which required monopolizing my personal space and (with her permission) most of Katie’s.
We entered the Las Vegas city limits just before 8:00am, though even at that early hour suffocating heat already blanketed the city. The combination of stifling heat, mounting fatigue and still-throbbing ankle sent waves of exhaustion washing over me… or maybe that was just my body’s reaction to being back in Vegas.
Luckily we were able, on our second try, to find an open CVS that stocked crutches, enabling me to regain mobility for the rest of the day. Sort of. Because I was quickly reminded of another Vegas exclusive: with everything spaced so far apart, it takes forever for an individual with two healthy ankles to get from their hotel room, through the smoke-filled casino and to their destination. This maze-like arrangement makes Vegas a decidedly subpar place to be handicapped.
And so, after a clumsy but long-overdue shower, a visit to the Caesar’s Palace brunch buffet (itself nearly a mile long) and a five-hour nap, we decided to take advantage of our bewildered circadian rhythms, plus the lack of heat and traffic, and make the drive back to Los Angeles under cover of darkness. Four hours and several impressive lightning storms later, we pulled into our garage in Marina del Rey. Crutching my way slowly up the steps of our multi-level townhouse, I collapsed in our bed with my ankle supported by three pillows. As consciousness faded, the Nevada desert and Area 51 suddenly seemed light-years away.
As I write this ten days later, the swelling in my ankle has subsided and the remaining soreness is gradually fading. The foot and ankle feel stable, and I have no trouble balancing on them for two minutes at a time. I plan to try running again next week. In the final analysis, I guess all’s well that ends swell.
I’m proud that I was able to grit my teeth and gut out my toughest marathon yet, while still finishing in under four hours and placing well within the top 10% of finishers, including second in my age group. And I’m satisfied with knowing I gave everything I had to give, and left it all out in the Nevada desert. Would I have broken five hours if I’d had the chance to finish the 51K healthy? And would I have run a faster marathon if I’d been pacing accordingly for the entire race? “Likely” and “probably” would be my answers, although the frustration of not knowing will forever gnaw at the back of my mind.
After all, the truth is still out there.
PRODUCTION: Joyce and her Calico crew did a terrific job of bringing together and pulling off what has to be a very difficult-to-organize race. Coordinating the bus schedule alone would have addled my brain, and yet to my knowledge, all four races went off without a hitch. Calico’s blend of detail-oriented professionalism and low-key vibe lent the race a much-appreciated “trail running” feel. The t-shirts (from Greenlayer Sports) fit nicely, and the eye-catching, glow-in-the-dark medal is definitely a collector’s item. As far as food, Katie gave the postrace buffet at the Little A’Le’Inn a thumbs-up.
Not surprisingly, my main recommendation for future races would be to COMPLETELY cover each cattle guard to ensure safe footing. This shouldn’t be difficult, and if it spares even one runner’s ankle will be well worth the effort. My only other disappointment – and even that may be too strong a word – would be in the choice of Hammer as the lead sponsor. But much better Hammer than no sponsor at all, and my aversion to their products (particularly HEED) is simply personal preference. Unfortunately my limited postrace mobility prevented me from properly thanking Joyce and all her superb volunteers, but I’ll do so here (thanks, Joyce! thanks, volunteers!) and look forward to running with the Calico crew again soon. Even if it does mean another stopover in beautiful Las Vegas.
BOTTOM LINE: Chuck summed it up best in his postrace text: I had a swell time at the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon. I have to admit that even with a healthy ankle, running on asphalt for several hours in uninterrupted darkness before and after a 2.5-hour bus ride isn’t my ideal racing scenario. But I’m glad I ran in Rachel, for the novelty as well as the opportunity to run with Calico Racing. If you’re intrigued by the prospect of running by moonlight, I can’t imagine a better place to do so than Area 51, or a better crew to do it with than Calico.
For an inspiring perspective on running through injury, or if you tend toward schadenfreude, check out Dan’s recent experience at the North Country Run 50-Miler.
August 18, 2013
26.09 miles (the final 9+ miles on a sprained left ankle) in Rachel, NV (State 4 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:56:40 (first time running the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon), 9:04/mile
Finish place: 12/141 overall, 2/20 in M(40-49) age group
Race weather: clear, dry and warm (starting temp 88°F), with an intermittent cool breeze
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 1,129ft ascent, 843ft descent (starting elevation 4,523ft)