Sunday, 5:40 AM
My alarm goes off in the blackness of my hotel room. I don’t fully appreciate it yet but it’s Summit Day. I assemble my gear – running leg, running shoe, race singlet, warmup pullover – and leave the hotel to drive the 1.5 miles to the starting line. One word about the race singlet: tight. As in, given my less-than-svelte body type, I-have-difficulty-breathing-in-it tight. I hope that this will be the greatest discomfort I experience over the next 7 hours of my life. I will be wrong.
The drive to La Jolla Cove doesn’t register with me. In retrospect, it will be clear that I’m plunging down steep hills towards the Pacific Ocean off the main highway, but the significance of this fact is lost on me in my early morning haze. I find my way to the area where I and others from my company participating in the race are supposed to meet at 6:30 AM for photos at sunrise. I locate Scout Bassett, who, given her energy level, may already be on her third Red Bull of the morning. Sarah Reinertsen and Jami Goldman soon join the group. I realize that I’m standing next to 3 of the most accomplished female amputee athletes in the world. They don’t seem to be having difficulty breathing in their race singlets. I am.
As cameras click away I stand next to Jami, the only bilateral female amputee to have completed the 10 miles we’re going to run later in the morning. The previous night when talking to her about the course, Jami told me “there are some big hills but it’s really not all that bad.” When I pointed out to her that the phrases “big hills” and “really not all that bad” were mutually incompatible, she responded, “The course sucks but you just have to ignore it. It’s a mental thing.” Jami’s comments do nothing to assuage my fears.
I grin stupidly while the sun breaks the horizon and pictures are taken. I dimly wonder what exactly I’ve gotten myself into.
I make my way over to our company’s booth so that I can store my pullover someplace. I and 4 friends also all wearing the company’s skin-tight singlets spend a few minutes joking about how we will extract ourselves from them at the end of the day. I’m betting on the Jaws of Life. My friend Steve asks if any of us want to go for a little warm-up run before the race starts. I remind him that it’s a 10-mile course, so the concept of voluntarily adding another quarter-mile or longer to my day strikes me as borderline insane. Steve is a real runner, so he ignores me and jogs away.
We are in the third wave of runners sent out. We are joined by Heather, who if I understand her correctly, works for a local Fox affiliate. I learn that Heather is a marathoner who was supposed to accompany another amputee racer she can’t find. She asks if she can run with our group instead and we say yes. As we start out of La Jolla Cove, Heather tells me that she’ll accompany me on the run. Heather apparently suffers from short-term memory loss, as she lives up to her commitment for less than a mile, leaving me in her wake. While I didn’t really want to run with Heather for 2+ hours, the fact that she bailed out only minutes after committing to run with me – without so much as a word of explanation – leaves me slightly ticked. I then remind myself that I have this effect on most women and continue onwards. At the very least, Heather’s defection partially distracts me from the fact that the first half mile of the course is a dead climb.
La Jolla Cove’s streets are almost San Franciscan in their steepness. But it’s early, the adrenaline is flowing, and I pace myself up and out of the Cove, emerging on the main highway to enjoy a lengthy downwards stretch as we immediately make our way back to sea level again. I realize that this lovely stretch early in the race will reappear at mile 9 in quite a different form. This does not make me happy.
9:25ish (all times from here on are approximate, as I don’t wear a watch when running)
I reach the first water station. I’m in reasonably good shape. My sound foot, which I damaged last Monday and could barely walk on early in the week, isn’t hurting in any way that seems likely to indicate structural damage. I continue on, aware that the Big Hill awaits.
I begin the ascent. I’m following a small group of runners who come to a fork in the road and choose to continue straight. This turns out to be a poor decision. While the road we’re on eventually winds back to the actual race course, it adds a few hundred meters of length to our route, all of which are a steep uphill. I take the climb at a slow pace, convincing myself that if I just continue at this speed I’ll be able to make it up the whole hill. We wrap around a tight bend and re-enter the course. I look in horror at what’s in front of me. The hill continues upwards, the grade increasing the entire way, as far as I can see. I calculate that I’m less than a third of the way to the top. (In fact, I will soon discover that I’m probably only 10% of the way there.)
I quickly determine that I have a choice to make: if I continue to try to run this hill, the chances of my finishing the full 10 miles (plus the 200 extra meters courtesy of the directionally-challenged group I’m with) probably fall exponentially; if I submit to the hill, I may live to complete the race.
Walking uphill on a running prosthesis isn’t fun, but it does give me lots of time to think. I consider the following questions as I slowly plod up upwards: is it legal to put a hill this long and this steep on a race course that doesn’t include sherpas and mules; why wasn’t I given a pickaxe and crampons at the water station; did I miss the checkbox on the race registration form that referred to supplemental oxygen?
I ask this and about 94 other questions as the climb continues. The road doglegs hard to the right and I gape in amazement – the climb continues with no end in sight. Cyclists, meanwhile, come blasting down at 40 miles an hour shouting encouraging things like, “Almost there!” It occurs to me that their perception of distance may be skewed by the fact that they’re approaching the speed of sound on their descent. I realize that I actually despise cyclists.
We take another hard turn to the left and I see the summit another 100 meters ahead. I reach it and wonder why there aren’t prayer flags and stones stacked atop each other. I break into a very slow jog. By my own estimation, it has taken me 19-20 minutes to cover the last mile.
I reach the second water station at the 3 mile mark. I take the opportunity to not only gulp down some Gatorade and pour water on my hat, but to squeeze some energy gel into my mouth. It’s like swallowing raspberry-flavored chocolate syrup. So far, this is the highlight of the race for me.
I catch up with a man who walked past me while we ascended Everest a few minutes earlier. I’m now running. He’s not. He’s not looking happy. I slow down: “How are you doing?”, I ask. He replies that this isn’t exactly what he expected when he signed up. I tell him I share the sentiment and suggest that we take on the rest of the race together. He acquiesces and we continue our death march at a slow run.
We reach the halfway point. I have learned that my partner’s name is Mike. I have also learned that one of his peers told him this was a 10k, not 10 miles. We laugh in dismay at this misunderstanding.
Mike and I have survived miles 3.5 to 5 by arbitrarily running to mutually agreed-upon landmarks, then taking 30-60 second blows while walking. While this isn’t the way I planned to cover 10 miles, the ascent has so thoroughly disrupted any plan that I might have had at the beginning of the race that I am now in uncharted territory. The next 6.5 miles are not about running a race proudly to the finish; they’re about surviving. We run. We stop. We run some more. I have turned this into a series of runs to the election sign in the ground, the red Hyundai on the right, and the garbage can left in the driveway.
Mike and I are now approaching the peak that nearly erased me earlier in the race. This time, I get to go downhill for close to a mile. Jami Goldman – who I later find out has run up the entire thing – comes past me, having started the run long after I did. I shout out to her, “Jami, that hill sucks!” She fires back, “Stop whining! Man up!” “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I yell as she runs away from me towards the halfway point. Mike starts laughing – “Did she just tell you to man up?” I confirm that she did. I’m past the point of feeling ashamed.
We start the descent taking it easy, trying to keep our legs underneath us. We pause only once going down for about 45 seconds and then break back into our slow run. We hit the final water station, manned by people from my company. As we stop to guzzle fluids, I introduce Mike: “Mike, [Company]; [Company], Mike! This seems extremely clever to me after 8.5 miles. As I’m about to take off again, I see a face I recognize standing next to my friend Russ. “Van?” I ask. He looks at me, slightly startled. “Yes,” he replies.
I have found the guru at the top of the mountain but today he’s standing at the base. In perhaps the most surreal moment of the day, I am speaking to Van Phillips, the man who created the running foot that Oscar Pistorius uses, that virtually every Paralympic athlete uses, and that is propelling me through this course. This is kind of like playing golf on a public course and finding out that your randomly-assigned partner happens to be Jack Nicklaus. I pause an extra 30 seconds to thank him and briefly describe my professional responsibilities. He graciously listens, probably thinking that I’m suffering from heat stroke. Then he’s gone, as Mike and I forge forward.
Mike and I arrive at the base of the hill that was such a delightful descent 90 minutes earlier. Now it’s just another brutal climb at the 8.5 mile mark. We make a pact that we’re going to walk this to the top and then run the final half mile down to the finish in La Jolla Cove without stopping. I can feel my calf tightening up with every step as we approach the final right hand turn that marks the lengthy final downhill. We break into our final jog of the day and descend into the Cove.
We can see the park where the race began. A woman on the side of the road shouts out, “You’re amazing!” as we pass. I tell Mike this is directed at him. We find this insanely funny. I tell him she wouldn’t be saying that if she knew how much of the course we had walked. We find this insanely funny as well. I have previously told Mike that I hate the shout-outs of “You inspire me!” from other racers that we’ve heard repeatedly throughout the day. As we enter the final 200 meters, I tell Mike that he inspires me. We laugh again.
We turn towards the finish. I see “let’s-go-for-a-pre-race run!”-Steve on the left. He shouts out that I should unzipper my already unzippered-to-the-max singlet some more. I halfheartedly flip him the bird after I pass him and then see Cara, Max, Jackson and Caroline on the right. Max extends his hand and I give him a high-five. I’m now running as hard as I have all day. I am later told by anyone who saw me that I do not look at all happy. After viewing the video of me closing in on the finish, looking very much like someone struggling to complete 10 miles, I’m inclined to agree.
Mike and I hit the last 25 yards and I urge him to beat me to the finish, which he does. We stop, grin at each other, shake hands, and then hug. His wife, smiling, snaps photos of us right there in the heat of the moment.
I feel some vague sense of accomplishment, but the dominant emotion is relief. I have run races before. I have trained on hills. The degree of difficulty of the SDTC course is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
Later that afternoon I chat with Virginia Tinley, CAF’s Executive Director, and she confirms for me that the course is unbelievably challenging, even for runners with both their legs. I agree with her.
A Day Later
I’m on a plane back to New York. Nothing in the week leading up to the race or the race itself went the way I thought it would. On Monday afternoon I was using crutches thinking my foot might be fractured. The Hill from Hell erased any plans of running the entire course without stopping. I lost a partner in the first 10 minutes of the race who I didn’t want and gained one for the last 7 miles I never expected to find (or need).
I don’t keep trophies, medals, or any other kind of memoribilia. But I’m holding onto that SDTC bib (#52).
* * *
Though running is labeled an individual sport, completing something like this is most decidedly not an individual effort.
First, huge kudos to the team at Prosthetic Innovations, who keep me going no matter what. You’re right, guys: “It’s the fit!”
Major thanks to everyone at my company as well for their support and involvement. As I wrote about several months ago, I specifically challenged our Management Team to either participate in the race or, failing that, attend Sunday’s event. Everyone lived up to their promise. And even though I didn’t see all of you in person on Sunday, I did verify your presence. (I have sources!)
Thanks also to Peggy Chenoweth (www.amputeemommy.com) and Scout Bassett, each of whom checked in on me, particularly over the last week, to offer encouragement and support.
less is more readers – you have suffered through post after post dealing with my training for this event. I’m not sure how interesting or enlightening it was, but I appreciate your sticking with me through it. I suspect reading about running for 4 months was more painful than actually doing the 10-mile course yourselves. I love writing this blog and appreciate your comments and loyalty more than I can express.
Challenged Athletes Foundation – this was a great weekend. The SDTC is a world-class event and I’m honored to have been a part of it! Special thanks to Virginia Tinley and Roy Perkins – it was great to see you both again and talk.
Finally, but by no means least in importance, thanks to my extended and direct family for all of their love and support over the last few months. Cara, Max, Jackson, and Caroline aka Bug – even though I apparently looked like I was going through my death throes as I approached the finish, it was amazing to have all of you there for this.