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The Looniness of the Long-Distance Runner

The sun is rising over the Lake Chabot Marina, in California’s Castro Valley, and I’ve just opened my eyes to find a heavy-set African-American woman slipping fluorescent pink and green fliers under my windshield wipers. She smiles apologetically, and when … Read More

By / November 12, 2008

The sun is rising over the Lake Chabot Marina, in California’s Castro Valley, and I’ve just opened my eyes to find a heavy-set African-American woman slipping fluorescent pink and green fliers under my windshield wipers. She smiles apologetically, and when I smile back, she mouths "thank you" and proceeds down Lake Chabot Road. There are dozens of cars to paper. I go back to sleep. An hour or two later, I clamber out of the Jeep and inspect the fliers.

One advertises Herbalife, a weight-loss program pushed, like Ginsu cutlery, through multi-level or "network" marketing. The other promises that I can "lose 2-8 pounds per week." The contact name and number are identical: This is Vanessa’s home business. If only she’d noticed the decals, bumper stickers, and license plate frames on most of these cars: "Marathon Freak," "26.2," "Runner Girl," "Running Is My Prozac," and "Western States 100 Mile Endurance Challenge." These are not people greatly in need of weight-loss nostrums. I could use that, I think, my thoughts returning to the Crockpot back at my apartment, in which a four-pound pork shoulder is cooking. I’m one of a few people at the Lake Chabot Marina, the starting point of the Dick Collins Firetrails 50, not there in an athletic capacity. I have no interest in running fifty miles. I have a vested interest in not running any miles. I’m merely the hungry, exhausted, and woefully hung-over chauffeur of rookie ultramarathoner Sarah C. Murray, who strives daily to put the loco in locomotion.

At 6:30 AM I escorted her in complete darkness to the starting line. A surprise to see someone report so cheerfully to a torture chamber.

The gloom was punctuated here and there by headlamps like will-o-wisps. The mood at the registration table, at this hour the only oasis of light in the park, was a kind of mocking inversion of my own. I hadn’t made time to shower, despite not having managed to sleep, either. Yet here was a flock of merry and chattering loons eager to take wing. Everywhere I looked, a pair of striated legs was being stretched out in elaborate and unpleasant-looking ways. One man appeared to be rubbing IcyHot into his thighs; it turned out to be Vaseline, to prevent chafing.

An alien language was spoken here: "Not plantar fasciitis, I hope?"; "You’ve done three ultras in two months?"; "I trashed my patella"; "Did my first 100 in September." CamelBaks and bottled-water holsters were strapped on like armor before a battle. I dreamed of a Camel Light and a bottle of something high-proof to usher me back to slumberland. Put plainly, I loathed these people. They didn’t register how cold it was, how pointless this was, how much happier they’d be in bed-even were that bed the back of a Jeep. Had I not known better, I might have supposed that they wanted to run fifty miserable miles.

I felt myself forming a philosophical objection to the ultramarathon, a term referring to any race longer than 26.2 miles. Some people accept mortality, embracing and, where possible, encouraging bodily limitations. Tempus fugit, as someone wise once observed: The paunch is coming, the double and treble chins, the thunder thighs, the muffin top. To this species of chronological determinism, the ultramarathoner says, no thanks. Ego fugit. Let time catch up with me. And it’s pure hubris.

As a consequence, most ultramarathoners look like the Visible Man science model: bones, muscle, and a pair of eyes to remind you that this was once a human being. Ms. Murray is not among their number. Despite running between seven and twenty miles a day, she pays no special attention to nutrition. Her fuel inheres in beer, soup, and pretzels, a diet fit for hobos and endurance athletes alike. She keeps pace with her metabolism. She looks normal. Appearances can be deceiving.

I’ve rehearsed Latin aphorisms and Greek concepts, and this is no coincidence. Ms. Murray is not only a running fanatic who won her first marathon (Death Valley, 2007), but also a classicist and archaeologist (pursuing a Ph.D. at Stanford University). She’s been to Marathon, where a statue of Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee, commemorates the first marathon-as well as the New Balance sneaker company, which commissioned the statue. She runs, coincidentally, in New Balance, women’s size 9.5.

Greece inspired her first fifty-mile run, but not because of the feat attested in Plutarch and Herodotus. It was a sixty-kilometer (roughly forty-mile) walk from Korphos, on the eastern Peloponnese, to Mycenae, during which she discovered a Bronze Age site, that sealed the deal. "If I could walk it," she recalls thinking, "I could run it faster." There are echoes in this straightforward act of will of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the British travel writer who walked across Europe in his youth-a trip chronicled in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water-and went on to write two stunning books about Greece, Roumeli and Mani.

I’m not thinking of any of this as I sleep fitfully in the Jeep, then decide to scout a patch of grass in Chabot Park. In forty-eight hours, I’ve barely slept. Because Ms. Murray is a graduate student and I’m a freelance writer-an "ink-stained wretch," in George Orwell’s memorable phrase-we keep different schedules, and I didn’t manage to adjust my 4:30 AM bedtime in time for the race. It is with mild annoyance that I approach the marina café five hours into the race, order a cheeseburger, and plant myself on a deck with views of both algae-choked Lake Chabot and the red digital clock recording the runners’ final times.

It’s the finest cheeseburger I’ve ever eaten. It renews my commitment to sloth and gluttony. Smothered in onions, pickles, and molten cheese, snug in a nest of potato chips, it reminds me that there are two sources of pleasure in this world: the thing that feels so good when you stop, and the thing that goes on feeling good until you decide to stop. I will always be a fervent devotee of the latter.

But I cannot stifle the awe in which I hold those who choose the former. A little while after the six-hour mark, men begin to attain the finish line. Some have water bottles velcroed to their hands. All have legs chiseled into athletic history. I have something in common with these guys: I too am chiseled from marble. In my case, in the shape of a slob who eats cheeseburgers for breakfast.

Men and women, from the young to the very old, trickle into a victory chute marked off with orange traffic cones. Every flurry of applause yanks my gaze from the book I’m reading without much interest, but there is no Sarah Murray. I perform calculations, first with my cellphone and then, when its battery dies, with my brain. (My iPod, which I’d been using as a stopwatch, has long since crapped out.) What would her mile pace need to be to finish at seven hours? At seven-fifteen? At seven-forty-five? At eight? I watch an old woman remark a skywriter, a bird, a lesbian couple holding hands. I snort when another woman approvingly points out a "Google Bear," left in a stroller, to her daughter. I watch a young boy try to climb the fence surrounding Lake Chabot, to retrieve an escaped soccer ball. He changes his mind; he goes to fetch an adult. "Sissy," I think.

Still no Sarah. I feel concern, then anger. How could she get herself into this? How could she try to run fifty miles without eating a decent meal the night before? Without a hearty, or any, breakfast? Without water? Why doesn’t she have high-tech sweat-wicking apparel like the other runners? I contemplate disaster scenarios: Would anybody stop if a runner collapsed of heat exhaustion, dehydration, or hyponatremia? Running fifty miles isn’t just stupid; it’s dangerous. Too little sodium in the blood can kill you. I begin to wonder if she’s given this possibility the thought it deserves.

I maintain calm, and eventually she appears on the paved track. Most of the Firetrails 50 takes place, as its name suggests, on trails-the middle portion of the altitude profile looks suggestively like devil horns-but the first and last stretches are on asphalt. She’s been beaten by dozens of runners, but she’s alive. Her face is so caked with salt that it looks like she’s wearing a Phantom of the Opera mask. She throws the goat as she passes the finish line, at 8:57:06.

But, as usual, I’ve misjudged the situation. Someone’s handing her a tote bag and a bottle of wine. I understand my mistake: an ordinary marathon, which started later in the day, has been feeding the same finish line. The middle-aged women and senior citizens who’ve been "beating" Sarah for the past two hours aren’t even part of her race. She is, in fact, first in her (21-29) age group, first among women who’ve never run a fifty-mile race before, and fifth among women overall. ("Rookie" appears next to her #169 on the results board, a funny term for someone who can run a greater distance than most people drive without whining about it.) She is thirty-third overall, including men of any age. As usual, she has swung for the fences and crushed it.

"Some girl had a pacer running with her," she says, "so that she could win the rookie title. I had to beat her." She isn’t howling or vomiting or cursing God. She’s eager to be driven-my role, as you recall-to a Classics cookout, where our friends have been drinking Anchor Steam and playing leisurely games of badminton for the past few hours. Is she in terrible pain? She gestures guiltily to a fanny-pack full of Ibuprofen, salt pills, and NoDoz. It turns out she’s been listening to Classics lectures on her iPod so as "not to get bored." Most runners would fret about the postage-stamp-weight of the device. She washes her face in a drinking fountain, and we walk to the Jeep.

The Bear Flag of the California Republic flaps and flutters above the golden hills of Chabot Lake Park. "There were llamas," she informs me. "There were cows looking at us, like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’" I feel a bit bovine myself. "The aid stations were good, though." The aid stations, according to the Firetrails 50 website, had "water, GU 2 0 Hydration drink, Gu, Coke, Sprite, ice, fruit, homemade baked cookies, hard candy, potatoes, P.B. & J sandwiches, pretzels, Succeed Caps, crackers, potato chips, salt, wonderful volunteers, etc."

No pulled pork.

Returning home through the Castro Valley, we pass a sign for the candidacy (I don’t catch the office) of one Hera Alikian. My thoughts return to Greece. Hera, as every classicist worth her salt pills knows, was symbolized by the cow and the peacock. I’m grateful that there’s room for both of us to roam the girdled earth, we ruminants who stand in awe, and the peacocks who can’t resist showing us up. All I ask, over a cioppino meant for two (not a bite of which is offered to me), is that we keep the hundred-miler off the table-but, then, that’s asking a peacock not to strut its stuff.

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