Behind the Sweepers

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Pacing at the Rio Del Lago 100 Miler

by Todd Callaghan


The Rio Del Lago 100 mile Ultrathon, “The Jewel of the Sierra Nevada Foothills” began in 2000 and runs from Beal’s Point along Folsom Lake, about 40 minutes east of Sacramento, out to the town of Cool where runners do two 8-mile loops and then head back to Beal’s Point.  The course traverses oak forests, meadows, expansive river valleys, and scenic bridges. The course is well-marked, well-staffed, and the atmosphere at the aid stations is festive throughout the race, even at night. The race director, Julie Fingar, is an ultrarunner herself and manages several of the popular ultras in California. She and her team NorCalUltras do an excellent job keeping runners safe and focused and most importantly, I was impressed by how they all were rooting for every runner to finish the race, even ignoring their own self-imposed cutoff of 30 hours to allow the last runner to see the finish line in 30:15:14.

Editor’s Note: This is the first portion of a two part story from Todd on his experience in pacing his friend Eric Litvin at the Rio Del Lago back on November 10th and 11th. Part II (Trail Magic) will be published on November 21st.

Pre-race photo: Runner Eric Litvin and pacer/author Todd Callaghan. Credit: Maia Litvin

We follow the windy road down into a desolate canyon until it dissolves into a concrete spillway running dryly into some unknown Stygian river. The rushing violence sounds as cold and dark as the lonely night pressing down upon us. I get a sense like vertigo where I want to throw myself into the marching, wet chaos—end this nightmare.

We’re 55 miles into the Rio Del Lago 100 miler, or at least that was the mileage at our last aid station, Auburn Dam Overlook, before we got lost for two and a half hours. I’m miserable and can’t look my friend Eric in the eyes. As his pacer, I joined him at mile 47, ostensibly to help him get though the second half of his race and safely through the night—whose oppression on a sugar-starved mind can produce an insidious delirium. Simply put, my job was to ensure that he didn’t die, give up, or get lost. I’ve got one strike already and I fear another wicked curveball coming up.

“Maybe it’s a little further” he says hopefully, referring to the elusive race course that we know must lay somewhere in this unforgiving canyon. But there is no further here—just wet, cold, and dead in the murderous river. “No it’s not” I say tersely. I know we need to head back out of this canyon—a steep one-mile climb on an abandoned road violated by bear droppings and the treacherous white arrows that led us astray.

As we start the long climb back up, he says “It’s over” and I sense his resignation in ways beyond auditory. His soul is crushed. I feel sick to my stomach—like when your wisdom teeth are being pulled and you can feel every one being wrenched out, because there is no local anesthetic and they don’t go without a fight and it’s you pulling them with your rusty fishing pliers, one by one. I’m really nauseous and feel the flutter of my flight or fight response kicking in. I am coming to the realization that this dream, to help my college roommate and life friend achieve this goal that he has been working toward for months, is evaporating quickly.

I think back to the Cool aid station at mile 31 (yes, it is in the town of Cool, great name, huh?) when it was 75 F out and Eric didn’t want to eat. “This is so indignant” he complained as I forced him to swallow a fistful of calories without chewing and his 10-year old daughter filmed it on her iPhone for later blackmail currency.  As the turnaround point for the race, as well as a mandatory medical check station and the nexus of two 8-mile loops, the Cool aid station was a convenient place for runners to drop out, to decide that they had given it their all. At least 10 people did, in fact, opt to open their post-race beer at that point.

Optimus Prime, er, Red Bull music truck. Courtesy of Todd Callaghan.

The Cool aid station was a study in contrasts. The station volunteers all had on capes: purple sparkles, Superman, Batman, and a red one covered top to bottom with race numbers. As the weary runners approached the station, the caped volunteers were the kindest mothers, medicating with their mellifluous voices and nourishing ministrations. This was counterpointed by a militant bald man with a clipboard keeping track of runners coming in and out of the aid station, unsmiling, pursuing his daylong task with grimacing efficiency. The aid station table was covered with potions, lotion, and ice. Runners staggered over to the orderly rows of drop bags and pillaged, ransacked, and disordered their well-packed bags as they searched for that special something that was going to keep blisters, hunger, and thirst at bay. Crouching nearby was a ginormous Red Bull, four-wheel sound machine. Like a transformer, the roof separated from the chassis and speakers emerged on pneumatic pedestals to pulse the runners with energizing music. Cool was where day merged with night for some of the back of the pack runners, as happened with us.

But that was ages ago and our reality now is that we’re hiking back up this damn hill and we can see a ridge with lit house windows mocking us. Eric says “Let’s bushwhack up to those houses.” He’s delirious with the fear of his hard-earned miles going to waste. We’ll be disqualified from the race if we do not reach the Beal’s Point aid station by 4:30 AM. Beals Pt. is 24 miles away—a good six hours at the pace we were going before we got lost. But it is now 9 PM and we’re at the bottom of some forgotten valley, getting cold, despondent, and now completely unsure of our ability to get back on course.

I reach into my running vest and pull out my phone. I have to give credit here to my wife, Laurie, who earlier harangued me into promising that I would carry a phone with me. Remarkably, I have cell reception. I leave a message for Ryan our crew chief—the guy staying up all night to meet us at the various aid stations to provide support, food and water, change of clothes, but most importantly, mental support—affirmation that all is OK and that we “look good.” I tell Ryan’s answering service that we might not make it to the Rattlesnake Bar aid station where he is waiting. Despite the situation, I used the term “might not” because I’m still holding out that we might experience some “trail magic” and rejoin the trail and get back into our rhythm.

On Friday, after all the racers had gotten weighed and had their blood pressure checked—a process that would be repeated during and after the race to ensure runner safety—the original Rio Del Lago race course designer, a peppy septuagenarian stood up before us with his wife (who has run six 100-milers since she turned 66 he pointed out to those of us who might be doubting our own abilities) and told us about “Trail Magic.” A 100-mile ultrathon is long and arduous, but as many have attested to while hiking the Appalachian Trail, mysterious helpers, both human and supernatural, supply food, drink, a ride, or mental support, just when you need it most. He mentioned being kind to others out there on the course, respecting the wilderness as well as the race, and picking up after one’s self. Lost as we were, we were definitely in need of some help, supernatural or otherwise. Earlier in the day, Eric had bent over to pick up a Styrofoam cup, the remnants of a soup hastily disposed of by a tired runner. As he did so, another runner passing said “Trail Magic.” Maybe, just maybe, our cosmic karma would turn this situation around.

Having not reached our teammate Ryan on the phone, I call Caroline, who was also crewing for Eric all day, but who was now at home getting ready for bed. Her voice sounded tired. I asked her to text Ryan for us to tell him that we might not make it to the next aid station. Her husband Jeff asks for the phone and asks me what has happened. Jeff Hamilton is a former speed skier (and world record holder) and is a good friend of Eric’s from their Aspen days. Jeff and Caroline are Eric’s daughter Maia’s godparents. That is to say, they are in this too, and are willing to do what it takes to help us get back on course. So it’s no surprise—though I was extremely relieved—when Jeff says “I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Luckily, Jeff and Caroline are staying in the town of Auburn at his parent’s house. He grew up in the town where we happen to be lost and knows the terrain well. We agree to meet back at the Auburn Dam Overlook aid station where there is easy access for vehicles.

Drop Bags at Cool Aid Station. Credit: Todd Callaghan

We finally pull ourselves out of the canyon and can see Caroline’s flashlight at the end of the dirt road ahead. While Caroline stands with us and helps us try to find an explanation for what has transpired over the last three hours, Jeff takes off in his truck and drives down the road apiece, to find where the race course diverges from the paved road and tucks back into the woods. There is a concrete culverted stream there, something called “Shirland Canal” I will later learn from Google’s orthophotos. This is what a helpful couple at the Auburn Dam Overlook aid station was calling the “aqueduct” when they attempted to give us directions after the first time we had gotten lost (did I mention that we got lost twice?)-which made no sense to me as I hadn’t traversed this part of the course before. Besides, it resembled nothing like an aqueduct, no sweeping Roman architecture, but instead a rather pathetic, meager rill.

As we are staring into the woods, the helpful aid station couple pulls up in their car and say “You got lost again?!” incredulously, and in a way that seems to me to be taunting. I was angry with them as they were the ones that I had asked specifically if the course turned with a white arrow in the road, went through a green gate and descended a road. “Yes, yes”, the woman said at that time, “Down a long, windy road and then take the right at the bottom.” She was right, but we were thinking of different gates and different roads about a quarter mile from each other. Both of which descended into the canyon, but only one of which connected with the race course.

The helpful couple went ahead of us briefly in their car and then stopped at the entrance to the trail. The old man leans out his window and drops the hammer: “You’re behind the sweepers.” It doesn’t register to my foggy brain what this means. “There are volunteers following behind the last runners and they are removing the orange tags from the trees and all other trail markings.” Oh shit. I look into the woods and there is an obvious path, but who knows what sort of crossroads, forks, river crossings, might lay unmarked ahead. I had not seen this part of the course so I have no mental trail memory to rely upon and it is becoming clear that Eric’s reserving all of his blood flow for muscle movement. After starting down the trail I freeze in my tracks. A terror sets in. Again, I feel sick—“It’s over” repeats in my mind.  They are going to yank us off the course, I fear. The older woman is now trying to give directions again and I feel a shrinking inside. I want to push forward but the risk of getting lost—yet again—is palpable. There is a taste like gun metal in my mouth.

To be continued…

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