Pacing at the Rio Del Lago 100 Miler
by Todd Callaghan
Editor’s Note: This is the second 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 I (Behind the Sweepers) was published on November 20th.
All this time, I had forgotten about Eric, who was receding inward—the sweat from his previous hard work and stress now evaporating, his muscles contracting-a sugar low setting in. His mind is in ontological rewind—becoming a child, an infant, an egg. A situation familiar to winter hikers and trail runners who for whatever reason suddenly have to stop, then realize they can’t feel their hands, can’t remember where they are, need to switch into survival mode.
At this point, several highly improbable events aligned and we were able to rejoin the RDL race course. Suffice it to say that we experienced firsthand some very necessary Trail Magic. For the first time in several hours I felt some sense of relief. We just might get another chance to do this thing. Trail Magic.
Then Eric says “I’m cold,” and we see that he is visibly shaking and uncomfortable. Jeff gives him his down jacket and we prod him to start moving. He’s chattering and moaning, but at least he’s moving. I give him a few stiff-arm shoves to make sure he is moving fast enough—getting blood flowing again and his core temperature back up. As bad as this seems, I’m ebullient.
As we plod through the dark night, I’m enervated by how alive the woods are. There is scraping, scurrying, hissing, and hooting. Our headlamps illuminate the creepy orange zombie eyes of browsing deer. At one point I see a pair of green eyes low to the ground and I make out the spotted hunched back of a snarling bobcat. Later a striped skunk waddles across our path. Near the Granite Bay aid station we pass right under a pine tree where a great horned owl is hooting its territorial call. These calls and close calls bring another dimension to the otherwise two dimensional night. We’re both stumbling, tripping over the rocks that menace our ankles and shins as clouds of light dust swirl above the dry trail with every footfall. Our only focus at that point was to make it to Beals Pt., mile 78 (more like 87 for Eric), before the mandatory 4 AM cutoff.
Several hours later, as we approached the spiraling, red runway lights that directed us down the chute into the aid station, I had an awful realization that it wasn’t over yet. The way the Rio Del Lago course finishes is with an 11-mile backtracking across some of the most difficult and rocky terrain and then runners head out yet again across the same boulders back to the finish. This makes sense from a race organizer’s perspective and for the safety of the runners, allowing the last painful miles to be familiar and close enough for a rescue if necessary. But for a tired runner, it messes with your mind to be at the finish and then have to leave all that comfort behind and head back into the bush for another 22 miles. I tried not to think about how it would feel to have to turn right back around and face upstream into the migratory path of the lucky runners finishing their last few miles. I pushed those selfish thoughts aside and remembered that I was in this race as a pacer. It wasn’t about me. My job was to motivate Eric and keep him on his feet and taking steps forward for the next seven hours.
When we finally made it to Beals Pt., it was 3:30 AM-we made the cutoff by a half hour. Caroline and Ryan were there but I honestly don’t remember seeing them. I recall Eric checking in with the medics, getting weighed, them pressing him to see if he really had it in him to continue. I recall them noting that he was dehydrated and making him swallow a few salt pills. The medic looked at me and said “How is he?” I flatly replied “He’s good.” I was terrified that they’d force us to turn in our race numbers. Word of our getting lost had been passing though the various aid stations and the medic admitted that he’d been keeping an eye out for the two of us specifically. I was relieved when the medic said “Give him another salt pill in 20 minutes” as he thrust a capsule into my gloved hand. It was a good reminder that I should be taking some myself. Everyone was rooting for us at this point—as they were for all runners—but us in particular because of our inadvertently adding on a 10% bonus to the length of the course. Later, after the race, the medic would admit to Eric that at 3:30 AM, he “looked awful” but the medic knew that Eric had “the heart to finish”, so they didn’t pull him from the course.
The last 22 miles were drudgery. At times I had to Heisman Eric in the back to keep his feet moving forward. At one point Eric pointed to a large wildflower bending into the trail and said “There it is” and kept moving peremptorily onward before I could resolve the mystery, as if we had been botanist explorers looking for this rare, withered weed but he was too busy to stop to retrieve it so now it was my job to pluck and preserve it for posterity. Sometime later, Eric declared that he had seen Smokey the Bear. No stranger to the occasional hallucination myself, without skipping a beat I said, “You mean with the hat and ‘Prevent Forest Fires?’” “Yes, in the manzanita,” he said, meaning it. I was warned by our crew chief, Ryan, to expect at least one major crash, a belligerent denial of food, water, and all things rational. Luckily, I have a four-year old at home. Noticing that Eric was filling his pockets at the aid stations but wasn’t eating anymore, I asked him to reach into his pocket and eat three things. This sort of nibbling, setting a defined limitation to the amount that I was asking him to push down his gullet at any one time, seemed to work. Every 20 minutes or so, I’d ask him to eat a chocolate or another three things. Once, he projectile vomited a whole mouthful of pretzels that I had badgered him to eat. So I kept it simple and small. Later, I tricked him by saying that I’d open a GU gel for him and eat half and give him the other half. I wouldn’t eat any and he’d force all the calories down.
When Eric’s pace slowed to nearly a stop, I’d entreat him to swing his arms back and forth and the momentum would help keep his knees moving forward. I also showed him how to press his palms on the end of his thighs near the knees and powerhike up the hills like the European mountain runners. At night, some clever trail elves had hung glow sticks that helped to keep us motivated, giving us a clear visual goal to run to, then slow back to a power walk. To his credit, Eric ate, drank, and forced himself to jog whenever I asked. An ultrathon forces a runner to dig deeper than they ever have before and Eric was there, in his own personal well, willing himself forward, with a strength few people dare themselves to find.
The miles crept on and on like this until the sun came up and we found new energy in being able to see the trail, feel the orange sun vaulting over the ridge, get some dopamine flowing back into our brains. When we reached the last aid station at Granite Bay, about 5 miles from the finish, our entire crew and Eric’s daughter were there. Eric visibly sucked energy from Maia’s hug. I grabbed his water bottles and filled them with a mixture of water and Tailwind energy drink, which I had been doing surreptitiously for about six hours ever since he started to rebel against it (drinking 300 calories per hour was a key part of Eric’s race nutrition plan, so I tried to stay with it).
Ryan had taken a photo of a finisher’s belt buckle (the traditional finishers’ medal for 100-mile races) and showed the photo to Eric. “See this Eric. Only five more miles and it is yours.” I guzzled four cups of flat Coke, ate three boiled potatoes with salt, and devoured the most delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich made by Jeff and Caroline’s daughter, Francis. I was powered up and focused. Knowing how hard the last few miles of a marathon are, and having seen even 2:30 marathoners slow to a jog or walk at the end, I knew that this race wasn’t over. Even though we had an hour and a half to move our bodies only five miles, the California sun was heating up the parched terrain and Eric had been up for 28 hours, covering over a hundred miles. I didn’t want him to blow up.
We kept our focus, and even passed a few struggling runners in the last few miles. We were cheered on by mountain bikers and Sunday hikers enjoying Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, incredulous that any human could run 100 miles, let alone do it continuously for almost 30 hours. The roar of the finish line drew us forward. I told Eric that I was going to peel off at the end, let him run through the chute on his own. This was his race, I was merely the pacer. Seeing my friend Eric cross the finish line 29 and a half hours after starting the Rio Del Lago ultrathon, hearing the announcer shout his name, seeing Eric’s daughter Maia run into the chute to greet him, in my addled and vulnerable state, it was like a childhood birthday and Christmas, Halloween, and Easter all rolled into one. It was like burying my whole face into my first birthday cake: a chocolate cake heaped with butter cream frosting, decorated with Elmo holding hands with a purple fairy princess, riding a sparkling rainbow unicorn. It was delicious. I wept.
If you’ve never attempted an ultramarathon or never volunteered at one or crewed for a friend, I highly recommend it. Add it to your running life list. The ultra community is tight, but welcoming and ever-supportive. I didn’t see any competition per se as we know it in the USATF series’ we obsess over here in the northeast. But I did see some awesome competitors and they all appeared to honestly wish their fellow runners well. While a 100-mile race might seem like a 20-plus-hour sufferfest, I cannot tell you how many smiling, cheery, downright perky, runners I saw at the RDL. We’ve got some great ultra races here in New England: the Pineland Farms 50K and 50-mile in Maine, the Vermont 50 and 100 milers, the Pisgah Forest 50K in Vermont, and the Stonecat marathon and 50-mile in Topsfield, Massachusetts, among others. Even if you are not ready to log the hours necessary to finish an ultramarathon, get yourself out there and help someone else achieve their dream: work an aid station, be a pacer. Or just forget your road mileage for a day and ramble in the woods for a few hours, infuse your mind with the sounds and smells, build your own cathedral, create a little Trail Magic.