This is the sort of well thought out argument that takes place between two drunk women in the room next to us at the Econolodge in Fresno.
A good night’s sleep was not in the cards.
Andrea went to sleep agitated and woke up even more agitated. She wasn’t sure she could finish the 100K inside the cutoffs. When I saw her climbing the hill ahead of me when I reached the 50k turnaround she was in next to last place. The only person behind her was a girl in American flag short shorts and Luna sandals.
When I saw her again at mile 43.5 of the 100k, she was just behind first place female. Andrea doesn’t really sandbag people. She just runs smart and counts on everybody else to go out too hard and then fall apart down the road somewhere. They usually oblige.
The 100K started at 5:30am. It was a small pack of runners. A few had taken an early start, heading out just as we pulled into the parking lot. We fetched our bibs, and then Andrea was off.
The 50K began an hour later, at 6:30am. I was not feeling great. The poor nights sleep at the EconoLodge was not helping me feel a whole lot of Carpe Diem. It felt more like the day was going to seize me, and probably shake me by the throat. It’s been a rough couple of years, especially because I am convinced it’s been a rough couple of years. It’s all about perception. I’ve been letting the days shake me by the throat a lot recently. But the San Joaquin River Trail is a beautiful trail, and it was a beautiful morning. Maybe I could let myself not have bad day.
The race opens with a solid 1 mile or so climb, followed by a downhill and then a series of rolling ups and downs on singletrack, on the southern slope of the canyon carved out by the San Joaquin River. There are cows grazing throughout this area. The slope of the hill gets steep enough in a stretch that the cows can’t graze on either side of the trail, and just use the trail to get from one grassy hill to the next, which is what they were doing when the runners hit the same stretch. There was no room for the cows to get off the trail and let us pass. Cows don’t particularly like to run, either, but they were being forced to, which was not exactly what any of them had planned for the morning, and they weren’t happy about it. It’s kind of amazing how much a cow can convey in a “mooo”. What I heard was “Really? Guys, give us a fucking break here. We’re going as fast as we can. We’re cows.”
Runners would find places where the trail widened and pass the cows, who were lumbering along unhappily. It’s hard to feel aggressive when you are running in the middle of a herd of cows. It set a nice tone for the day.
Cows on the San Joaquin River Trail
The beer drinkers.
I was running behind a girl in shorts that might have been too small on a girl smaller than her. It wasn’t a particularly aerodynamic look but she wore it well, owning it like someone who was going to embark on some Carpe Diem. She and her running partner had a plan: they were going to drink a beer at every aid station. They could not wait until they got to the first aid station, which would be at about 7:30am.
I’m not so sure about the strategy of drinking a beer at every aid station. Many years ago I used to drink beer and run. After that, I just drank beer. After that, I stopped drinking beer, and started to run. Turns out I don’t multitask well, especially when drinking is involved.
I remember being out for a run after dark one evening in Austin, Texas. My friends pulled up next me and someone offered me a beer. I was thirsty, and I liked beer, so I guzzled it down. I ended up cutting the run short so that I could get back to the house and drink more beer. When faced with a choice between anything and drinking, I always opted for drinking.
Earlier that summer, I was running a 15K at some small town festival in the hill country outside of Austin. It was the early 80s jogging boom and every small town seemed to open their local festival with a 5 or 10K, and that would bring in the city slickers like me. Whether or not the town was in the district he represented, Congressman JJ Jake Pickle would always be in the parade, riding in a Cadillac convertible, throwing pickles out to the audience.
I finished the race. All they had to drink at the finish line was beer. Texas summers are hot, and I’d been sweating. I was crusted with salt and very thirsty. Three beers later, I was pretty much toast. It was about 8am, too early to be that drunk. I sampled as much chili as I could from the chili cook-off, hoping to soak up the alcohol. I watched the fiddle contest and the coronation of the 1981 Sausage Queen and promised myself never to drink that much beer again before 8am., a promise I mostly kept for nearly fifteen years.
Thirty six years later, (and twenty years since my last beer), I was running the San Joaquin River Trail ultra for the third year in a row. I was drinking Tailwind. I passed the beer drinkers in the miles approaching the first aid station, which was several miles further down the course than we thought. The beer drinkers were worried, but not so much that it threw off their game.
As expected, beer is not a performance enhancing drug, and they gradually dropped back a few miles. I say they dropped back because I do not feel like I was making any bold moves forward. I saw the girl again. She had taken off as much clothing as possible, revealing lots of glistening tattooed skin flushed red with alcohol. She looked happy, and a bit unsteady.
Jake Pickle hands a squeaky pickle to Coretta Scott King
My dark places.
I’ve refined my skills when it comes to hitting dark places. Normally the territory of 100 milers, I can now hit pure despair in a 5 mile run. It’s a special talent I’m trying to learn to deal with.
About 10 miles into the race, on a beautiful section of trail still running along the southern side of the river (the 50K is always beneath the river except for turn-around point which is just across a bridge), having managed to ditch the beer drinkers and finding myself wonderfully alone for a few miles, I started reviewing my life, which is never a good thing these days. Gratitude is in short supply, mostly because I deal with change about as gracefully as the cows do trail running, and the past two years have given me lots of change to moo unhappily about.
My dark places get absurdly dark these days. This is why at mile 12 or so of San Joaquin River Trail 50k I was seriously contemplating killing myself. It’s beautiful up there and I thought I could wander off trail a bit, slit my wrists and bleed out gently in the warm sun. I would send Andrea a text which she would not read until her race was over. The only problem was i hadn’t any signal. ATT is not a very good carrier. Nor did I have anything I could use to slit my wrists.
Knowing that I had neither cell signal nor a blade meant I could indulge the thoughts a little longer than thoughts like that should probably be indulged. Thinking about killing myself every day is really not a good thing and I need to find a way out of it, something that shouldn’t be hard on a beautiful Saturday morning running along the San Joaquin River.
It’s hard to run with enthusiasm when you are pondering suicide. The thoughts passed. I picked up my pace a little and hit the next aid station.
The first time I ran this race, in 2015, I’d signed up for the 100K. Andrea had also intended to run it but was still dealing with injury from her Fatdog 120 DNF. The evening before the race I suddenly got a very bad sore throat and realized I was sick, and I ended up dropping at mile 18.5.
Looking back, my splits were all much too hard. I don’t know why I was running that fast. I’m certainly not capable of it now. We ended up driving towards Yosemite and wandering around sadly-depleted-by-the-drought lakes. There was snow on the ground. It was starkly beautiful.
Andrea had signed up for the 100K but dropped down to the 50K. I signed up for the 50K at the last minute. I’d been running slow since my Western States DNF. It seemed I was not recovering all that quickly from the knee injury that took me out at mile 85. Or maybe I had just gotten old; the latter possibility has been looking much more likely now that some time has passed.
I felt beat up on the return and walked a few miles on a stretch that should have been very runnable. Andrea passed me at the last aid station, around mile 26 or so. I tried to summon something up and nearly caught back up to her.
This effort was still good enough for an age group award.
Gluten free pancakes.
Are you one of those people who, when you think of Fresno, gluten free pancakes is not the first thing that springs to mind? If so, you might want to reconsider. Fresno is a gluten free pancake mecca. We rewarded ourselves with some the day after the race (much better than beer), and then took a detour on the drive home.
San Joaquin River
Let’s stay in the now.
This year, I was moving even slower. Blame it on the cows, or maybe just on laziness – I don’t seem to have the ability or desire to push it past third gear anymore. I have lost my capacity to hurt.
I thought I might pass Andrea on this stretch. She should be running a slower pace, and she’d had an extra 5 miles or so on an out-and-back, and those two should combine to erase her one hour head start. I didn’t pass her, though. She was about two hundred yards ahead of me, climbing up from what was the turn-around point for the 50K. I yelled out to her, and she called back. I was at the 50K point at the same time she hit it last year, she said.
Andrea had been worried about her 100K. The race cutoff was tight, almost an hour faster than her one previous attempt at the distance. This course seemed deceptively hard. She was actually agitated the day before the race, which was not something I’d seen before. She was slightly ahead of pace, though. Nevertheless, there was only one other 100K runner behind her – a girl in luna sandals, who didn’t look like she was going to finish, although I thought to myself at the moment that this was probably an unfair judgment, because I never expect anyone in luna sandals to finish a race. (Turned out it was an accurate appraisal. She would drop. Not sure why people try running in luna sandals.)
Andrea and I both run pretty steady races. We sandbag people. This is because she pushes it hard on the second half, whereas I take it really easy on the first half, so we usually have close to even splits. We kind of depend on other runners to blow their wads in the first half, and we pass them while they limp it in.
I started passing people. The beer drinker girl staggered towards me, minus most of her clothing, red and glistening. I passed a couple of folks who were chattering to each other. Often the sound of human voices really annoys me, (I much prefer moos) so I made a special effort to get far enough ahead that I would not need to hear them. This took a few miles. Sound carries in the hills.
What about the actual course?
Maybe you are someone who is trying to research this race. Maybe you are more interested in details about the actual course rather than the stuff that happens in the nether regions of my brain, even though in my brain the nether regions tend to be front and center. Well, if that’s the case, I wouldn’t want this to be a complete waste of time. After all, you’ve read this far.
There are two races, a 50K and a 100K. Both are out-and-backs on pretty much the exact same course, but the 50K turns around a lot sooner. The 100K also has a short out-and-back climb-up-a-hill-on-a-fire-road from the second aid station, which the 50K does not.
Aside from that out-and-back leg up a hill on a fireroad, both courses are almost entirely run on singletrack that runs alongside the San Joaquin River, crossing from the south side to the north side just before the 50K turnaround. This means the rest of the 100K is run on the north side of the river, on trail that is rockier and slightly runnable than the rest.
It’s a beautiful, low key race. If your thing is being surrounded by hundreds or maybe even thousands of runners, and you really get off on the energy of something like the LA Marathon, or need to be surrounded by excessive amounts of testosterone to really come alive, this low key race might not be the thing for you, and maybe you should try an iron-man® instead. If, on the other hand, you enjoy a beautiful trail with lots of space between runners, and quiet alone time on a brisk fall day in an environment that is totally local and feels like family, this might be enjoyable.
And while it might be a low key race, it’s not an easy one. The 100K cut-off is especially tight. It’s not for dilettantes.
The 50K has nearly 6,000 feet of climbing. None of the climbs are particularly brutal except, perhaps, the opening climb, which is about a mile long, and the climb back up from the turnaround, also about a mile long. It’s all quite runnable…but you are always going up or down. If you blow your wad early, your day might suck just a little on the return. I don’t consider myself to be much of a hotshot when it comes to climbing, but I passed a lot of people climbing on the return.
The elevation profile for the 50K looks like this:
1). When in doubt, slow down. Even in a shorter race, like a 50K, you have plenty of time to take is easy and still make yourself hurt at the end. This is common coach wisdom in ultras, but not a lot of people follow it, preferring to start at front of the pack even when they are a middle of the pack runner, fully intending to PR by several hours, and then blowing their wads big time and having to walk it in if they don’t DNF first. Luckily, slowing down is seldom a problem for me. I just do it naturally.
2). When you are ready to push, wait! This is sort of like when in doubt, slow down. Basically it says “you’ve run a good, intelligent first quarter of the race. Now is not the time to be an idiot and go balls out. Try not to blow your wad until the finish line is getting close.” A chronic underachiever, this is also never a problem for me.
3). Don’t go to the well too early! Okay, so the race is halfway through and you’ve run smart and only blown half your wad. It’s still too early to go balls out. Again, not a problem for me.
4). When it’s time to hurt, make it hurt! This is the part where I run into trouble. Only once did I finish a race completely spent, and that was Leona Divide 50m in 2012. I might end the race with blisters or feet battered by the rocks, or just plain tired, but I seldom end it in pain due to exertion. If it’s a 50K, I run it like I’m running a 50 miler. If it’s a 50 miler, I run it like it’s 100K. In this race, coming up on that last climb, I had three goals. The first was to pass whoever was just in front of me. The second was to make a specific time goal. The third was to go hard and use up whatever I had left. What happened was a little different. There was no one to pass nor was I going to hit the time goal. With those two gone I couldn’t find anything to drive me to give it all I had in the last five miles. I don’t race well against myself, I guess. And I’m lazy. I pushed it just enough so as not to feel like I wasn’t trying, and that was good enough.
I finished second in my age group.
Mile 43 aid station
After a short rest I headed out to catch Andrea at the 43 mile aid station. When I arrived I was told the first place woman, a Bulgarian, had just left the aid station. Andrea came in as I parked the car. A number of other runners – all men – showed up around the same time.
Andrea was pumped up. She was feeling good, and talking loud. Adrenaline was flowing. She was happy to hear that the first place woman was not that far in front of her, but said the woman was running strong. Both of them had picked up a number of places since the turn-around. Andrea was in and out of the aid station quickly.
Back at the finish the 100K runners were trickling in. The Bulgarian runner’s boyfriend finished his race. “She’s got it for sure,” said an enthusiastic local runner I’d seen at the 43 mile aid station. “Second place was at least an hour behind!”
That didn’t sound right to me. I’d not seen the Bulgarian runner, but I was told she’d just left the aid station when I arrived. Andrea tends to finish strong, so I doubted the distance between them would grow. I sat back to wait.
A runner was coming in, and the cheering was much louder than usual – either a local favorite or first place female. Once the Bulgarian woman arrived, I expected Andrea to be just after her. The crowd gathered around the runner who had just finished. I saw a pink V-Fuel shirt. It was Andrea, having passed the Bulgarian, first place female.
It seemed the Bulgarian had paced herself perfectly for a slightly shorter race, and suffered hard in the last few miles. I guess it was a puke fest. The 100K distance is no joke. For those of us who are not elites, it seems to set the distance limit of a race that can mostly be run.
More gluten free pancakes.
The next morning, more gluten free pancakes. We have simple motivations. I am sure we’ll be back again next year.