Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Barry does a 100-mile race (San Diego 100 - take two)

A year ago, I traveled to San Diego with Barry to pace him for his first 100-mile race. The day of the race was hot - really hot, record-breaking hot - and Barry ended up dropping out at mile 51. I never got to pace Barry that year. Instead, I paced Ken, a ten-times Western States finisher, for 20 miles of the course, while Barry volunteered and helped out at various aid stations.

A year is a long time
I think Barry's training for this year's San Diego 100 miler started about an hour after he handed in his bib at the 2013 race - where, instead of returning to the hotel to rest, he volunteered. He was sad, I assume, and understandably disappointed. And, despite this, he kept going. He did three 50 mile races in about a month that summer. In the fall, he won the Canadian 50-mile championships.

Things felt unfinished last year - I always wanted to help Barry give the race one more shot. This desire hit a speedbump in February, when I finally got a stress fracture diagnosis for my ankle and put on an aircast. While Barry was putting in week after week of high mileage, I was swimming laps. My cast came off, and I started to run - 10 minutes, half an hour, an hour. There were good days, and there were frustrating setbacks, which ended in me, on Ramsey's table, with needles sticking out of my left calf.

About a month before the race, it looked like pacing might be an actual possibility. However, there was no way my ankle could handle running 50km straight. Enter pacer #2.

Team Barry
I met Seth, briefly, at the Transrockies Race back in August 2013, while trying to eat my body weight in nutella (I achieved this goal - seriously, who the hell gains a pound after running 120miles?...I do). We sporadically kept in touch, bonding over our shared love of cats. Seth lives in San Diego, and likes surfing, ironman triathlons, biking, snowboarding, and pop tarts as a performance food group.

When he heard about the race, he generously offered to help pace Barry. The plan was for Seth and I to alternate legs of the course for the last 29-odd miles - giving my ankle time to recover and dealing with my still-limited fitness. I ran the idea by Ramsey six days before the race, booked my ticket to Los Angeles Monday, got "Team Barry" t-shirts made on Tuesday, and, after many months of neglect, found myself packing my trail backpack and water bladder, along with trail shoes and my FITS socks, on Thursday night.

The fourth, and most important (okay, besides the actual runner) member of Team Barry was Amber, Barry's girlfriend. Amber is Australian, and has an actual life outside of running - enjoying hobbies such as drinking, sarcasm, reading, art, and orthopedic nursing. Amber was the crew: responsible for driving from aid station to aid station, attempting to get Barry to eat / drink, providing changes of clothes, headlamps, painkillers, and, above all, moral support.


We flew out of Vancouver to Los Angeles early Friday morning. From Los Angeles, we drove out to the tiny town of Julien, an hour or so inland of San Diego. We had done this drive, or very similar, a year before. Last year, where it had been overcast, there was now a hazy sunshine. The traffic that we had to grind through on the I-5 was gone, replaced with a view of distant ocean past dry fields. We took a different route inland, but the fading away of the Los Angeles / San Diego sprawl was the same. We went from strip malls to half-finished developments to valleys of orange trees surrounded by dusty low mountains.

We went over the race plan as the car wove along the mountainside.

Amber: "What are you doing tomorrow?"
Barry: "Running."
Amber: What else are you doing tomorrow?"
Barry: "Running".

The town of Julien was the type of town that actually had a main street. Actually, the entire town was along the main street. We arrived in the afternoon to the scent of roasting pine needles and a fading blue sky. After dropping off our bags at the rental cabin, we headed over to Lake Cuyamaca for the pre-race briefing.

Familiar faces
Amber begrudgingly agreed to wear the "Team Barry" tank top to the pre-race briefing (I saved mine from last year, so we matched!).

Last year, we met Ken (who ran the 100-mile race), his wife Carola (who provided very stern crew support and tough love), and his pacer, Bill.

As we were checking in this year, I heard my name called several times - there, handing out t-shirts, was Bill, Ken and Carola! Ken was running the race again, after an excellent sub-24hr finish last year. Bill had signed up to race (and had completed the Western States 100 last year), but a challenging year had meant that he didn't get enough time training, and instead was planning to once again pace Ken.

Carola made sure that Amber knew what wife/crew duties meant: "So you don't let him whine, right? Remind him who signed up for the race?"

We are no longer in Canada
Compared to the previous year's record-breaking temperatures, this year would be better. However, "better", for Southern California, was still around 85F during the day. Seth, the race director, fellow racers - everyone kept commenting how great it would be to have "cool" weather. No. "Cool" weather is 10C and a drizzle. Cool weather means huddling together for warmth before the race start. Temperatures higher than we Vancouver-ites get except on the five nice summer days do not qualify as "cool", they qualify as taking one hour longer for the inevitable heat-stroke to set it.

Getting ready
The three of us finished two bottles of pre-race wine (criteria: screw top, witty name) on the tiny patio outside, and then started preparations for the next day: Barry packed, checked, and re-checked his drop bags. Amber went over the aid stations and the driving instructions. I sipped wine out of a mug and read an excellent fantasy book on the patio outside.

Sometime during the night, Barry started to snore. Instead of waking him up to stop, I was happy that he was having a pre-race sleep deep enough to produce those very loud sounds, and put a pillow over my head. Next thing, I was woken up by Amber telling me that we would be leaving in 15 minutes for the start line.

race start, pre-sunrise

We arrived at 4:30am, to the brightening line over the horizon. 220 runners in Hokas or trail shoes or Skechers road runners (in Barry's case), compression socks, tiny shorts, not-tiny shorts, mini-gaiters, compression gear, shiny shorts, and skirts - some relaxed, doing their 10th or 20th 100-miler, and some pacing nervously (that would be our runner).

I've had coffee and am very excited for Barry to run.
At 5 minutes to 6am, the final pre-race briefing was given, the gun went off, and Barry started running.

Amber and I went back to the cabin and napped for several hours. I woke up to texts from Seth, telling me Barry was currently in 11th place, and running well ahead of 20hr pace (to make the most of the cool morning temperatures). We showered, and hurried to the Sunrise 1 aid station at mile 23. Barry arrived, drank some coke and ate a piece of melon (pretty much most of the solid food he would eat all day), and was out.

After apparently taking some unflattering pictures of me, Amber drove us over to Pioneer mail at mile 30, the next aid station. There, we ran into the same Big-Four partner (also known as the wife of Neil, who was racing the 100-miler and came 4th overall last year) that I met in 2013. This time, she had brought her teenage daughter to help her in the crewing duties. The two of them were a tough crowd.

contemplating the Carbo-Pro

"Neil" - the teenage daughter called her dad by his first name - "looked awful this morning, and his head wasn't in the game." The mother agreed: "He needs to get it together, I hate getting stuck at these things after midnight."

Neil, visibly suffering, ended up coming in just before Barry - but after the first place female. The wife was unimpressed: "If he gets chicked at these things, he might as well give up - I'll tell him that at the next aid station." The two family / crew members then got into a detailed discussion of how Neil's pacer would give him further verbal "encouragement" to get Neil to "just suck it up and go fast again."

As Barry was looking a bit warm, Amber's and my crewing strategy was a bit different - tell Barry he was doing great (he was!), make sure he stayed at the aid station long enough to cool down, and remind him to go as slow as he needed to be sure he finished.

a little warmer and a lot less impressed with this running business

Having sent Barry out with at least some extra calories, Amber and I were pretty tired from this whole crewing thing, and went back to the town for lunch.

We kept checking the results online, and worried a bit about Barry in the heat. To improve morale, we bought some cheese (Barry's favourite food), in hopes of feeding it to him during the nighttime section.

In early afternoon, we returned to the Red Tail Roost aid station at 44 miles. And waited. And waited some more. Barry came in after running several hard hours in the heat of the day, looking like he was not particularly having fun. This worried us a bit, and I decided to jump in with him for a 5.5mile leg at the next aid station.

the face of someone who doesn't want to eat solid foods 
Friend and fellow pacer, Bill, came to visit us at the next aid station. After ending a relationship, he had gone hunting in Alaska. Taking Amber's lack of replies for enthusiasm, he showed pictures of him next to a bear he had shot (Frank - he had given it a name), a moose he had shot (Clive), and a large halibut (name unknown). These animals were currently in various states of storage in Ken's freezer.

Amber enduring the matching tank tops

A note about fuelling
There are different fuelling strategies, all depending on the person. As Barry completed his race, I consider his fuelling strategy to be the right one. However, it was also the one that worried the hell out of me and Amber. In 26.5 hours, he consumed exactly 1/2 a Cliff Bar as solid food - the rest was Carbo-Pro and flat coke (and some ginger ale). The water melon he attempted to eat doesn't count, as this was mostly all thrown back up. So I can tell you, yes, it is possible to complete a 100-mile race without solid foods, if you don't mind completely freaking out your crew / pacers.

So basically every aid station was trying (and failing) to convince a stubborn British guy to eat solid food, and instead re-filling his water bottles and handing him as many cups of flat coke as he could stomach.

Early leg
Barry looked like death arriving at the 51.1 miles - hot and dusty. We put ice in his hat, got him sponged down (they actually have volunteers who do this), and, amazingly, after 10 minutes he looked like a different person.

let's go!

A year and a half after I first decided to pace Barry, a year after he dropped at the 51.1 mile aid station, I was finally laced up and ready to go. And then - as the shadows were starting to lengthen, as the first cool breezes came - we started to walk, together, out of the aid station.

The trail rolled gently through pine trees, with views over the dry hills. We went through wide meadows of grass, and then up again through trees. The trails were dusty and filled with rocks. After the first walking, Barry picked up the pace. Running that late-afternoon leg with him - talking about VFAC and relationships and life to the hum of cicadas - is one of my most lovely running moments.

We got into the aid station, expecting to see Amber with a change of clothing and a headlamp for night running. Instead, it turned out a last-minute decision had removed crew access. Barry was understandably alarmed, and facing down the prospect of running for 4-5 hours without light. Luckily, Bill was at the aid station and had an extra headlamp for Barry to use. With that, he was off again.

Pacer #2 and evening waiting around
Poor Seth. I had told him to meet us at the start / finish line at 7pm, to potentially start pacing at 8pm. He made the mistake of asking us if we needed anything, as he could pick it up. And, oh boy, we definitely needed things (none of it at all directly related to Barry's running): we needed scissors (to cut ribbons on birthday balloons), nutella (I believe pacer calories don't actually count), and Red Bull (this should be self-explanatory). After doing his own bike workout that morning, he headed out to meet us, and even arrived an hour early.

We parked back at Pioneer Mail aid station, at 72 miles, to wait for Barry to emerge from a long climb up the canyon. Seth had brought nutella, and a loaf of french bread (and, somehow, he had gone through life until now without nutella - how is this possible?!). We tore off chunks of bread and watched as the first stars appeared. Over on the ridge, we could see the far-off headlamps of runners.

dinner of champions
Team Barry bonding

Bill came to join us, and showed Seth the pictures of the animals he had shot. Instead of our polite replies, Seth launched into an enthusiastic discussion on things concerning triggers and distance and other gun related topics for about ten minutes. During this discussion, I also learned that you can, in fact, shoot a halibut. This, along with the large pick-up truck he had driven out to the race start, reinforced to Amber and myself that we were definitely in America.

watching headlamps

Seth had never met Barry before. And, as time stretched on and Amber and I (ok, mostly me) grew more anxious about Barry running, alone, at night, he also didn't fully know about Barry's reputation for getting lost. As we waited, we tried to determine what Barry and Seth had in common. Beer? Seth doesn't drink. Cats? Barry is not a fan (to put it gently). Running? Both Amber and Seth agreed it was kind of boring.

It turned out, though, that as a 15+ time Ironman athlete, Seth has had a lot of experience throwing up. Barry was quickly getting a lot of experience throwing up as the race progressed. And this was how pretty much the first conversation between Barry and Seth involved Barry finally taking a salt tablet (something which Amber and I were completely unsuccessful at getting him to do).

Seth and Barry set out from the 72-mile aid station, and, at that point, I had complete certainty that Barry was going to finish this thing. To celebrate, Amber and I drove to the next aid station, where I napped for 1.5 hours.

When Seth and Barry arrived, it was past midnight - and it was Barry's 39th birthday. Amber greeted him with balloons and a banner that read something like: "Wow you're really old!". All told, 39 was off to a somewhat painful and Carbo-Pro filled start. After Barry's usual refusal to eat any solid foods (exhibited by attempting to eat watermelon and throwing up), I strapped on my headlamp and we headed out into the night.

Amber is awesome

The sky was clear. There was a half moon and the stars were so near and bright. I wore a t-shirt, and was never cold. Occasionally, we would have waves of warm air rush at us from the canyons, and waves of cool air come down from the mountains. We kept moving - walking, running some downhills. We talked, a bit, and then we didn't talk.

I've known Barry for two and a half years, and he is a great friend. Maybe we are not conventional friends - we don't do many dinners, never watched a movie together, and our discussions frequently involve blisters and But he is the friend where 2am finds us walking side by side down a rough dirt road, with stars pressing up ahead against one faint black line of horizon.

The last part of that leg had us running on rooty trails on the edge of an island, in the middle of a lake, in the desert. The trail was marked not only by ribbons, but by softly glowing lanterns, reflecting on the water.

4:45am had us arriving to a pirate-themed aid station. The first glow of sunrise was just about to start . Amber greeted Barry with balloons and a kiss. To one side, crew members in full bunny suits were standing (Seth: "when else do you get the opportunity to wear a bunny suit?"). It was all a bit surreal, and made all the more beautiful for it.

Morning, again
Amber drove us to the last aid station at 94miles. I was wiped. There was so much stuff thrown into the car that I couldn't find all my warm clothes, so I settled with Seth's sweatshirt. I re-arranged the balloons in the back of the car, and started my final nap.

this is what mile 94 looks like

I woke up an hour later, shaking a bit - maybe the sleep deprivation, maybe the Red Bulls, maybe the excitement at being able to pace Barry for the final leg.

Barry arrived about an hour after sunrise. He quickly filled up his water bottles one last time, and then, we were ready to go.

It was already getting warm out, and we walked uphill through part of the course that had a forest fire the year before - black trunks, grey crags, and the low greenery starting to come back. We walked up, and up some more, as I steadily lied to Barry about the top of the hill being just ahead. And, finally, it was the top.

taking pictures at 98 miles in isn't always welcome

Home stretch
Then it was the two of us, together, on a dirt road surrounded by yellow grass, with trees in the distance. It was already very hot out, and I could smell the baking dirt. The cicadas hummed so loudly it was like they would explode.

I don't know what Barry was thinking those last few miles - maybe he was just hot, or thirsty, or had to pee, or was too tired for thought and only had that shot-through sunlight, the faded blue sky, the hours and hours of one foot in front of the other. I know, for me, I thought back to the year before, to when Barry dropped. To how he got up the next day, and got on with it. To the bravery it takes to face something down, to fail, and to come back again - maybe faster, maybe not faster - but smarter, and humbler, and in every way that he stayed positive, that he kept going in the heat and the night and into the next day, so much stronger.

And about a mile from the end is where I started to cry. I don't think I will ever do a 100-mile race, and on paper nothing about it seems sane: the amount of time, the heat, running in hours of darkness, the vomiting, the blisters and so much pain. And it might not be sane, but watching Barry run that race taught me so much.

I saw him kiss Amber at every aid station. I saw him in pain, feeling nauseous, feeling tired - and I saw him get up, quietly, and continue on - at 4pm and 4am, in the heat, by himself. I saw him laugh and I saw him joke and I saw how he just kept moving, kept going.

I'm not always an optimistic person, and I'm not always a hopeful person. But - seeing this race - it makes it so easy to believe. 26 hours and 35 minutes taught me about the huge power of one persistent step after the other. It taught me about love. It taught me about the pull and comfort of a community - both the California running community, and all of our friends back home, cheering. And, oh god, it taught me to believe in second chances.

view from the finish of us running in

And then we could see the finish line, and hear Amber yelling out "BARRY!". So we held hands, and ran the last bit next to the lake, up a small hill, and, finally, across the finish.

Final thoughts and thank-yous:

We did not get lost
Barry and I have a pretty well-earned reputation for getting lost and rolling our ankles. Neither of us are great with maps, and we tend to do some "bonus miles" on many occasions when we run together. I feel quite smug that, even at night, even after doing over 26 hours of running, we did not take even one wrong turn.

Our run community is amazing
There were so many texts, e-mails, and facebook messages from all of our running (and non-running) friends in Vancouver. It felt amazing to have so much support from so far away - thank you everyone! It was also really lucky to have the support from Bill, Carola, and Ken (who finished just minutes behind Barry).

Our feet are not wrecked
We both wore the FITS performance trail socks, and Barry's feet were quite possibly the least bad-smelling part of him.

Team Barry
A huge, huge thank you to Amber - not only the best girlfriend ever, but also a complete blast to hang out with (even suffering through the embarrassment of wearing the "Team Barry" t-shirt). Amber was pretty much the reason, in my opinion, Barry got sufficient calories and moral support to finish the thing. Additionally, I very much enjoyed Amber's quick  sense of humour. Even after 27 hours of running, she was able to make sarcastic comments (while I was barely able to put together complete sentences).

A big thank you to Seth, for making his pacing debut in the middle of the night with a bunch of Canadians. Seth was positive, laid-back, and not at all offended when Amber's impression of his voice made him sound like Cartman. He was able to get Barry through many tough sections at night (going on a narrow ridge, running next to potentially angry wasps).  I know Seth will do an amazing job pacing his friend at the Leadville 100! Also thank you (and the awesome Lauren) for letting me sleep on your couch and harass your cat.

Last - thank you to Barry! You stayed positive for 100.2 hard-fought miles. Your strength of character in returning to the race is a huge inspiration. Besides apologizing ten times at every aid station (this could just be part of being British), you stayed focused and tough and I had complete faith you would finish it. I think it's easy to succeed, but the year before, you failed with complete grace, and it makes your race this year all the more impressive. So glad to be your friend and to be with you for this amazing moment!