It has been over a week since I announced (read previous post) I would be travelling to Colorado to support my brother while he took part in a 100 mile race (a footrace that is). And, what a week it was, a week so packed with activity, both mental and physical, it is hard to know where to begin?
The first thing I want to clarify is that this blog is about food, and as anyone who has been reading my blog will know, I believe that food is linked to virtually every part of my life. There is no getting away from the fact that we must eat everyday, and we have a say in whether it is going to be either a good or a mediocre experience. It can make or break a mood, bring people closer, drive them apart, or in my bother’s case this past weekend, simply act as “fuel”
I like to think that food is something that is enjoyed more than something that the body needs to survive, but my reason for taking a plane all the way to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, was to cook something for my brother that would literally keep him alive during his ambitious attempt to run an Ultra endurance race in the Rocky mountains for 100 miles.
I had made a promise to him months earlier that I would be on the sidelines cheering him on, but at the time had absolutely no notion of what that might entail. As the months grew to weeks, I began to realize what an undertaking his task was, and moreover what was expected of me; much more than I bargained for!
Sean has been involved in sports all of his life but only a serious runner in the past 4 years. I on the other hand, have always loved running and try to throw on my running shoes 5 days a week if I can. It is something I need to do on a regular basis, to keep sane, to be alone, and to stay healthy. It is not for everyone and so the extremity to which he took the activity was even something I found incomprehensible until last Friday and Saturday (the length of time it took to complete the race).
Over time, I had grown used to his talking about running in races of up to 35 miles until it didn’t seem strange anymore. Then, last year he ran in his first 50 mile race (Run Rabbit Run 50 mile Race), and I thought he might be taking this running thing to an unhealthy extreme. As I talked to him more about his training and the reasoning behind this push to excel at longer distances, I sort of got it, but only sort of. Who had the time for all of these long runs for one thing, and I wondered what his girlfriend did virtually every weekend when he ran out the door saying “see you in 7 or 8 hours honey!” I had never met her, but she was fast becoming a saint in my book.
No matter what kind of logic one uses, there is no way the majority of people in this world understand, let alone know anyone who has run 100 miles. Who do you know who has done this? I never met a single soul until last weekend, so no one can be blamed for thinking the mere thought of doing such a thing is ludicrous. I watched 101 competitors start this race and I still cannot get my head around the objective: running continually for 100 miles straight!
I had a phone conversation with my brother a few days before I left. I was getting excited about a lot of things to do with my trip; I was going to see Sean for the first time in 5 years, I was going to meet his infamous girlfriend HB (short for Hunny Bunny!), I was going to be part of the “crew” which would help him at the official Aid Stations, I was going to pace him for an as yet, undermined amount of miles (a pacer is there to support the runner by running with them during designated parts of the race or course), I was going to help with the preparation of certain foods he would like to eat during the race, and last but not least, I was going to be present when my sister June arrived from Ireland to surprise him to cheer him on, (something myself and HB sneakily organised ahead of time)!
Back to the point I was trying to make about food; I asked Sean what I should have available at the Aid stations for him to eat, and I found out that this was the one aspect of the race he was very worried about. I was under the impression that as he ran he would stop like all of those marathon runners I see on television and grab 2 cups of water, one to drink and one to pour over his head to cool down, and that was it. I couldn’t have been more misguided. To run 100 miles, which would involve a total elevation gain of over 20,000 feet, he would need to consume about 50,000 calories along the way. The food which I thought would be a snap to prepare, was going to be a critical part of his race strategy. At that point I knew he was depending on me to keep him strong, or dropping out from lack of nutrition, was a distinct possibility – gulp!
I had no idea what a runner needed to run for miles upon miles. I had gotten used to his “Ultra-runner Speak” of S Caps (salt tablets), and E-Caps (electrolyte tablets dissolved in his water bottle), but now he was telling me that man does not survive on GU alone (don’t ask)! He wanted me to come up with some sort of balanced drinkable meal, one that contained carbohydrates, protein, sufficient salt, and, it had to go down quickly, and more importantly, he had to like how it tasted, hmmm….?
All I could think of was the most comforting and fortifying thing I give my kids when they are sick and lack energy: Chicken Noodle Soup. Read on to find out if it did the job for Sean too!
It is all very well to say you are going to do something, and another to come through. I also said I would run with him for part of the race. I said this having no previous trail-running experience, never been a pacer or actually knew what that job required, and had never run more than 10 miles at one time. Sean wasn’t in the least bit worried. He said I could pace him because I knew him so well, and would naturally know what he needed, that trail-running would be something I would get the hang of with him by my side, and that distance wouldn’t be a problem because his mile pace would be calculatedly slower than normal.
The more he encouraged me, the more confident in my sheer lack of experience I became. It was only when I received an email from HB 2 days before I left did I understand where Sean was coming from. HB was giving me last-minute details, like when my sister would arrive in Denver (coinciding perfectly a short time after she had met me off my flight), and about the clothing I should bring for my pacing runs. It was only then I found out that Sean had planned for me to run with him, not only for the pleasant bit during the day where I would run with him to and from town via the main street, but I was also penciled in at mile 62.5 for an 11 or so mile trail run in the middle of the night!
Excuse me,but how was I going to do that? HB told me I would be wearing a headlight, oh yeah, and that was supposed to make it alright? I called June and told her that I was scared out of my mind. I am the woman who wears the highest stability running shoe on roads in broad daylight, and now my brother had causally slotted me in for a night-time run, up and down a mountain in the rocky trail dirt! It was then I knew he had forgotten what it was to think like an ordinary runner. He was thinking in Ultra terms, and had lost all sense of what normal people like me are capable of. How could I argue with a man who thought nothing of doing a handy 25 miles before breakfast, or indeed tell him he was nuts to even consider me for the job. I decided to keep quiet and crossed my fingers.
On the plane I sat beside a lovely woman named Robin and during our conversation told her why I was going to Colorado. She was all smiles and encouragement, and, when the flight attendant came by with the drinks trolley, she waved 2 drink tickets in the air to celebrate. I told her I was not planning on drinking until after the race. I was going from sea level (or thereabouts) to run at 8,000 feet in the next 48 hours and needed to give my body every chance it could to keep hydrated. No wine for me, but she gave me the drinks voucher (which she had in abundance) to use to celebrate on the plane ride home. At that moment that plane ride home seemed so far away, and I wondered with a mixture of excitement and definite fear what lay in store.
So, after 6 and a half years I finally meet HB! We recognised each other immediately thanks to photographs and Skype, and the feeling of warmth and familiarity was mutual. I liked her instantly. When June arrived, we piled into the car too excited and happy to complain about being exhausted. June even managed to get in a spot of shopping on the way back to Sean’s!
Sean was completely stunned when I arrived to his house, not only escorted by his girlfriend, but a day earlier than expected. However, when June arrived behind me, he was near tears. I felt right at that moment he shed any doubts he had of not finishing the race. He was 30 lbs lighter (13.60 kilos) and raring to go. HB, June and I had spent the car ride discussing how crazy this whole undertaking was, and looking at Sean right at that moment, as fit as he was, did nothing to stop me from thinking that this whole thing could be a disaster.
What unfolded from the starting bell at 8am at the base of the ski mountain in Steamboat Springs to the next day around 4pm is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.
We were ready. I had learned what a runner needs at an Aid Station. We had helped pack Drop Bags to be left at Aid Stations not accessible to us, his crew, and carried the remaining drop bags in our car, to be driven to the ones where we could meet him. What’s in a Drop Bag? Each bag was fully stocked with 2 or 3 pairs of socks, change of clothes, gloves, hat, first aid kit with all sorts of band aids for blisters and cuts, salt tablets, electrolyte pills, energy gels, and soup!
Sean would run the course and we would keep tabs on him every time he checked in and out of an Aid Station. In doing that, we could predict when he would show up in certain spots (always erring on the side of caution, which meant long waits at times) and “crew” for him when allowed, which involved feeding him, filling up his water etc. Myself and June had no clue what HB and Sean were talking about in the 36 hours leading up to the race, but knew if we were going to be of use, not to bother them with questions like “what’s a salt tablet?” Best to pretend to know what was going on and then scramble to find out on our own.
A funny moment for June and I was when we were sent of to the store to buy some of the supplies. We were told to buy, among other things, various kinds of bandages for all manner of foot problems and injuries. We stood in front of the enormous shelf with so many choices, it made our heads spin in confusion. It was then we knew we hadn’t a clue about trail running, let alone the possible problems encountered by Ultra-Ruunners? We couldn’t decide on which bandage for each ailment so ended up with practically one of everything. It is safe to say that Sean is now the owner of a lifetime supply of band aids!
The first time we got to see Sean was around mile 20. While he was running that first leg HB gathered part of her crew (which included his good friends Jay & Martin, as well as June & I) at a coffee shop to go over the course. She had a map which she meticulously made herself with the complete course mapped out, mileage in-between Aid Stations, each aid station icon-ed, and any other point where we could stand to see Sean, (eat your hearts out all you Cartographers!). She had worked weeks on the map and it was beautiful (even I could follow it!). It was so great in fact that Sean couldn’t help showing it off to a new acquaintance of his, only the Western States Champion who ran 100 miles in a mere 14 hours, 46 minutes and 44 seconds, Timothy Olson (click his name to read his account of the race – it is an amazing story). He even went so far as to give him the original map and then got Timothy to autograph his map for posterity. Sean was completely in awe of this elite runner, and encountering him on the trail later that night where they exchanged words of encouragement, which was sure to have gone a long way in helping my brother complete the remainder of this gruelling race.
As we watched Sean running into view he looked strong and all smiles. The way he chatted as he got down to the business of changing his water bag (which he carried on his back) and scanned the aid station table for food, I had to remind myself that he had just run 20 miles on trails! OK – time to offer him soup. HB had said maybe we shouldn’t bring it as it was a hot day and maybe he would only need it when the sun went down, but I brought it along just in case.
He said “yes” and when he tasted it I was so nervous; would it taste good to him, was the chicken small enough to swallow without much chewing, was it salty enough? After his first taste he looked at me and said, “this is going to save my life today” Phew, all I felt was I had done what I had travelled 1,600 miles to do…….Now all I had to do was run in the middle of the night; easy.
I ran with him the next 1.2 miles to the next Aid Station, which was the last one before a crazy vertical climb and 8 more miles before the next respite. All he could talk about was the soup and would he be able to have some? Oh my god, I was thinking to myself, HB, and June don’t know he wants soup and they may not get there before us? As we approached the aid station and the looming hill, Sean saw June and HB walking up the hill so as to cheer him on. All he could say was, “no soup” I felt bad as off he went up the hill, holding onto long grass as he went feeling disappointed and a little frustrated.
And this is when I learned that running for this long makes you weak not only in body, but in your mind. He was delicate, and a kind word could make him and the opposite could be his undoing. This is also the point I found out what your “crew” can do to keep their runner going, and I discovered Sean had the best friends in the world. Jay and Martin high-tailed it to the next aid station, armed with a chair and a truck load of my magical elixir. After a friendly pep talk Sean perked up and was ready to roar on.
It kept going like this for the rest of the day with more and more of his friends surprising him at aid stations to cheer him on. At one point I almost felt bad for any other runners in the vicinity who had to witness our celebrity-like cheering.
In between HB, June and I would zip home, restock supplies and head off to the next meeting point. The last time we would meet was in the dark, after which he would have 22 miles or more of running to complete before I would meet him again in my running gear, ready to join the race. More friends had joined our crew (Jerry & Bill) and there was a lot of joking and laughing. Sean told us afterwards that the first climb (about 8 miles) was amazing and he felt happy to be looking up at the stars and feeling the soft night breeze. That was the last time I saw him truly comfortable.
We got back to the house and made our plan. Time for us to sleep for a couple of hours before getting to the next Aid Station at about 1.30am. I slept as best I could and when I got up I took a shower and made coffee like it was morning and I was off to work. The three of us then headed out into the night to meet Sean on the mountain. The place was mobbed with other “crews” and as heads with flashlights bobbed into view, we kept a sharp lookout for our runner. After an hour, in he came, looking tired for the first time. He wanted to kneel down and lean against the back of the car. I couldn’t even look at my sister’s face as it would have been the end of my brave one.
After about 8 minutes, Sean and I headed the 5.5 miles down the trail to the next Aid Station. Sean told me to look forward and to never look up, or look at him. This I found out was very useful advice seeing the trail was uneven, rocky and continually winding up and down in a series of loops and bends. All I remember from that run is total concentration and the image of Sean running ahead of me. I sometimes wondered what the trail might look like in the daylight, and hoped I would get a chance to walk part of it after the race (and after some sleep)
Running back up that hill with Sean was no picnic either. There was a part of the trail called The Widow Maker (which scared the life out of me when Sean mentioned it casually the day before) and it was on a bend, steep, with giant rocks jutting out. At one point Sean put his two hands on a rock and bowed his head. It was so hard to know what to say. I couldn’t shout “stop. let’s go home” or “this is crazy” so I just told him to plant his feet so as not to slide down. He did this, and then headed on. I could see that he was ready to do anything in his power not to give up, and to recognize the difference between giving up or physically not being able to go on.
The sky was a pot-full of stars and we talked about the Plough (Big Dipper) and how the image of it kept Sean moving forward. He knew that is what he needed to do and said that no one finished a 100 by “standing still”
Go on he did, to the next Aid Station where us girls handed him over to his last pacer, his friend Dave. Dawn was just breaking and we were all glad of the light. We would not see him again until the last 4 miles where I would run with him again, along with Dave and Jay. Dave told me the story of the last 30 miles and of how he though it was over a couple of time, and then how Sean used every morsel of encouragement from Dave and from friends he met along the trail to will him to put one foot in front of the other.
Back to sleep for another hour, then ride up the gondola with HB, June and Jay where we would wait 3 and a half hours to see Sean round the bend with Dave, After running into dawn, through noon and now the late afternoon, he could see the end. We were on the bend (where we had spent the time speculating, worrying, chatting, and June filing her nails while seated on a convenient rock!) waving and cheering him. I have to say that he was faking a nice stride and a wide smile.
I ran with him, knowing he was on the edge of something I will never quite understand, and, as I branched off a mile from the finish and watched him run to the end I knew for sure that he understood it all perfectly.
One last thing or two that needs to be said; first, Sean crossed the line in 32 hours, 17 minutes and 32 seconds. The other reality is that this course (which was marked for the first time) was between 111 to 113 miles, and not 100. This means, when the runners who made it this far had run 100 miles, they had a mini marathon to run as a bonus, another 2 hours and change! That, I cannot fathom. Also, of 101 starters, my brother placed 30th, (yes, I’m gloating)
One more tidbit…..remember Robin and her kind generosity of a drink voucher on my airplane ride? Well, on the way home I pulled out the book I was reading on my flight to steamboat (Native Realm by Czeslaw Milosz for those who are interested), and low and behold, out popped that drink voucher on my lap. I picked it up, ordered a glass or red wine, and what do you think I toasted to – Hey Sean, well done!