On the Outside Looking In, by Charlie Todd
On the Outside Looking In
by Charlie Todd
Rita Rudner had a wonderful remark about a woman who said her 36 hours of labor and delivery was a wonderful experience. “I don’t know about you,” Rita said, “but I don’t even want to do something that feels good for 36 hours.” Which brings me to ultrarunning. As a male, given the choice between somehow birthing a child or ultrarunning, 36 hours of childbirth gets my vote without a second’s thought. The word ultrarunning, for those not familiar with the sport, comes from a long-ago lost language that translates as “not a chance.”
I first became exposed to but not contaminated by ultrarunning through my wife, Barb Isom. What started as an innocent attempt at exercise by jogging a couple of times a week has, over the years, evolved into an all-consuming need for self-inflicted pain that would send the most twisted masochist into years of psychotherapy.
To be an ultrarunner you have to achieve a certain look. This begins by strapping pounds of energy bars, energy goo’s, energy powders and a hundred ounces of water to various parts of your body until you look like Batman with a utility belt fetish. Naturally, this look takes time to achieve. While I’m snug in bed in our small RV, Barb’s rattling around at four a.m. dressing, filling waters, packing food, mixing drinks and searching for any part of her body where one more accessory might be attached. Vicky, Barb’s running companion, shows up at five a.m. and the next hour is spent arguing over which one looks more like a transformer robot gone bad. At six a.m. five to three hundred runners meet and mill about the parking lot at the base of a mountain sharing the latest in medical advances for abrasions, torn ligaments and cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. Everyone’s called together at seven a.m. when the race director delivery his motivational speech reminding runners of the need for safety when running rocky paths next to cliffs in the dark. Then everybody’s off at seven thirty a.m. for a 35-200 mile run lasting anywhere between six hours to several days.
I’ve never been out on a course during a race so I have no first-hand accounts of what actually goes on. However, the best barometer to gauge the regression of runners is to be at an aid station. Aid stations are situated every eight to ten miles along the route and are a junk food junkie’s heaven. Cookies, chips, candy, cake and soda are available for such a sugar high that it gives runners the opportunity to forget where they are and why they’re out there. A diabetic could be sent into coma if they got within a hundred yards of a well-supplied aid station.
At the first two or three aid stations runners come through with smiles on their faces and a spring in their step, sometimes waving off the volunteers and continuing on without a pause. At the last couple of aid stations before the finish, however, the volunteers are busy rubbing runners’ cramped calves, massaging knotted shoulder muscles and stuffing food into mouths all the while exhorting runners to hurry and move on so that they’re not responsible for digging shallow graves for the corpses. I’ve hiked many of the trails that are a part of the ultrarunning courses and occasionally a partial skeleton or random bones can be seen near the trail. I’ve often wondered if these were the remains of some poor animal that was felled by a hunter’s bullet or an ultrarunner that didn’t quite make it to the next aid station.
By far, the best place to be during an ultrarun is at the finish. As runners come staggering, stumbling, limping or crawling to the finish with Death’s scythe mere inches from their jugular the real competition begins. Third prize to the runner with the blister that most resembles a sixth toe. Second prize to the runner’s knee whose dimensions are closest to that of a basketball. First prize to the runner whose every step squishes with the blood that’s been running into their shoe from a fall that occurred seven hours ago or had to be carried down the mountain from a puncture wound that left the next runners thinking a cow had been slaughtered and drug down the trail. The duration of the race can be determined simply by looking overhead and figuring one vulture for every ten miles. They know that the longer the race the better their chance at a fresh if not somewhat dehydrated meal.
Please understand that I have the utmost respect for ultra-runners. How can you not respect someone who endures icicles the size of an Edsel hanging from their nose or whose sweat could irrigate a cornfield. It’s the same respect one gives to a person who walks across hot coals or drives spikes through their tongue in some strange ritual of devotion. But I see the camaraderie among the ultrarunners and I begin thinking that maybe I’d like to a part of this caring community of runners . . . for about two seconds and then my sanity returns.
The author (back row, middle with red shirt) at the finish of the 2004 with Barb (yellow shirt, front row) and other runners and crews.