Running 100 Miles for Fun
Locals travel well beyond marathons in preparation for the Western States century race.
Thursday, March 1, 2012
Monterey’s Brian Robinson had been running for 12 hours when he vomited.
“I was scared because I had never experienced being nauseous,” he says. “It devastated me.”
Instead of rah-rah support, his wife and pacer Sophia offered tough words while he spewed goo packets and Coke: Keep moving. Continue wending along remote trails that make up the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run. Go.
She kept pushing. For six hours.
Race officials weighed him at an aid station and found him 3 percent lighter than the start. They demanded he drink a liter of water if he hoped to carry on.
He didn’t think he could keep it down. But he did, and resumed the race.
He finished what the participant guide calls “one of the most physically challenging events in the world” in less than 23 hours.
A partial list of the most common medical risks appears on the guide: renal failure; hypothermia, over-hydration, muscle necrosis, and more run-of-the-mill stuff – poison oak, rattlesnakes and mountain lions.
Apparently the crowded asphalt that offers thousands of runners a 26.2-mile challenge in Big Sur every spring doesn’t fulfill the craving some have for routes more rugged and distances more diabolical.
The Robinsons talk about “hitting the wall,” moments that leave ultramarathoners wanting to crumple and quit. Sophia, who was the seventh woman finisher in Western States in 2003, prefers longer runs because they offer multiple walls, unlike a marathon during which her glycogen level plummets once, around the 20-mile mark. “Like a phoenix, you build yourself back up,” she says.
Ben Balester, who’s training for Western this June, is less interested in overcoming walls than leveling them. “If you don’t envision it, maybe it’s not there,” he says.
Something of a philosopher in Mizunos, Balester quotes Gandhi, Lao Tzu and Michelangelo when talking running. “There is a time for being vigorous,” he quotes from the Tao Ching, “a time for being exhausted.”
He also quotes the occasional T-shirt, including this one: “I heard you ran a marathon. How cute.” Balester, 38, has lost count of how many marathons he’s completed, putting his best guess between 30 and 35. His first was the Big Sur; he now serves on the board.
He says it’s about process more than medals. “Running is meditative,” he says. “I don’t think we are defined by our accomplishments.”
But just getting into Western States is an accomplishment. Qualifying runners must do 50 miles in less than 11 hours to be entered into a lottery. For his part, Balester did a 46-mile warm up around Lake Tahoe, starting at 10pm, to arrive at a marathon’s start the next morning.
His six-month training has meant 100-mile weeks on terrain ranging from Fort Ord’s scrub brush to New Monterey’s uphills, plus treks on the Rec Trail, as he can easily come and go from the Coffee House on Fisherman’s Wharf he owns and operates.
For heat conditioning, Balester plans inland runs at Garland Park, bikram yoga and cranking the heat in his car.
Otherwise the temperate coastal weather is ideal for year-long conditioning. In 2011 the Monterey Peninsula was designated the first Outstanding Runner Friendly Community by the Road Runners Club of America. Running here is so enticing, says Julie Armstrong, communications director for the Big Sur Marathon, that there’s a marketing plan for “train-cations.”
“Other places might have trails and roads, but they’re in the middle of the country,” she adds. “We have the climate, and we’re incredibly scenic.”
Brian, who’s known in ultra circles as Flyin’ Brian, got his start as a thru-hiker. He became the first to complete the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide – a sum of nearly 8,000 miles – within a year. “An ultrarunner is just a thru-hiker who doesn’t like to camp,” he says. “You can go shower and sleep in your own bed.”
Now recovering from an ankle injury, Brian, 50, is relegated to the treadmill. As a tax adviser, he’s busy this time of year and struggles to find time to work out – ultrarunning demands more than an occasional weekend.
But even with 4am mornings and grueling qualifying challenges, Balester sees the activity as a celebration. “I always wake up saying, ‘Thank you,’” he says. “That’s my mentality.”
Long runs provide space for spiritual probing not as accessible after a few dozen miles. “It’s about self-discovery,” he says. But when pressed for an epiphany he’s hoping to find, he prefers to steer talk back to the process.
“If you can get through this, you can get through anything,” he says. “It helps you conquer everyday life.”
The Western States happens June 23 in Squaw Valley.