Sitting on my ass in the dust at mile 17.6, on the way back from the halfway point for the 50K distance of the 2016 Bandit trail run, my right quads, the vastus medialis in particular, were spasmed, in what in medicine might be called tetany - that is, like you're making a muscle to show off, only it's not on purpose, it's a muscle you wouldn't normally be able to make in order to show off, and it hurts like you wouldn't believe, a charlie horse in a different place.
It's halfway between two aid stations, about three miles either way. I can feel the other traitorous muscle groups in both legs - the hamstrings, the quads, the calves - fire off warnings every time I try to change positions. Eventually, it's the right thigh that decides it wants the most attention, and there it is, clenched in rage.
Ever since I had my first bout of terrible cramping at the 2014 LA Marathon that was severe enough to throw my race off, I've been trying to figure out what cramps were all about, how to stop them, and since then I've learned, over and over - after the 2015 Leona Divide 50K, after the 2015 Ray Miller 50K that became the 30K - that it's not about electrolytes, it's about the "central governor," it's a central nervous system thing, about the muscle group not receiving the inhibitory signal, i.e. the "it's okay to chillax now" sign that would let it go instead of just being frozen in contraction (oh yes, that sentence deserves the #dadsohard hashtag).
It was a really beautiful day. Overcast, cool, the sun poking out every so often, unlike last year's Bandit which hit temperatures in the 80s by 10am or so. The hillside I was sitting on that climbed out of the valley was really lush, not just by Southern Californian standards, after a few earlier rains in the season. A perfect setting to sit and observe my right quads now firing wildly without order, quadricular fibrillation, like a wriggling bag of thigh-worms. Since it's a CNS thing, I thought, shouldn't I just be able to mind-over-matter this bitch? I tried commanding it to stop being a dick, we gotta work together to get out of here, through clenched teeth, but without effect.
A smiling runner had passed me earlier, adding insult to injury by calling over his shoulder, "I'd give you some electrolytes if I had any!" insulting because hey, I knew it wasn't electrolytes, right? "It's just a little cramping, no prob!" I answered weakly to his retreating back. A few minutes later another, older, grizzled runner stopped. By then I'd managed to pick myself up gingerly, wobbling a little in place.
"Hey," he said, "you need some electrolytes, some salt." The salt thing! But then again, he's a good samaritan stopping to offer help. In the good samaritan story the victim doesn't protest that wasting oil and wine on his wounds ain't gonna do shit to help him recover, so I unprotestingly take the two S!Caps that he offers me from his own stash. "I saw you pass me earlier, you must be having a rough time to be laid up here now. Here, take one of these fuckers now," he says, handing me an S!Cap, "and then another one in a few minutes, with plenty of water. What's your name?" he asks, I figure so he can tell the volunteers at the next aid station. "Tae. What's yours?" I say, out of gratitude. "Gassan," he says over his shoulder, "it's an old Japanese name - and I'm not even Japanese!" He disappears up the hill towards the aid station at Marr Lands, which serves as both the 2nd and 4th aid station.
The race's outline is vaguely like a disc-shaped galaxy, one long arm from Corriganville park out to the first aid station at mile 6 (the first mile which is a loop around the park, which is a great way to let the runners space themselves out according to their own pace, instead of having everyone bottleneck at the trailhead at once), then 3 miles down to Marr Land where the 30K runners, the fastest of whom have already passed us back-of-the-packers despite a 30 minute head start, followed by a roughly 5 miler out to the Tapo Canyon aid station which marks the turnabout returning you to Marr Land (betwixt which I was now standing, having to figure out how to get back). If you're running the 50K, you then take another 6 mile loop out of Marr Land back to the first aid station followed by the last 5 miles back to Corriganville park.
The race, now only in its 8th year (the 5th for the 50K), was very well organized, staffed, and supplied, the aid stations with all of the usual goods, plus stuff that you don't see at the bigger or smaller races, like actual boiled potatoes cut in to pieces instead of the canned kind, jarred pickle slices, real, actual Coca Cola instead of generic - just little touches to let you know that someone's paying attention.
After chewing one S!Cap I started cramping my way back up the trail, no effect, just like I'd expected, but after a few minutes I ground through the other one and kept going, stopping whenever a cramp threatened to bring me back down into the dust. I eventually jog-hobbled back to Marr Land where the volunteers, dressed as Star Wars characters, filled my bottles and attended to me like I was an elite, not just some guy who'd fallen from the midpack to the back tenth of a field of only 84 runners of the 50K. (By the way, have any of you ever been in race where the aid station volunteers were terrible? Mean and not helpful, etc.? I can't imagine, but that would be terrible.) Someone hiking by had engaged an aid station volunteer in a conversation about the race, the hiker was turning 50 next year and wanted to run a 50 miler. My gloomy spirits got me down and I started saying that these 50Ks were barely an ultra, the 50 and 100 milers must be where it's at, and the volunteer was quick to chide me not to talk down my accomplishment, the one that it'd take another 11 crampy miles to go.
Another volunteer kindly wrapped some more S!Caps in foil for me, and I kept hobbling up the trail. I was passed by another runner, and then another, people I'd recognized as those I'd passed earlier in the race, before cramps had hobbled me despite my cautious, restrained start. One old man, and I don't mean older even though as I age myself I'm more mindful about whom I call old, wearing cargo shorts - cargo shorts! - passed me by, chuckling some encouragement to me over his shoulder. Decade after decade continued to pass me as I'd passed them earlier.
The funny thing was, 20 or 30 minutes after I'd left the Marr Land aid station, the cramps eased off, without any more of the warning shots that would fire whenever I'd try jogging a few steps. Maybe it was because the terrain had flattened out for a while and I'd slowed down considerably by just continuing to jog-walk most of it, but maybe it really was the salt and the placebo effect on the central governor.
The placebo effect: look, I'm in medicine, in fact, I'm a medical doctor, I know from placebo effect, right? When people talk about the placebo effect, what they're usually talking about that which we given in place of what's real and actually effective in an attempt to mollify and appease the crazy, undeserving person, to trick them into thinking we really care when we really, really don't. But the thing is, and what I've been teaching medical students for years now, is that that's not what the placebo effect is really about. Because, funny thing is, even when you tell a patient outright that what they're receiving is a placebo, it still works. And it's not just an odd mind-over-matter thing - what I try to convince medical students and other people of is that the placebo effect is what is actually healing about a therapeutic relationship, it's not just some hippie-dippy bullshit but that engagement with someone else and saying that you actually care - that has real, actual, physical, tangible, measurable, outcomes-relevant effect - the placebo effect is totes for realz. (There's a great Radiolab about the placebo effect.) And when Gassan took the time to stop and tell me what to do with his salt - or sugar, doesn't matter in some ways, right? - pills, it was meaningful to me. And the fact that I remembered at Ray Miller that a volunteer said, in passing, that I had to be sure to chew these pills instead of just swallowing them, so in effect actually tasting the salt and thereby alerting the central governor of treats that were to come, maybe that's why the cramps eased off.
I kept climbing up, steeper and steeper vert, and a mist and light sprinkle came in, refreshing. This fall everyone'd been making a huge deal out of the coming El Niño this winter but with nothing happening, I kept expecting to see El Niño's face on the side of a milk carton, but finally, a little actual weather. The hillsides were green and coated with fog. The Bandit is held in Simi Valley, a sleepy bedroom community of Los Angeles maybe best known for housing the Reagan presidential library. When my wife and I looked around for places to eat on Yelp, some of the top hits were the same chain restaurants that we had around our own suburban home - I didn't come all this way just to dine at Yardhouse again! So why in the world would an ultra be held here? Ask the Chumash Indians, who'd run in these hills for what may have been millenia.
Mile 25 was at the top of a steep, steep climb. Enshrouded in fog, I heard a vague whooping and cowbelling in the distance, and then all of a sudden, a couple of SUVs, a small folding table with water, gels, Otter Pops (like I needed to cough any more), a couple of volunteers including one woman flashing me with her t-shirt that had a bikinied body imprinted on it, laughing. It was the welcome-to-the-top-of-a-bitch-of-a-climb mini-aid station. No salt, but I took a gel and ran the rolling mile to the next aid station at mile 26, having run a marathon, the rest of the run back to Corriganville park making it an ultra. They were already packing stuff up since I was now at the back of the pack, but there were still some S!Caps, some Coca Cola, thank goodness. I started back, 5 miles left to go.
I'd chewed down a bunch of salt caps at the aid station, but at mile 27 I started cramping again, even forcing me to sit down on the trail again. I chewed one S!Cap, ran for a little bit, and then took another one, again, with a bunch of water, which was a tactical error. A few hundred yards down the trail I began to feel a tickle in my throat, a gurgle in my stomach, and after gagging a few times, another upchuck on the trail, not my first this time, and certainly not my last. After gagging and coughing another few hundred yards, I kept going.
On this descent, irritatingly, even more runners I'd passed earlier now flew by me, looking annoyingly fresh, whooping and hollering on the way down. I suspected for a second that they were distracting me so they could pass me in the competition to get to that elite 80th place finish. Suddenly, my right calf seized up, bringing me short. An older runner, dressed in khaki trousers, a plaid shirt, a windbreaker, and a Timex passed me. "What's wrong?" "Cramps." He looked at his watch. "Two and a half miles in an hour and a half, you can probably do it." "You mean before the cutoff?" I called at his back. He nodded his head.
Well, shucks. I don't know what it was. Look, the fact that he was dressed like that, in plain old khakis, a plaid shirt, and a windbreaker, probably meant that he knew WAY more about running than I did, and that even though he was way back in the pack he'd probably been running forever, before all of this fancy technical gear and GPS watches, but dammit, something about his flagrant disregard, not for matters sartorial, but for chafing, for god's sake! sparked something in me, and I started hobbling down the trail faster. I passed him, and despite the agony that downhilling at anything more than a trudge caused me, I kept trying to keep my feet turning over as fast as the cramps would allow.
You know how in running there's a saying that you got "chicked", that is, you a man who should dominate the world, was passed by a woman, and thereby demeaned? Well, that doesn't mean anything to me, not only was I a fat and slow kid and therefore a slow adult, I've just always known that there're women out there who can beat me at whatever it is that I'm trying to do, so no big deal. But shit, if there's anything I can do right, it's dress, dammit - I take some care in the way I attire myself, and I wear all of this technical stuff so I don't chafe, I even remembered to apply Body Glide this morning, dammit, and I was not about to be khakied by this old dude (even if the fact that he was that age and dressed the way he was and had made it this far and passed me meant that he not only probably but certainly knew more about running than I did).
I kept stumbling down the trail, now casting hurried glances over my shoulder despite the technical nature of the terrain and the possibility that I would end up flat on my face if I didn't pay attention to the placement of my tired feet. That's when, at mile 29, my Garmin started going off again. I have a 920XT, I'd even upgraded from the 310XT so I could do exactly what it was doing, receiving notifications from my smart phone, i.e. receiving alerts from my phone in case my wife needed something while I was on the trail. Earlier in the race I suddenly received 4 texts and a voicemail, probably when I'd come back in range of a cell tower, all of the messages from my wife who'd received an alert that I had DNS'd, Did Not Started, and worried that I'd cramped, been injured, etc.
I was now in excruciating pain, limping downhill, right knee screaming, receiving texts from my worried wife and my friends, one who was running his first 50K with me and had already finished an hour before I would, and meanwhile I was fighting not to be khakied, GODDAMIT STOP FUCKING TEXTING ME!!! There was no way I was going to stop to fish my cellphone out of my race vest, I was NOT going to be khakied. I kept throwing worried glances behind me, there he was, a couple of turns back, no, he's disappeared again, no, there he is, just a few paces.
I made it back to Corriganville park, a little less than a mile to go. At last, I passed someone who'd passed me earlier whom I'd passed before that; the geezer in the cargo pants having finished an eternity ago, a 71 year old having finished before I had (I'm not mad at him, though - damn, 71!!); finally crossing the finish line (no more cramping, though - huh), donezo! And even though I'd diminished the accomplishment at the Marr Land station, even though my friend who'd never run an ultra but had finished an hour before I had, demolishing my own PB, even though this 50K represented my own worst finishing time ever, I had, unlike the last 50K I'd attempted, in November, I'd actually finished, putting me squarely back in the saddle, ready and raring to go at these ultradistances, yes, the 50K is the entry-level ultramarathon, but I AM AN ULTRARUNNER!
Plus, I was just in time to get the last slice of pizza they had left at the closing finishing festival. Victory!
2016 BANDIT 50K: 30.81 miles, 8hrs:29min:27sec, 6,5226ft elev gain, 2,856-4,842 calories (Garmin and Strava have two veeerrry different calorie expenditure measurements - I'll just split the difference and multiply by 3), Hoka Challenger ATR