Photo by Matt D'Annunzio
It’s not about the time on the stopwatch. It’s not about some kind of pleasure in pain. It’s not about the medals or the bragging rights. And it’s certainly not about the carbohydrate gel.
It’s about The Challenge. About turning yourself inside out and really seeing what you’re made of. That’s Reed College. Most everyone here tackles The Challenge in their own way. Running is only one way. Shoot, it’s only one of my ways. I spend more time doing work for each of my classes than I spend running. Transnational water appropriation treaties and the civilizing discourses of 19th century British bogland reclamation projects, however, don’t always make for the most exciting magazine articles.
On April 5, I ran the American River Ultramarathon—50 miles of downright old-fashioned fun. That is, the chasing down the antelope and running away from the saber-tooth tiger kind of old fashioned.
The course was beautiful—mile upon mile of paved bike paths, gravel roads, and singletrack trails. Bookstore manager Ueli Stadler and I ran together and we kept a fairly constant pace for the first 30 miles. In a pre-race strategy session the night before we agreed 1) that we had ordered too much vegetable chow-mein and 2) that we should start the venture off at a conservative 9:00/mile pace.
In a 50-mile race it is essential that you start slow. Push yourself too hard in the first half and you may never finish the second. We managed to stick to our strategy for the most part, although we did speed up a couple of times at the beginning—once, enraptured by the energy and beauty of the event, Ueli and I accidentally fell into a comfortably casual 7:40/mile pace. [A blistering speed!—Ed]
After pacing, the next essential is fuel. In our training, Ueli and I had made down-tempo running analogous to walking for our bodies. Put another way: the average person could probably walk for 9 hours. All we did in our training was to raise the physiological baseline so that we could run for 9 hours—if we chose to. The limiting factor became not muscular fatigue but the availability of caloric surplus. The average human body has enough glycogen to go about 20 miles, so we had to eat on the run to fuel the rest. The aid stations, strategically placed every 4–5 miles, were like oases in the desert flowing with milk and honey. We ate baked potatoes, PB+Js, bananas, apples, pears, energy gels, Gatorade, soup, M&Ms, Oreos, Pretzels, Coke, Sprite, etc. etc.
M&Ms? Oreos? Soda? I never eat that stuff in my regular life. But simple sugars are simple sugars. As distance runners well know, running can suppress the appetite during and for a time after a run. The aid station foods, then, are carefully chosen to tempt the suppressed and repressed appetite of the advanced pedestrians: sweet and salty. Fortunately I managed to keep my body fueled but personally—after 9 hours of the sweet stuff—I felt like puking rainbows. I didn’t want to even look at anything sugary for several days afterward.
Running with Ueli was an absolute pleasure. The race would not have been nearly as meaningful without him. We had spent time training together and had bonded in ways that can perhaps only form over the shared 20-mile runs around Portland, rain or rain, weekend after weekend, month after month. Per our pre-race agreement, we maintained a stoic silence for the most part, though we couldn’t help but crack up somewhere around Mile 13 when a woman shouted, “You’re almost there!”
We traded off pacing one another and stuck together for the first eight hours. Then Ueli, suddenly filled with a third or perhaps fourth or even fifth wind, put the hammer down somewhere around Mile 44. When I put my own foot on the gas nothing happened. I have a lot of experience with that particular phenomenon—my family drives a Geo Metro. I was the youngest person to complete the race this year, finishing in 8:54:52, six minutes behind Ueli, who is surely Reed’s very own Odysseus.
We got a lot of recognition in our Reed swag. Some were impressed that Reed had produced “athletes,” and “jocks.” Others wondered how we found time to train when we had so much studying to do in the trees whilst naked.
The toughest part of the course comes at Mile 47. Known as the “Damn Wall,” it’s a heart-wrenching 1200-foot climb that stretches for 2.5 miles. As I ran up the Damn Wall the former race director was kind enough to ride alongside me on his bicycle and keep me company until I reached the Damn Top. Eying my shirt, he said, “Stay in school!” I assured him that I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I trained for this race for 22 weeks. In that time I ran 1179 miles. I also cycled three evenings per week and did calisthenics three mornings per week. That is my favorite part about The Challenge—conditioning.
I learned how to condition for The Challenge from the legendary Prof. Douglas Fix [history 1990–]. “Coach” Doug. Gee whiz, I bet he has no idea.
Prof. Fix lit a fire under my ass my sophomore year. In his Chinese Humanities course, I picked up a sorely needed measure of diligence and discipline. As many of my peers can attest, Doug has the (terrifying) ability to inspire a thirst for The Challenge. Thus parched, I endeavor to apply his ethos not only to my coursework but also to my job at SEEDS and my ultracurricular pursuits.
I would have never guessed that working to be a better Reedie would turn me into a better runner, or even a “runner” at all. I never participated in high-school athletics. Interestingly, counter-intuitively, and maybe even paradoxically, I wonder if it is only at a place like Reed where the bygone spirit of collegiate amateurism can still thrive.
Right after the race, I took a few days off. Then I did a few weeks of recovery training—basically a kinder, gentler version of my ultramarathon training. On May 5th I began training to run the Portland Marathon for the third consecutive year. The race is in October and I hope to break the 3:00 mark this time. I’m still unsure about next spring. I have agreed to run Boston with a friend if he qualifies. If not, then I will probably train for the Great Divide Mountain Bike race, a continuous clock, self-supported mountain bike trek from Canada to Mexico by way of the Rocky Mountains. In any event, I’m sure I’ll find something to complement the life of the mind during my senior year.
Until then, I’m busy training for the next big challenge—writing my thesis.
EDITOR’S NOTE: John and Ueli both completed the American River Ultramarathon on April 5, thereby becoming, as far as we know, the first Reed team to run in a 50-mile race. John recently won a President’s Summer Fellowship to investigate influential British ornithologist Robert Swinhoe [1836-77].