May 7, 2011. Rodeo Lagoon, California.
Rob and I got a coveted entry to this beautiful, premier race through the lottery again this year. When you win the lottery, you take it, so I happily wrote it on the calendar in pen.
It’s a long, cross-country trip and well worth investing an long-ish weekend to enjoy. We spend the leisurely day before shopping at places I can only see in catalogs and eating luscious vegetarian cuisine at the famous Greens restaurant. One of the nice bonuses of being here is that it contrasts so strongly from my home turf in Tennessee, even a short trip feels like a proper vacation.
Race morning, we make it to the start in plenty of time, see friends – Tia Bodington (the race director), Stan Jensen (curator of run100s.com), and Janette Maas (a fellow southerner from Georgia). Even running this race for the previous two years and the Avalon 50 mile in southern California, we know very few other runners but that just increases the chances of meeting some.
We start in the dark pre-dawn at Rodeo Beach, a large mass of bravado and high energy chatter, then thin out as the course loops up a steep, paved road that finally reveals a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge floating in golden morning fog. I take photos while Rob runs on ahead. This race has a stiff cutoff at the halfway point so our strategy, since we are running this together, is that he runs on to keep pace while I sprint to catch up after a photo stop. It’s a price I’m willing to pay, at least for a while.
But like a deer stalked by a relentless predator, I tire after a few sprints and become less sure of my survival. I avoid mentioning it’s the cutoff’s presence to Rob, hoping that if I exude enough positive bonhomie it will go away. He does the same. But like any powerful predator, it is merciless. It will not give up. It will not leave us alone. And if we lag behind the rest of the herd, it’s definitely time to worry.
We circle back around to Rodeo Beach, struggle through the loose sand, and begin the long out and back up the coast to Bolinas but the cutoff still stalks us. There’s no ignoring it now. We slow enough today that we’re running for our race lives. Bottom line – we have to get aid the Bolinas Aid Station (33.9 miles) before the cutoff catches us or we won’t be allowed to finish the race. Period. At the Tennessee Valley Aid Station (11.1 miles) a worried Stan Jensen with no trace of his usual smile warns us we need to pick up the pace. The expression on Stan’s face is enough to drive home the message.
Outside the aid station, Rob and I quickly agree – no photos except those I can snap in a hurry and might regret missing. We pass stunning, calendar-worthy scenery, and I snap a fast photo or two, but run by most of it in mutual silence. We can’t afford to focus on anything but the business at hand. We want to finish.
Miles roll by as we run through the Muir Woods redwoods and Coastal Trail grasslands and in the spare moments I’m not worrying about cutoff (will we make it?) I chide myself for living ahead of the moment instead of in it. But my worry snaps that there won’t be more moments if I don’t hurry. So what’s the right approach? I can almost feel the cutoff fangs on my heels, and so can the other runners around us. We exchange quick greetings as we pass but we all have that hunted expression.
Rob and I rush through the Bolinas Ridge Aid Station figuring yes, we can make the turnaround 7.2 miles away with a few minutes to spare – if we work at it. We run through the hushed redwood forest, past trees far my elders, but all I can think of is the cutoff. Neither of us says a word. Runners come toward us on their return and I search for those that should be close ahead of us – the sooner we see them, the nearer we are to the turnaround. I look through the trees for the left turn downhill to the turnaround. Every right curve looks like the right one, but isn’t. Where is it, where is it, where is it…?!?
I’m close to despair when the turn finally appears and we bolt down the steep hill one last mile to the turnaround. The clock is hemorrhaging seconds. Runners hiking uphill look tired but relieved and I can only envy them and keep pounding down the hill. There are a few minutes left. I try not to worry yet about the friends behind me.
Not a moment too soon, the trees give way to an open meadow surrounding the turnaround aid station. I feel cutoff curling to leap at us. I arrive, out of breath and ask, “did we make it?” They seem to not know what I’m asking but finally laugh and say, “sure you can go on.” Still shaken up, I stick to business, refill my bottle, grab some food, and before they can change their minds, we speed hike back uphill, eager to put a healthy cushion behind us and cutoff.
I’m worn out from worry but every step lightens a load heavier than I realized I was carrying. Lead weights fall from my shoulders. I notice flowers, some especially large redwoods, and views I missed on the way out. We make a quick stop at Bolinas Ridge (now 41.1 miles) and roll out into the reassuringly sunny grasslands along Coastal Trail with ocean views below. My solar panels open to soak in the rays. Life is good and the running feels easier.
This time through, I notice the body language and personalities of individual trees in Muir Woods down to their bark patterns; an large, enthusiastic group, maybe the community, building a Saturday evening bonfire on Muir Beach; quail families scurrying across our paths on the way to Tennessee Valley; Stan waiting on us with a smile and “glad to see you made it back” this time at Tennessee Valley (now 57.6 miles); and the sunset behind us painting the clouds on our way to the finish. I’m here only one time a year and so grateful to have the chance to do this again. I wouldn’t trade this for anything else. Who knows when I’ll get back again and even then, no day is exactly like this day. I want to live it.
We finish tired and a little pounded down but strong and smiling and that almost seems like enough. We’re fine now, aren’t we? I find a place to sit down, and Helen Cacciapaglia insists on taking care of us, and though I resist out of habit to the point of being rude, she wins. The moment I let her make us comfortable, a dam of pent-up stress comes flooding out, leaving me so exhausted that I can’t move.
Her husband Ed, a friend of mine, has already finished the race and showered, and talks with us while she fusses over us and retrieves our drop bag and I try to stay awake enough to converse intelligently. We compare our race day and try as I might, I only remember the first half as a blur. The second half comes back in real-time Technicolor -all the scenes, things people said, plant smells, and sounds.
You know better that to worry but you rarely realize what it costs you. It sucked the Technicolor out of half my race. The only difference between the two halves (besides a few miles) is the worry. So what did it give me for the price? Did it get me to the Turnaround faster?
No. Worry can’t physiologically make me any faster and studies clearly show it erodes sports performance. I can vouch for that. I would have been more relaxed and efficient, and saved the precious energy wasted on those useless mental gyrations that changed nothing. And the whole experience would have been more fun.
Just think then what it does in every day life where you’re so used to it, you don’t even notice. Just like it did here today, worry changes nothing except cheating you out of your experience. Crazy, just crazy.
It’s time to start calling worry out in the open. If I’m given the chance to travel all the way to California to run a exceptionally well-run, stunningly gorgeous race, I want to actually be there to enjoy it. Nothing but Technicolor days!