Four days before the 4MPH Challenge I found myself hiding in a conference room with my head against the wall. Why did I sign up for a race where the point for me was to go until the wheels fell off? I wasn’t scared or nervous. My week wasn’t going well and the mounting to-do list to prepare for the weekend was daunting. I felt overwhelmed.
The 4MPH Challenge is a variation on a timed event. Instead of seeing how far you can go in a set amount of time like 12 or 24 hours, you must complete 6 miles in 90 minutes. If you complete 6 miles in less time, you have to wait until the full 90 minutes has elapsed before you can start the next lap. If you complete it in more than 90 minutes you time out and it’s over. Essentially you get a starting gun every 90 minutes with a 90 minute cut off.* There is no defined end until your body or your brain chooses it for you. Even the race director says he’ll stay out on the course until there is no one left standing. The concept intrigued me.
The Unenlightened Path
This particular event came under my radar sometime last year. It’s located west of Redding in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area and runs along the northwest shoreline of Whiskeytown Lake. I’d done several timed events, had done well in them, and really enjoyed the experience. The format for this one seemed to fall right in my wheelhouse, even down to the course which this year was generally flat except for one short climb. Should be easy, right?
I waited until a week after the Napa Valley Marathon before signing up. I had put in such a hard effort there and I wanted to see how I was holding up. I was feeling none the worse for wear so I decided to go for it. Feeling good after a couple of short, easy runs means I’m recovered, right?
Then the next week I paced Alina at the Marin Ultra Challenge, from Cardiac Hill to the finish at Fort Baker, about 22 miles. Piece of cake. Since I didn’t want her to make the long drive back to get my car after having such a long day I opted to park at Tennessee Valley and run myself over to Cardiac, an extra 8 miles (30 miles total). I was looking forward to getting back on the trails after being predominantly on the road and I had a blast spending time with Alina. I felt great. I’m tough, no big deal, right?
The following weekend was the race. Since it was a four-hour drive north I had wanted to go up on Friday and stay with Josh, a friend who was also doing the event, but I wasn’t able to get away. I started my race morning to the sound of a 2:30am alarm and a very long solo drive. I’d done plenty of one day trips to Tahoe in the past. This didn’t seem much different. Snowboarding for 4 or 5 hours and running an ultra of undetermined length is the same, right?
Our race started promptly at 8am at Oak Bottom. Six miles to our turn around at Camden House. Six miles back to Oak Bottom. Rinse, repeat. My plan was to complete each lap in 80 to 85 minutes. That would give me time to deal with fueling and any other necessities before the next lap started but not so much time that I would cool down significantly. It was easy to stick to this plan. It was a gorgeous day, the trails were beautiful, and while it was a bit warmer than I preferred it wasn’t oppressive.
The race is self-supported with regard to food, at least during the day, but water, sports drink, and ice is provided at each staging area. In the evening simple things like soup and quesadillas are available and three meals would be prepared if you made it to Sunday. I thought it best to be mostly self-reliant where food was concerned and planned accordingly. Because I wasn’t pushing very hard I was able to eat without any real issues and stay consistent in fueling and hydrating which sometimes doesn’t happen for me. As it got warmer I’d put ice in the handheld water bottle and used it for drinking and dousing. I was doing everything right, all the boxes were checked, but I felt mentally and physically flat.
The miles went by without incidence, only broken by the 5-10 minutes I’d wait before each start. I was able to hang out with Josh throughout the day and I got to see everyone again as we departed en masse from either Oak Bottom or Camden House. Josh had a different friend visit when we’d come into Oak Bottom. This would be the easiest race to crew if one were so inclined. There is no guess work involved about when to meet your runner. If you can tell time, you’d know.
Time and distance passed in a very strange way. The things that I’m normally so aware of weren’t that terribly important, at least not yet. A race like this was still in its early stages. I happened to glance at my watch just past the marathon point. I wasn’t keeping an eye out for that distance specifically, it was only a coincidence. I noted the time more than anything else. I’d been on my feet for over six and a half hours. I drew a heavy sigh.
“I think my BQ at Napa Valley was a thousand times easier than this,” I told Josh as we waited at Camden House. ”At least there I knew what I had to do, I had a set time to do it in, and then I was done. Here?“ I just shrugged my shoulders.
I didn’t think I could do an ultra on autopilot but apparently I can. I was under no pressure in this race. I was here to participate, have some fun, learn a thing or two but without the influences of a more defined goal I found it difficult to stay engaged in what I was doing. I seem to have forgotten how to just enjoy an experience for its own sake.
It was time for our trip back to Oak Bottom, mile 30 to 36. We did have a creek crossing which I’d crossed five times at this point. From the direction I was going it’s about a mile in and the turn is marked with a large orange construction cone with bright yellow signs to turn left. My brain was so disconnected from what my body was doing that by the time I was aware of my surroundings I was standing in front of a never-before-seen section of the creek.
I stared blankly at the flowing water at my feet. To quote the Talking Heads, “How did I get here?” Thank goodness I wasn’t behind the wheel of a large automobile. I had absolutely no recollection of what I’d been doing for the last half mile.
I ran up and down the trail for a bit but nothing looked right. Was my creek crossing ahead of me or behind? The area ahead looked completely unfamiliar so I backtracked further and finally found the orange cone. How did I not trip over that? Good to know that the autopilot collision detection system was in fine working order. My meanderings cost me some time that I would need to make up but I didn’t panic. I even had a very reasonable thought about not trying to over compensate and make up the time too quickly. I was acting like I was still in this for the long haul. I knew I could make it back to Oak Bottom without too much bother.
Finally my mind was engaged in doing something besides passing time but once the problem was solved all I want to do was go home. It was over. There was nothing wrong with me physically. I still had the legs to keep going but not the heart, not today. When I got back to Oak Bottom, I stopped.
What a strange sport I’ve involved myself in where pulling a 36 mile day can be overshadowed by disappointment. I didn’t time out or get pulled. I just stopped. I didn’t put up a good fight nor did I put my best foot forward. I was completely unprepared for the mental game required for this event. Things have gone so well for me of late that I’ve become complacent, thinking that my body and mind are limitless resources.
“The decisions we make to participate in this sport of ours can be thoughtful, questionable or down-right foolish. Only when it’s over do we know which ones they are.”
I wrote that in January. Well, now that this one is over I’ll take questionable and down-right foolish for $500. I want a do over. I know I can do better here. Good days don’t happen by accident, they are earned. Whether through hard work or making sound choices or fostering the right attitude or setting realistic expectations or just getting enough sleep, it doesn’t take place in a vacuum.
“The ski pole broke my thumb. Here at the base. Still trying to get full use of it.”
“Can you touch your thumb to your pinky?”
“Like this? Yeah.”
“Okay, you’re still human.”
This was a funny and telling moment to have stumbled upon in the course of my long day. I didn’t need to break my thumb to remind myself I was human. I just needed to run this race.
* The official distances and times are slightly less and slightly more than 6 miles and 90 minutes but for the sake of clarity I’m rounding the numbers.