Crossing the Rubicon
Fred Johnson, March 2008
I peeped at the race course through an opening I made in my
sleeping bag while my car heater took its’ blissful effect. My eyes fluttered,
like a window shutter, between closed and barely open. I came to my car at 4:50
PM to get warm after running 100 miles. I called Gary Griffin and told him I
made my goal and was taking a break. I think I sounded convincing when telling
my good friend that I would return to the course when I stopped shivering.
However, I had no intention of running or walking another step. I watched the
shadows of competitors pass, most of them, head hung, staring just beyond the
toes of their feet, marching their way through the cold Washington night. In the
fog that comes before sleep, it occurred to me that if offered a million
dollars, I could not, for the life of me, describe the one mile loop I traveled
almost non-stop for the better part of a day.
I came to Longview, Washington on the 15th of March 2008 to stay in motion for 24 hours and achieve a goal I set for myself not long after moving to Tallahassee six years ago. The fact the race was on the Ides of March did not occur to me at the start of the run. In 44 BC, a fortune teller told Julius Caesar to beware of this day. The Roman Emperor didn’t listen and he died at the hands of his best friend Brutus and other close associates. The Ides of March had become synonymous with impending doom. This irony didn’t come to me until much later in the early morning hours as I death marched along the shores of the Lake Sacajawea mumbling “Et tu Gary, Et tu Dana, Et tu Scott”
The die was cast six years ago that I would try and run 100 miles in a day. Put in my head by Gary, Dana Stetson and Scott Ludwig, the notion fascinated me to obsession. It would take those six years for the time to be right and when the Pacific Rim 24 Hour Run race director said, “Go,” I stepped and crossed the Rubicon.
My plan was simple played out during every training run since the 2nd of January when I decided to run Pac Rim. I would run 8:30s as long as I could. When that was no longer possible, I’d run nine minute miles. I would run at that pace until I couldn’t any more and so on up to the point walking was as fast as running and I would do that as long as I could. Of course, I’d eat and drink, but most importantly I would simply stay in motion for 100 miles.
I knew some of the folks who accompanied me on this day from other ultras I’d run throughout Northwest Washington. Most were “Marathon Maniacs,” a cult, I mean club, of which Tallahassee’s own Jack McDermott is a member. To be allowed in this select group requires sacrifice of your first born male child or to run an extraordinarily number of marathons or ultras, often in succession. A half dozen or so Maniacs would join us later in the evening after they completed the Chuckanut Mountain 50K earlier that morning. One member of the group completed her 52nd marathon or ultra in as many weeks at Pac Rim after running the muddy single track of Chuckanut. I felt somewhat uneasy being the only sane person on the course – madness is contagious, I’ve heard.
As I circled the loop those first hours, I recalled a poem my father made me memorize as a kid growing up in Illinois.
“It’s easy to run at the start of the race with a free and easy tread,
to keep in the pace and follow the pack while the whole track lies ahead.
But when the finish line heaves in sight and the veins and the muscles swell,
and the eyes are glazed, is the time when class will tell.”
This thought led to the next.
There’s not much to do where I’m from in the Midwest. There’s corn, basketball and a whole heck of a lot of honky-tonk bars. But for two consecutive summers a local charity group staged a bicycle marathon in the parking lot of a mall in our town. They figured it would attract a lot of kids and bring some amusement to the hot July day. The rules were simple: ride your bike as long as you could without stopping. The first year, when I was 11, I won by riding 18 hours and the next I repeated with almost 24 hours of bicycle riding. The second year was tough competition. It was down to me, Kevin Kramer and Mike Schulte, grade school classmates of mine. Dad came out at 6:30 AM before work to see how I was doing. We’d been riding for 23 and half hours and I was about done. He told me to recite the poem as I peddled, barely keeping my bike upright. I did so as loud as I could so he would hear me across the track. Kevin and Mike stuck close to me as I screamed the words at the top of my lungs. As I passed him again, he said, “I get off at 4:30 PM and I’ll see you then. Mom will be by with some food at lunchtime – son, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Kevin and Mike looked at each other, took one more lap and stopped, their will broken by my father’s words and the knowledge I wouldn’t disappoint him.
While most runners on the soft gravel track in Longview wore IPods, reveries were my entertainment. But most of the time I focused on my form and pace. I created rewards like taking a 30 second walk break at the aid station, but mostly I just ran empty minded, except for the single mantra of “hold something back” that I repeated to myself. I ran alone for most of my first six hours on the course, talking to others only to be hospitable, but making sure I wasn’t dragged into their pace or conversations of pain and dread.
At just shy of 50 miles, the thought came to me that I was about to enter unexplored territory – I had never ran beyond that distance before. I tried not to think much about it. However, I couldn’t help not to contemplate, like the explorers of Columbus’ time, the world might come to an end just beyond the horizon. At a minimum, monsters wait. I wasn’t too far wrong about that. And then, Dave was delivered to me.
Dave was 55 and a computer consultant, with multiple Western States under his belt, including a 19:30 some years back. He came up from behind me during one of my walk breaks, took a few steps with me and asked, “Are you ready to run?” I nodded and began four hours of inexplicable calm, moving at a pace much faster than I had managed the previous two hours alone. I felt as if we were the lead horses of a stage coach, hitched side by side because of our similar stride. It reminded me of the Forest Meadow’s Sunday morning run when the herd gathers for the jaunt to the lake and back. I have no sense of time on those runs and they are done before I know it. Time passes in waves. On this day with Dave, I had no clue we sped up, only that I was having one heck of a time.
Night came and street lights lit the course. I ate bananas and boiled potatoes with salt until I couldn’t eat any more. I switched to pizza and then turkey sandwiches, drinking water, Gatorade and a favorite of Dana Stetson’s – good, old Mountain Dew. Dave and I would walk a minute or so while we ate and then got back at it. Then the temperature dropped. I got cold – real cold, having worn a soaked Wakulla Springs Ultra T-shirt for half a day. Dave said he was stopping to change clothes and I did the same. I was right at 70 miles. I veered off the course to my car and Dave continued on the track to his drop bag. I never saw him again until the after the race.
At my car, I immediately turned the ignition and blasted the heat. I changed my shirt, gloves and cap in the car to get warm. I put on a Gortex shell and made a couple phone calls to Laura and Gary, letting them know I was still alive. I shoved jelly beans and M&Ms in my mouth and got back to the track.
I couldn’t say how long I was in my car, but when I started running again I returned to a setting that had somehow changed. Before, there were people and now there were seemingly none, except for the volunteers at the aid station. Lap after lap I saw not a single runner. And I began to walk. The street lights didn’t appear as bright any more and I struggled to see landmarks in front of me. My head dropped and I walked - alone with only my thoughts.
I was reminded of Into the Wild, a book I read by Jon Krakauer. It was about a 23 year old kid who, after graduating college in Georgia, took off in his car and drove west with the intention of ultimately hiking into the Alaskan Yukon. He made it to Alaska, but didn’t make it out. He crossed that line; the point-of-no-return where in the end, you realize risking all, really means risking it all. Caesar did the same when he took his Army across the Rubicon River into northern Italy, violating Roman law and starting a civil war. Six years later Brutus was shoving a knife in his back. I wondered if I crossed the Rubicon by going out so fast. Doubt lurked on the very edges of my mind and I shook my head as if that would make the dark thoughts go away. And then Leslie came along. She actually startled me because I had not seen a runner in such a long time.
Leslie was running her 52nd marathon or ultra this year. She raced Chuckanut that morning. Leslie was running, barely, but was intent on finishing another 50K and attaining one of the most prized Maniac achievements. We didn’t talk much and just crept along at 12 minute miles, several minutes faster than I had been walking. There’s not much more I can say about Leslie and I’d be surprised if she even knows my name. We suffered in silence, but her presence extinguished my doubt. She finished her 50K as I started my 97th lap.
I knew I was going to make 100 miles, but I would do it walking. When I reached 100 miles at 19 hours and 47 minutes I lied to the lap counter, telling her I was going to take a break and would be back in a little bit.
I can’t remember if it was the light of dawn or the thought of asphyxiation that woke me, but one, the other or both drug me out of a deep sleep. I got out of my car and stretched thinking about going to the aid tent to get some coffee and then come clean with the lap counter that I was finished. I looked out on the course in the morning cool. An old man I visited with during the run was coming up an incline that had become a mountain to me the last hours I was on the loop. I waved at him and asked how he was doing. The old mountain goat didn’t look up, but he said loud enough for me to hear, “This is a timed event, son. It ain’t over until 9:00 AM. By my watch it’s 7:15 – you still got some running to do.”
That old, crusty fart.
I laced up my shoes and ran the bugger down. I kept going for an hour and a half without stopping, even to drink. I ran my 108th mile in just under nine minutes, finishing the final lap just shy of 24 hours. I looked for the old man and found him sitting on a cooler drinking a beer. I asked him how many he got. He said, “105” and the Hemmingway-looking fellow continued, “Works every time. There’s always something more, we just have to be reminded of that now and then. But I wish I would’ve kept my mouth shut until 8:15. You’d never would have caught me then.” He tipped the beer to his forehead and said, “Good run, young man.” I said thanks and turned to leave Longview.
I got to my car and took one more look at the course. I looked at my watch. March 16th. I crossed the Rubicon and survived the Ides of March all in the same day