Learning to Run Free at the Born to Run Ultra Marathons


Learning to Run Free

by Patrick Reed

I was anxious for the Born To Run Ultra Marathon weekend which is now just logged into the record books. Perhaps most noteworthy for history’s sake is James Bonnet’s speedy 15:58 100-mile victory, but my remembrances will revolve around a forgotten raceday strategy, a joy-filled 50 kilometer battle between friends, and a deeper understanding of the bliss of “running free.”

Bonnet’s average mile pace of 9:38 for 100 consecutive miles is a reminder that ultra marathoning has little in common with the road racing I was weened on. Somewhere between my drive down from San Luis Obispo and mile mark 10 in my 50k race, I forgot that truth. And I paid dearly for it.

The weekend went off like clockwork. The Friday night bonfire and revelry were in pure form as the rollicking music from a local rock band diminished to an early turn-in for all. Patrick Sweeney and I were among the last to talk into the pre-midnight blackness before the bonfire was doused with a protective deluge because of the dryness factor of this season in the Central Coast of California. Patrick, who would go on to crush me and the 50k course only hours later, spoke to me – now known as “the other Pat” – about the biomechanics of running and about his unique training regimen: long (2 to 3 hour) barefoot runs on the flat beaches of L.A. Still new to the quirkiness of Ultra training and racing, and naive about the true beauty of the sport, I half assented to Pat’s philosophies. Very soon, I would be taught the practical realities of his late-evening ramblings.

Before allowing myself to drift off to sleep in my Toyota Sienna’s tail section, surrounded by blankets, 2 iPads, my cameras, running shoes and my guitar, I wrote out my morning checklist:

  1. Up/Pray – thanks to God and that He would be with me as I run
  2. Water and a power-bar, maybe a banana
  3. Coffee!!!
  4. Register for the race – get number, turn in the waiver
  5. Racing kit: jersey, shoes, socks, shorts, hair (I have lots of it these days, had to figure a way to keep it out of my face…), sunglasses, goo
  6. Sip water
  7. Car keys tied into shoe
  8. Go-time!
  9. Pray – run for God’s glory alone!!

I also set numerous alarms on several devices to ensure a 4 a.m. wake-up. Raceday was coming quickly.

I was up with an excitement that rivaled only the big holidays of the child – Christmas, birthdays and sometimes, Easter. My other alarms began their syncopated soundings as I fumbled for my toothbrush, and I snuffed each in turn. It is showtime, I thought to myself, with no one around to listen. Now, to go down my checklist. Coffee was high on the priority list.

Triggering the hatch to free me from my minivan, I limped into the cold towards an increasingly busy registration table at the start/finish line. Turning in my waiver, I look over to see Luis Escobar getting himself together for an epic 36 hours of  revelry. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a fiery yellow flare just as I heard the booms of 5 consecutive explosions from Luis’s shotgun, fired straight over the ridge where 2 hours from now we would stride. Yup, It’s showtime!

Moments later, Luis was donned head to toe in traditional Mariachi garb, resplendent in his office of visionary of this celebratory event. He poured out a white-hot froth into my mug with the warning that the water was “very hot.” I stirred my double shot of Via with a plastic spoon which nearly bent as it touched the side of my cup. Things around here are extreme, I thought excitedly…

After a short call from Paris from my wife, Jana, as I stood in the porta-potty line, it was time for final instructions before the race. Having been “very good” at getting lost in high school cross-country, I tried my best to listen as we were reminded again that “Blue is bad” and that “A white line is very bad.” Somehow, though I knew the importance of the instructions, my mind seemed to wander past these final instructions. I did catch clearly, though, Luis’s statement that “It’s not a question of if things get weird, but when they get weird, how to respond… If you go off course, if you are lost, stop. Go back and get back on the course, and then figure out which way to go.” For some reason, these words stuck.

Before I knew it, I was in a sea of soldiers, men and women of every type and look and demeanor, yet all with our right hand raised, and all repeating: “If I get lost, hurt or die, it’s my own damn fault. Amen.” I liked that amen. It made me feel like the golden race jersey I wore, which was an emblem of my faith in Jesus Christ, was welcome here, too, amongst all of the variety of souls and persuasions and ethics. We were a family gathered on this starting line.

“RUN FREE!” echoed finally over our family — and we were sent off with a boom. The race was on. Or was it a race? I cannot tell, even now. Was I supposed to luxuriate in the battle, in the pure experience, or were the two intertwined – racing and being? Were they, in fact, one and the same?

Whatever I should have done in the first footfalls of the morning, I did what I had always done. What I knew how to do — and what I did without thinking. I raced.

I knew that Patrick Sweeney and Topher would be the day’s competition, and as Patrick went out effortlessly and quick, I followed at a sober distance. I jogged, I meandered behind; I quietly tracked him. At times during the first 10 mile loop, I would traipse within a few meters of Patrick, padding along as softly as I could, and then I would wait in an effortless pulling as he’d gain 100, 200, 300 meters. I was stalking Pat Sweeney and I knew I could do this all day.

b2r 2013

But what I may have in sheer fitness and desire I lacked in ultra experience. Only one other time had I raced a distance beyond the marathon.

When Pat stopped to go to the bathroom at mile 10, I was suddenly without my pacer. What to do? I did what I knew. I decided I would make a break for it. Sweeney was slow in the aid station, and now I could get the lead, string it out and prepare to win. The plan sounded so perfect, and I could run like this all day. All was well, and I stretched my lead. I was winning and winning big – at mile 14.

And then the unexpected, which I should have expected, happened. Cruising up a hill, at the halfway mark of the course, I saw flags notating a right turn ahead. And then I hit a white chalk line. VERY BAD! I remembered. I screeched to a halt and searched for the yellow flags marking the turn and the path. I couldn’t find any and, panicking, as I was in the middle of making my move!! — I chose the only path I saw: a thin, single track, downward curving path into an overgrown canyon. This can’t be it, I thought, but I didn’t know what Luis might throw at us. He is crafty enough to hide a couple of markers, to make his runners move on in faith. And so I went. Down… I plunged into the canyon. And further down. No yellow flags. I was off course. I remembered again those words: “If you go off course, if you are lost, stop. Go back and get back on the course, and then figure out which way to go.” I followed those orders. But as I turned, looking up and still scanning in hopes of seeing that flag still, I smashed my right big toe into a protruding, heavy tree branch which lay across the path. “Ugh!” I screamed, and ignoring the pain of a cracked toenail, I ran back up the trail, to get back on track.

By the time I got back up the canyon, I had lost precious time, expended way too much extra energy, and had lost at least half of the lead I had worked so hard to acquire. Had I been thinking at all, remembering my original strategy to cruise the first 20 miles, I would have cut the pace and slowed down, content to let Sweeney regain the lead. Pacing off of him, I could recover from my overwork and navigational error. Instead, I decided to try to cement my lead once more. I worked this, the most rugged portion of the entire day, trying to put distance on Sweeney once again.

It was a valiant effort, though short-sighted. I had been short-sighted ever since taking over the lead at mile 10. Now, at mile 20, my reserves were gone — and it was just a matter of time before I was overtaken. First Patrick passed me. “Hey Pat,” he said nonchalantly. “Good work!” I replied, helpless to react as he passed. Next, Topher came cruising by. We exchanged hello’s and he galloped forward. I was sure he would win the day. He had held back until this moment. He had been the truly smart one today.

The remainder of the day for me was a descent into misery. My 7 minute average pace fell into 9 minute splits — and my GPS watch kept chiming that I was “Behind Pace.” “Yeah, Coach, I know.” I spoke aloud — and trudged on. I eventually became so exhausted that I thought I might just collapse, and I wondered how Luis could possibly run 135 miles across Death Valley. I wondered what it really means to dig deep. I had nothing left. Not even any water. I had 2 goos which I was so sick of, that…. How could I dig? I pushed forward. Walk to the next tree. Run to the next shadow. Walk 5 meters. Run 10. Walk as fast as I possilby can. Move forward. Eventually, another wind came, I felt better momentarily and I pushed on, knowing that the finish line was only 2 miles away by now. I figured Sweeney was in; probably Topher, too. And I ran and ran and ran.

I eventually crossed the line in 4:11. My splits degraded from 1:10 at 10 miles to 1:20 for the second 10 to 1:37 from mile 20 to 30. My splits were an illustration of a raceday plan forgotten. But I had finished.

I was struck – as I watched with joy other runners laboring through their challenges – at how I perceived myself versus how I perceived others. As I looked at one man walking, his head down, just like mine had been, straining and striving to move forward just as I had, I had such respect for him. I didn’t know what he expected of himself; I had no expectations of him. I was simply impressed by his gritty determination. When, on the other hand, we view our own struggles, from inside, we often find only criticism staring us back — and we deflate ourselves. I wish it wasn’t so. I aim to rid myself of this pride. I want the freedom to have realistic expectations of myself. And to give myself grace.

So, what did I learn at Los Olivos? I learned that to win is to accept oneself where one is. To win is to push beyond one’s perceived limitations by a deep self-knowledge. But not with a careless pride. I learned that to win is to strive with calculation, but most importantly to push and push and push and never stop when the weirdness comes.

Thank you, B2R Ultras! See you next year:)


image credits: Nick Heil & Luis Escobar

comfort zone