Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Gas Giant V

In most races in which I participate, I would consider myself a runner, maybe even a competitor, but in some races, I would more accurately consider myself a student. In several respects, this weekend's run would most certainly fall under the latter.

I tried my best to DNF. I really did.

The race itself was described by it's designer thusly: "gas giant runs lack the tight organization of a fat-ass event. no awards, no aid, no wimps. lots of fun. (sic)" Whereas this might sound like an odd race description, maybe even a cop-out for the "RD," he is no novice to creating keynote events. Gary Cantrell, also known as Lazarus Lake, is the race director for the fabled Barkley Marathons and Last Annual Vol State 500k, and is a frequent source of sometimes painfully straightforward, yet always insightful and intelligent opinions on the Ultralist. That being the case, when the announcement for this race came, along with the offer for free pre-race lodging at the Cantrell house, my wheels immediately began turning.

While deciding whether or not to run the Gas Giant, I informed Eric Gilbertson, a friend here in Auburn, of the event, to see if he was interested in a somewhat unique race experience (and heck, if he didn't want to pound the pavement, he could always crew...), and he opted to take on the race, which was intriguing to me, because the farther he goes, the better he seems to get.

The day before the race, Eric and I loaded up in my truck and headed northward into Tennessee. Once at Cantrell Manor, we were greeted by Gary/Laz himself, along with his wife and daughter, and the notorious Big Dog, of Ultralist fame (although, truth be told, I spent much more time petting Little Dog than Big). Also staying at Cantrell Manor were Dave Combs, administrator of the Ultralist, trying to complete his first ultra-distance event in several years, Jo DuBose, crewing for Gary and Dave, and John Price, training for his upcoming double Vol State this summer and trans-continental run next winter. Needless to say, we were in fairly illustrious company.

After chatting it up into the wee hours of the morning, reveille came at 5:45 or so Saturday, and everyone was scrambling to get ready to make the hour drive to the start, but not before we all got a chance to pet Big in the daylight, and rest assured, he lives up to his name; as Gary pointed out several times throughout the weekend, I'm fairly confident that my head would fit into Big's mouth, should he feel so inclined. Once we got on the road, and after following Gary and Jo through the backroads of Tennessee for an hour or so, we arrived at Columbia square, where we met a couple other runners, Mike Langille and Zane Smith, and shortly thereafter, we were off...

From the start, Eric and I were out front, and as we made our way out of Columbia, the sparsity that would develop over the course of miles became apparent. The first few miles went largely without incident, although in retrospect we clearly went out at a blistering pace, as we hit the first convenience store in Santa Fe (pronounced Santa Fee, as we were instructed so as not to sound ignorant) in right around 90 minutes for almost exactly 10 miles. Oh well, we were just running comfortably, and it might have even worked to our benefit to get some relatively quick miles behind us before the heat of the day set in.

After grabbing a bottle of gatorade and a payday bar at one gas station and heading to another to... well... take care of a little obligatory bowel business, Zane caught up and bought a bag of ice with which to fill out his water bottles, and he kindly let Eric and me do the same with our camelbacks. The added ice was glorious once we had bid Zane adieu and made our way back out of Santa Fe and onto the highway in the blazing sun.

At this point, the day was really beginning to warm up, and I was starting to fall off the pace. Eric was kind enough to hold back with me for the next several miles to the Fly convenience store, which served as our next aid station. Again, we went inside to grab some fluids and talk with the proprietor for a few minutes while we cooled down a bit. He informed us that the next store was five miles down the road, followed by an eight mile traverse to the Highway 100 crossing, which had several gas stations for re-supply (the Hwy 100 crossing also served as the finish line for the 30-mile division of the race).

All too soon, we thanked him and were off. Again, I was very much slowing down, and Eric waited with me for a while, even walking up one of the steeper hills with me, before settling into his own rhythm and putting an easy 200 or 300 yards on me by the next store, which I was oh-so grateful to see.

This stop was one of the more amusing ones of the run. As I walked up the gravel lot to the store, I saw Eric sitting on a bench, half out of the sun, amidst a decently sized biker gang. Fortunately, as I soon found out, they were all utterly intrigued with the two of us. I got the usual bottle of gatorade and ate some Shot Blocks while sitting down to cool off in the shade. Before leaving this particular store, Eric bought a bag of ice, and we each bought two bottles of water to refill the camelbacks, and left the remainder of the ice for any of the other runners who might stop by later (namely we were thinking of Zane and John Price, who started without crews, as we had). The cashier was even kind enough to let us put the ice back in the freezer and let any future runners know it was there; she was as curious about us as the bikers...

Yet again, we set out for the next long gap to a store, and yet again, Eric was clearly feeling much stronger than me, and before long, he was out of sight, cruising along just like any old day at the office. I, on the other hand, was beginning to struggle. Trying to keep running up the hills that never seemed to end (one was literally 6 miles long), I burned through my water supply relatively quickly. Before too long, I was reduced to walking up all the hills, as ultrarunners of often wont to do. On a brighter note, I think this was the point on the course where we got our one bit of shade for the day (but it might have been the previous traverse, I'm not entirely sure). All along TN Hwy 7, we were utterly exposed to the scorching sun, but somewhere along here, we passed underneath an overpass of the Natchez Trace, so we got 30 feet of relief from the sun. Awesome.

Believe it or not, that 30 feet went by relatively quickly, and we were back out in the sun. Baffling, I know...

At the top of one of the last hills (the actual top, not a false summit like we had seen all day...), I had been reduced to trudging along, and found that even running flats and down hills was becoming rather difficult. I think I was focusing on the running as a way to keep myself from noticing the slighly lightheaded feeling I was beginning to develop. Fortunately, right around this time, Mike Langille and crew arrived. Mike had dropped after passing out and he along with his crew were driving ahead to check on the rest of the runners. In any case, they pulled over a little ways ahead of me, and I walked over to the car. This is where I made my critical mistake: I sat down on the bumper of the car. Almost as soon as I had taken a load off, my head was utterly swimming, and I couldn't stand up straight, not that this particularly mattered, because within a few seconds I was doubled over on the side of the road, regurgitating around a liter and a half of pure water through painful heaves. This is what prompted me to drop.

28 miles: DNF (or so I thought...)

Mike and his crew (aka, my guardian angels of the day), drove me the two miles to the next gas station, where Eric was awaiting my arrival. I went inside to tell him that I had dropped (had to lay down for a minute while telling him, because I couldn't stand up for the 5 minutes it took to let him know what was going on without getting lightheaded and nauseous...). Eric pressed on like a trooper, and Mike, crew, and I started back toward Columbia, 30 miles away, to drop me off at my truck so I could try to come crew Eric for the last few miles. Along the way, we stopped to check on all the runners, and in telling Gary and Dave that I was dropping, I was utterly convinced that I had made the right decision, because I noticed something that has never happened to me before: for a few minutes, I was unable to make my eyes focus on the same thing... weird...

Once they dropped me off at my truck, I thanked them and spent a few minutes making sure I was in a condition to safely drive. I had had almost an hour in a car with air conditioning on full blast to cool me off, and I was back to feeling better (and able to see straight...), but I still walked around the Columbia square for a few minutes just to make sure.

Reassured of my capacity for at least marginal lucidity, I hopped into my truck and drove the 40 miles back to Dickson, where I caught up with Eric making his way through a very highly trafficked part of town, just a couple miles and one turn away from his finish. After checking to make sure he didn't need anything, I drove on to the intersection of College St. and Main St. to try and decipher the finish line riddle posed by Laz. Soon enough, Eric trotted the final stretch to the finish and "touched Fayetteville," as the riddle had instructed (which, by the way, was not quite as straightforward as I had initially assumed... the faded mural map was, shall we say, not quite what I had thought it would be, but given my slightly-more-than-nothing knowledge of Tennessee geography, we figured it out and made sure to have photographic evidence...)

Eric and I waited a few minutes, grabbed some less-nasty clothing (I had yet to change out of any of my running stuff), and within 45 minutes or so, Zane Smith came strolling into town, much to the delight of his crew comprised of his wife and two kids. We all stood around and chatted for a while before Zane and family headed back home, and Eric and I headed to Wendy's to get the first bits of "real" food since starting that morning (fries and frosties count as real food, right...?)

Thus concludes the "race" part of the story.

Thus begins the real part of the story.

Temporarily sated, we piled back in the truck to head back down the road to find the other runners. John Price looked to be in alright shape, so we pressed on to find Dave and Gary as they hammered down the road. I'm not entirely sure where we found them, but it was somewhere between the last store I to which I survived (biker gang store), and the one before that (Fly convenience store).

When I spotted them strolling down the highway, I pulled off the road around 300 yards ahead of them, flipped on the flashers, got out and headed toward them to see if either needed anything. They both appeared to be in decent shape, although I did notice that as soon as I turned my back on them, one or the other would bend down, hands on his knees in apparent discomfort/pain. After walking with them for a ways, I jogged back to the truck to leap frog them, park, and repeat the process.

One or two iterations into the procedure, I met up with Jo DuBose again, crewing for them, to get a feel for how they had been doing. While talking with Jo, the two race horses (Gary and Dave) arrived and stopped for a sit. At this point, their "aid station" antics were on display, as they both took care of whatever needed some care and talked themselves into another mile or so (I know this procedure well, but seeing others do it was simply somewhat gratifying).

During this stop, we also realized that we needed to go pick up John Price, who had called it a day at the 30-mile finish line and needed a ride back to Columbia. That being the case, Eric decided to walk a little ways with Dave and Gary while I drove to pick up John, drive him back to Columbia, and come back to find the two remaining stallions.

By the time I got back, Eric was beginning to get a wee bit tired (I can't figure out why... it's not like he did anything earlier in the day...), so I started walking with Gary and Dave while he would follow Jo in the truck and get little naps between aid stops.

At this point it was thoroughly dark (maybe 10pm?), so I can only imagine what any passers by thought when they saw us meandering down the road. Several times Gary made the statement that it was only a matter of time before the law showed up.

By now, the apparent modus opperandi was to have Jo meet us every mile, but with the marathon mark approaching, she skipped the 26-mile mark to go to the first convenient spot after the marathon point. This convenient spot happened to be at the top of a pretty long, steep hill. As hard as it is to imagine, Gary and Dave were not thrilled to be trudging up the hill at this point, and I learned a few explitive combinations heretofore unknown to me. Things like *****-**** ; yep, that's right *****-****. In any case, we eventually made it up the hill to find that Jo had parked around the 26.3 mile mark, technically giving Gary his 35th consecutive year with an ultra-distance event and Dave his first in a while. But this apparently wasn't good enough for Laz.

Talking it over, they decided to press on to 27.3, and though I'm sure he's glad they kept going now, at the time, Dave was pissed. Gary got up and started meandering back along the highway while Dave talked himself into doing the same. When Dave and I got back out on the road, I beheld a scene that could very well be the stuff of nightmares and horror films for ultrarunners, especially Barkley veterans: as we first got on the road, maybe 50 or 100 yards behind, a car came toward us, creating the incredibly eerie scene of a hulking Lazarus Lake walking down the road in a slight fog and in what had developed by this point into an almost Frankenstein-esque gait, bent on getting to his final destination. I wish I had a camera at the time, but the image might be too much for some readers, so I couldn't have posted it up in good conscience, anyway.

Dave was moving pretty well, so in a few minutes we had caught up with Gary, and sticking to my plan of hanging with whoever was in the back, I struck up more conversation with the ever-intriguing Gary Cantrell. If you have never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Laz, you are truly missing out, for several reasons that you'll just have to meet him to find out.


So it's been a year and a half since I began composing this report.  The memories of the event that was the Gas Giant V are still kept in a fond place within my mind.

Whereas the details might not be to the level recorded in the previously written section, I figured that it would be worth bringing closure to such a story.

Over the next several miles, Dave put on a Herculean surge, gapping Gary and myself by quite a bit.  Cantrell and I continued our relentless trek toward the intersection that marked the finish line for the two true Gas Giants of the race.  Sometime around 1am, Lazarus Lake finished the run that would keep a 35 year streak alive.

We sat around on a traffic island on the outskirts of Dixon at 0100 for a while, Gary rewarding himself with a cigarette and joining the rest of us telling lies and war stories from runs gone by.  True to form, before long a member of the local gendarmerie stopped by to see what a bunch of ragged, noisy, aromatic people were doing at such an odd place at such an odd time of night.  After we informed him of our day's events, he somewhat warily let us be...

All too soon, we began to feel the time, and opting not to drive all the way back to Cantrell Manor, we looked around for a hotel, and after being turned away at one (I can't say I blame them... I might have turned us away, too...), we were rented a couple rooms for the night at a little motel that had been downgraded from a Knight's Inn (that's right...).  The next day we went our separate ways, Eric and I back to Auburn, Gary back home, Dave back to CA, and the rest back to their respective homes.  I must say that this was one of the more unique events in which I've been lucky enough to participate.  Long distance journey runs on the road are such an intriguing concept.... it may or may not have played a part in an event that would come to bear a year or so later...

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