The early bird catches the storm

About midday i drove up to santa barbara with my tent, running shorts, and a bag of snacks. I arrived at a ranch in the backcountry of the san ynes mountains as the sun was dipping over the surrounding hillsides. I pitched my tent in a sequestered edge of the group campground over some deer tracks. I ate a red pepper stuffed with baby kale an orange a banana and some almonds while trying to ignore the horse shit smell that appropriately permiated the equestrian ranch. I then took a walk up the hill to see if i could find a view(i did) of the surrounding peaks. I watched the shadows slowly creep up the inclines across the valley. Beautifully rugged rocky, and covered in brush. As the crisp raw air seeps into my blood a primordial wildness begins to well up inside me. Its as if the water has found its resting place, the balance has been restored, and the animal is in it's element. I smiled and imagined that i will have seen quite enough of these mountains by the time i get back tomorrow. If i get back. But at the moment, i couldnt wait. Back at camp i made some tea and ate some grapes then fell asleep listening to an owl hooting over head and worrying about the infected blister on my toe. It had been swollen and too sore to wear shoes today but with any luck and a good nights sleep i was hoping it would be fine in the morning.
Around 5 am the buzz around camp is audible. I try to sleep a little longer but the chill just before dawn finds its way into my sleeping bag. I gather my gear and pack up everything but the tent. My toe feels like there's an ice pick in it when i jam it into my shoe. By the time i am ready to go the race briefing had finished and i can hear the race start 200 meters away. I throw on my pack, jog over and catch the back of the runners near the trailhead. The pack im wearing is heavy because there are up to 10 miles between aid stations. I turn on my headlamp and scurry past the walkers. I relax and enjoy the conservative atmosphere at the back. These folks know that its a long day ahead and hurrying now is only gonna make it worse. Eventually i catch up to a midpack string that is going at a good steady pace. About six of us running along the dipping, swirving, climbing single track as the sun rises. The dude i am behind has an ironman tatoo on his ankle. I wonder how tough he is and how tough he will be in 40 miles. No matter how well trained you feel it is a mystery how the day will treat each one of us. We drop down to a paved park road that winds through a canyon much like jurassic park. The group splits apart. Ironman dude takes off. The rest of us yoyo for a while. Some are quicker on the uphills, some on the flats. Most everyone walks the really steep stuff. Accept me and an old dude who I chat with for a while. he ran the jfk 50 mile just a week ago! We run at the same speed as another guy who is speed walking. They slow at the first aid station and i head out with another runner. I find out hes from san diego and has never run a 50 mile before. We pass an old mine building that has train tracks, rail carts and everything. If it werent for the rust and caved in roof you could almost imagine a couple ruffneck miners working out here back when mountain lions roamed these parts. Actually they still do. San Diego slows when we begin climbing into a vertical gorge that leads right up the mountainside out of the backcountry. I push steadily past pools of blue water with bright yellow star shaped oak leaves scattered around to the top where the second aid station is. Its like running through a painting. On the other side a rocky ankle breaking trail drops towards a gorgeous view of santa barbara 3000 feet below. A swishing layer of fog is being pushed out to sea where the channel islands rise far below. On the way down i catch a runner who is moving delicately. Im surprised to find carnage from the lead group this early as he steps aside to let me pass. Near the sulphur springs i run into the iron man dude who cant find the trail. We get lost for half a click and then retrace our steps. He recognizes me from a mt baldy race where we met before. His name is matt. He says that he is in third place. I didnt think i would catch up to the leaders this quickly but i know that i wont be able to chase them through the second half of the race unless i continue to take it easy and let them blow up. We reach the turnaround point at mile 25 after seeing the two guys still in the lead heading back up the trail. They look pretty beat up. in 2nd is chris who i met in a big bear race. This is his first 50 but hes a strong runner. My plan was to run 5 hours for the first half and then push as much as i could on the way back. Everything is going smoothly. It is a severe climb back up to the ridge top fully exposed to the sun. 3000 feet of gain in 5 miles. I hike and speculate with matt about reeling in the front runners. Others still on the way down cheer us on and say that we look far fresher then the two up front. Its encouraging but i know its not a race to the top of this climb. Its a matter of managing hydration and fuel and not locking up over the next four hours. My stomach starts to cramp in the heat. I chew on dates and take salt tabs. Matt starts to run but i cant keep up. When i get to the top of the ridge i am relieved to head back into the gorge away from the sun. The guy who had been in the lead is sitting at the aid station. i can see in his eyes that hes demolished. I cruise down nervously hoping that someone feeling even fresher than i am isnt creeping up behind. My quads are starting to cramp but i am able to move steadily. At the bottom i begin the long series of climbs and descents leading to the reservoir where the last aid station is. I remember each section of the trail as i retrace all those steps in the same day. Although some parts i hardly recognize. When i stop my calves almost sieze up in cramp but they stay loose enough while im moving. Where earlier in the day i was constantly reminding myself to give only an easy effort, now i have to remind myself to keep giving an effort at all. I drink water, eat dates, drink water, eat up the trail, and drink more water despite losing interest in it and beginning to feel nausous. I can sense my immune response dropping as the complex endocrine system tries to manage the continous stress. Its no longer a tired sensation but rather a feverish throbbing throughout the body. At one point i see matt way ahead on the trail chasing chris. I know they are out of reach and i am happy to give up on them. But i worry. As soon as you let yourself relax someone catches you. Thats why its hard to push when you're running alone. As i round a bend i look back and am shocked to see a runner and his pacer progressing well a kilometer back. I panic. The last 10 miles is not a sprint. it will take a constant hard effort to keep ahead. i relax and decide to run everything thats runnable and keep constantly pushing forward. I know that for them to catch me they will need to run everything i do...even faster. So if i can just keep focused at least i will make them work for it. As it cools off i wind back down to the paved park road through the canyon and then back up through the winding single track. It really is gorgeous and rugged out here. I am moving slow but working relentlessy. One tiny step after the other, I just want to get this thing over with. experience keeps my head in the game because i know now that embracing the pain and the ten feet of trail in front of you is what gets you to the finish. Just as i round a bend i see on the opposite incline chris cresting the hill. I didnt expect to see him again and i begin to push. then as i start the final big climb to where he had been i know its pointless. Im completely shot. Just as i reach the top i hear voices echo up from the trail behind and panic again. I can see the ranch down on the otherside of the valley. I run 4 minute kilometers down an endless fireroad and connect to the rocky single track that rolls back to camp. It has little rolling climbs but at this point im running it all. No way im gonna be caught now. Just as the last climb starts i see chris at the top. Hes walking pretty stiffly motioning for me to catch up. I reach him at the top of the hill and we both start running. I recognize the trail end and tell him this is it. But hes in no mood to race. Hes done. I coast down into camp to a communal building where a bunch of folks are cheering. Inside i have to do a shot of whisky and ring a bell to stop the clock(naturally). Chris runs in behind me and does his. Matt congratulates me on getting second. Our strategy actually paid off! Its a great feeling but I am immediately loopy and sick. I run into the old dude who ran jfk 50 last week and the speed walker who we kept pace with in those early miles. they had both dropped out at the 25 mile turnaround but were excited to see that i caught the leaders and came 2nd. A couple minutes later the chaser came in fourth and awhile after that the lead female finished in a flurry. As i sorely packed my tent to drive back to la i smiled as the relief settled in and i began to appreciate everything id learned. Going out easy really does pay off. I listened to an npr broadcast about earnest shackleton on the way home. He always focused on what could be done in a tough situation, never wasting energy on what was already lost.