Category Archives: Sports

THE WRITE STUFF: Official Newsletter of Word Journeys Inc. and Robert Yehling

V 20, N 1 • January, 2016

Celebrating 20 Years of Serving Authors, Publishers & The Written Word 

WELCOME!

Welcome to the 20th anniversary of Word Journeys, Inc. In 1996, I started the company to provide editorial services to magazines and corporate publications. Soon, my goals and the company shifted into the book world, where we have camped since 1999, providing writing, ghostwriting, editing, marketing, promotion, and publicity consulting services to authors, editors, agents, and publishers. We will provide this newsletter of stories, links, and specials to our Google + readers, and mailing list. We cover everything concerning the works of Robert Yehling, Word Journeys clients, and related publishing activities and events. Beginning in February, past issues will be archived on our website, www.wordjourneys.com.

HOT OFF THE PRESSES…

2016: The Year of the Writer

We’re declaring 2016 the year of the writer, and are re-releasing a pair of books to commemorate: The Write Time: 366 Exercises to Fulfill Your Writing Life; and Writes of Life: Using Personal Experiences in Everything You Write. Both books are being published in second edition by Open Books Press of Bloomington, IN. The Write Time is now available, while Writes of Life will soon be available for pre-order on Amazon.com, and will be published in mid-April.

The Write Time features a different exercise for every day of the year — and a story to enhance it. All genres and styles are covered. This is perfect jump-start material if you’re stuck or just need some fresh creative juice. Used in writing conferences, colleges, high schools, and by many published authors. Links to more than 125 top writing and reading websites. http://amzn.to/1O2skaG

Robert Yehling, Martha Brookhart Halda to appear on Write NOW! TV show

Robert Yehling and Martha Brookhart Halda will talk about the writing life, and how they’ve collaborated, on Write NOW!, a TV program in Orange County, CA. The show will air Friday, January 22. Yehling will discuss his various works, while Halda will talk about the German launch of A Taste of Eternity, her remarkable story, and the book’s forthcoming release in the United States. The show hosts are author/publisher Charles Redner, and Judy Saxon.

Just Add Water a Finalist for Dolly Gray Literature Award

Just Add Water is a finalist for the Dolly Gray Literature Award, given to the top family-oriented book with autism themes. It joins ten other finalists for the prestigious award, which is followed by all of the autism organizations and schools. The ceremony is January 25 in Tampa, FL. For more information: http://daddcec.org/Awards/DollyGrayAwards.aspx

The Hummingbird Review: Michael Blake, E.E. King, memoirists featured

The writing of personal story serves as a theme of the winter-spring edition of The Hummingbird Review, now available through bookstores and online. Featured contributors include the late Academy Award-winning Dances With Wolves author/screenwriter Michael Blake, fictionist-poet and Ray Bradbury protégé E.E. King, novelist W. Thompson Ong, Beat-era poet Michael C. Ford, an interview with guided autobiography facilitator Sheri Kohlmann, and the first excerpt of Martha Halda’s memoir A Taste of Eternity to be published in English. Plus more than 60 poems and essays from a dozen nations. Just $10. Order yours! http://amzn.to/1VohQIp

Appearance at Just Add Water at L.A. Times Festival of Books

Robert Yehling will be discussing the development and writing of Just Add Water at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, the nation’s second largest book festival, which takes place April 9-10 on the USC campus in Los Angeles. He will be signing both after the presentation and in a booth on-site. In 2015, more than 150,000 attended the event. Stay tuned for more details. http://events.latimes.com/festivalofbooks/

FROM OUR CLIENTS

  • Brandon Cruz, star of the smash late 1960s/early 1970s sitcom The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and I are shopping a pair of titles we’ve been developing for a year, one The Courtship of Eddie, his memoir; and the other a deep look at his work as one of the nation’s foremost alcohol-addiction recovery specialists. Both books are packed with powerful, emotional stories, messages of great hope, and Brandon’s entertaining storytelling style, laced with his sharp wit and insights. Stay tuned…
  • Cracked, Not Broken author Kevin Hines had quite a thrill on January 9, when he spoke at a White House conference on men’s health. Kevin is busily preparing a documentary about his story and speaking engagements worldwide; look for a second book by 2017. http://amzn.to/1Gle6Sf
  • Jeff Emmerson’s long-awaited book, Beyond ADHD, is making the publishing rounds through agent Dana Newman. Emmerson looks beyond the conventional ADHD protocols in this riveting work that combines personal story and the insights of more than 20 medical, neurological, and therapeutic experts. Its findings are not only revolutionary — but potentially transformative. View his Beyond ADHD blog at http://bit.ly/1Rk2lCt
  • Motocross racing fans of a certain age… Remember Gary Wells, the racing and jumping phenom of the 1970s and 1980s? The man who routinely outjumped Evel Knievel for years? As Gary celebrates his 60th birthday this year, his story, Closure, is on its way to publication, thanks to author Tyler Anderson, himself a champion racer. This is a no-holds-barred biography at the up and down sides of America’s love affair with one prodigy and his prowess on a bike, during the biggest 15-year period in U.S. motorcycle racing history. https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=gary%20wells%20closure

FEATURED TITLES

ON THE WORD JOURNEYS BLOG

How Just Add Water Was Written: Behind the Scenes Story: http://wp.me/p8UUi-hB

BLOG OF THE MONTH

Kristen Lamb’s Blog is annually selected one of the Top 100 writers blogs by Writer’s Digest. Not only is it packed with resourceful materials for writers, but readers will delight in all of its behind-the-scenes features. This is a MUST blog to add to your blogroll. https://warriorwriters.wordpress.com

WORD JOURNEYS SPECIALS

Service: 20% off editing of your next book! We’ll bring your manuscript to a publish-ready polish, as we have done with more than 150 others. All genres. Email ryehling@wordjourneys.com. Through Feb. 29.

Product: $5 off hard-cover, signed copies of Just Add Water: A Surfing Savant’s Journey with Asperger’s, the biography of autistic surfing great Clay Marzo. Shipped direct from author. Email: ryehling@wordjourneys.com. Through Jan. 31.

WRITING/READING TIP OF THE MONTH

“Reach into your bookshelf and grab twenty titles of any kind. Read the first paragraphs of each, quickly and in succession. What pops out? What really grabs your eye? How did the writer grab you? Now return to your work, and in the spirit of what you have just read and compared, make your sentences pop and snap.” — From The Write Time, by Robert Yehling

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Just Add Water: Where autism, surfing, and a world-class athlete meet

On Tuesday, July 14, the book I wrote on autistic surfing great Clay Marzo, Just Add Water, releases to bookstores, surf shops and online booksellers.JUST ADD WATER by Clay Marzo and Robert Yehling copy

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Just Add Water culminates a 2 ½-year process of Clay’s story evolving from a dinner table idea to release. We’re also launching the first leg of our signing tour beginning Wednesday night (July 15) at Barnes & Noble in Lahaina, Maui, Clay’s hometown. We’ll then be in my stomping grounds, Southern California, for a week of signings (see schedule below blog), including an appearance at Jack’s Surfboards during the U.S. Open of Surfing July 30 in Huntington Beach.

Stay tuned to www.wordjourneys.com or to www.claymarzo.com for more details, as the signing schedule will grow over the next 6-8 weeks.

Just Add Water was incredible to write. I’d promoted the ASP World Championship Tour (of surfing), along with many U.S. events. I also wrote for all of the major surfing magazines at one point or another. It was a blast to put pen to paper again about the lifestyle I love, as expressed by one exceptional surfer.

However, that’s not what makes this book unique among the 17 I’ve written or ghostwritten. The experience did. Since readers rarely hear the ‘genesis’ stories of books, I want to share ours.

It began with a dinner napkin in Encinitas, CA, similar to how John Keats created his immortal poem “The Nightingale”. Only, we were at a Mexican restaurant in October 2012, not a Dublin pub in the 1790s. My longtime friend and Clay’s manager, Mitch Varnes, met with A Taste of Eternity author Martha Halda and I. While catching up, Mitch asked if I’d be interested in writing a book on Clay. Before I said ‘yes,’ Martha brought up the opportunity the book would present  to showcase a family’s deeper struggles with an autistic member.

That did it. YES.clayday-960x340

I also had a feeling… an autistic world-class athlete? A household name to virtually every surfer under 35? With several million YouTube views on his channel? Add that up, and I formed one conclusion: Huge potential readership. I scribbled notes on a napkin, paid the bill, and Martha and I headed home. Quickly. Then Martha had to endure one of my all-night creative blasts. She knew what to do: close the door behind her and let the Energizer bunny write  until he ran out of batteries.

A few days later, my agent, Dana Newman, jumped in. In April 2013, we sold the book to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt through acquisition editor Susan Canavan. By happenstance, Susan, whose office is in Boston, had seen the mainstream media frenzy that followed Clay after his Asperger diagnosis in 2007. She loved it. She also published Temple Grandin, the world’s most-read author on autism (and autistic herself) — another serendipitous notch in our belt.

On a very personal note, the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt offices are located on Boylston Street — the finishing stretch of the Boston Marathon, which I know a bit about. Did I say ‘serendipitous?’marzo-tube

Time to go to work. I met with Clay’s mother, Jill, who gave me open access to everyone and everything — as well as some of the most poignant comments in the book. Then, I spoke with childhood friends Gary and Teresa Manguso about their son, who, like Clay, is a surfer living with Asperger’s. They provided invaluable insight on Aspies’ difficulties reading social situations or facial cues, especially subtler emotional cues. I also spoke with Sarah Brookhart, Martha’s niece, whose young son is autistic. Sarah’s anxiety over her son’s future gave me a direct look at the silent anguish parents face. Which stitched in Martha’s dinner idea.

In October 2013 — one year after we had our pow-wow — I flew to Maui to spend a few weeks with Clay. What followed was among the most enjoyable and challenging periods of my career. What could be more fun than sitting in the water, dining at Kaanapali and Kapalua Resort restaurants, cruising Maui with a lifelong local, surface diving off the coast of Lanai, or hanging out at a hot, semi-secluded break like Windmills — for research? Work?

I’ve seen Clay in countless videos and magazine photos, but there’s nothing like being in the water with him. He made crappy between-season Maui surf look classic with his gravity-defying moves and ability to find wrinkles in the waves that sure looked invisible to me. “Most surfers paddle out to catch waves; Clay paddles out to be the wave. He has to; it’s a part of him,” his behavioral therapist and lifelong friend, Carolyn Jackson, said.2013-09-29 21.49.15

Now to the flip side: we had to develop enough material from Clay’s comments to write the book. Some days, we spent eight hours on the book, with bursts of conversation separated by 30 to 60 minutes of silence… interesting tapes to re-listen to. Some days, he didn’t speak — at all. On those days, the key was to sit quietly, communicate non-verbally, watch him surf or shoot photos of his food (an obsession), and wait until tomorrow. When I did, ‘tomorrow’ was always productive.

I also learned the four ice-breaking topics that get Clay talking … the L.A. Lakers, Western Australia (where he and his girlfriend live part-time), food … and surfing. If you ever hear him elaborate on wave and bottom conditions, and the weather, you’ll think you’re talking to a NOAA meteorologist or oceanographer. He’s brilliant in the subjects that occupy him. “Those with Asperger syndrome have the potential to be among the best in the world at the one thing that occupies them, because it occupies them entirely. They feel they can’t live without it,” Asperger syndrome expert Dr. Tony Attwood said. That fit Clay perfectly.

I spent many long hours wondering how we’d get enough for a book; after all, Clay has never spoken at length in any interview. I used every interviewing trick I’ve learned in 40 years as a journalist to develop and piece together solid commentary from Clay, some of it deeply insightful.

Still, it wasn’t enough for an as-told-to memoir. Midway through my Maui trip, I called Susan Canavan to tell her the original conception wouldn’t work. We mulled over our options and arrived at a biography in structure and style, but with comments reflecting the emotional depth and contemplation of memoir. Given the early reviews, we pulled it off.Photo 2

Without Jill and Gino Marzo, we would have stalled in place. They offered raw, honest accounts of the good, bad and hopeful of raising an autistic son who surfs like he and God are riding tandem. Jill and Gino are divorced, so their perspectives often clashed. Thanks to their graciousness and willingness to bare it all, we saw the deep familial side of this autism issue that is so rarely presented publicly. img014

We also received big assists from Carolyn Jackson; Clay’s girlfriend, Jade Barton; his brother, Cheyne Magnusson, and sister, Gina; the sixth-grade schoolteacher, Mary Anna Waldrop Enriquez, who first saw the hidden gifts in Clay’s mind well before medical experts in Hawaii knew how to diagnose autism; several surfing friends; Just Add Water film documentary creators Jamie Tierney and Strider Wasilewski (Jamie was the first to make a direct correlation between Clay’s idiosyncrasies and Asperger syndrome); my long-time friends Alan Gibby (who made surfing a fixture on ESPN in the ‘80s and ‘90s) and 1976 world champion Peter Townend; and Mitch Varnes. From my writing community, author and retired teacher (of autistic kids, in part) Claudia Whitsitt, and Marla Miller offered great advice during the Southern California Writers Conference at which we all taught workshops in 2013.

When I got home, it was time to write. After four months, we turned in the manuscript and then worked with the publisher for over a year on the other side of publishing —editing, marketing, promotion, publicity, and more editing. Finally, we landed on the date that is finally here: July 14, 2015.

It’s been an incredible journey. Please review us on Amazon.com and Goodreads, tell your friends, Share posts on Facebook, and send me comments on what you think. Be sure to buy the book on Tuesday, July 14, to drive up ratings both online and on bestseller lists. We have that potential, for sure. If you’re around, come to one of our signings.

Then jump into the ocean if you’re near one — and try to be the waves. That will give you an entry point into Clay Marzo’s world

JUST ADD WATER SIGNING SCHEDULE

(through August 13)

July 15 — Barnes & Noble, Lahaina, HI, 7 p.m.

July 25 — Witt’s Carlsbad Pipelines, Carlsbad, CA, 10 a.m.

July 25 — Barnes & Noble, Encinitas, CA, 2 p.m.

July 28 — Rock Star promotion, Huntington Beach, CA, 1 p.m.

July 28 – Barnes & Noble, Santa Monica, CA, 7 p.m.

July 30 — Jack’s Surfboards, Huntington Beach, CA, 11 a.m.

August 10 — Tattered Cover Books, Denver, CO, 7 p.m.

August 12 — Left Bank Books, St. Louis, MO, 7 p.m.

(NOTE: Check www.wordjourneys.com, www.claymarzo.com and the Clay Marzo—Just Add Water Facebook page for continuous signing updates.)Photo 9

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‘You’ve Put a Huge Smile on Boston’s Face’

(This is part 2 of my story about the 2014 Boston Marathon. The 2015 race is Monday, April 20.)

Read Part 1

It began with the invitational entry four-time Boston Marathon champion Bill Rodgers transferred to me. It ended with a scrumptious lobster pie dinner hosted by my family.

The King and I: With Bill Rodgers at 2014 Boston Marathon, after he gave me his invitational entry so I could run the most important Boston ever.

The King and I: With Bill Rodgers at 2014 Boston Marathon, after he gave me his invitational entry so I could run the most important Boston ever.

In between was the most meaningful race of my life, and the lives of most others in the field: the 2014 Boston Marathon. As we all know, the 2013 Boston Marathon ended in the horrible bombing tragedy. For months, the status of the 2014 race was in doubt, though my status was certain: I wouldn’t be going. A nagging ankle injury, sustained during qualifying season in 2013, sealed my fate.

Two things happened to change all that. BOSTON STRONG came alive and, to speak bluntly, shoved it right up the you-know-what of all would-be terrorists; and Boston Billy gave me the gift of a lifetime.

I showed up in Boston in shellshock after Bill arranged for his race slot to end up on my lap. Immediately, I felt a different vibe than the other three times I’d raced. Everywhere, people talked about it. The media devoted most of their news coverage to it. My relatives, who had seen my previous races, were beside themselves that this family member was running (as well as my cousin, Bryan Widmann).Unknown While I wasn’t yet in full marathon form (that would come six weeks later, in San Diego’s Rock & Roll Marathon), it didn’t matter. When you get an invite from a Boston legend, you go.

It’s safe to say several million runners worldwide wanted to toe the starting line at the 2014 Boston, to be a part of history, something beyond ourselves. To be among the 35,000 who got in?

As I write this, nearly a year later, I’m getting tears and goose bumps. That’s how much it meant.

I first understood the scope two days prior to the race, when I drove downtown and picked up my number and swag bag. The race expo was packed, beyond anything I’d ever seen. So was the entire Boston Back Bay area, especially Boylston Street, the site of so much carnage just a year before. My friend, Kathryn Van Artsdall, was also racing for the fourth time. Her husband, my longtime buddy Mitch Varnes, and I were trying to meet up. Good luck with that: too many people.images-1

I then sought out Bill Rodgers, my hero when I was in high school and he was the world’s greatest marathoner. We’ve had a number of runs, get-togethers and good times during our friendship that began in 2008 (including a fabulous run at Walden Woods and Walden Pond, 25 miles to the west), but this was different. “Just run the best you can,” he whispered in my ear. “You’re starting in back since you’re a last-minute entry, so you won’t run your normal time. Forget about it. Soak up what goes on out there. You will never have an experience like this.”

How right he was. Here are a few of those experiences:

Starting line, Hopkinton: While standing in my corral, a drone flew overhead, huge snowplows blocking side streets, and law enforcement stood everywhere. They were scanning the throng like Secret Service agents while openly thanking we, the runners, for having the courage to return. I had never thought of us being courageous; it was more like, “What do I have to do to get in this race?” As for those who were running down Boylston Street when the bombs hit in 2013 and were back again? Now they were courageous.

Starting line, Hopkinton, part 2: The crowds. Wow. They were massive, loud, rowdy, and ready to uncork a year of pent-up agony and rage with a street celebration for the ages. We were the headliners. I’d like to say this scene was repeated intermittently during the next 26.2 miles, but that’s grossly understating it. This was the scene on the entire course.

Mile 3, Ashland: The start was tough for me, because I was a 3:30 marathoner running in a 5-to 6-hour crowd due to the late entry. While trying to find space to run, I jogged shoulder-to-shoulder with two men wearing NYPD shirts. “So you came up from New York?” I asked.

“Yeah. Great day, isn’t it?” one replied.

I smiled. “Like your shirt.” Normally, I wouldn’t look twice at a police T-shirt, but on this day, it felt good to see one next to me.

“Well, I’m NYPD.”

“That’s cool you took the day off to run,” I said.

“I’m on duty,” he smiled. “So is my friend. We’ve got 20 officers in the pack.”

How impressive was that? No stone unturned,” I said.

“Not this year. Everyone in this race, and crowd, is going to have a great time.”

P.S. Out of 1 million spectators, one was arrested, and that for public drunkenness.

Mile 8, Framingham: Unbelievable crowds. Unbelievable noise. People are shouting, “You’re our heroes!” “You make Boston great!” “Thanks for coming out!” They’re surging onto the road to slap fives and bump fists, to touch us, to feel a part of it. At points, they constrict the already narrow roads so much that we feel like we’re running in single file. I look at two women running next to me. All three of us have tears in our eyes. It feels like the most incredible dream, except that it’s very real.

Mile 12, Wellesley: This is where the famous Wellesley Girls line the course, a half-mile of crazy, brainy co-eds toting signs that say, well, some pretty inviting things. We could hear their screams from a half-mile away – literally. I’ve seen more men cause runner jam-ups on this section of the course by crossing to the right side to get their hugs and kisses. This was even more insane. A couple of girls hopped the barricade and teamed up to hug and kiss a 60-year-old, right in front of me.

Mile 14, Wellesley: Where you at, family? I reach the gas station just past the halfway point, where I usually stopped to see family members, grab my drink bottle, shoot photos, and change shoes (if necessary). Normally on race day, about 30 people hang out in this little “quiet spot”. This time, there were at least 500. I needed to change shoes, but I couldn’t find my family. They were there, but swallowed in the crowd. I also needed to put the Velcro wearable holding my cell phone and money onto my other arm, but was fumbling with it while trying to run at the same time. A spectator stepped out and, without saying a word, stopped me, and switched the wearable to my other arm. Then she disappeared into the crowd. Just like that.

Mile 21, Heartbreak Hill: I was spent, my goal time long since evaporated, but I wanted to run – and not walk – up the four Newton hills. Mission accomplished. At the top, three Boston College co-eds saw me and held out pints of beer. “You rock, dude!” one yelled. Another said, “Can you imagine our parents kicking ass like this guy?” They laughed and offered me a chug. I’ve not had a beer since Reagan was president, but that was tempting.

Mile 24, Brookline: The greatest ten seconds of a week full of amazing moments. I was broken down for the first time since my first marathon in 2003, relegated to the “marathon shuffle”, just trying to move one foot in front of the other. The crowds were so massive that the barricades extended several feet onto the road. As I struggled to keep going, a uniformed Brookline police officer stepped in front of the barricades and yelled, “35870! You’re my f****** hero! Go get that medal for all of us!” I’ll never forget that cop. He helped get me to the finish line.

Post-Race, Alewife Subway Station, Cambridge: I had just taken a cab to the subway station, awaiting my Aunt Judy, who was crawling through traffic to pick me up. While I was slumped outside on a café patio chair, my medal around my neck, a diner came up to me. “Did you just run the Marathon?” she asked. “Yes… it was awesome, but I’m happy it’s over.” “All of you are heroes. You’ve put a huge smile on Boston’s face, honey. Can my husband and I buy you an iced tea? Lunch?” How many times had each of us 35,000 runners been called heroes over the past few days? Ten? Fifteen? More? It was overwhelming.

Evening, at dinner: My aunts Janet and Judy, Uncle Brian, and I enjoyed a luscious lobster pie dinner. To be more precise, I ate two dinners while they each had one. My legs were vice-gripped, but my smile was wide and fixed. As was our family custom in 2005, 2007, and 2009, I wore my accumulated medals to the post-race meal, so I had all four on.

An older couple came over to us. The woman said, “I am very proud of you.” Her husband added, “I’m even more proud to be a Bostonian tonight.”

My family sat there, as slack-jawed as me.

Since I’m not running Boston this year (though I requalified at the 2014 Rock & Roll Marathon in San Diego), I will observe my tradition for non-Boston years — running 15 miles in the early morning and then watching part of the race online. I will think about my friends (and my cousin, Bryan, who will be shooting for a sub-2:50), remember last year, and run in silence to remember the victims of 2013. I will thank God for giving me the good fortune to run in four Bostons.

I will also call Bill Rodgers and thank him, again, for putting me into a race like no other. The Marathon starts at 10 a.m. EDT. Go onto www.baa.org for live coverage. Hope you’ll check it out. I know I will. 2014-04-28 05.58.09

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Looking Back on 10 Years of Boston Marathons

(This is the first of two stories on the Boston Marathon, which takes place Monday, April 20.)

For the past ten years of my life, the third week of April has featured one event: the Boston Marathon — or, as they say in New England, “The Marathon,” as if everything else is secondary. While I won’t be toeing the starting line in Hopkinton, MA on Patriot’s Day this Monday, the memories of my four Bostons will flood in as 25,000 runners take to the narrow New England streets for the 26.2-mile journey to downtown Boston. To be more specific, my love affair with this race will carry on.

Near the finish line of the 2005 Boston Marathon

Near the finish line of the 2005 Boston Marathon

Most of all, the course came to life. I’d read about it, watched several Bostons (including a scouting mission in 2003), and heard the stories. I’d even run part of it in 1975, while staying with my grandparents in nearby Arlington. Now, I wore the telltale blue and yellow unicorn medal around my neck. I also found out the difference between identifying as a marathoner and a Boston marathoner. I rarely made the distinction, but when I did, others turned to me with a different expression on their faces. Why? Because Boston is one of only two marathons that require you hit qualifying time standards (unless you’re raising funds for charity). The other? The U.S. Olympic Trials.

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With my mother at the halfway point, 2007. Yes, it was that cold.

My second Boston was 2007, when a cold Nor’easter storm ripped through Massachusetts on race day and turned the course into a rainy wind tunnel. We ran into head winds sometimes topping 35 mph. As if 26.2 miles under perfect conditions wasn’t enough! It remains the only race in my life I ran entirely in a jacket (and I’ve run races at temperatures as cold as 15 degrees). However, I now knew something about pacing on this course, and re-qualified with a 3:27. The 2007 Boston had added significance, in that it was my mother’s second and final time watching the race. She and my aunts, Janet and Judy, and my cousin, Sister Louise, met me at the halfway point, where I quickly changed shoes, grabbed my special drink concoction, and shot photos before I resumed.

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Boston Strong — the theme for all 35,000 of us runners in 2014.

In 2009, I came back for more — and set a lifetime best of 3:09.33 at age 50. The first realization was almost surreal, running so much faster despite my age. I wore my “Team Heidi” shirt, in honor of my mother, who died in 2008. So did the fifteen or so family members stretched along the course. It was my one perfect marathon, with half-marathon splits of 1:36 and 1:33. I still had enough left to charge the final 600 meters down Boylston Street to the finish line, in front of a massive gauntlet of fans that screamed and cheered. For any recreational marathoner, chugging down Boylston is the ultimate finish — especially when it ends with a lifetime best. Four years later, Boston took on a much deeper meaning when the bombs went off — including one in front of Marathon Sports, where my brother and sister-in-law were standing when I finished in 2005. What a sad, tragic day.

The King and I: With Bill Rodgers at 2014 Boston Marathon, after he gave me his invitational entry so I could run the most important Boston ever.

The King and I: With Bill Rodgers at 2014 Boston Marathon, after he gave me his invitational entry so I could run the most important Boston ever.

Which is why, to me, nothing compares to last year, 2014. Four-time Boston champion and distance running legend Bill Rodgers emailed me out of the blue two weeks before the race and offered me his invitational entry. Billy and I had met in 2008, shared some good times and excellent runs, and become friends. He made the ultimate friendship gesture, handing me the keys to racing heaven for the most important Boston in its nearly 120-year history. I wanted to run so badly, but due to an ankle injury the previous summer, had been unable to qualify despite being in my best shape since 2009. My prime condition was helped greatly by Brad Roy, my high school track and cross-country coach, who gave me the workouts and tutelage that led me to a 1:33 half-marathon at age 54. Then I hurt my ankle. Oh well… Bill took care of that problem. I showed up not quite in marathon race shape, as I was aiming for the Rock and Roll Marathon in San Diego six weeks later (in which I qualified for Boston for the sixth time, including 2015, though I won’t be making the trip this time). It didn’t matter. For the 35,000 of us runners, this race carried far more meaning than posting a good time. (Next: A closer look at the 2014 Boston Marathon, when a city could cheer and smile again [and did they ever!]) 4 Boston Medals

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Which Books Did You Read In 2014?

I always find it fascinating to see the lists of books that people read during a calendar year. 1781999_10203204443174551_906138982_nBesides showing that, yes, some of us still do read many books, these lists also give insight into the feelings, thoughts and areas of interest that crossed our minds during the year. It also gives us a footprint of the paths and journeys we took, or specific subjects on which we focused.

In keeping with the spirit of the day, I ring out 2014 with my own list, which combines books I read for entertainment, book research, personal learning, and sheer pleasure. It’s a low number for me, just 40 books this year (after 60 in 2013), but I also co-wrote a memoir, wrote a biography, finished a novel, edited a half-dozen books, and edited a year of Innovation & Tech Today issues — so it’s been busy on the creative side. My goal for 2015? 60 books read.

After reading this list, send us or post your own list of books read in 2014 – and let’s write and read more in 2015!

The Autistic Brain, by Temple Grandin (Non-Fiction)

The Golden Cat, by Max Brand (Fiction)

What You Want Is in the Limo, by Michael Walker (Memoir)

This Just In, by Bob Schieffer (Memoir)

L.A. Diary, by Sacha Wamsteker (Fiction)

Eat & Run, by Scott Jurek (Memoir)

Finishing the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, by Dale Matson (Non-Fiction)

Marathon Man, by Bill Rodgers (Memoir)

Kings of the Road, by Cameron Stracher (Non-Fiction)

City Primeval, by Elmore Leonard (Fiction)

Untwined: A Memoir, by Joan Creech Kraft (Memoir)

Storms of Fire & Ash, by Marie Alanen (Fiction)

Prostitute’s Ball, by Stephen J. Cannell (Fiction)

Divine Romance, by Paramhansa Yogananda (Spiritual)

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein (Sci-Fi)

Brown Dog, by Jim Harrison (Fiction)

Jesus: Son of Man, by Kahlil Gibran (Spiritual)

Skinny Legs & All, by Tom Robbins (Fiction)

The Big Pivot, by Andrew Winston (Non-Fiction)

Mountains and Rivers Without End, by Gary Snyder (Poetry)

The Road to Woodstock, by Michael Lang (Memoir)

Against all Enemies, by Tom Clancy (Fiction)

The Lenovo Way, by Gina Qiao and Yolanda Conyers (Business)

Cakes & Ale, by W. Somerset Maugham (Fiction)

One Summer, by Bill Bryson (Travel)

The Customer-Funded Business, by John Mullins (Business)

Collective Genius, by Linda Hill and Greg Brandeau (Business)

How We Got To Now, by Steven Johnson (Non-Fiction)

Driving Demand, by Elizabeth Allen (Business)

Fast Copy, by Dan Jenkins (Fiction)

Bossypants, by Tina Fey (Memoir)

Brava: Space, by Claudette Marco (Sci-Fi)

What Would Mary Ann Do? By Dawn Wells (Memoir)

Walt Disney, by Neal Gabler (Biography)

Sleepwalker Chronicles: The Awakening, by Lillith Black (Fantasy)

De-Stress for Success, by Leo Willcocks (Non-Fiction)

Random Acts of Badness, by Danny Bonaduce (Memoir)

Little Girl Lost, by Drew Barrymore (Memoir)

Long Distance, by Abigail Mott (Poetry)

Lips Unsealed, by Belinda Carlisle (Memoir)

A Pirate Looks at 50, by Jimmy Buffett (Memoir)

Screw the Valley, by Timothy Sprinkle (Business)

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Peak Experience in the Sierras: Getting Our 100-Mile Runner Home

(This is the second of a two-part blog on pacing my friend, David Nichols, in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, one of the toughest running tests in the world and the most storied and prestigious ultramarathon.)

Read Part One

Pacing an ultramarathoner reminds me a lot of ghostwriting or co-writing books. As my friend, veteran ultra pacer and 50/50 marathoner (as in, 50 completed marathons spanning all 50 states) Kenny McCleary, advised me on Facebook before Western States:2014-06-28 06.13.17

Enjoy the day. A pacer has to be part navigator, part psychiatrist, part nurse, part minister, part drill sergeant. But most of all, just be a Barnabas today – an encourager. Only a few souls on this planet have the opportunity or the courage to experience what David gets to live out today. I hope you find the job of pacer/crewmate to be as fulfilling as I have.

With pacing, as with ghost- and co-writing, you check your ego at the door. The only run that matters is his. You do whatever it takes to bring out his best, and take care of him on the trail. No matter how many miles you run alongside, the only accomplishment that matters is your runner crossing the finish line and grabbing that belt buckle.

Pacers just starting off with competitors at Foresthill earlier in the day

Pacers just starting off with competitors at Foresthill earlier in the day

When we arrived in Foresthill, Dave was 15 minutes ahead of the clock. He’d been almost 10 minutes behind in Michigan Bluff, so he made up 25 minutes in seven miles. Substantial. After weighing in (he’d gained back two pounds) and eating from the quasi-buffet line of hot and cold foods (grilled cheese, soups, quesadillas, cookies, rice balls, etc.) that typifies a Western States aid station, we jogged cross-town and met Don and Craig. They noticed that Dave was a different person than the one they’d seen 90 minutes before. He sat down in the chair, and we went through our crewing ritual … while the clock ticked … and ticked …

Once we left Foresthill, it was pushing 11 p.m. A full night of trail running awaited. Dave and I got into a conversation about the last crew stop. “Do you think we needed to be there that long?” I asked.

“No,” Dave said as we jogged toward the woods.

“I don’t, either. That was too long, especially with the aid station right before it. Maybe we can go faster next time.”

After a moment of silence, Dave said, “I won’t be sitting anymore the rest of the race. I’ll towel off, grab what I need to grab, and go.” Nice sentiment, Dave, but there’s 38 miles left to go … about 11 hours at this pace … and you’ve already gone 62…

Mountain running, anyone? For 100 miles? This is the course profile of Western States. It hurts to just look at it.

Mountain running, anyone? For 100 miles? This is the course profile of Western States. It hurts to just look at it.

He didn’t sit down again.

At that time, we encountered a runner from Tennessee who couldn’t keep down food or water. She was heaving as we passed she and her pacer to begin another lengthy descent in yet another canyon toward Dardanelles. “You OK?” Dave asked. “Anything we can do?” He and I were thinking the same thing: Stop and help if she needs it. That’s the rule of the road, especially in ultra running.

“I’m OK, I’m OK,” she gasped.

Within minutes, she and her pacer were right behind us, and her spirits were lifting. “You know,” I said, “when I coached high school cross-country, we used to have mid-summer practices. When my kids got sick on the course, I told them they were now officially cross-country runners.”

She thought about it for a second. “So this makes me an official ultra runner, right?”

“You were that a long time ago, but yeah … right.”

She smiled. “Thanks for saying that.” She and her pacer promptly bolted ahead of us. We passed back and forth several times during the next ten miles, creating a nice camaraderie on the course.

Meantime, Dave’s legs had loosened up again, so we ran. And ran. This span between Foresthill and Dardanelles, and extending further out, was dreamlike. We talked, laughed, ran silently and marked each other’s pace while I beamed my headlamp on the trail ahead, and stuck my arm behind me to give Dave coverage with my flashlight. Every time we picked it up the pace, it felt like two guys pursuing something, tracking something … which we were. We were pursuing a belt buckle. I also called out trail obstacles. We marveled at the simple magnificence of running Sierra trails in the middle of the night, no noise other than our footprints and the occasional raccoon, fox, lizard, rabbit or skunk scrambling in the brush, no light other than our headlamps and the bobbing points of light we saw on the trails ahead of us. They looked like little stars dancing on earth. What could possibly be better than running with a friend in such peaceful, desolate surroundings?

I’m sure Dave had an answer: Being done.

ws5

The Ford’s Bar aid station, lit up in the wee hours of the morning. It was a welcome sight after the two miles that preceded it.

The approach to the Dardanelles aid station was marked with Halloweenish signs and a couple of cut-out ghosts (nice). The scene reminded me in a certain way of the R.I.P. tombstone sign we planted at the two-mile mark of our Carlsbad High School cross-country course in 1976. We put it on the middle of a steep, steep incline, nicknamed Riggy HIll (as in, Rigamortis Hill; I returned in June to run it again a few times to prepare for Western States). We averted our eyes; opponents stared at it and let the thought sink in as their legs wobbled. Game, set, match. “You guys were great hill runners,” my coach then and now, Brad Roy, recalled. We were also good psych-out artists, Brad. A funny memory, conjured up at 1 a.m. 600 miles and four decades away…

A Western States competitor, all lit up. Headlamps and flashlights got us through the night.

A Western States competitor, all lit up. Headlamps and flashlights got us through the night.

At Dardanelles, a volunteer, a veteran of a couple dozen Western States runs, pulled me aside as he watched Dave hover over the food table like a famished refugee. “Keep your aid stops to a minute,” he said. “That’s all he needs. Get in, get your food, get your water bottles filled, ask us about the next section of trail if you want, then get on with your run. You don’t have time for anything else.”

Great advice. We heeded it on every subsequent aid stop.

The next section was brutal, in every possible way: switchbacks, rocks and roots, tremendous drop-offs from canyon walls to the American River, steep inclines and descents, runoff grooves in the middle of uneven trails, sand, creek crossings … in other words, difficult to ride on horseback, let alone cover by foot. Especially at night. The frustrating part was that Dave had his second wind (or maybe his third or fourth; you gain several “second winds” during ultras), so we wanted to run … but couldn’t do so steadily. Every time we found a rhythm on the trails, clicking off a half-mile or so, the course threw something else at us.

The Rucky Chucky crossing -- a cooling, refreshing walk through the American River always helps before tackling the final 20 miles.

The Rucky Chucky crossing — a cooling, refreshing walk through the American River always helps before tackling the final 20 miles.

During one stretch, we opened up the pace on a pencil-thin stretch of trail, me leading the way. I looked to the right; a nice Manzanita thicket. I looked left; sheer blackness, nothingness. “Bob, is this one of those thousand-foot drop-offs we’re running next to?” Dave asked, his voice tinged with concern.

2014-06-29 11.49.11

Peering into the future: the scene awaiting us in Auburn — large crowds packing Placer High School stadium and the finish line.

Gulp. “You know what one of the great things is about running at night?” I didn’t turn around; I didn’t want to face him. “You can’t see anything but what’s in front of you.”

We ran directly into my headlamp beam, taking advantage of the night. The advantage? Were it daytime, we never would’ve run on thin single-track with such a precipitous drop-off. In fact, for the past two months, I’d broken into a few wee-hour sweats thinking about how I would pace Dave in these sections, and keep us both from sliding off the hill. Scrambling down a cliffside to retrieve a fallen ultra runner wasn’t on my agenda, though it was certainly on my mind. We kept running.

At miles 72 and 73, we didn’t run much at all. Survive is more like it. We heard Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away” (appropriate) blaring from the nearby Ford’s Bar aid station. As we ran along the top of the hill, the music – and aid station – sounded a few hundred yards away. Double the acoustics in a canyon, so say six hundred yards. No more. We were pumped, now a good half-hour up on the clock, making it happen…

Yeah, it happened. The course happened. One of the nastiest curve balls of the entire 100 miles snapped at our legs and almost took Dave’s spirit with it. When did Clayton Kershaw show up? We found ourselves descending through a Manzanita grove, on slippery, chalky white hardpack trail with a runoff groove down the middle. The descent kept going… and going… and going… My quads hated the punishment, and I’d only gone 20 miles. Dave’s legs were practically on fire. We adjusted our foot strike posture and leaned back on our haunches, almost like skateboarding, so our butts could absorb much of the stress.

In the next three-fifths of a mile, we descended 1,200 vertical feet. Insane. It would all but fry a mountain goat. We heard the music again, and gave each other a smile and an “attaboy, we deserve this aid station” glance.

The course belly-laughed at us. After running out our soreness on a quarter mile of beautiful, slightly sandy trail, we faced the second half of this crucible: a fire road climbing into the sky, twisting and bending, its banks as steep as some racetrack turns. We grunted and groaned up 400 vertical feet in the next quarter-mile – then hit a short, steep downhill that dumped us into the Ford’s Bar aid station.

Remember all that time we’d gained? Well, nothing like a one-two punch to send us back into scurry mode. We loaded up at Ford’s Bar, and a gracious volunteer ran our refilled water bottles to us so we could keep moving. Unfortunately, the hills sapped Dave’s legs again, and he found it very difficult to run. We jogged a few times in the next couple of hours, but he couldn’t get it going, even during our final two miles before the Rucky Chucky crossing, when sandy bottom trail and mostly flat fire roads offered an opportunity to pick up time. I wanted to push him, as I had in previous stretches, but common sense kept telling me, “He needs to save it for the final 20 miles.” So, we power walked or did the marathon shuffle (the stride of a three-year-old, familiar on marathon courses the last few miles after people ‘hit the wall’).

 

Finally, we passed the Rucky Chucky metal gate, ascended a small hill, and dropped into a raucous river-crossing scene, at which runners and pacers cross the American River by holding onto a cable. We ran to our crew, now just 10 to 12 minutes ahead of schedule but far better than his status at dusk. As Dave walked through the aid station, I told Don, “He’s decided not to sit again until he’s done. His legs tighten up too much and he won’t be able to loosen them up.” Then I discussed Dave’s condition and mental acuity with Craig; his focus was still very strong, much stronger than some other runners I saw out there.

“I’m gonna have to push him hard the last few miles,” Craig said as we finished.

“He responded every time I pushed him hard,” I said. “We conserved energy the last five miles after these God awful hills … I’ll tell you later. He knows what needs to happen. You’re the man. Bring him home.”

My pacing was done. I wobbled around, spent after more than seven hours of trail running, wondering how in the world these people do it for 18, 24, 30 hours in a row. I always admired Dave, but now, my admiration went through the roof.

 

Dave prepares to enter the stadium, with brother Don running alongside. Our ace pacer on the last leg, Craig Luebke, is cheering at the gate.

Dave prepares to enter the stadium, with brother Don running alongside. Our ace pacer on the last leg, Craig Luebke, is cheering at the gate.

Six hours after Craig set out with Dave, and 90 minutes after seeing our glassy-eyed, exhausted runner at the 93-mile crew stop, Don and I arrived at the Placer High School Stadium in Auburn. What a scene: a thousand people on hand, the announcer calling out finishers, families and crew running into the stadium and around the track with their warriors, the monumental test complete. It had been a night and most of a morning since the overall champions, Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe, crossed the line. Krar became the second runner to ever break 15 hours in the event’s 40-year history, running 14:53:22, while Howe won the women’s division in 18:01:42, the fourth-best women’s mark all-time. They were magnificent, as were Ian Sharman and Kaci Lickteig, whose performances enabled them to claim the series titles in the 2014 Montrail Ultra Cup, a mini-tour of six ultramarathons culminating in Western States.

Western States champions Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe talk trail story after their near record-breaking performances.

Western States champions Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe talk trail story after their near record-breaking performances.

Montrail Ultra Cup series winners Ian Sharman and Kaci Lickteig, aka "Pixie Ninja"

Montrail Ultra Cup series winners Ian Sharman and Kaci Lickteig, aka “Pixie Ninja”

Lickteig is known in the ultra community by her nickname, “Pixie Ninja,” perhaps the best athlete nickname I’ve heard in nearly 40 years as a journalist. I asked Stephanie Howe about it. “It’s perfect,” she said. “Kaci is an assassin out there.” Case in point: she won all eight ultras she entered in 2013, came to Western States despite basically no recovery from her previous ultra (a win) – and placed sixth.

Dave's victory lap, flanked by Don and Craig.

Dave’s victory lap, flanked by Don and Craig.

Our runner was magnificent as well. Dave took his victory lap at 10:45 a.m., flanked by Don and Craig, with me shooting photos from behind. Tears had been in Don’s eyes for twenty minutes; now, they also came to mine.

As we moved around the track, I thought of all the hopes, doubts, aches, pains, discomfort, dehydration, sunburn, scratches, bites, blisters, mental self-arguments and talks with Jesus Dave had in the past 29 hours, alone or with one other person on a trail that gave no quarter. I thought of Dave and Don, running the final 600 meters side-by-side, brothers in life and in this pursuit. For them, six months of planning and training culminated with the final piece of the 100th mile. It was an incredibly moving moment.

What it's all about – the Nichols brothers, moments after Dave crossed the finish line. A very touching moment.

What it’s all about – the Nichols brothers, moments after Dave crossed the finish line. A very touching moment.

After Dave crossed the line in 29:49 and received his medal, we waited 90 minutes for the presentation of the coveted belt buckles. Dave stretched out on a brick retaining wall, dead to the world. Don and I had some fun, taking a couple photos of our runner laid out on the rack, then Craig and I walked to the refreshment stand and grabbed breakfast. Craig hadn’t eaten meaningfully in a day, either, having somehow marshaled Dave’s energy enough to get him home in plenty of time. I still don’t know how Craig pulled off his pacing feat. I would imagine a few whipcracks accompanied the encouragement as they passed through Brown’s Bar, the Auburn Lakes meadows, up a final nasty hill at the 99-mile mark (that hurts just writing it) and into town.

2014-06-29 13.16.14

Finally, it was time for Dave’s crowning moment. We helped him to his feet and took a slow 200-yard walk to the awards tent. A few steps after reaching the grass, Dave winced. “Oh man, a hill.” I looked down. There was the tiniest bump on the football field, maybe six inches top to bottom. For a man who just completed something only a sliver of humanity would even attempt, and whose legs were barely functioning, a six-inch bump is a hill.

After watching the elites grab their prizes, for averaging 8:30 to 9:00 per mile for the whole 100 miles, we cheered madly as Dave received his belt buckle. It was his turn to plant the flag on the summit.

Dave collecting his belt buckle and accepting congratulations from Tim Twietmeyer, who won Western States five times among his 25 sub-24 hour finishes in the race.

Dave collecting his belt buckle and accepting congratulations from Tim Twietmeyer, who won Western States five times among his 25 sub-24 hour finishes in the race.

Then I remembered something: Dave is also a two-time Boston Marathoner. How many people have run both Boston and Western States, the most prestigious annual events in marathon and ultramarathon? In 40 years, only 7,500 runners have finished Western States – many of them repeat or multiple finishers. So let’s say, liberally, 6,000 different souls. Of those, how many own Boston unicorn medals? A thousand? Two thousand? Certainly not more. He joined an exclusive club.

Dave repeatedly credited all of us as a team, a nod to his humility. We appreciated his words, but sloughed them off. This is your barbecue, big guy. While Don, Craig and I became brothers-in-arms through our seamless support operation, that’s the extent of what we were on this weekend: support for the man with the belt buckle.

And with that, your hosts for this 100-mile Western States odyssey sign off, with our lead warrior, Dave Nichols, second from the left.

And with that, your hosts for this 100-mile Western States odyssey sign off, with our lead warrior, Dave Nichols, second from the left.

 

 

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Peak Experience in the Sierras: Western States

(Part One of a Two-Part Blog on this writer’s experience pacing David Nichols in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.)

I’ve enjoyed and written about many peak moments in nature — trekking in the Himalayas,

Dave Nichols stands at the starting line, all smiles. How would he feel 100 miles later?

Dave Nichols stands at the starting line, all smiles. How would he feel 100 miles later?

commingling with curanderos in the Amazon, countless hikes and river swims in the Bavarian Alps, Rockies, Sierra Nevada, Big Sur and dozens of other stunning places. I’ve also experienced a fair share of endurance running — ten marathons, a pair of 24-hour relays, and countless 15- and 20-milers deep into forests and along mountain ridges.

Never have I experienced a greater combination of nature and endurance than the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. And I wasn’t even competing. I was a pacer for David Nichols, who traveled from Lexington, Ken. to tackle the mighty Sierra Nevada and, more specifically, the same trail cut by the 49ers during California’s Gold Rush. Along with Dave came my fellow pacer, Evansville, Ind.-based marathoner Craig Luebke, and Dave’s brother Don, our crew chief – the pit boss for our “driver”, as it were.

Competitors mingling at 4:30 a.m. on race morning.

Competitors mingling at 4:30 a.m. on race morning.

Western States is the Super Bowl of ultramarathoning. The best 100-milers in the world, along with about 400 super-conditioned athletes, flock to Northern California to duel on terrain and in weather conditions that make you sweat just viewing the topographical maps. Between the start at the Squaw Valley ski resort and finish at the 50-yard line at Auburn’s Placer High School, there are mountains. Passes. Scree-filled escarpments. Nasty ascents and descents. Creek and river crossings. Rocky trails. Sandy trails. Single-track ridge trails from which, if you look over the side, you can see the American River a thousand feet below, ribboning toward Sacramento. Canyons. More canyons…

My guess is that Dave won’t be training through canyons anytime soon. I think after 29 hours of trudging up and down the American River canyon system in heat pushing 100 degrees, he’s good on that experience for a while.

Which brings up the weather. The Sierra Range in early summer is typically very hot, with temperatures approaching 120 degrees in the heat-protected river canyons. At the highest point of the Western States course, 9,000 feet above sea level, it can also be very cold, with several feet of snow still on the ground. Wind is almost always a factor. How does a person deal with all this, and still cover 100 miles in a day?

Our cast of characters after the Montrail 6K climb up Squaw Valley, which Craig and I ran.

Our cast of characters after the Montrail 6K climb up Squaw Valley, which Craig and I ran.

I drove up to Tahoe City out of both curiosity and commitment, part of a memorable year of racing. As one who will never run a 100-miler, I thought it would be great to taste the experience as a pacer. Also, I’d spent three years in nearby Nevada City as a college professor, during which I’d hiked and run countless miles on similar terrain; local knowledge never hurts. Plus, it would be fun to run with Dave again, after the 5K, 10K and half-marathon duels we had between 2006-2010.

The experience turned out to be far more than I could have imagined. It wasn’t a run. It was a testament to endurance, resilience, adaptability, strength, courage, determination and guts. I could go on and on …

…and that’s what we did. We ran on … and on … and on …

Dave, in front of the fully loaded crew SUV. We'd load and unload the back many times in the next 30 hours.

Dave, in front of the fully loaded crew SUV. We’d load and unload the back many times in the next 30 hours.

After three days shopping, running together, setting and re-setting plans for pacing, going to official meetings, and double- and triple-checking gear checklists, Dave and Don declared us ready. The first realization hit me: you are no longer in marathon land, Bob. When racing marathons, you typically don’t eat, nor do you stop for more than a few seconds – if at all. Ultras require eating to sustain the body, plus designated stops on the course for clothes changes, first aid, food, drink, pep talks, and getting weighed to make sure you haven’t lost too many pounds.

It’s not merely a different type of race. It’s a different world entirely.

Craig and I at the top of Squaw Valley's gondola lift, elev.  8,900 feet, aka the finish line of the Montrail 6K.

Craig and I at the top of Squaw Valley’s gondola lift, elev. 8,900 feet, aka the finish line of the Montrail 6K.

The morning before race day, Craig and I entered the Montrail 6K, a 3½-mile up-the-gut ascent from the base of Squaw Valley. We ran up an intermediate to advanced-level ski run, climbing from 6,400 to 8,800 feet. We also scouted for Dave, because he’d be moving up the same hill the next morning – for the first 3½ miles of his 100-miler. Yes, Western States leaves common sense in a cloud of Sierra dust. Aren’t you supposed to go down a ski run? A never-ending stream of quirky moments added to the fun, such as Dave asking me at mile 59 the next night, “Why are we stopping to look at the stars?”

“Because you’ve gotta see them,” I said, breaking into a teaching moment. Guess I reverted to my years at Ananda College, about 50 miles away. “They’re amazing up here… hey, there’s Scorpius. Cygnus. Orion. Cassiopeia…”

“If I miss my time by 30 seconds…”

I did have a reason (which I’ll share later). This type of repartee occurred countless times on the trail, multiplied by 369.2014-06-28 07.06.55

The 369 official entrants started at 5 a.m., and were cheered into the first climb by hundreds of crews, friends and family members. We hustled to Robinson Flat, the first crew stop at the 30-mile mark. We had to drive to Auburn, then drive right back up Foresthill Road – about 110 miles in all. Along the way, we passed through miles of charred forest from last summer’s fire, which would’ve erased this year’s race had volunteers and trail crews not spent nine months restoring 19 miles of trail. Craig and Don also received their first taste of narrow, windy Sierra Nevada upslope roads with their steep turns and four-digit drop-offs, which led to a comical moment involving fear.

“Oh yeah,” I said to Craig, at the height of his angst, “we’ll be pacing Dave on trails with drop-offs like this – at night.” I couldn’t resist.

I’m sure that Craig will exact sweet revenge on me one day in the future.

Where did the smile go? At mile 30, Dave looked tired and depleted. The realization of Western States' physical brutality had set in.

Where did the smile go? At mile 30, Dave looked tired and depleted. The realization of Western States’ physical brutality had set in.

We waited at Robinson Flat for an hour and a half, during which I marveled at the crew set-ups, the fantastic race organization, and the runners themselves. When Dave came through, he was on goal pace – but looked like he’d run through a desert and smacked a wall. We were concerned. This is not how you want to look or feel with 70 miles still to go and the midday heat cranking up. Don was already feeling an inner tug, as in, “do I act as his crew chief or his worried older brother?” He’d fight that fight a few more times.

A word about Don. The focus of an ultramarathon is the runner, and then the pacers enter the picture for the second half of the race. Hardly ever are support crews recognized. Don is a recently retired, fun-loving Midwesterner, borne of rock & roll and hard work, a former competitive runner in his own right. He did an incredible job keeping us organized with equipment, stops and taking care of Dave’s needs. Every stop required different gear. We made numerous adjustments during the race – the most significant of which I’ll get to – and Don left the running/strategizing portion to Craig and me. However, he took on the tough, unsung stuff, not the least of which was an agonizing instance where he had to talk to his brother about whether or not to leave the race. I vaguely knew Don before this weekend. Now, I know him. He is an amazing group leader.

We took care of Dave, sent him back on his way, and headed down to Foresthill, the only town on the Western States Trail.

Foresthill is a cozy hamlet in the Sierra foothills, about 20 miles outside Auburn. It serves as the symbolic center of Western States, even though it falls 100K (62-mile) into the race. Since we didn’t expect Dave at the next crew stop, Michigan Bluff, for several hours, we pulled up chairs, ate sandwiches, and watched the front of this race – the elites, astonishing in their fitness and efficiency. They passed through town running 7:00 to 7:30 miles, which I’d take for a 26-mile marathon any time. We watched eventual men’s winner Rob Krar run down Max King along the frontage road – one of two strips of pavement on the entire course. We also watched eventual women’s champ Stephanie Howe lope by, her long stride, waist-length hair and 5-foot-10 runway model’s body not what you’d expect for an ultra runner’s physique. Then again, these are outliers. What should we expect?

Craig figures out our revised pacing plan and the pace Dave needs to run, while Don does what any normal person would do on a beautiful, lazy summer afternoon in the Sierras.

Craig figures out our revised pacing plan and the pace Dave needs to run, while Don does what any normal person would do on a beautiful, lazy summer afternoon in the Sierras.

Meanwhile, we had work to do. Dave was struggling, and Craig, Don and I had to decide whether to pace him at Foresthill, or pick him up in Michigan Bluff, at mile 55. That would mean extra running for both Craig and me. While we thought about it, our numbers cruncher (Craig) got to work, figuring out what was needed for Dave to finish under time and get that belt buckle. Since I was the first pacer, I prepared my drinking belt, headlamp, flashlight, running gear and gels, and suited up.

Our decision was made after we arrived at Michigan Bluff, once a gold rush boomtown of 3,000, now a sweet enclave of 40 homes. Michigan Bluff was where Leland Stanford (he of the university) set up the first of his mercantiles and ferried supplies from the San Francisco docks to the gold rushers. (To this day, horseback riding remains a ready source of local transportation.) As the sun carried daylight with it into the far horizon, still no sign of Dave. Craig ran to the other side of Michigan Bluff to serve as our lookout. I started stretching as Don switched into big brother mode and entertained the idea of convincing Dave to bow out. “Problem is, he keeps thinking he’s gonna disappoint the rest of us,” Don said. “But I can’t let him stay out there if he comes in here all messed up.”

“I’d never be disappointed. Just getting out there and going this far, on this terrain, in these mountains is quite the accomplishment,” I told him. “I’m just happy to be here with him.” I meant it, though I did relish the chance hit these trails at night.

Finally, Dave popped into view, about 90 minutes behind what we’d expected. Why? He went through hell between 45 and 55 miles, where the American River canyon system kicked into high gear with bone-crunching climbs and falls in high heat. It used to claim prospectors back in the day… and took its shot at Dave as he baked in the relentless sun. Since Dave is from the Midwest, maybe the mountain remembered how it used to punish pioneers.

Dave weighed in – down nine pounds since the race began – and he and Don took the 300-yard walk to our pit stop. I can only imagine what was said. Minutes later, Craig ran up and told me we were pressing on. As I stretched again, Dave showed up, sat down, and we applied cold compresses on his quads, wrapped a cold towel around his neck, reloaded his drinks, and gave our little pep talks. I thought I was in a fight corner between rounds.

 

We set out at 8:56 p.m. Our goal: to make the river crossing at Rucky Chucky, mile 78, by no later than 4 a.m., hopefully sooner. While that sounds slow to a 5K or 10K specialist, consider the circumstances: Dave had covered 55 miles, the terrain was beastly, and he had to reserve enough strength for the final stretch.

After not running at all for six hours, due to the terrain and his flagging spirits, Dave started jogging again. We bit five minutes off the clock within the first two miles of flat and gentle downslope. Certainly, having another runner with him helped, someone to talk to, especially after spending 16 hours on the course alone. Also, he knew we were running against the clock – a daunting prospect when there’s still 45 miles to go. He had to negative split the race (run the second half faster than the first) … a concept I understand and have done in marathons and shorter races, but boggles my mind when you’re talking about 100 miles.

There was another big change: he began to rehydrate. He’d dehydrated himself beyond the weight crucible Western States sets: if you lose more than 4% of your body weight, they reserve the right to remove you from the race at a weigh station (every 10-15 miles). They rarely do it, but the fear was in his heart. He took extra drink bottles out of Michigan Bluff, and I kept telling him to drink. His legs loosened up, he started running better, and we clicked off time while enjoying beautiful Sierra foothill countryside, along with favorable trail conditions. His legs were celebrating after the mess they’d traversed all day.

At mile 59, as we ascended Volcano Canyon, I decided to make sure he drank up. That’s when I started pointing out the stars. Dave couldn’t figure out what I was doing, but when you’re in the Sierras on a warm summer night, the stars look like golf balls, and it can feel like you’re one with the heavens. If you bust your ass for a hundred miles, you deserve the experience. That’s what I told him. I also made sure that, while stopped and allowing his legs to relax, Dave took his mind off the race for a second and drank every drop, since he could reload at the Bath Road aid station a mile away.

All told, we stopped for a minute. I took a good-natured ribbing on the course for this move, and Craig and Don joined in later. (OK, boys, you’re right: I’m unconventional. But hey, whatever works…)

(Read Part Two)

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