Night Pacing at the San Diego 100

Only an hour outside the city and the stars are amazing, layers and blankets of light with the Milky Way cloud splitting the moonless sky.  I parked in the mountains East of San Diego off Sunrise Highway after driving the spaghetti turns of Julian.  Waiting and pacing with caffeinated blood and anxious feet, glad that I was here in the cold, huddled with a wool blanket around my shoulders and inhaling the smoke of a welcome fire-pit, waiting with others, peering into the night and searching for the pinpoint glimmer of headlamps in the dark, the lights of runners with 80 miles of trails in their feet and legs, 80 miles of fluid in swollen redblack blisters, running to the aid station of fire, RVs and chicken soup, scraping off their socks as the foot doctor goes to work, popping, soaking pus and blood, bandaging, and powdering.  The runners, most smiling a crazy, tired grin of excess, down the salt of chicken soup, the sugar of flat coke, and the calories of chocolate maltodextrin syrup, eating pretzels, grilled cheese sandwiches, filling spin cycle stomachs with whatever they can keep down.  These bleary-eyed, staggering ghosts of the night leave the comfort of the fire, the food, the volunteers and the inviting and tempting chairs where it would be so easy to say enough and drift off to sleep after 18 hours of trails, climbing through the mountains and stumbling over rocks, it would be easy but none of them do.  I wait for Kara and Jeremy, two headlights in the darkness, about a mile away winding down the hill, bobbing points of light in the black, and as I wait I talk to Becki, the 2:50 marathoner and fellow pacer, about Kara, a friend I would run ahead of, alongside of, and behind for the next 20 miles, the final 20 of her 100 mile journey and try to make it to the finish before the Earth has had a chance to rotate once on its axis, to finish as the campers are waking up, adding logs and bacon to their warm fires, pausing to stare at these athletes who they may have seen the day before, and wondering why the stinky joggers are wearing the same clothes as yesterday and why some of them are crying.

I have paced Kara's husband, Jeremy, at two different races, once at Miwok 100 in the Muir Headlands and the other time, last year at the San Diego 100, but he doesn't need much motivation, being a Marine, a cancer survivor, and all-around bad ass, he just needed someone to be on the trail with him, someone that would break the monotony of miles, and I fit the bill. I had never run with Kara before, but I offered to help and Jeremy asked if I would pace the last 20 and try to get his wife to the finish in under 24 hours for the silver buckle. I love running at night, but I have never run through the night before so I jumped at the chance.

At night, the headlamp halo illuminates the trails and jumps off the rocks and over the bushes as I try to locate the source of the scamper, freezing a field mouse in the beam.  I didn't want to look too hard into the dark and see the reflection of my light, bouncing off the glow of two hunting and hungry eyes because this is mountain lion country and cats love the night.

The first section was difficult, all the sections were difficult, but that first one was a 7 mile stretch of some rocky, technical portions of the Pacific Crest Trail, the trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada.  Climbing the hill, I asked Kara about her kids, and she talked about swimming, school, and living in Yuma where 100 is a cool summer day, and hopefully not thinking about the climb or spotting the headlamps above us, seemingly in the sky, a pair of stars where we were headed.  We didn't see many other runners on this stretch and would go for long sections of trail without seeing the orange ribbon that marked the course.  I would scan the branches, searching for that neon orange guide and reflective strip that would let me know that I was leading Kara down the right path, praying that I didn't take a wrong turn and would have to give her the bad news that we needed to retrace some hard-won miles, but the orange and reflective strips would eventually shine, hanging from a tree branch and I was able to breathe again.

I haven't seen dawn in years, and I have never stayed up all night to see dawn, never had that experience that should be fueled with drink and dancing and ending up on a beach with some curves maybe on some island in Greece with sand in my toes as the sun rises over the Aegean.  This experience wasn't like that, but it was just as beautiful as the sun rose over the Laguna Mountains and the stars faded into the blue orange, the darkness faded into light, and we were able to turn off our dimming, battery-drained headlamps and the light-less abyss became a lush valley of pine trees and blooming white flowers.

We would pull into the aid stations and Jeremy would be ready with the precision taught by years of military service, taking care of his wife, feeding her, filling her bottles and offering encouraging words of support.  He would then come over to me and whisper "push her as hard as she can go" with a little threat in his voice and I pictured finishing at 24:01:00 and being forced to walk the ten miles back to my car as penance.  I started to push a little harder the last five miles, telling her to imagine Jeremy at the finish, imagine her oldest daughter running a 5K, stretching out her legs and gritting her teeth the way kids run before they know about pace and conserving energy, I told her to imagine the look in her daughter's eyes as she crosses the finish line, only a mile or two away and the pride in the eyes of her husband.  She ran most of the last four miles, finding a place deep down in an empty tank, crying a little as we ran through a meadow on a narrow trail, past the campers and through the campground and towards the yelling voice of her husband, echoing off the trees, and towards her daughter who ran to meet us, crossing the line with her mom as the red digits of the finish line clock read 23:44:21.

Kara was the 4th woman to cross the finish line and was 23rd overall.  149 people started the race and 90 people finished before the 31 hour cutoff.

Kara and Jeremy leaving the aid station

Night running

Headlamps in the night

Sunrise on the trail

Running single-track through the meadow

At the finish

Kara at about mile 93 - I had just told her that we can't go much higher

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