Twenty-One seconds separated 3rd place from 5th place at the Ohlone 50k — 21 short seconds. Within a span of 18,660 seconds, the final podium spot was decided within the proverbial blink of an eye. Even more fascinating was, in the span of that time, a collective 19 Western States finishes crossed the finish line — that’s 90% of a States finish for every “Ohlone” second. Amazing company and an all encompassing joy to share the race with 2 talented runners: Kevin Sawchuk and Ian Torrance.
The story always runs deeper, 50km deeper in the very least.
Minutes prior to the 8:00AM start I’m dropped off by my lovely wife Jen. I dart to Stan Jenson and get my bib, sort my things, then scan for friendly faces. I see Janeth and run over to talk. I’ve been coaching Janeth through her WS journey. To say the least it has been a tough one for her. As if training for 100 miles wasn’t difficult enough she’s been thrown the book this season. It has been a pleasure to track her journey and learn what being tough really is. I thought I was strong, but there’s a new level that I didn’t comprehend until I met Janeth.
Following some truly emotional words, Janeth shoo’d me off telling me you need to get in front, the race is starting in 2 minutes. Off we were and my thoughts were consumed with Janeth’s toughness and hoping she’d have a positive break through today.
I intended to run comfortably at the start. I had been nursing a right calf/Achilles injury post Miwok and was tentative on steep Ohlone uphills, yet, I found myself in 10-15th place (it’s easy to count running on Mission Peak – you can see forever). My hill gear had me gaining on many people until I settled into a common pace with Kevin Sawchuk and Ian Torrance. We all ran comfortably to the summit catching runners here and there.
Kevin and I gapped Ian while cruising to Sunol AS (mile 9.11) running 6:30 min/mile. At this point the race hadn’t started – there’s too many hills on this course to even start thinking about speed. Kevin then veered off to the bathroom and I was left alone to climb a 3,000 ft monster with Kevin, the hill climbing animal, chasing me – I ran with him during Ohlone 2012 and he smoked me on this exact section.
I started to push some here, using this as a motivating opportunity to PR this hill. I would catch glimpses of Kevin’s bright red shirt below but we were matched in pace pretty evenly to my surprise. At this point I didn’t know exactly what place I was in but felt it was good. And, I felt GREAT energy-wise. The crippling hills weren’t that bad on me this season.
After passing the last bunch of early start runners, I dropped into Backpack Area AS (mile 12.48). I got to it with Coke, Salt, GU, and some ice and water over my head. Then bolted out to the cheers of GO! You’re 4th.
Wait, WHAT!?! I’m 4th?
My mind still doesn’t comprehend phrases like that in races. I’m use to people not knowing, losing count by the time I come in. It seemed Chinese to me – I didn’t understand.
Until 1 mile down the trail I saw 2 runners. At that moment I REALLY understood 4th and REALLY, REALLY understood 3rd and 2nd. I could not believe they were on the ridge just above me and I was gaining on them – a weird euphoric state swept over me. I ran every hill they didn’t. From their silhouettes I knew #2 was John Burton and couldn’t identify #3. I also knew that John was supremely trained for this race and brings a history of pulling back on this particular uphill to then BLAST the remainder of the race.
My mark gravitated to the #3 runner whom I could tell was faltering. 5 minutes back, 4 minutes back, 3… I would time him.
I also looked back and saw Kevin running strong.
And now, yes right now, would be the time that my right calf would begin hurting. Not the dull pain that I was accustomed to but a few sharp stabs. Enough that I stopped, I stopped chasing, I stopped being chased, standing in the dusty trail on one leg assessing myself.
My coach voice came over me saying, “You’re doing damage – STOP!”
My competitor voice came over me saying, “You’re in 4th and 3rd is right there! How often does THIS happen? It’s a strain, GET IT.”
Kevin caught me. I said, “Hey Sawchuk, Great Job!”
He humorously retorted, “That’s Dr. Sawchuk to you! States is the Goal. Keep your eye on the prize!” to which he later admitted was a mental tactic he was using to get me to slow down See, these lead guys play the mind games with you!
The reality was I was in the middle of no where. Even if I did get back to an aid station there’s little they could do but hike out with me. Ohlone is a barren course. I pressed forward very slowly, unfortunately favoring my left leg. I monitored my gait as best I could but at times it was painful. Kevin took off, yet the bearded man #3 (now #4) continued to fall back – even with me running at 75% capacity.
And then, the sharp pain subsided. I could run “okay”. Transitions from uphill to downhill or vice versa were painful.
Then, I passed the bearded man. Endorphins were flowing. Kevin was no longer extending his lead. We reached Rose Peak (3,600 ft, mile 20) and I was told the leader was 19 minutes ahead. Another DAMN moment! The leader usually finishes in 4:40 or so. Were we going that fast!?!
I re-tooled myself for the long downhills – it hurt but wasn’t unbearable. I was managing while I pulled Kevin in closer and closer. He skipped the unmanned water station, forcing my card. I had to too. I caught him on the uphill – cramping slightly, wishing I had more water, yet moving with confidence in the eye of a trail companion turned competitor.
I was now in 3rd.
I fell in love with 3rd. The more I opened a gap, the more love stitched with reality. I was prepared to fight for 3rd every step of the trail to Livermore.
I flew into Schlieper Rock AS (mile 25.65) with intent. The race began now. My right calf injury was masked from reality, yet my cramping grew. I drank lots of water, GU, and salt which only kept the cramping from worsening. I tore down the technical decline as fast as I could with memory of Miwok (including the cramping) in my mind. I gained speed only to cramp and need to slow down. This was the eb and flow of my life at this moment.
21 seconds isn’t that long.
The single track was covered with overhanging thistle, poison oak, and it was dusty. I remember not feeling the thistle as I grazed it being more focused on my cramping. I was adrift in a running trance when, WHAT THE HELL?! I was jolted by a snake across the trail. Instincts react, I jump and jumping made me cramp, mid-air. With my feet locked into a pointed position I couldn’t land feet first – I came crashing down on my butt.
A plume of dust hoovered around me as a screamed in pain. Both my calves were excruciatingly tight – I could see the stranded contours of my muscles with my feet locked in Relevé; I sat upright with legs sprawled on the trail. I screamed in pain and tried to straighten my feet. Nothing.
First thought: Shit, I cannot move.
Second thought: I’m going to lose 3rd.
Third thought: Shit, there’s a snake next to me.
21 seconds go by.
I panic then the cramps jump to my quads. I scream again. It was oddly promising that Kevin hadn’t come down the trail yet. It gave me hope. Hope to prop myself up and then my body grudgingly released the cramps. I completely lost track of the snake – I had no idea where it was nor did I care. I got up and did a hobbling run fighting for 3rd.
60 seconds went by.
At the bottom was a group of 15 scouts huddled in the shade cheering me on. I dipped my hat in the stream as I crossed hitting the final climb. 1 minute later I heard them cheering another runner. I assumed it was Kevin but peering down I saw Ian and he was moving well.
Every hard fought section of trail was coupled with a look back. Where are they? 3 miles to go. I get a glimpse of Ian across the ridgeline and I’ve extended my lead, but I’m still cramping. Finally I hit the long downhill to the finish. Because of cramping I’m forced to stop for water.
2 miles to go.
As fast as I can go… I go. 7:00 – 6:30 min/mile. We reach a slight uphill that sends my legs into a cramping mess and I look back and see a figure – Kevin!
1 mile to go.
I welcome the transition back to downhill, the last downhill, leading to the finish line. There are friends of runners and hikers spattered about the trail. Footsteps get closer and finally Kevin passes. I say, “Good to see you Dr. Sawchuk.” But then I heard more footsteps. Ian was there too.
1/4 mile to go.
Ian passing caught me by surprise. I ran after him. The cramps said NO. Everything I had in me was ready to run strong to the finish except my legs. I heard Jen cheering. My leg seized momentarily. Thoughts of having to crawl across the finish line flashed through my head. Luckily they released.
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