John Ball Runs His First Ultra Marathon! - 12/22/2009

December 6, 2009

It was 5:30 AM when the alarm went off.  I rolled over in bed and buried my head under the hotel pillow. I really didn’t want to get up, even though I had been awake for more than an hour already.  It was still dark and cold outside and I could already hear the wind starting to build.  Daylight seemed a long way off. The truth was that I didn’t want to get up because I was scared.  Today was going to be a big challenge, and I wasn’t sure I was up to it.  At least I wasn’t facing this challenge alone. My two good friends, Mark Saxonberg and Doug MacGlashan, were there with me to make sure I got through it.  Today’s target was the High Desert 50K Run. Yeah, you read that right…FIFTY kilometers (31 miles) is a damned long way to run. And the cold, the wind and the dry desert conditions weren’t going to make it any easier.  How had I gotten into this crazy situation?

Well, it was really all Mark’s idea. I wouldn’t have even attempted it had he not prodded me into it.  Now, I must admit I had been aware that there were races of more than marathon distance - 30 miles up to over 100 miles – for several years.  My former boss had run many of them, but I just assumed he was some kind of over-the-top exercise freak. His achievements did make me wonder if I could complete such an effort. I used to have dreams of showing him that he was not the only one who could finish an ultra, but for years they remained just that, dreams. Tom was a superb long distance runner and a challenging boss, but I must say he was more than generous with his talents.  When I first started running the marathon, he willingly sacrificed his own competitive urge to lead me and several others from our running club at work to a sub-four hour marathon. Together, we accomplished that in 1997 on my second marathon.  In many ways, Mark and Doug have been very much like Tom, willing to submerge their own ambitions to help me accomplish something for Team Parkinson.

The first time Mark and I ran together was at the LA marathon in 2001, and we have run together ever since. Doug joined the training group a year or two later, and was followed by his wife Mimi.  Other runners have joined in from time to time, but I can count on these guys to be there for Team Parkinson no matter what happens.  Team Parkinson started in March, 2000 as an official charity of the City of Los Angeles Marathon. Over the course of the Team’s first five years, we ran 7 or 8 marathons together.   After these successful efforts in the marathon, Mark began to push for something greater.  He, Doug and Mimi trained for a massive effort to run from rim to rim of the Grand Canyon, and back, in a single day.  The trip was not a complete success due to weather and other conditions, but Mark is not someone to leave an idea alone, or a task unfinished. Five years ago he began a long-term campaign to get me and Team Parkinson beyond the 26.2 mile barrier of the marathon. Mark could see that even though I was getting to an age where most people stop running marathons, I was also getting stronger, and our marathon times, formerly in the 5-hour plus range, dropped into the 4 ½ to 5 hour range with occasional faster efforts. 

About six months ago, Mark came forward with a timetable and a training plan for the Over the Hill Track Club’s High Desert Ultra -50K. Doug, who is nearly 20 years younger than I, was willing to make the attempt, but I was skeptical.  It seemed like too big a stretch.  Mark’s approach was fairly subtle. He started with runs that were well within my capability, so I kept my reservations to myself and went along with the team. In the back of my mind, I was thinking I could always back out if it got to be too much. But, for the time being, I stuck with the plan.  I stuck with it even when the workouts began to stretch from 13 to 15, and even 17 miles.  I missed a 20 miler, but came back the following week for an 18 mile run just before I took a vacation break. Unfortunately, Doug hurt his back on that run and was not able to continue with the schedule.

My vacation break was a delightful two-week trip to Japan.  My wife, Edna, had never been to Japan, so when she found we could get round trip tickets for both of us for under $1,000, we decided to make the trip. It turned out to be an almost perfect vacation, but I found time for only two short runs.  When I got back from vacation just three weeks before the race, the plan called for a workout of more than marathon distance. With so few days of running over the last month, I wasn’t certain I could make it, so Mark shuffled the schedule to move the long run back a week and we substituted a 13 miler. Perhaps it was just a delaying tactic on my part, but I did feel better the following weekend when we set out to run the long practice run.  We ran at the beach along the strand, all the way from Hermosa to the southern boundary of Santa Monica, and then turned around and ran back. It was a 27.8 mile workout, almost 2 miles beyond the marathon distance. It was the longest run I had ever made. It was also the point when I knew I could no longer back out. All the planning, all the training runs, would mean nothing if I didn’t at least try.

In an effort to convince myself, I had been telling people about the run for weeks.  I had posted my ambition to run the event on our webpage, and I had even mentioned it in a speech in front of more than 500 people at the Proud Bird restaurant.  I figured the more people I told about it, the less chance there would be for me to back out.  I guess my ego is still big enough to get me to do things, even crazy things like running an ultra-marathon. But, to be honest, I was scared that I might not make it.

Yet here I was in Ridgecrest, California at 7:00 AM with the temperature in the very low 40’s, the wind beginning to pick up, and surrounded by 250 runners waiting for the start signal.  It was a very different feeling from the start of any major city marathon.  At the marathon you are surrounded by thousands and thousands of runners, press helicopters circle overhead, crowds of spectators line the streets and the noise level is intense.  Here it was very quiet. There were no press helicopters, no crowds of spectators, and just a small band of alarmingly fit-looking runners. They were all smiling at each other like old friends in spite of the cold and the wind.  Instead of a starter’s gun, the race director casually said, “Well, it’s time to go. Good luck!” and we all just jogged off down the road. 

I’ve learned over the years to let my body set its own pace, rather than trying to dictate it according to the clock.  This is one area where Mark and I differ quite a lot.  He feels more comfortable when he’s running according to a pre-determined plan.  So we set out with kind of a compromise between the two approaches.  For a while we just let it unfold in the most natural way possible; we ran our own pace and the other runners either moved ahead or dropped back. There was a little shuffling back and forth as we took our strategic walk breaks, but we soon knew who among the runners were at our own level of readiness. We were certainly in the slower last quarter of the group.  But since Mark and I were both novices at this ultra stuff, we weren’t about to push ourselves early.  The course started out gently, with a brief climb, then eased off to a gentle decline for two or three miles and soon we were out in the foothills of the high desert, beyond the sight of town or paved road.  I think it was around 6 miles before we reached our first checkpoint.  There hadn’t been a single spectator along the route, but here at the checkpoint, the people were friendly and there was water, Gatorade and munchies.  We stopped for a minute or two to chat, and take on some fluids, then set out once again. The same pattern was followed for each leg and the individual distances between runners grew until there were only two or three runners between Mark and me and the horizon maybe a mile ahead.  Somewhere along the miles between 11 and 16 we got passed by a group of four women in their mid-thirties or early forties. They were all wearing red and white striped knee socks, running shorts and tank tops. Their arms and thighs were bare. I was wearing at least three layers, with gloves, and Mark was wearing a down lined vest and we were still cold!  We kept them in sight for a while, and eventually caught and re-passed them as we worked our way up one of the long uphill climbs.   It seemed that every climb was into the wind, and the footing was on soft sand. The climbs were usually long and straight, which at least provided some assurance that there wasn’t an additional steeper grade hidden behind the first. Doug met us at each major checkpoint and snapped a couple of photos, and made sure we were still healthy.  At one stop, Doug went back to the car to get Mark a wind-breaker to add to his layers. It was still cold, even in the occasional patches of sun.

The course continued its winding path through the rocks and shrubs, and at some point we ran through a long winding canyon where the sand was deep and soft.  It was a lot of work, and without the momentary tailwind to push us, it would have been even worse. We didn’t reach the high point of the course until we were nearing mile 24, and then we began the descent back into town.

When we passed the next-to-last checkpoint at mile 26, I knew we had finished a marathon, and we weren’t done yet. We had been running for six hours already, but with five miles to go, we needed to run 12 minute miles from there to the finish to get under our 7 hour target.  Fortunately, most of it was downhill through some of the prettiest country in the area.  Mark was keeping to his run/walk schedule and I was running as hard as possible to maintain a steady pace that just allowed me to catch back up as he took his walk breaks. Each time I caught him he would fire it back up and leave me behind again.  It was a little unorthodox, perhaps, but it suited each of us.  Doing it that way, we eventually caught the only other runner in sight at the bottom of the grade. We had chased her for nearly four miles. There was still a mile and half left in the race and I was toast. I looked at my watch and noted there were 24 minutes left to make it under our 7 hour target.

After a very brief checkpoint stop, the runner we had chased down the hill took off toward the finish, and Mark went after her. I couldn’t find the energy or the drive to stay with them. I was doing all I could just to put one foot ahead of the other.  They say that time flies when you’re having fun, but I was definitely not having fun and the only thing slower than the creeping minute hand on my watch was my creeping shuffle.  It seemed endless.  After a steady thirty miles at around 11-12 minute pace, that final mile took over 18 minutes. Mark had disappeared around the corner long before I reached the parking lot and turned for the finish line, yet as I made the final turn to the finish, there he was, waiting for me so we could finish together.  We made it in 6 hours, 56 minutes, and 25 seconds.

I was exhausted, and elated, and hungry, and sorry Doug had been hurt and unable to run, but happy he was with us. I was also proud of myself for finishing, and prouder still of Mark for setting the goal and shepherding us through the workouts and driving us to complete the task.  I had run this race to please him.  But Mark is not driven by personal ambition; he had done all the hard work of planning and training for the benefit of the team.

It was an extraordinary experience for me because I had no responsibilities other than to do my best. There were none of the usual distractions that occur before a major marathon. I wasn’t worried about fundraising.  I didn’t have to man an expo booth for two or three days before the race, or write a speech for the carbo-load dinner, or worry about whether there was adequate transportation for the 5k walkers/runners, or if our photographer got his press pass.  I wasn’t there to represent the Parkinson’s disease community, or to be an example to anyone else.  It was just Mark, Doug and me, working together to see if we could do it. And we did it.

Will we do it again? Yes, because Doug deserves his chance to finish an Ultra.