My First 50

By Steven Specht No comments

Well I’m committed now…

Lauren’s tail lights have disappeared around the corner and she’ll be merging onto I-8 from exit 36 on her way to work. I’m a few miles east of Alpine, CA, and there is barely a hint of dawn creeping up from behind the mountains.

I said I’d spend a few minutes stretching, but, typical of me, I head out promptly at 5:45 without proper preparation. There really is no true preparation for this anyway. The longest run I’ve done is 33, and that was on a whim as well. The idea that I could ever really be prepared for 50 is laughable. Just be. Just do. I am.

Viejas Casino is coming up in the distance. I have a little less than 49 miles to go, though the Garmin has yet to accurately measure the opening speed which is probably around a 10-minute mile. I’m mildly irritated, as I should have ample satellite signal. I’m used to it by now, so it’ll balance over the next hour. I got the Garmin from the Overstock website, so it’s my own damned fault it has never worked properly.

These early miles are crucial to finishing, and I’m going to do my best to maintain 12-minute pace initially. That is, I’ll do my best to run more slowly than I’ve ever run before. I’ll walk as necessary, stop, stretch, hydrate, eat, puke, poop, and piss as often as I need in order to complete 12-minutes per mile. Any faster than that, and I worry I’ll choke around 30 or 40 miles.

Viejas is an “Indian casino,” run by the Viejas band of the Kumeyaay tribe. Take the sex out of Vegas and add the ever-present smell of an un-cleaned gerbil cage, and you’ll have the mental picture of where I’m running. It’s too early for much of a crowd and the parking lot is mostly vacant; the stores are all shuttered. Only a few diehard grandmas remain at six in the morning desperately trying to return Native-Americans to their stolen glory one social security check at a time. The wives of enlisted sailors will be arriving on public transportation around noon to cash their WIC checks and gamble in the same casino as grandma with a grudging truce between two different ends of the social-welfare spectrum. Later in the day, the day laborers from Chula Vista will arrive, and then the college kids. Tomorrow morning, grandma will still be in her chair; she never leaves except to use the ladies room.

I keep running. I’ve got some Hammer Gel packs in my shorts, and I’ll go ahead and use one now. It’s a little ahead of schedule, and I’d like my 7 packs to last for 35 miles, after which, I’ll just gut my way to the end. I start looking for a rest stop after safely vacating the area directly around the casino, and I’m forced into a ditch behind some trees. It’s not ideal, but this route is designed for cyclists, and if I were on a cycle, I’d already be in Alpine looking for a quaint mountain-town coffee shop to get some brew and a bathroom. This won’t be the first time I note the difficulties associated with running a bike route. After arriving back on the road, I’m suddenly in the Ewiiaapaayp Reservation. I’m not sure the fundamental different between the Viejas and the Ewiiaapaayp bands of the Kumeyaay nation, but they’ve kindly put up a department of transportation road sign to insure I don’t mistakenly believe I’m still in Viejas country. A hundred years after defeat through divide and conquer, and they’ve yet to learn a lesson. I’ll call Jack Abramhoff tomorrow. We could make some money off this; he’s only been out of prison for two years, and I doubt he’s learned a lesson. How the hell do you pronounce Ewiiaapaayp?  I try to sound it out in my head for a few minutes before forgetting the spelling and vowing to Google it when I get home.

There is an interstate crossing up ahead, and then a nice uphill stretch for two miles before entering what’s described by my route to be “beautiful downtown Alpine.”  As I grind up the valley, I spot a tall leggy blond in front of me, and I pick up the pace slightly to close the distance and see if I can find a running partner for at least a few minutes. As I get closer, I can’t help but notice that she looks like she’s built for a nice conversation. After two minutes of chasing, I finally pull alongside and wave to pull her attention from her I-pod. She turns to me with a look of sheer restraining order, and I move on, not wanting that kind of trouble so early on in my day.

I’m out of water, and I start looking for an outside spigot to refill the cute marathoner’s bottle belt loaned to me by Lauren, my girlfriend. Instead, I see a guy watering flowers outside Alpine Physical Therapy and jog up to see if he minds refilling my bottle for me. He nonchalantly asked how far I was going. I nonchalantly told him 50 miles. He nonchalantly told me to give them a call if I needed any physical therapy afterwards. I promised him I would, and with no serious injury, I simply emailed him and thanked him for his kindness a few days later.

I want another bathroom break, but I’m right in the middle of Alpine, and I’m not sure what to do. I should have asked that PT guy, but I sure as hell won’t back track. There is a dry creek on the north side of the road, and I slink into that after checking for cop cars, and I go carefully to make sure I don’t wizz on some homeless guy’s bed. You’d be surprised how easy it is to do that in Southern California.

There is a long downhill stretch on the way out of Alpine before a murderous uphill stretch on the other side of Petz Valley Road and another cross under the Interstate highway while staying on Old US 80. I’ve yet to find New US 80, and that seems relevant to me somehow.

I’m in the phase of a long run where I desperately need social interaction just to make sure I’m doing alright. It usually happens somewhere between 10 and 20 miles and a few more times past 30. I can’t explain it, but it can vary from engaging someone in conversation to simply asking directions to a place I already know. It’s just part of routine maintenance to make sure the lights are still on, that I’m not overly dehydrated or dead. The 7-eleven will do, and I slide into the store which appears to be completely empty before finding the sole Hindu in the back stocking the shelves. I say Hindu rather than generic South Asian for the fact that he has the third eye dot. He confirms that the Burger King is about two miles further down the road on the right hand side after I cross the interstate. An ability to converse proves that I’m not crazy, or at least no worse than mildly crazy.

I have one more water stop before I get to Burger King at Flinn Springs County Park. It’s a gorgeous little place with entirely too many parking spots and a nice babbling stream flowing through some management culverts that indicate it’s likely a flash flood area in the wet season, but right now it’s merely a trickle. The body recognizes the proximity to flush toilets and I take care of that point of order before filling my water bottles and moving out once more. I’ll need to get some Gatorade soon, because nothing but water on a run like this is suicide. For now, I’ll have to manage for a few more miles. I should have filled up back at the last 7-eleven, but I suspect there is one in Lakeside, so I’ll plan on another stop there.

I’m at Burger King which is the 13.1 mile mark, the first of nearly four half marathons I’ll be doing back-to-back today. The first half marathon was 2:29. I’m 7 minutes ahead of pace. One more re-fill of my bottles, a sausage biscuit with no cheese, and a carton of orange juice is my agenda, and I spark up a nice conversation with Rebekah while my sausage biscuit takes inordinately long to make. I’m way ahead of schedule, but I’d rather burn these minutes while walking and getting more distance behind me than idle chatter. I’m pouring sweat as the sun has finally come up completely, and another patron asks me if it’s really humid, but my muttered response was largely unintelligible, even to myself. Since my biscuit is still not ready, I ask Rebekah if she has a smart phone, and upon confirmation, I ask her to take a picture with her Android and text it to my girlfriend.

“I’m in the middle of 50 miles and she’ll get a kick out of this; thanks.”

“No problem; it’s my pleasure!”

The last several miles have been a blur. I still have no Gatorade, and I’m getting worried about my electrolyte balance, but I knocked out my 3rd gel as I crossed the San Diego River for the first of four times today. That was mile 17. Now I’m getting into a developed area, and see the 7-eleven I’m looking for. I fill up three of my bottles with Gatorade and chug a fourth bottle before filling it with water. I’d prefer a 50-50 combo of Gatorade and water, but with the huge backlog of water in my system, I need to have more Gatorade for the time being. When I say Gatorade, I use the term generically. I have no idea if 7-eleven fountain drinks have Gatorade or PowerAde. I haven’t been paying attention. I do know that 7-eleven doesn’t have public restrooms, and for some reason I find that shocking. I tell the guy to charge me for a “Gulp,” and I paid $1.39 in cash.

Am I still on Mapleview?  No, I’m on Channel. No, I’m still on Mapleview. Channel is after I cross the 67. I walk for a couple hundred yards before I start up again to let some of the Gatorade be absorbed and eliminate the sloshy feeling. I get reflux if I run on a belly full of Gatorade. Channel Rd turns into Riverside Dr; Riverside Dr turns into Mast Blvd; Mast Boulevard dead ends into some scrub with dirt bike paths. The dirt is refreshing after 18 miles of pavement, and oddly enough, it connects me to Mast Blvd in Santee. It’s a mystery as to why Santee and Lakeside have failed to connect these two dead-end streets of the same name when they only lack 200 meters on flat ground.

I’m almost to my next big stop—26.4 miles at the Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor Center, which promises clean bathrooms and ample water. It’s also nice to have marked off a marathon plus 0.2 miles to my daily total, but I’m far from finished. At least I’m past the halfway mark, and here I’m going to deviate from the bike route for a mile and stay on the dirt trails which parallel the paved road. I’ll actually add a little bit on to the run, but it will be worth it to stay off pavement for a bit. My socks are getting pretty grimy, and I’m learning a big lesson about having a clean pair of socks about every 25 miles. It’s a lesson which will be learned exponentially over the next several hours. I’m still ahead of schedule, and that makes me excited; it won’t last. I cross the San Diego River for a third time, failing to even notice the second time.

Qualcomm stadium is the point when I really begin questioning the wisdom of my route as I’m flanked by Friar’s Road with minimal to non-existent bike lanes and busy lunch-time traffic. Friar’s Road was fine on the East side of I-15, but after that, the sidewalk gave out, and the shoulder quickly followed suit. I really don’t want to be hit by a car 30 miles in. Come on. It’s not much further. I should get off soon.

There is a bike path along the river. I hope no cops see me. I’m supposed to run against traffic; I can’t get to the other side. Fuck. Slow down assholes. Why is there a used condom on the shoulder here?  Why does it smell like piss here?  The 805 overpass is magnificent to look at. How did they ever build something so big? 

I finally make it to Qualcomm Way and go south to follow a wooded bike path along the north side of the San Diego River. This goes without incident, and a guy named Frank lets me borrow his I-phone to call Lauren and let her know I was safe. I promised to do my best to call around noon, but get irritated at her desire to chatter, not understanding that I’ve borrowed a cell phone and want to give it back. I say goodbye and move out. I have trouble at the SR- 163 when the paved bike path seems to give out unexpectedly, and the only obvious outlet is Hazard Center Drive which is going nearly due east. God damn it, I want to go west!  I can’t afford to add any more time onto this run. I just added .2 miles figuring out where the hell I was, and now I have to backtrack more?  I’ll see if I can cross under 163. I come upon a day hiker with a decent looking ruck sack; he looks like he knows what’s going on. Never mind. Given the looks of paranoia, spitting, and the string of profanity, I realize I’ve met yet another of California’s homeless population. He’s talking to himself? Schizophrenic? I don’t know. He has nicer clothing than I do. Weird fucking place.

I can cross under the 163, and I emerge on the other side with one final bit past Fashion Valley Mall before cutting north, back to Friar’s, where ample sidewalks and bike lanes flank the road well away from the terror near the stadium. Somewhere here by the mall is the 33-mile mark. Every step past this is a small victory, because every step is a new personal record for me. I want to finish the 50, but it’s refreshing to know that, at this point, no matter what happens, I cannot fail.

Somehow all that back tracking at Hazard has ruined the lead I had on my schedule, and I’m never going to get that back. Oh well, my 10 hour time estimate gets me to the Broadway Pier 30 minutes before Lauren can meet me, so I’ll not have to wait as long now. I want to get a beer and lunch at NYPD Pizza, but since I’m stopping for another phone call at an ARCO payphone, I figure I should go ahead and grab lunch there. I wish I’d gotten pizza. I’ll be digesting this tuna sandwich the rest of the day. Fuck. I’m behind schedule and I want to puke. It looked so tasty. Gas station food always fails to please.


I’m behind schedule.

My ex-wife lives around here, and I have about two miles to internally debate whether I should make the quarter-mile round trip detour to knock on her door and say hello, but a combination of wanting to get back on schedule and “what part of ‘I don’t want to see you’ did you not understand,” makes me decide to press on. I have one half-marathon to go when I cross under I-5, and after that, I’ll be looping around half of Mission Bay via Ingraham Street and Mission Boulevard, but first I have to navigate a nice open stretch along the San Diego River Estuary—a wildlife preserve that brings a small ache to my throat as I realize how often I spent time bird watching and running with my ex-wife along this very stretch of pavement. Oh well. I’ll just have to go bird watching and running with Lauren now. “What part of ‘I don’t want to see you’ did you not understand?”  Enough of that sentimental shit.

Sea World blights the horizon as I push away from the river and thread my way through the crisscrossing thoroughfares surrounding the park. I’m on Ingraham, and it’s a nice vantage point to see the whole of Mission Bay. There is a small island in the middle between the two Ingraham Street bridges, and I opt to jog across the grass for a short pit stop. I’m not going to get back on schedule, and when I hit the concrete on the bike path around the northwestern corner of Mission Bay, I realize I don’t even care if I get back on schedule. For those that have ever crossed into long distance running, there is a distinct difference in the hard surface of asphalt and concrete. The latter is the worst. The average person doesn’t understand it, but to put it simply, you can hammer nails into asphalt, and concrete is hard enough to shatter the head of your hammer. Anything after 15 miles, and concrete is devastating on the knees and feet. At 39.2 miles, the Riviera Shores Trail is a huge obstacle—solid concrete for two miles. Running and walking in spurts of 100 meters continues to drag me behind schedule, and on the far end of the bay, with another borrowed cell phone, I leave a message for Lauren with the news that I won’t make it on time, so don’t rush to leave work. I’m glad I got a haircut and shaved. With this Air Force ABU short and my low fade, I look vaguely military. These houses are worth $2 million each, and I doubt it’s every day they get a dirty sweaty man on their patio asking to borrow a phone. No one calls the police on me as far as I know.

Belmont Park is off to the right as I merge on to Mission Boulevard and cross once more over Mission Bay. I can smell the ocean, but I can’t see it—only the black waters of the bay. I’m not supposed to jump off the bridge according to some cited California code. This state can’t even afford to pay its police, but they are concerned with yahoos and bridge jumping. Weird place.

Sunset Cliff Boulevard will be the only place I glimpse the Pacific Ocean today, and I think next time I do a 50-mile run in San Diego, I’ll push through La Jolla or something to stay along the coast.. Sunset is the corridor from Mission Boulevard to Nimitz Boulevard and the hell that awaits me.  It’s only 2.4 miles to Harbor along Nimitz, but it’s all uphill during heavy traffic, and the bike lane is minimal. My soles are already pounding from the beating they took along the bay. At least I’m going against traffic on this one and don’t have to add overzealous traffic cops to my concerns on this chunk of the journey.

By the time I arrive to harbor, my gray shirt has a crust of black from the exhaust fumes. The steady consumption of these same fumes has left me light headed and my feet still ache. Now is the point in which I finally face my punishment for not changing socks, and the blister on the ball of my left foot feels like a tennis ball. I don’t want to inspect it though, because I worry that if I see what my feet look like, I might not want to continue. Ignorance is painful bliss. 3.4 miles to go. Concrete for the rest of the way. I need to walk again. I need to call again. I’m now officially late. Lauren will worry. I’ll borrow a cell phone. She’s at the pier. Broadway Pier. Next to the USS Midway Museum. My destination. I don’t know how much longer it will be. I want to finish. I’ve been walking a lot. I have blisters. I want her to drive along Harbor and find me to cheer me on, but she’s worried she might miss me. She has no idea where I am. It’s for the best. Like taking my shoes off, if I see her, I might want to stop. I need to finish. I turned the GPS function on my watch off a while ago to conserve the battery. I cared more about knowing what time it is than knowing how far I was going. Is it 2 miles now?  I should call again. Pay phone. Start walking my way. I can see the USS Midway from here. God I hope that’s the Midway. 41? Is that the right number?  I don’t know.

I walked the last mile without even trying to run. I was an hour late. She met me about 300 meters from the finish with a cherry smoothie. God, I love this woman.

Does the summary even matter?  It’s required I guess, but does anyone care?  After a few pictures, she takes me out to eat, to a pub that wasn’t too far away, but as we walk from the sunlit parking lot into the shade of the downtown buildings, I begin shivering uncontrollably, and I can barely stand up. My jaw hurts from trying to control the teeth chattering. I’m a borderline hypothermia case at 80 degrees. That’s got to be unique. She rushed me home to a hot shower and more shivering as I lay on the bottom of the tub with the water running over me. Finally, I’m good enough to have dinner at Juan Chou’s, a Mexican-Sushi place in South Park. A night of fever awaits me, and I’ll generate so much heat as my body finds homeostasis that Lauren can’t share the covers with me. I’m burning up. I’m leaving tomorrow night. How did a week in San Diego pass so quickly?