The Epiphany

I can’t label this a race report because The Epiphany Ultra isn’t a race. It’s more like a loosely organized escapade. It follows the grassroots Fat Ass tradition of a free, self-sufficient group run, and it doubles as a birthday celebration for UltraRunning publisher John Medinger, whose January 6 birthday coincides with the Christian Epiphany.

The date may be holy, but the run is ungodly.

The event flier listed four options for distance:

  • The Real Deal 60-miler (in honor of John’s 60th birthday)
  • The Popular But Wussy metric option, 60K
  • The Absurdly Feeble But Increasingly Fashionable Almost ‘thon, 25 miles
  • The Hardly Worth Mentioning Celsius Version, 13 miles (actually 12.5 miles and “Celsius” because “60 degrees F = 15.5 degrees C, so you’ll be 3 miles short if this is all you do. But since this run is totally pathetic, like, who cares?”)

Any weather-related precautions? The flier advised, “It’s the dead of winter: be prepared for anything. The run will be held, rain or shine. Or even during famine or pestilence.”

Aid stations? “There probably won’t be any. Deal with it. … Invoking an unusual concept in this litigious age, you are responsible for your own well-being.”

Prizes? “All finishers will receive free entry into next year’s race!!”

And the fine print: “Should I die during the event, I hereby bequeath all my worldly possessions (excluding children and ex-wives) to the Birthday Boy. I attest that I have sufficiently trained for this grueling event and that I am truly studly and in awesome shape. So there.”

A downpour drenched our house at 5 a.m. last Sunday while I pondered whether to go to Oakland’s Redwood Park to join the small group for The Epiphany. Misery loves company, I rationalized, but that didn’t seem like a good enough reason to get out of bed.  Then I thought, Company transcends misery. The prospect of running with others made me throw back the covers.

I was in dire need of a steady, long run after a month of minimal mileage. And I needed to process all the holiday nuts, candy, chocolate, and wine that turned my gut and brain into fruitcake. But more than anything, I wanted the kind of epiphany that only an endurance challenge can bring. The PBW 60K (37 miles) became my goal—but the Almost ‘Thon (25 miles) would be a fallback.

I met my old friend Adam Ray, the event’s organizer, at the dark and foggy start at Redwood’s Skyline Gate. “Is this a joke?” I joked, looking at the nearly empty parking lot. He chided me, “Are you here to blog about travel to Skyline Gate?” No, this wouldn’t qualify as a destination piece. But I did hope to find a new spin on an old trail.

Pretty soon a dozen others joined us. Turnout was low, but more people joined later under the start-whenever-you-want guidelines.

It was a dark and stormy dawn at Skyline Gate on Jan. 2 in Oakland ...

At the start, I joined Eric Wilson, Adam Ray, and David La Duc.

We sang “Happy Birthday” and took off sliding in the mud down the Stream Trail. Three layers of clothes covered my upper body, but still my teeth chattered for the first mile while I slipped and sloshed through puddles. I wondered again, Why am I doing this? No answer came. Epiphanies take time.

That's me crawling under a downed tree on the Stream Trail. Human, or hobbit?

Christine Chapon and Christina Haldenwang emerge from the redwoods as the sky lightens.

The course goes out and back on the most direct but arguably least interesting route from Skyline Gate to the Lake Chabot Marina, even running along the paved shoulder of Redwood Road for a little ways rather than staying on the Golden Spike Trail. (For a more scenic way to cover these sections of the regional parks, follow Miles 11 through 26 of the Golden Hills Marathon course.) The redwoods look pretty no matter what, but the glorious views from the top of MacDonald View couldn’t be seen on this overcast day.

At the top of the MacDonald Grade, clouds concealed the views of Chabot Regional Park.

No, it's not a big puddle, it's Lake Chabot!

I chatted with my friends Christine Chapon and Lance Fong, but most of the time I ran solo in a groggy but peaceful state of mind. I ran, and ran, and … there was nothing remarkable about it. It felt tough and hearty but bland, like someone forgot to season the meat and potatoes.

A passerby shot this photo of me in the sloppy mud around mile 21.

I passed the turnaround and caught up to Lance. “You go on, I’m pooping out,” he told me. Then I reached Dave. He groaned and mumbled, “Code red.” So I wasn’t the only one having a lackluster day.

My legs stiffened, and I couldn’t get my mind’s inane prattle to shut up. Hey, how ’bout that blister on my fourth toe? I wonder when the rain will clear so I can wash my car. I need to add tissue boxes to the grocery list. I like the quotes on the Trader Joe’s tissue boxes but can’t remember what those sayings say.

Epiphany, where are you?

Life is good.

Wait, what was that? Life is good.

About four-and-a-half hours into the run, that simple saying simply hit me. No parting of the clouds and sun glinting through the forest canopy prompted it. It just barreled through my brain, like a snowplow pushing all the tedious thoughts and feelings to the side. Suddenly I felt I was in the church of the redwoods, saying a prayer of gratitude for the health, peace, and family that allowed me to be there on that morning. Life is good, even in the mud, even when my Achilles tendon feels as brittle as a dried-out branch.

I returned to Skyline Gate (Mile 25, the Almost ‘thon’s finish) with every intention of running a couple of hours longer. At my car, I scarfed down trail mix and changed into dry socks and a dry shirt. Then I started running the course again. But I caught a chill I just couldn’t shake. My hands felt like ice, and my whole body felt as stiff and cold as a Popsicle. I thought about the stuff I needed to get done at home and how I really could use some extra time in the day. I decided to turn around when I saw Christine and run with her back to Skyline Gate.

Pretty soon she came along and smiled big when I said I’d run back with her. We climbed the last hill together, and I had a couple more mini-epiphanies: Not all runs feel good, but that too is a good thing. A crappy run or disappointing race heightens appreciation for the blissful, record-breaking ones. And company does transcend misery. Knowing I was on the course with others created a comforting sense of camaraderie.

When I got back to the car, my watch showed my mileage at 27. An Absurdly Feeble ‘Thon-Plus.

It was a great start to the new year, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

At the finish with Lance Fong and Christine Chapon.

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