“See you next weekend. Good luck and, As always, should you or any of your Ultrarunning Acquaintances be hurt or killed, I will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”
That was the message I received from our contact before we departed this past Saturday, Feb. 11. John (my spouse), Christian, Yoko and I carpooled to a secret location in the pine tree-covered Santa Cruz mountains. We met our enthusiastic fellow running club member Colin, who made me laugh. He said he had been telling “everyone at work that I’m running in a secret race — bought me some serious street cred.”
I pointed Christian toward last year’s fastest guy Jean and jokingly told him to follow that guy. (Later, I saw Christian sprinting and he caught up with the guy.) I had read the run report from last year’s top finisher Jean–he had been “stunned” that the first ten-mile loop, the easiest, took him two hours to complete. I knew it would be easy to get lost.
The forecast was for sun all day for the Second Saratoga Fat Ass non-event, but it was 43 degrees and raining when we arrived. The rain and low temperatures would last all day. (A rain cloud hovered over this part of the mountains, but it was sunny on the rest of the peninsula.) We put on our rain jackets, packed our maps and fuel, water belts, and we started running.
What is a Fat Ass?
A FA is basically a flash mob for trail runners. This course consisted of three loops of ten miles each. Runners were invited to do as much as they wish. I’m just a beginner runner (at long distances). I have only ran one other FA so far, but I have grown fond of them. The FA rules:
“No fees, no awards, no whining.”
My plan was to run as much as I could within six hours. I tried to keep my partner Yoko in sight, but lost her within 15 minutes in the dense forest. I ran the rest alone, but with help from other runners who pointed me in the right direction. Luckily, other runners had made arrows out of branches, which they placed on some trail intersections. Loop one was my favorite. At one point I edged around a boulder with a steep ravine below using cables to guide and hold onto. Thankfully, the valley was obscured by dense clouds or I would have been nervous about the drop below. as I crawled across slippery boulders.
Thick green moss covered the trees and signs read, “Do not eat the mushrooms.” Some boulders resembled large faces.
The First rule
“of Fight Club [Fat Ass] is you do not talk about…” When I yet again got off-course, I met David who ran with his son, had marked courses for races and helped me get on the right track. While most wore rain gear with hats and carried water bottles and fuel, the strong, white-haired man wore minimal attire: thin Fivefingers shoes, a t-shirt and light shorts. I tried to make small talk and asked him if he ran with a running group named BARF. He paused, pointed to a woman and said, “No I’m with her.” His eyes darted back and forth, cautiously.
“It’s a Fat Ass NOT a Fast Ass”
I returned after the first loop to the parking lot, frustrated, because I was so far behind partner Yoko and friends. Judith, who I knew through a running group called BARF, was there. (BARF was started by two friends when they were in their 40s and who are now in their 60s. The youngest 20-something member was known by the founders from birth. One of the oldest is a 65 year-old woman ultra runner.) Judith asked me if I was looking for two guys in blue vests (Colin and John). I said, “yes.” She laughed and told me that those two repeatedly went off-course. They sometimes appeared ahead, and other times behind her group. John and Colin had left on the second loop about 45 mins ago.
It was not the coordinator’s fault that navigation was difficult. His directions were fine, but some sign posts were uprooted and lying on the ground. I could not see the position of the sun because of the rain cloud that hung over the mountain. Many, including my lost buddy, did extra loops by accident. A guy who ran this course for his fourth time got lost.
I started the second loop, mistakenly thinking I could get through it faster than the first. I struggled up an endless ascent on two miles of Travertine trail. My six-hour cut off time passed. I was soaked, muddy and upset, but rallied my hazy, tired mind to focus on the way home. I had one energy gel left, and opportunities for potable water refill stops were ample. “Relentless forward motion.” I recalled Coach Will’s words.
The best part about this Fat Ass is meeting trail runners from all over the area, — and that the happening was free. There were runners in about their 20s. I was helped by ultra runners in their 60s. There was true Friendship through trail running. Back at the parking lot, John said friends and a couple of top guys from the Quicksilver running club (who got locked out of their car) waited in the cold rain after they finished. He invited them and our friends into our car to warm up and share food.
I finished after about ~25 mi., running only two of three loops, doing a slow samba more than a run. It was my first time running that distance in my weeks-old New Balance 110 trail shoes. The lugs worked well on slippery rock and the protective plate in the sole, which I don’t have in my other shoes (the lighter, more flexible minimalists: VFF Bikila and NB Minimus trail), protected my feet well in the rocky areas.
Runner-strangers greeted me, asking me if I was ok. I had no idea why they were so nice. Then, Christian greeted me and told me the John-Yoko-san search party just left looking for me, along with the car, dry clothes, & food. A smiling Adventure Anna had offered to run the course backward to help find me. Christian took a photo of me finishing. He said I looked fresh. I was smiling. (Strange what running does to you because I recalled being miserable and starving at that moment.)
When we regrouped, we shared onigiri rice cakes that Yoko had kindly made for us, Christian’s high calorie cookies & PB, chocolate soy milk, and electrolytes. Then we all piled into the car and drove away from the mountain top. The weather was bright and sunny. When we looked back, we could see that the rain cloud remained over the forest. We headed over to Lyfe Kitchen for serious eating and sharing stories of our adventure.
What I like about trail running
The FA had elements of everything I like about trail running: the physical challenge of running long distances on various terrains and elevations, forest, new adventures, discovering new flora and fauna, meeting new people, feeling humbled by the beauty and power of nature, learning from elder runners, navigating through strange places, meditation. Through trail running, I’ve met the most inspiring, gracious, and strong ordinary people running extraordinary distances.
For runners considering becoming Fat Asses next year:
“Fat Ass runs are not running races as such, and they are not public events. It’s more like a fun day out. Some people may record times but this is not the prime objective. If you are looking for a running race then there are heaps of real ones to choose from elsewhere.” — Cool Running
Don’t get too fixated on finish times –yours or others. Some runners didn’t register or record their times on the FA website this year. Furthermore, times cannot be compared equally because many people reported getting lost. (Everyone from our group went off-course –though we carried maps, turn sheets, and text descriptions.) Most seemed to be running easy as if training for upcoming major ultra events. Overall, it was a nice way to train, hang out with friends, and learn about the area trails.
Would I do this again?
He__ yeah! Well, maybe I will run only the first scenic loop –plus chill-ax and prepare a mini-aid station, sustenance, and space blankets for my fellow runners next year.
Thanks: team BRC (Yoko-san, John, Colin, Christian), Yoko-san-John search party, Adventure Anna who offered to help find and rescue me, Christian (1st BRC’er to finish) who cheered me at the finish, our contact “The Secretary” for coordinating, David and Kat for helping me find my way. Shout out to BARFie Judith. Thanks for the fellowship and positive energy. See you Fat Asses in 2013!