“The body is not mechanical. The body is biomechanical. You don’t wear out like a machine, you break down muscle based on load and then build it back bigger than before. The body adapts,” said the man sitting next to me on the bus. He told me his name was Rob. We were chatting excitedly as we wound through the wrinkled California desert towards Nevada, about to run the Death Valley Trail Marathon. I had asked Rob if he got the usual warnings from all his friends and family about how running long distances would blow out his joints. “Oh yeah,” he said. “But I’m 60 years old and my knees have never felt better. Besides, we’re runners. What do they want us to do, just sit there?” He was the kind of guy who took pride in telling people how old he was. He looked and talked like a man 10 or 20 years younger than his age, and I told him so. “Thanks! It helps if I keep my hat on,” he said, revealing a bald head. We talked about running with our dogs and how far they could go. His was a husky so he had to keep her on a  leash which he said was a major ergonomic drawback. We shared our experiences with barefoot running and injuries. He’d had pneumonia only a few weeks before. We talked about our need to be outdoors, our hatred of cambered asphalt roads and our love of trails.

This was my first trail marathon. I quickly discovered, talking to Rob and many others, that trail marathoners were a slightly different breed. First of all, they swore that trail running was the secret to their longevity. Second, quite a lot of them were obsessed. A thick Sonoma blonde was aiming to complete 40 marathons before she turned 40 in a few months. She’d also done Iron Man triathlons. Doing a marathon in each of the 50 states was a common achievement. Ultra marathoners were a dime a dozen. Another woman had a Western States 100 mile ultra marathon shirt on, which I asked her about. She had run it twice and she looked great, a very sweet middle-aged woman with a less athletic husband by her side, handing her gear before she left.

The age seemed to skew higher for this race, too. Plenty of people in their fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and even eighth decade were running. Many of them had run a crazy number of marathons, or so they claimed. One man said he’d run 47. Another said several hundred. The winner of the marathon mania was a white-haired guy who claimed to have run over a thousand. Later I spoke to a lovely woman in her 50s (she told me she’d run a fifty miler for her fiftieth birthday a few years ago, but I’d have never guessed her age either) from Alaska who had trained entirely on a treadmill. “I did a calculation and for that guy to have run as many marathons as he said, he’d have to have run one a week for the last 26 years,” she said.

I was near the front of the pack when the race started, so I took off too fast with all the guys. I quickly slowed while scores of runners past me. Using my analog watch I guesstimated a run-five-minutes, walk-one-minute pace. The first five miles seemed hard, which I blamed on the altitude. Several around me mentioned that it was difficult to know how fast they were going, since there were no mile markers. But at mile 5, the first water stop, I checked my pace and figured I was on target. Little did I know terrible uphills were coming. Around mile 8, the three Sonoma gals in frilly skirts were encountering trouble. As I ran past, I heard “You know how you smoke weed? Inhale it like weed.” One lady was telling her friend, the 40-under-40 girl, how to use an asthma inhaler. A few minutes later, we all caught up to each other on a walk break and I asked if 40-under-40, further back, was OK. “Oh yeah, it’s just that she’s done a marathon every month for the last 14 months, so she treats them like they’re nothing, but she did 400 squats two days ago in Crossfit.”

Some time later, on another walk break, I found myself next to 40-under-40. She was down in the mouth. “How’s it going? I heard you’re doing a bunch of races before you turn 40. That’s so cool. And hey, 40 is young,” I babbled. She seemed like one of those high-maintenance white chicks. She didn’t look at me or acknowledge what I’d said, but started to cry: “I think I’ve hit the wall. My friends said they wouldn’t leave me behind but they are.” “Oh… well… I hope you feel better,” I said, starting to run again. Eight miles was too soon to hit the wall, for me anyway. I think in the end she and her friends finished well before I did. I pondered ultra runners’ compunction for extremism, and wondered if it was an American or a Western or a broadly human tendency.

The scenery, as you can see from the photos, was spectacular. The weather was perfect, around 60 degrees. Altitude was not mild: We peaked around 5000 feet, which I hadn’t trained for (not that I really could have). There were long stretches of the race where I was completely alone, as you can see from the videos I took. Others confirmed that they too had plenty of alone time.

The only minor setback I experienced was not a surprise: At mile 20, having run downhill 6 miles already (the last 14 miles are all downhill), my right IT band began to seize up. This has happened on both marathons I ran previously too, though much earlier. My only option was to run 30-60 seconds until the IT band started hurting, then walk 30-60 seconds while the pain subsided, rinse and repeat. The three miles through Titus Canyon took an eternity this way. At one point I heard shuffling footsteps behind me and turned to see a bent old man in a yellow belly shirt and shorts approaching. That gave me a little motivation to push harder — my pride wouldn’t let me be passed by an 80-year-old. Coming out of the canyon at mile 23, there was one last water stop. “How’s it going?” the woman serving Gatorade asked me. “I felt fantastic at mile 20. Let’s leave it at that,” I said. “I understand completely. I’m not asking,” she said. The old man caught up with me and a few others there. He was bleeding from his knee and shoulder. “Another old guy saw me coming and tripped me,” he joked.

From that point, we could see the busses gleaming in the sun, waiting for us three miles away. Though many really wilted at this point, especially because the terrain was very rocky and unforgiving. For me, busses were sufficient motivation and I took off running and didn’t stop this time (no pain either). I got a little ego boost knowing that I’d passed some who had been consistently in front of me. However, it shocked me that the race took fully an hour longer to complete than my first marathon ten years ago! Indeed, I came in last place in my age group! My ego is definitely wondering how to regain my middle-of-the-pack status. I reminded myself that my goals were to finish (I had trained for 11 weeks, which is not long) and not hurt myself. Also, as I saw at the awards ceremony, even winning times were slow compared to road races — at least a half hour slower, one guy told me.

I see more gluteus medius exercises in my future, to combat the downhill IT band syndrome. I find it interesting that it only kicked in during the race, never during training. I feel gloriously fine now. This alone is a vast improvement over my last marathon folly, which left me injured for three years. Though I can’t say that I’d repeat the Big Sur or Oakland marathons, I definitely want to run Titus Canyon again!

Under the right circumstances, the body is not mechanical, it’s magical!