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Feet to the grindstone, ground to the shinbone

Published October 19, 2003

"Hey, Chase," you might say. "What's it like to be a pencil eraser held to a whirling grindstone?"

Well, funny you should ask.

To find out, I trekked to the Rocky Mountain town of Hungry Horse, Mont. ("Official U.S. Supplier of Cold and Desolation.")

There, lunatics in tight clothing drive 50 miles up a Forest Service trail, get out of their cars, and run back to town to a waiting tub of cold beer. Yes, in one day. Yes, by running I mean "on their feet."

It's an annual race called Le Grizz.

So if you've wondered what it's like to see a human being pretty much worn down to the nub, this is a good place to observe.

It's a sporting event called an "ultramarathon." Or "ultramaraton" if you have the official misspelled Le Grizz commemorative T-shirt.

Ultramarathoners are weird. They run a lot. So many miles that their feet bleed. Many other parts of them bleed as well. But they are tough. As tough as their toughened, bleeding feet.

On an Internet discussion group they mull injuries and other aspects of their sport. There are no other aspects of their sport.

Actual comments from real messages:

"After consuming (uh, we'll leave the brand name of this popular energy bar out of this) in an ultra, I would consistently pee blood. Go figure."

"I decided I'm going to have my big toenails removed permanently. Has anyone had this done? What feedback can you give? Happy?"

"I trained for the heat by running in the hottest part of the day, overdressing, and driving in the summer with the car windows rolled up (100 plus degrees.)"

"I have two friends who went into septic shock from strep."

Well, that just sounds like a darn lot of fun. So I joined in at this year's Le Grizz.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

On a Saturday morning, I rode out to the end of the trail with friends Bob and Donna, from Idaho, coaxed along to watch their pal run himself into the dirt.

I was glad for the support. Ultramarathoning is not a big spectator sport. On a national "I-want-to-watch" list, ultramarathons are barely ahead of tennis.

There we were, 73 idiots in spandex standing behind a spray-painted line in the dirt, 50 miles from nowhere - I mean Hungry Horse, Mont.

Our race director, Pat Caffrey, rambled on about a bunch of stuff. Some of it was National Forest Service rules about safety in areas of the course where forest fires left teetering dead trees. Or something.

Then Pat pointed the ceremonial shotgun in the air and pulled the trigger.


Again a try, and again a click.

He looked at the spandex sea and ceremoniously announced, "Oh, just go."

Two miles down the road, we heard a shotgun blast.

What followed was a journey of self-discovery. I discovered two grape-sized blisters on my big toes. I discovered that even in 40-degree weather I could sweat like a farm animal. I discovered that, by golly, 50 miles is "Fa, a long, long way to run."

At 32 miles, a cheerful Jim McKenzie of Livingston, Mont., cheered me up a hill as he ran by. Jim always wears shorts and a tank top, no matter how cold it is. Even in snow.

My cheerful friends Bob and Donna handed me sports drinks. They handed me bagel bits, candy, carbohydrate-rich goop and pretzels.

By 35 miles, I was ready to kill my cheerful friends Bob and Donna.

"You're doing great," Bob would say.

"I hate you," I would mumble to myself. "And I hate bagels."

At 47 miles, a guy puked at the Hungry Horse Dam. If you've got to let 'er rip, doing it over the side of a 564-foot-high dam is a fine way to go.

And then, after a final 3-mile uphill push, a scramble through a wooded path and up a cliff, it was over. Cheerful Bob and Donna greeted me at the end.

The run took me 9 hours and 47 minutes. It took the winner about three hours less.

I swore I'd never do it again.

I gimped over to the cold beer and took a sip.

I'm back home now. It's warm. I'm sitting.

I'm going to nail my feet to the floor.

Except ... there's this 50-miler up in Hernando County next spring, and I wonder ...

I'm thinking about having my big toenails removed permanently. Has anyone had this done? Happy?

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