How Not to Run an Endurance Race

Reprinted from the Big Bend Sentinel with permission from Sasha von Oldershausen

How Not to Run an Endurance Race by Sasha von Oldershausen 

first published in The Big Bend Sentinel on January 22, 2015

For most, running an ultra-marathon requires months of training and hundreds of hours of conditioning to build up the endurance to accomplish such a feat. Or, if you’re Jeff Matheis, you just wing it. I met Jeff because he needed a ride. He had signed up to compete in the “Big Bend 50 Event” 50-mile race, located in Big Bend Ranch State Park. And while Jeff, a Marfa resident, operates under a go-big-or-go-home philosophy, he’s not necessarily the kind of guy who makes plans. Days before the event, he still hadn’t figured out how he would actually get there. Since I had planned to cover the race, I offered him a spot in my car, along with fellow Big Bend Sentinel reporter Sarah Vasquez.  We made arrangements to share a room at the El Dorado hotel in Terlingua the night before the race. The 50-mile run was scheduled to start at 5:30am the following morning.

In the car, I asked Jeff what his training had been like. Virtually nonexistent, was his reply. But Jeff didn’t seem worried that he had barely trained and would be wearing new running shoes that were too tight, or that he had gained weight over the holidays.  Nor did he seem especially concerned that he came ill equipped for the race. Other runners would be carrying camelbacks filled with water and headlamps to see through the dark. Jeff would be carrying a small fanny pack filled with the mandatory water bottle, his cell phone, two cigarettes and a lighter – “just in case,” he said. He remarked proudly, “I only smoked one cigarette yesterday.”  He told us that he once ran the Chicago marathon, and in an effort to mock the subculture of hardcore runners, he committed to chugging a beer and smoking a cigarette at every other mile. That’s 13 beers, 13 cigarettes. “And I still beat half the guys there,” he said.  Of course, a 50-mile race is not the same thing as a marathon, which is nearly half the length. And the “Big Bend 50 Event” racecourse was no ordinary circuit. The race would take place along a single-track trail with a total climb and descent of 2,000 feet, and a maximum elevation point of 4,500 feet. The city of Chicago is some 600 feet above sea level. Not to mention, Jeff had run that marathon some five years ago. Could he accomplish the same feat at 35 as he had when he was 30? I wasn’t so sure.  But he was confident in his ability. A natural athlete, Jeff said he’d always had a knack for endurance sports. And even though he didn’t have a training regimen, the few times he did run in the past few weeks, he was able to get as far as 17 miles. Of the race, he said, “I’ve never lost a bet to myself when doing something crazy like that.”  On the drive, I wondered aloud if I should put some money on him finishing the race. Later that day, I became convinced that would be a terrible idea.

We arrived in Terlingua just before sundown. As we settled into our room at the El Dorado, I asked Jeff if he had picked up his race packet, which would include all the necessary items for his race – a GPS tag, t-shirt, his number. “Shit,” he said.  With 40 minutes remaining to pick up the packet, we backtracked to Lajitas Resort, where race organizers were handing them out. It was dark when we returned to Terlingua, and we headed to the Starlight Theater for dinner. Sarah and I ordered a drink each. Jeff ordered two.  It was 10pm when we returned to the hotel. As Sarah and I made the motions to get ready for bed, Jeff said he was going to run down to the hotel bar for another beer, and stepped out. I struggled to fall asleep, and wondered why Jeff was taking so long to return.  I was awake when he returned around 1am. I asked him how much he had to drink. Four Guinness beers; seven cigarettes.  At the 3:45am alarm, he was the first one up. Since I would not be attending the start of the race, Sarah and Jeff had arranged to be picked up by another fellow runner at 4:30am. Just as they were about to leave, Jeff realized again he didn’t have his race packet. “I think I left it in your car,” he said to me. I grumbled as I peeled back the covers and slipped out of bed.  At my car, Jeff retrieved the manila envelope containing his race supplies. “I was sort of hoping I had lost it and wouldn’t have to run,” was the last thing Jeff said to me before he left for the race.

I arrived at the starting line at daybreak, and just in time to see the 30K racers off. Later, I would hike into the course trail to see those same runners rounding the last two-mile leg of the race. As I witnessed the pain on some of their faces, I thought about Jeff and how he would have to run more than 30 miles more than that.  I returned home to Presidio before the first of the 50-mile racers had crossed the finish line. At around 5pm, I received a text from Sarah Vasquez that Marfa resident Alli DeFrancesco had crossed the finish line. “Awesome… Do you know about Jeff?” I texted back. “Not yet,” she said.  For a moment, I felt a flash of fear. Maybe this wasn’t just a hilariously idiotic stunt. Maybe Jeff wouldn’t make it. Maybe he was hurt.  Days after the race, Jeff told me, “I knew I was going to crash and burn and I did, of course. I got really bad pain somewhere between miles 16 and 20.” He added, “I was dead and still had some 30 something miles to go!”  

“That’s where it gets interesting at least. I knew it was going to hurt a lot for a long time,” he said.  “I knew I was cutting it very close at the end and was sometimes hobbling forward – literally as fast as I could get one foot in front of the other.”  Miraculously, Jeff had made it with fewer than 20 minutes to spare before the race’s final 15-hour cutoff.  And he didn’t even come in dead last. Of the 42 placed runners – even with three hours of sleep, a night of drinking and smoking, and virtually no training – he came in 40th place.

He never did get around to smoking those two cigarettes, though.

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