The 100-Mile Man

By the pony rides in Griffith Park, the early morning scent of horse dung and grass is heavy in the air as several runners stretch their bodies before setting off through the hills on a nearby trail. This is where many of the city’s top long-distance competitors train. Among them is Guillermo Medina, for whom a 26-mile marathon would be considered child’s play. He is an ultramarathoner, which means he races 50 and 100 miles at a time, sometimes more. Today he is training for a 50-mile race along the American River near Sacramento. Last year, he came in second, running at an eight-minute-per-mile pace.

Medina and others who run 100-mile contests, such as the Angeles Crest race in the fall, do not try to run five-minute miles; for them, the goal is to run 100 miles in a day. It is a race they fight alone.

This week, Medina has an abdominal injury, but he still ran 30 miles yesterday and intends to run 35 miles today, distances most marathon runners would never attempt. Right now he is in the midst of his first 10-mile loop through the park; I hope to run the second loop with him.

Of course we are not evenly matched — he finished his very first marathon, the 1996 L.A. Marathon, in 3 hours and 45 minutes. I ran the very same race in 4 hours and 12 minutes. Since then our regimens have diverged. He became a running zealot while Achilles tendonitis forced me to quit the life. Yet here I am, jogging again, all these years and pounds later. I’ve only been running 4 miles each time out and have chugged along like a Bill Clinton caboose; I am not sure if I am prepared for a 10-mile run. I’ve gotten injured other times when I’ve run too many miles before my body was ready for it.

But maybe I won’t have to run today. It’s after 7 a.m., and except for his burgundy SUV, with its "Runmemo" license plate, a nod to his nickname, there’s no sign of Medina. Maybe he’s forgotten me and taken a different course. I step into my car and prepare to call his cell phone number when I hear a knock on my window. It’s Medina, dressed in sleek sweats and holding a water bottle.

He tells me he has a cold but would be glad to run another 10 miles with me. Medina removes his sweats, inhales a vegetable drink and clips his water bottle around his Tiger Woods waist. He has the classic runner’s build: tall and lean, with taut thigh and calf muscles. He wants to lose another 5 pounds but at 150 and 5’10" he is devoid of fat.

"Are you going to stretch?" I ask.

"I don’t usually stretch," he says.

We start running north on the horse trail past the golf course. It’s beautiful here, mountains, trees, and then a huge pile of trash — mattresses, tires, slate rocks and dirt.

We’re running faster than I am accustomed to, but I am able to converse with him and learn that his wife used to beat him at marathons. In 2002, he won the Rio de Lago 100-mile race in Sacramento. Last year, he came in second place in the Angeles Crest 100-miler. His time was 19 hours and 30 minutes.

As I begin to slow down after a couple miles, Medina tells me that there is a mountain lion in the park.

"Don’t worry," he says. "It’s on the other side of the hills. I’ve seen the tracks."

He also tells me that he’s hoping to see some deer. "They’re out at 6, 7 in the morning. Then, they hide."

As homo sapiens, we are one of the only species built to run a marathon, let alone an ultramarathon. Dogs, lions, deer don’t have that endurance. But neither do I today. Despite all the stretching I have done, my thighs feel rusty, so after three and a half miles, I tell Medina that I will meet him back at the parking lot. I don’t want to slow him down any further than I already have, and I doubt I can maintain his pace any longer.

Even though he will be running three more miles than me, it is possible he will beat me on the way back. As I retrace my steps, I see a blue sign on the highway: "Hospital," it reads ominously. A man on horseback who holds the reins of two horses approaches. "Are the pony rides that way?" I say, pointing south.

He points in another direction.

Oh, no, now I’m going to get lost. But it occurs to me that he may not have understood my question, so I continue on the same course, trying to remember areas I previously passed. I see tall cypress trees bordering the golf course. These I recognize from my drives on the freeway.

Not long after that I notice the garbage heap. I am quite glad to see this pile, particularly a tree that seems to be sprouting leaves in it.

Finally, I see Medina’s car in the northern edge of the lot. I’ve beaten him back to the finish. I stretch again and wait. Another runner arrives.

"Have you seen Guillermo?" he asks me.

"No, I’m waiting for him."

"He and I went into the hills together," says the man, panting, doubled over.

I remember the mountain lion and think about running through the Angeles Mountains in the dark on a 100-mile race. You might encounter cougars and rattlers. You might have to carry a flashlight and wear a helmet with a lamp like a miner. Running an ultramarathon replicates our perilous days as primal men, on the hunt for meat.

Twenty-five minutes pass, and now Medina, the hunter, returns from the forest. He still has the cold, and says he feels lousy.

"You still want to lose 5 pounds?"

"I probably just did," he says.

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