Richard Provost had been running through the Angeles National Forest since 5 a.m. Saturday. He had set out in the cold and dark with 60 other runners and now, more than 21 hours and 97 miles later, the breathtaking sunrise and the beautiful sunset were memories. It was cold and dark again.
He had left the other runners behind--some had given up at the early aid stations and some were still dragging themselves up and down the grueling mountain trails. Provost had a big lead, and he was taking it easy over the last miles, running alongside the fresh pacer who was there to help him find the yellow tape that marked the last turns through the foothills and would guide him out of the woods and onto the streets of Pasadena.
He knew he was just minutes from a triumphant finish on the grassy picnic grounds outside the Rose Bowl. His girlfriend and son and a handful of ultramarathon aficionados would be there to celebrate his victory in the first Angeles Crest Endurance Run--his first 100-mile victory.
But those last few miles seemed to drag. And not because of exhaustion. He kept checking his watch and wondering why he was still in the woods. Why were the last miles taking so long?
Finally, while making his way up another steep grade that he thought should not be there, he asked his pacer, Tom Galbreath, to backtrack and be sure that they had not missed a turn. Meanwhile, he continued up the trail.
About five minutes later, Galbreath came sprinting back, shouting that he was off course and that another runner had taken the lead.
Provost retraced his steps, found his way out of the woods, and stepped up his pace. He passed his training buddy, Jack Slater, with a little more than a mile to go. He kept up that pace and won in 21 hours 52 minutes, seven minutes ahead of Slater.
While Provost hugged his girlfriend and calmly announced, "I feel great. I'm just fine," Galbreath was surrounded by race officials eager to know where he and Provost had been for the last half-hour.
There were aid stations and spotters set up all along the trail, and at each checkpoint, radio operators were reporting runners' progress to headquarters of the Sierra Madre search-and-rescue team, which was charting the progress by computer.
Provost had left the Millard campground at 1:11 a.m. and was reported to be running strong. When it got to be 2:25 and he still hadn't come off that mountain trail, there was cause for concern.
Like a blip disappearing from a radar screen, Provost had disappeared from the computer printout.
Galbreath, sweating, panting and shaking his head, could not explain just how it had happened, but he said that they had missed a marker and missed a turn.
He added in a tone of disbelief: "He's amazing. He ran an extra 20 minutes, at least, and he still won. He had to come from behind after all that. He ran the last mile at a six-minute pace.
"I don't know how he did it."
It was hard to believe that the 40-year-old corporate banker from San Pedro who was standing there on steady legs, needing just a minute or two to catch his breath and not even looking for a place to sit down, had just run more than 100 miles.
He was getting quite a welcome from his family and his fellow Point Fermin Flyers, people who were relieved to see that he had not, after all, tumbled over a cliff, wandered off in a daze of exhaustion, been eaten by a bear or been shot by a deer hunter.
But it really wasn't much of a welcome for someone who had just completed such an awesome feat. The first runner to complete 26 miles 385 yards over the streets of Boston each year is greeted by cheering crowds, hordes of reporters and smiling corporate sponsors.
Provost ran more than 75 miles farther and was greeted by one reporter, one photographer and a "crowd" of people he could call by name, all standing in the light produced by one portable generator and the headlights of cars and campers turned on to light the finish.
The Rose Bowl itself was dark and silent. Earlier in the evening, 48,000 football fans had gathered at that sports monument to watch UCLA beat Cal State Long Beach. Now, even the grounds crew had left and all was deserted, save for the little camp-like area where a radio truck and a couple of tents marked the end of the runners' trail.
As Slater came into view, finally visible through the darkness when he was about 50 yards away, Provost politely stepped aside to give Slater a clear finish line for his big moment, and then he came forward to give Slater a hug of congratulations for finishing his first 100-mile endurance run.
Slater appeared to be as sound as Provost and they stood there, casually comparing notes and chatting about the run as if it has been a Sunday morning bird-watching excursion.
Slater finally agreed to accept a lawn chair and something to drink. Provost went to put on some warmer clothes.
So why aren't these runners about four times more exhausted than marathon runners? Why no swoons at the finish line? No rubbery-legged staggers? No vacant stares?