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FIRST PERSON

She Didn't Know the Race Was in the Bag

November 03, 1996|SUZANNE SCHLOSBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My boyfriend, Alec, has come up with some pretty loopy ideas, but recently he topped himself: He suggested I run around Yerington, Nev., with a 50-pound sack of chicken feed around my neck.

Let me explain.

On a road trip last spring, Alec and I were driving down the Extraterrestrial Highway, the actual name of an actual road in Nevada where UFO sightings are frequently reported. We stopped at a diner for pie, and Alec noticed a flier on the window for an event called the Great American Sack Race. I assumed it was one of those three-legged races and dismissed the idea instantly.

But Alec, a veteran cop with instincts for the peculiar, kept reading.

"You don't hop in the sack," he said. "You carry it. For five miles. You're strong--you could do this!"

According to the flier, the event dated back to 1910, when five farm workers from Wabuska bet their boss, Harry Warren, that he couldn't carry a 120-pound sack of wheat into Yerington, 10 miles away. Harry won the bet and the Great American Sack Race was born.

Alec read the rules aloud: "Sack must weigh 100 pounds for men and 50 pounds for women. Sack cannot have straps, belts or buckles attached to it. Sack must be carried by corners with hands." The prize money was $1,000.

I had to admit I was intrigued. Surely this was not the wackiest idea hatched along the Extraterrestrial Highway.

*

On the way home to the Bay Area, I stopped at a feed store and bought sacks weighing 25 and 50 pounds. My plan was to start light and gradually build up strength and stamina; meanwhile, I'd beef up my weight-lifting routine at the gym.

At first, I carried my 25-pound sack everywhere--to the supermarket, to the post office, to Starbucks for an espresso Frappuccino. On long walks, to take my mind off the crushing shoulder pain, I'd listen to radio shrink Dr. Laura Schlessinger berate her callers. One day a woman asked Dr. Laura whether it was a bad idea for her to date a married co-worker with three ex-wives. My first thought was, "Is this woman insane?" But as I shifted my sack to relieve the pressure on my trapezius, I realized that perhaps I was not in a position to judge.

Oddly, nobody in my neighborhood ever raised an eyebrow--as if it was perfectly normal to stroll around suburban San Francisco carrying a sack of chicken feed while wearing a Sony Walkman. The only person who exhibited even an ounce of curiosity about my sack was my Fed Ex guy, who saw it on my doorstep and asked if I owned a parrot.

After a month, I was ready to graduate to the 50-pounder. Alas, it was too great a leap. Hunched over like Quasimodo, I shuffled along for one mile before the pain on my clavicle got so bad that I collapsed in agony on a park bench. Demoralized, I stopped training with my sack.

But I knew I still had to compete. I had paid my $100 entry fee and told several friends. I was in deep. Though I was too discouraged to continue training with the sack, I vowed to show up at the starting line.

*

Two months later, Alec and I loaded my 50-pounder into the car and drove to Yerington, a high-desert town of 2,800 with no stoplights, one supermarket and a weekly newspaper that reports bowling scores. (Cheyenne Auto Body was leading the Night Owls league by 3.5 games.)

We parked on Main Street and walked into the casino for a bite to eat. That's when I started to get nervous.

"Maybe I should buy some bananas to fuel up," I said, as if 40 grams of carbohydrates could compensate for two months of inadequate training. But I was overcome by laziness and the smell of hot apple pie. I ordered the pie.

Later, while Alec played the slots, I went outside to register for the race. Just then, one of the male competitors emerged from a big, silver pickup truck. My jaw dropped. My eyes bulged out. He was Fabio--only blonder, taller, more tan and more muscular. He carried his 100-pound sack like it was a feather pillow.

Only three women besides me had signed up for the race, and, while they did not look like German shot-putters, each was daunting in her own way. There was Myleen, who had trained with a 66-pound sack. There was Meri, who was doing warm-up sprints down Main Street.

Then there was Vicki, winner of the last sack race in 1992, returning to defend her title. Vicki was a personal trainer and a marathon runner. More alarmingly, Vicki was eating GU (pronounced "goo"), a pudding-like gel that's popular among endurance athletes. GU is made of maltodextrin, sodium citrate and calcium carbonate. I wondered if apple pie had any of those ingredients.

After we weighed our sacks, the race official announced to the crowd of 200 that it was time for the Calcutta. "This is Nevada," he reminded everyone. "Nevada is a gambling state." The crowd would be betting on us.

When the auctioneer called my name, I timidly walked out to the middle of Main Street so the spectators could look me over. Apparently, I was a none-too-impressive sight. "Do I hear $50?" the auctioneer asked.

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