The next 100
After surviving a near-fatal collision along the American River Parkway levee, an Auburn runner readies for his 57th hundred-mile marathon
Bill Finkbeiner’s at his best in the mountains, negotiating rugged fire trails, rocky terrain and rushing creeks. He advances for hours, flanked by trees, unkempt brush, wildflowers, dirt, rocks, mud and snow. In his preferred distance, he experiences dawn twice.
Marathons and 50-milers are fine; the 62-year-old landscape contractor can rely on the expertise of a nearly 40-year running career.
The Auburnite’s favorite test is challenging 100 miles. He’s done it 56 times, often enduring thin air in the Rocky Mountains and the undulating Sierra Nevada.
But the 57th attempt will be Finkbeiner’s hardest.
Fourteen months after he was hit by a wayward bicyclist on the American River Parkway levee, he’ll brave the Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado on Saturday, August 18. Nicknamed “The Race Across The Sky,” it begins at 4 a.m. and twice reaches the 12,600 foot-high Hope Pass. The time limit is 30 hours.
“One month or so ago, I was thinking, ’Maybe I shouldn’t do this; this year isn’t going that great,’” Finkbeiner said. “I was in a lot better shape last year, and I was lighter. But then I just thought to make the recovery complete, or as complete as it’s going to get, I feel like I need to finish this.”
On June 13, 2017—finishing a casual after-work jaunt he’s done with friends hundreds of times—Finkbeiner was catapulted from behind. His body pummeled, abruptly deposited face-first on asphalt and gravel.
“When he woke up, he wanted to get up and keep going,” said Lisa Downey, a Sacramento nurse among the friends exercising with him. “He knew who the president was, but he didn’t know the day. So I knew he was concussed.”
Finkbeiner looked worse than a pulverized boxer. The aftermath, shown on multiple websites and Sacramento-area television stations, is a gruesome vision not easily forgotten.
His left hand, particularly his thumb, still doesn’t work correctly. He’s lost his sense of smell and taste permanently. His lower back is in near constant pain, often leaving him unable to walk erect. Physical therapy and CT scans have been commonplace in recovery. Finkbeiner wears several new teeth and a vertical scar near his right eye. Lacerations, multiple facial orbital and skull fractures, have healed to varying degrees, but he can still feel soft spots on his head.
The running ambassador
Still, he’s lucky.
“My doctor told me the gash about one inch from my eye was very close to a fatal injury, if something slightly different had happened in that part of my head,” he recalled. “There are martial arts practices used to fracture the same bone to kill people.”
The incident occurred during a several-month span when Sacramento’s recreational artery became increasingly unsafe. In one incident, several cyclists and runners training on the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail were pelted with rocks. One friend’s husband, a skilled amateur cyclist, was knocked down, his bike trashed.
The parkway lost its innocence many years ago, but recent violence and mishaps have required users to become more vigilant. Sections of the 32-mile trail are avoided, though problems have occurred from Discovery Park to Folsom Dam.
But this may have been an accident.
“I don’t think the guy intended to harm Bill,” said Beth, Bill’s wife, also an ultrarunner. “He was just careless and stupid, and that’s why it occurred. Then it comes down to holding someone accountable if they don’t intend to hurt someone. I think that’s what Bill wrestles with.”
Finkbeiner’s finished the Leadville Trail 100 30 times, seven more than anyone else. It’s an unfathomable achievement, even in a sport rich with overachievers who thrive on daylong runs and sharing their ordeals with enthusiasm.
“When [the incident] first happened, I was so certain that a day, or a week, or three weeks later, or even in a month or so, I was going to be 100 percent,” Finkbeiner said. “I thought I was just going to get up, go to my truck and drive home to Auburn.”
A graduate of Rio Americano High School, Finkbeiner began “serious” running on January 1, 1980. The exact date is significant; It’s when the husband, father of two adult children, vintage car collector, historian and volunteer began a daily running streak. Irony derailed it after 13,679 days, or nearly 37-and-a-half years. Finkbeiner returned to work four months after the incident, where his longtime job relies on physical labor.
For decades, Finkbeiner ran on the foothill trails not far from his home, and he’s trained through less-traveled paths in the high country. He’s pumped water from creeks, seen wild animals, gotten lost, fallen, become dehydrated and suffered horribly from poison oak, the trail-running curse. He’s laughed with friends through it all in extreme temperatures, and in the middle of the night.
Ultrarunning, or distances longer than a marathon, has other not-so-pleasant considerations. Finkbeiner is prone to sleepwalking during 100-mile races. Vomiting is accepted because it usually means runners feel better and improve their chances to finish.
“A hundred is different than any other event because you’re just out there long enough so that everything has a chance to hurt,” Finkbeiner said. “In a 50, you might not feel much of anything. You might have a blister or a little bit of chafing or something.
“But in a hundred,” he continued, “everything hurts at some point during the day, or the second day you’re out there. It’s just the time, and staying awake and all of that.”
A daylight walk/run on a wide, unobscured levee shouldn’t have been problematic. It’s a popular location, a short distance from the Howe Avenue thoroughfare and its cluster of businesses and residences.
Finkbeiner and his companions recall hearing only the beginning of the phrase “On your right.” It’s a verbal courtesy among trail users. Too late; Finkbeiner was down, out and amid a sizable amount of blood before he could react.
The cyclist veered down an embankment and was restrained by one of Finkbeiner’s friends. But Finkbeiner’s well-being was more important, so the culprit was released and he pedaled away.
Finkbeiner initially said he believed the cyclist didn’t hit him intentionally. He’s now reconsidering his legal options after he received notice from the district attorney’s office that it wouldn’t press charges because a crime couldn’t be proven.
“I’ve just got several issues going,” Finkbeiner says. “The main one that would affect my livelihood is not so much my left hand, it’s my back. I just don’t know if it’s aged me 10 years or what it did. It’s probably my biggest problem now. It’s a bigger problem than not being able to smell or taste. It’s just the uncertainty of whether I can work.”
With the incident, Finkbeiner began another streak, albeit dubious. He didn’t run for 100 days and then began to exercise again on a loop near his home.
“It’s a pre-dawn token run [of] about 1.5 miles around the neighborhood,” he said. “I did it a lot when I just didn’t have the time to dedicate to a workout. Now, I do it just to loosen up.”
The running ambassador
A few days into his hospital stay at UC Davis Medical Center, a friend, Denis Zilaff, a Sacramento ultramarathon veteran, and I visited Finkbeiner in his room. He was gaunt and covered in gauze, salve and scabs. He’d lost more than 10 pounds. His thrashed legs were thin, his face swollen.
Minutes after we arrived, an occupational therapist entered the room to test his cognitive skills. She had a series of numbers and phrases for her patient to remember and recite, which he did easily. I began to chuckle and nudged Zilaff. We knew our injured friend had a great memory and fondness for numbers and distances. He once memorized Pi to 200 digits, far past its common 3.14 reference.
Finkbeiner doesn’t calculate Pi during runs. But he will sometimes count to 100 and then start again. He has to talk himself into stopping.
Training partners know well Finkbeiner’s passion for numbers and distances. Running to different sections of the trail are exact, 1.63 miles, for example. He can recite finishing times from races 30 years ago, and he knows other runners’ times and finishing places with uncanny accuracy.
Because of his longevity in the sport, Finkbeiner’s finishing times in 100-milers have varied by about 10 hours. The weight he carries on his 5-foot-9 frame has fluctuated nearly 40 pounds through the years.
“Bill knows every step on the Western States trail to the 100th of a mile,” Downey said. “I found that incredibly amazing. Well, he did get us lost on another trail once. But that’s OK.”
Like many in the sport, Finkbeiner is captured by the lure of the trail. It’s a time-consuming pursuit accomplished around jobs, families and other interests. Camaraderie is abundant. It’s common for runners to finish, recover and then assist others may have taken twice as long. It’s what attracted me to the sport in the early 1990s after interviewing mainstream professional athletes for for 25 years. I became part of the ultra community, learning a new sport among new friends who were all in it together, egos checked.
In March, nine months after his accident, Finkbeiner completed the Way Too Cool 50-kilometer, the first of three ultras he’s finished during his recovery. He placed in the top-third of the field in just over six hours. A short while later, he returned to the waning miles of the course to offer support.
“I didn’t know he was going to come out to get me,” recalled Zilaff, who was recovering from injuries and is the only other runner to officially finish all 29 editions of the popular event held in the foothill community of Cool. “When we saw Bill, it was just a breath of fresh air. It kind of lifted my spirits and it brought me in.”
Finkbeiner can recite his career with clarity, but he’ll only do so if asked. It’s a time capsule of hundreds of races and training days with friends. He’s rarely considered an elite athlete, but he has won about a dozen events, and he’s run 50 miles more than 300 times. One mutual friend told me after Finkbeiner’s 30th finish at the Leadville 100 a few years ago, he was asked for his autograph in local restaurants. Finkbeiner awkwardly obliged.
Perhaps to a greater degree than his running accomplishments, he’s a running ambassador, leading by example. Seventeen years ago, he accompanied Patti Haskins, a deaf runner, start-to-finish in the Western States 100. Finkbeiner learned the words Gatorade and water in sign language. The two runners met a few times before the race and communicated during it with a notepad and pen, and Haskins finished in just under 29 hours.
“It definitely ranks in one of the top-five running days I’ve ever had,” Finkbeiner recalled. “I got complimented for what I did for her. But I got more out of that day than she did, probably, or at least as much. It was awesome.”
After completing the Leadville 100 several years ago, Finkbeiner gave his finisher’s belt buckle to a longtime running friend recovering from cancer. With two friends, he trained five women, including Downey, for their first 100. For many years, Finkbeiner has served as a group pacer for runners at the California International Marathon. He’s groomed trails with his own work equipment because he can, and he’s dropped water in remote places for friends the night before long runs.
“The one thing Bill has always had is that strong mental tenacity to get him through all the 100s he’s done,” Beth said. “It’s what many people, including me, respect about him.”
She is more impressed with her husband’s acceptance of his permanent injuries.
“I used to joke with friends when Bill was leading up to his 20th Leadville that was going to be his 20th and final, because that’s what I was hoping,” Beth said. “Now he’s done 30 and going for 31. That’s how he is wired and he doesn’t see a need to ever stop.”