"So we're good?" I said.
The woman at the rental car place couldn't hear me behind my mask, or see me smile.
Why am I smiling when she can't even see me smile?
I probably sounded more like: "Soweger?"
"What?" She said anxiously -- there were three other customers in masks waiting in the parking lot, and she was the only one working.
I couldn't hear her too well but could read the question from the tiny wrinkles in her forehead: confusion.
"So we're good?" I said, this time a little louder, breaking between words.
"Weger" she said with a nod.
You have to talk a little louder when you've got a mask that covers your mouth and nose -- the noise barely gets out. And for someone who doesn't like talking much to begin with, this is a monstrous task.
But it's necessary -- it's May 22, 2020, and we're living in a world of COVID-19, AKA The Coronavirus, AKA The 'Rona, AKA Covid, AKA The Rid.
You get the idea.
It's got me, along with most of the country, raging in fear.
I don't want to die alone in a hospital bed on a ventilator at 35. Or worse, pass it along to my wife, or my parents.
So I've got this unbreathable mask my wife bought me with newspaper lettering covering my face, and gloves.
Little did I know that a life as a germaphobic introvert would train me well for this.
Normally this would look a little ridiculous, and it probably does, but these aren't normal times.
I've got about 36 hours to drive just over 1,100 miles from Denver, Colorado to El Dorado Hills, California. And my wife -- Liz, to help with the trip.
The only way I was about to get Liz to come along and help with the driving was tell her we could stop along the way and take instagram-worthy photos of the places we'd never been, along with witnessing a Sub-4 mile.
I left out the part that there wasn't a whole lot of scenic spots between here and there.
She'll figure that out along the way.
Over 170 years ago settlers trekked over the Rocky Mountains to California in search of gold. In some ways, this road trip is quite similar.
See, the real reason behind this road trip is that a half dozen of the best high school milers set up this "low-key" sub-4 mile attempt in Northern California, and I've got to cover this historic feat, or watch the stream over and over again on my computer at home, regretting why I didn't take this trip.
And I don't do regrets.
So, here I am.
Picking up my rental car so I can journey over the Rockies in search of gold.
My original rent-a-car wasn't here for reasons that defy booking a car in the first place. But I was "gifted" in a sense an even cooler car - a gray Dodge Charger I quickly named The Fuzz, since it looked like an undercover cop car.
Traveling across the west in this will be fun...
I slid into the Fuzz, eyeing every little piece that I'm about to clean over with a clorox wipe and Lysol.
Even though it had just been cleaned from top to bottom, I've come to only feel comfortable when I'm the one cleaning.
These are The Days Of Corona...
Liz quickly went to work spraying down the seats while I wiped every little crevasse with a wipe while the Enterprise lady looked on in confusion, likely thinking I just did that...
What did the last person touch? The steering wheel. The gear shifter. Windows. Seatbelts. Volume adjuster. Air conditioning. Door knobs. Windshield wipers.
I rolled off the lot feeling a little pretentious - cars flying by where already pumping the breaks, assuming I was undercover.
Perhaps the aviators weren't helping any.
Or maybe they were.
I pushed the gas and instantly felt the power underneath the hood. It was like I was in my early 20s again. A young stud, spiked up and shifting gears between 30-second and 32-second 200 intervals. That feeling of sheer effortless speed.
Now my right achilles barely lets me shift any gears at all. I'm a one-speed townie.
Times sure have changed...
Halfway home to pack I realized one important thing -- the overworked lady at Enterprise never gave me a key for the Fuzz.
The journey's first set-back occurred before I was even out of the city.
The delayed journey out of town did nothing to dampen the mood - Liz had the back seat packed with sandwiches, chips, and fluids, and there was nothing but open road in front of us.
And a ton of RVs.
Driving up and out of Denver and into the mountains along I-70 we were surrounded. RV here. RV there. Every other turn there was an RV in the left lane, thinking they could out-race another RV in the right lane. Meanwhile I'm sitting on their shoulder waiting for an opening in Lane 2 to sprint on by.
Everything can be related to racing on the track.
And hey, I'm on the way to cover a historic feat - The Quarantine Clasico!
Cruising west on the early spike of caffeine and adrenaline I had no intentions of stopping much through Colorado's high country - Summit County was hit hard with the 'Vid, and Liz was a little concerned that the Corona could be sleeping on any gas handle or number pad. So I minimized my fluid intake as we sped onwards to the less-populated western slope.
Winding through snowcapped mountains I tried not to drink much of anything, much less think about it. But by Grand Junction I was ready to burst.
That morning coffee had made its way through my digestive system, and was ready to make its exit.
I veered right off the highway for the first time since Denver and took a few tight turns into the nearest clean-looking gas station.
Mask On: Check.
Every little movement felt dangerous, but I was determined not to be That Guy. I scurried into the gas station masked up with a 303 Running hat and dark sunglasses, unwilling to take them off until I washed my hands.
I swung the door open and quickly moved passed the curious clerk at the counter towards the back of the store where relief awaited me.
As I passed by the candy isle a woman in a dark jumper by the refrigerators turned, eyes wide, and threw up her hands in fear before running out of the store.
It wasn't until I was halfway to feeling better in the bathroom that I realized I still had my sunglasses on.
I took a second glance at myself in the mirror while washing my hands, trying to see what fearful person she had seen.
Yeah, I guess the speed-walk to the bathroom, along with the covered face could look pretty intimidating...
But didn't she see the Fuzz outside?
I'm undercover, and on assignment.
My hands were practically caked dry before I was done washing them, a common theme in the Days of Corona.
I'm used to it.
I hoped back in the Fuzz and turned west once again. We still had quite a bit of driving ahead of us, and every mile done today would be one less for tomorrow, when we'd be racing the clock to get to El Dorado Hills, trying to break our own imaginary four-minute barrier.
Onwards into Utah the speed limit went to 80 so I put the cruise control a few ticks over and let my mind wander.
I scanned the reddish peaks to the south near Moab while the theme of Westworld echoed around and reminisced back in time.
Driving On Adrenaline
That intricate little piano riff echoed in my head while I thought back to the first Sub-4 I witnessed -- on television.
I was 16 when a teenage Alan Webb kicked around the pros at the 2001 Prefontaine Classic Mile to shatter Jim Ryun's high school record. I jumped up and down my couch watching on our TV, screaming as if he could hear me.
Webb ran 3:53.43 that day.
My mind shifted gears, moving forward in time to what was ahead of me.
"You think anyone will run that fast tomorrow? Like Alan Webb fast?" Liz asked after seeing me gazing off at the desolate red landscape to the south.
Whenever I go quiet she brings me back to the moment with one of those "what's on your mind?" prompts.
So naturally, it was Saturday's mile.
"Probably not that fast, but definitely under four..."
"You think they're fit enough to do that?"
So, back story. My wife Liz is a runner herself. She ran D1 at Kansas State - the 1,500/mile in fact, and we actually met on a college recruiting trip. Long story short, she understand's what's good, what's bad, and what's in between- she's not one of those, "Is that good?" when someone breaks 4.
"Based on time trials, yeah."
"So, how many do you think will break it?" Prodding. Always prodding. The way spouses do. But I appreciate the prod - more often than not she helps me find my angles before I ever set my pen to the paper because I've already talked it out.
"At least one, but up to three, I think," I said. "Leo, Cole, and Thomas have the best shot, it just really depends on how the race turns out. Easton maybe too, I'm not sure of his mile fitness though."
"What do you think has to happen for them to break four?" She said.
My mind shifted into athlete-mode. I played out the race in my head, what would I do? What would work best, given the talents of each athlete. How one beats the other. And vice versa.
"Well, Cole needs a fast, consistently-paced race. If they're at 3:01 with 1,200, he'll do it. Leo's a kicker - he went 1:49 in a 800 a few weeks ago. So he's got some legit speed. And Thomas went 4:05 two months ago before the season went down, so he should be within range by now... And what's exciting is that all these guys have only race one or two insanely fast time trials, so they should be a little sharper now because they've raced."
The answer seemed to satisfy Liz, and we both went back into our individual trances.
We turned north on Highway 6 - a two-lane highway heading towards Provo - and my mind went back into seeing the race unfold. It was a great distraction from where I actually was - sitting in a car for hours on end.
I was driving on adrenaline.
Time moves slower when you're sitting in the passenger seat, and this was the only way to work out the details of it all: driving.
South of Provo, we stopped for fluids and immediately became self conscious that we were in a new state - we were the only ones wearing masks. Well, not including the clerk behind a plexiglass window at the counter.
I prepared for another potential fear-full encounter, and even had my go-to of raising my hands up in innocence. This wasn't my first rodeo. Ahmaud Arbery's case isn't isolated. I'm just fortunate enough to be tan, but not too tan.
People do stupid things out of fear.
I've come to accept this fact, given that I'm 6 foot and 3 inches, tan, and fully bearded underneath my mask. Flying in the late 2000s sharpened my understanding of people's fear.
Fortunately, all there was in the gas station south of Provo were glares. Confused, bemused glares. Some even chuckled.
I don't mind looking odd if it means being safe.
Somewhere near the back, Liz spotted a ironic t-shirt that read "Just Found Out My Normal Lifestyle Is Called 'Quarantine.'"
I've been making that same lame joke for months about how my life hasn't changed much since the 'Vid hit the streets.
A writer works from wherever, whenever. And for me that mostly means from home in a pair of sweatpants or shorts and a loose t-shirt.
I'm always home.
I lived this way before staying at home before safety was an actual thing. If anything, now I know my neighbors a lot more since they're home.
Oh how the times have changed.
Despite the soreness from immobility creeping in, I bound through the store with a little pep because I knew this would be the last stop before we get to tonight's destination: the west side of Salt Lake City.
'Social Distancing Enforced'
Being in the final third of a drive is as exciting as being on the final lap of a mile race. You know you just have to endure the pain and soon it'll all be over.
Back on the road we twisted and turned as the hills turned into soaring mountains all around us. Rivers and creeks sliced and diced through lush green valleys, creating deep crevasses I couldn't help but peak at while gripping the wheel.
I drove down and out of the mountains from the hills and soon everything was in front of us. There was Starbucks. Chick-Fil-A. Target. Costco. Walmart. Dominos. Stoplights. Cars. Trucks. RVs. Break lights.
We hadn't seen much for hours, since Grand Junction really, and now coming out of the hills there was an overload of colors and shapes as we descended into Spanish Fork to link up to I-15.
Back on the highway the speed limit sent us cruising north up the Salt Lake Valley, which was covered in a mysterious red cloud.
"Aw, we can't see the mountains!" Liz lamented. She had her phone ready for action and there was no action.
Just like Spanish Fork, the entire valley was alive. Construction everywhere. My mind drifted back near Moab. All that open space and barely anyone to breath in that desert air.
Here everything felt saturated with life.
Seven or so hours of driving amongst very few travelers makes this feel stressful.
Our final destination was a Ramada Inn by the airport, and I could feel Liz's disapproval before entering the hotel.
"Next time, I'm picking the hotel..."
I laughed to myself. The joke was on her - I already booked Saturday night's hotel.
Perhaps it was the abundance of orange cones surrounding the hotel. It had a deserted feel to it in a way that's either good or bad and nowhere in between - they're either improving on things, or everyone already ran to the hills in escape.
I parked out front and stretched my legs, letting the blood rush back into them. Already, it felt good to be in one place for the night.
A day on the road in constant movement is exhausting, and we still had three ahead of us. I forced my mind not to go that far and get tired about something I hadn't yet done. Back to the checklist before walking into a public place.
Mask On: Check.
The hotel had revolving doors which appealed to my germaphobic ways - I hate touching door knobs. You never know who else touched them, and what they touched before that. Did they wipe after relieving themselves from last night's bean-filled chili? Maybe they sneezed into their hands and they've got the Rona. Maybe they licked their fingers after picking their nose. And then they opened a door.
Strolling into the hotel towards the front desk I saw the strangest, most makeshift plexiglass window I've ever seen. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's just industrial sized Saran Wrap.
I felt bad for the guy behind it because he could barely see or hear through it.
Back to the loud-talking.
"Hi. I've got a reservation." I tried to articulate the words while half-yelling through my mask, and smiled again enough though he couldn't see me smile.
Why am I smiling?
"Name?" he said, speaking with his eyes. Or maybe I've just come accustomed to the next line after "I've got a reservation."
Behind me music was cranking out of the speakers from the hotel bar, and I could hear that welcoming white noise of conversations.
Oh, I miss going out...
A sign read "social distancing enforced" in black magic marker, though I knew I wouldn't be partaking.
I've grown quite fond of the scent of bleach and Lysol, and the only smell coming from that area was Corona.
As in Coronavirus.
I got my hotel card, parked the car, and grabbed the pre-assembled box that Liz had packed. All of our cleaning supplies.
First thing: clean the room. Again.
You never know what happened in this room. Maybe someone sneezed on the pillow. And they've got the 'Rona. What did they touch? Spigots in the bathroom. The toilet handle. The TV remote. Light switches.
Liz sprayed down blankets while I wiped the counters. I didn't notice anything dirty, but if we were going to sleep peacefully, we'd have to do this or let it linger on our minds all night long.
It's a process we've quickly come to master in the Days of Covid.
I opened a window to catch some fresh, non-toxic air.
The irony wasn't lost on me - if the Coronavirus doesn't get us, something else will. Like inhaling too much toxic spray from cleaning. And what about all this antiseptic soap that's drying my hands? Could it be seeping into my skin? Into my bloodstream?
The silent killer...
My back ached from the drive but I knew we had to do this before exhaling. Particularly with the mist of cleaning supplies lingering in the air.
I felt rough and tired, slightly sore but anxious. I knew Saturday was The Day. The Quarantine Clasico! My mind was already there, striding along the track, watching the race, hoping for a Sub-4.
The Perfect Photo
No time to waste.
I woke well before the 7:00 a.m. alarm, terrified of getting on the road late. I could feel additional weight behind my eyelids, lightly a little fatigue from Friday night's drive, but I knew that today it didn't matter how tired I was. Only one thing mattered - getting to the track on time.
I wiggled my toes and stretched my right achilles back and forth to get some blood flowing before putting either foot on the floor. That first step would be much easier with some loose muscles.
I'm getting old.
Liz was fast asleep, and for the next half hour I contemplated when to wake her. Too early and she'd be in an unpleasant mood for much of the morning. Too late and I'd be counting miles and minutes trying to calculate how fast I'd need to drive across northern Nevada to get to the race on time.
It was a balancing act
By 7:30 she stirred and I sensed soon she'd be up - victory! I had dangled the prospect of stopping by the Bonnerville Salt Flats the day before in an attempt to give her additional reason to wake up early for an Instagram photoshoot.
The pitch worked.
By 8:15 mountain time we hit the road with unintentional cold coffee - perhaps it was a day old.
I don't know.
Eleven hours and 15 minutes before race time.
Driving west out of Salt Lake City, the mountains were in view and surrounding us on all sides. My head was nearly locked right, glancing over the Salt Lake to the north, and back west to the jagged mountains that we would slide through in the coming hours.
West of Salt Lake City were two lush valley floors countered by high sweeping mountains that stretched south. I figured Salt Lake City once looked like these less-populated valleys.
An hour and half into the drive the entire landscape north of I-80 turned flat and dry for miles before mountains came storming out of the landscape.
The Bonnerville Salt Flats sat to the right, and I steered off the highway towards what appeared to be a rest stop.
The pavement ended to the west side of the parking lot where a dirt opening led down to the salt flats. Nearly a dozen other cars and trucks had made their way down and it seemed almost like we were breaking the rules.
"Is this cool?" I said, driving over to the opening.
"Wait, wait no! What if we get stuck?" Liz said.
"It looks dry... Plus I'm only going where other cars already went, so we should be good..."
Liz leaned out the window to carefully eye our projected route. There was no going back now.
I parked the car and hopped out to the salt flats, which quickly caked onto the bottom of my shoes.
"Did you bring your cam-" Liz asked, stopping short of finishing that one, knowing that of course I did.
Who do you think I am?
The salt flats stretched for miles west, north and east, and looked like a scene straight out of the first Iron Man.
I unloaded my Canon 7D, and took a few portrait mode photos of Liz from varying angles - you have to get multiple shots, and even then, you need more than you think because that perfect shot exists out there somewhere.
According to Liz.
Apparently there are unflattering angles, and I'm not allowed to ever take a photo of my wife from them.
We swapped roles for a minute while Liz got behind the camera and I got to force an awkward smile.
I allotted about half an hour at the Salt Flats, giving us plenty of time to take a few hundred photos from every angle possible. And then more, because you know - that perfect shot is always elusive...
I swapped between phone and camera, while Liz took panoramic photos with her phone.
I constantly eyed the time, counting the minutes in my head. There was very little room for error.
"Liz, we've got about five minutes."
"Ok, ok! One more photo though." She walked over the back of the Fuzz and placed her phone on the trunk.
"How about my feet in focus with the mountains all blurred," she said.
Clearly she had scanned through Pinterest on the drive.
I worked around a dozen or so angles of feet-photos. Total instagram-worthy stuff. By 9:45 we hoped back in the car and hit the road.
Back on the highway I pushed the gas to 84 miles an hour and set the cruise control - speed limit: 80.
"This is surreal," I gushed over the scenery.
"It's beautiful, I'm so glad we stopped."
Our entrance into Nevada was as visible as the unique rocky formations highlighting the mountains of West Wendover - wildly colored Casinos lined the curved streets, shaping around the rocky landscape. Once again I found myself gripping the wheel while eyeing the sights rather than the highway in front of me.
Consistent parallel mountain ranges littered the northwest region of Nevada before smoothing out into vast dry desert with sloping hills in the distance.
After several hours of gawking over the landscape Liz opted to take a picture rather than just remember the scene as a one-and-done.
"Ugh, where's my phone?" She asked, slightly worried.
"I don't know..."
"No really Bobby, where's my phone?"
Panic Mode: Engage.
A day ago she misplaced her phone under the seat, and eventually found it after we stopped on the side of the highway, but I could sense in her voice that she might have an idea where she left it.
"I don't know where you left it, Liz..."
After a few frantic moments tossing four days worth of sandwich food around the back seat in search - our attempts to limit contact in the Days Of Covid - she slumped back into her seat, eyeing me with distressed blue eyes.
"I think I know where it is..." she said, putting up the white flag of surrender.
"I left it on the trunk of the car at the salt flats..." she said, leaning up to look at the trunk, not quite so hopeful that it'd still be there after all this distance and speed.
For a moment I considered the distance and time of turning around.
Was it possible to turn back, get the phone, and make the race tonight?
She fought her emotions as the landscape stretched in front of us. We had gone from the highest of high so far in the trip, to the lowest of low.
In other words, she was pissed.
We drove on for nearly an hour in silence before she pulled herself out of the misery of losing your phone. That prized possession that nearly everyone in America owns at this point in history.
Around Elko, Nevada we linked up with the California Trail and I tried to imagine the landscape without the highway or gas stations. What did it likely look like to the original settlers: barren.
What were they thinking?
Well, they were headed to California in search of gold.
What are you doing?
Somewhere lost in my search for wheel ruts in the distant sand Liz brought me back to the present.
"I'm going to track it with that find my iPhone app, just to make sure it's still there," she said with a hint of hope. She had moved on from frustration to acceptance/ problem-solving. "And tomorrow on the way back we can stop to get it."
This was an idea.
Now we just had to hope that A) it didn't fry in the hot sun, 2) get rained on, or C) get picked up by someone.
Descending into Reno all hope was dashed.
"It's moving! What?!"
The phone had somehow made it's way east to Salt Lake City. We sent a "safe text" to the phone so whoever had it could see it was lost, and hey, here's my phone number to call it so we can arrange a safe return.
So we sent out a noise sound I can only fathom.
"Maybe we call it and see if they pick up?"
And then that tiny little moving dot went gray. They turned off the phone.
"They're stealing it!" Liz said, now livid.
I pictured a few punk kids racing to a pawnshop to sell it for drug money. Or maybe they had some outstanding debts from gambling. The most-likely reality was it was probably a pre-teen girl who was hiding it under the backseat of her parents car. Maybe they didn't want her to have a phone, and here she found one in the salt flats in northwest Utah. A gift.
After a few minutes of sheer anger and frustration, she called Verizon to figure out what her next steps were.
We knew the inevitable - erase the phone, and turn it into a paper weight.
The road in front of us began to twist and turn as we made our way out of Nevada, and as if on cue tall trees stretched up from the ground and touched the sky at the California state line.
By the time we entered the Golden State Liz's phone was officially useless, and whoever stole it would have to find out the hard way when they attempted to sell it.
We drove between thick trees that hugged the road, and cruised by the dark blue Donner Lake, which stretched parallel to I-80.
I wondered for a moment what the Donner party must have thought when entering California -finally. Getting so close to their final destination, and then disaster.
A raging winter storm in 1846 to 1847 that stopped them in their tracks and sent them into cannibalism.
Not everyone finds gold - or breaks 4 - in California.
We climbed up and over Donner Pass, passing the Pacific Crest Trail en route.
And then the race was on.
To sync with the chaos in my mind and in front of me I plugged in my phone and blasted Radiohead.
"Everyone around here..."
In California everyone drives crazy fast. Like Atlanta-style fast. And fortunately that's where I learned on the second day of owning a permit, that 70 miles an hour is a stroll.
"Everyone is so near..."
We sped down from the 7,075 foot summit, down towards Sacramento.
"It's holding on..."
By 5:15 pacific time, we rolled into the Best Western in Roseville with about an hour to spare before heading to the track.
Back to the routine: clean the room.
Liz gets the blankets. I get the surfaces. Pillows. Spigots. Toilets. TV remote. Light switches.
You get the idea.
I showered off the day's drive, and we headed out of the hotel just as quickly as we entered. There was a Sub-4 mile attempt on the night's agenda, and I would be there to capture it.
On the way to the track, Cory Mull tipped me off that there may be a much bigger crowd than we had hoped.
"So, Letsrun message boards published the site this afternoon," he said. "So be aware that more people could arrive."
Oh, come on!
We had communicated with the athletes under the most low-key of fashions since we heard of the race's existence -- in a lot of ways, we were just as excited to give them exposure as they were thrilled with the opportunity to make history. And so the less people watching from the stands the better, we thought, because that's the ony way it would remain safe -- that was the only way it would stay within the county's Stage 2 guidelines.
Then someone leaked the location on Letsrun. What good comes from that site's message board anymore? It's all trolls behind screens.
Cue the message board backlash to this story in 3...2...1...
I played out the scene in my mind while we drove the sharp winding roads towards the track. I worried for a moment that too many people would draw the cops. And with cops likely no race. And no race then why am I taking scuba lessons? What's this all been for?
What would this 2,352-mile round-trip be for if there was no race? Definitely not worth a lost-phone and a silent-drive through most of Nevada...
By 7 p.m. there were nearly two dozen cars lining the road.
We walked down a long, gated-off parking lot towards the red track where the lights were already lit, despite the sun still descending into its bed. They stood high and judgmental above the track, putting a big bright spotlight on the night's main event.
Mask On: Check.
Up in the stands were small groups of twos, threes, and fours, all parents of family members of the eight athletes toeing the line.
Halfway up in the stands I spotted a few familiar faces - the Sprout entourage of Cole's mom (Beverly), his sister (Avery), and his girlfriend (Ashley Jones), who sat in a row halfway up, ready to watch Cole battle with the country's best milers.
Seeing them eased the tension inside my mind a bit, and for a moment it was like we were all back in Colorado at some other race with a lot less significance.
Somewhere away from the towering lights and weight of a Sub-4 attempt.
I nervously dove into my best small talk, and I'm not a good small-talker. Beverly sat calm and collected, and later admitted to never really being too nervous for her son's races.
"He's so focused, he knows what he's doing," she said.
It's easy to see where Cole's tranquil aura comes from.
After a few minutes I quickly made my way out to where I could see the track from afar. I much rather be the fly on the wall than standing in the middle of the track with these lights shining down on me.
From the top of the bleachers I set up my camera and made sure I had a view of the entire track. The idea was to film the race in its entirety, no breaks.
Does this camera thing work? Yes.
Record button work? Yes.
Can you move the camera around without falling down a step or two, ruining the video and thus really embarrassing yourself? Let's hope.
Down below the eight athletes set to compete were well within their warm-ups within an hour to Go Time.
Each passing minute brought another spectator, camera in hand, ready to catch a glimpse of history.
Phone-less but eager to help, Liz took control of Instagram off my phone, and dove headfirst into the high-anxiety life of coverage.
This wasn't her first rodeo.
I eyed the clock as I would a competitor, counting the minutes until the agony of waiting was over with.
It's always worse beforehand.
To ease the tension I took a pseudo lap around the track to find the angles, see what they would see. Feel the track beneath my feet.
It was tight, hard, and obviously fast. It reminded me of the mondo track at Georgia Tech from back in the day.
So many years ago.
This would be a great track to race on...
A palm tree stood seemingly out of place just beyond the 200 meter marker, and I wondered if anyone else in the race would notice that when they were neck-deep in the searing pain of a mile's race.
By 8 p.m. crowds of more than twos or three or fours were rolling in. There were legit crowds strolling in.
The once skeletal bleachers quickly filled with small groups sitting with gaps between them. Everyone doing their part to maintain some semblance of physical distance.
Off in the distance, the hills turned gold as the sun began to set to the west. A row of sizable houses caught the last light of the day, and soon the florescent lights that towered over the track were all the more intimidating.
The closer the clock ticked onwards to 8:30 the more my blood raced through my veins. I wasn't even racing but I was nervous enough to contemplate a quick stride or two down the track, for kicks.
Don't be That Guy.
I suppressed this inner urge and clung to the camera, waiting, waiting, waiting for this race to get on with it.
Why am I so nervous? I'm not even racing.
The introductions kicked the intensity into high gear. This was all really happening now, and soon we'd know if there'd be another Sub-4 miler to add to the very, very short list.
And I wasn't the only one feeling the sharp bite of intensity in the air.
Across the stands people sat or stood, releasing their own anxious energy through jokes or high-paced chatter about the race in front of us all, and everyone's an expert.
The one race.
I paused for a moment in awe, absorbing the spectacle of such a vast audience in the stands for one race. Eight athletes.
This isn't normal, but these aren't normal times.
Each exhale brought a wave of fog from my mask over my glasses and I had to constantly wipe them down or miss the scene in front me.
The clock ticked onwards towards that magical minute while the eight down on the track milled around anxiously.
Seventy degrees, no wind, conditions seemed ideal, meaning there'd be no real excuses.
Four loud whistles from the starter in a white hat and gray polo with a wave brought them over to the starting line as everyone began to cheer and clap.
Here we go.
The eight stretched across the track in a lane of their own along the nine possible lanes while the starter gave final intersections.
Two weeks ago, the details of this race were in beta phase, but scanning the stadium in this moment it looked like a full on high-quality production.
The eight shook out their legs and arms under the calm California night, all eyeing some form of history, and in that moment I didn't envy them - my nerves were always the worst while waiting on the starting line.
Spectators in the stands began to clap in unison as the eight on the track crouched tight in their lanes, ready to launch off into this much anticipated mile.
"And they're off! Four minutes to history..."
The pacers jumped to the front and led the pack around the track as the eight quickly assembled into a train that stretched in single file.
I followed them around the track with the camera, nearly losing them in the darkness of the shadows around the curves.
Around the track they went, cruising by the opening 400 in 60-low.
Boyden clung to the pacers while Cole cruised a meter back.
No one ever really needs help getting through that first lap, that's all pure adrenaline.
I watched them through the screen while the race rapidly unfolded out in front of my own eyes.
The pace lagged ever so slightly through the second lap, as they stalled a bit to a 61-high, passing the halfway point in 2:02.
I shook my head while tightly gripping the camera in the same way I had the wheel so many hours ago.
That was today, right?
Another 61 high would almost throw this Sub 4 attempt out the window, save for Daschbach's crazy kick.
Now the real work begins - the third lap. Races are won and lost here, and in this case, it wasn't so much about winning, it was about staying on pace.
The first pacer hopped off the track while the second pacer took over. Boyden clearly felt the pace slipping and hovered a bit more tightly on the shoulder of the second pacer while Sprout and Daschbach hovered behind.
Oh the anxiety!
With 600 to go, Boyden was flying out front with Cole and Daschbach a stride or two back. Boyden hit straight with 500 to go with his thoughts clearly in front of him. Even from high up in the stands it was clear he was determined to make a go of it regardless of if anyone came with him.
Daschbach slid by Cole as they entered the bell lap in 3:02 high.
"The table is set - Dinner is served!"
I followed them around the track, once again, hoping for some miraculous final lap. I imagined the insane burn in the legs and the chest, and soon the arms. Everything gets heavy in that final lap.
At 3:02, with a lap to go, Sub-4 really seemed more like an uphill battle.
Onwards to the top of the track the field dwindled down to three with a legit shot and I could feel my heart pumping through my shirt.
Would they do it?
If I could divvy out the energy I had from just watching, I would've given it out.
With 250 meters to go, Daschbach turned on the burners and kicked by Boyden. He punched the air through the 200-to-go in 3:31 while Cole launched into his kick a second back.
The trio sprinted by the oddly-placed palm tree, still chasing history while the crowd rose to its feet. Several rows beneath me a group of high school kids jumped, rumbling the stands in a consistent hum that shook the camera and echoed out across the field.
Back on the track Daschbach pumped hard and wide, that powerful chest driving him forward while Cole's smooth stride reached maximum velocity.
And then Daschbach. Lit. The. Track. On. Fire.
He shifted into another gear, one very few athletes have, and telescoped away into history.
I kept the camera on him but could barely contain myself. My feet jittered and I strained to keep them on the ground, back in reality where this was all unfolding before me.
I wanted to scream. Wanted to release some physical emotion out, but I knew I couldn't - I had my hands on a camera, sliding down the track firmly on Leo.
The crowd hit its crescendo as Daschbach dipped ever so slightly at the finish line - just under four minutes.
3:59.54 to be exact.
Cheers rang out while nearly everyone stood, arms in the air, mouth open.
That. Just. Happened.
I kept the camera on the finish line, capturing Daschbach crash to the track (later he'd vomit out the chicken noodles he had earlier).
With similar relief I stood back along the chainlink fence behind me, and exhaled quietly to myself.
For just over four minutes I was with them on the track, circling around at speeds beyond me. I needed to get back to that fly-on-the-wall existence to accurately take it all in.
Back to where I could see all the angles, not feel their sharpness on my ribs.
In front of me, chaos ensued as half the stands cleared down towards the track to catch a closer glimpse of the first high schooler to ever break 4 minutes in an all-high school race.
And that was just the beginning.
While all eyes were on the track, the work now shifted from covering all the action to loading it to the website.
See, the irony is that people mostly see the final product. They see a polished story. An edited photo. A smooth video.
Behind the scenes, it feels like anything but.
With the race over, the focus quickly went from what happened on the track, to connecting my camera to a computer, loading, and sending this golden nugget back east to Austin.
While Leo and the crew did their job on the track, now slow internet speed was what was raging through my blood.
It's incredible how helpless you can feel when you realize how much you depend on good internet service.
It's like having a fast sports car and no keys.
By 10 p.m. those judgmental lights turned off, and only a few of us remained in the press box, anxiously and eagerly wrapping up content.
What was it that Ricky Bobby said?
"If you're not first, you're last."
Liz and I sped back to the hotel, winding along those curvy California hills under the cover of darkness, rambling on and on about what we had just witnessed - the 11th Sub 4 high school mile in history.
The energy from the moment accompanied us back and I couldn't sleep for hours, still tinkering through every little detail from night over in my head.
Five hours after finally hitting the sheets my mind was already up with the sun, racing around the track as fast as the eight the previous night, raging headache in tow.
I had 27 text messages and three missed calls.
Who calls or texts this early in the morning?
Or that late at night?
I told myself and Liz that we'd sleep in, take this day at our own pace. No clock. No goals. But I couldn't help myself.
It wasn't that I was eager to get back on the road - I was still sore in fact - I was just absorbing the contents of the previous night's action.
By 10 a.m. we loaded the bags of cleaning supplies and gear, and were back on the road, hot coffee in hand, heading in a new direction for the first time in days - east.
I soaked in the trees and rocky terrain surrounding Donner Pass one more time, wondering how much those houses on the lake cost, and what I'd have to do to one day own one.
Onwards into Nevada, Reno came and went with the windows down and the music blasting. That warm desert air filled our car, sending my locks into a frenzy.
We sped across the desolate region of northern Nevada, still reeling about Saturday night.
We were physically here, but my mind was still in California.
By the time we cruised into Utah the sun was beginning its gradual descent on the day behind us now, taking its warm vibrant rays with it.
My rear view mirror lit up in various hues of gold as the mountains behind me turned into those classic navy blue silhouettes, as if the gold stays west, in California.
My eyes scanned down by the arm rest where my notebook sat, speaking to me through my own illegible scribbling.
Perhaps I had taken a golden nugget of my own.
I steered off the next exit somewhere a few miles west of Salt Lake City to the night's hotel - Liz's choice.
Mask on: Check.