Let me explain.
On a recent road trip around the West, Alec and I were driving down the Extraterrestrial Highway, a barren stretch of highway in southern Nevada where UFO sightings are frequently reported. We stopped at a diner for pie, and Alec noticed a flyer 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 flyer, the event dated back to 1910, when five farmworkers from Wabuska, Nevada, 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. It is now held every four years in Yerington.
Alec read the rules aloud: “Sack must weight 100 lbs. for men and 50 lbs. 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 Berkeley, I stopped at a feed store and bought sacks weighing 25 and 50 pounds. My plan was to start light and, over the course of three months, 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 were perfectly normal to stroll around the East Bay 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 carbohydrate 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 Bulgarian shotputters, each was daunting in her own way. There was Mayleen, 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, a type of betting pool.” “Nevada is a gambling state,” he reminded everyone, as I stood there horrified. When the auctioneer called my name, I timidly walked out to the middle of Main Street so that the spectators could look me over. Apparently, I was a none-too-impressive sight. “Do I hear $50?” the autioneer asked.
“Fiftydollarsfiftydollarsfiftydollarsfiftydollars?” He heard nothing. This was depressing.
Meanwhile, where was Alec? Wasn’t he going to put his money where his mouth was? Finally, he raised his hand and bought me for $50. (When I asked him later what took him so long, he said, “Hey, man, fifty bucks is fifty bucks.”)
Then all nine of us competitors—five men and four women—gathered to hear the race official spell out the rules: We were to complete eight laps around the town. If our sacks touched the ground, we’d be disqualified.
Minutes later I heard over the loudspeaker, “Runners to the starting line!” This sent me into a panic. All along I had assumed this was a walk—I’d even spent $80 on special walking shoes. I turned to Alec: “He doesn’t mean that literally, right? I mean, there’s no way you could run with 50 pounds on your back, right?”
I don’t know which one of us was more shocked when the gun fired and my eight fellow sack racers charged down the street in a sprint. Not only had I failed to train with the 50-pound sack, but I had not run in at least four years. Inside I was screaming, “Wait! Stop! Let’s discuss this like rational adults!”
At this point, I had two choices: I could quit the race and spend the rest of my life listening to Alec complain about having thrown fifty bucks down the toilet. Or I could give it my best. Clenching the ends of my sack, I took off in a slow trot, hoping to run two miles and walk the rest.
But after a couple blocks, adrenaline took over. Suddenly, the sack didn’t feel so heavy. I picked up speed. I passed Mayleen. I passed Meri. Then Vicki. I passed three of the five men. With three laps to go, I had built a one-minute lead on Vicki.
But then she started gaining on me. With a lap to go, she had cut my lead to 30 seconds. I picked up the pace. The crowd was cheering as I turned the final corner and crossed the finish line.
I was so thrilled that I forgot to take the sack off my shoulders. Several spectators came up to shake my hand. One woman hugged me. They all wondered where I was from and how I had trained. I wondered what it was like to live in a town with people that friendly.
And then, with the local sports columnist in earshot, I made perhaps the dumbest comment ever uttered by the winner of an athletic event: “I haven’t won a trophy since the I won the good citizenship award in fourth grade!” (Sadly, this fact made its way into the paper.)
At the awards ceremony I received my $1,000 check, alongside the men’s winner, who’d beaten me by six minutes and Fabio by one minute. Alec won $240 in the calcutta. I insisted he buy dinner.
Suzanne Schlosberg is the author of Fitness for Travelers and coauthor of Fitness for Dummies and Weight Training for Dummies. She has no intention of defending her title in the Great American Sack Race.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.