I will admit to anyone who bothers to listen that I romanticize running. I am a loudmouth about it. When I first discovered the concept, it was amazing. I wanted to shout – “hey! I ran four miles, this is incredible!”, before four became eight, and so on. If faith can be called a fewness of words and an abundance of deeds, then running to find my true self in solitude, mostly on the trails, became devout. Encounters with animals gave me pause and anchored me to the real world, and books stoked the fire – stories by and about super running people. I now live with the love of my life, who found the amazing thing for similar reasons, and we both paint on that same canvas of experience in our own distinct yet similar ways, going after trail time as continual punctuations in the run-on sentence of our lives together, after work or when parental responsibilities are satisfied, or perceived to be. For me, it’s barely enough.
My need to loudly share this passion is an artifact of the knowledge I carry like a weight that increases each year: I have a limited amount of time to pursue this true love at real distance, after discovering the amazing thing at 44. Knees, IT Band, Hamstring, and the inevitable slowing all broadcast in no uncertain terms that time is of the essence and I have to do this NOW. So, when writing of experiences in wilderness or encounters with animals or people, or racing, it is by both yelling and sharing the braille of my experience, rather than a straight “race report”, because the whole damn thing is so HUGELY EMOTIONAL, so wonderful and fleeting and an amazing gift.
If you’re looking for a blow-by-blow account of my 2017 Western States experience that ticks off miles at what pace and HR laid out in a straight, chronological road map stretching from Squaw Valley to Auburn, well, that ain’t me. Of course there’s some good running, but if you also want to read of someone’s weakness and strength, their soul laid bare, their failures and the victory of love over all else well, this is it.
What are the odds?
Prior to volunteering at the 2016 Western States I was pretty antisocial as Rebekah and I worked to blend our respective families to form our own. Having run Miwok 100K the month before, thereby not contributing at a CRC aid station after becoming a member, States seemed appropriate. Being eligible for the coveted Coastside Running Club race admin. entry that CRC is awarded each year for providing world class support to runners at the Auburn Lake Trails aid station at mile 85 seemed implausible: I’ll never be chosen, I never win anything. And, I wasn’t. During the running club lottery Rebekah, the love of my life, was the one in fifteen pick. Ecstatic, she requested race bib number 111 from the RD, a number with cool symmetry. I pledged to support her in any way I could, to be there for her, to watch our (three) kids so she could train, helped develop a training plan based upon innate knowledge in my limited experience – right or wrong, promised her anything she needed. I had a serious IT-Band injury that manifested in mid-October, which required me to STOP running completely, thereby making me insane, so it was quite an exciting time in our new home. And then two weeks later Western States chose me. In a general lottery of some 4,300 qualified runners I was chosen the two hundred twenty second person to take on the 2017 Western States Endurance Run, a 2.5% probability. 111 and 222, symmetry indeed, as improbable as standing at the finish of a trail marathon in Death Valley just as a sweaty brunette crosses and, when seeing the unreal amount of salt crusted to her face, inadvertently using the world’s best pick-up line in post-race, lizard-brained euphoria: “gee, I should have worn sunscreen too”, and thereby falling madly in love. What are the odds? When the dust settled on the opening of the Western States chapter of our lives, Rebekah was given bib number 221, as we pledged the fidelity of running together, to start together, and finish together, no matter what, and I kept number 222.
I had to heal myself! I pestered friends who gave up precious time to patiently render advice, and do not think I can ever make up for my needy panic during that period. (Ron, and then Kristin with your amazing plan: you were my hope at first; thank you!) Initially I could barely do slow miles around the Terra Nova High track, no hills, no speed work, no real flexibility work. I ran the track at all hours, climbing the fence to enjoy all conditions – high wind and torrential rain, darkness, early morning, afternoon. So much of that boring oval, no trail, all in an attempt at holding on to some sort of conditioning as I corrected imbalances from mid-October to February. In the midst of everything Rebekah took me on a three-mile walk one January evening (best I could do then), up to the bench above the Saddle on Montara Mountain, talking along the way of plans and ideas and our new lives together. It was between winter storms with a bright moon above the crashing Pacific Ocean below that she asked me to marry her. We would get married, we would do this amazing race together, and I would somehow heal my body and train up in time and all would be just fine. I had faith. Finally, on February 14, after three months of focus with my base from running Pine to Palm 100 in September evaporated away, I did a ragged 3-mile street run on a lunch break with insanely high HR, but no pain. And then I was off, from zero to sixty with everything I had, headed for salvation! And during a high-volume week, six weeks into that intense focus on making up for lost time, with plans and ideas and fantasies of running States coursing through my veins, I tore my left hamstring just below my glute. And everything stopped. Stationary again, in utter dismay, unable to simply jog across the Trader Joes parking lot while leaning on a shopping cart, without pain.
There are some talented people in our midst. When I say this, I mean people who really know what they are doing. They are wise, experienced and passionate about what they do in life. They are also busy with their own lives, their families, jobs, their own set of stresses and tight schedules – and they are awesome. I worked with a wonderful woman, Dr. Sue Freeburg, a DC in El Granada whom I was referred to by Franz and Jennifer Dill. She identified exactly what I had done and how, worked on the problem over a matter of weeks, gave me a probability of re-injury as a baseline from which to begin training again, and promoted healing of my leg and body as a system, while taking into account my insane goal with a precision I could not before then have imagined. I was given a plan to carefully train up as I healed, pushing up against a theoretical moving line I could not cross, aware that one mis-step in crossing that line would mean a game-over setback. It was all so damn difficult and precise and full of luck and peril that I have no idea how it all came together or how anyone still talks to me that then put up with me. But it did come together, and it is a testament to Franz and Jennifer Dill’s experience, intuition and patience in pointing me in the right direction, crafting a training plan, and applying careful guidance, that I was able to train up in little more than one month’s time to run Western States. If ANYone ever thinks they are in need of this level of experience, I highly recommend the amazing team of Franz and Jen.
A freaking running fairytale
States is loud. States taunts. States drags dreams from your head that are so far-fetched in waking life and deludes you into actually believing them. States has been called a circus, and it is, or can be. And States can prompt you to make plans in excitement. “Hey – I’ve run this distance before; this should be fine”. “It’s totally do-able”. “44 runnings, it’s a tried-and-true course”. Sure, I read what Dean Karnazes wrote in Ultramarathon Man about crawling through the streets of Auburn on his first try, losing toenails, the exhaustion, and sure we only live two feet above sea level and were facing twenty-plus miles above 6000 feet. And then this silliness: Rebekah and I met at the finish line of that race in Death Valley, such a turning point in our lives so – oh my god, let’s get married at the finish line of Western States!! And that was the plan. A freaking running fairy tale.
Silly people doing the silly thing below the Escarpment
What a trip
2:15 alarm. Coffee. I shower, but really, what is the point considering what lies ahead? Feet slathered in goo, gear laid out, what am I forgetting?! soft-boiled egg breakfast, sunscreen in the dark. Details, supplements, where are the gloves I probably, might, won’t need? Because of the injuries, I never had a chance to race after September, and am insecure. I picture aid tables and my tried and true plan of twenty to thirty seconds at each aid station. I grab a banana on the way out the door. Rebekah’s father is taking us up to Squaw along with my daughter, who to my delight suddenly wants to get up at three and see us off at the start, and I am SO happy she wants to see this amazing thing her dad is about to do. On the road in anticipation and excitement, as we talk and share ideas, I realize that when I grabbed the eggs I forgot the first thirty miles of my race nutrition in the fridge and BAM, just like that, I am lost – spun, angry thoughts swirling like a cloud of mosquitoes. My daughter registers concern, an audible sigh from Rebekah with advice, and I beg for quiet while I fight for an answer. I eventually land in a Zen sort of place after a minute or two. Of the five things that will go wrong today, that is one down and I have only four to go (thank you Ann Trason). We make adjustments (thank you Brett Rivers). What will I eat? Well, there’s supposed to be a runner’s breakfast – pancakes? Will they have bacon? Rebekah gives me one of her bars, and I have one hundred miles in front of me with one protein bar and the mysteries of aid station faire, and it will be okay.
The breakfast is muffins. No eggs or pancakes or bacon; problem number two down. Cliff Bars everywhere. No animal fat, and less protein than I like; damn. Breathe. I am with the two most important women in my life and my father in law. The place gets really crowded with people stalking and adjusting, whispering about other people “did you see who that is?” Derick from Ohio, people from everywhere. Beautiful running people. Outside, we crowd together in that column looking up at the mountain past the clock that counts down, with two thousand five hundred feet waiting for us, and it is with calm excitement that I kiss Rebekah deeply just before gun time. And in that noise and commotion as we all push forward, I forget to worry about what I’ll eat today, about my injuries, about how much snow awaits up top, and every other nagging detail that has crossed my mind over the last six months; the shotgun blast is almost inaudible beneath the roar and excitement as we began the climb.
I hiked my first big ascent during my first hundred miler, and what mere mortal wouldn’t here? In September, I eventually made up pace on the ensuing down, made the cut-offs after, and over the course of nearly thirty hours of running and hiking the Oregon Wilderness succeeded in reaching my goal. So, I do not worry here in the slightest as Rebekah and I climb in the long line with today’s racing family; there is little urgency. We come upon Pete Keating from Widby Island, Washington, his Miwok arm sleeves giving him away. We ran Pine to Palm and Miwok together; now we climb together. I eat a little bar. Road becomes other’s foot-steps through continual snow, and it is slow and I imagine leaders leaping through this mess. I am fine. I am mortal, I am not them. At the top it is glorious, but our photographer is already gone. Luis Escobar, the guy who takes your mug shot at runner check-in, was to catch Rebekah and I together at the top just at sunrise, but we are later than expected and he has to chase the leaders. I stop momentarily to take the one and only picture I will capture on this entire journey of runners cresting the summit; Rebekah is alarmed, warning me we are nearing back of mid-pack.
That first descent through grasses on sandy single track is as I imagined, but with snow patches all around. We are high up, some 8700 feet as we begin the descent, and then it changes up to snow, then back and forth, and finally the exposed slope that allowed the sun to melt the snow drops into the trees and it is now nothing but snow and slow. What is proper, what is cool? What is your credo? People are slow. Some people have the wrong shoes on. People fall right in front of me, over and over again. The thought crosses my mind – do I step over them? NOT cool. I CAN’T step ON them…but they’re wearing STEET SHOES. Isn’t there some sort of penalty for poor planning?…maybe just step on ONE? I tell the guy in front of me that he is impressive for the treads he has chosen, and he immediately ends up on his back, looking up at me. “Is THAT impressive?!” he blurts in anger, and I have to eat my honesty as I sputter that any of us enjoying the gift of being here is impressive. Rebekah is behind me. All of this make me anxious. I can’t leave her but I want to bolt; I am becoming agitated. I find an opening and go for it on the right, thinking Rebekah will go for it too. After a couple of minutes of planning my next dash forward, I check to see where she is, and she is five behind, and I step to the side and wait and get back in line with her. Start together, finish together. I repeat this process several times, but she can’t find that opening without being the jerk I am each time someone slips and the line pauses. I prod her to eat after seeing she hasn’t, and she says she can’t take her eyes off the snow to dig into the pouches on her handhelds, but we are now so behind that she won’t stop to eat either. She digs in when I push her, and I know I can’t convince her of anything when she makes up her mind. I don’t like this.
Snow bridges with brief peaks at the ground, and the suspicion of relief. But now there is water everywhere. I hear it under the snow, it fills the air around us. I see it, afraid of falling through a bridge and breaking a leg; this is a wet, slow minefield and is not fun. I ask Rebekah if she’s drinking and get the feeling she’s not.
After North Face 50 I promised myself I wouldn’t pussy foot around, that I would just dig in when I encounter water. But it is everywhere. Trod over stones, no trail – then just a flag in the snow; around the snow, over the snow, watch your step, ack, MUD, too early for mud…..snow and water and mud. And lots of water; did I say that already? C’mon, stones in streams and slip on them, back onto snow, slippery, careful – slide across the icy snow, splash into the water, and my shoes are soaked and then mud becomes the primary hazard. Everyone before has churned the alpine detritus and dirt into a mire that is feet deep in some places. I don’t confirm the depth but sense it, making great effort at hiking through and around the stands of trees and back to the shallower mud to avoid losing a shoe. After finding at race start that I laced my shoes too loosely, I vow to not lose one. I suspect we are moving at 16-pace at best and this is just insane. And then my ankle. In one of those split-second moments I unconsciously look away from the mess underfoot to scan ahead at +/- mile six, my left ankle rotates outward over a stick in the snow. And I catch my breath, and the pain goes away almost immediately. I hope for the best as we keep moving.
Lyon Ridge and Red Star are a combined blur after the insane effort. I am happy to see aid, and although I am down on everything because of the pace – or lack of it, we thank everyone for being there after they hiked everything that we now enjoy through a mile of snow. We have exchanged nearly three hours for ten miles, which is unbelievable. There is more snow to contend with, but less of it now, with different obstacles. But we’re moving. It was 17+ average pace to that point; really?
This I remember of Red Star Ridge: more choices, slightly better pace on the way in, now slightly less than 17 average with the ups and downs. We are being chased by the cut-off monster, and this is just, again, unbelievable. It’s in and out, only 30 minutes ahead of cut-off, with immediate heat on the climb out, crazy heat for nearly 7000 feet at nine thirty in the morning. I pass a guy digging down into the snow looking for clean to fill his bandana and take note, but do not stop: next snow, I say. Rebekah is ahead, moving deliberately upslope and focused too intensely for this early in the game, and when my opportunity arises I call out “don’t stop for me, I’ll catch you” as I come across a clean field and begin digging. I, we, need to keep moving. The steep incline above is a contrast of pine and dust, and these bone-dry sections surrounded by fields of frozen water is odd…like walking through a door from one room to another, over and again. I have never attempted to use something during a race that I have not tried before, nothing new, tried and true, on race day, the saying goes. But the bandana is one of two exceptions today, the other being gators, and I am grateful George Miller pushed for both. The first few chunks go in one side of the bandana and out the other before I figure out how it works. And work, it does! How in the world I finished Pine to Palm without one is beyond me. The bandana is awesome, and with immediate relief, I push onward to catch my love laboring farther upslope.
Trail, clear of snow; a two-foot wide trail along the edge of a steep hillside that drops away to the right, almost heaven. Then we come to a mountain of ice and snow, and we climb the muddy footsteps left behind, up the steep edge, and this translates into a thirty foot ascent up a steep muddy path along a frozen water wall at 26+ pace, before sketchily traversing by slide for another twenty or so…and then carefully descending back down to the trail. All this instead of running a straight fifty foot path from points A to B; and we repeat this intermittently over the course of an hour. Trail not covered by snow…would normally be soft, powdery single-track winding along an alpine ridge with magnificent views on either side – dreams manifest. Except that nearly no one has yet tread here this season, which means all of the cobbles and rocks that the snow and melt pulled onto the trail, in addition to ones kicked into our path by runners before us, wait like scattered marbles ready to turn an ankle. This is exhausting, considering my brush with disaster on the stick in the snow. When I DO glance to my right or left, I see wide expanses of alpine mountainsides across vast canyons still partially covered by the snow of a near-epic winter, with not a trace of civilization – amazing canyons wide with pine and solitude, with rock faces whose scale is measured only by my imagination; divine creation, and the reason I run mountains, so beautiful to behold. But for only seconds at a time; glances at paradise.
Gratuitous race photo number one – thanks Keith Facchino.
At miles 20-21 we encounter soft, buttery trail with no rocks or cobbles, and we increase pace. I am asking Rebekah to eat, and receiving confirmation. The snow is gone by now, the higher alpine swamps a distant memory as we begin to relax into the future; now we just run. We chat at times, but mostly rest as we move across the amazing landscape. At about mile 23 I begin to get restless. Nearly nine miles until aid after that beating of snow and mud is quite an eternity when you want what you want. Around mile 24, on a steep eroded descent peppered again with cobbles, I turn my left ankle and call out, my mind’s eye instantly flashing ahead to a chair before a waiting car. I shudder to a hopping stop. I share what has happened with my bride in raw terms, and stand still, now so strange after so much time, but I have no choice. This is the second left ankle turn, but f-it -there is no way I will not finish. Limp..hobble…..pick-up-speed…..jog, light run, just deal with it. And five minutes later we enter Duncan Canyon, our first big stop on our journey.
Music, commotion. A young woman greets me. I ask her name in gratitude for assistance but after hours of hard work it slips away almost immediately. Pierre, with the accent, whose name sticks, helps me with my bottles, and again I thank profusely. Rebekah has help, and I go primal and eat without worry – Fruit and ruffles and a potato in salt. A guy in a hat is helping me, and then it is Loren Lewis, Rebekah’s pacer-to-be at Foresthill, and I realize I have been in full lizard-brained race mode and lean into focus. He helps me get the final details together, and when my love and I are ready to rock on out of there, he proudly belts out to another crew member “this is my runner!” I feel the positive energy as we move away, satisfied. I ignore that it took us 6’23 and change to conquer 22.3 miles.
Now the trail is clear and wide as it wraps the ridges, drops intermittently, levels out, down, up a bit, then mostly down. We are making up pace, and it is smooth, but my legs whisper fatigue. I don’t take the thought any further; all is just now. We descend through trees, and I like the down, but this is only the first real canyon of the day, and warms nearly by tens of feet. Ice bandana filled at Duncan, but when we come upon a stream, we find runners flopping in the water like buffalo, and gladly wait our turn to cool; real heat is coming. Hat dunks to the head, refreshed, and we’re off. A second stream yields similar pleasures, and we talk about it. A third, and life is so good. Finally we come upon what I would call a small river at the bottom, and I am joyful, laughing. There are other runners and a rope to guide us across, and photographers that levitate at the water’s surface on short camp chairs, legs immersed, snapping to capture collective raw experience, and I guess they captured me splashing through without a care in the world. It is hot by now, so early, easily nineties, but this is stream number four, and man, how good is life?
From a good soak to up and away. Rebekah is now really feeling it. I have seen her go from smiles to having a rough time to focusing through nausea too early in the show, to now dealing with real heat; altitude and heat. I focus on pace as she climbs in my draft. This seems to go on and on under the broiler. I am worried about my love, and it is all exposed trail; my watch tells me it was 95 through there. We slow, and I am just in my head now, fuzzing up and worried about Rebekah, because although this is only a two-thousand-foot climb, we are nearing the apex of the sun’s travel, and heading back toward seven thousand feet. Suddenly a skunk, which is funny ‘cuz there’s nothing there; THAT was early. And then a large bear cub sitting on its haunches as it grabs its feet, rocking back and forth like Baloo from The Jungle Book, and that’s NOT funny ‘cuz it’s WAY too early for that. I look, and it’s an old, curved stump. And then, pow, a sharp left, and it’s too soon to think about nausea. I feel the wobble and have concern for nothing but myself. Crest and descend as we come upon a runner, or two, with the last small ascent being the worst, and I am pushing myself to keep moving as my eyes partially close, and then it is Robinson Flat.
We stay for ten. That’s too long, but we proclaim to each other that we are making up pace, and we are, and screw it, that was rough on the way up. We depart for Miller’s Defeat 30 minutes ahead of cut-off.
Miller’s and Dusty are, again, a blur between the two. Except for the roughly four-mile section between Duncan and Miller’s, we have spent nearly thirty miles at six thousand feet or above, which really opens my eyes regarding proper altitude training; Rebekah and I had done one trip to the Sierras in May, and spent a week at altitude prior to race day, with one climb to 7500 feet, and one to 8000. The additional hours and effort though, have kept us up there too long today, and we pay the price thank you snow. Miller’s or Dusty? The sponge bath is intense, and I scream in pain and joy at ice-cold water. It is there that I find for the only time during our journey hummus wrapped in tortilla, an amazing thing. Rebekah has been struggling, I mean just working so hard now. I have asked over and over: are you eating, are you drinking, which later becomes a proclamation: eat! Drink! It’s the mid to late thirties in distance, and we, she, should not be in this situation; I’m worried.
Near Dusty Corners, a woman and a man stand at an intersection in the middle of nowhere, but it is not the middle of nowhere, just a place along miles of road. Our place in the universe seems to have lost its relationship to all else, and suddenly it’s Mo Livermore. She calls out as we pass – “Alan! You guys are still going!”, which reveals that the cut-offs we’re pushing are real and chasing us like a predator and others have been less fortunate. I kind of respond in the affirmative, later pondering that it sounded like something about a bus when I meant to say us. And we travel the dusty roads…
My left shoulder is becoming unbelievably sunburned…
Let’s talk about Kidneys. I have to this point pee’d only once, not good considering we are nearing forty miles, and I now begin to focus on intermittent low back pain. At Pine to Palm I passed two kidney stones that were too small to feel on the way out, OH so lucky there. This was evidenced by intense lower back pain that radiated from my waist for, at one point, miles in duration. Then registering I was thirsty, I drank deeply, and the pain finally subsided instantly as I pee’d, and all was well again, hooray! This time though, additional water is miles away, so I can’t empty my handhelds. Rebekah and I talk about muling, and we decide to keep our own stuff to ourselves. I drink what I can, metering so I can take a small swallow about every few minutes in hopes I will find relief. But the pee never comes. I do some amino supplements when I run long, and others after a really hard run to repair torn-up legs. I think about the plant-based protein I consume nearly each day that is full of branched chain aminos, and recall that the body can metabolize excess protein into glycogen, which must be hard on both your kidneys AND your liver. I do drink coffee and green tea, but avoid the weird chemistry of processed foods, and take the occasional ibuprofen if I am injured, as I did with the hamstring tear – and my kidneys filter all of these things (later on this longest day, I will negotiate for a single ibuprofen, to much debate). What’s in our water; do you filter yours? The food at restaurants? Gels with aminos, the creatine I used in my twenties to build muscle before the controversy, all this damn turmeric, that co-enzyme, some herbal inputs; THAT’S ok, RIGHT? This debate is always fodder for a constant, internal dialogue, but today is cause for worry after hours of effort. We talk about the back pain; I just need to drink more to overcome the perspiration and respiration losses.
By now Rebekah is experiencing cramping in lieu of nausea, a crappy trade, and she has to deal with the resulting situation with intermittent stops in the bushes. None of this is good, but, it is what it is; we signed up for it. I never display alarm as I monitor her appearance; I just check-in. Our pace has been increasing between each aid station with barely negative splits, and we are now nearing an hour ahead of cut-off, and are cautiously optimistic.
Between Dusty Corners and Last Chance there are miles of soft, newly maintained trail, cleared since winter; our path becomes more forgiving for hundreds of yards at a time. I finally reach into a zip-lock bag I filled with Ruffles back at Miller’s and grab three chips ready for a reward that does not come. Instead, I get chalk. I chew through the dust and slam some water, which does nothing for the lost flavor, and accept that it is too early to lose this tool: the ruffles have been a salty, fatty staple up to now. We begin to wind through the shade of tree cover, and I thank the trees out-loud free of judgment as we slowly meander left and right and left, alternating between wide and fresh, then older trail sections that are narrow and covered with the detritus of leaves and sticks, that open again into freshly cleared highway that allows relaxation. The fragrance of Bay Laurel I love so much intermittently obscures the taste of trail and chip dust as I follow Rebekah. The fresh trail is amazing to me, and I call this observation out. In reflection as I make my way, I recall our volunteer hours on Montara Mountain this past Spring, where we cut weeds and poison oak away from the edge of the main trail, and I realize our cosmetic trim of the flora was nothing compared to this reshaping of the trail that has allowed me to relax my concentration from fear of tripping and again folding an ankle, instead to more fluid motion; the miles are gentle and easy. We run the downs and flats, we labor the ups, and eventually the trail moves out toward space at the canyon’s edge above the river below, and we enjoy the distant roar of snow melt and the stark beauty of the near-vertical, tree covered face of the far canyon walls as we continue our way through heat made tolerable by shade. We marvel at amazing beauty on this, one of the most beautiful trail sections I have run; we share our appreciation for nature and each other, for love and the gift of running together, on this beautiful late afternoon, enjoying distraction from the miles behind.
Last Chance is fruit of all kinds – strawberries, cantaloupe, and watermelon, and I shovel one piece after another into my mouth in a continuous motion of consumption; fruit is still OK. Until the honeydew, which is mostly tough and under-ripe, and I just work to get it down. We’re an hour and a quarter ahead of cut-off, and all seems better. Just eat and run.
Blur. I can’t remember when the descent starts, but it gets my attention. If this were just a few miles in, I would bomb this in glee..but my knees now sing and I compel Rebekah to hike endlessly with me. We pass a man in a collared shirt who jokes about looking forward to the upcoming climb. I chuckle, thinking I know what he’s talking about, and we continue lower, feeling the temperature rise as we make our way. Switchback after switchback. Fatigue. A stream appears, and I dunk my hat in the water and pour it over my head with relief. Rebekah notes a hand-held off to the side, and we wonder who is unfortunate enough to go without water. Through the heat at the bottom, I don’t recall anything with clarity except a stream on the other side, at what looks to be the beginning of a very steep climb; I was told a day before the race to avoid the climb down to the river and instead wait for the stream before Devil’s Thumb really gets under way; there has been a blur of a river below a bridge before that point in time. At the stream, the man who has been looking forward to the climb chuckles in anticipation. Still, I smile. A runner approaches from up the trail asking if we’ve seen a bottle and I offer sympathy that it’s a mile back. He retorts it was only his bottle for spraying water on his head, and I drop the sympathy like a hot coal as I notice a hydration pack and another bottle.
And then we climb, and it is amazing. It is one foot in front of the other after forty-five miles; how did Walmsley handle this? Kaci? Magda? Rebekah is struggling. I offer a hand and she waves off my need to help like at a housefly, so determined to do this big, ugly thing on her own. We rest, we move. About five minutes into this – I don’t know, exercise..we come upon a guy sitting against a tree. He is being questioned by a runner while another watches. He struggles to mumble a response. He is covered in black ash smudges from burned logs – his face, shirt, arm sleeves all smudged with what looks like tar. His knees are bloody. Question after question – “what is your name? Do you have any underlying medical conditions? What day is this? Are you taking any medications?” Rebekah announces she is a nurse and offers support. With each answer becoming more coherent, we learn his name is Ernie and he had leaned over on the climb, blacked out and fell down the hill. No drugs. He’s not diabetic. He continually improves as I feel the minutes leaving us behind. Rebekah, who is now sharp as a knife, looks at me with a knowing gaze: there is another tight cut-off on top of this mountain; but we can’t just leave him. Ernie begins to get up slowly after drinking deeply, and after an eternity of his assurances, we have rationalized that he will be okay – someone had gone up for help before we arrived. And we begin again. I look at mountains like the piles of rock on the way to Ashland, Oregon or high Sierra pitches, and lustfully fantasize of ascending these piles of stone in training when I drive past, but I don’t think I have ever climbed something like this on a run, not after forty-five miles anyway. Alta Vista on Montara Mountain almost comes close. It. Is. All: focus. Rebekah is panting; each breath worries me, but she just keeps moving. I ignore the first waves of nausea; no, not now..what can I do? I push into it, that’s what, and then things get fuzzy…I remember music..weak now, and I struggle to unzip my waist pack where my headphones are stuffed into a tiny zip-lock bag. In September I used music to separate my mind from my stomach, to quiet the turmoil, but I am now too weak to get it together, and then I lose everything on the side of the trail – all of the unripe fruit from Last Chance, all of my calories. I call to Rebekah; she says I begged her in delerium: “please don’t leave me here”. Wow, did I really say that? An eternity of several minutes, with mosquitoes now feasting on my forearms and calves as I am immobilized and unable to do anything about it. When the fuzziness and retching subside into a wall of heat and improving vision, I slap away at the winged creeps. A step forward, then two. Twenty feet later a woman is unloading everything in front of me in the bushes; this is like nothing I’ve experienced. One step. Two steps. Then, three bursts of an air horn from up the hill; it is now thirty minutes to cut-off. We deliberately push our way up to a man who tells us we’re close to aid, and I am near-manic and grinding my teeth; I remember this. We make aid at Devil’s Thumb and frantically work to fill bottles and search for something that will taste OK, and I have faith that it will stay down. I briefly sit and regroup and receive a full hand held from..Dave Mackey. It’s not mine, and I let him know, and I don’t have the presence of mind to say thank you for being here, thank you for giving your time and effort to me, after giving part of your body to our sport, to your passion, to my passion (read his story). Two airhorn blasts. Where did our hour and a quarter go?! I don’t check in with my love and now savior after the climb as I struggle to get it together, but know she can fend for herself, and of course she can: she is tough, she is my mother of dragons. We scramble out two minutes before the cut-off, moving away into the trees, average people trying again to do the amazing thing. Rebekah tells me someone back at aid said there were still fifty people coming up the mountain.
I don’t remember much, except that the heat subsides. At Eldorado Creek we slump into chairs side by side. I can’t feel my feet through feedback of depleted legs. Already. Bottles handed back, one now full of Coke, it is fifty miles now, and with some kind of food in hand, I just eat; what did I ask for? I turn to my left to check in with my love and her head is laying on the back of the chair turned toward me, her beautiful eyes now deep and dark and looking right through me she has no recollection of this. As images of DNF ricochet after all of the plans and hard work and struggle, I look away so she doesn’t see her rock cracking. One of the quotes that intermittently appear on the WSER.ORG website when you click through is by Jim King, a past winner at the beginning of Western States’ history, who describes the three types of runners – the survivors, the runners, and the racers. It’s now clear who we are, and I never expected to feel that, considering where we’ve been, what we have until now in our running careers accomplished. Rebekah revives, and I see she is attending to her needs. We look at each other, and I have no idea which of us offers this admission: after everything on this longest day…if we don’t make it, it’s alright; it’s OK, ‘cuz we have worked our ASSES off. For the first time in my running life, I am okay with facing a DNF; at peace. She says we are going to finish, that we will exchange our marriage vows when we cross the line together and people hear this and are charged, “what, are you kidding? At the finish?!” which is powerful and energizes us. Yeah! We’re going to do this! It’s weird: how can you be so depleted and suddenly so ready to go? We are both as we head out for Michigan Bluff and 55.7
Another climb. It’s dusk, and the bugs are out again, which improve our pace. We are both nauseous as we go, no running here, stiffness and fatigue moderated by decreasing temperatures. Rebekah won’t eat again, her stomach in knots. I beg her to please eat, and she just can’t. We come upon a guy I used to know when I was racing a lot in the Headlands, Rick Gaston, who is resting. He always had such a great attitude, so positive and all smiles, and it is smiles again and well-wishes, and we continue past. Eventually he passes us, as Rebekah has to stop every so often for her stomach, and he asks if we’re okay. When we reveal the malady of the hour, he offers and produces two small, zip-lock baggies of Pepto and hands one to each of us. Note to self: bring the Pepto next time, don’t leave it in a drop bag. Chalk brings relief this time, and there is gratitude, and the three of us play leap-frog on the way to Michigan.
It’s now nearly dark. I can barely see. Headlamps await, but I ask Rebekah how her vision is NOW. I call out potential trip hazards; I think my depth perception is better in near-darkness. We creep up on other runners, telling me we have moved well. Aid is near, we can feel it, and then I hear “is that Rebekah?” and there is a warmth in mutual greeting and I wonder who the hell Rebekah knows in thin twilight out here and then I realize its Kristin. I strive forward for a look at my left foot; always my left foot, what am I doing wrong with my left foot at the hundred mile distance? Kristin points me toward a chair after she finds me standing motionless in front of an aid table I remember this. I pick a random chair, and she ricochets off of Rebekah to tell me with the sweetest voice that pierces darkness like brilliant light, “no, this one over here”. She leads me to a waiting recliner next to Rebekah that I mistake for a stretcher; Why am I so OUT of it? My love’s feet are already being attended to. Then George Miller is suddenly there, as if he transported from the Enterprise, and I know now I am in good hands. Pepperoni pizza, and a “good job getting the calories down”. George sprays something on the bottom of my left foot, before applying tape for an impermeable barrier of comfort. Clean socks. I think I hear George has worked on Franz’s feet today. I forget to ask about him and the leaders we wonder about but have completely forgotten in the midst of our own trek. George tells me the man who now works on Rebekah has forgotten more than George will ever know about the one thing I tend to take for granted in my running life: feet. Calories in with a second piece of pizza, a switch to caffeinated gel, then in a flurry Rebekah and I are suddenly on our way with headlamps into the cooler night. A weight has been lifted. Rebekah and I have valued this pilgrimage of running and hiking together alone from Squaw Valley to Michigan Bluff – have talked about it, experienced the amazing and crazy journey of a near-lifetime during nearly one day, now bound to each other through experience like I never thought possible. But it is almost time for the next part of our journey. We have Pacers ahead at mile 62 – Kristin and Loren, and Foresthill at 100K, and then it is 23 miles to ALT. The guidance of pacers is something Rebekah and I have never before thought to utilize prior to Western States, and although I have no idea what a pacer is like, I yearn to be able to slightly stand down, just a little, from sixteen hours of fight-or-flight. Maybe this is the difference between myself and runners I immensely respect like Ian Sharman, guys who place top ten at States year after year, amazing expressions of body mechanics and determination and experience.
We completely forget that we are often more dead than alive.
Why do I do this? What drives me to work so hard for a memory of discomfort and hard work and a shiny buckle? Kilian Jornet is in the midst of his “summits of my life” project, in which he will climb the tallest mountain or the one most interesting to him on each continent. He described vomiting repeatedly when tackling Everest in May on his second of his back to back ascents without oxygen, eventually overcoming this minor discomfort on his way to achieving his amazing goal. At the time, he was in the vicinity of and working with other elite endurance athletes, including Ueli Steck, “the Swiss Machine”, who was free climbing a pitch to acclimate prior to exploring a new route to the summit. Anecdotes of rescuers collecting Ueli’s broken body on ice 1000 meters below his fall gave me pause (Rebekah’s pacer Loren Lewis happened to be in the near base camp when this occurred). When I first heard, I accepted the story with profound resignation. I got it. Kind of:
I get the kind of person Ueli was, kind of. I understand his desire to change how the human race looks at what is possible, kind of. I watched Jim Walmsley come through ALT last year in a blaze of light and energy thirty minutes ahead of CR, nearly an hour before the rest of the field, followed by a pacer who fought to keep up and frantically grabbed food from the tables as his runner disappeared ahead to redefine what we all think of as possible, before his self-immolation, and I understood. In cutting my own rebellious path through the wilderness of my life, mostly in spite of outstretched hands bearing wisdom and guidance, I have worked to define what I consider possible for me, encountering brushes with death that I nearly count on two hands – all in trying to answer the burning question: how much is not enough? To this day I pause in reflection on a naive, nineteen year old me that, for reasons I kind of understand, suddenly saw himself, from next to himself, before occupying a place above himself, above a chaos of medical personnel working frantically below. There was noise and light, and although I have no clear picture of me, no memory of seeing me, I or my eyes were six or eight feet above “me”. And then it was later, and I moved forward to the next personal challenge of pushing back against expected norms. Subsequent encounters with that line we all fear to cross were varied and random. I still search for life’s pulse in sometimes reckless fashion at 51, throwing myself down a mountainside at a full charge well aware I could break a leg or worse. You would think tasting the knife-edge would prompt one to cautiously back away in better judgment for the safer path. For whatever reason, some don’t; I’m never so alive as when I’m running on the edge. I don’t expect everyone to understand this. You, who are patient enough to digest these words because something in this narrative interests you, might. Rebekah – my soul mate, running partner, and the woman I love so very, very deeply, understands.
All is now a feeling, if one can feel the darkness around the bright point of a headlamp. Road, to Foresthill, upward. I feel that things have changed; it hangs in the air. Paved road that feels comforting, despite that I hate running paved road. I call to my love to follow me and cut the straight line across curves to save time and calories as we ascend, something simple but sometimes lost on zombie runners after so many hours. We reach a top, and there is an open garage with people in camp chairs and various bottles of booze and for a moment after the sweetest offer with cheers and smiles, I consider a taste: isn’t that Jack? Would that take the edge off? Off of what, truly being alive? We make excuses with smiles and gratitude and continue. The landscape is now punctuated by spectators in the darkness, intermittent bursts of energy that bolster a feeling of expectation. A car passes, and we are on a wide path parallel to the road, then we run the road, which seems to propel us forward; the energy here must be amazing during the day. A faster pace, applause, and we are moving; I am pulling away from Rebekah to warn our people of her condition, but when I arrive I am fuzzy and bemused, and ask a guy in a fairy costume with wings and a wand if this is the Emerald City. Costumed volunteers, lights everywhere, the spectacle we need. Loren now, smiles and energy; Kristin’s warmth and direction. Rebekah now. We dig into the drop bag and I am unsure of what I’m supposed to do here. Loren was right, the Zola is AMAZING once I taste it, and I feel energized by the sip; Rebekah cannot stomach it, and my worry is obvious, but I back off and don’t say anything. My love and I both grab staples; I slam the rest of my Zola, and oh my god BACON, there is BACON at Foresthill! Until now I have had very little of the chicken broth with noodles I love, it mostly being chicken broth and RICE at States, a mediocre replacement. But bacon is heaven, and I go back for more, repeatedly. It’s about now that I both mention and mentally repeat that it is only twenty-three miles to ALT, and that seems ridiculously close. Right. Just as a fourteen-minute pace seems totally doable after sixty-two miles, before the start. Rebekah can’t eat bacon, or seemingly, anything else; what the hell CAN she eat!?
23 miles to ALT
Ushered from the Emerald City, we are light hearted and energized with the sharp edge of fatigue softened by calories and camaraderie as we move down Cal street. Kristin talks of finding Loren asleep in his car in luxurious coma earlier in the day with doors open and a fan to cool him; Loren’s enthusiasm is now amazing and a light all its own, a vibration. A left turn, and we move into the trees and down our first trail in so long, and during the confidence building of shared story and itinerary, goals and conditions, twenty minutes into our run from Foresthill, I turn my right ankle. Ouch, ouch OUCH, and no one says a word. No one wants to hear of this. Number three; at least it was the right foot. I will turn my right ankle again before this is over. There is no pain. Actually, there is no real feeling, just a buzz; this is either good or bad. I pick one in denial of the other.
Night running is like nothing else. Through the tiny aperture of light from our headlamps our world-view narrows, all now working to keep our ankles safe, to avoid the poison oak, the branches and logs that reach to trip us up and complicate our plans. I recall straight, soft paths beneath broad-leafed trees, climbing through the tar of soft sand far above water below, that imply a raging torrent this past winter; past boulders and along the narrow lamp-lit fracture we now understand as our reality. Near Dardenelles, we descend steeply into moist, verdant darkness to traverse streams, and I feel like I’m on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland when I was a little kid; I have no explanation for this. Peachstone and Ford’s Bar are a combined blur; other runners have been intermittent and we pass all, satisfying, despite that we still are under the gun per pace. Loren always runs ahead, our lighthouse, pulling Rebekah and I with an unseen rope, so happy, almost elfin with stories of similar journeys undertaken on these same trails on past timelines. Rebekah and I move deliberately over the ensuing hours, coaxed into the early morning along the edges of steep hillsides, or at the bottom of ravines. We trade pacers and places, and when we do and Kristin leads, she is able to magically create a faster pace with the unseen fairy dust of enthusiasm and siren song of the trail; our trail sister. We walk or run in silence, we share story – how each of us met our respective partners, the amazing loves of our lives; how incredibly lucky each of us are in finding our soul-mates. We share our love for this wonderful alternate reality of reaching for mile 70, then 78, in the dark; blurs of aid stations where the crew know our Loren; we are all where we want to be in this, our perfect existence. In the midst of this incredible experience most normal people would think a bizarre ritual, Rebekah is working so hard. We adjust our pace to hers. I intermittently offer her water, “baby, isn’t it time to drink?”, or “have you eaten, do you want a gel; can you stomach more ginger?”. All night I vacillate between love and worry and affection and concern for my partner in this grand theft of life’s raw experience we are in pursuit of. At one point, after hours of meddling in my love’s business, Loren calls back “can we all go just 15 minutes without offering Rebekah food or water?!”; he is right, this is her journey. But she is my love.
The sound of a river in darkness; Loren tells me this will mess with me, that the river is still so far away. A brutal climb, and we labor. Now there is a sentinel standing watch, his runner asleep at his feet on the left side of the trail as we approach in hushed voices. The sentinel is faceless compassion in silence as we pass. Sometime later Loren talks of six-minute hill. Rebekah or I comment that, right about now, it would be sixty-minute hill. A road, steeply upward at the bottom of single-track, and a shared sigh between Rebekah and I. Loren says that the training runs blaze through here during the day when it’s 105 degrees, and I picture Franz leaping up the hill like a gazelle. A voice in the darkness behind comments “no, it’s more like 110”. I had no idea someone was following. Through it all, Rebekah non-verbally communicates to me a primal energy of intense passion and labor; I am so incredibly in love with her.
Rucky. Yes, there are boats as expected; no wading through high water. I am treated like an automaton: arms out, life vest on, click-click, step INTO the boat, NO, IN to the boat, now SIT. We rotate around as we float outward as the nice man rows us across. George calls from across the river, and we cheer. Out onto the shore, and I thank every person there as I have all day and night, and we have just a minute, maybe. I recall peanut butter cups. Loren shares that we are now ahead of safe-pace, and there is some relief, but not much. The glow of George fades as we again walk; no, is he following? I am confused. A climb, upward. Dust again. I am dragging my feet; I trip on a rock and recover for the eleventh time. They hurt, the hot spots, erupting everywhere – right toes, left heel. What did I do at Pine to Palm? I let my feet become everything – I will NOT do that now. Maybe someone at ALT can help; is it only 8 miles?
I have no memory of Green Gate.
The faint glow of dawn enters my body like static electricity; I am coming alive. Birdsong as the color green returns to the world. There have been long stretches of silence. Loren and I are up ahead, and the pain in my feet is sapping attention’s energy from my other critical needs. By now, I have pee’d two more times, for a total of five over eighty, to quiet relief. The developing chafe and intermittent knee and ankle pain, the shoulder fatigue from waving handhelds infinitely through the air – all pull my attention away at times, which returns to my feet that distract from all else again; and repeat. Rebekah, I have to leave her to Kristin; she is in the best of hands. At one point during the night I accelerated past Loren, at another point past Kristin, in manic expression of love for speed and sure-footedness; I have mostly, though, taken every opportunity to conserve energy for hours, and after the blur of Green Gate, I volunteer to Loren – who agrees, that I would like to make ALT a little sooner to have my feet looked at. We take off, ten, eleven pace. We pass runners and pacers along the trail, eventually coming upon a line of three. I announce, as I do on every trail and all through the night: “with respect, on your left, or right”. We are granted passage as they move aside, but one joins us as he grabs his opportunity to bolt.
He is manic, at a high point, entertaining, kind of. I don’t ask his name. He is a good distraction running in front, before eventually moving behind. Then he cries out “mother ..…r, REALLY?!”, and confesses the sting of a wasp on his head. Man, I’m sorry for this, but at about eighty-two miles, I am just grateful it isn’t me. Eventually Loren and I accelerate toward the respite of ALT and leave him to his discomfort.
I see Margaret first as we drop through the trees, and I am happy. I see bright lights along the road, the same ones I coiled up after my night of giving last year, and then there is a cheer on the breeze that tells me our arrival has been announced over radios, and I relax into a warm fuzzy haze. People – Mike Weston, Whom I respect greatly, Pete, our CRC family; I feel at home, so different now on the receiving end of great attention. Jack Wiley, a guy I also have huge respect for, Omar, blurry people. Paula. Pancakes, oh they are GOOD; I have help with my feet; our drop bag has no clean socks, what the hell was I thinking?; water and coke, and Rebekah and Kristin surge in to more cheers, and MAN did she fly, she CAUGHT US! Jack brings Rebekah and I coconut cake and sparkling cider to celebrate our impending union at the finish, and it is so GOOD, a delicious new flavor at mile 85!! Pete volunteers a clean pair of socks, the second of this journey, and I am so grateful. We ask of Franz, and Rebekah and I are drop-jaw at his adjustments and finish time; is this whole thing that difficult? Apparently right about now, I look at Paula and ask: “where’s my bacon?” Lord, forgive me for this transgression, but I must have completely lost my mind. (I don’t recall that lizard-brained grunt for pork, and for that Paula, I am so sorry!!!) We are facing another cut-off, and we have to go – I can’t finish the cake that Rebekah couldn’t even try, and I can’t find what I need from our drop bag; another pancake, and we’re off, as I wave to Mr. and Mrs. Clause on our way to mile 90.
We make our way toward the coming baptism of heat. Sunlight slithers down the far wall of the forested canyon we track on cobbled trail, and I wonder aloud if we will make it into the deeply shaded area on the far side before we feel sunshine again; think of vampires here. Loren says maybe, but my dreams are dashed far too early in this exercise of what-if, as we are bathed again in heat. Rebekah hates this, I know she does. She is laboring, I can hear her every breath, I feel it, and it is becoming clear to me now that she is really in trouble. But she pushes on, unbelievably. She does not talk; it is too much now. I begin to focus less on myself as my concern grows. My feet are now absolutely numb, to my relief, and I fantasize that I have somehow healed my blisters through running, which is insane. Eventually we’re descending into what will be aid at Quarry Road, and, once again, at around mile 90, my left foot rips open just below my toes, and I listen to the song of needles and nerve feedback. And then we are cruising into aid, it is run by Rogue Valley Runners, and I see Hal Koerner and thank him for the irony of wrecking my left foot each time he is somewhere in the vicinity (Pine to Palm at mile 90 was…something else). There’s bacon, and I am so happy. We’re off, and I had trusted Kristin or Loren to make sure Rebekah ate and refilled her bottles; I don’t remember much else. It’s slightly less than four miles to Pointed rocks.
What is it like to try to contain the suffering of one you love so deeply? Is it possible? Rebekah and I had struck a bargain, reaffirmed over months: we start together, we finish together; and I vowed to never leave her, short of her bludgeoning me with a rock at one of her low points somewhere in the middle of the night because I won’t shut up as I spill forth with a manic burst of sappy self-expression, like “gee, isn’t life so freaking wonderful?!?”; I knew I would be safe, ‘cuz our bibs are chipped, and she couldn’t just hide my body. But she is now so clearly struggling, and I feel her pain radiating through the space between, down to the core of my being. Her breathing is labored, she is slumped into intentional steps as she relentlessly pushes. She wants this as much as I. We will exchange the vows we never shared with each other when we went to city hall and got our damn piece of paper, and we will do this beautiful thing in front of family and friends and random witnesses, share everything at the finish of the most amazing race we have ever sunk our teeth into. Because our love is everything. We’ll make the crushing weight of 100.2 seem a trifle, because our powerful connection that transcends anything I ever thought possible over the course of my entire life, until that day in Death Valley, will lift the suffocating blanket of surprises that Western States has sought to smother us with. But, in the creeping dread I do not share, I know where we’re headed.
We enter a field. It is a wide expanse of dried grass that crackles in a swelter beyond what one would expect to feel at nine in the morning. We walk, silently. I have been behind my love for so long now as she labors in the lead. Kristin and Loren, who have been all to us, indispensable, our sentinels and guides, hang back now as Rebekah and I strive to work to realize our desire to exchange the vows we have carried for nearly 100 miles on our handhelds, like the rings we each have carried safely to give to each other when we make Auburn and the finish. I am in my head, looking down, introspective, worried. I spray the last of my water on her shoulders to bring her temperature down now that I sense aid is near; I need nothing more; I wish to give her everything.
Luis Escobar- thanks for being there
Aid with flags, I think. We surge forward, and as Rebekah makes the closest chair in shade, I call for ice, or medical, or both. I cannot think of much else now; she needs medical attention. I have no idea where Kristin and Loren are. I eventually move toward food, and it is bacon, my gastronomic rock, and a pancake. We are being chased by the definite cut-off, and there is debate. I stand back to let Rebekah make up her own mind, in denial of the obvious. She moves away out onto the trail with Loren, into heated discussion. I approach with food in hand for the next leg of our journey and begin to feel the weight of everything at once.
If good has no expectation, then love has no expectation but to fulfill itself; I approach, knowing. Rebekah compels me to go for my buckle in the sadness of admission that she cannot. And I won’t. Not without her. We are crying as we embrace, and I refuse to leave her here in a field six miles and an eternity from Auburn and our promise after a lifetime in a day. And my stubborn, amazing bride, who can never, ever be convinced of anything when she makes up her mind otherwise, digs her heels in and compels me to go get my dream. And I bolt.
I accelerate away, sobbing, which I contain after a minute, before it begins again. I am digging in for a real run now – just like that, in race mode, six miles shy of a hundred, and as I try to eat the pancake in my right hand to fuel the furnace I am choking, inhaling the pancake as my feet and legs go numb to everything but that kinesthetic sixth sense that tells you where the trail is without even looking, where the rocks and ankle-turning edges are. I feel the trail rise and fall with each strike, the channels carved by winter, the texture changes and cobbles, and I am floating, as I accelerate; I remember this like yesterday, like I know my breath. I weave from left to right and back in the inefficient but beautiful unconscious search for fluidity, acutely aware I am digging into my reserves too deeply. And I don’t care; flow, in utter sadness and primal expression. I am choking on my pancake now. I cough, which in disgusting, poetic beauty blows pieces into my sinus as I gasp and inhale the pieces again, and then I cough and blow pancake out my nose – the perfect expression of my unquestionable love and devotion for Rebekah as I continue with intermittent sobbing and lizard-brained inertia, choking toward the end of everything.
Two miles down. Passing runners and their pacers, one after the other; cheers about pace as I feel like I’m running while chased by bees. I hear Loren breathing a little harder behind me, to deep satisfaction that I am finally giving him the gift of the run after the eternal nighttime jog on our perfect journey. And I cry, and I stifle it, and we continue.
We descend into No Hands and encounter what I assume to be one tired aid captain who has been up a little too long, who argues when I ask for coke in my 16 ounce. He says something like “it’s only a couple miles to the finish”, and I am angry, although I try to hide it. I exclaim that I have a real reason to run, that I left my love in the field, and I know he knows I am insane. And then we make our way across the river on that iconic concrete span.
On the ensuing wide path along the river, it feels as if the sun pulses again like yesterday. I feel heat bounce from the ground, and remember that it was 107 in Auburn as we passed through one week ago; it will only be mid-nineties today, though. Walk now, run again, walk as I refuel. I think my pace has been nine, ten at times; my watch, set to a ten second ping, displays eight to sixteen since Pointed, alternating. A lot of up; Loren tells me there is a lot of up to the finish. I run some of it, unbelievable to me after mearly 98 miles, but mostly I hike intensely and run the flats.
Loren knows either another pacer or a runner and they are fired up at my speed.
And then, in the fuzz of my chemistry, we enter civilization again. Everything is a blur of pavement and trees and red cars and front lawns and people cheering one runner or another, and I draw energy from the air, with Loren’s breathing still hovering behind in pursuit; I later map my pace to see that I am running eight pace. We do not exchange a word as he leaves me to my reality. And then it is Pete. He runs up and offers support, and I confess what has happened to Rebekah, and I know I am crying, and I think I thank him, and then he drops away.
Cheers as I round a corner past a group of fans coalescing around a runner like fish to food in a tank, which prompts more speed from me, somehow. I do the silly thing of squeezing my handheld into a geyser as I pass another cheering group, and there is a roar, and I take satisfaction from this weird thing as I alternate between sobs and determination, and then jack Wiley runs up. Man, it’s another guy who loves this crazy business of running, and he’s offering me support! I think he runs with me to the track as I sob and blurt another confession through the fog; and my watch has mapped seven pace, increasing toward six.
And then the simple chain link fence. In my dreams I have seen a stand of trees next to the track that my daughter would pounce from to run with me, as if it were somehow rural, like the last fifty yards of Mountain Lakes 100 where you pop out of the trees onto that dirt road; but that makes no sense; I am a total mess. All is now a wall of human energy and noise, and I burst onto the track, disoriented, and stop; where is my daughter; where are the kids? I turn my head to the left to scan the sea of faceless, cheering bodies bursting with so much color after the wilderness, and then I accelerate away into emotion as conscious thought disappears.
Poor Tia Boddington. I stop after I cross, then push myself onto her, sobbing into her shoulder that I left “her” in the field; I think she recoiled. I would have. I later see the images taken of me as I approached the line, and I am a snarling beast, an angry demon – ugly, so full of something I can’t now explain; where did I go? Who WAS that? I straighten myself out. And then Rebekah is standing there, somehow, and I lunge to her and we just look at each other across that longest day. And it is all I have ever wanted.
Jen and Franz – thanks for capturing this one; it means a lot
Upon Reflection ~
Things change, nearly imperceptibly: After States, I went barefoot nearly all the time to heal my feet. As the days flowed back into life in the real world, I just wore shoes less often – and still do. I have yet to watch or listen to media, except for the one morning Rebekah turned on the TV and I became completely agitated at what now passes for political discourse in this country – anger, lies, accusations and the subversion of what this country is supposed to mean; I listen more now to music. Or the depth of silence. I thank everything – trees, the owls in the morning that talk to each other and wake me as I try to sleep, god because it is a freaking miracle that this contraption of a body works well enough to run and hike one hundred miles, friends, family, endless inanimate objects for making my life easier; truly, the old gods and the new. People ask how I am, and I respond “good day, good life.” And it is.
Lessons: I look at making plans differently now. We have no real power when we throw ourselves into the wild, and that we can prompt time to unfold in any single direction is sometimes just amazing to me. Maybe that’s why I value trail time so very much – randomness and nature and energy and adrenaline – without preservatives. Nothing in life is guaranteed. Say good morning to everyone. And can we all just cut each other a little more slack? Each amazing experience running one hundred yields a discovery – or ten. This time it was the bandana and gators. And to actually carry the pepto with me (thanks for pointing out the obvious, Rick Gaston), as opposed to leaving it in a drop bag, where it does no good. And all of that crap we didn’t use in the drop bags? don’t need it. What do I need? Pepto, Zola, some nutritional inputs to shake things up when taste buds disintegrate. Sunscreen. Second head lamp. And clean socks. Lots of socks. Training: Let’s see if I can stay healthy. I ran this monster on too little training thanks to an IT band issue directly related to my old knee injury. The hamstring, well, that is now with me forever: I have a 30% chance of tearing it again until I am unable to run in old age, and I aggravated it again when I did the Pacifica Rocket Run on the 4TH of July – A five miler, I ran my heart out, and now I am healing again. States didn’t do that, somehow. Regarding fate, destiny, and numbers: I thought from the beginning 111 and 222 were odd, like an omen or a warning; like that after I was chosen, there was no way I could get out of making myself healthy enough to run WS100 with my love. The odd thing though, is that runner number 222 finished 222nd.
A word about the woman I love more than most things: she mentioned in her race report that she sometimes could have trained more for this race, but chose to do “other things”. Let me tell you – she is the most amazing, devoted mother, and nearly each time she couldn’t train was because she was being the awesome mom by giving her boys the support and love they need, and sometimes do not get, elsewhere in their now-extended family. Juggling three kids and an amazing job are part of what makes her so incredible to me. This running thing…is just icing on our cake.
Kristin – thank you for capturing this!