Framing a work of art: crewing and pacing at the Moab 240 Endurance Run

“Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Road 46 I wake before noon, sweaty from a mid-day sun that has heated the van interior like an oven. Groggy from roughly 4.5 hours shut eye over the past 2 days, I realize I have been weaving the conversations of the people parked around me – and who wait for their runners, into the narrative of my dreams. The is just as those dreams fade into my focus on the outside world. And then my dreams vanish as I remember where I am and what I’m doing in the Utah desert, almost like a quantum observer effect, where an observed system changes by the simple act of observation, and the Moab 240 Endurance Run again becomes everything. Wind buffets the van intermittently, wind that started while I was asleep. Glancing out the window, I see that one horizon now boils ominously with dark grey clouds. Rain falls and disappears before it can make landfall in the distance. This is different but not unexpected.

I stumble out of my rented Dodge Grand Caravan mobile aid-station-slash-furnace into the now brisk outside, and walk past the people with their chairs and their cars, toward the aid tents with their murmur of energy, past the sleep tent and the medical personnel and the few runners that make their way in and out of the Rd 46 aid station with and without pacers, to finally stop at the race communication headquarters on wheels. I ask the first man I see, who stands on the elevated steps of the RV doorway speaking to someone inside, and patiently wait an eternity after he disappears into the plush palace on wheels. I can see from here that the past few nearly sleepless days and nights of dust and dirt and the back of the van have already changed my perspective; crewing a runner over a multi-day race really is a different world, a different planet. Eventually the heavy-set guy steps out and down those steps to tell me she’s 12.5 miles out. She is behind her expected pace; it must be rough out there near the end of day 3.

Moab verga

The man is “Al”. As he begins to chat with me it becomes clear he is super excited about this sport, about finding something new and getting off his retired butt to have an adventure. I listen as he shares his plans and aspirations, and that his wife wants absolutely nothing to do with a 240 mile foot race. Al is a retired sheriff with ham radio expertise who moved down from Provo to Moab years ago after being offered a job transfer with the same rate of pay as the Salt Lake City area, something he is very proud of. He speaks of fading away in retirement with disdain, and it is clear that the crazy notion of pushing human limits in pursuit of the run has captured his imagination. He motions at the various antennas and wires and cables that drape and criss-cross the area, while his retired radio guy friends talk and move about and pull the cables this way and that for, I assume, best angle of reception. I have to dodge and duck as they triangulate their business and almost trip as I do so. Al tells me his plan is to see what works through trial and error to provide radio communication for next year’s Tahoe 200. As that annual event is now a fixture in our family psyche, I assume I’ll see him next September. I don’t have the energy to ask if he understands the difference between a flat expanse of desert and a mountainous, tree’d topography of radio interference.

Al waxes on as my angst increases in proportion to the length of time it takes to listen to his life story. The radio team knows nothing about pace or if Rebekah stopped at Wind Whistle aid – which of course she would have, and I itch to go find her, to see how she is. To ask the obvious questions. I am her crew of one, and I have made the commitment to be everything for her after her passion and that fire that burns so bright within her to run and hike 240 miles of Utah desert, and then mountains, before she will finally run along the Colorado river back to town to cross that finish. I make my escape when someone asks Al something radio related, and head past the parked vehicles down to the wash to see if I can scramble through the thick vegetation and up the low hill on the other side for some phone signal – a bar, anything, and I’m forced to turn back by an assault of crackling, thorny pokes and scrapes as plants reach for me to scare me off. The wash is impenetrable. This is the desert, where anything strong enough to survive will defend itself, including the plants. 

I return to my mobile aid station as the rain starts – large, intermittent drops, and the wind whips clouds of red dust into the air, which would make a sort of deep red mud pellet. People scramble to secure food and chairs as they are tossed around and roll away, along with whatever else a runner’s crew would ready for their athlete. It wasn’t supposed to rain this far south today…and the forecast in the La Sals for plummeting temps tonight make me wonder how interesting the weather might be later. Interesting for me would be completely different for a woman who’s been out in the desert on foot for 55 hours now. And I feel lazy at the thought.

I remember when it happened as I poured morning coffee at the stove last October, a month after we finished Tahoe 200 together. She had fire in her eyes, and I could feel her tension as she shot into the kitchen. “I want to run Moab” she told me, and right then I did not doubt one bit that she meant business. Rebekah is tough, with or without her running and adventure partner. She finished her second hundred at Pine 2 Palm back in ’15, a race we were to run together, if not for me shredding a piece of cartilage from my right femur that required surgery. Determined, she ran headlong into that race by herself, no crew, no pacer, no one but herself and her wild desire out in the Oregon Siskiyous. It is funny to say this, but I fell even more in love with her after she finished that beast of a race alone, fueled by her passion and sense of dangerous adventure, which is actually kind of tame compared to other zany things humans sometimes do, but whatever. Since, I have never doubted her, even once, when she has committed to a challenge.

I can’t stand the wait any longer, and take off for a low hill a half mile away across US-191 just as the squall clears and the wind dies. I have to go find her myself, despite that the race SPOT trackers are reliable enough to trust, even out here. Rebekah is my wife, and she is doing big things in the desert over 240 miles and less than 100 hours. She is the constant, my everything, and I can’t wait to see her. 

I walk away from aid down toward the highway, and pass a woman walking the tangle of energy that 3 dogs can be. I saw her first at Indian Creek aid, and again up at Shay Mountain aid. She, too, has made a commitment. Eventually I cross the highway, walk up the distant hill, until my phone shows me one bar, then two, before fading back to one as if the cell signal drifts on the wind. I check the race tracker: she is 3 miles out from aid. 

The walk is mostly flat and would be more enjoyable if I ran it, but I have vowed to be sharp and fresh for her, ready to go at mile 201; Rd 46 aid is only 167 miles in. I slowly make my way and am passed by runners with their pacers and determined single entrants, and the odd truck with camper or trailer blows by now and again to kick up clouds of dust. The road disappears into the distance. 

I mistake another runner for my wife, and then another. I ask someone if they’ve seen #59: no. Finally I see her, walking. I can see from an eighth of a mile that she is at a low. When I know she can see me clearly, I give her a great big smile, and she does not return the favor. I approach and toss my excitement into the nearest mental rubbish bin and ask the crucial question: “how are you?” 

She tells me she woke up on the side of the road to rain in her face miles back. She had been at a low, and needed to sit for just a minute. A runner and pacer had asked her if she was OK, and she waved them off as fine. And then she woke up to rain in the face, and when standing up, a drink tube that lost its nozzle and drained her pack reservoir to nearly empty; damn those crappy Nathan drink tubes. How long she was out, she has no clue, maybe 2 minutes of dirt nap. She has long been out of water. 

Desert running. She shares that it’s like no other running. It’s just you and the horizon and a mind that plays tricks. She tells me it has been other worldly. We walk and I begin to ask the obvious questions: when was the last drink; are you eating; how about caffeine; naps; when was your last Vespa; your feet: any hot spots? I have nothing with me but the phone and key to the van, so there is no guilt from, say, carrying water in front of her and being unable to offer any; there is no “muling” food or water or anything else for your runner out here, for fear of disqualification. If we could do those things for our runners – offer an advantage over others, it wouldn’t be a race. Trucks pass now and again to pull transient clouds up and off the ground that briefly choke the air, and we pull our buffs up to avoid it, and pull them down again as things settle. Face coverings: not just for covid, I like to joke. Some drivers wave. Most don’t. Who knows what they think of Runners out in the Utah desert.

We walk in silence as a truck with a shell and a small trailer approaches from behind and slows, then stops, and the driver asks if we’re in “that race”.  He is in his early 50’s, maybe younger, with brown hair. He smiles broadly. I notice he’s missing two teeth on his left side. “Yep, that’s us, or that’s HER”, and I motion toward Rebekah. “I’m just the crew”.  He’s jovial as he waves and slowly pulls past and away. He’s funny in my mind, maybe too friendly, and my suspicious nature hewn from living in the crowded Bay Area of Northern California, combined with spending 5 years as a private investigator back in the 90’s mildly rings an alarm bell. Who is so friendly with strangers out here in the desert? 

A few minutes later and after a slight decline toward the highway, I see that the same truck with the friendly guy and the shell and trailer has pulled to the left side of the road, idling at the highway crossing, passenger window down. We approach, and he yells “hey, come here for a minute”. I tell Rebekah “just keep going, I’ll deal with this”, and a second alarm bell rings: a guy, overly friendly with random strangers out in the middle of nowhere: this can’t be good. I picture some scenario like a madman with a mobile torture chamber, maybe bodies stacked in the back of the truck and other bizarre visions, cobbled together from those damn zombie movies I sometimes let my 14 year old daughter talk me into watching. Sleep deprivation will conjure all sorts of thoughts if you let it. 

I stop, and he starts: “hey, I’m an executive chef from Denver, and I was at Indian Creek for the race making sushi for some people. I have a shit load of California rolls on ice in the back, and my wife wont want anything to do with it”.

I am suddenly the biggest idiot in the world as expectations shatter, and suspicions melt away like desert rain that never quite hits the ground, and that kindness inherent in human nature that can reaffirm your world view when things seem dark – which can be so mind blowing and transformative during multi day races, now burns bright like the sun. It illuminates my tiny existence in that moment, in the vastness of this space and time that is my now. There is still doubt – this can’t be real, how could it..as he jumps out and steps up onto the bumper while I hold open the back of the shell, and he rifles around in a couple of ice chests. That doubt fades as I hear ice shushing about as he waves his arms, and then the moment becomes real as he steps down and hands me two huge California rolls wrapped in cellophane. Stunned, I take them, along with two small bowls, one filled with what initially looks like a cold Yosenabe, or a fish soup with tako and other goodies, the other filled with sauce and wasabi. I love Japanese food, and this is amazing; unreal. I ask his name: Terrence, he says, and I offer heartfelt gratitude and a mile wide smile, and I wonder about my wife, who is long gone and no doubt approaching the Rd 46 aid station by now. 

Terrence drives away, leaving me to stand alone in the Utah desert, with two ice cold California rolls, and traditional Japanese appetizers.

How lucky is lucky?

Race morning

I sometimes fell short of being the best, but I never fell short of giving it my best ~ William McRaven

Amasa Back Just out of town and now 9:00 AM – nearly 2.5 hours after Rebekah left in the dark of the 4th wave – a staggered start to observe covid safety rules, Amasa Back, also called Kane Creek OHV trailhead, was a breeze. Packing up for 4 days on the road after her race start at 6:45 AM, was not. My mind raced as I put the finishing touches on all of the micro-planning required for me to first crew Rebekah through six aid stations, and then pick her up at mile 201 to push her toward mile 240.2, as necessary. And honestly, I didn’t know if I had everything I would need. But after pulling into the dirt lot to park and wait at mile 17.8, I now realize I don’t have enough food. Per the runner’s manual:

Crew are not allowed to eat from the aid stations as we need to make sure there is enough for the runners. 

OK, fair enough. And pacers: 

When not pacing, ‘pacers’ are considered crew. 

What I planned to eat over the course of 2.5 days:

1 package of high-fat bologna slices, 1 package of cheese slices, 5 baby bel pac man-like cheese rounds, 2 avocados, Mayo and bread. Fruit: a bag of apples from a neighbor’s tree, bananas- 2 per day, 2-each plums and peaches. 2 cans oysters, 1 can sardines. 1 bag pistachios – shelled, 1 bag cashews – low-sodium, 1.5 bags salted and shelled sunflower seeds. Vega Sport protein powder. Some Epic bars – pork; I wanted bison, and everyone was out of the bison. All of this has been planned to provide protein and fat to prepare my body to work well with Vespa so I generally eat less, combined with a minimal amount of processed sugars to keep my insulin from spiking before I head out from Geyser Pass at mile 201 for a day of non-stop hiking and running. My goal: nudge my body into a keto state for several days, and then rely on my fat stores to power me and help Rebekah finish strong; to rely as little as possible on the “wrong” foods, which is a real battle as sleep deprivation will prompt those damn carb cravings. I was supposed to stop at a taqueria and buy a burrito on the way out, but it was early and nothing was open – so, make do with what you have. I hope I have enough. 

I set up a chair with cold drinks on ice, and the gear and medical bag, and I wait. The place is crowded and everyone is friendly. First runner eventually comes in, before the self-imposed spectacle of David Goggins, who works diligently to look super stoic but just comes across as sour, like maybe someone pissed in his water bottle. A few more men, then the women start to roll in – the runners I’m really interested in. #234, Jessica Wicks comes in and sits down to take care of business. She just sits in the dirt, which is super cool to me: no pretense; just do whatever you have to do to get it done. She is relaxed. After, it’s KK Fischer, who runs in crazy fast, looking like she wants to win everything with a crazy pace that is unrealistic with 220+ to go. This is cool to see though: another local woman who lives just over the hill from Rebekah and I, who looks like she’s on fire. A camera guy with a professional mobile video rig materializes out of nowhere to film her do her aid station-thing. After, it is Jessi Morton-Langehaug from BC, My Nguyen – a humble, super cool young woman I spoke with at the pre-race covid sequester in the parking lot, then Jodi Semonell, Caitlyn Van Den Berg, Jessie Thompson-Gladish – another Jessi from BC, Emelia Cameron, Sylvia Greer, Elisabeth Adel – and Rebekah. 

She doesn’t see me until I call to her, and then I walk her to the chair. The first thing she asks for is an ice cold Zola, and boom, there it is: I am a raging success as her crew. I pull the Zola from ice and open it. Already warm out and forecast to be in the upper 80s, the Zola with espresso is the perfect pick-me-up, and I have endless gratitude for my friend and Western States pacer extraordinaire Loren Lewis for turning us on to this little delicacy. A couple of food items specific to her preferences later, it’s check-in, I help fill her pack, and send her off. And I feel really good about this. I have put so much pressure on myself to be everything she needs during this race, and I have passed the first silly test.

Crewing a runner sounds relatively easy, right? Be ready, offer food and drink when they pull into aid. Fill their bottle. Pour some water over their head if it’s hot, or ice under the hat. Hand them a gel or a sandwich, and you’re the hero as you watch them run off toward a great finish. Congratulations, you’ve done your part. You are the hero; never mind that someone else is doing all of the work, lol.

Before Rebekah ran Moab 240, the only time I had crewed her – or anyone, was at Mountain Lakes 100 in Oregon. And dunderhead here DID forget the sandwiches, but somehow made it to the next aid station just in time to hand them off, JUST as she was leaving. And then I was the hero, right after I was the dunderhead. Which stands in stark contrast to later after midnight, when I freaking exchanged her headlamp for one I forgot to charge, thereby forcing her to stalk another runner and his pacer for their light for a couple of what must have been endless hours after first being stopped dead in her tracks in the dark. And I was the star dunderhead on the crew comedy what the hell were you thinking, you really screwed the pooch. And I have never forgotten that failure. So right now at mile 17.8 I feel “not a failure”, as she takes off looking strong for the next 55 miles, as the next aid stations are too remote to beat our rental car on trying to get to. 

If you’re all-in, crewing a racer can mean devoting your entire existence to the support and well being of another human. It can mean looking inward to assess what it means to be you – sort of backs you into a corner of self examination: am I capable? Am I intuitive enough to catch some mental or physical cue that could prompt a “wait a minute”, a “hold on, this could be important”, or “this might be dangerous”. Over the next four days I will devote myself to the woman I am madly in love with, which makes everything both easier and infinitely more difficult. As I look around, I see so many other crew out here and see that many must be family. And maybe everyone is as neurotic about the job as I am. Or, not. I really put a lot of pressure on myself to not screw anything up, especially after Mountain Lakes.

First few cars at Indian Creek..

Indian Creek The drive to mile 72.3 is roughly 75 miles down to and through Canyonlands National Park. It is beautiful here, an amazing contrast to the coast where most of my runs are confined to. After guiding the van off the highway onto rutted, gravel roads, I stare at a dry stream bed I am terrified I might need to be removed from by winch if I get stuck. So, I stomp the accelerator and bounce across to the wrenching tune of a tweaked suspension; this journey is going to beat this vehicle up. 

I arrive to find I am the second person here – not even the aid station is set up yet. A woman sticks her head out of a solitary tent to chat for a minute before escaping back inside to avoid the sun; it is brutally hot, must be in the 90s. I wonder about Rebekah. 

I choose the perfect spot to catch her on her eventual run into aid before anyone else arrives, and back up the van so I can just pull her inside for sleep upon arrival. And then I lay down to rest. This will be a long wait. The van is crowded – two ice chests, bags of food, gear bags, the medical bag, clean, dry shoes, blankets, down comforter, camp-sleep mats, clothes, gear – everything she could possibly ask for over the course of 240 miles. I shove the gear mountain aside to rest without toppling anything and lay back, and then immediately get antsy as cars begin to arrive. Awake with no possibility of closing my eyes for real rest , I eventually decide on some “me” time and get my gear on to do a run along the cliffs above and around the emerging aid station to burn some energy in the midst of people parking and getting ready for their runners. The run becomes more of a scramble, mostly climbing up and down the amazing weathered sandstone topography that is Canyonlands, and by the time I decide I’ve had my fill of a 360 degree circle above this Black Rock City-like spontaneous assembly, I am satisfied and ready to wait until she comes in. It will be late; I will be ready. 

I talk to Michael McKnight, who will set up the aid station, without knowing who he is. When I later walk past and overhear that he finished Tahoe 200 last year in under 51 hours I stop on a dime almost cartoon-like, and ask: “excuse me, what did you say?” We talk for a few minutes before I walk away shaking my head: that was 40 hours faster than Rebekah and I finished that race. Holy shizzle. 

Utah Sunset

8:00 pm. Michael McKnight walks out to yell at the entire cadre of pacers and crew – 30 to 40 cars or more. Imagine the sound of a bullhorn: “the BLM can DQ your runner if they drive out and find your car parked on any weeds. Please relocate your vehicles away from vegetation”. A collective WTF rings out with a groan as a hundred or so people begin the process of packing up their camp spots, adjusting their parking places – pulling forward, backing up into clouds of exhaust, asking what is a weed, is this a weed, and “where do we park?!?” There really is nowhere to go.

Night Aid

For the next 40 minutes half of the vehicles are shuffled like cards, until there is barely a car’s width for anyone to drive or move after avoiding the slightest hint of vegetation. If there were a real emergency, say a flash flood or a panic of some kind, there would be no escape. Things eventually again mellow into a silent buzz you can feel more than hear, and I settle into the wait and stare into the darkness. I lose track of time.

Night sky

Later, beneath the stars, she comes in. Perched on the edge of the course in my chair in the dark, I have caffeinated into alertness and verified each runner is not my wife as I offer the requisite “good job” and “awesome work”, which will mean a heck of a lot more at say, mile 150, until I finally see her and put her into the back of the van for 30 minutes rest. It was freaking hot out there, high 90s she tells me. And there was a giant tortoise named “Bob” or something, and it all sounds like a hallucination at mile 130 rather than mile 30 to me. But I don’t doubt: she is the one living it, and it is still early. She seems more beat up from the heat than I expect, but by the time I send her back out into the darkness she looks and sounds great. I am just the roadie to her act, and so far, so good. 

Night Dipper

Bridger Jack I see her, two miles out. It is a brutally hot but easy run in a decline as I pass two walking dead-like figures that make me ponder the suffering that is the desert 20 miles between aid stations, until I see her black tights and white top round a turn. As I draw near I see she looks kind of stunned, and as I approach I hear in a whisper “9 miles”. I ask, and she tells me she has had nearly no water in 9 miles as she has rationed to avoid going completely dry while still passing every single runner back there. So what do you say to that: “good job”? This is the desert, and this year has easily been 10 degrees hotter on average than normal, and although it may be a welcome contrast to 2 years ago when it dropped to zero DegF near the end, heat is the order of the day today, and you have to deal with it, or just pack it in and go home. As I accompany her toward aid we pass one of the walking dead who stopped to lean back beneath the shade of the only stunted desert tree on this stretch of desert road, which is by now a red, rutted, sandy radiator; he looks nauseous.

I want so badly to offer her my bottle, as is verboten. So, I put on my entertainer’s hat and tell her of trying to find Bridger Jack aid with the wrong freaking directions offered by the runner’s manual aid station descriptions (!@*!), of asking directions of each passing vehicle, of turning around 3 freaking times in doubt. Of driving back and forth and trusting no one in the end and even suspecting that everyone is playing games with the lost guy with California plates. Of Yelling at myself and the desert “you have one job, ONE FREAKING JOB OUT HERE” (I use other words – picture it), “and you can’t even get it done! you are the worst!…you…”, all as I careen around corners in clouds of dust and dismay. I tell her of wasting precious gas and time, and of nearly running her parents off the road while they also navigated the same wrong directions, as I screamed past at 60 mph waving like a madman on my way back to the highway to start over and figure it all out. And I tell her that I love her, that I have one job until I pick her up for the last 40 miles, which is to find her and give her a hand, and that I really thought I’d screwed the pooch and left her high and dry again, but this time in the mid day heat…until I finally found correct directions to the actual Bridger Jack aid station. After stumbling by chance all the way back to The Island, at mile 87.1, and talking to the radio guy. He took pity on me, calling ahead for CORRECT turn-by-tun directions, and I discovered that I was only 100 damned yards from the final turn the last time I u-turned to double back; Moron. For me, wry self-deprecation is a way to show humbleness when speaking with others. Right then, trying to distract Rebekah from thirst that had disabled so many back out there behind her, it was simply to distract from the moment. Just as there will be lows, those lows will be followed by highs. And maybe a clown to take the edge off. 

Bridger Jack mesa stands watch over my mobile aid station

When we reach the van I peel her shoes and socks off in the shade of the open back of the car, with a decent desert breeze that makes the much cooler mid to high 80s October Utah heat manageable; yes it is cooler today, and she slips into uncontrollable shivering, as if it were 30 degF. Her core temp is so high she can’t cool down fast enough, and she can’t stay warm; this is not good. So, I start with the electrolyte replacement. And then the carb replacement. And then the coconut water with espresso drink – our precious Zola, and the ice, and the Vespa, and the Pringles, and a quesadilla and on and on and on. What can you eat, if not this, how about that? Shivering quietly into what looks like sleep yet unable to actually go under, it’s 33 hours into the race, and I know her body is doing the amazing thing: it is assimilating all of these nutrients and fluids and recharging her system so her mitochondria can fire away and propel her to mile 122 at Shay Mountain, at altitude, with its eventual colder temps when the weather turns tonight. And through it all, as I eventually drive across the Canyonlands landscape after waving goodbye, and I make my way down forsaken, pitted gravel washboard and back onto this highway, and take that road, she will continue to push through whatever obstacles present themselves; she will make adjustments. For she is the constant. 

Looking back at Canyonlands on the climb up to Shay Mountain

Shay Mountain The aid station at Shay Mountain and mile 121.6 is, after a drive up out of Canyonlands, a good climb further up to 8300 feet. Upon arrival every parking spot is occupied, except for one awkward spot closest to where the runners make their way along the last 300 feet to runner check-in. After pulling in, adjusting, re-assessing, and then finally backing in, my mobile aid and rest station is exactly 10 feet from where I will surprise her. Perfect.

The area around aid is ringed by Aspens, all in golden yellow. I consider the elevation, and recall that exactly 3 years ago to this day Rebekah and I ran a Honeymoon weekend R3 across the Grand Canyon before the water was shut off for the season, and the North Rim – at exactly the same elevation, was dotted with aspens as brightly yellow as now at Shay Mountain. History may not repeat, but yes it rhymes. 

The sun edges down, and takes the temperature with it; layer upon layer to keep warm; I can’t nap although I really need to, from too much caffeine. I hope I can be everything I need to be at mile 200 tomorrow night.

Milky, just barely…..

When she comes in around ten I say “hey, baby, wanna get into my van with me?”. She is not amused. The climb up to Shay was brutal; she likens it to a local climb back home called Alta Vista – like 5 of those, just relentless. I put her in the back for 30 minutes, and she does go “out”, while I sit in the front seat feeling like a stone sentinel, motionless in the stillness of our mobile aid station so as not to not wake her while an icy wind whips around outside. When I raise my runner from the dead at exactly 30 minutes, it is in a slow motion that seems to draw life from thin air; a true resurrection. After re-taping hot spots and playing motivational speaker, she leaves, looking good, and I think I may be 3 for 3 at aid stations for my runner.

After months of support before a thousand mile drive, and now crewing for two days straight, I think I can finally admit, with honesty, I am not a failure. 

Dawn at Dry Valley

Dry Valley On the long descent from Shay to mile 140.1, my phone chimes the arrival of a voicemail. It is 0200 of the third day and, confused at how cell signal finds its destination in the middle of nowhere – like magic, I listen: “hey Alan. Um. Mikayla, uh. Just wanted to call you about Kayuh um. He’s been doing playcare for a few days, and just wanted to talk to you about how he’s doing. Um….unfortunately not a hundred percent great news. Um. Just wanted to talk to you. Um. Don’t want to say too much on the phone. So, um…”. This nonsense trails off into my mind’s eye, which now focuses on our ball-of-fire-and-energy husky we had to board before we left, cuz our crocodile-joker would probably get us banned from the race if we were to set him loose on an aid station while I tend to Rebekah and can’t control him. He is our toddler, an amazing ray of uncontrollable light that is the purest reflection of our household: a boundless manifestation of love and energy that sometimes melts down into complete chaos. And I now picture that something happened, that he suddenly became aggressive in some alpha-male outburst at doggy daycare that we paid so freaking much for, or that he was attacked, or he got loose and ran off or…

I am in the middle of nowhere, 3 states away and can do absolutely nothing about our fifth family member’s apparent disaster. And I obsess in sleeplessness, and yell into the night in frustration on the drive down to Dry Valley aid….

Aid is a line of cars along a narrow sand road that leads to tents. I park a quarter mile away and wait. She comes in before dawn. It is cold, and I pile the blankets and the down comforter on top of her for 20 minutes of sleep after the first calories, sleep which maybe amounted to a solid 5 minutes of REM after her body chemistry maybe calmed down one magnitude to be overtaken by her depletion; what a balancing act. By the time I send her off from aid though, dawn has broken and the woman depleted upon arrival that I filled with calories an hour ago has now recharged her batteries enough for the next leg of the race. I stalk her as she takes off down the road to check in, refill, grab more calories, and focus on the future.

Taking off, third morning

Back at the van, as I watch the horizon slowly illuminate and I contemplate the meaning of a total commitment to the commitment of another human being, one thing stands out above all the noise, when considering what it takes to support someone over nearly a week of effort as a crew of one: be ready to give yourself completely, selflessly. Give 100 freaking percent. Give all of your attention and intention. Lose your ego and your expectations about what you think your runner should or should not be capable of, because when someone focuses and commits to this kind of goal over months of their life, they are capable of great things. And if you respect that notion with the intuition of the runner you are, all will be okay. It is dawn of the third morning, and I feel at one with everything, in the stillness of being nothing, and everything.

Back home, in the milieu of our technological culture, there seems to be no true peace anymore. I mean – there is no stillness. There is distraction, and stress and pandemic and paying it forward by educating our kids at the expense of all else. There is financial insecurity, and the scream of a strong-man politician who pits Americans against Americans to divide and conquer and hold power. There are few if any races anymore, despite that we all continue to run – and how could we not, as we keep the faith of that passionate fire within our hearts despite the distractions of daily pandemic lives. But out here in the Utah desert at dawn, there is time, and there is the wind whisper, and my awakened mind, as I stand still while the constant of Rebekah moves relentlessly across this desolately beautiful landscape. I have lost the stress, discarded it, and finally discarded that residual mental hand wringing from my crewing failures at Mountain Lakes 100 so long ago, to be at peace in the moment. 

Zero sugar makes me happy…

I eat some sardines and pistachios, the first of my day’s two bananas, and crack a can of my newest find of an awesome coffee drink with zero sugar, a Mexican chocolate Soul Grind. This moment is golden. And I am happy. 

Rd. 46, redux The California rolls are a bizarre and welcome twist of cosmic logic in our adventure, her adventure, and they lighten the mood with a glow of irony. But things are different; the energy has changed. I have to leave with her to head up into the mountains. She does not tell me, I just know it’s time to go. And when she does ask me to run from Rd 46 and mile 167 on the approach to the La Sals instead of joining her at Geyser Pass and mile 201, I feel I have now joined the race and am not just a spectator anymore. 

I call my awesome and selfless father in law, who stops making dinner, and who drives all the way down from our cabin at the finish line so both parents can drive two vehicles back to Moab. Rebekah tries to sleep in the tent as I tear apart the van in sudden urgency to look through everything in case I have missed some minor but important detail in my planning, 50K before our planned pick up: slow down speedy, be the rock of adaptation; crawl out of your head and lead, I tell myself.

Before we leave I have to prove I have my S together as a pacer, and that I have all of the required gear, the Gaia ap loaded, etc. No longer crew, I now have to keep track of things in a different way, which makes me uptight under the fire of questions by the nurse. But we are on the road together again, after so long a time from Tahoe 200 last year, our last co-adventure. You’d think two adventure runners in the same household would run together all the time…but with the black hole of civilization’s gravity always pulling at us with stress and the opposite work schedules of my day job verses her night job as a super human RN, with kids and our beast child of a husky pup, I think we have run maybe twice together over the past year. Her race at Moab is our adventure vacation, the only one we get in 2020. And my edge is softened again by a return to the moment and a return to what we do. We live for this. This is our life. Run for your life

Rebekah on the climb

Upward From the highway we turn to climb beaten roads that become jumbles of rock and sand that transition to technical climbs around boulders through eroded washes – or maybe it seems that way. Daylight fades to dusk, and then darkness. We chattered upon departure – so excited, on the road again…but now focus through the gathering buzz of the third evening, and into a deepening desert quiet. No, I haven’t been moving for 3 days straight, but I have also barely slept, and this feels like my race now too.

Another sunset

I’m leading. Tough climbs lead to better roads and some flat with a glimpse of what must be a five second shooting star. We later turn off the headlamps to gaze up at the dark and amazing Utah night sky, with its Milky Way – so damn bright. A turn to the left, and then up. And up. And up…miles of up, along an incline that grinds into the night sky; it feels like forever. At some point she asks me if I hear the music, The Jackson Five; no, I have my own tormenting tune of a pop song stuck on a repeating loop of doom, and it ain’t that. And fortunately for my overall sanity it’s not that insidious 1-8-7-7-cars-for-kids radio-jingle-mind-worm either, that I swear is some kind of psychological experiment; yes, it could always be worse. (Note: if you have to ask, consider yourself lucky)

Desert sage and scrub give way to baby juniper and small pine, and then the biggest Juniper I have seen, and the sparse pines fill, grow branches outward and grow taller, in this transitioning higher altitude environment. The temperature drops, and we must be just below eight thousand feet sometime before midnight. We move to stay ahead of whoever is coming; we know they’re coming. We come upon a pair of runners near a gate – or a runner and pacer, and someone is having a tough time, and then it’s just us again. The road arcs right to traverse the steepening mountain in parallel, and in the corner of my left eye I see a shine – it is the reflected light of our headlamps from a mountain lion’s eyes. They stare, unblinking, and they make me uneasy. The eyes do not move. There is no fear – I sense that, only a “sizing up” to see if we are prey or not. Behind the probable male I see glimpses of eyes darting left and right, as if animals are moving back and forth in earnest, and this is unnerving, creepy; I don’t share this creepy feeling with Rebekah. Instead, I shine my headlamp directly at the cats to disorient them, like Rebekah did when she ran head long into that mama mountain lion and her cub before dawn last year, when she stood tall, arms up, and blinded the mother into simply turning and walking away – before waving away the cub, carefully, with a growl low enough to not alert the mother, after the cub bounded up to play with its prey; the momma was teaching its little one to hunt. Rebekah was no prey that morning, although she did share that it was unnerving to stare down the apex of the food chain. (After that 2019 incident we decided to get a dog to run with. Little did we know that owning a husky is kind of like babysitting a drunk, crocodile wolf-joker that distracts you like a toddler, as they are very smart, focused, independent, untamed, and they don’t forget about something once they decide they want it. They can be rebellious, kind of like: “you threw the ball, you go get it”. Kind of like Rebekah and I on our together-adventures).

The road runs right and then down again after we leave the cats to find another dinner. Down is an annoyance, since we have to climb up into the mountains, and then we spy what looks to be a long line of headlamps on that relentless ascent – and we turn it up. Rebekah is doing amazingly well on her third night out here, as we push in earnest. Now there is grass in the hovering movement of our lightshine along the jeep road we trace, and soil – soft and a welcome respite from the cobbles, and we are higher up, maybe eighty five hundred feet now. There is forest with normal sized trees. It is cold, and we are in the La Sal Mountains.

Pole Canyon and mile 185 is cold and weird, almost like a psychedelic trip; like Brockway Summit at Tahoe 200 was last year when I couldn’t balance. Rebekah has her feet worked on as I get us food while watching two guys scramble over each other to cook. Honestly, they act stoned, or maybe like they’ve been up for a day and a half – most likely the latter. One knocks over a can of grease – there is bacon, as high energy music plays, and they both joke around, and there is food debris EVERYWHERE, and the greeter is almost manic with that positive energy that good-to-better aid stations evoke. And the food is good, and there is coffee and camaraderie. It is all we need. Although it is COLD out, they have heat lamps. But by the time we leave, maybe 18 minutes later, our bodies have cooled and I realize the temperature has plummeted to, what, 30 degrees? Our breath puffs like steam engines as we push out and upward. I am suddenly incredibly cold – so cold my hands numb and become painful. I have given Rebekah my thick gloves, and this thin pair is not enough but this is her race, I am just her pacer, so she gets the thick gloves. I lose feeling in my fingers as we climb into expanses of Aspen as the trail steepens, and then steepens further; these trees are the largest Aspen trees I have ever seen. We keep moving to stay warm.

Fallen trees. She needs to stop, eat for a minute, and we sit on a downed tree before climbing over a jumble of others, with their glowing, white bark, and I suspect snowfall did this – created this war zone of damaged and fallen trees. The La Sal mountains really are a world away from the race start. We move again; we can’t stay long. Must be high 20s.

Through the early morning hours we trace an impossibly thin trail through trees along steep, winding mountainsides. There are ravines that offer drops, and then short, sharper climbs, and further ascents. It is all pretty dramatic; must be amazing to see during the day. Rebekah is doing marvelously, despite her level of depletion.

Through all of this, through the darkness under the Aspens, the ground is covered to varying degrees with round, white leaves that reflect the flat light of our headlamps. But with the first natural light of dawn, we begin to notice the color – a golden yellow, which is everywhere around us. It is still so cold…but the increasing golden glow now distracts as it brightens. Upward glances are dramatic as light gathers. I have not been to Colorado when the leaves drop – just Boulder in the summer, so this is like nothing I have seen. Aspens are Rebekah’s favorite tree. She shared this with me on our first mountain adventure, and on every mountain adventure since, from running to camping. If I could give her Aspens I would, gladly. Here, now, in this golden glow – which is arresting, I know she is at home. She tells me we should come back – “promise me we will come back to hike the La Sals someday” she says. Of course I tell her yes.

Other worldly after so much desert…

We are passed by two guys, and then a third, and we all share the view of Canyonlands below in the far distance, and the approaching edge of Moab valley, and Rebekah and I hike with them, and then we leave them; she is pushing. And then, a mile later, she is overtaken by exhaustion. She needs to lie down, “just 15 minutes” she tells me. For some reason I have lost my patience, but I hide it with poker face and kindness as I recall my agreement made before the race: I will not pull her away from what she wants. In honor of that, she dirt naps while I sit on a log out of view. With the view distantly below of the outskirts of Moab – wow, she has covered a lot of ground, I check to see that we have cell signal. And I look to see there are other women far behind, that she is still nowhere near to being passed, and that sixth place female is six miles away. And when Rebekah sits up, I tell her that anything is still possible. She is at a low, and this shakes her to clarity. And it is time to go.

Geyser Pass Mile 201.4 is where we originally planned for me to pick her up. It is bright morning when we pull in, and she ran a lot of the way into aid when she could, when it wasn’t a climb. No one has passed us since we left Pole Canyon hours ago, except one fast guy who must have slept for a while and then slammed some serious caffeine. There is a sense of urgency, with only 39 miles to go, and I work feverishly to get her stuff together as she has “Medical” work on her feet before she tries to sleep; but sleep is not really possible for her now. Cesare pulls in after I say hello to his wife Veronica and their son, who are both way more of any crew I could ever hope to be, after helping Cesare at six or seven 200s. Cesare looks seriously beaten up but is in great spirits, like always; always cheerful, he. When we leave, Cesare is grabbing some sleep. There is a back and forth between Rebekah and I in earnest, and I have to run back to aid, as I think I’ve forgotten a headlamp, among other items, which I hadn’t; what a waste of time and calories. We will really push now; we want to travel light. We can do this thing before dark, we think, through the haze of unrealistic expectation and no sleep that can make people forgetful.

The canyon in the lower right corner of this image holds Moab, 200+ miles after race start

Heading out, there is some down after the last real “up”, and it is awesome to see her run it. The morning warms our bones. Eventually there is civilization, and there is heat again; winter did not last long. Some more roads, and then a dirt nap. Mountain bikers pass on a trail above, and I ignore them. Heading out after a semi-successful 15 minutes of sleep for Rebekah, we come upon a man in an off road vehicle who asks if we were the ones sleeping – and are we OK, and I realize someone reported us to the area race safety guy. He is friendly; he gets it.

Long, flat stretches of down. The safety guy passes us, and we all wave. Rebekah slams a gel to pick up the pace, and we run, and then hike for a few when the roads incline, and then run down some more. I am so proud of her, mile after mile now, watching this increase in energy and forward speed on feet that must hurt like hell. She is something to me….

After miles of run-walk, she pulls over to re-tape on a flat rock on a turn, and Cesare runs up; WOW. He stops to say hello, and announces he overslept. He sports a limp and a lope, and he looks like he can’t possibly keep the speed of his approaching pace up, and Rebekah and I comment quietly to each other that, really, how competitive can one man be, and then he’s gone. At first I think he must have darted into some bushes, and as we approach the last place we saw him, it’s like what the heck!!?! Beast man..he’s run this monster two or three times, and right now it shows.

Down into the heat, and we come upon Paul Nielsen just before our gravel meets the pavement of civilization again. Paul has a listing gate, off to one side, and it looks unsustainably painful, but he moves with determination and falls in behind us after we chat for a minute. Over the ensuing miles the three of us leap frog and banter, and I meet a guy who is awesome and humble and tough as nails, and I learn that he and I shared the same microwave just before race start a lifetime ago, when I was crew-cooking eggs for my racer.

Later, it is rough for her again. The heat bakes us from pavement below, and from the sun above. When Rebekah can’t stand it, she dirt naps under some bushes after an interminable search for a spot free of cow poop, which is everywhere across this grazed landscape. I am the sentinel again, shushing drivers as they stop in alarm from a body on the side of the road, and I whisper “she’s OK, she’s just sleeping”, which must be weird to normal people. When she gets up after some minutes, we leave, with Paul now behind us. Miles of pavement, before a turn back to gravel, and then the decline toward her last aid station, on her final sunset of the race and into the oddest terrain of my running and racing life.

Rebekah’s descent into the final sunset

Porcupine Rim Aid at mile 223.9 is an oddity. I am sure the poor volunteers have no idea what they are in for, when I find I am making normal, but in the aid worker’s minds, unreasonable requests for more light and for food items they don’t have. And although I am kind when they serve us two of the most perfect, square-shaped quesadillas with a very complicated and specific Mole sauce after an eternity of wait as Rebekah and I work in double-time to get a move on for that last 16 miles. I know from the experience of cooking at the Sierra At Tahoe aid station at Tahoe 200 that others will be less than patient when this poor family is overrun by hordes of starving finishers. I make an effort to thank each of them for being there for us, in an effort at paying it forward.

In motion again, the desert is warm, and we are grateful. Her feet are destroyed, and she ignores them as she pushes: she declined my offer of foot care, focused on the finish. No one has passed us since one man at dawn. We make our way upward into darkness and expanses of flat rock that at some point become everything, and knowing nothing about Porcupine Rim, I expect things to become easier as we get going. But this does not transpire. In fact, it is unnervingly technical and frustrating, with a thousand reasons to trip over rock and stone and our own poles as we navigate the surface of Mars. This goes on for hours as we get into a groove of veering left and then right and back, along the smoothest track I can create for Rebekah so she has to step up and down as little as possible. This is futile; I hear her cry out more than once as she smashes her toes in the dark.

At some point the course transitions downward, and there is an increase in speed. Someone finally catches us, and then he is gone; he’s really moving. Then another. And then we stop at the edge of a wide expanse of flat, red sandstone floating in space, without a ribbon in sight. After a slow search through the haze of sleep deprivation, I spy a distant ribbon in a doorway, which upon approach is some wooden post, or a sign – there is no door, or house, or anything else out here. After, it becomes increasingly sketchy as we eye the decreasing battery life of every electronic item we own – lights, phones with the Gaia ap, which keeps us from getting lost and going insane. And we make the discovery that, at Geyser Pass, when we thought we could just power through to the finish just after nightfall, it is now 1:00 AM, and Gaia tells us there are miles in front of us. My balance is off; she must be delirious. At some point she comes up behind me as I stop and try to focus on a trail that has disappeared, and the echoing slide-sound of her footstep combined with the movement of light from her headlamp prompts my subconscious to see a huge spider, a massive beast maybe two feet across, that scrambles up the rock face in front of me, and I scream like a little girl and stumble backward and away – just stopping at the edge of a cliff. This is getting bizarre.

Yards feel like miles. We are on the edge of space and marvel at the unending hell that is our scramble through darkness with headlamps that are about to die and leave us stranded for others to find. When she wants to sleep “please, just let me sleep” she begs, I have to scare her into forward motion with the admission that if our lights die, we will be stuck; she responds with the adrenaline of alarm. There is a turn, up and around and upward for far too long, and through the crazy blur I see that we are on an infinite figure eight, like some sort of M.C. Escher piece, and I am cursing at the uncertainty. A guy calls out from a trail just ten feet behind us, which scares the hell out of me, before I discern that he is hundreds of yards above and away, before he is simply on the other side of the last ravine. This. Is. So. Weird.

And then we descend, and there is a path to a huge corrugated tunnel under the road I ran just the night before the race, and we stop on surreal, smooth, flat pavement. She wants to sleep, and I have to cajole her “baby, it’s just 4 miles”, and she complies, grudgingly as a groggy mountain biker curses us from his camper in the darkness below. And she runs.

Anyone who has run this distance knows the kind of exhaustion a multi-day race can offer, and will understand what this space in mind and body is like – it is like nothing else. I think the way the director Sam Mendes portrays the young soldier who pushes through enemy lines for over 24 hours in the war movie 1917 is a good analogy – for anyone reading this who HASN’T pushed an ultra to this distance. And yes, I am biased, when I say that my wife is a badass. But after 236 miles, I watch her slam her last caffeinated gel – we are totally out now, and she proceeds to run, and walk, and run, as I brief her on what to expect from that pre-race run I made from the start, just the night before gun time. It is cold now down in the canyon, freezing, after miles of warmth on Porcupine Rim above, so I distract her with the story of the young woman I came across on this very path up head of us, on my way back to the cabin only five nights before, a young woman who looked from a distance like a homeless person gathering her bags – a bag lady, before I ran up to find a woman laughing, and crying, in complete, utter joy, after base jumping from the cliffs above only moments before. My exchange with her was “that is living, that is feeling ALIVE; my wife is about to run 240 miles of desert tomorrow morning – women kick ass!” and she had howled and cheered as I ran past.

I distract with my story, and Rebekah mentions in a cool, kind of don’t-look-now-but.., that the plants are reaching for her ankles on our elevated bike path above the Colorado river, as we approach the end of her journey. And then there is the highway, and the lights, and the road construction and a car, and another tunnel. And then there is the finish.

Rebekah’s amazing parents are there to see her cross, to cheers and hoots, as I hang back off to the side to allow her to cross that line on her own, after finishing her race, 240.2 miles after her race start, a lifetime ago.

Yeah, women kick ass.

~ Alan

Moab Valley RV Resort made it so easy to be right there….

One Comment Add yours

  1. J.D. says:

    Luck & kindness pop out of nowhere sometimes like sushi in the middle of a desert. Good read. Thanks for this!

    (I didn’t read it all, but from what I did read, it was good. :))

    Like

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