The downhill section of trail let’s my stride unwind. I’m in a groove – not comfortable – but steady. My eyes focus on the rocks and roots about 15 feet in front of me. My legs steer a path of least resistance through the obstacles. I am aware that I am approaching something before I hear the unmistakable sound of distant voices through the woods. It’s the ambient rhythm of intonation, inflection, exclamation, and laughter that echo through the trees even when words are lost. As I approach someone yells “runner!” and there’s a slight shuffling as volunteers assume their positions. I actually accelerate toward the table as I unholster my water bottle. A woman calls out as I approach: “what can I get for you?” I hold out my bottle and ask for water as I come to an abrupt stop. I barely look at the bounty on the table – jelly beans, potato chips, pb&j quarters, oranges – as a younger woman asks what looks good. The first woman still has my bottle so I pick up a potato chip and put it in my mouth before I take my bottle back and simultaneously chew the chip, screw the lid on my bottle and begin to run again. “One chip!!??” the girl calls out to me as I quickly resume my pace.
I’ve run about 50 ultras and so have likely passed through about 500 aid stations. Most of those have been some variation of the scene described above (which is an actual recollection; I just can’t remember which race). When I don’t have a crew that trades me a full water bottle for my empty one, I stop only long enough to fill my bottle. I consume calories while I run, either through a powder that gets mixed into the water or through little snacks that I carry with me, so there is no need to stop for food.
During my first 100 mile race – the Mohican in northern Ohio – I did sit down briefly at one aid station. It was about 50 miles in and the plantar fascia on my right foot had started to hurt. I decided I needed to tape my arch. As I dashed into the aid station, I was greeted by a large crew that included my wife, kids, mother, father, their spouses, and my two half-sisters. I issued the request for the tape I had packed and a chair. While someone grabbed the tape, a boy scout working with his troop at the aid station offered me a hamburger – which I accepted. By the time I took one bite my tape arrived and I taped my foot, around my sock, myself. In a jiffy my shoes were back on and I shot out of the chair like a cannon, carrying my hamburger with me to eat along the way.
Then there’s Western States. The exuberance of the huge crowd at the Robinson Flat aid station (mile 30) has carried me for about 2 more miles. Then the cellular machinery has ground to a near halt. The trail between miles 32 to 38, though offering no obvious impediments, has laid waste to my ambition both times I have run it. My limbs feel like they are filled with the sandy soil I’m dragging my feet through. Runners catch and pass me. My one time teammate Guillermo Medina passes me, his slight physique still and steady, his stride short and light. He encourages me to run with him. It is all I can do. At Dusty Corners (mile 38) I look for something that will help, but I have already lost any desire to eat or drink. What my body wants is to stop.
By the time I get on the scale at Last Chance (mile 43), I answer honestly when they ask how I am doing. It nearly tears me apart. My self-constructed world has been shattered, and I’m not even half way. I try to eat something, and I refill my bottles. I lumber away from the aid station.
The climb to Devil’s Thumb (mile 48) is interminable. Because I am walking, it’s easy to put my fingers on my neck and feel my pulse, which is shockingly rapid despite my languid pace. More runners pass me, either power-walking or mixing short bouts of jogging in with the walking. The climb is too steep to run. When I get there I drag onto the scale, not even relieved to have gotten off the climb. I tell the lady I’m having trouble, and she pulls in another volunteer. He suggests I take a break and talk with him. I take a chair while he gets me a cup. He sits down to talk with me. His sympathy, while measured, is almost more than I can take. I am on the verge of a complete breakdown. He suggests I let myself recover for a few minutes, sip on my drink. It is hard for me to fathom going on, but it is impossible for me to fathom stopping. Eventually the man suggests I keep moving, take things with me. He says he has seen plenty of people in my state again, when they get to the finish line. I accept what he says. He has no way to know that this isn’t me. My plans, my expectations, are gone. My body moves to get up and out of the aid station, but I don’t care anymore.
I have already been stripped bare, but the push to Michigan Bluff (mile 56) empties me. I get the deep ache of utter exhaustion, dehydration, and hunger. As I emerge from another canyon to houses, cowbells, and the sounds of human commotion, I am passed by runners buoyed by the approaching scene. I drag behind, trying to muster the brainpower to think through to the method that will get me moving again. For now I can only turn myself over, once again, to the aid station chair and another man who will tend to me. He gets me to sip on broth, urges me to take on more salt. The camera crew approaches us. I tell everyone that I cannot imagine going on. I’ve got nothing left. I can’t eat – can’t swallow. Drinks don’t feel or taste right. I sit, and drink the broth.
It takes a while, but I start to recover a bit. I will be able to go on. My crew is at Foresthill (mile 62). I feel I can make it there: one (relatively) small canyon between here and there. My wife Robin, who has traveled with me, her friend Melody, my pacer Bradley Mongold, and his friend Kavara are all waiting for me. As I very gradually pick up speed leaving Michigan Bluff, I feel lighter. I’ve shed a lot. It no longer matters how fast I run, who has passed me, or who is behind me. I will have to accept what is possible, not based on anything I might have hoped for or accomplished before, but based on the conditions as they are. The surrender gives me some peace, and I can start to find a rhythm.
By the time I make Foresthill I am running again, and I can eat a large cup of soup. My crew gathers around me. They have not become impatient – though I have made them wait hours longer than they expected. They are not disappointed – though I will not be competing among the frontrunners. They are immediately focused on the task at hand – to get me across the next 32 miles. We take the necessary time, and no more, to strategize before Bradley and I take to the course.
Though far from heroic, the run in from Foresthill was fairly steady. I ran on the edge of what was possible to maintain. I finished well under 24 hours, and placed in the top 50 (45th?). That means very little to me. The meaning of Western States ’07 emerged after I had given up. I wasn’t strong enough. I was powerless. The first 40 miles of the race took everything from me. What emerged in my place, though, was a handful of people. They applied themselves to my project. They didn’t just invigorate me, they became me. I have always thought of the gratitude shown by runners toward their crew as clichéd. That’s because I like to imagine myself as strong, independent, and even unaffected by the influence of others. While that illusion may prove a helpful trick to advance some of my ambitions, it has been burned to ashes in the furnace that is Western States.
If you’ll recall with me one of the many great songs from Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang:
“Grow the roses, grow the roses, from the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success.”
My rose, my wife Robin, will arrive with my kids tomorrow. Our epic trip across the desert will begin on Thursday. I won’t be ruminating as much. That’s probably a good thing.