"I really pushed myself to break 20 hours and came up a minute short," Geoff told me over my mom's cell phone at 11:04 p.m. Alaska time, mere minutes after he cruised in to Midway, Utah, to win the Wasatch 100. He was ahead of 260-odd runners, and a stacked field at that.
I left the house at 10 a.m. in a thick, low-lying fog, knowing the weather report called for partly clear and hoping to find the sun somewhere. I planned to hike up Mount Juneau, but at the last minute veered north for Heinzelman Ridge, my mountain nemesis. I have tried a few times to climb to this ridge and every time become lost, once hopelessly lost. Heinzelman was one of my selling points when I was trying to convince myself to buy a GPS. The approach is a maze of multiplying trails. Too many times I have pushed through thick devil's club and knee-deep swamps and wished I could just relocate my original path. I just wanted to find my way back. But finding my way to the top - that would be the ultimate reward.
If two paths diverged in a wood, I would always choose the wrong one. That is just who I am. And so it was today, following the path I chose until it petered to nothing. And in my usual elevation-hording stubbornness, I continued to press upward through the thick brush and thorns, hoping to find another trail. When that didn't pan out, I moved to turn back in defeat, but thought better of it. This time, I had GPS. I pulled it out and visualized a direct path to the tongue of Thunder Mountain. I bushwhacked deeper into the devils club swamps and blueberry bushes bulging with purple berries, calling out to the lurking bears: "Hey Bears! Sorry to trespass in your territory. I'm just looking for the human trail, and I'll be on my way."
I first checked Geoff's Wasatch 100 standings at 9 a.m. Alaska time. He had just left a place called Sessions Lift Off, at mile 28 of his run. "I should go hiking today," I thought. "Even if this fog doesn't lift." I thought Geoff's struggle called for at least a little solidarity.
Streams of sunlight started to push through the fog, and I knew I had hit the upper reaches of the clouds. I was coated to my knees in slime and mud; luckily my shoes had stayed attached to my feet in several of the deeper bogs. I assumed I'd just try to reach sunlight and turn back the way I came, following my GPS line home. I never expected to find the real trail. What were the chances that in all of this big mountain, we'd ever meet again? But as I crossed an open meadow, I saw a strip of blue plastic tied around a tree. When I approached it, I saw footprints.
My parents drove all the way from Sandy to Brighton to see Geoff off at his 75-mile checkpoint. "How many chances do you get to see this?" my mom said as she called me at work. Geoff had already come and gone, "But he had some soup and he talked for a few minutes to the checkers," she said. "They thought that was so funny that he was chatting with them. They kept telling him to hurry up because he's in first place!"
Tree line is where the fog finally let go, and for the first time I had a perfect view of the sweeping space above me and the white bright world below. The mountain tundra was splashed in fall color amid the lingering greens of summer - an intense, almost iridescent mixture of color and light surrounding the spine of Heinzelman Ridge, and I couldn't believe I found it.
My mom and I talked excitedly as though Geoff had his race in the bag at mile 75, but I couldn't shake my concern. I remember seeing him elated and strong at mile 75 of the 2007 Susitna 100. Then I passed him, several hours later, on my bike at mile 88. It was well after 2 a.m. I shined my headlamp in his face, which was strained and gray. His hat was coated in frost. His eyes had that clouded-over look of a corpse, and he didn't even say hello, as if he didn't know I was there. "How are you feeling?" I asked him. "I'm hurting," was all he said. I pedaled with him for a while, but he gestured like he wanted me to move on. "Do you need anything?" I asked. "No," he said. There wasn't anything I could do to help him, and even as my right knee popped and screamed, I had this sense that I didn't understand the first thing about hurting. That was Geoff's first 100-mile run. He fell to the snow when he reached the finish line.
"There were no low points in this run," Geoff told me at the Wasatch 100 finish line. "Even in my Resurrection Pass training run, I had low points. So this was really nice." He was audibly glowing, and I wished I was there to see it. My mom took the phone back and informed me that he was dripping sweat at it was 1 a.m. and cold and he was going to go change his clothes. Geoff's official finishing was just 30 minutes shy of the official course record. As of the time I published this blog post, an hour and 10 minutes after Geoff won the race, the second-place finisher had not come it yet.
Geoff's final stats for the day: 100 miles; 26,131 feet elevation; 20:07 finishing time. My final stats for the day: 7 miles; 3,254 feet elevation; 3:45 duration. Obviously, there's no way to make a comparison, but still ...
You can't beat those few moments in the sun.