Sunday, September 26, 2010

Living intensely

I fixed my thousand-yard stare on a radio tower, perched on a featureless mound of rock many miles across the sun-baked desert. The interstate rolled away at a rate of 80 mph, and still the gleaming tower lingered in a far distance that seemed to never grow closer.

"This is exactly what Badwater is like," said Evan, who this past summer paced the winner of the Badwater 135, a 135-mile ultramarathon through Death Valley. "You're just out in this flat, open desert. Tons of hours go by, and nothing changes."

"It looks beautiful right now," I said. I glanced in the side-view mirror to see if any traces of Las Vegas remained on the horizon ... the scorched pavement, the seizure-inducing lights, the belligerent crowds and the cigarette smog. Vegas had gotten under my skin in a way I couldn't even mitigate, let alone reverse. I was in Las Vegas for a trade show, putting in long hours of exhaustive socialization, soaking in the glistening edge of an industry's excess, fighting through crowds in the fake empire of the Las Vegas strip, over-eating unhealthy food, not exercising because there was literally no time or space to do so, and not sleeping. I can trend toward mild insomnia, but the past week was beyond anything I had endured before. Many days had passed and I was unable to get more than an hour of sleep at a time, sometimes only an hour in an entire night.

I was slowly losing my mind, quite genuinely going crazy, when I came across a random Facebook status update by my friend, Evan, who was "trying to mentally prepare myself for my nonstop drive to Salt Lake in two days." Evan is an ultrarunner who used to live in Alaska, but now lives outside Los Angeles. I was crewing for Geoff in the 2009 Hurt 100 in Honolulu when Evan stumbled in to the checkpoint at mile 78. His face was a zombie color of gray and he slurred most of his words. "I have never done anything so stupid in all of my life, never," he told me then. "But I can't $%#@ stop now!" Evan came out to visit before the start of the 2009 Iditarod Invitational, and I hadn't seen him since. That was before I got frostbite. That was before a lot of things. I knew Evan had to drive through Vegas to get to Salt Lake. I wrote to ask if I could join him.

"Why are you going to Salt Lake again?" Evan asked.

"I'm headed up to the Bear 100," I said. "It started this morning."

"That's cool," Evan said. "Are you going to pace someone?"

"I'm going to crew for someone," I said. "Maybe pace a few miles. I'm not much of a runner."

"Neither am I," Evan said, and I snorted. Evan runs often, and fast. He had just completed a 100-miler in California under cold, wet conditions that no sane person would endure.

"It was the worst night of my life," he said, possibly forgetting about the 2009 Hurt 100. "I wish I never finished the thing. There is nothing healthy about running 100 miles, nothing."

I took his words to heart. Recently, ultrarunning - or long-distance travel by foot - has captured my imagination in a way it never has before. I can't even really explain why here, why now, given all of my exposure to the sport in the past five years. But it has trickled into my thoughts in the way random ideas sometimes do, and I've learned the less I do to fight those random thoughts, the more interesting my life becomes.

That unchecked curiosity is what compelled me to participate as a race volunteer in the Swan Crest 100 in July, and that's how I met this guy, Beat (pronounced Bay-ought.) Beat is a Swiss-German software developer who works for Google and lives in the Bay area, as in California. In his free time he invents things, like a satellite-enabled remote control for his espresso maker so he can fire up the machine from a half-hour away. He also runs. A lot. He's completed seven 100-milers this year alone, eight if you count his last race twice. That one was more than 200 miles.

Similar to Evan, Beat and I started conversing via Facebook after a race. He was registered for another 100-miler one week after the Swan Crest 100 - the Headlands 100 - and mid-week posted graphic pictures of all of his blisters from Swan Crest. I wrote him an e-mail to berate him for "being crazy." As the conversation evolved, I asked him to describe why he felt compelled to endure all of the abuse and distress, week after week. "I just want to experience the intensity of life," he wrote back.

Beat's last race was the Tour des Geants, a 330-kilometer, nonstop, largely self-supported race across the Italian Alps. The race features mostly technical terrain and an unreal 80,000 feet of climbing. For Beat, it was six days on the bleeding edge of intense living, and during that time he slept less than I did in Vegas. He finished the race a week before the start of the Bear 100. One week. We joked about meeting up at the Bear 100 on my way back from Vegas. I didn't think he was serious. I didn't believe he would show up. And anyway, I had a lot going on. But as Beat recovered from the TDG and my week deteriorated, Beat vowed that he was going to at least show up for the race. And then I saw the too-serendipitous-to-ignore status update from Evan.

Evan dropped me off at the interstate exit. His son had a dentist appointment and they were already running late. He was guiltily apologetic, and I assured him it didn't matter. "You got me out of Vegas. That was everything I needed." I shouldered the meager luggage I had brought home and began walking the two miles toward my parents' house. My parents have been on vacation in Germany for the past two weeks. My plan was to borrow (steal) their truck and drive two and a half hours to Logan Canyon, Utah, where I hoped to intersect Beat at a race checkpoint. Just in case I actually ended up running, I scoured my parents' house for supplies. I borrowed (stole) a knit cap, a neck warmer, a thin long-sleeved base layer, cotton gloves and rhinestone-bedazzled sunglasses. Then I drove to REI and bought sunscreen, a headlamp and assorted energy bars.

As I trickled through thick Friday evening traffic, my thoughts dissolved in a haze of sleep deprivation, a week's worth of sensory overload and the whole surreal silliness of what I was doing. In Logan I checked Beat's SPOT track and saw he was still moving, and located the next checkpoint he would hit. I just happened to score free wi-fi in front of a tiny bakery, wherein I found 50-cent fresh bagels, 93-cent giant cookies and brownies, and a $4.99 meal of homemade sourdough and turkey sandwich, chips, cookie and Diet Pepsi. For less than 10 dollars I had an entire ultra event's worth of homemade food, and the score seemed an auspicious start to the evening.

Just after sunset, I rolled into a place called Tony Grove, a beautiful mountain lake ringed with gray cliffs and golden aspen trees. I parked, circled the parking lot once, and just happened to arrive at the checkpoint just as Beat was checking in. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He looked at me and said, "Well, are you running?" At first, I just gaped at him. The Tony Grove checkpoint was located at mile 51. Which meant there were 50 miles left in the race. If I paced him at all, my plan was to sleep first and start later, perhaps even between two checkpoints that would allow for easy shuttling. I scoured my brain for a smidgen of wisdom, but none of the neurons were firing anymore. "Um, well ..." I stuttered. He just looked at me with these piercing cola-colored eyes. "Ok, give me a minute to change my clothes," I said.

Twilight had set in deep by the time we started up the trail. I turned on my headlamp and focused on the black shadows of the rocks and roots that littered the route. I stumbled and righted myself. It was already difficult and dark and I was just starting. Of course, Beat had already done 50 miles on almost no recovery from a six-day run. He still had deep blisters and shredded muscles from the previous race.

"How are you feeling?" I asked him.

"Oh, you know," he said with a resigned sigh. "How about you?"

We had only jogged a mile. I couldn't admit that I was already feeling far out of my element and nauseated on top of that. The giant brownie and sandwich I had eaten less than an hour earlier churned in my stomach. "It's Vegas," I said. "I feel like I spent a week soaking in toxins, and now they're trying to leave my body."

The night sky opened up with a splash of stars and a nearly full moon. The weather was close to perfect, cool and dry with absolutely no breeze. If we stopped and held our breath, I swore we could hear water trickling down a creek a mile away. We alternated running and walking, because Beat was feeling downtrodden. We didn't say a whole lot in those first few miles. As my stomach began to settle, I perked up and started telling my favorite ultra-cycling horror stories. Finally Beat asked me to stop mentioning anything involving food or cold, which all of my cycling horror stories do. I laughed and asked him to tell me about the Tour des Geants. He painted a vivid portrait of extreme beauty, suffering and wandering so far outside himself that he wasn't even sure he was still alive. It was a week ago. I had to keep reminding myself of that.

We came to the next checkpoint after eight miles. "It sure takes a long time to go eight miles when you don't have wheels," I said, a sentiment I would go on to repeat multiple times during the night, likely much to Beat's annoyance. But the truth is, the Bear 100 is a burly course with babyhead-studded singletrack and tons of steep climbs and descents. There's a good chance I wouldn't fare better with a bike. I had to keep reminding myself of that.

The night trickled along the way night does, in a flickering reel of shapes and shadows. My sleeplessness rounded a corner and my thoughts became just a little less blurred. Beat and I came to a high alpine meadow and turned off our headlamps. The moon burned so bright that our bodies cast sharp shadows on the trail. "Oh," he said, "I brought something for you." He dug through his pack and pulled out a golf-ball-sized rock, with veins of shale and quartz. "I picked it up on the second pass in the Tour des Geants, and I carried it the whole way."

"The whole way? All six days?" I said with a hint of incredulity.

"And now 60 miles in the Bear 100," he said. "I'll carry it the rest of the way if you want."

"No," I said. "I can carry it." I held out my hand and accepted the rock with a rush of warm-fuzzy feeling. I used to be the kind of kid who frequently picked up rocks, carried them for hours in clenched hands and deposited them in a special drawer in my room. Beat's simple gift evoked a powerful sense of nostalgia and exciting newness, all at the same time.

The night trickled along the way night does, drifting between near-unconsciousness and ultra-alertness. I kept seeing black cows that I mistook for bears and yelping loudly. But I couldn't believe how great I felt for, you know, not being a runner. Twenty miles passed, and then 25. We climbed high into the night sky and descended back into the sparse and scattered lights of the canyon. Beat admitted he didn't care about his time or even whether he finished. We spent long breaks lounging at the checkpoints, eating Dutch oven rolls, chicken soup, strawberries and melons. We followed glow sticks but still got lost and laughed away two and a half "extra bonus miles."

The temperature continued to plummet. First we could see our breath, and then frost on the ground. Soon the frost was thick and my cotton gloves and thin sleeves did little to ward off temperatures that dropped as low as 23 degrees. Running, even slowly, generates good heat, but we took the downhills gingerly to preserve Beat's shredded quads, and I couldn't halt a few periods of uncontrolled shivering. We passed people and exchanged simple words. The trail often seemed crowded, but sometimes remote. Right before sunrise, we began our last long ascent into the alpine. Beat fought the cold by moving faster than I could sustain, and frequently swore in Swiss German to vent the pain in his feet and legs. But it was humorous, and we were both laughing, giggling really, like little kids at a sleepover party. He teased me for my bedazzled sunglasses and stylish hat, and said I looked like I was going shopping at the mall, not participating in a 50-mile run. I teased him for "doing it wrong" on all of the great mountain biking terrain we were trudging over, because yammering about bicycles probably never gets old to runners.

It all started to fall apart for me at mile 40, just after sunrise. Physically I felt strong, but my soft and weak cyclist's feet became wracked with pain. Blisters and a deep soreness in my right arch made every step annoying, and then difficult, and then mildly excruciating. I could tip-toe uphill without too many problems, but there was nowhere to hide on the descents, and pretty soon all we had left was downhill. I looked out over the glistening Bear Lake, 3,000 vertical feet below us, and felt like crying. Beat tried to be upbeat and joked about "being so hardcore that I broke my pacer." "You really need to go on without me," I said. "You can run this, but I'm probably going to take all day."

"No, I can stick it out with you," he said. "I've been there before. It's not a fun place to be alone."

It hurt to set my right foot down on any surface, even gingerly, so I tried shuffling, until I stubbed my toes in a veritable rockfall of baseball-sized stones. I continued my attempts to convince Beat to leave me behind. "You'll finish two hours sooner," I said. He continued to refuse, and I didn't say much else, settling into that gray corner at the edge of my pain cave. Meanwhile, Bear Lake glistened in the sunlight, ringed with the brilliant golds of fall, and it never grew any closer, just like that radio tower in the desert, one day and a lifetime before.

When we finally reached a trailhead, we still had another 500 vertical feet downhill to the finish. Beat took the race course and I took the road, hoping it would be faster. But the pavement struck the bottom of my right foot like hot nails, so I hopped on my left leg until I couldn't see straight, then walked until I couldn't stomach the soreness, then hopped again. It was ridiculous, and I had tears in my eyes because I was so frustrated, walking down a road, while the lake just glistened and taunted me. But I was laughing, too, because it was inevitable. You don't go out and travel 50 miles on foot without training for it. You just don't. I could have easily predicted my injuries right down to the swollen toes. I deserved them. But as the lake glistened with an new, almost otherworldly beauty, I was thinking it was worth it.

I hobbled into the finish with ~51 miles on my battered feet. The Bear 100 has 22,000 feet of climbing, so it's probably fair to say that 50 miles of it has close to half that. I was out on the trail for about 15 and a half hours, with the last 10 miles taking more than five hours on their own. Beat finished his race in 29 hours and 29 minutes. He earned a grizzly bear belt buckle for a sub-30 finish, but I still feel guilty for slowing him down as much as I did. But he did know what he was getting for a pacer before he coaxed me out there. Beat congratulated me on finishing my first "ultra." I hadn't thought about it in that way before, being that it was just half of the Bear 100, but it was my first ultramarathon.

It was still before noon and the shuttle bus wasn't set to leave the finish line until 7 p.m. There was nothing for us to do but wait, so we settled into a shady spot on the grass, where the lake glistened and gold and green leaves rustled in the wind and wisps of clouds streamed through the bright blue sky. The pain in my feet faded into the background, my mind settled into a pleasant fog, and the only thing I understood was that I was in Fish Haven, Idaho, and I could scarcely comprehend how I got there, but I lived every mile of it, intensely.