Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The heart of a crewperson

Beat halted in the middle of the trail. The forest was black, with the jungle canopy masking the moonlight and blotting out the starry sky. The air was as thick as hot chocolate, oozing down my lungs like warm syrup. The trail was just as sticky, coated in a thin layer of dew-saturated mud that grabbed your shoes and sent them skidding toward the dark oblivion of the forest. Beat didn't say anything. His head continued to face forward, held slightly limp by his drooping shoulders. I stood behind him and waited for a reaction. I expected him to tell me his feet were killing him or his legs were tired or he too was choking on this wretched humidity. But the silence lingered. Finally, I said, "Are you asleep?"

A small cough. "Um ... no ... I don't think so."

To figure out where you are, sometimes you have to go back to the beginning. My first trip to Hawaii also came about because of the HURT 100. It was January 2009, and I was vacationing and crewing with my then-boyfriend, Geoff. Several of the people at this year's race even remembered me as the chick on the bicycle, showing up at aid stations in my bicycle shorts and and helmet, refilling gel bottles and disappearing back into the night. I wasn't such a good crew-person back then. I was more concerned with putting miles on my rented road bike as a training ride for the Iditarod Invitational. I spent the day and night pedaling around the steep hillside neighborhoods of Honolulu, and I missed more checkpoints than I made. Geoff won that race. Even though he would spend the rest of the week in Hawaii firmly planted on his sleeping pad in sheer exhaustion, he didn't act too worn out at the time. I asked him what the HURT 100 was like. "Kind of like running in Juneau, but hot," he replied. And I just smiled, because I thought I understood, but I didn't have a clue.

So when I returned with Beat, I had a lot of conflicting memories of this place. The crowded streets, the terrifying traffic, the checkpoints that smelled strongly of ramen and faintly of vomit, and of course the strange dynamic surrounding my role in it all. In every major ultrarunning race, there are organizers, runners, volunteers and crew. Organizers get the financial benefit, runners get the glory and volunteers get the appreciation. Only crew, the lowly masses who follow one particular runner around, are truly nobodies in a race. We wait in the shadows, chat quietly with the volunteers, refill a few bottles, hug our sweaty smelly runners, travel to the next checkpoint, and we wait. And wait. Nobody even notices we are there, waiting, unless perhaps we are wearing funny bike clothes.

Beat and I woke up at 4 a.m. Saturday, prepped the rest of our gear, and drove to the race start at a nature center nestled beneath the green cliffs of Oahu. I saw him off at the 6 a.m. start and then headed back to the hotel for the first order of duty, which was to help register Beat for the 2011 Tor des Geants, since registration was likely to close later that day. Thanks to Web site difficulties this simple chore turned into a three-hour exercise in futility, complete with frantic messaging with Beat's mother in Germany. Defeated, I got back up to meet him at the end of his first 20-mile loop.

He made good time on lap one, and I barely caught him as I climbed back up to the nature center. Beat didn't look too fresh as he walked toward me. His hair was drenched and his legs were covered in mud. "It's really slick out there, really hard," he said ominously. He told me of the slippery roots and rocks that added another layer of difficulty to the already steep and technical trail. His eyes were glazed with fatigue and his skin looked soft boiled. "I only have to make it to the 100K mark to get my 500-mile jacket. Maybe I can just stop there."

"You can do whatever you want," I said, knowing full well that wasn't what he wanted to do.

The checkpoints cycled on. There were three for each loop — Paradise at mile 7.5, Jackass Ginger at mile 13, and the start/finish at mile 20. Beat mostly didn't need my help but I tried to be there for every one. I watched him arrive struggling but leave perked up. I bonded with other anonymous crewpeople. Chris from Ontario was a brand-new runner, like me. His partner, Charlotte, was a seasoned ultrarunner who competed in at least a dozen big races every year. He showed me the spreadsheet of the exact times she expected to hit each checkpoint. He said she trained very specifically and like to keep order in her running. She never seemed to be able to eat anything, though, and he still didn't know what to do about her nutritional needs. He had stopped at the store to buy Twix bars and wrapped a few hot dogs in foil for good measure. "I don't know if she'll eat any of it," he said sullenly. "But I have to at least try to get her to." I saw in Chris's eyes the kind of devotion that defines a good crewperson. The kind of person who is content to stay up all night, neglecting his own needs in order to coax calories into a grumpy runner who's aching and exhausted and is more likely to snap at him than thank him.

Around 1 a.m., Beat ran into the nature center to finish lap three. He was already at mile 60, having moved beyond fatigue into more of a shellshocked state, which made him seem unusually subdued at the checkpoint. The plan was for me to pace him for lap four, which was more for my benefit than his — he wanted me to have an adventure — but the overnight nature of the loop did give me the opportunity to serve the standard role of the pacer, which is to keep a runner company and keep them moving. If I look tired, it's because I was. It was 1 a.m. and I was about to only start running. Beat and I had a long night in front of us. We started up the trail, breathing the thick, warm air, pressing our feet into the slick trail and feeling them slide back with every labored step. As the trail jutted skyward, there were more roots and rocks, more dark lumps to crawl over and around. This is the true evil of the HURT 100 — it's not a posh 100-miler in Hawaii in January. It's not just 100 miles. It's 100 miles of technical singletrack, climbing and descending 25,000 feet on an seemingly endless and maddening loop, amid temperatures that northerners can scarcely deal with during the winter - 65 to 80 degrees, with 92 percent humidity. It cuts you down slowly and painfully with blisters and bruises, blood and dehydration. One might say it's the lucky ones who twist their ankles and can drop out with a clear conscience. In the end, only 28 percent of the people who started the 100-miler would finish it.

Beat was not very talkative. I told him stories about hiking in Juneau — because the trail did remind me of Juneau — and tried to dream up stories from my childhood to stash away for future lulls in the conversation. But I don't think he was listening anyway. He was falling asleep on his feet, talking only about maybe stopping at the 100K mark, the next checkpoint. "You can do what you want," I said. "But I'd really love to see the whole course. Maybe think about doing this one lap with me." I figured if I could coax him to mile 80, he'd have to finish the race.

The night wore on in the way ultra-nights do, in that strange, watery place between sleep and consciousness. The lights of Honolulu glimmered whenever the forest canopy opened up. Birds chirped and squawked. Unseen streams gurgled beside us. Roosters darted across the trail. Headlights bobbed in the darkness. Runners ran past saying things like "Good job" and "You're doing awesome." Other runners hunched over the trail, coughing and vomiting. We climbed and descended, slipped and slid. Even after a mere 10 miles, the technical nature of the trail was wearing on my nerves. I'm not a skilled runner just yet and I don't have the sure-footed stride of many people out there. I was flailing over the rocks, clutching to ropes and sweating profusely down climbs that I had been able to breeze up. I was struggling but I knew that didn't matter. This was not my battle. This was Beat's war. I had to put my problems aside and focus on his needs. This realization was freeing. I was egoless, a crewperson, nobody. I had no place here, only a fleeting presence. A ghost in the night. The thought suddenly made me feel light on my feet. If Beat could run 80 miles on this brutal course, I could certainly run 20. And if I in any way could help him achieve this daunting goal, that was an awesome reward.

The sun rose and brought with it the brilliant views that I had been missing through the night. But in a way, a strange way not like me at all, I didn't really care about the scenery. I was watching Beat, watching his feet as they shuffled along the trail, imagining his struggle and fight against the pain, silently trying to remind him much it will mean to him to finish this race despite the hardships. We reached mile 80 and I asked if I could do one last leg with him. He seemed excited about that, and it made it more than easy to ignore my aching legs and sweat-drenched skin and sleepiness. In the end I would do my own 27 miles of the HURT 100, but as an egoless crewperson it felt effortless, because it was effortless. In committing to be there for Beat, I had released myself from my own fatigue and pain. The freedom felt incredible.

However, we agreed I should stop there to avoid the very real prospect of injury. I kissed Beat goodbye and took up my place next to Chris. Chris, who had been so friendly the night before, now seemed distant and angry. We drove to the final checkpoint and waited together. And waited. And as the minutes went by, I finally learned that Charlotte had been hurtful toward him. I reasoned that she was tired and in pain, that she was in a bad place, and probably wasn't acting like herself, though I didn't know her. But I also knew that Chris had been up for 36 hours too, that he too was sweaty and tired, and he had doggedly supported her during what could have easily been a fun tropical vacation instead. He should have just given up, he said, and gone home.

"And yet you're still here," I said as Chris unwrapped two Egg McMuffins in preparation for Charlotte's arrival.

Chris sighed. "I'm still here," he said.

Behind every race is an array of stories, backroads, routes that lead us all to the here and now. I thought of my first HURT 100, back in 2009. Geoff hadn't even been unkind to me and I wasn't fully present for him. I was too concerned about riding my bike, about preparing for my big race, about myself. The 2011 HURT 100 was different. The atmosphere was different. The feeling was different. Maybe all I accomplished was keeping Beat from falling asleep on the trail that one time. But it felt like a monumental accomplishment. Definitely worth traveling all the way to Hawaii, staying up for 36 hours, fighting Honolulu traffic, waiting, waiting, and running for 10 hours.

And when Beat strode into the finish line, after 33 hours and 31 minutes of sweating, struggling and suffering, with a huge smile on his face and a big sweaty kiss for me, I couldn't have been more proud of him.