Monday, June 03, 2013

Keep the earth below my feet

Bryce 100 — it was tough. There were a lot of moments to love in my 34-some hours out there, but perhaps my favorite came just minutes after I mumbled, out loud, to myself, "this is the most horrible slog, ever." It was mile 98 or so (out of 103.) A dirt road sliced through an open meadow of pale green grass, with only small hills and stands of thirsty ponderosa pines to interrupt the otherwise unbroken horizon. Somewhere beyond our sightline were the rippling orange hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, but we hadn't seen anything like that for miles. Just the interminable dirt road, and the dusty blue sky, and colors washed out by the fierce light of the afternoon sun.

I was walking with Beat and two of our friends, Steve and Harry, although at the time we were strung out along the baked dirt. Everyone was experiencing an advanced degree of discomfort, mainly spurred by altitude and heat, but I was the only one who was almost completely incapable of running. This dirt road was endless and I just wanted it to be over, so I tried to run. I did try. But I'd been fighting nausea and hypoxia since mile 16, I'd only taken in the minimum amount of food I could force down my throat, and there was almost nothing left. Every time I upped my exertion level, dizziness kicked in, pukeyness gurgled up, and I felt like I was climbing Everest rather than jogging along a gradually descending dirt road on the Paunsaugunt Plateau. I'd never worked so hard for so little. Which is what I tell myself every time I feel defeated.

On top of feeling sick and generally icky, the temperature had climbed into the high 80s according to Beat's thermometer, and this final section of the Bryce 100 offered almost no shade. The course markings veered off our GPS tracks to add another couple of miles to an already long course, which proved to be the final nail in the coffin of everyone's morale. Even if they could run, no one wanted to anymore. They were done. Nothing left to do but slog out the final unknown number of miles.

I was operating with the mental and emotional capacity of a four-year-old. Beat had already witnessed my obligatory hundred-miler meltdown, after I started bawling because running made my tummy hurt too much. We connected up with Harry at the last aid station, where he was seriously considering dropping 11 miles (actually 13) from the finish. Steve caught up to us a few miles later, and my mood improved now that misery had company. But I still fixated on how miserable I felt. This is so backward. Why do I always come to these beautiful places just to suffer? And why do these last miles have to be so notably unbeautiful? And why does this dirt road have to be so eternal?

There was a fork in the road with a sign saying it led to the border of Bryce Canyon National Park. "Screw this race," I thought. "I'm going to go look at the canyon." With that absurd thought, a strong desire to actually do so — purposely veer in the wrong direction just to look at yet more beautiful scenery — washed over me. Following this desire was Zen feeling of acceptance. "Huh," I thought, "Beneath all this ickiness I actually feel happy. I'm doing my favorite thing, which is moving through the world. I just think I'm miserable because I'm uncomfortable. But what if physical discomfort doesn't actually matter?" Because it doesn't.

Physical discomfort is real, but misery is a state of mind. I'd fought it off for the better part of 30 hours with the help of the jaw-dropping scenery of the Sunset Cliffs. I'd started to give in because I was bored and ready to be done, but this area wasn't so bad, really. The pine-studded hills reminded me of the high deserts of New Mexico, which led me to recall my happier memories from the Tour Divide. I laughed when I remembered how miserable I'd been when I had food poisoning on the Polvadera Mesa, and how I now look back with fondness on the time I fell asleep in a feverish delirium with my gear strewn all about beneath the ponderosa pines. I'd learned a lot back then, about mastering my own destiny by letting go of the illusion of control. I'm still learning. I couldn't control getting sick during the Bryce 100, but I could decide how much I let that circumstance control me. I'd battled the malaise. It was worth it. I was winning.

"This is the stuff of memorable experiences," I thought. "This is the stuff of life."