Monday, December 09, 2013

A distant goodbye

Just as a corporate championship race with more than a thousand participants was drawing to a close, I was a half dozen miles away on the Coastal Trail, a solo runner among the otherwise stoic cliffs. Earlier in the day, I hopped a shuttle bus and spent several hours among the crowds at Stinson Beach, cheering for runners in the North Face 50-mile Endurance Challenge — because it's fun to spectate a big race. Then I helped pace an acquaintance from Colorado who unfortunately was having a bad day and missed a cut-off at mile 36. After that, there wasn't much left to do but run back to where I started, so I took a long way, meandering along the high ridges of the Marin Headlands.

A cold wind blasted the cliffs, carrying a salty mist hundreds of feet above the crashing waves. The setting sun rendered the hillside in purple light and sharpened the chill, which, thanks to the wind, felt more threatening than the mild temperature might imply. I rounded a corner and caught a gleam from the last light of the sun in the eyes of a young bobcat, who stared at me for a long second before turning around and sauntering down the trail. Bobcat was running but with no real urgency, its long legs and big paws stirring a fine layer of dust that had been kicked up by hundreds of runners early that morning. A couple of times, the bobcat glanced back as if to say, "Are you still following me? This is my trail." I love spotting bobcats in the hills; they remind me of my imagined spirit animal, Lynx, which I conjure for comfort in times of fear and pain. After the bobcat finally darted back into the brush, I decided our brief run together was a good omen.

A few hours later, Beat texted to tell me that his mother's partner Peter had died. It was not unexpected; he had terminal cancer, but the quickness of his passing came as a surprise. And regardless of the circumstances, it's never easy to accept that someone you knew and appreciated is suddenly, simply, no longer there. When Beat and I visited his mother in Germany, Peter and I would occasionally take long walks on the paths and trails of Bielefeld. He spoke only a little English and I speak even less German, but he used our limited shared vocabulary and enthusiastic gestures to piece together a compelling portrait of the city and his life there. He was kind and intelligent and always had a sparkle in his eye, a zest for life that even a crescendo of near-constant pain couldn't dampen. He was fond of aphorisms and walking. Peter was once a very quick marathoner but unfortunately a longterm smoker; complications of smoking nearly took his legs, but he was able to save them through sheer determination and exercise. He walked nearly every day, sometimes 20 or 30 kilometers, and it was difficult to watch as cancer took this joy away from him as well. He was always supportive of Beat and me and enthusiastic about all of our crazy adventures; he treated me like a daughter-in-law despite the lack of legal definition, liked all of my Facebook posts, and greeted me with a long-armed embrace whenever we visited. And Peter absolutely adored cats. I thought about the running bobcat when I learned he was gone. Peter would have loved that story.

I will miss him.

Saturday was a beautiful day. After a deluge of rain on Friday night, the morning dawned clear and cold, with pre-dawn temperatures again hovering near freezing. I headed out to the Headlands to meet up with Shelby, a woman from Colorado who traveled to San Francisco to take part in the North Face 50, which is largest and most prestigious trail race of the year in this region. I think they have something like 500 sign-ups in each of the 50-mile, 50K, marathon, and marathon relay races, including a large number of elite and international runners. If you add in volunteers, pacers, crew, and sponsors, you have well over 2,000 people involved. Those are big numbers for trail running, which is the main reason I never sign up for this event. But then December rolls around and all the excitement drums up and I want to get involved. Shelby invited me to pace her from Stinson Beach to the finish, about 22 miles. Sadly, her stomach turned shortly before we linked up and there's not much I could do to help but sympathize. We reached the Muir Woods checkpoint just five minutes late, but it was a hard cut-off. Shelby, who's a little burnt out after a long season of racing, was cheerfully accepting of the outcome, and grabbed a race shuttle back to the start. Since my car was parked at Tennessee Woods, I decided to continue on the course and added a bonus loop after the stars came out and the cold wind really started cranking. I loved it, even though I missed most of the race action.

Also on Saturday, I was drawn in the lottery for the Hardrock 100, a 100-mile mountain run in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado next July. That text from Beat came a couple of hours before the one about Peter, as I was cheerfully running down the Marincello Trail to wrap up my long run. My response was a blunt but succinct "WTF?!?" Because of the way Hardrock divides up their entries, there were 1,010 people vying for 35 spots. Every year a runner signs up for the lottery, they're given an exponential increase in the number of "tickets" they receive. This was my second year giving it a go, so I had two tickets. People who have tried for years with no luck can have upwards of 128 tickets. Needless to say, I did not have a high chance of "winning." And if you want to increase your chances each year, you have to play the game. With only two tickets and the possibility of increasing that to four next year, I threw my name in the hat.

It was drawn. I very much want to run Hardrock. I would be a great adventure run, in one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the United States, and the organization itself creates a family-like atmosphere that one can't help but embrace. And its very inaccessibility in terms of entry has contributed to Hardrock becoming perhaps the most widely coveted 100-mile mountain run in the world. All that said, I was forming other adventure ambitions for the summer of 2014, and Hardrock just doesn't quite fit. I might be able to make it all work with excessive adventure greediness, perhaps demanding the impossible from myself, and of course even that would be a grand experiment. Either way, I'll have to do some serious soul searching about this in the coming weeks. It would be unwise to give up what will likely be my only chance to run Hardrock. Just qualifying for this run is a whole lot of commitment that I'm not willing to wedge myself into — training for and running the same 100-mile races every year.

This has certainly been my year for race lotteries. A few months ago I applied for the White Mountains 100, thinking, "I don't really want to take on a 100-mile snow bike race so soon after the ITI, but it's my favorite race ever and I'm not going to get in anyway." I got in. Now Hardrock. It's almost as though the so-called "lottery gods" are testing the conviction I had back in September that maybe I should dial back the whole adventure racing thing, that maybe it's getting out of control ...

It's a good problem to have, of course — too many things I really want to do with my time. The problem lies in wanting to have it all.


  1. Congrats on being drawn! I hope that you can run it. Could be a once in a lifetime chance. Cheers!

  2. Thanks again for sharing a bit of the trail with me this weekend. Bummed that it didn't turn out like we'd hoped, but glad to know you got your miles in nonetheless.

    Psyched for you getting in to HR and I hope to be able to help you in some way as you stomp over the San Juans next July.

  3. I think you should orient your year around Hardrock. YOLO.

  4. For what it's worth, I would argue that Hardrock has arrived at something of a tipping point between the race that it once was (back in the 90s/early 00s) and the race that it is becoming. Once upon a time it was just a group of somewhat masochistic mountain lovers who wanted to spend multiple days traipsing through the San Juans. Now it's THE iconic American mountain hundred; it's become the cynosure for pretty much every other fifty or hundred-mile race there is out there, and the gold standard for the kind of person who wants to toe the line at Wasatch, UTMB, Ronda, and the like. As more and more people apply and the field gets more and more competitive, it seems as though the vaunted "Hardrock family" is starting to disappear and it's becoming much like the other races, albeit with some unique course features.

    On the other hand, I would argue that ultra-endurance winter races and hundred-plus-mile summer races are still in their infancy, and may enjoy a renaissance in the next few years, much as mountain hundreds did in the previous decade. So passing up Hardrock might mean a different atmosphere at the race a few years down the road, whereas deferring WM100, PTL, etc. would not affect the quality of the experience as drastically.

    In any case, I'm psyched to hear what you choose and your tales from down the rabbit hole of ultra-distance experience!


  5. Sorry to hear about Beat's stepfather. You write such wonderful tributes.


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