Thursday, June 27, 2013

Authentic experience


I'm working on getting my knee back, and I believe motion is important for this. Swelling went down, but the joint remains partially frozen. Bending hurts. It improves every day, which keeps me optimistic, but progress seems slow for a bashed knee. On Tuesday I successfully coaxed it to spin rotations on Beat's bike trainer, and on Wednesday I went out for a relatively flat road ride. Today I decided to climb a hill — my benchmark, Montebello Road — and I was taken aback by how tough it was. I didn't realize how much I was compensating for my sore left knee by putting all of the power into my right leg. Also, I couldn't stand out of the saddle. Any time I shifted pressure to the left, I got a shot of sharp pain.

So I effectively one-leg climbed in the saddle, and the effect left me feeling like I hadn't ridden a bike up a hill in a year. Like all of my strength had drained away, all of that hard-won fitness smothered by a minor and easily obtained injury.

Fitness, for me at least, is an illusion, I decided. The quickness and frequency with which my body's physical abilities can be dramatically cut back is, if not surprising, at least humbling. As I mashed the right pedal and weaved drunken switchbacks up a pitch my friends call "The Mitt Romney," a little smile cracked through the grimace. "This is the body that's supposed to get you through PTL in two months," I thought. "RTP even sooner. I'm going to need crutches. Why do I continue to fool myself into this ridiculous farce?"

Edward Abbey called the motivation "some sort of authentic experience" when he asked these questions of himself. I tend to think of authenticity in terms of sharpness — an experience that cuts deep enough to withstand the scouring effects of time. Memory is my greatest asset, because memory is the filter that gathers and preserves these pieces of my life amid the chaos. But when I am comfortable, I am forgetful. The realization hits whenever I click back through my blog and learn how much I've forgotten. I think this is one of the tragedies of life — that so much of what we experience is lost while we’re still alive.

When I let my mind settle — by which I mean let go of the act of deliberately thinking — I often sink into the reel of memories that is forever playing through the background of my consciousness. What I find there is often surprising. The big life events — first kiss, first car, college graduation — are all but gone now, little more than vague flickers of images that may or may not even belong to me. But there are many seemingly innocuous and meaningless moments that I remember with sharp clarity — pedaling my bicycle after dark in a drizzling rain near the end of the Glacier Highway of Juneau, or swimming across a lake in West Texas as the whole sky turned a bright shade of crimson. These kinds of images are the first to emerge when my mind goes quiet. 

Often, the intensity of emotion surrounding these memories kicks my conscious mind back into gear. “Why then?” my mind asks. “And why now?” My rational mind longs to find a correlation between these long-ago experiences and the present. Otherwise, why do they haunt me?

Perhaps it’s because I’m grinding out a pavement ride beneath the glaring sunshine and it’s 90 degrees; I’m missing cold and rain. Indeed, I can still feel the chill trickling down my shoulders, the numb fingers, the yawning black void beyond the dim beam of my headlight. My knee is stiff and it hurts to push these pedals; I miss the absolute freedom of movement I felt in that Texas lake, gliding across the surface of the glass-still water. 

But there's something else about those experiences that keeps them sharp, an authenticity that preserves them over the dozens of rainy rides I did in Juneau, the entire cross-country road trip surrounding that sunset swim. What was it? What did they mean? When I chip away at the surface, the first thought that comes to me is "uncertainty." On that particular bike ride, I was headed out the road to camp in an effort to practice setting up and staying in a winter bivy after after a long ride. I thought it would snow but it rained instead, and I was intensely afraid of being so wet and facing a night out in near-freezing conditions. Everything surrounding me came alive with malice and awe — the eerie blue light of the moon filtered by high clouds, the fog-shrouded channel, the ominous bend of towering spruce trees. I remember them in a way that's viscerally real, all of these years later. 

My memories of Texas surround the return swim, after I overzealously nearly crossed the small lake and suddenly wasn't sure whether I could make it back to shore. My arms were burning and my legs felt like cement blocks. The sky resembled a wildfire, with streaks of blaze-red light framing mountains of dark clouds. I was scared, and yet I felt calm, deeply — almost meditatively — calm. I knew I could swim all the way back because, well, I had to. For those minutes, it was my one responsibility in the world; that flowing movement was everything. It was beautiful in its necessity, freeing in its stark simplicity. 

Is risk necessary for an authentic experience? Do we need to approach the edge and gaze out into the abyss to jolt the sensations of being alive? Clearly I'm drawn to experiences such as PTL because such a vast curtain of uncertainty surrounds them, as well as a level of life-affirming risk. There's also not a small amount of wide-eyed disbelief surrounding the whole endeavor. "I am gimpy and weak. Could I really cross mountain after mountain after mountain for days on end?" I would never believe it if I hadn't tried, and succeeded, at similar endeavors before. But I've never tried anything exactly like this. Therein lies the intrigue — reaching out to the unknown. 

And, also, connecting the foundation of our our awareness with the building blocks of our lives — our memories.

"Why do I do this? (My feet hurt.) Why? Well, it's the need, I guess, for some sort of authentic experience. (My hip joint hurts.) As opposed to the merely synthetic experience of books, movies, TV, regular urban living. (My neck hurts.) To meet my God, my Maker, once again, face to face, beneath my feet, beyond my arms, above my head. (Will there be water at Cabeza Tank?)" — Edward Abbey, "Beyond the Wall"


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Limpy-K

I avoided my blog for a few days out of embarrassment, or maybe just to avoid starting a post with the phrase, "You know, maybe some of us just weren't born to run." I thought once the pain subsided, I might feel better about my chances at PTL in two months. But no, no ... I still feel like a gimpy little deer who wandered into a tunnel only to see the lights of a fast-approaching freight train.

On Saturday, Beat and I headed out to Santa Cruz for the San Lorenzo River 50K. Beat had been sick all week and nearly stayed home, but I was feeling better than I had in a while. My training runs were going well again after a few weeks of somewhat mystifying respiratory and nausea issues, and I was feeling particularly strong during bike rides. Confidence levels were still low, but I was getting there. At least I felt confident that I had the strength to bust out 31 miles.

But at mile 2.5, I went down. There was a brief distraction from a group of six or seven who were  passing on a short climb, and before I even realized that I had hooked my foot on a rock, I was face down in the dirt. This happens to me a lot. Why? Because I don't lift my feet high enough, I guess. Beat calls it "slurring your feet." He tells me I need to work on my technique. I frequently focus on correcting bad habits, but fatigue and distraction seem to unravel any and all re-education efforts. It seems my natural (bad) inclinations will always overrule my better intentions.

A woman stopped to help me up and I took off at top speed up the trail as blood streamed from my right elbow and knee. It was a slow-moving crash, but it ended in a jumble of rocks that punched a number of impressive bruises into my body. And even though my right side slapped the rocks like a dead fish, my left knee was particularly painful. A large goose egg lump formed over the inside end of the femur, and swelling built around the knee cap. I could feel the joint stiffening up and knew if I stopped moving it would probably freeze entirely. I needed to at least wait for the initial impact fade before I let that happen, so I kept running.


The trail crossed the thigh-deep San Lorenzo river, and I took advantage of the crossing to wash the dirt and blood off my limbs. The cold water felt fantastic, but as soon as we started climbing out of the river, I could feel endorphins fading, replaced by blunt pain. It seemed to be simple soft-tissue bruising rather than something more serious, and I couldn't decide what to do. Call it an education in pain management and continue running? Walk out the first leg of the race and stop at 30 kilometers? Turn around right there, DNF another race, and risk a full-blown crisis of confidence? I suspected that my knee could handle this little setback just fine, but my morale was more fragile.

It's funny that I didn't want to face a DNF. I never wanted to one of those types of runners, gutting out a race with an injury just to say I finished the thing. Deep down, I didn't really care. But I also didn't believe I was seriously injured — at least not enough to convince myself that continuing would do more harm. I was already banged up, so what did it matter if I ran or stopped? One thing I knew, however, was that I was in a moderate amount of pain, and it was getting worse, not better.

Beat, nice guy that he is, decided to stick with me during another race in which I fell apart less than 10 percent of the way in, even though he wasn't feeling well himself. I thought that continuing to jog and walk gently would help "unfreeze" my joint, but the goose egg hardened and the joint became more stiff, until I could no longer bend it more than a few measly degrees. I marched in place at aid stations to stave off full rigor mortis. "This is really kind of dumb," I thought. "I'm just dragging my leg along for a limpy jog and I'm not even getting much of a workout." I begged Beat for painkillers but he would only give me one more pill (wisely, of course, as I'd already taken the maximum dosage for the amount of time I'd be out there. Luckily I'd forgotten my own stash of Advil, as I am prone to caving into temptation.) He did encourage me to bail if I thought I was damaging my knee, and also cautioned that running with a limp risked damaging something else. Still, I felt justified in this latest experiment. After all, I'm pretty damn clumsy. If I want to continue propelling myself over rugged mountains, I'm going to have to learn to cope with a few bruises.

Beat joked about making up a phrase for the act of stubbornly ignoring gravity-induced injuries — "Pulling a Homer." "To the uninitiated, most would think that means sitting on the couch and eating a donut," he said. "But those who know the Homer family know that it means replacing grace with toughness." Heh heh.

After mile twelve my knee still wasn't willing to bend, so I made up my mind to drop at 30K point, reasoning that "running" this out was kind of pointless. But once I'd limped into the start/finish, I'd developed renewed resolve to see this thing through. Beat grabbed a bandage to tightly wrap my knee, and the compression did help me feel more stable. He then took off to run the last 20K at his own pace. As I suspected, the brief stop locked up the joint almost completely. Any bending at all caused a shock of pain. I peg-legged it up the climb and felt like an idiot encountering those who were finishing up the 30K, marathon, and 50K distances, because I was clearly going the wrong direction for a runner who was visibly limping. One of the 30K runners actually stopped and told me he would go back to an aid station about a mile away to get help. "Oh, I'll be fine, no problem, heh heh."


Surely enough, motion did eventually loosen up my knee. But the pain never went away, not even for a minute. I distracted myself with iPod songs that I put on repeat just to block out the passage of time. One of them was this kitschy death metal song, "Army of the Damned" by LoneWolf, which has been my go-to angry song for Alaska winter racing: "We run straight into a frozen hell; defeated by snow, blizzard and ice." It's silly but comforting background noise when I want to feel sorry for myself but need to keep in check that this self-imposed ridiculousness is my decision, and my responsibility. "Trapped in this white and cold cemetery; I can still walk; God seems to like me."

Still, I was openly angry when I arrived at the finish after a painful downhill stretch. I got a bit snippy with a medic who offered to help clean up my elbow and retrieve an ice pack for my knee. She was very nice and I'm grateful she offered to help (which I finally did accept), but I was in once of those embarrassed "don't look at me" moods. They were already cleaning up because I came in with 8:20 on the clock and these races have a nine-hour cutoff.

It was a beautiful course. The redwood forests are peaceful, the sandy hills are challenging, and the San Lorenzo River crossings are a lot of fun. I can't say I enjoyed myself much. I'm still contemplating what I was trying to do out there. On some level, I think I was trying to prove to myself again that I'm more than my fragile and awkward body, that determination can get me through some tough hours, and that pain does eventually get better (it did, on some level. I was running better in the final five miles than I had since I fell. Until the last downhill mile, that is, which was actually quite painful.)

Still, this series of bad races has trampled my mojo. I'm all for unknown challenges, but I prefer to have a little more faith in my known abilities. Part of my continuation strategy on Saturday involved promises to myself that in 2014 I would skip the ultramarathon circuit entirely and go back to my bike touring roots. Perhaps I'll still do that. But I have a lot of 2013 to get through yet.

I'm slowly gaining mobility back in my knee. I've been working on my range of motion and the swelling is going down, but I probably have a few more days at least before I'll be able to run, ride a bike, or walk normally. Still, I remain convinced that this was probably going to be the case whether I stopped at mile three or mile 31. Even mild knee contusions can be quite painful despite relatively shallow damage. But, alas, crisis of confidence. I finished the race, and it crept in anyway. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Hunting for mojo

Since I came back to California a week and a half ago, I've been on the prowl for my mojo. It's been a stealth hunt, stalking from a distance so as to not terrify the little guy into darting off a cliff. Pennsylvania and the Laurel Highlands left their mark. I found myself becoming terribly winded just walking up the stairs of my apartment building, and difficulty breathing at night led me to wonder if I was figthing a respiratory infection. Needless to say it wasn't a heavy week of training. I backed off considerably. I think I only did two trail runs last week, one four miles and the other nine. (Despite promises to myself to keep track of all of my training ahead of PTL, I temporarily lost my GPS watch in a drop bag that disappeared during the Bryce 100 and I didn't even bother to write anything down, so now I have no idea what my numbers have been for the past four weeks.)

Physically, my running isn't in all that bad of shape right now. On Monday I accidentally locked myself out of my house with just a water bottle, a cell phone, and $7 in cash. Since there was little else I could do until Beat got home, I extended my planned six-mile run into a climby from-home loop I call the "Big PG&E," which has about 2,300 feet of climbing and comes in at exactly 13.1 miles. My half-marathon "PR" is 2:04, and I was able to wrap up this trail run in 2:21 without pushing any boundaries.

I could say it went well — no leg pain, no more breathing trouble, happy feet, nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I wasn't quite feeling it. What can I say? Bryce Canyon beat me down. Ever since that race, I have felt a growing sense of terror about Petite Trotte a Leon, to the point where I'm starting to have PTL-specific nightmares. All of these nightmares involve a brilliant lightning storm and heavy rain on a high mountain ridge, and my two teammates and I are separated on opposite ledges with a huge chasm between us. Then I wake up in a cold sweat. To be honest, I haven't had nightmares about an event I haven't yet participated in since before the 2008 Iditarod. I'd almost forgotten how having this degree of pre-race jitters feels, but it's kind of awful. I'm not sure how I'm going to stave off panic as the race gets closer — and I think it's affecting how I feel about running in general. But while I struggle to capture my badly wounded running mojo, I've found relief in what has become a darker corner of my outdoor hobbies — road biking.

I'm loving road biking right now. Ah, the effortless descents. The steady red-line heart rate of a hard climb. The smooth, flowing lines and leg-pumping flats. I go through phases with road biking; generally a few weeks of loving it until I get mentally worn down by run-ins with traffic, or distracted by deeper outdoor adventures. But right now, it's perfect, it's pressure-free, and it's just what I need.


Today I rode a favorite loop — up Steven's Creek Canyon to Highway 9, along Skyline, down Page Mill, back with a wicked tailwind on Foothill. It's 32 miles with 3,300 feet of climbing, and covers a lot of scenic ground in a mere two hours and 15 minutes. As I was coasting down Page Mill, I came up behind a coyote who was just sauntering down the road, pausing briefly to sniff the grass before continuing on. Even as I pedaled up beside it, Coyote paid me little regard. "Hey Coyote," I said, "How's it going?" I thought it would run away once I started talking to it, but Coyote don't care. Coyote don't give a @$%.

Yeah, Coyote and I are good friends. I pulled out my camera and we rode/strode side by side for the better part of a quarter mile before Coyote's ears perked up and it stopped in its tracks. I stopped too and that's when I heard rusting in the grass. Coyote didn't waste another second; it pounced into the shoulder and chased whatever was rustling (probably a rabbit) behind the trees and out of sight. Ah, well. It was a fun friendship while it lasted. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

My dad

Dad and I stand on the summit of Mount Whitney, August 2001
My dad took a nasty fall on the Pfeifferhorn a few days ago. Pfeifferhorn is a beautiful triangle-shaped granite peak in the Wasatch Mountains, reminiscent of the Swiss Alps — which is how it got its name. The summit ridge amounts to little more than a pile of boulders loosely stacked to a razor-sharp point, which demands sometimes precarious scrambling with exposure to big drops. A snow cornice still covered the main route, so Dad climbed around on the more rugged side of the knife ridge. At one point he lost his footing and/or hold, and went down onto a lower rock, breaking his trekking pole, exploding his hip-mounted water bottle and smacking both of his forearms. Later that day he described his injury — swelling and rampant bruising — and I couldn't help but think, "sounds like a broken arm." I appealed to my mother to see if Dad might be willing to get it checked out.

Dad on the summit ridge of the Pfeifferhorn, July 2010
"I thought the very same, and will be watching it," she wrote. "Your Dad just rolled his eyes. The swelling seems to be going down. His arms have wicked bruises. He is going hiking with Tom tomorrow so that must be where you get it."

Dad on Ch-paa-qn Mountain in Montana, August 2010
Where I get it? Like my dad, I am prone to lapses in grace and resulting blunt-force injuries, but unlike my dad I can be a huge baby about my boo-boos. I still occasionally complain about an injury I sustained on my right elbow two years ago — "My scar hurts today" ... like I'm Harry Potter or something. A decade ago, Dad climbed Mount Nebo — the highest mountain in the Wasatch — with a badly sprained ankle. We'd made big plans out the expedition — I took a day off work, and we drove down the night before to camp at the trailhead. He confided in me that he injured his ankle at work when he stood up from his desk after his leg fell asleep, and toppled over. A funny accident — I laughed. It wasn't until we were 5,000 feet up the summit ridge that he showed me the swollen black and purple mess masking his entire foot. "It doesn't even hurt that bad," he insisted. I couldn't help but wonder if Dad just didn't want to disappoint me — so much so that he was willing to limp up a mountain.

Dad and I on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, October 2011
I sometimes joke that my dad is solely responsible for hooking me into my outdoors- and endurance-focused lifestyle. Growing up, I was not even remotely an athlete and we were not necessarily an outdoorsy family. Sure, we went on vacations to Yellowstone and Arches National Parks, but beyond that I was a bookish kid who liked reading and music. When I was 12 or 13, dad made some mountaineering friends who introduced him to hiking routes in the Wasatch. A couple of years later, he started inviting me. My sisters were still too young and a few degrees more disinterested than me in hiking, but even I can't say I was enamored with the thought of lots of sweating and sore legs just to look at pretty scenery. Still, there was appeal to the idea of a day-long outing with just my dad and me, and on some level I didn't want to disappoint him, so I agreed.

Dad and I at Phantom Ranch, September 2006
I was 16 when we embarked on my first truly big adventure, Mount Timpanogos. I had just acquired my first brand new pair of leather hiking boots, which in my mind marked me as a serious hiker. Dad carried most of the snacks — Twizzlers and granola bars — allowing me to get away with just a bottle of water around my hip. We drove to the trailhead in bleary predawn dusk. The air was dusty and sweet. We climbed with the sun as my dad instituted snack breaks and blister checks; and we talked with comfortable honesty as fatigue broke down my teenage information-withholding walls. The aspen canopy opened up to a wide meadow of wildflowers, and then we ascended to a moonscape of granite. One final gasp to the peak and suddenly I could see everything — everything — surrounding my life, like a great swirling expanse a vertical mile below. Awe is what I felt, and I was forever hooked.

Dad descending Mount Juneau, June 2008
A year or so later, while I was still in high school, Dad and I encountered an older man on the summit ridge of the Pfeifferhorn. With a walking stick and a shock of white hair, he was the only other hiker we'd seen in several hours. He had chiseled tan legs and well-defined arms, but he looked ancient to me. We chatted for a minute before the subject of his age came up. "I'm 68," he informed us with a wide smile. As we continued down the mountain, Dad said to me, "I hope I'm still hiking like that when I'm in my 60s."

Beat and Dad postholing in Mount Timpanogos, November 2012
Dad turned 60 in January, and as far as I can tell, he's only getting stronger. I've had twenty years to build up my experience in the prime of my life, but I think he's still stronger than me. Three weeks ago, we attempted a climb of Twin Peaks — the mountain he once told me he ascends every other year or so to remind him how much better he has it everywhere else. Twin Peaks is a mean one, but now he approaches it with more nonchalance. On this day there was still a lot of deep snow and postholing up the steep face, to the point where we logged a 102-minute-mile that had my heart rate pegged the entire time. As we staggered back down, I thought, "This is the toughest thing I've done in a while." Tougher than running a 50K? Most certainly. Tougher than the Quicksilver 50-mile? Probably. Those types of races have distance, but they have nothing on the rugged, numb fingers, blurry-eyed gasping struggle for forward motion that some of my dad's favorite mountains have. "You know," I told my 60-year-old dad, "if you ever got the urge to run an ultramarathon, you'd probably thrive." My dad just grinned at me, because he's smarter than that.

Dad in what is perhaps his favorite place in the world — Canyonlands National Park, April 2010
Happy Father's Day, Dad. Here's to many more decades of adventure. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

An education in bad ideas

It wasn't surprising that the Bryce 100 cut me down to jagged pieces. My internal system was a mess. Heart rate was erratic, respiratory system continued cranking out phlegm and withholding oxygen, and my digestive tract would not get back online. It took me an hour to eat a simple Subway sandwich the evening after the race, and although I recovered my appetite for some meals following that, usually I just choked down what I could while feeling nauseated the whole time. I was planning to return to California on Monday, but I couldn't face the 12-hour drive. I could barely get out of bed. Things were bad.

On Tuesday, I needed to work on deadline for the Alaska newspaper company I contract for, so I knew I'd need to remain in Utah one more day. Despite only achieving sleep in fitful bursts, I'd had enough naps on Monday to feel somewhat rested, and awoke with renewed optimism. At this point, I'd convinced myself that some of my struggles in Bryce and the aftermath were the result of an infection — bacterial or viral — that I'd caught from my dad and that was exacerbated by diminishing my immune system during the high-altitude race. I'll never know for sure, but by casting a portion of the blame to external forces beyond my control, I could claim "recovery" and go for a hike. It was my last day in Utah, after all, and I wanted to make the most of it. I picked Lake Blanche, a six-mile route with 2,900 feet of elevation gain, topping out at 9,000 feet. It was a beautiful day — 62 degrees and sharply clear — and I let renewed vigor whisk me into an ambitious pace. A hard march up to the lake, and then, because I needed to be back by the time the Alaskans started their work day, a run all the way down. Although I was still struggling with lightheadedness and breathing much too hard, my legs actually felt strong. "Maybe, just maybe, I can run a 50K this weekend," I thought.

Wednesday's drive home was tough. I still didn't have much of an appetite, and was craving fresh fruit and lettuce that I did not have. I ate candy because candy will always give me energy if I need it, but of course candy doesn't provide necessary nutrition. I pulled off the Interstate twice to take short naps. It was 99 degrees in northern Nevada, and sleep only held for ten minutes or so before I woke up in my oven of a car, feverish and drenched in sweat. I arrived home around 11 p.m. The body was pretty angry with me at this point, but there was a lot to finish on Thursday in time to grab a red-eye flight to Pittsburgh.

Beat had a business trip planned to conduct some meetings with colleagues at the Pittsburgh Google office, and the timing just happened to coincide with the Laurel Highlands Trail Race, a 50K and 70.5-mile run along the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail put on by our Iditarod-veteran friends Tim and Loreen Hewitt and Rick Freeman. I am working on a book project with Tim, and thought it would be helpful to meet with him face-to-face, so I advocated tagging along. Beat wanted to run the race but I refused to commit one week after Bryce, insisting that I'd just show up and help at an aid station or check people in at the finish. The day before the Bryce 100, I caved into temptation to put my name on the 50K roster, reasoning that it would be fun to run "if I feel okay."

Really, the easy way to tell this whole story would be, "I barely finished the Bryce 100, had a horrible week of recovery, and yada yada yada, I ended up signed up for the full 70-miler in southwestern Pennsylvania one week later." Yes, by the pre-race meeting Friday night, my name had been transferred to the main roster. After a red-eye flight in which I did not sleep at all, I was delirious enough to think that going as far as I could would be a good challenge, even though I didn't think the full 70 miles was likely. After all, for the long efforts I am training for, it's most important that I acquaint myself with continuous forward motion when I feel wrecked. The Laurel Highlands 70.5 would be an important learning opportunity.

Beat makes back-to-back 100s look much easier than they are. I ran Laurel Highlands last year, and I do consider it on par with a 100-mile effort (although, of course, shorter.) But the combination of short but steep climbs and descents on relentless technical, rocky singletrack demands constant focus and persistent effort, and a moderately tight cut-off demands a modicum of speed. The Laurel Highlands 70.5 demands running. Although in my world there's no clear distinction where hiking ends and running begins (and really, I'm fine if you want to call everything I do hiking), there is one big issue I have yet to reconcile — when I am tired, I am not good at running. Not good at all.

Traveling out to the 5:30 a.m. start with Tim meant that we had to wake up at what amounted to 12 a.m. Pacific time. "I'm usually not even in bed at this point," I mumbled as I gulped down coffee with a hint of morning bile. Although the only active thing I'd done since Bryce was my Lake Blanche hike, I thought it was reasonable to believe my legs were still in good shape. I just had to get everything else on board.

By mile two, it was clear that my shattered pieces were being held together with brittle masking tape. Stomach was gurgling, heart was racing, lungs were searing even though I was now comfortably close to sea level again. I thought I should feel this way at mile 52 of the Laurel Highlands, not mile two. I had a strong sense that I was not going to finish this race and made peace with it, which was a cop-out, really, and too soon to hold up my white flag of surrender. But the truth is, I probably would have become despondent otherwise and not even remotely enjoyed the remaining miles in front of me if I committed to finishing the race no matter what. Of course, I was determined to keep trying, and doing the best I could do, and be mindful of the cut-offs.

Still, I was falling apart. Beat waited for me at the 11-mile aid station, where I arrived a full half hour after I did last year. My dizziness had hit a point where I had to stop and take slow and deliberate steps over the many narrow log bridges for fear I'd topple into streams. There were a few tears in my eyes and my lungs were filled with gunk. "I'm so tired," I gasped. "I'm just ... so tired."

It needs to be noted that Beat ran and struggled in the Bryce 100 last week as well. But he is the model of determined recovery, and he looked fine and was moving well. He said he would stick with me and I begged him not to. "If you run with me, you're hurting your chances of finishing," I warned. "I am okay at slogging when I'm tired, but running — running is hard for me when I'm fresh. This is just, this is ... (toe slams into boulder) Ugh."

I thought I was beginning to improve, but it took Beat all of 30 seconds to leave me in the dust once we agreed that him pacing me wasn't the solution. Still, I was moving okay to stay ahead of the cutoffs, and my legs and feet were fine, and as long as I could keep a few calories coming in, I should be able to continue my experiments with persistent forward motion.

At the mile 33 aid station, I met a friend of Tim's who was surprised to see me. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "I thought I saw you were running the 50K."

"I bumped up," I said. "Huge mistake; I can't say it's going particularly well."

"Well, you're doing alright," he assured me. "You're committed now."

I had a good run to mile 39, passed about 12 fellow struggling back-of-packers, picked up some minutes in my cut-off buffer, and convinced myself the worst was over. I asked the aid station volunteer about the timing and she informed me that I had three hours to run the next 7 miles. "Even at slog pace that's doable," I thought with a smile. And I wasn't even slogging anymore; I was almost running. This was great! I was recovering on my feet. I was learning!

And then, as they say, the wheels fell off. I completely lost control of my stomach, and low-level nausea swung to high-level nausea. I was probably bonking. I'd neglected to keep eating when, as I did at Bryce, I realized that I felt better when my stomach was empty. But with so little in my stomach now, it was my GI tract that rebelled. Within a mile of feeling like I'd finally crawled out of my hole, I took my first frantic trip into the woods.

Oh, delirium. It was late afternoon now, and long shadows spread across a bright carpet of ferns. The muddy trail pinched through dark corridors between house-sized boulders, lined in moss. "It's so beautiful," I thought, as though that realization just came to me. For forty miles of the Laurel Highlands, I'd been so intensely focused on maintaining movement that I'd largely ignored the whole reason I enjoy long-distance efforts, and why I'm even trying to increase my distance range — I love to move through the world, and look around. My strength was so diminished that I was stumbling over rocks even when walking slowly; looking up and appreciating my surroundings was really all I had left. I took another trip into the woods, during which I calculated the minutes I had until cut-off divided by my current pace. I pondered how much I was going to fight for it once I got out of the woods. I admit I did not have much fight in me.

The sweeper and a couple of the runners he was herding must have passed while I took my third trip behind the trees. Later, I would be scolded for getting off the trail, but honestly, doing what I needed to do in plain sight would have benefited nobody. The clock ticked close to 7:30 and I thought I was fairly close to the aid station. I could hear the mosquito hum of motorcycles close by. I imagined bursting into a run for one final rage against the cutoff, but my legs were so wobbly that my daydream only ended in me on the ground and bleeding after smashing my head against a rock. Bad runners should not try to run technical trails when feeling so bad, I reasoned. If my slog couldn't get me there before 7:30, then that was okay, I reasoned.

It didn't. I crossed one of the few streets that bisects the LHHT at 7:36 and crawled up the hill to mile 46.5. Five volunteers had the aid station already dismantled and were packing up trucks. They were surprised to see me. The sweeper passed through 15 minutes earlier and said no one was left on the trail, so they got ready to go. Ten minutes later, and they would have been gone. I wondered what I would have done if I arrived and no one was there. "I probably would have had no choice but to call Tim to inform him where I was, and continue on the course to the next aid station," I thought. I was pretty low on water, but I likely would be okay to travel the next 10 miles in the evening with what I had. I could drink from streams if I was desperate — I even carried a few iodine tablets with me because I am a prepper like that. The 46-mile dropbag had my good headlight, but I carried a spare. The dropbag also had food and warm clothing, which I also was not carrying much of — but I wasn't eating anyway, and perhaps a bit of chill would motivate me to move faster. Part of me wished that I arrived after the volunteers left, so I would have chance to try what probably would have proven to be an incredible challenge (and likely futile, since I'd probably just be cut off at mile 57.) And part of me, probably a larger part, was incredibly relieved. I leaned forward against a tree and fought an urge to vomit. Rick called and told me he'd come back to pick me up.

He took me to the finish, where I chocked down a small bowl of vegetarian chili before crawling into my rental car and passing out cold, for three hours. I managed to miss Beat's finish just a few minutes before midnight, where he loped in strong as ever after shaving more than two hours off his 2012 time. He's amazing, honestly. I don't even understand how he does it. I try to understand, and then I convince myself I understand, but I don't.

Do I regret traveling to Pennsylvania? Not in the least. We had a great weekend with Tim and Loreen, and spent so much time talking about Iditarod Trail adventures that I was nicely distracted from my physical blahs. Do I regret signing up for the 70.5 mile race? Maybe a little. I don't think I did any damage beyond possibly prolonging a minor illness, but I admit I'm disappointed. Although I will never subscribe to that "finish at all costs" mentality that drives some runners, I concede that DNFs kinda suck. If I had only just stuck with the 50K, I could have logged a tough finish without the meltdown — but then again, if I had only attempted the 50K, I wouldn't have experienced the thought process, decision making, and coping I went through during a meltdown.

Valuable lessons, indeed.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Let me learn from where I have been

Into the second day. Photo by Beat Jegerlehner.
Wind ripped over the ridge, blasting us in the face with coarse particles of sand. It was pitch dark; no comforting glow of light pollution could be found, and the stars were obscured by the dust cloud swirling through the air. True to the desert, the night became quickly cold, and we made it to the upper reaches of the Pink Cliffs just in time to pull on long-sleeve shirts, puffy coats, and beanies. I insisted on changing my socks again and Beat used the time to scour the aid station for something warm to eat. The table was covered in red dirt but otherwise blown clean — there were a few petrified peanut butter sandwiches, and some gritty potatoes. The wind was blowing gale force and the chill while sitting still felt Alaska-like — except for instead of snow, the blizzard was made of sand. Three exhausted-looking teenagers huddled beside a flapping tarp, looking slightly shell-shocked. "They're probably very nice Mormon boys and this is a service project they got roped into," I thought. "Poor kids."

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
I skipped eating at this aid station. I was not interested in ingesting more sand, and Beat had supplied me with a bag of candied ginger. The thought of this stuff was revolting, but when I put a few pieces in my mouth, the ginger pieces temporarily quelled my nausea, and there were enough sugar calories to produce a tiny buzz. Still, I didn't realize how much I'd come to depend on the 300-odd calories I was forcing down at my previous aid station stops. As we started down the descent, I became quickly woozy, wobbling about on a 30-degree pitch that skirted the edge of vertical cliffs. Wind whipped around and I held my hand over my eyes to shield the sand blast. In a more competent state, I probably would have been frightened, but this slope wasn't so bad. I'd have to stagger off-trail for some distance to actually go off the edge, and if I fell forward maybe I would get lucky and crack my head open, and then I would be forced to stop.

I saw a sparkle of city lights that made me smile. "Oh Panguitch, the highway town that time forgot. But I haven't forgotten you, and I wish you were up here." Fatigue seems to saturate my sentimentality. But as I moved my headlamp away, the lights disappeared, and I realized they weren't lights at all. Were they ... eyes? "Coyote? Mountain lion?" I wondered with surge of fear. My mind shaped these vague sparkles into into cat-like eyes, and even when I couldn't find them again, I became convinced a lion was stalking me. But just as quickly, I threw my own doubts into the fire. "Maybe it was Lynx," I wondered. I've written before about my favorite hallucination. Ever since that night, I sometimes visualize "Lynx" in times of sickness, fatigue, and fear. The image of Lynx is a source of comfort to me, a kind of watchful spirit that I conjure when the lines between dreams and reality begin to blur. A few days earlier, my sister and I took my 3-year-old nephew Max to the zoo. Between Max's rushing from the rhino to the reptile house, I lingered for a few minutes at the pen of the Siberian lynx as it crouched in a thin patch of shade, looking rather uncomfortable under the Utah sun. Lynx had been on my mind, and I wondered if I was far gone enough to start actually "seeing" Lynx. "I need to eat some more calories," I thought.

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
The night miles trudged along without notable differences; I think that's perhaps we only covered about 25 of them while it was dark. I couldn't even tell you how we moved that slowly, but we huddled in our multiple layers of clothing and were glad to have them, because our bodies certainly weren't generating great amounts of heat. Beat had decided earlier in the day that he would stick with me for the remainder of the race, and I'm grateful he did. I always tell myself I prefer to take on these efforts alone, but the morale and confidence boost of having him nearby did wonders for keeping me grounded. Otherwise, I might have given up the ghost the minute I started imagining Lynx. Still, I felt guilty about holding Beat to my slow pace. "It's your birthday," I insisted. "You should do what you need to do."

"It's not my birthday anymore," he reminded me. It was now sometime in the quiet hours before dawn, where the cold wind was fierce and sand filtered in and back out of my phlegmy lungs, but everything else stood still. We were working our way back along the rim of the Paunsaugunt, barely breathing.

Back at Kanab Creek, mile 66, we sat down for a long time. The fire was so inviting and the teenage volunteers were jovial and lively, a pleasant surprise at what must have been after 3 a.m. Runners always appreciate the volunteers in these races, but I have to say the young volunteers at the Bryce 100 were especially refreshing. "It's against their religion not to be super nice to us," I joked with Beat, but really, when you're a smelly and grumpy adult in the midst of an illogical pursuit, it's gratifying to hear the friendly voices of normal kids. I didn't really care if they served me a cup of noodles or refilled my water bladder (which they did), I just wanted to hear them tell their jokes around the campfire and reminisce the time in my life when I was a nice and normal Mormon kid staying up all night with my friends and a raging campfire. Oh, what happened?

"This could be you someday," I wanted to tell them as they looked on with bemusement while we slumped in their camp chairs. "You probably won't believe me now, but it could. And you don't know it yet, but you're going to love it."

After we lingered in the chairs for about 20 minutes, a volunteer mentioned that because it was mile 66, we could quit there and the race director would still give us an official 100K finish. That statement jolted me out of my stupor. "No," I cried out. "No!" I'd come too far to toss it in now. This isn't a statement of judgement for those who took this option. I completely understand and respect anyone who went the distance on this deceptively difficult course. But that wasn't the right option for me. I did not want that.

We picked our way back to the Blubber Creek aid station, mile 75, right at dawn. At this point, I was assessing my chances against the cutoffs. We had 12 hours to cover 25 miles. It seems imminently doable, but at this point, I was not so sure. "It's six miles to the next aid," Beat assured me, "and mostly downhill."

"The longest miles," I lamented. A lot about the Bryce 100 already flickered in the shadows of my memory. But I sharply remembered the canyon that broke me — the first time through.

The thing about that canyon segment is it's not mostly downhill — it starts around 9,000 feet and ends at that level, with relentless steep and rocky descents and climbs in the middle. The final climb to the aid station gains 1,500 feet in a mile and a half, and this is the point where I actually started to feel better about the whole situation. The sun was coming up, the candied ginger was fueling my flickering awareness, and this trail was ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. When I looked at my watch, it was clear that this six-mile segment was going to take three hours to cover, and that was ridiculous. There was no way we could finish this ridiculous race within its ridiculous time cutoffs if it continued at this pace of ridiculousness. I sometimes falter in moderately tough conditions, but mentally I can better handle ridiculous. If something is impossible, there's no reason to get worked up over it.

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
However, Beat was still insistent on remaining with me, and he was adamant about not getting cut from the course. "I've come too far to miss time cutoffs," he told me sternly. He was right, but my determination was flagging. "I try," I mumbled like a child trying to stave off a lecture. "I try my best."

But Beat was right. I don't like it when he tells me something I don't like to hear, but it needs hearing. I needed to pick up the pace. At Proctor Canyon, mile 81, I made a effort to eat something solid and ended up inhaling an entire banana pancake with grape jelly. I was starving, famished, but it was difficult to reconcile that hunger as long as I kept moving and breathing hard enough for nausea to take over. By the time we left, my energy levels felt renewed and resolve returned. I was going to *run* I insisted. I would run the rest of the way. "Let's finish this thing."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, simple resolve wasn't enough to propel me forward. Beat insisted we take a mile of walking to let the big breakfast settle, and then we tried jogging. My gut jostled around and I felt quickly winded and light-headed, but I tried to ignore it. "You want to run," I encouraged my faltering body. "You need to run." But sometimes (most times?) body doesn't care what the hell I think, and won't do what I tell it to do." I became so dizzy and nauseated that a bit of my breakfast came back up, and I did the wrong thing in choking the bile back down, thereby feeling the most awful I'd felt yet. I could feel it gurgling back up — not my breakfast, this time, but the obligatory temper tantrum. The embarrassing loss of composure that seems to arise in every hundred-mile race I attempt. Tears started spilling out.

"Don't worry," Beat tried to comfort me. "We still have time."

"It's just, it's just that," I blubbered. "I don't even know why I'm so upset. I don't even know why I'm crying about this. Honestly (gurgle gurgle) I don't feel that bad."

"That's just the ultra effect," Beat assured me, and that truth made me laugh through the bawling. Isn't it funny that simple physical imbalances can have such a strong effect on our emotional states? We think that deep emotions are unique to our minds, to our souls, to that individual awareness that makes us who we are — but our rather fragile and somewhat embarrassing bodies keep a strong chemical harness on our feelings, after all. The fact that being bonky and tired could make me feel so upset only reminded me how much control over my emotions I really have. "Maybe I can't run," I thought. "But it's still a nice day, and I'm in the beautiful Utah desert hanging out with Beat, and damn it, I'm going to enjoy the rest of this."

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
At the final aid station, I was still holding out for the hope that "I'll start running with my stomach settles" when we encountered our friend Harry. He'd been sitting there for what was probably quite a long time, and informed us that he was seriously considering dropping at mile 90. It was late morning at this point, and the temperature had shot back into the eighties. All of us had been out all of the previous day absorbing unfiltered UV rays at these high elevations, our systems were fatigued, and our bodies were cranking out vast amounts of heat even as our core temperatures fluctuated wildly. Harry was genuinely concerned about heat stroke; there hadn't been much shade during the previous 10-mile segment, nor would there be for the next unknown number of miles (it was supposed to be 11, but we were already suspecting longer.) This was the last refuge of support; there was one unmanned water jug somewhere along the course, and beyond that we were on our own — at the pace we were moving, possibly for as long as four hours in the heat of the afternoon.

Harry decided to continue toward the finish with us, even though I warned him that I might not be able to run another step of the race. I had reached my Zen acceptance about it and decided I was going to engage the cruise control, kick back, and enjoy the views. The main issue with this last section of Bryce 100 is that, unlike the entire rest of the course, there were no more views. We were on a long stretch of jeep road descending slowly from the high plateau, and basically it was just a flat, open valley sparsely forested with ponderosa pines. The shade these trees provided was thin at best, and we picked our way from shade patch to shade patch, sometimes taking sitting-down breaks. The desert heat and sun triggered my water paranoia, and I was taking frequent rationing sips and panicking about my water supply even though I was already hydrated enough to need to stop and pee every twenty minutes.

At the final water stop, our friend Steve caught up to us after rallying back from his long, hard night. He agreed to walk it in with us, and the group dynamic of grumpiness, silliness, and toddler-like emotions was downright humorous. I'm not sure how I would have found enjoyment in this final stretch if it hadn't been for Steve, Beat, and Harry, but the four of us commiserating together was greatly satisfying. The Bryce 100 was back to being ridiculous again, and I got a kick out of our lengthy arguments about GPS tracks and how these data points defied the apparent eternity of the jeep road slog.

Photo by Mountain Peak Fitness
Is it wrong that I kind of loved the horrible last section? I guess it is. But the Interminable Dirt Road had the effect of a good joke, even if the joke was on us. It's true that Harry was in a bad way. He was starting to feel chilled on top of overheated, and we started taking longer breaks in the sparse shade because heat stroke is not a joke. I'd purposely covered myself in long sleeves, calf sleeves, and a buff to avoid absorbing any more sunlight, and I think it mitigated my own body's reaction to the heat (the air was so dry that sweat evaporated immediately, and I think for fair-skinned people it was less beneficial to have more skin exposed.)

Our finish was rather anticlimactic. We rounded a corner and thought we saw the finish area a half mile before it actually came, so there was much cursing and gnashing of teeth in that final ten minutes. I started laughing out loud as the boys ranted. We didn't even bother to run it in, and strolled across the white chalk marking like we were some runner's crew members who didn't realize we were accidentally walking over the finish line. I think it took a few minutes for the finish line volunteers to realize that all four of us were in the race. Although from this finish line photo, it kind of looks like I finished first, right? ;-)

In a way, the Bryce 100 could have been a somewhat disappointing experience. There was a high ratio of malaise to joy compared to even my other tough foot events such as the Susitna 100. Beat captured better photographs than I did, and I finished in 34 hours and 24 minutes after starting the race convinced I could go sub-30 in this one. But it doesn't feel disappointing at all. For me, the most rewarding aspect of the Bryce 100 was feeling so low for so much of the race, and pressing through anyway only to finish with a wide (although crooked with exhaustion) smile.  In the end, I can't gain as much satisfaction from mundane numbers or parsing out my current level of athletic mediocrity, as I can from engaging in a truly challenging personal battle and emerging on the other side, wiser. 

Thursday, June 06, 2013

For all my sweat, my blood runs weak

May 31 was Beat's 44th birthday, and true to form, he went looking for a hundred-mile race he could run to celebrate. He found the Bryce 100, a new event covering a hundred miles of trail on the Paunsaugunt Plateau, along the rim above Bryce Canyon National Park in southwestern Utah. Admittedly, I can be a hard sell on hundred-mile foot races (my requirements: They should feel like they're going somewhere, like a journey. They must be rugged, climby, or have otherwise difficult terrain. In other words, not too runnable — I fear the prospect of actually *running* a hundred miles. Little to no pavement. Also, must offer dynamic scenery.) So I was excited about the prospect of the Bryce 100, which offered all of that in my childhood backyard. I spent most weekends in my early 20s backpacking and hiking the canyons of Southern Utah, but for whatever reason I hadn't visited the Paunsaugunt since I was a teenager. In my memory, the place was like a ride at Disneyland, with rock formations so strange that they had to be carved by humans, then painted with over-the-top bright orange and red hues to complete a cartoonish "Wild Wild West" aesthetic. I was excited plunge myself into a journey deep into the "real" Bryce.

Beat flew into Salt Lake on Thursday and we drove down to Bryce Canyon City in the afternoon. He was running off of a couple of terrible nights of sleep. I also felt quite depleted — almost feverish — possibly from a bug I might have caught from my dad, or from putting in hard efforts at altitude too close to the race, or perhaps just general malaise. Either way, I wasn't feeling terribly optimistic about my physical fitness, but still excited to embark on the trek. We joined our friends Steve and Harry, who had also come out to Utah for Beat's birthday run, in the o'dark-thirty gathering around a barrel fire at a trailhead off Highway 12. Pre-dawn temps were in the 30s, and the sky glittered with stars — clear skies, in the desert, usually mean scorching bright days followed by frigid nights.

The first segment of the Bryce 100 followed the Thunder Mountain Trail — which actually does have its own namesake Disneyland ride, and was every bit as bright, campy, and fun as the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The undulating hills resembled a rollercoaster ride, and spruce trees looked healthy and trim, like cultivated garden trees. I half expected to see a mechanical mountain goat stroll out from behind the hoodoos, but this was the real deal.

Everyone was feeling good and running well in the morning; smiles were wide and cameras were out in force. Even with the consistent climbs and descents, the trail was smooth and the pace felt easy at 11- to 12-minute miles. I clung to hope that these conditions would hold out, both physical and terrain.

Steve and Harry had a surprise for Beat at the first aid station at mile 11 — an inflatable birthday cake stashed in a drop bag. We were standing at about 7,200 feet — the lowest elevation on the course — and Steve had to take a few extra gasps just to blow up the toy. We mustered a rather weak early-morning rendition of "Happy Birthday to You" as other runners and aid station volunteers joined in. There was general bemusement among the whole group — who runs a hundred miles on their birthday? — but it was still early enough in the race to feel giddy about the long day ahead of us.

It didn't take long for things to begin to unravel. The next segment worked its way along a series of drainages amid the Sunset Cliffs, and I started to feel winded walking up even moderate ascents. Running descents also was an open-mouth effort, and although it didn't feel wise to put in such heavy exertion this early in the race, I wasn't sure I could afford much more slowness. Beat and I hadn't planned on running together, and he put some distance on me while I struggled. Over the rolling terrain, the trail gained enough elevation to reach Proctor Canyon above 9,000 feet, where Beat was waiting for me at the 20-mile aid station. "How's it going?" he asked, and I just shook my head. Panic was setting in.

By this point, Beat was experiencing some altitude-based discomfort as well. Although nausea hadn't set in yet, I was already feeling a degree of hypoxia — breathing heavily, becoming terribly light-headed, and gasping as I battled to keep up with the "pack" we had fallen in. Looking back, I shouldn't have pushed this section so hard, but there's a general notion in the mid-pack that by mile 20, you should be able to keep up with the runners you're around if you're to hold a good pace throughout the race. Everyone who went out hard is long gone, and those who fall back might miss cut-offs. I didn't want to fall back.

Miles 20 to 26 were almost mind-bogglingly tough. I remember thinking that if my dad and I went out for a six-mile hike like that, it would be a solid morning's effort and we would reward ourselves with Slurpees afterward. But this was just a six-mile segment of a hundred-mile race — one we'd have to cover again on the return. We dropped a thousand feet and then climbed a thousand within the space of 1.5 rocky miles, and then continued the steep rolling terrain beneath the sandstone cliffs, so bright and cheery and wall-like that I felt like they were mocking me. "Have to get used to this," I mumbled to myself. "You like tough terrain, remember?"

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
Beat decided we should stick together for this segment. During a few of the short, steep climbs, I saw the flickering gray clouds of lapsed consciousness and stopped frequently to catch my breath. But every time I stopped moving, I was overcome by an intense wave of nausea that threatened to drop me to my knees. Blood flushed from my face and when I held up my hands, I could see them trembling without my consent. We hadn't even covered a marathon distance yet. I tried to decide when would be the best place to call this — next aid station? 50K mark? Try to turn that around and complete the official 100K distance? The hundred miles was downright impossible.

I was ashen-faced at the 26-mile checkpoint, but decided to continue forward all the same. "I could at least try to cover the first fifty miles," I told myself. "Otherwise, I'll miss out on so much." I remembered talking to my dad about these types of efforts earlier in the week. "The thing about 10 miles or 50 miles or a hundred miles is, it's all difficult. I always feel tired after ten miles and I can't imagine how I'll go on, but I resolve to go another ten, and then another. And then I keep going until I eventually hit a hundred, and I discover it's not even that bad. Of course there are continuing highs and lows, but it's rewarding to get through all of them and emerge on the other side of what had been an unfathomable journey, just a day earlier. I think the life lesson is that you can always do more than you think you can. There's always something left."

Then again, I couldn't remember the last time I felt this bad just a quarter of the way into anything, unless I count the multi-day bike races I've participated in. And those are different in that they provided opportunities for more prolonged breaks to try to build myself back up. In single-stage races, there's nowhere to hide. You feel bad, too bad. Keep moving. There's a kind of satisfaction in this as well. After mile 26 I decided my body and I were going to go our separate ways for a while, and I turned my focus to the expansive vista at the edge of my feet.

The Grandview Trail rolled along the rim of the Paunsaugunt, providing endless views — the red cliffs, the distant mountains, the green farmland along the Highway 89 corridor. I lapsed into happy memories of my youthful explorations of Southern Utah, when I'd hike ten miles a day and that was damn hard, too. It never gets easier, whether I go ten miles or a hundred. But if I reach for a hundred, there sure is a lot of amazing country out there to see.

I can't say things became any easier, but I became better at convincing myself that it didn't matter. Still, as time drug on, I was only taking in a minimal amount of food to sustain alertness while battling pukeyness. Often how it went is I'd avoid eating altogether until we reached an aid station, and then hunger would rush in once I'd sat down for a few minutes. I'd eat something substantial, like a half bean burrito or a chocolate chip cookie, and then have to swim slowly through my nausea for the first mile or two out of the aid station. If my stomach was empty, the nausea wasn't so bad. But then I'd become more aware of my flagging energy and hypoxia.

Out in the open, a fierce wind blew, carrying with it a lot of dust and sand that lodged in our throats and irritated our eyes. This was tough hundred-mile racing at its finest — the dry dust and heat of the desert, combined with the high altitude and climbing of a mountain run. At this this point I'd convinced myself that the heat of the day and sun exposure was causing my nausea, and everything would get better once darkness and cold finally descended. Before mile 50, we spent some time running with a woman from Jersey named Grace, who was running her first hundred-mile race, and also first race out west. She was curious about my "Ride the Divide" race and also surprised that I'd never worked with a coach. "I never set out to be an athlete," I said. "Really, I still don't think of myself as an athlete. I just like to spend lots of time outside, have visceral experiences, and connect with like-minded folks. Endurance sports are a great way to achieve all that."

As the sun set, my stomach was beginning to feel better, and I convinced myself I'd moved through my slump and that the back half would be less grueling. We'd been moving slowly enough for the past 25 miles that my legs still felt fairly fresh. Also, I'd been experimenting with blister control by cleaning my feet and changing my socks every 20 miles, and it seemed to be working — fifty miles and no foot pain. Still, when we reached the halfway point in fourteen and a half hours, and Grace suggested that maybe we could wrap it up under thirty hours, both Beat and I laughed. Everyone knows that these hundred-mile races haven't even started at mile 50. 

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."