I thought about backing out. A 5:30 a.m. alarm jolted me back to semi-rigid legs, lips parched to the point of blistering, and shoulders aching from 130 miles of rough, high-altitude cycling. Beat had an ambitious plan for Sunday, the full extent of which I didn't know until I returned from a 98-degree pedal into Eagle and drive home while consuming 100 ounces of icy liquid and never once needing to stop to pee. I still felt like a sun-dried tomato.
Beat recounted his plan, ascending 4,000 feet to a 13,300-foot summit, scrambling and boulder-hopping along a narrow spine to another 13er, descending a long boulder field to a reservoir, then more climbing, more descending, and a jog over to Beat's latest sanctuary: a gorgeous and relatively hidden high alpine lake. All in all, it was a big circumnavigation of a mountain that has been a favorite since we moved to Colorado, James Peak.
"That's going to go long," I replied. "Maybe past dark."
He punched the plan into Strava's route builder. "No, it's only 23 miles. 9,000 feet of climbing. Just 7,000 feet if we skip Ute Trail and go through Tolland instead."
When people ask when, where and how Beat and I met, it can be a simple story. "July 2010. Columbia Falls, Montana. He was the only runner smiling at the finish of the Swan Crest 100." That was my first impression of Beat — he seemed deliriously happy for someone who had just emerged from a brutal beatdown in the Northern Rockies. I was a volunteer checking runners in at the finish line, and most of their demeanors ranged from nonplussed to shell-shocked. Beat alone was grinning from ear to ear. We struck up a short conversation. I told him I was an endurance cyclist but not remotely a runner.
"You could run a 100-miler. You could do it next week!" he encouraged me. "In fact, I'm running another one next Saturday. You should come!"
Beat charged hard the entire climb to James Peak. He stopped to wait for me at frequent intervals, at times playfully admonishing my slowness. He teased me about overdoing it on my bike trip, while I insisted that I was just naturally slower in the mountains, this was the best I was ever going to be, and after a decade, he really should know this by now. He stayed cheerful, but I was becoming frustrated and surly. The sun was fearsome at this altitude, and my breathing had become somewhat strained. I was pushing myself too hard, but it was difficult to pull back.
Our early courtship can't be condensed into a simple story. I was settling into my relatively new life in Montana after abruptly abandoning Alaska, and training for Trans Rockies, a mountain bike stage race. Beat, as I first described him on my blog, was "a Swiss-German software developer who works for Google and lives in the Bay Area — as in California. In his free time, he invents things, like a satellite-enabled remote control for his espresso maker so he can fire up the machine from a half-hour away. He also runs. A lot. He's completed seven 100-milers this year alone, eight if you count his last race twice. That one was more than 200 miles."
That race was the first annual Tor des Geants in Courmayuer, Italy. He mentioned it briefly when we met in late July. I was so struck by our first conversation that I guessed his name (which I had forgotten) from a list of Swan Crest 100 finishers and looked him up on Facebook. The first post I saw from him was a disgusting photo of his mangled feet going into the Headlands 100, which was his followup race to Swan Crest. We struck up an online conversation that evolved over the next few weeks. At one point, I asked him why he felt compelled to endure all of this abuse, month after month.
"I just want to experience the intensity of life," he wrote.
Beat urged me to come run with him. He proposed the Bear 100 in Utah as a meeting place, less than a week after he was set to return from the Tor des Geants. The 200-mile race over the giant mountains of the Italian Alps sounded like the most intense experience imaginable — with the exception of the Alaska winter races I'd been talking up for as long as Beat had tried to sell me on trail running. There was no way he could run another 100-miler after TDG. I didn't believe him for a second, and made no real plans to join him as his pacer. Anyway, I was going to be away in Las Vegas at a bicycle retail convention until the weekend. Everything about the proposal was impossible.
"Well," I replied. "Hmmm."
I asked him how he was feeling after the Tor des Geants, which he finished in a shell-shocked heap after five days on five hours of sleep, just days earlier.
"Oh, you know," he said. His voice sounded quiet and a little defeated. We hung up. I looked up flights to Salt Lake. Nothing arrived in time. I looked up one-way car rentals — that was crazy expensive. I popped back on Facebook to message Beat — less painful than making a bad-news call — and saw a status update from a friend in Los Angeles, posted the previous day. "Trying to prepare myself mentally for my nonstop drive to Salt Lake in two days." That would be ... Friday. I messaged my friend.
"My son has this dental appointment. I have to leave crazy early. But I could pick you up in Vegas at 5."
"Perfect," I replied.
After nearly three hours of rush-hour traffic with a stop at a gas station to buy the aforementioned water and snacks, along with REI to buy a headlamp and some reasonable socks, I pulled into Tony Grove in the late evening. The mile-52 checkpoint was staged in a granite amphitheater high in Logan Canyon. The rock walls were lined with aspen and bathed in the golden light of sunset. Beat had been carrying a SPOT tracker, but since this was the age before I owned a smartphone, I hadn't checked his status all day. I had no idea where he was, when he'd arrive, or whether he'd already passed through. And yet, as soon as I exited the truck, I saw his tell-tale smile flash from a large group of runners crowded around a table. I walked up to him, still wearing my jeans and a hoodie.
"Well," he said sternly. "Are you running?"
"Uh," I stammered. "Uhhh." We hadn't made any sort of plan. I thought I'd meet him here and figure out where to start pacing him. We were at this point 50 miles and untold climbs and descents from the finish line. If I started running here, where would I end up?"
Another man, who I didn't know but would later learn was Beat's friend Harry, turned to me and said, "You know he came all this way for you."
"Uh," I stammered again. "Give me five minutes to change my clothes."
Beat and I reached the low point on the ridge and ascended a tundra ramp to Bancroft. Gray clouds billowed overhead, growing darker but not yet threatening. We scrambled up a steep talus slope to reach the broad summit. James had been crowded with hikers, but Bancroft was abandoned and silent, save for the shrill chirps of pika. I walked around taking a few photos as Beat sat next to a rock wall. The wind was stiff but not yet howling, and there was a chill to the air that felt more refreshing than biting. I pressed against Beat's shoulder as I sidled into the small wind shelter, pulled out a sandwich in a Tupperware container, and took a large bite. My mouth was full when Beat turned to me with a crooked smile.
His eyes were watery and his voice cracked a little. "There's never really a right way to do this." He reached into his pack and pulled out a rock, a kind of quartz stone similar in size and color to one I first held in my hands ten years ago. "So do you want to get married?"
I gulped hard to push down the sandwich. I didn't want to ruin the moment like I sort of did the first time. "Yes," I spoke as clearly as possible. A cascade of tears filled my eyes. "Of course I do."
"It's from TDG," he explained. "I picked it up on the second pass and carried it the whole way."
I took the rock and cradled it in my palm, filled with warm-fuzziness. As a kid I was always picking up pretty rocks, carrying them home and stowing them in the bottom drawer of my dresser. How did he know?
Beat looked toward the dark horizon. "So do you want to go out?" he asked.
"I thought we were out," I replied. The response was just what popped into my head, because I had been hoping this "pacing" gig was a date.
Beat looked at me, perplexed. "No, I mean to do want to start dating?"
"The California-Montana thing is complicated," I said, apparently persisting in an effort to ruin this moment with awkwardness.
"We'll figure it out," he replied.
"You know how this goes," I said through gritted teeth. "I'm fine. I just need a moment."
Rain and cold wind found us as we crossed the dam over Loch Lomond and renewed a climb toward the east ridge of James Peak. My leg was throbbing with pain, with the bruise near my hip radiating down a quad muscle toward my knee. It felt like muscle soreness, although I'd characterize it as some of the worst muscle soreness I've yet endured.
"It's like mile 60 of the H.U.R.T. 100," Beat observed.
"Yeah, pretty much like that," I agreed.
The rocky singletrack and surrounding granite cliffs reminded us of the Alps, and we talked wistfully of memories from the past nine years. This will be our first year together without a visit to Europe. It's disappointing, like much of 2020 has been for everyone. But these home mountains hold their own unique intrigue — even favorites like James that we've summited a dozen times.
The trail veered closer to James, away from the direction we needed to climb toward Kingston Peak. Beat decided to take a direct path to the road, putting us in the thick of a brushy marsh. Our feet were soon soaked, and my leg screamed at the motion of stepping over knee-high bushes. Beat zig-zagged through the grass, searching for dry ground, but there was none. Overhead, the storm clouds grew darker. Flecks of rain felt almost like sleet, although the air was still warm. Beat apologized multiple times, but I wasn't bothered.
"I didn't know any better than you," I reasoned.
As he continued searching for a way out of the marsh, I thought, "The best relationship is the person you'll happily follow into the weeds."
"You have to leave me," I insisted. "This is your race. I'm supposed to be your pacer. I can get there eventually. You should go."
"I still want to go," I insisted as I limped gingerly down the rock-slide off of Kingston Peak. "It's worth it."
"Please," I said again, almost begging. "Go finish your race."
Beat just shrugged. "Steve and Harry haven't passed yet, so I'm still beating them."
"I think we'll both be happier if you go," I insisted.
About four miles from the finish, he finally agreed to run ahead, acknowledging that he could still get in under 30 hours, and I could take an easier way to the road. I hobbled into the finish almost an hour after he'd collected his buckle and found a nice, shady spot by a tree. He congratulated me on finishing my first ultramarathon. I hadn't quite thought of it that way before, but he was right. In my blog entry, I wrote, "It was still before noon and the shuttle bus wasn't set to leave the finish line until 7 p.m. There was nothing for us to do but wait, so we settled into a shady spot on the grass, where the lake glistened and gold and green leaves rustled in the wind and wisps of clouds streamed through the bright blue sky. The pain in my feet faded into the background, my mind settled into a pleasant fog, and the only thing I understood was that I was in Fish Haven, Idaho, and I could scarcely comprehend how I got there, but I lived every mile of it, intensely."
Beat was already waiting in the car by the time I reached Tolland, and I teared up all over again.
"You're the best," I said as I leaned toward the driver's seat to kiss him.
"No, you're the best," he said through his ever-illuminating grin. He turned on the engine and we headed home.