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.