“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench… Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”
-Charles Bukowski, Factotum
140 miles in, 100 to go.
Coming down is hard. When the trail is rocky and random, and your legs are no longer fresh, descending can get clumsy. This is compounded when your toes are crushed into the front of your shoes and the balls of your feet are on fire. Erin and I carefully picked our way in the dark along Peter’s Point Ridge, three thousand feet back down to the desert floor. I clenched my hand warmers inside my gloves. The pain began to cut into me, like the sharp morning wind off the mountain.
The sun rose on the third day.
Very few doctors will tell you to go out and run 100 miles a week, let alone in a day. There is a reason medical personnel are staffed at stations taking blood pressures, bandaging limbs and injuries, searching for signs of coherency. 5,000 footstrikes an hour is going to take a toll. Often during an ultra, even my skin becomes painful to the touch. If I rest a hand on my ribcage, I feel bruised. You don’t run ultras to get a good workout; they break your body down.
There are a myriad of things your body can, and will, combat when the miles climb into triple digits: blurred vision from corneal swelling, rhabdomyolysis because your kidneys cannot filter out particles from muscle breakdown, an enlarged heart, hyponatremia from too much water and too few electrolytes, cramping, vivid and lengthy hallucinations from sleep deprivation, not to mention that your body is flooding with cortisol, the fight-or-flight adrenal stress response. Medical complications aside, you will feel more tired and depleted than you thought possible.
This tipping point is very close to where my race begins.
It’s almost comical to look at snowcapped peaks in the distance and excitedly think, I’ll be standing on those tonight. My heart lifted. More than traversing canyons and pounding out jeep roads, I itched to climb. When the La Sals were in the rearview, there would be nothing left between myself and Moab besides forty miles of descent. It was too soon to think about the end, but the milestone ahead was the next goal.
Our pace and conversation picked up.
Unfortunately, coming down from this short-lived high slingshotted me into the lowest mood of the race. Every toe throbbed. I hoped for warmth as we dropped in elevation, but the wind kicked up and the day stayed decidedly freezing. I could not create body heat in the continuous shade from the peak. The moment physical sufficiency breaks and your mind hijacks the grind forward, you have begun your ultramarathon.
The shining white tent waved to us from a distance in the morning light. I tried to run to it, but stubbed my leaden feet on the diorite boulders. You’re just tired, Jules, I comforted myself. This is new territory. You’re just tired. Stop stumbling and look up. The miserable shade of Shay consumed me.
When we arrived, my first priority was to examine my feet. As I pried off the wrinkled KT tape, I stared in horror at the multiplication of large blisters on my big toe. I pulled the bottom of my foot up to my face, searching for the culprit of my pain. Tears started falling straight out of my eyes, splashing over my foot.
The bottom pads had been taped too tightly. With sweat, sand, and tension my skin had ripped. A jagged white tear along the entire bottom, and in between, every one of my toes left the meat underneath hanging out. Raw pink garbage.
The question rang in my brain before I could stop it: is this your DNF?
My crew stood quietly around me as I sat in shock. Brent put an arm around me. My shoulders began to shake. In a small voice, I asked the medic for wipes and tape. I smeared snot across my face and sleeves and started to work on the wounds. Stinging ripped through my leg.
“Rick, you know I love you,” I said as I laced up new shoes, “but I need to go it alone.” My tears dried and my mind was firm. Dry Valley was not going to be the end of this story.
It was a shorter leg to the next checkpoint, and the first mountain range was finished. I would use this as a time to reconnect with the race and replant my mind. I knew I would not quit, not on myself. Not for blisters. Robert Frost wrote, the best way out is always through.
I switched into my largest pair of shoes and my lightest pack, gave my team one solid nod, and bit my lip. With a deep breath, I took off down the flat gravel road.
“How’s Julie doing?” Susan asked my crew, sitting by the fire eating at next aid station. They told her I was out there alone, working through my struggles. She said something along the lines of, “Well that was not the section to do that.” She was right.
I had chosen thirteen miles of flat, straight road in the absolute middle of dry desolation. No rock formations. No trees. Nothing ahead. Just tumbleweeds, wind, and sandy road straight into the horizon with the sun overhead.
I continued running. I passed a few people. I had no watch, no phone. Time did not matter, only effort mattered. Eventually, in every direction I looked, I was completely isolated. I slowed to a power walk. I started shaking my head at the road – were those toads? Pebbles. Just pebbles. I’d shake my head again to clear my vision. I kept seeing tiny toads. I tried walking with my eyes closed. My mind started to cloud. I wanted to lay down. I’d seen other people resting on the trail.
My friends back home and I often joke it never always gets worse (Gary Cantrell came up with the saying, not us, but we like to throw it out there when things go south). On that stretch of road, things got worse for a long time.
It had rained the week before the race, and along the road was a soft sandy wash. The ripples looked like blankets. I swerved toward them and then changed my mind, redirecting my footsteps back to the center of the road. Eventually, I gave in and lay down in the sunlight, out of the wind. For the first time all morning, I felt warm.
Get up! Someone yelled. It was me. I was yelling. In my hypnagogic state, my mind didn’t sound like my voice. You have to get up, Julie. You can’t rest here. Another voice argued that it would be ok, just for a minute. I squeezed my eyes closed and scrunched my forehead, trying to separate the voices. The sun glowed red behind my eyelids.
There it was: the truth stood, rooted in the same place it always is.
I knew I had to get up. Since I lacked the motivation, I vividly imagined scorpions and tarantulas creeping into my pockets. I raised myself out of the ditch. Each step was leading somewhere, even at a crawl.
It never always gets worse.
The best way out is always through.
The long road finally ended with a left-hand turn onto pavement that let up a sloping hill. Maybe after the hill I’ll see Wind Whistle. For the hundredth time, I was wrong.
The magic of Moab was the continuous push. Every time I gave it everything I had, I was only 90% there. It demanded over and over again that I dig deeper, produce more, press on or fall short. I saw a runner ahead of me with a white hat and the same pack as Barkley. Maybe it was him. I shuffled forward.
When I caught up, it was a strange man with swollen lips and sunburned cheeks who didn’t want to talk. I awkwardly ran ahead, disheartened. I was still alone. In my search to reconnect with the race, I found strangers and dust clouds.
I asked myself if I wanted to stop, and before the thought fully formed, the answer was a resound no. Stopping wasn’t on the table, even if the day was not getting easier.
You don’t run ultras without a deep-seated reason. There’s not enough fuel for that fire to pick it up as a hobby. An Ironman takes twelve hours. That’s a 50 miler, one of the shorter ultra distances. Why do we push twice, four, ten times as long and spend armfuls of hours in the woods? I’m not sure I’ve ever met a trail runner that’s out there without a reason.
For me, ultrarunning is skills therapy. I’ve been in other places of life where the only way out was through. I’ve been in places, tears falling, where the only choices were DNF or take another step. Ultra, for me, is a way of re-doing the way I coped with things the first time around. A better way.
I came into Wind Whistle in time to greet Susan. “How are you doing?” she asked.
“It’s real now,” I mumbled vaguely and slouched in a chair.
“Well it’s got to be sometime,” she said in her kind Tennessean way. The simple note of compassion in her voice struck me.
I agreed with a slight nod and chewed in silence. This is what I came to the desert to find.
I took a 30 minute nap. I needed to clear the cobwebs in my skull. I wish I could say I slept, but like all of the rest breaks that I took, I closed my eyes and breathed slowly, impatient and hyperconscious. The alarm went off and I sat up. Time to pull the shoes back on. I still felt more exhausted than I’ve felt in my life, but my heart felt lighter.
“Rick you have one job,” Erin announced as we slid on our gloves and clipped our packs. “One effing job.” We laughed. We were not to get lost under any circumstances. The course had been re-routed due to sixteen inches of fresh snow in the La Sals. It was now officially 243 miles, plus a few extra because I’d gotten lost. Twice. “Candice runs a good deal,” Rick explained. “Extra miles for your money.”
I didn’t know what mile I was on the rest of that day, or the next, but I knew that only fourteen miles of gravel lie between us and the foothills. The massive white peaks grew taller. This time, with Rick, I wasn’t alone on a Hunter S. Thompson paranoia trip. This section served a purpose: it was the final stretch before the beginning of the crux of the course. After this, if I completed the thirty mile mountain leg, the end would literally be in view.
I was ready to run again.
We passed Looking Glass Rock, chatting happily. A few runners were starting to near the end of the race already, and several had also dropped (we didn’t talk about that). Another afternoon grew long and golden. We had our headlamps ready, but I hoped to arrive before nightfall.
A few miles in, I started to limp. Though both of my feet were still blistered and torn, my left ankle was starting to swell too. I reached down and pressed it gingerly; deep soreness radiated into the joint. With a sigh, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to run very much. My chest deflated. The shadows grew longer.
I felt like a rookie. In the thousands of miles I’ve run, I’d never had blisters like these. I’ve never walked a flat road. I felt myself slipping back into the darkness. I was in pain, and I was taking it out on myself. I let Rick carry the conversation and we focused on the beauty surrounding us in every direction.
As we hobbled down the dirt road, Rick and I discussed the pros and cons of continuing on to Pole Canyon. If I took two hours to rest, I’d be leaving again before midnight. It’d be better to go further and sleep in the earliest hours of the morning, when it is coldest and I’d feel the most sleepy. In the most judicious manner, he left it up to me to decide. My mind was cleared from the nap. I was not moving well, but it was too early for a break. We would go on into the night.
The wind picked up. The sun went down. My lips hurt. My cheeks burned. My throat tightened. Maybe we were a mile away, maybe six. Each turn, when I thought I couldn’t make it any further, the next straightaway revealed yet another huge expanse of unbroken blackness. I had to reach deeper.
A dim light twinkled at us in the distance. Patience with myself, with the course, is the only thing that carried me there. I went straight to the medic tent.
“Hey Jules,” smiled the woman with short gray hair, leaning back in her camp chair. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
A grin flickered across my windburned lips.
“I swear, Christina,” I sighed, “I didn’t shave my balls.”
The final miles be continued in Part 3.