62 hours, 167 miles in.
Christina, medical lead for the entire Triple Crown race series, hoisted my swollen foot onto her snow pants. It felt like a knife in my hip and I involuntarily writhed backward. She carefully set my foot down and we moved to a cot, where we could wrestle my shoes off without my leg cramping. Once night fell, the wind exploded. It ripped through the tent seams and slapped the walls. I began to shiver while her cold fingers picked over the tape mashed into my footpad and burning toes. She shook her head.
“Are you ok with this?” she asked me before she started to pull. “All of it needs to come off.” I nodded confidently and bit down on the wool blanket I was buried under. She probably could have asked if I was ready to amputate, and I would have nodded. Christina knew what to do, and I did not. Nothing I had done for 100 miles had helped in the slightest. She gripped my foot. I bit down harder and squeezed my eyes shut.
The hurt never came. She patiently, skillfully worked until my feet were sanitized, clean, and raw. I sat up, still shivering, staring down at my massacre. Erin brought me a warm bowl of pasta she’d cooked. My feet are whiter and wrinklier than lasagna noodles. Gross.
“You’re macerated,” Christina announced. “You have to wait here until these dry, or I can’t help you and you can’t continue.” I was silent.
Stuart burst through the tent doors with a blast of icy wind. He collapsed in a chair, shaking violently. I didn’t recognize him at first with his puffy jacket zipped around his eyes. It was encouraging to see a friend. “Are you going to make it to Pole Canyon tonight?” I asked. He nodded slowly. I was silent again.
I stirred my noodles and listened to the tent snapping. The decision of tackling another leg tonight had been decided for me. Disappointment and relief swirled in my mind. I was sixteen hours ahead of cutoff and it had been the hardest day yet. The next section marked the start of the most technical and vertical terrain of the race. A break made sense.
“Sleep here tonight, and wake me up when you’re ready to go,” Christina instructed. “I’ll bandage you up. Seriously, knock on my car window. And no matter what, keep those clean.” She turned to Brent, “Carry her.”
My crew set up camp. The temperature continued dropping and our tent buckled against the desert wind. Brent carried me to the zippered door and swooped me inside, like a groom with his bride, and set me on my sleeping bag.
“I forgot,” I whispered, “I have to pee.”
Though it was my longest night of rest, it was torturous. Brent was sound asleep, but I wiggled and shifted and slid of my sleeping pad. I could not leave the race mentally. The wind thrashed the tent wall into my face. I was still cold, even though I was sweating in my down bag, and every time my toes brushed the side I jolted awake. My face stung from the cold. I heard Candice, the race director, over the HAM radio in the medic tent, “Encourage runners to stay where they are. It’s freezing up here. If they leave, pair them in twos and threes.” I thought of the runners out there, and I was relieved not to be one of them. I closed my eyes and tried to lie still.
My alarm went off before sunrise. I listened carefully for a moment before moving. The wind was gone. Let’s go.
I quietly knocked on Christina’s car window, feeling rude, but she sat up and hopped out. I followed her into the medical tent, but I didn’t recognize it inside. More than a dozen frozen bodies had stumbled in during the night and were sitting hunched in a tight circle, shrouded in wool blankets around the single glowing heater. No one snored. No one moved.
Christina produced a bag of small silicone sheaths. “These are toe condoms,” she explained, as if toe condoms were the most natural thing in the world, “and they are going to fix you.” Ingeniously, she cannibalized them into a bridge and apron for my footpads and stretched a couple over my toes (exactly how you imagine a ‘toe condom’ would fit).
“I McGyvered the shit out of you, Jules,” she announced proudly as she gathered her kit back together. Nervously, I pulled on my shoes and laced up. I suspected that the edges of her contraption would cut exactly into the deep rip at the base of my toes. I stood up.
We locked eyes and grinned. I was standing in gel. My nociceptors suddenly stopped ordering my neurons to burn holes in my brain. She’d quieted a pain that had been screaming for nearly 100 miles, for dozens of hours.
I thanked her profoundly and left. I was anxious to tackle the 9,400 feet of gain in the next two sections and get my pink dot on the map moving again. Erin swallowed one more bite of burned hashbrowns, and we started into the black.
POLE CANYON – No Crew Access
Nothing about Moab 240 is direct. The course makes more sense as a treasure map than a race route. Even if X hadn’t marked the spot yet, I started enjoying racing in the moment again as soon as I was back on my feet. Not only was the sting of walking dulled, but I had taken a break from the incessant urgency of racing. Instead of grinding and grimacing, I talked happily with Erin and absorbed the grandeur around us. I imagined my friends going to bed and seeing my little tracker number 29 glued to Road 46, not moving. They were worrying. They were wondering. I wanted to progress so they’d know I was out there, that I was still going.
With the snow re-route, we began low in the foothills on a minimum maintenance road, gradually climbing from sandy scrub into thick conifer forest. I felt disoriented, which is a talent when there is an entire mountain on your right, but we circled the south peak and often doubled back on a higher section of hill. I finally accepted the wandering course that led from one hidden treasure to the next; besides, I was there to feel the distance. If I wanted to get from A to B, I’d drive.
Our pack straws froze by sunrise. The days of tank tops and canyons seemed like last summer. I stopped and stowed my pack beneath my jacket to thaw. We hiked on, two puffy down Minnesotans in the desert. I munched on a half-frozen peanut butter bar and we joked about the invisible cattle surrounding us. There were fences, grates, and cow pies everywhere, but not a single animal. The peak towered above us.
During my first marathon, running with ten thousand other people, a little girl in her daddy’s arms stuck her hand out for a high five. As I reached out to touch it, she shouted, “I don’t know where we are, but you’re doing great!”
In the middle of that mountainside with the invisible cattle, I heard that little girl’s voice. I didn’t know where I was either, but I was doing great. I felt alive again, and I was closing in on my purpose. The sun was over head.
The trail steepened shortly before we reached Pole Canyon. We stopped long enough to scarf down two bacon avocado quesadillas before we left. The day was turning out to be gorgeous and I was soaring. We ran the flats, we power hiked the uphills. The descents were rocky and awkward. When the road dumped us out on a junky cattle trail leading up to nowhere, which we knew was the start of a monster climb, we smiled at each other and dug in.
“Oowah Lake sounds like watching fireworks,” Erin said cheerfully, “but really it’s like Ouch! Ooh! Ah!” We giggled. One methodical step up after the other, up loose rocky trail – if you could really call it a trail – we climbed. We had been climbing all morning, and we had more to climb. A lot more. I moved evenly and steadily, in rhythm with the mountainside.
We tackled each switchback together, one at a time, without breaking. The snow line drew closer. We caught other runners (not that I felt an iota of competition, but it signaled that I was moving well again). We ran. A familiar red pack bobbed in front. I couldn’t believe it; we found Barkley, who I hadn’t seen in a hundred miles. I felt like I had reconnected with a childhood best friend. We walked together with our pacers and caught up on the last few segments. Still feeling limber and fresh, Erin and I eventually pressed on. In ultras, you surf the highs and ride out the lows.
Up in the La Manti-La Sal National Forest, sprawling for acres between peaks, we found an area where a fire had swept through. The pinyon trees are still standing, blackened and intact. The strikingly beautiful thing, though, is the fire-orange Gambel Oak regrowth underneath. It’s not as tall, not yet, as the trees that burned, but glowing new leaves lick up the charred bark as far as you can see in every direction. It’s beautifully abstract, almost a little eerie, and for the first time all morning I had to stop and catch my breath.
The air grew thinner the closer we ascended toward Mt. Tukuhnikivatz. The route weaves above 9,000 feet for miles, exactly as aimlessly and illogically as an invisible cow might wander on a mountain. I looked up to the clear sky and beamed. I nearly entertained the thought that I was actually going to finish. One way or the other, it would be over tomorrow.
All afternoon, we traversed up and down the folds of the Middle Mountains. The expedition led us into a huge subalpine fir and aspen forest. Bright yellow leaves dotted the snow. I’ll never forget the colors of the La Sals.
Somewhere on this part of the trail I would hit mile 200. It didn’t seem real. If it were truly a 200 mile race, I would be done already. I should do other 200s, I thought. I bet I can. Hold up, finish this first.
Around every slope there was another pass; after every ridge there was another expanse of trees. As the race description denotes, “this section is quintessential Utah mountain terrain.” We watched for the dragons but there were many times Erin and I stopped, looked at each other, looked around, and squinted looking for anything pink. We didn’t quite know where we were, but we were doing great.
As the sun dropped, so did the temperature. We were deep into the snow line, but it felt like Minnesota, and a wave of homesickness washed through me. My family and friends were out there, in another ecosystem, watching my little dot on top of the mountain move. The thought tugged at the corner of my mouth.
Erin and I pushed. Something about the mountain energized me even though we examined a hundred sides of it, like turning a marble over in your hand. After every enormous saddle I was sure we would find the lake; instead we climbed another ridge line and weaved back into the shadow of the peak. We threaded in and out of the summit’s reach more times than I can remember.
Looking back, I wish I could have left for Pole Canyon sooner and made better time; my legs were strong and my mind was steeled. I could have shaved hours off my race. That is my one regret. However, I am not disappointed in the timing of the final day and a half: I would not trade the sunset on the La Sals for any other sunset I’ve ever seen.
Standing on top of the mountain, with the light cascading over a rainbow of geology formations, I was awestruck. Erin and I stared. The way the desert sunset fell into canyon after canyon, each a different hue, into the furthest horizon is branded in my memory. Not a cell phone tower, an interstate, a blinking light. No interruption. Just warm colors cascading over each other, each clamoring to be the most beautiful.
Finally the sky briefly burned bright red and then blue as the sun dipped below the horizon for the final night.
We sensed we were getting closer, but Moab always demands more than you think you can give. Just when I started to feel like I was conquering the mountain, the demons came out to play. My feet were starting to sear again, like running a burn under water and taking it out. The ankle that was swollen before was swelling again. I winced every time I slipped in the snow or misstepped over a log. I started to hike with a limp. We could see ahead to the next ridge across another sea of trees. There were no lights. My resolve hardened. The temperature continued to fall.
Maybe this hurt, and maybe this was hard – but are you surprised? I asked myself. Well it’s got to be sometime, remember? Oowah was where I held up the mirror. I knew it would be. I wanted it to be. I came to break my own boundaries. I came to be uncomfortable. I came to face the pain.
We don’t run without purpose.
Even after this realization, every turn led to another turn, in the snow, in the cold. I zipped my layers up to my nose. Erin talked, but I couldn’t hear her through my hat and hood. I tried to talk, but the muffled words never left my jacket. In the very faint distance, we could see the vague light of Moab Valley. Tomorrow, I would be there. Right now, I was crunching through snow nearly 10,000 feet up.
After so many climbs leading nowhere, discouragement had settled in our bones, along with the cold night air. I had begun to cycle through emotions waiting for the X to mark the spot: begging it to be at the next corner, angry that it wasn’t, frustrated at the exhaustion, hopeful for the next ridge. I had stopped enjoying the moment I was in, the mile I was in, because I was preoccupied with striving for what I wanted.
John Storkamp, the race director for some of our most beloved Minnesota trail ultras and an esteemed runner himself, gave me a piece of advice on my drive west: “Strength, honor, and patience. Lots of patience.” In the first 200 miles I had demonstrated strength. I had run with honor. His words floated through my head and I recognized that I was creating my own anxiety because of my lack of patience.
I let out a deep breath into my coat and felt it warm down to my collar bones. I can be patient. I will get there.
Someone wrote “Nearly There” out of sticks in a snowy field. That guy was a liar. Another mile went by, and then another. Another half hour. I started counting pink dragons backward from ten to occupy my mind. I was bored with my game by the third time around. We were both fatiguing. I continued reciting my patience mantra and limped on.
I never saw Oowah Lake. It was deep into the night when we emerged from the wood and found a row of cars running with people sleeping inside. My feet needed Christina. She smiled and instantly put my crew to work, filling me in on what I had missed and chatting like we were sisters.
She gently removed the silicone and sanitized my skin, letting everything dry in front of the propane heater. I did not have new blisters, but the ones I had for the past 150 miles were wrinkly and white hot. She tenderly pushed on my sore ankle and pain shot up my shin. She pressed along the tendon. “Well, it’s not injured,” she concluded. (just aggravated, angry, and resentful). I looked at my feet with disgust and grimaced.
I have a friend, Steve, who likes to talk philosophy. Steve used to say that there were three states of mind: a wise mind, an emotion mind, and a reasoning mind. Your reasoning mind is your daily functioning brain, and your emotion mind is how you feel in the moment. Your wise mind is your intrinsic intuitive truthfulness, your deepest convictions. It’s akin to your soul; I would argue that it’s the thing inside we call our heart. Wise mind is the intangible thing that makes you you.
I argued that your heart is something incredibly fragile. It is something that needs to be protected and defended from pain, which will stain and disfigure it. Your heart should be kept soft and pristine.
I used to think pain was like the game Mouse Trap. Pain would tip off an elaborate and complex Rube Goldberg machine inside my mind until the little cage dropped safely down over my heart to shield it from attack. I would bunker down and hope nothing broke through the barricade. The irony of defense, however, is that it might successfully keep things out, but it also cages things in.
Steve would smile and say no, wise mind isn’t like that. Your heart is like a lamp, and when enough friction brushes against it, a genie comes out to grant your wish to solve it. It is not a vulnerable or unscarred thing, it is a secret power. Steve says that you have to learn to thrive in the discomfort. If you never learn to cope with it, you’ll always choose the path of least resistance.
Physical pain is an opportunity to practice this. The moment Christina said, “You are not injured,” the genie emerged. The pain was real, absolutely, but I was not going face it in emotion mind, which would allow doubt and pity to infiltrate my purpose.
I would accept it and carry it to the end with strength, honor, and patience.
I put on fresh clothes and relaxed in the back of the car. My feet throbbed and my ankle refused to bend, but I set my alarm and rested my eyes. One last break, one more dawn, and one final push. For the first time in four days, I knew I was going to finish this.
Rick and I started alone on the long road from Oowah at 3:00am. I started to run, and he ran with me. We began to pass people, except they weren’t people anymore. It was Helgi, Chris, Amelia. We were knit together and known, no longer strangers from all over the globe. Rick and I pressed on until a very familiar red pack was in front of me, swaying slightly back and forth. His pacer was wearing shorts even though I was clenching hand warmers for dear life. “Barkley!” I called. Rick and I caught up and hugged him. We walked lock step down the road and chatted away while our pacers walked ahead. I was smiling ear to ear.
A few hours shared on the trails is worth more than a thousand office good mornings, a hundred texts. What happens on those trails is more pure and unclouded than most other conversations, certainly those with strangers. It is genuine and uncomplicated, openminded and always assuming respect for the other person. Routine life is hard after an ultra because you’ve had a glimpse of something, but you couldn’t quite tell what it was.
First light crept up in front of us. I switched my headlamp off for the last time, promised Barkley I’d be cheering for him at the finish line, and shuffled toward sunrise.
227 miles in, 16 to FINISH
At Porcupine Rim, the final aid station, I had one last celebratory breakfast burrito (with guac, of course) and hurried out of there as quickly as possible. Rick and I went galavanting down The Whole Enchilada, a world-renowned five star mountain bike single track trail that bounces down red sandstone for miles, all the way down to the murky green Colorado River. We danced, we laughed our heads off, we yelled. My watch had been dead for three days, but I am confident I threw down some of the fastest miles of the entire race; Rick and I are both lovers of gnarly technical trail with mind-blowing views. I had wings.
The pain was not gone, not remotely. My ankle complained every step I took, increasingly louder as the miles ticked by. Rick noticed the compensation in my stride and made a small observation that it must be hurting, and we both agreed it would be better to acknowledge that the pain was there but stay focused on the finish and talk about it another time. There was only one thing left to do: get to the end.
It did not surprise me when the first twelve miles flew by and the last four dragged, although I had felt so good coming off the mesa that I half hoped I could carry it all the way to mile 243. Again, I reminded myself that I was the maker of my own anxiety and to be patient. In a handful of minutes, this journey that began months ago would be over.
I was arbitrarily swinging more rapidly between highs and lows as the end drew near, unsure of my own feelings but intensely driven. The last three miles is a paved bike path along the river. Two days before the start of the race I ran this exact section, wondering how I would be feeling and what I would be thinking – if I could make it this far in the race.
When we hit it, we tried to run it. My left leg hurt so badly that tremors rattled from my hip to my toes. I tried to run again and sucked in sharply. I could not go three steps. I swung my arms and power walked beside Rick. “Let’s save it for the finish,” he grinned.
The final three miles were an overload of contradicting emotions. I felt an urgency to be done but knew it would take an hour. I was confident I’d be going home with a buckle while disbelieving the accomplishment. No way had I actually pulled this off. I was energetic to arrive yet too tired to pick up the pace. One minute I was laughing with Rick about something stupid and the next I fell silent in pain.
We crossed the underpass. Civilization. The edge of town. I saw the final turn a quarter mile ahead. I broke into a run.
The end. It was the end of the push.
I did it.
Of course you did, Jules. You should believe in yourself more.
The exact second I crossed the finish line, everything vanished. All of the striving. A thousand thoughts were replaced by simple joy of seeing the people I love and a sense of pride. I did what I said I would do, and I did it well. I thought I would be emotional or experience something more dramatic, but instead I smiled big and breathed out deeply.
“It’s done,” the words caught in my throat. My mind was blank.
That night we celebrated. I showered, we ate, we told stories, we hugged (after that first shower I felt cleaner and more refreshed than I’ve ever felt in my life, I think). Susan finished before me and was there cheering runners in, and we all went back to cheer in Barkley and our many friends. Sometimes I don’t know if I love the trail or the trail people more. The community is a very large reason I enjoy ultras.
It was not until the next morning, after the award ceremony, that the size of the thing I had just completed started to make any sense. Our car was packed and ready for the drive home, we shared our last meal with our friends, last hugs, last time saying goodbye.
As Brent and I pulled onto the highway, tears slipped from the corners of my eyes and I felt a deep sob well up inside. I did not want to leave. I had worked hard to get to this moment, and I did not want the moment to pass. I toed the start line to see if I was capable of this, to learn what I could push through and see what I could find.
I found it.
I did it.