I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve been downtown when the lights came up and the barkeep shouted out last call. Too many. My friends and I would crowd the bar to order one final glass to keep the endorphins buzzing all night. Endings have a certain sadness; drunkenness, a certain persistence. At bar close, I’d make my way back to my apartment in blur — sometimes laughing and stumbling, other times anxious and lonely — not unlike a mountain ultramarathon, especially one that begins at midnight.
Last Call 50 Miler kicks off at 10,000’ in Fairplay, CO with a communal shot of whiskey before heading up Bogue Road into the dark. The race is named after Bill Buck’s Dance Hall, the setting for the legend of Silverheels (the woman for whom the mountain and the 100 Miler is named). A sickly-sweet haze of booze hung in the air and provoked memories of golden shots burning my throat as I pinned my number on my skirt. Late night walks home on the east side slowly became bottles in the freezer, secrets in my house.
My last call for alcohol was three weeks ago and I have not touched a drop since. For me, the dance became so enchanting that I did not know when to leave. Eventually, I was the only one still dancing.
At the pre-race meeting, Sherpa John asked us to find ourselves in the wall mirror and take in a moment of literal self-reflection. When I finally left the party three weeks ago, it was after a long stare in the same mirror.
I recently DNF’d Black Hills 100 when my body crumpled due to severe dehydration caused by that same sugary gold. Listening to the tale of Silverheels’ sacrifice to save what she cared about most, sitting in the South Park rec room, the smell turned my stomach.
I stepped into the clear night air while runners downed shots and smiled at the moon; a race that lit up with whiskey would have been exactly my jam any time during the last ten years. Not that night. I could not have felt proud or grateful for sobriety before the events that led to that moment.
Gathering in the chute, I suspected I was in for an ass-kicking. The course wanders a thousand feet above and below 11,000’ for the full 54 miles, which is a long time to not be able to breathe. I knew I would have to chase the finish. Last Call was a test; I wanted the woman in the mirror to prove her capacity to be stronger.
Alcohol has a way of making everything seem easier, more black and white. How many times after a few craft beers does the UltraSignup schedule fatten up? But, real courage does not take shortcuts. The last three weeks dry demanded rigorous and raw self-honesty. I need to measure myself by my own standards, not what the rest of the room was doing.
The pack lurched forward. The milky way winked at us through the openings in the pines and directed us deep into the Front Range. Within the first uphill miles, I knew that it was going to be a dig deep race.
My lungs sucked air shallowly and my eardrums throbbed. I had not looked at the cutoffs prior to the race; however, I quickly realized that there were three rigorous ones immediately, the first within an hour of the start. There is no time to acclimate to the pounding altitude before the early aid stations weed out the finishers. I snagged a handful of tater tots at each and hurried on, minutes from being pulled. I came into the final hard cutoff with less than five minutes on the clock.
It is humbling, nearly humiliating, for a gently inclining fire road to strong-arm me into a dead stop to catch my breath. I felt dizzy, and a fellow runner taught me to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth. As the morning ground on, the effort required did not lessen. Each mile battled the thin atmosphere high in the mountains. Each mile was hard-earned and relentless.
The course’s crux arises nearly 40 miles in as an enormous climb that steepens dramatically as you summit to the Silverheels mine. My brain grew lethargic with hypoxia — only a mile from the turnaround I could barely keep my eyes open. My oxygen-starved brain grew fuzzy. I slowed my pace to breathe more deeply. I curled up on the trail. I was the opposite of courageous: I felt weak.
Fourteen miles to go. I’d never fought so hard for a 50 miler.
I used to play “Closing Time” at the end of a shift, Semisonic Youth’s song about one last call for alcohol. My favorite line says, “every new beginning starts with some other beginning’s end.” New beginnings are difficult. New courses, new challenges test us to separate the purities from the impurities.
I picked myself up from the side of the trail and finished the climb. No more stopping.
The end of the party marks the beginning of tenacious honesty. It is as breathtaking and beautiful as the view from the peak, but I am not yet acclimated to sobriety. I am still finding my pace, although I have finally reached the capstone, and I will eagerly toe the next starting line knowing that I grow stronger with each summit.