“…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” –Maya Angelou
She’s right Doug, I’ll never forget how I felt the day I finished my first 100 mile race.
You said all the right stuff and knew when to say nothing at all, but I’ve all ready forgotten your words. You ran next to me, behind me, and in front of me – stumbling over the rough side of the trail while giving me the smooth side as you sacrificed your weekend to be out in the desert with this bum. Apologetically, these details are fading from my memory. I won’t forget the feeling though – that insatiable, indescribable something that crept over me when you joined at mile 60 and propelled me to the end with some strange degree of ease. You had one hand on the iron as it was pulled from the fire and bore witness to my slow branding over the course of the next 40 miles until dazedly crossing the finish line adorning the requisite scar of ultra-running proficiency – the hundo.
After a big DNF on the first 100-mile crack at Run Rabbit Run (dropping at mile 46), I was primed, pissed, and ready throw down at the Javalina Jundred. This course is remarkably different then the last attempt. The obvious disparity is far less climbing and descending. Run Rabbit has over 20K feet of climbing while Javalina totals around 6K. This means a much faster race, as the entire course is runnable. It’s a 15-mile loop run washing-machine style on a trail in the middle of the low, fully exposed desert outside of Phoenix. “Washing-machine” means that we run 6.7 loops, switching direction each time we arrive back at the Start/Finish area. This has its benefits and drawbacks. Benefit – you get to see where you stand amongst the competition after each loop and the general camaraderie amid high fives while repeatedly passing the 600+ runners out there is a big assist. The drawback, well, running the same loop over…and over…and over… and over again for 100 miles has been known to cultivate and nourish a small dark seed known in common running circles as the mind-fuck. Better watch out for that.
My wife, Ronika, and I slept the night before the race in the back of her Hyundai Tucson at the start/finish area, which miraculously and unknowingly to us, fit a blow-up twin mattress. Sounds nice, but the thrill of having a soft surface to rest on quickly dissipates into the eve as we accept that sleep is a far-fetched idea for our set-up. If you’d like to understand why, I encourage you to sleep two in the back of a small SUV on a twin Coleman blowup mattress. You’ll understand.
Coffee. Oatmeal. And, we’re off. The first loop is tie-dyed by a beautiful sunrise, which serves as the genuine start gun for the race. Ah, that sun – you insidious, desert-scorching bastard. I’ll tip my hat to you as you make your grand entrance, but you’ll soon be hidden by the rim of my visor all day. I’ll rage against your stealthy assault on my vigor, and I pray I’ll see you again as you dip your radiant chin below my visor in 12 or so hours giving me one last wink before you fall behind the silhouette of distant mountains assuring me that I survived you, and, I’m almost there.
The first 30 are a breeze. I go out at a conservative pace and am not getting caught up in the competition. I’m here to finish a hundred for me, not to compete against them. I distract myself from the thoughts of a ga-jillion miles to go by breaking the race down into small sections and goals. This is easy as each loop the objective is to make it back to Ronika. (Ahhh, a soft-beautiful-lady-goddess who bears goodies and treats to replenish my famished soul. Now isn’t that a great thought to run to?) She is having an endurance test of her own, hanging out at the start/finish aid station all day long with brief interjections of her crazy husband bitching at her for not having pickle juice or protein powder in hand. Yep. Well hey babe, where’s my goddamn pickle juice?
45 aid and I’m still feeling decent but the heat and the miles are getting to me. I see Doug Loveday, a good friend of mine who has come up to pace me from mile 60 on. I let him know I’m looking forward to having some company and I’ll see him soon. I eat my words. Miles 50 – 60 I start to break down. My legs are heavy, my body is weak and simply put, I feel tired. I arrive in dire state to the aid station located halfway trough the loop. The volunteers guardedly ask if I’m OK, as I must appear to be on the verge of passing out or projectile vomiting in their face. I have never run beyond 50 miles, and am now entering foreign and unknown territory. I take a short break and muster up a small amount strength to get back to Ronika. This 7 mile stretch is one of the worst I’ve experienced. I feel defeated. Maybe I am not cut out for the 100 mile stuff or being an ultra-runner. How am I going to run another 40? How embarrassing to DNF two times in a row, and not even get to run with my pacer. I feel fear for the first time in the race. Fear not for my health, or for what lies ahead, but of failure. Fear does a lot of things when it creeps in. Most significantly, fear is the great destroyer of ambition.
At the 60-mile aid I sit down. Knowing something is wrong but trying to stay positive Ronika asks in a cheerful tone, “How you feeling?”
“I’m fucked up” is all I can begrudgingly mumble.
I sit and think about Doug, a former professional cyclist who recently transferred his copious athletic ability and grit to trail running. He eagerly volunteered to come pace me for the last 40 miles; I didn’t even ask him to. I must try to complete another loop, even if walking is my misfortune. I’d feel terrible if he came out for nothing but to see his buddy DNF and sulk in self-loathing. I explain to him it won’t be pretty and we might have to walk a bunch, but he is game – just happy to be there supporting me.
We venture off into 61 and begin to explore miles that just months ago seemed naive.
Coach Henry Kimsey-House once said, “When someone is walking beside us, we have more courage to walk into the unknown and to risk the dark and messy places in our journey.” I don’t know what happens after mile 61, I really don’t. But I do know this – the fear has vanished.
We start coasting. It takes me by surprise as much as Doug. I start to smile. What happened? I didn’t eat or drink anything special. I didn’t have a grand stroke of mental profoundness. I’m not running to chase down a podium award. I just… snap out of it. I stop thinking. All my trivial thoughts and emotions are stripped from me (even of my goddess lady), and like the Grinch taking every last crumb from my messy mind; I’m left with nothing. My body feels strong and alive. I feel like I see the finish line as clear as glass in front of my eyes, albeit 38 miles away. It’s an extraordinary liberation. All that exists are Doug, myself, the air going in and out of our lungs, and the orchestra playing in the pit underneath our feet – crunching a harmonious melody on the coarse trail, serenading us into the dusk. I turn my head and look west for a brief perfect moment to see that crazy sun winking at me. You merciless son-of-a-bitch… cheers.
We arrive at the 75 aid and Ronika sees a new man as I am filled with excitement and clarity. I own the next 25 miles. Is this reality? I just ran 75 miles and the next 25 are just a hop, skip and a jump? This is one of the best moments I’ve ever experienced and it’s contagious as Ronika’s joy radiates as well. I’ll never forget this. I try to affirm Doug that he must posses some sort of magical fairy dust that brought me to back to life, but he is too busy at the aid station table sorting through any food or salt that he thinks would be good for me…
I’d like to write more about the last 25 miles but nothing changes from here on out. I feel as fluid as water flowing up and down the trail riding this endless wave with my friend Doug by my side. These are the most enjoyable miles I’ve ever run. On the last, shortened loop, Doug takes me out two miles and then heads back to the finish line so he can see me cross. I reflect a bit on the race over the last few miles, completely alone under the luminous rising moon. Sporting a grin, I come back to that clear, empty, and awesome space with just my breath and my steps and I let it sink in.
I finish in 7th place in 16 hours and 32 minutes. I am sandwiched between two ultra-running legends. Just three minutes ahead of me is Karl Meltzer of Utah, nicknamed “The Speedgoat,” who has a world record, 35, 100-mile race wins in his career. Behind me is Jon Olson who, just two years ago, had the North American 100-mile record time in 11 hours and 59 minutes.
What was it that brought me back to life when Doug joined me? I don’t know. Maybe it was his good words. Maybe it was his good vibes, or maybe his good company. But as I attempt to de-clutter my mind and relive that feeling when I was crystal-clear focused during the latter miles of the race I think I can put my finger on it. It was simple – I could hear the crunching of a friend’s footsteps running next to mine.