a beautiful shit show
It's always too early to quit. ~Norman Vincent Peale
I should be on a dark mountain, right now, running trails lit only by the stars. Instead, I’m sprawled across the back seat of my friend’s truck wondering if he would be okay if I drove it to the campsite to get warmer clothes. I was pulled today. My first DNF. I got to Gould knowing that the possibility of this was real. My endocrine system seems to be committing the slowest suicide ever, and my running and energy levels are shit; however, when the race started, I felt better than I have in several months. It was hard as fuck to breathe, but my legs felt strong, like they could actually climb without getting all fiery inside. I was in the front of the mid-pack keeping a steady pace and a wide smile. "Sweet Buddha, I’ve got this!" That was my unequivocal, utterly sincere, like a babe in the woods belief…. for four solid miles. That’s when I started feeling sick. I wasn’t terribly concerned because my stomach isn’t reliably cooperative on long runs, and I can typically employ the mind over matter technique (stubbornness is my greatest talent, to be sure), and when the headache and dizziness set in, I unfolded my poles so that I could have a little help with balance. A few steps later, I was dashing off the trail to vomit. Thank all things great in this world that I pack baby wipes and gum in my hydration vest. I wiped my face, popped a stick of wintergreen in my mouth and took a few more steps. Vomit. Rinse. Repeat. I kept telling myself that if I could just get some water and nutrition in me, my stomach would stop revolting in such an unholy manner - a painful strategy that has always worked in the past. I wrangled the Clif Bar from my hydration vest, opened the package, and pulled off a corner piece. I couldn’t even get the bite all the way into my mouth before I was hunched over again. Fuck Clif Bars. You already tried to kill me last month with your little lysteria scare.*
*I’m totally kidding about that, by the way. It’s a funny story I have (better saved for another time) about their little safety recall as nearly every food manufacturer does, from which nobody died. I actually really love Clif Bars - especially the Nuts & Seeds and the Peanut Butter, but I digress….
Water dampened my tongue briefly before I let it slide out of my lips onto the trail. I was actually scared of it. I was scared of how violently my body would react to something so pure and life-sustaining and, well, rather benign. I giggled a little at the irrationality of my fear and took a few more steps. I’m not certain how many times this cycle repeated over the next four-ish miles, but I’m sure I was met with an equal number of “Are you okay?”s and “What do you need?”s. Trail runners…. we choose this sport so that we can disconnect and dig deep into our own solitude, but despite our best efforts, we remained tethered to each other in the best of ways.
When the safety sweeper (he's called Jon with no H, by the way) found me an hour - maybe two - later, I was hunched over a downed tree. One more “Are you okay?” and all I could manage to say was, “I know I’m the last one, but I will keep moving forward as long as you’ll let me.” He looked at me and said, much to my surprise, “you’re lucid and not injured. You’re close to the aid station cut-off time, but let’s go.” I immediately decided that we were best friends. Well, that last statement is a bit exaggerated, but he was definitely my favorite person in that moment. I stood up and moved ever so slowly upward, and as we rounded the next bend and I stopped again. Paralyzed in my own tracks, and this time, not because of the altitude sickness. You know that saying “It was so beautiful that it took my breath away.”? I always thought those words were strung together merely for dramatic effect until my eyes met Lake Agnes. I looked at it like Rhett looked at Scarlett. Like Mr. Darcy looked at Elizabeth. Like dang Richard Gere looked at Julia Roberts when she traded in her hooker outfit for that red dress in Pretty Woman. It was truly breathtaking. I wanted to stay forever, but I was already racing the clock, so onward I crept.
At the first manned aid station (maybe mile 11 or 12ish), I sipped pickle juice after a failed attempt at ginger ale, and then I sucked the salt off of a peanut butter pretzel. I’d made that cut-off with only minutes to spare, and after a quick assessment to determine that I wasn’t in any danger, they sent me on my way. I just need to make it to the next aid station, so with poles in hand and Safety Sweeper Jon in tow, I started climbing. We filled the silence between my stops with chatter, but the details of the conversations are fuzzy. Alaska, some. His time spent in the military. Past races. I wanted to engage, but only when it suited me. That’s the thing about these long distances and what they do to you. They strip a layer of kindness away and replace it with a sheath of selfishness. They add an extra element of challenge that goes beyond the physical because you know it’s happening and you fight it. It takes more energy than you think you have, but less than you actually do, and you know this, so you just continue the fight.
Somewhere between a trail story and a nauseous pause, Safety Sweeper Jon with no H stopped to adjust his pack, and I took the opportunity to trot a few steps ahead for some solitude. Despite my physical condition, my mind was exactly where I like it: free, uncentralized, and running wild. Mere minutes later, a rustling in the timber on one of the lower switchbacks caught my attention. The animal was gone before I could identify it, and I returned my gaze to the trail just in time to catch a fallen limb on my foot. I shook it loose, moved it off the path, and immediately flashed back to the moment I learned how to smoothly, without missing a step, reach down and toss limbs to the side, clearing the way for runners behind me. That’s the other thing about these long distances. Your life plays like a movie in your head, and the tiniest details are never wasted.
It wasn’t long before I was sick again, giving Safety Sweeper Jon with no H the time he needed to catch up with me. For miles we played this cat and mouse game, and somehow he knew not to ask if I was okay. Somehow he knew that I was - and also that I wasn’t - and somehow he knew that that question would end it for me. For this, I am forever grateful because I wasn't ready for the end. The reality was that this race would inevitably be over too soon, but I needed to know that it wasn’t because I gave up. The impending DNF would not be because I just stopped trying, and his instinctual response to not respond to my condition is likely what kept me from stopping of my own accord. And so she goes...
The Diamond Aid Station sits somewhere between miles 17 and 18 at the bottom of this bitch of a climb. This is where the local park ranger (Mike, as it turns out), Safety Sweeper Jon with no H, and two other race official very gently told me that I was done. “Yes, I really think I am,” I said as I slipped off my hydration vest and hoisted myself into the backseat of his giant white truck.
First of all, I’m not entirely sure that epilogues on blog posts are a thing, but I’m nothing if not a trendsetter. Okay, that’s a lie, but I will, in this case, make it a thing out of necessity. You see… This story is from 2016, and I wrote the unedited version of this while sitting in the back of my friend’s truck waiting for him to finish (side note: he rolled in at a strong 18:03 and I missed it because I was in the back of his truck). The day before the race, I happened to muse that “Tomorrow is just going to be a beautiful shit show,” to which he responded “Will that be the title of your post?” Since that day, time has both inscrutably sped up and slowed down at the same time, leaving so many of my words in this sort of time warp continuum. I only traveled back to last summer after my latest Meditation + Writing workshop and a laptop drowning incident (that story will definitely come later) led me to flip back through an old journal. It reminded me that this story - this story of the most significant race of my entire running career - was still left untold.
There are holes in this story where details should be, but my memory of them is blurry. Rather than filling them in and making this a tidy little piece that summarizes that day on the trail eloquently, I've chosen to use my "first draft," if you will. The one written in the middle of the night curled up and trying to stay warm in the back seat of a truck. Only adding in a few words and punctuation for readability, it mirrors the sentiment of those hours: raw, choppy, authentic, unfinished.
*photo: Lake Agnes - the most beautiful lake I've ever seen