I slid down into a too small chair at the elementary school table, futilely arranging my legs in a way that reduced the risk of injury and cramps. Despite my fatigue, I fairly bounced with my big news of the day. Pat and Haruki sat across from me, fresher and more energetic, their day finished long before mine, but causing them to miss entirely the big event of the day. “How was the rest of it?” Pat asked.
“We got ice cream!” I blurted out. While my six foot frame may not have fit the elementary school, my pure unadulterated joy in the frozen treat certainly did. I felt completely silly in my excitement. Until Franck leaped up, almost toppling his chair.
“You too?!” He blurted out, his English tripping over his strong French accent. “I did not know ‘helado’. They show me a photo! Ice cream! Oh-la-la! My eyes…
I collapsed into the camp chair, every inch of my body caked in salty sweat. Sweating was almost useless in the humidity. I had drunk at least three liters of water that day, but my mouth was still parched, unlike my clothes, hair, hat.
Clay’s hand were on his hips as he came to stand over me. His body showed the fatigue of the month and all its challenges, but his face was kind, if serious.
“And now it’s time for The Talk.”
I nodded weakly, knowing exactly what that meant. While Clay’s fatigue was cumulative, built from hours, days, weeks of running, supporting runners, repairing vehicles and I’m sure people, mine was just from those two days of running. We were both doing what we loved, and we were both the kind of tired you felt in your bones.
The Cuban Quattro were due for their annual reunion. Laura and I had organized the previous two years, a marathon on a rainy February Tennessee morning and a March marathon in chilly but sunny Colorado. Dallas stepped up this year to bring us all together again, this time for a 50k in Illinois of all places, as part of the Monarch Ultra.
The Monarch Ultra had begun a month prior in Peterborough, Ontario and was following the route of the monarch butterflies through three countries, down to the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico, where they spend their winter, much like the snowbirds of northern USA.
The Monarch Ultra was also a group of four, celebrating life and friendship while raising awareness. It was the brainchild of imaginative and passionate Carlotta and Clay. Ronald was documenting the entire 47 days. Gunter was keeping the team well fed for their challenges.
The migration is amazing to behold–this year, even appearing on weather radar images.
However, the eastern US monarch population has been in slow decline for many reasons, including the loss of milkweed, the sole diet of the larvae. Like many animal species, monarch butterflies are losing their habitat as cities and highways take over the landscape.
An incredible journey of three thousand miles–about a thousand more than I run in an entire year–the Monarch Ultra is also a celebration of ultrarunners, who also carry themselves across long distances, to arrive at a new, often unknown–physically and spiritually–location. Often, our goal is the same as the monarch: to survive. It may be more an emotional and mental struggle than physical for us runners, but that makes it no less real.
John and Laura couldn’t make it on this adventure, so Dallas had only me to pick up at the airport. Probably a good thing, as the seemingly standard construction zone of orange cones blocking the obvious routes and giant tarps hiding any helpful signage made finding the pickup point more than a little challenging. I’m pretty sure it was the same construction that was going on three years ago and I didn’t navigate it any better, ending up two stories and a city block away from where Dallas was waiting. Hopefully my navigational skills would hold up better during the ultra.
Dallas and I had decided to run the 50k together, taking the later shift of that day. While perusing the maps, I became entranced by the idea of running for a cause instead of a t-shirt, and signed up for a 100k the next day, just hoping Dallas wouldn’t mind crewing. He of course didn’t, only later telling me he was beyond surprised I had signed up for the second day. I just grinned, saying simply, “You don’t know me.”
Dallas and I drove to Vienna, IL–pronounced “v-eye-enna”–that afternoon, stopping only at McDonalds for a biological and to get more drinks. The 95 degrees/95 percent humidity had me worried so I had been drinking nonstop for several days. Colorado does not afford much opportunity for heat training so hydrating as much as possible is about all I can do.
We checked into the hotel and got a recommendation for dinner–the Vienna Grill, which had the largest menu of almost any restaurant I’ve frequented. The catfish was recommended and since we were sort of in the south, that was my choice. And sweet tea. And pie. Dallas went with the old standby spaghetti–the strong smell of garlic almost made me regret my choice.
Outside the front door of the Grill was a garden of painted rocks. They were bright, each with a beautiful saying. “Please take one–that’s what they’re for,” a kind voice behind said. “Oh, I couldn’t,” the Southerner in me began. She picked up a rock and handed to me.
“Remember why you started.”
I can’t say I’m a true believer in signs, but there are moments where I question that doubt. This was one such moment.
Despite the eleven AM start, I was up early. I was still full from dinner, but still managed to partake of the free breakfast. Dallas is a late starter, so I walked around and did some reading while I waited. Vienna is your typical small town Americana, with McDonalds, a park and a historic downtown. Part of me wanted to explore this quaint little place, knowing I would probably never be there again. Part of me felt like I had explored it all before in other adventures.
The eleven start became a one thirty start. This was the first ultra of Jessica, the morning runner, had ever completed. As we drove to our starting point, we saw a runner on the road. Dallas commented that it couldn’t be her, that “she didn’t look like an ultra runner.” Dallas is pretty enlightened for a near octogenarian, so this comment took me by surprise.
I struggled with bulimia during and after college, abusing my body as a way to feel in control, when I felt anything but. It makes me sensitive to body image comments, as this comment seemed to be. I asked Dallas what he meant, how did an ultra runner look, and he responded “Efficient. You can’t finish an ultra running like that.”
I was glad I’d learned to ask questions rather than respond with a knee-jerk reaction.
After introductions, congratulations and hugs, the baton was passed. The baton is a poem written by grade three students in Peterborough, Ontario, expressing hope for the butterflies and inspiration for the runners. It was hard to finish, the hope of third graders contrasting my fifty year old cynicism.
A couple more hugs and we were off. Dallas, a retired professor as well as an ultra runner, immediately took charge, explaining how we needed to pace ourselves, walk the uphills, and stay hydrated. I glanced around, reminded of Cuba and how the “flatlanders” and I were always joking about what constituted “hilly”. To me, there were no hills to be seen, but Dallas was serious, so I followed his lead, walking when he did.
Not far into the run, we passed a sign marking the Trail of Tears, the thousand mile journey forced on the Native Americans in 1838 and 1839. It seemed my journey would cross centuries and migrations and tragedies. Almost a quarter of those on the Trail of Tears died. The monarch butterflies are in slow decline.
Not far after that, we saw our first monarch butterflies.
Dallas wasn’t doing that great himself. He had run the Vol State 500k again that year, and it had hurt his health. Dallas owns basically every time record in running for his age group–even at 78, he put me to shame. That day, though, he was dragging. I had convinced him to carry a second water bottle, knowing I would slow him down, but he needed even more.
A calf cramp hit him hard after the first “aid station” at 10k. I waited while he massaged it out. This was the second time I’d seen someone literally floored by an intensity of pain I’d rather not think about. It wasn’t long before the other calf had him swearing at a decibal I’d not heard from him before. After a few excruciating moments, he was able to breathe and walk, so we continued on at a casual pace.
Dallas was discouraged, not wanting to hold me back but not wanting to quit. I reminded him of the email Clay had sent when Dallas had referred to the run as a race. “We want to change that mindset. You are not running for a medal–you are running for a cause.” It was a glorious day, aside from the heat, and I was just happy to be out, running somewhere new.
I couldn’t convince Dallas to call and get a ride, so I gave him one of my water bottles. I needed it but he needed it more. We took it easy to the next 10k aid station. The heat was truly angry.
At the aid station, we took a good break, refueling and rehydrating. Jessica and her husband had decided to continue crewing. Her food stash was a glory to behold. I stuffed peanut M&Ms in my pack as I guzzled an iced Red Bull. Then I drank a liter of coconut water. I had not yet peed, for which I was partially grateful since women don’t have it quite as convenient as men in that department, but I knew it was a bad sign as well.
After soda and Gatorade, Dallas was feeling more like himself and decided to continue on. Even though it was past three, the heat was not abating. We were less than three miles into that segment, and my thirst was again overwhelming. The warm water in my bottles wasn’t cutting it.
At each aid station, Clay gave us directions for the next ten kilometers, which would take us to the next aid station. I knew that the first turn would be at a grocery store in the small town of Cairo, which I’m pretty sure was pronounced K-eye-row. I ran ahead and signaled Dallas that I was going in, happy that I’d remember to stick cash in my pack. I grabbed one of those giant iced tea drinks loaded with sugar, and guzzled almost all of it before Dallas got there.
“I’m done” is all he said when he got to the store. After making absolutely sure he wasn’t just waffling, I texted Clay. I didn’t want to just leave Dallas, but it was late afternoon and I wasn’t even halfway done with the day. As I stood there waffling myself, a pickup truck pulled up alongside us and a gentleman with a true southern accent jumped out. He asked what we were doing and Dallas explained about the Monarch Ultra.
“God directed me to stop,” he explained, and asked if he could pray with us. I have lost and found religion my entire life. As I enter my fifties, I more hope there’s something more than actually believe it. I also know that I live my life on a fine edge and any advantage I can gain–physical, spiritual, or otherwise–cannot possibly hurt.
So Dallas and I bowed our heads with our new preacher friend as he asked for our peace and protection–that we be “highly visible” along our journey.
Dallas shooed me on, so I continued down the road. Clay drove past a few minutes later so I knew Dallas was safe. Not long after that, Jessica and her crew stopped and gave me an impromptu aid station. Even after the giant can of tea, I was able to drink another half liter of cold water.
The gang was stopping for a late picnic lunch as I continued down the road. I put my music on as I felt the loneliness of the evening stretch before me. Another 5k slipped under my feet as the sun settled on the horizon, releasing the landscape from its intensity. The next aid station was missing Jessica and her party as they had to make their way home sixty miles in the opposite direction. They left their snacks for me, and I stuffed more M&Ms in my pack.
The dusk lingered for the next 5k as I headed out on a quiet country road. I ran toward the royal purple and magenta, orange rays still striking through, and thought of my insignificance. I also thought of the preacher’s prayer for visibility and hoped that someone was listening. There had not been a street light since I turned on this road, and the only lights that weren’t from vehicles were from small farmhouses. I hadn’t thought to bring anything reflective and was feeling invisible as well as insignificant.
Until a pickup truck slowed down and the driver shouted something obscene. I then found myself wishing for invisibility as I choked back my fear. I could see my end: a truck slowing down, me seeing the wrong end of shotgun. I had my satellite messenger with me, but it was small solace that they’d be able to quickly find my body.
My fear rode alongside my anger, whose target alternated between myself for allowing the fear and the driver for causing it, whom I’m sure was blissfully unaware of his impact. The fears weren’t unfounded and they weren’t fair. The vast majority of women have been harassed while running and more than a few have not returned from a run. I didn’t want to give in to the fear but I didn’t want to end up dead either.
I thought about calling friends. I had to smile when I realized that I rejected calling many because I knew they’d drive straight out to help me. I have good friends. I finally called my friend, Joelle. “You are brave, you are strong, and you’ve got this.” She was at a mountain rescue training and couldn’t stay with me on the phone, but her words did.
The lonely country road finally ended in a busier but equally poorly lit road. It was ever so slightly downhill, so I was able to pick up the pace. A car slowed and I again fought my panic. He asked if I needed a ride and I responded with an exaggeratedly bright “No thanks!” He drove on and I settled uneasily into my pace, urging my tired legs to speed up, to get to the end.
The road flattened again as I watched the moon set two hours after its counterpart. I had no true idea where I was, but I knew there were no more turns. My legs ached with the monotony of the terrain and I finally had to give in and walk, frustrated, so wanting to be done with the fatigue and fear. I was doing 100k the next day, and at this pace, I’d be out after dark again.
I cared not to repeat the experience.
After some infinite length of time and distance, I saw the flashing beacons of a police car. It signal safety to me and immediately decided that was where I would end, whether anyone was there to greet me or no.
I picked up my pace, trying and failing to run, but determined to get to the flashing blue and red. The lights grew no bigger nor brighter. The moon had set and there was nothing to distract me from the lights. Even my music seemed to pick just annoying songs and I finally turned it off.
I just watched the blue and red lights, not getting any closer. It reminded me of a race I did in Canada. It ended on the far end of a lake, which was visible from a couple thousand feet above. It never seemed to get closer until you were finally next to it, and even then, you had to run its mile length before you were finished.
The blue and red lights continued to not get closer. A train passed. The flashing lights disappeared then reappeared as the train continued on. It seemed everything was closer than the lights.
Finally, finally there was the police car, its officer and Clay and Dallas, all right there. The officer, Jason, was not an ultra runner but was completely taken with the idea of running the Monarch Ultra through the town he looked out for. We assured him a year was more than enough time to train. He took a selfie with us and bid us well.
It was nine o’clock. I wanted nothing more than a shower and bed. The logistics were a bit blurred, but it was two hotel stops then a room. Dallas had secured the last available hotel room in Cape Girardeau. I was so grateful. As an added bonus, it was equipped for the physically challenged, among which I counted myself that night. I sat through my shower, absorbing the warmth of the water despite the miserable heat of the day.
I was asleep before Dallas finished his shower, having laid out everything for the next day. It was easy to plan for a day where the temperature would not fluctuate, a luxury not often enjoyed in temperamental Colorado. I put my water bottles in the small fridge, a vain gesture.
Dallas wasn’t convinced my wakeup time would get us to the start by 6, but I assured him I could do it. I needed more than five hours of sleep more than I needed time to get ready. It is completely unfair how much more quickly hours spent sleeping slide by than those spent running–well, most of the time anyway.
The crew met us sleepily, having had more to do before they could call it a night. The start was much less an event than the day prior, as I simply waved and took off. I put on my lightweight reflective jacket wanting to believe it would be somewhat cool, but took it off before I had run a mile. I wrapped it around my pack, so I would still be visible, thinking again of the pastor.
The first segment passed slowly as I ran quietly along a dirt road. I was already staring at my feet, my body still aching from the day before. I marveled at the number of dead frogs. As I passed over a small bridge over a small stream, I wondered at the dead fish. Like, really wondered. The frogs, yeah okay–there were a lot of them but I could see where they came from. But how did the fish get on the road? Was there some kind of mass suicide? Bored kids maybe pulling them up and leaving them to die? I stumbled out the next few miles, fish thoughts occupying my mind.
It was the first thing I asked when I got to my aid station. Ronald explained that it had flooded recently and these small skeletons were the sad victims of that weather. I was glad I asked, as there were dead fish on all the bridges I crossed that day and I didn’t need my mind going into those dark corners.
Dallas joined me for the second segment which had the second biggest highlight of the day: crossing the mighty Mississippi, one of the geological dividers of our country. Dallas had run across it before, but this was my first time. It was also the goodbye point for Illinois and the welcome to Missouri. Another first–a run that took me across state lines.
The river, much like a lot of nature, was not what it once was, abused and dumped on by greedy profiteers. I wanted to be excited, thrilled, happy about running across it, but just like when thinking of the monarch butterflies, I felt extreme sadness and loss for what would never be again.
On the other side, in Missouri, were the flattened remains of a dog. It took up the entire width of the sidewalk, forcing Dallas and I onto the now busy road. The stench was overwhelming, the ninety degree temps making a nauseating stew from the lifeless forms.
The theme for most of the rest of the day was roadkill. So much roadkill. I counted two monarch butterflies, and was happy the death toll for them was so low, although I couldn’t help but wonder how far they’d traveled merely to die on the side of the road in Nowhere Missouri. I couldn’t count the number of possums and, yes, dead fish.
Then came the next aid station. A Missouri lady, whose name I’m not sure I ever knew, and her husband had joined us that day. They “raised” butterflies until they came out of their cocoon when they set them free to follow their destiny. A butterfly was born that morning, and it was time for her to join the migration south.
When she said that I should do the honors, my body stopped aching for a moment. We named her Delta, for the next town. Delta is latin for “change”, and no name better suited the meaning of this run.
I was terrified of breaking Delta and couldn’t bring myself to wrap my hand around her as instructed. I instead waited until she climbed onto my thumb. I felt like a child in my absolute wonderment. I couldn’t stop grinning as I watched her tentatively spread her wings.
“Welcome to the world,” I whispered. I was supposed to encourage her to fly but I couldn’t bring myself to rush the process, fascinated as she stretched her wings and tested their strength.
Finally she was ready. She beat her wings harder and launched from my finger. She fluttered a moment, rising just a little, before her beautiful wings hesitated and she floated towards the ground. Landing on a blade of grass she rested, Rodney filming her the entire time.
My only regret for those two days was my addled brain becoming distracted at that moment and walking off. I never saw Delta truly begin her voyage to Mexico. If all went well for her, she is there now. I will never know, but I have to believe. I have to have hope.
From there to almost the end of my day, there were no more turns. I ran through a one gas station town. Seated out front in dilapidated chairs was a trio of men that is only ever seen in front of the only gas station in a town. I heard them yell my name and turned in surprise. They were cheering and clapping. I grinned and waved, gaining just a bit of energy from their enthusiasm and the general silliness and randomness of the brief encounter. I correctly assumed Carlotta was behind it.
I needed that energy because I wanted nothing more than to stop, a desire with which I am intimately familiar. It’s the ultimate conundrum of ultrarunning. Logically, you would never even start an ultra–or even a marathon for that matter. There’s no logical reason to put yourself through that kind of pain, no logical reason to spend that much time being not much more than a mouse on a wheel with nice scenery. So what do you rely on to begin the journey, to keep going?
Passion and stone cold pig-headedness.
But when it comes time to quit? Then what? How do you know when to start relying on logic again? Logic is always going to want you to stop. Logic is the enemy.
For this event, it was Clay standing over me, giving me my options. This run had never been about me–not about me finishing, not about me even running. It was about the butterflies. It was about community. It was about giving back.
And it was time for me to give again. The crew was exhausted. Their RV, which had broken down three hundred miles back, was ready to go again. Dallas didn’t like driving after dark and was ready to be back home. It had taken me almost nine hours to complete the first 50k of the day, and the second half would have me done well after midnight. The goal each day was to complete an ultra, and I had completed that.
I smiled and shrugged. “Guess I’m done.” A small ceremony, a certificate, hugs, photos, and the adventure was at an end for me. Another couple weeks was in store for these four, and they were ready to face it with bravery and a sense of humor.
And what about building bridges? Politics inevitably came up, the rollback of many critical environmental protections impacting so much of what each of us loved. I try to celebrate what I love instead of bashing what I hate, so I bragged on Colorado’s new governor, Jared Polis, who had recently signed an executive order to study the migratory paths in Colorado in order to build routes for animals, protecting both them and the people injured in crashes with them.
“Incredible,” said Ronald, shaking his head sadly but smiling. “A politician building bridges instead of walls.”
Incredible indeed. All of us, butterflies included, could use more bridges in our lives.
The woman we rescued in the below story wrote a book about her experience. She asked me to write a chapter for her book, which I happily did. Sadly, it didn’t make the final cut, so I’m adding it here for your reading pleasure.
I was three quarters the way to the summit of Mt Morrison when the pager went off. I sighed. This was my umpteenth time trying to reach the top of this innocuous little hill, and I really did not want to turn around again. I pulled out the annoying device to shut it up. I read the message.
Request for assistance for a carry out in Park County.
That sounded promising. At least I would get to do something.
Search and rescue has been singularly the most frustrating endeavor of my life. I joined for a very simple reason. I had been rescued from Longs Peak after my climbing partner fell. We had spent a very long night high up on that fourteen thousand foot mountain. I was a novice and convinced I would die that night.
Actually, I had spent most of the day feeling that way. I was in way over my head. It was a typical mountaineering disaster story: Over ambitious boyfriend dragging along his clueless girlfriend on a route neither of us had the skill to be on. I had fortunately taken enough outdoor classes to at least have what I needed: food, water, warm clothes. Sadly, my expensive, thick, wool socks were sitting on the dash of his car. “Leave them. You won’t need them.” Not exactly the truest words spoken.
I remember believing for no logical reason that, if I saw the sunrise, I would live. There had been a full moon for part of the night, but it had set behind the mountain. I sat, looking at the lights of Estes Park with envy and despair, thinking of all those people in their warm, cozy beds, happily ignorant of the two hapless climbers on Longs Peak.
The sun brought with it twenty some guardian angels in the form of a search and rescue team. They took us under their wings and back safely to our car, thirty six hours after we had started. All I could think about the rest of that day was how selfless these individuals were and how I wanted to be just like that. I wanted to be the one to say, it’s going to be okay now.
An internet search turned up a local search and rescue organization : Alpine Rescue Team. The timing was almost eerie. They were recruiting for a new class, something that only happened once every two years. An application and an interview and I was accepted into the class. Six months of training and a team vote and I was officially a member.
That’s when the fun stopped. As a new member, I was an “unknown”, someone with an unknown skill set, so understandably not someone who was often put in the field. Together with numerous stand downs–missions where the subject walked out before we arrived–and I found myself with a large gas bill and not much to show for it.
But I was raised with strong ethics. I had committed to this and I would do this to the absolute best of my abilities. So I went to all the trainings and attended as many missions as my job and life would allow. I slowly got better. I hoped someone noticed.
I looked again at the pager. A carry out in February would be long and painful. Add to that the prediction of a blizzard and time was of the essence. I am an endurance athlete. This was my kind of mission. I put the pager away and turned back to my car.
I had worked my way up the ranks of the rescue team enough to earn a handheld radio. I turned it on in the car in a vain attempt to hear anything about this mission. I drove on in silence. Many team members talk about how they mentally prepare as they drive, deciding what will go into their pack, what they might encounter. I preferred to let my mind be blank. It was counterintuitive but it was how my mind worked. I had learned it when I was flying hang gliders. If I over thought the situation, it inevitably ended badly. So I learned to trust my subconscious.
That and I never took anything out of my pack anyway. I train to run a hundred miles. I hike every chance I get. Most missions did not tax me in the slightest, so carrying a heavy pack made up for any training I might be missing. It was a running joke on the team–I never knew if that was a good thing or not.
I was pleasantly surprised to be one of the first rescuers on scene–that greatly increased the odds I wouldn’t spend the day sitting around. One of my favorite mission leaders (MLs) was there already and he shouted to me to grab my pack as I stepped out of my car. I grabbed it and headed over. One of the MLs just looked at me and shook his head. “Light and fast” is all he said. I returned to my car and pulled a few items out. When he did not look convinced, I told him the bulk was from a down jacket. He, I, and one other ML, headed into the field for the carryout. It was about 4pm.
I was briefed on the way. A young lady had fallen and broken her femur. Another agency had already secured her, and we were there to pull her via sled over the snowy trails of Rosalie Peak. She was somewhere around 13,000ft. A helicopter had located her, but had to leave because of an impending blizzard. I could only imagine her despair. The same had happened on my rescue, but I knew I could walk out. She didn’t have that option.
One of the advantages to being fielded with an ML is their radios–they have access to information the rest of us don’t. The conversations were confusing, but it soon became apparent that the subject was not only not secured, she had not been located. The MLs discussed options. Darkness seemed to fall quickly. We continued on the assumption that we would be carrying out the subject, but the mood was decidedly more tense.
That assumption lasted until about 8 o’clock, when we heard singing. “This Little Light of Mine”. Both MLs muttered quietly then jumped into action. One turned, looked straight at me, and said, “You’re medical. Go.”
I nodded. Medical is something I knew. Something I was good at. I had taken my first first-aid course at least fifteen years prior. Six months before that, I had found myself dangling from a tree, blood everywhere, unable to breath. I had crashed my hang glider into a tree. My friends were standing there, staring at me. All I could think was, “I am going to die while they watch.” A nurse who happened to live nearby was soon there, took control, got me out of the tree and I was able to breath again.
As the ambulance drove me to the local hospital, I vowed I would never be in that position, watching a friend die and powerless to help. I’ve taken countless CPR and first aid courses, before becoming an instructor myself. I moved to Colorado, fell in love with the mountains, and became a Wilderness First Aid instructor.
Now, I was facing my first, real, medical crisis. Everything I’d taught for twenty years seemed to desert me. I hurried over to the subject. I put on a positive cheery attitude. As I kneeled beside her, it all came flooding back
Scene safety. The blizzard arrived at the same time as we did. We built a shelter out of a single tarp. She and her friend were on the saddle and in the brunt of the weather. With no way to move her, it was the best I could do.
Subject rapid assessment. Broken femur. I knew that. Hypothermia. That was obvious. Vitals. She was so bundled up and so cold, I was afraid to expose any part of her to take a pulse. There was no way to see her breathing. She was alert and oriented. And terrified.
“It’s all okay now, right?”
It was the moment I had dreamed of for three years. My chance to say “It is all okay now.”
Except that it wasn’t. Not even close.
We had come under the assumption that she was packaged and ready to go. That was not the case. If it had been, her leg would be secured, she’d be in a “beanbag” to stabilize her, a thick sleeping bag, and a litter–a titanium, full body carrying device. She would have been warm and somewhat stable, and, while not the most fun she’d ever had, it wouldn’t have been too bad a ride out.
We had a beanbag and that was it. She was about to face the most excruciating experience of her life. Having broken seven bones in my life, I felt my nerves and skin rebel just at the thought of what lay ahead. I glanced down the trail I’d come up. I could feel the indescribable pain of bone against bone. It was four miles back to the trailhead. I had no idea where the litter was.
I took a breath. I had been trying to keep it upbeat, but I couldn’t lie.
“Actually, the next bit is going to really suck. But I promise, you will get through that, and then it will get better.”
Her friend, helping me out, said, “Oh don’t worry about her. She can do it. She runs 50 miles for fun.”
I looked up. A fellow runner. Suddenly there was a bit of brightness. Suddenly, I wasn’t lead medic in a blizzard in the middle of the night with a subject with the only kind of bone break that could kill you.
“Me too! I ran Leadville last year! Doing it again this year.”
“OMG! Can I pace you?”
I laughed. “Well, let’s get you outta here first, then, yes, definitely.”
The beanbag was laid out beside her. It was time for the torture. I explained what was going to happen. Her eyes were covered by goggles, but I could feel them widen. I took her head as lead medic. Other teams had arrived by this time, and there were four others, ready to move her.
For the next hour, all I can remember is the screaming. It’s what I will always remember most from the experience. We got her into the beanbag, and began the descent to the litter and eventually the trailhead and ambulance, assuming it could even get there in the blizzard. She begged desperately for drugs. There was nothing I could do. I was helpless.
We went slowly, stopping often to give her a little break from the torture, and allow the litter to get closer. I stayed next to her, shouting encouragements over the wind. She and her friend had been imagining a beach in Mexico to escape the bitter cold. I shouted about the sun and the heat and the sand. I could tell it was doing absolutely no good, but there was nothing else I could do.
I was at my breaking point. This wasn’t what I had imagined. I couldn’t tell her it would all be okay. It wasn’t. It was so much worse. I could feel the tears welling, but I pushed them away angrily. I had no right to cry. I wasn’t the one in pain. At the end of seemingly endless night, I would go home, and collapse in my bed. She would be wheeled into an ER and all the torture that brought with it. I kept encouraging her, kept telling her she was doing great, telling her it was almost over.
Finally, finally, we were at the litter. More teams were there–a call had gone out, requesting assistance from other teams.. They loaded her and her relief was as palpable as mine. It was still slow going. The trail was packed, but the snow was soft and deep on either side. To keep the litter going in the right direction, rescuers were forced to post hole on the sides. Everyone was struggling. I at least had snowshoes–most had left them, thinking they would not be needed. A team had brought extra pairs, but still some went without.
As they pulled her down the trail, I kept up as best I could. The adrenaline was leaving my body. It was midnight already and we were still at least two miles out. Other medics were there and I was no longer needed. I dropped back. At a mile out, the snow machines were waiting. By the time I got there, she had already been pulled out by a machine.
There was one machine waiting. Ego kept others from getting a ride, but I was beyond that. I gratefully accepted a ride out. No one could question my strength and abilities. I had given my all.
I thanked the driver at the trailhead, checked out with the ML, and got in my car. An hour later, I was home. I crawled into bed. I squeezed my eyes shut and pulled the covers over my head.
But I could not block out the sounds of the screaming.
“From here, the toe of the glacier is about seven miles away, and it’s about two miles from there to the top, with a fifteen degree slope on average.”
“You’re lying.” The words were out of my mouth before I could even think.
Austin laughed. “It’s hard to get perspective in Alaska.”
Physical perspective–maybe. But not spiritual. If Colorado were not my home, Alaska would be. Someone told me once, take a balloon, draw Colorado on it, blow it up, and you’ve got Alaska.
I was back in Alaska. My cousin had IM’d me back in March to inform me of his impending nuptials. My trip was booked within the month. This was my third time in McCarthy over the last ten-ish years and each time, I had under planned and driven away full of regret, not knowing when I would be back to this remote, rugged area.
First, I had to get there. The flight to Anchorage was easy enough, but it is an eight hour drive from there to McCarthy. I’ve driven it twice and had no interest in doing it a third time. I more than anything wanted to fly to McCarthy, to see the mountains and glaciers from an eagle’s perspective. But flights are limited to certain days, require more than one person, and have a 35lb baggage limit. That was definitely out. Traveling for work has killed my ability to pack efficiently, especially to a place where the weather was less predictable than, well, Colorado weather.
A bit of digging brought up a shuttle service with Wrangell-St Elias Tours from Anchorage to McCarthy. It still required two people minimum, but one other soul on the planet wanted to go the same week, she (Marie, as I found out) on Sunday, me on Tuesday, so we agreed on Monday.
Travelling to McCarthy is a bit like rewinding the clock. Anchorage itself seems a little lost in time, and each town after seems a bit more unstuck. Then you find yourself at the beginning of the sixty mile dirt road, maintained better than it was, but still subject to the whims of geology, meteorology, and beavers.
The weather was less than stellar when we arrived, a complete deluge that had the river running high, which justified a few extras I had brought. I put on my orange rain jacket and dragged my massive, grey Patagonia suitcase across the footbridge, arriving just in time to miss the shuttle to the lodge. Another came soon. I thought I was home free, but the beavers were protesting the road to Kennicott and it was enough under water that someone left a paddleboard to get across.
Tuesday was my play-tourist day with nothing planned,. The weather was pleasant so I walked around Kennicott, purchasing a necklace from a local artist, then heading up to the glacier. Even in the few years since I had last been there, the glacier was changed, slowly receding back as global warming made its impact. I stopped by Kennicott Wilderness Guides and checked in with Betsy, who had helped me plan my entire trip. She greeted me with a hug, a little extra paperwork (this waivers was particularly poignant: “the inherent risk is what makes it fun”), and times for meeting.
I met Austin, my guide for the week, a little later that evening, of course after I’d changed into PJs and settled in for the evening, giving into the two hour time difference and travel fatigue. Even after a full season of dragging tourists around the glaciers, he was full of enthusiasm and smiles, even pretending not to notice the pajamas. It was his second season there, his first was the prior year, doing his internship for his wilderness leadership degree. Where were these degrees when I was in college? Where would I be if I’d been born twenty years later?
Wednesday started with another waiver for Wrangell Mountain Air (“I promise not sue if I die in a plane crash”). Bill was an excellent pilot, describing the scenery and telling happy stories of Nizina, the second choice for the day’s hike as the first had been flooded by the recent rains. Both had already warned me there was a real danger we’d spend the night out–inclement weather and technical troubles being all-too-real in that remote area.
If it hadn’t meant curtailing other activities, I would have welcomed the adventure.
As eager as I was to get down and explore, I would not have minded a longer plane ride. As Bill was preparing to land on the newly renovated (but still very bumpy, according to Bill’s exacting standards) gravel and mud landing strip –my first Alaska bear sighting! They bounded off, offended by the noise of the plane, but I still regretted not grabbing the bear spray Austin had offered. The pawprints we saw throughout the day didn’t help any.
The highlight of the hike were the many fossils that we found. Bill told us on the flight back that they were from the time when Nizina was still part of the Pacific Ocean. I had the same feeling of eternal time that I felt finding seashells on the top of small peaks in Texas. So long ago but then again, not so much. You are allowed to take all the rocks you want from the glaciers, but fossils must remain. Knowing that prior respect for that rule had allowed me to see so many of these gems gave me the same respect to take photos and place the fossils back where they were found, maybe never to be seen again, but then again, maybe.
Austin I explored around the morain, occasionally adventuring onto the glacier. There were icebergs everywhere. He told me that his boss and a couple coworkers had been camping out when the last calving occurred. It had been a massive event, icebergs shooting hundreds of feet in the air, causing mini tsunamis and threatening their camp. Once the realization hit (fortunately it had happened after they’d gotten out of the water but before sleep had come), they grabbed the gear they could and made for higher ground, amazingly losing only a single trekking pole.
Thursday was predicted to be the rainiest day, so packrafting had been planned for that day. Packrafting is the result of adventure races that require racers to cross rivers. Like much outdoor gear, it’s become lighter and more sophisticated in recent years. The rafts, drysuits and paddles weighed less than my rescue pack.
A little patience and a lot of flexibility is required in putting together all the pieces, but the grey skies and forty degree temps didn’t have us in too much of a hurry. I was pretty relieved that only my hands were cold once everything was pieced together.
We were in Kennicott Lake, at the base of the Kennicott Glacier. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the current, the lake feeding right into the river. Having the upper body strength of an ultra runner, I was a bit at Austin’s mercy. He kept close during the couple spots where the current swept under the glacier.
The scenery was surreal. A calving event had occurred there recently as well, and we paddled around the abstract sculptures that remained, making up stories on the “pieces” and their artists. The deep blue of the newly divided ice was mostly gone, but we did find small segments still gleaming. Small pine trees grew out of the debris on top of the glacier. The rain made small waterfalls.
At lunch, we did a land crossing in the middle of the lake. Austin showed me how to hook the paddle to the raft to create a handle for carrying. I didn’t fall over is about the only thing I can say about my lack of style and grace. My hands were completely numb and my arms were already feeling the effort. I inhaled my entire lunch from Meatza’s, one of two eateries in Kennicott, hoping the calories would restore some of my energy, but the lack of movement and the increasing wind won out.
As we got back in the water, I finally conceded and told Austin it wouldn’t hurt my feeling if he made this a short day. I don’t think his feeling were hurt much either, his gloves less water resistant than mine.
Glaciers are constantly changing and a route through the icebergs found on one day was not guaranteed to ever be there again. We paddled into a sort of amphitheater and listened to the falling rocks and water, the lack of wind improving my attitude. A couple times, Austin paddled out ahead to make sure the route was still clear. It always was, and by 2pm, we were back in the cove, packing up the rafts.
We stopped by the Potato for a quick bite before relieving Austin of his duties for the day. I had first eaten at the Potato when it was still a food truck and it was the best burrito I had ever consumed. Egg, cheese, curly fries and sour cream. I tried and failed on many occasions to re-create it.
I was a little sad that the recipe had changed and wasn’t quite what I remembered, but the hot coffee more than made up for it, coaxing warmth back into my chilled bones.
Halfway through my burrito, I noticed Austin listening intently to a group had come in after us. From scraps of the conversation, I gathered that part of their group was going to be stuck out for the night. Austin told me in a lowered voice that the group was theirs and they had gone out with his boss. The weather was to blame and it looked to be a cold, rainy night to be stuck out. I selfishly thanked my lucky stars.
Ice climbing day dawned clear and cool. I hadn’t taken long to adjust to the time zone, staying up later to peer hopefully and futilely for the Northern Lights, sleeping a little later in the morning. Breakfast at the lodge was more than a cut above American standards, but not quite the breakfasts I’d had in Italy. But I was really there for the coffee and it did not disappoint.
I had brought helmet, harness and boots, three pieces of gear I do not like to leave to chance. Austin had already fitted the boots with crampons so we headed out shortly after meeting up, excited to be out in the sunshine.
The day warmed and we more than made up for the short rafting day. Maybe it was my hopeful imagination, but Austin looked a little whipped by the end of the day. He found five great places to climb, starting off with a fun, simple climb, then jumping right into some overhanging stuff, sure to wear out us lesser climbers. I hung with those as long as I could, making it up once, but never “clean” (without falling), earning the kudos of fellow tourist climbers for my stubborness.
The last climb of the day was a moulin, a vertical shaft that can go down to the bottom of a glacier, hundreds of feet down. This one had filled significantly with water, but was still quite deep and quite dark. Austin lowered me in, which at least meant I could survey the route before climbing it. I couldn’t go quite to the water because the moulin narrowed so much that I could not swing my ax. It would have been like Santa climbing out of a chimney after a healthy serving of milk and cookies. It was the perfect ending climb and twice up the column left my arms and legs shaking in a combination of physical defeat and mental victory.
We meandered back, me dragging my feet a little in exhaustion and sadness that my three days of adventuring were over. I love hiring guides for their knowledge and experience and the one-on-one camaraderie, but it’s also bittersweet because I know it’s just a job for them, where they have given me a lifetime of memories.
I lounged a little longer in my double bed Saturday morning, listening to the sounds of the kitchen prep going on directly below my room. The McCarthy Half Marathon, benefiting the Wrangell Mountain Center, wasn’t until 2pm, which wasn’t near enough time for me to recover from the three days I’d just had, but at least made for a lazy morning.
I’ve done many low-key races in my life, but never one where the race map was hand drawn on a piece of paper. And that wasn’t the only first for me for a race. Two people showed up with bear spray–they weren’t used but there were reports of a grizzly on the course. There was a dog with a bib number–I’ve seen dogs bandit a race before, but this one was full-on legit. And a for-reals gun start.
But the best was the end of the race: it finished at the end of the road (go any farther and you’re in the river). After crossing under the sign, I walked back to the grocery store to reward myself with an ice cream. Just as I was handed my black cherry in a waffle cone, a fellow runner strolled in to order his own–mentioning in passing that he hadn’t actually crossed the finish line yet, but that he just couldn’t wait. A fellow runner offered to pay so he could continue on.
There was a spaghetti dinner after the race but attending would have meant missing the last shuttle back to Kennicott and a five mile walk. Not impossible, but the bear sighting rumours and lack of a headlamp didn’t make the option terribly appealing.
My cousin, Mark, has lived in McCarthy for at least fifteen years so the wedding Sunday evening was the event of the summer. Everyone was invited to both the wedding and the reception and everyone showed up. I knew my cousin Mary Francis and her troupe were going to be there, but had found out only the week prior that my older brother would be in attendance as well.
For most, probably not the biggest of news, but I hadn’t seen my brother in close to twenty years. There was no animosity–at least that I remembered–but that’s often what divorces do to families. I’m not much of an emotional person but I have learned from experience not to go into potentially emotional situations without some kind of plan.
A few years ago, I had run into my mother at my sister’s 50th birthday bash–another family member I hadn’t seen since my twenties. I thought she would take charge of the “reunion”, being the mother and all, but she refused to even make eye contact, leaving me baffled and hurt and feeling like an abandoned five year old. It was not an experience I cared to repeat.
My plan was simple. I would just go up and give him a hug and hope for the best. Probably not the best laid of plans, but it worked. We hugged for a long time and twenty years of absence was gone in a moment. We caught up on life later in the evening when most of the excitement had died down.
The wedding venue was unparalleled by any I had seen, at the toe of the Root Glacier. Both it and the Kennicott Glacier were visible, the pure whiteness offset by the changing color of the leaves. The ceremony brought tears to every eye. I had not met the bride, but by all accounts, she and Mark were an amazing couple, managing their rental cabins in the summer and traveling the world in the winter. Her engagement ring, made of emeralds, was of course from Columbia, arguably the source of the finest emeralds in the world.
Weddings are often minefields for the single but not this one–the wedding or me. Maybe it was because of being in a remote and wild place that rewarded fierce independence. Maybe it was because I had finally outgrown feeling out-of-place on my own and found comfort and stability in standing, climbing, running on my own two feet, as much on solid ground as on a glacier.
Maybe it was just the perspective gained in Alaska.
“How did you meet” seems to be a question reserved for the happenstance that led to one being coupled. True friends, so the thinking goes, are the ones you’ve known so long that you cannot even remember not knowing them, much less how you met.
But these days, people meet on all kinds of adventures. Holly I met while running Zion. Laura in the Miami airport on the way to Cuba. Lexi and I are mountain rescue friends. A couple weekends ago, I met a new friend under circumstances that test all but the most understanding of friendships.
This time, the Life Bus took me to Blairsville, GA. It ranks highest in friendliness in a state renowned for friendliness. The goal: completion of the Cruel Jewel, a 106 mile (the extra six are the cruel part) trail run over ten Appalachian peaks. The other part of the cruel is Dragon’s spine in the last twenty miles of the race.
Mike and I are also mountain rescue friends. He left the team several years ago to pursue a career in nursing but we have kept in touch, me pestering him to DJ at the Evergreen Town Race, and him inviting me to the Camp Kesem annual charity event. It’s the mark of either true friendship or complete insanity that he offered to crew for me during this event. Possibly both, in his case.
I tore off my Colorado layers as the Georgia humidity enveloped me while Mike navigated the Atlanta airport traffic, comparable to what I had experienced in Nepal several years ago. With matching eyerolls, I jumped in the Jeep he’d rented and settled into my role as navigator.
First stop, Whole Foods. It is an undying pre-100 race belief of mine that no city on the planet has any food like Denver’s food and that I must bring all the food with me. A sixty pound suitcase convinced me that maybe I should at least check to see if coconut water existed in the remote regions of Georgia. Sure enough, on the outskirts, even on the way, was a Whole Foods.
And what a Whole Foods it was. We stocked up with enough food to last two nuclear holocausts because I was still convinced Blairsville would be in the middle of a terrible famine. Then had lunch. Fried chicken and catfish and peach cobbler is a healthy lunch when it’s purchased at Whole Foods, right? Pretty sure it didn’t count as carbo loading either.
I had booked a cabin at Helton Falls, less than two miles from the race start at Vogel State Park. In retrospect, finding a spot more midway between Blairsville and Vogel would have been more convenient, but I don’t think we would have found a more peaceful, comfortable spot. And Stephen, the owner, called twice and texted once as we made our way there, making sure we weren’t lost. Our cabin was appropriately named “The Nut House”.
Blairsville was not in the middle of a famine, I am happy to report. On the contrary, it boasts more bakeshops per capita than all of Colorado. And one spectacular Southern cooking restaurant appropriately called Hole in the Wall. I think Mike visited again while I was out running. But that night, I continued my splurge with more fried catfish, hush puppies and fried okra. I skipped the sweet tea–I didn’t want to overdo it.
Especially when one of the bakeries was also an Italian restaurant, with homemade tiramisu. I might have finished the race an hour slower, but it was worth every calorie.
Thursday was reserved for checking out the course. Mike estimated about four hours to drive the hundred miles I would be running. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my friends at Fatdog had driven many many more miles than that, the aid station driving route often being more circuitous than the running route.
We were both relieved that it was much shorter. There was no real indication of where the stations actually were, but at least the roads were solid dirt roads, which was one thing off my mind. I wouldn’t have to call Mike’s wife to explain how Mike had driven off a cliff after two sleepless nights.
I kept myself at least entertained by pointing out the names of the roads, apparently named by locals. 4 Wheel Drive. Snake Nation (the name of my next band) Road. Winding Road. Just-A-Mere Drive. And my personal favorite: Cookie Martin Drive.
There were a few named after couples (Harrison and Ada Road), and we wondered who got the road when there wasn’t a happily-ever-after.
On the way back to the Nut House, we stopped at Cabin Coffee, quaint, Southern friendly, and amazing coffee. Their logo is “Just be happy and have fun”. Is there a better logo?
They lived it. There was no calling out your name, vaguely mispronounced. No, they brought your coffee right to you, with a smile and a have-a-great-day. The religious sayings posted on the walls made me want to believe. Bill, one of the locals who made it his duty to greet everyone with a smile and a God-bless-you, reminded me of the Christianity I grew up with, the love-one-another kind, not the use-the-Bible-to-judge-and-condemn-those-who-are-different kind that seems so prevalent these days. I don’t think Bill ever judges anyone. He looks out for those having a bad day, or a bad life, and does what he can to bring a little light in. Every coffee shop needs a Bill.
I had a chai while Mike indulged in the Palomino frappe, a “highly caffeinated” coffee–I suggested Mike might bring me one the second night. I know Mike stopped by more than once during the race. He didn’t bring me any coffee. But I’m not holding that against him. Really.
The rest of the day was spent trying to stay off my feet and relax. Being told to relax, even and maybe especially by yourself, never works.
The race started at noon Friday and I was stressing about stressing the day of the race. Packet pickup was at 9. Should we get there at 9 in case there’s a rush? 10 so we didn’t have to wait around so long? What would parking be like? In addition to believing nowhere has grocery stores, I also believe that the parking situation will always be akin to that of the Boston marathon, with its thousands of runners. 150 people signed up for the Cruel Jewel. Parking would be as much a problem as finding food. Mike, to his credit, was happy with whatever I wanted to do, which changed every time he asked me. I think he was just happy to not have to get up at 4 am.
I stayed up as late as I could, only to wake up at 4 am Georgia time. I slept fitfully then gave up around 7. I tried to eat slowly. I tried to pack slowly. I tried to dress slowly. I tried to relax.
I was ready to go before 8.
We drove over around 9 (stopping to finally say hi to Stephen, thank him for his hospitality and try to explain why anyone would run a hundred miles). Maybe three people were there for packet pickup. I picked up my packet and walked back to the car. I sat down and stared straight ahead. Mike suggested coffee. I froze with indecision–what if there was no parking when we got back, what if we got lost, what if we fell asleep–but coffee won.
We got coffee, drank it and drove back. There was still plenty of parking. The minutes continued to drag by, me fluctuating between wishing them speed and enjoying my final moments of repose, knowing what was to come.
Then we were off.
I’ve written almost two pages on the events leading up to the race, but what do I say about the race itself? I ran. I ran up then I ran down. Then I ran back up again. I never ran flat, though. That’s the other cruel part of this race. For being so cruel, the course was amazing. I am not skilled at technical terrain and this was beautiful terrain, the trails cushioned by centuries of pine needles and leaves. Georgia was in the middle of 40 days and nights of rain and that held for the race. It was a light rain the first day, holding the temperatures down. I was still drenched from the humidity, praying the pound of goop I’d applied to my entire body would protect me from the dreaded chafing.
I finally got to see Mike around mile twenty, about seven hours into the race. I was feeling pretty good–I was actually feeling great. I was going way faster than I would allow myself to believe. I was eating and drinking plenty. I was happy.
The weather gods did not smile down that night.
Shortly after sunset, the lightning started. Lightning is beautiful when curled up with a good book. Not so much alone on a trail. I watched it with growing trepidation. A final crack-boom opened the heavens and the deluge began.
The rain did a disco dance in the light of my headlamp. I threw on my rain jacket for no other reason than I wanted to–it certainly didn’t do any good. My route meandered from edge to edge of the road, unable to see a foot in front of my feet. “Geez, I wanna see something!” I finally yelled to no one in particular.
CRACK BOOM. The landscape lit up, and it took only those few dazzling seconds for me to decide maybe utter darkness wasn’t so bad.
I slogged through the rain and mud throughout the night and as the sun made its appearance. I kept running. The clouds disappeared and the temperatures rose. I kept running. I never got got any drier.
I was starting to feel a glimmer of hope that I wouldn’t have to run through the entirety of the second night, when I started on yet another endless uphill. The course was an out-and-back but I’d run this section through the night more than twelve hours before. I remembered none of it.
That’s when I met my fifteen hour friend.
Her name is Lara and she was running the 50 mile race. She was supposed to be running it with friends but life being as it is, she was now alone. She had started at eight that morning, but still was not looking forward to the Dragon’s Spine that night alone.
Me either. I knew it would take everything I had to get through it and I knew I’d be dealing with hallucinations on top of bitter fatigue. I knew by then that I would do it, because, deep in my soul, I wanted to finish. But to do what it would take to get there–that I really, really didn’t want to do.
Lara’s pace was much stronger than mine, but I offered up a weak, if you really want company and don’t mind waiting… I didn’t expect her take me up on it.
But there she was, at the final aid station before the big climb, waiting. My gratitude went beyond words. Mike had hoped to pace me the last bit when I knew I needed it the most, but the logistics didn’t work out. I was trying to not be bitterly disappointed, but it was hard.
When running ultras, I’m always reminded on the “Footprint in the Sands” story about God carrying us the during the trials of our lives. For me, it’s not so much God as it is my friends who carry me through the trials of my life. And while the second night of a hundred compares not at all to the loss of a job or a loved one, still, I feel carried by the people who has given up days of their life to help me achieve my simple goal to finish.
And here was Lara. My fifteen hour friend. Prior to the aid station, Oak and I had become friends and he became part of our straggly band of runners. Somewhere along the next section, we picked up another runner, a Latvian whose training regime consisted of running two miles a day. That’s it. I’m still not sure what I make of that. Oak and the Latvian disappeared somewhere along the trail during the dark night, but Lara was right there with me.
Up and up and up and up we traveled on the Dragon’s Spine, a stupid steep section and the only technical terrain on the course. I marveled at how little I remembered. And I had tried so hard to memorize as much as I could so I wouldn’t be surprised on the return trip.
Lara and I shared bits and pieces of our lives when we weren’t swearing at the trail and wondering where the hell the aid station was, bonded by our shared misery and our shared goal. She was going through a divorce, me, a mid life crisis. Mostly, though, we were silent, each in our own thoughts and misery, trying to just make it through.
We somehow managed to time the rising of the sun with the final big ascent before a blessed four mile downhill. It ended at a bridge that marked the final three miles and, with memories of Grand Raid, I saw bridges everywhere. I tried staring only at my feet, but I could still “see” the bridges. I swore I would never run a 48 hour race again.
What was in reality a small uphill, but with the fatigue seemed so much longer, was almost our undoing. Lara shed a few tears of frustration–at the race and at life–and only my exhaustion kept me from joining her, the effort even to cry beyond me at this point.
And then, forty-five hours after I’d started, we were on the road that led directly to the finish. We just looked at each other and grinned. We marveled as we limped our way along at how we, two complete strangers, could have shared such an experience as we just had, pushing and pulling each other along on our journeys, giving the support and sarcasm each needed to do what we had set out to do.
I collapsed at the end, trying to explain to Mike what I was feeling and thinking. Lara had to get a shower before they booted her out of the cabin she’d rented. We saw each other once more before I left, exchanging a heartfelt hug of gratitude that was beyond words.
Will we see each other again? Keep in touch? It’s hard to say. Before social media, it would have been a certain “no”. Call a virtual stranger, no matter the circumstances, just to say hi? When was the last time anyone even wrote a letter? There are so many people we encounter at races, during vacations, and at other random events in our lives, who have such an impact in such a short time, people we will never forget, yet who fade from our existence as easily and they entered it. Is that how it’s supposed to be? Our lives so different that it truly is for just those few moments that we are meant to be together? Maybe so. However these stories end, I believe being grateful that the story was ever written is the part we should keep with us always.
I felt my foot slip out from under me and completely off the trail. The rest of my body quickly followed suit. As I hung there, dangling, clinging to a small tree, my feet finding no purchase, all I could think was, why am I still holding on?
It was maybe mile sixty of a hundred and I’d been awake more than 48 hours at that point. I have never known such delirium and hope never to again.
Le Diagonale des Fous. The Angle of Fools. That’s the direct translation. The translation of the race directors is not much better: The Madman’s Diagonal. The race runs diagonally across the island. And you have to be mad to do it.
Or you will be.
I had first heard of the race from a French friend I met via Strava. I don’t know if it’s characteristic of the French or not, but he was one to over promise and under deliver. He had proposed we do the race together–he would navigate the language and I would help him train. Alas, he found himself a girlfriend (not sure if his wife knew or not) and somehow “forgot” to register for the race.
I had to get up at 3am to register–the registration opened at noon Reunion Island time and generally filled in less than an hour. Reunion Island isn’t exactly third world but it’s also not first world, and the server couldn’t handle the load. Angry red and yellow pages, made worse by being in French, kept popping up. I refreshed as fast as my fingers allowed and somehow finally got my registration completed.
Heart pounding with a mix of exuberance and what-have-I-just-done, I knew I wouldn’t sleep so my training started at 5am.
About seven years ago, I spent two weeks trekking in Nepal, around Manaslu, a trek that few Americans do, so not much English was spoken. I spent one evening watching my guide chatting with a single woman, older and a hotel owner. This was highly unusual in Nepal. I had a million questions for her, none of which my guide would translate. I promised myself I would never visit another country where I couldn’t communicate.
So right after I received my confirmation, I found a tutor to teach me French. Chelsea has lived the life I would go back and live if I could. She’s a language major, speaks seven languages fluently, and has lived in so many countries. She understands culture. We often spent as much in weekly lesson as in animated discussion of politics.
She had never heard of Reunion Island but had spent much of her childhood in France, living with an aunt. Her stories were straight out of stereotyped legends.
During my stay, I would spend the hour before an encounter practicing what I would say. At the hotel: J’ai une reservation. Je m’appelle Lynda Wacht.
Then of course they would ask me a question. Avez vous votre idenficacion? To answer, I needed to understand the question. Which I didn’t. I spoke French like a champ. Understanding it? Not so much.
Fortunately, the Reunionites do not share the French stereotype of pretending to not understand English. Unfortunately, it is because they genuinely do not understand English. Some have a rudimentary understanding but I was definitely in the deep end and flailing like a muppet.
I was glad to have paid a little extra for a hotel where the staff spoke English. At least I had a starting base.
After finding and checking into the hotel, the next order of business was mastering the bus system. Once I realized my French friend wasn’t planning on being there at all, I had done quite a bit of research on logistics. Being a point-to-point race, beginning in Saint Pierre and ending in Saint Denis, made everything that much harder. My hotel was in Saint Denis–I knew enough about racing to know that even in the US, I wouldn’t have the brain cells left to get on a bus and off at the right location after 48 hours of being awake.
But that meant I had to get to Saint Pierre for the packet pickup and the race start. The hotel people were great for getting me downtown via the bus. That took me right to the main station where I could get a bus to anywhere on the island. Score one for me!
I wandered around the downtown area, trying to find the finish area. I found a tourist information center and managed to secure a map, but not much else. I’m pretty decent with navigation and soon found the large field that I hoped I would cross in a few days from then.
Never have I been more thankful that most road signs are pictures and not words. The last hurdle in my race would be finding a bus back to the hotel, two miles away. There is no greater testament to the fact that it is the mind and heart that gets one across the finish line than not being able to walk three feet past that finish line, so laugh if you will: two miles after a hundred is an impossible distance. I found the station I needed to return to the hotel and hoped my sleep deprived mind would remember the steps it took to get there.
Back in town, I found a small sandwich shop that looked empty enough that I would not annoy people as I tried again to navigate my way through the French language. I successfully ordered my sandwich only to be stymied by a question: Khoka? I gave him my frustratedly embarrassed look. He looked confused. Anglais? He shook his head but pointed to the *Coca* Cola bottle in the display case. Ah, si! Dammit. Oui!
I wandered around a bit more, finding a small bookstore where I purchased a running magazine in French. The lady heard my excellent accent and asked (in French–and I understood!) if I was running the race and wished me well. I smiled as I walked out. Another small victory.
The next day was packet pickup in Saint Pierre. I practiced my request to purchase bus fare. Je voudrais un billet pour Saint Pierre pour la journée, s’il vous plait. I was behind who I was pretty sure was another runner. When it was his turn to purchase, he raised one finger and said “Saint Pierre”.
He got his ticket and was on his way.
Saint Pierre was a madhouse. The race I did prior to this one was the Ouray 100. It was a four am start and there were 30 of us. When I went to get my packet for the race, I and the race director were the only ones there.
Two thousand, five hundred runners had signed up for this race. That is a lot of runners. A lot. All in one park, waiting for packet pickup to start. Getting there an hour early had not done me much good. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. I looked around, trying to find someone to strike up a conversation with while I waited, but of all the languages I heard, none were English. About twenty countries are represented at this race. Six people were from the US, nine from Canada and even less from the UK. So I just watched, trying hard to not be overwhelmed and intimidated.
The group compressed as the gates opened. Fortunately, I stood about a head above most, and was able to keep my bearings. I smiled at people as we all became sardines, but the expression was rarely returned. The race was the next day, and the goal was to get the bag and get back off one’s feet to rest.
I finally got my bag, t-shirts, GPS device, and race information. The line wound its way around all the sponsors. I soon had quite the assortment of goods, most of which I had no clue to their purpose.
Saint Pierre is one of the most beautiful ocean towns I have ever visited. Reunion Island wasn’t discovered by Europeans until the late 1800s, and most of the island still feel very quaint. With the exception of Saint Denis, the business center, the towns are small and full of history.
I wandered around, looking for the restaurant I had found online for lunch, right across the street from the ocean. My legs were already tired from the couple hours of standing around.
Food is a bit tricky before a race, especially in a foreign country: lots of risk for getting ill. The restaurant was buffet style, which got me out of having to know what was on the menu. I sat outside and enjoyed the view, trying to ignore my rising nervousness about the race. I enjoy my own company and usually there is at least one person to chat with, so I rarely feel lonely, but at that moment, I truly felt lonely. I understood nothing that was being said around me. I wished I had spent even more time learning French, even knowing it would not have helped much. There is understanding enough to get by and there is truly being able to converse. It would take more than a few months of tutoring to be fluent.
The race didn’t start until 10pm. Unfortunately, the construction next to the hotel started at 7am. Not that I was really asleep anyway. I got up and headed to breakfast, free with my stay and quite possibly the best breakfast buffet I’ve ever eaten. I had on my race shirt already–I’m not sure why. It was a requirement of the race to wear it at the beginning and the end. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it during all those middle miles, so just planned on wearing it the whole race, like I do all my races.
Fast forward to the end of the race, where all I can smell is heavy cologne and everyone is wearing a clean shirt, packed in their final drop bag. Ah, the French. Always about looking good.
Having my race shirt on did allow a TV sports anchor from France to recognize me as a race participant. He was a beautiful man who spoke beautiful English with a beautiful accent and I learned about how truly popular and important this race is, to the country and to France as well. The entire race is televised both there and in France. Now I understood the clean shirt at the end–and pretty sure this American was edited out. It was interesting to learn.
But mostly, I was just excited to be having my first real conversation in four days.
A bus was reserved for taking runners to the Saint Pierre from across the island. It left around 5pm, so of course I got there around 3. On the way, I stopped at my favorite sandwich shop (wearing my t-shirt) and received a special sandwich from my new favorite store owner who remembered me from two days prior and wished me well on my endeavor.
It was my good fortune to find a native who spoke English waiting at the bus stop as well. It afforded me a chance to ask a question that had been plaguing me since the night before: what the hmmm is a ‘sac banane’?? To pass the time the evening before, I had tried reading the race rules in French and discovered that ‘banana sacks are prohibited’. In typical last minute freak out mode, I became convinced that I must find out what one is lest I show up at the start and be forbidden from running a race I had spent hundreds of dollars and hours on. I emailed Chelsea who could offer no help. So I asked my newfound friend, who through a series of gestures led me to understand that a sac banane is a fanny pack.
Crisis averted. I hadn’t owned one of those in many years.
I managed to sleep a little on the three hour bus ride to the start. The start was complete chaos. I saw no signs and people seemed to be going in every directions. I didn’t even pretend to know what I was doing, hoping someone would take pity and point the way. Not so much. I wandered until I somehow managed to end up in a line, where I encountered an actual crisis. I had purchased the wrong ACE bandages. Without the proper ones, I would not be allowed to start the race. Seriously. Through yet another series of gestures, I learned that the correct ACE bandages were sticky. And I also learned that they were for sale at the next table.
Crisis two averted.
There was a large stage where the race director was being made up before being interviewed. A pop band was blaring music. And two thousand five hundred runners were sprawled out, trying to rest before the start.
I can’t even begin to express the sensory overload. I was both excited and intimidated, wanting to cry but not sure why.
Everyone on the island was there. Everyone. There were fireworks. And music. And cheering. And dancing. I tried to slow my brain, taking it all in. The Ouray 100 had started with the race director waving his arms and yelling “okay, go”.
Turns out slowing down was the worst possible thing I could have done. The first ten miles are on a wide road, which then suddenly becomes a trail. The first ten miles took me two hours. The next three took over three hours. It almost cost me the race.
I just stood in line, trying to figure out what to do. Some people were just pushing past everyone, but that didn’t seem like the right thing to do. Did I just stand there and wait? Was this really how it went? For how long? I mean, people finished this race–heck, most people did, given the generous cutoffs.
I finally worked up the nerve to ask the gentleman next to me, “C’est normale?”
“C’EST NORMALE? C’EST NORMALE?!! ….” I have no idea what he said after that, but from the gesturing and tone, I guessed a pretty angry rant. Others were nodding and shaking their heads and I did my best to mimic that. Whatever was said, pretty sure the situation wasn’t normal.
Finally the line cleared and I took off, three hours behind my expected time and fighting cutoffs the rest of the race. It was three in the morning.
Most of the rest of the race is a horrible blur. I have memories but cannot piece together exactly when any actually happened. I was awake through three full nights, starting late Thursday and finishing around 11am Sunday.
I think the hallucinations started the second night. The trail was next to a road and I heard voices near me. Some people walking on the road. Then suddenly they were next to me! It gave me a start, but when my headlamp illuminated them, they turned into branches. As I continued down the trail, all the branches turned into mannequins. Not quite as scary as clowns, but a close second.
I had to force myself to not focus on the hundreds of mannequins lined up along the trail. Which just led to worse hallucinations.
Not scarier but worse. At one point, I knew an aid station was coming up and I started looking for it. Pretty soon there it was, with runners stopping and sitting–and eating pizza! It was heavenly. Pizza sounded so good. Sitting sounded so good.
Just as I was about to enter the warm light from the tent, the whole thing disappeared.
I stopped, stunned. No. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t. But it was.
The hallucinations continued through the second and third nights, although gratefully the mannequins eventually went away.
There were high points too. We traveled through villages, where residents would come out to cheer us on, even the the dead of night. At one small village, the woman were singing a song about being exhausted, laughing as they sang. When I came closer, all the women stopped singing and there was a moment of complete quiet as they stared at me. I was pretty sure I should be worried but was too exhausted to really care. Then the women started cheering and clapping, patting me on my shoulder.
It was a theme that continued through the race. Solitary women at aid stations would come up and smile and applaud. Groups of women cheering.
Of the two thousand, five hundred runners. 126 were women. No, that is not missing a digit. Less than 200 women. I have not read much about European running, but enough to know women are not encouraged or supported like they are here in the US. I had no idea it was that unbalanced. I hope it changes. I hope I somehow inspired these women. Regardless, I was infinitely grateful for their encouragement and camaraderie.
The food at the aid stations that actually existed was amazing. Pasta and cheese and meats and cheese and other stuff and cheese. Even pizza. Except the fake beer stuff. I was smart enough to not drink it during the race, but couldn’t resist a sample afterwards. If you’ve ever had vegemite, that’s what it tasted like. One swallow and the rest went into the trash.
I think it was the second night when I fell off the trail. I was just so exhausted. People would run past, forcing me to step off the trail, only to stop and rest, forcing me to go around, only to repeat the process. I was angry and tired and never saw the eroded edge. Another runner stopped and said something in French. I just started crying and told him I didn’t speak French. He quickly switched to English and helped me back onto the trail.
I was done. The aid station wasn’t much farther and the cutoff wasn’t either. My brain kept pushing but my body completely rebelled. It was an easy trail down and my brain won over as I started a limping jog. I made it to the aid station with ten minutes to spare.
I tried finding motivation to go on. I couldn’t. I didn’t want to.
Then I realized I had to go on. My friend Lexi was at the next aid station. My phone was useless and I had no idea how I would get in touch with her. I couldn’t even speak enough English at that point to explain what I needed. And if you dropped, you were responsible for getting back and I couldn’t remember where my hotel was.
I saw no way out of it than by getting back up and heading back out.
Lexi of course wasn’t at the next aid station, nor the next nor the next. But my brain kept telling me that, forcing me to keep going, until I realized that I was going to finish that accursed race.
The final summit, early Sunday. As I made my way down the impossibly steep terrain, a fellow racer shouted out, “Once we’re at the bridge, we’re done!”
I spent the next two hours seeing a bridge after each switchback. I couldn’t even cry.
As I got lower and closer, day hikers appeared on the trail, giving me a small ray of hope that the trail head was near. The hikers included one very angry Frenchman, yelling at everyone. I could hear him two switchbacks up. As I slowly and painfully made my way down, he was barrelling his way up until we were at a face off. He continued yelling and gesturing, making it very obvious I was in his way and he would have none of it. I slowly straightened up, so he could see my race bib.
He immediately stepped out of my way with no more than a quiet “Respecte.” Some part of my mind smirked.
Finally, a real bridge and the finish line. I smiled vaguely at the TV camera. There were no more finishers medals and only extra large t-shirts. I didn’t care. I just wanted my drop bags and to get to the bus station.
I didn’t make it that far. My body saw the cot and overruled my brain.
I woke up from something far beyond sleep two hours later. I found my bags and amazingly the bus station.
I was a day later than I expected and so had no idea if the buses were even running. It was Sunday on a decidedly Catholic island. I collapsed on a bench, not sure what to do.
But of course the kindness of strangers.
They didn’t speak English but I understood “Ou?” Where? I gave them the name of my hotel and they smiled and patted my shoulder. When the bus came, they gestured to me and spoke to the driver, apparently explaining to him where I needed to go, because he gave me warning as my stop arrived.
I slept until the next morning, awakening to the construction, so thankful to not be moving. I took it easy that day, only going out to dinner at a recommended Creole restaurant, surprising myself by ordering dinner through dessert in French only.
I had planned on a lot of sightseeing after the race but had not expected to take sixty hours to finish. I did go to the nature museum and learn about shark attacks and animals indigenous to the area, happy I had not known any of that prior to the race. I toured a couple small towns I remembered seeing on the bus ride. I purchased a small instrument whose name I have forgotten. I learned about the preservation of turtles.
I drank wine and put my feet into the ocean and called the whole adventure a success.
The Olympics always make me think of Les. I wrote this a few years ago and wanted to share it on the Life Bus.
The fascinating–and frustrating–aspect of inspiration is that you never know when to expect it. Sometimes, when you most need it, when you’re digging the deepest, it completely eludes you. Then one day, when you’re looking the other way, it comes up and smacks you on the back of the head.
This tale is closer to the latter.
I’m a bit hypocritical, as we all are in some way or another. I love the anonymity of a big city, yet want to be greeted by name when walking into a store. I avoid the Targets and spend a little more at the Tony’s Markets.
From the first day, Les greeted me with a smile and some comment on the day or my attire–I work from home, so rarely change from my running or cycling clothes. It wasn’t long before he knew my name and my grocery shopping took longer as we chatted about his life or mine.
He asked me one day about my job. I mentioned the travel it entailed and he somewhat embarrassedly told me about one of his “silly” hobbies: collecting newspapers from different cities, especially the sports section. I was working in Springfield, MA, at the time, and Les revelled in the Boston papers I brought back for him.
But it was the sports section from Houston which gave me the story that stays with me to this day.
The next time I was at Tony’s Market, Les was so excited. An incredible coincidence, a friend of his had been featured in the Houston paper I’d given him. They had run track in high school together, and his friend had gone on to coach high school running. Les called his old friend and they had caught up after too many years apart.
I don’t remember what I asked to prompt him, but Les told me about loving running. How, after high school, he had continued and gotten better. How he had qualified for the Olympic trials in the eighties. I was amazed. An Olympic hopeful. I was talking with someone, was friends with someone, who had done something the rest of us only dream about.
Then he said, simply, he had come in dead last.
I could hear the disappointment in his voice. I could picture the scene and the look on his face as he crossed the finish, behind every other person there. But I couldn’t help but smile proudly and say, You were the worst of the best; that still puts you in a class the rest of us can only respect. I asked, but could get no more details about the experience out of him.
One day, almost a year ago, Les disappeared from Tony’s. I asked another friend there, but she had heard nothing. I knew Les lived nearby and I hoped to run into him, see how he was faring. I was always looking, but never saw him. Last week, I found out why. Les had died of a heart attack at the age of 59.
He told me once after that conversation that I had inspired him to start running again. We met once at Red Rocks for a go at the stairs. And now, every time I finish a race, disappointed at my time or place, I think of Les and how, just by finishing, I might have been the worst of the people who showed up, but I was the best of all who didn’t.
Coordinating a transcontinental reunion is about as challenging as it sounds.
It was Laura’s idea. She’d been looking into the Cummins Fall Marathon pretty much since we’d gotten back from Cuba. 2016 was not to be, at least for me. Four international vacations had left me too broke to even pay attention. And while I can’t say I skimped, I did have enough money for a long weekend in Tennessee for a Cuban reunion.
Dallas would have signed up first. It was his marathon, his pet project. To save the area of Cummins Fall near Cookeville, TN from being developed, he and some friends put up the money to purchase the land. The marathon is to ensure that dream is continued. What a legacy, what a way to be remembered. Someday, hopefully, my name will be linked to such a project.
Laura, who lost her job in December and had to make sure it would all work, was next. Somewhere along the line, John signed up as well. The Cuban foursome would reunite in February for the Cummins Fall Marathon!
Lexi, my fellow Lifebus’er, started asking me questions about the race and our plans. “I dunno, we’re running a marathon and doing stuff” was about the best I could come up with. We hadn’t really made any plans. I had Marriott points, so I was in charge of the hotel, so Laura would take care of the rental car, which happily doesn’t cost much in Tennessee. And a marathon. That was about it. We were flying into Nashville, the closest airport, and since Nashville was on Lexi’s Lifebus list, Lexi was the last to sign up.
Lexi is more the planner than the rest of us, so she soon had a music venue and a list of places to see. And eat. First was Gerst Haus, a German restaurant with of course beer. The meal was not carb friendly but it was delicious–or maybe that should read “and it was delicious”. It was Thursday night and Laura and I had landed mid-afternoon and checked into a Marriott near the airport. It was a short drive to the restaurant (but due to an odd location, it took us a couple tries to get into the parking lot), where Lexi met us after her flight.
I got up early Friday for a short run to stretch out my legs before the three hour drive to Cookeville. Check-in was that evening so we were trying to stretch our time in Nashville.
First stop was of course a coffee shop. We found a small shop with great coffee and even better danishes. Laura was wearing the hat she’d gotten in Cuba and as we walked from the car to our coffee, a young man driving by started honking and shouting “I’m from Cuba!”. Who would have thought.
Laura had to take an interview via phone, so Lexi and I drank our coffee and wandered the streets of downtown, discussing this, that and the other. As much as we tried, we could not solve the world’s problems in the short time we had.
After breakfast, we headed to the Johnny Cash museum first. Despite my time in Texas, I’m no country music fan, but when in Rome.
It was eye opening. I had no idea about the man, outside of the usual regarding marriages and drug use that seem to plague many stars. If you haven’t listed to “This Old Flag” or his version of the NIN song “Hurt”, I highly recommend both.
But it was his song “Man in Black” that hit me in the feels. It tells of his awareness of the futility of our penal system.
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.
I have read that he used that merely as an excuse to wear black but listening to the song, I believe him.
In the gift shop was a shirt that read “Hot Chicken”. Not quite sure what it was, we gave it a quick Google search, which revealed it was a famous dish local to Nashville. I bought the shirt (everyone needs a hot chicken shirt!) and we added it to our list of things to do.
My little black cloud had followed me to to Tennessee and the weather for the Cummins Falls marathon was looking gloomy, so on our way out of town, we stopped at the only running store we could find, the Nashville Running Company, a fun little shop in a funky little area. Laura ducked out for another quick job call as Lexi and I found a couple of long sleeve shirts to purchase. We were not prepared for the cold rain of Tennessee, even coming from Colorado. Or maybe because of Colorado–50 just seems a lot cooler in the humidity.
We chatted for awhile with some fellow runners in the store. The Cummins Fall marathon was on their board of upcoming runs, but no one in the store had run it. One employee had just moved to Colorado and had been regaling his friends about the amazing races there, so they were a little surprised that we had come from Colorado to run in Nashville. Even without the reunion, it’s hard finding a marathon in February in Colorado. That whole snow and cold thing.
Lunch was well past us and, while I voted for I Dream of Weenie, we ended up at Local Taco, which advertised a taco version of Hot Chicken. They do not joke around about the hot part. Even the small street taco packed a lot of flavor and I was glad I’d only gotten one.
Finding more local artsy shops, we wandered, Lexi purchasing a beautiful bag (partly for the plane ride home) and I found a great women’s focused bookshop, where I purchased “What I was Doing While You Were Breeding”. I have only started it, but I am in love with the misadventures of a woman who wasn’t ready to settle down when our culture strongly suggests you should. I can completely related.
Much later than anticipated, we were off to Cummins Falls and the race check-in. The falling of darkness and knowing we were running behind made the three hours drag by. It’s in the those moments where one notices the oddest things. In Tennessee, they have mile markers every quarter mile. This is one of those things that, once you see it, you cannot unsee it, and you spend many miles trying to ignore the quarter mile markers. Every quarter mile. I still don’t know why.
Dallas and John had finished carbo loading by the time we got to the restaurant, but stayed with us as we ordered our obligatory pasta dinner and an optional glass of wine. John had brought his new/old girlfriend. Friends in high school, they had lost touch until we had forced John into a Facebook account after Cuba so we could keep in touch. Say what you will about Facebook, it looks to be a happy ending in this case.
Dallas bid us farewell first. The most (or possibly only) competitive person among us, he wanted to get his beauty sleep before the race.
I’m quite sure how to introduce the next character. He just kind of inserted himself at our table, cutting Laura off from the rest of us as he carried on what was a very intense conversation for a first meeting. It eventually turned out he was actually trying to flirt as he attempted to convince Laura to go back to his hotel room, failing miserably and not just because Laura has a fiance.
I’m not quite sure how to introduce him because part of me wants to portray him as an amusing drunk desperate for attention, but the truth is, he was more than a bit creepy. We saw him again after the race, when he came up to us at a brewery and asked if he could insert some testosterone into our conversation. I’d be lying if I said Lexi and I didn’t now use a similar phrase when going up to a group of guy friends. But really. Really?
And the best part. A quick search on Facebook (thank you again) turned up that he’s married. With a kid.
So I’m not portraying him amusingly. I’m writing this as the hashtag “metoo” is taking over Facebook and I am going to honor that . We were trying to be polite when, in retrospect, I wish we done ourselves and possibly other women the favor of just telling him f— off.
For anyone who’s ever done a race, there’s no need to mention no sleep was had that night and the morning came too early. The weather was in a very iffy place–would it rain, would the sun make an entrance–so we piled on clothes, took them off, then piled them on again. The general rule for running is to start cold as you will definitely warm up, but I hate being cold. I also hate carrying five pounds of extra clothing with me when I run, but instant gratification generally wins.
Dallas was easy to find at the start. Dallas doesn’t know any strangers. John soon showed up, pre-race photos were taken, and we were off.
Laura and Lexi, training a little lacking–at least in their opinion–had opted for the half marathon. The half had a crux–a challenging point one had to get across in order to complete the run: a bridge made of boards over kayaks. Over really cold February water. On a very chilly February day.
Falling is not an option.
Both were far ahead of me by the time I reached the infamous “bridge” but a couple runners were crossing it, definitely not setting any speed records in the process. I happily continued down the road.
The race meandered down back roads, with only the occasional pickup truck traveling by. The aid stations were the only times I really encountered anyone, so I paused to chat a bit at each one. One aid station came with a warning about an oversized, over-friendly dog. The gentlemen managing the station had done it every year and had learned that runners were a little intimidated by the enthusiastic pup. But she was now getting up in years and was already napping when I happened by. I gave her a quick pat on the head and continued on.
The last few miles gained the elevation lost in the first few miles, making for a challenging but scenic ending. Around mile 23, John came into sight. It took me another couple miles to catch him. I commended him on his improved time–I had overtaken him at mile 15 in Cuba. He told me I had been his motivation during training and he promised I wouldn’t see him at all during the next marathon we did.
My time didn’t set any records, but did earn me first place in the masters category, meaning that I’m doing pretty good for an old person. My award had been misplaced but the race director promised me it would be mailed as soon as possible. I’m not one much for awards but these were hand crafted from the wood of a collapsed barn on the property, so it had sentimental value.
Laura has won the masters award in the half marathon. On the way back into town for a shower (thank you, Marriott, for the late checkout) and celebratory beers, Laura realized her award said “Marathon” instead of “Half”. I felt half bad about taking “her” award, but I was happy to get my award. Hers was mailed after the race, so everyone got their award.
We enjoyed pizza and beer at the Red Silo (after some great steak, baked potatoes, and beer compliments of Outback after the race–hey, it’s why we run). Lexi took off shortly after to head back to Nashville. Laura and I were meeting Dallas, John and his girlfriend for dinner for a last chance to catch up.
Crawdaddy’s is the best and one of few restaurants in Cummings so the wait was pretty long but seemed otherwise in the company of good friends. It was only a couple days in Cuba, but when your soul recognizes itself in others, that’s all it takes. We took our time catching up on our lives in the past two years, and as always, entertained by Dallas’s story telling.
While at dinner, Lexi had sent a text, directing us to not miss Ralph’s Doughnut Shop.
If you ever go to Cummins, TN, you can skip the marathon. You can skip the Red Silo and even Crawdaddy’s. But. Do. Not. Miss. Ralph’s Doughnut Shop. I’m pretty sure heaven has one of these. If not, I’m not sure I want to go. More doughnut types than I can describe. I got red velvet and something chocolately, thinking I would have a snack for later, but they did not last that long.
And yet again, I was able to prove that it takes a lot less time to consume the calories burned in a marathon.
It was a painfully late three hour drive back to Nashville, so the morning started a little late as well, tired from the drive and the race.
Our goal for the day was to see Studio B, the recording studio of many greats of the past, Elvis, Hank Williams, and others. We made good use of Google Maps through the morning and took the long way to Studio B, meandering through some interesting districts, stopping to see some history, do some shopping and of course more eating. And while Google gives you all sorts of helpful information, it failed to inform us that the tour starts at the Country Music Hall of Fame,practically across the street from our hotel, and there’s no shortcutting the process. It was a little tense walking back as the frustration built on the fatigue. But we’d put that much effort in so far, we had to finish it.
The upside is that we also got tickets to the Hall of Fame. It showed the progression of music from the roots of the music and instruments of African slaves through jazz to country then rock and roll. They are all sounds that I would never have put together, all so unique and related to seemingly different locations and cultures within the United States, but hearing and seeing them together, the influence is obvious and beautiful.
The tour was a little abbreviated as we had a bus to catch to the place we’d already walked. Studio B. An innocuous, seventies-styled building that one never have guessed was the birthplace to so much music. It is still used today, even though technology has left it long behind. It still has magic, though, and no technology in the world can replicate that.
The highlight of the tour is the room where all the music was recorded. Near the middle of the room on the floor is a innocuous blue X that I would never have noticed had our guide not pointed it out. It marks the place where the musicians stood as they recorded their music. The piano played by Elvis was in the corner. We listened to recordings made there.
A believer in ghosts, I could almost feel their presence, energy, passion. Soul. The sacrifices that went into their creations, their legacies. They gave their lives to it, literally you might even believe. I listen to that music just a little differently now.
The last stop on our whirlwind music tour was to 3rd and Lindsley Bar and Grill, and a band called The Steeldrivers. But first, of course, after a nine miles walking day, we had dinner at Party Fowl, to try Hot Chicken. A half chicken doused in spices that will light up your evening. I admit I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to spicy food, so maybe a bolder palette would be unimpressed, but the flavor and the heat made for a memorable meal, and, for once, I drank my entire beer.
Google maps took us directly to 3rd and Lindsley, although we kind of wished it hadn’t. It’s located in a dark, industrial side of town that looked nothing like the music scene we were anticipating, but the reviews online for both band and location had been great, and the price more than reasonable. We finally had to ask directions to get us to the front door. We we late arriving so it was standing room only in the bar, but we managed to snag some space to listen to the 2016 Grammy award winners.
My particular favorite of the evening was “Drinking Dark Whiskey (Telling White Lies)”, but I was also a bit partial to “If You Can’t Be Good, Be Gone”, which kind of says it all.
Despite the late night, we had to get up early. Biscuit Love was on the menu for breakfast, and if you don’t want to wait an hour, you have to be there close to opening. I’m not sure how I was still hungry after all the local cuisine sampling we’d done, but I was, and the food lived up to the hour wait we had avoided.
In all, a successful and fun four days in Tennessee. I’m hoping the next Cuban reunion will be in Salida for the Run Through Time marathon. Stay tuned.
The biggest challenge with the whole language barrier is, when someone says something that doesn’t entirely make sense, deciding if one should laugh, ask for clarification, or offer up a withering glare.
For example, when I asked the bus driver which stop was for my hotel, he responded “It is the stop before the last stop.”
What do I do with that?
More applicable was the discussion I had with Carlo, my guide for three days of climbing, regarding what knot to use to attach the rope to my harness, to insure that the said rope stayed attached to said harness, a situation far preferable to its opposite. In US climbing gyms, we use a figure-eight, a knot that takes time to master (and create) and once tight, is a pain in the fingers to untie. But that’s the point, it’s hard to untie. It stays tied.
That’s a good thing.
Carlo wanted me to use the bowline, a simpler knot to tie and untie. “Is easier to untie”, he explained.
“Yes”, I responded. “It’s easier to come untied.”
“No no. It does not untie.”
“But you just said–”. This is my life we’re talking about here. Or at least my limbs. I want clarification. He gestured distractedly, searching for English words to explain the physics of knots.
He finally just shrugged. “No, it not unties.”
So I went for second best. I glanced around surreptitiously, watched what everyone else was doing and looked for obvious blood stains on the floor.
This was supposed to be the first day of three of rock climbing. We had just finished five amazing days of trekking the Alta Via One, and it was Carlo’s unfortunate circumstance to be stuck with me for three more days.
I was going rock climbing. In Italy. I just loved the sound of that.
At least he knew me a little by that time. The only one up for the “bonus” hike after the morning of trekking, up for going past the pass, up to the peak. Taking minutes to admire the half-dead Edelweiss–the first I’d ever seen. The one who wanted to go down the WWI tunnel, despite not having a helmet (and about knocking myself senseless in the process). Not fast but not giving up either.
But the rain from the last day of the trek spilled into the first day of the climbing, and our climbing was relegated to the gym. In hindsight, that was a good way to start.
Of course, climbing is different between Italy and America, the knots being just the beginning. A climb two weeks prior in Boulder, Colorado went something like this:
“On belay, Lynda?” Andrew is ready to climb.
“Belay on, Andrew.” I’m ready for Andrew to climb.
“Climbing, Lynda.” Andrew’s climbing.
“Climb on, Andrew.” I acknowledge Andrew is climbing.
“Off belay, Lynda.” Andrew has set up an anchor and is ready to switch to belaying me up.
“Belay off, Andrew.” I’ve taken Andrew off belay and he can pull up the slack rope.
“That’s me, Andrew.” Andrew has taken up all the slack rope.
“Belay on, Lynda.” Andrew is ready for me to climb.
“Climbing, Andrew.” I’m climbing.
“Climb on, Lynda.” Andrew acknowledges that I’m climbing.
Typically American. Overly conservative and overly verbose.
The same exchange in Italian.
“Oh-la.” Carlo is ready to climb.
“Rope finished?” Carlo can’t believe he’s already climbed the full length of the rope.
“Yes, Carlo.” Confirming that I’ve got about three inches of spare rope and am pretty sure if he fell at this point, there’s not much I could do.
“Safe, Lynda.” Carlo is at the anchor–I was never sure if he was actually tied in or just feeling secure.
— No response required or expected.
“Climb, Lynda”. Carlo has pulled up all the rope and is ready for me to start climbing.
— No response required or expected.
“Oh-la” I’m done with the climb.
Italian. Succinct but open to interpretation.
Even the gym was less that what one found in an American gym. In the U.S., almost all routes have “top ropes”, the rope attached to an anchor at the top of the climb, generally the safest way to climb. The floors all padded, just in case something goes awry. Warning signs everywhere, reminding you that what you’re doing is more dangerous than your virtual reality game. To gain access, you must be able to prove you know what you’re doing and sign a waiver accepting responsibility if the warning signs prove out.
I had never even heard the phrases I was attesting to being able to do, but Carlo assured me it didn’t matter. The hardwood floors were a bit disconcerting. But the fact that Carlo had brought his own rope was what really stopped me. Admittedly, I would prefer bringing my own rope because I would know where it had been and I know it would have been well cared for. But how did the gym make sure everyone was equally as attentive?
Oh, right. They were still alive at the end of their session.
Another difference: we were able to practice multi-pitch climbing and rappelling (a quick way to get back down a route) without anyone batting an eye. You just don’t do that in the U.S. Too dangerous. Or maybe just too much liability.
Getting the knots, commands, and other expectations aligned made the eventual climb go much more smoothly. Not that the climbs were all that extreme, but all climbing still seems pretty extreme to me and it often takes my full concentration not to succumb to my basic fears of falling and of dying. Not entirely irrational fears–in moderation, but often unnecessarily paralyzing. I’d been reading “The Way of the Rock Warrior”, a book written mainly about the mental aspects of climbing but applicable to life in general, and had seen myself in many of the pages about self talk.
“This is too hard.”
“I’m not ready.”
“What if I fall/fail?”
“I’m not good/strong/fast/tall/short/light enough.”
I love climbing. The mental challenge. The physical aspect. The grace and fluidity of the movements, when done somewhat correctly. Overcoming my fears. But too often, I focus on my fears and only enjoy the climb in retrospect. I wanted to focus on the climbing and enjoying the process during the actual process. The book was helping in that regard. I’ve been climbing for years. I know how to climb and I know I’m a conservative climber and I know there’s no safer way to experience climbing than with a guide, especially one who had been climbing since he was 13, as Carlo had.
Despite the language barrier, Carlo was encouraging. He was surprised and pleased when I easily climbed the first route in the gym, a 5c, a rating which meant nothing to me, the rating systems of course being different as well. I intentionally did not research them, having already learned that I could climb a 5.10 when I believed it was a mere 5.8 but not when I knew it was a 5.10. Ah the brain and its clever tricks.
Even with long breaks between climbs, four hours was all I could survive in the gym. Although I’ve been climbing since my twenties, it’s never been consistent and I’ve never really taken a class, so I still climb with my arms. Arms don’t have the endurance legs do (unless you’re really into handstands), so my climbing sessions tend to not be long. Also, it was still day one of three, and the weather promised to improve the next day.
Despite standing there in the rain when the weather forecast called for clear, Carlo insisted the weather forecasts were normally very accurate. So the plan for day two was a fun little via ferrata up to a cave on Tofana, then when the rain stopped (currently predicted to be about 11am), we would head to Cinque Torri.
True to prediction, the rain stopped at 11.
It started to snow.
Another fascinating difference between Italian and American hiking is the use of umbrellas. Umbrellas are just unheard of in at least the Colorado wilderness (except for my friend, Dale, but that’s a different story). On the last day of our trek, it was predicted to rain, and Carlo had called a friend to bring him his umbrella. To truly understand this, it helps to know that Carlo had done the entire five day trek with nothing but a jacket and a small bottle of water.
Not even a Nalgene bottle–that was too heavy. I know this because he took my Nalgene on our final climb and kidded me about the weight (then drank my water when he ran out).
So an umbrella was his third essential. He brought one for me for the via ferrata, and I’m still not sure if it was a joke or not, thank you language barrier. I’ve never hiked with an umbrella. Heck, it’s been about twenty years since I’ve even owned an umbrella. Jackets with hoods work good enough.
There is a certain rhythm to doing a via ferrata. Clip, clip, slide, hike. At each piton, you move one “lobster claw”–a carabiner on a piece of webbing attached to your harness–at a time, so that you are always attached to something. This works beautifully when you have two hands for moving the claws, as most of us do. Put an umbrella in one of those hands, however, and the rhythm becomes more like impromptu jazz: clip, grab, shake, slide, swear, go back, clip, hike, grab.
I tried clipping my pack around it, then looping it around my harness, all with limited success. It just wouldn’t cooperate, always wanting to be in the wrong spot. Via ferratas are right next to the rock and you are often walking on a ledge that made the streets of Venice look like freeways. So the umbrella has to be angled out to avoid hitting the rock–often far enough to make the umbrella somewhat pointless and a bit of a counterweight when you’re desperately trying to hug the nice solid rock wall. On the positive side, though, many of the pitons were right in a rain funnel and the umbrella made itself worth the rest of the struggle.
Carlo, in the meantime, had hooked one claw into another so he could clip with just one hand, so was managing the whole claw-and-umbrella situation with Italian grace, albeit with slightly more risk than is allowed (or wanted) by me the client.
It was a bit of a relief to get to the cave and out of the snow. The cave was a loop, created like all of the Dolomites (but unlike most of the caves) from the ocean thousands of years ago (most caves were created during WWI as protection from the weather and the enemies
). It was beautiful and still, and I’m sure I would have appreciated it more had I known more about geology.
We considered briefly waiting out the storm in the cave (that was a first) but after the tour, the snow was coming down even harder. We had three pairs of gloves between us and two were soaked. The shoes had not fared any better. Rain we were prepared for. This much snow, not so much.
It wasn’t so much a mad dash as controlled chaos getting back. Carlo would get far ahead so he could stop and warm his fingers, while I continued my jazz routine with the umbrella. The last section was under water when we returned, but by that point, it just didn’t matter. All we could do was laugh and shake the snow off the umbrellas. Oh-la.
That afternoon was back at the gym. Carlo had given me some pointers that I had absorbed and we had a good few hours at the gym.
I had booked three days in anticipation of at least one day being bad weather, so being down to the last day and no actual climbing, I opened my eyes with a bit of dread. Was that really sunlight streaming through my hotel window? It was! It’s considered rude to be early in Italy, but I didn’t care. I was ready to climb. I was going rock climbing! In Italy!
And was it worth the wait. The first climb was the perfect introduction to Italian climbing. The limestone rock offered many handholds and footholds and I felt like an actual climber, fluidly putting the moves together to ascend higher and higher, breathing and fear controlled. I was grinning ear to ear when we reached the summit.
Three short rappels and a small hike and we were back to where we started, ready for the main event, a harder and longer route.
It started with a slightly overhanging move. There was a German couple ahead of us on the first pitch and she, petite and agile, seamlessly climbed the move. I watch her and Carlo carefully. But when it came to my turn, the rock looked like a glass sphere–completely smooth and devoid of any way to get up it. I gracelessly put my foot here and my hands there. I tried my foot a little higher, to the left, right. I let my hands scrabble over the rock, looking for anything to cling to, all the while desperately ignoring the tiny but growing voice in my head. I tried to muscle it, put my knees and elbows into it. I could feel the new bruises and scratches begin to decorate my skin.
The voice in my head became more persistent and I finally succumbed–“I can’t”–and basically allowed Carlo to pull me up the moves.
A frustrating way to start the climb, to say the least.
The next few pitches went more smoothly, the moves connecting easily, but I still felt the frustration. One pitch was more of a traverse, and I felt my mental power slipping again as I calculated the pendulum I would take if I were to slip. I tried to employ singing to ease the trepidation in my steps, but the only song that came to mind was “Walking on Broken Glass.”
I made it across only to find myself at another slight overhang with no footholds to be found. I took a breath and looked behind me at the ground far away. I told myself I was rock climbing. In Italy. I was standing on Cinque Torri, rock climbing. Who cared if I sucked or not.
“Just lean back on your hands and let them walk you up.” He made it sound so easy.
And it was.
I felt myself in practical disbelief walk up the rock, hands and feet almost at the same elevation. It was incredible. It was almost effortless. Inch by inch–or centimeter by centimeter, I suppose–I made my way up the feature. I took my time, thrilling in the feel of it. Then I was up over it.
It was the boost I needed to work my way up the rest of the climb, occasionally adding more scrapes and bruises. Using my butt to get up one move (adding yet another hole to my backpack). Fighting up a small crack, twisting limbs awkwardly this way and that.
But confidently. Eventually placing my hands and feet where they needed to be on each move, trusting them to do what I knew they could. Feeling my mind and body working in tandem. Feeling each muscle doing its part, from the large, strong ones in my back and legs, down to the small ones within my fingers. It’s an amazing dance that brings it altogether.
As I clambered to the summit, Carlo grinned at me. “Superb!”
I didn’t need a translation app to appreciate that.