It’s been a month and a half and I keep hearing this song on the radio and thinking “Oh shit, I forgot to tell that story.” It’s another one of those things where I have to talk about Taylor Swift and highs and lows and mountain metaphors and such. You might not even care anymore.
But I do, I do.
So, the end of April. GL and I ditched the little sprout with my parents for the weekend, who took her to Knoxville, Iowa for the sprint car races. We jumped on a plane from Milwaukee to Phoenix. We rented a car and bought out a Target – a cooler and a lot of liquids and food for GL, SPF 100 and a big floppy hat for me. Welcome to Arizona.
We drove a couple of hours north, to Payson, home of the Zane Grey 50 Mile Endurance Run on the Highline Trail, considered one of the hardest 50 mile races in the country. I checked into the hotel and unpacked while GL picked up his race packet and cracked his “Is this where I sign up for the 5K?” joke, met for the first time ever with blank stares. The first sign that this event is maybe what we should consider “the big time” and there’s none of this what-we-do-best-stuff known as “fucking around” happening here.
We met up with Eric & Leah and Jeff & Stacy for dinner. You may remember them from this adventure in Kansas last fall. We had some beer and burgers, and they all headed to bed early. GL and I had some more beer and fondly reminisced about all of those times we used to call Ultra Pal at 2am on race day because we were still up and leave a voice mail with party sounds in the background. We didn’t do this to Eric, but boy did we think about it. See: fucking around. We went to a Walmart for more things we’d forgotten. We went to bed, later than everybody else, early for us.
At 4am, we were loading the car. “Good morning,” I said to several others in the parking lot, obviously there for the same reason as us, obviously headed to the same starting line. “Silence”, I was greeted with, repeatedly. And oooooh, did that set my expectations for the day. “Nobody even smiles or says hello. Fuck this fucking race,” said the email I sent to Andrea, who was in Italy, where there was so much time zone math involved that I just fired off communications 24 hours a day because I wasn’t even sure it was still April for her.
The drive to the start line was short. Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift’s “Highway Don’t Care” played on the radio, followed by Darius Rucker’s version of the Old Crow Medicine Show song “Wagon Wheel”. This should have also set my expectations for the day – no radio station I could find for the next 16 hours would play any other song. GL checked in, took off, and I got in the rented Impala to find the first aid station. This included directions referencing things like “fire control roads”. It was still dark, so I didn’t know that I was driving on dirt roads at the edge of a cliff for another hour yet.
There was something about his smile when he came into the first aid station, something hesitant. It was 8 miles in. He’s not usually smiling that way, hedging the bet, at 8 miles in. He swapped hydration packs with me – a new system we were trying for the first time, swapping out his entire vest pack instead of refilling all of the little things – and left. A faster runner was still sitting in a chair, cut and bruised and dizzy.
The sun came up and the scenery exposed itself, beautiful and harsh. Just no two ways about it, harsh. I drove into cell signal and stopped to make sure I had the rental car company’s information written down somewhere, because I was definitely losing tires if not larger parts of the car itself. Next time: the SUV upgrade.
One of the deep ruts that I hit rolled the cooler in the trunk over the nozzle for the bladder I’d just refilled, and because I didn’t know that these things locked until this happened, it wasn’t locked, so parked under the wheel of a full cooler, it sprayed water until it emptied the bladder all over the trunk of the car, soaking the entire vest. When I got to the second aid station, excited that I’d planned this all so well I just had to grab the vest, I popped the trunk and water dripped from the trunk lid. Fuck.
He came into this station looking hot, tired. I don’t remember how many miles it was. Something in the teens. We didn’t talk for very long, I mentioned Leah was picking up pizza for the next stop and it barely registered. Again, not normal. I went back to the hotel, washed my face, stared at myself in the mirror a little too long trying to figure out why everything felt off. I stopped a lot on the way to the next aid station. Took a lot of pictures. Thought about writing a blog post like Kansas, about how great it is to feel so small and awed in such overpowering surroundings. But I didn’t feel small and awed. I felt broken, because I felt like he was breaking out there. Our system was broken. Our hobby was broken. This wasn’t fun anymore. Nobody even said good morning, you guys. Fuck this race.
I met up with Leah and Stacy and the pizza. They were all gone by the time GL came through. He was 30 minutes inside the cutoff for that checkpoint, with only one more to go before the finish. We’d been told, repeatedly, that the last checkpoint was a hard cutoff, and they didn’t care if you were 20 feet away when the clock turned. He knew he was going to be right on it. He leaned over in the chair, his shoulders sagged. He was done. I could see it. He was done but he wasn’t stopping. He told me to be ready to hand off his stuff quickly, there’d be no time for refills and small talk. He told me that if he missed the cutoff he was going through to the finish anyway. They would pull his bib, he wouldn’t finish officially. He’d keep going but they wouldn’t be responsible for him anymore. It’s a public trail. They just wouldn’t come looking for him if he never showed up at the finish.
He left and I got back into that stupid impractical Impala and pulled out my checklist to add things and double check and triple check. I started filling bottles and bladders and counting out food packs and testing batteries in the headlamp. I started driving. That fucking song you guys. It was on again. You’re trying not to let the first tear fall out, trying not to think about turning around, you’re trying not to get lost in the sound but that song is always on, so you sing along.
I drove back to the hotel. All the way. I was just scared and I didn’t want to be in the woods anymore. I didn’t want HIM to be in the woods anymore. I have never wished so hard that he’d dropped. I drove back to the hotel and carried everything in and sorted it out on the bed. Started from scratch. Took a shower. Started over with my sunscreen and wet hair. A new day at 5pm. I put on jeans and a black t-shirt because I was done with the heat and the sun and soon enough, Arizona would be too. I got to the last aid station and did some math. Convinced myself there was no way he’d be as close to the cutoff as we thought. There was some miracle. We didn’t come all this way for him to get shut down with only seven miles to go.
Eric and Jeff came and went, and so did Leah and Stacy. A voice behind me, a new face. He looked so much like Mike Delfino from Desparate Housewives that when he introduced himself to me as Mike, I did a double-take. He laughed. I guess that wasn’t the first time. Mike started talking, the first person all day who spoke to me. He was waiting for his friend. He was there crewing for two people, one having his best day ever, one his worst. Their finish times would be four hours apart. That’s how these races go. Sometimes you are hours and hours off.
With 30 minutes left until the cutoff, I got out the vest, the required headlamp, and warm clothes for GL. With 20 minutes to go, I started pacing. At 10 minutes, I nervously told Mike that GL’s previous hobby was open wheel auto racing and dude, that wasn’t this nerve-wracking. The mountain rescue guys, who were on quads and were assisted by volunteer radio operators, were trying to coax a guy into a ride to the ER. EMTs and a downed runner and Mike and me and the guy with the clipboard. We were the only ones left.
We stood there at the bottom of this hill/cliff thing. The runners would appear at the top, if they appeared at all. I didn’t know at the time, but GL’s watch was dead. He was out there with no idea if he was going to make the cutoff or not. He assumed not. A guy passed him and told him to pick it up, it would be close, and he did. They crested into view at the same time with about a minute to go. I have no idea how he got down the hill in a minute. I was yelling at him to ditch his pack, so he descended while unbuckling. He grabbed the new one, proved his headlamp was working, and never even slowed. He left the checkpoint at exactly the cutoff time. He looked miserable and defeated and done. He was done, basically. Seven miles to go and no hard cutoff time at the end. He could take all night. He could crawl to the finish. The shiny redemptive happy ending wasn’t a finish line, it was seven miles out, that’s when the long hot pear-shaped day ended.
I got back in the car and slumped. Cried. So proud so tired so drained. Waited a couple of minutes and got out and puked. This is what I do with stress, I get through it and it’s over and then I think about it a little too much and then I vomit on the side of a road somewhere.
I drove to the finish line, where I met two new friendly people, runners who had dropped at halfway or so. We talked about snot and shit and vomit and all of the places we’ve seen in the world because of this sport. They asked me who I was with and I said “the guy with the hair” and held my hands up six inches away from my head on either side, and they both told me stories about GL on the trail earlier in the day, coaching and encouraging and being his usual self. They loved him.
I was sitting in a lawn chair huddled into my coat and drinking a beer when the pain in my gut translated into a question I usually only ask myself in the days following an auto racing fatality in my circle. Why do we do this? I mean, really, do you get it? Why do we do this?
My new friends and I started talking about other sports, team sports. Winning. Beating somebody. Best records. GL appeared in the shadows in the trees, on a finish kick, moving faster than I’d seen him in the last six hours. Fifty-one miles, thousands and thousands of feet of climb, fifteen and a half hours or so. His worst 50 time, though it’s all relative, though he’s never run a 50 that wasn’t a clusterfuck of elevation change and incredibly technical trail. This was, however, his first 50 that didn’t include a rainstorm. He traded 80-90 degree temperatures for the usual monsoon.
He was wrecked. Physically, moving like I’ve never seen him move before, doing the crab walk sideways thing up stairs and you have no idea what I’m talking about if you’ve never been in an airport or a subway stop after a marathon. Mentally, kind of disconnected. I drove back to the hotel and immediately requested a late checkout the next day. Our flight out of Phoenix wasn’t until 6pm and we’d planned to do a lot of sightseeing and some hiking but there was no way. We talked a little, about how hard it was physically, how he’d already mentally processed that he wasn’t going to make the cutoff and grieved for it and gotten over it by the time he realized he would make it, how he was just thankful he’d finished and it was over because he was never doing this race again. He fell asleep. I fell asleep wondering how awful it would be to get him onto an airplane the next day.
We woke up on Sunday morning and watched some television. I dawdled and showered and started packing a little. I went out for McDonald’s because he was craving a breakfast sandwich. I got back at 9am or so and while we ate, he said “So . . . are we going hiking or what?”
It was somewhere on the drive to the Tonto Natural Bridge that I just started smiling and laughing and couldn’t stop. I was anticipating the next thing, the thing I am always waiting for but somehow this time, I’d convinced myself it wasn’t going to come. He was driving down a 14% grade and I was closing my eyes and laughing and the radio was on, so of course that song was on. Bet your window’s rolled down and your hair’s pulled back. And I bet you got no idea you’re going way too fast. You’re trying not to think about what went wrong, trying not to stop ’til you get where you’re goin’.
We walked out to the bridge, looked up at where we’d been. “You know I’m going to do this one again, right? If I really trained for it, I could definitely drop a few hours. Have you looked into the 100 mile fall race up here? Where would that fit in the schedule” That. That’s the thing.
Where does a person get the fortitude to create constant forward motion in a sport like this? Unless you are a professional it’s highly unlikely you’ll “win” and your main opponent is your brain, so you spend fifteen hours distracting yourself or convincing yourself or some combination thereof. And then you declare never ever again and wake up the next morning making bigger plans. Where does that come from?
We drove a little further north and stopped and had a picnic and talked about our potential future lottery windfall and whether we’d buy a place all the way up the ridge, or halfway, or at the bottom, and what kind of cars we’d have to have out here. I thought again about Kansas, and the ocean, and the Grand Canyon, and feeling simultaneously humbled and fortified by a landscape. I looked at GL and realized that this time around, I was humbled by the landscape of his mind, his heart, whatever it is in him that is so strong he keeps moving the finish line until it is further and higher and harder to reach, just to prove he can. I cry now, a month and a half later, every time I hear this stupid song, which will be forever wrapped around my memories of that trip. I cry partly because of what he accomplished that Saturday, but mostly because of how he woke up on Sunday already issuing a new challenge to himself.
You might not often see that sort of thing close up.
But I do, I do.