Archives For Running

Finding Manzanita

April 28, 2014

Every time I fly into Phoenix, I look out this window and that window. I know I’ll never see it, but I look for Manzanita Speedway anyway. It closed unceremoniously in early 2009, was bulldozed into a pile, and it’s on the wrong end of the city for my flight path. The last time I was there was something like 1989 for the Western World. I look for it anyway.

We talk about going there. Or, I guess, I talk about finding it, just to see. And Dan talks me out of it. I don’t visit graveyards. Why would I visit Manzanita?

Dan ran Zane Grey again this year. Last year, he finished. This year, he didn’t. The 50 mile race, which runs on the Highline Trail and starts near Pine, Arizona, was shortened to 50k (31 miles) before it even started. The National Weather Service advised that shit would get real, and then it did. Flash flooding of the stream crossings, temperatures in the low 40s, snow, rain and hail.

We flew into Phoenix on Friday morning and grabbed a rental car. We’d agreed last year it would be an SUV this year, as I’d struggled to get from aid station to aid station in a mid-size. But an email from the race director before we left advised that road conditions were terrible and a volunteer had already rolled a vehicle. There was a photo attached. We decided I’d drop Dan off at the start line, attempt to make it to the Fish Hatchery aid station, which was nice paved roads, and then pick him up at the finish. Basically, not crew him at all. So we ordered up another regular old car and they gave us a Mustang.

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It never stopped being ridiculous all weekend. What a stupid car.

We bought snacks and a cooler and sunscreen and my annual giant hat, stopped in Fountain Hills for a drink like always, and then cruised up 87 to Payson for packet pick-up and hotel check-in and a good night’s sleep. Our Best Western became a Quality Inn since we’ve been gone. I have places and habits on the other side of the country now, and that will never stop making me grin.

Dan made the start of his race, 5am on Saturday, at 4:59am per usual, shoes barely tied. It had already started raining, it was already freezing cold. I used the ridiculous Mustang to chase the sunrise around the ridge, looking for sweetness and light on a moody morning.

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I love this trip but this race is so hard. I don’t presume to speak for Dan but I can tell you it’s hard on me. The stomachache has to be training for UTMB in August. I wish I could let go the way people tell me to, when they say to trust he won’t get into trouble up there, but damn. We drive to the start line in the dark and I love watching the sun rise but it lights up all the hard things about this place.

When I got back to the hotel, I fired up my laptop to process the sunrise photos and I clicked over to Dan’s personal GPS tracker page, to follow the dot. Every ten minutes a new dot, a comforting dot. Except no dot. A malfunction and while he could have alerted emergency services for himself – the primary purpose of the device – I could not track his ten minute dots. A minor thing but the best antidote to the stomachache. This race lights up all the hard things about ultrarunning.

The earliest he could possibly get through a 50k on this course at current training level was 10 hours so I planned on going to the finish line at 3pm and just waiting it out. I turned on the television to fall asleep and a couple of hours later, got up to shoo away housekeeping after the third round of loud knocking on the door. I opened the door to a soaked, shivering Dan and his new friend Jeff. They’d been pulled from the course at mile 17, missing the time cutoff in the driving rain and hail, and a volunteer had given them a ride to our hotel. Jeff couldn’t open a candy bar or get his gloves on and off by himself. Dan was shaking with cold but functioning much better. Zane Grey was over for 2014 before noon.

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Dan showered and we went out for pasta and a movie, The Other Woman (great physical comedy, probably my new quote-all-the-time movie). He asked me to list off what hiking gear I had brought with me and we went shopping to fill in the gaps. He had something to show me tomorrow, on the Highline trail. “No whining,” he said. About two miles out and back. We could take all day. We could stop as much as I needed to. We’d start from Camp Geronimo, the second aid station on the course. Here, at that news, I briefly considered pulling up the elevation profile of the Highline, but I didn’t.

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Here it is though. You can look before you go on, even though I didn’t. Our two miles out and back were the 8 to 10 mile portion of this chart. The part that goes straight up and up and up.

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It’s a good thing I didn’t look. He said later it was a good thing he didn’t look either.

Dan filled the bladder in my pack while I was in the shower on Sunday morning. I added snacks and a bottle of Gatorade and a long sleeve shirt and a jacket and a spare battery for the cell phone I knew wouldn’t work anyway. He put all the survival things in his pack, the emergency blanket and the GPS locator and the water purification tabs. Then he added his front pack, totally unnecessary for this hike, so he had a place to carry my big DSLR camera where I could reach it. And I swooned. March me into any unknown pit of fear and danger, my love, just as long as you make sure I have my camera.

All of this was based on him saying he had something he wanted to show me. The only details he gave me were that “the trees do this thing, you have to see it”. I reached back to that time when he waded into a creek for me without knowing why without question, and I put on that 10lb pack and followed without whining.

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I’d like to say it was easy for awhile before it got hard, that I had a few minutes of feeling like I could get the job done before I started to doubt, but no. It was hard immediately, got harder, and then got harder again. I sucked wind like a person who has never left bed or seen sunshine. It doesn’t help that I’m at my rock bottom right now, the most out of shape I’ve ever been. But every time I stopped to let my lungs scream because the elevation was bad enough, every time I cried (on the inside like a winner), he looked at me like it was no big deal if we ever took another step again, pointed out the view I missed because I had my head down, and then I kept going. I told him I needed blinders, that looking up and up and up was the problem. There was never a minute in the first hour that I wasn’t looking at my next ten steps taking me five feet higher in the air. We stopped a lot.

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As we approached the clearing he was expecting, he mentioned that he hadn’t seen a trail blaze in awhile. We got to a spot he expected, but not on the trail he expected. We were on the Jeep road rather than the foot trail – instead of switchbacks, we’d had straight climb. From the clearing, it was just a little bit further to where he said “We’re here.”

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I don’t know what I expected exactly, from “the trees do this thing” but I’d thought of things in giant proportions. Huge trees. Dense trees. Something grand that anybody would notice, just hard to get to. But I’d forgotten the key part of this – it would be a thing Dan would see. Which is never the thing anybody else sees.

We were standing in a forest of manzanita.

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Evidence of a fire was everywhere. The beautiful thing about manzanita is how entangled the new growth is with the old and dead and sometimes even burned. The way you can look at it from bottom to top and only see death until suddenly it’s flowering again. The new smooth burled red bark emerging from the dry old growth like it has overcome it, but not shaken it off completely. Dan said in the moody gloom of the race day, in the driving rain, running into this patch of manzanita was like being inside one of those desaturated spot-colored photos. Everything grey except the new growth.

I thought of Manzanita again, capital M. I thought of how I don’t visit graveyards and yet I still stay tangled up in what is dead and gone, how I don’t let new growth through that mess very often. Dan pointed out another tree, its bark shaped like the siped tire of a sprint car. I wondered if he was in my brain right then. Probably. It’s happened before.

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Dan and I are in the midst of a cycle of our relationship where people have been asking us when we’re getting married. It isn’t a constant thing, like many of my longterm coupled unmarried friends report. People only ask us when the new growth is most obvious, when the tangled dead branches fade in their greyness but the blooms of flowers and fresh leaves are prominent to outsiders. It always makes me laugh because it doesn’t always coincide with what’s going on inside our relationship, what’s happening with the green buds before they become visible. But sometimes it does. Maybe this cycle, it does.

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I took a series of photos of our shoes together. His shoes beside my shoes, like the Caryl Mack Parker song I played on repeat as a teenager, before I knew those shoes would be an endless pile of Asics (until they discontinued the Cumulus Gel 13) and thus more recently, Salomon hybrids. Mine, brand new, his with one rainy 50 miler, one snow marathon, one frozen 17 miler, and a few training runs between.

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These are possibly my favorite photos from our hike, even more treasured than the two rolls of manzanita or the sweeping panoramas. My dress shoes have been next to his, my sandals, my snow boots. But my Salomons have never been next to his, not in the mud, and definitely not at the top of miles of elevation gain. And for all of the dwelling on and wrapping up in things that might have been and things that burned to the ground, I feel like my shoes beside his shoes this day are the twisting soft green red branches that make you forget the fire ever happened.

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I don’t know why I have this new tendency to sit on posts about epic travel weekends for two months. This is our trip to the Catskills/NYC in June for Manitou’s Revenge, a 56 mile ultra.

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Our flights for the New York trip took us through four airports – Milwaukee to Detroit to Newburgh, NY on the way out.  LaGuardia to Milwaukee home.  Newburgh is the home of Stewart International Airport, which a lot of people use to get to West Point.  All of this is to say that GL and I were the only people on our plane that had hair.

Upon arrival at Stewart, we grabbed a rental car and started making our way to Big Indian, NY.  We drove by Peekamoose the first time by accident, when we overshot the turn for The Weyside, where we’d be staying for two nights. We both noted it, for later.  We were a little early for check-in to our cottage (our! cottage!), so we went to the Big Indian Market for lunch. We covered our entire table with maps, trying to get a grip on the next day’s course.

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These guys watched us eat.

Whenever we have time to pre-drive the course and aid stations, I like doing it.  Especially in remote areas.  I don’t know if it gives GL any indication of what the race will be like, but I enjoy it.  Knowing I can find things at 5am in the dark because I’ve been there already is a big help.

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After driving the course, we went back to Big Indian and hit Peekamoose for dinner.  We had caramelized onion tart, gnocchi, fresh baked bread, and goat’s milk cheesecake.  It eased the sting of setting our alarms for 3:30 the next morning for the race start.

Manitou’s Revenge started at 5am.  Their website describes the course as such:

This is a grueling, gnarly, nasty course with approximately 12,000 ft. of climbing, much of it rocky and precipitous.  To be sure, there are some runnable sections, but you will more often find yourself hiking uphill or down, sometimes hand over hand.  Expect this course to take you much longer than your average 50 miler. That’s why we are allowing 24 hrs. to complete this monster. Because of its remote and difficult nature, there will of necessity be a limited number of aid stations, 8 or 9, and runners should be prepared to spend up to 3 or 4 hrs between aid stations. You will have to be reasonably self-sufficient. To make matters worse, the course gets progressively more difficult as you go along! And to top it all off, the average runner will have to tackle this hardest terrain in the dark.

For comparison’s sake, 24 hours is a frequent goal for people running 100 mile races.  This one is 56 miles.

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Our rental was a Ford Fusion this time around, the new one with the Aston Martin-y nose. While still probably not the ideal choice for rural mountain driving, I spent very little time on unpaved roads this trip, and it was fine.

At my first stop, the North/South Lake Beach aid station, I befriended John, waiting for his wife. He told me about the area where the Catskill Mountain House once was, just a short walk down the trail from where we were standing. When it was first built, the climb from the valley was a five hour stagecoach ride, then later a cable railway ride.

“I’m going to stop complaining about my rental cars,” I replied.

One of the faster guys came through, and the aid station workers rushed to help him. When one asked him what to fill his bladder (the hydration pack) with, he joked beer. The aid station worker said “I have some!” and headed for a cooler. He got water in the pack, but had a cold beer before he left. I grinned. It was going to be a good day.

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I had a lot of time between aid stations.  I spent a lot of time looking at scenery like this and exploring little towns that sprang up around each bend.

“Are your shoes comfortable?” she asked, and I didn’t turn around immediately, it didn’t connect that she was talking to me. She asked again, and touched my arm. When I spun, I was greeted with the warmest smile. She pointed again to my feet, my Vibram FiveFingers. I said yes, and gave her a brief rundown of all the activities I do in them. She asked where I was from. She told me about her friend, the only other person she knows who wears them, and then introduced me to three other friends standing behind her.

We were in line to buy sandwiches at a general store in Tannersville. I spent an hour with them, eating lunch, and then another half hour, just talking about music.

I got back into my car thinking, “Where am I?”

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I’ve had but few moments in my life when I’ve felt a very strong sense of belonging, where I’ve felt intrinsically connected to others in a “this is my tribe” sort of way. And it’s usually on a very small scale. I remember sprinting with RunAway from a hotel lobby bar to our room, laughing at something so hard we could barely breathe, and even though I can’t remember what that funny thing was now, I remember collapsing onto the bed and catching my breath and looking up at her, looking back at me with the same expression, and feeling at home, in Boston, in another person. I experienced a very similar thing, in the snow in Veteran Acres a couple of Januarys ago, when I found myself telling Andrea all of these intense things about my life, hours after meeting her for what was really the first time that counted. Home. My tribe. Belonging.

At the Platte Clove aid station, 31ish miles into Manitou’s Revenge, I felt like I was in my tribe for the first time ever with a large group of total strangers. Sitting on rocks and lawn chairs where the parking lot met the trail head, my tribe was three wives, a girlfriend, a husband, a brother, a friend, and me, all waiting for our people. One of them, Michelle, endeared herself immediately to me by saying “Which one is your person?” instead of “Who is your husband?”

We were talking about wild animals on the trails. There were bear stories and snake stories and alligator stories and I talked about how excited I was about possibly seeing a javelina in Arizona for Zane Grey until I found out that a javelina was not an exotic cute wild I’m-not-sure-what-but-something-I-could-cuddle? and instead was a hairy stinky giant attack pig. It’s definitely an animal that is way more interesting until you know what it is. Thanks, Google.

So I’m gesturing wildly while trying to explain what a javelina is, and then the woman who is on her way to Portugal next is talking about a bear cub, and then somebody is talking about last week, in Virginia, and this is . . . this is us. This is my world. We were all coming from somewhere, all going to somewhere, all perched on rocks at this crossroads and waiting, laughing, talking with our hands, connecting.

GL came into the aid station and took a half hour rest. I gave him a back massage and his sandwich. While filling his water bladder, I overheard a runner – Steve from Toronto – drop from the race and ask about a ride back to the finish line. I offered to drive him, knowing that I had a ton of free time ahead and the dropped runners often wait for quite awhile before the shuttles get to them. Halfway back to town, after talking about the hundo he ran a month ago, he said “You guys run a really great race here” and I explained that I wasn’t actually with the event management, I was just a random eavesdropper, and he laughed and launched into five full minutes of thanks. Then he said “You know what I love about these events? Everybody here has a story from their last trip and plans for their next trip. You can see the whole world through the stories you hear at one of these races.”

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The next aid station was the one with the hike.  I’d crossed two entire checkpoints off my crew list because they had descriptions like “1.9 mile very steep hike, we highly recommend you don’t crew this station”.  But this one said something like “half mile hike, you may get your feet wet”.  I could handle that!  When we pre-drove the course, we’d even walked a ways up the trail.  GL told me it was a half mile.  Ish.

We’d gone nowhere near a half mile.  My pre-walk was like 1/10th of the total distance I ended up climbing to get to the aid station.  Much of it looked like this:

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I did not enjoy the hike up.  I spent most of it convinced I was going to end up lost, never find it, miss him, get eaten by a bear.  It’s amazing how many different ways your brain can talk you into failure.  But once I got there, I realized it would be at least 2-3 hours before he came through yet, so I left his front pack with a headlamp and emergency jacket and candy for him, and I left.  The descent was beautiful and soulful and I stood in streams with cool water running around my legs feeling like I was living an Irish Spring commercial or something.

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The trail head for this aid station was at the end of Mink Hollow Road.  It was one of the most beautiful and remote roads I’d ever driven, and I spent a good deal of time contemplating the idea of a place there.  What it would be like to hole up and just *be* on Mink Hollow Road.  To exist there for awhile, away from everything else.  Note this, for later.

I washed the mud off of my feet and jumped back in the car and drove all the way back to our cabin in Big Indian.  I’d see GL next at the finish line, and it would be hours.

Back at the Weyside, I ate and turned on the Blackhawks game, set an alarm for 11:30pm, and tried to nap.  I slept in fits, that type of sleep you have when you know that missing your alarm is just absolutely not an option.  The Blackhawks won.  I read a bit of the book I started on the plane – Carry On Warrior.  I showered and it was the most glorious shower I’ve ever taken.  I stood under the water for what felt like hours but was actually like fifteen minutes.  I wondered what Mink Hollow was like at night, how GL was doing.  I put on a dress, grabbed a cold beer to greet him at the finish.

When I got to Phoenicia, Michelle was the first person I saw, and she said “Wow, you look amazing.”  I confessed to the nap and the shower.  At this point, we’d all been moving about these mountains, following and leading and bumping into each other in various states of hot and cold and tired and happy and grumpy, for about 19 hours.  I sat down on the lawn of the parish hall that served as the finish line and started talking hockey with a pair of Boston fans.  A black bear walked down the street less than a block away and I held my breath.  It felt like the opening credits to my Northern Exposure spinoff.

Again, based only on the people crossing the finish line, I estimated several more hours before GL would get there.  The course description had not exaggerated in any way – this thing was a beast.  I hoped he’d make the 24 hour cutoff.  I figured he’d finish either way, even if it wasn’t official.

It was right in the middle of this mental math story problem of mine that a truck drove up, and GL hopped out of the passenger side.  The answer was both – he was back before 24 hours, but it would not be an official finish.  I asked where he’d dropped, assuming it was at an aid station and he’d been given a ride back.

“The intersection of 214 and the trail I wasn’t supposed to be on,” was his dejected answer.  He’d missed a turn, descended, and only realized he was lost when he ran into a highway.  Without the time to hike back in and find the correct trail, a way to communicate with the race director that he was doing so, or proper supplies to go 9 hours without an aid station, he’d started walking down the highway.  A ranger picked him up and drove him nine miles into town.  This was his first DNF (did not finish) that mattered. He traveled 45 miles on foot in 19 hours, counting the 3 miles of off-course trail leading to the highway.

He ate dinner in the parish hall, explaining to the race director exactly what happened, and telling the story of the bear.  At some point during his descent, he came upon a black bear ahead of him.  Alone, with only his headlamp.  He made a bunch of noise and the bear scampered ahead on the trail, and he continued.  Only to encounter it again.  And then again.  He started getting nervous – how long would the bear keep running ahead and stopping before deciding that GL was chasing him and get defensive?  The bear finally left the trail.  It was one of a handful of bear encounters by competitors in the race.  It certainly made my main street bear sighting feel tame in comparison.

I waited for him to completely break down.  To get sad, to get angry, to get . . . something.  But he didn’t.  He just looked me square in the eye and said “I had this.  I was going to finish.  I just missed a turn.”

I knew then that this would be an event he had to come back to do again.  It wouldn’t end like this.

We barely slept in, maybe 9 am or so.  We drove back to Newburgh to return the rental car and catch a train.  We were only halfway through our weekend.

So I guess this is a good place to talk about the stick.  When he got out of the truck at the finish line, he was carrying a big ol’ stick.  He’d found it in the woods and decided to see if he could get it home.  It was a low attachment object – if it turned out to be too much of a pain to transport it, he’d abandon it.

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The stick went to Manhattan with us, was checked as baggage by the Roosevelt Hotel bellhop, and was a carry-on for our flight from LGA to MKE.  The last I saw it, it was in the trunk of GL’s car.  You know.  Just in case.

Our stay in the city looked like this a lot:

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But we did get out quite a bit.  Shortly after we checked in, Jenny met us in the lobby, freshly entertained from her afternoon open bar boat party.  We took off for Mexican food – priority on an excellent margarita – and she took us to Sueños in Chelsea, which was fantastic.  Possibly the best carnitas I’ve ever had, which says a lot if you know me and my carnitas love.

Spending time in the city with Jenny is fantastic not just because of her knowledge of the city, but also because of her LOVE of NYC.  The most mundane things are exciting and it never feels like a tourist experience whatsoever.

Perfect guide or not, we were exhausted and spending all night on the town was not an option.  Of course, it was only after we arrived back in our room, kicked off our shoes and got comfortable, that we both decided we wanted dessert.  There is basically nothing that makes me feel more indulgent than room service.  GL had ice cream and I had cheesecake, which I ate in bed.  Room service cheesecake is my love language.

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Our last day in New York was a hodgepodge of wandering about and following whatever shiny thing caught our eyes.  A trip to the Altar of St. Jean-Baptiste de LaSalle at St. Patrick’s.  A couple of wonderful meals.  A stop at The Art of Shaving for GL, because somebody has to be the guy who chases bears AND has dandy personal care routines.

We had arranged a car service to get us to LGA and allowed for a decent amount of travel time because we needed to arrive at 5pm on a Monday.  Somehow our driver took us door-to-door from the Roosevelt to our terminal in 23 minutes. I wouldn’t have even minded an hour in that car – a Lincoln SUV with cold beverages in the cupholders waiting for us. I took a selfy just to remember the feeling of luxury that was going to punctuate this trip. (GL kept trying to warn me about LaGuardia, which I’d never flown through before, in gentle preparation for the not-so-luxurious experience I was about to have.)

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So we were even earlier for our flight than planned, which makes GL crazy, and neither of us had bothered to look at a weather map. A line of severe storms stretched all the way down the country just west of us – nobody was leaving New York westbound any time soon. We spent the next five hours sitting on milk crates and then the floor of the hallway between terminals, watching a pair of Jack Russel Terriers (I don’t even understand airports and airplanes and dog rules, but nobody yelled at them.)

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We boarded our plane home just in time to miss the entire Blackhawks Stanley Cup-clinching victory. When we landed in Milwaukee, we both immediately powered up our phones to frantically search for the game results.  The win was a nice Welcome Home.

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Finishing this story now, almost two months later, has the advantage of cohesive updates, for both of us.  I wonder if in some ways, I was holding it back because I had unfinished business.

About a month after we got home, my coach suggested that I work on a “totem” – some sort of physical object that helped to center me and remind me of my goals.  I made a ring.  It is a map of Mink Hollow Road.  To others, it just looks geometric and green.  Running my thumb over the bezel takes me back to a place where I felt absolutely myself and triumphant over all forms of negativity. The water ran cool across my feet and deciding to do something resulted in getting it done – alone.

Making the ring, I searched the term “Mink Hollow” and was reminded of why it was such a familiar sounding thing to me.  Todd Rundgren’s Hermit of Mink Hollow was recorded on Mink Hollow Road, entirely by Rundgren, his first album to have no other musicians credited. “Determination” played through my head while I mixed and poured my resin.  A totem, indeed.

And today, as I finally get around to sharing this with you, GL is preparing for a potential trip back to New York this weekend, to hike the Adirondacks with a group who did Manitou.  It isn’t set in stone yet, though Manitou’s Revenge is definitely on the 2014 calendar again.  We used to talk about being the people who end up in Colorado all the time, who have a dedicated escape spot, training in the mountains and recharging the soul batteries in a place that feels so much like a second home that you miss it after only one visit.

I never dreamed it’d be New York.

But Colorado still has a chance.  We’ll be in Estes Park for four days in September.  Hopefully I’ll tell you all about that sometime before December.

Highline Trail

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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?

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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.

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But I do, I do.