Ultra running is weird. The more I do it, the more I realize I don't know anything about it. Our bodies are such amazing machines, capable of so many wonders, and yet if "the stars are not aligned" on a given day, we won't be able to do much of anything. On the other hand, there are days when you seem capable of doing anything, like you're boundless. Like you have forgotten your limits at home.
I came to Across The Years almost by coincidence. I had many plans to do many things; drive up to Los Angeles to meet Sweeney for a road race, take advantage of my short stay in Phoenix to go to the junk yard and salvage some parts for El Capitan, go check out the famed hippie hangout Slab City, or go meet my friends the Coury's and offer a little giving back for all the awesome running events they manage. Since many of my running friends were headed there as well, I chose to tag along with Maria, and show up for a couple of aid station volunteering shifts with Patti's crew.
We got there early the first day, just in time to watch the start of The Crazies, the ones who would run for 6 days straight in 500-mile + attempts. I was both in awe and in despair at the sheer amplitude of the task they had ahead of them.
The sun rose a little higher and we enlisted as volunteers with Nick, who started to scribble on the runners list as well.
"What will you run? 48? 72 hours?"
"Oh, you don't need to do that. I'm not running. I'm just here to help out with the aid station."
He looked at me funny.
"But you're gonna run at least a little bit, right? Might as well have your miles logged in, plus I'd rather have you wear a bib if you're gonna do loops around the track anyway."
Before I knew it, I had a bib, a couple volunteer shifts and a bright sunny day ahead of me.
|That was the original plan; hanging out on the course... |
El Capitan quickly turned into my personal aid station.
"Wanna do a couple loops?", said Maria. She already had the spark in her eye. Sure. We changed into running gear, snapped the bibs on and started running around the 1.05-mile course, that basically weaves around some baseball fields and walkways in a huge sports complex. I thought I would get bored pretty quickly, running around in circles, but the track offers enough variety that it keeps things fun. Of course, the nicest part of this type of race is that you're actually running with everyone, from the champions to the last of the pack. We're all in this together, and this creates a very unique spirit.
|Running with Jamil...|
A rare chance for me
See, it's all the Redhead's fault. Under her guise of good looks and smiley gentleness, really, she's pure evil.
I wasn't half way in my first beer when she started playing her tricks on me.
"You looked really good out there, why did you stop?"
"I ran what I felt like running. I'm not here to do anything else than volunteer anyway. My shift starts at 1:00 in the night, until the morning."
"But it's only early afternoon! You could run 3 or 4 more hours, take a nap and then go to work?"
"Why would I do that?"
She looked at me funny.
"You have three full days ahead of you to run as much distance as you want."
"You know they'll give you a sweet buckle if you do a hundred miles..."
I looked at her funny.
She said nothing more, smiled and started fiddling with her phone. I went back to my beer. But a couple seconds later, she turned the screen around and produced an image of the very nice 100-mile buckle, something I've been coveting for a while and failed to get at my last attempt. I quickly got back to my beer again, but it was empty.
I sprung up from the chair, shaking my head, and headed back for my van. The Redhead smiled. Her sneaky deed was done. She had successfully nudged a perfectly happy slacker and totally unprepared runner into a 100-mile hopeful. Evil, I tell you.
I changed back from my jeans into my running gear, and joined the flow of runners again. The weirdest thing; no one was puzzled or seemed surprised by my back-and-forths. I just got welcome back smiles and nudges. What kind of crowd had I gotten myself into?
So I ran again. 10 miles, maybe 11. And again, it was great fun hanging out with everyone. I saw Deborah the Aquaphor Girl and Jaime, Ed The Jester, Mark Hellenthal and I met many new friends. By the time I was back at the van for a little nap before my shift, I had run 30 miles.
I showed up to work with Patti's crew in the main aid station and hung out with Zach, a veteran volunteer. We kept busy filling up the food plates, drinks and attending to the runners' needs. When Patti realized I was also running in the event, she came to me.
"So you're going to work AND run?"
"Is that OK?"
She looked at me funny.
The hours flew by, in the cold desert night. Lucky for me, we had a propane heater in the aid station tent to keep warm. But we felt for the runners out there in the shivering cold, so we worked on the double, making hot chocolate, cup-o-noodles and fresh coffee. My shift was supposed to end at 9:00 the next morning, but at 7:00, Patti gave me a little tap on the shoulder.
"Go get some sleep, things have slowed down, we'll be fine here."
I headed back to the van, slipped in my bed and fell hard asleep. Two hours later, I woke up to a beautiful sunny day, the sound of runners' steps on the track... and what felt like a mammoth task ahead. I was tired from a long day, and had to run 70 more miles if I wanted to score a hundred. I had another work shift coming up that night, at 8:00, so I had to squeeze in some sleep as well.
Deciding that the best course of action was "more running, less thinking", I reluctantly got out of bed and started putting my running clothes on. The morning was cold and my first steps out of the van were painful. I couldn't quite run, I was just too sore. Things didn't look great, but I was moving. I just started real easy, walking around the track for a couple loops.
|Beauty and the Blistered|
A very happy Mariposa was already dancing around the track, side-by-side with my friend Jess! I had no idea she was coming, and was super glad to see her. She looked fresh and as beautiful as always, and I started trotting along just to be with my friends. Not a half loop later, Jess and I are running strong in the warming sun. What happened? I can never keep up with her, as she's such a better runner than I am. I just started feeling as good as the day before, and Jess and I went on running together, stride for stride, for many hours. Things felt easy and it was great to spend some time chatting and having fun. By the time the afternoon was over, I had 33 more miles in. And a plan.
Jess would volunteer on the evening shift with us. Since we brought a third person in, we would take turns doing a loop while the two other friends would be at work, if things weren't too busy. It didn't look like the plan would work at first, but around 9:30, we started going out for a loop, one at a time.
I was a little desperate, because reality struck me sometime that night. I had 63 miles in and a work night ahead, which meant I would need to get up the next day to a 37-mile run before I took off to Gilbert and then San Diego, 7 hours of driving away, to pick up my Belle and start our vacation. It was nuts.
Again, "Less thinking, more running". Every chance we got, we went out for a loop. I told my friends that when our shift was over, I didn't want to go to bed until I had 71 miles in. Why? Really, I don't know. It was just a stupid notion in my head that I could pull off a 29-mile day on the next morning, but not more. So I kept going in circles in the night, after my shift, until the counter said I had 71.4 miles (68 loops). It felt lonely and pointless, but at least I got to meet more interesting runners like Marylou from Ontario, who was steadily building mileage all by herself in the night, offering me a beaming smile each time we would cross paths.
|A visit in the World of Hurt|
The next morning was brutal, with a sore body and the realization that I needed to run all day, and possibly into the night, to hit the 100 mark. My feet had started to blister pretty badly, and I had already popped two bad ones which started to hurt way more than I care to remember. I couldn't put my feet in my shoes because the pain was too bad. Desperate, I got my first-aid kit out and used blister pads, taped over with Band-Aid tape (works wonders!). But now the problem was that my feet didn't fit my shoes! I'd been wearing my Skechers GoRun Meb Speed, my usual choice for road runs, because of the Resalyte sole and the overall lightweight feel. But now I couldn't even squeeze my foot in it.
|... Under taped socks.|
I had a moment, that morning. My run had gone so well and I was so ill-prepared for a 100-mile, I thought, that it had to come bite me in the ass at some point. I had run almost every single loop up to 71, but now things were about to go south, quick. I was more hobbling than walking, and a single loop felt like a 5k. My moral was sinking.
I got my MP3 player out, something I hadn't done in maybe 2 years. I hit the button and the music started, with blaring heavy guitars. It was Five Finger Death Punch. And they had a message.
"You won't break me,
No matter how hard you try.
You can't shake me down,
I'm fucking bulletproof!"
From the bottom of my toes all the way up my spine, I felt a wave of something, like a warm liquid injected in my veins. A nudge forward so palpable that I think I even felt a push in my back. I leaned forward and started running. To my absolute amazement, I discovered that running didn't hurt my feet. Only walking did!
From that point, I knew what I had to do. Let my legs go, breathe and sink into the music. One loop. Two loops. Then I stopped counting. Yes, that's it. Float in that timeless spot inside, where nothing gets to you. Look through your own eyes like they are the window of some vehicle taking you on a voyage. Daydream stories that make no sense and amuse you. Smile. Catch a glimpse of other runners' eyes for a tiny moment in time, connect, then come back inside.
By the time I looked up at the monitor, the afternoon sun was high in the sky and the counter said 85 miles. I started getting mixed feelings. On one side, I was getting more and more certain that I could do it, at long last. I could cross the finish line of a 100-mile run, something I sincerely doubted was in my reach as a runner. But on the other side, the pain in my legs and the fatigue were getting to me, poking holes in my confidence. I couldn't take any walking breaks, it simply hurt too much. Was this a blessing or a curse?
The MP3 player, once again, provided my answer. It played one of my favorite tracks, from Rise Against.
It's called "Give it all".
I resorted to an old marathon trick. Run one loop with someone. During that time, think only of that person, of what they represent for you. Be that person. Incarnate what it is you admire about them, and bring it to life. Pierre. Donald. Karine. Juan Pablo. The Navajo.
The Raramuri. Terry Fox. Dan. The Red-Tailed Hawk. My brother. Méganne. The Leaf Warrior. Nick.
By the time I was surrounded with all the inspiration that came to me, I had one mile to go. One loop. I was running side by side with Rachel, who showed up like an angel and acted as my own brain, calculating for me and keeping me on track, and then with Casey, all smiles, who brought me to the finish line. I crossed it to the sound of an Apache cry from Maria, and emerged into a brand new world on the other side.
A world where little me runs 100 miles.
A setting without any limits.
A place where my thirst for life becomes endless.
My friends went on to run incredible distances and perform astonishing feats of endurance. Michael Miller won the 72-hour event with 243 miles. Marylou smiled away and won the 72-hour with a mountain of 265 miles. Kelly Agnew flew through and won the 48-hour with 201. Ed The Jester traveled an amazing 476 miles. The Evil Redhead finished a hundred of her own. Jess did her hundred like a walk in the park. And Maria Walton covered two hundred smiles, floating free with inspiration. To all of you, hearty congratulations!
Qu'est-ce qu'on cherche en courant en cerlces pendant 3 jours et 100 milles? C'est mieux de ne pas le savoir. La découverte en est tout autant plus merveilleuse lorsqu'on émerge de l'autre côté, avec une soif de vivre sans fin et l'émerveillement face à ce dont nous sommes capables. Nous sommes des machines absolument extraordinaires. Des miracles de la vie.
Photo credits: Bret Sanquist, Aravaipa Running