A Dream Reclaimed

The Climbathon — 2016

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A deep and raspy horn blew, over the #bonang and #kenong, that were rhythmically ringing on the sidelines. It was the signal to start and to compress the coral and to find buttons to turn GSP tracking on. While runners like water trickled their way through the start line, the Kenyans quickly pushed ahead. Increasing the distance from the pack. Within moments, they were gone. Somewhere beyond places I could see. Somewhere beyond the race the rest of us were running.

Walkers waited for a path to clear. Impatient runners stumbled over each other for position. Once the line was crossed and the pressure released, we spread out a little. I looked around. Bumped elbows. Looked to catch those that got out early. We were the hounds chasing the fox.

It was all cleats against concrete; at first. Before the trails and the rocks and the mud-covered passages twisted and ascended toward the summit. There were two miles of concrete road that rolled past cabins and mess halls and campers carrying backpacks.

The ascents in the beginning were astonishing considering how much traffic the roads got. Beside us, vehicle gears groaned out in pain as they tried to climb. My legs burned under hurried breath as I overcame the inclines. I picked a point in the distance to run to. I broke the hill into segments, enduring short bursts of pain but no more. Run. Walk. Run. Walk. Up the winding roads I went. Inclines are all about pragmatism and self-control.

The first real marker was the point where the road became the trail ascent. Through a wooden ticket gate, inscribed with the words “SELAMAT MENDAKI,” we traveled alone through the places that normally required a guide. At full speed, into the cool mountain mist that chilled my fingers, I ran toward my fate. Initially down the wet rocks and across a rope bridge that stretched across rapids.

“Don’t look down” I was told by the runner behind me, and I smirked thinking “this is just the beginning.”

At that point, it was all climb, to the top without decline or mercy or a momentary reprieve. 10,000 feet of elevation gain, over 6 remaining miles, the incline was so steep that hands helped out the feet. I remember seeing the first real incline. A staircase of rocks and wooden planks. The stairs went into the clouds and were an amalgamation of “rainforest stuff.” It kind of looked like a staircase, but distorted, as if painted by an Absinthe inebriated Picasso.

Halfway up, I needed to stop, my lungs could not keep up with my heart and I collapsed my knees on a boulder. I ran the short bristles below my lip against my maxillary central incisors. The bristles snapped loose, like running fingers across a hairbrush. It is something I do when I get frustrated and scared. The race was more difficult than I had imagined. I was giving the mountain all I had and yet I looked back and two runners were trying to catch me. There was no time to rest or to think. I felt as if I had become the fox before the hounds, breaking branches in the distance so that I could hear them approach. It’s far worse when you can hear the end coming toward you.

“Death during a race comes in many forms” I thought. “Sometimes as another runner, sometimes as physical harm, but mostly as diminishing time.”

Time, who’s fatal blow is delivered through the words “you can no longer continue.” Some stranger stands at the side of the racecourse and turns around those that aren’t quick enough to finish. Maybe they offer comfort with a “you’ll get ‘em next time.” Maybe they throw a blanket around your haggard frame that fought so desperately to continue. No matter what is intended or said, the words condemn effort, question training and tarnish self-worth. They are cold and unforgiving. Not because of what was said, but simply because they were said. Yet words that initially feel like a sting, often evolve into salvation. We realize this when we look into the deep, sacred places, hidden even from ourselves. I visited this place many times during the race. My thoughts turned to darkness. I almost wished to fall behind. I secretly welcomed not having to finish.

Fear of falling behind was a new sensation. I have always finished well before the limit making cutoff time a non-concern. But The Climbathon was different, where time takes out all but the most capable runners. During the Climabthon, time plays the role of the lead antagonist. A dark specter lurking and continually progressing, killing more than 80 percent of the runners. As I knelt upon the cold, wet rock, I was certain I felt the warm breath of a DNF. It was blowing tauntingly upon my neck; right behind me. With my thumb, I wiped the water off of the face of my #Suunto. I just needed to see if I was okay. My legs still burned so badly. My body pleaded with me to stop, but instead I rose to my feet and pushed harder, trying to establish some semblance of a steady climbing rhythm.

As I continued to climb, my mind wandered off into the beauty I found in my surroundings. I tried to reset and remind myself that the finish would come soon enough. A race is more than a medal and good finish time, it is each and every moment of the experience. And what an experience. I was running though the rainforest in Borneo. A place where vines climb a forest filled with flora of countless species. Splashes of color offset deep green vegetation. Vibrant red Pitcher plants hang from branches beside the trail, waiting for critters to crawl into their openings. As I passed one, I heard a snap and saw the large Pitcher plant twist, squeezing something that wandered in its way. My mind left the toil and the struggle of the steep incline and jagged rocks. I was lost in a dream.

Dreams have a way of making pain become palatable. It is amazing how the human body has the capacity to push through anything. The mind turns off pain receptors when it grows tired of their nagging. We are built to overcome adversity of all types. Physical pain is the easiest to overcome. It’s real and measurable and containable. We assimilate the pain to some other pain that puts everything into perspective. What is lethal to a runner is what the mind dares to conjure. When the dark clouds envelop the dream and become darkness hyperbolized. When risk is irrationally amplified. When the journey becomes dangerous and hypothetical. The Water Hemlock born of a seed no more significant than a mere thought. A question. An observation. An unfamiliar pain. Once a thought like this takes root, the consequences are dire. Somewhere. Halfway up perhaps. A seed such as this was planted. A thought popped into my head that I couldn’t seem to move past. The dark clouds began to overcast.

For some, running clears the mind. It is a release-valve for the stress and uncertainty that our daily lives accumulate. For me, it is the opposite. Running is the fire under a pressure cooker devoid anything resembling a release. If something is bothering me, it is all I can fixate on. My mind amplifies troubling thoughts. What begins as a whisper in a chamber becomes standing waves that build and bounce back unto each other. The next wave reinforcing the last. The whisper becomes overwhelming, the pressure builds to the point of combustion. It gets so loud that I need to

Stop. Remove the flames. Silence the mind.

I started thinking of the runner that died a few weeks before, trying to train for the race I was running. A surprising number of lives have been lost trying to summit — even under the watchful protection of guides. The #Climbathon has claimed it’s fair share of lives. It is hard to imagine dying during a supported mountain race. But it happens, and was all I could think about.

The seed was planted.

“This really is a dangerous race” I thought. The idea was taking hold as the I cycled through myriad narratives in my mind.

“Altitude sickness has to be awful. The brain becomes deprived of oxygen and neurological tissue dies. Dead tissue means inflammation and once that happens, death becomes unavoidable. The person is a deadman walking, even before making the decent.”

The thought amplified.

“Hypothermia.” My eyes moved from side-to-side as I pondered. “Could you imagine freezing to death up here?” It happened during the Climbathon only a few years back. How dissimilar was I from that runner? I started to think of the last race that I ran. I watched myself sitting sluggishly next to the trail; cold and confused and hallucinating. I remembered how calm I had become as the cold left my body and how no trace of fear was present. Death was a melody, gently playing in the background. A lullaby beckoning me to sleep. To dream. To rest a body that was weary from so many hours of running. Gently stroking my hair and whispering in my ear, “It’ll be alright. It is almost over.” My will to survive and to continue barely saved me but I imagined without effort how it happened.

The thought amplified.

“And this terrain. It is treacherous. How many times have I almost fallen toward my demise? How many more second chances would Fate allow?” The first lesson that any trail runner learns is that falling is part of the package. Sticks and rocks and mud and mayhem lurk everywhere along the way. Three or four falls during a race is common; even the winner is usually battered. It is just something that needs to be accepted. But a fall on Mount Kinabalu is more significant than during the average trail race. Falls can be fatal as the trail travels along edges that fall off to emptiness. Ascents are slippery and steep. Rock formations are sharp and unavoidable. One wrong step up here could easily end a life. And has.

My mind began to race and my pace began to slow and the pressure was starting to build. There was no arguing with this logic. It was prudent and accurate, but irrelevant because I had no plans for stopping.

Like Dante’s inferno, the climb came with continual challenges intended to break the spirit and body. After the road came the mud, infrequently covered by wooden planks. It was deep, light brown and clung to the shoe. Then came wet rock formations, so steep and so slick that a rope was required to climb them. Then the plants changed form, thinning out in numbers and turning into towering out-stretched pine. Needled branches outlined the trail like barbed wire. The air eventually thinned to the point where most plant-life could not survive. Runners gasped desperately for oxygen that was in very limited supply. Then came the garden of overgrown Bonsai trees, although beautiful and mysterious, were always covered by mist-chilled clouds. The cold air chilled the body, through whatever tried to cover it, kinetic energy could hardly keep up.

And so went the race. Without boundary of pain. Without mercy of time. Without forgiveness for those that fell behind. Each runner trudged forward, trying to keep up the pace, up the treacherous mountain we traveled. Running when possible. Walking when not. Throttling back when unable to breathe. We were most of the way there and our movements became mechanical.

Through the clouds I saw the lead runner, heading toward me and back to the place where we all began. Heading downward toward rest and a warm meal, a cheering crowd and announcer calling out bib numbers over a loudspeaker. At first, he appeared to be a ghost, without color or clear form. A faded figure off into the distance. As he got closer, the clouds conformed to swirling streams behind him. It was the Kenyan, followed by two Malaysian runners. They were running without caution. Their feet fumbled frantically to find their footing. An exercise more of faith than of form.

Sliding some of the time.

Jumping some of the time.

“Fuck!” I thought but what I actually said was something like “Strong work” or “Good job runner.” Almost as soon as they arrived, they were gone, back into the mist. Figures fading into the distance.

During an out and back race, seeing returning runners usually causes uncontrollable speculation. It is disheartening, especially when the “out” is a steep uphill climb to the top. I wondered how far the turn-around was. How far I was from the lead. Observing the difference in our overall mental states. They appeared to be smiling heading downward, something I noticed after wiping away the salty sweat that collected around my eyes. Amid a brutal climb, watching others descend, is a juxtaposition of optimism. I was wondering how much longer I had. How much more it would take. While they wondered who would get first or second or third.

My speculation was finally put to rest. Aid station workers gave me the news about ten minutes after seeing the lead runners. They delivered a new form of death, something I had not even thought about, that altered my journey profoundly. They said “The weather took a turn for the worse and no one is allowed to summit. The course has been altered for your own protection. The turn-around point is now base camp, located about a kilometer below the top.” At first I didn’t understand. I didn’t want to understand. The whole point of the trip was to finally stand at summit. To right the wrongs of the past and to finish unfinished business. And those words were absolutely crushing. Without a summit, the race seemed pointless. This is not what I had intended or signed up for or was willing to sacrifice. In truth, the news was more taxing on my ego than the climb was on my body.

I finally arrived at base camp — and well under the time cutoff — a summit would have been a victorious guarantee. The DNF was still somewhere down the mountain trailing other runners, who were probably feeling it’s warm breath as I had. I saw the building that housed those intending to summit the following day. As a rule, hikers need to spend the night in base camp to acclimate before summiting. It is part hostel and part restaurant and part welcome intermission for those traveling up Mount Kinabalu. We were directed to do a pseudo-victory lap around the building and through a mixture of wet grass and knee deep mud. I felt numb. Crestfallen. Lifeless and discouraged. I could see the top from base camp. A summit was so close; minutes from where I stood. Fate’s little practical joke at my expense. I was reminded that life is not mine to control completely. It is a collaboration of many forces. Will is only part of the equation and at best can only apply influence.

With a change in plan came a change in attitude and I narrowed the focus of my thinking. It is so easy to get wrapped up in what could have been and to lose sight of the bigger picture. I was good enough to summit. I would have made the cutoff time. Something I thought impossible only days before. When I was honest with myself, I expected to DNF, considering the difficulty of the race. I learned that I was good enough to keep up with the pros and maybe that was the point of the experience. Sometimes we only get what we need at the expense of what we want. Most importantly, I was in Borneo, above the most amazing rainforest in the world. I was truly blessed to be in this place at this time.

I decided to take to the downhill with everything that I had left. It was a new race with new goals and I traveled with complete, reckless abandonment. Down slippery rocks and across mud-covered trails and down stairs so steep that my knees buckled. I kept going. I wouldn’t allow myself to stop, delay or take full-stock of the situation. It was a semi-controlled fall to the bottom. At full-speed, I flew past water station workers while my #iPhone played at full-blast. I sang out without concern of judgement. I no longer worried about falling or failing to keep up. I just focused on the trail. Nothing else existed. Nothing else mattered. With each breath and each step I sought connection with the moment and the mountain and the runners I encountered. My stride stretched across rocks and beyond gaps in the trail that came up without warning. I was liberated by the absence of worry.

On the concrete road I made my way past the runners that were struggling to continue. My knees were loose as my stride relied on structural strength. Failing muscles no longer fully functioned. Barely able to keep stable, my patella made popping sounds when my knees bent backwards a little. I paid no attention. I was a mile away. I just kept singing aloud to the songs that I added to my playlist.

In the distance I heard echoes. A mixture of voices and of music and of clanking on metallic objects. I turned my iPhone to off so I could hold on to the last moments. In truth, I usually get a little conflicted near the finish line. Rest, at the point, is definitely welcome yet I secretly wish the moment to linger longer. It doesn’t make sense, I guess. Very little about trail running does. Why do it? Why take the pain head on? Why keep pushing so hard? The answer is beyond questions like those. I don’t enjoy the pain. No one does. The moments before the startgun sounds feel like the void before an impact. I know it is going to hurt. There is no avoiding that. But pain is a prerequisite, not the point. If one were to look for the needle that is rational thought in the haystack of irrational behavior, I would say that the moments within a race are some of the most authentic in life. The treacherous trail is truth in its purest form. What I bring to the trail is myself, unmasked. In a world filled with false-promises. Misleading expectations. Posturing and positioning. Running in some backcountry somewhere in the middle of nowhere is sacred. It is the place were we just are. Connected to everything yet surrounded by nothing.

As I turned the last corner, there were rows of watchers, cheering and chanting, some singing out Malaysian tribal songs. I passed through the finish line, number thirty out of more than one hundred. I hugged the lady that wrapped a medal around my neck. I thanked her for volunteering. I thanked her for everything else. Who knows? I was kind of delirious.

Behind the finish was a podium of runners, posing for pictures and collecting their prize money. I noticed that the two Malaysian runners actually took it this year. The Kenyan looked pretty banged up. The battle down must have been inspired. I never would have guessed the outcome. But out here, anything is possible. Natural laws become suspended. Everyday lives achieve extraordinary feats. Imagine someone like me, finishing a race such as this, in a place like Borneo Malaysia. It would have been a laughable thought, from behind my desk, in my air-conditioned office in Chicago. And although I didn’t get to summit — again — I was reminded of something so basic. Some things are meant to be finished, somethings are meant to be chased. But all things lead toward the #dreamsBeyondReality

. — Tamat -

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