Mt. Difficulty

“The thing you need to remember,” said Scott, “is sheep don’t go straight up. They make their own switchbacks”

“Uh huh,” I mumbled. I didn’t want to encourage further sheep discussion, but I didn’t want him to think I hadn’t heard, and have to hear it a second time. I wrapped my fingers around of a bushel of thyme, pulled myself a little higher, and turned to look at the snow-capped mountains in the distance.

“Ah, that’s Fjordland!” He stopped next to me and pointed at the white peaks, having noticed the shift in my gaze.

There are people in this world who don’t miss a damn thing, and there are people who have the compulsion to verbally log all of the things they haven’t missed. A common incarnation of the latter is the kid who shouts, “Excuse me teacher? There are two number 4’s on this test!” Then proceeds to nod to his/her/their classmates as if to say, “Can you believe this shit? Two number 4's?!” I’ve known many people in my life like this. The type who see something and say something. My mother is one of these people. So is my new friend Scott.

When I say Scott is a new friend, by friend I mean acquaintance, and by acquaintance I mean we met when he caught me taking a shit behind a matagouri bush.

I should go back a bit. Don’t worry, I’ll get back to Scott, back to sheep.

A few months ago, I signed up for the Mount Difficulty Ascent — a 44km (27 mile) trail race in Cromwell, New Zealand. I’d always wanted to go to New Zealand, and the race was the only way I could justify spending all the money I’d saved — as if by running a mountain marathon, I’d somehow earn the trip for myself. I know, I know — to say one earns or deserves or becomes worthy of travel is flawed. But what can I say? Yesterday I said, “Oh hell yeah,” because I discovered miniature coke cans in my parents’ fridge. It’s not that I don’t treat myself, or that my standards for treats are low (have you ever even had a cold, doll-sized soda on a hot day? makes you feel like a millionaire). I like to earn things, is the point; to see the fruits (and sodas) of my labor.

Anyway. The race. Let’s go chronologically.

Kilometers 1–4

The sun was just barely coming up when the race director blew the air horn, which meant the first few km were chilly for my Los Angeles bones. It’s winter on the other side of the world, and while that can make warming up the muscles a little tougher, you don’t sweat nearly as much. I even had this fate-tempting, first act of the horror movie thought: probably won’t lose too many electrolytes today!

Kilometers 4–6

This, if memory serves, is what the race director referred to as Nipple Hill. I think that’s actually what it’s called, though given the other hills nearby, I’m not sure I would give it the distinction of being one of (at times, say, in frigid temps) the pointiest parts of the human anatomy. Nipple Hill was the first real climb — gaining a few hundred meters in a couple kilometers. About halfway up, you might turn around and see the vineyards below and be struck by their beauty. Or, if you’re me: about halfway up, you’d be struck with a very potent urge to poop. And when I say urge, I don’t mean “you know what would feel nice? a poop.” It was not a polite urge, a census taker knocking softly at the door, a woman in an ankle length skirt trying to spread the good word. No, this was a balls to the wall pounding on the door: a drunk at 3am, locked out of the house, fists pounding one after the other and when the fists get sore, taking off your shoes and chucking them at the upstairs windows. It was urgent.

Used to running in California, the first thing I did was look for cover. A tree, a shrub, a large enough rock. Of course due to its placement in the middle of a damn vineyard (and as Scott would later tell me, all of the sheep that graze upon it), this hill was completely bald. Not wanting to stop, I kept climbing the hill, eyes darting right to left, looking for any piece of flora large enough to provide modesty. At a certain point, I considered taking a few steps to the side, peeling my tights off and going right there — but I’d only been in NZ a few days, and had not yet been apprised of their views on exposed b holes. The situation was becoming dire. Believe me when I say/see what I’m doing, here: I’ve never seen so few bushes.

Toward the top of Nipple Hill, I finally saw a little bushel of thorns — a matagouri bush, I’d later learn — that would suffice. I ran behind it, threw my pack off, pulled my tights down to my ankles, and went.

Kilometers 6–8

A fun descent, skipping down rocks like a mountain goat. A band of horses galloped softly at the river nearby. Hey, this race is going to be okay, I thought, feeling lighter than I’d ever felt. I don’t need to belabor the point. We all know the fleetness that comes with an empty colon.

Kilomters 8–10

The second climb, which to my memory does not have a cute little name like Nipple Hill, was fairly steep. If slope percentage means anything to you, then it was 40%. If you don’t remember how slopes work, just picture a diagonal line between horizontal and vertical. And if you can’t do that, here’s a graphic.

Okay so if you can’t tell from that graphic, I am on all fours. When you’re climbing that steep of an angle, your hands do half the work. In this case, your hands reach out for the bushels of thyme just above you, and you use them to hoist yourself. For those two kilometers, you climb what is essentially a ladder of leaves up the side of a mountain. It’s hard, it’s fun, and you feel like a proper adventurer. Until, of course, you have to poop again.

On this second climb, I pooped either two or three times. I honestly don’t remember. Every time I found cover, I skittered behind it, pulled down my tights, and went. It became a nice little rhythm. Climb a few hundred meters, find a bush, take a crap. Climb a few hundred more, find a rock, crap. Rinse and repeat (minus, the um, rinsing).

It was during one of these pit stops I first met Scott. It was Scott’s job to make sure no marathoner got left up on the mountain.

“You alright?” He asked.

“Yeah,” I said, poking my head out from behind a rock. “Just so you know, I’m taking a shit back here.” Like I said, it was doody number 3 or 4— we were way past euphemisms.

For the rest of the climb, Scott took it upon himself to cheer me up. Perhaps he didn’t realize I was not in the mood to talk. Perhaps he thought that quaint facts about sheep would take my mind off the pulsing torsion of my colon. At any rate, this brings us back to the beginning, the moment Scott told me about the uphill strategy of sheep. “They make their own little switchbacks, which is what we’re trying to do.”

It took everything in my power to not shout, feigning sincere shock, “Wait, switchbacks?!” I’m not proud of that. Unlike the many dating app profiles I have seen (because my friends showed them to me!), sarcasm is not one of my keenest interests.

By the time I reached the top, I had a feeling things were not going so well. My muscles felt fine. My lungs felt fine. But the space between my hips, the space just below my belly button, felt like a damp washcloth someone was trying desperately to wring out. It felt as if someone had reached into my middle, taken hold of my intestines, and was giving them the policeman’s glove. * (see * below, it’s worth it) Seeing the rolling hills ahead, I decided to push on, hoping the cramps would subside.

Kilometers 10–18

Lush greens, a stream crossing, gentle hills and several barbed wire fences to hop over. At one point, another runner tried to pull the wire low enough for me to straddle. With one leg slung over and the metal barbs stuck in my left butt cheek, I laugh-muttered, “this race should have a height requirement.” The other runner chuckled politely, then frowned when he heard the wire tear through my tights. Oh well.

During these few kilometers, I actually felt pretty good. The downhills were gentle, the climbs were short bursts, and on account of my newly cavernous center, I felt like a single follicle of dandelion, newly freed from its cluster, blowing gently across a plain. Were my feet even on the ground? I passed runners I hadn’t seen since the starting line. I shouted hello to the people at aid stations. At the 15km mark, when the rope descent began, I thought, Wow! What a great adventure I’m having. What a privilege it is to be alive. And when I got down to the river again and saw my friends the horses, I couldn’t believe my luck.

But the fun didn’t last.

Kilometers 18–20

For those of you waiting for the other shit to drop, wait no longer. The third and final climb is where it all went tragically wrong. Let me begin, once again, by providing a slope: 64%. If that means nothing to you, here’s another helpful graphic.

That’s me again, on all fours. This time, however, there were moments I considered letting go of the thyme that held me in place and leaping over the edge. As empty as I was at this point, I was convinced that gravity no longer applied to me, that I’d float, like a broad, dry leaf back to sea level.

A third of the way up this final climb, I found another thorny bush and crapped again. I’d lost count at this point, and was actually shocked that there was anything left. Maybe you remember being a kid, thinking the tube of toothpaste was empty, and when you brought it to an adult’s attention, they knit their eyebrows, rolled it tightly from the bottom, pressed with all their grownup strength and squeezed out just one more drop? That there, that tube of toothpaste? You know who that is. You get it.

It was at this point, for the first time ever in the race, that I considered I might not finish. My pack, which couldn’t have been more than a few pounds, suddenly felt heavier than I did. It was around this time Scott caught up to me, again.

“How’s it going now?” He shouted from a few feet below. There are times when people ask you a question, and you know if they just looked at you, for even a second, they’d know the answer. “Ah, you ripped your tights, I see!”

“Yes, yes I did.”

“Ah well. The fences and the matagouri thorns, they’ll rip the shit out of anything!”

“Yeah.” I said, turning to face him. Looking down on him now, he seemed altogether different than he had on the previous hill. I no longer had the desire to run faster so I could get away. I no longer felt irritated by his chit chat. I noticed, for the first time, his crows feet, his blue eyes. I thought of my father, whose eyes are the same, chilly tone — the color of glacial water. Alright, Scott, I thought. I give up. Be my trail father figure. Let’s do this.

For the next few kilometers, Scott talked to me about running. He talked to me about New Zealand. And yes, he talked to me about sheep. When I needed to rest, he stood a polite few feet away from me. When I needed to shit, he looked the other way and talked a little louder.

At one point, mid-poop, I noticed a few bones near my shoe. A legbone, maybe. A few pieces of vertebrae, for sure. “Whose bones are these?” I asked.

“Oh those are sheep bones” he said. “It’s from the smothering. You know what that is?”

Of course I did not know what the fuck smothering was.

“Well,” he went on. “When a storm comes in quick, and the sheep are stuck on the mountain, the snow comes and they get cold. They get so cold that they try to huddle up. And they huddle so tight, they smother each other.”

“They what?!” I shouted.

“Yeah, they suffocate.”

Getting snuggled to death; what a thing.

I made it to the top of the third peak with Scott just behind me. The folks at the aid station, a lovely couple named Carol and Ed, took one look at me and asked, “So what would you like to do? You can go to the next station, but we’ll probably pull you out, there. Or you can just be done.”

I didn’t want to have to make the decision, and they must have seen it in my expression, because within seconds they said, “Let us make you some tea, and we’ll drive you down.”

So here, at the top of the final peak, having run a half marathon slower than I’ve ever run anything, I stopped. Just before I got in the car, I asked Carol to take my picture.

The few days after the race, I couldn’t believe how good I felt. Considering I’d trained for 27 miler, the 13 or so I ran seemed like nothing. My legs were fine, my feet were fine. My arms were a tad sore from all the scrambling, and I was convinced you could hear the ocean in the hollow shell that used to be my torso, but again, mostly fine. Of course there were some signs that they were right to pull me out. For the first 24 hours after the race, not a single thing I ate passed through, as if my body was greedy for nutrients. And no matter how much water I drank, my pee trickled out the color of iced tea. Don’t tell my parents that. I doubt they read this far, so let’s just keep it between us.

I spent another 10 days in New Zealand, days that, according to my flawed rubric of self-worth, I didn’t “earn.” I hiked, I ran, I climbed ice and snow and took my body to its limits. I challenged myself in ways I never thought I would, ways that made me simultaneously proud of the tough little butch I can be, and confounded by inability to finish this one little (I know it’s not little) thing. Please don’t mistake me, I know how funny it is. I flew myself to the edge of the earth so I could shit all over someone else’s mountain. I shat like someone pranked with laxatives in a teen movie, like someone was paying me to do it, like it was my job.

I’ve jokingly called the race “my big failure.” But failure implies a kind of closure, something I won’t ever get from this experience. People are all to eager to say life is like a marathon. If that’s true, then this marathon was like living a long and full life, lying down, and being told you can’t die. Not that I’m psyched on dying mind you, just the notion of closure. Then again, if it came down to it, I could climb up a mountain in winter, work my way into a cluster of sheep, and let them work their magic.

*After googling to find an analogous yet un-racist term for “indian burn,” I found several hilarious alternatives, the best of which was from Hungary, where they refer to it as “the policeman’s glove”).