Tripping Over Mountains
“Nobody trips over mountains. It is the small pebble that causes you to stumble. Pass all the pebbles in your path and you will find you have crossed the mountain.”
*This post contains music links. (You will have to close each of them down when the track is done unless you want Youtube or Soundcloud to keep playing. It is imperfect, but best I could do for now.) Some of these are songs that I sang in my head while I was running out there alone and/or are here simply to express emotions I experienced during the trail trials that I cannot put into words. I tried hard to place them chronologically as they occurred during the race, but some were recurring, and for me, MMT memories in general have a habit of looping back upon themselves anyway. With their aid, I did my best to express and preserve the experience. Hope you like’m.
Would I be ready? Before the race, I toyed with the idea of dropping out. Yes, really. These were more than the usual thoughts of dropping that occur before any race. I wasn’t quite sure if I was mentally up for another long challenge just five weeks after Zion. Planning to run a couple of hundreds so close together was an experiment for a hundred newbie like me. Mostly I wanted to check my recuperation time.
A week out, I felt physically prepared, but I hadn’t bargained for worrying about whether or not I was up for it mentally. I know what is so often said about hundreds to be true: 90 percent of it is mental. And I planned to run solo. Deep in the race, when the going got really tough, and I became discouraged–which was certain to happen any many given points, I would be on my own. I would have no pacer or crew to encourage me to continue. Also being alone for long spells on the trail, I knew doubts about myself, worries, regrets and any number of inner demons would have the opportunity to surface. Though there would be friends running and friends at aid stations, I was planning to mentally tackle the challenge of this experience on my own as much as possible. I chose to run alone.
Running long is always a crap shoot. That’s one of the things I love about it. No matter how many long races in which you’ve participated, there’s just no telling exactly how the next one will go. The truth is, it is always somewhat difficult. But in contemplating running solo, my imagination took hold and ran away with it, and I likened it to one of my teenage outings, hiking in the woods for nights and days without food or water or even a trail to follow; climbing mountains and trying to sleep under the stars, but instead, lying awake and watching them move across the sky. This wasn’t that. This was a race full of many, well-stocked aid stations, with good friends to feed and light fires under me when I passed through. This was not really a solo experience. And this was not roughing it. Not by a long shot.
Even if foul weather turns much of it into a slog, it is never all bad. In that length of race, you pass through so many states of body and mind, you can live a mini lifetime over the course of a day and a half. I knew all this, and yet I struggled in my resolution to run. I also knew it was definitely going to be a slog for some stretches. The forecast called for rain. Heavy at times. Again. As if we hadn’t all had enough. Running in rain is never that bad, but man, sometimes it is just so nice to sleep in on a Saturday when it is raining outside…And Duncan Hollow is always wet…That stretch on from Picnic Area Aid is never one…And then there’s Kerns mountain. Oh, Kerns. I imagined I would likely leave a layer of skin or worse up there on that ridge picking my way among the big rocks. And that was if I didn’t get lost. I argued with myself, back and forth, pros and cons. I knew the views would pale in comparison to the amazing views I had just experienced at Zion. MMT might prove anticlimactic. I even nearly convinced myself that it would be more responsible to stay home and work on the neglected yard. Nearly.
* * *
But something was calling me. The “something” in those mountains and their sometimes brutal, rock-strewn trails beckons as if it were a part of the self lost out there amid the greenery, and you have to fetch it back. It speaks to you and says that if life is but experience, then this is one not to be missed. I knew that be it adventure or ordeal, running MMT would prove to be an experience of a quality around which I could gauge the before and after. It would change me. Measurably. What else do I do that does this? The yard could wait.
I camped the night before. My husband generously drove me to the start and even set up my tent while I checked in and said my hellos to friends. It happened fast. We had dinner, and then went for a long walk. It was our 16th wedding anniversary, and we had a lovely time exploring the woods around the camp and hanging out together. He stayed until nightfall as we didn’t have a dog sitter and had to return. There was plenty of guilt felt on my part, spending our anniversary in prep for a race, but he said he didn’t mind. We had had a nice day together, and he said we could celebrate anytime. He understands better than I do why I must run. It was hard to see him go, but I knew I had to try and sleep. Three thirty would come early, and it would be my last sleep until afternoon Sunday.
Bib and puppy photos courtesy of Curt Seiss
I don’t have much mental clarity about the start. There was a party cluster of racers and friends and volunteers under the big tent in the dark, music playing. The coffee was gone by the time I arrived, so breakfast would wait. But there were hugs from good friends and greetings from ones I had not seen in a while. We were ready! I wasn’t the nervous wreck I usually am before races. Perhaps I was still asleep.
Early in a race, I have blinders on. Full of adrenaline, it is hard to find a reasonable pace, especially amidst all of the others pressing forward. I tried to remember what the aid stations looked like from last year. Where was Moreland Gap? I remembered as I went. But when I got there, I didn’t stop. We climbed the road up the mountain a few miles, and when we arrived, turned sharply onto our first taste of single track. Everyone was pushing hard, and I let a lot of runners pass. Too early for this, I knew. I worked on finding my own pace. I don’t like starting a run in the dark, but they almost all start that way. It does make the dawn all the more sweet.
Whippoorwills called, and I ran purposefully into the idea of the dawn as much as to the next aid. I remembered running with much more strength and purpose the year before. I even led a group for a while, right into the dawn. I wasn’t moving like that now. Maybe I wasn’t fully recovered from Zion, I worried. Maybe I just needed breakfast.
Dawn broke in faint lines of pinks and blues off to my upper right over the ridge. I concentrated less then on the rocks, and more on the growing daylight. Finally I was able to shut off my lamp. I picked up the pace. It would get easier now. And soon there would be food. And maybe coffee.
Will fly down hill for coffee: photo courtesy of Samantha Pitts-Kiefer
The next stop was Edinburg Gap, around mile 12, where I did finally get some breakfast and coffee (in the form of a bottled Starbucks Frappachino. Thank you aid station volunteers!!!). Ah, and good friends were there! Nice to see so many smiling faces. I ate some melon and grabbed a half a bagel to carry and eat up the trail. The next stretch was a slow but easy climb up onto the west ridge–enough time to eat, though maybe a dense bagel hadn’t been the best choice, then to fall into a good, steady run along the ridge to Woodstock Tower. This takes us a good 20 miles into the race, and it feels good to run for some long stretches and make a dent in the mileage.
It was humid, and I was sucking down all my water and sweating profusely. By the time I got to Woodstock, (we were half a mil, oh wait, no) several hours had passed and I was feeling the burn of dehydration. Someone filled my water for me, and my good friends Gary and Zsuzsanna who were volunteering and crewing for other runners provided electrolytes and watermelon. So amazing to see them! Nothing solo about this experience. (Yet.) I also ate a piece of potato dipped in salt and a quarter pbj and hit the trail. No time to waste. Off to Powell’s Fort.
Much of these stretches was uneventful. I talked briefly with other runners, but mostly kept to myself. My good friends, sisters Shelly and Jamie passed me, then I them, at several points, and we played tag with other runners, new friends and old.
At Elizabeth Furnace with Caroline Williams before the storm
Soon I rolled into Elizabeth Furnace at mile 33. I restocked supplies from my little drop bag, and noted it was about to pour. I tried to decide if I should don the little plastic poncho I’d tucked into my pack, but I was so warm and sweaty, I figured getting wet might do me good. I saw Zsuzsanna again — she was crewing and pacing our friend Quatro, and I told her if anybody could use the extra poncho I put in my drop bag, to please share it. I specifically brought extras with the intention to share them in an effort to repay a kindness I’d experienced at Zion, when my new friend, Jenni who was crewing her husband, provided me and several running friends with race-saving ponchos. Sometimes a small item is a big kindness, and in this case, it surely was. So happy I was to try and pass it on.
The rain hit hard. I let my hair down. I laughed like a maniac, and got soaked. But it felt great. I knew I wouldn’t get to change clothes for another 20 miles, but I had the magic poncho in my pack. Even wet, it would keep me quite warm in a pinch.
After a good climb, we had a nice runnable downhill in the mud and flowing trail-turned-stream into Shawl Gap. I remembered what the runners’ feet had looked like at Shawl after this downhill run in 2014. I was volunteering, and did a lot of blister fixing and foot repair. I knew this stretch with this rain could chew up my feet. Sixteen miles from Shawl until dry socks. I could manage. There was a stretch of road, and then a long climb. That would give’m a break.
Along this stretch, I met up with John, who was running what would be his 82nd hundred-miler (provided he finished it, he said). He had also run a marathon in every state. He makes it a point to never run hundreds less than two weeks apart. All my worries about not being fully recovered from Zion quickly fell away at that moment. We talked about the ones not to miss, about the more beautiful courses being more of a draw than the prestigious ones. He told me about Hardrock and the crony system that lets some people in, and keeps so many out. He had finished 93 miles of it before he threw in the towel. Sometimes, it just isn’t a good experience. He said Big Horn was one of his favorites. It was on my bucket list. He said he had also run the Arrowhead. This was also on my bucket list but from very long ago, long before I had even run a hundred. It was interesting to think about it again. He had finished it 3 times, 3 for 6, he said, and that it draws the most interesting collection of participants of any of the ultras he’s done. Also he said that on the course, you will often see wolf tracks on top of runners’ tracks in the snow ahead. The wolves follow the runners, and then circle around, staying always unseen, but leaving a mark of their presence in the snow. I think I decided then, that if I stayed in good health and kept running longer ultras, that I would have to tackle the Arrowhead.
We turned off the road and arrived at Veach Gap, where I topped off water and dumped trash. John fueled with two bottles of water he mixed with powdered maltodextrin, which he buys in bulk. Made sense. Most of us were just consuming much more expensive versions of it packaged nicely for endurance activities. And he apparently goes through a lot of it.
MMT training run view: Feb. 2015
There is a long, long climb up from Veach. I remembered the views here from many seasons past, had seen it in different colors, and now everything was green and new and full of life.
Then we ran south along the east ridge. I was on my own again, and trying hard to forget how long this stretch of ridge always feels. But I had good energy here, and made good time. Before I knew it, I was climbing down the side of the ridge toward Indian Grave, onto a long runnable downhill. Here, I really hammered down.
When I rolled into Indian Grave aid, I got some coffee, kalamata olives and grilled cheese from the stellar volunteers. Felt great to get some solid food, and coffee was just wonderful. I worried I was wasting too much time there, though, and was anxious to make the short stretch of road down to Habron, the big station where I would get a chance to change socks and out of any wet clothes, and to grab my second lamp for the long night ahead.
Along the road, I ran with John some more, and with Dan, whom I had met at a 50k a few months back. We pushed up the road into Habron, admiring the beauty of the green ridge ahead. I thought of the mountains at Zion, and spoke of them now. They had filled me with such a sense of awe, I worried I would never appreciate the eastern greenery the same way again. But it had its own beauty. Special. Unique.
At Habron, there was such a crowd of friends, I felt as if someone had thrown me a surprise party. Gary was there, grabbed my drop bag and quickly helped me out of my sopping, mud-crusted shoes and into some dry socks. My feet looked like prunes, but there were no blisters. I had slathered them with copious amounts of Waxelene, a Vaseline substitute made of beeswax, soybean and rosemary oil. It seemed to help keep them from absorbing too much water, and it keeps the blisters down. Dry socks, even in wet shoes, felt remarkably good. Gary was great at helping me remember every last detail–drop trash, pick up gels and light, grab a warm layer (which he advised to wait until I had finished the next climb before I put on), and then any food I wanted. My water was topped off, and I’d restocked gels and bolts. Still full from food at Indian Grave aid, I only drank a little soda. The coffee was working well, and I had several hours before nightfall. I was still making good time. Gary gave me a good push to send me on my way, and the crowd of friends cheered me on. It was here that I had such a feeling of complete and overwhelming love for everyone. I burst into song as I exited, giddy and silly, overcome with emotion and full of adrenaline and caffeine.
I should say here for the readers who do not know Gary, that he is 72, and has completed the MMT course 18 times. This year he was not running because a couple months out, he suffered a stroke. Gary being who he is, was making a lightning-fast and amazing recovery. He was even running again. And his presence at nearly every aid station lit a fire under me like nothing else. Having him take such good care of me at Habron, I reckoned, would easily see me though the night no matter what demons came.
* * *
I started the 2-mile climb to the ridge, and then into the night.
As I ran along the ridge, it grew dark, and I put on my extra layer and lamp when at last I couldn’t make out the trail without it. Then I made my way down the Stephens trail to Camp Roosevelt. Stretches were wet and there was a lot of loose rock. My left foot is recovering from a bout of capsulitis, and it was acting up now. I hoped it wouldn’t take me out of the race. Eventually it felt better. Everything can change in the course of a hundred.
Much of the last sections of this trail look the same, you curve to the left down into a gully, cross a stream and climb a small hill, and this scene repeats many times until you feel like you are running in circles and it becomes hard to tell how close you are to the aid. I find it a little maddening even in the daylight. Now in the inky blackness, there were deer about, and I became jumpy at every cracking stick off in the brush. Dan caught up with me here, and I was glad for some company. We ran together for a stretch in brief conversation and then silence, and then split. It went by more quickly than I had expected.
Soon I rolled into Camp Roo, and was feeling peckish. My friend Erik was there, and we talked briefly before we were interrupted by more volunteers proffering drop bag and food and such. Erik is an amazing runner, and he has even improved by leaps and bounds over the recent year or so. When I saw him there, he looked different: thinner, stronger. It was inspiring to see him. I thought then about the transformations running long and often on trails in the mountains brings about in the body and the mind. I flashed back to years ago, when I first started running ultras, to a race briefing for the Mountain Masochist 50-mile trail race. It had been so crowded, I had been forced to sit up in the front of the room with the elite runners. I was struck at how they simply looked different. Chiseled and a bit weathered, so that it was hard to tell their ages. There was a wildness about them; a far off look in their eyes that to me suggested they had become part of the mountain trails they ran. Maybe it was just my overactive imagination. Or maybe I was seeing them as they truly are. Erik it seemed to me then, could have easily joined these ranks. He should have been running MMT, not me.
I was feeling a little unfocused, and easily spun around. I took my drop bag and restocked again. Another volunteer got me some vegetable soup that tasted like the best thing I’d ever eaten. It would have been good soup in any setting and circumstances.
Grateful and renewed, I rolled out quickly. I tried to remember what the Gap Creek station looked like, but drew a blank. I knew I had the Gap Creek trail or what used to be called Duncan Hollow, to look forward to running (or wallowing through) on this section. The trail is a stream bed. It is always very wet, and took a lot longer for me to navigate than I felt it should have. There’s a short uphill, just less than a mile, that takes you out of the mire, then a slightly longer downhill into Gap Creek aid. It was so good to hit that hill and finally get out of the water.
When I saw the station, I remembered it. There were lights strung somewhere in the back that give it a carnival feel, and you must cross the actual creek to get there. I think I just splashed right through. Not sure I had a choice. My memory is a bit fuzzy here. I do remember next, my friend Ed helping me change socks and shoes. Ah, fresh shoes!!! Thank you, Ed, for your kindness, your warmth, your lightheartedness and your sheer presence.
It was taking me a long time to change, and Ed began talking about the upcoming presidential elections. He was just making conversation, I know, which was pleasant and helpful, but it felt a little weird to me in that setting, in that state of mind. I work for a political paper where there is election buzz 24/7. I felt so inundated with it in daily life. I remember commenting to Ed that whatever the outcome, at least it was only for four years. He went silent. I felt then that I had shut him down with this statement, and was sorry for it. But the sleepiness and the trail banshees had begun to nibble at my brain. What did four years mean to me? What did they mean to Ed? Time felt so arbitrary. I remembered briefly a rather long, beer-fueled conversation about boat motors I’d had with a guy in a bar back in my 20’s. He had been thrilled that I would talk with him at length about something that was so dear to him. I knew nothing about boat motors. But. Beer. Ha. I had been purely interested in briefly sharing in his love and fascination of the subject. With our combined enthusiasm, it had turned into an interesting conversation. Like then, I knew now that our subject didn’t matter much. Humans are complex in their forms of communication. Though we bantered lightly, there were more important things on our minds than elections. I should have kept the conversation rolling.
Later on the trail again, I thought more about Ed. He appeared to be doing well in his fight with pancreatic cancer. He was putting up one hell of an amazing battle. He looked good. He had been trail running all through his treatments. Earlier that month he’d even run a 50k. He had marked the Duncan Hollow stretch of the course earlier, and had been volunteering all day and now long into the wee hours. Ed, you are my hero. The strength of ultra runners cannot be overstated.
I felt like these brief aid station meetings with friends were tiny miracles, balm for my aching spirit and fortifications for the soul searching I had ahead. We were so many worlds away from boat motors and elections and other things of import in daily life. In a few short hours on the trail, life had been stripped away to the bare bones, and I got to see the shining truth buried within each of us; what I saw were hearts of gold. If you have lost your faith in humanity, run an ultra.
* * *
And then the journey continued and again there was only the trail, only the rocks, the water, the mud. The long, dark night. And I was growing tired.
Usually I am a strong night runner. I crack jokes a lot, especially when others get the crankies and the sleepies. But alone, I cast off the clown mask and let the baggage surface. It was at times cathartic, at times, unpleasant. But then, it had been my intention.
Inside my head, the night grew darker still. I am not quite sure what others experience as trail demons: maybe just hallucinations. I was having none of these yet. But irrational thoughts and powerful emotions were surfacing and plentiful. I was headed up the climb known as Jawbone onto Kerns Mountain. Oh, Kerns. As I climbed, the wind picked up, and I jumped and started at every unidentifiable noise. I grew a little annoyed with my own jumpiness. I thought of my family, at home asleep. My husband, who in my long and weary, young life has been the only one who has ever made me feel truly safe. My dog. She is a great trail companion and would be such good company right now. Although, she is even more afraid of the dark than I. She is a smart dog; smart and full of love. I longed for them both.
* * *
Oh, Kerns. I had seen it before in the dead of night as well as in the day. But I had never experienced it quite like this. Sleep deprivation can do strange things to the mind. Especially if you let it. I cursed those bloody, big rocks. I cursed the winding trail. I cursed the ceaseless wind. I cursed my lack of agility. I remembered the ridge buried in fog last year; my good friend and pacer, Diane helping me stay on the convoluting trail. Now, as then, I wasn’t cold. I wasn’t lost. Or at least not in the sense that I was still following the trail. Lost meant something else. My mind unraveled a bit more, and I started to lose my sense of self. I held onto memories as if they were the only thing that separated me from the dark, the rocks. I thought about my mortality. When and how would I go? I thought of my mother dying. A life cut short at fifty one. Fifty one. She had had a rare cancer; had no idea she was even sick. Had climbed mountains with that cancer inside of her without even knowing she had it–without knowing how alarmingly close she was coming to the end of her life. I cursed the self that had taken her presence for granted. I cursed the self that had dragged her up mountains unforgivingly. Cursed the self that had not valued her life, that had not valued my own life. Fifty one. Only five years from where I am now. What was five years from now for me? What did that mean? What is time? I heard again the sound of her death rattle. Her last breath. The sound of her voice. Songs she sang to me when I was but three years old. The sadness in her voice. Her talking me down from mental cliffs, trying desperately to convince me that life was worth living. Mountains we’d ascended together. And mountains we’d descended, in the dark and in the rain. At last, I forgave the self I had cursed, blessed it and let it go with the wind.
I thought about the lonely wind spirit my dad used to tell me stories of when I was little. It lived off bark and moss, he said, and swept you up with it and carried you away, seeking a cure for its loneliness. Its victims always died of starvation and exposure. It remained alone.
I let go then and emptied my head of thoughts and memories. I became the lonely wind spirit. I tripped and cursed aloud. The sound of my voice was strange. It felt like I had been on Kerns forever. How long must I relive these experiences? Feel these feelings? I had never arrived, and I would never leave. I was part of it. What was I? An abstraction? A feedback loop created by my brain? Right now, I was but a memory to others, and this, this thing that had become a part of Kerns. There was only this moment reenacted. And continuing. I was Kerns for all eternity.
But I made peace with it. And I followed the streamers placed so lovingly by many golden-hearted friends. Eventually, the trail spilled out onto the road, and I knew it was but a short downhill stretch to the Visitor’s Center aid station. I had run this stretch in the dark but a month and a half before on a training run. Wow, my state of mind had been so different, then. The streamers ended abruptly as I ran hard down the road. I second guessed my faulty memory, and doubled back. Not all of the training runs followed the race course exactly, I pondered. But when I got back to the turn, there was no where else to go. I’d lost about 20 minutes. Ah, well. Bonus miles, as they say.
I ran hard down the road into Visitor Center, feeling relieved to have escaped my little private Hell on Kerns. Now, it was as if it had never happened. I laughed and joked with the volunteers, restocked and drank more coffee, chatted with my friend John who had just finished the C&O 100. He had taken a break from ultras. Glad to hear he was back in action. He seemed happy. Nice to see everyone. Thoughts were now all on the climb up Bird Knob.
* * *
It was a steep and muddy climb up to the base of the Bird Knob climb. Ha. I slipped and slid and scrambled, until I got to a big rock, which looked a bit like the start of the Bird Knob climb, when I saw a runner wandering around looking for the trail. It turned out to be AJ. We had never met in person, but knew each other online and via others. For now, he was a stranger. He was sure the climb started near the big rock, and was looking for a trail around it. I had remembered such also, but I was sure it must not be the correct rock. I continued up the Orange-blazed trial, on the right. It had to be correct. There weren’t any visible streamers here, but there also weren’t any other choices. He followed. Then, I had to make a pit stop, and he moved ahead. Another runner joined us, and I let him move a head also, taking my time on the climb. I hadn’t expected to be climbing Bird Knob in the dark, but there were still several hours until dawn.
The climb was short, and afterward there is a short stretch of winding, flat trail along the big, shelf-like rocks to our right. You could see for miles from these rocks, and now I watched the distant fire stream of orange, sodium-vapor lights go by as I moved along in the dark.
The trail spilled out onto the ant road, named I’d guessed for the giant, car-sized ant mounds that flanked the moss-covered road. It is otherworldly in daylight or dark. Again, I had expected to cover this territory in daylight. I walked and ran off and on and watched for signs of the Bird Knob aid station I knew would come soon. I could make out the lights of a tower far in the distance. After what seemed like twice as long as it should have been, there was Bird Knob aid, smack in the middle of the road behind a gate. There was a small fire going off to the left, and I ran to it. A volunteer rushed over, making certain I didn’t fall in the fire. I was no where near that unsteady. He called me by name, either from my bib or from memory, and introduced himself as Larry. This was first we had actually met, but we knew each other. I soon had another cup of vegetable soup in me, and very glad for it, and was headed off down the road. There is a sharp left turn back onto trail from the road, and I was glad to have remembered this and confirmed with the volunteers, that that is what I should be watching for. It was well marked with many reflective streamers, but had I been barreling down the road and not looking for it, I could easily have missed it. Many runners did.
* * *
Here, I encountered a group of mountain whippoorwills playing along the road. Calling to each other, flying in twos, their eyes glowing like amber jewels in my headlamp light. They were so strange and beautiful. It felt then like we were all playing on the mountain in the night. I turned onto the trail to climb up to the ridge. I had it in my head that all the big climbs were done, and passed this along to the runners behind me. Maybe they were shorter climbs, but there were many yet to come. Ultra amnesia, I call it. Not unlike forgetting the pain of childbirth, we forget the rough sections, forget the pain. It’s a self-preservation tactic hardwired into our biology. Then, suddenly we were switchbacking down the hill (five switchbacks I remember) and dawn was coming on. I would like to have seen it from the other side of the ridge. But now, I had but a short stretch to Picnic aid. And that meant breakfast.
I crossed a couple of fairly deep (as in over the knee for my short body) streams before rolling into Picnic Area. I was getting cold, and didn’t care much for it. But I knew if I kept moving all would be well. At Picnic, there was a fire, but I avoided it, as I worried I would stay too long in an effort to try and get warm. Better to warm on the trail, I reasoned. I grabbed a couple of french toast sticks and a dollar pancake. (Last year there had been real french toast, alas. But hey, hot breakfast in the woods! I wasn’t complaining!) I saw Gary again, there with his son Keith, who was wrapped in a blanket. I said hello to them both. Keith is speedy, and I had assumed when I saw him there that he must have finished the course and come back. There were but sixteen miles from here to the finish. I did’t know it, but he had slept several hours and was there to run the last stretch with Quatro and Gary and Sophie. I would have loved to have joined them. I asked if the next section was very muddy, and he said, yes down by 211, probably puzzling at why I was asking if the section that is always muddy is still muddy, and not knowing that I had assumed he had just been through there.
Off I went again. I ran what I could of the next section, muddy indeed, almost lost a shoe, and ran into runner friends Sophie and Annie. They greeted me with, “Wow, you are doing great!” which lifted my spirits. They are amazing runners. It meant a lot coming from them. It was great to see so many familiar faces. I couldn’t remember what the next 16 miles held. My thoughts were too fuzzy. I knew there was a climb up a creek bed somewhere, and another climb up Jawbone, only you go back down the other side of the ridge rather than up again to Kerns. I was having trouble staying focused and trouble staying warm. It was sunny, but very windy, and I was wet. I put on my little windbreaker, a thin hat and gloves. Sleep deprived, all I could think about was how ridiculous I must look, and didn’t want to roll across the finish like this. Good grief. The course here is tough. There are some short but steep climbs that stretch your calves and leave you breathless. And that climb I had remembered up the now not-so-dry creek bed. Ugh. But I was smelling the barn, now. I knew this was some of the last mileage.
I had begun to hallucinate, and I noted how strange it was that I hadn’t experienced this during the night, but rather that it was occurring now in the daylight. They were all simple and benign: downed trees looked like suspension bridges, stumps looked like people.
The trail eventually spilled out onto the road, and I remembered running this section last year, headed into the Gap Creek aid station for the second time. I wasn’t feeling as spry this year. I ran from tree to tree, taking only short breaks when I had to. Zsuzsanna and Annie, I believe, rolled up in a 4×4, and they stopped to see how I fared. I told Zsuzsanna I was hallucinating, and feared I must have appeared a little pathetic. She said encouragingly that the aid station was not far ahead, and we all continued on, me plodding along, watching their white vehicle move down the road into the distance until it disappeared from view. I knew I was close. But I wasn’t feeling so hot. I would hate to have to drop at the last station, but now I contemplated it. I had given it a good go.
When I got to the station, I must have appeared a little unhinged. The volunteers brought me my drop bag, and I emptied the contents of my pack into it. I had been carrying a lot of discarded items, and now I realized just how much extra weight was in the pack. Trash, wet layers, hats and head lamps. I couldn’t get the drop bag closed, and a volunteer took over. I went over and got some food. Two quarters of a grilled turkey and cheese sandwich. My stomach balked, but the food helped. I was flagging, but the volunteers encouraged me. I had reached 96.8 miles. It was then that I recognized and took to heart the fact that hundred-milers are not usually only one hundred miles. I still had some seven miles to go, and part of that was climbing Jawbone. Could I do this? I could try.
I took my time picking my way back up Jawbone. The climb is mostly just long and steep in some places, but not technical. It warmed me, and my stomach settled. I took off my gloves and hat and jacket. My brain settled and sharpened. I began to remember the course from there; began calculating my finishing time, depending on how quickly I could cover the next five miles. If I were feeling better, I could run it hard, at least the section that was road. But the trail down from the ridge was mostly big rocks, and took a bit of time. I would fall a half hour short of my finish goal. I could deal with a half hour. I was just happy I was going to finish at that point. I smiled for the first time in a couple of hours. When I got to the road, I told myself to run it at a good steady pace, something I could keep up without breaks. I remembered there were six bridges, and I counted them down, running from bridge to bridge. I had not seen another runner for some time. I was entirely alone from the last aid station, alone but for one other runner on the section before that, and entirely alone on the section before. And I was still alone now. I pushed, only breaking to walk on the uphills, and when I saw the turn into the camp, my adrenaline returned. I pressed up the final hill, and turned onto the finishing trail, floored it and promptly tripped over a root, flying head first across the ground. Annie was there and saw me wipe out. “Please tell me this isn’t the first time you’ve fallen today?” I laughed. It had been the only fall I took on the entire course. Well, the only physical fall. I ran hard down over the hill, then, running on what felt like someone else’s legs. I passed a young guy with poles and congratulated him, continuing down to the stream, greeting people as I went and trucking along as fast as I could manage around the field and up to the finish.
My husband, Curt was there shouting to me, and I ran hard toward the sound of his voice, across the line, greeted Kevin, the RD, who was making sure each of the finishers was in good shape, and not about to pass out or worse, and then ran to Curt for a hug.
Here’s the thing everybody who runs hundreds knows, but that I had never before experienced so profoundly: no two hundred-mile races are ever the same. In fact, they differ so dramatically at times, it seems odd to call another running of the same course by the same name. Indeed, since most aren’t even exactly 100 miles, we probably shouldn’t even call them hundred-milers. Maybe we should call them personal trail experiences, and each choose our own name for our own experience. Since this had been a profound trail experience for me, I chose to call it my circular trail causality experience, my CTCE. Even after, I kept sinking deeper into that feeling of uniqueness of each life experience. I was here now and would never be again. No matter how many times I run the MMT trails or the MMT100, it is always a new experience. Always unique. We are never in the same place twice. And yet, when again on those trails, it feels as if I have never left; as if the mountains follow their own deep time and that part of what we experience there remains, and is somehow reenacted and continuing.