“If you never go, you never know.”
I repeated silently to myself with eyes still closed, my knit hat covering my eyelashes, hood cinched tightly around my face with cheeks brushing up against the soft, yet dew-covered down of my sleeping bag.
“You can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.”
I shoved my gloved hands further into my armpits and pulled my knees in close to my chest so that my chilly ankles and toes could enjoy the warm imprint left by my body in the bag. I wiggled my toes – still there. I nudged my hat off of my eyes with the corner of the sleeping bag and cracked my eyelids to let in just a slice of the grey morning that was beginning to develop into brilliant blues and oranges outside my tent and thought about just how cold it would be to take off the two pairs of socks I was presently wearing, only to slip into shorts and running socks. The zipping and un-zipping of tent flies creating a chorus as morning creeped in, and I begged for one more minute, oh please. Just one more minute.
If I could convince myself to climb out of that sleeping bag as the sun was rising over the mountains just three more times, I would purchase my lottery ticket and throw my name into the hat to accomplish arguably the hardest challenge I’ve ever faced.
As the sun came up that morning, and I wished for just one more minute of sleep, we’d run just three of the six stages that comprise this race across the Colorado Rockies; only 59 miles of 120 we’d complete before the finish line. Our camp, tucked into the valley between Leadville and Vail had experienced near freezing temperatures that night, despite an overall wealth of good weather thus far. As we made way up and over Vail Mountain, down into Avon, and up into Beaver Creek over the next three days, we could look forward to more sunny skies and relatively cool temperatures. Of the 350 experienced trail runners rustling in our sleeping bags, I’d estimated that 50% already had paid numerous visits to the medical tent for obligatory repairs of mutilated feet. Likely 30% had endured a nasty bout with some bad beef the night before. Still others were managing altitude sickness, or nursing pre-existing injuries, and one girl was just required to leave the race for she had contracted e-coli somewhere along the way. It was clear that the trail was not the largest obstacle we faced – it was the inevitable toll that 6-days of intense physical and emotional stress has on a being.
It was this inevitable tollthat had drawn me here, and raised the most questions for me as I sat in front of my computer in Berkeley several months ago, and clicked the registration button to enter the race. I knew that if racing Ironman in brutal conditions had taught me something about digging deep, being dynamic and racing strong on a long race course, I had that in my favor. I had a good bit of experience with endurance + ultra trail racing under my belt as well, especially after last summers’ Bridger Ridge Run in Montana, and I knew that could lay down big miles, climb + descend big mountains, and grind through shaking legs + the discomfort of thin air with little oxygen.
In the end, on that chilly morning before Stage 4, I bought that lottery ticket; I reminded myself of these experiences (which gave me some comfort,) wriggled out of several layers of clothing and into my running shorts and t-shirt, and then out of my sleeping bag. As I did each morning, (and in the brief moment between slipping out of the sleeping bag and into a pair of sweatpants I’d kept warming inside the bag overnight,) I took a quick inventory of my legs and feet; my feet were still attached to my legs at this point, my legs still strong and maybe even appearing stronger each day.
The tale this inventory couldn’t tell was what damage running nearly a marathon at altitude each day for a week would do to my body and brain, and whether or not I could endure inevitable discomfort and the mental unknown for the duration. In my worst dreams, I would find myself incapacitated out there on the trail, physically unable to continue at the hand of a tree root, boulder field, or worse yet, exposure an impending dehydration. But for some reason, these nightmares scared me less than walking the chalkline of physical limits and learning that my mind just wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be. I would break, and that would be it.
No matter what the course held, I told myself that Stage 1 would not be the line my mind drew in the sand, but that didn’t mean that my body would cooperate. Standing in the starting corral – in the heart of Buena Vista amidst the dusty sandstone cliffs of the high desert, and swarmed with the off-beat, hippie-ish crew that is the heart and soul of the ultrarunning community, I couldn’t help but notice the old-father-time beards, tie-dyed gaiters, neon-pink calf compression sleeves, and up-beat attitudes of my compatriots. Our crew lurched forward as AC/DC’s Highway to Hell blared from the sound system and we spit up dust in our tracks that would build a cloud extending the next 20 miles we’d cover .
Up and out of town, into the desolate hills beyond, subject to the cool-but-cloudless exposure of the terrain that made me feel as if I was literally running through the movie set of a Western. Somewhere within those 2550ft of elevation we climbed, my stomach twisted and prevented me from eating much, keeping my hydration to a minimum. By the time the hills spit us out onto the 4-mile false flat to the finish line, I was walking, brain melting, and discouraged. I still finished around high noon, allowing for plenty of time for me to set up my tent in our Vicksburg camp, calm my stomach, attempt to refuel, take a nap, and prepare myself for the next day before attempting to re-fuel again at dinner. Typically, I am dreaming of what I would eat at the finish line of a long run long before the run is over. Here, as I navigated the smorgasbord laid out before me, watching my fellow runners gobble up plates of pasta, grilled chicken, kale salad, peanut butter cookies and mashed potatoes, I couldn’t taste a thing and, instead, went to bed early – as the sun was setting – cold, tearful, and feeling sorry for myself. What on earth had I gotten into?
I was awakened the following morning the slamming of the port-a-potty doors in the near-distance woke me through my ear plugs. Somehow, sleep had wrestled my demons and I had a renewed excitement for the day. During Stage 2 we would crest a breathless Hope Pass (of Leadville 100 fame) at 12,536ft before descending through the forest in leaps and bounds over tree roots, logs, over a pine needle carpet rolled out next to a glacial stream all the way to Twin Lakes. I had told myself that – unlike in so many other marathons I had completed – walking didn’t mean I had failed. Instead (and strangely,) continuing to move at all out here on this course meant that I was SUCCEEDING. And so succeed I did; I found my quads, ankles and lungs to be exceptionally well prepared on this type of course; I climbed like a steadily and descended nimbly – where support and supplies had been transported literally by llamas and pack mules (for there was no 4×4 access) and completed the 13-mile course with the best of the runners, feeling as if I was on top of the world. If I could just keep this feeling going, the rest of this race wouldn’t be a walk in the most beautiful park I could imagine. That night, I bundled up renewed, still not hungry, but happy.
All good things must come to an end in the world of ultramarathoning, and so too did that renewed feeling I held in my legs as we ran out of Leadville headed for Camp Hale the next morning at the start of Stage 3. The night had proven to be shivery and rather sleepless, (not the type of night one wants before running 24 miles and change) and as my feet began to churn through the start gates (again to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell – have mercy) my mind told my body to take everything in stride. The truth was that watching others run these first miles was the only encouragement I had to run myself. If I could call this ‘running,’ that is, for by this third day in trail running shoes I felt like I was shuffling much more than I was striding. Scott Jurek wrote in his most recent “Eat + Run” that ultra-runners shuffle not because they are too exhausted to push off the ground, but that they are too sore to land on it. And, now I know he is right.
As we rolled out, there was a bubbling of excitement from the field; todays course would be more rolling with lower peaks, and plenty of single-track along the Colorado Trail. This sounded nice enough, but the hard-walking, churning-stomach, disgruntled-spirit truth was that I was knackered and all this even keel terrain meant RUNNING, not hiking or allowing gravity to pull me down a mountain. Altitude was still robbing me of my appetite and the fuel necessary to keep my brain from perma-bonk. It wasn’t until the end of this Hump Day that the light at the end of the tunnel would be apparent and it was also the longest of them all. This stage was my darkest; regrettably, even in the most beautiful moments along that most memorable single-track trail, I found myself feeling un-prepared and weak. And it wasn’t my body, it was my spirit. That moment I knew was coming had arrived — my body felt like it was breaking and my mind was convinced I was beaten.
I crossed the finish line that afternoon thankful, relieved, doubtful and in tears. I had run for three days very long days – over some of the most challenging terrain I’d ever experienced – and couldn’t help the voice in my head from saying “isn’t that enough?” I had entered this race because I wanted to prove to myself that I was tough, and now I knew that I was. The happy-go-lucky, lightweight, saintly me sat on one shoulder and served as a reminder that enough was enough. But masochistic, tattooed, depths-of-being me sat on the other and reminded me that the fact that I had FINALLY arrived in that darkest mental place meant that I was finally experiencing this type of challenge in earnest. As I sat hunched over a sandwich at a local cafe, tears soggy-ing my bread, at last successfully getting some desperately needed calories in, I realized that my body was fine and even recovering faster and faster from the days runs as I progressed towards the finish line. This was enough of a reason for me to always wonder “what if,” if I allowed myself to quit now.
Sometimes, you just DO things. And I was just going to do this.
Returning to camp, I packed my shoes that night telling myself if I could only get through the next days’ stage I’d be in the clear and could complete the last two days step-by-step if I needed to. Having pushed my brain out of the way, really anything was possible. I just needed to keep my body healthy so that I could play out those wildest dreams.
Which brings us back to me taking inventory of my legs in my tent before leaving its warmth and shuffling my way to the breakfast table. Still wearing gloves, I served myself a little bowl of oatmeal, sliced up a banana, and plopped two heaping tablespoons of peanut butter in, then added salt. One of my favorite combinations – bananas and peanut butter – still tasted like nothing special but it was calories that my body desperately needed and so I scooped them into my mouth and washed them down with some coffee before heading to stretch, and then to the starting line. Unlike other previous mornings, I found myself no longer wrestling with the details of the day or struggling with the task at hand. I was unable to lie and tell myself that each step was a wonderful revelation, nor could I deny the pricelessness of this experience. On this morning, as I toed that line at Camp Hale and shot off and into the mountains beyond, I realized it wasn’t the proof of grit, nor the arrival at a point of mental break-down that I had been seeking. I had been longing to become comfortable with the uncomfortable, and wanted the clarity to continue through it. And with each step over the next days, I got just that.
The 14 miles of Stage 4 flew by in a flash – up gut-wrenching climbs, over open valleys and granite skree fields, through glacial river crossings, and down into tiny Red Cliff. I finished strong and beaming.
The longest, hardest hauls came next – Stages 5 + 6 from Red Cliff to Vail, then Vail to Beaver Creek. These big mountain stages were not pieces of cake (that I still didn’t really feel like eating); at 23.6 and 21.1 miles respectively, with nearly 10,000ft of elevation gain cumulatively, but they had by far the greatest rewards intertwined. Again, I found myself unconcerned with uncertainty of the climbs, the danger of the descents, the loneliness of the forest, the drill of the days in camp, or the exhaustion of the mind. Instead, I could hardly believe the fields of wildflowers that I seemed to spend all day running in, often alone – as if the blooms had been sprinkled over the mountains just for me to enjoy. I recall the sweeping views that were my reward for each heart pumping climb, and the choreography of my feet leaping through the aspen trees as I made my way down Vail Mountain. I couldn’t help but throw my arms open as I ran through open alpine fields, as if to hug the world – a knee jerk pose that can only indicate the realization that the moment was so much larger than myself. The satisfaction and disbelief associated with each step that I continued to make forward, and the sub-7:00 minute mile that my feet laid down in those last 10 miles towards the final finish line in Beaver Creek, . and, the audible, deep bellow of success that I released as ran those last steps. And, of course, my shock that I had the ability to walk – not be scraped off the sidewalk – as I made my way out of the finish gates and into whatever life held for me now that the challenge had ended.
Waking up the morning after the conclusion of the race, I couldn’t help but feel like I should be more exhausted, more hungry, more as if I was crawling from out of a 6-foot deep hole in the ground than I was. As with other races, shouldn’t I already chomping at the bit to do better, race faster, start the process of doing it all over again? But that calling wasn’t there and, in its place, an ultimate satisfaction remains.
As yet, I cannot think of what the Next Big Thing should be and instead am happy to ride this contentment as long as it lasts. I see now that the wide open arena of nature provides a challenge that inspires, humbles and energizes me in a way that no competition with another living being can. I don’t know what this means, but I’m excited to find out in time. Meanwhile, I have come to realize a few things that might be worth sharing.
Pain is a blessing. In this human life, pain and challenge are inevitable, but welcoming pain is not. But since some pains are more significant than others, it seems vital for us to teach ourselves the difference – a lesson we will be unable to learn until we embrace all pain as a blessing. An opportunity for growth, an the chance to become stronger versions of ourselves. Selves with tougher skins better prepared for the deep seas of the human experience. If we never go, we never know what we are capable of enduring. And only by learning what we are capable of enduring can we attempt more than we ever imagined.
Choosing to move -in any direction- is the first achievement of success. Choosing to move, and not to stay still. Embracing that the present is a moment, and not a stationary place. Talking about a destination is one thing – we all possess the ability to arrive wherever we set our sights. But we’ll never arrive at that destination if we don’t first start navigating the journey.
Thanks for reading, and enjoying, and sending all of your amazing positive words, virtual high fives, and cheers along the way. Knowing that I had a little cheering section all over the world made me feel as if this challenge was larger than myself, and maybe even to prove that any little engine that could can do things they never thought possible, if they just GO. And to all of you fellow athletes + new friends who “just WENT” with me out there, it was a true pleasure to meet + run with you. Until next time, eh?! 🙂
Three of the above photographs (those most vibrant) were taken by Ravens Eye Photography. You can view all of the shots of the race here. A few of you out there are likely hearty and curious enough to give the TransRockies Run a go — I highly recommend it! You can learn more, here. Have fun out there!