101 hours, 22 minutes, and 57 seconds. 240 miles of forward motion.
When asked what it felt like, my only answer is “Everything”. It felt like everything jammed into 4 days. All the joy and all the misery you can imagine. All the beauty, laughter, exhaustion and awe. All my strength and all my overwhelming weakness. All the incredible highs and all the crushing lows had me curled in the fetal position on sharp desert rocks. And the views. Oh, the views. It was everything.
Everything in 101 hours, 22 minutes and 57 seconds.
Time expands and contracts out there, sometimes crawling as slowly as my painful shuffle and other times flying by as quickly as the moonrise over the dessert.
The timer started at 6 am on Friday morning. 250 of us, standing at the start line, reciting the “Destination Trail Pledge” that states “If I get hurt, lost or die out there. It is my Own, Damn, Fault.” A volunteer zip-ties the spot tracker on the shoulder of my pack, as if they are locking down the restraining device on a rollercoaster to say, “Hold on for the ride of your life.”
I smile at the woman beside me. Her name is Lucy from California, and she too is nervous, even though she has done an impressive number of 200+ mile races before. She tells me it is incredible, and totally worth it. I hope she is right.
I wave bye to Kirk in the darkness, and we are off, weaving through the town of Moab before heading up the mesa that towers over the sleeping town. I enjoy those early hours, the ‘free miles’, passing them with easy chatter with a woman named Linda from Toronto, who did her PhD in Edmonton. We know several of the same local runners and toss around stories of our run community back home. The sun rises and we come to the first aid station where I lose Linda, don’t see her again until after the race where we met on Facebook. This becomes my story. Connect with others, the lose them just as quickly, weaving our journeys at our own pace.
I share some miles with a young guy, who tells me he plans to finish in 48 hours as the youngest racer to complete the race. It is his first ultra race, and he is confident he can maintain the pace needed to blow the course record away. He asks if I have any advice. I tell him, “Stay humble. Stay curious. I wish you all the best”. I think I see him several hours later sleeping on the trail, and I’m sad to see he is listed as DNF. This distance has a way of keeping you humble, no matter your age.
At about 27 km I get to see my crew for the first, and last time on day one. I can’t find Kirk and Nolan in the chaos, but instead focus on what I can do until they get there. I debate continuing without seeing them, but thankfully, Nolan comes running across the parking lot, my recovery drink in hand. He grabs my pack, frantically apologizing for being late, citing a glitching spot tracker and heavy traffic. I tell him its ok, this is a long game, not a Nascar pit stop.
The day heats up on the next stretch to Basecamp. My phone fills with excited selfies of me and another cool rock, but each time I’m disappointed that the photos don’t do it justice.
So I settle in to enjoy it anyway, taking it slow and loving that the miles still feel easy. The last thing I want is to get heat stroke on the first day, and my strategy to stay covered, (with my super dorky desert hat and beautiful arm sleeves) seem to do the trick as I never once felt the sun-baked raw skin I feared.
Basecamp aid station fills with runners sprawled out in small patches of shade, many of them nauseous from the heat. I stop briefly to admire the giant tortoise that lives there, watching as he moves slowly through the sand, impervious to the heat. He too knows the secret to surviving the desert; go slow, pace yourself.
I pass some miles with two Wall Street executives, who tell me that many of their colleagues are also drawn to extreme sports. I love collecting these tidbits of information from each racer I pair with. Peter’s wife taxidermized a racoon, Sean makes the concrete forms that surround a casket in the ground, Jared has two cats that are 18lbs and look like leopards. You need to run on John Park’s right-side cause he can’t hear from his other ear thanks to years at the gun range and John Duncan Clark got his middle name because his mom loves Dunkin Donuts. Nikki once slept behind a Dollarama while doing a 350 mile ultra by Lazarus Lake and Dexi is running in memory of her dad; she got her adventurous side from him. “He would love this” she tells me, and a lump forms in my throat. Even though we are a rare breed of ultra-runners, we are all painfully normal humans, just out for a run in the desert.
A medic waits at the bottom of the Jackson’s Ladder Descent as we carefully pick our way down the mesa wall to the bottom of the canyon, and I realize I am slightly off course. I make a self-deprecating joke to a man nearby wearing bright shorts with rubber duckies on them, it’s John Dunkin Donuts Clark, and we will end up spending several more hours together after the sun sets, but for now, I put in time alone, appreciating the dropping temperature and drinking in all the desert views.
When I pause to help a runner that has run out of water, I match up with John again and we stay together through the Oasis aid station and onto Indian Creek, about seven hours to end the first day.
We don’t pause long at the Oasis before I pull John away from the snack table and back into the night. There was something about the way he sprinkles the conversation with ‘dear’ and easy laughter that made the night pass effortlessly, and before I know it, we are at Indian Creek where John was a true gentleman and let me use the tent with the toilet bucket first. Classy right? Unfortunately, this is where I lose him as my excited crew pulls me to the truck to regroup before the next section. We peel off my socks to examine the toll the glass-sharp sand had taken on my feet. To my dismay there are several blisters already formed and I know this will be my nemesis for the rest of the race. I have never struggled with blisters before, so this is uncharted territory. I entrust Nolan to clean, dry and tape them up and then sleep for an hour and a half. Kirk wakes me with his bright headlamp, telling me it is time to go. I’m completely disoriented but remembered the mantra I’ve rehearsed for this moment.
Nolan’s fresh energy is contagious as we leave Indian Creek, and we spend the first few miles getting caught up on what had transpired so far. As the sun rises, the trail has us weaving through the Canyonlands, past chimney stack rocks and through washed out valleys with difficult to follow paths. I am thankful for Nolan’s GPX on his watch keeping us on the right path and we rescue several other runners that have missed turns. No one needs bonus miles out here.
By mid-morning, we make it to the Island aid station where I down a huge plate of bacon, eggs and hashbrowns while a young volunteer medic named Conner fixes up my feet. He and his sweet dog, Pepper are from Wyoming, and he tells me it is his birthday. I ask what makes him want to spend his birthday fixing up people’s disgusting feet. He smiles, and just says he loves it. Pepper sticks close for snuggles, hoping for some dropped bacon even though his dad says it’s not allowed. I beg for Pepper to join me to Bridger Jack, and Conner just laughs. He doubts my sincerity.
Leaving the Island, we begin the long, slow ascent to Bridger Jack along a narrowing canyon wall that ends with a stunning view to appreciate how far you’ve come. The day was scorching, so we keep it slow and steady, taking in lots of salt tabs and water to stay ahead of dehydration. It’s common to pass other runners laying in small bits of shade under a rock, trying to find reprieve from the heat. Some look in rough shape, so we always check in; getting weak smiles and waves in reply, dismissing our offers to help. This is just part of the journey, and the strange human that willingly signs up for this seems to embrace the suffering without complaint.
Bridger Jack aid station means we have hit the 100-mile mark and were about to begin a very challenging section of the course heading up to Shay Mountain. (For my Alberta friends, picture running Sin 7 and THEN starting Leg 6). I make sure to take my time with this re-group, eating two burgers, re-examining my feet and enjoying the giggles of a little girl volunteering with her dad. It’s getting harder to re-energize with each new start, but I rally with a smile and pull myself out of the chair yet again.
Mercifully, the sun was losing its power and we begin a descent into a lush valley with technical winding trails and all new terrain yet again. Moab is full of surprises. Of course, to add further challenge to my day, my nose starts to bleed, dripping down my hands and mixing with the orange dust on the road, making it difficult to breath for the rest of the race as my nose fills with dried, dusty blood.
A long, wash out section with next to no flagging and lots of creek hopping has us both frustrated at how our progress had slowed. Nolan paused for a pee break and takes a wrong turn, leaving me on my own for about 45 mins as the trail grows dark. I trust he will find me again, and indeed he does, apologizing profusely. Thank god I don’t have to go into the night alone.
Knowing that the ascent up Shay Mountain is brutal helps me steel for the climb ahead. Thanks to encouragement from Nolan, I dig deep and power up the long and technical trail. I turn on my playlist, but to my dismay realize that only a few songs out of 12 hours of music have downloaded, leaving only a handful of songs on repeat. Oasis, over and over in my head:
“All the roads we have to walk are winding”.
Exhausted, I sit down to eat a handful of candy and my whole-body screams ‘Lie down’. Nolan scrambles to find a softer place, maybe pull out my bivy sack. But I told him no. “Right here. Right now. Just like this. Wake me in ten.”
“There are many things that I would like to say to you, but I don’t know how…Afterall, you’re my Wonderwall” My body rests but my brain does not.
The break is enough to renew my push up the trail to the summit. The cruel and unusual reward of climbing a mountain at night is you never know what you should be seeing. All I knew was the trail took a downward turn and the hardest part of the night is over.
There comes a time in an ultra where you have the choice to hold your emotions in or keep moving forward. You can’t have both. So, as we crested the top of the mountain I start to cry. I choose forward motion over suppressed emotions. Nolan is at a loss, checking that they were happy tears “Yes, of course” and gives me a quick hug.
My brain struggles to fill in the complicated gaps in sensory input I am unable to process. Hallucinations creep in to confuse me; a rock morphs into a chicken, a stump becomes a teapot, people and creatures jeering at me from the trees, shifting position as I pass. Even though I keep reminding myself it isn’t real, I still have to ask Nolan a few times for confirmation, each time his answer a patient “It’s just a rock”.
I had been warned the descent off Shay was followed by another relentless gravel road climb up to the aid station that was more than a little heartbreaking, and indeed it was. So, when I reach the aid station, after nearly 20 hours on the trail with Nolan, I cry again as Kirk, Tania and Denise meet me, the girls in cute onesies after volunteering for hours already that night. I wasn’t the only one who was bleary eyed and exhausted.
I had been told the race started and ended at Shay. If you could get there, you would finish, but your position meant nothing until you got there. I congratulated myself on making it halfway, resisting the nagging thoughts that I was already 11 miles past my previous furthest distance, and I was still only half way. While I slept for a few hours, warm in the truck, Kirk sat outside in temperatures below zero and shivered so I could get some rest; sacrificing his own comfort for my race. He was nearly hypothermic as he helped me and Denise (my next pacer) get ready to go. Nolan long ago showered and back at our cabin in Moab, fast asleep.
I had already hallucinated, bled, roasted, froze, climbed, descended and surpassed my furthest previous distance, all on blistered, bandaged feet.
Zero thoughts of quitting.
I just had to put everything I had already done behind me, start fresh and do it all over again.
And fast. The clock keeps on ticking.
Read the rest of the story here.