I pull myself out of my warm sleeping bag in the back of our truck and say goodbye to Kirk in the freezing night air. Here we go again. Keep starting.
Denise was the perfect pacer for the next 50km section after the difficult push to Shay Mountain. We giggle our way down a windy rocky trail while the sun rises over the desert below.
Our humour matches the absurdity of the trail finds along the way; a head of lettuce, a smiling tarmac bunny, a foot.
As the day heats up, we pass a kid sitting in the small patch of shade under a scraggly tree in the middle of nowhere. He announces that there is a joke sale happening today and wonders if we are interested in a joke. We enthusiastically agree, nervous that we have not brought any money for such a timely sale. He points down the trail and says his sister will provide us with the joke; he is just the salesman. A girl, about 8 years old, in a chair near an equally scraggly tree with a sign that reads “Joke Sale” and another one she flips over to say “Go Girl!”. She again, asks if we would like a joke. The suspense is killing us. Deadpan, she delivers.
“What happens when you go running behind a car?
You get, EXHAUSTED.”
We die laughing. She remains deadpan. Her mother waves from a trailer 20 meters away, a knowing smile on her face.
We make good time on the flat gravel road to Dry Valley and again, beat our crew there by a few minutes. But there was no way I am leaving before they get here, I have been looking forward to this moment for days. My parents and kids had come to Moab the day before and were spending their time exploring, playing in the pool and waiting to see me. I had a deal with my mom that no matter what she saw, she was not allowed to ‘mom’ me and tell me to stop. She doesn’t. She brings her usual unconditional love and beaming smile. They are as excited as I am to reunite, and their hugs bring renewed energy. Katie tells me that my dorky desert hat is actually a trend and she knows lots of kids that wear something similar. Wait, what?!
I check in with a few friends, John the cop and Lucy from the start line, and hug my family goodbye before Denise and I continue down the hot gravel road again. I realize I forgot to thank Kirk and regret it for many hours. I can see he is stressed over crewing responsibilities, and I suspect he has slept less then I have so far. Taking care of someone running is as exhausting as running. I know this from experience, and I don’t take him for granted, but I know I didn’t show my gratitude well at this last busy stop.
Our laughter continues, helping mask the pain in my swollen feet as the road turns from gravel to pavement, the day growing hotter by the minute. Thunder crashes in the distance with a storm cloud over the La Sal mountains, but no reprieve comes our way. As we come within view of the Needles Aid Station many hours later and I pick up my speed to a quick run, amazed at how good it actually feels to shift out of the usual shuffle. We come up behind a fellow runner named Elliot, whom we had been playing leapfrog with for hours. I playfully yell that it’s a race, and he clearly understands the assignment, picking up his pace to sprint the last several meters into the aid station, all of us in full laughter, high fiving and jostling to get to check in first.
Nolan and Tania wait for me at the Needles Aid Station where they have volunteered for several hours, both to help out and to get another chance to see me and trade off pacers. Tania gets ready to join me for the next 50-mile section and it is time to say goodbye to Denise. Love her.
The Needles isn’t considered a sleep station, but they have a few cots in the medical tent so I hobble over to get my swollen feet up in the air. Someone brings me a burger, my meal of choice, and I start to shiver, even though the day is roasting. Tania helps cover me with some blankets. The lovely Conner and Pepper from the Island appear. I joke that he looks older and wiser then from the last time I saw him, and he just smiles and offers to check my feet. Pepper hops on the cot with me and Nolan comes to check my pulse to make sure my vitals are still ok despite my uncontrollable shivering. My eyes grow heavy and his face becomes blurry. I feel the burger slips out of my hand and Pepper jump down to follow it. Connor quietly announces he is done tending to my feet, his kindness as comforting as the blanket I am wrapped in.
But this is not a sleep station and there are only two cots that are reserved for runners needing medical attention. I can sense another runner hovering, waiting for a cot. I forced my eyes open and throw off the blanket, mumbling that I was just leaving; they could lie down. Keep starting.
I was off with Tania, each new start slower than the last as my right Achilles seems to tighten up ever since the ascent up Shay. But we are so excited to finally get some time to catch up; conversation comes easily as usual. I apologize she wouldn’t be getting much running, that most of my movement is as fast a march I can muster, with only a few bursts of running here and there. My energy begins to fade about halfway through the section to Road 46 even though it is not a difficult stretch. The sun starts to set on my third day out there. She opens her phone and shows me a hilarious video some friends back home had sent. I start to cry. Partly tears of joy at their support, but also because I feel so overwhelmed. Here we were, extremely remote and alone. And yet hundreds of people who are watching my location knew exactly where I am. I worry they will wonder what is taking me so long, or why I am not moving faster.
“All the lights that light the way are blinding” Ah, that British angst still propelling me forward.
I wish others can see what I am seeing. The way the full moon rises so quickly, or the way each strange red rock is surprisingly unique. I want to share this beauty with everyone that bothers to check my spot tracker location. And yet, I wouldn’t wish the pain in my feet on anyone. That is mine alone. You only get this after putting in the time.
Road 46 Aid Station has a Canadian theme, including Thanksgiving dinner fixings to celebrate the holiday I am missing back home. We beat our crew again by a few minutes, thanks to a quickened pace at the end, so I grab soup and sit down around the fire with other racers. The circle is quiet; tired runners with tired smiles, sharing stories and offering kindness. We hear the truck pull into the parking lot, so I take my soup, wish them well, and hobble to my crew. Another nap, this time a solid 90 minutes, and I wake up starving. Kirk hands me coffee and a big bowl of oatmeal with a smile and says “Good morning”.
I’m happy him and Nolan will get to go back to the cabin for a full nights sleep as I know Kirk is exhausted and I hug him extra long, thanking him and apologizing for not showing my gratitude at Dry Valley. Tania and I head off into the dark, cold night again for the hardest section of the race. It will be nearly 20 hours before I see them again.
The night brings the long slow ascent to Pole Canyon as we head to the La Sal mountains. I assume the view is beautiful in daylight, but all we get are stars and a full moon. The temperature drops dramatically as the elevation increases and we scramble to put on every bit of clothing we have packed with us. I worry it is not enough.
We pass the time by playing ridiculous counting and alphabet games to keep my mind sharp against the effects of sleep deprivation. “I’m going on a trip and taking Asphalt, a Baby, some Cutlery and Doritos” building on each topic until each repetition eats up several minutes of concentration. We switch to telling stories of first loves and high school sweethearts; the ones that got away. How strange to hear those long-forgotten names float through the desert air. We get passed. Again. This time by Wilco from Halifax. We chat briefly and our pacers gain ground, the difference in our energies noticeable. He wishes me well and catches up with his pacer and I hit a new low. Cold, exhausted and near tears, I tell Tania I need a rest. We pull out my bivy sac and I crawl in, oblivious to the cold rocks below me. Tania slips me a Tylenol and a caffeine pill, sets a timer for 15 mins and I disappear. She is frozen. I can’t imagine the agony she endures while watching the clock, wanting to give me rest but also wanting to move to stay warm. She wakes me and we are both shivering. I stand and wrap the bivy around my shoulders like a shawl. we keep marching. The gradual ascent continue.
The sky begins to lighten and we notice a significant change in the environment. Colourful deciduous trees replace cactus and desert shrubs. Welcome to the La Sal mountains.
Our timing could not have been more perfect as we hit the east side of the south mountains just as the sun peaks over the horizon at Pole Canyon Aid Station, lighting the sky and allowing us to see a mama deer and her two babies guarding the entrance to the tent.
I collapse on the medical cot and a kind volunteer hands me a breakfast sandwich I manage to stuff into my face before falling asleep for a half hour. I wake up to find Tania sitting around the fire, my pack ready to go. She hands me a coffee and invites me to sit to chat with Seana and her dog Daphne. We’ve met at an earlier busy aid station, but now we are the only runners here and her full attention is on us. She asks me my ‘why’ and I start to cry, telling her about those I’ve lost and how one day, two years ago I nearly lost my own life. She then asks me why I’m still sitting there instead of going to see my incredible crew and family. Good point. Bye Daphne. Thanks Seana.
Its daylight now and I’m refueled and ready to go to Geyser Pass, the hardest section of the entire course. Massive aspens, golden leaves, and an unforgiving rocky trail for hours and hours on end. We continue telling stories about people we know with alphabet prompts. L for Lehman, N for Nikki. S for Scott. Our pace is agonizingly slow despite my best efforts. Hours pass without seeing another soul and the race starts to feel surreal. Were we even on course anymore?
Tania tells me later it may be the hardest thing she has ever done. So slow. So beautiful. We crested at over 10 000+ ft (3200m). And were rewarded with views of the whole course. Arches, Canyonlands, Shay in the distance and it’s hard to believe how far I have come. Even harder to believe how far I still have to go. We get cell reception and a text comes to Tania from our friend Thomas so she calls him. He gets me laughing and I offer him my own joke sale for the day. Totally nailed it.
I ask him to ask how far I have gone and he obliges. Both of us are incredulous at the answer. But then it hits me. I have nearly 100km still to go.
The narrow and overgrown trail makes using poles impossible but not using poles feels even more impossible. I sit down on a log and burst into a deep heartsob. Tania gives me a snack, and lays me down on the side of the trail for another 15 minute reprieve.
It helps. Just. Keep. Starting. We get passed, again and again. Sometimes by people I assumed were way ahead of me. Sometimes by people I’ve never seen before. I give up caring about my finishing time. We didn’t account for this. No one could prepare for how the trail, the elevation and the distance would impact my pace.
The relentless trail finally spits us out onto a gravel road. A guy named Jared hits the road the same time we do. I will get to know him well soon enough, but for now, he pushes past me, says it’s a half mile to the aid station and time to move. He is wrong. It’s nearly two miles, and a steep climb up the road, but I find a new gear and push with renewed strength. Grateful for easy footing and steady climb. Tania drops back, frustrated and exhausted. I’m sorry.
I don’t know where this burst came from but I’m going with it. I just want to see Kirk. The truck drives by, cheering. My throat closes with emotion but I’m still breathing hard so it comes out in wheezes. Kirk runs back to walk me in the last few hundred meters and I can hardly talk, can only pet the dog that has come to say hi. I check in, thankful for a proper outhouse and another burger. Tania emerges from the bathroom and we share a long hug. That was hard, but that’s nothing compared to the journeys we have shared before. I couldn’t have done it without her.
I lay down for another 45 minutes but I don’t sleep. I can hear my crew outside the truck, it’s too light out, and I’m too jacked up from hitting 200 miles. I channel my frustration into checking out of the aid station and marching down the road to take on the next section with Nolan again as my next pacer as the sun sets on day 4. I hope Tania can get some rest after our long journey; I feel we have a lot to process to figure out what happened out there. But for now, Nolan and I hit some single track and I’m surprised at how good the climbs feel. We pass the glowing eyes of cows and deer, watching us from just off the trail and I am thankful that big predators are rare here. “Hi Cows”.
The trail ends onto a gravel road descent where I maintain good energy and even manage to run a fair bit (although I’m sure Nolan might feel differently about my definition of ‘run’ at that point!). I am happy with my progress, the stars and the views of the La Sals behind us. The end feels in sight.
Ahead I see a cluster of headlamps on the side of the road. I’ve seen this scene before when I have come up to a runner out of water, fixing their feet or pausing for a break while other runners stop to offer help or share comfort. This is the 200-miler attitude.
But this scene is different. Packs are ripped apart and the contents on the ground. The runner Jared, from Geyser Pass, and his pacer sound urgent, and they tell us “This is serious. Breathing emergency” Nolan jumps in “I’m a paramedic” and I’ve never been so relieved he was along with me. The other two have military experience and seem to know what they are doing so I stand back, leaning on my poles, taking in the scene and letting the severity of the situation sink in.
His name is Mark, and his airway is closing thanks to an allergic reaction. It is a pre-existing condition that has chosen the worst possible time to flare up. He is still talking and is leaning forward, saliva dripping from his mouth and calmly explains that the disassembled sunglasses arms can help keep his airway open, or the white plastic object on the ground can be used for an emergency tracheotomy.
What?? My mind explodes. I want out.
And yet I want to help. I stand, paralyzed outside the circle feeling like I have nothing to offer and reeling with my own re-lived trauma from a life threatening incident. Nolan is doing all the first responder things, asking the right questions and checking the scene. I can’t get a straight answer from Jared if they have contacted Race HQ or 911. Yes, they have, someone is on the way, but no they haven’t. Jared keeps trying to call and gets cut off. I watch as he hangs up, over and over. He tells me to call 911. But they have already confirmed that help is on the way. I’m confused. It occurs to me that Mark must be too. He must be terrified.
I can do that. I drop my poles and grab an emergency blanket strewn on the ground. I introduce myself, struggle to stay calm, wrap the blanket around his shoulders and sit close. Uncomfortably close for a stranger, but he doesn’t flinch. The healing power of touch is the best I can offer. As long as he is still talking and responsive I am happy to keep engaging.
“What is your wife’s name?”
“Do you have kids?”
“We will get you home to them”.
We call his wife. She sounds lovely and I advise she stay at Race HQ instead of trying to go to Porcupine Rim; a narrow 4×4 road she would never make in the dark. She agrees to wait in town to hear where he is going.
“Help is on the way, You are doing a great job staying calm.” I share some funny stories from the day with nothing to do but wait for help to arrive; distraction is a powerful tool. I joke about his 60 000 unread emails and offer to delete them for him, he says ‘Go ahead. Unsubscribe’.
I can see texts pouring in from his family. He is loved. He needs to get home to them.
His airway shifts and breathing becomes more difficult so Nolan secures the sunglasses arm down his throat and has him clench it between his teeth to keep his airway open. ‘Come on help, what is taking you so long?’ I wrap the blanket tighter when I see he is shivering a bit. Miraculously I’m not cold. I always get cold when I stop but not tonight. Help arrives in a speeding SUV and there is a flurry of activity. He asks for Nolan to go with him and I beg for the same, but the vehicle is jam packed with gear in the backseats and there is no room, so Mark climbs in the front seat, sitting backwards, saliva dripping onto the seat as he struggles to breath. I can’t imagine how terrified he must be, but he seems to remain calm. I reach out one more time through the window to wish him well, tell him I’m honoured to have met him. A part of me wants to climb in the seat with him. Not just for his comfort but for my own as well. The full force of the fragility of life hits me and I desperately want to feel safe. Somehow the front seat of that SUV feels like that safest place for both of us. I realize afterwards how much that activated my own trauma of fighting for survival in the backcountry. How quickly things could have turned for the worse. But I don’t dwell on that now. Instead, we pack up and keep marching with our new comrades Jared and Matt as Mark and the medic race to the waiting helicopter that will take him to the nearest hospital. I find out later he is on a ventilator for several days, but makes a full recovery.
We stick with them, chatting, debriefing, being sort of ridiculous for hours back and forth before their headlights disappear out of sight ahead. I am fading very quickly, falling asleep while walking and barely coherent as my adrenaline tanks. I’m seeing things in the trees again and force myself to stare at the ground at the squished dead snakes because everything in my peripheral vision feels too scary and overwhelming right now. I’m thankful for Nolan; his energy is still high. He is patient and considerate, wanting to help, counting down until I can have another regular Tylenol, even though that does nothing to touch the pain. In hindsight, I should have stopped to sleep again. But Porcupine Rim feels close (it wasn’t) and I am excited to see Kirk. He alternates between a thoughtfully downloaded playlist with many of my favourite artists, and conversation prompts to keep my mind busy. At one point I whisper “Nolan, I can’t talk. I’m sorry” I don’t need distraction, I need to ride this wave of pain to Porcupine Rim within myself, Mark still heavy on my mind. The night doesn’t feel safe and I want it to be over.
Illuminated ghosts hang in the trees, following me with haunted eyes, but this time it is real. We are only a few hundred meters from the last aid station; Porcupine Rim with its Halloween themed decorations. I keep my eyes down so I can only see the glow of my headlamp resisting the urge to stop and examine each ghost to make sure it isn’t actually following me.
We arrive at the aid station where Kirk has been volunteering and he is ready to pace me for the last section. I tell him I will need some time to rest before we go. I am thankful to make it there, but deep down I am still feeling a strange mix of scared and brave. I think I thank Nolan for getting me there and his expertise with Mark, but all I can think about is drifting off for my last short sleep before the finish. Forty-five minutes later, I ask, “What time is it?” Kirk says 3:45 and I stare at my watch and say “No, that is how far I’ve run” He says, “Its both” and Denise laughs her infectious laugh. Let’s finish this beast. I start for
the last time.
I down some noodles and my crew puts on my heavy pack one last time. Denise is beaming at me and reading me funny things from a group chat from our run family. Nolan is pumped, so excited to see me off. Kirk is ready and I realize later this is his longest distance ever and this world of required gear and headlamps is new to him and yet he doesn’t complain once. In fact, he has a lot of fun, making friends along the way; he is well loved, as always.
Before we leave, I stop to use the outhouse and scream at the giant purple glittery spider placed near the seat; a cruel joke to my fuzzy brain. The volunteers and Kirk laugh at my expense, but I tell them it is still better then using buckets from other aid stations and I don’t really care. Mostly I just like to hear them laugh.
The descent from Porcupine should have been easy since it is all downhill from here. It is literally one of the most beloved downhill mountain bike routes in the world with stunning views and techy descents. As the sun rises I can see the whole course I have just completed; the mesa, hidden valley, canyonlands, Shay mountain is barely visible on the horizon. Was that even real?
I can see the long stretch of desert with a joke sale (and probably some bodies) buried somewhere out there, and the towering La Sal mountains that seem plucked from another world and plopped in this otherworldly desert. And now here I am, picking my way down the quintessential Moab descent to the Colorado river and the finish line. I want this moment to be more enjoyable. I have envisioned this for years, ever since I first dropped Kirk off there three years ago so he could ride this descent. But yet here I am, and every step is agony. My feet are raw and the loose rocks on the descent fry my nervous system with each screaming step. Moving fast feels impossible and yet I am so frustrated to feel so slow at yet another section of trail. My goal of finishing under 100 hours disappears quickly, so I embrace a new goal. Just. Finish.
Kirk is attentive, reminding me to eat, drink, helping me adjust layers as the sun comes up and the day heats, pointing out views and taking pictures.
The Colorado river comes into view but still seems impossibly far down, and yet, like anything that feels impossible, if you keep moving forward, it gets closer. And soon it feels like I can reach out to touch that river. I can hear the roar of the highway and even see where the mountain bike trail meets the paved bike trail, but with a cruel twist of fate, there is one last canyon to navigate. Its huge boulders have me scrambling on all fours just to get past. If there is one thing that 200’s have taught me it’s this: Stay humble. I crawl and whimper my way down the last canyon, about as humble as I’ve ever been.
We hit the pavement for the final 5km bike trail back to town and I miraculously get a new burst of energy. This feels easy, so I drink it up. Running sub 6:30 kilometres at times and it all felt amazing. Weirdly, I am using muscles I haven’t used in awhile and the pain in my feet no longer feels so sharp on the pavement. Kirk, not as used to running, is frantically texting while running to see if people are at the finish line, letting them know I am coming in much sooner then my tracker has projected now that I have sped up.
With only a 100 m to go. Nolan comes running towards us, ecstatic, but says he doesn’t know where Tania and Denise are.
I stop briefly. I don’t want to finish with out them. Thankfully, they meet me at the corner, trying to run in flip flops on tired feet. I round the corner to the campground at the finish line and I see my parents and kids holding signs and blowing noisemakers. I can’t stop smiling and my heart rips apart and explodes in a million pieces.
I see the finish line arch where I stood four days, 5 hours and 27 minutes ago; a different person. I throw down my poles in excitement and suddenly it’s all over.
I grip my knees and look up to see my pacers and crew coming up behind me. This was my dream, but it would be foolish of me to think I did this alone. I dish out sweaty hugs and cry my way through my “After” mug shot.
I had mentally prepared myself for the journey, but not for this. Not for the end. I want to pause it all and sip slowly from this moment. Candice Burt calls me over to pick out my belt buckle but it feels like an impossible decision. A belt buckle means both nothing and everything after what happened out there.
Everything in 101 hours, 22 minutes and 57 seconds.
And a freakin cool belt buckle.