“Damn this rain, damn this sleet, damn this wind, damn these mountains and damn this whole damn race.”
Thirty-something miles into another trail race, with another dozen or so to go, and I was as miserable as I’d ever been in my life. It seemed like the only positive thing I’d been able to find since waking up at 04:00 is that the quad muscle I’d injured a few weeks back hadn’t flared enough to make me stop. A cappuccino at a small cafe back in Haight seemed much nicer right then. Nevertheless, I was doing what every ultra runner does — try and forget about the triviality of pain and keep grinding out the miles.
I’d also managed to bluff my way through the last couple of aid/medical stations without getting pulled for “medical reasons”, but I knew very well I was probably in a little trouble with some mild hypothermia issues and my left leg was starting to rebel a little…but not enough to stop. However, when I’d stop for something like trying to figure out which fork of a trail to take, I’d shiver uncontrollably. I’d also seem to drop anything I tried to hold, including the food given to me in the aid tents. My calves would cramp so hard sometimes when climbing steeply that they’d almost pull up behind my knees. The wet cold only exacerbated the tight muscles. My shins and hands were still sort of bloody from crashing on a muddy, steep, rocky downhill about three hours earlier. At least the rain kept the blood somewhat rinsed and from looking worse than it was. Push on. Just push on.
I admit I was almost giddy as I came off a high ridge of the coastal mountains and finally saw the Pacific Ocean again, sort of. I knew that once I got down those next steep, slick and sketchy switchbacks and touched the beach, I’d only have two more difficult climbs ahead of me and I’d finally be able stop the pain-a-thon. Compartmentalize it. Mini goals.
I also knew the first climb would be the worst. 1,000+ vertical feet of steep water breaks and mud as slippery as snot, but no different than what I’d been doing for the last six or so hours. Just more of the same. Just another 1,000 feet of the 8,800 total. Once I got that climb out of the way it was on to an easier cruise down into a valley where at least a few trees might cut the bitterly cold wind. After that, another steep but shorter climb of six or eight hundred feet and then I’d have four miles of downhill to the finish.
Baby steps Barry. One mini goal at a time. First get down to the beach without crashing, again.
Finally, the beach. I looked up through the mist and fog at the climb before me. The wind was whipping the rain, sleet and mist like a washing machine. No order to the madness, just chaos. It seemed colder down there on the beach, more miserable. Hard to believe. The thermometer on my watch said 33-degrees. My bare legs were soda can red from the cold. Even though I had on gloves, they were soaked through and I couldn’t feel my fingers…hadn’t been able to in a couple of hours actually. Shivering again. Damn it. Get moving. Nothing seemed fun about this, nothing.
My heart and lungs were hammering at my chest as I methodically “ran” up those steep steps. Enough. Walk it from here. This is too painful, crazy. Save the energy. Halfway up. Damn it. I was totally worked, totally. Not only was I exhausted but I’d scrape five pounds of mud off my shoes and one step later it was there again. What’s the use? I turned and looked at the water lapping at the sand 500 feet below. It was gray, choppy and cold…just like my mood. Look up. Steep. More water breaks. Stop whining, go.
Before I could catch myself I was face down in the mud and cold water. My left quad felt like someone’d stuck a red hot railroad spike through it. I tried to bounce up as quickly as possible but my leg wasn’t having it. I rolled over and sat up, trying to massage out the baseball sized knot that was about four inches about my kneecap. It was extremely painful to touch. Excruciating to massage. Stand up. Nope, not happening. Damn it.
Five minutes, still sitting. I was panicked a little, confused as to what I could do. Maybe nothing. I had Tiger Balm in my running pack and tried using that on the knot, but the rain just spread it onto unsuspecting skin and made a bad situation worse. I could do nothing but start wondering if that was it. Was I done? What now? Wait for another runner to come by and send them for help? That thought made me more nauseous than I already was. I’d never quit a long distance race. Besides that, I probably hadn’t seen anyone in over an hour. Maybe everyone else had come to their senses and quit at mile 25 when we crossed back through the start/finish area. Maybe I should’ve done that too.
Five miles back to the last aid station. Five miles to the next one. Sh#$%. I was right in the middle. I was freezing, bottoming out mentally.
Ten minutes. Okay, get up and go. My leg was killing me though. It was swollen down into my knee and there was little I could do without feeling the hot burn of pain shoot straight into my core. Why was this happening? I’d done everything right. Hydrated lavishly. Eaten well. Paced myself for the long haul. Why was it so damn cold in California? How could I let months and months of training come to this? Where did I go wrong? Damn it.
There it was, a fifteen minute freefall to the bottom. I’d never felt so helpless in my life. Crashed on the rocks. Despite the months of diligent training, my body had failed me.
Within a minute of hitting that devastating mental bottom, I got pissed off enough to realize that I could sort of “push” with with the busted leg, just not really climb with it. That meant I could go backward up that hill. Bingo. Looked stupid and pathetic. So be it. Still hurt like hell, but at least I wasn’t sitting in the mud feeling sorry for myself. I was at least fighting back, a little.
Moving helped. Once I did start moving the pain let go enough to where I could almost dog trot down the valley. Two other runners caught me just as I was getting within striking distance of the aid tent. I was glad that I hadn’t waited back there and let them see me crashing to what could have been one of my lowest points ever. I’d never been crushed like that. New ground on a personal level. I couldn’t even think about it. It was something I didn’t want to think about. All I wanted to do was bring this misery-fest to an end. The medical tent was now only a hundred yards away.
It was hard to describe how good getting out of the wind, rain and sleet felt. As soon as I walked under the tent flap, a nice, high school-aged girl handed me some noodle soup. I immediately set it down knowing that I’d dropped the last one at the previous aid station. As glad as I was to be at this aid station, I still wasn’t willing to reveal that I was going hypothermic and my hands weren’t working quite right. Then a young, 30-ish something guy, who I assumed was a medical type, asked me to sit in a chair. This was it. What’s it going to be Barry? Call it, or sack up and finish what you started. Who are you? Here’s the raw truth.
Looking me in the eyes (or trying to anyhow), the medico guy asked me the typical questions…
“How you feeling? Anything hurt?”
“Cold, but otherwise fresh.”
“I saw you limping down the road. Everything good with this leg? Looks swollen.”
Okay, here it is Barry. What’s it going to be?
“Just a little cramping. It’s all good. I’m ready to get this over with. Can I go?”
“Yeah. You sure you feel good enough to finish?”
“Never felt better”.
Five steps out of the tent and I had serious doubts whether that last statement was true, or at least “true enough”. Sitting for only a few minutes had caused my leg to stiffen up, a lot. I didn’t care anymore. The die had been cast and I was leaving. This was one of those few moments in my life where I had a personal choice to make. This would mean absolutely nothing to anyone else on earth, but it would mean absolutely everything to me, everything. Let’s bring what’s inside of me out into the open and take a look. Give up, or give it all. Black or white.
The wind and rain seemed much colder. Still 33-degrees.
The last hill, only a mile long and 800 feet or so of elevation, took me forty minutes. The cramps in my leg were absolutely punishing and I’d have to stop every few steps and massage out the knots. I hate to admit it but the pain had me in tears. I desperately wanted to go back down the hill to the last aid tent and call it…but I was only four miles from finishing. Call it Barry. Call it. F#%#$^!!!!! Two more people passed me, then another. They looked miserable too, but at least ambulatory.
Now that I was back on a high ridge the rain and wind seemed to pummel me without mercy. My teeth were chattering and my body was shivering constantly. I knew I was dehydrated after so many hours of running and despite shoving an entire baked potato in my mouth at the last aid station, I was only running on fumes. The mud was like grease and with my leg basically rigid now, I found myself on the ground more times that I could begin to count. Frustrated and approaching desperate doesn’t even begin to describe my frame of mind. Quit whining and go. That’s the answer in ultra distance running. Just shut up and go.
I slowly got down the last steep hill. Only half a mile of flat ground to go to the finish and it would mercifully be over. Another person passed me.
When I crossed the last little wooden foot bridge along the beach I could finally see the finish line no more than 200 yards away. I’ve never walked across a finish line in my life and this wasn’t going to be the first, so I ran (sort of). The pain was there, but at the same time, not. I think my body had had enough and was simply refusing to register anything at that point.
One more step. Done.
I was shivering from head to toe. I was completely depleted. Nothing left. Shelled. Nothing seemed real anymore. I couldn’t even feel the pouring down rain, the cold, the sleet, the wind. Nada. Senses turned off.
In the finish tent Donna held my soup while I pitifully chased the noodles around in the warm broth with my spoon. Honestly, I wanted more than anything to just hold the warm cup and restore some feeling in my fingers. Useless. I wanted, needed, to get dry clothes on and get warm, fast. Donna had to help me with that too. Just having dry clothes on helped, some.
I was mentally destroyed. When I crossed the halfway mark of the race I was in sixth place overall and running comfortably well despite the deplorable weather. Then, to have those few minutes of euphoria swept away in a flood of pain and anguish was absolutely crushing to my psyche. I’d never been so physically beaten and felt so utterly helpless like I had when my leg failed me. All I wanted was to get in the warm car and go back to our hotel in San Francisco and forget about this entire day. Shower and sleep, my next mini goals of the day.
For weeks I felt the heavy burden of disappointment, almost driving me to the point of pure anger. But one morning on one of my long training runs, I had an epiphany of sorts about the race. Until then I had felt that the experience was a mark of failure, that I’d let myself down and not performed as well as I could have…should have. Maybe I’d not trained properly. Not hydrated properly. Not fueled sufficiently. Maybe I didn’t have the mental capacity to run ultra distances. All these things were so untrue, but in some ways I was letting the circumstances define me. No, not define me, limit me going forward. It had handcuffed me. Sure, I still wanted to run, but never that distance again, ever. I started to believe that maybe it was simply beyond me to go that distance again.
It was almost exactly five months after finishing that race in California that I finally realized the race hadn’t defined or limited me at all. In fact, I realized that it only showed me that there is so much more to me than I ever could have known otherwise. I had peeled back another layer of the onion and found that deeper level.
Had I not pushed past the point where I could have easily said “enough is enough”, I never would have known how much physical and mental pain I could endure…enough to finish something extremely personal and important. Not pretty, but I finished what I started. I had expanded, exponentially. I’d found the truth about who I was. Sitting there in the rain and mud, crying and feeling sorry for myself, I’d actually found myself. The entire race and experience was nothing less than an exercise in spiritual clarity and growth.
What I thought was the worst day in my long history of endurance running was in retrospect the best day I’d ever had. It showed me the “why” of ultrarunning. It showed me the truth about who I was.
Within eight months of that race I had signed up for and finished another ultra distance event. This time I ran well throughout and finished with a time that allowed me to automatically qualify for entrance into the Western States 100 (but that’s another story for another day).
I’m an ultrarunner. Always will be.
Run long. Climb high. Paddle far. Live big.