The narrative had long since grown stale, but that hadn't stopped me. I faithfully reproduced the actions, collected the images, and invented the language of the enlightened failer. It wasn't until the pretend catharsis exceeded my own suspension of disbelief that I said, "Aw, fuck it...no more blog." I replaced everything with a picture of Juno-dog sitting uncomfortably on my lap while we played a board game. This was my new pretend catharsis, strictly meant to augment the re-invention of self and subsequent loss of self.
It was necessary and revelatory, but not in a profound way. Rather, it was pragmatic, at least to the extent that the over-relaxing was unremarkable and the language of the transformation was inaction. I could become deeply invested and emotional remarking on the self-worth and connection found in the people and purpose of my new job, or I could tell you that my dogs are fucking awesome. But that would be now, as I reclaim the narrative. In that moment it was simpler/dumber—the revelation was a sustainable ecosystem of habit and procedure, which grew naturally from that boring thing I kept trying to twist into profundity.
The deconstruction—inasmuch as rigid habits are “thing”—began the day after Halloween. The thinking was artificial. I gasped, wheezed, and struggled my way through that run, prodding my sleepy-spiritual self for energy. That was my last day off from running. During the ensuing weeks and months, the idea of it remained free from the ephemeral, transcendent bliss that I once imagined, but the hobby re-emerged as an integral part of my life.
I based the process on the process, foregoing the continuous, noisy feedback loop of physical imperfections and mental insecurities writing fraudulent narratives. What began as a story of revenge became a prosaic data-driven exposition. The conversation naturally swung to the Snickers bar that I needed to eat on the third day of hiking the SHT with J.
The paradox was this (this is not a paradox): I was either correct in my assertion that it didn't existentially matter if I ate the Snickers bar, or J was correct that there were consequences against which the action needed to be considered. If I won the argument, anything could be manipulated to meaninglessness by the logic that anything that could be rationally similar to eating a Snickers bar would also become meaningless. If J was correct, the act carried consequence, and not only was I flippant and inconsiderate in thinking that I could snack as I pleased, but I was an asshole mired in meaningful inanity.
That is all probably wrongheaded and maybe even mean-spirited.
So, about Black Canyon.
The Snickers bar re-emerges at the moment in which I attempt to describe the existential pickle of my situation. I knew that what I was doing was either meaningless or of such absurd meaning that it was contemptible. However, in its absurdity I began to love it as a new thing. I scrutinized the data, concocted the strategy, tested the gear, and did the training. I visualized, obsessed, and prognosticated. While it was not meaningful, it was consuming. In many ways, to be consumed with something is almost better than to be enraptured with it. The depths, oh, the remarkable depths.
I went into the race consumed but free. I had a goal that was based on the science. There would be pretty things, amusing things, difficult things, and emotional things, but the crux of the matter was the execution of a theory (or hypothesis, settle down). Twenty-four hours earlier I'd been writhing in pain from an infection in one of my teeth, but real science had produced a cure so effective that my love affair with purposelessness almost died that very moment. The gratitude!
We rounded the track. I felt great. It was raining. I checked my watch. I adjusted my hood. Everything as planned. Forty seconds into the race. Perfect. Off of the pavement. I knew the splits. The first mile. Sixty-one to go. I passed what seemed like hundreds of people with different theories. I checked my watch. We turned on to the trail and I panicked.
Mud caked to my shoes, my legs quickly becoming heavy pendulums tick-tocking a plodding and desperate rhythm. I followed the meandering footprints, trying to find firmer footing, eventually acknowledging the futility of it. The splits. Ugh. The splits. I'd memorized Bunz' splits from 2016, knowing that the race he produced in the wicked desert heat was a model for my perfect day.
I planned to be extremely efficient, skipping half of the aid stations and only refilling my Tailwind at the others. I would forego the expensive act of eating and digesting food, instead slurping sweet, sickening maltodextrin. I'd attempted this at a few different races, but hadn't wholeheartedly committed to it. It would be a new thing. A slow drip. So many slow drips.
The contrast between the first seven miles and what followed was stark. Fields of slop were replaced with a firm trail that wound its way gently down the canyon for the next ten or so miles. Perfection. The race spread out and I experienced moments of solitude, reaching Bumblebee in 3h19m elapsed. I was five minutes behind Bunda's 2016 splits. My 14 hour goal was not lost.
The essential low point happened on the climb out of Bumblebee. I was prepared for this. A year of contrived crisis had conditioned to me to deflect authentic challenges with the coy suggestion of a greater lesson and purpose in checking out, quitting, being loser. Acknowledged and dismissed, I could move on with the task, hiking for a few minutes until I felt good enough to run again. The pouting child would simply have to deal with it. I would not check out.
Friday before the race, we hiked Piestewa Peak. Even though it's a short hike, it's strenuous and probably a very dumb thing to have done on Friday afternoon. The child climbed with the children, no more or less restrained and intelligent than the little humans clawing their way to the dramatic, human-infested vista. Bunz might have had pneumonia and I certainly had visited Walgreens that morning to pick up a prescription for antibiotics. Yet, there we were, celebrating the flawlessness of our friendship and the annual pilgrimage.
So, the child would be fine. Quiet, even. Played and exhausted, it could nap while I undertook the very adult pursuit in front of me.
The course would be different. The rain had promised swollen rivers that would sweep away our puny humanity in a supreme exhibition of nature's delightful fickleness. So, we would be turning off of the trail around mile twenty-seven, running a few miles on a gravel road, turning around, and running back up the goddamn mountain we'd just run down.
There were pros and cons. We were robbed of the guilt-free indulgence of finishing two thousand feet below where we started, but were spared the one hundred fifty degree heat and rockiness of the second half of the traditional course. Our alternative, the catalyst for the maddening or inconsequential changes, had been present but far from relentless. In my Arcteryx Norvan I was comfortable and relatively dry. I reached the turnaround in 5h36m, three minutes ahead of Bunda's 2016 split and seemingly on track to hit a goal of some sort.
It felt good to start the return trip. When you talk to me, I will tell you that I hate out-n-backs, but when I am running it is a love story. I can step on this rock better, I proclaimed. And I did, and it brought a primitive, spiritually uninformed joy. A mile into my return trip I crossed path with the real Bunz, suffering through illness but nonetheless remaining a beacon of goodness.
I started noticing clusters of people huddled under the aid station tents. The rain and the race had not changed, but its effect was starting to be felt. Slow drips. So many slow drips. Back to Bumblebee. Pissed off aid station volunteers responding to—“Hey, am I going to finish before dark? What should I do if I can't, I don't have a headlamp?" I gave him one of my extra headlamps and cultivated silence. It was time to push. He would finish and return my headlamp, proving himself a good human. I was dumbfounded. I didn't recognize him.
The section between Hidden Treasure and Antelope Mesa was transformed. I was alone, actually alone, and the weather had finally turned. I shuffled up the gentle two thousand foot ascent that I had gleefully, effortlessly run down several hours earlier. The winding canyon took on an ominous darkness despite it still being daytime. The wind picked up and it rained harder. I pulled my hood over my hat. For the first time all day, I was cold.
As day transitioned to night, I saw a dim light off in the distance and knew that I was within a few minutes of reaching the aid station. I'd been carrying a softshell in my pack the entire day and decided that I would stop there to put it on under my rain jacket. It was cold and the storm was intense. Under the aid station tent, it was a gruesome scene. The volunteers could not discern danger from discomfort. Neither could we/I/me.
I turned on my headlamp. The course was decimated. We were running through shin deep water and trail that very much resembled wandering to an unremarkable death. I followed footprints. Lemming-child, toe-stubbing his way gracelessly forward.
I kept recalculating, playing the thirteen hour game. Would I make it?
I hit the gravel road and started running the fastest that anyone has ever run, until I was passed in the final half mile by a woman running even faster than the fastest anyone has ever run. Then I was back at the track. Timespace remained unbent, but I had nevertheless arrived in 12h49m for a PR, a Western States qualifier, and redemption from the disaster of 2016.
And now, my aid station times so that I don’t have to calculate them again next year:
- Antelope Mesa #1 -Didn't stop-
- Hidden Treasure #1 2m18s
- Bumble Bee #1 -Didn't stop-
- Gloriana Mine #1 3m16s
- Soap Creek 0m55s (extra water)
- Gloriana Mine #2 3m45s
- Bumble Bee #2 -Didn't stop-
- Hidden Treasure #2 3m58s
- Antelope Mesa #2 4m45s
- Total stopped time 18m57s