Black Hills 50
The shape of the story is sometimes as meaningful as the narrative. In the underbelly, it processes the form to mean something, to distill everything into a sense of purpose not inherently found in the trivial words describing my life. I make an agreement–I will construct pleasing blocks of text that may or may not represent actual, real things that are happening in my life. Recently, it has come infrequently or in obnoxious, lumpy ideas that necessarily constrain themselves to bulleted lists and tables. New self offers wholehearted rejection of that ugliness.
Half a year has passed since I’ve failed miserably at pinning a bib to my shorts. It’s easy to misestimate the size of the flat piece of Tyvek, to imagine that when made to conform to the rotund surface of my jiggling thighs, it will somehow become more manageable in its awkwardness. It will always be awkward and it will always be crooked. I have, however, managed to always affix it to my clothing.
I digress. On Saturday, I am going to run my first race since the Rocky Raccoon 100 in January. I have felt somewhat lost in my “training”. At this point last year, I had run six races and set personal bests at three of them. I radiated youthful confidence, exuberance, and a sense of direction. This year has been different. While I have run more miles than last year, the motivation to do so has become shapeless and ephemeral, often leaving a lingering, “Why?” The more that I look, the more that I realize it lies in the negative space, and I will never understand it. Accepting this, I have started to feel normal again. I love running. I love nature.I will evolve. So be it.
After kid-sitting for our strep-throat infected neighbor children, Michelle unsurprisingly acquired strep throat. The timing was unfortunate for me, as I succumbed to the nastiness in a window that resulted in both illness and side effects from the antibiotics peaking on race day. My outlook was not especially bright or my motivation high, but I resolved to suffer through it anyway, reasoning that prolonged misery and helplessness would be good for me.
We arrived in Rapid City a few hours before we needed to be on the bus. Our plan to find camping in Sturgis instead turned into a frantic search for a motel room. To our collective surprise, both Sturgis and Rapid City have a tourist season, during which rates are obscene and rooms are scarce. Jared dusted off his natural charm and charisma and tried to haggle our way into lavish accommodations for a fraction of the asking price.
It didn’t work.
Finally, we managed to find adequately sleazy lodging to match our budget. After another fifteen minutes of trying to get the door open, we crawled into bed for the most glorious 2.5 hours of sleep imaginable.
An hour and a half later Sam yelled, “WE OVERSLEPT! Oh, just kidding. I forgot to change my clock.”
Then it was morning. I had a throbbing headache, a slightly duller ache in my throat, and nausea that made even a cup of coffee seem unbearable. I quietly wished that I had taken the DNS and stayed home. We drove to the finish line for the hundred miler, where our bus was scheduled for a 4am departure. We were among the few who were foolish enough to heed the race director’s warning to arrive early.
We got off the bus and enjoyed our last moments of being people who could conceptually process being too cold. Jared talked to other good runners about being good at running. Sam nervously paced and chattered, as she was forced to confront the reality of the longest and most difficult run of her life. Part of me lamented my shit luck, but mostly I felt too empty and lost to muster any real indignation. Realigning reality with my diminished capacities was proving a troublesome choice, but the only one I had.
The race started. I watched as Jared shot off the front, joining a lead group of three or four guys. Even a third of the way back in the field, the pace up the gradual ascent was too much for me. I had nothing. I pulled over and pretended to tie my shoes while another twenty runners passed me. I continued trudging.
Aside from feeling miserable, the early portion of the race offered pleasant scenery. We crested the climb out of Silver City and soon joined the Centennial Trail, where we would spend the remainder of the day. The forecast for the day called for mid-eighties with abundant sunshine. Shortly after passing through the first aid station, the course grew increasingly exposed. It was a vicious cycle–the heat, nausea, and headache conspired to make me foreswear food and liquids, thereby increasing the associated symptoms that made me not want to do the thing that could fix the thing. It was a brutal way to start the day.
A couple miles from the aid station, I decided that I needed to do something about it. I stopped at a stream and pulled out my Steripen. I would drink an extra bottle of water. That would fix it. The water was somewhat cloudy, so the first two attempts resulted in red lights. I moved upstream to where the water was moving better and got a green on my third attempt. I think I only got two red lights during the entire trip on the Superior Hiking trail, so in my flustered state I managed to lose the protective lamp cover and waste another ten minutes looking for it.
Still, I was thankful that I’d decided to throw my Steripen in my pack at the last minute. I should have been more diligent about drinking prior to the start, but I just felt too nauseous. Once I arrived at the second aid station, I continued forcing myself to drink fluids. It felt absurd to be at such a low place only fifteen miles into the race, but I was quickly learning that I had to adjust my expectations. I tried to channel my inner Timmy-Olson-at-Hardrock and get comfortable traversing that dark place.
Sam arrived at the aid station with swollen fingers. “Do something different with your salt intake…like, more or less or something,” I intelligently told her. I finally decided to get moving.
I was enjoying the climbs out of the aid stations. Despite being in lackluster running shape, I was hiking strong, benefitting from the long days on the Superior Hiking Trail. Any excuse to stop running and begin hiking was a welcome one, and leaving aid stations usually provided the extended climbs that made it a natural, guilt-free choice. The heat worsened, the trail widened, and the ATV traffic increased, but I was moving.
Nothing changed for the next few hours. I mixed pathetic shuffling with fast hiking at a pace that would keep me inside of the cutoff. I tried to drink as much as I could. Most of my caloric intake was from drinking Tailwind, which was working surprisingly well. The only hitch in the plan was that it was taking me a lot longer to move between aid stations than I’d anticipated, so my 200 calories/hour was reduced to 150 or less. I made up the difference with the occasional banana or cookie. The morning’s nausea and headache had subsided, both presumably consequences of antibiotics that warn, “May make you feel like shit.” However, the heat had taken over as an equally formidable opponent.
Sometimes things get emotional during ultras. On this day, it happened when I found a hundred miler collapsed on the side of the trail. I offered her anything and everything that I was carrying, but she was suffering from heat exhaustion and needed help that I could not provide. As I left her there, I felt awful, but it was too far to the next aid station to do anything but promise to send help.
At some point, we reached the infamous creek crossings. The current was intense, but the water felt amazing. My core temperature dipped and I could think clearly again. It didn’t last though. The sun in the next section wilted me, and I found myself a few miles from the next aid station with little water, no shade, and goldenrod urine suggesting more than a hint of dehydration. Finally, I reached a stream. It was not just any stream–no, it was ice cold, pristine, and perfectly perpendicular to the trail. I stopped and chugged an almost inhuman three bottles of water, filling two more that I would finish before the next aid station.
During this section I began leapfrogging with a few fifty milers and one hundred miler. It was a nice little group and I enjoyed the camaraderie that I don’t often find late in races. Miles 40-45 disappeared quickly to conversation and nice sections of shade. I reached the final aid station feeling like I’d pulled it back together. I grabbed a couple gels, and headed out for the final section.
Unfortunately, the last section began with an open field, followed by the steepest climb of the day. After feeling like I’d reached a good place with heat and hydration, I was once again almost out of water and on the cusp of disaster. I mistakenly thought the final stretch would be an easy downhill jog to the finish. Instead, it consisted of open expanses that radiated dreadful waves of warmth and punchy little wooded climbs that decimated already tired legs. I continued monitoring my pace to ensure that I would finish within the cutoff. It was the first time as an ultrarunner that I had to remain vigilant to avoid disqualification. At mile 33, there were around 40 runners behind me. Since that point, I’d only passed people, so I wondered what would happen to the gaggle behind me. I was flirting with not finishing, so I couldn’t see how anyone behind me was going to make it.
Finally, I reached the sidewalk that marked the beginning of the final mile. I shuffled my way to a 13h06m finish, my slowest ever, and almost four and a half hours more than my PR for the distance. Maybe I should have stayed home. There were a few moments of joy on the course, but mostly the experience was veiled in a blank nothingness. I avoided reality as much as possible, retreating to a place that is becoming too familiar, a place where I check out and just let things happen. I’d love for things to turn around this year, for something to feel more victorious than the incidental success achieved by being less present in the moment. For that to happen, I’m going to need a little bit of luck. Crossing my fingers for the big one in August.
Jared was hanging around at the finish line. Even though his new standards found little joy in a 14th place finish, he ran great on a difficult day. Sam would arrive not long after me, having made a ton of friends on the course and persevered through a challenging day and course. In total, it was a success. Despite each of us struggling to put the day in a positive context, we each remained grateful for the privilege to spend it immersed in nature, learning a little bit more about ourselves and the complexity of the human spirit. In the end, I will settle on gratitude.