Fat Dog 120
Bunda’s head slumped to the side while Nate muttered strikingly comprehensible, albeit oddly placed snippets of monologue from the back seat. It was 4:30am and the darkness had already begun to evaporate from the sky. I was a desolate soul, guts twisted asymmetrically along the winding mountain road. We were on our way to Hedley.
How did I fuck this up?
The solitude of that drive belched forth the lurking introspection that I wanted to avoid. The shared joy of the finish line, the palpable relief that filled the quiet space as each runner found their way home, had delayed the inevitable. I was alive. I was warm, but now it was time to think, time to consider my first DNF.
The race start was perfect. Spirits were at ease, photos were collected, gear was self-examined, strategy was bandied, and well-wishing was sincere and frequent. Bunda and I lined up near the back of the field. I reasoned that when a race is 120 miles long and begins with a 5000 foot climb, starting easy is important. After a recorded high temperature in Keremeos of 103 degrees Fahrenheit the previous day, the cooler weather and prospect for rain oozed conceptual brilliance. I remarked to the many floating deities on the wiseness of this arrangement.
Finally, we were walking. Bottlenecks quickly formed as I glanced at Mountain Jared bounding away in front of us. I wasn’t overly concerned. The destroyers destroyed for the first 5k until the steady rhythm of our mediocre hike consumed them. It was perfect. The time passed as I marveled at the the open meadows and pine forests of the high country. God, it was beautiful.
We reached the first aid station in fine shape, casually filling water and chatting with Nate before resuming our swift walk. The grade eased up, crowds thinned, and we were able to settle into a comfortable and consistent running pace. At the top of the Cathedral climb, the trees vanished and we were treated to a glorious, barren, rocky, and surreal landscape. I breathed the brisk mountain air and felt alive. Perfect, indeed.
On the other side of the climb was the ideal descent–gentle non-technical trail spanning the width of my mind’s ability to retain. The forever descent. Midwesterners unaccustomed to mountain running are easy prey for blown quads, especially when the terrain is so runnable, so we remained vigilant in our smartness, paradoxically relying on being smart to remember to be smart. The various mushy substances I put in my mouth were delicious–Tailwind, gels, and Clif weird savory pouch things were all going down easy. As far as I was concerned, the race started the following day at mile 62. This was just passing the time.
We were soon at the Ashnola aid station, where Michelle filled my bottles with Tailwind and retrieved delicious snacks. I filled my pack with enough food for the next 23 mile stretch to Boneveir. Against the warmth of my wrist, my Suunto read 86 degrees Fahrenheit. I dunked my buff in the sponge bucket, put it around my neck, and we headed out. We were a few minutes ahead of our pace chart and I was excited to get up high to the cool mountain air. It was all so good.
We turned from the gravel road and started our second climb. The dull gray that had persisted in the sky shifted to a monstrous and foreboding graphite. The forecast held a near certainty for rain throughout the day and into the night, but I hadn’t given it much thought, aside from being ready for wet feet. I stopped to put on my lone article of extra clothing–a light Salomon windbreaker.
“I’ll probably be too hot, but better safe than sorry,” I arrogantly told Bunda.
Bunda draped his gas station poncho over his shoulders, while I smugly evaluated its inherent absurdity. I’d never look so foolish. As we started hiking again, I noticed that the layer of soaked plastic now attached to my clammy skin was doing little to keep me warm. It will start to trap heat soon, I reasoned. Just need to hike harder. Finally, I put up the hood thinking, “Well, this will certainly do the trick.”
Within thirty minutes, we were at the aid station. I was shaking. I didn’t fill my water or eat anything. I just needed to get moving. Almost everyone at the aid station had fashioned their emergency space blanket into some makeshift piece of clothing. There were skirts, shawls, baselayers, and headwear, none of which appeared to be giving the wearer much comfort. Someone offered their warm vehicle. For a moment, it was enticing, but I still thought things would be fine if we started moving.
We left the aid station and I fruitlessly started running. My concern had transformed to panic. When Bunda offered to share some of his extra gear, I gladly accepted, despite feeling stupid and ashamed of myself for being so unprepared. He gave me his windbreaker/poncho combination and put on his rain jacket. My rain jacket was waiting for me at Bonneveir, but two complications existed: Bonneveir was almost twenty miles away, and my jacket had suffered damage during the thru-hike that compromised its waterproofness. It was nothing but a glorified windbreaker that technically fit the gear requirement. Things were bleak.
We trudged forward. My expectation that the extra layers would “kick in” and I would warm up was met with a reality that instead of one soaked layer of thin plastic clinging to my skin, I now had 2.5. My watch informed me that we still had 1500 feet to the summit. Things were bad. In a span of less than an hour, I’d gone from thinking that everything was going perfectly, to calculating the best place to drop, to sincerely thinking that I might not make it down alive. I needed to quit. Bunda initially protested, but soon realized that this wasn’t a flippant or lightly made decision. My options were to go back to Trapper aid station or continue to either Calcite (a very remote aid station) or Bonneveir. We opted to continue. Gambling on a ride from a remote aid station with no crew access and little communication seemed too risky.
I kept getting colder. My hands and arms became inoperable. I couldn’t fasten my vest, eat, or drink. I stowed my trekking poles because I needed to shove my hands inside of my soaked layers just to get enough warmth to feel like I might have ten fingers at the bottom of the climb.
A fifty foot tree snapped at its base and fell heavily to our right. I jumped out of my skin. Simultaneously not funny and hilarious.
Near the top of the climb, we turned a corner, emerged from the forest, and were instantly assaulted by a wall of wind. Clouds shrouded the summit and obscured our path. The temperature on my watch now read 43 degrees Fahrenheit, which indicated an ambient temperature in the thirties since it was resting on the really cold, but still living tissue of my wrist. With the 40-50mph wind, wind chills were in the low twenties to high teens. I was suddenly shaking, coughing, and nauseous. The cold was an immense weight bearing down on me and I couldn’t breathe. I thought I might hyperventilate or die right there. Incredibly stupid and arrogant decisions had brought me to this point. Fortunately, the embarrassment would wait until later.
We passed zombies. It was a mix of people with legit winter gear, and fools like me covered in whatever piece of plastic or shredded clothing could be collectively produced. I considered whether my situation was dire enough to ask strangers for additional gear. I was too ashamed and kept trudging.
Finally, we re-entered the forest. The rain was now just a light drizzle and without the wind, I started to regain some confidence that I might escape with nothing more than a humbling tale of lessons learned the hard way. My core temperature was still a problem, best illustrated by the shaking that would ensue even after a short pee break, but things became manageable. Our spirits lifted and we were able to appreciate the twisted humor of the situation.
It was dark when we reached Calcite. My hands had regained some degree of dexterity, so after hours of no food or water, I drank some broth and tried to eat some food. It would have been a problem if I had to go farther than Bonneveir, but the rain was once again intensifying, temperatures were dropping, and the next climb would bring us to the top of an exposed and windy ridge where we would spend the night. I was lucky to get down from Trapper Lake, and I knew that if I continued I’d quickly become a liability to myself, Bunda, and the race organization. I would have to drop at mile 41. I wasn’t prepared for this.
We crossed the river and made it to the aid station. I’d long since stopped trying and checked out mentally, arriving with legs that felt fresh as a daisy. It was a disappointing way to end the day, but one that had spiraled out of my control. That is not to suggest that it was never in my control. Quite the contrary–my ridiculous situation was entirely my creation. I chose to bring the absolute minimum for required gear (in fact, I misread the list and thought space blankets were only a nighttime requirement, so I didn’t even have all of the required gear), without giving any consideration to why the gear was required, or how I would use it. I failed to adapt when the forecast shifted and called for rain. I showed an egregious lack of respect for nature and the mountains. And for what? To run two seconds a mile faster over the course of a race that spans two complete days? There are turning points in relationships from which there is no return. You might make peace, move on, and even forgive, but the dynamic shifts and all future interactions are seen through the myopic lens of who you were in that moment–such is the relationship that I now have with myself.
After a 30 minute shower, I was warm again. I got Nate’s tracker back online and tried to refocus on being excited for my friends who were on the course. Bunda had quit with me, and it suddenly dawned on me that it was my fault. Whether it was the gear that I took from him, or simply the nearness of my catastrophe, he would have otherwise continued. I didn’t even do anything to talk him out of it. I was too consumed with my own problems to try to help a friend.
I went to bed.
The following day was a mix of napping and watching Nate’s tracker. When he reached the Skyline section, Bunda and I headed to the finish line. Jared’s parents were there, so we sat around chatting and waiting for those two badasses to finish. Sometime early in the morning, they finished within thirty minutes of each other. I was thrilled and proud to call them my friends.
A day passed. Michelle and I left for a hike to an abandoned monk’s cave somewhere near Hedley. The terrain was gnarly. The bridges were washed out and we worked out way across the swift moving current with ripped off tree branches, hiding in little eddies before making a lunge for shore. My foul mood lifted and we were able to have a conversation not tainted by my self-directed disgust. I laughed again.
“I don’t think I can leave things like this.”
The trail was almost non-existent and the cave was equally spooky and beautiful.
“I pushed reset. I need to try again.”
I felt a sense of relief. I failed, but I escaped unharmed and ready to try again. Most importantly, failure poignantly illustrated that trail running is not about fixating on one thing. You need to be both prepared and flexible, tapping into imagination that conceives of things that might be, but does not needlessly linger there.
So, I blew the last of our airline miles and plan to sneak off to Idaho next month for the IMTUF100. It’s a lavish indulgence for redemption that matters only me, but I plan to keep the trip inexpensive by scamming airline miles and sleeping in a tent. Hopefully, it gives me a better story to write, because this one kind of sucked.