“The limits of your mind define the boundaries of your world” –Rita Ghadoury
Welcome back to my tale from the trail! If you’re just now joining me, you can find Part 1 of the story here: https://marglink.com/2015/06/10/sleep-deprivation-and-oreos-aka-the-ultramarathon-saga-pt-1/
When I left off last, we were nearly 24 hours past the start of the San Diego 100 ultramarathon at mile 88. Matt and I had departed the safety of the Chambers aid station and were headed back onto the trail, daylight only just beginning to break over the horizon to the east. Running through the night had worn Matt down and he was in survival mode, just focused on moving forward at whatever pace his fatigued body would allow. The music from the aid station faded behind us until all we heard was the crunching of the earth beneath our shoes as we pressed on towards Stonewall, a nearly 1000ft climb that loomed ahead of us.
I figured my role was just to keep Matt in good spirits, so I just chirped words of encouragement and tried not to let him get too upset about how bad he was feeling physically. From the little I understand about Ultrarunning, it’s a very much a mental game; your mind will start turning on you as you reach unprecedented levels of exhaustion, luring you with the siren song of sitting down, giving up, quitting. When your body has been running overnight, it’s not hard to rationalize calling it quits: everything hurts and you’re mentally vulnerable. The way Matt is wired, quitting is not in his vocabulary (whereas I will quit a 5-mile run at mile 2 if I smell donuts frying down the street). He’s told me many times that he’d crawl across the finish line if he needed to, and that he never wanted me to encourage him to drop out, even if he looked like he was in serious pain. So, we talked about anything other than the fact that his knees were shot, that his toes were bleeding through his shoes, or that he was running on ZERO sleep and still had over 12 miles of mountainous terrain to confront. Our pace was excruciatingly slow, but the whole point was just to get Matt to the finish line in one piece.
After passing through a sea of high grass, I felt the level terrain start to gradually trend upward; we’d started the ascent of Stonewall. I was ill-prepared for even a modest hike; wearing what I refer to as “spanky shorts”, a long-sleeved top, a north face fleece, sunglasses, and a “buff” (basically a tube of fabric that you can wear around your neck or over your head like a thick headband). I didn’t have water, sunscreen, snacks, or any of the technical gear that the other pacers were wearing. Too late to dwell on that; we were already on the mountain and however sunburnt and dehydrated I stood to be, Matt was certainly in worse shape.
The sun was moving higher into the sky, bringing the temperature up with it. As reassuring as it was that the cold night was over, the heat of the sun was a constant threat on this relatively exposed terrain (this is Southern California, after all). I shed my fleece jacket, tying it creatively around my waist to avoid hitting the pockets with every step. I thought about ditching it on the mountain, but I was carrying my keys and phone in the zipper pockets, so I just dealt with the extra bulk. We marched on, Matt trying to stay sane and me trying to be funny (which is pretty hit or miss). We talked about finding personal mantras, pieces of poetry & literature that inspired us and comforted us (one of our mutual favorites being “Don’t be a pussy, just get the fuck after it!”). We planned trips for later in the year, planned meals for later in the day. We laughed at this situation, the fact that people willingly submit themselves to extreme physical conditions just to test themselves and try to find the limit of their endurance. Matt waxed analytical about his physical pain as if he were disembodied from it, existing in a world where he’d accepted that pain was inevitable. Never once was quitting an option, so we marched on.
The terrain grew rockier as we approached the top of Stonewall, but with little joy. When you’ve already run 90+ miles, downhill isn’t the same respite as it might be otherwise- your joints are fragile and compromised, and every step of the descent is taken as gingerly as possible. This is why we refrained from celebration when we reached the top, hardly acknowledging the feat as we immediately began heading down the other side of the mountain.
We skidded and tripped down the steep slope, making slow work of the downhill but thankful for what it symbolized- we were on the home stretch, inching ever closer to the last aid station, Paso Picacho camp. I couldn’t wait to get Matt home so he could sleep (and at that point, a little sleep sounded really good to me, too). My car was parked back at Chambers aid station, but it was only a quick 2 minute drive from the finish line, so I figured we could get a ride back there. I absent-mindedly patted the fleece jacket around my waist, feeling for my keys and phone. Phone? check. Keys?
The key was gone, a fact which I confirmed by patting myself down spastically for about a full minute. At this point, we were less than a mile out from Paso Picacho. I weighed my options: should I just stay quiet and deal with my key situation when we crossed the finish line? Should I retrace my steps back up the mountain? How far back should I run before cutting my losses? I felt my heart rising into my throat, my empty stomach churning from my nerves. I broke the news to Matt, and we immediately decided that I should just retrace my steps while he kept moving forward towards the finish line alone. I spun around and started the uphill climb back to the top of Stonewall, carried by adrenaline. I felt like the hugest failure, leaving him by himself in this critical hour, but I knew I had to find my keys on the damn mountain.
I made what I believe to be record time up the mountain, scanning the trail as I marched over the dirt, increasingly frustrated. I had no idea where I could have dropped the key; I remembered tying my jacket up, but I didn’t know where on the mountain I’d done that. I reached the top of the mountain without finding my key I was flying blind, charging downhill and saying a silent prayer to the mountain that it’d present my keys to me. As I neared the bottom of Stonewall (had I made it back already?) it became apparent that I’d need to think of a contingency plan as I continued covering ground- it was unlikely that I was going to find my keys today.
I pulled out my phone and called my friend Stina, who’d mentioned that she and her boyfriend Ryan had wanted to watch Matt finish the race. The sun was getting high and hot, and it was time to call in favors. “Hey Stina… Did you and Ryan still want to come up to Julian today? Because I might actually need you to.” I explained the situation in between gasps of breath; I had made it all the way back to the sea of grass without finding my keys (running the whole way) and I was approaching the Chambers aid station, tall weeds whipping my legs as I kept my pace. After some logistical negotiation, it was settled that Ryan would drive up to Julian to watch the finish of the race/provide us with transportation back to downtown San Diego.
Alright, that took care of my #1 concern: getting Matt home immediately after his race. I pushed all of my other concerns (such as: was I going to leave my car parked on the mountain tonight? How was I going to get to work? Where on earth was my spare key?) to the back of my mind as I arrived back at Chambers aid station, breathless but relieved. The aid station volunteers were happy to find me a ride back to the finish line so that I could hopefully catch up with Matt before he finished the race. I jumped out of the volunteer’s truck at the finish line (thanks, kind stranger!) and immediately hopped back on the trail, working backwards in pursuit of Matt. I wanted to get as far as I could so that I could run as much trail with him as possible. It was now past 9am, and I was heading straight uphill again.
This is now over 1500 words (sorry!), so I’m going to take a break and publish Part 3 of the story later.
Have you ever crewed or paced for an ultramarathon? Was it as dramatic as my experience? Let me know!
Edit: pssssst! You can read part 3 here: https://marglink.com/2015/07/06/trust-the-universe-but-call-your-mom-anyways-the-ultramarathon-saga-pt-3/