This one is about the time I ran 25 miles up a mountain in Oregon... and 25 miles back down. It was published in Marathon & Beyond (September 2008 Issue) under the title "Is this Cool?"
The guy in the picture? Most definitely NOT me.
In practice, such stuffy questions and their civilized cousins don’t venture into my head too often... and when one does, the stay is always brief. They touch down gingerly and a crowd gathers ‘round. An airlock hisses open and a figure emerges, well dressed and respectable looking. Preparing to address what it mistakes for a captive audience, it clears its throat. Then chokes, dies, and gets eaten by the locals.
Inside my head, one question rules, unchallenged. It has sharp fangs and battle scars. It wears running shoes, faded jeans, and sleek sunglasses. It routinely rescues babes in distress. It has a pet wolf. It is: Is this cool?
In case youre wondering - and rightly so - what, if anything, have the previous paragraphs got to do with running... they are just my artsy (over-active imagination) way of saying - by way of introduction and pre-emptive excuse - that questions of health, profit, or logic - specially of logic - don’t exactly weigh in when I’m deciding on a course of action. What tips the balance is most often the question of coolness. It has little to do with illumination, and much with ignition, combustion. That is to say, the answer does not teach me a a damn thing, it merely fuels me. Propels me.
This story begins on a Wednesday, and it begins - as do most of my stories - with me daydreaming and wondering: wouldn't it be cool...
To run a 50-mile ultra? Not that the question hasn’t crossed my mind a hundred times. But today I’m ready for the answer. The wind is blowing just right, and the spark catches. Spontaneous combustion. Just like that, all prior plans are consumed... little piles of smoldering bones.
With a little help from Google, by the end of the day I’ve found me a race: The Mount Hood 50/50. By the end of the week I’ve mailed my check and started training. I have less than a month to get ready.
This has the feel of that place in the tale where the cautious author reminds the eager reader that this stunt was performed by a trained professional and should not be attempted at home. But no one has ever accused me of displaying particular - nor, for that matter, any - caution. To say nothing of training or professionalism.
Thursday. Training begins. I stuff a couple of overdue rental movies into a backpack, fill my water bottle, pocket my credit card, and leash up Orca, my dog. I run the 6 miles to town. There I buy a tub of glucosamine powder, to strengthen my knees, scoop some of the stuff right into the aforementioned water bottle, and throw the rest in my backpack. I return the movies, rent new ones, and run back home. I cook dinner and watch the movies.
Friday. Trail-shoe research day (actually, I’m recovering from yesterday which, incidetally, was my longest run in months). I settle on the Brooks Cascadia based on one line of one review: A combat boot disguised as a trail shoe. Cool.
Saturday, 1 p.m. - my whole morning is wasted in pursuit of an imaginary Brooks outlet. This is my third Cascadia-less store. Enough, it ends here! It comes down to Montrails or Mizunos.
Montrails have a compelling know-my-way-'round-mountains swagger. The Mizunos are mostly white, sparkly, and roady... far from cool, at least until they have been soaked in mud for a day. But... t'was a pair of Mizunos carried me through the Lake Tahoe Triple: Three marathons, three days, just one t-shirt (an adventure chronicled elsewhere). So in the end, I settle for the Mizuno Antihistamine (or something). Then I head off to the mountains, to break them in.
Over the next three weeks, a training routine coagulates. Fifteen miles of urban running during the week. Saturday, fifteen miles of trail, followed by a movie. For there is nothing sweeter than coasting down from a mountain-bred endorphin high, in the comfort of a movie-theater, peacefully sipping on a giant smoothie. Ahhhh (or is it just me?).
Before every run, I force-chug a shot of glucosamine powder mixed with lemon juice and honey. A concoction so magnificently foul that it must be, if nothing else, doing wonders to strenghten my character.
Orca - who, at barely one foot tall, can somehow run circles (six inch legs ablurr) around me while chasing squirrels, birds and all manner of imaginary forest creatures - is loving life. In spite of her walnut sized brain and abbreviated stature she is a matchless and fearless outdoors companion and training partner. She never shows the slightest sign of waning energy or enjoyment (Except this one time I fed her some breafast leftovers right before a run, then spent the next hour reproving her for falling behind. Finally she stopped, produced six undigested sausages, looked at me as if to say “you were saying?” then tried to eat them again.). She follows me even when, at the turnaround point in one of our mountain runs, I take my shirt and shoes off and swim to the far shore of a Cascades-nestled lake (which was all good and well, until she actually caught up with me and tried to climb up my back to my head).
And then, just as I was beginning to get the hang of this training business, I suddenly find myself busy with last minute packing (powergel, aspirin, and my least dirty pair of running socks). It's time. It’s the day before the race.
I leave Everett at 4 p.m. ... and thud into bumper-to-bumper Seattle traffic. Fortunately, my anticipation of tomorrow's battle is fueling a traffic-jam-proof-grin. Between bumpers I sing and practice lobbing smiles into the fields of vision of cute girls driving past on faster lanes.
It’s a long drive. I stop twice for gas, and once for pizza and beer. At 2:30 a.m., road-weary, long past singing and smile-lobbing, I finally arrive at the Clackamas Historic Ranger station. A cardboard sign on a tree has “Race Central” and an arrow, pointing into the woods.
I turn off the engine and mountain-silence floods in. I go out barefoot for a lung-and-mind clearing stroll. It’s cold and my headlamp lights my breath-clouds. Orca immediately disappears into the woods in hot pursuit of some terrified creature of the night, real or otherwise. Although we’ve shared every training inch of road and trail, she’ll be spending race day inside the van. The race website is clear: dogs may cheer, but they may not run.
I go back in the van and clip my toenails. The theory being that, a little glitch - like a toenail rubbing the front of a shoe - could turn into big problems tomorrow, around mile 40 or so. I figure it’s like reentry from orbit. First, a toenail-tiny chunk of heat shield peels off. Next the whole thing turns bright red, and - before anyone can think “oh dear!” - flies apart.
Disaster averted, I climb into the mattress in the back of my van, read a few pages of my book, and fall asleep. For two hours.
0532, Race Day. Fierce e-chirping needlegunning at the walls of my comatose human brain. My mammalian brain tries to swat it away with a tail it no longer commands. My reptile brain thinks: food?
The shiny bloodsucking parasite on my wrist doesn’t relent, forcing me to look at its face. Good God! The early starters started at 0530. Is that possible? Maybe not... too dark?... early... nice (yawn)... warm... outside cold... just a little...
Gray forest light snakes into the cool darkness of my van, around the pillow squashed across my face, and through my jammed-shut eyelids. I give, open one eye, pull a curtain and look. Two parked cars. No movement.
Aha! I launch the theory that, somewhere between Seattle and Mt Hood (almost directly south), I drove through a time-zone change of the sort that will allow me one more hour of oneness with my sleeping bag.
Ordinarily, I’m not that stupid. But in this defective mental state I am extra-vulnerable to the machinations of my excuse-generating inner-sloth. For a few minutes, time-zone-crossing is perfectly plausible, and I cling to it. But something harder in me prevails: I really have to pee.
I roll off bed feeling the way people feel who wake up at 0530 in the back of a van, after spending 10 of the last 24 hours working, 11 driving, 1 consuming beer and garlic-saturated pizza, and 2 sleeping. I need mouthwash and coffee. Intravenously.
Orca and I walk over to Race Central. I fill a little paper cup with black coffee and collect my race-bag-o-goodies. She tries to pick fights with dogs four times her size. We split three slices of leftover pizza.
The race starts before I’ve had time to make my peace with sunlight, and life is radically simplified: I run. The rest of reality will have to take a number, grab a magazine, and have a seat.
Mile 4. I bite the dust. I give my feet credit; hard workers. But easily startled. Show them an unexpected tangle of roots, and they panic. Somehow I manage to parry the hurtling planet and throw it off to the right. With only a light sprinkling of dust and blood, I’m up before the runner behind me has had the opportunity to trample me.
Mile 6. The ground rises steeply to the right. To the left, trees start thinning out and whole patches of sky begin to shine through, until finally the woods fall away completely and the trail is left naked, clinging to a wall. Below, a magnificent valley, vast and green. Across this, Mount Hood.
Now, in pedestrian life, views and destinations don’t mingle. However, the cheerful, double-fisted-water-bottle-carrying, crowd peppering this trail, isn’t made up of common pedestrians. The huge mountain on the far side of the huge valley of huge trees (home - no doubt - to many huge squirrels), that view… is also our destination. Every runner I see, has a full-on grinn.
Mile 8. Different parts of my body gradually come aglow into my consciousness like guitar-strings tensioning to a higher pitch. I worry until the feeling subsides, to re-surface later on a different body part.
Mile 10. I take a deep breath, and (I read this in some running magazine many years ago) picture myself as a cheetah. The vision runs outside and around me. Like one of those prints you find in western-themed souvenir shops, of American Indians superimposed by translucent, eagles, or bears.
Then I look at the woods below and think: wrong predator. I widen my grin, and imagine it to be a dog’s toothsome pure-joy-in-running grin. Only, not a dog. I picture my eyes turning the color of fog. Wind parting around long clean fangs. I morph my plastic clad feet into giant gray furry pads. I sniff the air. Little Red Ridinghoooood, where are yoooou?
Mile 15. On the whole, I feel great. The air tastes sharp and new. My legs feel strong. I see other runners occasionally. They grin. I grin back.
I’m singing, sort off. Each note-syllable of Ram Jam’s Black Betty turned into a hiss or a fiss (depending on whether I need to inhale or exhale). It’s a sort of mantra. “Oooooh Black Betty bam-balam” sounds like Hssssss-hss-fs-hs-fsss-hs-fs. I’ve got rhythm.
(Later - to my despair - a different tune will burrow its way in... “I can do everything you can do better. Everything you can do I can do too. No you can’t. Yes I ...” Stop! I will attempt in vain to harness Black Betty again. Alas, she is by then running much too fast for me.)
Mile 20, or so. A little calculation demonstrates conclusively that by mile 26.3 I will have run my worst marathon time ever.
Mile 24 finds us trudging. Dozens of runners. Hands on thighs. Ankles sinking in soft miniature avalanches of sand. To our right, the face of a glacier. Gorgeous! I think, followed by, this shit sucks!
High above all this toil and grandeur, a small gray-green building floats. A window overlooks the winding line of runners shimmering in the heat. Inside, I imagine the devil sitting in a rocking chair with a tall glass of lemonade at his side. He watches as I battle the sand and, hour after hour, get no nearer the accursed turnaround. Some weeks go by.
Finally bored, the devil flings me up the mountain. And out of the sand and the rocks, and the sweat cascading into my eyes, a parking lot materializes, and a small crowd of fashionably winterized folk. I smile at a few snowboard-toting cuties as I drip past them. “I just ran twenty five miles up this mountain” I never tell them. I grab a mouthful of fruit, a handful of gummy bears, and head back the way I came.
Mile 30. Some thing inside me does a double flip. Feels like the alien from Alien. It scares me. Not that I imagine some unpleasant critter is about to burst through my bellybutton, hiss at the audience, then start feeding upon ultramarathoners.
I’m scared because whatever this thing is - spasming muscle, convulsing intestine, predatory life form in larval stage - it feels awful strong. If it were to wiggle in the wrong direction, it could easily bend me into a pretzel of hurt. Game over man!
Mile 40. I have been running for some time through a red fog of pain. I think about things I might write. I wax philosophical. Why am I here?
There’s the ruler question, of course. Somewhy, my mind construes prolonged raw hardship midst epic views as cool, ergo coveted, experiences.
Also, there’s... this affair I’m having.
Not love. Nature is not lovable. She lies beyond, impenetrable to sane human minds. She is sweat and blood, and very little rest for the weary. No place for humans. In Nature, you run or you starve. You run or you get eaten. In short, mostly, you run.
But man, is She fucking beautiful! I can’t help it. I must feel her, smell her, get near her. So I do this. I run, and let my sweat flow into her. I have my lust affair.
Mile 44. Last aid-station. I discover that the experience of putting on an ice-soaked ball cap in 100-degree weather after running 44 miles is best - but insufficiently - described as orgasmic.
Mile 45. Tottering sanity. My sweat is no longer water that evaporates to remove latent heat from my body, but motor oil. It covers me in an increasingly thick and hot layer of lightly glowing, reddish-black ooze.
Oh, and for some time now, I’ve been hallucinating, mildly. Ordinary-looking people, sitting or standing, beyond the edge of focus, then resolving into tree stumps or shadows. One of them goes so far as to flaunt a ball cap, long hair and a dirty flannel shirt with cutoff sleeves, before shrugging itself into a bush, twenty feet in front of me.
Mile 48. Legs gone. I ask of them nothing more than a dusty little shuffle. Rather than lift my feet, I take detours around such obstacles as pebbles and small branches.
I catch up and strike a conversation with a pretty runner. Clearly in pain, she is also carefully swerving ‘round pebbles. Says she loves this stuff. I believe her. I love it too. Or I will, in a few days. Suddenly she is too far back and I am alone, again.
Mile 49 1/2. The mountain spits me out. A band of volunteers gives me a hearty cheer. I smile. I wince. I pump my arms, trying to add a little bravado to my pathetic shuffle down the road.
Suddenly there is that “Race Central” sign again. I plunge through and there it is, that imaginary line in the dirt declaring that my struggles end here, for now. My spirit and my stupid grin glide sublimely across. My wounded body limps and drags and drips. At this moment, surrounded by cheers, sweat, and nature, I feel I have found True Happiness. Ah, but it’s only an illusion. Of course, I am wrong.
True-True Happiness embraces me as I sit down by the finish line, with a cold beer on each hand, cheering other runners through their final moments of glorious suffering, with a loyal dog licking the salt off my legs, and my mind filled with the certainty that I’ve done something foolish and nonsensical, maybe even unhealthy... but undeniably badass-cool. I’ve done right by him, and from his throne, the ruler smiles on me.
To My Mom, who lusted after mountains and tall trees first. And who was - as often as life allowed - the coolest mom.