The Fifteen Hour Friend

“How did you meet” seems to be a question reserved for the happenstance that led to one being coupled. True friends, so the thinking goes, are the ones you’ve known so long that you cannot even remember not knowing them, much less how you met.

img_20180517_105443

The Life Bus is everywhere!

But these days, people meet on all kinds of adventures. Holly I met while running Zion. Laura in the Miami airport on the way to Cuba. Lexi and I are mountain rescue friends.  A couple weekends ago, I met a new friend under circumstances that test all but the most understanding of friendships.

This time, the Life Bus took me to Blairsville, GA.  It ranks highest in friendliness in a state renowned for friendliness. The goal: completion of the Cruel Jewel, a 106 mile (the extra six are the cruel part) trail run over ten Appalachian peaks. The other part of the cruel is Dragon’s spine in the last twenty miles of the race.  

Mike and I are also mountain rescue friends. He left the team several years ago to pursue a career in nursing but we have kept in touch, me pestering him to DJ at the Evergreen Town Race, and him inviting me to the Camp Kesem annual charity event.  It’s the mark of either true friendship or complete insanity that he offered to crew for me during this event. Possibly both, in his case.

I tore off my Colorado layers as the Georgia humidity enveloped me while Mike navigated the Atlanta airport traffic, comparable to what I had experienced in Nepal several years ago.  With matching eyerolls, I jumped in the Jeep he’d rented and settled into my role as navigator.

First stop, Whole Foods.  It is an undying pre-100 race belief of mine that no city on the planet has any food like Denver’s food and that I must bring all the food with me.  A sixty pound suitcase convinced me that maybe I should at least check to see if coconut water existed in the remote regions of Georgia. Sure enough, on the outskirts, even on the way, was a Whole Foods.

And what a Whole Foods it was.  We stocked up with enough food to last two nuclear holocausts because I was still convinced Blairsville would be in the middle of a terrible famine.  Then had lunch. Fried chicken and catfish and peach cobbler is a healthy lunch when it’s purchased at Whole Foods, right? Pretty sure it didn’t count as carbo loading either.

I had booked a cabin at Helton Falls, less than two miles from the race start at Vogel State Park.  In retrospect, finding a spot more midway between Blairsville and Vogel would have been more convenient, but I don’t think we would have found a more peaceful, comfortable spot.  And Stephen, the owner, called twice and texted once as we made our way there, making sure we weren’t lost. Our cabin was appropriately named “The Nut House”.

 

Blairsville was not in the middle of a famine, I am happy to report.  On the contrary, it boasts more bakeshops per capita than all of Colorado.  And one spectacular Southern cooking restaurant appropriately called Hole in the Wall.  I think Mike visited again while I was out running. But that night, I continued my splurge with more fried catfish, hush puppies and fried okra. I skipped the sweet tea–I didn’t want to overdo it.

Especially when one of the bakeries was also an Italian restaurant, with homemade tiramisu. I might have finished the race an hour slower, but it was worth every calorie.

Thursday was reserved for checking out the course. Mike estimated about four hours to drive the hundred miles I would be running.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my friends at Fatdog had driven many many more miles than that, the aid station driving route often being more circuitous than the running route.  

We were both relieved that it was much shorter.  There was no real indication of where the stations actually were, but at least the roads were solid dirt roads, which was one thing off my mind. I wouldn’t have to call Mike’s wife to explain how Mike had driven off a cliff after two sleepless nights.

img_20180516_152654

Another great road name

I kept myself at least entertained by pointing out the names of the roads, apparently named by locals.  4 Wheel Drive. Snake Nation (the name of my next band) Road. Winding Road. Just-A-Mere Drive. And my personal favorite: Cookie Martin Drive.

There were a few named after couples (Harrison and Ada Road), and we wondered who got the road when there wasn’t a happily-ever-after.

On the way back to the Nut House, we stopped at Cabin Coffee, quaint, Southern friendly, and amazing coffee.  Their logo is “Just be happy and have fun”.  Is there a better logo?

img_20180517_160740

The shirt I bought at Cabin Coffee

They lived it. There was no calling out your name, vaguely mispronounced. No, they brought your coffee right to you, with a smile and a have-a-great-day. The religious sayings posted on the walls made me want to believe.  Bill, one of the locals who made it his duty to greet everyone with a smile and a God-bless-you, reminded me of the Christianity I grew up with, the love-one-another kind, not the use-the-Bible-to-judge-and-condemn-those-who-are-different kind that seems so prevalent these days. I don’t think Bill ever judges anyone.  He looks out for those having a bad day, or a bad life, and does what he can to bring a little light in. Every coffee shop needs a Bill.

I had a chai while Mike indulged in the Palomino frappe, a “highly caffeinated” coffee–I suggested Mike might bring me one the second night. I know Mike stopped by more than once during the race.  He didn’t bring me any coffee. But I’m not holding that against him. Really.

The rest of the day was spent trying to stay off my feet and relax.  Being told to relax, even and maybe especially by yourself, never works.  

The race started at noon Friday and I was stressing about stressing the day of the race. Packet pickup was at 9. Should we get there at 9 in case there’s a rush?  10 so we didn’t have to wait around so long? What would parking be like? In addition to believing nowhere has grocery stores, I also believe that the parking situation will always be akin to that of the Boston marathon, with its thousands of runners.  150 people signed up for the Cruel Jewel. Parking would be as much a problem as finding food. Mike, to his credit, was happy with whatever I wanted to do, which changed every time he asked me. I think he was just happy to not have to get up at 4 am.

I stayed up as late as I could, only to wake up at 4 am Georgia time. I slept fitfully then gave up around 7.  I tried to eat slowly. I tried to pack slowly. I tried to dress slowly. I tried to relax.

I was ready to go before 8.

 

 

We drove over around 9 (stopping to finally say hi to Stephen, thank him for his hospitality and try to explain why anyone would run a hundred miles).  Maybe three people were there for packet pickup. I picked up my packet and walked back to the car. I sat down and stared straight ahead. Mike suggested coffee.  I froze with indecision–what if there was no parking when we got back, what if we got lost, what if we fell asleep–but coffee won.

We got coffee, drank it and drove back. There was still plenty of parking. The minutes continued to drag by, me fluctuating between wishing them speed and enjoying my final moments of repose, knowing what was to come.

Then we were off.  

I’ve written almost two pages on the events leading up to the race, but what do I say about the race itself?  I ran. I ran up then I ran down. Then I ran back up again. I never ran flat, though. That’s the other cruel part of this race.  For being so cruel, the course was amazing. I am not skilled at technical terrain and this was beautiful terrain, the trails cushioned by centuries of pine needles and leaves. Georgia was in the middle of 40 days and nights of rain and that held for the race.  It was a light rain the first day, holding the temperatures down. I was still drenched from the humidity, praying the pound of goop I’d applied to my entire body would protect me from the dreaded chafing.

cj18_mile20

Mile 20, still signs of life

I finally got to see Mike around mile twenty, about seven hours into the race.  I was feeling pretty good–I was actually feeling great. I was going way faster than I would allow myself to believe. I was eating and drinking plenty.  I was happy.

The weather gods did not smile down that night.

Shortly after sunset, the lightning started.  Lightning is beautiful when curled up with a good book.  Not so much alone on a trail. I watched it with growing trepidation.  A final crack-boom opened the heavens and the deluge began.

The rain did a disco dance in the light of my headlamp. I threw on my rain jacket for no other reason than I wanted to–it certainly didn’t do any good.  My route meandered from edge to edge of the road, unable to see a foot in front of my feet. “Geez, I wanna see something!” I finally yelled to no one in particular.

CRACK BOOM. The landscape lit up, and it took only those few dazzling seconds for me to decide maybe utter darkness wasn’t so bad.  

I slogged through the rain and mud throughout the night and as the sun made its appearance.  I kept running. The clouds disappeared and the temperatures rose. I kept running. I never got got any drier.

cj10_mile53

The turnaround at mile 53-ish

I was starting to feel a glimmer of hope that I wouldn’t have to run through the entirety of the second night, when I started on yet another endless uphill.  The course was an out-and-back but I’d run this section through the night more than twelve hours before. I remembered none of it.

That’s when I met my fifteen hour friend.

Her name is Lara and she was running the 50 mile race.  She was supposed to be running it with friends but life being as it is, she was now alone.  She had started at eight that morning, but still was not looking forward to the Dragon’s Spine that night alone.

Me either.  I knew it would take everything I had to get through it and I knew I’d be dealing with hallucinations on top of bitter fatigue. I knew by then that I would do it, because, deep in my soul, I wanted to finish.  But to do what it would take to get there–that I really, really didn’t want to do.

Lara’s pace was much stronger than mine, but I offered up a weak, if you really want company and don’t mind waiting… I didn’t expect her take me up on it.

But there she was, at the final aid station before the big climb, waiting.  My gratitude went beyond words. Mike had hoped to pace me the last bit when I knew I needed it the most, but the logistics didn’t work out.  I was trying to not be bitterly disappointed, but it was hard.

When running ultras, I’m always reminded on the “Footprint in the Sands” story about God carrying us the during the trials of our lives. For me, it’s not so much God as it is my friends who carry me through the trials of my life.  And while the second night of a hundred compares not at all to the loss of a job or a loved one, still, I feel carried by the people who has given up days of their life to help me achieve my simple goal to finish.

cj18_mile80

My nemesis, mile 80

And here was Lara.  My fifteen hour friend.  Prior to the aid station, Oak and I had become friends and he became part of our straggly band of runners.  Somewhere along the next section, we picked up another runner, a Latvian whose training regime consisted of running two miles a day. That’s it.  I’m still not sure what I make of that. Oak and the Latvian disappeared somewhere along the trail during the dark night, but Lara was right there with me.  

Up and up and up and up we traveled on the Dragon’s Spine, a stupid steep section and the only technical terrain on the course. I marveled at how little I remembered. And I had tried so hard to memorize as much as I could so I wouldn’t be surprised on the return trip.  

Lara and I shared bits and pieces of our lives when we weren’t swearing at the trail and wondering where the hell the aid station was, bonded by our shared misery and our shared goal.  She was going through a divorce, me, a mid life crisis.  Mostly, though, we were silent, each in our own thoughts and misery, trying to just make it through.

We somehow managed to time the rising of the sun with the final big ascent before a blessed four mile downhill. It ended at a bridge that marked the final three miles and, with memories of Grand Raid, I saw bridges everywhere. I tried staring only at my feet, but I could still “see” the bridges.  I swore I would never run a 48 hour race again.

What was in reality a small uphill, but with the fatigue seemed so much longer, was almost our undoing.  Lara shed a few tears of frustration–at the race and at life–and only my exhaustion kept me from joining her, the effort even to cry beyond me at this point.

cj18_lara

Me and my fifteen hour friend, Lara

And then, forty-five hours after I’d started, we were on the road that led directly to the finish.  We just looked at each other and grinned. We marveled as we limped our way along at how we, two complete strangers, could have shared such an experience as we just had, pushing and pulling each other along on our journeys, giving the support and sarcasm each needed to do what we had set out to do.

I collapsed at the end, trying to explain to Mike what I was feeling and thinking. Lara had to get a shower before they booted her out of the cabin she’d rented.  We saw each other once more before I left, exchanging a heartfelt hug of gratitude that was beyond words.

Will we see each other again? Keep in touch? It’s hard to say. Before social media, it would have been a certain “no”.  Call a virtual stranger, no matter the circumstances, just to say hi? When was the last time anyone even wrote a letter? There are so many people we encounter at races, during vacations, and at other random events in our lives, who have such an impact in such a short time, people we will never forget, yet who fade from our existence as easily and they entered it.  Is that how it’s supposed to be? Our lives so different that it truly is for just those few moments that we are meant to be together? Maybe so. However these stories end, I believe being grateful that the story was ever written is the part we should keep with us always.

img_20180516_193657

A quote from The Hole In The Wall restaurant

 

Advertisements

Le Grand Raid

I felt my foot slip out from under me and completely off the trail. The rest of my body quickly followed suit.  As I hung there, dangling, clinging to a small tree, my feet finding no purchase, all I could think was, why am I still holding on?

It was maybe mile sixty of a hundred and I’d been awake more than 48 hours at that point.  I have never known such delirium and hope never to again.

004

Le Diagonale des Fous.  The Angle of Fools. That’s the direct translation.  The translation of the race directors is not much better: The Madman’s Diagonal.  The race runs diagonally across the island. And you have to be mad to do it.

Or you will be.

I had first heard of the race from a French friend I met via Strava. I don’t know if it’s characteristic of the French or not, but he was one to over promise and under deliver.  He had proposed we do the race together–he would navigate the language and I would help him train. Alas, he found himself a girlfriend (not sure if his wife knew or not) and somehow “forgot” to register for the race.  

I had to get up at 3am to  register–the registration opened at noon Reunion Island time and generally filled in less than an hour. Reunion Island isn’t exactly third world but it’s also not first world, and the server couldn’t handle the load.  Angry red and yellow pages, made worse by being in French, kept popping up. I refreshed as fast as my fingers allowed and somehow finally got my registration completed.

Heart pounding with a mix of exuberance and what-have-I-just-done, I knew I wouldn’t sleep so my training started at 5am.

About seven years ago, I spent two weeks trekking in Nepal, around Manaslu, a trek that few Americans do, so not much English was spoken.  I spent one evening watching my guide chatting with a single woman, older and a hotel owner. This was highly unusual in Nepal. I had a million questions for her, none of which my guide would translate.  I promised myself I would never visit another country where I couldn’t communicate.

So right after I received my confirmation, I found a tutor to teach me French. Chelsea has lived the life I would go back and live if I could.  She’s a language major, speaks seven languages fluently, and has lived in so many countries. She understands culture. We often spent as much in weekly lesson as in animated discussion of politics.  

She had never heard of Reunion Island but had spent much of her childhood in France, living with an aunt.  Her stories were straight out of stereotyped legends.

During my stay, I would spend the hour before an encounter practicing what I would say. At the hotel: J’ai une reservation.  Je m’appelle Lynda Wacht.

006

Then of course they would ask me a question. Avez vous votre idenficacion? To answer, I needed to understand the question. Which I didn’t.  I spoke French like a champ. Understanding it? Not so much.

Fortunately, the Reunionites do not share the French stereotype of pretending to not understand English.  Unfortunately, it is because they genuinely do not understand English. Some have a rudimentary understanding but I was definitely in the deep end and flailing like a muppet.

I was glad to have paid a little extra for a hotel where the staff spoke English.  At least I had a starting base.

After finding and checking into the hotel, the next order of business was mastering the bus system.  Once I realized my French friend wasn’t planning on being there at all, I had done quite a bit of research on logistics. Being a point-to-point race, beginning in Saint Pierre and ending in Saint Denis, made everything that much harder.  My hotel was in Saint Denis–I knew enough about racing to know that even in the US, I wouldn’t have the brain cells left to get on a bus and off at the right location after 48 hours of being awake.

007

But that meant I had to get to Saint Pierre for the packet pickup and the race start.  The hotel people were great for getting me downtown via the bus. That took me right to the main station where I could get a bus to anywhere on the island.  Score one for me!

I wandered around the downtown area, trying to find the finish area.  I found a tourist information center and managed to secure a map, but not much else.   I’m pretty decent with navigation and soon found the large field that I hoped I would cross in a few days from then.  

Never have I been more thankful that most road signs are pictures and not words.  The last hurdle in my race would be finding a bus back to the hotel, two miles away.  There is no greater testament to the fact that it is the mind and heart that gets one across the finish line than not being able to walk three feet past that finish line, so laugh if you will: two miles after a hundred is an impossible distance.  I found the station I needed to return to the hotel and hoped my sleep deprived mind would remember the steps it took to get there.

Back in town, I found a small sandwich shop that looked empty enough that I would not annoy people as I tried again to navigate my way through the French language.  I successfully ordered my sandwich only to be stymied by a question: Khoka? I gave him my frustratedly embarrassed look. He looked confused. Anglais? He shook his head but pointed to the *Coca* Cola bottle in the display case.  Ah, si! Dammit. Oui!

I wandered around a bit more, finding a small bookstore where I purchased a running magazine in French.  The lady heard my excellent accent and asked (in French–and I understood!) if I was running the race and wished me well.  I smiled as I walked out. Another small victory.

036

The next day was packet pickup in Saint Pierre.  I practiced my request to purchase bus fare. Je voudrais un billet pour Saint Pierre pour la journée, s’il vous plait.  I was behind who I was pretty sure was another runner. When it was his turn to purchase, he raised one finger and said “Saint Pierre”.  

He got his ticket and was on his way.

Saint Pierre was a madhouse.  The race I did prior to this one was the Ouray 100.  It was a four am start and there were 30 of us. When I went to get my packet for the race, I and the race director were the only ones there.  

Two thousand, five hundred runners had signed up for this race.  That is a lot of runners. A lot. All in one park, waiting for packet pickup to start.  Getting there an hour early had not done me much good. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.  I looked around, trying to find someone to strike up a conversation with while I waited, but of all the languages I heard, none were English.  About twenty countries are represented at this race. Six people were from the US, nine from Canada and even less from the UK. So I just watched, trying hard to not be overwhelmed and intimidated.  

The group compressed as the gates opened.  Fortunately, I stood about a head above most, and was able to keep my bearings.  I smiled at people as we all became sardines, but the expression was rarely returned.  The race was the next day, and the goal was to get the bag and get back off one’s feet to rest.

I finally got my bag, t-shirts, GPS device, and race information. The line wound its way around all the sponsors.  I soon had quite the assortment of goods, most of which I had no clue to their purpose.

Saint Pierre is one of the most beautiful ocean towns I have ever visited.  Reunion Island wasn’t discovered by Europeans until the late 1800s, and most of the island still feel very quaint.  With the exception of Saint Denis, the business center, the towns are small and full of history.

IMG_1926

I wandered around, looking for the restaurant I had found online for lunch, right across the street from the ocean.  My legs were already tired from the couple hours of standing around.

Food is a bit tricky before a race, especially in a foreign country: lots of risk for getting ill.  The restaurant was buffet style, which got me out of having to know what was on the menu. I sat outside and enjoyed the view, trying to ignore my rising nervousness about the race.  I enjoy my own company and usually there is at least one person to chat with, so I rarely feel lonely, but at that moment, I truly felt lonely. I understood nothing that was being said around me.  I wished I had spent even more time learning French, even knowing it would not have helped much. There is understanding enough to get by and there is truly being able to converse. It would take more than a few months of tutoring to be fluent.

The race didn’t start until 10pm.  Unfortunately, the construction next to the hotel started at 7am.  Not that I was really asleep anyway. I got up and headed to breakfast, free with my stay and quite possibly the best breakfast buffet I’ve ever eaten.  I had on my race shirt already–I’m not sure why. It was a requirement of the race to wear it at the beginning and the end. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it during all those middle miles, so just planned on wearing it the whole race, like I do all my races.

Fast forward to the end of the race, where all I can smell is heavy cologne and everyone is wearing a clean shirt, packed in their final drop bag.  Ah, the French. Always about looking good.

Having my race shirt on did allow a TV sports anchor from France to recognize me as a race participant.  He was a beautiful man who spoke beautiful English with a beautiful accent and I learned about how truly popular and important this race is, to the country and to France as well. The entire race is televised both there and in France.  Now I understood the clean shirt at the end–and pretty sure this American was edited out. It was interesting to learn.

But mostly, I was just excited to be having my first real conversation in four days.

A bus was reserved for taking runners to the Saint Pierre from across the island.  It left around 5pm, so of course I got there around 3. On the way, I stopped at my favorite sandwich shop (wearing my t-shirt) and received a special sandwich from my new favorite store owner who remembered me from two days prior and wished me well on my endeavor.

It was my good fortune to find a native who spoke English waiting at the bus stop as well.  It afforded me a chance to ask a question that had been plaguing me since the night before: what the hmmm is a ‘sac banane’??   To pass the time the evening before, I had tried reading the race rules in French and discovered that ‘banana sacks are prohibited’.  In typical last minute freak out mode, I became convinced that I must find out what one is lest I show up at the start and be forbidden from running a race I had spent hundreds of dollars and hours on.  I emailed Chelsea who could offer no help. So I asked my newfound friend, who through a series of gestures led me to understand that a sac banane is a fanny pack.

Crisis averted.  I hadn’t owned one of those in many years.

I managed to sleep a little on the three hour bus ride to the start.  The start was complete chaos. I saw no signs and people seemed to be going in every directions.  I didn’t even pretend to know what I was doing, hoping someone would take pity and point the way.  Not so much. I wandered until I somehow managed to end up in a line, where I encountered an actual crisis.  I had purchased the wrong ACE bandages. Without the proper ones, I would not be allowed to start the race. Seriously.  Through yet another series of gestures, I learned that the correct ACE bandages were sticky. And I also learned that they were for sale at the next table.

Crisis two averted.

There was a large stage where the race director was being made up before being interviewed. A pop band was blaring music.  And two thousand five hundred runners were sprawled out, trying to rest before the start.

013

I can’t even begin to express the sensory overload.  I was both excited and intimidated, wanting to cry but not sure why.

Everyone on the island was there.  Everyone. There were fireworks. And music. And cheering. And dancing.  I tried to slow my brain, taking it all in. The Ouray 100 had started with the race director waving his arms and yelling “okay, go”.  

010

Turns out slowing down was the worst possible thing I could have done.  The first ten miles are on a wide road, which then suddenly becomes a trail.  The first ten miles took me two hours. The next three took over three hours. It almost cost me the race.

I just stood in line, trying to figure out what to do.  Some people were just pushing past everyone, but that didn’t seem like the right thing to do.  Did I just stand there and wait? Was this really how it went? For how long? I mean, people finished this race–heck, most people did, given the generous cutoffs.

I finally worked up the nerve to ask the gentleman next to me, “C’est normale?”  

“C’EST NORMALE?  C’EST NORMALE?!! ….” I have no idea what he said after that, but from the gesturing and tone, I guessed a pretty angry rant.  Others were nodding and shaking their heads and I did my best to mimic that. Whatever was said, pretty sure the situation wasn’t normal.

Finally the line cleared and I took off, three hours behind my expected time and fighting cutoffs the rest of the race.  It was three in the morning.

Most of the rest of the race is a horrible blur. I have memories but cannot piece together exactly when any actually happened.  I was awake through three full nights, starting late Thursday and finishing around 11am Sunday.

I think the hallucinations started the second night.  The trail was next to a road and I heard voices near me.  Some people walking on the road. Then suddenly they were next to me! It gave me a start, but when my headlamp illuminated them, they turned into branches.  As I continued down the trail, all the branches turned into mannequins. Not quite as scary as clowns, but a close second.

017

I had to force myself to not focus on the hundreds of mannequins lined up along the trail. Which just led to worse hallucinations.

Not scarier but worse.  At one point, I knew an aid station was coming up and I started looking for it.  Pretty soon there it was, with runners stopping and sitting–and eating pizza! It was heavenly.  Pizza sounded so good. Sitting sounded so good.

Just as I was about to enter the warm light from the tent, the whole thing disappeared.

I stopped, stunned.  No. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t. But it was.

The hallucinations continued through the second and third nights, although gratefully the mannequins eventually went away.

There were high points too.  We traveled through villages, where residents would come out to cheer us on, even the the dead of night.  At one small village, the woman were singing a song about being exhausted, laughing as they sang. When I came closer, all the women stopped singing and there was a moment of complete quiet as they stared at me. I was pretty sure I should be worried but was too exhausted to really care.  Then the women started cheering and clapping, patting me on my shoulder.

IMG_1899

It was a theme that continued through the race.  Solitary women at aid stations would come up and smile and applaud.  Groups of women cheering.

Of the two thousand, five hundred runners.  126 were women. No, that is not missing a digit.  Less than 200 women. I have not read much about European running, but enough to know women are not encouraged or supported like they are here in the US. I had no idea it was that unbalanced. I hope it changes.  I hope I somehow inspired these women. Regardless, I was infinitely grateful for their encouragement and camaraderie.

The food at the aid stations that actually existed was amazing. Pasta and cheese and meats and cheese and other stuff and cheese.  Even pizza. Except the fake beer stuff. I was smart enough to not drink it during the race, but couldn’t resist a sample afterwards.  If you’ve ever had vegemite, that’s what it tasted like. One swallow and the rest went into the trash.

022

I think it was the second night when I fell off the trail.  I was just so exhausted. People would run past, forcing me to step off the trail, only to stop and rest, forcing me to go around, only to repeat the process.  I was angry and tired and never saw the eroded edge. Another runner stopped and said something in French. I just started crying and told him I didn’t speak French. He quickly switched to English and helped me back onto the trail.

I was done.  The aid station wasn’t much farther and the cutoff wasn’t either.  My brain kept pushing but my body completely rebelled. It was an easy trail down and my brain won over as I started a limping jog.  I made it to the aid station with ten minutes to spare.

I tried finding motivation to go on.  I couldn’t. I didn’t want to.

Then I realized I had to go on.  My friend Lexi was at the next aid station. My phone was useless and I had no idea how I would get in touch with her.  I couldn’t even speak enough English at that point to explain what I needed. And if you dropped, you were responsible for getting back and I couldn’t remember where my hotel was.  

I saw no way out of it than by getting back up and heading back out.

Lexi of course wasn’t at the next aid station, nor the next nor the next. But my brain kept telling me that, forcing me to keep going, until I realized that I was going to finish that accursed race.

The final summit, early Sunday. As I made my way down the impossibly steep terrain, a fellow racer shouted out, “Once we’re at the bridge, we’re done!”

I spent the next two hours seeing a bridge after each switchback. I couldn’t even cry.

As I got lower and closer, day hikers appeared on the trail, giving me a small ray of hope that the trail head was near.  The hikers included one very angry Frenchman, yelling at everyone. I could hear him two switchbacks up. As I slowly and painfully made my way down, he was barrelling his way up until we were at a face off.  He continued yelling and gesturing, making it very obvious I was in his way and he would have none of it. I slowly straightened up, so he could see my race bib.

He immediately stepped out of my way with no more than a quiet “Respecte.”  Some part of my mind smirked.

024

Finally, a real bridge and the finish line.  I smiled vaguely at the TV camera. There were no more finishers medals and only extra large t-shirts. I didn’t care. I just wanted my drop bags and to get to the bus station.

I didn’t make it that far. My body saw the cot and overruled my brain.  

I woke up from something far beyond sleep two hours later.  I found my bags and amazingly the bus station.

I was a day later than I expected and so had no idea if the buses were even running. It was Sunday on a decidedly Catholic island.  I collapsed on a bench, not sure what to do.

But of course the kindness of strangers.  

They didn’t speak English but I understood “Ou?” Where? I gave them the name of my hotel and they smiled and patted my shoulder.  When the bus came, they gestured to me and spoke to the driver, apparently explaining to him where I needed to go, because he gave me warning as my stop arrived.

I slept until the next morning, awakening to the construction, so thankful to not be moving.  I took it easy that day, only going out to dinner at a recommended Creole restaurant, surprising myself by ordering dinner through dessert in French only.

I had planned on a lot of sightseeing after the race but had not expected to take sixty hours to finish.  I did go to the nature museum and learn about shark attacks and animals indigenous to the area, happy I had not known any of that prior to the race.  I toured a couple small towns I remembered seeing on the bus ride. I purchased a small instrument whose name I have forgotten. I learned about the preservation of turtles.

I drank wine and put my feet into the ocean and called the whole adventure a success.

030

 

Les, In Remembrance

The Olympics always make me think of Les. I wrote this a few years ago and wanted to share it on the Life Bus.

The fascinating–and frustrating–aspect of inspiration is that you never know when to expect it. Sometimes, when you most need it, when you’re digging the deepest, it completely eludes you. Then one day, when you’re looking the other way, it comes up and smacks you on the back of the head.

This tale is closer to the latter.

I’m a bit hypocritical, as we all are in some way or another. I love the anonymity of a big city, yet want to be greeted by name when walking into a store. I avoid the Targets and spend a little more at the Tony’s Markets.

From the first day, Les greeted me with a smile and some comment on the day or my attire–I work from home, so rarely change from my running or cycling clothes. It wasn’t long before he knew my name and my grocery shopping took longer as we chatted about his life or mine.

He asked me one day about my job. I mentioned the travel it entailed and he somewhat embarrassedly told me about one of his “silly” hobbies: collecting newspapers from different cities, especially the sports section. I was working in Springfield, MA, at the time, and Les revelled in the Boston papers I brought back for him.

But it was the sports section from Houston which gave me the story that stays with me to this day.

The next time I was at Tony’s Market, Les was so excited. An incredible coincidence, a friend of his had been featured in the Houston paper I’d given him. They had run track in high school together, and his friend had gone on to coach high school running. Les called his old friend and they had caught up after too many years apart.

I don’t remember what I asked to prompt him, but Les told me about loving running. How, after high school, he had continued and gotten better. How he had qualified for the Olympic trials in the eighties. I was amazed. An Olympic hopeful. I was talking with someone, was friends with someone, who had done something the rest of us only dream about.

Then he said, simply, he had come in dead last.

I could hear the disappointment in his voice. I could picture the scene and the look on his face as he crossed the finish, behind every other person there. But I couldn’t help but smile proudly and say, You were the worst of the best; that still puts you in a class the rest of us can only respect. I asked, but could get no more details about the experience out of him.

One day, almost a year ago, Les disappeared from Tony’s. I asked another friend there, but she had heard nothing. I knew Les lived nearby and I hoped to run into him, see how he was faring. I was always looking, but never saw him. Last week, I found out why. Les had died of a heart attack at the age of 59.

He told me once after that conversation that I had inspired him to start running again. We met once at Red Rocks for a go at the stairs. And now, every time I finish a race, disappointed at my time or place, I think of Les and how, just by finishing, I might have been the worst of the people who showed up, but I was the best of all who didn’t.

Thank you for the inspiration, Les.

Four Days in Tennessee

Coordinating a transcontinental reunion is about as challenging as it sounds.

It was Laura’s idea.  She’d been looking into the Cummins Fall Marathon pretty much since we’d gotten back from Cuba. 2016 was not to be, at least for me.  Four international vacations had left me too broke to even pay attention.  And while I can’t say I skimped, I did have enough money for a long weekend in Tennessee for a Cuban reunion.  

Dallas would have signed up first.  It was his marathon, his pet project.  To save the area of Cummins Fall near Cookeville, TN from being developed, he and some friends put up the money to purchase the land.  The marathon is to ensure that dream is continued.  What a legacy, what a way to be remembered. Someday, hopefully, my name will be linked to such a project.

Friends of Cummins Fall Facebook

Laura, who lost her job in December and had to make sure it would all work, was next.  Somewhere along the line, John signed up as well.  The Cuban foursome would reunite in February for the Cummins Fall Marathon!

Lexi, my fellow Lifebus’er, started asking me questions about the race and our plans.  “I dunno, we’re running a marathon and doing stuff” was about the best I could come up with.  We hadn’t really made any plans. I had Marriott points, so I was in charge of the hotel, so Laura would take care of the rental car, which happily doesn’t cost much in Tennessee.  And a marathon.  That was about it.  We were flying into Nashville, the closest airport, and since Nashville was on Lexi’s Lifebus list, Lexi was the last to sign up.

Lexi is more the planner than the rest of us, so she soon had a music venue and a list of places to see.  And eat.  First was Gerst Haus, a German restaurant with of course beer.  The meal was not carb friendly but it was delicious–or maybe that should read “and it was delicious”.  It was Thursday night and Laura and I had landed mid-afternoon and checked into a Marriott near the airport.  It was a short drive to the restaurant (but due to an odd location, it took us a couple tries to get into the parking lot), where Lexi met us after her flight.

I got up early Friday for a short run to stretch out my legs before the three hour drive to Cookeville.  Check-in was that evening so we were trying to stretch our time in Nashville. 

IMG_20170224_132809.jpg

First stop  was of course a coffee shop.  We found a small shop with great coffee and even better danishes.  Laura was wearing the hat she’d gotten in Cuba and as we walked from the car to our coffee, a young man driving by started honking and shouting “I’m from Cuba!”.  Who would have thought.

Laura had to take an interview via phone, so Lexi and I drank our coffee and wandered the streets of downtown, discussing this, that and the other.  As much as we tried, we could not solve the world’s problems in the short time we had.  

After breakfast, we headed to the Johnny Cash museum first.  Despite my time in Texas, I’m no country music fan, but when in Rome.  

IMG_20170224_123856.jpg

It was eye opening.  I had no idea about the man, outside of the usual regarding marriages and drug use that seem to plague many stars.  If you haven’t listed to “This Old Flag” or his version of the NIN song “Hurt”, I highly recommend both.  

But it was his song “Man in Black” that hit me in the feels.  It tells of his awareness of the futility of our penal system.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,

Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,

I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,

But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I have read that he used that merely as an excuse to wear black but listening to the song, I believe him.

In the gift shop was a shirt that read “Hot Chicken”. Not quite sure what it was, we gave it a quick Google search, which revealed it was a famous dish local to Nashville. I bought the shirt (everyone needs a hot chicken shirt!)  and we added it to our list of things to do.

My little black cloud had followed me to to Tennessee and the weather for the Cummins Falls marathon was looking gloomy, so on our way out of town, we stopped at the only running store we could find, the Nashville Running Company, a fun little shop in a funky little area.  Laura ducked out for another quick job call as Lexi and I found a couple of long sleeve shirts to purchase. We were not prepared for the cold rain of Tennessee, even coming from Colorado.  Or maybe because of Colorado–50 just seems a lot cooler in the humidity.

We chatted for awhile with some fellow runners in the store. The Cummins Fall marathon was on their board of upcoming runs, but no one in the store had run it.  One employee had just moved to Colorado and had been regaling his friends about the amazing races there, so they were a little surprised that we had come from Colorado to run in Nashville.  Even without the reunion, it’s hard finding a marathon in February in Colorado. That whole snow and cold thing.

Lunch was well past us and, while I voted for I Dream of Weenie, we ended up at Local Taco, which advertised a taco version of Hot Chicken.  They do not joke around about the hot part.  Even the small street taco packed a lot of flavor and I was glad I’d only gotten one.

IMG_20170224_161145.jpg

Finding more local artsy shops, we wandered, Lexi purchasing a beautiful bag (partly for the plane ride home) and I found a great women’s focused bookshop, where I purchased “What I was Doing While You Were Breeding”.  I have only started it, but I am in love with the misadventures of a woman who wasn’t ready to settle down when our culture strongly suggests you should.  I can completely related.

Much later than anticipated, we were off to Cummins Falls and the race check-in. The falling of darkness and knowing we were running behind made the three hours drag by. It’s in the those moments where one notices the oddest things.  In Tennessee, they have mile markers every quarter mile.  This is one of those things that, once you see it, you cannot unsee it, and you spend many miles trying to ignore the quarter mile markers.  Every quarter mile. I still don’t know why.

Dallas and John had finished carbo loading by the time we got to the restaurant, but stayed with us as we ordered our obligatory pasta dinner and an optional glass of wine. John had brought his new/old girlfriend.  Friends in high school, they had lost touch until we had forced John into a Facebook account after Cuba so we could keep in touch.  Say what you will about Facebook, it looks to be a happy ending in this case.  

Dallas bid us farewell first.  The most (or possibly only) competitive person among us, he wanted to get his beauty sleep before the race.

I’m quite sure how to introduce the next character. He just kind of inserted himself at our table, cutting Laura off from the rest of us as he carried on what was a very intense conversation for a first meeting.  It eventually turned out he was actually trying to flirt as he attempted to convince Laura to go back to his hotel room, failing miserably and not just because Laura has a fiance.  

I’m not quite sure how to introduce him because part of me wants to portray him as an amusing drunk desperate for attention, but the truth is, he was more than a bit creepy.  We saw him again after the race, when he came up to us at a brewery and asked if he could insert some testosterone into our conversation.  I’d be lying if I said Lexi and I didn’t now use a similar phrase when going up to a group of guy friends. But really.  Really?

And the best part. A quick search on Facebook (thank you again) turned up that he’s married.  With a kid.

So I’m not portraying him amusingly.  I’m writing this as the hashtag “metoo” is taking over Facebook and I am going to honor that . We were trying to be polite when, in retrospect, I wish we done ourselves and possibly other women the favor of just telling him f— off.

For anyone who’s ever done a race, there’s no need to mention no sleep was had that night and the morning came too early.  The weather was in a very iffy place–would it rain, would the sun make an entrance–so we piled on clothes, took them off, then piled them on again.  The general rule for running is to start cold as you will definitely warm up, but I hate being cold.  I also hate carrying five pounds of extra clothing with me when I run, but instant gratification generally wins.

Dallas was easy to find at the start.  Dallas doesn’t know any strangers.  John soon showed up, pre-race photos were taken, and we were off.

IMG_20170225_075050

Laura and Lexi, training a little lacking–at least in their opinion–had opted for the half marathon.  The half had a crux–a challenging point one had to get across in order to complete the run: a bridge made of boards over kayaks.  Over really cold February water. On a very chilly February day.  

Falling is not an option.  

Both were far ahead of me by the time I reached the infamous “bridge” but a couple runners were crossing it, definitely not setting any speed records in the process. I happily continued down the road.

The race meandered down back roads, with only the occasional pickup truck traveling by.  The aid stations were the only times I really encountered anyone, so I paused to chat a bit at each one.  One aid station came with a warning about an oversized, over-friendly dog.  The gentlemen managing the station had done it every year and had learned that runners were a little intimidated by the enthusiastic pup.  But she was now getting up in years and was already napping when I happened by.  I gave her a quick pat on the head and continued on.

The last few miles gained the elevation lost in the first few miles, making for a challenging but scenic ending.  Around mile 23, John came into sight.  It took me another couple miles to catch him.  I commended him on his improved time–I had overtaken him at mile 15 in Cuba.  He told me I had been his motivation during training and he promised I wouldn’t see him at all during the next marathon we did.

My time didn’t set any records, but did earn me first place in the masters category, meaning that I’m doing pretty good for an old person.  My award had been misplaced but the race director promised me it would be mailed as soon as possible.  I’m not one much for awards but these were hand crafted from the wood of a collapsed barn on the property, so it had sentimental value.

IMG_20170228_081614

Laura has won the masters award in the half marathon.  On the way back into town for a shower (thank you, Marriott, for the late checkout) and celebratory beers, Laura realized her award said “Marathon” instead of “Half”.  I felt half bad about taking “her” award, but I was happy to get my award.  Hers was mailed after the race, so everyone got their award.

We enjoyed pizza and beer at the Red Silo (after some great steak, baked potatoes, and beer compliments of Outback after the race–hey, it’s why we run).  Lexi took off shortly after to head back to Nashville. Laura and I were meeting Dallas, John and his girlfriend for dinner for a last chance to catch up.

Crawdaddy’s is the best and one of few restaurants in Cummings so the wait was pretty long but seemed otherwise in the company of good friends.  It was only a couple days in Cuba, but when your soul recognizes itself in others, that’s all it takes.  We took our time catching up on our lives in the past two years, and as always, entertained by Dallas’s story telling.

While at dinner, Lexi had sent a text, directing us to not miss Ralph’s Doughnut Shop.

If you ever go to Cummins, TN, you can skip the marathon. You can skip the Red Silo and even Crawdaddy’s. But. Do. Not. Miss. Ralph’s Doughnut Shop.  I’m pretty sure heaven has one of these.  If not, I’m not sure I want to go.  More doughnut types than I can describe.  I got red velvet and something chocolately, thinking I would have a snack for later, but they did not last that long.

And yet again, I was able to prove that it takes a lot less time to consume the calories burned in a marathon.  

It was a painfully late three hour drive back to Nashville, so the morning started a little late as well, tired from the drive and the race.  

roundChair

Our goal for the day was to see Studio B, the recording studio of many greats of the past, Elvis, Hank Williams, and others.  We made good use of Google Maps through the morning and took the long way to Studio B, meandering through some interesting districts, stopping to see some history, do some shopping and of course more eating.  And while Google gives you all sorts of helpful information, it failed to inform us that the tour starts at the Country Music Hall of Fame,practically across the street from our hotel, and there’s no shortcutting the process.  It was a little tense walking back as the frustration built on the fatigue. But we’d put that much effort in so far, we had to finish it.

 

The upside is that we also got tickets to the Hall of Fame.  It showed the progression of music from the roots of the music and instruments of African slaves through jazz to country then rock and roll.  They are all sounds that I would never have put together, all so unique and related to seemingly different locations and cultures within the United States, but hearing and seeing them together, the influence is obvious and beautiful.  

The tour was a little abbreviated as we had a bus to catch to the place we’d already walked.  Studio B.  An innocuous, seventies-styled building that one never have guessed was the birthplace to so much music.  It is still used today, even though technology has left it long behind.  It still has magic, though, and no technology in the world can replicate that.

IMG_20170227_114708

The highlight of the tour is the room where all the music was recorded.  Near the middle of the room on the floor is a innocuous blue X that I would never have noticed had our guide not pointed it out.  It marks the place where the musicians stood as they recorded their music.  The piano played by Elvis was in the corner.   We listened to recordings made there.  

A believer in ghosts, I could almost feel their presence, energy, passion. Soul. The sacrifices that went into their creations, their legacies. They gave their lives to it, literally you might even believe.  I listen to that music just a little differently now.  

The last stop on our whirlwind music tour was to 3rd and Lindsley Bar and Grill, and a band called The Steeldrivers. But first, of course, after a nine miles walking day, we had dinner at Party Fowl, to try Hot Chicken.  A half chicken doused in spices that will light up your evening.  I admit I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to spicy food, so maybe a bolder palette would be unimpressed, but the flavor and the heat made for a memorable meal, and, for once, I drank my entire beer.

Google maps took us directly to 3rd and Lindsley, although we kind of wished it hadn’t.  It’s located in a dark, industrial side of town that looked nothing like the music scene we were anticipating, but the reviews online for both band and location had been great, and the price more than reasonable.  We finally had to ask directions to get us to the front door.  We we late arriving so it was standing room only in the bar, but we managed to snag some space to listen to the 2016 Grammy award winners.  

PANO_20170226_221713

My particular favorite of the evening was “Drinking Dark Whiskey (Telling White Lies)”, but I was also a bit partial to “If You Can’t Be Good, Be Gone”, which kind of says it all.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_m5yrE-uMM

 

Despite the late night, we had to get up early. Biscuit Love was on the menu for breakfast, and if you don’t want to wait an hour, you have to be there close to opening.  I’m not sure how I was still hungry after all the local cuisine sampling we’d done, but I was, and the food lived up to the hour wait we had avoided.  

IMG_20170227_091432

In all, a successful and fun four days in Tennessee.  I’m hoping the next Cuban reunion will be in Salida for the Run Through Time marathon. Stay tuned.

 

 

Rock Climbing Italian Style

The biggest challenge with the whole language barrier is, when someone says something that doesn’t entirely make sense, deciding if one should laugh, ask for clarification, or offer up a withering glare.

For example, when I asked the bus driver which stop was for my hotel, he responded “It is the stop before the last stop.”  

What do I do with that?

More applicable was the discussion I had with Carlo, my guide for three days of climbing, regarding what knot to use to attach the rope to my harness, to insure that the said rope stayed attached to said harness, a situation far preferable to its opposite.  In US climbing gyms, we use a figure-eight, a knot that takes time to master (and create) and once tight, is a pain in the fingers to untie.  But that’s the point, it’s hard to untie. It stays tied.

That’s a good thing.

Carlo wanted me to use the bowline, a simpler knot to tie and untie.  “Is easier to untie”, he explained.  

“Yes”, I responded.   “It’s easier to come untied.”

“No no. It does not untie.”

“But you just said–”.  This is my life we’re talking about here. Or at least my limbs.  I want clarification.  He gestured distractedly, searching for English words to explain the physics of knots.

He finally just shrugged. “No, it not unties.”

So I went for second best. I glanced around surreptitiously, watched what everyone else was doing and looked for obvious blood stains on the floor.

This was supposed to be the first day of three of rock climbing.  We had just finished five amazing days of trekking the Alta Via One, and it was Carlo’s unfortunate circumstance to be stuck with me for three more days.  

I was going rock climbing.  In Italy.  I just loved the sound of that.

At least he knew me a little by that time.  The only one up for the “bonus” hike after the morning of trekking, up for going past the pass, up to the peak. Taking minutes to admire the half-dead Edelweiss–the first I’d ever seen.  The one who wanted to go down the WWI tunnel, despite not having a helmet (and about knocking myself senseless in the process).  Not fast but not giving up either.

But the rain from the last day of the trek spilled into the first day of the climbing, and our climbing was relegated to the gym.  In hindsight, that was a good way to start.  

IMG_20170911_115043.jpg

Of course, climbing is different between Italy and America, the knots being just the beginning.  A climb two weeks prior in Boulder, Colorado went something like this:

“On belay, Lynda?”  Andrew is ready to climb.

“Belay on, Andrew.”  I’m ready for Andrew to climb.

“Climbing, Lynda.”  Andrew’s climbing.

“Climb on, Andrew.”  I acknowledge Andrew is climbing.

“Off belay, Lynda.”  Andrew has set up an anchor and is ready to switch to belaying me up.

“Belay off, Andrew.”  I’ve taken Andrew off belay and he can pull up the slack rope.

“That’s me, Andrew.” Andrew has taken up all the slack rope.

“Belay on, Lynda.” Andrew is ready for me to climb.

“Climbing, Andrew.” I’m climbing.

“Climb on, Lynda.” Andrew acknowledges that I’m climbing.

Typically American.  Overly conservative and overly verbose.

The same exchange in Italian.

“Oh-la.” Carlo is ready to climb.

“Rope finished?” Carlo can’t believe he’s already climbed the full length of the rope.

“Yes, Carlo.”  Confirming that I’ve got about three inches of spare rope and am pretty sure if he fell at this point, there’s not much I could do.

“Safe, Lynda.”  Carlo is at the anchor–I was never sure if he was actually tied in or just feeling secure.

— No response required or expected.

“Climb, Lynda”.  Carlo has pulled up all the rope and is ready for me to start climbing.

— No response required or expected.

“Oh-la”  I’m done with the climb.

Italian.  Succinct but open to interpretation.

Even the gym was less that what one found in an American gym.  In the U.S., almost all routes have “top ropes”, the rope attached to an anchor at the top of the climb, generally the safest way to climb.  The floors all padded, just in case something goes awry.  Warning signs everywhere, reminding you that what you’re doing is more dangerous than your virtual reality game.  To gain access, you must be able to prove you know what you’re doing and sign a waiver accepting responsibility if the warning signs prove out.

I had never even heard the phrases I was attesting to being able to do, but Carlo assured me it didn’t matter. The hardwood floors were a bit disconcerting. But the fact that Carlo had brought his own rope was what really stopped me.  Admittedly, I would prefer bringing my own rope because I would know where it had been and I know it would have been well cared for. But how did the gym make sure everyone was equally as attentive?

Oh, right. They were still alive at the end of their session.

Another difference:  we were able to practice multi-pitch climbing and rappelling (a quick way to get back down a route) without anyone batting an eye.   You just don’t do that in the U.S.  Too dangerous.  Or maybe just too much liability.

Getting the knots, commands, and other expectations aligned made the eventual climb go much more smoothly. Not that the climbs were all that extreme, but all climbing still seems pretty extreme to me and it often takes my full concentration not to succumb to my basic fears of falling and of dying. Not entirely irrational fears–in moderation, but often unnecessarily paralyzing.   I’d been reading “The Way of the Rock Warrior”, a book written mainly about the mental aspects of climbing but applicable to life in general, and had seen myself in many of the pages about self talk.

“This is too hard.”

“I’m not ready.”

“What if I fall/fail?”

“I’m not good/strong/fast/tall/short/light enough.”

“I can’t.”

I love climbing. The mental challenge. The physical aspect. The grace and fluidity of the movements, when done somewhat correctly.  Overcoming my fears.  But too often, I focus on my fears and only enjoy the climb in retrospect.  I wanted to focus on the climbing and enjoying the process during the actual process.  The book was helping in that regard.  I’ve been climbing for years. I know how to climb and I know I’m a conservative climber and I know there’s no safer way to experience climbing than with a guide, especially one who had been climbing since he was 13, as Carlo had.

Despite the language barrier, Carlo was encouraging.  He was surprised and pleased when I easily climbed the first route in the gym, a 5c, a rating which meant nothing to me, the rating systems of course being different as well.  I intentionally did not research them, having already learned that I could climb a 5.10 when I believed it was a mere 5.8 but not when I knew it was a 5.10.  Ah the brain and its clever tricks.

Even with long breaks between climbs, four hours was all I could survive in the gym.  Although I’ve been climbing since my twenties, it’s never been consistent and I’ve never really taken a class, so I still climb with my arms.  Arms don’t have the endurance legs do (unless you’re really into handstands), so my climbing sessions tend to not be long.  Also, it was still day one of three, and the weather promised to improve the next day.

Despite standing there in the rain when the weather forecast called for clear, Carlo insisted the weather forecasts were normally very accurate. So the plan for day two was a fun little via ferrata up to a cave on Tofana, then when the rain stopped (currently predicted to be about 11am), we would head to Cinque Torri.

True to prediction, the rain stopped at 11.

It started to snow.

Another fascinating difference between Italian and American hiking is the use of umbrellas.   Umbrellas are just unheard of in at least the Colorado wilderness (except for my friend, Dale, but that’s a different story).  On the last day of our trek, it was predicted to rain, and Carlo had called a friend to bring him his umbrella.  To truly understand this, it helps to know that Carlo had done the entire five day trek with nothing but a jacket and a small bottle of water.

IMG_20170912_130428.jpg

Not even a Nalgene bottle–that was too heavy. I know this because he took my Nalgene on our final climb and kidded me about the weight (then drank my water when he ran out).

So an umbrella was his third essential.  He brought one for me for the via ferrata, and I’m still not sure if it was a joke or not, thank you language barrier. I’ve never hiked with an umbrella.  Heck, it’s been about twenty years since I’ve even owned an umbrella.  Jackets with hoods work good enough.  

There is a certain rhythm to doing a via ferrata.  Clip, clip, slide, hike. At each piton, you move one “lobster claw”–a carabiner on a piece of webbing attached to your harness–at a time, so that you are always attached to something. This works beautifully when you have two hands for moving the claws, as most of us do.  Put an umbrella in one of those hands, however, and the rhythm becomes more like impromptu jazz: clip, grab, shake, slide, swear, go back, clip, hike, grab.  

I tried clipping my pack around it, then looping it around my harness, all with limited success.  It just wouldn’t cooperate, always wanting to be in the wrong spot.  Via ferratas are right next to the rock and you are often walking on a ledge that made the streets of Venice look like freeways.  So the umbrella has to be angled out to avoid hitting the rock–often far enough to make the umbrella somewhat pointless and a bit of a counterweight when you’re desperately trying to hug the nice solid rock wall.  On the positive side, though, many of the pitons were right in a rain funnel and the umbrella made itself worth the rest of the struggle.

Carlo, in the meantime, had hooked one claw into another so he could clip with just one hand, so was managing the whole claw-and-umbrella situation with Italian grace, albeit with slightly more risk than is allowed (or wanted) by me the client.

It was a bit of a relief to get to the cave and out of the snow.  The cave was a loop, created like all of the Dolomites (but unlike most of the caves) from the ocean thousands of years ago (most caves were created during WWI as protection from the weather and the enemies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

).  It was beautiful and still, and I’m sure I would have appreciated it more had I known more about geology.

IMG_20170912_115245.jpg

We considered briefly waiting out the storm in the cave (that was a first) but after the tour, the snow was coming down even harder.  We had three pairs of gloves between us and two were soaked. The shoes had not fared any better.  Rain we were prepared for. This much snow, not so much.  

It wasn’t so much a mad dash as controlled chaos getting back.  Carlo would get far ahead so he could stop and warm his fingers, while I continued my jazz routine with the umbrella. The last section was under water when we returned, but by that point, it just didn’t matter.  All we could do was laugh and shake the snow off the umbrellas. Oh-la.

That afternoon was back at the gym.  Carlo had given me some pointers that I had absorbed and we had a good few hours at the gym.

I had booked three days in anticipation of at least one day being bad weather, so being down to the last day and no actual climbing, I opened my eyes with a bit of dread.  Was that really sunlight streaming through my hotel window? It was! It’s considered rude to be early in Italy, but I didn’t care. I was ready to climb.  I was going rock climbing! In Italy!

And was it worth the wait.  The first climb was the perfect introduction to Italian climbing.  The limestone rock offered many handholds and footholds and I felt like an actual climber, fluidly putting the moves together to ascend higher and higher, breathing and fear controlled.   I was grinning ear to ear when we reached the summit.

DSC06949

Three short rappels and a small hike and we were back to where we started, ready for the main event, a harder and longer route.  

It started with a slightly overhanging move.  There was a German couple ahead of us on the first pitch and she, petite and agile, seamlessly climbed the move. I watch her and Carlo carefully.  But when it came to my turn, the rock looked like a glass sphere–completely smooth and devoid of any way to get up it.  I gracelessly put my foot here and my hands there. I tried my foot a little higher, to the left, right. I let my hands scrabble over the rock, looking for anything to cling to, all the while desperately ignoring the tiny but growing voice in my head.  I tried to muscle it, put my knees and elbows into it. I could feel the new bruises and scratches begin to decorate my skin.

The voice in my head became more persistent and I finally succumbed–“I can’t”–and basically allowed Carlo to pull me up the moves.

A frustrating way to start the climb, to say the least.  

DSC06933.jpgDSC06943

The next few pitches went more smoothly, the moves connecting easily, but I still felt the frustration.  One pitch was more of a traverse, and I felt my mental power slipping again as I calculated the pendulum I would take if I were to slip.  I tried to employ singing to ease the trepidation in my steps, but the only song that came to mind was “Walking on Broken Glass.”

I made it across only to find myself at another slight overhang with no footholds to be found. I took a breath and looked behind me at the ground far away.  I told myself I was rock climbing.  In Italy. I was standing on Cinque Torri, rock climbing.  Who cared if I sucked or not.  

“Just lean back on your hands and let them walk you up.”  He made it sound so easy.

And it was.

I felt myself in practical disbelief walk up the rock, hands and feet almost at the same elevation.  It was incredible.  It was almost effortless.  Inch by inch–or centimeter by centimeter, I suppose–I made my way up the feature.  I took my time, thrilling in the feel of it.  Then I was up over it.  

IMG_20170913_120630.jpg

It was the boost I needed to work my way up the rest of the climb, occasionally adding more scrapes and bruises.  Using my butt to get up one move (adding yet another hole to my backpack). Fighting up a small crack, twisting limbs awkwardly this way and that.  

But confidently.  Eventually placing my hands and feet where they needed to be on each move, trusting them to do what I knew they could.  Feeling my mind and body working in tandem.  Feeling each muscle doing its part, from the large, strong ones in my back and legs, down to the small ones within my fingers. It’s an amazing dance that brings it altogether.

As I clambered to the summit, Carlo grinned at me.  “Superb!”

I didn’t need a translation app to appreciate that.

IMG_20170913_154042.jpg

The Marabana

Somehow, I never really connected that Cuba is a third world country.  That changed before I ever left Miami.

Which was about twelve hours late.

hangingAtCubasAirport

1am, waiting for our luggage

I’m not sure what time we were supposed to leave originally–some say the flight was originally scheduled for 11am, which is when I first arrived at Miami airport for the meet-and-greet with other runners.  I arrived in Miami the day before, because, well, Murphy is a good friend.  

I need not have worried.

Like many travel passionate Americans, I wanted to see Cuba before it became Americanized.  The myth and mystery that is Cuba.  The eclectic architecture. The spicy flavorful beans and rice staples.  The rum.  The classic cars.  The coffee.  The clashing irreverent colors And of course, the dancing, sensual, uninhibited.  All romance all nostalgia.  Did I mention the coffee?

I had originally started looking for excuses to go about a year prior, early November.  I remember the date because it was a week after the Marabana: the Marathon Habana.  As soon as I saw the advertisement on InsightCuba, I knew I had found my excuse.  I signed up for the notification that the trip was open again for the next year, which of course never came.  Seasoned traveler that I am, though, I had a monthly reminder set up before I ever left the page.

Not long after I submitted my registration, President Obama began the process of opening the borders.  It was both good news and bad, in many senses, personal and political. I knew intuitively the culture wouldn’t change overnight, but I didn’t want to see a single Mickey-Dees or Starbucks in my four days away.  For Cubans, the news was all good: it was the first place I have ever visited where people were truly excited by the idea of being “invaded” by Americans.  They see our democracy as their salvation, their freedom.  But I imagine they’re not entirely sure what they’re in for.  In many aspects, the romance we feel towards them is the same tinted, slightly skewed view they have of us.

capital

Cuban architecture

I wasn’t long at the meet and greet before I noticed a familiar face.  I asked the hostess, Jenny,  if that was really THE John Bingham and she (his wife, it turns out) confirmed it.  Mr Bingham is the face of us “penguins”, the back-of-packers, the turtles, the never-winners, the slow ones..  He single-handedly turned being slow into cool.  He’s a big hero of mine.  In typical introvert style, I smiled politely at him and then studiously avoided eye contact the rest of the hour. But John is outgoing and friendly, and we shared a couple of conversations over the weekend.  Jenny was coaching many of the runners that weekend.  In the first few minutes of meeting, she made jokes about ultra runners and comments on how hilly the Marabana is, not knowing I am a Colorado ultra runner.  We got along famously.

As an introduction to Cuba, we were entertained and taught by Cuban dancer Lilian Lombera, a professor of Cuban Music and a member of 3Tres Musas Producciones, a network of female producers in America,  about the history of dancing and the many types of dancing in Cuba.  Dancing is more natural in Cuba than walking here–or maybe it would be more appropriate to say driving.  Her enthusiasm and passion were contagious and she had many of us out of our seats and reliving our awkward teenage years trying to follow as she confidently and seductively maramba’d throughout the room.

Locating the check-in for the flight was next mini adventure.  Turning left when I should have turned right is how I met Dallas Smith, a fellow runner in the group.  It was one of the best wrong turns I’ve ever made.  Dallas is a fellow ultrarunner, although I don’t think I’ve ever heard him describe himself as such.  At this time, he has completed the VolState 500k twice, the oldest person to do so.  He’s also a big hero of mine.

Dallas and I stuck together and eventually found where we needed to be, got our neon green t-shirts and our visas.  Our athlete visas.  As a certified penguin,  it made me feel pretty special to have an athlete visa.  Like I was a real athlete.  

nino

“Ninos” sounds like a better category than “Masters C”

It was 2pm.  The flight was now scheduled for sometime around 4pm.   We decided not to push our luck and kept together to locate the gate.  Which of course changed shortly before we got there and is how we met the final two of the quartet that completed the weekend.  John is from Seattle and Laura from Houston.  They were self-appointed gate directors to keep people from going to the wrong gate.  The flight now scheduled for six, Dallas and I opted to assist them in their duties rather than spend more time on the cozy airport seating.

 

Six became ten o’clock.  Sensing a mutiny, the InsightCuba representative gave everyone all the cash he had on hand, which came to about $16 per person.  Most headed straight to the one bar in the remote Miami terminal.  

The four of us decided to bet on the American Airlines club, where $20 each got us unlimited access to food and beverage.  Dallas kept us entertained with stories from his life in Tennessee. Marveling at his storytelling skill, Laura told him he should really write a book.  “Oh I have! Two of them!”  

They are both well worth the read.

Finally around 10pm, nearly twelve hours later, the plane took off, landing a mere ninety minutes later and the adventure truly began.

Customs.  

A Cuban stamp on my passport!

And ended.

With a two hour wait for luggage at the airport (with any checked electronics never to be reunited with their owners), Dallas, who had everything packed in a small well-loved backpack that he brought on the plane, waited patiently with us.  We still are not sure why, but what a friend.

And began again.

And ended again.  

I had paid extra for my single supplement (the always needling “single tax”) which that earned me an extra bus ride at 1am to another hotel, the first hotel having run out of rooms.  That is how I met Luke, a Las Vegas fire fighter.  The magic of Cuba–every negative event leading to an encounter with a never-to-forget friend.

My work project at the time was in Clark County, NV, and he had heard of it.  We met for drinks and a bite to eat at 2am.  I’m sure we chatted about building codes and running but my muddled mind didn’t retain much of the conversation.  Just the marvel of meeting someone else I knew would stay in my life, if only for a short while.

7:30am cruel wakeup call.  It was one of the swankiest hotels I’ve ever stayed in, a true five star.  I heard no English being spoken at the breakfast buffet which went on farther than I was due to run that day.  Continental treats, eggs in every shape and form, fruit from around the world  Breads from the same.  Coffees. Teas. Juices. Oh my.  My stomach refused to play along, the three hour sleep fogging my entire body.

I was deeply regretful at having committed to the 9am pre-marathon 5k fun run–actually the kid’s run, but really open to kids of all ages.  I dropped off my bag and met up with Laura, having left her the night at the original hotel. We enjoyed a nice easy run in the heat and humidity of the Havana streets, the joyful abandon of the local kids running propelling us along.

theFoursomeRunning

Shortly after the run, I checked into Hotel Gran Caribe, walking distance from the capital and the marathon start the next day.  My room was on the third floor, one floor shy of the only two floors currently with running water.  I’m not entirely certain how only the top floors ended up with water, but, well, Cuba.  The difference between a four and five star hotel.  The building itself was classic Cuban, a courtyard in the center, high ceilings and limited furniture which lent space to otherwise efficient rooms. I was happy to see I had my own bathroom, even if I couldn’t use the toilet until running water returned  I’ve no idea how to properly describe architecture, but the lobby itself is worth the Google search.  Walking the hallways was a step back in time, I could almost hear Hemingway’s typewriter.  

The other upside to being on an athlete’s visa (aside from the heightened ego) and slow opening of the borders was that all we were required to do was run the race.  Normally when visiting Cuba as an American, you’re required to have every waking second filled with cultural activities: lectures during meals, visits to cultural centers, tours of the areas of Cuba the government wanted you to see. We however were free to walk the streets with no plans and no chaperones.

The first order of course was lunch.  The quartet had met up for our first real Cuban meal at a small restaurant not too far from the hotel.   We were not feeling too daring the day before our marathon, but like many countries, following the directions of the locals proved beyond our abilities, so we ended up where we ended up.  The food was delicious, not too spicy, but proved to be the downfall of Dallas.  He excused himself from our afternoon excursion and spent much of the day in his room, hoping to recover before the race.

The remaining trio went first to La Prado, the art gallery on the street.  The artwork varied from the mundane to the obscene to the overtly political.  We each searched for a piece that defined how we felt about Cuba, all of us falling short.  We wandered the length of it, debating where to go next.  

laPrada

I don’t know if it was the mystique of Cuba or simply the desire for forbidden fruit, but it many things are better from Cuba.  Laura and I were in quest for Cuban coffee and Laura was searching for Cuban music as well.  John and I were after Cuban cigars, and John wanted to partake of a real Cuban sandwich.

GPS devices are mostly prohibited in Cuba, so we made our way around with our old-fashioned paper tourist map.  Only partly intentional, we circuitously made our way Old Towne Square, where we found three of the four–all but the Cuban sandwich.  One of the interesting side effects of a communist way of life is that there is little motivation to sell. Unlike the markets of Mexico, one is not bombarded by hawkers selling their wares.  It’s rather a pleasant silence, being able to peruse without pressure.  John and I made our cigar purchases and Laura and I our coffee purchases. Laura held off on a music purchase, wanting to make sure what she purchased was legitimate Cuban music, not government issue.

We found some side shops and chatted with the shop owners. Laura and I ended up buying Cuban hats, which made for interesting coincidences in other adventures (including meeting a Cuban in Nashville).

It was a long day of walking the day before a marathon, but with limited time, we wanted to make the most of it, and we continued to meander through Havana, the amazement of truly being there never far from our hearts.  

Our feet stopped outside of a bar, only to start some American “dancing”.  The best music we would hear all weekend was dancing through the air.  Laura immediately ducked inside to purchase a CD. I wasn’t far behind her.  Heartbreakingly, once home, we learned it didn’t play.  But the music was already a memory, a feeling.  Lively, uninhibited, passionate.

treeInBuilding

You’ve heard of a tree house…

Not far from there, we saw possibly the most bizarre sight of the weekend: a tree growing out of a dilapidated building.  The next day, I was talking with Luke, who had spent the day talking with local fire fighters, countries and language not separating this brotherhood.  They had told him that building regulations were more than a bit lax.  Many tourists came for the architecture, so buildings that should have been condemned weren’t, and were left until they collapsed or burned.  The true tragedy being the families using them as homes who were killed in these events.

 

Dinner was late at the hotel.  It was then we learned the tragic truth about Cuban sandwiches.  In Cuba, there is no such thing.  Another American fabrication.  John was heartbroken.

The 7am race start meant that breakfast was from a box.  I hadn’t slept well again and couldn’t eat much of the stale, strange nourishment. I had no problem, however, downing a couple cups of generously sugared Cuban coffee.  The water was again not working at the hotel, so we went in search of public restrooms.  

What we found will never be erased from our brains.  As a runner, you have a certain jadedness when it comes to port-a-potties. But this exceeded anything in running lore.  We had no choice–we had to pee.  I still have nightmares.

theRace

Somewhere around five thousand souls were out in that humid morning, running once again erasing the barriers between all of us.  Less than 500 were from the States, up from less than one hundred in years prior.  I had worn my t-shirt from a race in a French territory and found myself speaking French to a couple race participants and locals.  I had to smile.

We four started together, ducking under a barrier to avoid walking an extra half mile to the end of mass of runners, but quickly lost each other in the bustle.  I put on my music and started my slow pace, knowing the heat and humidity would hurt more than the flat would help.  The race began by the capital and headed past La Prado onto the Malecon.  It wound around the city featuring only the best, much like any city marathon.  I had read that Castro, with the potential of new relationships with the US, was attempting to put communism a bit underground.  There was still some propaganda on the streets and building, but it seemed to me to be not much different from any other city.

The marathon was two loops which was a little disappointing. I would have loved to have seen 26 different miles of the city.  But the second loop did give me a chance to pick up the pace a bit to see if I could possibly beat the 5 hour cut-off, a lofty goal just two weeks past a hundred mile race.  Not long after the start of the second loop, Dallas surprised me, coming up from behind. I was surprised to think he was behind me–he owns many age group records–and was passing me but he had stopped at an aid station and saw me running by.  We spent a few minutes together, but his stomach was still bothering him.  It was probably a good thing for him that the aid stations did not serve food, only plain and oddly flavored water.  

A few miles later and John jumped in beside me, giving me a start.  He too was lagging a bit, so we enjoyed a couple miles together before parting ways again.  Jenny, there as support only, was a couple miles away from the finish, cheering us the last little bit.  She had already told me she wasn’t too worried about me, and I was happy not to disappoint.

I finished five minutes before the cutoff, Dallas and John not far behind.  Laura was already at the hotel.  She had completed her own race, having unintentionally turned around  at the 10k cutoff, but deciding to complete the half anyway, for a nice 30k race.  

It was another hour before the water was on at the hotel and another two before it was hot.  I was still too warm to care about a hot shower.   The after was open and we decided to hit a few highlights of the city, including Hemingway’s favorite bar, La Floridita.  We were hoping to have a drink but the crowd drove us back out.

There were several museums we wanted to visit, but trying to visit them on a Sunday proved fruitless.  We were able to get into the Museum of the Revolution and a memorial to the Bay of Pigs.  Both were stark reminders of how history is written by the victors.  The Museum of the Revolution was in Spanish, but the memorial was in English.  Reading what seemed to me to be a grossly slanted perspective made me wonder how slanted are the views with which I’m familiar.

Dinner was a group event, the only one of the weekend.  We had not seen much of the other runners outside a couple chance meetings at the hotel.  We all dressed up in our post-race finest, which mainly meant we didn’t wear the race shirt to dinner.  Luke was in the lobby when we met up, so we dragged him with us to dinner.  The Havana rum served with dinner came with an appropriate warning–it was definitely not for the faint of heart.  I don’t know if it was the race that day or just the mystique, but the rice and beans dinner was better than any I’d ever had.  We were treated to meeting native runners, one who sought me out in particular, having heard I am a fellow ultra runner.  He had won a 100k in Havana, so in a different class but still a fellow runner.  

He invited me to dance and I was grateful I had risked ridicule at the airport for the practice for a perfectly romantic Cuban moment.

theFoursome

The First Annual Silverton Double Dirty 30

I sat in my car, watching it snow, as I chatted with my friend Dale, world renowned weather nerd. I was trying to get a feel for just how bad it was going to be. “Not great but improving” was about as good a forecast as we could come up with–Dale always emphasizing the difference between a “good” forecast and an “accurate” one. If I had only known when I signed up in February–who am I kidding, I still would have signed up.

I had heard rumors of this race for a couple years. A 100k in the breathtaking–literally and figuratively–San Juan mountains.  Like many, I am in love with this corner of Colorado. The mountains are fiercely beautiful, steep, rugged, unforgiving.  Her sister race, the Dirty 30, had her own reputation for being challenging, but this race–this race would far exceed that.

I had crossed paths with race director, Megan, over the years, first at Leadville, then as support at the Dirty 30. I loved her approach to races: that she wanted, strove for, planned on everyone finishing. I’m a confirmed back-of-the-packer, so this is of special significance to me. I have a DNF on every race I’ve attempted in that area, missing cutoffs on the San Juan Solstice and the Ouray 100. Ultras are hard to coordinate, to balance not abusing your volunteers, the souls of ultra races, with the desires of all runners to be able to finish. Megan’s passion, knowledge and experience makes this balance seem almost effortless.

I signed up as soon as I heard registration was open. It wasn’t really even a conscious thought. I knew this race was something I was going to do. I trained. I read every email. I studied the course.

I trained.

When Megan added fund raising for Big Brothers and Big Sisters, it just made a great race even better. Ultra running is considered to be one of the most selfish pursuits a person can undertake, and for good reason.  But the members of this community are among the most giving people I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.  

“Go big or go home.” It was the perfect motto for the fundraiser, taken straight from the ultra-runner’s how-to-manual.   It was truly inspiring how many of the runners jumped in and helped out.  I wish that I could count myself among those who raised thousands for this cause.  

And now I was at the start.  I was way overdressed, as usual, at least for the start, my pack full of items I hoped I wouldn’t need–extra food and clothes, a satellite messenger for contacting people in case I was lost or injured, first aid kit. The headlamp, though, I was pretty sure I was going to need.  A 22 hour cutoff almost guaranteed that. And I knew much of this race was remote and would climb twice to 12,000 feet, above treeline, exposed.  

There was the potential for a lot to go wrong.  

An easy six miles, belying the rest of the course, was a welcome beginning–at least I would run some of this race. The climb began in the aspens, the yellow leaves accented against the newly white mountains in the distance.  My phone refused to take photos, so I had to content myself with simply absorbing the view.  I would like to say the course climbed quickly to the vistas for which Silverton is famous–and, really, the course did, but I didn’t.

With thirty runners, I quickly found myself DFL (dead f—– last).  It’s not my ego that’s bothered–I do count those sitting on the couch as my competitors and I was definitely beating them.  But with so few runners and so many volunteers, I hated that I was keeping them out potentially hours after they could have been back.  Their cheering and words of encouragement had me believing that they really did want me to finish as much as I did, and I did my best to keep my pace, eat lots, and keep moving.

The course is in a figure 8, the center point also the high point at 12,000.  It was still cloudy but thankfully not windy when I finally reached it for the first go-round.  The upside to being last: I got to drink all the remaining Coke and take all the chocolate, being no one else to feed and the aid station volunteers all too happy to not carry it down.  

I welcomed the downhill–at least for the first couple miles. I settled into a steady pace, finishing out the southern loop of the figure 8.  The sun, finally coming out, was now beginning to set as I entered the fourth aid station, the last before the final climb.  I took the time to change into warmer clothes, mine damp,  with sweat and maybe a bit smelly.

As I left the aid station and began the second and final climb to 12,000 feet, I started to feel nauseous. I had eaten a lot at the aid station (being last again and getting all of the quesadillas), but in retrospect, I didn’t drink enough. I swallowed a couple of Tums which seemed to help a little.  I sipped at my water, finding it hard to drink and breath at the same time as I climbed out of the trees and into the wind.

I glanced at my watch and realized four hours had passed since I left the aid station.  I stopped immediately and fished some gels out of my pack, forcing myself to eat them. I waited a few more minutes, then gathered myself up and continued the slog to the top of the pass.  It was well into nighttime now and I was heartened to see a headlamp not too far in front of me, respite from the loneliness. I continued up, watching the light, my small beacon in the dark.  

The winds picked up and I burrowed as best I could into my clothes, watching for the glowing trail markers and the footsteps that preceded me in the snow.  Soon the wind had obliterated the prints, and I alternated between following the headlamp ahead and the glowsticks. It was close to midnight.

Not soon enough, I was over the pass, and headed gratefully down and out of the wind.  I heard later it was about 10 degrees on the pass, and I would not argue with that number.  Not much later, I overtook the headlamp, attached to a very fatigued runner.  After making sure he had food and water and was, if not warm enough, at least not hypothermic, I continued to pick my way down, fatigue and the dark making progress slow.  

I knew it was only a couple miles from there to the next aid station and I was sincerely looking forward to the people and more food, my nausea finally subsiding.  The two miles passed, and no aid station.  I went another mile.  Still nothing.  Concern began to creep into the back of my addled mind.  I should have known the area, having done the July trail maintenance weekend in the same area. But the snow and darkness and fatigue rendered everything unrecognizable.

I pulled out my GPS, the route provided by Megan, proving her experience as a race directorin providing the download to all the runners.  I saw that I was about a mile from the third aid station.  Momentary confusion morphed into slight panic as I realized what I had done.  The course was a figure 8–I had missed the turn on the pass.  It was at least three miles back up, then another couple down to the fifth aid station.  I wasn’t looking forward to the wind and the climb, but I didn’t have a choice. I’ve run hundred mile races. I knew I could do this if I stayed smart.

As I was putting my pack back on, two headlamps appeared on the trail in front of me and a voice called out hopefully “Are you looking for us?”  It was Dan, a runner I had chatted with at the beginning of the race and his pacer, whose name I have regrettably forgotten. They had been lost for four house, attempting twice to go back to the pass and find the correct route down. Their GPS had long since died and they were cold and tired from the effort.

Half expecting their response (the one I was leaning towards), I told them I had a GPS and could get us back on track, but they were finished and looking for a quick way out.  Unfortunately, at that location, there wasn’t a quick way. The closest aid station was a long drive from Silverton and finding a closer trailhead would require miles of hiking.

Once at a trailhead, getting a ride would fortunately be to do.  Ever prepared, Megan had sent out in one of her numerous pre-race emails (it had been tempting to say ‘enough of emails!’ but they were so informative and upbeat) an email address to load into our satellite messengers.  Someone in a warm room somewhere was monitoring the inbox, and I quickly had a response to my slow-typed text.

Stay put. Megan was on her way.

We paced back and forth in an almost futile attempt to keep warm in the dropping temperatures, dipping before the dawn that was due in a couple hours. Food and water just seemed impossible at that point, s \o there was much relief when the headlights appeared.

But the saga was to continue.

The runner I had passed had never caught up to us and was officially declared missing, along with two aid station volunteers who had been dispatched to search for him.  The San Juan Search and  Rescue team had been alerted and now needed help with communications, and of course, Megan is a HAMM radio operator.  The three of us didn’t care that we had to stay until they were found–we were in a warm car and minutes from sleeping sitting up in the back.

Soon enough, though, everyone was found and we headed down, into the sunrise.  We reached Silverton at 7am, a full twenty-four hours after we had begun our journey.  Coffee from an ever-selfless volunteer, then a shower in the room the wife of the last runner to return, and I was almost normal.

I was bitterly disappointed in not finishing the race. I felt I had let down Megan and her amazing crew.  I can’t say I regretted missing the turn, because I know it led to helping a couple of fellow runners, and that is ultimately what this trail running community is all about.  There is always another year for the race and another adventure. I’ve already started the training for September 2017.