I am not a runner; these are the words I say to myself again and again as I run to mask my incompetence. Ahead of me as behind is a dusty, well-trodden section of the Pacific Crest Trail and no one else to be seen. Everyone else has long since passed or quit. From a distance, my pace is that of a fast walker with an awkward gate and the high albedo of pale, salt encrusted skin. I run, but not well. I am not a runner, therefore I need not apologize for my failure; you cannot fail when you do not try, and denying a thing is possible is about as far from trying as you can get.
On the spectrum of ultra-runners there are luminaries like Kilian Jornet and Rob Krar, Emil Fosberg and Anna Frost, and of course that guy who keeps finishing the Barkley Marathons. In the middle are seven billion human beings who may not have ever run a day in their lives, primates of every shape and size, elderly and infantile, able-bodied and not so much. At the other end is an indolent, peg-legged pirate of gouty flesh and scurvied mind, powered entirely by rum and flatulence, and right behind him is me. Well, not right behind. Somewhere back…there…no, wait, that’s a shrub. No matter. I’m so far back I can hardly be excused for not really trying.
My girlfriend is a runner, so it’s really her fault that I’m having this moment of deep and somewhat melancholy self-reflection. She is not one of the lanky blondes from Colorado or blue-skinned boys from Ethiopia who knock off marathon miles the way most of knock down beers at a Superbowl party. She is tiny and every step of mine are two of hers, but she is also strong, stubborn and mercilessly efficient. Forty miles into a run when the tall, speedy ones are lying in the dust, kneading cramps from their shattered quads, she will run steadily by with a smile. Sixty miles and she’s the same, then eighty. She never stops. When all the stars in the universe have collapsed and space is a vast black emptiness devoid of heat and light, she will stop for a short rest and stretch. Until then, she runs.
And yet on this particular day, she is not running anymore. Her knee has betrayed her and she pulled out at mile thirty-two, five miles back, mostly because I asked her to take it easy on her body. She’s grumpy when she’s hurt, but then so am I. Unfortunately for us, running and being hurt are symbiotic states of being, one feeding off the other. You cannot truly run if you are not injured, for then you are not suffering quite enough to make it real. All the good stories are about pain. No one wants to hear how awesome you are and how great you feel. Stop being such a fucking wuss. Try harder next time.
Quite suddenly, the wind that has cooled and sustained me vanishes and the heat becomes a living, tangible thing. I sweat more, somehow, the one mechanism in my body that is perfect and unstoppable. I’ll be sweating when I’m dead. I take a sip of tepid water from the plastic tube at my neck, try to get a bit of sugar in my stomach, and keep moving. God, it’s hot.
I wasn’t even supposed to be here today. I was injured. I had run only once in the last five weeks. But here I was, sweating and plodding past mile thirty-something in the Leona Divide 50 miler. It’s my first 50, and likely my last. A man who must be twenty years older than I am passes me on the way back from the next aid station and says, “Good job.” It’s what everyone says when you pass, the runner’s equivalent of “sup?” and equally non-committal. It is positive but not inquisitive, thus avoiding the annoyance of accidentally starting a conversation. You feel good about yourself while not giving a shit. It’s perfect.
None of which changes the fact that I was just passed by a sixty year old man. I want to think about how awesome he is, how he must train, how experienced he must be, but mostly, fuck.
I check my watch. I have exactly ten minutes to get to the next saddle. If I’m any later I won’t be able to run down the other side fast enough to make the 4:30 cutoff at the next aid station, not with my quads as chewed up as they are. I kind of care; I mean, it’s a failure if I don’t, but it’s also an end to the pain and a free ride back to the start, saving me eleven miles of glacial shuffling. Winners don’t think like this, I know, but I’m not a runner. I’m dreading that run down. I know it’s going to be close and there’s a good chance I won’t make it no matter how hard I try, and that I’ll hurt myself in the process. And the perky volunteers there will look at me with pity as they share the news while I pretend it’s okay and try to light myself on fire.
It hadn’t started like this. It shouldn’t have started at all. Five weeks earlier, I strained my calf on the cooldown part of a cooldown run in San Diego’s Mission Trails Regional Park. It was nothing, and it ended everything. All the training was over, and that was hard for me. I had rarely if ever really trained for anything before. I was following the charts and ticking off the days and it was working. I was getting faster. I had done a double-lap on El Cajon the previous day, 2:30 on the 1st lap when it normally took me more than 3 hours, with my girlfriend close behind. I felt good. I felt the way I was told I was supposed to feel, the way I never felt; pumped, excited, full of endorphins as alien to me as the sun was to a mole. And then, well, I limped back to the car.
An ultra is a lot like life. In the beginning, you are balled up by the hundreds at the starting line, vibrant and vibrating with coffee and carbs and infinite potential. The race director’s scream births you onto the trail and you flood through the gates, the faster ones stretching rapidly ahead, surging with energy and almost infantile joy. How wonderful your body feels, new and free of pain. In time you burn off all that excess fire and youth, settling into a sustainable pace in the middle ages of the race. And then, at some mysterious point, your body cracks and your mind weakens and you start the inevitable slide into terminal decrepitude. You limp, you cramp, you stumble and age. At some infinite time in the future, when hope is all but lost, you lurch over the finish line and stop. It’s over. You are old and broken and done. Thank God.
Despite her increasingly painful knee, she was still going to do the race, of course. Nothing could change that. She trained without me. She limped back from the gym or the trail, momentarily despondent, telling herself it would be better tomorrow. I never knew quite what to say. Take it easy? Fight the power? Life is pain? You can’t live someone else’s life. You can just be there when they need a hug. The weeks slid by, measured in her failed training runs and my increasing girth. You can really put some weight on if you stop running 40-50 miles a week and keep eating the same amount.
On the Thursday before the race, I carefully stepped onto a treadmill and started walking. My calf seemed fine. There was no twinge, the early warning of injury. No tightness. I accelerated to a slow run. No pain. Then faster. It felt good. It felt great. I was moving again, faster. God it felt good to be running again. Who knew that I missed it this much? Faster. Any moment it was going to pop; my calf would tear and it would all be done for months. But nothing. Five miles at a good, moderately high pace and I was fine. I stepped off the treadmill and stood there, sweating of course, and thinking too much, of course. Maybe I should try the race on Saturday? Maybe that was idiotic. I’m not a runner. Why take the risk? I was out of shape and coming to terms with my newly acquired love handles.
On the morning of the race, I had escorted her to the starting line to pick up her bib and kit, make sure she was well fed and relaxed, talk about where I might be able to meet her along the course. I was going to volunteer at the finish line to hand out medals and celebrate the accomplishments 30K, 50K and 50M runners including some athletes who could cover fifty miles of trail and eight-thousand feet of elevation gain and loss in just over seven hours. Those who can do, run. I am not a runner. So, of course, I decided to run.
As I mingled in a growing crowd of the fit and the ultra-fit, minor celebrities fist bumped admirers and regulars hugged each other and everyone made sure they had salt pills and toilet paper and windbreakers. She adjusted her bib and pumped her tiny legs. I wondered how far I would get before I hurt my calf, but despite myself I was excited. I am not a runner, but once I start I don’t stop. I may be the last one on the course, but I would finish, limping, if I could. And if I was careful, if I walked the hard parts and jogged the easy bits, maybe it wouldn’t come to that. Maybe there was hope. Maybe I could hide among the runners and feel like one of them for just a few hours. Maybe no one would notice the imposter in their midst.
The race started, and we began our walk. The plan was to walk the hills and jogs the downs and just try to make the cutoffs. We were not ambitious; both injured, both far from perfect condition, both just wanting to get to the end with our dignity intact. But it was a beautiful morning, 6am and just light. A cool breeze blew down from the hills and added a wonderful chill to what might otherwise have been a muggy start in the sage-covered hills. It’s hard to be modest on a morning like that; the air fills you with hope and whispers in your open ears about impossible things.
All the elite runners had long since gone as we shuttled up the initial three miles of gradual climbing, all of us in a great clot of pink and green and black and gray nylon shorts, branded BPA-free water bottles and technicolor KT Tape. People chatted and made desperate breaks for the bushes as the morning’s hydration got the best of their muscle-toned bladders. We were not in the race so much as a traveling entourage.
I thought about Rob Krar as we walked, trying to distract myself from how hard I was breathing on such a minor incline. Rob is a near mythological runner in some circles, and by any measure he is an exceptional ultra-runner. He had won this very race just three years earlier. He ran across the Grand Canyon and back (some 42 miles and 10k’ up and down) in a record of just over six hours. He won the Western States and Leadville 100. I had seen him once near Phantom Ranch near the bottom of the Grand Canyon as he ran by so quickly that I thought he must be fleeing from something. A few hours later he passed us on the way back from the North Rim—a twenty-eight mile roundtrip from the Ranch—running just as quickly. Rob Krar was not just a runner, her was a beautiful runner, a man at the peak of his health and doing something at which he was better than almost anyone in the world.
I wondered what he thought about as he ran. I wondered if he heard angels singing his praise. I wondered if he had any idea what it was like to not be a runner. Did he have those voices in his head, the ones that chewed on part of your soul and ripped at your guts between insults and mockery? Did he ever think about putting a gun in his mouth instead of a power bar? Did he know how far a person could be from being a runner while going through the act of putting one foot in front of the other?
If you want the answer to that, there is a video on YouTube about Rob Krar and running with depression. It’s an excellent piece of work; very honest and very raw. And very ironic; it’s rather depressing watching a man run up a trail faster than you’ve ever run anything while telling you how depressed he is. If he’s that good and that depressed, then what about the rest of us? What is our salvation? No one will watch our videos and tell us how fantabulous we are.
Rob Krar talks about depression and running.
But maybe that’s the point. No matter how fast your feet move, you can’t run away from the voices in your mind. Telling yourself you should be faster, thinner, harder, meaner, more successful, kinder, richer, better looking, younger, more of everything and less of everything else. The thing about running is that there’s a hell of a lot of time where the only sound is your breathing and footfalls and they just give those voices in your head a nice, steady backbeat.
After the first aid station, we were stuck in a long line of runners slowly climbing up the next ridgeline on the PCT. For the first time, we wanted to try running. She wanted to test her knee, me my calf. But neither of us wanted to pass everyone just to find that our injuries slowed us down and then everyone would have to pass us again. This went on for a while. Somewhere ahead of us there was a race. Here, people were chatting about the pretty flowers and how green it was. It was quite pleasant if you wanted to avoid running altogether. At some point, we just couldn’t take it anymore and we started the long process of edging by people on the narrow trail. And then a few more, and some others and soon enough we were at the top of the ridge and actually running for the first time. It was slow and we were ridiculously far behind the leaders but we were running, and it was wonderful.
The second aid station was at mile ten or thereabouts, and there was a porta-potty of rapturous beauty. There was also where I met a slightly older gentleman named Jim who would become my accidental companion for the rest of the race. I filled up on water, got a few cookies and watermelon slices, and we were off. The next climb was a bit steeper, but easy enough if you weren’t really running. We passed a few people and then I took off on my own, enjoying the climb, running here and there, loving the cold breeze and the early morning light. By the top of the ridge I was really enjoying myself and comfortable that my calf would last a while, so I started the run down toward Agua Dulce in earnest—still careful on the technical sections, but faster than I’d gone in nearly two months.
There were some silly, happy moments here. The wind in the grass was like something out of the elysian fields of Gladiator and you couldn’t help running with your hands out to feel it slide between your fingers. I passed by a sixty-something racer who would later pass me when I wasn’t feeling so chipper, but for now it felt the way that I imagined running was supposed feel; light and free and cool and easy. The way it felt when you were a child and nothing hurt and you were never tired. The way it felt when you dreamed and your feet never touched the ground. For a few minutes, maybe an hour, I was a runner. I was not fast or graceful or anything else you might save of the men and women who would go on to win the race, but none of that mattered. For a brief moment, I was where I belonged and the voices in my head were inaudible under the rush of the wind.
Over the next few miles, I met up with Jim again at the Agua Dulce aid station, ran and hiked for a while with an experienced ultra-runner I thought I’d be able to keep up with (nope), bloodied my knee on my requisite wipeout, and gave some of my Gin Gins to a girl with food poisoning. Karma was on my side. Happy, happy, joy, joy.
The joy ended on the climb back up. I had made some pretty basic mistakes. Most people think that the hard part about running is the distance or the uphill climbs, but in truth it’s the downhills; if you don’t train on the downhills, you turn your quads to hamburger and your fucked. If you don’t train adequately on the downhills, all the uphills become soul-crushing, Sisyphusian slogs. And if you don’t eat enough, you bonk, and if you bonk at the same point that your legs give out, you’re just plain screwed. I realized I was screwed around mile twenty. My pace slowed, my breathing quickened, and my legs started to ache. My legs never ache on the uphill. Apparently, not training for five weeks is rather longer than the recommended taper.
From this point on, I was not a runner in a very literal sense. On the next downhill, my legs were so shot I couldn’t do much more than shuffle down for fear of tearing a quad muscle (something I had already one once already and that was more than enough for a lifetime). Small children ran past me. Squirrels ran across the path in front of me, then again, then just stood akimbo and looked at me with a quizzical WTF look on their squinchy little faces as I shambled past.
By the next aid station around mile twenty-four, the one of the magical porta-potty, I was a bit of a mess; dehydrated, hungry, cramping and weak. I compounded this by cramming too much food and water into my greedy gullet, and promptly replaced emptiness with bloat and nausea. This is pretty much the stupidest thing you can do, and something that I’d warned others about many times, but frankly the Oreos were delicious and that’s really all there is to say about that.
Oh, and I also made the mistake of sitting. I could barely stand out of the chair; my legs were that jacked. Ahead of me was a seven-mile up-and-down course back to the first aid station and a 2:30pm cutoff. After that, another seven miles with a 4:30 cutoff and then 10 miles back to the finish line—which would have been fine if I had legs, energy and didn’t feel like puking. It was the first time it occurred to me that I might not finish the race.
When I walked by the photographer just outside the aid station, she smiled and asked if I was waiting for someone. I laughed. No, I’m just not a runner. Thanks for the reminder.
This is the point in the story where everyone I passed up to this point now passes me. Including Jim, who walks by at some point on the way up the hill and nods a quiet hello. I smile and slowly fall behind. Then I see him seated by the side of the trail and nod as I pass, and so on. At the top of the hill I stopped, painfully bent over to tie my shoes, and Jim jogged by on the start of the downhill. I hobble-jogged down like some arthritic retiree but still caught up to Jim near the bottom, passed him, and we both ended up at the aid station about ten minutes before the cutoff. It was hot, and I was pretty wrecked. Jim and I sat down to rest a bit and drink ice water and try to recover a bit. My stomach was so far gone I had just given up on it.
After a while I slowly stood and walked back to the trail to wait for my girlfriend. When she came limping in, she drew her fingers across her throat and sat down heavily where I had been. She stared down at her shoes. Apparently the knee was done. She was going to call it a day, drop down to the 50k, and head back to the starting line. I, for some reason, was going to continue. It was by now 12:30 or so, and the race winners had already passed this aid station on their way back to the finish, but I thought I could make the next cutoff so, you know, why not?
There’s a cartoon by The Oatmeal called, “The terrible and wonderful reasons why I run long distances” wherein he talks about all the reasons he runs ultras and what he’s running from and toward. It’s a great story, and beautifully illustrated in its own sardonic way, but like all running stories there is this point; that he runs for the euphoria, for that endorphin rush that comes at the end, the feeling that never comes from food or sitting on your ass. It is the point that always puts me in my proper place, because I have never had that feeling—which is to say, I’ve had it once. Exactly once, the minimum number of times you need to know something exists and that you will never have it again. There is no reward for me at the end of the run. I imagine running for me is like sex for women who can’t reach orgasm; it’s nice, but you know, what’s all the hype about really? So much squeeze for so little juice.
Three minutes until I had to be at the saddle. Three minutes until I had to start the run down to the aid station. I tried to push harder, but it was farcical, like revving the engine of a Yugo and praying for light speed. What I got was a sudden urge to vomit.
I trail ran along the south flank of a minor mountain of no name. As I made my way around to the west, I saw another bend and that took the trail further west instead of north to the saddle. I was running late.
Damn. Damn. Damn. Apparently I wanted to finish this thing.
I topped the ridgeline and looked down. There was the aid station on San Francisquito Road.
I started running.
Wow. This really hurts.
A little faster.
Ooh, that doesn’t feel right.
I’m going to regret whatever that was.
At the bottom of the hill it was 4:28 and I was still some annoying distance away from the station. I was passing people on the way out who were yelling, “Good luck!” and “Go!” and “Hurry!” which was strangely inspiring. Suddenly, I was sprinting full-out. It was a blast.
I ran into the aid station with less than a minute to spare and commenced some well-deserved, bent over heaving. I wasn’t going to be cut. Suck it, mediocrity.
“You’ve got a minute!” some girl said.
I know. I made it.
“You have to be out of here in a minute!”
I stood up, confused; surely I have misheard.
“If you’re not out of here by 4:30, they’ll cut you.”
There were volunteers grabbing at my pack to get water, someone else handing me a cup of cookies and another of watermelon. Twenty seconds later another runs in and they freak out and start shoving stuff at him to get him out in time. Before we knew what was happening, we were trudging back up the hill. It was all a bit much, like some kind of cruel joke. I mean, if the cutoff time for arrival and departure is the same, it’s not clear exactly what aid you’re going to get in that timeframe.
Down the trail came a few others I’d passed in my slog to the aid station, all looking downtrodden (no pun intended) at having missed the cutoff. I envied them the nice ride they were about to get back to the start. Well, not really, but it didn’t sound so bad.
We rounded a corner and there was Jim, sitting in the shade. I smiled. Well, hi there. We joined him and started poking around in our cups of cookies and fruit to see what we had to eat on the way back. Animal crackers. God, I hate animal crackers; they’re like sugar and cardboard mixed with sawdust. I think that’s the slogan. “Delicious, sweetened bits of high-fiber recycled box material with just a touch of woody goodness.” Yum.
The way back was a death march. I tried to run the downhill parts, only to find that Jim was walking behind me just as fast as I was running, which made it all seem a bit silly. We got back to the last aid station at just before 7 pm as they were packing up. Just three miles to go. Jim took off ahead of me and that was the last I saw of him. Good for him.
I reached the finish line at 7:26 and she was waiting, clean and happy and full of hugs. I was so happy to be done, and so glad to have finished my first 50 miler, I was momentarily flush with something akin to happiness. And aside from my legs and a bit of remaining nausea, I wasn’t even that beat. Well, I was 145th out of 147 finishers, including three men in their sixties who kicked my ass, so in some sense I was beaten like a redheaded stepchild, but let’s not dwell on that. It was not a proud finish, but it was a finish.
I am not a runner, but for a moment, looking around at the happy faces of those who remained to cheer the last finishers, I felt like I was at least faking it well. And sometimes, that’s enough.