We left Geromino Aid Station for the last time and entered the forest on a mission. Closing out this last climb up West Webber left only one long downhill to the finish line. Our up's and down's and misery was all out the window. We were 90 miles into the race, there wasn't an obstacle that was going to stop us.
Fifty five miles into the race I felt my ankle start to burn. I ignored it for thirty miles before it wasn't something I could ignore. Sharp shooting pain continued with every step as the pain started its way up my shin. Leaving Geronimo with a big climb left, there was no stopping. I'd heal tomorrow.
Our group of 6 had dwindled down to 3. Our pacer all night and good friend Jay Danek had dropped us off after the Highline section and got us to sunrise. His usual basket of low brow humor and general inability to empathize with anything we chose to complain about. Both key attributes to any good pacer. We had Tobias Sorenson from Utah (by way of Sweden) for the entire night and we'd clicked along miles together since our second trip through Houston Brothers as the sun had just set. Pacing along with the same long stride, the same dry sense of humor, we were no long a couple of brothers, but a trio of runners driven to the same finish line.
We hit the West Webber climb as the sun started beating down on the tall Ponderosa pines, shielding us from the intense Arizona sun. At least temporarily. My ankle was miserable, throbbing incessentlay and fragile to any unstable footing. The entire course is unstable footing. It hurt to walk, run, stand, lean. I just wanted to be done. My leg hurt so bad I stopped caring what was wrong with it. My stubborness took over and I took control of the pain but telling it to shut the hell up. To prove my own point to myself, I pushed harder up the trail. I pushed harder as we started up the mile climb, gaining 1000 feet at mile 93-94. Sharp switchbacks straight up the face of the 2000 ft. Mogollon Rim, we pushed each turn. Each one harder than the last. Noah up ahead, pushing each other faster up the turns, we pushed with a vengeance on this course, Tobias below us probably wondering what he'd done to us to deserve this. Cresting out on the top I knew we'd crushed it. Out of every training run, every fun run, all the times I've climbed up West Webber over the years, that was the fastest I've ever climbed that mountain.
Hitting the Donahue Trail walking became nothing but pain and misery. What isn't at 95 miles though? Running was all I could muster with my leg and we all pushed on across the top of the Rim before we caught a sight of the town below. Several miles of switchbacks and a stretch along the road and we'd be there, crossing the finish line of this sufferfest.
We'd end up running the entire way down.
Coming into the small town of Pine, Arizona and crossing that bridge I had the drive to push harder. My body was broken, hobbling on a leg that had been battered and shredded for the last 45 miles. We pushed up that incline past the saloon and the market, the same places I'd cheered finishers on year after year. Screaming at the top of my lungs in a town full of old cowboys and retireees, wondering what in the hell happened to their quiet Sunday afternoon. I'd cheer people on when I knew they just wanted to walk it in to the finish. I'd scream louder until they started running. I'd hammer on the cowbell until they pulled up a trot. One foot, then another, leaning forward until their momentum helped get them to at least a shuffle. A shuffle and some cowbell turns into a jog and as they come into view of the finish line, we'd see some push even harder. Every last drop of energy depleted as they cross under the big Monster sign, to a meager crowd, limited fan fare and a general populace that will be too confused to truly appreciate what you accomplished when you tell them at home.
We were in a different place looking up the hill and listening to the cheering. Looking up the road at the finish line instead of down at the runners was new to me. Families, wives, kids, friends, all following us around the mountains for two days, happy as can be to see us finish. Proud as can be to see us finish.
I wanted to think about that but I couldn't. My leg had been on my mind for the entire night. It dominated my thoughts for hours.
Would I be able to walk tomorrow? Did I completely tear the ligaments? Are the tendons shredded? Did I break my ankle? Is it the stupidest thing I've ever done running on this injury for so long?
Yet as we moved up the road towards the finish my mind shifted.
I looked over at Tobias and Noah as we moved from a walk, to a shuffle, and eventually to a jog, and I didn't feel my leg anymore. A random stranger that half way into a race called out to us, "Do you guys mind if I join you for the night?" We say sure. Eighteen hours later he's part of the family. That's ultrarunning.
My brother had never attempted a hundred miler and he was here crossing the line of one of the hardest hundreds out there. There were several times in the race early on I wasn't sure if I was going to even be able to keep up with him. But we ended up running every step of the race together. 100 miles. Step for step. Tobias and Noah looked weary, tired, dirty, covered in salt lines and dust. Their packs bouncing lightly as they trotted, their eyes squinting in the high sun overhead. You could see a smile breaking through each of their faces. The finish line was near.
We crossed that finish line holding our kids in our arms, with our gang of Dougherty's scattered about, under, around and through the finish line. They were everywhere and for a moment, it felt like everyone was a Dougherty.
I'd sprinted every single finish line I've ever come across. Unnecessarily so to some, harder than necessary even to myself, but something I've always looked forward to in any race, and what keeps me pushing hard towards the end of any race. I know when I get close, I need to gear up to empty the tank. When it feels like it's empty, I always know there is more in there to push hard, even if only for a short sprint. I've dreamed for years of hammering that finish line, straight across that bridge, and up the completely obnoxious 3% incline on pavement to the finish line. I've done training runs and run the finish line, and sprinted it as if I'm finishing the Mogollon Monster 100 one day. Like a kid pretending to hit the game winning homerun in the bottom of the ninth, I instead dreamed of sprinting to the finish of a hundred mile mountain race I'd helped create years before. A kids dream in an adult world I hoped to experience one day.
One day came and we finished. I didn't sprint and I didn't care. I wouldn't change a thing about it, it was a hell of a race. I don't know what place we came in, and I don't even know what time of day it was, or what our finish time was. Noah and I started this race and that day we finished it together.
It's now September 12th, 2018. The race is in three days and my Facebook feed is flooded with 7 years of past photos, video's and memories of time up on the Rim prepping or planning for the race. This will be the first time I'm not there.
Mogollon is always on my mind because it will always hold such a special place for me. So much of the course is ruggedly beautiful, raw to its core, and destructive at its worst. It's a beauty I haven't found in other places, and something about that area draws you back in and can't be replicated elsewhere. The natural, physical aspects are memorable enough, yet what I often think back on the most, now 3000+ miles away living on the coast of northern Maine (seriously, I couldn't' have picked a place further away...) is how much I miss the moments within a race that often define it. Hammering West Webber with my brother at the end of a physical beat down, in unison and without words, we didn't accept a difficult climb and hobbled our way to the top.
We owned that climb.
We destroyed that climb.
Feeling the pain of the course, wanting to quit so many times, feeling like there was no way I would finish, and then trotting up the road and under the finish line. Thirty minutes later thinking about the twenty ways I slowed myself down and where I could have saved time. Seeing Jamil's genuine excitement for us before, during and after the race, a guy that has been with me through this Monster journey in so many roles, and now the passionate driver in it's long term success. Seeing other runners pass us early on and then passing them late in the race with a "Keep Going" while secretly thinking "Yup. Shouldn't have passed me Turkey Springs..." Running through the night with a big group that ran together with a level of cooperation, teamwork and unison I don't know I've ever experienced before in an ultra. We'd all finish the race and seeing everyone come through after experiencing huge sections of time on the course together is one of the underappreciated values of ultrarunning. The "story" of a runner, from signup, through the training, the emails, the questions, to their nervous excitement at packet pickup, to the race high's and low's and their finish, IS the 100 mile race to me. Our sport is so much more than the 36 hour cutoff, it's the part that goes into all the planning in advance, training, travel, scouting, and hours of work time spent reading maps and past race reports. Then seeing that play out on race day. That's the part I miss the most.
Seeing our families at aid stations along the way, the now five kids big enough to set up a cheering section, jump in our arms and ask, "When are you going to be done running Daddy?" at mile 23. Friends at aid stations, pacing other runners, and the special people that have made Mogollon, or any race, is such a unique part of this sport.
Right now runners all over the country are planning their travel, or maybe already on their way to the dusty town of Pine. Packet Pickup is in two days, and all the stories, fears, talk of weather, heat, hills, and mountains will come up. Smiles, beers and laughs consumed before the impossible sleep begins.
The morning will come too soon, and not soon enough. The Monster will rise above the start line, and as the sun rises over the Rim, the sounds of the Star Spangled Banner will echo off it's cliffs. You'll get chills, no doubt. There is no gun to go off, you'll just go. Up the switchbacks and into the glaring sunrise. Enjoy it, embrace it, crush it.
Take what the trail gives you, hammer the finish, and remember,
"You're only tired because you think you're tired. Keep going."