What Just Happened??
There is an interesting series of thoughts that run in circles around my brain I've found to be pretty consistent when it comes to ultrarunning. Never more so than this weekends 50 miles in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Running (hiking...) up from less than 3,000 feet in elevation to over 9,100 feet on trails winding their way past rattlesnakes, dead bodies, tarantulas, hidden cougars, delirious men, encouraging women through desert, forest, rainforest (kinda...)....nothing short of incredible. Tucson, in one nights running, has converted me to both a firm believer and supporter. Dallas Stevens and his wife Renee are incredible and I've been lucky enough to have met them. I can't wait for another chance to head down to run with them. Tom Gormley and Mike Duer were great guys to run with, always interesting and always ready to talk when you needed it. They have a wonderful group down there. Tucson Trail Runners site.
Step 1. - Challenge Discovery
Bear Canyon, Catalina Mountain. Minus this snow...pretty compelling photo. www.johnmiranda.com
Find a cool race. Challenging terrain. Rugged. Wild to some degree. Doesn't have to be a "race" but some level of unique toughness. Preferably something "most" people would avoid. (See: Superstition Wilderness 50...) In this case it was 50 miles up and town Mt. Lemmon and it's 9,100 feet. Multiple micro climates, ecosystems, cactus, pine, rocks, roots, pine needles, ferns. Lot's and lot's of climbing. Just for kicks...let's do it at night. 7pm start time. Why? Why not? Plus, as it was for friend Dallas Stevens 50th Bday, it was his call. It was a good one.
Step 2. - Anxious Excitement
I see you Jeremy...
Get really excited, anxious and constantly think about said chosen race/adventure. Go into event with hopes of something spell-bindingly unique to happen. Unusual weather, rare animal species spotting, or just some incredible terrain. Something is always bound to happen.
In this case? Well, several things happened. One for instance would be the hiker we passed around mile 4 of 50 miles that had found a dead body. Pretty unique right? We yelled across the canyon where the guy was with the body for about 20 minutes before deciding we cannot do anything to help, the guy had supplies while he waited for 9-1-1 and we had a timeline that we had to meet without worrying people on our own. So we moved on. (Later we would find out the guy was a 52 year old man from the Midwest visiting his family in Tucson. So the kid that found him was his nephew. Something the kid never though to mention. Like maybe a "My uncle passed out and I can't get a pulse!" Or, "My uncle's dead!" Nothing. Weird. We hadn't made it 2 more minutes on the trail before a Tiger Rattlenake blocked the trail. Good start. Maybe there are burning crosses on the trail up ahead? Should we sing Happy Birthday now or at the finish?
Later on in the early dawn just below the peak there was a moment when I had fallen behind the other while eating a powerbar. Walking along among all the boulders and pines I glanced to my left and I stopped dead in my tracks. I immediately look to my right and up the trail and saw nobody. They were gone, out of sight. I look back to my left and it was still there. Sitting there, legs outstretched in front of it, head upright overlooking the ridge, a stoic mountain lion. Had it seen me? Can it smell me? What am I going to do? The guys are too far away to do anything now, this thing is going to be on me in 3 seconds. Weapon, I need a weapon. I look around for a rock or sturdy stick. Like that's going to do anything but it'll make me feel better. I look back up the trail again and then again to the lion. Wait! It's gone!! Shit. Is it circling around? Had it seen me?
Looking at where it was once again I realize what I should have known. The "lion" looked a lot like what I was looking at now. A rock with two colors. So I was safe after all, just a complete moron. Saved again by my own reckless mind. I thought about running to catch up to the guys and tell them the "funny story" but realized...its probably more embarrassing than anything. So instead I'll just put the story on the internet. Nobody reads this stuff anyway. I can't wait to see what kind of stuff I conjure up being up for 24 hours and 75 miles on my legs instead of 35. I'm imaging flying goats with hot pink capri's on while whistling the soundtrack for The Sound of Music. I'll let you know.
Step 3. - Start. Hold the Throttle. Settle In.
The First Step...
Start the run. Feel like gunning it. Settle in. Enjoy the people and environment.
This whole run was filled with great attitudes. I got to meet some great Tucson TTR (Tucson Trail Runners) and hear their passion for this entire network of trails they use as their playground. They are incredibly lucky to have this as their backyard with all the climbing, canyons, and runnable trails at their disposal.
Starting any long run is difficult in the beginning. You know from that first intrepid step that you are not going to be back to your car for a very long time. There will be some low times, some high times and some very challenging times. That first step is a big one. One usually followed by the one that wants to run hard way too fast. The challenge is holding that second step in and replacing it with a more responsible one.
Step 4. - Self Doubt. Dealing with Self Induced Stupidity
Yummy...the first 10 times.
Push on through the miles as I progressively question the intelligence of this undertaking, question my involvement in ultrarunning alone and stare in disgust at the upcoming Strawberry Banana Powergel I'm about to ingest.
It's something I've yet to really avoid on any long run. Even training runs. With experience (little that I have) I've at least learned that it'll pass with enough time and sure enough it always does. But that doesn't always stop the, "I really don't understand why the hell I always think this is going to be fun." or "This is stupid. Just plain stupid. How in the hell am I going to run 100 miles if I'm this tired at 20?" Then it passes, I feel stronger as the miles add on and I reflect back on it like many of the idiotic things said as a 15 year old. Or 30.
Step 5. - Embrace It. All of It.
I'm Renee. I can cheer ANYONE up. I rule.
Close out the pity partiers and rebound to push on towards once again enjoying what is happening, embrace the mileage, the climbs, the downhills and get this done.
Pity party's are always temporary and inevitably pass. Banana here, Avacado Turkey wrap there and some good old fashioned apple pie. Maybe just a trip through an Aid Station, or in this case the Renee Roving Station. Rebound complete, power out some miles. It cannot get worse, it can only get better. Embrace the hills, power the downs and push the flats. Or just run whenever possible but this was a volunteer situation so complaining is useless.
Step 6. - Pity Party Invitations Coming Soon
Please come. It's really fun.
Banana is gone. It's cold. I'm wet. The balloons arrived for the After Party Pity Party. Clown should be here soon. Looks to be an all out party. Lots of people showing up. Tendonitis and Blister are here. Major of Crankytown should be here any second. Actually...wait...he's already here. Looks to be a doozy of a good time. Right about this time I start getting major tunnel vision, dizzy and...yup...faceplant. Perfect.
Step 7. - Espresso Beans Trump BONKS
Copious amounts of espresso beans destroy all semblence of a bonk and instead open up the 10K sprint for the next 45-55 minutes until digestion dissolves all remaining caffeine. Food levels equalize, hydration recovers, electrolyes ok. Chafing minimalized. I'm ready to run and I'm not stopping. At times, there very well could be a random air guitar as music takes control over my breathing, leg strength and overall ability to function. It's at these times that I'm having the most fun, forget about everything and can keep up with anyone. Anyone. It might only be for 30 feet but I'm nearly untouchable in this phase. Or at least I feel it. It's like lightning in a bottle, Mountain Dew in a can or Geoff Roes on a bad day. The day I figure out how to stretch this out is the day I start winning races. Look out.
Step 8. - Pity Party Recovery
Recovered nicely from Pity Party 2 running returns to fun again. Doubts are gone and replaced with the renewed confidence that I'm trained for this. I can do this and I can do this to the end.
Coming down off Mt. Lemmon on the rock strewn, thinly veiled, single track I was convinced with every bone in my body was scattered with mountain lions waiting to pounce if I ever stopped to tie my shoes. The rocks, the constant battering coming down off that mountain is a brutal reminder of what the terrain can do to you, not the miles. Add in a solid 24 hours awake and not everything is always as it seems. (See above...) With the roughest sections behind us the trail opens up and becomes a winding trail devoid of any real distractions all the way to the Basin, a massive valley where runoff pounds one central point. Impressive I'm sure in the early summer when snow pack is flowing down the peaks.
Step 9. - The Finish Line Dominates the Mindset for the Remainder of the Race
Step 10. - The Aftermath. Glory. Humility. Resolve.
Images of YouTube glory fill my brain as I imagine coming from behind after 99.5 miles to sprint to the finish as the long time leader feebly looks back in disbelief as the finish line is lined with clapping men wearing mid-90's Cleveland Indians jerseys. (It's my fantasy so I'll imagine it how I want. In this case it's Willie Mays Hayes style...you know...sleeping on a cot in the parking lot, shot goes off and...a hoarse, "Get him a uniform." I want a uniform.) That thought alone, in any race, in any event gives me more energy than any gel packet, Powerbar, espresso bean. The imagery of people cheering you on as you finish what many would consider an incredible feat (whether a marathon, 50k, 50m or 100m. It doesn't matter.)
In this case it was a weekend runner on the Tram Road that passed us headed down the mountain. Clearly we were all a bit weary at we reached 46 miles and were headed on in but for some reason I only wanted to beat that guy to the end. And we did, quite easily, knowing that we were going to have an imaginary finish line waiting for us with imaginary Cleveland Indians cheering us along the way. Instead though the reality was Sunday morning tourists, locals and day hikers leaving the pavement for a side trail or tram ride, staring at us as we past wondering inside their heads, "I wonder where they were, they look like hell." Or maybe not. Maybe it's my imagination, maybe they never looked at us in the first place. Maybe they were thinking, "Why is that guy staring at me like I'm a Grilled Stuffed Burrito with chicken, hot sauce and a big 32 oz. Mountain Dew...wait...sidetracked.
- Yes, this video is in another language...no i don't know why. You get the idea.
Pretty stellar view.
With each thought of doubt and remorse during a run there are dozens more of pride, adventure, fun, and accomplishment during and after. The aftermath of a run is one that consistently ranks in my top moments in my life. Sitting on a rock, chair, truck bed moments after a run, looking back up a canyon to a massive mountain hanging above our heads...you can't help but be a little overwhelmed with the thought of, "We just did that. Just now. Just happened." It's that moment of gratification that justifies it all. Something that many people just don't get, won't get, and don't care to get unless they've actually done it. Why do I run? Why do I sign up for 50 mile runs at night up a 9,000 foot mountain for a friends Birthday?? Because you never know what you can do, what you are fully capable of, until you are doing it when nobody is making you. It's not quite the same when you are entered in a race you paid for against people of the same mind. It's a bit different when you are heading out into a verifiable wilderness (especially at night) running 50 extremely challenging miles just because. Looking back up that canyon afterwards, sitting on that stone wall at the park entrance, overrides every doubtful thought, every murder scheme on Dallas, and only leaves encouragement towards the next endeavor. Cascade Crest 100. 30 days and counting...