The Sunlight Project: Heat and Surrender at the San Diego 100

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The fire of practice transforms the suffering of the mind and brings harmony to the self and its actions
—Patanjali, Yoga Sutra 2.43

250 women and men gathered in the high desert: fast runners, slower runners, aged 19 to over 70, most in the ultrarunner’s uniform of shorts and cap, some equipped with desert hats; one attired in harlequin tights and a jester hat.

Final hugs and high fives and then the race director’s countdown: Three…two…one…go.

Jogging easily on a dusty trail.  A red trail marker.

A sign says turn left.

A shirtless runner a few yards ahead,  cheeks streaked with white zinc markings, warrior-like, or is it clown-like, or clown-warrior hybrid, says, “the past is gone, the future isn’t here yet.”

Bloody hell nine AM and already the sun is scorching.

“How’s it going?” I ask a young woman, Sheila Rao.

“Pretty good.”

“Are you  from around here.”

“Yes.”

“Are you used to this heat?

“No.”

“Where are you from, Australia?” a man asks me.

“San Francisco.”

“I mean originally.”

“The stars.”

“Ha ha.”

“I grew up in England, been in the Bay Area sixteen years, my accent’s mangled now.”

Forenames are shared.

“Sheila, that’s a coincidence, that’s what they call women in Australia.”

“You mean that’s what sexists call women in Australia,” I say.

“That’s not sexist”, he says. “It’s like calling women chicks.”

That is definitely sexist,” says Sheila.

“Why,” says the man.

“A chick is a baby bird, a diminutive bird,” I say. “A lesser creature.”

“A lovely, beautiful, dainty bird”, he says.

“What if women want to be identified not as beautiful and dainty but strong and smart,” I say.

“Yeah, I hate that”, says Sheila. “And what I hate even more is in ultrarunning when male runners talk about being chicked.”

“How can that not be okay”, the man says, “when I’ve heard women saying that, how they chicked someone.”

“That is the internalization of patriarchy”, I say.

“The what of the what?” says the man.

A sign says let it go.

Freeform trail chat flows through science, sexism  and spirituality for a good hour, disengaging usefully from awareness of the rising heat.

“Have you heard about this book, The Surrender Project, about this doctor who decided to let go of any expectation that his life would be any different from what was happening to him, just accept everything that came, and how it changed him?

“No, sounds cool.”

“I’ve had experiences like that, there was this time out here I ran eighteen miles and ran out of water, we were getting panicky but I just surrendered to the experience and when we got to the road there were men on motorbikes waiting for us with water, they called themselves the trail angels.”

Mile twenty: Sunrise aid station. Thank you volunteers. Thank you smiling Viv with a bucket of iced water. I love her.

Drench in ice water, chug down half a liter. Wow I’m back.

I love you.

“I love you honey,”says Viv. “Go do it.”

Onward. Earbuds in and IPod on for the motivational playlist.  Dance like Nobody’s Watching by The Sunlight Project. Pounding trance at max volume, flying down the Pacific Crest Trail,  thousands of feet above a vast desert brush expanse, the noon sun and sky at max luminosity, Christ this is good I’m almost crying. A lifetime marker.

Even hotter. Gut shuts down, stomach sloshing with water and bloated with undigested food. The urge to burp or fart, but no gas forthcoming from any orifice.

A man walking very very slow, head down. Something’s wrong.

“How far to the next aid station?” he asks.

“About two miles.”

“Do you have any water?”

I give him one of my bottles; there’s a few ounces left; he takes a little swig.

A sign says wrong way.

Runners puking, cramping. Eventually 120 drop, done in by heat indexes that rise to 118 Fahrenheit. I stave off hyperthermia by ice drenches at every aid station, roughly 90 minutes apart, but it feels like a massive and compounding effort whose sustainability seems questionable. Just survive the heat of the day and then the worst is over.

Good job runner.

Visualize somewhere incredibly cold. Stuck on a chairlift in the Alps at ten thousand feet in a winter storm. Imagine the hot desert wind is a freezing gale. Breathe in heat and breathe out cool. Repeat the mantra: So….cool….

Rumblings from far below, something finally moving in the gut. Head into the bushes and squat.

Good job dude. A brown trail marker.

Mile 48: Meadows aid station.  Thanks for being out here. Close to sunset but the heat feels even worse. Sit down and feel suddenly exhausted. Eat three quesadillas. Drink iced Mountain Dew — so delicious and nourishing.

I’m back. Kinda.

On again.

Okay, here comes the Pessimistic Chorus: why am I doing this, how absurd, I could stop now, nobody would blame me, no shame in bailing, this is just a hobby, it’s supposed to be for fun but this is not fun, what is the point of deliberately feeling so bad.

I don’t know.

Embrace the Don’t Know mind, let every moment be the answer.

Why? A pebble.

Why? A purple flower.

Why? An exhalation.

Watch goes dark and clock time with it. The land becomes black darkness. The darkness does not feel like nothing. Instead a presence, not frightening, but warm like the night air. A void which stops at the line where the mountain ends and space begins. Staring into the dark, the stars seem to ripple and blur together.

A 1700 feet descent on rocky technical terrain. My feet start to blister. Back up the same mountain and the blisters burst. A few seconds of stabbing pain, reduced to a hobble.  I sit down at the edge of the trail. Passing runners ask me if I’m okay. One gives me a pair of socks; another some medical tape. I patch my feet together in fresh socks and push onward on searingly sore feet.

Mile 75: Penny Pines aid station. A filthy bleeding woman, stumbling and shaky, wails “can somebody please get my drop bag?”

“Are you okay.”

“No.”

Onward. Left, right, ouch, ouch.

Traces of deep blue in the dark and then an improbable orange sphere ascending slowly at the far horizon, pink light shimmering below it on water or mirage, the scene unprecedented-feeling, the first time the sun has ever risen.

Good job Universe. A redshift marker.

Dawn, light again. Nobody else in sight. Just the high desert, the rising sun and trail. Something is wrong or about to go wrong. Feeling at once unreal, tripped out and spacey, and as if everything, wildflowers and sky and sun are glowing ulravivid from the inside.  What if I forgot who I am and where I am? I decide to self-administer the Mini-Mental Status Exam to stay oriented.

Jason, who is the President?

Never Trump.

Where are you right now?

Southern California. In the mountains. Near Lake Cuyamaca. Running the San Diego 100.

Subtract seven from 100.

93.

Now subtract seven again from 93 and keep subtracting seven until you get to zero.

86…79…72…65…

Nice work prefrontal cortex.

Fuck it’s hot.

Buddham saranam gachhami. Dhammam saranam gachhami. Sangam saranam gachhami. I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha.

Nice work Buddha.

Fuck it’s hot Buddha.

Left, ouch, right, ouch.

Fuck the Buddha.

Mile 84: Pioneer Mail aid station. Vivian! My head slumps on her shoulder. A breakfast of coffee and quesadillas; another ice bath and we head off.

Left, right.  A sign says there is nothing outside the trail.

Mile 91: Sunrise aid station. Feeling really at the edge of endurance: too hot for too long, ready to call it quits, not certain it’s even safe to continue. I slump in a chair.

“How are you doing”, a paramedic asks me.

“Not good. I think I’m hypernatremic. I’m peeing a lot.”

“Well if you’re still peeing it’s not hyponatremia”

Hypernatremia.”

“It’s great you’re thinking about that. Not a lot of people know about it. Just keep shoving down salt pills — totally unnecessary. Then they have problems.”

“I haven’t eaten any salt”

“Awesome!”

“That’s why I think I have hypernatremia”

“You seem good to me.”

I surrender.

I ask Vivian to get me a salt pill, my first in 28 hours. More ice drenching until I shiver and then we’re off on the final 9 mile leg into the heat of the second day.

“How’s your tummy feeling?” says Viv.

“I can’t focus on how I’m feeling, basically everything hurts inside. I just need to focus on moving forward.”

Even small rocks become feet daggers that must be avoided. Even a slow jog, barely 15 minute mile pace, feels like a risk of thermogenic overload risking spontaneous collapse.  For now a walk is all that’s possible.

The finish back at Lake Cuyamaca looms into view but still six miles away. Thanks for being out here. One, two, left, right. Markers.

Why? My darling wife slash pacer.

Why? The freedom to do this.

Why? One…two….

I take refuge in the left and right.

A sign says one mile to go.

I almost cannot do it.

A trail marker ten feet ahead. Holding Viv’s hand as we jog the last five feet to cheers across the finish line at mile 100.2 beneath a clock that says 30:19. 

A sign says Being.

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Viv paces me to the finish line (Illustration by Moss Barad Thompson)

 

The Life-Changing Magic of the Georgia Death Race

In the airport bookstore before flying to Atlanta this past weekend for the Georgia Death Race, I stumbled across an unlikely — yet novel, and brilliant — guide to fulfillment in running and being:  “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuckby Sarah Knight, a hilarious parody of Marie Kondo’s bestselling 2015 self-help manual on home organization and decluttering. What Kondo does for the sock-drawer, Knight does for the mind, describing a method to liberate oneself from needless psychological clutter, withdrawing psychic investment in “matching your belt to your handbag, LinkedIn, eating local, hot yoga, paleo diets, the Harry Potter books, Kombucha” and myriad other distractions in order to preserve finite attention and energy for phenomena worthy of attention:  friendship, social justice, beauty, etc. Such dispassion, Knight says,  entails a certain ethical scrutiny: not giving a fuck is an attitude of both “assholes” and “the enlightened”,  the purpose of Knight’s method scrupulously prioritizing the enlightened version. Her whole approach is, consciously or not, quite Buddhist. Contemplative philosophy isn’t something Knight explicitly mentions, but her stance is nonetheless strikingly reminiscent of a theme in the early Buddhist canon:  the centrality of suffering and the path to the cessation of suffering,  and the irrelevance to that spiritual agenda of unanswerable questions about whether the universe is finite or infinite, whether the mind and body are the same or different, and so forth . The futility of perseverating on the unanswerable, the Buddha describes in a famous parable, is like a man poisoned by an arrow who meets a surgeon but who says:

I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a brahman, a merchant, or a worker… until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a longbow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey..until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.

 Such a man would die before his questions were answered; similarly our existential plight as humans in this dream-crossed twilight between birth and dying, says the Buddha, is the enormous scope of ceaseless craving, cogitation and inappropriate guilt to suck time and energy away from what really matters. Buddhism is hence the original life-changing magic of not giving a fuck — about delusory attachments to power, status, fixed ideas of self or reality, in order to focus on the transient here and now; awakening; the liberation of all sentient beings from suffering. In comparison to Mahayana metaphysics, Knight’s “NotSorry” method involves a somewhat simpler two-step  directive (“1. Deciding what you don’t  give a fuck about; 2. Not giving a  fuck about those things”). In synthesis, it was this conscientious Buddha/Knight approach to fuck-giving to which I chose to commit early Saturday morning as my mental framework in running 72 miles in the Appalachian mountains with 20,000 feet of cumulative vertical  gain, in a point-to-point route linking two state parks, Vogel and Amicalola. That is,  I would concentrate my finite attention and energy on gratitude for the health and strength to run, stumble, shuffle and trip through the beautiful woods, soak in the views, progress as efficiently as possible to the next aid station, avoid overheating from the unexpected warmth and high humidity (65%), stave off  hypothermia on the windy ridges at night, enjoy the long stretches of euphoric flow states when the running felt barely effortful and encounter the low points with a sense of acceptance, just breathing into them one moment at a time: in sum, quite enough experience to process by itself, without worrying about anything else, including one rather important logistical issue I hadn’t resolved in advance of the race — namely how I was going to get a ride back to the cabin I’d reserved in Vogel when I reached the finish in Amicalola, knowing I’d arrive there exhausted, solo, in the middle of the night, possibly drenched and freezing, with no crew or pacer support, and no definitive solutions forthcoming from the event organization or even other runners and volunteers I’d asked at the pre-race meeting.

Amidst the exertion of seemingly endless steep ascents and descents through wooded singletrack trails along a sawtooth ridge line — the State of Georgia has apparently outlawed switchbacks — the foregoing logistical puzzle started to feel overwhelming, scarcely more answerable than the question, say, of whether the arrow that had wounded me was bound with the sinew of an ox, buffalo, langur, or monkey, and the only way I could foresee focusing on the race was to embrace a no-fucks-given equanimity about the potential prospect of many miserable hours wandering around begging for a ride in the wee hours after I crossed the finish line.  This deliberate withdrawal of cognitive investment from what I’d stopped trying to control felt liberating, however, reminding me of when I backpacked through India with my friend Steve Rolles when we were teenagers and we got on train journeys that lasted for days and didn’t know who we’d meet or when we’d arrive or what would happen when we got there and that not-knowing — in contrast to the years of claustrophobic class-bound structure in British secondary education we’d just completed — was bliss. And so I fell three times, rolled both ankles, shivered, felt tired, stiff and slow most of the day but then somewhere around mile 40 felt everything loosen up and I flowed down the trail for long stretches empty of thought and then within that void the view emerged of a ridge silhouetted at sunset and the thought arose “this is what I came for” and then the image of Moss and Esther and Vivian and the yearning to be with them and then the thought repeating itself mantra-like, “I am a father and a husband and therapist and teacher” and I felt joy in the life-changing magic of moving in the forest and of life laid bare in so many ways I really, truly, dearly do in fact give a fuck about.

 

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Appalachian turtle: “I don’t give a fuck about ultrarunning”

 

A Pair of Shoes: A Tale of Non-Euclidean Mountain Running at the Wasatch Front 100

"A Pair of Shoes", Van Gogh, 1886

A Pair of Shoes —  Van Gogh, 1886

Heidegger remarked of a Van Gogh painting of an old pair of shoes that it “restored the world to thinghood”: by dehabituating ordinary objects from the default mode of perception in which we respond to the world automatically, art induces a state of awareness in which the essence of Being is unveiled. Long distance trail running has a similar effect. So it was with some such hope of perspectival restoration that I jogged easily amidst a line of 300 or so fellow ultrarunners down the dusty dark trail out of the parking lot at the start of the 2015 Wasatch Front One Hundred Mile Endurance Run. It was ten days after the end of an emotionally turbulent year as a predoctoral clinical psychology intern: a year immersed in stress in sadness and therapeutic transformation, marked at its beginning by the murder of a young man in my neighborhood and then my encounter with his grieving friend who became my therapy client. The memory of this lost boy, the life denied him, of the boy’s virtual ongoing presence in my patient’s dreams and our dialogue about them were still resonant in my heart and mind, yielding a sense of something ending and something yet to begin, of loss yet renewal, as I embarked on a day or more’s immersion in the mountains, accountable to nobody and nothing except myself, this unambiguously tangible athletic goal of magnificent absurdity, the simple act of moving forward on the earth, footfall upon footfall, breath after breath, establishing a rhythm that itself acquired its own form of agency, as if it were not me the runner that created the rhythm but the other way around, a freedom of movement and thought propelled by a pair of shoes that promised to restore the world to thinghood. For an experience that felt so big at the time — 31 hours of running up and down 9,000 foot mountains — it is perplexing in the aftermath to discover that what feels communicable in a narrative of that ostensible enormity is a list of truisms that would not be out of reach to a second grader. The world is beautiful. I love my family and friends. Life is precious and ephemeral (perhaps a second grader might write “short”). But in the thin air and good vibes of a long mountain ultra such insights, however rudimentary, get ratcheted up several notches of intensity. It was like the time I heard a love song that I had heard before, Whitesnake’s “Is this love?”, at a time when I was madly in love, and suddenly felt that the lyrics expressed the truth of love in such a profound way that I was amazed I hadn’t appreciated Whitesnake more before, as a result of which I committed myself to thoroughly investigating Whitesnake’s back catalogue and pledging to overcome the irrational biases that hitherto blinded me from appreciating classic rock ballads as an art form no less deserving of respect and scrutiny than supposedly more serious genres, and even feeling somewhat guilty in hindsight for aesthetically privileging Van Gogh over, say, Van Halen.

 

"A Pair of Hokas", Thompson, 2015

A Pair of Hokas — Thompson, 2015

I was in good shape for this one, my fourth attempt at the hundred mile distance: several long runs earlier in the year, including a 44 mile Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim run in March, the Miwok 100km in May, high altitude exposure in the San Juans and eastern Sierra in July, heat training on the Tahoe Rim Trail in August, and some weeks of higher volume and hill intervals and speed work throughout the summer, had in synthesis delivered a body and mind that approaching race day felt good to go. A sense of calm was reinforced by the relaxed and unpretentious atmosphere at the pre-race meeting in a public park in downtown Salt Lake City on Thursday, distinguished by a couple of remarks from the race director seemingly satirizing the culture of similar pre-race addresses at other increasingly oversubscribed hundred mile events. “We like to acknowledge all the faster runners here at Wasatch….” he said, in a sentence trailing comically into silence without, in fact, naming any elite runners. Then he said, “We also like to thank all our sponsors…thanks very much,” without naming any specific sponsor. The warm welcome of my friends and Salt Lake City residents who would be pacing me, Ben Lewis and Bethany Lewis, consolidated the relaxed, vacation vibe that sustained through the night and even a 2:45am alarm and Bethany’s generous offer to drive me to the pre-dawn start at the foot of the Wasatch Front range.

Happiness Writes Like Whitesnake

Is this love, or am I dreaming? -- Whitesnake

Is this love, or am I dreaming? — Whitesnake

The early 20th Century French essayist and novelist Henri de Montherlant may have had ultramarathons presciently in mind when he wrote “happiness writes in white ink on white pages”: in transforming the experience of feeling blissed-out for hours on beautiful mountain trails a sunrise into writing, the bliss and beauty’s lack of conflict, adversity or tension — the absence of the structural qualities that are the necessary conditions even of a story as straightforward as The Little Engine That Could — ends up, post-translation, leaving out precisely the central experiences that makes these running adventures compelling. Euphoria’s intrinsic unwritability may indeed be the expressive barrier that inclines many written accounts of endurance events by default to articulate those aspects of the experience that are at least marginally adverse (e.g. tight calves) or conflictual (e.g. finishing times): a foregrounding of hype and hyponatremia to make up for hyponarrativity. A neutral observer reading such narratives might legitimately feel perplexed by the ultrarunner’s voluntary commitment to an endeavor of such functional futility if its distinguishing feature is masochism: a “deliberate step backwards to create an object”, in Philip Larkin’s words. As my Latina friend Lorena Pena asked me via Facebook, in response to my brief post-race note emphasizing sore feet and sleep deprivation, “Maybe I’m gonna sound really ignorant but I don’t get it. Not being judgmental at all just kinda scratching my head. Mexicans and other immigrants/refugees, will brave the desert, the ocean and whatever physical hardships they have to endure, but there is the promised land to get to. It’s functional and there is a tangible purpose and a goal in mind. What drives you to take on something like this? I’m really asking.” It was an excellent question, to which my answer was that blisters were a possible side effect of an adventure that’s essentially blissful — to which Lorena replied: “Bliss. That’s the opposite end of the pain/suffering spectrum that inspires/drives humans to act. All humans want to escape pain and experience bliss. I get it” — despite which understanding I’m aware that the feeling of bliss itself still trails off in white ink. So…close your eyes and remember something blissful, in as much sensorial immediacy as you can muster. Project that sense memory here _______________ That’s the best I can do. Dusty trails illuminated under headlamps, a few random chats with fellow runners, a long hike up to 9,000 feet and then miles of  ridgeline single track: see, the flashbulb images miss the____________ Happiness writes like Whitesnake.

Yes, I’m Changing

After a long slow hike stuck behind slower runners on steep single track the field spaced out, and as the sun rose I briefly plugged in my earbuds. I hit play on Yes I’m Changing by Tame Impala. The song was so beautiful, somehow happy and sad at once, an enveloping ambience of happysadness which seemed the only possible anthem quite appropriate for the mood instilled by midmorning golden light, the autumn colors of the trees, the personal milestone I’d just passed finishing my intern year, a grateful acknowledgment of the years of emotional adversity and transformation that originally inspired my decision to become a psychologist, the death of my client’s best friend, the continuity of his spirit in my client’s mind and my own, my client’s recovery from grief, the stunning fact of sheer aliveness and freedom in my movement down the trail. They say people never change/ But that’s bullshit/ They do.

By midmorning it got hot, somewhere in the 80s, and there was a stretch between miles 28 and 34 where I ran out of water, felt my mouth and lips dry and then the onset of mild panic — a feeling, however, soon restrained by the rational acknowledgment that I was not in fact adrift in the mountains solo, and thus not at any risk of death by dehydration; that I could simply ask another runner for a few sips if he had any spare, which one fellow in an orange shirt kindly did, the consequent realization of non-isolation, my vulnerability, the finitude to which all human flesh is heir, striking me at the time as poignantly profound, as if the realization it is okay to ask for help were a mantra intoned by no less than Master Yoda: to ask for help okay it is.

Going on Forever

Reaching the Swallow Rocks aid station at mile 34 I rehydrated, cooled off, sat briefly in the shade of a small tarp to stretch out my hamstrings, and soon set off to Big Mountain at mile 39, where Bethany met me with her daughter Ada. Seeing them yielded an immediate mental boost. Taking quick inventory of my physical needs, I was aware of a hot spot in my right mid-foot. I lubed up my foot, and set off on into the heat of the day for a long stretch before the race’s mid-point, during which I felt a sudden squelchy detonation where I’d previously noticed the emergent blister on my right foot, accompanied by a momentary spike of localized pain — and then nothing. At the race mid-point, Bethany met me again this time joined by Ben as well as their daughter Ada again. I had learned that Ada is a fan of the Oscar & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma — a show not unfamiliar to me, having performed in the star role as Curly McClain aged fourteen in an amateur production at King Edward VIth secondary school in Southampton, England, almost three decades ago — so while Ben dowsed me with cold water, I joined Ada and Bethany singing The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, the moment echoing backwards through time to 1985 and my earnest attempt at an American accent as Curly, the nervous excitement of the lead role, the imaginative metamorphosis of a small patch of Thatcher’s England into a rickety imitation of an ersatz Broadway reimagination of frontier territory, the memory of a copy of a copy of a copy, yet within that past a vision too of the future — the self projected by 1985 me as the possibilities of eventual adulthood — and at once the acknowledgment that this present was, in fact, the manifestation of that very adulthood that once seemed so remote: a convergence of two selves, one present and one past,  selves singing the same show tune but otherwise so mutually distinct. Don’t you wish you’d go on forever/ And you’d never stop?/ In that shiny little surrey with the fringe on the top. The race, however, was not something I wished would go on forever — another fifty miles seemed really quite adequate — so with my friends’ encouragement, I wolfed down some chips and coke, performed a short series of yoga stretches in the dirt, and headed out with Bethany from Lamb’s Trail into the course’s second half.

Soon we were in the twilight shade: after twelve hours of heat stress and introspection, my lowered core temperature and Bethany’s good company catalyzed a lucid mental state and legs still fresh for solid power hiking up the steeper trails and easy jogging elsewhere. We sustained a deep conversation free associating between family, medicine, running, politics and culture in the periphery of which loomed aspen groves, some uphill sections, the sunset and then nightfall, seven hours slipping by and the end of Bethany’s pacing section at mile 75 seemingly soon upon us, until painful blisters in both mid-feet slowed me for around the last hour.   Reaching the Brighton ski lodge at mile 75, our original plan had been to get me back on the trail efficiently (to avoid succumbing to the long rest that Wasatch veterans observe often risks becomes an even longer rest, and an eventual exit from the race), but my aching feet commanded a change of plan. A member of the race staff’s medical personnel called Mark then fortuitously appeared. His tone was striking in its warmth and kindness, his demeanor almost contemplative. If instead of having blisters after 75 miles of running I was in hospice with stage four cancer, a man like Mark is who I’d want around. For the next forty minutes I surrendered to Mark’s compassionate podiatry, while Ben stood by with well-regulated eagerness to get us on our way. I hobbled out of Brighton around four in the morning.

The One Who is Already Completely Free

For the next few hours my feet stopped being sore and my mind stayed surprisingly sharp. In my past hundred milers the night has reduced me to an undead shuffle when the need for sleep kicks in after twenty plus hours of exercise, but this time I felt oddly chipper. My second long and deep free associative dialogue of the night the unfolded, encompassing ultras, family, psychiatry, psychology, and philosophy. A day earlier Ben had told me about the Big Mind process, a form of therapeutic dialogue integrating Zen and gestalt psychology, in which participants articulate aspects of themselves from a third person perspective, such as the One Who Cares, or the One Who Does Not Care, or the One Who is Already Completely Free. Over the course’s final quarter as my foot blister pain remerged and then intensified and then sleep deprivation finally did catch up with me around 5:30am, several such third person voices variously assumed a leadership role in my awareness: The One Whose Feet Hurt, the One Who Will Finish No Matter What, the One Grateful For The Company Of My Friend and Pacer.

Climbing Mount Analogue

The French poet Rene Daumal recounts, in his great unfinished metaphysical novella Mount Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidean and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures (1952), the quest by a motley band of adventurers — a linguist, poet, a journalist, a painter, a mountaineer, two acrobat brothers, an actress, a ladies tailor, and their expedition leader Father Sogol — for a hidden giant peak, the eponymous Mt. Analogue, a sacred formation connecting the terrestrial and divine levels of reality in the manner of Moses’ Mt. Sinai or Hinduism’s Mt. Meru, defined by its “inaccessibility by ordinary human means”, a summit attainable only through a process of self-transformative insight. Daumal was preoccupied for much of his life with the possibility of a realm of existence beyond death, engaging in experiments with anesthetics, occultism, and extreme acts of asceticism inspired by his encounter with the cryptic Armenian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff, in a wish to penetrate this hidden realm beyond. If Daumal were alive today I imagine he might have have run the Wasatch Front 100. I suspect the motivation for many of us drawn to long wilderness adventures like hundred milers may derive from a wish to seek our own personal Mount Analogues, an opportunity to turn inward in the act of outward movement, illuminating the self in a more basic form, attaining a sense in overcoming physical duress of enhanced competency that not only instills greater confidence in the return to ordinary life but also, likely unconsciously — in running all night and moving through exhaustion to renewal at sunrise – enacts a ritual of death transcendence, a way through extreme fatigue of simulating the onset of the dying process stimulating in microcosm of the intense autobiographical self-review that reportedly often occurs close to death, with the paradoxical yet welcome bonus at the finish line of not actually being dead. This pseudo-resurrection’s unconsciously desired outcome is perhaps a brief reprieve from death anxiety. In the darkness and disorientation of the race’s late stages, there was something about our march up the dark trail, a landscape which outside the circular illumination of our headlamps had now become invisible, that shifted the experience into a mode of  haunting mystery, the wan faces of depleted fellow runners spectral in my headlamp’s illumination like the skeletal calaveras faces in San Francisco’s Dia de los Muertos procession. After sitting briefly to drink miso soup at Ant Knolls (mile 79) I felt suddenly woozy and fatigued. I got moving up the last major ascent, my pace slowing even as an orange line on a distant ridge augured imminent dawn. “I feel quite strange,” I said. For a moment I even thought there might be something wrong with my heart. How useful in a suspected cardiac emergency it was to have a physician for a pacer: Ben Lewis, MD, took my pulse. “120 bpm with regular heartbeats,” he said. I felt reassured, but still weird. “If you ride this out, eventually it will pass,” Ben said – which was exactly the right thing to say, even if, Ben told me later, he didn’t necessarily know for sure at the time whether this bad feeling would in end, or get worse, and compel me to quit. Fortunately, that nuance did not occur to me; I simply trusted Ben’s seemingly total confidence in the possibility of my riding out the bad patch, and indeed soon the sun came up again and the light and warmth revived me. Day was unambiguously day. I had survived the night and the sun had returned for us: an unsurpassable dawn, the finish only ten miles away now, a wondrous land in which everything felt possible and there was nothing at all to fear, not even dying, where the whole world was new again except my battered shoes.

"There's a world out there and it's calling my name/And it's calling yours too" -- Tame Impala

There’s a world out there and it’s calling my name/And it’s calling yours too — Tame Impala

 

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One Hundred Miles in Head Land

The Marin Headlands, Northern California

I Somewhere in the Marin Headlands.  3AM, Sunday August 8th

The big toe on my left foot is bruised and sore. My stomach is aching. I feel nauseous to the verge of vomiting.  I am light-headed. When I bend to the ground, I almost lose my balance and fall as I stand up again. The night air is soundless but for my own groans. It is so dark under the dense fog cover that when we turn off our headlamps in an attempt to spot the lamps of other runners on the trail snaking down the hill behind us, it is hard to discern any difference in texture between the obscured hills and the obsidian sky. “You remember coming down a wide fire trail like this on one of the earlier loops?” my pacer asks, in an effort to regain our bearings. “It didn’t have this many turns,” I say. We keep jogging downhill. I see no course markings. I want to believe that this section of the course is badly marked, because the other interpretation of the evidence would be too hard to take. We keep running, pushing the pace a little, as if increased velocity has a higher chance of extricating us from the reality of our disorientation rather than getting us more lost, faster. I have been running for over 20 hours and 80 miles. The trail winds further downhill. I spot two eucalyptus trees standing either side of the trail. I have seen these trees before. There is no use trying to delude myself anymore that the Marincello trail somehow mysteriously got longer and windier and stripped of its course markings and other runners in the nighttime. “Is this the Bobcat trail?” I wonder out loud. Half a mile later we reach a sign that says: Bobcat Trail. We have run off course down a steep three mile hill. We know the route back to the course. And my level of exhaustion is not yet so intense that I feel physically unable to continue. But at this darkest hour of the night, after losing our way, I am starting to doubt the purpose of putting myself through such intense demands. Why am I enduring so much hardship to complete such an absurdly literal challenge as run 100 miles when there are so many other worthy and less self-centered endeavors I could otherwise be pursuing? I am too tired to know the answer, even to think about the question. The only answerable question that presents itself is whether to take the first step back up the Bobcat trail…

II Prologue

In The Dark Glow of the Mountains, Werner Herzog’s 1984 documentary about Reinhold Messner, the first climber to ascend all fourteen of the Earth’s peaks over eight thousand meters, Messner compares his relationship to the mountains with a painter’s connection to a canvas: climbing is a creative act, says Messner, in which the line of his ascent remains etched not only in his memory of the climb, but somehow even upon the mountain itself, even if — unlike the painter’s brush — his crampons and ice axe leave no visible trace on the rock and ice of the peak. Messner’s vision of his adventures as a melding of the outer, physical world with the inner, mental world has many parallels in other cultures (eg. the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the Buddhist ritual circumambulation of Mount Kailash, medieval Christian journeys to the Holy Land.) The indigenous people of the Australian continent believe that their land is enmeshed by a network of energy currents, the Songlines, representing the paths across which the original creative spirits of the universe travelled as they sang the rocks, plants and animals of the world into existence, and that they are able to navigate vast areas of land through retracing the steps of these primordial trajectories while repeating the words of the correct songs in the appropriate sequence, thus connecting them from one location to the next and from the reality of the present fleeting conscious moment to the timeless domain of the “Dreamtime” in which the spirits created (and continue to create) the natural world.

Upon that natural world we have now overlaid the artifice of civilization. It has brought us antibiotics, comfortable shelters and plentiful food (well, for some of us). But if civilization’s objectives were solely to provide reliable satisfaction of basic material requirements – the lower tiers of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – there would be no Twitter, no KFC DoubleDown.  As humans we are different from Ayer’s Rock and kangaroos because we have consciousness. Once we have satisfied our needs for food and shelter, unlike kangaroos we face the existential question of what to do with this peerless capacity of awareness.  Distract ourselves from loneliness, the knowledge of time’s inexorable forward march and the certainty of death, or what? In lives of deadlines, dishes, laundry and bills, how do we step outside the immediate stresses of daily life to confront the bigger questions?  There are meditation retreats. There is art.  And throughout history there have been pilgrimages — vehicles through which we return to a simpler mode of existence (moving forward, eating, drinking) – and allowing the microcosm of the journey to become a lens through the meaning of our life’s macrocosm can reveal itself. An ultramarathon is perhaps a secular version of this ancient form, connecting our bodies to the land; the present reality of the race to the journeys of ancestors stretching back to the earliest origins of the human race, meshing the outer physical challenge of miles and hills with the inner contemplation of past, present and future; of how I got here, where I’m going, and what really matters.

A hundred miles is so far that it feels like several distinct experiences consecutively aligned, rather than a single contiguous event –  a phenomenon, indeed, not unlike a lifetime, comprised of several interlocking although developmentally singular phases, as Jaques famously describes human life’s arc in Shakespeare’s As You Like It[1]. Erik Erikson built upon the well-established psychological idea of development as a progression of stages by proposing that it continues throughout the lifespan (rather than concluding at the end of physical maturation in adulthood) with a unique theme and growth objective for each stage. And so, loosely adapting Erikson’s model of psychosocial development, the “lifetime” of my hundred mile ultramarathon could be said to have unfolded in the following six phases[2]

III A Life in a Hundred Miles

(i) Infancy (Miles 0-3)

There were several moments in the two weeks prior to the race when I wondered if I was really ready for such an extreme mental and physical challenge; and also whether the race was even going to happen.  Fatherhood to a four year-old daughter and a two month-old son was wonderful but tiring. I had produced dark brown urine after three training runs, leading me to wonder if my muscles had started to break down from months of progressively demanding exertion in a dangerous condition known as rhabdomyolysis. When my doctor’s blood work and urinalysis fortunately revealed normal liver and kidney function, I earned a medical green light to proceed with the race. But what race?  Even eight days before the scheduled start, the organizers hadn’t posted the course map or list of entrants. The internet rumor mill spun anxious speculation of insuperable logistical snafus; I feared cancellation. I woke every morning exhausted and aching. After finally allowing myself to rest in the last week’s pre-race taper, was I healing, or breaking down? Erikson defines the question of the infant’s developmental task as “trust versus mistrust” (will Mom and Dad feed me and love me, or will I be abandoned and die?) As sixty runners assemble at the Headlands Hundred start line in the gray foggy dawn on Rodeo Beach on Saturday August 7th, a parallel question of trust starts to characterize my thinking. After months of preparation, my pre-race self now gives birth to an infant hundred-miler, forced to trust in my “parent” that I have done everything necessary to survive the long trail ahead…

I take in the scene. The race field (so small it feels more like a running club’s weekly group outing than an organized race) is roughly 75 percent male and 15 percent female. Most runners appear to be in their thirties and forties, although the group’s demographic span extends to one lady only a year shy of seventy. One younger, fast-looking male runner is shirtless despite the low-50 degree overcast, windy weather. There is a man who has packed extendable trekking poles, which he intends to use on this course in training for the Tor Des Geants, a 200 mile race in the Italian Alps in September. Sarah, one of two race directors, calls us to the start line.  I hear a countdown from five to one. At the stroke of 7AM we set off jogging and then hiking the first 800 foot climb of the 20,000 feet of vertical ascent that awaits us.

(ii) Childhood (Miles 3-10)

The shirtless leader is long gone, presumably miles ahead. I have set a very conservative early pace, hiking all the uphills to conserve energy for the inevitable rigors of the race’s later stages. I am running and chatting with Matt Schmidt, a fellow first time hundred miler and also a father of two, with whom I have shared several training runs, including a 30 mile outing in the Headlands six weeks ago. I am acutely aware of my energy level and degree of exertion. I do not feel as fresh and peppy as I would like to be. Matt and I have not planned to run together necessarily, but it seems to be working out that way – though, even at this fledgling phase, he seems more inclined than I do to immediately pick up the pace from hiking back to running at the crest of the ascents. Our conversation darts in free associative tangents across past races, future races, training, speculation about what we will experience in the latter half of the race as we enter the terra incognita beyond the furthest distance we have ever run (50 miles in my case; 62 miles in Matt’s), and thence from running topics (quickly exhausted: there really isn’t that much to say) to current affairs — the global financial crisis, the impact of that crisis on our relationship to debt — eventually leading me via further associative hops to reminisce about Edward Marks, my wife’s late stepfather, a humanitarian who lived through the Great Depression, an experience of chronic material deprivation so startling it inspired a lifelong habit of frugality stringent to the extent that his refrigerator shelf once stocked a half-eaten sandwich saved from an airline meal weeks earlier. Erikson defines the question of the child’s developmental task as “industry versus inferiority,” meaning that the child starts to measure his self-worth against the expectations of parents and other significant adults (am I successful or worthless?)  Ed is sadly not here to offer his kind gentlemanly blessing, but my own parents have given encouraging words via email before the race, in an echo of their cheers at the finish line when I won the 80 yard dash as a ten year-old at primary school in England, the only race I have ever won, a race in which through the Dreamtime pilgrimage of the ultramarathon the line of the Coastal trail down to Muir Beach intersects with my childhood former self’s sprint to the 80 yard finish line.

(iii) Adolescence (Miles 10-20)

Knee: This hurts.

Ego: No it doesn’t – not really. Just ignore it. The pain will go away.

Knee: Ow. Yes, it really hurts.

Ego: But this is mile fifteen. You can’t possibly hurt this early. Or at least if you do – please tell me this is nothing serious, okay?  Because this is MILE FIFTEEN.

These two opposing voices form my inner dialogue as I chase Matt along the SCA and Coastal trails through a series of sharp switchbacks down to the Golden Gate Bridge, only fifteen percent of the race behind me: the statistically equivalent experience in a regular 26.2 mile marathon would be to start feeling leg pain before I got to the mile four marker. Erikson defined the question of adolescence as the tension between “identity versus role confusion.” It is unsettling to accept – perhaps I cannot yet accept – that I am feeling little shocks of pain on the right side of my right kneecap so early in a race. Stopping to stretch out my quadriceps muscle relieves the pain for a while. The pain only flares on the downhills. But there is 20,000 feet of downhill in this race! And with each descent, the knee pain resurges a little more powerfully. Surely the twinge can only deteriorate over the next 85 miles into intolerable agony I will be powerless to transcend? At first I am reluctant even to mention my concern to Matt: naming the problem means accepting it is real. When I do mention it he graciously stops to let me stretch. I take some acetaminophen to mask the pain (ibuprofen might reduce any inflammation more effectively, but I am wary of taking that drug because it has been known to increase the risk of rhabdomyolysis in ultras.) I keep moving, and keep stopping to stretch my quads on the descents: I have no choice but to keep moving, and adapt to changing circumstances. On the spectrum of “identity crises”, this shift from the carefree early miles of my race’s “childhood” phase to the surprise-onset self-doubt of knee pain at mile 15 is trivial in comparison with the family disruption and depression that characterized my actual adolescence. Back then, running was the (re)discovery which game me a physical and emotional escape route from the pain of a troubled home: a new identity, purely of my own design, that marked health, strength, freedom, and a sense of communion with nature. Right now, knee pain is hardly a crisis, but in order to conserve my knees for the long trail ahead, I try to let go of any identification with the idea of a pace I thought should have easily been sustainable this early in the race. I tell Matt he should go ahead without me if he wants to.

(iv) Young Adulthood (Miles 20-50)

I continue running with Matt through the end of the first of the course’s four 25 mile loops. I am immensely grateful for the cool weather – the dense cloud cover has not lifted, and even as we run through the middle of the day the temperature does not feel like it exceeds the mid-60s Farenheit, with perhaps a mild increase in humidity. At the start/finish of the loop, I had expected to see Vivian, but she is stuck in traffic. My friend Shelby is there, though, smiling and cheering. I grab a few snacks from the aid station and we head out on the second loop, traveling counter-clockwise this time (the loop’s direction reverses each time). Half a mile down the road I find Vivian, Esther and baby Moss standing by our car at the side of the road. I give them sweaty kisses. Esther gives me a card she has made. It says, “I Love You.” I fold up the card and put it in the back pocket of my shorts, thinking it might help speed me on my way. Midway through this second loop Matt and I finally agree to go our separate ways as I struggle down a steep section of the Coastal trail towards Muir Beach. A lady in the Muir Beach parking lot asks me, “Are you guys running all the way up that hill?”  She points towards the Coastal trail.  I state my goal.  She is either impressed or bemused – I can’t tell.

At the Muir Beach aid station I drink some coke and pull out my iPod for the first time in the race. After five hours of running without music, the combined jolt of the coke’s sugar and caffeine with the pounding trance music in my iPod earbuds inspires a sudden rush of energy that propels me in an almost effortless power hike back up the Coastal trail,  and then running at what feels close to 7:30/mile pace or faster down past the dramatic cliffs of Pirate’s Cove, via Tennessee Valley, where I am thrilled to find Vivian and Moss waiting for me (Esther is napping in the car). “I can’t believe how much fun this is!” Vivian says. My friend and fellow PacWest runner Diane Perun is also there to meet me at the Tennessee Valley aid station. I am amazed how much of a mental boost I get from the support of family and friends – I feel as if they are with me along the way. Erikson defined the developmental task of young adulthood as the tension between intimacy and isolation – the challenge of establishing a long-term relationship, without which we face life alone – but in this race, although I am now running solo with Matt running strongly ahead of me, the support of my family and friends feels very intimate; I am enveloped in their warmth and encouragement even when running alone these past few miles. As I head onwards in a swift hike/run rhythm through to the end of the second loop, my knee pain completely disappears. Erikson defines “young adulthood” ending at the age of 34, but as I bound into the aid station at mile 50 (in 9:50) I am still very much feeling still within the race’s “youthful” phase. Eric Pacenta, my pacer for the third loop (miles 50-75), says he is surprised to see me reach mile 50 so quickly, which only bolsters my renewed sense of confidence.

(v) Middle Adulthood (Miles 50-75)

Eric encourages me to change my shoes and socks as we pass through Tennessee Valley again early in the third loop. I feel like I have new feet. He also encourages me to eat a slice of pizza. It tastes ridiculously good. Soon the day is ending. Hikers and mountain bikers become sparser until we run alone on the trail. As the light fades, we run past a young woman volunteer from the race organization marking trail intersections with glow sticks. By 9PM the daylight is gone and the fog begun to thicken. We turn on our headlamps. The pink and green florescence of the glow sticks marking the intersections in the foggy dark is reminiscent of a similar scene I have encountered many times in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in the dust storm-enveloped nights of the Burning Man festival. That mental association with an alternate reality, combined with the carbohydrate boost from a steadily metabolized pizza slice, inspires a mood of euphoria, almost to the extent of heedless disregard for the necessity of still restricting myself to a sustainable pace, a mere 65 miles into the race. Sudden intense wind gusts on the Coastal trail overlooking the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge intensify an aura of enchantment; I find myself tap dancing down rocky gullies illuminated by my headlamp, accelerating over some flat and downhill sections to what feels like sub-7:00/mile pace, just because it feels good.  Erikson defined the developmental task of middle age as the struggle between “generativity” versus “stagnation” – that is, the question of whether we are capable of producing anything of genuine value to society in our most potentially productive years; as I surge downhill to an aid station beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, a line of lights on the Embarcadero across the Bay refracting through their shroud of fog like the battlements of a distant fairy citadel,  I could not feel more marvelously energized. I grab some food and head back the way we came. “Do you think we might catch up with Matt?” I ask Eric. “You will catch up with Matt,” says Eric. “But don’t think about it. Just keep going.” It is wise counsel – Matt will manage to sustain his sprightly pace all the way to the finish line, securing third place, in 21:18. Around mile 70, my wave of energy crests and breaks, and then I start feeling tired and nauseous.

(vi) Old Age (Miles 75-100)

“Nausea is masked hunger,” Eric says. “Try eating a gel.” The prospect of eating turns my stomach, but I decide to trust my pacer. Eric has paced a friend over the last 35 miles of the Western States, a storied 100 mile race in the Sierra, in addition to completing several 50 mile ultramarathons himself. I force down a packet of carbohydrate gel; within minutes, my fatigue and nausea have subsided.  We reach the end of loop three and meet Rajeev Patel, my pacer for the last 25 miles of the race. I say goodbye to Eric and hike down the road with Rajeev.  In my now deteriorating state, Rajeev’s big-hearted and voluble temperament feels like a human energy gel. I find myself pitifully incapable of reciprocating the generosity of his laughter and story-telling. Rajeev recounts a detailed narrative of his introduction to running in the 1980s; his early experience of ultramarathons; of managing to prevail for 38 hours through driving sleet in the mountainous Coyote Two Moon 100 mile race in Ojai, California; of dropping out of a 250 mile race England at mile 183 after experiencing a distressing perceptual distortion in which the earth appeared to be shaking and tilting beneath him; of the persistent anatomical sleuth work he conducted in order to diagnose and treat his injured Achilles tendon and related spinal nerve problem, thereby leading him to acquire an ever-widening repertoire of diagnostic tools to support the many recreational runners with whom he now works as a coach; of his plan next year to run the inaugural South Downs Way 100 mile race in England, which finishes in Winchester, where coincidentally I grew up; of the Urdu poet Ghalib, and of his own poetry, much of it penned on an ultramarathon theme. I respond to this conversational generosity with intermittent grunts and an occasional “uh, huh” or “oh”, the uncontrollable rudeness of my exhaustion-borne paucity of response leading me at times to feel not unlike an irascible aging parent submitting reluctantly to the care of his long-suffering adult progeny.

In the absence of moonlight or stars, under the dense fog, the terrain is barely visible even under both our headlamps. We miss a turning from the road connecting the start/finish at Rodeo Beach to the trailhead, and find ourselves backtracking in search of glow sticks marking the way. My nausea returns. “Do you like milk, Jason?” says Rajeev. “I hate milk,” I reply, almost amplifying my distaste, now really falling into the role of Care Recipient Expressing Unresolved Anger at Rapidly Diminishing Physical Capability through Hostility to Selfless Carer. “What about chocolate milk?” says Rajeev. “I guess I’ll give it a try.” The chocolate milk slips down easily and my nausea dissipates. On a climb around ten miles into this final loop, my right ankle starts aching intensely. Rajeev requests the exact location of the ache, correctly diagnoses the cause as a swollen foot, and prescribes a loosening of my shoe laces — a remedy that works in seconds. After seventeen hours of running, at a point when my body and mind are experiencing unprecedented stresses, I am now willing to surrender my decision-making capacity to a guide who has successfully navigated these psychological and physiological challenges many times before.

Soon we are heading down the Marincello trail – or what turns out to be the Bobcat trail – and now the challenge of the race truly becomes as much mental as physical. After losing, and then regaining, our way back on the course, I start facing in microcosm the equivalent of the developmental task Erikson defined as the central objective of old age: the challenge of retaining a sense of psychic integrity against the threat of despair. I do not doubt the possibility of finishing, but question the purpose of the event itself, even of running ever again. After an hour of this soul-searching trudge we reach the Tennessee Valley aid station, drink more chocolate milk, and then hike through what proves to be the absolute emotional nadir of the entire venture for me, between miles 88-92, between three and five in the morning. In my exhausted and sleep-deprived state, I trip and fall on a tiny undulation on pebble-strewn trail downhill towards Muir Beach. “Pinch yourself in the face three times, and shout!” Rajeev instructs. Once again the advice is effective. Rajeev then tells me that at this pace, I will not be likely to finish the race in less than 24 hours (an early goal). “Your body has done all this work for you, and now it is saying, ‘this is what we can do now’, and you must accept that,” says Rajeev.  The remark’s wisdom is undeniable: the reality of the work now at hand – simply moving forward, step by step – is so self-evidently unsusceptible to ego-driven designs on a faster pace, so nakedly worthy of gratitude purely for itself (I can still walk!) that acceptance of my depleted capacities involves no ambivalence or second-guessing: I am doing what I can now and it is enough.

“Jason, do me a favor,” says Rajeev. “Shuffle your feet like this.” He jostles forward. I gently shuffle my feet and soon we are jogging again, down past Pirate’s Cove, hiking up the steps. He breaks into a beautiful old Hindi song. After a final climb up Wolf Ridge, we reach a stretch of asphalt. Rajeev shows me a way of running in a snake-like series of curves that makes it possible to exert the sides of my thighs rather than my now-spent quadriceps muscles. We begin the final jog that will take up the last couple of miles to the finish line. “I couldn’t have done this without you,” I tell Rajeev. “Thank you – but this is your achievement. You had the courage, you overcame the obstacles. It was you. I helped you, Eric helped you, Vivian helped you, and you should thank everyone when you finish, but then you should celebrate yourself.” As the finish line looms into view, deserted but for the race director and a handful of volunteers, I spot Vivian, Esther and Moss in the parking lot. I tell Rajeev I have seen them. “Don’t hold back on your emotions,” says Rajeev. I am already crying.

Joyous and relieved at the finish line with Vivian, Esther and Moss (center, under towel)

IV Dreamtime

I left a line of several thousand footprints on the trails of the Marin Headlands during the 25 hours and 35 minutes of my first 100 mile ultramarathon on August 7-8.  At the same time, the experience itself imprinted a line in my heart and mind that binds me to those hills and to the people that supported me along the way: Vivian, Esther, Moss, Eric, Rajeev, Diane, Matt, Caren, Matt’s parents, Shelby, the race directors and volunteers and all my fellow runners, and all those friends and family members who have been so supportive and encouraging in the six months I have prepared for this adventure. I was never alone, even during the few miles when I ran solo; we did it together. The footprints and even the memories of this specific run will fade, just as the Headlands themselves will gradually erode, but the hidden trails through which we remain interconnected as people with each other and with the natural world await our perpetual rediscovery. Thank you for that connection.


[1] All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

[2] The idea of framing a 100 mile ultramarathon as a microcosm of a lifetime is not original to me: I discovered a reference to this idea in a quotation from an elite female ultramarathoner. I have been unable to trace the reference; I seem to remember the author was either Anne Trason or Pam Reed. I will revise any future versions of this article with the correct source citation, should I manage to discover it.

Thank You, Tahoe Rim Trail

Our most profound experiences are physical events – Richard Ford[1]

Dawn on the TRT

The neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert[2]  has a theory that the brain’s sole purpose is to produce movement. Those one hundred trillion synaptic connections between our ears can essentially be understood as a super-developed physical action guidance system. All mental activity can thus be reduced to a fundamental impetus either to move towards something, or away from something. Love and fear: affective mechanisms to lure us towards nurture or safety. King Lear, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, prophecies of Armageddon: cognitive devices and artefacts to make us look up or down (literally and figuratively). If all thought is an impetus to move, then it surely follows that a huge amount of movement – let’s say, a hundred mile mountain ultra — reflects a very big mental impetus; a really important thought, perhaps, or an especially important kind of thinking for the particular brain in which that thinking (and thence moving) occurs.

One of my more insistent thoughts the night before my second attempt at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 is:  I don’t have to do this. Sure, I’d run multiple tempo runs in humid, 85 degree weather on a recent east coast vacation and endured thirty minute 180 degree saunas, striving to reset my hypothalamic threshold for heat stress in preparation for the High Sierra sun; run 26 miles with 5,000 feet of ascent in the Marin Headlands in the wee hours to get used to running while sleep-deprived; raced 50 miles at altitude in Nevada and 29 miles in the Desolation Wilderness to develop some tolerance for the race’s average elevation of 8,500 ft.; pounded out sprint intervals on the track for months to increase my maximum oxygen processing capacity (VO2 max) to 56 ml/kg/min; spent much of the year planning how to avoid a painful repeat of my previous year’s decision to drop at mile 80, mildly hypothermic and wasted by the sustained hypoxia; talked my wife into pacing me for the last 20 miles of the course; and bought at least a quart of energy gels.

But was it still compulsory to try and run 100 miles at altitude with 20,000 feet of climbing? No. I’ll just tell everyone I changed my mind. It was going to hurt. Parts of it, as any ultrarunner knows, were inevitably going to suck. Oh, there would be fun parts, too. Yet, beyond this predictable fun/suck combo, there were just a whole lot of other parts that weren’t remotely knowable in advance – a hundred miles really has too many parts for the brain (mine, at least) to apprize it as a single, unitary event. And it was this sense of the unknown that filled me intermittently with both exhilaration and terror: an impulse to sprint the hill to find out, a longing to stay home in bed.

Don’t Think About A Bear

Hidden bears

Clothed and caffeinated after a 3am alarm, huddling in the pre-dawn chill at the Spooner Lake start line, I jogged easily with Tamalpa teammate Rich Snipes and our fellow 141 hundred mile starters as Race Director David Cotter dispatched us down a dark pine forest trailhead at 5am, the dusty ground ahead of us illuminated in jostling ghostly circles from a constellation of runners’ headlamps, a human mirror of the stars so luminous above us. The hydration pack of a lady ahead of me jangled with a bear bell. I had bought a bear bell for my wife at her request to wear when pacing me through the night in miles 80-100, but wasn’t carrying one myself, and had previously felt the idea a bit silly, but now I really wanted one. I recalled a classic psychological instrument, designed to assess a person’s tendency to suppress unwanted intrusive thoughts, known as the White Bear Suppression Inventory. It seemed I had inadvertently enrolled myself in a parallel test, the Black Bear Suppression Inventory, a task rendered much harder than its more celebrated precursor by virtue of the likely presence of actual bears. I imagined bears were scared off for now by the footfall of a hundred-plus highly trained humans, but what about 20 hours later, when we were spread miles apart and exhausted? A smart bear would bide his time until that easy dinner. Don’t think about bears!

Nestled somewhere in the mid-pack, legs so limber, I cannot resist the urge to run not just the flats but the even much of the steady uphill climb, passing at least 10 runners (at this point, prudently hiking) in the ascent towards Marlette Lake, the alpine ridgeline high above us now turning green and golden. I fell into conversation with Tom, a serene long-haul truck driver from SoCal, who holds a black belt in karate, and found myself engrossed by his insights about the extent to which survival in combat depends critically upon remaining calm. I wondered if, in this madcap mountain journey to which this band has volunteered itself, we are perhaps relishing what might comprise the good part of a military adventure: camaraderie in triumph over adversity, minus the risk of death and trauma.

Get to Vivian

Around mile 20, around three hours in, with the sun still low in the sky and my legs still fresh, I was on pace for a 24 hour finish — too fast, but consistent with the race plan I’d hastily created by virtue of necessity in the prior week when it emerged that I wouldn’t have a pacer for miles 50-80 (two possible pacers had declined due to injury). I had thus resolved to push hard for the entirety of the first 80 miles, until my planned rendezvous with Vivian at Diamond Peak, banking on that morale boost to propel me over the final twenty miles. (Vivian had consoled me in my post-race blues at the 2011 TRT, and appreciated more than anyone how hard I had trained for this second attempt, and how much I wanted to finish; I knew I could count on her to remind me why I was still running if the race started to feel absurd or futile, as ultras often can in their toughest moments.) A faster first 80 meant hopefully minimizing the time I spent alone in the dark in the dead of night…but it also risked going out too fast, a sure recipe for a second DNF.

By mile 20 I started having stomach problems, likely from the combination of heat and elevation. I spent several uncomfortable hours bloated and unable to eat as much as I needed (300 calories/hr.) At its worst, this phase of gastric distress reduced me to walking slowly on a flat trail, chewing Tums. Eventually I took the risk of not eating anything, in the hope that this would help my stomach settle. The experience began to feel horribly reminiscent of a similar phase of gastric distress in the 2011 TRT that hobbled me for much of the first 50 miles, sapping so much of my strength that further progress soon became impossible. But I knew that nothing could be gained by allowing memories of last year’s failure to distract me from the present imperative to keep moving forward towards the next major aid station, Diamond Peak ski lodge (mile 30). Vivian had arranged to meet me there with Moss and Esther; I knew that seeing them would lift my spirits. As self-doubting thoughts came to call, I returned my focus to the mantra: Get to Vivian, get to Vivian, get to Vivian.

Ask for Lucifer 

“Go get your own”

Seeing Vivian, Esther and Moss at the Diamond Peak station proved to be precisely the psychological boost I’d anticipated. I picked up Moss and hiked into the aid station. I washed my face and drank an Ensure and Mountain Dew. Buoyed by caffeine, calories and the cheers of my family, I started jogging and hiking briskly up the peak’s 1,800 foot climb, sections of which were amazingly steep (33 percent grade) and provided minimal traction due to the slope’s sandy surface.  Somewhere running along the rim from that summit to the next aid station (Tunnel Creek), my bloating shifted into diarrhea. At first this felt better, then worse. Then a lot worse. Yet then, at Hobart (mile 40), I regained my sense of humor when I saw a sign advertising the services of a volunteer safety runner for the second loop that read: Ask for Lucifer (Seriously). Several race volunteers were apparently wearing costumes that reflected the TRT’s tag line (“A glimpse of heaven, a taste of hell”), including a man dressed as the devil, a Hobart volunteer told me. “I’m not kidding: he has horns, a forked tail and a red face – – he’s out there on the course right now,” she said. An hour later on the great green plateau beneath Snow Valley Peak at nine thousand feet, my head punch-drunk with hypoxia, the volunteer’s satanic prophecy was manifest. “Bring it on, brother!” Lucifer cheered.

I howled with laughter at the surreal brilliance of this image, and felt a surge of energy, as if the image encoded a spontaneous answer to a riddle: the riddle of why I was trying to run a hundred miles. By this “why,” I mean more than the surface reasons of having trained so hard, feeling an aversion to a repetition of last year’s DNF, conforming to a superegoic demand to finish what I’d started and thus perpetuate a conviction of internal order and mastery: I mean the “why” in a deeper sense, a question generally hidden from conscious attention while the mind busies itself with race logistics and training plans: the existential or spiritual meaning of committing myself voluntarily to a task of great difficulty, yet no immediately evident value — at least to the extent that the idea of “value” is typically constructed in the modern world. The answer provided to the riddle was the value of play – play not only in the straightforward sense of child-like fun, a welcome retreat from adult responsibilities, but also play in the deepest sense, the type of play that in non-dual Hindu metaphysics is understood by the term lila: the most fundamental principle of reality, the ever-transient and metamorphosing evolution of All That Is. A man in a Lucifer costume, a hundred mile mountain run, sunlight dancing on the azure lake three thousand feet below me, running with Moss at mile 30, purple wildflowers shimmying in the breeze: pure play, all of it. Bring it on, brother!

Why Am I Doing This?

Impetus to forward motion

By the race mid-point all my gastric symptoms had gone. But I felt beat. Even Tamalpa teammate Victor Ballesteros (a very impressive athlete, who amongst many accomplishments was the winner of the 2012 Silver State 50Mi) now stood by the sidelines, changed out of his running clothes after having dropped from the race (due to problems with the heat, I later discovered;  he will doubtless achieve further greatness in races to come). I got weighed by an aid station volunteer and found that I’d only lost four pounds from my 184 lb. baseline – certainly an indication of slight dehydration, but safely positioned well within the 10 percent weight loss threshold stipulated by the race medics. Since the TRT 100 coincides with both a 50Mi and 50K race on a looped course (2 x 50Mi), the end of my first loop also marked for the 50Mi runners the end of their entire race, so part of the mental challenge of heading out on my second loop entailed witnessing the 50Mi finishers settling into well-deserved post-race gluttony, massage and relief and resisting the powerful longing to join them. The joyful and supportive presence of my family at that point inspired an ambivalent feeling both of renewed confidence in venturing forth once more and an aversion to wrenching away from them, and manifested an inner Critic whose increasingly terse and eminently reasonable exhortations to quit soon emerged as a foe far more formidable than the TRT’s vertiginous topography.  Why am I doing this? I don’t need this. You want this. I don’t want this. You want this. The play continued. But now it was a tougher game.

My progress was slow on the steady climb over six miles on the start of the second loop, miles that had felt effortless the first time around, 12 hours earlier. Many runners had picked up safety runners at the race mid-point at Spooner Lake; the prospect of continuing solo for another 30 miles supplied my inner Critic with further evidence in its effort to convince me that I was doing something idiotic. Dusk: when I stopped for a moment to pee, my skin was crawling with bugs: could they tell I was weakening? I kept moving, and in around 80 minutes made it to Hobart. To my surprise the sign advertising Lucifer’s pacing services had not been erased. It had sounded like such a captivating offer before, I had assumed that another runner would have snapped up the opportunity, and at first guessed that the other volunteers just hadn’t yet gotten around to erasing the ad. “Is Lucifer still available to pace? I’m solo until mile 80.”  In a flash (of sulphur?) there he was again: hydration pack swung on his back in a second, firing a volley of questions at me about how I was feeling, what was I eating, whether I was running the flats and downs and hiking everything else (the only viable strategy from this point, he said). Minutes later I set off, ready to run through the night with the Prince of Darkness.

Running with the Devil

Mephistopheles:  It is a comfort to the wretched to have companions in misery — Marlowe, Dr. Faustus

Supported by my Satanic safety runner (real name: Ken Zemach) I made steady progress past Tunnel Creek to the start of the second Red House loop just after 10pm. Along the way, we reviewed the scope of my physical deterioration. I could sense a diffuse, mild discomfort from several blisters on both feet, none of which really felt painful, but which prudence recommended an evaluation of their actual condition before committing my feet to the final 40 miles of trail beating in which tolerable, minor scrapes risked a tendency to compound themselves into unbearable, race-ending wounds. A more immediate and acute distress presented itself from the chafing I had sustained, despite wearing compression shorts. At first the act of disclosing these details of my physical condition to a person I had only just met felt strange, but the disclosure’s impact in the sunset High Sierra – a context of so much suddenly mutual experiential intensity — was to accelerate the societally normative process of boundary navigation through which strangers become friends, from a week- or month-long iterative exchange of pleasantries to a few minutes of frank chat about my foot problems. In a welcome mental diversion from my prior 12 hours of relative solitude, we then fell into a pleasingly engrossing free-associative ramble about ultras and world politics. At Tunnel Creek I changed my shoes and socks, applied lube my chafed areas and set off feeling like I’d donned new feet and thighs.

It was still light. By this point in the race the previous year, night had long since fallen and it was so cold I struggled to retain body warmth even dressed in hat, gloves, tights and rain jacket: this year’s comparative warmth and rapid pace reassured me that my second sortie on the TRT was emerging as a much more successful experience.  We pass an aid station staffed by volunteers dressed as circus clown.  For an instant Lucifer and a clown walk the trail ahead of me: another visual jolt of pure play. I made it back to Tunnel Creek in around 1:20, forty minutes faster than my previous year’s split for the section. On the way back up the climb to Tunnel Creek we ran into Rich Snipes and his wife/safety runner Mara. He said he had bonked badly from miles 50-56 but was now feeling better. He still looked strong. We wished each other well and kept going.

Night fell. I drank two cups of coffee, but as our ascent over 8,000 feet coincided with my descent into the lowest ebb of my Circadian rhythms I started to feel slow, dopey and uncoordinated. To stay awake, I started pinching myself. When that didn’t work, I starting firing bursts of 190-lumen flashlight into my eyes  (lids closed) to try and trick my brain into sensing daylight. That seemed to work well, so I repeated the trick several times through the ensuing graveyard hours. Yet gradually the night run’s deprivation of sleep and clear visual reference points began to stretch time and space. Somehow I still managed to wall off all thoughts of the race beyond mile 80 – the prospect of enduring more than what already felt endless was too intense, absurd, inconceivable for my fuzzy brain to contemplate (think of a number bigger than infinity) — and focused entirely on the mantra that had propelled me to Diamond Peak seemingly eons earlier: Get to Vivian, get to Vivian, get to Vivian.

This

Joyful Vivian and still-conscious husband approach Hobart for the final time at mile 90

A corridor of fairy lights. Cheers. Smiling, lovely Vivian. A chair. Kindly people fed me with noodle soup and Mountain Dew. I thanked Ken as profusely as possible. I left Diamond Peak ski lodge with Vivian. I started my second ascent of the peak. I asked Vivian about her day with our children. The details of her reply felt comforting, yet distant. Imagine the befuddlement of a Victorian gentleman, bewhiskered and tweed-coated, beamed by time machine from Dickensian London into a Reno Walmart: in recalling my old existence, that long-gone way of life before this race, I felt transplanted as if to another century. Vivian saw a scorpion on the trail and stopped to snap a picture.  I did not stop — she could have spied a leprechaun and I’d still have kept on marching.

On the trail from the summit down to Tunnel Creek we passed a string of runners heading the other way, presumably thus 10 miles behind me, one stopping to lean against a rock and puke. We asked him if he was okay and if he needed help. “How far to the next aid station,” he said. He looked nauseated and confused. We repeated our question; his answer was the same. We told him the distance to the Bullwheel aid station: about two miles. He nodded and resumed hiking. We kept going. I continued to run the downhills and hike everything else. There was a lot of downhill to Tunnel Creek and only three miles to cover. I became engrossed in conversation with Vivian, and soon my awareness of the stark divergence between our respective experiences over the prior 17 hours had shifted into a feeling of togetherness. As we talked, I paid less attention to the trail. I had run this section of the course several times – once earlier that day, once on a training run a week before, and twice in 2011 – but it started to feel disconcertingly unfamiliar. Soon there were no other runners visible, and no course markings, and we seemed to be descending much closer towards Lake Tahoe than I recalled the trail ever reaching. “Is this a different trail – did we pass an intersection?” I said nervously.

We kept moving down and down. Finally we saw a course marking. But how could we still be going down! I tried recalling from my map of the area whether there was indeed a separate, lower trail in addition to the TRT, and to dredge from vague memories of the race website whether there was any reference to the 50Mi or 50km runners taking such an alternate route. Clear recollection eluded me, so in the absence of definitive indications otherwise we kept on running downwards, steadily more downhearted. (Was I now paying the price for running with the Devil, starting to lose my way in diabolical metamorphoses of the trail topography?) At last we saw lights in the trees a few hundred meters down the trail below us — we had never gone off-course; the night’s occlusion of familiar visual reference points had merely tricked us into thinking we were lost.

My blisters started feeling worse. I decided to check my feet again. I sat in a chair, and took off my shoes and socks. “What is that?” I exclaimed at the sight of a purple orb adjoined to my left big toe, so voluminous it appeared to form an additional big toe. I consulted race Medical Director, Dr. Andy Pasternak. Suggesting that the blister needed to be lanced, he snapped on surgical gloves and set to work with blade and antibiotic ointment. His diagnosis: “This definitely gets the unofficial Blister of the Night award.”  (A first place finish in any category had never remotely been a race goal of mine, but isn’t it always nice to distinguish oneself, even in an eccentric manner?) After Dr. Pasternak taped up my toe, we set forth back to Hobart. My head felt oddly feverish, so I cooled myself with a wet bandanna.

The sky lightened. The trail became visible again. Golden light streamed in the near cloudless turquoise sky to the east as we ran single track on a high ridge, Lake Tahoe thousands of feet below us to the west, the lake framed by a line of peaks, a few still snow-flecked, over which at this vantage we were also seemingly elevated. The vista’s transcendent majesty stopped us in our tracks to gaze and gasp in wonder. “Thank you for this gift,” Vivian said tearfully.  I knew I was the literal addressee of Vivian’s gratitude, a gesture I acknowledged with a kiss, yet felt the gift of which she spoke was so much larger than anything I could legitimately claim as originating from my own small self. After enduring a difficult night in which the question why am I doing this had become ever more insistent and unanswerable, this moment of sharing the alpine sunrise provided a sublimely eloquent reply in which there was no longer any why, or I, or doing – there was simply this, and together Vivian and I had become it.

We ascended Snow Valley Peak, at 9,200 feet the highest point of the course. I had overcome the race’s crux. A mere seven downhill miles now extended to the Spooner Lake finish line. For the first time ever, I was now sure I was going to complete the TRT 100. Glancing at my watch, I calculated that a sub-30 hour finish was attainable, even at a leisurely 14 minute/mile pace. I was soon running much faster than that, the prospect of the end’s proximity unleashing a well of energy I hadn’t known was in me. For the last two miles my stride stretched out, the exhaustion and tightness of the last 98 miles  evaporated, and charged to the end as if racing a half-marathon, whooping as I crossed the line in 28:44[3].

 Thank you

My first hundred mile belt buckle

I started out by mentioning Daniel Wolpert’s hypothesis that the brain’s sole purpose is the orchestration of physical movement. Reflecting on my experience of the TRT 100, it occurs to me that perhaps this relationship of the brain to movement is bi-directional. Just as the brain evolved to produce complex movement, the complex movement of a mountain ultra changes the person who runs it. Did the huge amount of movement involved in my completing the TRT reflect a really important thought? In reducing life to the bare physical imperative of relentless forward motion, the experience defamiliarized the most basic fact of my conscious awareness as a finite sentient organism, thereby rendering it lucid and poignantly precious.  If all mental activity is reducible to movement either forwards or in reverse, my thinking in the race was absorbed simultaneously in forward motion and a type of return — a return to axioms of Being. Here we are running. Here is the sun, the sky, the mountain. How beautiful. Throughout the race, one thought that often came to mind was a quotation from a monk of the Tendai school of Japanese Buddhism, one of the so-called Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, who spend many years running an ultramarathon every day for devotional purposes. At the end of an extremely long period of such running meditation, one monk is attributed with the following statement:

Gratitude for the teaching of the enlightened ones, gratitude for the wonders of nature, gratitude for the charity of human beings, gratitude for the opportunity to practice — gratitude, not asceticism, is the principle of the marathon[4].

 Thanks to Vivian, Moss and Esther for your support and love.  Thanks to Vivian for being bold enough to join me on this adventure, even at the risk of sabotaging a potential PR at the San Francisco Marathon a week later. Thanks to Dr. Pasternak for your diligent care. Thanks to Rich for your camaraderie and lending me a long-sleeve shirt at the chilly start-line (it’s in the laundry, promise). Thanks to Mara and Cean for sharing dinner with us the night before and your support en route. Thanks to Ken for your positivity. Thanks to unnamed volunteers for making me Ensure smoothies and fetching my drop-bag. Thanks to Cansu for looking after Esther and Moss while Viv and I were running and recovering. Thanks to Steve Crane, Bradley Fenner, Jeff Pflueger, Nettie Purdue and Matt Schmidt for the fun and friendship we enjoyed in training together throughout the spring. Thank you Tim Fitzpatrick and Tamalpa Ultra Race Team. Thanks to Ben Lewis and Bethany Lewis for your good wishes by voicemail the night before the race (I listened to it twice).  Thanks to my father, Richard and brother, Myles for your encouragement from afar. Thanks to David Cotter and George Ruiz for directing an event with such remarkable attention to organizational detail, care for the runners and stewardship of the land.  Thank you, Tahoe Rim Trail.

Thank you, TRT


[1] Ford, R. (2012). Canada. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

[2] Wolpert, D. (2011). Daniel Wolpert: The real reason for brains [Video file] Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_wolpert_the_real_reason_for_brains.html

[3] 40th place out of 85, in a race with 143 starters (59% finish rate).

[4] Stevens, J. (1988). The marathon monks of Mount Hiei. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

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