Our most profound experiences are physical events – Richard Ford
The neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert 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
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
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
 Ford, R. (2012). Canada. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
 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
 40th place out of 85, in a race with 143 starters (59% finish rate).
 Stevens, J. (1988). The marathon monks of Mount Hiei. Boston, MA: Shambhala.