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.
“Are you from around here.”
“Are you used to this heat?
“Where are you from, Australia?” a man asks me.
“I mean originally.”
“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.
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.”
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?
Where are you right now?
Southern California. In the mountains. Near Lake Cuyamaca. Running the San Diego 100.
Subtract seven from 100.
Now subtract seven again from 93 and keep subtracting seven until you get to zero.
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”
“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”
“That’s why I think I have hypernatremia”
“You seem good to me.”
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.
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.