Bigfoot Part 6: Endings are Painful
Updated: Aug 25, 2019
Endings are hard. An end turns the final page. The emotions and events evolving are suddenly permanently frozen into memories. The next page is blank.
Even when an end is a good thing it carries a certain sadness. It is done. It is over. Statements like that require an acceptance that can be painful. The end also tells you something about the story; if there is relief in the end then it confirms that discomfort or pain has been removed. If there is grief and sadness in the end, it confirms that something has been lost. Of course everyone hopes for a happy ending, but because humans are complicated, we probably have a dozen layers of each.
Klickitat to Twin Sisters (Mile 177.5, 4,919' gain - 4,987' loss)
After a rest, all clean clothes, and a morning full of sunshine, I hugged my pacers goodbye. A five day race is a time warp; it did not feel like a Monday morning or that people needed to get to work. The course was about to zig zag up Mission Mountain into high meadows, mosquitoes, and hanging lake backcountry. The race manual cautions not to let your spirits fall during this challenging 19.4 mile stretch.
I did the math, I had the time. The last big climb was done, the highest point had been reached, this was the longest segment. I bolstered myself with these thoughts and slugged a cup of coffee.
If I took a lie detector test, and someone asked me if I was having fun and I said yes, the lines on the graph would have perfectly traced the elevation profile. The miles were rugged and hard-fought. I made progress, especially at first, but I had gone hours without seeing a soul and I grew tired and lonely. There was not a bird or a breeze; the world up there was silent. I had been glued back together at Klickitat, but the cracks were spiderwebbing again.
I came upon two men laying down in the trail. "Is he ok?" I asked the pacer, who was stretched out in the shade under bug netting with his GPS tracker on his chest. The runner was moaning and shivering and wrapped in double emergency bivies in full sun. "No," he answered, "he hasn't peed since yesterday and he's in too much pain to move. We called for help at 8:00am."
I looked at my watch. It was after 1:00pm and we were halfway between either station. The trails were completely impassable for a rescue so deep into the remote backwoods. Later that afternoon, he would have to be rescued by helicopter.
The game trails wound up and down ridges as steep as they come. The views were breathtaking, but I was still fighting myself. My brain tried to explain to my legs how close we were and that we had time to finish, but every tree led to a hundred more trees, every switchback scrawled down the other side of a peak just to climb back up to it again. I am a new mountain runner. This was a mountain race.
In the middle of no where, my phone started to ping with notifications for the first time in days. I stopped and sat on a log to call my husband, who was a few thousand miles away. I craved comfort. I heard his voice and started to cry. I wanted it to be over.
"I trust your judgement," he replied, "but I know you can do it." I knew I could too, but I did not want to be alone anymore. I did not want to be lost in the woods for another second. Too many things had been overwhelming lately. I was so far from the end of the story. "I have to go," I sniffed apologetically, "I finally hear people coming." First Ben Bliss and his pacer (later Ashley, Josh, Phil, my trail family). I could not miss this opportunity.
Hastily trying to hide my tears, I greeted Ben and asked if I could come with, and he and Jim welcomed me. I had not seen him since the first day, and we had a lot to catch up on. I was starving for the company. My heart lightened. "You guys saved my race," I said, "I was losing it out there."
Ultrarunning dismantles your walls, brick by brick, mile by mile. It exposes what's underneath, which is why we so often glimpse pure examples of strength, honor, beauty, truth watching those athletes. My race was exposing a mess. It was exposing a conflicted and breaking apart little girl. I did not like the chaos and hurt that I saw. I was not running the race I was capable of.
Together, we kept a solid pace and started the long descent as the afternoon sun grew long.
Twin Sisters to Owen's Creek (Mile 193.5, 2,592' gain - 4,760' loss)
29 miles to the finish line. I was terrified of the night. I am never scared during races, but I did not trust my mind. I was scared to repeat the long hellish miles alone again. I decided that, because there was so much time on the clock left, I would sleep at least until midnight so I'd be hiking toward sunrise rather than into the cold.
When I dropped into Twin Sisters, I was surprised to see my new friend Ben Light there. Ben had paced Mike McKnight for 60 miles to smash the course record and win the race the day prior. "How's it going?" he asked me brightly. I don't remember what I said. I'm sure I looked in as poor of shape as I felt. He asked my crew what the agenda was, then cheerfully threw it in the garbage. "Let's get a new plan going," he encouraged. He looked at my feet while I ate. I wanted to sleep. "Thirty minutes, three hours, more.. Julie, it doesn't matter. It's not going to be enough," he reasoned with me. I knew deep down he was right. Acceptance is hard when you want something very much. We decided on a short power nap, round two of food, and we would tackle the end in one push.
I could not believe it. I couldn't believe I had a surprise pacer, let alone an renowned ultrarunner. Ben had been at every 200 Mile Triple Crown event so far, he was about to fly to Spain to break the record across the Pyrenees, and he believed I could keep running.
We set off up the final long climb of the race. Good conversation coaxed my mind from the dark place. I stopped and threw up in the ferns. "That's ok," he encouraged, "those plants needed those nutrients anyway." I tried to laugh, but instead I threw up more Cup O' Noodles off the side of the mountain.
We continued on, sipping electrolytes and swallowing bites of food, sometimes puking it up but continuing anyway. I thought I was hot from climbing, but I started to feel feverish. My cheeks were on fire. I had one weak moment, feeling particularly pathetic and slow, where I asked Ben if he would leave me. This time he was laughing.
Pompey Peak: the final climb of the entire course. The sky glowed pink below the deep blue Cascades for our short summit push. The Milky Way blazed overhead from the top.
Delirious and stumbling, Ben and I pressed on to the final aid station. In those early hours of the morning, he kept me talking and joking. I was awake, but I was struggling to stay focused and fighting the night. I had nearly stopped throwing up but my face was still hot and I knew that I was not moving efficiently. The lesson he taught me: keep moving.
Out of no where, my pole broke and I hiked lopsided, like a drunk walking home from bar close (and told just as terrible of stories). We continued hiking down the overgrown road that felt (to me) like a Tim Burton tunnel while Ben told me he thought he could see the aid station ahead. Between you and me, I suspect he told me that three or four times.
Owen's Creek to Finish (Mile 206.5, 385' gain - 1,639' loss)
I ordered a turkey avocado sandwich and continued walking. After a short break with the crew at the car, Ben and I stood up to begin the last leg. The pavement was a welcome sight. People. Street signs. Sound. Colors besides green, dark green, light green, moss green, and sky. The sun rose slowly beside us. Ben looked up and pointed out Pompey Peak. I was incredulous that I had been up there, so far away, earlier that night. My hip flexors felt like they were going to spring off my pelvis, but I was happy.
This was it.
A reflective handful of miles back to Randle, we turned a few corners, and we were running past a diner with my dad inside eating breakfast reading the paper. It was time for him to get up and leave, I smiled to myself. A great peace welled up slowly inside me. I knew the end of the story.
"You're it," I said playfully to Ben and tried to take off (he very easily caught me). We ran to the school and hit the track hard while cowbells and cheers called us home.
Family, friends. Ahead of me was comfort and safety. I had suffered greatly in the darkness of Bigfoot, but just in front of me would signify where it stopped, where I could let it all go. I crossed the line, and relief washed over me. It was done.
Bigfoot is an imaginary monster. Bigfoot 200 is a very real beast.
P.S. There's a sequel to the story: Tahoe 200 starts September 13th!