Part 2: Flippin' the Bird
Updated: Feb 16
The morning of the third day, I fully bought into the race. I allowed myself to think ahead. Slow-burning happiness slowly filled my bones. I wanted to be out there. I was thankful for the opportunity to battle the mountain. I came to accept the exact exposed reality I was in, both on- and off-course.
There was encouragement everywhere, especially from the boys. Our snappy little team grew more and more meaningful to me. We ate together, napped together, challenged each other's pace, laughed loudly and shared second place. I still heard myself trying to push them away every few dozen miles, urging them to move on before they left me behind, but they refused to break gangline. It took me a very long time to realize they were not going to abandon me.
Racing again after a sleep break feels rusty and disorienting. On one hand, the excitement to start breaking off sections again stokes your adrenaline. I've often heard ultrarunning described as a peeling of layers: your defenses, your ego, your perceptions of self and others, your excuses. It's also a stripping of the course: the more segments you complete, the more closely you grow to the heart of the race. If knowledge is correlated to love, then the more you know about something, the more profoundly you are able to tailor your love to it. A looped course allows you to memorize every mile. I am always in love with the trail.
On the other hand, your brain is telling you it is nighttime, your face feels leathery, your eyes are full of sleep, and your stomach doesn't have any idea what the hell is happening. This is the moment it is crucial to express bottomless gratitude to the Trail Racing Over Texas volunteers: Jaime, always the first face I scan the tent for and who always knows what I need (plus the unbeatable puffy coat hugs). Tommy, who would've given me his shoes and ran behind me, barefoot and cheering, for 38 miles if that's what I needed. Sunshine, my trail mama. My comfort and strength. Shirley, Sharon's super legit mom, there to support each of us as her own. Kenny, what a rock. Such an enormous heart. Erin, who stayed days and nights after her race ended just to assist ours. What a selfless badass. Scott. Lonnie. Sharon (overall winner of the 200k to boot). Geoff. Paul. There's more. You know who you are.
We were heading out on our fourth loop; the last real work before victory lap. My body still felt strong, but a blister was beginning to bulge beneath a callus on the ball of my foot. It is an enemy I've had nearly all of my 200s and, without exaggeration, that little white spot spreads a large amount of pain beneath my metatarsals. You need your forefoot to climb mountains.
I winced and dug a needle into it, over and over again. A simple lance will not work on an angry foe like this. It will reseal itself in two miles, fill, and explode at an inopportune time. A blister like this needs to be lacerated unapologetically and repeatedly stepped on to drain. Dustin and Erin asked if they could help, but I could do it myself. I got out my little pink scissors.
Then again.. it really hurt. I knew I needed to muster up the courage to make a jagged cut in the callus before we could start the loop so it would flatten fully. Reluctantly, I surrendered my snips to Dustin (at this point I still didn't know he was a fake doctor). "Do you have a knife?" he asked. I alarmingly reconsidered my decision for a second. He gave me chocolate milk, told me to drink it, and gently worked on my foot while I warmed the leukotape against my stomach. He looked up at me to make sure I was ready for the cut. "Do it," I told him firmly. Blisters sting at first, but they will numb over time.
Each time we climbed the Peak, she met us with a new mood. The snow was beginning to melt in the sunshine - or maybe it just blew away. It was really effing windy. The other race distances did not start until the following morning, and many runners had dropped due to the conditions (and the monster that course is, and the sustained nature of running 200s) so the course was often empty. Our inside jokes multiplied. Sometimes I'd fall a little behind and catch up again, just to stay comfortable in my own pace. We all ran sans poles this loop. It was a nice break from the constant clink of carbon against rock.
At the peak, we signed Rob's summit log together. It was almost disappointing to think that, after five times up, we would only stand on top of Texas together one more time (don't worry, we flipped that baby the bird on the sixth time. There's a love-hate relationship with pain-pleasure).
Totally majestic. Breathtaking, actually. We saw sunrises and sunsets, midnights and middays up there. We gave her pieces of us, and she gave us pieces of herself, slowly, too. Those memories will not fade quickly.
As usual, I didn't have my watch recording. I didn't know the mileage, and it didn't matter. Occasionally Edward called it out, and each time it made me smile. The doubts I felt at twenty miles, the customized loneliness dogging every step, made sense to me. Those thoughts were no less true, but I could accept them. There are some things you cannot change. Even if it breaks your heart. There is vulnerability in the long run. Ultra gives you an opportunity to release the things you cling to. And, if you don't, it will eventually pry them away from you, finger by finger.
We finished the fourth loop at midnight, and we were exhausted. I had the brilliant idea to sleep for an hour and start the next section in the middle of the night. The Shaffer Shuffle, as it is nicknamed, is fairly miserable on a good day. It is a nine mile mini loop of sharp, loose scree with steep scrambles and equally enjoyable descents. To do it in the dark seemed like free miles.
When we woke up at 1am, I should have known I miscalculated. I felt hungover, strung out. I think we all did. I ate a few bites of saturated syrupy pancakes and shivered out of the sleeping bag. I grabbed my poles and left chattering. Each loop begins with an aggressive climb over a long ridge (Upper Sunset) that boasts three volcanic inclines. As I fought my blossoming blister, Edward and Dustin sandwiched me so I wouldn't fall behind. Less than a mile in, something happened.
At the top of the final climb I high-stepped up, but when I shifted weight off my foot, pain radiated from the center and knocked the wind out of me. Deeper pain than I expected, more than what was normal. I set my foot back down but could not stand on it. Tears slid down my cheeks before I could stop them. I did not want to cry in front of the boys. I staggered forward, but faltered. I turned around but Dustin was behind me, and I had no where to hide. He put an arm around me.
"I'll be fine," I stammered. "It just hurts."
We saw failure and misery transformed by humility, how it brought strength out of weakness. Pain had been the price of admission into a new life. But this admission had purchased more than we expected. It brought a measure of this humility, which we soon discovered to be a healer of the pain. We began to fear pain less and desire humility more than ever.
That was the moment that my final self-reliance broke. It was the second that I stopped questioning. If there is one thing people do, they leave. Not this time. I couldn't explain it. Pausing in the darkness, I let my guard down. I didn't have to do this alone.
We all stood in silence while I hesitated to collect myself. I assured them that we should go on. At the pavilion, Erin and Kyra saved me. Following course rules, we left the route and got in their car to head back to main aid. I switched into thicker soled shoes, added a second pair of socks, and returned to the exact place where we left the trail. My feet were beat up and bruised, but I felt better. Victory lap. I knew we could do this. I knew there would be suffering.
But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.
- Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid
When we had to continuously ask each other to lead because we were each falling asleep while walking, we knew we were not in great shape. As the night drew closer to dawn, temperatures dropped. It was too cold to stop moving. I ran out of calories and was starving. I ate walnuts and promptly threw them up, which felt like vomiting wood chips. We were all struggling badly. We marched on.
When we finally stumbled into the aid station at sunrise, we climbed back into our bags for another hour and a half. The cumulative exhaustion and the emotions of that section hit me, and I quietly cried myself to sleep. Ohio Zach was sleeping in the cot next to me. Kenny made me a bagel. The boys were asleep somewhere. It felt good to finally let go.
When we woke up, we had 29 miles to go. It was 7:30am. We ate and prepared to leave. I woke up still feeling everything acutely. I hugged everyone. I asked Sunshine to promise me we'd finish. I wiped my face, and the three pack headed to Mundy's for the final run up. We were laughing before we hit the talus.
We kissed the peak and signed our names one last time before hurrying down to Bowen Ranch as the sun rose above us, low and warm. I unzipped my coat, I packed away my pants, and I smeared sunscreen on my ears and cheekbones. The white girl next to Mexico was often reminded to lotion up. I love my trail family, and I listened.
The temperature climbed as we crossed the open desert to aid. Someone brought Wendy's. We ate everything (two of everything). My foot was still aching, but I was alright. I could ask for help, or a sit break, if I needed it. Edward juggled oranges and flipped quesadillas at the station while I fixed my foot for the final time and Dustin admired his sunburned thighs. Erin met us and made sure our packs were full.
We flipped the road to Bowen the bird. We flipped the trail through the cactus over the footbridge the bird. We lovingly flipped the tent the bird. On to Reunion Hill.
Sometimes we talked and laughed, sometimes we ran in unison quietly, sometimes Edward threw the flag for a sit break in the shade, and we put our feet up on rocks and closed our eyes for two minutes. You know the feeling when you are thoroughly beat, but you can't stop smiling? That was my emotion. I wanted to finish the project, but I didn't want it to end. I am a Minnesotan at heart. We are notoriously the worst at goodbye.
As the afternoon ground on, we continued to run.
20 miles left.
We took turns leading. The shadows grew longer, but we were in single digits.
Knowing when to quit might not be something ultrarunners are the best at discerning. Just a guess. I think I can also safely say that we typically do not enjoy failing at things. I don't. We push boundaries and expectations waaaay past what is generally acceptable or probable, sometimes just to see if we can, sometimes just to force the issue. I both quit and failed in that desert, or at least I came to terms with both. I've boxed against those partners recently in my life, but without fully letting the blows land. My defenses were still up, and reality was glancing off. When the honesty lands, it bruises, then it heals. The fight is over.
It's ok to lose that one.
What tugs at the corner of my mouth now is that I did not choose either again. I did not have to. All I had to do was to walk with my tribe when going alone was too hard. I had to hand over the scissors. I had to let the tears be seen. Compromising self-reliance is also not something ultrarunners brag about. The word trust comes to mind.
We flipped the pavillion the bird. Upper sunset. The three benches. We brought back all the terrible jokes and bantered about what to eat at the end (it was decided that the girls who had been up crewing at all hours and aid stations for the last three days should pick). I was hobbling up the ridge fairly grotesquely, but my heart was happy. We saw the friendly white tent below in the distance. Maybe a mile away.
We switched on our headlamps for the last time. We began our final (painful) descent. When the narrow single-track trail opened at the end, Edward turned and waited to walk lockstep with Dustin and I across the finish line. This was our finish. Together.
Paco: Eh life's a risk carnal. Big Al: No pintos for you baby! Nothing but Texas Barbecue.
Blood in Blood Out
If you missed part 1: The Three Pack