Part 1: The Three Pack
Updated: Feb 24, 2020
I gently brushed my foot against the cold tile and recoiled in a flash of pain. The bedroom door was impossibly far away, and the acetaminophen was buried in a drop bag two hallways and another room down. I frowned at my very swollen, very heat rashed little chubs. Only three hours earlier, I had finished the Franklins 200, and since then, I had 1) hobbled around a Golden Corral in El Paso with my new running buds and crew, and 2) passed out unshowered and barefoot in the vrbo "blue room" until pain nudged me awake.
I took a pillow and dropped it to the floor, lowered to my knees, and began dragging myself to the kitchen like The Grudge girl, horrifying sound effects included. "Hi, I'm Debbie!" I looked up in surprise. And that's how I met Jessica's mom at midnight.
THE FRANKLINS 200
Let me introduce you to the course: a 38-mile loop around, up, and through the tilted-block fault nestled in the Chihuahuan Desert. The mountainous trail is littered with red, black, white and blue Precambrian rocks 1.25 billion years old, and it is the most incessantly technical course I've ever run. Oh, and it has over 50,000' of gain.
I planned to start in shorts until I realized, at 4am, that it was snowing in El Paso for some reason. A few flakes turned into a few inches in a hurry. Before the start, I lazily closed my eyes in the Yukon and tried not to think of the day(s) ahead. I loved being back in these magical mountains with some of my favorite people, but I had been here before. There was no anticipation of newness. This was more training than anything.
The race consists of five rugged loops, plus a little extra. We did the little extra first: an additional ascent of North Franklin Peak, the highest point in the range (six climbs total). The day stayed decidedly cold. And windy.
"For years meteorologists have marveled at and pondered the intriguing wind patterns that are generated by the Franklin Mountains... it was often observed that, particularly between October and May, strong and potentially damaging winds could occur on the east side of the range with little wind on the west side during the same time. Also, temperature differences of upwards of 20 degrees were noted between both sides of the mountains in conjunction with this phenomenon." -National Weather Service
I've never been in mountains where the wind comes from the mountain, but I swear that's what happens. It's witchcraft, and it knocks over the port-a-potties.
It was my first ultra since last fall (and the ensuing post-Tahoe collapse), and being back in the bib had unexpectedly flooded my mind with clarity and memory. Barely twenty miles in, I started to relive the feelings of that race intensely, to the point of tears. The sacred, the sweet, the meaningful, the painful. I treasure that week in CA more than I can say. I thought about what I've been given generously, I thought of the woman I was and I considered the woman I am. I thought of how I had treated important relationships. I was filled with palpable remorse that I had not chosen differently. I thought of the decisions I had fumbled through as I was falling apart last fall, and it brought a heavy sadness to my shoulders.
I had no reason to traipse through the desert for days, suffering. Hadn't I suffered enough the last few months, both because of myself and in spite of myself? I could hand over my ticket to run and hang out to crew Jess, who was miles ahead. I didn't deserve or need to be out here. I didn't have anything to prove to anyone. I knew I could do this, but I didn't want to.
It's easy to talk yourself into a DNF when you doubt your ability to persevere or to handle the pain; I see it every single race I run. It's a much harder argument when you know you don't desire the thing ahead of you. You are running without a reason, and I know how much this type of endurance running costs by the end. It's a high price to pay for no reward. I stood on the backbone of the range and stared miles in all directions. The scale seemed enormous.
I decided to quit.
I resolved to finish one loop as a sign of good faith and thanks to Rob for putting on the race, but coming back this soon was a mistake. I was evenly paced with Ohio Zach for a bit, but I pulled away to deal with my burden alone. You cannot drag other people down with you in an ultra.
You were just a crag girl. When I heard those words through my cell phone a few weeks ago, I chewed on my bottom lip and played with my seatbelt. I watched the neighbor pull into the driveway and his kids run out to meet him. What does that mean? That I'm not fit to have a family? That I'm some sort of climber groupie? Just good for a belay? Seems mean. I went straight to petty, indignant arguments: I've out-climbed you so many trips. I've led things that made you tremble. I've pulled roofs you didn't think I could. But that wasn't really the point, was it? The words made me feel trivial. I've given up adventure sports, and I strongly suggest you do the same. They aren't good for you. I shouldn't have encouraged your running. You should settle down and just be happy.
Those words repeated themselves in my head in that desert. Why can't I quit and be happy? Have I ever been happy? Why do I endlessly pursue adversity and suffering after a childhood of adversity and suffering? Do I know nothing else? Am I destined to never be satiated with normalcy? Am I not worthy of more? I thought I had pursued something invaluable, but it turns out I was cheap and easy to come by. By the end of it, things didn't matter to me. But at the beginning, things mattered profoundly.
My sadness compounded. I wanted to disappear. I reminded myself that my inherent worth and value as a human being doesn't matter for shit on the trail or in terms of relationships. It's not waiting to be affirmed at the base of a climb. Some tears fell. I wanted to be done.
There's a difference between quitting and failing. Quitting means you voluntarily chose to forfeit and walk away. Failing means you tried your hardest, but it was not enough. I don't mind failing at things. If you sincerely work, you rarely have to fail. I hate quitting.
Sometimes it's for the best.
Zach kept up. It was his first 200, and he told me that I should help him finish even if I didn't want to race for myself. I knew he was simply being nice, but I stuck around and we completed the loop. 50 miles. My legs and body still felt fresh. I didn't even have a blister. I had no reason to quit. He needed sleep, but I decided to continue into the dark. I like night running. The world is quiet and the desert is deep. It's you, the yucca, the rocks, and the stars. The evening was calm as I pressed on alone into the cold. I grew calmer, too.
By 4 am I was fatigued and my brain was slipping. I saw a man taking out the trash; it was a barrel cactus. I saw a venti cup in the middle of the trail; it was a shadow. When my mind can't quite interpret my eyesight, it's time for a mental break. At Bowen Ranch I crawled onto an army cot under two blankets and shivered myself to sleep for 35 minutes. When my alarm went off, I sat by a sunflower heater and quickly ate before heading back into the black. A lean runner named Edward asked whether I was sure I was going to leave and I nodded. He said he was going to wait for sunrise. Not two minutes after I clipped on my pack and headed back into the mountains, Edward had caught up.
He told me we had to beat his friend Dustin, who was sleeping in a car and was sure to wake up and catch us. To be honest, I really didn't care. I was still emotionally trying to invest in myself and the race and, though it was nice to have company and conversation, I did not care about whoever Dustin was or beating him.
At the top of Northern Pass, he caught up to us. He had started the race hard out front and quit mentally, like I had (never officially). At first, Dustin tried to get Edward to ditch me and run ahead. I was just another trail runner. I wished them good luck and told them to go. It worked a couple of times, but never for very long. I'm not exactly sure why we magneted back together again. Eventually we named that pass Reunion Hill.
There's a mysterious phenomenon about being exposed together, windburned and hungry, that bonds ultramarathoners together. Maybe it's the suffering. We each carry our burdens and, at the right time, lay them to rest in the arid emptiness. As we joked and talked life over those miles, we started witnessing each other's progress and stumbles.
By the end of the second day, it was cemented for the boys that we were a trio, although I still tried to push them ahead another time or two. We ran together until 4am again, taking sit breaks Edward timed and giving our barking dogs a miniature rest only when necessary. The relentless rockiness began to bruise and beat the calluses on our feet into tender pads as we approached triple digits, but fundamentally we were all feeling strong.
When the sun set the second day, the "windpocalypse," as Rob called it, began to rip down the ridge. The temperatures had risen a little, but it was still cold. Too cold for dirt naps. We staggered forward in silence, unable to hear each other or say much besides coughing dust, even through our buffs. Our noses bled, our eyes burned.
Back at the start/finish basecamp, we slept for an hour. I peeled off my socks and pulled the sleeping bag over my head and face to stay warm. I wiggled on the cot trying to convince my hips to relax and made a small hole to breathe freezing night air through. The wind howled outside. We got up before sunrise. Day three.
The group spirit was high. We knew we were going to conquer the beast. Not today, today was another long day in the sunshine and probably cold, but sometime tomorrow. Only one more night out there. We had a plan. The desire was back for each of us to adventure on and push harder.
Then again, a 200 mile race doesn't start until 100 miles in.