Fitness and training are essential for the completion of this race. Desire and knowledge are equally as important. You can be strong as a horse and yet, not know where to go or how to proceed. You could know everything there is to know, but not have the strength to run. They are both necessary, but which is more important? I am on my way to test the balance of this question. I know the course well and I know what it takes, but did not do the training. Am I withdrawing from an empty account, expecting a large return for my small investment. Is my usually strong will and course knowledge enough? Is my heart in this run? For months before the race, I ran my mind & body down, from coaching, directing, and the passing of my mother. Out of sync, I wonder what the hell I am doing. Am I chasing ghosts by abusing myself in this paradise. I walk out of town in a contemplative mood. Wondering how much my strength of will can do.
The first of many climbs begins quickly, into the Little Giant Basin. Slowly, we march up the dirt road, each in our separate packs of two and three. The long jeep road turns into an old miners trail, a single track of solid rock, then loose rock, past old metal posts that are all twisted about by years of mother nature's desire to remove them. Onto the summit, the catwalk, and then the cliff on the other side. It seems the perfect place for a short break, some food, and an opportunity to tighten down the shoelaces. Its a mean descent from here and I need to take every opportunity to protect my feet. Break done and laces tight, its time to roll. Its the same drill as usual for me, a simple bombing mission, release the breaks and then try to stay on the trail. I roll over the edge and start down, picking up speed, and still accelerating, sliding around the switchbacks, and pinging off the rocks. A few people get out of the way, the others I go around. I hear my name, but my eyes are scanning ahead, speed-reading the rocks, collecting data, a chess game 3 moves ahead in 3 seconds. I can't see anything but the rocks, the moves, the dance. A combination of confidence, balance, and devil-may-care. A blur 'til I reach the bottom, where the waterfall becomes a delta of creeks. I can dance across the creeks dry if I wish, but why bother when the 20 foot wide creek into Cunningham is just ahead. I slow down for the approach and then walk through the creek into Cunningham and Joyce.
Its only the 2nd climb and already I'm slow as snot, so I have way too much time to think about how poorly this is going. These self reflecting depravations are supposed to make me a better person: more understanding, more aware, more open-minded, in tune with my surroundings, more compassionate, willing to accept people and things that are different. The process, I suppose, has to do with knocking me out of what is my normal routine, changing my perspective, changing the chemistry of my mind. I certainly learn to crave the simply things like air, water, and sleep, followed soon after by healthy feet and contented stomach. Remove any one of these under-appreciated luxuries and I crave it desperately, remove them all and learn humility. A well run race is a well run body. It is all about balance: everything adjusted and tuned so that nothing changes. Feet, stomach, and mind. Fuel, salt, and energy. One mistake and you adopt that demon. A few more and the banshees pile on and tear you apart. Most people give in and get out. Some like the challenge and brace it head on. Bring it on, they say! You can tear me down, but you cant make me quit.
The track up is an old sheep trail, clinging to the edge of the wall, hanging directly over the aid station I just left, 500 feet down. Lynn and Joyce can still see me, but they can't see the sweat dripping off of my face. Every uphill is granny gear, and if I had a lower sprocket, I'd be in it. The trail has a few more options than it used to, but they all go to the same place further up. Every easy choice just makes the next choice more difficult. Along the face for awhile and then it bends right and more directly strait up. Switchbacks in the tundra lead to the first rock ledge, and then the second one. The open meadow beyond allows a bit of rest until the next set of rolling hills. The flags lead strait up through the tundra, an air blowing, quad cramping experience. Head down, hands on knees, slightly bent, bring one foot up and plant it, then shift the weight of the body up, then the other leg, and repeat.
Green Mountain gives herself up way too slowly. I stop on top for a moment, then roll off the other side. Stoney Pass is a high mountain jeep road that divides Green and Canby Mountains before taking us down to Maggie Gulch. It is a lonely spot, windy, and rocky. Mike Price watches from his jeep as I approach. He offers encouragement as I come and again as I go. The 3rd mountain is a short steep climb, then traverse across Canby's west face to ride a series of ridges. Each steep climb, regardless how short leaves me sucking air. Even after gaining the trail that traverses across her flank, it remains a climb, and keeps me going at a slogging crawl. It is all beautiful, but I have to open my eyes and allow it in to be able to appreciate it. For much of the early going, I have been closed, but something allows me to see now for the first time in awhile. The wild mountain flowers are all staring at me it seems, watching my struggle, a fading wraith drifting uphill with the snails and the earthworms. John Cappis tried to teach me their names and although some of this took, and the memory remains, none of their names come to mind. I have spent a few days with John out here and recall fondly how much he loved all of this: these mountains, the wildlife, and especially the flowers. He once asked me what I thought was the appropriate music for a summit we had taken together, and I know it was some classical piece, but the exact name hides from me among the nameless flowers. John brings me some peace, but no energy to ease the struggle.
I ride a ridge that looks off either side from 13000-ft, and then drifts down off the other side into Maggie Gulch. A skinny trace of trail that must occasionally just fall off and disappear heads left at first, then drops down through the tundra and boulders to cross a grass field to a point where somebody has left an old box-spring bed. An odd landmark, but landmark it is and has been for years. This is where we head strait down to the aid station. I can see it directly below and head strait for it. Tight switchbacks in the tundra at first, then in the dirt, and finally the scrub just before the creek.
If I am not last now, then I am surely near to it. Only 15 miles in and already well behind my worst expectations. I am greeted by Josh & Alex Gordon as I enter Maggie. These two kids from Albuquerque treat me with great respect and kindness, but even I can see the concern in their eyes. I am way behind the curve. They know it and I know it, but it is still too soon to die, regardless how I look. Parting with high fives and best wishes, I try to take a bit of their energy with me. They are certain to have an abundance to spare.
The 4th climb to the saddle separating Maggie from Pole Creek is an easy rise, especially when compared to all the others, yet it too takes me a long time. My mind spirits are strong today, while the physical spirits remain asleep. They are voyeurs only, watching what happens to my body without participation. The high swampy meadow soaks my feet near summit, but no matter, as this entire section is swampy. My feet will stay wet until I reach Sherman. Across the Continental Divide and into the West Fork of Pole Creek, I am alone. I can see a long way, but nothing that moves. Most of the snow has melted, but patches remain scattered about, draining into small streams and swamps, all of it cold. The sun is up, reminding me of my one wish I asked just for before starting today. Rain! I asked for rain by any means, with or without storms, lightning or not. I just wanted rain and lots of it. This wide valley meadow rides high, near 12000-ft, and acts like a convection oven, circulating the air around us while the UV rays are so much more intense. No tree cover, thus no shade. Nothing but hip high shin scrapers, swamp, and an occasional drainage stream, surrounded by mud. These are not little ol' mud holes, but large bogs made for wallowing in. You might could find a route that avoids the worst of it, but that is not how it is marked. This route leans toward the masochistic, more nasty than nice. The trail snakes across the valley, then rides the east side traverse. In and out of each ripple of land, it rises slightly all the way down into Pole Creek aid station.
When it starts to rain... it is a glorious rain, a cowboy rain. Time to giddy-up. I mount up and start running for the first time in awhile. It feels so good, the rain, the run, everything. Across the Middle Fork and up the East Fork, then in and out of the creeks, one after another. Mark Heaphy comes by, always good for a chat, and slows to talk for a bit. He has been with Margaret until just recently, back at Pole Creek aid. She deals with stomach demons early on, and hangs onto the edge of the race until late, before unleashing a furious finish. She seems to have the power and strength to come on strong at the very end. Mark, on the other hand, makes it all seem so smooth and easy, as he quickly walks away from me, disappearing into a fold of land well ahead and gone. The rain provides the remedy for my misery. For the first time today, I catch somebody. Jean-Jacque and I continue to the lake at the top of the world while we discuss his hopes and desires. He has recently aged 70 and looks to be in grande shape. I enjoy his company as we continue to move well under the shadow of rain clouds and the life giving rain. We run with rain jackets over the high meadows that drift slightly down for mile after mile. The spongy marsh and slippery tundra turn to rock and tree as we move below treeline. Into the trees of Cataract Gulch, we encounter the rock fields and creek crossings. Steeper down, the twisted metal remains of a mine and then the grand waterfall. We are just above it and Jean-Jacque wades quickly thru while I balance across a thin fall-down. An audience of one watches and applauds. I offer a bow and thanks, not knowing who or why he sits and watches. The trail is soft with pine needles and quiet now, but for the pounding boom from a cascading waterfall that intertwines with our trail, sometimes hidden by sound or sight, and sometimes not. It plays peekaboo with us for miles as we drop into the lush valley, silent for minutes, and then booming for moments. I surely love the sound of a waterfall and there is nothing more lovely than the sight. I have taken pictures of many that never seem to capture the magic that comes from the combination of both, her visual beauty and her magical music. All these things work to speed me down the trail until I am again alone, sprinting down the pine needle trail for a good long ways until I find the bridge at the bottom leading into the Sherman aid station.
This is the sweetest of aid stations, far from home, right up next to the soothing sound of a fast moving creek, under the shade of tall trees and shaded tents. It is certainly an oasis, filled with kind servants who wait on us all hand and foot. My bag is already laid out on a table where I am escorted. Food and cold drink are brought on request. I have died and gone to heaven. Moogy is there, laid out on a cot, in a bag, oxygen pumped into his face. He is done and sad, but in good hands. Mike Price & John Ferguson help me to make ready for the next section, which will turn to night & cold before I am done. Lights, food, and such, all loaded into my pack, after removing what I have used up to here. It takes some amount of time to reload, refuel, and refit, but there is little waste before I am again walking down the road and out.
After the bridge, I turn into the old ghost town of Sherman, through the remains and hulks of old buildings. A great flood washed through here many years ago, killing the town and drowning it all. My good friend Rick Gastelum suffered this same fate back in Austin, while I ran this same race just a few years ago. He drowned in a great wall of water from a flash flood, unexpected, and sudden. Rick was a good man, better than most, and we shared a lot of trail together. This race always seems to make me think of him at some point, as he left us while I ran this race. His memory now exists as part of it for me. I welcome his spirit which makes me both happy and sad. I seem so at odds with my emotions during this adventure, smiling and crying at the same time, flipping back and forth randomly, and comfortable with both. I climb the shortcut through the trees of Sherman, making good time with the aid of the recent calorie spike. Above the town and back on the road again, I march uphill rapidly, sometimes walking and sometimes running. The rain comes and goes, off and on, for an hour. I do love the rain: a power element for me. I surge every time she touches me. I catch Andrew on the overhanging jeep road and together we march into Burrows Park, where we each select a separate bathroom.
I stop at the bridge to refill my water bottle before starting my long climb up to Handies via Grizzly Gulch. This is one of the classic climbs on this route, from way down low to the top of this world at 14000-ft, and all of it a constant up. No detours, no rolling ups and downs, no false summits, just one big nasty gnarly climb. With my renewed energy and spirit, I try to go easy and comfortable for as long as possible, and I don't feel the switch from trying to back off to trying to maintain. Well below the summit, even before treeline, It becomes an enormous struggle just to keep moving. Andrew has caught back up and together we continue, but oh so slowly. Altitude's demons climb on my shoulders and pounds upon my head. What a beautiful misery, with Handies always looking down and watching, wondering, how long will it take this fool. Easier to sit down and admire from below without presumption of climbing up onto her head. Still the death march continues, measured in hours, as the minute hand gains speed, sprinting as fast as an elk over a high mountain pass. No matter the task, given enough time, it eventually does get done... but the cost is time... in large buckets. One high step to another, one ledge to the next, one rock after another, and we lose the light before it is done. The final pitch strait up on loose rock, a track of scree, between jagged boulders. Careful to go up without pulling anything down, we take the top at 9-pm. From the summit, we see the moon peeking over a field of mountain peaks, lovely and lonely. It is cold and windy, so we hurry across the ridge, a quick picture, and then down into the waiting darkness of the American Basin. Steep at first, with sliding earth, but then better traction to gain some speed and go quicker. I lead off the summit and down to the base of the big mountain, across the riot of rocks, and past the lake. After another short rocky descent, I begin to falter, needing help. The trail is no longer easy to find and I struggle to guess between a dozen options after every flag. Andrew takes lead and now I blindly follow him. The route switches about at random, up, down, left, right, on a trail, then off, tundra, or rock, and maybe we just keep missing the proper switchbacks, and instead head direct from flag to flag. I know not what we do, but do pretend to go from one flag to the next. Through creeks, swamps, rock flows, and snow, but eventually the trail quits undulating about and works directly towards the next high saddle. Once again, my toes are pointing at my nose, but it is too dark to see how steep the grade is, or anything more than a bit tundra and a lot of loose rock. Another slow grind, just like all the others. The darkness hides my snails progress, but it feels just the same. The top comes to me in time. My patience is learning a whole new level today. I have just reached Grand Master.
Knowing this next section, I take the lead going over the saddle to begin the descent. we start with a short steep section on loose rock, through a patch of snow, and then accelerate just a bit. This track I know well, and it comes at me quickly as we sweep down towards comfort and care in the darkness. Still, even the descent does take time, but with no landmarks to see, just about everything is blind but for a single well lit world just ahead of me, leading me over each rock and tussock, to the final switchback dropping into Grouse.
A late night bed, if any, waits for Joyce. She may trump my patience with her own, as she waits for hours for me to arrive. Once I am done here, she will most likely drive to Ouray and try to find some sleep. I check in and check out without entering the station. Joyce's mobile aid station eliminates my need for it. I sit down and close my eyes while she cares for me. I hear her soft words and feel her caring hands. Fresh food, cold drinks, and warm clothes, a short time off my feet, and then I walk out with Lynn Ballard, my friend and pacer.
The Alpine Loop is a jeep road loop that wanders around these mountains of which we use only a small part for this race. This part of the road leads up to Oh Point! and beyond. There are a few roads leading off to different exotic places, and my vagabond feet seem quite happy to explore anyplace I have never been before. I seem to have some trouble finding the correct route on this road, so I need some help staying on the right track. If he didn't already know, I tell him about my misadventure along here. Lynn promises no detours this time. We plan to avoid Animas Forks, Cinnamon Pass, Denver Hill, Mineral Point, the shortcut to Ouray, and finally Engineer Pass. The moon is up now and we quickly discover or own moon-shadows, so we continue without flashlights for a long way, deferring instead to the moonlight. We make good time, while drifting into philosophical discussion about the American Indian, trying to find a comparison between what we do here and what they did for a similar enlightenment. Intelligent conversation? I don't know, but it keeps our minds active and engaged. We pass the night away while we pass the time on this long road up to Oh Point! We find a couple standing in the darkness facing each other, when we approach, one asks us to help her talk her friend out of quitting the race. He has decided he is done. We ask him to join us, but he kindly refuses. He has decided. It is done. So, we continue and wonder what or why? How easy is it to just decide to quit? I wonder if I could do it? I've done it before, but don't think I have that ability this time around. This discussion drifts into something else, and on through a whole portfolio of odd topics, until suddenly I am not sure we are going the right way. After a few wrong turns on this road, I am nervous about the possibility of doing the same again. I see light behind us, and I can't tell if they are coming the same way or dropping down. Lynn notices my nervousness and assures me we are fine, but that is what I was told two years ago when we were not fine. We keep going but I don't feel so good about it anymore. I continue to look back, over and over again. Our conversation dies with my nervous tic. Over and over, I look, and then I wonder if I am starting to make Lynn nervous as well. I am hyper-sensitive in a negative sort of way, and it worries on me badly. Lynn continues to insist, and even proclaims that Oh Point! is just ahead but I don't buy it for a minute... until I finally see the flags at the turn. And then it all fades away, the nervous twitch, leaving me exhausted. We sit down for a snack on the cusp of the drop, tighten our shoelaces, then drop into Beer Creek drainage. It's steep tundra, but the tufts of grass keep us from sliding out of control. I slide onto my butt a time or two, but, standing strait up, my butt is never far from the ground anyway. The moonlight cannot follow below the edge of the mountain, leaving us in a deeper darkness once again. We find a track of sorts, along the route of markers, bent grass, no more. It becomes a very skinny dirt track, too narrow to run within, but I try. One foot in, one out, then both out, but the grass next to it is rough and uneven, causing me to trip and stumble. No matter how I attempt to navigate this simple problem of a trail, it is awkward at best. The downhill run is broken and beaten into into stumble steps, trips, and scrambles. Lynn keeps pulling ahead as I bumble about, until he disappears over a hump. I wonder for just a moment why he went ahead, until I to cross over and find the Engineer aid station. I usually don't stop here but nothing is normal this go round, so I stop to get some broth. A minute maybe is spent before I spin out to continue down. The trail is easier to follow from here, through a few creeks, but always downhill. The cliffs are what really excite me through here. I love the feel of it, the excitement of the sheer drops. I really like to buckle down and run this section. Lynn follows as I mount a mini-charge, no more. Round the ledges, above the creek, and down the breaking glass trail. I revel in the sound of it all, an audio experience: Mozart on speed, a massage of the mind. Its a grand site when the lights of Ouray come into view. I used to think I was close when I saw the lights. But the next section between the highway and the river is a nutcracker of an odd sort. After we cross over the highway tunnel and drop into it. The deception is that you are heading towards Ouray, but... it is anything but direct. The skinny little trail is mostly short steep descents and climbs, littered with rocks and fall-downs. Down to the Uncompagre and then up to the highway, back down and back up, and around and around 'til you cross over Camp Bird Rd. Past the ice park, over a bridge, down to the edge of town proper and then onto the streets of Ouray. The sun rises as I enter town, but Ouray is still asleep. A couple of gunslingers saunter directly down the middle of 2nd St, checking for hombre's, and looking for a fresh horse or two. Past the dump, and into the aid station. It's been 24 hours and I've only covered 58 miles. I still have a very long way to go. Joyce as usual waits patiently for me. She escorts me to a tent over a bench. I sit down, then I lean over and fall fast asleep.
Funny thing about sleep: its really hard to eat and sleep at the same time. Ten, maybe 15 minutes I sleep, before I wake to find she has changed my socks, shoes, shorts, and shirt. I'd like to eat, but I get way too little into me, before getting up and heading out again. I didn't get near enough calories, so this is going to start ugly. Over the Umcompagre River onto Oak St, then past the laundry mat, right on Queen, left and then the cliff steps leading up to and into the tunnel. The tunnel exits onto a metal bridge over a chasm that you can see through. Its surreal, looking between my own two feet at white water rapids directly below. The Ouray perimeter trail is a flat manicured trail from her up to Camp Bird Rd.
It's 7 miles up Camp Bird Rd. As I go up, so does the sun. I melt under her direct gaze. I try to eat some food, but the scant little I get down does any good. My pace is very slow, conversation nonexistent, prognosis lousy. Mine is a dreary little ascent that takes much longer than I wish. At the overhanging rocks, I stick my head under the cold water that drips off the rock, and wet my bandana, but my energy remains sedate. For all my slowness, I remain resolute and do eventually arrive at Governor's Basin. They have a lawn chair that folds into a cot, that I quickly turn into my bed. 7 minutes I snooze, and rise quickly to go on. Past the aid station, the climb gets steeper, passes through a water crossing, and subsequent switchbacks as the jeep road continues to gain elevation. This entire section is beautiful, booming waterfalls, high mountain vistas, beautiful trees, and water flowers everywhere, but I am blind to it all, turned inside of myself, feeling only the aches and pains, seeing only the rocky road. As much as I try to escape from this prison of my own making, I can't seem to find the key. Chuck Kroger and I used to walk this road together, heading up to his namesake aid station in the slot that we used to call Virginius. It's Kroger's Canteen now, and likely misses Chuck as much as I do on this climb. He always had some sport with me and my Texas roots. I think he liked my gall and teased me more than once in his very dry sense of humor. Today, I had only Chuck's spirit to push me on, but I checked once or twice to see if he wasn't gaining on me. He'd certainly laugh at my pathetic ascent. Leonard has caught me and goes past me at the base of main climb, while I stop to catch my breath. Jennifer is just ahead of him. I love climbing in the snow, up the steps, slipping now and again, but still much easier than on scree. The first pitch is done slow but easy, then across to start the next. The 2nd pitch is half snow and half rock, the snow part passes easily, but the rock is a struggle. Still, once on top, I can see the final pitch and the thought of it raises the bar just a little. Almost done and then a very long downhill to follow. I am tight on Leonard to the top and summit with gusto. I sit down for a cup of broth while the others keep going. A metal plate has been mounted on a rock face with a hook for a lantern. It simply states Kroger's Canteen. The scree on the other side had steps cut into it at one time, but they are gone, so we slide down the loose rock 'til we make the turn for Mendota Saddle.
A thousand rock gardens separate Kroger's Canteen from Mendota Saddle, a sea of rock, one wave after another, as far as my old eyes can see. They're all sharp and menacing, so the trick is to not care, run fast, edge to edge, tip to tip, pretending it's your neighborhood sidewalk and you have to hit every crack. It always seems so odd to me, the difference between going up and going down at this elevation, the difference between feeling bad and good. I am obviously on the feel good side now. Downhill cures all that ails me, today and forever. It is my main source of fuel it seems. It doesn't take us long to get from here to there quickly, and then stopping once there to tighten down our laces. Down the moonscape face, loose and slick, on a trace of trail heading down. It drops us into a high meadow and there we pass Leonard, and keep running. This trail is steep from Mendota to Main St with little easing off and no easy sections to back off the descent. It might be easiest if I'd brought some cardboard and string to sit and ride down. So we bang on down with the breaks untouched, as it should be done, and enjoy the view of Telluride as it peeks at us through the trees a few times before revealing herself completely in all her splendor. A few last turns and then onto a paved road that continues just as steep. Joyce again, waits, watching as we stroll in and finally reach a flat spot at main. Then, we slow to a walk and stroll into the aid station.
John Sharp is sitting there and that troubles me. As much as I like to see friends, I know how slow I am going, and when I see anybody, I know they are in trouble too. I'm ok with my own troubles, but not so much with anyone else's. I as expecting pizza as usual, but Joyce says there was none to be had. Instead she offered avocado and chips, a few large cold drinks, and a change of clothes. I take my time and then walk out with John, Lynn, and Naresh. A nice reunion of sorts for our 4-pack of Texans, as we walk up the tourist trail towards Bear Creek. We seem to go a long way before we see the waterfall: the landmark for the turn we do not want to miss. We cross a fence that says "Closed - Do Not Enter". Not that I was really doing all that grand or anything resembling a run, but I felt ok, until we turn up the trail into the single track. The feel good evaporates in an instant and I drop back into the elephant trudge.
We enter a lush forest paradise on a trail that switches back and forth over the same creek in a series of waterfalls, each one more beautiful than the previous. I stop twice to soak my bandana and pour the fresh cold water on my head. The others seem to be unaffected by the steepness of the climb, talking and moving well, but I am feeling lethargic and struggling to breathe. I suggest we stop for a break, and then another, but it is too much. I realize that John is wasting his time waiting on me, so I suggest he go on ahead, if he can. My gear ratio is way too slow and I am sure he can do much better. Even though I know I am going way too slow, I am still surprised at how quickly John and Naresh drop me and disappear ahead. They're on the switchbacks on the left side of the valley already and climbing rapidly. I'm stuck in sand and getting slower. I put on my game face and keep pushing but it us such a tremendous internal struggle. Lynn is with me and then he is gone ahead. My tortous-ness must be driving him mad. How can he stand to go that slow? He disappears ahead and then sits and waits. I come around a turn and find him waiting for me time and again. At one point, he asks if I'm ok. "No, I am not", I tell him. "Actually, I feel dizzy!" Not sure why, altitude maybe, accumulated altitude, edema, the distance covered, getting old... all of it. I sit down and begin to heave. Everything I had earlier comes up and out. A few more convulses, and then I get up and say, "Breaks over - Time to go". Another fence, just like the other one below, "Closed - Do Not Enter", is ahead of us. We go around it and keep climbing the same trail we've been on for awhile. It's slow, painfully slow. Finally, a flat spot, a high flat meadow makes it easier for a bit, but then there is always more up! At least we can finally see the Wasatch Saddle and the dots of all those well in front of us. We point our toes up at our faces, and I try not to think about how long this is taking. The summit does come to us, but the Wasatch Saddle is but one of a set of twins. No sooner do we summit, than we drop down into the snow on the other side and slide down to the rocky road. Oscar's Pass is just a bit further, so we angle slightly up the rocky road and keep on trudging along. A very black and ugly mass of thunderheads are building directly at the point where we are going, right where the road goes over the edge.
I don't dawdle very long, just long enough to tighten my laces before I start running. We need to get off the summit before all hell busts loose. At 13000-ft, everything revels itself to me: the town of Ophir, Ophir Pass, and Grant/Swamp. Across the valley, I can see rain pouring down on Grant/Swamp, and then the thunderheads directly over my head begin a series of rock rattling booms. Lightning flashes laterally above our heads, but nothing hits the ground. It seems odd that the sun blinds me while a storm sits directly overhead. The road is no more than a field of broken jagged rocks, so running might be the wrong word to describe my descent. Hopping, skipping, and sliding, along with hoping like hell I don't trip. I dare not fall, yet I can't think about falling. I trust my instincts, scan ahead, and keep on going as quickly as possible. Looking for a flat rock or piece of dirt to put my next foot-strike while in mid-air becomes a high speed game of hide and seek. The rocky road swings wide one way and then the other for large sweeping switchbacks, all of it full of lethal rocks, except for a few snow banks that block the road. The rock dance goes full on while the boomers continue to rage. But I dare not look up for fear of going down. Its not a conscious choice so much between electrocution and the meat-cutter, but merely dealing with both at the same time by running as fast as I can. About mid-way down the face, we are finally past the worst of the rocks at the same time the storm silences itself. Lynn, who has been running hard on my heels, goes ahead of me when i slow down. We are finally into the trees and the storm has passed, so I no longer feel the need to go so insanely hard. We have been alone for some time, so it seems strange when we come into a world where other people exist. We pass Roger is on the side of the trail, bent over. He says he has sent ahead for help, that he is done. We pass John next, sitting down, working on his feet. He too says he is done, his feet a mess. It's the down-hills he says. Hell is in the down-hills for him, the opposite for me. Joyce waits on the side of the road by her truck, with a few chairs set out for us. We sit down, and again, I fall asleep immediately. She changes all my gear while I sleep, making ready for the night. George, Barbara, and Moogy are there also with Joyce. Lynn says he is beat, and asks if George might like to take me in. He can go on if needed, but if George is ready, lets swap out pacers. George says he wants to go, so the deal is made.
I ask if anybody wants to trade with me too, but nobody seems to hear. My eyes remain closed and possibly my mouth too. My mind is talking but the body is asleep. Somebody please wake me up so I can go to sleep. I need to get off this course so I can get some sleep. A silent argument begins to rage inside my mind. I have had nothing on the climbs for a long time, and suspect that bit of reality will not change. My path to the finish has three more major climbs, many more water crossings, and all of it in the dark. I'm toast, done, washed up, empty, sleepy, and ready to quit right now. I feel so bad, I just want to lie down and sleep. Bring in the hearse, for surely I am dead. I am certainly having one of those moments, but nobody knows. My demons are banging around inside of my head, beating the hell out of my spirit, my ethos! I cannot make any guarantees, nor promises, and I don't even have the strength to face the ghosts. But I do have a simply underlying desire to try. On rubbery legs and weak stomach, I stand back up and start walking, withholding comment for fear of anybody hearing the hollow sound of nothing left. I will go as long as I can. It is all I can do. If only I can stay awake.
I hear Joyce say - "alright George - take him out!" I feel like somebody else is finally in charge of my body. It gives me an odd comfort, because I know that I sure as hell am not. Margaret comes in as I get up to go, so we walk together down to the aid station, which is further down the road. She stops to get some gear from her drop bag, but George steers me past it, across the creek, and up towards the start of the next big climb. I can hear Leonard just ahead, talking with Jimmy. We are the back of the pack. No grand dreams or high hopes, I can barely stay awake, so I pin everything on simply hanging onto George's pace. Too tired to think, to reason, or even feel bad. Oh, I want it bad... to finish, but it looks dim. After 38 hours, I have scarce little energy to muster any real push, especially with the beast of Grant/Swamp coming at me in the dark. I simply put my head down and track George one step at a time. I know that I can take Grant/Swamp, but I also know it will take time... more than I can spend. I think I'm doing well, but how can I really know. My imagination is a trickster, having fun with my reality. What is real and what is imagined? I feel that this is the best climb I have had all day, but still I wonder. I hang on.
We lose light at treeline, just as we stumble onto the chaos of rocks. The ground disappears first, and then the sky, all of it blending from grey to black. We turn on our headlamps then, creating a small world at our feet, roughly 2-ft x 2-ft. Its all rock, jagged & rough, stacked into a wall leaning away from us, with no top. We crawl up it, one painfully slow step after another, with an occasional slip. My feet slide out from under me a few times, one is a graceful easy thing, where I end up on my knees and elbows, my face against the ground. It is not a comfortable position, and yet I close my eyes and fall into an instant sleep for 5 seconds, no more. I am not sure that George even notices. I try to ask him how much further, but I have no voice: dried out, hoarse, weak, the croak drifting elsewhere and unheard. I slide backwards, fall again and again... a dance of exhaustion. How long, I don't know? My perception is skewed: minutes? hours? and then a spot of light moving above us. It has to be somebody on the face. We stop for a moment and look up at the blackness within the darkness. We can't see anything: sky, rock, summit, track... nothing! It is so dark, that I can't see the final climb even though I am on it. I trust George's instincts & when he says strait, left, or right, I blindly follow his instruction. He tells me to go first, thinking he could handle the rock debris behind me more than I can behind him. Attempting to sprint 100 yards on all fours at 13000-ft is tough enough, then add loose rock and sliding scree, and pre-load with useless legs abused with 90 mountainous miles, and it is almost comical. First: there is no sprint, no surge, no push... which means I am sliding backwards almost as much as I am climbing forward. Once, I simply lay my body on the rocks, protecting my face with my arms, and allow them to take me back down. George is in front now, moving much better, faster, easier than me. He gets above me a few body lengths and then I follow his track, but much slower. It all seems so timeless, in a dream-state, falling from my bed, forever, and never hitting the floor. Unexpectedly, I roll onto the summit. Not being able to see anything removes the visual motivators, so it is a shock to suddenly be where I have been trying to get for so long. I am exhausted and yet the excitement of the moment makes me struggle for air, my breathing hyperventilates. I want to lay down and rest, to close my eyes and sleep, but it is raining now. Maybe it has been all along, but I just now notice. Cold wind and rain hits like a sledgehammer, driving me over the other side. We look for a windbreak, but Joel Zucker's memorial rock is all there is and it offers no place to escape.
We start down the other side, but it is wet and more slippery than I recall. Slowly, carefully, I slide down one muddy track after another, both feet on the ground, and one hand also, with my butt just inches above the rock and dirt. The route is easy to follow, but steep beyond my reasoning. Again it takes way too long, the rain, the dark, it all conspires against me. Finally, down off the beast into the lower Ice Lake Basin, George offers me some avocado, which I take the time to eat. But, it is just more wasted time, as it erupts, evicted by my body, It is past midnight and despite my need for calories, the body want none of it. George waits until my body quits convulsing, and then we continue. No time to dwell on it or anything else: we need to go. Being on the downhill side, we are moving quicker now, covering a lot of ground well. We cross the stream on a bridge of aspens and twine, then climb up into the thick band of trees on the ledge between Ice Lake Basin and Kamm Traverse. During the day, this is a lovely retreat, but during the night, a haunted forest, full of mud bogs and fall downs. George sinks to his knees in mud and then I do as well. We are forced over a one downed tree and around another. It might not be so bad if we could see it coming, but we don't know until we are in it, if we are on solid ground or sinking mud. And again, it takes so much longer than expected on this bumbling scrambling obstacle course by two blind men on a pitch black night. There are times when I am hyper aware of my surroundings... but this was not one of those times. It is a near-full moon night, yet it is dark as a cave, and that means only one thing: very heavy cloud cover. Thunderstorms to be exact, but lurking only, and waiting for me to clear the cover of the trees and expose myself on the naked face of Kamm Traverse. There are more mud bogs on the traverse, with the additional pleasure of some very slippery tundra. The entertainment from below is overshadowed in an instant by an enormous thunder boom from above. It rattles my world and seconds later a bright white flash. The skinny goat trail is slightly downhill and a fast track, but goes on much longer than is comfortable, as a few more thunder booms rumble just overhead.
Out of KT, we cross the stream and wander about in the muddy swamp on the other side. It takes a few tries before we work out the correct exit route through the muddiest mess available. Covered in mud, our upward crawl is slow, but steady. A thick growth of tall trees silences the thundering stream, as it slips behind us. Silence wraps itself around us and sings a soft lullaby, effectively driving the final nail into my coffin. I have been struggling to stay awake for days, and this is just another relapse for me, but now I realize that George is also falling victim. He walks right past a turn marker, and when I point it out, he admits that he is struggling to stay awake. Neither of us can keep our eyes open any longer, and I begin to wonder about the danger of our circumstance. I suggest we both lay down a get a few minutes of sleep, but it is impossible. Not only are our feet cold soaking wet from the creek crossings, but now it begins to rain even harder. We both get cold quickly from just a few seconds of inactivity. We cant sleep and we cant stay awake, so we have no choice but to continue moving, however slow. And of course, the clock is still running. The climb begins by the log at the creek and continues upwards on a warding bit of trail, through the tundra, the composite rocks, a few ledges, and then the swamp on the middle meadow. Its all very muddy and messy, and it's raining again, but we are finally at the base of the big tundra climb to the top of Porcupine. We see a light well overhead: Margaret, most likely. I send her my best wishes, also my regrets for not being there with her. She's moving well and I suspect she will continue to do so. She always finishes well, but it will be close. I most likely will not be even near to close. I never really had it this year from the very beginning: too slow, under-trained, and then this overall exhaustion induced drowsiness. I did way too much work the month leading into this race. Had it been training, it might have been different, but instead it was mentally and physically draining non-training. In my own terms, just another excuse, and no excuse is good. You do it or you do not. I am a bit surprised that I am still in the game and will most likely finish the entire course. Despite being too late and unofficial, it still feels important to me to finish. So, I'll continue as best I can and get done as quickly as possible. Joyce is waiting on me and I hate to keep her waiting. I have always said - "It aint about the finish, it is always about the journey". This run may put the official stamp of approval on that philosophy. There is also the pure & simple bull-headed desire to finish what I have started. The flags keep leading endlessly up. Each time I reach the next one, I see another still further up. The faint outline of the highest point appears to be very far away, and I silently hope that its an optical illusion. maybe I'm not going to the highest point, but to some saddle hidden in the folds much lower. Maybe it is just as I wished, but I quit thinking about it long before I get there.
Across the saddle, we quickly continue down into the long valley. It used to be that I'd stop on each summit just to marvel in the sight and partly to revel in taking yet another peak... but I am past that now. Its mostly about the time now, and partly in getting done so I can lay down in a bed and sleep. I can see the final summit, but the valley does take some time to cross. The flags are easy to follow while we are on trail, but once they start cutting left across the wide meadow, they begin to hide themselves. The clouds are still hiding the moon, but we can see where we are going. Putnam is a massive black hulk, directly in out path. We need to approach the left side, rise at an angle, then cross to the far right before rolling over and down the other side. A few more rollers and then we are finally on it, the last climb. Putnam calls to me and I respond. I don't know what it is, but the higher I get the stronger I get. I struggle badly at first, but as we go, I struggle less, until I feel fairly well by the time I reach the flag that finally starts turning us to the right. That's part of the deception of this climb: we are not going to the top! I am in front of George when I finally level out and start moving to the right. I don't know why, but I start to cry. The pain and discomfort have been with me for a long time, and long ago I realized I would not finish in time, so I am ok with all of that. My emotions are as wrecked as my body, running rampant as they please, tears turn to laughter, anger to joy. But at least I am finally done with the final summit. This, where I usually exult into laughter and rejoicing, dwindles to a smile, no more. Usually this is where I turn up the power a notch and get stronger, go faster. The end game is where I typically get better, but, I can't seem to light the fire. Instead, I have a half-sleep dream of me tumbling down the side of the mountain and unable to stop. I shake it away, but it persists. Another irritant is all it is. A hallucination with me in it. Now thats different. I need to steer my myself away from the cliffs.
We do make a run of it, putting some time on the descent down off Putnam and towards the last aid station. They cheer me in, knowing when they seem my light that I am the last remaining runner out here. I come in to good friends, John, Marcy, and Ann. The look concerned and i check my watch. There is but one hour remaining and now I know without a doubt that it is done. Still, I figure to proceed as quickly as possible to get what can be got.
Leaving out of there, we don't talk, but just run, and run hard, falling many times, slipping off the edge a few times, falling on the rocks, and still running. George humors me, knowing we have no shot in hell, feeding the madness that drives me to just keep running. If I could see his face, I'd likely find some sadness in his eyes. George is a dear friend and should easily have been running this race for himself, but for a dead wait list and no room for more. Instead, he runs late with me to a clock that stops turning in just a few more minutes. Sunrise sneaks up on me, my mind elsewhere, such that in an instant, I realize it is morning. No gentle awareness of it becoming light, but exiting a cave by simply opening my eyes with awareness. Down we go, fast and hard to the water crossing and the rope. I keep checking my watch over and over and when I drop into the river, it is done. We take the rope at exactly 6-am.
While crossing the freezing cold creek, the tension leaves my body. it is done. A few soft questions circle round my thinking. They are not hard and demanding, but as a mother to her child. Did I try hard enough? Did I do enough? Too many 'this' and not enough 'that' excuses line up by the dozens, but it is what it is.... a DNF (in time), but still a DNF. By the time I cross the highway, I chase them all off. Life is good. The run was good. I had an unbelievable two-day tour of the San Juans, with no regrets. Well, maybe one... but it is just a mosquito. The game is over, but I remain the last pawn still on board, waiting to be put away. We wander down Knute's Chute, through the wind blown aspens, across the red rock, and the dirt road. Kendall Mountain fills my view as Silverton peeks through the trees. One last uphill to the shrine, but some power comes from the end game, so we walk briskly up the road, through one turn after another. I can see some people before I see the turn. George tells me, it's Joyce and some others.
This one is for my wife, Joyce... who has done everything possible to nudge me round this ring, a seasoned crew, working a boxer who should have retired a long time ago. How can it not be for her? She smiles so sweetly at me each and every time I came back in. She changed my clothes as I nod off to sleep, puts food in my mouth, washes my feet, refills my water, repacks my pack, and all with a gentle touch and a soft word. An infant in her care, she reads my sign and does what needs to be done without asking. She simply knows. She sleeps as little as I do, worries more, drives from corner to corner, waits endlessly, and feels everything I feel. She is magic and so much more. Arriving beaten and battered, she sends me out reenergized with one of her sweet Texas kisses.
She is there again waiting for me and she has brought along a crowd, friends all. And so it finally ends, with George and me, along with an escort of friends walking down to the hard rock in front of the gym. And as is expected, I kiss the rock... and she kisses me back, and then she wraps her arms around me. I'm ok until she starts to cry. I burry my face in her neck and turn for home, arm-in-arm with... The Rock.