Growing up with the Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run in my back yard, it has grown from a source of bewilderment when I first learned about it as a high school runner, to a source of home county pride and a personal aspiration. Over the last three years running the race, it has been a source of the deepest kind of learning. I regret not having written about my first two times running the race, but to sum them up in nutshells, 2014 HS40 was the most difficult day of my life and the first time I ever experienced true raw emotion. 2015 HS40 can be summed up by my exchange with Joel Wolpert, (an occasional running partner of mine) when I caught up with him around mile 14 shortly before aid station 3. Me: “I was beginning to prepare for a really long lonely day.” Joel: “Me, too.” That dialog resumed in midair several miles later when we hurdled a pack of bear dogs and their owners.
Me: “Bear dogs!” Joel: “And bear humans.”
Right now my hands are shaking and my heart is pounding, but Saturday morning I felt great as I chatted with some of the many new friends I made during the trail maintenance and trainer weekend 2 months earlier. My goal was to finish before the near-solstice sun had a chance to climb above the tree tops. I may have done it if I hadn’t been fooled by the dryness of the clear day and been tempted to speed over the sections of gravely smooth-sailing, water-filled paths of the plateaus that were the punctuating highlights between the boulder gardens, creek crossings and the no-smaller-than-I-remembered mountain climbs. After a great conversation (as usual) with Luke Fleishman on the road, I began a 39 mile solo journey. I was not afraid of running alone for that distance. Even suggesting that’s how I envisioned my next (what I thought would be) 5 hours would leave out the life- and spirit-saving role of the aid station volunteers. I even anticipated the company of the day hikers for whom I held disturbingly hostile feelings toward during the darkest miles of my first HS40 – clean boots, beige sun hats, sunglasses that fold out into tripod camp seats…
I felt conservative throughout the first half of the race with the exception of the smooth patches, wondering to myself if this felt like a record-setting kind of effort. The voice of years past that said, “This is a loooong race.” came to me only as a memory. Slightly more prominent was the voice gaging my thirst and hunger. Even as I came through the aid stations refilling my small honey bear water bottle and quickly grabbing boiled potatoes and melon, I passed up the opportunity to fill an extra cup of water. I had been on the edge of thirst basically since I woke up and this made me feel lean and alert. Even the nettles felt good. The dew that repeatedly soaked half of my body felt too good – I needed to be drinking more. I came through AS2 6 minutes ahead of last year, then 9 minutes ahead of pace, then 7 minutes ahead of last year at the lively AS4. My wife, Katherine filled my bottle with a mixture of water and electrolyte, my mom had cookies, Jeff had a towel and fresh shoes which I passed up this year, and my dad was wondering what was going on (Thanks for going on crazy hikes with me!). I ate a cookie, stuffed the other one in a pocket and put some sea salt in my mouth. I had done this on only one other run as an experiment, but today instead of tasting sweet and welcome, it tasted like salt. I was worried about cramping up after leaving the road across the sky like I did last year, and I was making compounding mistakes.
I had been planning on taking the road section slightly easier than last year with Joel. I got only an extra sip of water at AS5. It was a little after 9am and the sun was still low enough that I was running in the shade. But then all the trees disappeared and the sun began to really take its toll. By Bear Rocks, I had lost all of my lead over last year’s pace and was no longer concerned about that. I was fighting leg cramps. This was not the way I wanted to run. The aid station guys filled my honey bear with water and offered me an iced sponge as I lay there with my shaking legs in the air. I hadn’t made it 200 yards down the rocky trail when my toe caught and I flew forward. I landed completely sprawled out more likely out of exhaustion than because I know how to fall. I was only lightly banged up and scraped, but my water bottle was empty and capless in the bushes. Yet another mistake was not returning to the aid station for more water. Luckily, there were plenty of day hikers in clean boots and beige sun hats who were more than generous with their water, and I ended up getting more water in the next mile than I would have if I hadn’t lost all of mine. The damage of neglect had been done, though and my running slowed. I was extremely dry and beginning to feel extremely bad. I was still running slowly when the lower, inner parts of both my quads seized up. It was sort of flat there and I wasn’t really using them, so I kept running, mildly amused and wondering what would happen. Like any flexed muscle, the lactic acid built up and up until they were on fire for several minutes while I kept moving. I imagine they ran out of energy like the rest of me and I didn’t really have any more trouble out of them after that.
The threat of cramps started to subside but I was in some other unfamiliar trouble. I couldn’t make myself run. I was walking on smooth, packed dirt through the endless meadows. I guessed I was a mile from AS7 and I knew I needed to get there but I couldn’t move any faster and I wasn’t even breathing hard. My head bent over far to my left side and stayed there and a bull’s-eye spot developed in the center of my vision that vibrated in outwardly radiating waves with the jar of every stiff step. After 10 minutes of that, I was really ready for some watermelon at the badass Lehman aid station. I remembered the watermelon from the year before and that was the only thing that kept me moving.
I wish that had been the only thing on my mind. I had also decided that I was going to quit. It wasn’t a matter of pain and discomfort at that point – I was seriously worried about my health. I slowly climbed the long hill to AS7 where I laid down under the table and ate probably more than my share of watermelon and drank some water. I wasn’t going to get up, but Willie and the others helped me. “Let’s ease you back into hydration.” I felt so bad and the spot in my vision was still there when I left. Around the bend, I staggered against a tree and I did quit. I decided to quit not because I had quickly watched my record pace vanish, which would have been a very ego-centric thing to do, but because I was quickly becoming seriously concerned about being able to stand up. I was going to go back to the tent. But I kept walking, head oddly tilted, the hikers now just staring at me instead of a cheery greeting. It would have been a long, unhappy wait at AS7 if I’d turned back but now I was facing 8 miles of really slow walking. I set my sights on a new goal of reaching AS8 and quitting there. As if from an outside vantage point, I judged my lack of shame at this prospect to be evidence that I was in minor emergency mode. I continued like this for 30 minutes. I’d then been walking for about 45 minutes and I began to have convoluted thoughts about pace and speed and how much slower was I really going given the terrain and that everyone was baking under the same sun. Those thoughts coalesced into a clearer picture of all that was taking place during this amazing event and I decided to not give up and to make it to AS8 with the mental intention to finish.
I was glad to have that sorted out, but I still couldn’t take a single running stride. I reached the ski slope and as I climbed, I fully expected to see second place running up behind me. I was almost hoping to see it, to give me real reason to feel as low as I was feeling, to externalize what I had brought on myself with my mistakes. Just as I was entering the trees at the top of Timberline mountain, I began to feel differently. The watermelon was kicking in. I took a few test strides, and after taking the butt slide pretty gently, I was able to stride out. I had the combined feeling of having just run 36 miles and having just walked for an hour. I grabbed a cookie from my mom on my run through AS8, but by a weird twist, I didn’t need anything at that point because I’d pigged out when I was sure that my day was done. As I ran, I was ready to be finished but I was so happy to be where I was.
Thank you, Dan, and Adam and everyone else.