I turned right off of the trail onto canyon asphalt, 6 miles of slight downhill to the finish. I was running in first place, second place mere seconds behind me. He and I duked it out over the last 55 miles of burley mountain trails, swapping the lead at mile 30 when I arrived at an aid station before the volunteers got there and suffered through the following climb, dehydrated, and without water. I hurt, but so did he. Everyone hurts after 26,000 feet of elevation change.
The already brutal heat was made worse by the pavement, and the ice that I had hastily wrapped in a white bandana around my neck dripped desperate cold water down my back, its impacts tempered by the heat radiating from my skin. I charged as hard, creating a slight gap between my competitor. “You can’t hold on to this effort in this heat for 6 miles.” The self-doubt crept in. “There’s no way.”
I’ve never been anything more than a mediocre athlete, but I fell in love with the outdoors during law school in Southern California, hiking trails and climbing mountains to offset the time I spent in the library learning the rules of Civil Procedure and Real Estate. My life has pretty much revolved around the desk/dirt dichotomy with varying degrees of intensity since then.
Evolution doesn’t happen overnight, and I think for most people it kind of goes like this: one day you find yourself hiking a few miles with friends or jogging a couple of miles around the local park, and sometimes you end up finding out that you like doing that, so you keep doing it. A couple days a week slowly turns to three days a week, and then five or six days a week. Your hikes and runs get longer until you find yourself lugging a backpack up mountains tied to a rope with an ice axe in hand and crampons on heavy boots. The mountains get bigger. You start running more and then start running up mountains. You get faster, run a marathon, 50k, 50 miler, 100k, 100 miler on trails. Then you look at the belt buckles and race bibs on your shelf and realize you’ve somehow run twenty ultramarathons and six 100 mile races in the last four years, sneaking in a couple of age group awards, top 10s, or podium finishes.
Then you blink and find yourself in a canyon, dripping sweat, gritting your teeth, and trying to hold onto your first outright win at a mountain ultra.
We live in a world of immediate gratification. Credit cards, same day delivery, on-demand entertainment, an infinite well of consumer goods. It gets both overwhelming and pervasive. The rewards that come with patience, persistence, and hard work get lost so easily, but the greatest personal achievements, those moments and joys that we hold onto forever take a little bit of work, every single day over years to achieve. Sometimes the days between the finish lines, ridgelines, and summits are really hard, and ugly, and painful. Sometimes they are days you think you’ll never bounce back from, or maybe don’t want to bounce back from. But you go to bed, wake up the next morning, and lace up your shoes anyway, because when you hear the crunch of the dirt under your tread and the sunrise hits you in the face, those down days stop mattering.
“You don’t belong here.” The voice in my head was telling me one thing, but my effort was saying another. I run with a little bit of anti-establishment, anti-authoritative confidence in my stride, because I believe in my gut that self-imposed limits are meant to be hammered until they break. I thought back to the kid who found the outdoors, wide-eyed and excited, the one who read books about the mountaineers and ultrarunners and their epic adventures, the kid who was introduced to the world of “impossible”. That’s the kid I run hard for, and I do it to let him know that he can do anything he chooses to throw himself into fully and uninhibited.
I looked behind me with a mile left, second place out of sight. A brief sigh of relief. A left hand turn off the road and into the park, blue tape stretched across the poles of a pop-tent, ready for me to break.
It didn’t feel any different than finishing fourth, or tenth, or two hundredth, but I didn’t expect it to. It’s just one race, one day spent on the trails, in the mountains, doing my best (whatever that means on that day), and any day spent that way is spent best. Maybe it’s not life changing, but it is life affirming – an affirmation of where we’ve been, where we’re going, and that one day, if we keep working, and sweating, and grinding, we will get there.
Now in its 17th year, the Kat’cina Mosa 100k is a very challenging scenic loop course through the Wasatch Mountains above Provo, Utah. It is the USATF Utah State Championship 100k Trail race and held in August. For more information visit http://squawpeak50.com/katcina-mosa-homepage/.