On Flight 349, from Denver to Chicago, I had a conversation with a man to my right about how ridiculous it is that planes don't have free wireless yet, and if paying for it is really worth it or not. After that I laid my head to the left and let my eyes rest on the ground below me. I felt my contacts sticking to my eyeballs and took a deep sigh. I put in earbuds and recalled my weekend.
Five days before I had flown into Denver with the same playlist and a different vibe. The trip was off to a slightly irresponsible start as I was in sheer panic that I was going to miss my 6:40 flight. 6:40 isn't early, but I'm almost the worst at anything time-related. After chasing Kendrick Callaway around Denver's west terminal, we were off to see Blake. Blake was a good friend from college who had graduated and moved back to Evergreen with his parents and I often miss his gay pride literature jokes and terrible ways of studying. Once located, I could see why Blake moved home to a beautiful house on the side of a mountain with a deck that has a view that would kill your entire day. I stood listening and engaging with this person I had missed dearly, and as the sun warmed the back of my neck, I looked up and realized the mountains may be having their first pull on me.
A few hours later I was on top of a 14er with the one person everyone wants by their side when they're climbing a 14er. Though I had to stop and catch my breath a few times I was pleased with how it went, and Kendrick threw some props my way as well, though he could have just been trying to be nice. After that I saw some mountain goats, and that was okay. I was slightly bummed to find out they don't want to be pet and cuddle like I so desperately wish they wanted to be.
My first night spent in the back of Kendrick's truck was some quality sleep. One wouldn't immediately think it'd be preferable, but I always enjoy car camping, and the memory foam mattress was actually putting up a rival to my pillow-top queen back home.
And then I saw the desert for the first time. And I really liked it. Something big happens every time you see a completely different part of the country for the first time. Something really big. I've had my sights set on Utah for months, and I affirmed I'd be able to be happy there. I want to be happy there. I should be happy there. I could be happy there.
Logan is not such a bad town, really, which is where the race started. It has decent pizza and views that can tug at just the right strings on your heart. After making it to the location of the race talk and packet pickup, I realized how timely packing drop bags for a race that the runner and pacer are both reasonably unprepared for could be. Not reasonably unprepared for the distance(s), but the course itself. Though the race didn't end well, I still think this is not a bad strategy. I think it allows you to enter a race with an element of surprise and excitement coming from that surprise. (...Obviously not a good strategy if you're going for the win, but I have no complaints being a mid-packer)
It was here that I saw Zach and Kate, and met Rob and Addison (pacers and crew from Chicago). I asked Zach the dumbest questions ("Are you excited?! Are you ready?!") but I was so overcome with my own excitement for him (all of them, really) that I couldn't help it. There's nothing like seeing someone's eyes light up with excitement with bold determination resting just behind it.
I can't tell you who we stayed with that night on the count that I do not remember their names, but I can tell you that they were your typical ultrarunning instafamily. The ride down to the start in the morning was one filled with so many laughs, somewhat realistic considerations, half a pizza and a very full bladder. 6am doesn't come any other way.
After the start I hung with Kate, Ad(dison) and Rob. We went to the perfect diner for a time like this, and ordered breakfast. The diner was called "Angie's" which was quickly dubbed "Angina's". What we received was enough food for the whole day, and that is the problem with America. Kate's cinnamon roll (1 of 4 of her breakfast items) was, I shit you not, the size of her head.
To kill more time we went to Starbucks, and then to the first crew-accessible aid station. A front runner came through yelling about how "shitty the course was marked the first ten miles" and how "fucking ridiculous" it was and that the Bear 100 "needs to get it together". I exchanged a knowing glance with Nick (Britta's boyfriend, and Britta went to college with Kate and Zach) and a coy smile. It's okay to be angry in ultras, but you must be about certain subjects with a particular amount of tact. Don't be a douche. Zach came through looking good and it was a beautiful whirlwind of an exchange between crew and runner, especially for a first time. No more than 15 minutes later, I heard someone say "That guy has no shirt on!" and before I lifted my eyes to the trail I knew it was Kendrick. He was feeling great here, and as I made fun of him for taking forever to eat, he made a joke about me DNFing at 42 miles at Black Hills. I punched him and he took off jogging. After a few quizzical statements I shrugged and replied with "That's just how we are."
Team ZARK and myself (though I feel the need to make it clear that I feel like I was [am] part of team ZARK) left and got an early 10:30 lunch. You'd think Angina's filled us up for more than 4 hours, but we all ate veggie burgers and fries in a plastic booth with paper crowns upon our heads. This is also where I think I perfected at least three sentences of Ad's Stryker pitch. He's a recruiter, and I kind of feel like I am one now, too. With a hazy sky and mountains looming above us, Addison said, in reference to 100s and with a grin on his face, "I don't get it. I really don't. But I think it's awesome, and I'm glad you guys get it." I could have hugged him in this moment, because it was a perfect thing to say. With a wide smile I replied "We don't get it either."
Because, really, I don't think anyone does. You can ask anyone why they run ultras (100s specifically) and they can give you certain reasons, but there will always be an extent to which no one can truly put it into words.
When we got to the next aid station, it was time to lace up the pacing shoes for both me and Rob. We all tried to nap, and I think Ad and Rob were the only ones that got away with it. I got out of the car and Kate shortly followed. We hung around the aid station, watching the front runners come in and leave. We didn't really say much, but both marveled at the mountains we were trapped in. Something awesome happens when you share moments like that with people who you know are truly good people. It's almost like there's a connection that is established but never acknowledged, and it doesn't need to be. But it's cool to experience.
Zach came in and picked up Rob, and Kate and Ad took off shortly after that. Kendrick came in no later than 10 minutes later, and we were off shortly.
The first leg went really well. I typed out several sentences trying to do it justice, but you can't do mountain running justice in words. You can't even do it justice in pictures. You have to be there, in that moment, with that smile, with those heaving lungs. We came up to the next aid station in good time, and I was greeted with Nick's face that had come familiar in a short time, the way it does when you meet people like that. As I chomped down a banana he told me to be ready for snow, and the cold temperatures that awaited us at Tony Grove. With a high-five and a smile so big that showed both rows of teeth, we were on our way.
And then we climbed for a really long time. And slipped in the mud. And the mud was like clay. It was thick, it was sticky, it was slippery, and it was at least 40% cow shit.
And Tony Grove was cold. Kendrick and I split up here for a few minutes, him fueling back up and refilling, while I was rolling my arm warmers back up and adding layers. Someone gave me a blanket that had been sitting under a heater in a truck, and the nicest woman I've ever met gave me hand warmers for both pairs of gloves. I loved her. She told me to squeeze them when it got bad.
I would end up squeezing them with everything I had.
There was a small climb out of this aid station and a breakdown happened there. There were tears and snot and a lack of words, but a pair of understanding eyes. This section was long. The descent was so much fun. Kendrick came out of a low (at least a bit) and I had my way with a downhill. We ate some waffles and I fell in a creek. I ate a mint and Kendrick's hot chocolate got cold. The sun went down and it got colder. Headlamps were turned on and his legs gave out even more.
At mile 62, sitting around a glowing campfire and sharing miniature candy bars, Kendrick called it.
And that's fine. At least it is in my book. I know how a DNF feels and I know it sucks. I'm still a firm believer that sometimes you just have to give 100 miles the finger and say "Fuck you. Fuck you to hell."
Then you try to get warm.
One thing I learned from Kendrick is that you never stop chasing. I have plans to attempt another 100 next summer because I DNF'd my last attempt. He finished that same race and signed up for another hoping to qualify for Hardrock. You chase a finish, you chase a qualifier, you chase a PR. Problems arise in ultras, but I think real problems arise when you stop chasing.
Stagnation is, of course, the worst case scenario; always.
The rest of the trip was filled with raspberry shakes, seeing rich mountain towns, and being exhausted for the weirdest reasons. After being denied a chance to see the Maroon Bells, we trucked on to Leadville. Sitting in City on a Hill I got a serious caffeine buzz and wondered if altitude was affecting me at 10,000+ feet. I sat to the right of a woman that I could have listened to talk to for hours upon hours. Megan Finnesy has a way of conversing that is so fluid and seems to be so carefully animated to be entertaining but not obnoxious; and it was absolutely refreshing.
The drive to Denver International Airport is beautiful. Colorado is beautiful. Colorado is a state that makes you think life isn't possible anywhere else.
Perhaps for some people it's not.
And perhaps I'm one of those people.
I think mountains can have an amazing affect on anyone who experiences them. But there is no doubt the difference of treating the mountains as your playground - putting them in your hands and hoisting yourself up them, and scraping your legs on the way down - and snapping a picture at the top of Independence Pass.
Before my flight out of Denver I had time to grab a beer with Rob, as he had a layover there from SLC in route to Chicago. I left that drink feeling happy and a heart full of appreciation. Ultras have led me to the best people that I know. I met Rob, Ad, Nick, briefly Britta, and Megan. And they're all people I would do extensive favors for at the drop of a hat (also the people I stayed with in Utah). Instafamily.
This weekend did a lot of things for me. It gave me motivation to continue training hard for TNF, it motivated me to commit to Tahoe Rim 100 next summer, and it gave me comfort in knowing that West is where I belong. It also reminded me that DNFs happen, and they suck. But they're necessary, and they're not the end of the world.
"They're a learning experience." <--- Literally the worst thing anyone can ever say.
I started laughing. I laughed at Kate's cinnamon roll. I laughed that Kendrick has a carrot in the bottom of a Nutella-knock-off jar. I laughed at the entirety of my conversations with Jesse over the weekend. I laughed at the DNF. I laughed at being on top of a 14er. I laughed at thinking about Blake. I laughed at how many hours I had sat in a car. I laughed because the best lemon bar I've ever tasted was in Leadville. I laughed because I can say I've been to Aspen. I laughed at Zach's amazing finish of The Bear 100. I laughed at Rob dipping his fries in ranch. I laughed at Ad's Stryker speech. I laughed at Kate singing "Wrecking Ball" passionately in the car. I laughed wildly at the Dakota Grand Slam. I laughed because, as I watched the plane descend through the clouds, I'm 25 years old. I laughed because I can do anything I want. I laughed because nothing is holding me back.
I took my earbuds out and the man to my right exclaimed "Were you listening to a podcast?! Must have been hilarious!"
I laughed again and replied "No. It wasn't a podcast." And shifted back to the window.
I laughed because I'm 25 and the entire world is at my fingertips. I laughed because I'm about to take complete advantage of it.