The fiancé’s children all have lovely singing voices, which is amusing given that I sing terribly and he sings not at all. His youngest daughter in particular is part of a musical duo that performs mostly songs written several decades before she was born that are complex musically and lyrically. You should hear her “White Rabbit”; be sure to catch your jaw before it hits the floor. She and her musical partner have also composed a few originals, which also tend to take on unsentimental topics; one of them, for example, plays off the idea that insanity means doing the same thing again and again but expecting different results each time. It’s not really the clinical definition, of course, but then neither was anything in the infamous Alanis Morissette song truly ironic, and anyone who goes to pop music for clarity on such concepts might need to consider a source that’s a tad more peer-reviewed.
The “definition” in the insanity song is one many of us can understand on an everyday level. Mired in routine, we nonetheless somehow imagine that one of these days, surely this time, sooner or later, things will change. It’s not really insanity; it’s more a sort of complacently hopeful deludedness, but that’s too hard to put to music. Funny thing, though, you could just as easily argue the opposite is true: insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting things to stay the same. They won’t. Either way, the problem is expectation, the belief that our actions can control the outcome in the way we desire.
Ultra runners are often told they’re “insane” for attempting to run distances that any reasonable person would travel in a car, a small aircraft, or not at all, since frequently those distances are covered in loops that just get you back where you started. Obviously I’m biased, and I don’t think ultramarathons are any crazier than any other way to pass the time, be it Civil War reenactments or reciting Shakespeare in Klingon. The question occurred to me, however, at one point during my 52-miler last Saturday: which kind of insanity is this, the one where you expect things the same or the one where you expect things different? This was quickly forgotten as a new question occurred to me: just how much sand can fit in size 6.5 trail shoes that already hold swollen feet?
The race was the Rainier-to-Ruston Relay and Ultra in Washington State. I was wary about running another race in the Pacific Northwest, especially one that was billed as “mostly flat and downhill.” Yes, we started at the foot of Mt. Rainier and moved away from the big scary mountain toward the sound, and much of the course followed a developing rails-to-trail path, all of which would suggest flat and downhill, but remember, I’m from rural Illinois. When we say “hill,” we mean speed bump. When someone in the PNW says “hill,” they mean people get stuck up there and have to eat each other to survive. As it turned out, elevation was the least of the problems I encountered. The course wasn’t flat, but the hills weren’t an issue. Expected something same, got something different, didn’t much matter.
The first time I ran 50+ miles, the heat index registered three digits. It was awful, I was parboiled, and I never wanted to do that again. Granted, I was running my second 50+ ultra in early June, always a heat risk, but still, the race ended not too far from Seattle—you know, the place where it’s always cold and rainy? I know that’s what you think, at least unless you’ve actually been there more than once. Yes, there were cool temperatures and showers in the days leading up to the race, but on race day itself, Sasquatch came out of hiding to wish us well at the starting line on a beautiful sunny warm-about-to-become-scorching morning. (It wasn’t really Sasquatch; it was one of the race directors in a gorilla suit dyed brown, which I hope for his sake he got out of before the heat got bad.) Expected different, got same, wasn’t happy.
One thing that happens when I try to run long distances in hot weather is I completely lose my appetite, which would be great if I were trying to lose weight but is problematic when my current level of physical activity demands the caloric equivalent of at least 23 Snickers bars and I can’t even choke down a jelly bean. But that was OK, because the aid stations hardly had any food anyway. A lot of the ultra community subscribes to a “no whining, suck it up, tough it out” mentality and it’s possible that the race directors were practitioners of this ethos, but I happen to belong to the subset of runners who see long races as basically movable feasts. Why suck down all those nasty piss-flavored shit-textured Gus at a marathon when you can have pizza, Coke, and all-you-can-eat bacon at an ultra? But here there was no pizza, no bacon, not even Coke, which is in my view equivalent to having no holy water at a baptism. Oh, they had a few bananas here and there, and plenty of room-temperature Gatorade in a room registering 90 degrees, but not much more. This lack of sustenance was not expected, but other than the dizziness and nausea, not a problem.
It wasn’t all bad; there were scenic views, of course—PNW, remember? Mountains, streams, trees, all that cool naturey stuff trail runners swoon over. Light-headed though I was, I didn’t swoon, though I did enjoy it briefly, appreciated its splendor, probably would have appreciated it even more had I kept in mind that the naturey parts would end after the first 20 miles as we moved away from Mt. Rainier and toward Tacoma, away from dirt paths and shady trees and onto hard pavement and shady nothing. Midway I already knew my goose was cooked—incinerated, in fact. I’m an average runner at nearly every distance and I fully expected I’d have to walk some of the race; I just hadn’t wanted it to be quite so soon, barely past the halfway point and the worst yet to come. Expected to walk, did walk, didn’t expect to walk through The Sand.
You have to say it like that, The Sand, like it’s “the boils” or “the locusts.” There’s a five-mile stretch along the river that’s infamous among runners in the know; this is the unfinished portion of the rails-to-trail project for which this race was raising money, and I suppose this section was meant to reaffirm how badly they do need that money. You know what would have been hilarious is if they’d had one of those signs that said “Take only memories, leave only footprints” because sand makes both mandates futile. You can’t leave footprints because in sand that fine and silty, you step, you slide, you sink, you struggle, and when you finally extract your leg from the sinkhole you created, the sand shifts to cover the evidence of your struggle, waiting for its next victim. It’s alive, I tell you, and it’s evil. You keep expecting it to end. It doesn’t. I think I might actually still be there right now, I’m just so delirious I’m hallucinating being home writing about it.
I had gone into this race feeling reasonably well trained and coming off a fairly decent 44-miler. As the race went on, however, I had to keep revising my estimates for how I would finish. Surely I’d beat my previous 50+ mile time of 12 hours by a lot. OK, not that much, not two hours, but certainly an hour and a half. OK, one hour. Eh, twenty minutes. Fifteen? Ten? And then it happened, the point where I knew I wasn’t going to beat my previous time, wasn’t even going to come close, was in massive pain from achy muscles and blistered feet (but hey, at least those blisters were cushioned by all that delightfully abrasive sand stuck in my shoes), realized it was going to take me ridiculously long at my current pace to get to that finish line and for what? What did I expect to get out of this whole thing, anyway?
I decided as I approached the 31-mile aid station that I would DNF. It was still 50K, and I smiled grimly thinking how I could still legitimately keep my “Even my DNFs are ultras” car magnet. That would be enough of a takeaway for me. “You look tired!” the sweet elderly aid station worker exclaimed as I approached. “Sit down!” She pulled out a folding chair and I fell into it as into a deep pit. Yes. This was it. I would tell her I was dropping, and my excursion through hell would come to a close. But I made a mistake and turned to my left instead of my right—yes, it all hangs on that, my inability to tell right from left—and instead of the aid station worker I faced a young man in a wheelchair. “You’re doing great!” he cheered enthusiastically. His spine curved oddly and he had just enough motor control to reach forward his arm for a fist-bump. “You’re awesome!” he beamed.
I sighed. I fist bumped back. I hate you, nice man, I thought, and got up on my feet to keep going.
Just after the 35-mile point, another runner managed to catch up to my hobbling pace and asked if I minded some company. “It’s a lot easier if you have someone else around,” she said with a friendly smile. I agreed—it’s not like either of us were capable of moving fast enough to get away from the other if I’d said no—and we set off together.
“I’m Jqwrhm,” she introduced herself. I had no idea what she said—I wasn’t even sure of my own name at that point—and in the pause that followed this pronouncement she smiled as if used to that kind of reaction and said, “My mother was kind of a hippie.”
Since my own mother was not a hippie and I have little familiarity with hippie culture, I didn’t know what that meant but I was too tongue-tied with fatigue to ask. Instead I simply gave her my name.
Another pause. “That’s unusual too, isn’t it.” And I knew then that she had no idea what I’d said either.
My quasi-nameless new friend and I trudged on, and as we did something interesting happened. It sucked. It sucked a lot, for all the reasons I just gave, but that wasn’t the interesting part. To try to allay the suckiness, we began chatting about different races we’d done, funny things that had happened to us while running, how brutal the heat felt, how vile the sand was, her brother’s overdose, my parents’ bad marriage, my own upcoming marriage, her own nontraditional wedding (she wore chiffon pants and a crop top and her grandmother very nearly punched her for it), and a whole lot of other things to pass the nearly four hours it took us to make our way together to Tacoma.
I’m not going to say everything was all right after that. It wasn’t; it was horrible, I hated it, and I wanted to stop with every agonizing step. At one point, passing another disappointing aid station with sad brown bananas and near-boiling Gatorade, I declared I would DNF at the next station, this time for sure.
“You’re so close,” Jqwrhm said quietly. “You think you’ll be happier if you stop, but later on you know you’ll be disappointed. You can do this. You can.”
I couldn’t. I didn’t want to. Yes, there was only single-digit mileage to go but it would take me a couple of hours to do those miles and what would be the point? I wouldn’t get an AG award, I wouldn’t get a PR, all I’d get was a finisher’s medal and a railroad spike (in honor of the rails-to-trails theme, though if I tried to bring it home in my backpack I’d have a tough time explaining it to TSA). I didn’t care about any of that.
“I’m going to that Chevron station,” she said. “Wait here.”
I didn’t know why she thought she needed gasoline but it had to taste better than the hot Gatorade did, so I sat on the bus stop bench she’d indicated and planned on living the rest of my life there. When she returned some 59 years later, she had two cans of Coke, some Junior Mints and a bag of salt-and-vinegar chips. “You need to eat something,” she said. “You’ll feel better. I hope you like the vinegar kind.”
Something was happening to my face. I think I was crying except I had no bodily fluids to spare for tears so little salt crystals sprinkled down from my eyelashes. I struggled to open the bag. It took about three hours. I managed to put a chip in my mouth, chew it, and swallow it. “Wonderful,” I said, though it sounded more like “Wghmthrl.” That might well have been her last name for all I knew.
Onward. Other races we’d done. Her favorite ultra. My most recent race. Her stepfather, who has cystic fibrosis. My friends, whose son has it and who now benefits from some of the medical technology that had first been tested on her stepfather. Her mother’s abandonment of their family. My father’s decision to stop taking his heart medicine, and my sister’s decision to let him have his way because he’s nearly 90 and, well, maybe he’s decided something about his life.
At the last aid station before the finish line, with about 4 miles to go, I’d had enough. It didn’t matter that we were almost there. This was insanity. To do something painful, maybe even harmful, when life is so hard already, for what, exactly—bragging rights? I sucked at this race; I had nothing to brag about, and I run for enjoyment, not to prove anything. If I wasn’t enjoying it—and enjoyment got left behind somewhere in the mountains, where the real Sasquatch was probably laughing his furry ass off at us—what did it matter that I continued?
“My husband is over there.” My husband? I’m not married yet. Oh wait, her husband. “He’ll have ice and salt tabs. Come on, let’s just sit down for a moment.”
“I’m going to call my husband. My boyfriend. My fiancé. Something,” I mumbled.
I called the fiancé. “Will you still marry me if I DNF at 48 miles?” I blurted.
Of course he still wanted to marry me, no matter what I decided to do.
“OK.” I took a breath. “OK.” I closed my eyes. “OK.” I opened my eyes and stood up.
Jqwhrm was right there, as was Mr. Wghmthrl, who gave me a fresh banana, an antacid to help my stomach, some more Coke. None of it went down. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“Don’t worry about it!”
It took over an hour to get to the finish line, which was on the waterfront past about a thousand piers, each one promising to be The Lobster Pot restaurant which would signal that we made it, each one ending up being a mere tease as every damn restaurant on every damn pier is done up in jolly sea décor to look like it might be called The Lobster Pot. When we finally made it, we nearly missed it, as almost all of the finish line equipment had been taken down and only a handful of people remained to cheer. (We weren’t the last, not even close. As it turned out we finished pretty much in the middle of the pack. Yes, I’m average, and I’m fine with that, thanks.) I found my sister, who had been waiting patiently for me for hours, and with my newly acquired railroad spike in hand and a couple castles’ worth of sand in my shoes, I made my way to the car.
It only occurred to me after I’d cleaned up and was ready to leave that I had not properly thanked my friend, whose name I still did not know and without whom I would not have finished. I described her vaguely to my sister, who went to look around the area for her, but in vain. She had gone off too. I felt bad, but even more than that I felt tired, so with once last glance at the stunning view of Mt. Rainier in the distance, where I had begun this miserable journey half a day ago, we drove off.
Oh, I found out her name when I looked up the race results, but I still don’t have any way of contacting her that wouldn’t be kind of stalkerish, so I’m letting it go. I am sure any thanks I give would be waved away and simply put down to the kind of things people do when they’re in the same circle of hell together. But people don’t always do those things. It’s not insanity to expect certain outcomes to certain situations, and a lot of times, given human history, human nature, and the ways of the world, it’s realistic to expect that when things go bad, you’ll just have to deal with it on your own. Isn’t that why we do these ultras, to show how tough we are, how strong, how much we can endure? Eh, not always. Sometimes, as in this time, we find out quite the opposite: we need help, and, most unexpected of all, we get it without even asking. Crazy, isn’t it.