Journey to the Top

Can’t sleep. It seems to be a regular thing the night before a race. I get antsy before a race. Usually starts a couple of days ahead of time, but this time I was too busy to even let that happen. The night before I was supposed to be leaving for Colorado, my flight schedule went crazy. Every airport was under heavy delays. It got to a point where it appeared I would miss my flight home. That was going to throw a huge wrench into the wheel of getting the show on the road. Miraculously the departure of the final flight home got pushed back because the crew that was supposed to fly it was also delayed getting into Charlotte.

I got to base close to midnight. It was chaotic. I had to unpack, see my mother, and repack for the trip. While I was doing that, I was also checking the flights for the next day. Connections through Dallas and Chicago were oversold. I’d have to take a flight back to Charlotte at 5AM. By the time I had everything ready to go, I had scarcely an hour to sleep before heading right back to the airport. Definitely no time to be anxious about the race.

Now, the night before the race, was a great time for anxiety to rise. I’d spent the day basking in the radiant sunlight that shone over the Garden of the Gods. It was refreshing and relaxing. That evening, I’d decided to take a stab at The Incline. Formerly an inclined railway to a tourist outlook on the valley, now frequented by fitness fanatics and other folks who like a little pain, it’s a mile long trail straight up the side of the mountain with about a 2,000 ft. elevation gain. I wanted to test my legs and lungs to figure how I might fare in the morning headed up Pikes Peak. It was brutal. Every step you take forward is slower than the last, and ever stair is steeper than the last.

image5It was overkill. Probably not the best idea for someone about to have the race of a lifetime up the side of a mountain the next morning. I reached the top in under an hour and my legs were dying. I opted to take a side trail that weaves back and forth rather than descending the same treacherous stairs. Downhill trail running. Nothing quite compares to the thrill of hurtling through the woods at breakneck speeds, scarcely able to scope out safe footfalls on treacherous terrain. One missed step, and you’re down. It was about a 3 mile trail. Of those 15,840 steps, I only missed one. Bloody knees and a bruised hip were my rewards.

Add on to the fresh injuries the fact that right in the middle of my training, I’d dislocated my knee playing basketball and had missed out on 4-6 critical weeks of preparation, leaving me just 1-2 weeks to attempt to prepare my body for the challenge of reaching the summit, and you can begin to understand the level of trepidation rising within me.

By 4:30, I’d given up on sleeping and started to get ready. I checked the summit weather forecast again. Something like 3-6 inches of snow. Temperatures around 35º for the morning. I started packing up everything I had just in case. Windbreaker, gloves, arm warmers, cap, gels, salt tabs, chews. I hoped I wouldn’t need it all, but it’s better to be prepared than to leave it to chance. The race organizer warned us, “This isn’t just a race. This is mountaineering.” Totally different animal than anything I had ever done. Long before having known what the weather gods would bestow upon us, I had selected a shirt for the race that would grow to embody the entire day. It featured the quote of Nux from Mad Max: Fury Road as he drove his car into the almost certain destruction of a deadly sandstorm: “Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!”

By the time I reached the staging area, the voices in my head were unbearable. I was nowhere near the shape I expected to be in for the race. They seeded the wave start based on qualifying times. I’d put up an awesome qualifying time, and they had placed me in the 5th wave. “Better go with a later wave,” I told myself, “don’t line up yet.”  My stomach started churning. I headed for the portapotty line, figuring I might as well make sure I emptied out before I got out on the trail. There wouldn’t be any more potties anywhere on the way.

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-2-21-08-pmI returned and decided to join the 10th wave. Toeing the line, I just took a deep breath. “Free your mind.” I exhaled. And we were off. The first mile pushed through Manitou Springs, and then there was an all too familiar turn, an uphill turn I’d made searching for the base of the incline the night before. Maybe it was a good thing I came this way before. Now I was somewhat prepared. In the back of my mind was the thought to not look like I didn’t know what I was doing.  People around me were slowing to a brisk walking pace. I geared my stride down and prepared for the long haul. It’d just been a mile. You run as long as you can, but soon the mountain pushes you into a stair-climbing pace.

It was still cool and damp from the near flash flood of the night before. For this stretch at least I knew I was properly robed. Everyone is different though. You see people out there in tank tops and some in jackets. Some have shorts, some have leggings, some have jogging suit pants. In the end, there is no universal right or wrong. You just find what works for you, and what I had was working for me.

Near two miles in, I saw something you don’t see that often in these types of races…a black person. Just being honest. In all the trail running I’ve done, it’s just a rare thing. Road races and city running, you’ll see some brothers out there, but not so much out here. We struck up a conversation. He was a doubler—one of those insane people who sign up to do the half marathon to the summit one day and a full marathon to the summit and back the very next day. He was very encouraging. “Just take it easy,” he told me, “there’s plenty of mountain left. Most of these people going by…you’ll see them again.”

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-2-28-36-pmThe trail’s initially familiar weave soon became unknown as I passed the spot where my decent from the incline had begun. The trail got steeper, and each step became more laborious. With sweat streaming down my face, I broke through fog, and through the trees, the surrounding peaks came into view, and yet, they were nothing. I tried to smile and fight through it, knowing each step made the next one more impossible. The running joke of the race was, “There’s just one more hill.” Another aid station came into view. They say hydrate early and hydrate often. You sweat so much more than you realize out there. The exertion is unlike anything you can imagine.

Unbelievably, the sun came shining through out of nowhere, energizing my pace. While I’d felt a little chilly early on, now things seemed perfect. It’s funny how the body can so quickly learn to adjust its expectations. The trail averages a 10-15% grade the entire way. It’s grueling. It takes you to this savagely primal place. When the trail gets anywhere near level, even a 3-5% grade can feel like a downhill stretch. It just feels so good. I started running every time. Aside from not being able to breathe, I was feeling great. The higher we got, the more perfect that day became. Blue skies. Clouds breaking away. Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!

Young people passed me. Old people passed me. I never felt bad about it. The true enemy loomed in the distance, staring through the trees, daring me to take another step. I fought myself to push harder. I could feel the onset of cramps repeatedly. Every time they’d start up, I’d take a salt tab. It’s always worked well for me, ever since I learned the trick on my 50-miler last year. The only downside is that taking it on a empty stomach can make you throw up. I felt it coming on…that massive surge of saliva and tightening of the abdomen. “Don’t do it,” I told myself. “Just don’t do it,” as if it was something that could be controlled. I couldn’t hold it anymore. I stepped off the side of the trail. Doubled over. It was inevitable. Every single person who passed by asked if I was ok. Everyone was suffering. Everyone was sympathetic. A couple of heaves came, but nothing came up. Still, I felt better and stepped back onto the trail.

The psychology of a mountain race is totally different than anything I’ve ever done. Most races are more or less of a loop. You end up right back where you started, or at least relatively close. This race was the opposite. It’s fiercely linear. You travel from point A to point B, and every step of the way, you are painfully aware of just how far you have to go. Your destination is visibly far from you, no matter how close you get.

Halfway through the race, I rounded a corner in the trail, and the sight stole my mind. The peak loomed on the horizon. I stepped off to the side and stood there in a moment of silence. So far I had come, and still my destination was the horizon. Up over 10,000 feet, my mind thought about how on one of my planes I would be starting the beverage service and how a pilot friend had been telling me all pilots are legally required to have an oxygen supply available if flying above that altitude. I knew these last miles would be the true test. Oxygen deprivation is not a thing to be taken lightly. Hypoxia can be deadly.

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-2-34-13-pmWith each step, some demons die, and others are born. Doubt and confidence wage a relentless battle for supremacy. I live. I die. I live again. You become conscious of everything. My ears were popping. I could feel every little bit of rock and dirt that had worked their way into my shoes. Every breath is a conscious one. Extremities tingle. Every now and then, I felt a little moment something like getting dizzy, but completely different. Almost like someone cut off blood flow to your brain for a split second. I kept trying to fight through it. “Last hill!” I called out as a passed another fellow. “Last hill!” he called back. Somehow it hurt less to breathe when we talked to each other.

The woman behind me staggered to a stop. It was that kind of stop where your last footstep doesn’t leave the ground. It just pushes across the surface. I asked if she was ok. She was cramping to the point of paralysis. I pulled out some salt tabs and gave them to her, telling her she was going to be ok. She was to the point of tears. “I can’t move,” she said. “It’s ok. Just lean on me. I’m here. I’ve got you.” Looking down, the cramps in her legs were actually visible. Without thinking, I just grabbed hold of one of her legs and started massaging it. It stands as an odd moment in my mind, grabbing the thigh of a total stranger. It was just something that had to be done. Any other place or time it would be at least awkward if not inappropriate, but this wasn’t any other place or any other time. Another woman stopped and asked if she could help, pulling some electrolytes from her bag. As we stayed there with her, she told us we should keep on going without her. Despite her words, we stayed by her side until she was mobile. A community of strangers came together in a moment to make sure that one person could keep going. It was beautiful. Slowly but surely, her muscles relaxed, and we returned to the trail.

The altering dimensions of the landscape become liminal. Fewer trees. Smaller. Rocks turn to boulders. The disappearing foliage robs the air of what little oxygen could have been contributed. The trail just gets steeper. I began questioning my preparedness. I’d packed double what I usually would for a half marathon. I probably should have tripled it. Those last 3 miles are grueling. Hunger and exhaustion take an ever increasing toll on pace. It all turned to a blur in my mind. Only one lingering, dominant, obsessive thought. One goal. Make it. Just make it. Run if you can. Walk if you must. Crawl. Just get there. All around are others, laid waste by the sickness and fatigue. Behind me there was a guy with a larger pack. He’d come well prepared for the journey. As we passed every person on the side of the trail, he offered them the supplements he had. It was touching how close and united we could all become, having no history and no rapport, but simply sharing a common obstacle and a singular goal.

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-2-37-03-pmAt the final aid station I told myself that I had earned a break. Aside from getting food and water at the aid stations, I had only truly stopped to rest once in all those hours. The volunteers were incredible, pumping us up for one final push. The summit was within sight, but it still seemed an eternity away. I sat on the side of the trail, taking in the view, knowing my eyes were seeing things that few eyes have ever seen before. One volunteer came to check if I was ok, humorously asking what I needed so I could get out of here, because she wasn’t going to deal with a rescue situation this close to the summit. We both laughed and she brought some delicious junk food for me. From there, I barely remember anything except perhaps rounding a switchback and seeing the sign signaling the “sixteen golden stairs,” as they’re endearingly known. The final 16 switchbacks. Steep. Brutal. Savage. Breath was so precious, I unfastened the already loose chest strap on my pack, unable to take even the slightest pressure on my lungs any longer.

The constant voices in my head reached the level of full cacophony. Then I could see the flags of the finish line. A reserve of adrenaline unimaginable was suddenly released and the lack of oxygen was irrelevant. The voices in my head were one by one replaced by the shouts of people.Real people. The finish line. All I had left in my propelled me forward until I was running. Everything disappeared except that finish line. A few last treacherous rocks. With a final heaving breath, I climbed over the last obstacle and left loose a final emphatic cry of victory:

“Witness Me!!!!”

And it was over. Words have not yet be created to describe the feeling of that moment. Volunteers at the summit rushed to my side to stabilize my staggering body over the path away from the finish line. They draped a medal around my neck. They fed me. They were an amazing lot. In the next minutes and hours, I felt nothing and yet I felt everything. I may have passed out on the bus ride down to the valley.

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The next day I stared off at the foggy mountaintop in the distance. “I did that,” you told myself. “I was there. I did that.” Over and over, as if to convince myself.

There, in the Garden of the Gods, I sat on a cliff’s edge, legs dangling, leaning against a boulder, arms wrapped about it as if embracing a long lost friend. All the while, I was fighting a fearful feeling, as if reality was becoming a memory that would soon slip away, as if the real world would trespass on this sanctuary of my soul and rend this feeling away from me.

I’ve always been my worst critic. Rehearsing every fault, recounting every flaw. All the good I’ve done, I can forget in an instant. The great things accomplished, gone in a breath. “Don’t ever forget this moment,” I whispered to myself as I closed my eyes. “You did this.” I opened my eyes again. The mountain was still there, and so was I. Leaving now. Still breathless. Still speechless. So full and yet so empty. And I try to remember the world doesn’t go away when I close my eyes. I have to remember that I have done great things, even if I can’t remember them. I have to remember. Who am I? I do not know. And how can I? How is one known? How can one be known when each memory fades like the lead of a pencil weathers off a page? What have I done? I do not know. I must begin…somewhere. I must remember. It starts with what I’ve done. This is what I have done. I must remember what it took to come this far. I must remember what greatness lives within me.

This is who I am.

You can watch the full film version of the race here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6t5PkvVeOik

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