This is an excerpt from the new book, A Runner’s High, by Dean Karnazes, published by HarperOne.
I’m lying catawampus splayed ass-to-the-dirt in the trail—one leg tweaked improbably beneath me—staring up at the afternoon sky seeing sparkles of light flickering before me like circling fireflies and wondering what the hell just happened. A sharp ringing in my ears perforates the otherwise complete stillness, a lazy film of dust rising indolently around my idle carcass. Inside the motor room my muscles and bodily organs register a dull tenderness, but it is the nausea that is most pronounced, a queasy sensation of being punched hard in the gut. What just happened?
Moments ago I was in perfect harmonic flow, bounding along nicely, cool and in control, step, spring, step . . . Then everything changed. I vaguely recall flight, weightless soaring, a defiant middle finger to gravity as time briefly suspended; my wings spread—fly, be free…
Until impact. Kaboom! Everything just exploded, like a skydiver whose chute failed to deploy. Now I’m heaped on the soil like Icarus, a lifeless, charred exoskeleton smoldering in ruin and wondering what just went down. A ticker tape of questions scroll across the screen of my mind: Is anything broken? Will someone come upon me? How did I get here?
To answer that final question we need to dial back the clock twenty-five years to the interior of a swanky nightclub in San Francisco the eve of my 30th birthday when—at midnight—I spontaneously decided that instead of having another round to celebrate I was going to run 30 miles to commemorate the occasion. Harebrained, I know (did I mention I wasn’t a runner at the time?). Clearly consuming prodigious quantities of tequila isn’t conducive to clear thinking. Upon exiting the bar I started running—stumbling, more like it—into the night. I didn’t own running gear but thankfully had on a pair of comfortable silk boxer shorts. I peeled my pants and ran in those.
Somehow I survived. I ran straight through the night and made it to Half Moon Bay, 30 miles from my starting point. It was then I decided I was going to be an ultramarathoner.
My first 100-mile footrace was the fabled Western States Endurance Run. A hundred mile cut through the craggy Sierra Nevada—with tens of thousands of feet of climbing and descending—Western States is legendary for its ruggedness and extremes. Many who start the race don’t finish. And those that do are said to be changed by the experience.
I was one of the fortunate. It took nearly 24 hours of relentless forward progress, but I made it. I couldn’t walk for a week.
That was two and a half decades and twelve Western States races ago. And still I keep coming back. Why?
I think we run 100 miles through the wilderness because we are indeed changed by the experience. That is why I keep coming back. What takes a monk a month of meditation we can achieve in twenty-four hours of running. With each footstep comes a slow diminishment of self, the prickly edges of ego whittled down until something approaching the divine emerges. Great moments of clarity are afforded, along with striking personal insights. Running an ultramarathon builds character, yes, but it also reveals it. We learn about ourselves, we peer deeper into our souls, into the very bedrock of our being, and we are transformed by the experience. To know thyself one must push thyself. An ultramarathon provides a forum for discovery.
So here I find myself again, attempting to complete yet another Western States. I knew the course, knew it well, yet experience counts for little. Every finish must be earned. After departing the Michigan Bluff checkpoint at mile 55.7 the course abruptly descended into the bowels of Volcano Canyon—a yawning prehistoric gouge in the earth’s crust—where the moist, humid air was stagnant and syrupy, the afternoon sun beating down with searing intensity. The trail wove along a narrow rocky pathway that was overgrown with branchy vegetation, some of which entirely obstructed the ground, making the footing tricky. My pace was slow and deliberate, mindful of potential hazards, though still I failed to notice a root obtruding from the earth and kicked it squarely with the big toe of my right foot. The outcome was immediate and violent; my upper torso crashed to the ground with such force it kicked up a massive spiraling cloud of chalky dust like a sack of flour toppling off a delivery truck and rupturing on the asphalt. I lay dimwitted in the dirt, my senses knocked from me, a droll echo reverberating in my ears, “Cuckoo, cuckoo . . .”
My head landed facing forward, my chin nuzzling out a little divot in the soil, and I watch swirls of dust spiral out from my nostrils with each labored exhalation. Until I accidentally inhale too deeply and start choking on the dust, at which point I used the left arm pinned beneath me to flop myself over in a manner a short-order cook uses a spatula to flip a pancake. Now I’m looking upward at the sky, seeing both distant stars and ones within arms reach.
Eventually I’m able to sit up. Glancing around at the scrub and twisted Manzanita, slowly, painfully I rise to unsteady feet and I try in vain to dust myself off, the chalky crimson dirt clinging to my sweat soaked jersey like clay. It’s hopeless, so I stop trying. Taking a deep breath and exhaling audibly, I wobble onward like a newborn calf.
At mile 62 I pick up my pacer and longtime running companion, Topher Gaylord. Reliable and steadfast, we’d logged countless footsteps together—over mountains and across deserts—and had a particular intimacy that only shared suffering can educe. Some friendships are measured in miles.
We amble along together, Topher and I. The plan is for Topher to be by my side for the next 16 miles, offering encouragement and positive commentary.
“Gadzooks, Karnazes, what’s wrong with you? We’re gonna be out here all night at this pace. Pick it up, bro.”
He was beyond striking distance, and in my dilapidated state there was no way I could possibly catch him. I swiped a couple of times but it was no use.
“You’re really hurting aren’t you?” he daftly acknowledged.
“If I could somehow catch you you’d be hurting, too.”
In time we made our amends. Deeper into the backcountry we traipsed, the setting sun turning the early evening sky into a kaleidoscopic fireworks display, the colors and textures intensifying with each passing moment. I’d just spent from sunup till sundown in the outdoors, something fundamental to our origins yet nearly unheard of in today’s modern world. Being in the wild all day is life affirming in some vitally human way, it wakes up the senses, heightens awareness. You can get enough of most things in life, but never nature.
The air was motionless, few sounds could be heard bar for the distant American River snaking down the cavernous valley. The tranquil swishing of the water and the richness of the tones filling the sky were spellbinding, mesmerizing us into an awed hypnosis. Moments like these cannot be adequately described; they must be lived.
“I love this, Topher,” I said. “I don’t ever want this to go away.”
“Me neither, Karno.”
We continued descending further into the American River Canyon paralleling the tributary, the reverberation of rushing water at times clear and distinct and at others subdued and elusive. Steadily we shuffled along, the luminous alpenglow leisurely evaporating into the distant horizon, a blanket of darkness moving over earth like a slow eclipse. In due time it all faded to black and we transformed into nocturnal creatures. With headlamps switched on and illuminating the trail, reality was reduced to the reaches of a shaft of light. At points—vistas unseen in the darkness—a beaming lodestar could be detected in the distance, the lights of the Rucky Chucky River Crossing checkpoint at mile 78. It seemed close at moments and then impossibly far away the next.
The soil alongside the river was sandy and wet, and it squeaked and crunched underfoot as we marched along, the soft, pliable surface absorbing more energy than it returned, making for strenuous running conditions. Complete darkness now shrouded the trail, flashes from our headlamps ricocheting off the tree branches and gangly vegetation lining the passageway, the sharp, wooly scents of coffeeberry and coyote brush thick in the air. Temperatures remained oppressively warm, even now on the backside of midnight.
We didn’t say much as we ran. Crickets periodically chirped, their stridulations coming from all directions in surround sound. The occasional splash and churn of the flowing American River made it known that something substantial was present nearby, something fluid, dynamic, and powerful. Although it remained unseen, its force could be felt through your skin, its undulations and countercurrents giving off pulses of energy that moved through your body like sonic waves. We ran along the riverside, entranced in the grand harmony of nature, experiencing the melody and sensations of earth as it was when we first came onto it. In moments like these there is a primordial connection to who we are that somehow transcends the frivolity of everyday living and takes you back to a place that is simple and pure and elemental to being human. As we ran together alongside the river in the darkness, being alive felt as it should.
When we arrived at the Rucky Chucky River Crossing aid station we were strangely at peace.
“Thanks, Topher,” I said. “That was real.”
He grinned in acknowledgment and drifted away. No further words need be spoken.
Lowering myself down the embankment into the river, I grabbed hold of a line strung across the waterway for safety. Tightly I held it as I stepped farther into the depths, the waterline rising up over my waist. I thought about other races and how Western States compared. To a runner say at the Boston Marathon, the idea of forging a river midrace would seem preposterous, unimaginable. But here I was, 78 miles into a 100-mile footrace grasping a flimsy rope for dear life trying to avoid being swept downstream. If marathoning is a boxing match, ultramarathoning is a bare-knuckles bar brawl.
Waiting to greet me on the far side of the river was Kim Gaylord, Topher’s better half and my longtime friend. Kim would be pacing me to the finish, if I could make it that far.
“Okay, what’s the plan Karno?”
“Plan?” I scratched my head. “I dunno, maybe keep heading west and pray?”
“Karno,” she said in a no-nonsense tone, “desperation is not a plan.”
Pragmatic and efficient, Kim was both a capable operator and a beastly runner. When locked into a stride, Kim was like a locomotive, powerful and unceasing. She had run me into the ground on many occasions. And that is one element of ultramarathoning that appealed to me, the egalitarian nature of the sport. It’s not uncommon for a female to win an ultramarathon outright. And at distances beyond 195 miles, women are outright faster than men. Leave your chauvinistic hubris at home, fellas.
“Alright, here’s the plan,” Kim said. “Let’s get to the Auburn Lakes Trailhead checkpoint before 3:30.”
“Ah, how far is that?”
“Karno, you’ve done this race before, right?”
I was not of a right mind. A dozen times I’d traversed this trail. “Is it, mile 85?”
“How much time do I have?” I was too worn down out to look at my own watch.
“You’ve got over an hour and a half.”
“Piece of cake,” I told her, “I’ll get there way before 3:30.”
I arrived at 3:29.
There is a saying in ultramarathoning circles, “Beware of the chair.” Sitting down can be a one-way descent. I made it a practice to never sit during an ultra.
The first thing I did upon arriving at the Auburn Lakes Trailhead checkpoint was sit down. My exhaustion was bottomless, irrevocable and absolute. The tip of my nose radiated pain. I rubbed my throbbing temples and wondered how I would possibly cover another 15 miles? And all for what, a comically outsized belt buckle?
But that buckle stood for so much more, this I knew. For it was the most coveted prize an endurance athlete could hold, an emblem of completing one of the world’s most demanding sports events; Western States was the original 100-mile trail race, the genuine article. In my world—as in the world of ultramarathoners across the globe—there was nothing nobler than that buckle.
With head slung low, I contemplated my future. At moments like these you deliberate what it is you’re made of, what it is you stand for. I do not know why I run. All I know is that something in my soul commands I do so. Could I stay true to this man I am? Could I somehow arise from the enveloping grip of this chair and not give up? Did I have the inner constitution to keep persisting and turn this into a story of stunning triumph rather than crushing defeat?
Fifteen miles of rooted and rocky trail held the answer.
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