I need this wild life, this freedom. Zane Grey
I leave Hell's Gate at mile 23, excited in anticipation of the section to come. I'd heard the trail would get more technical at this point. My body is feeling great having picked up the saccadic rhythm of the choppy desert single track. I put my head down, push into the thick manzanita and engage in the exhilarating chase of Catlow, who is just over a minute ahead. I pass a cairn, then another, orange ribbon hangs at waist height, but soon the trail dissolves into a mess of brush and cacti. Fuck, I'm off course! It's OK, it's OK. At this race, it's not a matter of if you get lost but when. I backtrack down to the last cairn, stopping to assess my options. There are clearly more cairns to the east that appear to follow a trail that skirts the flank of the rim. Directionally, this makes sense. However, I can't see Catlow up ahead in the now wide open expanse. Still, I follow the flags and cairns for a short while longer until it dies again. I let out a loud cry of frustration which is absorbed, muted by the sand and heat. I backtrack again to the main cairn and ribbons and start over. This time I gain the rim. I know I'm not supposed to be on the rim. Perhaps this isn't it though? Just a false summit or something? No, it's it. Fuck! I sit for a moment to look back down the way I came. I see no one. The cool breeze that previously cut the heat has subsided. The stifling air now fills my mouth and lungs. I am sweating profusely and have drained the last of my water. For a moment, I contemplate wandering off in to the desert in search of the purple sage. I think of Caballo and wonder what his last thoughts must have been in such a harsh, unforgiving land. Run free, my friend. Run free.
I decide that the best course of action is to run back towards Hell's Gate aid station until someone comes my way. As I drop off the rim, my toe catches a low branch and I hit the ground with a thud. I pick myself up unharmed, but notice the top of my shoe has been ripped off clean. Seriously?
Finally, I regain the trail. A faint unmarked intersection had lead me on the wrong path up what I later find out to be, the Myrtle trail. The cairns and ribbons had lead to further confusion. As I emerge back on course after an hour of circling, I bump into my friend Rachel White from Portland and Justin "The Lip" Lutick. The Lip in his usual über stoked, theatrical self tells me not to worry, to get back at it and that he has duck tape for my shoe at the next aid. Washington Park, mile 33, is 8 miles away. Both of them offer up some water and try to get me to rally. I appreciate the enthusiasm and support, but mentally I'm done. I tell them to go on without me. I walk really slowly with my flip flop shoe catching on rocks, stubbing my toes. For some reason, I'm hit by an overwhelming wave of disappointment. I don't ever get this way, typically just letting things unfold as they come. I feel partly frustrated, partly embarrassed at yet again getting lost. My foot has now started to hurt, I'm dehydrated and just don't want to put anymore effort into this. I hate that I'm whining and being so negative, which of course only makes things worse. I keep on rewinding the wrong turn in my mind trying to make it disappear. I start to dread the sound of foot steps coming behind me, necessitating a quick explanation of what happened. The wrong turn. The shoe. Running out of water. Bla bla excuses…But, no matter how negative I'm feeling, everyone that passes me is exceedingly nice. They show concern, provide encouragement and commiserate with me before pushing on and dealing with their own struggles with heat, cramps, rocks and anything else the desert throws at us. I meet a guy from my home town in France. Another from Romania with whom I try to exchange a few phrases I learned in high school. My selfish aspiration for doing well in the race and my negativity gradually wear off. I can't help but feel fortunate to be part of such a great community and to enjoy the freedom of running these trails.
The desert thrashed me, slowed me down, forced me to pause and appreciate what really matters. I think of Caballo again. This time it is not an image of pain and suffering, but I see him in clear light, softly passing on his message. Korima - sharing, communing, appreciation and respect for the land and the people who roam (free) on it. I pause for long moments to wet my bandana and splash water on my face and neck, soothing my sun burned skin. My stroll in the desert ends at the Washington Park where I'm welcomed by the high energy Surprise Running Club volunteers. They help me coordinate a ride to the finish where I catch friends already drinking brews and others coming in in need of one after a long day on the trail. Catlow held it strong through the end and ran a great race. Karl and Ian, who are both as old as the trail, each ticked off yet another strong finish. Matias Saari, fresh off a solid run at the Boston Marathon, cruised to his second 50 mile finish. The Lip came in just ahead of Rachel, despite have lost a bit of time freshening up with some talcum powder and cologne. Good people. Good times. I'll be back next year for another crack at it.