“By your stumbling, the world is perfected.”
― Sri Aurobindo
It is only because I love this race so much that I am even out of bed. Everything in my body has hurt for months. I can barely control my left hand, and the left side of my face feels like I have just been to the dentist. I try not to drool in front of people. Doctors aren’t entirely sure what’s been happening. Neurologists have done tests. They seem confused.
Sometimes I can’t see very well.
But, here I am, walking slowly up the road in Millcreek Canyon. I used to run here but now I can only walk a little, though not fast. A few runners come past and I cheer them. It’s still light, so these are the fast ones. I see David Hayes come past, likely to meet up with his girlfriend Suzanne soon. I walk a little further and turn back to see Matt van Horn.
I like Matt, because he’s always been very kind to me and I admire him. I hold out my arms and ask him if he wants a hug. He accepts and I give him one. He hugs my dog, too. We walk slowly up the road and I tell him to eat more food and that I’m happy for how well his race is going. He does eat, and leaves the aid station in good time. I wander down the road
slowly, with my dog. Around the last corner is a man vomiting on the side of the road and another man wondering what to do. He asks me for advice.
“Some times you just have to suffer well.’, I say and I shrug.
He does not look at me, but instead pukes on his shoes, falls over but eventually he gets up and I think he understands.
I am not sure if I am feeling better.
The past months have shown improvement and I’ve been running some. Probably not enough, but what’s enough anyway, with a race like this? Doctors are pleased that I’ve been doing better, though they can’t really explain it. Some tingling remains in my left leg and in my hand, but I can generally control them pretty well.
The starting line at Wasatch is a special place, but a nervous one. Many greetings are exchanged and photos taken. Every greeting contains at least a little nervous laughter. People ask, “Are you ready?” and it just seems like some sort of threatning extistential challenge. I don’t know to answer, “Yes”, “No”, or “I challenge the premise of your question”.
We start slowly enough. I hope to run with good friend Jared Thornley for much of the race and I lose him briefly in the crowded start before finding him again as we move through the foothills. He moves a little quickly for me and I have to ask him to slow down. Kindly, he does.
On the way up the first big climb, the reality of my health situation starts to kick in. I’ve barely run in over a year and less than fit. I stop several times to catch my breath. Jared again, very kindly, shows tremendous patience and waits for me as I struggle to find air on the narrow singletrack.
Coming up over the final pitches before the infamous Chinscraper, I begin to feel fairly wobbly. I remark to Jared that I don’t feel well. He doesn’t say anything. We cross Landis Springs and finally it hits me. I get sick in a bush. Getting up, I notice this is exactly the same bush I threw up on during my previous finish at Wasatch. I take this as a good omen,
if not a little troubling.
We summit Chinscraper in good time and run along the ridges, my stomach complaining the entire time. To the west, a helicopter buzzes the course, taking film of the runners for the evening news. I lament the fact that the helicopter is not close enough to puke on, as this would make an excellent highlight reel for the news.
We greet John Grobbins and refill some bottles at Grobbin’s Corner and go down the hill. Jared is feeling full of energy and ready to run fast. I’m feeling worse and worse. I want to walk down the hill and tell Jared to go ahead. He runs ahead a little way and I try to follow. He quickly pulls away and I’m left trying to figure out how to run down a hill — a curious, if not infuriating problem.
At the Francis aid, I plant myself in a chair and puke up various fruits and cookies which are handed to me. Volunteers, many of which are friends are very understanding. “Oh, he always does this. He’ll be fine.”, they say. I am not so sure. I leave, with a cup full of cookies and candy in hand.
Jared has gone far ahead. I move slowly along the road, running in a few places but not very many. On the climb up Arther’s Fork, I plod all too slowly. A few runnres are around, but it’s clear we are the back of the pack. Toward the top, I sit down on a stump unable to move. I have not held down any calories for water for the past seven hours. I hold my
head in my hand for many minutes. I cry. It is too hard.
The funny thing about self-pity in a race like Wasatch is that the race itself very much does not care. Sit on a stump all you like and cry, but after you’re done and you dry your eyes — you’re still on a stump, and until you get up and fix that problem, your conditions will not change. This seems romantic and powerful, but while on the stump it’s insulting and
makes you want to curse at clouds overhead.
I walk very slowly to the Bountiful B aid station. They are serving sandwhiches with roast beef. I volunteer asks me if I would like mine with spicy mustard and I very nearly respond, “Damn you to hell” and puking on his shoes before catching myself and just saying meekly, “No thank you”.
Leaving the Bountiful B aid station, I start to feel well enough to run. I think I am coming back. Sanity seems to be returning. I put on some music and things start making sense again. All is right with the world. I’m happily running at 8,000′ and the sun is shining. Things make sense.
Then, I come around the corner and a man is sitting in a recliner in the middle of a field, with a rug and a nightstand full of books and he is holding a giant poster with my name on it.
I immediatley remember my neurologist giving me a list of warning signs that I should be watching for during the run. I forgot to bring it. I start a mild panic, thinking that the last thing I would see on the earth would be my name on a big poster board held by an imaginary man in a living room on a mountain.
I get closer. It is Matt van Horn. This time, he gives me a hug. I am filled with gratitude. I thank him for his kindness and trundle on down the trail.
By the time I reach the climb up from the top of City Creek canyon to Killyon’s Canyon, the lack of calories and water begins to become critical. I move every so slowly. Eventually, I can see the Swallow Rocks aid station in the distance but can’t run there and can barely even walk. Finally, after twenty minutes I stumble in and collapse into a chair. I know
that just a few miles away is the Big Mountain aid station and Paige, who will take care of me, but I can’t get up and go anywhere. I drink a little bit of soda but can’t move. I ask to lay down and the volunteers wrap me up in blankets by the side of the trail. I lay there shaking and try to eat. I get a little down, but not enough to stop shaking. I want so
badly to get up and get down the trail to see Paige and have her give me a hug but I can’t move.
I hear them call my number on the radio and they call back with a medical report. I suspect Paige can hear this and this finally does it. I’m happy to suffer alone but having her worry crosses some sort of line with me. I take the blankets off and stumble over to the aid station. “I’m ready to go”, I announce. “Are you sure?” they said. “You don’t look so good”.
“I’ve been worse.” I say, truthfully. I announce my departure to the timekeepers at the aid station and set off slowly down the trail.
The rest has done me some good. I am starting to run a few sections and some strength is returning. I see some runners in the distance. I am not last! I can catch them! I put my head down and I push. Hard. From somewhere, the legs respond and I move past them. Knowing them I am back in the race is encouraging and I pass a few more. I am running again!
I make a show of running down the final parts of the trail into the Big Mountain aid station. Paige is there and I am so happy to see her. She helps me over to the scale where I weigh in far below the recommended weight. They lecture her on getting my weight back up. She has everything I need, but mostly I just wanted to see her. She has my favourite treat, a bottle of milk chocolate! I drink it up and it sits well in my stomach. Things are getting better! She massages my back and my legs. “I’m so far behind”, I tell her and she tells me it’s just fine and that I’ll be OK. Sometimes, when you don’t know if you’ll survive, hearing somebody that you love tell you that you will is all you need.
With a few cheers, I get up and leave the aid station, determined now to get back in the race.
The traverse across the high fields on the Big Mountain ridgeline is pleasant. The usual bits start to hurt. Knees and legs are sore but the stomach is holding firm enough. Not well enough to being taking in a lot of calories, but it’s remaining steady and that’s good enough news.
The stiff knees prevent a quick descent down into Alexander, though I can see runners up ahead I can’t move well enough to catch them. It’s an unfortunate walk downhill to the aid station, but I’ve made up enough time to allow for it.
In the aid, I see a friend of my sister’s who is quite pleased to see me. I make many loud jokes, telling them all about Matt in his living room on the mountain and many other funny stories about the day. The sun has gone down and the cool air improves my stomach. Too soon though, I need to leave and I’m again looking forward to seeing Paige at the next aid station at Lambs Canyon.
With the cool night air, I move very well up the trail, passing many runners — all of whom are walking. With my slow start, I’m now able to run well uphill and I bound pass many tired runners who are out of gas. I yell out to a pair of runners who have missed the tricky turn uphill, saving them many hours of being lost on the trail and they’re very grateful. I run as fast as I have all day down the hill, on the old railroad grade and into the gully below the aid station. I can hear them above as I search for traction in the mud and the water of the ponds by the creekbed. Eventually, I break out of the gully and turn back uphill toward the aid. I hike confidently up the hill. It’s late, I know, but not too late.
The aid station is very busy, with many runners collapsed on cots, stricken from the afternoon heat and concerned families attending to them. It takes a while to find Paige but eventually I do and she’s happy to see me, which makes me happy.
She’s soon all business though, with a few friends of other runners all working together to try and crew me. This is a little too much for me, having been alone for so many hours but I can’t resist their kindness and help. I wish the rest of them would find something else to do.
It’s clear from their attitude that they aren’t sure that I’m all right and I can see from the way that they’re acting that they don’t think I’m going to make it. All except Paige, however.
Though all the doubt and concern, she’s entirely focused. It seems suddenly as if the whole tent, even the whole world, doesn’t think I can finish this race and only two people do — me, and her.
I focus on that and I watch her move around me.
She puts my warm clothes on me when I can’t move my legs.
She pours soup into my mouth when I can’t raise my hands.
She gathers my things when I can’t find them and she re-ties my shoes when I can’t reach them.
Nobody else believes, but she has no doubt. That’s love.
I leave the aid station, alone but warm, heading up the road into the cold night.
A little running and a little walking get me up to the singletrack going up Lambs Canyon. As in previous years, I see many broken-down runners on the climb up the canyon. I pass, doing my best to give encouragement and motivation. The climb is long, but I know it well. I reach the top and shoot down the other side. I reach the pass later than in 2012 and it’s much colder this time, but I press on down the canyon, hoping for warmth.
Reaching the bottom, I move up the road, starting to feel the effects of the race. I’m tired. I can barely keep my eyes open. It’s well after midnight and eighteen hours of being on the trail are starting to wear. I want to fall asleep but can’t. I find Catra Corbett walking up the road. She is having a hard day and is telling anybody who will listen about it.
I fall in behind and close my eyes. I more or less keep them closed for miles going up the road, listening to Catra and trying to keep her voice close. I sleepwalk into Big Water.
At Big Water, I eat real food. It is a blessing and I have two plates. The calories hit my system immediately and I start to feel not just good, but ready to start racing again instead of just surviving. I stay for a while, eating as much as I can and as I am walking out, I hear a tiny, weak voice: “Mikey!”.
It’s Jared. He’s been a few hours in front of me for the past forty miles but he’s finally reached his limit here at Big Water. This is the same mileage where he has dropped other 100 milers and I’m worried about it. I walk over and grab him and give him a huge hug. “I’m proud of you”, I tell him. “Get your things. You have two minutes. We’re getting out of
We move up the hill together, happy to be reunited. Jared is suffering horribly. While I am moving well, he is struggling to keep up a walking pace. Though I can easily move faster, I hold back to be with him and get him up the mountain. “Just watch my feet.”, I tell him. “Don’t let anything in the world matter more to you than keeping a close eye on my feet.”
Jared goes to a dark place. I can hear him, groaning behind me, giving every ounce of strength to staying right behind. Up the hill we go.
Near the top, I see good friend Missy Berkel. She is walking down the hill with her pacer. Her race is done and there’s no convincing her otherwise. This makes me sad, but I know she’s tough and will be OK.
Jared and I reach the lake and he tells me he’s stopping and he lays down in the dirt. I lay down too. “I want to stop.”, he says. “I know.”, I say back. “We have to go on”, I say. “I know”, he says. Then we watch the stars for a while.
We finally get up and move down the descent into Blunder Fork and begin the ascent to Desolation Lake. I know it’s now too far for Jared to hike back to the previous aid station, so I feel comfortable pressing ahead, leaving him behind. I make good time up to the campfire at the lake and stay only long enough to get some water before heading up the trail to Red Lovers Ridge.
This section was by far the lonliest. I didn’t see lights behind or ahead. As I neared Scott’s Tower, I become so tired I could barely stay on the trail. Caffiene didn’t work. I could literally barely hold my eyes open. I was talking to myself, telling myself to stay awake and it wasn’t working. I was starting to close my eyes involuntarily. At a critical turn in the trail, I missed it entirely and fell a few feet down the slope into a bush. Laying on my side in the dirt, I’m so tired that I just closed my eyes and go to sleep. It feels so good. Five minutes later, the cold air wakes me and I brush myself off and continue.
On reaching Scott’s, I immediately asked for a cot and was guided over to one. I crawled inside and closed my eyes. Sleep didn’t come fully, but the rest helped so much. As requested, the volunteers woke me after twenty minutes. I told them I needed another fifteen. They woke me again. I told them I needed another ten. Finally, I woke to a familiar voice.
It was Jared. He had finally arrived and I had taken the only cot and he had been trying to sleep out in the 40F wind because there was nowhere else for him to go.
“You’ve been in the cot the entire time! Dammit man! I was freezing to death out there!”
With that, there was obviously no more sleeping to be had so I got up and left the tent with Jared. Had he not been there, my race might well have ended there.
Jared was still moving slow and looking at my watch, I knew that cutoffs were starting to become a concern. It was light out now and the thought of still not being at Brighton by the time the sun came up was starting to scare me.
I ran steadily down the road from the pass, the pavement hurting my bones in my hips and my feet. I knew I would need every last minute and so I pressed on as quicly as I could. With the nap, I had returned to the back of the pack at a time when I could really not afford to be there if I wanted to have a finish before the 36-hour cutoff.
Coming into Brighton, the morning light was already shining. Across the parking lot, I could see Paige standing below the lodge. I almost couldn’t believe it. How could she still be awake? I was so happy! I smiled as wide as I could smile and I ran slowly up to her. She was all business this time. She knew that the cutoffs were closing in and she wasn’t going to see me fail on her watch. She took me inside, had me weighed and then took me back outside. She kindly demanded to know what I wanted to eat and when I just groaned she went inside and got a pile full of food.
“Eat this”, she said.
“No”, I said.
“You’re not leaving until you eat.”
“Then I’m staying here.”
“No. You’re eating and then you’re running up that hill and then twenty-five miles to the finish.”
“I love you.”
“I know. Here’s a cracker.”
Jared came in not too long after. His wife went to work on him. From the sounds of it, his conversation was roughly the same. We were some pathetic, tired dudes.
Worried about cutoffs, I again left before Jared. I pushed hard up the hill, trying to make up minutes wherever I could. The reality of trying so hard and not being able to finish was becoming real.
I crested Inspiration Point and kissed the sign, as is Wasatch tradition for good luck. Then I pointed ‘em downhill and began the long, steep and lose descent into Ant’s Knoll. I passed a woman and her pacer. “Are we going to make it?”, she asked. “We’re on the bubble”, I replied. “If you have anything left, use it now”, I advised her, and then went on ahead.
Reaching Ant’s Knoll, I saw Christian Johnson and Erik Storheim. “I have no time, Erik”, I told him. He took a pancake off the griddle, shoved it into a paper cup and put it in my and and yelled, “Go get this done, Mike!”. Now that’s a good breakfast!
I lumbered up The Grunt and started on the long, flowing singletrack into Pole Line Pass. The sun was starting to heat up and it was baking me as I traversed the hot ridges. In the growing heat, my energy started to wain. The last few miles into Pole Line were hellish as the heat got to me and I weaved around on the trail. I stumbled into Pole Line, nearly
dead. Good friend Dennis Ahern was there along with Matt van Horn again. I was happy to see them both, but nearly incoherent. Later, Dennis would tell Paige that if it were anybody else that he would have pulled them from the race on the spot but that he knows that I can come back from almost anything. Looking up to Dennis as I do, I consider this one of
the best compliments of my life.
Matt and Dennis worked hard and tenderly on putting me back together. Matt rubbed sunscreen into my baking skin, which was hot to the touch. Dennis made me hot chocolate with ice. (Don’t ask. It just made sense at the time.) They both pressed ice into my neck and under my arms. I was crying and I think Matt was a little too. I was near to the point of maximal suffering. I was limp in the chair and barely moving, trying to speak but unable to talk. I wanted Paige to appear and take me up in her arms and take me home. I was in horrible pain and ashamed that my friends were having to attend to me like this. Dennis looked at his watch. “You have to go”. It seemed impossible, but Matt and Dennis picked me up out of the chair. They packed my body with ice as best they could. Matt walked slowly with me down the trail. He was so kind. I’ll never forget it.
With the skilled attention of the two Wasatch veterns, my body started to stabalize. Within minutes I was hiking fast and as the trail bended downward into the valley, I started to run! I was making up time! Hooray!
I moved quickly down toward Pot Bottom. With the change in the race course, it was frustrating to be here and know I still had fifteen miles to go instead of just five or six, but it was still nice to be out of the high mountains. I stayed only for a few minutes and started up The Grump walking at a decent pace. It was now very hot and I tried to stay in the shade as much as possible. Reaching the top, the road was dusty and exposed and there was no hiding.
I moved down the road at a slow jog. Eventually, my spirits were raised when I ran into good friend, Lynette and her pacer. It was wonderful to catch up and her about her adventures with her family from her time abroad. Still concerned about cutoffs, however, I moved ahead — not willing to waste any time chit-chatting when I knew the timer was closing in on 36 hours.
Moving down toward the final aid station, I started again to run out of gas. I had not taken in nearly enough food at Staton North and was paying the price. In a bit of shade, I laid down for a few minutes — hoping to regain enough strength to make a final push to the finish. I spent a few more minutes in the final aid station, just getting enough fuel
to hopefully get me over the remanining five miles.
Eventually, I reached the lake and began the relentless traverse across the lakeside trail. Instead of going straight toward the finish, the trail follows the shoreline, which often darts inward for several hundred yards around each corner.
It seemed endless but I kept pushing, trying to find every last second that I could gain to ensure that I would finish the race before the cutoff.
Finally, I came around the last corner and saw the final half-mile of road. I had over forty minutes left and knew that I would finish my second Wasatch! Now, at last, in no hurry I walked up the road thinking back on the last thirty-five hours. It had been so hard, but so rewarding. There was no reward, however, that came even close to seeing my sweetheart a
few hundred yards from the finish-line, holding flowers and a big smile. I can honestly, and without any exageration or hyperbole say that I have never in my life been happier than that exact moment. I took the boquet of flowers and crossed the finish line in 35:25.
At the finish, I drank a beer that Paige had bought for me and awaited Jared. His wife was there and I assured here that Jared was tough and would surely finish. Sure enough, a few minutes later she exclaimed with delight when his figure appeared around the bend, heading toward the finish.
It was by far my favorite running of the race to date. It was hard, but deeply meaningful, haunting, thoughtful and beautiful.
But, lord, lord god — is it ever hard.