On Death and Dying: My Unexpected Journey to the Western States 100

Clove flanked by two men at the ginish line the day before the start of her 2016 Western States
It’s all fun and games until the running starts. And what fun these two guys made it.

When I went to Florida a month ago, I packed running clothes and a dress. She had pneumonia (again), but something didn’t sound right when I talked to her the day before. It was a Wednesday morning.

I said that Thursday night I was going to let her be scared and vulnerable and small, and then on Friday I was going to talk to her doctors first and then have one last “come to Jesus” talk with her about the weight and her health.

I thought I was going to go for an early morning run on Friday and wear a DRESS. I thought I was going to walk into the room with the juice and the root beer she had been asking for for a week, and she was going to look up and say, “Oh Starrie, you look so pretty.”

Forty hours later, I would be on the floor of the ICU in my pajamas, still holding my dead mother’s hand.

It wasn’t an idyllic relationship. It was often painful, filled with the things that both of us wanted it to be, but the alcohol, the cocaine, the addictions that remained in the midst in spite of 23 years of sobriety from drugs and alcohol robbed us of that. But there were sunny days, too, and the sunny days were the sunniest days imaginable. We made a new Christmas ornament together every year. We played “voodoo football.” We loved cheesy movies, and baking, and she was the one who combed the lice out of my hair, cheered at my early marathons, and helped me address my wedding invitations. There was damage. There was so much damage. But she was still, always, my mommy, even when I so busy being hers.

And those first two nights, those nights that I feared sleep was a thing of the past, I had nothing but third degree burns and a keyboard.

“Tell me I didn’t deserve this. Tell me I’m still a good person. Tell me my grandfather doesn’t hate me. Tell me I’m not selfish. Tell me I wasn’t a detached bitch. Tell me how hard I tried. Tell me how much she hid. Tell me how often I got rejected. Tell me that she failed me so much more than I ever failed her. Tell me I couldn’t save her. Tell me it’s not my fault. Tell me who I am. Tell me who I used to be. Tell me who I am now. Tell me I’ll survive this. Tell me I’ll sleep again someday. Tell me I’ll stop seeing blank stares and chest compressions. Tell me that I loved her. Tell me that she loved me. Tell me I didn’t die in that room with her.”

But I swore that Western States wasn’t going to be a spirit walk.

***

When I decided to do Western States on a Tuesday morning, about a week and a half after my mother died, I knew I would need to make some adjustments. I didn’t run for a week. I was exhausted beyond measure. My two longest trail runs (40 miles and 31 miles) had been scrapped due to her death (Memorial Day weekend) and then her memorial (fourteen days later). I was able to get in a 31 miler on the road, and while it was a good sign that I could get it done, I was well aware that it wasn’t sufficient training nor the proper surface. Simply put, I did the best I could with what I had.

Six weeks prior when I still had two planned overdistance runs on trail to look forward to, my Western States goal was to hit about 22:30. With training a mess I thought I could still hit my “B” goal, sub 24:00, going on the training I had done, Badwater and Boston leftovers, my knowledge of the second half of the course, iron feet, being a solid climber, and my ability to perform well in the heat. I didn’t think it would be easy, but having never gone over 24-hours in a 100-miler, and that having been a 23:14 at my first, I considered it a fair compromise.

Well, they do say ignorance is bliss.

The day started out well enough, with the 3.7 mile climb to Watson’s Monument. I was so pleased with how well I performed. The altitude, with which I often struggle, was evident but not bothersome. I had a lovely conversation with a French woman from Austin as we both committed to fully power-hiking the climb. After “scrambling up to the Escarpment,” which is indeed a literal scramble, I stopped to take in the 360-degree view, if not the top of the world, the top of Squaw. It was absolutely breathtaking. There was momentary peace. And then, it was time to run.

On rocks.

While I may struggle at altitude at times, it is rocks that are my Achilles heel. We have some, a few in Ohio, but we specialize in roots. And these weren’t just any rocks. They were the evil, jagged, monstrous rocks. My footing on rocks is poor, and they beat me up pretty quickly as well. This I remember from the Laurel Highlands 70 all those years ago, the 70-miler that ate like a 100. And I had asked about rocks. Asked about them in Facebook inquiries. Asked about them when I talked to veterans of the course. Asked about them, really, whenever I could. I was told there were “some”, but that it wasn’t so bad. And they were only in a few sections. And I knew that there were limited rocks in the last 45 miles, so I busied myself with talking myself down. You can’t freak out, kid. It’s mile 7 here. You need to breathe.

“You need to breathe,” she said, as I hyperventilated at 3:50 in the morning. She had caught me in her arms as I was running through the hospital halls, looking for a new room in a scary place. “You need to breathe.”

And all I could say was, “I can’t.”

But here, I could breathe. I could breathe and I could breathe without thinking about never breathing again. I had figured out that these thoughts were never far from my mind, but I was in the woods now. It was like a game of chess, right? Isn’t that what I tell people? I had to focus on the game. Focus on the game, Star. And so I did.

And I realized I was in complete control. I adjusted my steps. I stepped off the trail four different times to let entire conga lines of people go by. I was actually pretty shocked at how hard and fast some of them were pounding the downhills, hard enough for me to hear it. But not me. That’s never been my game. Be smart, Star. Work your plan. The plan always works. Stay calm, Star.

I got to the Lyon Ridge aid station about ten minutes up, but most of that was leftover from the climb to Escarpment, which hadn’t gone as poorly as I expected. I replaced a couple of Clif SHOTs in my shorts and grabbed a baggie of potato chips to take on the road. I was super psyched to start working toward Red Star as well, as I’d get to see our old and dear friends, Rich Benyo and Rhonda Provost. Unfortunately, the altitude was also psyched to take me a for a loop. Westerners may not consider 7,500 feet all that high, but when you live and train at 700 feet, it’s a big change. For me, that means hyponatremia. My hands were starting to puff up right on schedule and just as I realized I’d forgotten to take my rings off that morning.

Not an easy task. Not quite as bad as the time I broke my middle finger at mile 83 of Rocky Raccoon, but tough enough, and of course, I managed to drop one of my grandmothers’ wedding bands on the trail. Once located, I stepped off the trail again, got the shirt around my waist situated, all four rings off and safely in the back pocket of my shorts, and yet another internal lecture to calm down and focus on the plan.

The section to Red Star itself was pretty uneventful, and I still rolled in about five minutes ahead of my pace chart. After greeting Rich, I saw a huge bag of ice on a table and started loading up my bandana and sports bra. I checked my hands with a medical volunteer, ate some olives (yes, I did, Trevor!) and headed back out with a hug from Rhonda.

Onto more rocks. A steep descent into Duncan Canyon covered with rocks. I kept hoping they’d end. I kept trying to land lightly. I reminded myself of exactly how many extended downhill runs I’d done on the treadmill. I got down to a creek crossing and slipped on a rock, falling right in.

“At least that’s done,” I said, once immersed.

I got cold again at Duncan, but realized how long the aid stations were taking with the icing. I generally pride myself in getting and out of aid stations quickly, but getting the bandana off, loaded up with ice, ice down the bra, plus pack refills and grabbing food …

I had fallen several minutes behind getting down to Duncan, mostly because I had admonished myself to save my legs on the rocky descents. They, of course, were followed by a nearly three mile ascent to Robinson Flat. Had it not been covered in my favorite – ROCKS! – my climbing skills would have served me well. As it was, I was falling further behind, stressing about being late and worrying my crew. I stopped to pee off some of the extra fluid, and I was in for a shock: I could already feel some stirring in my quads when I squatted. At mile 30.

That wasn’t right.

Honestly, the more I climbed, over the rocks that I’d been told “weren’t that bad”, all I could imagine was a phrase I’d read in Bridget Jones’ Diary, “not up to competition standard.”

Forget Devil’s Thumb. The climb into Robinson Flat was downright soul crushing.

I knew my training was compromised, but still thought I was mentally prepared. But there were so many things I just didn’t know.

***

I hadn’t told my mother I was coming, because I was afraid she would “pull it together” and I wouldn’t see the situation for what it really was. She had a habit of doing that, so great was her fear of disappointing me. I was too afraid she’d have them give her a shower, get her cleaned up and sitting in a chair, showing a different kind of strength. But somewhere between Wednesday morning and Thursday night, she’d lost even that.

When I first got to her room, there was someone else there, so I had to go back to the nurse’s station to get her new room number. There was no one there and I kind of had to wander the halls looking for a nurse. But then they confirmed the room number, and I felt a shame that will stay with me for the rest of my life: I hadn’t recognized my own mother. Head thrown back as if she’d had a stroke, she had aged twenty years since January. She was on droplet precaution because they hadn’t determined the source of the pneumonia, which meant I had to wear a mask, gown and gloves to be in the room. But no one was there, not in the hall, not in the nurse’s station. The gowns and masks were there in the door, and feeling almost as lonely as I have in my entire life, I tried to figure out how to make an extra-large gown fit and how to get the mask on. I held her hand with my latex-gloved one; told her it was okay, I was there now. She murmured, held her head back like my grandmother after her stroke and started saying, “b aba ba … b aba ba … b aba baba.” I would later learn that this was described as loss of something called “mentation.”

A respiratory therapist came in to give her a breathing treatment. I asked him why the contact section on her whiteboard was blank. He didn’t know. She told me in January that she had my brother listed as her emergency contact since he was there in Florida; it made sense at the time. But now, nineteen days in to what was supposed to be only a week-long hospitalization, something just seemed so wrong. Why had it taken me coming from Ohio to get her juice and root beer to get a freaking contact name on her whiteboard?

But the treatment literally breathed new life into her. The respiratory therapist and I were talking through it, and I was describing to him that she seemed to have taken a bad turn yesterday morning, and that I knew that God and Bus Jordan both would have my hide if I didn’t get down there. At the mention of Bus Jordan, her father, her eyes flew open, and finally, she saw me. She started sobbing, shaking, squeezing my hand over and over again.

“It’s okay, Mom. I got here. We’re going to get this figured out.”

She cried.

“It’s okay, Mama. You’re not alone anymore, okay?”

She nodded.

We talked that night. Talked about what she was willing to eat: milkshakes from Steak n’ Shake, an orange one and maybe the Hershey’s Special Dark one. The therapist reminded her that he had soup in the fridge for her, but she didn’t want it. She wasn’t hungry, she said, plus the thrush from all the antibiotics made it hard to eat.

“Mama, we have to get your strength up. You know that.”

And she told me that she had lost a lot of strength, that she had gotten really weak. And I was so confused, she had been FINE on Sunday, angry about something in fact. We had been texting early in the week. And when I had spoken to her the day before, I knew something was wrong, but not … this.

I told her that she was probably going to need some rehab, and that even though she didn’t want to do it, she was going to need oxygen full-time for a while when she did go home. She knew; said it would just be like carrying a purse. I said that our friend Dan had called it his man-purse. She asked how Dan was. I told her that he had run his first post-transplant half marathon. She was so happy. “That’s … that’s really good,” she said.

I asked her what she needed from the house. “Pet … Oliver,” she said. “I’m so worried about him.”

And finally, I broached that topic. Talked about how rehab would be several weeks (she was hoping for the same one she had been in in November), and maybe it might be best for Oliver to have summer vacation in Ohio. Promised her that we weren’t taking her cat, that the day she came home from rehab, I would be on a plane with Oliver.

“Oh yes, Starrie. Please – take Oliver,” she said quietly. Then we giggled together a bit about Oliver being on a plane.

Me with Mom and Oliver on his adoption day, February 19, 2014.

She was getting tired, she said, and it was getting harder to talk. I told her I loved her, that I’d be back first thing in the morning with milkshakes. I helped her drink some juice, but she was shaking so badly from the medicines that we couldn’t stop the spilling. I had to help a nurse’s assistant move her in the bed because she couldn’t do it on her own.

“It’s okay, Mom. We’ll get it all figured out tomorrow.”

I was afraid it would hurt her if I hugged her, so I asked.

“No, Starrie, it won’t hurt,” she said.

When I opened my suitcase in my hotel room that night, I found running clothes and a dress.

These are the things that I carried into Western States.

***

I got into Robinson Flat thirty minutes late, much to DB’s relief. I quickly explained that it was “frickin’ Laurel Highlands!” but that I just needed to ride it out. I got down on the ground to get my long-sleeve Omni-Max shirt on (cooling technology when it gets wet), have a quick bite to eat, and guzzle some soda. DB and Trevor could tell I wasn’t in a great place, but I told them I was just going to ride it out, slow it down when I needed to, and hope I could really move on the back half of the course. I hadn’t given up in the least yet, but I couldn’t get past how tired I was. And this had been my greatest fear, rocks, climbs, and descents aside. Was I just too damn tired from spending the past month with death to find what I needed to fight?

But it was time to get up and realize anew that my quads had a hidden bite and far too soon.

Snack time at Robinson Flat, 31 miles in and only mildly worse for wear.

As I headed out, I told them to pad the pace chart by about an hour at Michigan Bluff. I didn’t actually think I needed a full hour, but I didn’t want to worry them again. And as I headed back out, I made a truly valiant attempt at getting my game face back on. I asked myself the million dollar question that Steve Miller had taught me so many years ago, when I was sitting under a table at Laurel Highlands:

Is it your stomach, legs, or head?

My stomach was great. My quads were smarting a bit more than I would have liked, but they weren’t of any real concern. My head though, my head was ugly. My mood was low and had been low for a while, and while I had been stopping periodically to look around and just say “WOW”, I had also been ruminating far too much on that past month. And wondering if I really should have taken this on. And wondering WHY I had taken this on. After all, hadn’t I already done “a hard thing” this month?

And with that, I realized that I had been focusing so much on salt to counteract the hyponatremia that I hadn’t taken any hard hits of sugar in a long time. Sugar. Glucose. Brain food. I dug some cookies out of my pack and followed them up with a couple handfuls of jelly beans. Then I promised myself a gel in thirty more minutes to keep the sugar train going.

And of course, it worked. I felt my head re-engage, and I’m sure it’s no small coincidence that we were on a net-downhill section of the course and I was finally running with – and talking to! – people for a bit. I shared stories with a couple of guys. Kept leapfrogging with a few women on the uphills (I would get ahead with my mad hiking skills) and the downhills (which I was now fiercely afraid of as I was trying to save my quads). The increased sugar load coupled with the upbeat mood had my brain and legs working together again, completely engaged in the race.

I saw a deer.

Deer remind me of God, always. Ever since the first time that I realized deer feel like God to me, I have always seen them when I needed them most. A few weeks ago, on the way home from a meeting with my priest about my mom’s death, I saw three of them together. I stopped. And they just stood, looked at me, let me talk to them. From no more than two feet away.

I didn’t know if that deer was God or my mother, but I knew it was there. I was back on track. I laughed to myself about how my mother never wanted to know about my 100-milers until they were over; they scared her too much. “Man,” I thought, “she must be hating this part of heaven.”

I stopped to dunk my head in a creek. I fell HARD on a rock. I saw a baby rattlesnake, and the guy I was with looked at me like “it’s a BABY!” when I made him stop. I just said “look at the tail.”

I didn’t have a whole lot of pep in my step, but I was happy. I had pulled it back together. I had gotten through my first really low point, adjusted my expectations at least until later in the day, I was staying cold, I was enjoying my adventure again. I was bummed that I couldn’t see DB and Trevor again until mile 55, because I wanted them to see me happy. As I ran into the Last Chance aid station, I was so far up I yelled “Last Chance for what?” as I ran in.

Sometimes the best you can do is accept the situation and work through it.

***

I woke up that Friday morning feeling as hungover as I ever had; I had slept, if it could be called that, for two or three fitful hours. I got up because there was nothing else to do. I pulled on my jeans from the day before, the tank top and sweater I had brought to fly home in, and threw my hair into a ponytail. I’m still not sure why I didn’t bother with a shower, but it just didn’t seem important. I was at a Florida Steak n’ Shake at 6:30 in the morning, getting milkshakes that would melt away over the course of the longest day. I had brought a few of her favorite pictures from her house, where I had held a hissing Oliver and had to start looking for terrible things like medical proxies and powers of attorney.

The nephrologist came in. She knew where she was and what the date was, but then her head fell back and she was doing the “baa baa baa” thing again. I asked him where we were on a scale between “very bad” and “dying”. He said it was touch and go, but that the pneumonia combined with the renal failure was a dire combination. Ah, the things that she hid: the difference between “having a little edema” and being in early stage kidney failure.

I asked her attending. I asked the pulmonologist. I asked the infectious disease specialist. All the same. In a moment of lucidity, I asked her permission to see her phone. She agreed. I got one of her closest friends on the phone, a woman who was also an ICU nurse. She was there in fifteen minutes flat and she started making things happen. I got other people in the room. I got everyone in that room that needed to be in that room. But at 9:00 pm that night, long after my mother had been evaluated for an ICU transfer, told a doctor that the year was 1967 and told us she saw her grandmother in the room, I was alone.

I wasn’t allowed to sleep in the room because she was on droplet precaution. Both Darris and the charge nurse had encouraged me to go to my hotel, eat a meal, sleep in a bed. I had to change my car, change my flight again. I had to figure out where the closest Target or Old Navy was because I was going to run out of underwear. One step at a time, I kept telling myself. Just one step at a time.

Before I left that night, I held her hand and we prayed. We prayed for strength for both of us. We prayed that the new antibiotic would work. We prayed that tomorrow would be a better day. We prayed that she would be on her way home to Oliver.

I will never forget that she squeezed my hand and whispered “Amen.”

I left a little after 10 pm. I ate all the food I could get my vegetarian hands on in the hospital cafeteria. I lay in that bed and tried to sleep, and tried to sleep, and tried to sleep. But I knew something was wrong.

At 3:32 in the morning, they would call to tell me she was intubated. My mother had stopped breathing.

***

I actually wasn’t afraid of Devil’s Thumb. I had given myself 20-minute miles for that section, and I knew there were 36 switchbacks. And since sugar was working, I planned to break it up in sections. Climb ten switchbacks. Stop, breathe, eat a handful of jelly beans. Climb ten more. Stop, breathe, eat a handful of jelly beans. But I ended up counting 47 switchbacks before I stopped counting, and the effort of the climb was enough that I really didn’t feel like chewing frickin’ jelly beans. But I did. And I was focusing on the positive: the climb was giving my quads a break. I love climbing. As thin as the air felt and as thin as my breaths became, I was enjoying the climb. I was straight up passing people, and it felt damn good. I had a plan. I was working the plan. But I’ll be damned if we weren’t all getting a bit defeated wondering when it was going to end, or at least when we were going to hear the commotion of the aid station in the distance.

And then, in a moment of humor that was not at all thought out, I joked to the group around me:

“I want my mommy!”

And by the time I was standing on the devil’s thumb, I was crying tears onto my orange popsicle.

As I walked in, they asked me what I needed. I said that I had heard they had popsicles. I got into a chair to eat my popsicle, as I knew I had to get my pack refilled, get more ice, etc, etc. Might as well sit for a couple minutes if I was going to be there for eight or ten.

And that’s when she walked over, she being Rebecca.

“You look great,” she said, focusing on the positive. “How are you feeling, what can we do for you?”

She had a tiny little stud in her nose; the same kind I had faked when I was trying to decide if I was going to pierce my nose or not. But it was her voice. I remembered her voice from somewhere, but I just couldn’t place it. It was this warm, soothing thing, something I had heard somewhere, sometime, some place that I couldn’t remember. Like warm honey dripping into tea, but who was she? How did I know this person? Because I looked into her eyes and in an instant, crumbled into pieces.

And I told her that my mother died a month ago, and that I shouldn’t have even tried this, and that I didn’t know why I had tried this, and I knew I had cheated on the training but what was I supposed to do, and that 3500 people wanted to be here and it didn’t seem fair not to do it, but it wasn’t fair to do it either, and that I was just so tired. That I was so, so tired and I had no idea why I had even tried to do this when I was so tired I couldn’t even sleep at night.

And she told me, in that buttery soft voice, that I had everything I needed to do this. That she knew this. And that she couldn’t imagine how tired I was, but that she did “these races” too (humility I can only hope to emulate, Rebecca), and she could tell just looking at me that I was going to do this.

Then she went to get me broth, and other people kept coming over to check on me, and I was like NO! I need my friend with the nose ring and the voice who already knows everything in the whole world.

And she came back, and she told me that she was going to make me a to-go bag with fruit so I needed to tell her what fruit I would eat, and that she was going to put extra powder in my Clif drink because I had been complaining that it was mixed too weak, which had me down on my calories, and she tried to put a blanket on me when I got cold, but I didn’t want it because I didn’t want to get comfortable when I knew I had to leave.

And I didn’t want to LEAVE, because I couldn’t explain my sudden need to tell my entire life story to this person. And as I prepared to leave, as she hugged me and kissed my cheek over and over again and made me feel safe in a way that I hadn’t in a month, I said to her: “God, I really shouldn’t be here.”

And with that, this stranger from another life sent me off with yet another piece of the puzzle, and a permission I hadn’t realized I needed:

“You are exactly where you’re supposed to be.”

***

Because I should have been there sooner. But she was manipulative. Her own journals say so. She cried wolf sometimes, and didn’t cry wolf at all when she needed to. And I was frustrated. I had just had this talk with her in January, when I told her I wasn’t disappointed in her, that I was scared for her. That she had a bag of more medications than my friend who just had a heart transplant. But as always, she had a million excuses, a thousand explanations, a hundred reassurances. And I bought every single one of them. This time too. It was just pneumonia, and it was worse because of her asthma. She wouldn’t eat because the hospital food was nasty and the cardiac diet sucked. She was weak because they had her medications wrong; if they would adjust this, this and that, the shaking and slurring would stop. The a-fib was stable; it sounded scary but it was really pretty normal for her. And honestly, if the doctors weren’t working her insurance, she would have been home already. She told me that Wednesday morning that she should be home in a week.

But I was there when they called at 3:32 am. I ran out of the hotel in my pajamas. Drove like a maniac. Took doctors out like a linebacker running through the halls. They were going to give her four bags of plasma; try to get her blood thick enough for dialysis. They were going to do scans of her kidneys and her brain. They were going to put her on continuous dialysis to give her kidneys a break; keep her intubated to give her lungs a break. People come out of the ICU, they told me, but it doesn’t happen overnight. We were looking at a two to four day process before we knew if we were taking a turn for better or for worse. And, they had to warn me, her bloodwork showed signs of septic shock. The dialysis could help with that, but we were going to have to go one slow step at a time.

I called DB. Told him I didn’t know when I’d be home, but it was going to be days. I started looking at my schedule in the abstract, figuring out which weeks I could spend working from Florida while she was in rehab.

They had her on Versed and Propofol; they wanted her to rest because she had a “busy” day ahead. Placing the port for dialysis, the MRI’s, starting the dialysis. She would stir from time to time, machines would beep. I would hold her hand again, through my gloved one, and try not to look at the list of nineteen skin tears, abscesses and abrasions on the sliding door. I explained to her what we were doing; I tried to stay out of the doctor’s way; I asked her to squeeze my hand if she knew who I was. Most times, she didn’t. But the one time she did, she did it twice.

They kicked me out a little before one. The four bags of plasma were in and they were going to place the port. It was a sterile procedure. Then they were taking her for the scans. Anything I needed to do, they told me, I should do then. If I was going to eat, get anything from the hotel, take a shower. I had about ninety minutes, they told me. They would call me to confirm once the port was placed.

I went back to her house to keep looking for medical proxies and then I was going to head to the hotel. Everything was in a two mile radius. But I should have stayed, because when they called me forty minutes later, it was to tell me she was in cardiac arrest. But I got there, I took the back steps my friend had accidentally shown me that morning and burst onto the ICU floor without going through the secure waiting room. They tried to keep me out of the room, have me wait at the door, but I said no. Because everything bad and ugly and painful between us had melted away, and if she could bring me into the world, I could help her walk out of it. That’s what I told them. And they opened the door and they let me in.

They don’t tell you that real chest compressions can leave black eyes, or that a pink and frothy foam can eventually start. They don’t tell you that real chest compressions are violent. Sure, they tell you during Red Cross training that effective compressions break ribs, but they don’t tell you what it looks like on an overweight woman with a tube down her throat. So you don’t look; you just hold her hand and realize that you finally don’t have a glove on yours and even though hers is so swollen with the edema you can feel her skin. But you hear everything in a somber, reserved voice, the voice of a doctor trying to save a life that he knows is gone; a life he must be clinical about because this is simply what he does.

“Begin compressions.”

Thirty seconds of staring at her hand, saying all the things you know you only have a few minutes left to say.

“Stop compressions.”

And from a nurse: “No pulse.”

“Begin compressions. Stop compressions. No pulse.”

“Begin compressions. Stop compressions. No pulse.”

And you keep saying all the things: Mom, I love you. You have NEVER disappointed me. You’ve been so strong for so long. I know you’re scared, I know. It’s okay. It’s okay, Mama. I have Darris now, I promise, I’m going to be okay. It’s okay, you can stop fighting now. You were loved, Mama. Even though we couldn’t fill that pit here, even though we couldn’t convince you here, you were loved, Mama. You were loved. You were loved, you were loved, you were loved.

“Stop compressions. No pulse.”

It felt like coaching her through labor, with all the insane irony there. My absentee mother, the nurse midwife, being coached through some metaphorical labor by the daughter-mother that can run across Death Valley, but never managed to stay pregnant longer than five days.

“Begin compressions.”

Words. So many words. Words that were between her and I alone.

“Stop compressions. No pulse.”

And then:

This will be the last set of compressions.

“Begin compressions.”

“Mama, I’m sending Grandpa to get you now. Go in peace.”

There is not silence, but I hear nothing.

End compressions.

“I’m so sorry.”

And more quietly: “1:34 pm.”

These are things that I carried into Western States.

***

They don’t tell you that after you collapse on the floor, somehow landing Indian style, sounds come out of you that you’ve never heard before. They don’t tell you that strangers will pick you up off the floor and somehow place you in a chair, still in a fetal position. They don’t tell you that you manage to call your husband, but can’t figure out how to say the word “dead,” so a nurse takes your sweaty, tear-stained phone.

And they don’t tell you that ten minutes later, you have to give them the name of a funeral home, even if you don’t live in Florida, because the body can only stay there for two hours. And that two hours later, bags of your mother’s personal belongings, those pictures you brought, and the root beer she never got to drink, are all you take with you.

And then, you have to leave.

***

I had to leave Devil’s Thumb, too. As I left, the nose-studded honey-voiced angel yelled after me: “EAT YOUR FRUIT!” And I thought I was okay, and then I crossed the trail out of the aid station and the only word for the next sound that came out of me is “keening”. I looked behind me to make sure no one was there, and then I fully gave in. The only thing I could think of was the deer, and Cheryl Strayed’s fox from Wild. And then I thought that somehow, I had to find a way to connect with her. To thank her. To apologize to her. To tell her that I had always said that Wild was a great book, if not a little heavy-handed. But now I understood. I understood in the way that I now said that other women who hadn’t lost their mothers couldn’t understand. To tell her how grateful I was that there was one person in the world, even one, who knew what it felt like when someone reached inside your body and physically pulled things out of it that could never be put back. And then I HOWLED.

Why? Why did this happen to me?

God, I don’t understand. I don’t understand. I don’t understand.

I DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT JUST HAPPENED TO ME.

If we are lucky, our parents leave before we do.

Tell me I didn’t die in that room with her.

***

I ate my fruit. I traveled on. I reached Michigan Bluff after the third soul crushing climb, and I love to climb. I had to face a lot of facts in those eight long miles, facts that I didn’t want to face.

Western States would definitely be an unlucky 13th 100-miler. To still get anywhere near 24 hours, at least one of three things was needed: fresh legs; fresh energy; or far more mountain running experience than I had. But I knew what my quads felt like far too early. I was emotionally trashed. And at this point in my life, I am a great trail runner, but mountain runner I am not.

I was under-trained, over-tired, and not suited to the course. This would, beyond the shadow of a doubt, be my first 100-miler over 24 hours. My crew was about to be up all night, and into the morning, most unexpectedly. There would be no showing of “the Beast”, none of the magic or “chicking” that they had been looking forward to from “Second Half Star”. But we were going to Auburn. Come hell or high water, we were going to Auburn.

If for no other reason than the fact that I never wanted to see the first 50 miles of this course again.  Which meant I couldn’t leave unfinished business out here.

I got into Michigan Bluff, full of excuses and explanations and revelations. DB just wanted to fix things and get me back on the trail. I only wanted to talk. They brought me soup, but the soup was broth. I was hungrier than I’ve ever been in a 100, because the Clif drink was weak and the soup was broth and I needed calories.

But what I really wanted to do was talk. And I felt guilty for keeping them out there so long, guilty for getting all of us into this, guilty for having thought I could pull this off.

But 3,500 people wanted to be here. It took me five years in the lottery to get in, and even then, it was an absolute gift from Clif Bar that finally put me on that starting line. There was no way in hell I was going to let 3,499 people, plus my team at Clif Bar, and most especially, DB and Trevor down. I had managed to get myself to that starting line, and somehow, we were going to haul my battered ass to Auburn.

I ate. I thought about taking a nap but realized that was wasting time. When I did it at Badwater, I had already been going for 24 hours. Trevor gave me the old talk about just getting to the next aid station. DB volunteered to jump in right then, take on an extra seven miles, in the wrong shoes no less. We took a deep breath, ate some dried out banana bread, got some nice thick Gatorade in my pack, and went into the night.

But for all my “rah rah, Auburn” resolve, I really wasn’t sure I could do this. God, I was just so tired.

DB is a quiet pacer, filled with love and light and encouragement, and between us, the ability to read one another without words. It wasn’t his fault that the best remedy from Michigan Bluff to Foresthill may have been slap across the face to wake me up and shake me out of it. And if anyone hates rocks more than me, it’s the guy in the casual running flats, doing the extra seven miles with me.

We got to Foresthill, where I discovered that not one, not two, not three, but all FOUR porta-potties were out of toilet paper. Those Cottonelle wipes aren’t so damn gentle when the lady parts are chafed from being in wet shorts all day, but small victories, right?

I ate some grilled cheese, and decided yet again that I needed a nap. But wait – what’s the cutoff? Am I riding cutoffs? I’ve never even had to ask this question. Holy shit. Am I riding cutoffs?

Trevor says no, calm down. They have coffee but no cream, and I know black coffee will rip through me in a way I’m not willing to deal with. So back to the nap, because it worked at Badwater. Just ten minutes. Ten minutes, then two cups of Coke, and maybe, just maybe, we can get this thing going again.

So I put on my baggy hooded sweatshirt, and I lay down on the old-fashioned plastic beach chair, and I close my eyes. And for two minutes, I listen to the race going on all around me, knowing that I’m being a baby, feeling sorry for myself, chickening out. For the love of God, there’s a woman out here who overcame breast cancer; there’s a 71-year old woman trying to better her time from last year. Seriously, Star? YES, this sure as hell IS harder than Badwater, because you were physically, emotionally and mentally prepared for Badwater. And you GOT Badwater. So get off your ass, deal with the situation you’ve found yourself in, and get your damn ass to Auburn.

“GUYS!” I yell, sitting up and ripping off my sweatshirt. “This is bullshit. I’m tougher than this.”

I knew Western States wasn’t enough to heal this. So why was I so angry that it hadn’t?

We left Foresthill singing “Spirit in the Sky.” DB had the right shoes on now. We had to decide whether to get ahead of or behind the Jester’s ringing bell (sorry, Ed!). Probably the exact same way others felt when I transitioned from “Spirit in the Sky” to Taylor Swift. (All hail, Taylor.)

We get to Cal 1 on “Spirit of the Sky,” Taylor and even some Miley. I eat fruit and get a vanilla SHOT down, taking in gulps like pills. We get to Cal 2 on “I love you’s” and “I’m proud of you’s.” We still haven’t found an aid station that has both coffee and cream, so I’m switching between Coke and Mountain Dew, worried about calories. I ask for and eat a whole banana, trying to get in enough calories for the slower pace. I’m worried that my running (or is it shuffling?) isn’t even faster than walking, but DB assures me it is. But in spite of an elevated mood, I’m having some kind of meltdown. I’m hot and sweating; then I’m shivering. My heartrate seems to just spike out of nowhere. DB says we’re going to need to power hike the entire section from Ford’s Bar to Rucky Chucky. Somewhere along the way, I get hungry again, in spite of having taken yet another bag of fruit. He tries to convince me to eat a gel. I try to convince him I need to sleep for a few minutes. Damn it, Star, didn’t we get over this sleeping thing? So I try the gel. I gag on the gel. I try it again. I gag again. I get up and start moving, shivering the whole time.

And so the newest fear becomes getting hypothermic during the river crossing, and cheating Trevor out of his chance at getting on the course. I won’t do it. I tell DB we have to run a little. I have to get warmed up enough to make it through the river.

***

Darris managed to get on a flight less than two hours after she died. She died at 1:34, and he landed in Orlando a little before seven. I counted the hours, the minutes, because I could not break. I simply could not afford to break. I had to find a funeral home. I had to collect her personal belongings. I had to say goodbye in a way I didn’t know how to, settling on leaving my final message to her on the whiteboard in her room. I had to drive the hour back to Orlando to pick DB up. I could not afford to break, not there, not alone, not yet.

***

I had to make it to the river, so I ran.

And there, just before they put our life jackets on, hot coffee. With cream. And Oreos. Because like a stunning blonde with a melted honey voice, like an extraordinary husband who will watch you lose your mind, there will always be something. Something to remind you that no matter what you saw, you did not die.

And then you plunge into the water, waist-high, freezing cold. You grip the line, slip on the rocks, and somehow, in that magical moment, stop to realize how very magical it is. The sky is black. The water is clear. And though you’ve paced this race twice before, those times were both boat crossings. But now, your best friend is with you. The sky is black. The water is clear. The coffee was hot. And there is still magic. Harder to find, perhaps, but still there. There is still magic.

Climbing out of the chilly (Rucky) Chucky with DB right behind me, always watching.

And so, I had determined I would finish. I sat to change my shoes and decided it wasn’t worth it, I would just keep going. Not, of course, without making an ill-timed remark about how great my dry shorts felt to my poor hubby, who had to finish hiking out of Green Gate to get his.

Trevor still wanted to “feast on souls.” Trevor, you see, is a mountain runner, so we were no longer working together as I was with DB. Trevor was making those trails work, and he expected me to as well.  It only took hearing him run behind me to remind me that I better be doing it too.

I never got to that transcendent point here, the place where I consciously know I’m in pain, but no longer feel it physically. I felt everything this time, but the closer we got to Auburn, the less and less I was afraid of it.

I saw my first second sunrise in my history of 100’s. In the waning hours of the night, I told Trevor the ugly stuff; the Clif notes version of my childhood as the daughter of an alcoholic. I had to, you see. Because the grief, the journey, the need to be out here in the middle of this mess didn’t make sense without that part as well. It is the totality of the experience that makes that final moment so critically important.

I ate donut holes with glee at Auburn Lake Trails. We passed some people. They had CHOCOLATE MILK at Brown’s Bar. I drank three cups of the stuff, smiling fondly at running the last 30 miles of Badwater with a chocolate milk mustache.

We passed more people. Trevor was thrilled, I mean, seriously thrilled, with my climbing skills. In a moment of sheer recklessness, I ate scrambled eggs at Highway 49. We passed more people. Trevor told some stories. I told some stories. He kept slowly pushing me harder and harder, then going more gently on the downhills because he wanted me to crush the climb to Robie. We ran across No Hands Bridge, but I made him stop for a picture with the flag. Those thirty seconds meant more to me than anything the clock was going to say now. More than once, I reflected on how relieved I was to know that DB was tucked under some blankets, napping safely in our hotel in Auburn. Although I told Trevor to text him about those three cups of chocolate milk. Oh my God, that chocolate milk.

And then we were crossing the field that I kept telling him was red, even though it wasn’t really red. Not this time, anyway.

And then we were climbing, and I was climbing and climbing and maybe I shouldn’t say I’m not a mountain runner, because God I love to climb. I never knew that until I had to learn hills for Badwater, and how I learned I love to climb. And I was climbing, and I was so, so tired, and so, so wrecked, and I let out this howl that hearkened back to Walt Whitman and “Dead Poets Society” and sitting in the Ewings’ living room when I just couldn’t be at home, because she had kicked me out (again), or I had run (again), because it was all so hard, and ugly, and unfair.

Right around the corner from one last climb - and Auburn.
Right around the corner from one last climb – and Auburn.

“I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

And I realized that I was disappointed, and saddened and small. It would take time to set in, perhaps this last week, perhaps during more sleepless nights, dreams of hospitals and mothers and slippery rocks. Perhaps as I wrote this blog. Perhaps I realized that I was a mountain runner at heart, but one that life had stripped of the chance to prepare. Perhaps I realized that I did want to see the first 50 miles of that course again, but when I could see them without shadows of grief and ghosts around every corner.

Maybe I shouldn’t have tried this. Maybe in my fear of disappointing others, I had disappointed only myself. Maybe I didn’t have to hurl myself across 100 miles of the Sierra Nevada, under-trained, over-tired, and emotionally raw to prove that I was still alive. But alive I was.

“Tell me who I am. Tell me who I used to be. Tell me who I am now.”

No, I couldn’t save my mother. And on poor training and sheer exhaustion, I sure as hell couldn’t save Western States.

But somewhere out there, with the help of a woman I didn’t know I had known all my life, the most extraordinary husband imaginable, and a gritty Marine with a thirst for souls, I found the strength to face this new landscape. One I am forced to face unexpected, under-trained, over-tired, and emotionally raw – but not alone, and not entirely unprepared.

Tell me who I am now? I don’t know quite yet.

“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

I made it to Auburn, battered, bloodied and renewed.

The journey continues.

The most painful buckle, journey and month of my life so far. Still trying to figure out how to cut it into three pieces.
The most painful buckle, journey and month of my life so far.  Still trying to figure out how to cut it into three pieces.

Trail and adventure enthusiast. Girl who swears like a sailor but not when she's teaching Sunday School. Survived infertility without a successful pregnancy. Self-employed, primarily working for Clif Bar and Company. Thirteen 100-mile race finishes with seven top 3 placements. An original Saltine.

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30 comments

  1. This is one of those posts, that while long I had to read and re-read because I kept feeling like I missed something- because you can’t read it without stopping to think about things in your own life and relate to the inevitable ups and downs. Thank you for sharing, and big-big hugs.

  2. Beautifully, beautifully written, it took me back to my mother’s deathbed. Safe journey for your future 100 milers.

  3. You were always strong and gifted with words. You are amazing and I am so lucky to have known you all those years ago when we were young and naïve and desperate to be older and different than we were. I wish you peace and continued happiness in the wonderful life you have built for yourself.

  4. I feel like I had tunnel vision reading this and that I disappeared into it. What an unbelievable post — all the right adjectives (fantastic, amazing, incredible) feel out of step with the emotions you experienced but that was truly one of the best posts I have written about death I have ever come across. Love and peace to you.

  5. I don’t even know where to begin. There is so much. YOU are so tough and tender. I once heard “the trail gives you what you need” and I think the same can be said for mountains. Your loss is profound and, your courage to open yourself to discovery is your gift. We were pulling for you every step of the way and still are today. Blessings, peace, and congrats you mountain running woman!

  6. Best story I have read in a long while. I greatly admire you and you certainly inspire anyone who every ran with you (as I did when i joined your pace group to get my first BQ at Grandma’s marathon 5 years ago and again at Big Sur a few months ago. Your love and care for your mother is as awesome as your ability to keep on so powerfully. Thank you so much for the gift of this amazing story. Peace and happy trails

  7. Thank you for writing this so I could have the honor of reading it. Your Mom is healed and safe and looking over you now. And I do believe your grandmother was in the room guiding your Mom to her next phase. Continue to honor yourself and your Mom with doing what you love and nourishes your soul. Peace