There is a moment, however infinitesimal, right before water boils, and right before water freezes. A point at which a cataclysmic change is about to take place, yet still lies just below the surface. A point at which we have one last chance to change the direction of things, for better or for worse.
There was no soup, so they forced me to eat a cracker. Technically, they enacted the “Lexi Doctrine,” a throwback to when Darris wouldn’t eat two years ago. He was forced to eat crackers with peanut butter, and we forced our niece Lexi to make him do it, because we knew he wouldn’t be mean to her. So they made me eat a cracker. Even though I begged them not to, told them it wouldn’t go down. And it didn’t. And I was pissed. And like a baby, I made sure they saw all the dry-heaving that came with it. Was I dry-heaving? Yes. Did I make a huge dramatic big deal of it? Yes. It’s embarrassing to admit, and it’s embarrassing to write. But I was pissed that they weren’t listening to me. I was pissed that I had already been in the van and they were threatening to put me back in if the lightning storm got closer. I mean, hadn’t they seen “Running on the Sun?” And if the lightening was so bad, why hadn’t anyone thought to confiscate my iPod? I mean, don’t they conduct electricity or something? Then one of my favorite remixes came on. It starts with a thunderstorm. And I was marching and I was PISSED, but I was also coming up on the DVNP sign. I was officially leaving Death Valley. And damn it, I was running out. So I ran. I was moving faster, but my mood was unchanged.
I knew I needed food but I really couldn’t eat. My mood was ugly and I was ready to rail on people. Except I didn’t know who. Certainly not my crew. They were really just trying to help me. The soup wasn’t their fault. Sh*t happens. I mean, really, that’s all it is. There were no huge, earth-shattering electrical explanations. This wasn’t some divinely inspired test for me. The hot pot didn’t work in the middle of the desert because why on earth would a hot pot work in the middle of the desert? Right?
So there was no soup. And there was no reason. My God, how I love having my reasons.
And I could feel us malfunctioning. We were having a total breakdown. I had been up for 24 hours; my crew had been up a few hours longer. We were all tired. We were all frustrated. They were worried about my calories and really couldn’t believe that I couldn’t get anything down. I felt like I wasn’t getting fair credit for my liquid calories, like my fatigue was being put down to “bratty runner won’t eat” instead of “exhausted runner has been running for 22 hours.” What? Was this possible? Could we all be right? Was there even this slim possibility that their perception was complete fact when my perception was also complete fact? Here in this groggy haze, one of my lifelong nightmares coming true before my eyes: they would never understand. They couldn’t understand. I was alone in the solitary experience of running this race in this body, feeling things that I could try to explain but couldn’t be felt or understood. They weren’t going to understand. They weren’t going to understand. And they were tired, and hot, and sticky, and frustrated. Dare I even say bored? The power had been out in Panamint. They might not have minded some soup or oatmeal either. No one was getting soup, and it wasn’t just about me. So there I stood – or there I ran – with this simple choice: step outside of my boring little self and understand them, or keep adding to the collective misery to prove an entirely pointless point: that I was exhausted and no longer willing to eat anything but soup.
I decided that wasn’t a point worth making. I actually couldn’t get to them fast enough at that point, couldn’t wait to get to the van, to pull them together. To say listen, I know. I know you’re tired, and I know you’re worried about me, and I know we’re all at a rough point at the same time. We only have 23 crew stops left. We can count them down. We’re not going to have soup and we’re low on Cokes. These aren’t earth-shattering problems. We’ll figure out how to keep going. To say, I love you guys, I love you for being here and doing this and I will figure out SOME way to eat. I took a couple of peppermint candies and a bottle of water and promised to figure out something I could eat over the next two miles. And as amazing as those peppermint discs might have been, I ran the next two miles realizing that there was no way in hell I was going to get 45 more miles out of ten calorie peppermint candies and WATER. There was a van full of food. And I was going to have to eat something.
I tried some lemonade in my water bottle; it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful. I agreed that I could probably get potato chips down, and asked that they mix some fresh Gatorade. We had been icing the six gallon cooler all day and it was too weak to make a dent any longer. It wasn’t a solution, but I bargained that the combination was something: salt, calories, sugar and electrolytes. Thus began the sad story of “Goldilocks and her Gatorade” – too weak, too sweet, too powdery. I finally just adjusted it myself – not because they couldn’t get it right, but because I felt horrible continuing to tell them it still wasn’t right. I knew the taste that was in my mind, and only I could get it. And when I got it – I chugged half of that bottle straight down and decided I was going to try just ten more minutes of sleeping. I forced, and I mean forced, two bites of dry, sawdusty bread in and went out like a light. DB woke me up with a few sips of the van’s last Coke and I really believed I could salvage this thing. 21 crew stops to go, because 42 miles was entirely too much to think about.
It was a little after 10:00 at night.
DB came out to walk with me while I woke up and the calories set in. He had to walk behind me, but held my hand until I could keep my eyes open. He said he knew if he could get me to start running again I’d keep running, so I started to take some tentative steps while making sense of the very large set of steak knives that had recently been inserted in my quads. And was that Chris? What the hell was Chris doing in Darwin? In sandals?
“Great job, runner,” he yelled across the road.
“Chris?” DB yelled.
“Darris? Star! Star, you’re killing it!”
So here, in the middle of the night and the middle of Darwin, we learned the story of Harvey’s day. (Harvey is a dear friend and the 2014 event champion). There had been a stake-out around mile 90, but now it was dark and the stake was unidentifiable in the dark. Chris had been sent out to put a light on the stake in anticipation of Harvey’s early morning return to the race. We got to the van. I took a few more sips of the last Coke and headed back out on my own. I kept “running,” or at least not walking. Chris found the stake. That was a high moment. I wasn’t back in a “groove,” but I was definitely feeling scrappy. Still waiting for any real energy, but honestly believing it might come.
DB came back out. He knew I didn’t plan on pacers right then, but he thought moving might help wake him up a bit too. It certainly woke up his brain: he decided to ask the crew to go into Lone Pine for soup and Coke. “No, chocolate milk,” I corrected him. I didn’t want them on a mad hunt for soup, but I knew they could get chocolate milk at a grocery or gas station. It also meant the crew could get some real food and hot coffee, since we were originally scheduled to go through Lone Pine at 3 or 4 in the morning. It seemed a magic solution, even in my foggy haze. Calories! Caffeine! We could do this. Chocolate milk wasn’t solid food, but it had carbs, protein, all the good stuff. I could just drink it down, bypass the sore throat and the dry mouth and the stomach that was so tired of all the stuff in the van. This would work. Oh my God, this would work.
I curled up on the side of the road (ala Gabriel Flores) to take a two-minute nap while he told them the plan. Multi-tasking, I guess. It is a testament to how exhausted our entire team of five was that it did not occur to any of us, to any one of us, that any grocery or gas station in Lone Pine would have had hot water, and that we therefore could have had my blessed noodles and Starbucks VIA for the rest of the race.
DB and I started out walking, or marching, or “walking with a purpose.” We were just shy of the 100-mile mark, and I was marching. I wouldn’t realize until after the race how much I lost focus out in Darwin; it’s no small coincidence that it also happened right around the 24-hour mark, or the longest I had ever continuously run before. But I still knew, somewhere in the recesses of my brain, that it wasn’t enough. That my legs had hurt worse before and that it was time to run. And so we ran. We ran the next seven miles, stopping only when DB felt we were on a bona fide hill, or what passes for a hill once you’ve run 100+ miles. We ran the next seven miles until my stomach was actually growling and I was starting to feel like I might pass out. At long last, the van’s lights were upon us, and I was chugging down chocolate milk. Cup after cup of it.
DB went to bed and Steve took over. I wanted to walk to let all the liquid settle, and then we started running. Then George came out. We ran a little more. I drank more chocolate milk. We were clicking off the two mile segments, with me trying not to do math. We were going to do “a couple more rotations,” then DB was going to come out and run me through Lone Pine.
I was pushing through these “couple more rotations” as the fatigue descended yet again. Another couple sips of Coke (blech) and back out on the road with Steve. I wasn’t getting back in that van, okay? I just had to keep moving. And my eyelids were so heavy, and there was no traffic, and Steve was with me, so except for the alleged snake sightings by several other runners, why did my eyes really need to be open? If I was moving and safe, did my eyes really have to be open? Oh yes, this was so much better. My legs were working fine. The problem wasn’t my legs, the problem was my eyes. Such sweet peace, letting those weighted lashes fall
“Star. Star! I need you to stay on the white line, okay? Can you focus on the white line?”
“Hmmm? Okay. Yeah.” I slurred from behind my eyelids. I guess I knew I was weaving a little bit, but it’s not like I was worried about taking the tangents at this point.
“Star! Star. Just focus on the white line, okay? We’re just going to stay on the white line.”
And from those recesses of my brain comes the pitiful, gleeful thought:
“He actually thinks my eyes are open!”
My increasing descent into madness was suddenly cut short by voices from across the course; Dave Huss and Mark Carroll, crewing for friend Jay Smithberger. Wait. What were they doing out here? Jay should be hours ahead by now.
But he too had fallen victim to the sleep monster, and they were waiting out his sleep period.
There aren’t words for the energy that these familiar voices brought; voices from home, voices from countless miles on the trails, voices from Highbanks, from Mohican, from Umstead, from Western States, from the middle of the night. They lifted Steve up as much as they did me. And then I overheard the “discussion” from my side of the road. Paraphrased, of course.
“Does she know where she is?”
“I don’t think she wants to. She said she didn’t want to know until she moved into fourth.
“But that’s fourth right ahead. Two lights down. It’ll get her moving.”
So the news was then officially reported to me, and yes, it got me moving. Temporarily.
Fourth secured, the next rotation was on and George was up. The thrill of a hunt quickly faded as there was no information on third, and I found myself slipping again. Tired again. Tired of wandering through this endless, endless night toward a town I no longer believed existed. What was Lone Pine, anyway? Where was Lone Pine? Where were we? Surely this had to be the last, or at least the second last of the “rotations” until DB came back. To run me into this “Lone Pine.” I kept trying to remember to count the crew stops but then forgetting. So wait. If DB and I had passed 100 and then run about 7 miles, plus the “rotations” since then … and this “Lone Pine” was around mile 120 … then we had to be … Wait. No. So if DB and I had passed …
I could feel myself slipping harder this time, harder than I ever had before. I was trying so hard just to walk straight and George wanted me to run. We ran 30 seconds and my heartrate skyrocketed like a firework. I just needed to know where I was. I couldn’t make sense of what I needed to do without knowing what I was working toward. I knew I was in Keeler but I had no idea where. I slapped my own face. And then I giggled because it was so useless. Because the reality had become nothing more than trying to walk straight.
Walk strai … wkl … soo sleep … …whersh …van …wlk………..WAIT! no. white linnnnnnnnnnnn… open hyour … oppppen ….
I gave in. I finally gave in. I closed my eyes to go to sleep. I was just going to sleep right there, because the van was so far away. It didn’t matter that I was standing, or walking, or lost in the dark night. I closed my eyes only to find that they popped right back open to the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
It was a blue tile. A glistening, shiny royal blue tile, like a square trivet, in the middle of the road. It was the richest blue I had ever seen, glossy and sparkling, with a single peacock in the middle of it. And George was about to step on it. He couldn’t step on it! He could NOT break that tile! It was so beautiful! I didn’t know a blue like that could exist. I was fixated on the color alone, watching the tile float just above the surface of the road. Begging George not to step on it. Begging him, begging him, begging him. He asked me to focus on the cars in the distance. Off in the distance, a line of cars perpendicular to the road we were on. That was Lone Pine. That’s where we were going. We just wanted to focus on those cars. Those cars. In Lone Pine?
“What’s Lone Pine?” I slurred.
“That’s where we’re going, Star. We’re going to Lone Pine. It’s where those cars are.”
“Lone Pine? What’s … Where am I? George! Where am I?”
George’s voice is so calm, almost too soothing for the state I’m in. But he persists, trying to break through.
“Star. We’re in Death Valley. You’re running Badwater.”
And the strangest thing is that I knew I was hallucinating. My rational brain, buried in that overwhelming fatigue, knew exactly where I was and exactly what I was doing. It knew that the blue tile was a hallucination, a vision. But the words kept tumbling out, slurred and confused. I knew somewhere in my brain that I was in Keeler. Somewhere. But the van was gone. We couldn’t get there. We couldn’t get anywhere. It was over. I had to sleep. I had to REALLY sleep. So much for fifth. So much for anything. Unless we were there. Because how far were we? Four miles? Maybe even only two? What if we were there? What if Lone Pine was real? What if …
So as I stumbled to the back of the van, I asked. The answer – approximately 8 miles from Lone Pine – was devastating.
I lost it. I wouldn’t realize until a week later that the cry that came out of me was twenty years old, filled with the hopelessness of the lifetime I had tried to make sense of back on the Panamint Range. It was guttural, animalistic, keening, and utterly void of hope. The sound that came out of me was so unexpected, so overwhelming, that it shocked even me.
“It’s too far!” I shrieked. “It’s too far! I can’t … I can’t … oh my God, no. I just can’t. I can’t.” Robin wrapped me up in her arms as I continue to heave under this inexplicable wave of emotion. DB woke up to Robin saying that they had to put me down – really, they just had to put me down for awhile. Exorcised of the pent-up emotion, I asked for just 15 minutes, to which there was a little sarcastic laughter. DB said an hour. I said 15 minutes. They said an hour. I said half an hour – and get me up if anyone passes me. I collapsed in a ball and heard whispering. Whispering can mean trickery, and I had said half an hour. So I looked at my watch and noted the time to make sure that any trickery would be noted. I slept the sleep of the dead. What I didn’t know yet was that a part of me actually had died. At last.
DB shook me awake.
“Star. It’s time.”
“Okay,” I said. DB says this is one of his most clear memories of the race, the way I said “okay.” Quiet and small, but with complete resolve. He gave me yet another cup of Coke. I checked my watch for evidence of trickery. As if I could actually remember what it had said an hour ago.
My legs were stiff and I had a new issue on the front of my right ankle. DB said he was going to get me to Lone Pine. It was three to four crew stops to get there. We were going to run. My crew plied me with chocolate milk and Cokes and two mile stops. You can see Lone Pine FOREVER in the dark, but dawn was finally approaching. Not sunrise, but dawn at least. Traffic started to pick up, just a little. The sun started to come up. Just a little. George came out to take a turn. Then DB was back. We got to Lone Pine. Sweet relief, we got to Lone Pine.
It took forever to run through Lone Pine, a less than three mile stretch. You just have to get past the farm, and the little museum and the school to the Dow Villa. And we were running, really running. But everything was still in slow motion. The sun was finally up. There were cowbells. There were HUMANS! They were cheering! And … there was a turn.
As DB and I ran onto Portal Road, the “oh my God’s” just tumbled from my mouth. “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.”
“Oh my God.”
In some ways you have to experience Badwater in person to understand the significance of Portal Road. Yes, thirteen miles and the most brutal climb still lie ahead. But somehow, it doesn’t matter.
The crew has our music back on. We are rotating our way up the hill. The Camelbaks and water bottles are gone; I’m just carrying a bottle or cup of whatever now. First I need to get about eight miles up, to the guardrail. Then I just have to keep moving.
The last five miles are insane. There are switchbacks. There is a rapid change in elevation. I tell my crew that I am not going to talk, I am just going to focus on my breathing. Then I start blathering.
I tell Darris how much I love him. How there would be no Badwater without him. How there would be no anything without him.
He tells me that I didn’t sleep for an hour in Keeler because I didn’t need it.
It was 13 minutes.
I tell Steve that I think I figured it out. Or maybe not. But at least I made it to the point where I’m conscious of how much pain I’m in, but it doesn’t hurt anymore. I feel the weakness in my quads for sure, but no pain. On Portal Road, there is no pain.
Robin and I fight a cloud of gnats. My niece Katharine had drawn me an amazing “Good Luck” card that included gnats. I had been confused by the gnats. But if anyone would know there are gnats in Death Valley, it’s Katharine.
And then there is only breathing.
I breathe and hike, breathe and hike, breathe and breathe and breathe.
When you look down to the left (and I mean look down), you can see not only how high you’ve climbed, but how far you’ve come. The road back to Keeler, to Darwin, to Panamint, to Stovepipe, cutting across the landscape as if yes, it’s still nothing but a painting. As if you’ve done nothing more these past 30 hours than walk across the most magnificent piece of artwork you’ve ever seen.
All I could do was shake my head.
The crew was taking the van ahead to park, leaving me with DB for the last mile to the finish. There was a song they were supposed to play. I wasn’t supposed to be there when they played it, though every time it came into my head the tears would well just beneath the surface. The song. The song that I heard flying over the waters of Aruba, back when I was working on my application all those long months ago. January. July. Portal Road. Today I took a walk in the clouds.
I dug my ipod out of my back pocket and put the song on for DB. He was teary-eyed. There were trees. And houses tucked into a mountain. There were people. My crew was back to finish with me. And then we were there, but not there.
“You’re so close!” random spectator said.
“Six minutes close?” I asked.
Never stop fighting.
“That’s going to be close,” he said.
So we moved faster. And then we were there, really there. There was a tape, and a finish line, and a Chris Kostman. We ran and my legs collapsed under me and I got tangled in my crew for a second. And then we were there.
In 34 hours, 58 minutes and 24 seconds, we were done.
I asked Chris why he didn’t just line us up and shoot us, and he reminded me that I signed up to get shot. There were celebrations and buckles and shirts. And then, much as we wanted to stay, we so desperately needed sleep.
We stopped twice on our way down the mountain, once to cheer for Jay and once so I could hug my spirit twin Andrea, also on her way up the mountain. Then we poured ourselves into our beds and slept.
My life would consist primarily of sleep for the next three days, and each time I woke, I would be struck with the most horrible, aching feeling:
It felt so anticlimactic.
We drove to Vegas and I continued to sleep as if I’d never known sleep before. We flew home and I almost cried as the mountains faded away. I stretched out on my couch. I finally cuddled my kitten. I got a bloody nose. I fought wave after wave of crushing sadness, but most of all, disappointment. There had been no revelation. There had been no breakthough. There had been no sparkling new knowledge, no new conviction. I wasn’t a new person, or a different person, or a stronger person. Really, I felt pretty much the same.
Was Badwater just another race? And if it was, where had I failed so horribly? It was supposed to bring me to my knees. I was supposed to come out of it with something, I don’t know, sparkly. Had I loved it? Yes. Had I suffered? Yes. Had I been fourth female, thereby achieving my goal of top 5 with a stretch goal of top 3?
And yet. I couldn’t get over how empty I felt.
I grappled with it for two days, for as long as it took me to run the desert, before I realized how wrong I was.
For me, the lesson wasn’t in finishing Badwater. The lesson wasn’t even in running Badwater. The lesson was in becoming Badwater. Becoming the person that could do Badwater. Becoming the person who could be afraid without cowering. Becoming the person that didn’t have to say every word that occurred to her because she didn’t want to hurt her crew.
You see, Badwater isn’t a place, or a race, or a thing. Badwater is a way of being. And yes, there are so many people who don’t need to subject themselves to what appears to be torture and abuse to find that. People who can find that through music or knitting or sailing. But I know there’s a way of going to the bottom of yourself. To being profoundly empty. To being so lost that you don’t know who, why or where – but for some reason, you know you have to keep going. It’s an acceptance and a letting go, it’s a catharsis and an exorcism. It is an undertaking in which there is no easy way. You can’t trick Badwater. You have to do a monumental amount of work, and then you have to accept, before you even start, that it still wasn’t enough to make it easy. You have to embrace pain as a companion rather than an enemy, knowing that it leaves behind nothing but you and the God or gods of your understanding. And once there, you find that the same questions you started with remain:
Are you willing to shed that much of your ego? How do you manage it? How do you mold it? How do you prevent it from making you a person you don’t want to be? How much of it is about being better? Or just being enough? And why aren’t you enough? When is it that you first learned that you were not enough?
I can actually answer that last question. I remember where I was and who it was that told me. I was seven years old, and I’ve spent 32 years climbing out of that pit.
I thought I was going to discuss that pit today, one last time. But I’m not. I doubt I’ll ever discuss it again. It may have taken me 32 years and some hyperventilating in Keeler, but later that morning I looked down from Portal Road and saw how very far away that pit actually was.
Had always been.
Can we endure the worst without becoming the worst? Can we recognize that our worst day might be someone else’s best? Can we have everything stripped away but still find something good and honest and real to cling to? Can the world sometimes happen to us without us laying blame to it?
But these are just my questions; my continued attempt to explain what happened. Because my revelation wasn’t earth-shattering after all. It was actually that it had already happened.
High on the switchbacks that lead to the Whitney Portal, you can look down to the left. When you look down (and I mean down), you can see not only how high you’ve climbed, but how far you’ve come. The road back to Keeler, to Darwin, to Panamint, to Stovepipe, cutting across the landscape as if yes, it’s still nothing but a painting. As if you’ve done nothing more these past 30 years than walk across the most magnificent piece of artwork you’ve ever seen. All your stories hidden in the dust, known and understood only to you, no more meaningful than any of the others.
As if you’ve spent your entire life slowly becoming Badwater.
And it’s enough.
If you missed Part I, you can read it here.