|Photo Credit: Ross Comer|
wilddefined.com), asked how I liked her course so far and whether I needed any ice. "It only gets better," she promised, after I gushed about the technical and panoramic beauty of the first 12.5 miles. My mind was also eased as Allie, the other Tucson runner's fiance, met me with a grin and assured me that Luis had made it on the trail and I'd see her for refueling as planned.
So began our first long segment, a soul testing finish to the "warmup" 50K. It skirted much of the way around Mount Saint Helens, along the Lewitt trail, across rivers, up and down scree slopes with the help of a belay rope, and mile after mile of punishingly slick ash that saw me on my seat (sometimes voluntarily) more than once. This segment was hard, so early in the race, because of the forced slow going for everyone, ash-induced blisters for some, and my own personal fears about sliding. Where some embrace the uncontrolled downhill scramble, others of us put on the brakes as we lose more and more control. Physically, that doesn't really help, and unfortunately, the early stress of overuse of these "brakes" under the volcanic base would haunt me for many miles in the not-so-distant future.
|Photo Credit: Ross Comer|
I arrived at mile 32 to a hike-in aid station out of water, starving, and well behind any 50K pace I had ever run. That segment broke us in, for most, or merely broke us, for a few others. I remember smiling briefly as another competitor complained about the hot and dry of the ash crossing of the dead zone...not compared to the Tucson deserts this summer, was all I could think in reply. In a way, that section and the complaints were a comfort. Perhaps my training, though less than ideal for the scope of this adventure, had really just been for this one small piece of the race.
The next segment was my first completely alone. At first, it felt hard to move forward out of the ash, but as the trail climbed up Johnson Ridge and the sun began to turn the mountains a brilliant orange, I was filled with a combination of joyous energy and nearly tearful sadness that the impending darkness would block my view of the scenery. This same combination of primal joy and sorrow greeted me at each subsequent sunset. I laughed for no reason, running along the ridge to the observatory, passing "Very Dangerous" trail warning signs on feet that felt almost light. Veggie burgers with homemade guacamole rarely taste so good as when you're sitting in a camp chair with freshly cleaned feet, new socks, and a top of the world view before heading out in the very last ways of darkness.