How the children of Nicaragua helped me complete the hardest race I’ve ever run.
The jawbone of the Wasatch Range strains up from the flat basin of Salt Lake City’s eastern cheek. Splotches of ponderosa pine and trembling aspen cling to the high-sided glacial incisors and stony molars. Six steeply winding miles into the throat of the Wasatch sits the town of Alta, a mining encampment turned ski resort. From the cradle of the resort can be seen the striated, rocky faces of exposed cliffs peeking around from behind massive sloping shoulders of pine forest. It is late July and, despite its perch nearly two miles above sea level, no snow softens the concrete edges of the four Soviet Bloc-style hotels. Shooting from the toe of each edifice are several gunmetal grey ski lift and tram cables rising up and out of sight like some sort of feeble, Gulliver-esque attempt to restrain earth from her indomitable rise.
On Friday morning my 13 year old son and I poked around the various shops that cater to affluent skiers and conventioneers basking in the spectacle of the mountains. Living and training in the oxygen-rich, sea-level air of Seattle does not prepare the heart and lungs to work at this elevation. I found myself occasionally fighting a rising panic partly born of a primal fear of suffocation and partly from the daunting task ahead: in less than 24 hours I would attempt to run 31 miles, climbing and descending more than 11,500 vertical feet, through the most rocky, technical and challenging terrain I’ve ever traversed. The Speedgoat 50k ultramarathon, designed by race director and venerable ultrarunner Karl Meltzer, is arguably the toughest 50k in the United States. I am a relative newbie to ultrarunning, having completed just two prior 50k trail runs (Orcas Island 50k in February and the Yakima Skyline Rim 50k in April), and these talus slopes make no concessions for inexperience.
My eyes tracked a clutch of runners gliding in and out between stands of pine and fir trees, their jovial voices carrying through the crisp air. Impossibly fit and unreasonably fast, the muscles in their calves and thighs were visible from a hundred yards away. I was clearly out of my league. Sensing my flagging confidence my son put his hand on my shoulder. Looking at him I hoped for a word of simple inspiration sparked from a place of unbruised naivete and childish confidence, but he simply grinned at me and turned his face back toward a now vacant trail.
The clock ticked over to 4:45 a.m., and I slapped my alarm before the second beep. The belts around my chest had given way to knots in my stomach and adrenaline in my bloodstream. Beginning with a deep, slow breath I paced through my morning routine. Like setting breakwaters into a chaotic river, each step slowed and directed nervous energy into productive motion. Brush teeth. Oatmeal. Coffee. Get dressed. Check gear. Bathroom. Let’s go.
Daylight broke over 300 athletes jostling anxiously at the pavilion starting area. Karl donned his race director hat to deliver a few brief warnings: don’t litter; respect the volunteers; if you don’t make it to the checkpoints in time you will be pulled from the race; oh, and watch out for angry moose–they are known to charge and kick.
As soon as the race started, the leaders made like angry moose and charged and kicked out of the gate and were quickly out of sight. I started at the very back of the pack, hoping to conserve energy during the first half, run my own race, stay within my limits and manage my calories and hydration.
I carried 70 ounces of water spiked with electrolytes in a hydration pack and another 24 ounces of water mixed with a calorie replacement powder in a hand held bottle. Stashed in my pockets were caffeine tablets and ibuprofen, along with my ID in the event of a worst-case scenario. Just over an hour after the start, I had covered a touch over four miles when the first aid station came into view, where I quickly refilled my water and continued, feeling very good.
The Hidden Peak aid station is the second highest point on the course and serves as the upper terminus for the passenger tram from the resort. After another 90 minutes of hands-to-knees climbing I crested the spiny ridge, striding through groups of unconcerned travelers and tourists admiring the views. I took a moment to refill my fluids, restock my supplies, and perform an internal system check. I felt no signs of dehydration, fatigue or elevation sickness, and my feet and legs were holding up admirably.
The trail departs from Hidden Peak and descends two and a half miles to the next aid station. The trail here is sometimes runnable and sometimes technical, which forced me to pick my steps. I covered the distance in about half an hour, coming into the Larry’s Hole aid station just after 9:30 a.m.
I was making good time and passed a handful of other runners as the trail switched back uphill for the next quarter mile. Suddenly a warning whistle shrilled through the woods uptrail from me. I looked up just in time to see a figure bounding down the trail, shirtless, hatless and carrying nothing in his hands. He appeared to be running with too little gear to be a part of our race, and I was tempted to think he was just out for a fun run. But his pace made it more likely that he was either a fugitive being chased by a drug-sniffing German Shepherd or else leading this race. Within a few minutes, two more of the most elite mountain runners in the world confirmed the latter scenario. I was just eleven miles into the course; they were pushing past mile twenty. Bearing eye witness to the athletic prowess of elite mountain runners was a truly awesome experience.
I marked the halfway point by distance in just under four and a half hours at the Pacific Mine aid station, and the heat and elevation began to take their toll. Though my pace and time were encouraging, I started to feel slightly dehydrated and the well-stocked aid tables were a welcome sight. The chipper volunteers were eager to help, despite working in the sun and heat for at least three hours by the time I arrived. My need for water was visible, and a volunteer offered to fill my hydration pack two thirds with water and the rest with ice. I consented, drank part of a Coke, swallowed a salt tab and allowed the volunteer to put my pack back on my shoulders. He told me, “It’s only a 4.2 mile climb to the next aid station,” words which would echo in the valley of my thoughts as my inexperience soon caught up with me.
I had studied topographical maps, elevation profiles, course descriptions, race reports, Google Earth and past race photos to yield a theoretical familiarity of the course. But my false confidence belied the existence of a monster hidden in the elevation profile. It was not the highest point on the course. Nor was it the steepest climb, or the longest or highest from foot to peak. But the ascent from mile 16.5 to mile 20 is relentless, exposed and brutal. It offers no rest or comfort. It is menacing and unforgiving and does not care about excuses.
Shortly after mounting the climb my water ran dry. The aid station volunteer, no doubt with good intentions, mistook the amount of water that went into my hydration pack. I suspect that some of the other gear in the pack caused a crimp that falsely raised the apparent fluid volume. Even though I did not fill the pack, I am responsible for myself and well-being. I should have checked it before leaving the aid station.
Mercifully, there was a natural spring near the top of the climb, and I refilled my bottle for the remainder of that leg. I staggered into the Larry’s Hole aid station for the second time, now almost 21 miles into the course. But my greatest concern lay ahead: in my dehydrated state, would I have the energy to make it to the checkpoint at mile 23.6 before the time cut-off? A shade canopy provided a few minutes of welcome respite from the heat and sun, and I gingerly ingested fluids and salty food, trying to appease my angry gut. As I sat foggy-brained and wondering if I could continue, the purpose for my race burst clearly upon the wall of my consciousness: for every minute that passed, another child in Central America dropped out of school before the sixth grade. I chose this tough, challenging, difficult race to raise money to bring education into the poorest regions of Nicaragua; to make a point that life is neither easy nor fair for so many children throughout the world; to advocate for children who have no other options. The clock was ticking one unjust second after another, but I could not quit, no matter how hard it may be to continue. If these children had no other choice, then neither did I.
With my stomach creeping up my throat, I pushed out of the shade, adjusted my visor and headed back up the trail. I had 2.6 miles to cover, and the margin for rest was getting dangerously thin. After another mile of climbing hands-to-thighs I turned a corner and saw the trail rising impetuously above, runners ahead of me shrinking in the distance against the changing blue and grey backdrop of the sky. But before I could mount that ridge section I had to climb hands and feet, step-step-rest, step-step-rest, up a 400-foot incline steeper than a pull-down attic ladder. Pausing every few steps to rest, clear my dizzy head, and regain my strength, this section of trail bought and paid for 20 minutes of my life. For my efforts I was rewarded with another mile of rocky, rooty trail, and finally the sound of volunteers cheering us in to the Tunnel aid station at mile 23.6. As I staggered toward the hydration table I eyed a volunteer and asked, “Did I make the cut off?”
“Yes you did,” she replied. “What can I get you? What do you need?”
Choked by tears, I couldn’t answer. I made the cut-off.
With the security of the cut-off under my belt, I allowed myself time to rest and hydrate. Another significant climb stood between me and the long downhill back to the starting line. The volunteers indulged me for 20 minutes before encouraging me to continue. I glanced at my watch: I had run for 8 1/2 hours and covered just 2/3 of the course.
The Tunnel is something out of a spy movie, a rough tube ten feet in diameter blasted straight through the rocky gut of the peak. After working so hard to earn the respect of these peaks, treading through the mountain shunt felt like an arrogant convenience, like slapping an escalator on the side of a Mayan temple. But the cool air offered a brief reprieve from the arid heat and wind that scorches the exposed trail.
When I exited the tunnel I was greeted by the serrated angles of the Wasatch mountains spread out below, playfully mocking the sun and throwing dramatic shadows into gritty valleys. I wondered what my son had been doing all day. Was he okay? Was he bored, hungry, locked out of the room? My mind wandered around his life and our relationship. Does he get the attention he needs from me? How can I be the dad that he deserves? Does he know how much I love him? These thoughts trickled into one another, joined together and built speed, pulled by the gravity of fatherly love until the streams cascaded into a torrent and I was left with one driving thought: Am I a good father?
Occupied by my thoughts, the miles passed quickly, if not according to time then at least according to memory. Surprised by the sudden appearance of the final aid station, I gratefully sat down to rest my weary legs. My stomach had shut down in protest against any more food or fluid. I began to shake, defying the heat. I engaged a volunteer named Anna in intentional conversation, testing my logic and reasoning abilities to rule out any serious threats to my brain. Anna suggested that I lie down in the warming hut. She and her kids brought me fluids and light food and made friendly conversation as my body recovered from the effects of prolonged dehydration. 45 minutes later, another runner and I finally felt capable of making the long descent back to the finish line. We made fast friends, enjoying the distraction from our discomfort as we chatted about family, life, work, and running. 12 hours and 10 minutes after the starting pistol fired, I ran across the finish line, depleted, dehydrated and deliriously proud of the finisher medal strung around my neck.
A moment after crossing the line I scanned the dwindling crowd to find my son. Spotting me, he trotted down the stairs to greet me and say, “Hi. How are you doing?” I wrapped my arms around him half hugging, half hanging on him. I managed to croak, “I am so happy to see you,” before my throat clamped down on my words and I began to weep. That question, “Am I a good father?” will not be answered in a day, or during a race. My work to help children in Nicaragua will not be completed in a day, or a year. But I cannot quit. I have no choice.
If you would like to help Go For Hope International provide education for children in rural Nicaragua, please click here.