“How did you meet” seems to be a question reserved for the happenstance that led to one being coupled. True friends, so the thinking goes, are the ones you’ve known so long that you cannot even remember not knowing them, much less how you met.
But these days, people meet on all kinds of adventures. Holly I met while running Zion. Laura in the Miami airport on the way to Cuba. Lexi and I are mountain rescue friends. A couple weekends ago, I met a new friend under circumstances that test all but the most understanding of friendships.
This time, the Life Bus took me to Blairsville, GA. It ranks highest in friendliness in a state renowned for friendliness. The goal: completion of the Cruel Jewel, a 106 mile (the extra six are the cruel part) trail run over ten Appalachian peaks. The other part of the cruel is Dragon’s spine in the last twenty miles of the race.
Mike and I are also mountain rescue friends. He left the team several years ago to pursue a career in nursing but we have kept in touch, me pestering him to DJ at the Evergreen Town Race, and him inviting me to the Camp Kesem annual charity event. It’s the mark of either true friendship or complete insanity that he offered to crew for me during this event. Possibly both, in his case.
I tore off my Colorado layers as the Georgia humidity enveloped me while Mike navigated the Atlanta airport traffic, comparable to what I had experienced in Nepal several years ago. With matching eyerolls, I jumped in the Jeep he’d rented and settled into my role as navigator.
First stop, Whole Foods. It is an undying pre-100 race belief of mine that no city on the planet has any food like Denver’s food and that I must bring all the food with me. A sixty pound suitcase convinced me that maybe I should at least check to see if coconut water existed in the remote regions of Georgia. Sure enough, on the outskirts, even on the way, was a Whole Foods.
And what a Whole Foods it was. We stocked up with enough food to last two nuclear holocausts because I was still convinced Blairsville would be in the middle of a terrible famine. Then had lunch. Fried chicken and catfish and peach cobbler is a healthy lunch when it’s purchased at Whole Foods, right? Pretty sure it didn’t count as carbo loading either.
I had booked a cabin at Helton Falls, less than two miles from the race start at Vogel State Park. In retrospect, finding a spot more midway between Blairsville and Vogel would have been more convenient, but I don’t think we would have found a more peaceful, comfortable spot. And Stephen, the owner, called twice and texted once as we made our way there, making sure we weren’t lost. Our cabin was appropriately named “The Nut House”.
Blairsville was not in the middle of a famine, I am happy to report. On the contrary, it boasts more bakeshops per capita than all of Colorado. And one spectacular Southern cooking restaurant appropriately called Hole in the Wall. I think Mike visited again while I was out running. But that night, I continued my splurge with more fried catfish, hush puppies and fried okra. I skipped the sweet tea–I didn’t want to overdo it.
Especially when one of the bakeries was also an Italian restaurant, with homemade tiramisu. I might have finished the race an hour slower, but it was worth every calorie.
Thursday was reserved for checking out the course. Mike estimated about four hours to drive the hundred miles I would be running. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my friends at Fatdog had driven many many more miles than that, the aid station driving route often being more circuitous than the running route.
We were both relieved that it was much shorter. There was no real indication of where the stations actually were, but at least the roads were solid dirt roads, which was one thing off my mind. I wouldn’t have to call Mike’s wife to explain how Mike had driven off a cliff after two sleepless nights.
I kept myself at least entertained by pointing out the names of the roads, apparently named by locals. 4 Wheel Drive. Snake Nation (the name of my next band) Road. Winding Road. Just-A-Mere Drive. And my personal favorite: Cookie Martin Drive.
There were a few named after couples (Harrison and Ada Road), and we wondered who got the road when there wasn’t a happily-ever-after.
On the way back to the Nut House, we stopped at Cabin Coffee, quaint, Southern friendly, and amazing coffee. Their logo is “Just be happy and have fun”. Is there a better logo?
They lived it. There was no calling out your name, vaguely mispronounced. No, they brought your coffee right to you, with a smile and a have-a-great-day. The religious sayings posted on the walls made me want to believe. Bill, one of the locals who made it his duty to greet everyone with a smile and a God-bless-you, reminded me of the Christianity I grew up with, the love-one-another kind, not the use-the-Bible-to-judge-and-condemn-those-who-are-different kind that seems so prevalent these days. I don’t think Bill ever judges anyone. He looks out for those having a bad day, or a bad life, and does what he can to bring a little light in. Every coffee shop needs a Bill.
I had a chai while Mike indulged in the Palomino frappe, a “highly caffeinated” coffee–I suggested Mike might bring me one the second night. I know Mike stopped by more than once during the race. He didn’t bring me any coffee. But I’m not holding that against him. Really.
The rest of the day was spent trying to stay off my feet and relax. Being told to relax, even and maybe especially by yourself, never works.
The race started at noon Friday and I was stressing about stressing the day of the race. Packet pickup was at 9. Should we get there at 9 in case there’s a rush? 10 so we didn’t have to wait around so long? What would parking be like? In addition to believing nowhere has grocery stores, I also believe that the parking situation will always be akin to that of the Boston marathon, with its thousands of runners. 150 people signed up for the Cruel Jewel. Parking would be as much a problem as finding food. Mike, to his credit, was happy with whatever I wanted to do, which changed every time he asked me. I think he was just happy to not have to get up at 4 am.
I stayed up as late as I could, only to wake up at 4 am Georgia time. I slept fitfully then gave up around 7. I tried to eat slowly. I tried to pack slowly. I tried to dress slowly. I tried to relax.
I was ready to go before 8.
We drove over around 9 (stopping to finally say hi to Stephen, thank him for his hospitality and try to explain why anyone would run a hundred miles). Maybe three people were there for packet pickup. I picked up my packet and walked back to the car. I sat down and stared straight ahead. Mike suggested coffee. I froze with indecision–what if there was no parking when we got back, what if we got lost, what if we fell asleep–but coffee won.
We got coffee, drank it and drove back. There was still plenty of parking. The minutes continued to drag by, me fluctuating between wishing them speed and enjoying my final moments of repose, knowing what was to come.
Then we were off.
I’ve written almost two pages on the events leading up to the race, but what do I say about the race itself? I ran. I ran up then I ran down. Then I ran back up again. I never ran flat, though. That’s the other cruel part of this race. For being so cruel, the course was amazing. I am not skilled at technical terrain and this was beautiful terrain, the trails cushioned by centuries of pine needles and leaves. Georgia was in the middle of 40 days and nights of rain and that held for the race. It was a light rain the first day, holding the temperatures down. I was still drenched from the humidity, praying the pound of goop I’d applied to my entire body would protect me from the dreaded chafing.
I finally got to see Mike around mile twenty, about seven hours into the race. I was feeling pretty good–I was actually feeling great. I was going way faster than I would allow myself to believe. I was eating and drinking plenty. I was happy.
The weather gods did not smile down that night.
Shortly after sunset, the lightning started. Lightning is beautiful when curled up with a good book. Not so much alone on a trail. I watched it with growing trepidation. A final crack-boom opened the heavens and the deluge began.
The rain did a disco dance in the light of my headlamp. I threw on my rain jacket for no other reason than I wanted to–it certainly didn’t do any good. My route meandered from edge to edge of the road, unable to see a foot in front of my feet. “Geez, I wanna see something!” I finally yelled to no one in particular.
CRACK BOOM. The landscape lit up, and it took only those few dazzling seconds for me to decide maybe utter darkness wasn’t so bad.
I slogged through the rain and mud throughout the night and as the sun made its appearance. I kept running. The clouds disappeared and the temperatures rose. I kept running. I never got got any drier.
I was starting to feel a glimmer of hope that I wouldn’t have to run through the entirety of the second night, when I started on yet another endless uphill. The course was an out-and-back but I’d run this section through the night more than twelve hours before. I remembered none of it.
That’s when I met my fifteen hour friend.
Her name is Lara and she was running the 50 mile race. She was supposed to be running it with friends but life being as it is, she was now alone. She had started at eight that morning, but still was not looking forward to the Dragon’s Spine that night alone.
Me either. I knew it would take everything I had to get through it and I knew I’d be dealing with hallucinations on top of bitter fatigue. I knew by then that I would do it, because, deep in my soul, I wanted to finish. But to do what it would take to get there–that I really, really didn’t want to do.
Lara’s pace was much stronger than mine, but I offered up a weak, if you really want company and don’t mind waiting… I didn’t expect her take me up on it.
But there she was, at the final aid station before the big climb, waiting. My gratitude went beyond words. Mike had hoped to pace me the last bit when I knew I needed it the most, but the logistics didn’t work out. I was trying to not be bitterly disappointed, but it was hard.
When running ultras, I’m always reminded on the “Footprint in the Sands” story about God carrying us the during the trials of our lives. For me, it’s not so much God as it is my friends who carry me through the trials of my life. And while the second night of a hundred compares not at all to the loss of a job or a loved one, still, I feel carried by the people who has given up days of their life to help me achieve my simple goal to finish.
And here was Lara. My fifteen hour friend. Prior to the aid station, Oak and I had become friends and he became part of our straggly band of runners. Somewhere along the next section, we picked up another runner, a Latvian whose training regime consisted of running two miles a day. That’s it. I’m still not sure what I make of that. Oak and the Latvian disappeared somewhere along the trail during the dark night, but Lara was right there with me.
Up and up and up and up we traveled on the Dragon’s Spine, a stupid steep section and the only technical terrain on the course. I marveled at how little I remembered. And I had tried so hard to memorize as much as I could so I wouldn’t be surprised on the return trip.
Lara and I shared bits and pieces of our lives when we weren’t swearing at the trail and wondering where the hell the aid station was, bonded by our shared misery and our shared goal. She was going through a divorce, me, a mid life crisis. Mostly, though, we were silent, each in our own thoughts and misery, trying to just make it through.
We somehow managed to time the rising of the sun with the final big ascent before a blessed four mile downhill. It ended at a bridge that marked the final three miles and, with memories of Grand Raid, I saw bridges everywhere. I tried staring only at my feet, but I could still “see” the bridges. I swore I would never run a 48 hour race again.
What was in reality a small uphill, but with the fatigue seemed so much longer, was almost our undoing. Lara shed a few tears of frustration–at the race and at life–and only my exhaustion kept me from joining her, the effort even to cry beyond me at this point.
And then, forty-five hours after I’d started, we were on the road that led directly to the finish. We just looked at each other and grinned. We marveled as we limped our way along at how we, two complete strangers, could have shared such an experience as we just had, pushing and pulling each other along on our journeys, giving the support and sarcasm each needed to do what we had set out to do.
I collapsed at the end, trying to explain to Mike what I was feeling and thinking. Lara had to get a shower before they booted her out of the cabin she’d rented. We saw each other once more before I left, exchanging a heartfelt hug of gratitude that was beyond words.
Will we see each other again? Keep in touch? It’s hard to say. Before social media, it would have been a certain “no”. Call a virtual stranger, no matter the circumstances, just to say hi? When was the last time anyone even wrote a letter? There are so many people we encounter at races, during vacations, and at other random events in our lives, who have such an impact in such a short time, people we will never forget, yet who fade from our existence as easily and they entered it. Is that how it’s supposed to be? Our lives so different that it truly is for just those few moments that we are meant to be together? Maybe so. However these stories end, I believe being grateful that the story was ever written is the part we should keep with us always.