Building Bridges

I collapsed into the camp chair, every inch of my body caked in salty sweat. Sweating was almost useless in the humidity.  I had drunk at least three liters of water that day, but my mouth was still parched, unlike my clothes, hair, hat. 

Clay’s hand were on his hips as he came to stand over me. His body showed the fatigue of the month and all its challenges, but his face was kind, if serious. 

“And now it’s time for The Talk.”

I nodded weakly, knowing exactly what that meant. While Clay’s fatigue was cumulative, built from hours, days, weeks of running, supporting runners, repairing vehicles and I’m sure people, mine was just from those two days of running.  We were both doing what we loved, and we were both the kind of tired you felt in your bones.

The Cuban Quattro were due for their annual reunion.  Laura and I had organized the previous two years, a marathon on a rainy February Tennessee morning and a March marathon in chilly but sunny Colorado.  Dallas stepped up this year to bring us all together again, this time for a 50k in Illinois of all places, as part of the Monarch Ultra.  

The Monarch Ultra had begun a month prior in Peterborough, Ontario and was following the route of the monarch butterflies through three countries, down to the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico, where they spend their winter, much like the snowbirds of northern USA.  

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The Monarch Ultra was also a group of four, celebrating life and friendship while raising awareness. It was the brainchild of imaginative and passionate Carlotta and Clay.  Ronald was documenting the entire 47 days. Gunter was keeping the team well fed for their challenges.

The migration is amazing to behold–this year, even appearing on weather radar images. 

However, the eastern US monarch population has been in slow decline for many reasons, including the loss of milkweed, the sole diet of the larvae.  Like many animal species, monarch butterflies are losing their habitat as cities and highways take over the landscape.

An incredible journey of three thousand miles–about a thousand more than I run in an entire year–the Monarch Ultra is also a celebration of ultrarunners, who also carry themselves across long distances, to arrive at a new, often unknown–physically and spiritually–location.  Often, our goal is the same as the monarch: to survive. It may be more an emotional and mental struggle than physical for us runners, but that makes it no less real.

John and Laura couldn’t make it on this adventure, so Dallas had only me to pick up at the airport. Probably a good thing, as the seemingly standard construction zone of orange cones blocking the obvious routes and giant tarps hiding any helpful signage made finding the pickup point more than a little challenging. I’m pretty sure it was the same construction that was going on three years ago and I didn’t navigate it any better, ending up two stories and a city block away from where Dallas was waiting. Hopefully my navigational skills would hold up better during the ultra.

Dallas and I had decided to run the 50k together, taking the later shift of that day. While perusing the maps, I became entranced by the idea of running for a cause instead of a t-shirt, and signed up for a 100k the next day, just hoping Dallas wouldn’t mind crewing.  He of course didn’t, only later telling me he was beyond surprised I had signed up for the second day. I just grinned, saying simply, “You don’t know me.”

Dallas and I drove to Vienna, IL–pronounced “v-eye-enna”–that afternoon, stopping only at McDonalds for a biological and to get more drinks. The 95 degrees/95 percent humidity had me worried so I had been drinking nonstop for several days. Colorado does not afford much opportunity for heat training so hydrating as much as possible is about all I can do.

We checked into the hotel and got a recommendation for dinner–the Vienna Grill, which had the largest menu of almost any restaurant I’ve frequented.  The catfish was recommended and since we were sort of in the south, that was my choice. And sweet tea. And pie. Dallas went with the old standby spaghetti–the strong smell of garlic almost made me regret my choice.

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Outside the front door of the Grill was a garden of painted rocks. They were bright, each with a beautiful saying.  “Please take one–that’s what they’re for,” a kind voice behind said. “Oh, I couldn’t,” the Southerner in me began. She picked up a rock and handed to me.

“Remember why you started.”

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I can’t say I’m a true believer in signs, but there are moments where I question that doubt.  This was one such moment.

Despite the eleven AM start,  I was up early. I was still full from dinner, but still managed to partake of the free breakfast.  Dallas is a late starter, so I walked around and did some reading while I waited. Vienna is your typical small town Americana, with McDonalds, a park and a historic downtown.   Part of me wanted to explore this quaint little place, knowing I would probably never be there again. Part of me felt like I had explored it all before in other adventures.

The eleven start became a one thirty start. This was the first ultra of Jessica, the morning runner, had ever completed.  As we drove to our starting point, we saw a runner on the road. Dallas commented that it couldn’t be her, that “she didn’t look like an ultra runner.”  Dallas is pretty enlightened for a near octogenarian, so this comment took me by surprise. 

I struggled with bulimia during and after college, abusing my body as a way to feel in control, when I felt anything but.  It makes me sensitive to body image comments, as this comment seemed to be. I asked Dallas what he meant, how did an ultra runner look, and he responded “Efficient. You can’t finish an ultra running like that.” 

I was glad I’d learned to ask questions rather than respond with a knee-jerk reaction.

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After introductions, congratulations and hugs, the baton was passed.  The baton is a poem written by grade three students in Peterborough, Ontario, expressing hope for the butterflies and inspiration for the runners.  It was hard to finish, the hope of third graders contrasting my fifty year old cynicism.

A couple more hugs and we were off.  Dallas, a retired professor as well as an ultra runner, immediately took charge, explaining how we needed to pace ourselves, walk the uphills, and stay hydrated.  I glanced around, reminded of Cuba and how the “flatlanders” and I were always joking about what constituted “hilly”. To me, there were no hills to be seen, but Dallas was serious, so I followed his lead, walking when he did.  

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Not far into the run, we passed a sign marking the Trail of Tears, the thousand mile journey forced on the Native Americans in 1838 and 1839. It seemed my journey would cross centuries and migrations and tragedies.  Almost a quarter of those on the Trail of Tears died. The monarch butterflies are in slow decline.

Not far after that, we saw our first monarch butterflies.

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Dallas wasn’t doing that great himself.  He had run the Vol State 500k again that year, and it had hurt his health.  Dallas owns basically every time record in running for his age group–even at 78, he put me to shame.  That day, though, he was dragging. I had convinced him to carry a second water bottle, knowing I would slow him down, but he needed even more.  

A calf cramp hit him hard after the first “aid station” at 10k. I waited while he massaged it out. This was the second time I’d seen someone literally floored by an intensity of pain I’d rather not think about. It wasn’t long before the other calf had him swearing at a decibal I’d not heard from him before.  After a few excruciating moments, he was able to breathe and walk, so we continued on at a casual pace.  

Dallas was discouraged, not wanting to hold me back but not wanting to quit.  I reminded him of the email Clay had sent when Dallas had referred to the run as a race.  “We want to change that mindset. You are not running for a medal–you are running for a cause.” It was a glorious day, aside from the heat, and I was just happy to be out, running somewhere new.  

I couldn’t convince Dallas to call and get a ride, so I gave him one of my water bottles.  I needed it but he needed it more. We took it easy to the next 10k aid station. The heat was truly angry.

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At the aid station, we took a good break, refueling and rehydrating.  Jessica and her husband had decided to continue crewing. Her food stash was a glory to behold.  I stuffed peanut M&Ms in my pack as I guzzled an iced Red Bull. Then I drank a liter of coconut water.  I had not yet peed, for which I was partially grateful since women don’t have it quite as convenient as men in that department, but I knew it was a bad sign as well.

After soda and Gatorade, Dallas was feeling more like himself and decided to continue on.  Even though it was past three, the heat was not abating. We were less than three miles into that segment, and my thirst was again overwhelming. The warm water in my bottles wasn’t cutting it. 

At each aid station, Clay gave us directions for the next ten kilometers, which would take us to the next aid station.  I knew that the first turn would be at a grocery store in the small town of Cairo, which I’m pretty sure was pronounced K-eye-row.  I ran ahead and signaled Dallas that I was going in, happy that I’d remember to stick cash in my pack. I grabbed one of those giant iced tea drinks loaded with sugar, and guzzled almost all of it before Dallas got there.

“I’m done” is all he said when he got to the store. After making absolutely sure he wasn’t just waffling, I texted Clay.  I didn’t want to just leave Dallas, but it was late afternoon and I wasn’t even halfway done with the day. As I stood there waffling myself, a pickup truck pulled up alongside us and a gentleman with a true southern accent jumped out.  He asked what we were doing and Dallas explained about the Monarch Ultra.

“God directed me to stop,” he explained, and asked if he could pray with us.  I have lost and found religion my entire life. As I enter my fifties, I more hope there’s something more than actually believe it.  I also know that I live my life on a fine edge and any advantage I can gain–physical, spiritual, or otherwise–cannot possibly hurt.

So Dallas and I bowed our heads with our new preacher friend as he asked for our peace and protection–that we be “highly visible” along our journey.  

Dallas shooed me on, so I continued down the road.  Clay drove past a few minutes later so I knew Dallas was safe.  Not long after that, Jessica and her crew stopped and gave me an impromptu aid station.  Even after the giant can of tea, I was able to drink another half liter of cold water. 

The gang was stopping for a late picnic lunch as I continued down the road.  I put my music on as I felt the loneliness of the evening stretch before me. Another 5k slipped under my feet as the sun settled on the horizon, releasing the landscape from its intensity.  The next aid station was missing Jessica and her party as they had to make their way home sixty miles in the opposite direction. They left their snacks for me, and I stuffed more M&Ms in my pack.

The dusk lingered for the next 5k as I headed out on a quiet country road. I ran toward the royal purple and magenta, orange rays still striking through, and thought of my insignificance.  I also thought of the preacher’s prayer for visibility and hoped that someone was listening. There had not been a street light since I turned on this road, and the only lights that weren’t from vehicles were from small farmhouses.  I hadn’t thought to bring anything reflective and was feeling invisible as well as insignificant.

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Until a pickup truck slowed down and the driver shouted something obscene.  I then found myself wishing for invisibility as I choked back my fear. I could see my end:  a truck slowing down, me seeing the wrong end of shotgun. I had my satellite messenger with me, but it was small solace that they’d be able to quickly find my body.

My fear rode alongside my anger, whose target alternated between myself for allowing the fear and the driver for causing it, whom I’m sure was blissfully unaware of his impact. The fears weren’t unfounded and they weren’t fair.  The vast majority of women have been harassed while running and more than a few have not returned from a run. I didn’t want to give in to the fear but I didn’t want to end up dead either.  

I thought about calling friends.  I had to smile when I realized that I rejected calling many because I knew they’d drive straight out to help me.  I have good friends. I finally called my friend, Joelle. “You are brave, you are strong, and you’ve got this.” She was at a mountain rescue training and couldn’t stay with me on the phone, but her words did.

The lonely country road finally ended in a busier but equally poorly lit road.  It was ever so slightly downhill, so I was able to pick up the pace. A car slowed and I again fought my panic.  He asked if I needed a ride and I responded with an exaggeratedly bright “No thanks!” He drove on and I settled uneasily into my pace, urging my tired legs to speed up, to get to the end.

The road flattened again as I watched the moon set two hours after its counterpart.  I had no true idea where I was, but I knew there were no more turns. My legs ached with the monotony of the terrain and I finally had to give in and walk, frustrated, so wanting to be done with the fatigue and fear.  I was doing 100k the next day, and at this pace, I’d be out after dark again.  

I cared not to repeat the experience.

After some infinite length of time and distance, I saw the flashing beacons of a police car.  It signal safety to me and immediately decided that was where I would end, whether anyone was there to greet me or no.

I picked up my pace, trying and failing to run, but determined to get to the flashing blue and red. The lights grew no bigger nor brighter.  The moon had set and there was nothing to distract me from the lights. Even my music seemed to pick just annoying songs and I finally turned it off.

I just watched the blue and red lights, not getting any closer.  It reminded me of a race I did in Canada. It ended on the far end of a lake, which was visible from a couple thousand feet above. It never seemed to get closer until you were finally next to it, and even then, you had to run its mile length before you were finished.

The blue and red lights continued to not get closer.  A train passed. The flashing lights disappeared then reappeared as the train continued on. It seemed everything was closer than the lights.

Finally, finally there was the police car, its officer and Clay and Dallas, all right there. The officer, Jason, was not an ultra runner but was completely taken with the idea of running the Monarch Ultra through the town he looked out for.  We assured him a year was more than enough time to train. He took a selfie with us and bid us well.

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It was nine o’clock. I wanted nothing more than a shower and bed.  The logistics were a bit blurred, but it was two hotel stops then a room. Dallas had secured the last available hotel room in Cape Girardeau. I was so grateful. As an added bonus, it was equipped for the physically challenged, among which I counted myself that night. I sat through my shower, absorbing the warmth of the water despite the miserable heat of the day.  

I was asleep before Dallas finished his shower, having laid out everything for the next day.  It was easy to plan for a day where the temperature would not fluctuate, a luxury not often enjoyed in temperamental Colorado.  I put my water bottles in the small fridge, a vain gesture.

Dallas wasn’t convinced my wakeup time would get us to the start by 6, but I assured him I could do it.  I needed more than five hours of sleep more than I needed time to get ready.  It is completely unfair how much more quickly hours spent sleeping slide by than those spent running–well, most of the time anyway. 

The crew met us sleepily, having had more to do before they could call it a night. The start was much less an event than the day prior, as I simply waved and took off. I put on my lightweight reflective jacket wanting to believe it would be somewhat cool, but took it off before I had run a mile. I wrapped it around my pack, so I would still be visible, thinking again of the pastor.  

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The first segment passed slowly as I ran quietly along a dirt road.  I was already staring at my feet, my body still aching from the day before.  I marveled at the number of dead frogs. As I passed over a small bridge over a small stream, I wondered at the dead fish.  Like, really wondered. The frogs, yeah okay–there were a lot of them but I could see where they came from. But how did the fish get on the road?  Was there some kind of mass suicide? Bored kids maybe pulling them up and leaving them to die? I stumbled out the next few miles, fish thoughts occupying my mind.

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It was the first thing I asked when I got to my aid station.  Ronald explained that it had flooded recently and these small skeletons were the sad victims of that weather.   I was glad I asked, as there were dead fish on all the bridges I crossed that day and I didn’t need my mind going into those dark corners.

Dallas joined me for the second segment which had the second biggest highlight of the day: crossing the mighty Mississippi, one of the geological dividers of our country. Dallas had run across it before, but this was my first time.  It was also the goodbye point for Illinois and the welcome to Missouri. Another first–a run that took me across state lines.

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The river, much like a lot of nature, was not what it once was, abused and dumped on by greedy profiteers.  I wanted to be excited, thrilled, happy about running across it, but just like when thinking of the monarch butterflies, I felt extreme sadness and loss for what would never be again.

On the other side, in Missouri, were the flattened remains of a dog.  It took up the entire width of the sidewalk, forcing Dallas and I onto the now busy road.  The stench was overwhelming, the ninety degree temps making a nauseating stew from the lifeless forms. 

The theme for most of the rest of the day was roadkill.  So much roadkill. I counted two monarch butterflies, and was happy the death toll for them was so low, although I couldn’t help but wonder how far they’d traveled merely to die on the side of the road in Nowhere Missouri.  I couldn’t count the number of possums and, yes, dead fish. 

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Then came the next aid station.  A Missouri lady, whose name I’m not sure I ever knew, and her husband had joined us that day.  They “raised” butterflies until they came out of their cocoon when they set them free to follow their destiny.  A butterfly was born that morning, and it was time for her to join the migration south. 

When she said that I should do the honors, my body stopped aching for a moment.  We named her Delta, for the next town. Delta is latin for “change”, and no name better suited the meaning of this run.   

I was terrified of breaking Delta and couldn’t bring myself to wrap my hand around her as instructed. I instead waited until she climbed onto my thumb.  I felt like a child in my absolute wonderment. I couldn’t stop grinning as I watched her tentatively spread her wings.  

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“Welcome to the world,” I whispered. I was supposed to encourage her to fly but I couldn’t bring myself to rush the process, fascinated as she stretched her wings and tested their strength.

Finally she was ready.  She beat her wings harder and launched from my finger.  She fluttered a moment, rising just a little, before her beautiful wings hesitated and she floated towards the ground.  Landing on a blade of grass she rested, Rodney filming her the entire time.

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My only regret for those two days was my addled brain becoming distracted at that moment and walking off.  I never saw Delta truly begin her voyage to Mexico. If all went well for her, she is there now. I will never know, but I have to believe.  I have to have hope.

From there to almost the end of my day, there were no more turns. I ran through a one gas station town.  Seated out front in dilapidated chairs was a trio of men that is only ever seen in front of the only gas station in a town.  I heard them yell my name and turned in surprise. They were cheering and clapping. I grinned and waved, gaining just a bit of energy from their enthusiasm and the general silliness and randomness of the brief encounter. I correctly assumed Carlotta was behind it.

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I needed that energy because I wanted nothing more than to stop, a desire with which I am intimately familiar. It’s the ultimate conundrum of ultrarunning.  Logically, you would never even start an ultra–or even a marathon for that matter. There’s no logical reason to put yourself through that kind of pain, no logical reason to spend that much time being not much more than a mouse on a wheel with nice scenery. So what do you rely on to begin the journey, to keep going? 

Passion and stone cold pig-headedness. 

But when it comes time to quit? Then what? How do you know when to start relying on logic again?  Logic is always going to want you to stop. Logic is the enemy.

For this event, it was Clay standing over me, giving me my options.  This run had never been about me–not about me finishing, not about me even running. It was about the butterflies. It was about community. It was about giving back.  

And it was time for me to give again.  The crew was exhausted. Their RV, which had broken down three hundred miles back, was ready to go again. Dallas didn’t like driving after dark and was ready to be back home.  It had taken me almost nine hours to complete the first 50k of the day, and the second half would have me done well after midnight. The goal each day was to complete an ultra, and I had completed that.

I smiled and shrugged.  “Guess I’m done.” A small ceremony, a certificate, hugs, photos, and the adventure was at an end for me. Another couple weeks was in store for these four, and they were ready to face it with bravery and a sense of humor.

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And what about building bridges? Politics inevitably came up, the rollback of many critical environmental protections impacting so much of what each of us loved.  I try to celebrate what I love instead of bashing what I hate, so I bragged on Colorado’s new governor, Jared Polis, who had recently signed an executive order to study the migratory paths in Colorado in order to build routes for animals, protecting both them and the people injured in crashes with them.

“Incredible,” said Ronald, shaking his head sadly but smiling.  “A politician building bridges instead of walls.”

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Incredible indeed.  All of us, butterflies included, could use more bridges in our lives.

2 thoughts on “Building Bridges

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