Of Mountains and Creatures

When I heard Ecuador was open to travel from both the US and Europe, I knew where I was going.  A country that combines two of my great passions: mountains and animals.  Chimborazo is one of the great non-technical climbs. The summit is the farthest one can get from the center of the earth.  The Galapagos Islands are solely about preserving wildlife, and what better mandate is there than that? Besides, what life is complete without seeing a blue-footed booby?

I found a guide who specialized in ecotourism.  A bit of hypocrisy I suppose, to be flying on a jet plane during a global pandemic while also trying to save the planet.  I do my best. 

I liked that the owner was responsive to my questions–being a South American country, I knew my being a woman would be more of an impediment than usual.  It did come up when Wlady, the owner, asked about Olivier’s and my mountaineering experiences.  It took me more than a few minutes to write my summary: Kilimanjaro, Rainier, Denali, mountain rescue, forty-something fourteeners (including Mt Whitney), and several peaks in the Alps.  Olivier’s experience was a bit quicker to summarize: a staged run in Nepal and one in Costa Rica.

Guess who received the kudos. 

I wasn’t too hopeful about finding a guiding company in Latin America that wouldn’t assume I knew less than my male partner, so I didn’t bother to look. To their credit, they did have one female guide.

The company, Ecuador Eco Adventures, had one package that was ideal: Cotopaxi followed by Chimborazo. A way to acclimate while still experiencing a big mountain. A night spent at 15,000ft.  Even if one mountain didn’t work out–not just possible but likely–there would be the other.  

We arrived in Quito a couple of days before the climb, for a chance to acclimate a little more at Quito’s 9000ft elevation.  Even though my plans included several nights in Leadville, Colorado–the highest incorporated city in the US at 10,000 ft–I still wanted every possible advantage.  A lot can go wrong on a mountain like that, and with one completely inexperienced climber and a guide who might not appreciate my skills, I intended to go into it as strong as possible.

My training plan was simple but tough.  At least every other week, I went to the Manitou Incline, a fierce climb of 2000 ft in a mere mile. It was an ideal “thunder thigh” building exercise. I complemented it with intervals on the Red Rocks stairs, a lesser but still formidable climb.  

I became the Strava “Local Legend” of Loveland Pass, with my repeated climbs of the 12k-13k ft first pitch.  I’d load up my rescue pack to thirty pounds, put on my heavy winter mountaineering boots, strap on snow goggles against the brutal wind which had already left a frostbite scar on one cheek, and go up and down until I couldn’t anymore, deeply impressing many tourists struggling just to make it up the first time.

And of course, I continued with my usual running training in between.  Six to ten mile runs during the week.  Six to eight hour runs on the weekends.  I talked my friends Rob and Margaret into climbing Mt Evans, Rob and I on foot and Margaret on her hefty mountain bike, while I tested out Diamox, a drug that’s supposed to help avoid issues with acclimating. I was dizzy and nauseous before even starting and didn’t touch the drug again. 

After I landed in Quito, I was picked up by a driver hired by the Casa Joaquin Boutique Hotel where we would spend our first two nights.  He took the scenic tour from the airport and told me some of the history of Quito and his experiences living there.  He took me up a steep, cobblestone road into the city where I could see the collapsing buildings on the edge of the eroded area eating away at the older side of the city.  It was straight out of Dr Seuss.

I had the day to myself to explore a little around the hotel. I wandered around to a park, found a quiet coffee shop and enjoyed just being somewhere different.  I’ve had enough practice with Spanish over the years that I was able to pick up on snippets of conversation, but mostly I just enjoyed the architecture, flora and weather. 

Walking around Quito

Olivier arrived late that night. I had bought dinner for him at the one open restaurant, but he was too tired to eat. He did bring Belgian chocolate, one of the many perks of our relationship.

Visiting the equator was the top priority for the next day.  When you read the tourist blogs, you discover that there are two places to visit: the “official” line and the “real” line.  The official one was built based on the calculations of the French explorers in the 1800s. The “real” one is based on the GPS calculations, which often don’t agree with themselves.    

The “real” line felt more “real”.  The $2 tour gave us a history of the Amazon and its rapidly disappearing world.  I can’t say I felt terribly bad that giant reptiles and cannibalism are things of the past, but I do appreciate the loss of cultures as a result of the “westernization” of the world.

The highlight of the tour was balancing an egg. This can actually be done anywhere anytime–with enough patience–but I do love participating in these tourist traps.

The “official” equator gave a bit more sterilized history in the multi-story monument.

The next day, we met with our guide, Paulo, and headed out to Cotopaxi. The drive wasn’t long and soon the volcano came into view. I felt the familiar knocks of trepidation and excitement. And also a sense of disappointment.  The clouds covering the summit did not bode well.

We had lunch at the welcome center just inside the park, then drove up to the refugio at 15,000.  It was a short walk from the parking lot and a stark reminder of the elevation. On the way, a small group of young people stopped and asked us in broken English if we were planning on summitting.  Our breathless nods were met with awe and excitement and requests for selfies.

Cotopaxi saying good evening to the world

The hot chocolate and snacks that greeted us at the refugio were much welcomed. The fact that we were the only climbers that day made for a quiet evening but a cold one as well. We watched the sun and the clouds, both slowly disappearing with the evening.  

Dinner was a basic affair of fish, rice, french fries and salad, and more hot drinks.  I spent a restless evening, shivering miserably in my sleeping bag, falling asleep of course fifteen minutes before Paulo announced the arrival of midnight and the start of our climb. 

Paulo and I were excited about the break in the weather.  It was still breezy and the unconsolidated snow from the previous storms would make visibility and climbing more challenging, but at least we had a shot.  I piled on my warm gear, my pack already ready, poured the rest of the hot tea and a generous amount of sugar in my water bottle, and we headed out into the night.

The first half mile was a simple hike, but the going was still slow.  We roped up as the terrain became steeper and icier.  It was cold but I was managing it well and was excited to keep going.  Olivier was less so.  It was his first big climb and it was obvious the fear of the unknown was overtaking him.

Thanks to climate change, the original standard route was impassable and the new standard route climbed over much steeper terrain.  The loose snow meant each step had to be firmly and intentionally planted.  I was grateful for my time spent in Leadville as I struggled for each breath.  But I could tell Olivier was struggling more.  

I hadn’t argued when I was put in the middle of the rope, despite the fact that the middle is generally reserved for the least skilled person.  It is the safest place as you have someone in front and behind you to catch any fall. Paulo was not a big guy, even by Ecuadorian standards, and I wasn’t sure even the two of us would be able to catch Olivier if he slipped. I also wanted my eye on Paulo in case he fell, knowing again I could catch him but not him and Olivier.

Breaks were infrequent and short thanks to the unrelenting wind. I ate a couple Honey Stinger gels and drank a couple sips of my super sweet hot tea at each stop, using my ultrarunning trick of fueling as much as I could while I could, knowing a time was quickly coming where I wouldn’t then couldn’t.

That time had come for Olivier before we even started. While I was forcing down a buttered roll before the climb, he was anxiously pacing.  His unused water bottle had frozen and his snacks remained in his pocket.  Three hours into the climb, he was resting more than he was climbing.

We began another steep climb. I could feel Olivier slipping on most steps, fatigue and inexperience keeping him from planting each step with the necessary force and angle to make it stick.  He stopped long enough that Paulo began pulling on the rope, trying to assist. But I was in between and had only enough energy to pull myself up. 

Eventually, Olivier admitted defeat with the cry “I can’t”. I relayed the message to Paulo. He came down to discuss it with me–he had figured out quickly during our discussion over dinner that I was the more experienced of the climbers and it was obvious to me that I had his respect.  

Barely halfway to the summit, our options were limited to one: going back.  Unfortunately for Olivier, that meant he had to lead us back down, a position he was not comfortable with or happy about.  It was slow, but we still made it back to the refugio in almost a third of the time. 

Olivier went immediately back to bed but it was long before I heard the sound of him throwing up–a sure sign of altitude illness.  We had to get him down quickly but the truck and the sunrise were still a couple hours away.  I sat with Paulo, sipping hot tea while we waited.

Paulo tried to explain to me that “big men with lots of muscles” required much more time to acclimate than us smaller people. I bit my tongue hard, willing myself not to engage in a futile disagreement. 

I’ve been to enough trainings, read enough articles to know that the ability to acclimate remains one of the great mysteries of mountaineering.  The only known experiment to prove anything about acclimatization involved the subjects drilling holes in their head to measure cranial pressures, an experiment not soon to be repeated. Much like the stock market, even prior success is no indication of future performance.

I’d been in this uncomfortable position before.  A good friend had decided she was up for a three day climb of Mt Whitney.  She promised to do at least one night of backpacking, as she’d never slept in a tent. She also agreed to at least a few back-to-back runs or hikes. Instead, each weekend, she opted for sleeping in her bed and lounging Sundays.  She didn’t bother with excuses–she just didn’t want to.

When the trip finally came, I ended up carrying most of the gear while being subjected to her endless complaining.  After the summit, she ate all the food while I napped in my sleeping bag, forcing us to descend that day rather than spend another night out. My body already exhausted and now fuel deficit, I left all her gear for her to carry or not. After we returned home, she sent me a beautiful card and necklace.  She wrote how ungracious I was and was ending the friendship immediately rather than pretend she still liked me.  

I’m not proud of the words I sent her but I don’t regret them either.

Olivier was handicapped living in a relatively flat, close to sea level country. I knew that. But I had sent him articles and suggestions for training that would at least in some form compensate. But his foot was hurt and his knees weren’t doing well, so he kept his runs limited in distance and effort. 

Cotopaxi was behind us and there was nothing to be done. But Chimborazo was still ahead and I had a decision to make.  It boiled down to selfishness and altruism.  I could attempt Chimborazo on my own or ask Wlady if there was a smaller peak we could attempt together.  

It wasn’t really much of a decision. One of the reasons I do many things alone is so that I don’t have to consider others. It’s not just about doing what I want, but doing what I think is safe or doing what feels right for me. I don’t have to explain myself to anyone. I don’t have to justify my decisions.  If it doesn’t feel right, I can just pack up and go home.

But when someone is there, I want them to succeed. I want them to have fun.  If I am with someone, whether mountaineering or running or just hanging out together, then the time with and the happiness of the other person becomes my priority.

Chimborazo has a little sister volcano–Carihuairazo–that fit nicely into our plans. We could still spend two days acclimating at a lodge near the base of Chimborazo. We spent one night in Riobamba at the home and hostel of Wlady, having a wonderful dinner with him but otherwise not leaving our room.  

While we were making plans for our adventure, Olivier had told me that he had heard that booking flights to the Galapagos would be easier and less expensive from Ecuador. Wlady told us over dinner that it actually may be too late to book airfare and it would certainly be more expensive, ending with me spending a frantic couple hours after dinner trying to make reservations.  

Fortunately there were flights but they were not cheap. I was able to book the airfare but not to pay for it. I tried every way I could think. No luck. I tried to not overreact to the thought of not getting to see flue footed boobies.

I was finally able to book airfare to the islands, but not back.  I gave up and slept. In the morning, I found a number to call, an English speaking customer support person to explain it, and, most importantly, how to get around it.  To discourage tourists but not locals from visiting the islands, there are special flights and airfare available to Ecuadorians. The websites had assumed I was local because of the website I was accessing, allowing me to book the airfare, but my credit card gave away my nationality.

Airfare booked, we drove to the lodge where we’d spend the next two and a half nights.  The sleeping quarters were a few steps away from the main lodge, on a large parcel of land, making it wonderfully secluded.  The feeling was emphasized by the fact that we were the only two people staying. The crappy weather put a definite damper on the climbing but was making the rest of the trip far more pleasant.  

I’d found a trail before we’d left to hike that afternoon.  Shortly after reaching the trail, we met an ultra runner training for the UTMB. We chatted with him for a while about his running and the trail before he bid us good luck and continued on his twenty-something mile training run that had taken him to 16,000 feet.  Later in the hike, I’d look down at my watch and realize we were over 14,000ft. I barely felt the altitude.

Alpaca herder

It was a beautiful day and Chimborazo was out in all its taunting glory. The landscape was wide open. Later that night, we’d be treated to a view of both the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross in the intimidatingly clear night sky.  Nothing much outside of the tiny white alpine flowers grew at 14,000 feet in Colorado, so the variety of grasses and brush played on my senses, contributing to my sense that were not nearly as high as my watch indicated..  

The scene and senses were complete when a herd of alpacas meandered by later. The herder asked for money in the universal sign of rubbing his pointer and thumb together, then allowed us to take photos of him in his wool attire of deep maroon, his serious countenance and the dapper hat that completed the ensemble. On our way back down, we’d find him napping in the grass as his herd enjoyed some rest themselves.

Alpaca herder

Dinner was the usual meat, rice, french fries and salad, with fruit for dessert.  Despite the lack of nausea, I had lost a bit of my appetite. There is a certain feeling of lethargy, from the body adjusting to the different routine, to the altitude, to the food.  The chill in the air meant I was drinking my share of hot tea, and it seemed the hydration was keeping the altitude symptoms away.  

The next day brought drizzling rain.  We did another short hike, this time up a dirt road. We put up with the rain as far as we could, then turned back for more hot drinks.  I was glad for the couple of books I had brought with me. I was trying to stay present and take in everything around me, but sometimes an escape from reality is desired.  

That afternoon, we were joined by a young crew–a band doing some recordings of songs.  From what we could understand, one of the members was the son of the owner of the lodge.  The distraction of the music and antics was welcome until it moved to the sleeping lodge.  There’s only so many times one can politely ask another to close the door.  Happily, our guide had no such inhibitions and soon it was quiet and warm. Just in time for our midnight wake up. 

It was an hour drive to the start, with the last few miles on very muddy, very sketchy dirt roads.  I was annoyed at being impressed with his driving–I would have much preferred an extra mile or two of hiking over the stress of wondering how we’d get back if we got stuck in such a remote location. He and I both had satellite messengers so at least we had communication with the world. Whether or not it could deliver help in getting us unstuck was another matter.

I wasn’t expecting to encounter much rain hiking these big mountains, so had left the rain cover for my pack at home.  I suppose the good news was that the rain turned quickly to snow as we slowly climbed the peak and my pack froze solid.  Since this was our last climb, I wasn’t too worried about my gear getting wet but I’m always annoyed with myself for leaving behind a useful piece of gear. 

The recent snowfall had increased the avalanche danger, so while we would make a high point that day, we would not be making the summit.  We roped up for the final climb, but the lack of snow and the low angle of the climb made it feel a bit gratuitous. Then again, I’m never one to turn away from extra safety measures. 

The clouds hid the landscape, giving no indication of what we had accomplished, making it feel both like we were standing precariously at the tip of a high precipice and firmly anchored to the ground.  It was still a sense of accomplishment to be standing on that 16,000ft rock. Olivier was grinning widely, I’m sure more in relief than joy, but there was at least some pride and excitement on his face.

Several hours and car rides later, we were back in Quito.  Wlady had generously paid for a ride back to the city.  We had a beautiful local dinner at a touristy building top restaurant, with an amazing view of the city. After three days of the same meal, we splurged on spicy foods, local wine and an amazing chocolate dessert.  It was a good thing we had a bit of a walk back to the hostel. 

The night skyline of Quito

To accommodate any hiccups in our plans and to give ourselves time to get the needed COVID test, we gave ourselves an extra day before leaving for the Galapagos Islands.  That one day almost caused us to need another.  We spent a pleasant morning walking around Old Town Quito, admiring the architecture of the churches and the wares of the chocolate shops.  Then we hiked up to the statue of the Virgin of the Panecillo, taking photos of the city and mountains as we went.  We completed some Christmas shopping at the stalls and watched the performers entertain the small crowd.  Off to the side, people were flying kites in the beautiful blue sky.

We made our way back to the hostel. Just feet from the door, I felt someone touch my arm. I looked back in surprise only to be further astonished by the same someone grabbing my phone out of my pocket.  I yelled in surprise and reached for the man, managing to grab his shirt before being knocked to the ground.  Olivier had reacted quickly to my cry but soon found himself in the same position.

There were four of them, one with a knife.  We kept yelling and soon the police came running, their batons swinging and mace out. Three people ended up in the trunks of the tiny police cars and Olivier and I found ourselves at the police station, explaining what happened.

Olivier is a detective by trade and was adamant that the details of the crime be recorded carefully and accurately.  I sat there numb, but a far away part of my brain found a bit of amusement in the three languages being batted back and forth, nuances lost and found. I finally found my way through the fog to suggest that Olivier use Google translate.  

It may not have captured the detail in the words he was using, but given the limits of human memory especially in crisis mode and of what the police could do anyway, it was good enough.

The police were kind enough to drop us at the mall to purchase a new phone.  I was angry and afraid and embarrassed and shaky from the experience. It was little solace at least that the criminals were going to be even angrier that they had risked all that for a $400 Pixel and not the thousand dollar iPhone I’m sure they thought they were getting. I found a decent Samsung for a hundred dollars.  Honestly, all I really cared about was having the camera for taking photos in the Galapagos.

Olivier bought me dinner and a beer at the food court before catching a taxi back to the hostel.

The gymnastics of getting to the Galapagos was enough to keep me from dwelling on the incident.  I had received one of those vaguely alarmist emails with instructions to show up at the airport two hours early. Our flight was at 6am and the airport was an hour away. We checked in then were instructed to go to a nearby kiosk where we would get our pass and have our bags scanned.  

The kiosk of course opened at 5:30.  We were second in line and walked through security and straight onto the plane. I’m not sure how anyone behind us in line actually made it. A two hour layover which fortunately was right next to a coffee kiosk that was open, then we were finally in the Galapagos–or at least at the airport.  Ten dollars for the shuttle to the ferry, a dollar for the ferry, then we were picked up by the hotel shuttle.  

He tried to sell us a hike, but all we wanted was a nap and food. I had spent the time I should have been sleeping trying to sync my new phone. The foreign SIM card would not recognize Verizon and without access to my phone, my two-step security processes was keeping me from logging into pretty much anything. I had at least been able to access my email to get the digital boarding passes for the flight and the results of the COVID test.

The hotel was off the main strip and the room was done in a not-quite-but-almost cheesy penguin theme.  Hunger overcame our fatigue and we ventured out.  We found one of those hole-in-the-wall places and an amazing meal of odd sea creatures.  We walked around some more to become familiar with the area and start planning our few days there.  


One of our finds was the Charles Darwin Research Center and another was a great little coffee shop. There were sea lions, lizards and pelicans everywhere. I was absolutely in love, although I fell a bit out of love with the sea lions after being attacked by one. PSA: Don’t wake sea lions up from a nap.. People were cutting up and selling fish in the market, much to the joy of said creatures.  We meandered down to the docks and just took in the sights.

Lots of turtles

Because of the need  to limit human impact on the islands, there is very little that can be done without a guide. It makes the experience feel a lot more touristy than I prefer, walking like kindergartners in single file while the guide drones on for probably the thousandth time about all the wonders of the island.  For merely a few thousand more, you can stay on a liveaboard and travel to all the islands, but that was not in our budget. 

My main goal was to see the blue footed boobies. I’ve no idea when I first heard of these birds, but how can one not fall in love with the glorious coloring of their webbed feet?  So after a morning at the Charles Darwin Research Center learning about the efforts being put into saving the large turtles for which the islands are famous, we booked a tour of Seymour.  

We spent the afternoon at the Galapagos beach, a stunningly white beach made a bit desolate by the mile plus walk it takes to get there. I’d hoped to see more animals but was content with the lack of human variety.

The beach

It was past mating season and well into baby season for the blue footed boobies.  There were dozens across Seymour. The reasons for the tight control of humanity was made obvious by how close we could get without the animals being afraid.  My new phone actually had a better camera than my stolen one, so I was at least grateful for that.

Listening to our guide, I was reminded yet again of why my contribution to saving wildlife was limited to donating money. Many of the blue footed boobies had two babies.  The parents can feed both for a couple months but eventually, they can only support one. The weaker baby is either left to die a long, painful death, or is mercifully eaten quickly by another creature of the island.

Blue Footed Boobies!

Lunch and bad wine was served on the boat. We then spent a couple hours snorkeling. I love the water but am constantly reminded of how it doesn’t much like me. The currents soon made me nauseous.  I think I saw some fish but not entirely sure.  I really wanted to see penguins as well. I hadn’t realized that a specific species lives here, pretty much by accident, but they have adapted to if not thrived in the warmer climes.

That evening, we walked around the docs, having heard of the baby sharks that sometimes swam around there. I posted a photo on Facebook and of course someone had to make reference to the song. Olivier was lucky enough to have never heard it, so of course had to ask. I’m pretty sure that ranks as one of his regrets of the trip.

We decided to sign up for another tour the next day that started with the hike the driver had offered the first day, then a couple more hikes around the volcanic rock by the ocean on Isla Santa Cruz, the island on which we were staying.  Seeing so many turtles in their natural habitat was amazing and humbling.  It is difficult to see so up close and personal the devastation humankind has managed to bring. Snorkeling again in the afternoon, then back to Puerto Ayora for dinner and rest.

Olivier was tired of the tours so for our third day, we decided to take a ferry ride to another island. The tour operator let us borrow snorkeling gear, telling us of the wonderful ride over and a beautiful place near the docks to see all kinds of fish and possibly even penguins.

They were lies.  We opted to sit upstairs to see the views as we traveled across the ocean to Isla Isabela.  After about fifteen minutes, all I saw was the inside of my rain jacket as I futilely tried to protect myself from the onslaught of salt water. The sun wasn’t out and I had a hard time believing I hadn’t been transported somewhere far far away from the warmth of the equator.  I’ve had a lot of miserable three hours in my life.  These three hours ranked in at least the top ten.  As we departed the ferry, the seven of us who ended up on top shared grim smiles as we squeezed what water we could out of our clothing.  

We had been given passes for the ferry from the tour company and told not to give them to anyone else we would not be able to get back on the ferry.  It should not have come as any surprise when the ferry operators requested them before we could get off the boat. After a great deal of back-and-forth–our flight was the next day, so getting back that evening was somewhat mandatory–we gave in and handed them over.

We walked around for a bit, looking for a coffee shop–or anywhere with warm drinks or food–but soon realized the island was far more deserted than Santa Cruz.  All development had been stopped on the islands to discourage more tourism, so outside the touristy hub of Puerto Ayora, there was not much to be found.

Isla Isabel

It took some searching but we finally found the inlet where we could snorkel without a guide. It wasn’t much but it was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. There was a simple boardwalk to the water, with sea lions napping every few feet. The mangroves held dominant, shielding the area from the surrounding village and dock.

The rocks and sands really were beautiful, but the highlight was seeing a turtle swimming around and the decided lack of people.  But it was still cold and I still had a chill from the ferry.  We also wanted to make sure we had plenty of time in case there were any issues with getting a pass back.  Our names were on the list and we boarded without incident, but the evil thoughts we’d already been thinking about the tour operator

We took the last two seats in the covered part of the ferry, but it wasn’t long before my seasickness began its push. I held off as long as I could, finally semi-warm, but I soon had to head to the back of the boat.  I tried to be subtle, but a guide on the ferry quickly offered me a plastic bag and napkins.  

The heat from feeling ill helped make the cool from the water tolerable and I stared out at the horizon for the rest of the eternity that the ferry ride took.  

I grabbed a dollar popcorn bag from the kiosk by the dock then dragged Olivier back to the coffee shop.  It was the first time I wished other countries served coffee in the sizes that the US does. I could really have gone for a venti that evening.  The flavour and warmth soon calmed me and I was soon ready to appreciate our final evening on the island.

Coffee–and books

 The next day, we took the reverse course of shuttle, ferry and plane back to Quito. Without the anxiety of the trip out and looking forward only to going home, it was easier to appreciate the time it took to reach the airport. It gave time to reflect on the trip and all that I had experienced in two weeks.  I try not to err on the side of toxic positivity, but from experience I know that the joys will outlast the pains of these adventures. 

And who wouldn’t long remember blue footed boobies?

When Croatia is the Only Option

Love in the time of COVID.

I used to think I was clever, coming up with that line. Now it feels not just not-clever, it’s a sad reminder of the relationship struggles all of us face.  I’ve had friends lose friends to the virus. I have had three friends lose parents this year, not being able to be there, either not being able to attend the funeral or being criticized for doing so.  They all have one remaining parent, and two still live far enough away that they struggle with the care of that declining parent.

None of my family lives near me.  I’m usually good with that, but with the uncertainty of the times, it just adds to the low level stress I’m learning slowly to live with. I wonder what’s going to happen, if I’ll get the chance to see any of them again, what it will look like if I do.  

I also rank among those in a long distance relationship–long, as in not even the same continent. I’d say it’s hard enough planning time together under the best of times, but we’ve not even had that.  Our goodbyes after our last trip now are filed under “If we’d only known.”  

If we’d only known the world was going to be locked down as long as it was. If we’d only known no one would be let out of Europe and no one from the US is welcome in. I had initially been relieved to make it back into the US before everything shut down, but as time went by, I wondered where I might be if I hadn’t.  Maybe one of those unlucky souls l 

There are a lot of us.  Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have run articles about the struggles. Of course, there are those who don’t believe there are any of us–if you don’t live I-don’t-know-how-close, then you’re not in a Real Relationship.

Whatever that is.

As a result of all this, Croatia is now the Paris of the long distance relationship world.  It is almost literally the only place Europeans and Americans can enter. Armenia too, but they’re kind of at war.  Of course, I’d heard of Croatia–there was a war, maybe two.  A friend or two have been there. But it’s never been on my bucket list.

Until it was. Which was when it became almost literally the only place both Olivier and I could enter.  Not without a few hurdles of course.  But it was possible. Maybe.

Booking the airfare was one of my happiest moments of my year. In a word, it was hope, something I didn’t realize was as lacking as it was. Outside of semi-periodically checking my 401K, I had absolutely no plans for the future.  Prior to this year, I always had at least one race planned.  

That was my norm and I had no idea how my life was enhanced by always having something to look forward to.  Runs with friends. Training. Road trips.  A reason to get out of bed that wasn’t a job that I truly don’t enjoy.

There were still hurdles to get through.  In July, Croatia revised the entry requirements to include a COVID PCR test to be taken no earlier than 48 hour before arriving at their border patrol.  This is an almost impossible requirement to fulfill. Even if the planes do arrive on time (and when do they ever, when you need them to), there was no lab that even advertised less than a 72 hour turnaround. I wasn’t confident.

Things were changing daily.  I checked all the websites way too often, expecting the worst, hoping the best.  Happily–and sadly–nothing changed.  Things weren’t getting worse, but they weren’t getting better.  I held my breath for the two weeks after Labor Day, and sure enough, numbers began to rise.  

My obsessiveness reached new levels. Along with checking embassy websites, I was checking all the lab’s turnaround times. Neither were changing.  I knew that the chances of having an allowable test result were slim to none. I had also done enough research to realize that it all really just came down to the border guard.  

Part of the good news was that, if you didn’t have the test results immediately, as long as  you had some kind of negative result, they would just have you quarantine until said test results arrived. Not so bad.  The rest of the good news was that there was no consistency in the test results and probably as often as not, just having some kind of negative result would suffice. 

So I had my plan.  78 hours before arrival, I tested at UCHealth, knowing there was a good chance I would get the results back faster than elsewhere, as UCHealth had their own labs.  In actuality, I had them within 48 hours, so next time, I would know to bank on them.  Within 48 hours, I took a rapid results test and another PCR test–the latter being the required test, but sure enough took more than 48 hours to deliver the results.

The final option was a PCR test at the Frankfurt airport.  That was the one change I had seen on scheduling.  Originally, you could pay 200 euro and get your results within 3 hours, but by then, the testing was so popular it was six hours. I had five. Assuming the flights were on time.

Now I just had to get there.  My direct flight home had already been cancelled and rescheduled. I had read that gate agents were taking it into their hands to verify passengers had their test results, which I didn’t really. 

And of course, Croatia could change its mind at any time.  

United had the usual passport check, no visa was required. First hurdle crossed. The flights were all mostly empty and therefore early. Second hurdle done.  I checked for my final test results at every airport, willing them to show up, but no such luck.  

As I walked towards border patrol in Zagreb, I had two expired test results–one not even the correct test type. There were two agents, both women, and one line.  I couldn’t even try to bet on the one that might be more lenient, painfully aware of the biases I would have to admit to if I had had a choice. 

I had everything printed out: the two test results and all the paperwork included with those; proof of my first night’s stay (Olivier had made the reservation, so in French), and the printout from registering online with Croatia’s travel site.  The agent asked only for the test results, which I had attempted to bury.  I took it as a good sign. I separated those ten pages from the rest and handed them to her.

I knew from experience and anecdote that acting natural never works, so I adopted “hapless traveler”, which I’m quite good at.  I looked at her apologetically and stammered, “I wasn’t sure what was needed, so I brought everything.”  She paged through the documents. She handed a few back to me. It wasn’t looking good.

She looked at me again.  She picked up the passport and a sheet of paper. She stamped the passport then handed both to me.  It was fortunate there was plexiglass between us. I might have hugged her.  As it was, it took everything I had not to sprint past her and into Croatia.

It was the first moment in over a month–quite possibly seven months–where I felt I could finally relax.  I took a photo of the “Welcome to Croatia” sign and sent it to a couple friends who asked me to keep them apprised.  I ordered a cup of coffee, sat down and simply enjoyed the moment.

Olivier arrived a couple of hours later.  We practically had the airport to ourselves, except for the poor man who mistook the parking ticket machine for an ATM. The seven months evaporated in the moments of our reunion.  The hour it took to get our rental car went by unnoticed.  

The hotel room that night was pretty much the only thing we had actually planned for those ten days. This was a new experience for me.  As I was flying into Zagreb, I tried to remember the last time I’d taken a vacation to do anything but run or climb mountains. I couldn’t.

Jet lag had me sleeping late the next morning. We enjoyed a solitary breakfast–being the only hotel guests ended up being one theme of the trip.  Tourist season, for what it was this year, was long past.  We never reserved a room until each evening,  always finding plenty of beautiful choices and even more beautiful prices.  

 Our adventure was a rough sketch, the details filling in each day.  There was a train station downtown that was featured in one of the James Bond films.  Olivier is a huge fan, so that was first on our list.  A couple of photos there, then we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring  downtown Zagreb.  

There were several open air markets and we wandered through, enjoying each other and the fact that this was merely day two.  I think we were both hoping the lack of plans would allow us to stay in the moment more, allowing the trip to at least feel longer.  We did appreciate each moment, but the days still flew by.

But I’m getting ahead.  We wandered the streets without any real direction, seeing whatever was in front of us.  A late, protein filled lunch completed our tour, and we wandered back to the car and drove off to our next destination: Plitvice Lakes National Park.

The hotel Olivier booked was just next to the park.  We basically rolled out of bed and into the park.  Like most of Europe–at least the parts I’ve visited–hikes are not measured in kilometers.  They’re measured in hours. Which makes a lot of sense, although I’m not sure it really solves the problem of people way underestimating the time it will take them to complete the hike.  But at least there’s the “I told you so” factor.

Our hike was estimated to take between six and eight hours, and we were well within that range. There are sixteen lakes in the park, terraced, with absolutely stunning waterfalls.  The vividness of the colors and the uniqueness of each lake had me grateful that cameras are digital and I had a lot of storage on mine. 

We took time to soak our feet and just enjoy the serenity. A lot like in the US, the majority of tourists are found in the first few miles, with miles of solitude following.  The trail stayed mostly by the lakes, but at one point, it climbed a couple hundred feet 

We took the electric boat back to the beginning and began the drive to our next destination: Starigrad.  We waited until close to our hotel to find a restaurant and were almost regretful.  Starigrad is a tourist location, so in October much of the town was empty.  Shortly before our hotel, though, we were rewarded with a local restaurant, seemingly open just for us. 

We hadn’t eaten since breakfast (except to snack on some of the chocolates that Olivier had brought from Belgium), so our opinion of the food may have been a bit biased.  It was amazing.  It was a theme for restaurants to have a Croatian dinner for two, filled with local fish and a side of potatoes and greens.  Anchovies, mussels, cuttlefish, calamari.  A beautiful red wine.  The kind owner was attentive to our wants, her smile enough to bridge the communication gap. 

We found our hotel and went to bed, full and happy.  

The hotel was right next to the ocean, which accentuated the storm that lit up a night that was otherwise uninterrupted by lights of any kind.  I don’t know how long I laid there, listening to the wind and rain, finally falling back into a deep, restful sleep.

Another hike was on the menu for the next day, at another national park.  Paklenica National Park is home to some spectacular climbing.  Had I known, I would have been tempted to hire a guide for a couple routes.  With COVID, though, it was better I didn’t know.  It would have been my luck to sustain a serious injury and take up a hospital bed that could have been better utilized. 

We started on the main trail out of the parking lot.  We had hoped to visit the one open cave, but with the COVID virus, it was closed that day.  We’d been given a map at the visitor’s center and I saw a small loop that went past the cave and looked to be maybe a quieter route.  Olivier was game so we strolled together past the “Hazardous Trail” sign.

I have an absolute fascination with trail warning signs.  Not a few weeks before this trip, I had taken a photo of a sign warning of the increased risk of going down a trail after climbing the Manitou Incline, a former train track that climbed over 2000 feet in just under a mile. My intention was to post a funny and cynical message on Facebook.

Three miles later, I found myself flat on my face, blood covering several body parts.

It was still a funny and cynical post, just not the one I had planned.

I didn’t take a photo of this sign.

The trail was climbed upwards. It was marked with what I’ve heard called “fried eggs”–painted red circles surrounded by white.  Soon we could see the Adriatic sea.  I’d almost forgotten it was so close.  Climbing the trail, I felt as if I was back in Colorado, back in my comfort zone.  Seeing the water reminded me this was an entirely new adventure. 

The trail did have some mild class 3 terrain–where using your hands is necessary–but each area had handrails to assist the traveler on her way.  We climbed up over rocks then back down the other side, the sea to our left and the mountains everywhere else.

A lightly treed meadow greeted us after the steep descent, the fried eggs guiding us forward.  There were light footprints in the muddier areas, but we did not see a soul until we came closer to the main trail. 

Also near the main trail were old–really, ancient–buildings, something else that reminded me of Colorado but also not.  Most buildings in the Colorado mountains are remnants of wooden mining operations, gold and silver luring the fortune seekers finally to the daunting peaks and weather of the region, dozens of years after the rest of the country saw its populations growing.  These buildings were built of stone, predating Colorado’s history by hundreds and, for a couple, thousands of years.

Near the entrance to the park is a small museum for the Croatian Mountain Rescue Service, giving information about both the agency and how not to need them.  Their message is the same as mountain rescue teams the world over: be prepared.  

We arrived back at our car and after some tight maneuvering, were back on the road, headed to Zadar, the oldest, continually inhabited city in Croatia.   I’m sure given time, I would get used to just how old everything is; but it was going to take more than the week we were spending there. 

Cars were not allowed on the peninsula and I enjoyed the quiet as well as not needing to worry about staying out of the road, something I struggle with when I cannot tear my eyes away from everything new to see. We wandered the peninsula until just before sunset.  We found a place to sit by the sea organ, listening to the slightly creepy, oddly soothing music as the sun set somewhere past Italy. 

We found Hotel Nico nearby, and had the pleasure of meeting Nico the next morning. I never quite got if he was from Arizona or had resided there, but he proudly showed us a photo of himself with the formidable senator McCain.  Meeting the owners of the hotels was one of the unexpected highlights of the trip.  I’m so used to Marriotts and Hyatts that I’m not even sure I realized that a hotel could be a small business.

Dinner that night was quite possibly the best of the trip.  We were once again the only people in the restaurant, which was right by the water and I’m sure was reservation-only in the high season sans COVID.  Olivier asked our waitress about the impact of the virus and she agreed that it had been hard. But in typical old world style, she shrugged it off with a smile, assuring us that they would be just fine.

I had one of the local delicacies–black risotto with cuttlefish, the color coming from the squid ink. Knowing that we were being served by the owners or probably a family member, I felt obligated to eat everything put in front of me.  Not that it was any great sacrifice–the food was amazing.  I don’t know if the squid ink made any difference in the flavor, but something about the dark color just added to the whole experience.

Another storm came through that night and we had the full glory of it as it came across the water. It fortunately only stayed the evening and we were greeted the next morning by another beautiful day. 

We continued our trek down the coast.  We made a brief stop in Murter, a small coastal town.  There was an interview going at the dock, possibly TV or radio, with the man who apparently was the proud owner of the first boat registered in Murter.  On the edge of the town was the cultural heritage site of Colentum, a Roman harbor dating back to the first century AD.  

I took off my sandals and stood on the stones, most submerged, the  water having risen several meters since those times. If there was a theme of this trip, it would have been me gaping, trying to wrap my head around the age of everything I was seeing.  And how little care was taken in preserving it, not because it wasn’t treated with respect, but because it was. A small sign was all that was needed to keep the area pristine.

After Murter, we drove to Sibenik. A late lunch was the first order of business and Olivier asked a passing stranger if there was someplace he could recommend.  We easily found the restaurant and ordered the Croatian special for two.  The stranger knew his restaurants. 

It was after 5 when we finished and the tourist areas were closed.  We walked along the water until the road ended then began climbing toward the fort. We wandered through the cemetery, long filled with the long deceased.  It was too cluttered to be considered elegant, and there was something mesmerizing about it. With all the photos and flowers and memorabilia, did the Croatians celebrate or at least recognize death more so than we Americans or was it simply the remnants of hundreds if not thousands of years of deaths?

I noticed there were wooden crosses placed on the existing plots, many dated this year.  I wondered where the bodies had been placed and what the significance was to having a marker in this vast cemetery.  Was it easier for those left behind to visit?  Did it help the deceased on their after-live travels?

It was soon dark and Olivier and I had again left finding the hotel until the last minute.  The hotel turned out to be right next to where we had our late lunch, up a couple flights of stairs.  Parking unfortunately was several blocks away.  There were two rooms for rent, the other being let to a young student for several weeks.  I again wondered at my life choices. Why not rent a room in a beautiful corner of the world to spend a few weeks?

The room itself was quite eclectic and full of character. The walls were just the wrong shade of blue and the lamps didn’t match much of anything. It was an open design, the door a staircase down, one bed a step up from the other, the bathroom the same odd step up.  I could see myself spending a summer there, writing, reading, drinking coffee and generally enjoying life.

There was a balcony overlooking the restaurant and the sea.  Olivier had brought a dessert from Belgium (along with the mandatory chocolates, our “first” tradition) and had gotten the owner to warm it.  We sat, watching nothing in particular, enjoying the sweets, the sights and the sounds.  

The next day found us in Split.  Outside of the hikes and general Idea of the cities we wanted to visit, a trip to the Blue Cave was the only plan we’d really made.  And much like the plans of mice and men, it now lays on the cutting room floor of life. 

The end of tourist season and some incoming weather had all tours cancelled for the next day. We tried several different agencies, but Friday was the earliest tour and we would be long gone by then.  One agency had a three island tour (happily not “three hour tour” for all you Gilligan fans) leaving in a couple hours, and we decided to cut our losses and join.  

The highlight of the tour was swimming in the Blue Lagoon.  Not having planned for the trip, neither one of us had our bathing suits, which did not slow down Olivier.  A combination of modesty and deep fear of hypothermia kept me from getting completely immersed, but I did manage to find a secluded area to enjoy wading around. 

I got back on the boat before everyone else, and our guide asked where I was from.  I told him and he grinned, saying he knew it–he recognized my accent.  I laughed at the reminder that in a foreign country, we all have an accent.   Even in the US, I’m told I have a mid-west accent.  I joked that he was the one with the accent, but I appreciated his knowledge of the English language. 

The other tourists included a couple–an American and a Brit–and what seemed to be a bachelor party of young men, possibly middle Eastern.  We really did not get a chance to talk.  That is the one downside to being coupled on a trip–you don’t get as much opportunity to connect with others. I found it a bit ironic that my introverted self missed that.  

The sun was setting as we made our way back to Split.  I put on the jacket I always have with me, as our guide dolled out jackets to the non-mountain rescuers on the boat.  I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been on a boat, and I lost myself in the feel of the waves, the sound of the engine and the growing lights of the shore. 

The hotel was a bit of an adventure.  We hadn’t paid close enough attention to the details and missed that the hotel was in a residential district.  We drove in circles on the dark, narrow roads, frustration and colorful language mounting.  Olivier was finally able to pull over to get out his phone to call for directions.  On WhatsApp was a message from the hotel owner.  With directions to the parking lot that was several minutes from the hotel.  

The only vacations I’d taken where each night was in a new location, I realized, I had not been responsible for moving my luggage.  Carrying my ready-for-anything bag uphill for those interminable ten minutes gave me new resolve to relearn the art of packing.  Once in the hotel, I started my mental notes on everything I hadn’t used or worn that wasn’t “in case of emergency” gear. 

The hotel was newly renovated, just a few rooms on a couple floors.  Like each hotel before (and after) it that week, I wished we were staying a couple extra nights.  The bed was one of the few that was not a literal “double” bed–two twins pushed together, which made for obviously uncomfortable sleeping for two people in love. 

We woke late to the predicted rain.   Our normally slow routine lazed in the dreary weather and we checked out late. The hotel owner was still kind enough to carry an umbrella for us as we made the walk back to the car.  

We made a short stop in Makarska, where we saw quite a poignant statue.  To me, it says “tourists are the same the world over”.

Driving south means driving briefly through Bosnia.  Like many Americans I’m sure, I’m vaguely aware of the wars (“conflicts” being the anesthetized word usually used to describe the years of unrest) of the area, so it seemed eerie to drive through Bosnia.  I was hoping for a passport stamp at the border, but no such luck.  Olivier stopped for lunch at a spot that overlooked the oyster farms that made up part of our lunch.  I took a couple photos and we were on our way, crossing the other border minutes later.

Our next stop was Ston, the location of the second longest fortress system in the world, at 5km, the longest being the Great Wall of China, dating back to the 1300s.  I made a mental note of the marathon that is held there every September.  We were too late to tour the wall, instead stretching our legs walking through the village until it was too dark to see.  I even got to see my first wild boar. They’re not cute.  

We had only slightly better luck finding our hotel that night, driving past it only three times.  Google shared the blame for that, taking us down the wrong rabbit hole.  The owner was a large German, who seemed none too happy that Olivier was from Belgium and yet did not speak German.  Our room ended up being a suite, the decor a clash between American Seventies and I’m not sure what European.  We did discover that “kitschy” is a universal term. 

The room had a wall of windows that, the next morning, gave a spectacular view of the sea.  I was awake first (not many get up before me), and I sat on the balcony, just soaking it in, enjoying even the slight chill in the air.  The sun was back out, showing off the glittering blue dotted with small dark islands.

Given the choice, I would have preferred that COVID never make an appearance, but I also can appreciate there would have been no way I could have afforded that room in better times.  I felt like royalty at breakfast, a round table that could have easily fit ten, covered completely in homemade breads, pastries and jams, and an amazing assortment of fruits.  Eggs and toast made an appearance as well.

As we settled into the feast, the chef came out and gave Olivier a heartfelt “bon appetit”, hearing and recognizing his accent.  I loved how he took a small moment to make us feel welcome in his country.

On our way to the hotel, it seemed as though we’d passed hundreds of wineries.  Napa it was not, with its large scale vineyards.  These were small, family owned affairs.  We stopped at random at Madirazza. It was our good luck to be there for the grape harvest and we watched as they poured crate after crate into a machine.  Neighbors helped each other for the two weeks they had to finish the harvest. The grapes were separated by machine from the stems and skins. They then traveled off to spend years in vats and barrels (French and American), to become the future wine of what we sampled.  

Our Tour de Croatia concluded in Dubrovnik, the Walled City, familiar to all Game of Thrones fans.  Words truly fail me.  It’s old. Overwhelmingly so.  I couldn’t wrap my mind around how many hundreds (thousands?) of generations had walked the same stones before me.  

We saw the city from the city wall, which allows for a 360 degree tour from above.  It took a couple of hours to walk the just over one mile route.  It never became repetitive. The Adriatic sea on one side; the mountain of Srd on the other. 

The town was bombed in the early 1990s, and while most was rebuilt, part was left in rubble, giving a real sense of the destruction that occurred. It also allowed a glimpse into what the city was like before what modernization that had been allowed and possible had occurred.  

 Maybe halfway through the tour, we were walking almost in step with a young woman.  Seeing her cheap blue backpack, touristy clothes and shy manner, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my twenty something self. We stopped at a small bar on the south side afterwards, to relax with a local, lemony beer.  She came in a few minutes later, ordering a small fruit juice, hardly looking up from her phone to enjoy the setting sun.  

It brought up the eternal question of what I would tell my younger self given the chance.  “Be fearless” is the advice that always comes to mind for me. But would I say anything really? Would I risk missing anything that has happened to me over the years?  I’m not sure. I’m pretty in love with my life as it is.  Would some tweaks make it better?  Maybe? As pro-risk as I am, would I risk it? Probably not.

It was a long drive back to Zagreb, in distance and feelings.  Time seemed to unwind but tighten around my heart as we passed exits on the main highway of the places we’d stopped.  One final dinner, at the hotel near the airport.  

Then the airport. Where we’d flown into each other’s arms in a long anticipated reunion, we now clung tightly not knowing when we would again have the privilege and joy of the experience.  Another seven months? More? 

Love in the time of COVID.  It kind of sucks.

100 Stairs

Day One

I looked back, down the stairs, remembering the count I had read online, and thought to myself that there was no way there were a hundred of them.  Fifty maybe, but not a hundred.  Perhaps they had started counting from the pedestrian bridge far below.   Then again, my heart and body were light, despite the thirty hour plane ride. It was finally March. I was finally on Grand Canary Island.  I couldn’t believe the bungalow was as perfect as the photos.  Standing still isn’t my strong point but I couldn’t tear myself away from the balcony and the perfect ocean view.

I couldn’t help counting as I returned from the small grocery store: one hundred steps exactly. Bread, cheese, meats and wine had been purchased, my Spanish barely holding up.  The little strip mall was practically on the ocean.  Cheesy souvenir shops, restaurants of all nationalities (except Canarian), and a cafe perfect for coffee and a book. I made up my mind to have breakfast there, forgetting for a moment that, for the first time in many years, I wasn’t on a solo vacation.

I barely noticed  the third climb of the day, too distracted, too excited.  Olivier was finally, really there.  Our reunion at the airport took me back to our goodbye at the airport in Costa Rica.  He had invited me here just before Christmas to run a race across the island.  Beautiful, kind and a runner.

The fourth climb was after dinner.  We had both wanted Canarian food but were both too tired to put much effort into finding one, so dinner was a stroganoff.  We caught up as we ate. As we walked back to the bungalow, he stopped over the bridge to the stores and kissed me.  It was a perfect romantic start to the week. I rolled my eyes but smiled in spite of myself.

Day Two

The stairs were a tad more noticeable, having spent most of the day walking around.  Breakfast was  the food I’d bought for snacks. We sat on the balcony overlooking the ocean, drinking coffee, the sun smiling fiercely on us. 

We left to attend the exposition in the main part of Las Palomas then took the advice of the tourist agent and driven to Mogan. Lunch was at an amazing local restaurant, making up for last night’s dinner, after walking around the small town, absorbing the architecture and the flora. 

The winding roads had me driving much slower than the locals.  Olivier drove with confidence as I clutched the map, slowly getting used to him tapping the brakes precisely two seconds after I was convinced this was the switchback we would miss. We stopped in another town, walking out over a dam, marvelling at the structure.  Dams had completely changed the agriculture and therefore the culture of the island. There was no water to retain, making the landscape all the more dramatic.

There was no cell service, so Olivier placed his trust in my navigation skills and I directed us down the road, farther away from the scary windy roads of Mogin and back towards Maspalomas. We stopped for drinks before returning to our bungalow, enjoying more sightseeing on this island that would fit many times over into Colorado.

Like many islands, cats were a big part of the scenery. Olivier was wary, having developed an allergy in his adult years. I was jealous of them lying on the benches in the remaining sunlight, not a care in their minds, sure of their next meal and bed for the night.

Day Three

The stairs were literally double the number, walking back up from the beach.  The race was looming, so this was a low key day.  The winds had picked up, putting chill in the air.  Fortunately, I had been forewarned by a kind lady at AAA.  

I had gone to pick up an international driver’s license belatedly. The rep and I were chatting about my upcoming trip as my photos slowly printed on their antiquated machine.  The lady, slight and beautiful, maybe in her seventies, apologized for interrupting, saying she had been to Gran Canaria years before.  She remembered being disappointed at the coolness of the weather, but not as disappointed as her husband, to whom she had promised a day at the topless beach but then reneged when the temps refused to cooperate. Excuse? Somehow I doubted it.

We dipped our feet in the ocean, mostly just to say we did, then sat on the rocks and watched the crabs scuttle around us.  We walked hand-in-hand down the boardwalk, busy with sunburnt Norwegians who seemed as happy to be there as we were. Cafes, ice cream shops, and private homes made up the scenery on the side opposite the ocean. 

Dinner was after the stairs, pasta and chicken a la Olivier.  I could get used to having a travel companion.

Day Four

It was well past midnight, so technically, day five.  I could have slept at the foot of the stairs and been perfectly fine.  I dragged myself up them as Olivier walked easily beside me.  The race was forty miles, not the longest I had ever run, but it was still one hundred steps after forty miles.  And it was a rough forty miles.

A mostly downhill course, but still managed close to 7000ft of climbing. Of course much of the descent was technical. The last long miles were on shale. They slid in random directions with each step, making balance and sanity tenuous. The final miles were along the beach, because sand is such a joy to run in.

Olivier is a much stronger runner than I and it was with trepidation that I had agreed to run this literally *with* him. I would have been perfectly fine finishing hours after him, allowing him to enjoy his own pace and an early finish, maybe even a shower. Running together can be tricky. I’ve seen a lot of couples get into some nasty knock-outs. I’ve learned new words.

Along with being slow, I’m a mountain rescue volunteer: if someone is hurt, I have to help.  

The first runner was after the first aid station, on the second steep climb as the sun was announcing its power. She was vomiting pretty impressively.  I moistened her bandana in an attempt to cool her down, making sure she had food and water.  I waited until she was able to drink a little before taking off. I glanced apologetically at Olivier who simply shrugged and gave me a what-else-could-you-do look. 

The best part is that we saw her much later at the finish, where she had waited to say thanks and give us a big hug.

Of course the second aid station was farther than advertised and Olvier was practically dragging me along to make sure we made the cutoff which was only minutes away.  We finally made it, to find out the cutoff had actually been several miles back at the high point.  Relief and annoyance didn’t mix well for either of us.  

We stopped for two other runners, one who ended up being French and acted much like I did whenever I hear English spoken in a foreign country.  I was oddly proud that my limited French had him disbelieving I was American. He too was at the finish and offered us beer. I felt bad for refusing but alochol would have guaranteed the stairs’ win that night.

Day Five 

We almost avoided the stairs altogether, sleeping late, missing the awards luncheon, eating more of the groceries I’d bought.  But a local restaurant called our names.  The stairs up from the beach was worth the dinner and service.  The waitress was one of those people whom you felt you’d known forever.  The dessert of key lime pie was better than I had had in Key West.

928, the restaurant, had possibly the most eclectic decor I’d seen in a restaurant.  Each piece had been picked up during the owner’s travels and each had its own story.  The paintings of royalty were possibly easy to guess–at least didn’t lend themselves to an intriguing story.  The jars labeled “Poppers” and “Quaaludes”, though, had us musing.

Day Six

The stairs had multiplied, the fatigue from the race multiplied by the sightseeing in Las Palmas.  Not that there was much to see but we again forewent technology and relied on our combined senses of direction to navigate the city, which added a bit of meandering. 

The true highlight of the city is the architecture and coloring of the buildings: decidedly tropical. I suspected it was also to hide the poverty, as the tourism specialist recommended against actually driving to those neighborhoods.

So we visited the Cathedral of Santa Ana, the first church on Gran Canaria, despite having taken four centuries to build. It  gave a stunning perspective of the city.  Rooftop pools and gardens covered the buildings nearest the ocean. The beautifully colored neighbors were higher and farther away, still revealing nothing of their true personalities.

Next was the Casa de Colon, once the home of the governor who supposedly received Christopher Columbus prior to his famous adventure of 1492. Given the house is around 150 years old, the math doesn’t quite add up.  Las Palmas itself was a mere fourteen years old at the time, the Spainards having just conquered the island.  I found the maps, compasses and other navigation tools absolutely fascinating.  Our digital navigation tools have given as much as they’ve taken away from us. 

What I was truly curious about I knew I wouldn’t find in a museum.  I wanted to know about the local opinion of the great explorer.  He is a bit of a persona non grata in the US these days–and for good reason.  From my readings, there may be more Canarian descendents in the Americas than on the Canary Islands, many “encouraged” to come to the new world, founding such cities as Buenos Aires and Havana.  Probably not much encouraging was needed as the Spaniards were spending their days exterminating them.  Even a Google search doesn’t turn up much.

We stopped at a busy little cafe on a side street for tapas before the lunch hour slid into the siesta hours. The owner was another of those rare, immediately likeable and memorable characters. The tapas were made with care, and described with even more care.

Tipping seems to be a decidedly American pastime and I’ve been warned more than once to not “spoil the world”. I couldn’t help it here. In gratitude, the owner gave us shots of sweet liqueur and a thoughtful toast.

Day Seven

My legs had finally acclimatized to the stairs.  Or maybe it was knowing that this was the last day that made me begin to regard them more fondly. I found myself wanting to remember every single step–the broken tiles, the ornamental-at-best handrail, the foliage slipping over the edges.

Tejeda is our goal for the day.  We’d run through it during the race.  Once Olivier pointed out where the aid station had been, it all came back into focus. I hadn’t noticed that all the buildings were white washed with burnt amber roofing.  It was equally fitting and Stepford-ish.  We walked along the narrow sidewalk, taking in the gardens stacked along the steep landscape. The plant apothecary had already closed, so my curiosity about the local flora remains.  

Once again, most of the people we encountered were from the Netherlands.  During our stop just prior to Tejeda, we had learned that there were no Canarian natives (Gaunches), thanks to the invading Spaniards.  The stop was  Roque Bentayga.  It was their most sacred religious site and subsequently, the location of their last stand against the Spaniards as they literally gave everything to protect it.  

It is sobering to think of the losses from that invasion.  It is thought that Gran Canaria was first populated in the first millennium BCE by Africans.  How they traveled 400 miles by boat from the coast of one to the coast of another is a feat I cannot fathom. How would they have even known an island was there to travel to?

We meandered up the path to see how they have carved out homes in the rocks. Most of the location was inaccessible due to historic preservation and geology, but the short hike still showed a good glimpse into the efforts to make homes in the rocks. A visitor center helped fill in the details of the history and the geology.

Day Eight

A final descent before the sun rose.  The week had passed every bit as fast as I knew it would, yet I still shook my head in sadness as we piled our bags in the tiny car.  We drove the airport in silence and Olivier waited patiently as I took photos of the rental, never quite trusting the agencies to be completely honest about the return state of the vehicle.  

Coffee and a croissant for breakfast, although it was much too early to be hungry.  Boarding was supposed to begin at ten before six, but everyone was on board when we arrived at the gate two minutes after that.  A long hug and a kiss, then it was me who boarded the plane first to leave.  

After the plane had taken off in San Jose, I had texted Olivier a quick “welcome to Miami–miss you already”.  When I turned on my phone in Madrid, I saw his text. 

“Welcome to Madrid–miss you already.”

La Transtica

I slid down into a too small chair at the elementary school table, futilely arranging my legs in a way that reduced the risk of injury and cramps.  Despite my fatigue, I fairly bounced with my big news of the day. Pat and Haruki sat across from me, fresher and more energetic, their day finished long before mine, but causing them to miss entirely the big event of the day.  “How was the rest of it?” Pat asked.

“We got ice cream!” I blurted out.  While my six foot frame may not have fit the elementary school, my pure unadulterated joy in the frozen treat certainly did.  I felt completely silly in my excitement. Until Franck leaped up, almost toppling his chair.

“You too?!” He blurted out, his English tripping over his strong French accent.  “I did not know ‘helado’. They show me a photo! Ice cream! Oh-la-la! My eyes come out of my head! So good!” He rubbed his stomach, smiling blissfully.


I grinned–in truth, I had not really stopped grinning since the trip started.

I had found my tribe.

Several people on the trip were curious as to how I even found La Transtica.  I was the only person from the United States running this year. How did I find a forty person race, under a French organization, in South America, while living in the US?

Google of course.

I turned fifty this year.  I had four weeks of vacation, and I intended to make it memorable. I wanted to leave the country. I wanted to run. I had amazing memories of a three day race I ran in Italy, so I began researching international stage races.  Most of them seemed so far away and exotic.  And difficult.  

I wanted hard but not too hard.  The running I could do. The logistics intimidated me. Ten days in a country where I could at least get by on my high school Spanish seemed about perfect.

The inevitable next question was “Why?”.

What had caught my eye over every other race was the fact that it was not a race but a solidarity effort.  It was a way to raise money for hospitals and schools in small Costa Rican villages. The run goes through these villages.  What better way to celebrate my birthday than by paying it forward?

Bernard is the event coordinator. A more patient person would be difficult to find.  In answering my emails, in dealing with the inevitable glitches, in explaining all the logistics, he was always polite and friendly.  Having organized a 5k/10k fundraiser that left me wanting to punch people–hard–I could only shake my head in admiration.

I signed up almost a year in advance, but as always the year flew by and I found myself sleeping on the floor of the Denver airport, hoping to get some sleep before my 1am flight.  I don’t know how people manage great flights and low rates, but I have always ended up on the red-eyes, in order to save hundreds of dollars.

My experience has taught me many immutable laws of travel, the first being you will get screwed by the taxi service at the airport. I was accosted as soon as I left the airport, but I was armed my email and a copy of the taxi service logo that held my reservation to the hotel Las Palmas.  I was so fierce in my belief that I refused any help in finding it, until one soul practically dragged me back to where I had passed the “office” of the taxi service.  

Then the fun truly began.  They had no record of me. They had not heard of La Transtica.  They had not heard of the hotel. I dug in my heels. The service was paid for. I was not paying for a taxi.  I tried calling Bernard. The taxi guy tried calling. No answer.

He stared helplessly at me and I returned the gaze with purebred stubbornness. He called his office.  He asked me my name again. I pronounced it the way I had heard it earlier: Watch.  

He dove back into his paperwork and triumphantly pulled out the card.  Watch.  


My name was spelled wrong.

The second immutable law of travel: People are ultimately decent and will go out of their way to help you.  

Bernard was waiting at the hotel.  It was great to put a face with the name.  His was kind and just a little tired. We spoke just briefly, enough to get to know each other a little. I tried a little French but ending up having to switch to Spanish. I explained in Spanish that my Spanish was better than my French.  He laughed and replied that his French was better than his Spanish.

I was quickly checked into my room and left to my own devices. It was not quite noon and I nowhere to be until the next morning.  Despite the flight, I wasn’t feeling terribly fatigued.  I took a few minutes to relax then headed out the door. 

San Jose is every city. Loud. Ragged. Traffic. People. Poverty. Wealth. History. Modernity. People on their phones. People begging. People selling.  Police officers keeping a watchful eye. People. More people. I stopped counting McDonalds at eight. The number of Starbucks was not much less. I wondered if they imported the coffee beans.


I wandered for several hours, taking it all in.  My main target had been the zoo, so I could at least say I’d seen animals, but the depressing exterior kept me away.  My second goal was to find a coffee shop and have a cup of quite possibly the best coffee in the world. Finding only a Starbucks was far more depressing than the zoo.

I stopped at an outdoor park and admired the art.  In Little and Nashville, an artist had painted colorful wings on walls where you can take your photo.  This park had bronze wings with the same intent. Having no one to take my photo, I just took a photo of the wings.


I’m not terribly adventurous gastronomically speaking, especially at the start of an adventure. Dinner was simple rice and beans at the hotel.  I was its sole occupant and I enjoyed the quiet. 

Breakfast drew more people and I could sense more than hear the various languages being spoken.  I delightedly sipped my Costa Rican coffee as I listened without understanding. As I stood to leave, though, my wrist was gently grasped and words of French were excitedly spoken. I understood only “Road ID”, a reference to the bracelet I always wore which contains all my emergency medical information, so I knew I was speaking to a runner.  My blank look caused him to immediately switch to English, which confirmed he had recognized the runner in me as well. 

My tribe was arriving.

I spent the time between breakfast and the organization meeting meandering around the park near the hotel.  People were out running and playing soccer. The clouds from the prior day had burned off and the jungle that once inhabited even the city was visible, adding a certain remoteness to its aura.  Despite the natural beauty of the park and its unfamiliar flora, it still seemed human made.


The organization meeting started precisely on time for a tropical paradise, meaning of course it started fifteen minutes late.  I already had my spot in the front, so I just watched as people came in. I was excited and nervous to meet the people with whom I’d be spending the next week.  For at least the last ten years, I’d signed up for events solo and had a certain confidence that I’d become friends with at least someone.  

As each person was introduced along with their home, a dark realization started to creep over my psyche.  France. Germany. Japan. Not only was there no one there that I knew, there was a very good chance there was no one there who even spoke English.  I silently cursed myself for not taking up French lessons again. I searched for translation apps as the meeting wrapped up, but found none that would work offline.

Well, I told myself, it’s not like I enjoy small talk all that much anyway.

I stood up and made my way to the back, where more coffee awaited. As I filled my cup, I heard someone say, “You are from the United States?”  English! With a decidedly French accent. Oliver from Belgium, he introduced himself, although I realized later it was actually Olivier. He had the ease of someone who knew no stranger.  And he’d been to Colorado–we had both run TransRockies, although in different years.  We found we had mutual friends from the race.

Lunch was at the home of the French ambassador.  When I had received the invitation, I panicked and immediately emailed Bernard to find out the dress code and if I should bring a gift. Bernard assured me all I needed to bring was my smile, which, not surprisingly, did not convince me.  Only the fact that I had absolutely no idea what kind of gift would be appropriate kept me from bringing anything. Not the greatest of excuses, but there you have my unique flavor of logic.

During lunch, I sat with some of the volunteers of the run, who spoke almost exclusively French, but one knew enough English to translate. They were teasing one of the women for being from the south of France. I blurted out that I had watched a movie about that.  He asked if it was the French version and I said yes. His look told me I had earned some respect.

After lunch, I met Haruki and Pat, from Japan and Canada respectively. Both spoke perfect English to my great delight. Both had the relaxed demeanor of the retired and well traveled, despite neither looking older than fifty.  Neither spoke any French or Spanish yet easily made friends with everyone on the trip Pat had run the TransRockies as well and we reminisced about the hot showers and fantastic meals. Oliver joined us and the three shared names and stories of other stage races they had run.  

I had no idea there were organizations that put on races all over the world.  Cambodia. Iceland. Spain. My imagination ran wild with fantasies of literally running the world.  

The afternoon was devoted to mandatory gear checks.  For the first time on that trip, I had absolute confidence. No one had more mandatory gear than I.  I loaned Pat my extra pair of scissors since he had brought no checked luggage. I showed them my Global Rescue insurance for my repatriation–yes, even if I died, everything was covered.  Unless my death was a result of war, which case I figured it wouldn’t matter much anyway.


The hotel recommended the Italian restaurant next door for dinner.  Pat, Haruki, Olivier, Pascal–unique for speaking five languages fluently and having completed a triple Ironman (I’m not sure which impressed me more)–and I headed over early, not a little sceptical.  I learned later that many ex-pats opened restaurants in Costa Rica and some of the best cuisine can be found there.  

That was absolutely the case for this little gem. Feeling it was still a million years off, we decided our departing dinner would be at the same location.

Having found four people who spoke English at least as easily as I did, I was feeling a bit more confident about striking up conversations with my fellow runners.  While waiting for the bus the next morning,I met Barbara and Clair, from Switzerland and English speaking, Barbara being a professional translator.   A little later, I noticed the Nashville hat of one of the Germans.  I mentioned that I’d been in Nashville the month prior and Rene was off on what turned out to be one of his favorite subjects: music.  He had not actually been to Nashville but it was on his list. We chatted until it was time load the buses, twenty minutes after the appointed time.

Oliver was seated alone so I asked if I could join him.  We didn’t talk much on the four hour ride to Manuel Antonio, our starting point.  He showed me photos of a backpacking trip he took across Israel. When he asked me where was on my travel bucket list, all I could muster was “Everywhere” as I mentally added Israel to the list.  Oliver gave an understanding half smile and nod.

We stopped at a roadside souvenir stand near an alligator viewing bridge.  There was fruit for sale, and I thought a banana would be a safe choice. I walked up to the stand, only to hear Pat asking about the other fruits.  Before I knew it, we both had passion fruit and something no one could translate for us. Both were delicious. 

Lunch was at L’Aviator, a bar and restaurant built around the remnants of the plane that kicked off the Iran-Contra affair.  How it got from Nicaragua to Costa Rica is another mystery…

The start of the prologue was delayed fifteen minutes, which seemed pretty good considering the four hour drive ended up being six.  We were all antsy to be started. I was sharing a hotel room with Ana Luisa, one of the Costa Rican runners. Her English and my Spanish ended up being pretty well matched, as were our personalities. She was a lot of happiness and energy in a small package, and it propelled her to a top finish in the adventure category.

She and the other runners looked out for me in the evenings, finishing hours before I did. Each evening finish reminded me of the goodness of people.  Oliver was there to hug me, despite being clean from a shower and me covered head to trail runners in mud. Pascal and Rene would give me the low-down on which shower still had hot–or at least tepid–water. Pat and Haruki would secure my bag when Ana-Luisa couldn’t, and would listen to my stories of the day.

But I’m jumping ahead.  The prologue was an easy 6k along the Pacific ocean.  After planes and buses, running along the beach was pure joy.  Flat and sandy are not my fortes but it didn’t matter. I was running in Costa Rica! For the next five days, that was my entire agenda.  Eat and run.

Oliver jogged out and finished the last few meters with me.  I high fived and hugged everyone, all of us already drenched in sweat and humidity.  Jean-Maria, who would become my DFL (dead f*ing last) buddy and who also had English as terrible as my French, finished shortly behind, all of us there to cheer him in. 

A few jumped into the Pacific to enjoy the waves and salty weather.  I found a young man selling coconut water and purchased one. It was amazing.  I wandered out to the ocean, enjoying the sunset in an environment so foreign to my Colorado mountains. 

As I walked back, Rene offered his coconut to me, telling me I had to taste this one, it was so good. I should have known better–my new German friend had it laced with some seriously strong rum. My eyes water as he laughed.

Dinner was rice and beans, which would be our staple for breakfast and dinner, with the occasional pasta dinner.  I sat with Tom, from England, and Sven and Emmanuel from Germany. The next night, I would see entirely too much of Sven’s elegantly tattooed body after a poorly timed entrance into the showers.  Per usual, I was the more embarrassed one.

The environment of the staged race seemed to dispense with many of the niceties of first encounters.  I never really learned what people did for a living and I couldn’t honestly remember where specifically most were from.  We shared running stories, mostly embarrassing and totally relatable. I was in the minority having done hundreds, and they were amused by my tales of hallucinations.

The first full day of running was full of figurative and literal highs and lows. It was already scheduled to start late, as one of the days where we had to drive to the start, and the “tropical delay” meant the heat and humidity were already unbearable.  In no time, Jean-Marie and I found ourselves in our last place position. We had chatted a little at the organization meeting and not only did our horrid accents match but our complete delight at being understood by the other.  

We ran the entire day together, passing each other as uphills turned to downhills and vice versa.  At the higher elevations, we ran through coffee plantations and Jean-Marie pointed out the beans and explained the colors–red and green, those at least we understood. There were banana trees, heavy with bunches of green bananas. There were small homes decorated for Christmas.  It was foggy and rainy higher up, which should have felt good after the morning, but the contrast was just too much. For the last 10k of running, we were required to wear our rain jackets as temps dropped even further.  

By that time, Jean-Maria and I had passed several runners, including Pat and Haruki. The heat of the day had done in several people and a few chose to drop to the shorter distance.  Pat had ended up taking a wrong turn, the victim of a too-well marked course. There was almost equal markings on the wrong ways, and it all blurred as fatigue set in. I had almost made the same mistake on a couple occasions.  To avoid what would have been his first DNF, Pat dropped to the adventure distance, Haruki along with him.  

Dinner and lodgings were in the community center, bags, wet clothes and tired runners strewn everywhere.  I had a bit of a learning curve on the evening physio (massage). It was cool and most had on long pants, then stripped to their underwear.  My underwear was placed semi-discreetly on a chair to dry and I’d failed to grab another pair. So I had to go back and get shorts, as well as a “serviette”, which my Canadian stepmom had already taught me was a towel.  I slipped into my small sleeping bag and attempted the inelegant and horizontal dance of pants changing.

It was worth all the effort.

I slept “with” the English/German contingency, which had found a convenient spot near the bathrooms then proceeded to strategically block it off with barstools to avoid being tripped over all night. I made a mental note in my “Clever Hacks” folder.

The next morning, Jean-Marie and I high fived in respect for neither of us having moved to the adventure group.  We took up our spot in the rear as we prepared for another big day of climbing. The day prior had given us close to 9000’ with very little descent and the third day would be more of the same. I had made a small goal to not listen to my music and be as present as possible in the moments, no matter how long and painful. 

It wasn’t nearly as challenging as I’d feared.  There was so much to take in, so much different from Colorado running, so much to remember and think about.  I practiced small phrases in French and Spanish. I made mental checks of my physical condition–I was among the lucky to not get any blisters (except for some lovely ones on my sunburned shoulders) and very little chafing.

Jean-Maria began to fall behind and I passed the other Jean-Marie somewhere after the first checkpoint, as we began another long, hot climb.  At the second checkpoint were the two women who became my favorite checkpoint volunteers: Teresita and Vera. They were the cheeriest, most supportive pair I’d ever met, even hugging me in my bedraggled state. Their English was almost nonexistent but I knew enough Spanish (including “helado”!) to understand their cheering and answer their questions. They worked hard to cover my now blistered sunburn, and made sure I understood the course change.  

The course change took us off the dirt road and onto some serious single track. Some of the sections took my entire stride to get down. I had heart-stopping moments when I thought for certain I’d lost a shoe in the ankle deep muck.  A tree branch grabbed my white cap and threw it in mud.

I was grinning the entire time.  There was no time limit. I had brought extra shoes and lots of extra socks.  I made my way down deeper into the jungle, until the trail began to flatten out. 

The “flagging master”, whom I had spoken with during the luncheon, stood by a waterfall and asked if I wanted my photo taken. I knew him being there meant the aid station wasn’t far. And the handful of flagging in his hands meant that the Jean-Marie’s had both dropped. I was sad that I’d lost my DFL friend.

The sweeps kept me company the seven miles back up, stopping their truck to check on me every couple miles.  One spoke only Spanish and one only French. Physically, I wasn’t feeling all that bad, but trying to chat with them felt physically taxing.  Later, Haruki and I would joke about how it felt like they were trying to encourage us to drop. “Okay?” “Stop?” They were in reality being supportive, but the internal pressure of knowing that they weren’t finished with their work until you were finished with your fun made it hard to not just jump into the truck and be done with it.

Darkness and fog were setting in when they drove past a last time–“Dos kilometers!” and they were off.  Just over a mile. I had a drop bag with food and my warm jacket, which I had brought to be a pillow, but had worn both evenings.  My two favorite Costa Ricans were there and by the time we’d finished hugging, the finish area had been cleared out and everyone was ready to go.

We were staying in an elementary school that night. It was a short drive there. Pascal greeted me with intel on the showers–a not-cold shower was in my future. Tom directed me to food. Ana-Luisa had secured my bag, a place to sleep, and and outlet for recharging electronics. Even if I’d been fluent in either Spanish or French, I still would not have had words.  

During the meet-and-greet after the organizational meeting, I had asked Bernard “pourquoi”.  Why this race? Why Costa Rica? This was the third running event he had organized. The first was in Europe but he wanted to help a less fortunate country.  He had worked with another organization that wanted to do an event in Costa Rica to raise money for schools and hospitals, but he had quickly realized they had no idea what they were doing (for starters, they did not appreciate the amount of food it would take to keep hungry runners going).  

He had ended up creating his own event and working with an organization to raise funds.  This was the thirteenth “edition” of the run, and this year, the funds raised through the race went to schools.

Which is why we were sleeping in a school.  The next morning brought energetic young children in brightly colored outfits.  They performed traditional dances as somewhat bedraggled runners looked on. I could not imagine their thoughts.  At the end, Bernard made a short speech–as always, shorter in English and Spanish than in French–about how the ceiling over the sidewalk had been purchased by the event, a small but critical feature for a school in a tropical rainforest. 

This year, backpacks with school supplies had been purchased with the funds raised.  As the money was what we had contributed, Bernard wanted the runners to distribute the backpacks.  Not a single runner moved. Bernard was standing next to me; he looked at me and said, “The runners are more shy than the children.” 

I gave him a wry smile, picked up a backpack and walked alone to the center of the room.  A shy young boy, not even six, was pushed forward to greet me. He hesitantly took the pack I proffered, hugged me, and fled. I turned and fled myself before anyone could see the tears.

The other runners began to line up in pairs, handing out the backpacks and getting their photo taken.  The children were both shy and excited, some of them hugging the backpacks close and showing them to their friends. 

Then we were off.  This was the only day with a cutoff time.  It was close to 30 miles, with another 7000 feet of climbing.  The cutoff was for me a tight one, and I knew it would depend a lot on the technicality of the trails.  The briefing the evening before had not been heartening, The trails were highly technical and many cautions were given.  Pat and I chatted on the way up the first climb, his opinion being that all race directors over emphasized the technical nature of the trails and not only would I not die, but I would make the cutoff with time to spare.  

I put a bag on the bus just in case.  I liked Pat’s thought to be prepared but to not dwell on it.  I knew I would dwell on it anyway, but leaving the bag was my way of trying to accept either outcome.  I hoped that I would be either well in front of or well behind the cutoff, so I could just relax and enjoy the day.

The trail was all that and more.  I never catch up with people on technical trails, but my long legs and trekking poles proved to be a huge advantage.  I was once again in ankle deep mud and fear over my shoes. I clung to trees as I slid down the worst sections. I took it all in, knowing there was no way I’d make the cutoff and being okay with it.

We reached the lowest point and were faced with an equally ridiculous uphill. I used the trees to pull myself up, my poles dangling uselessly from my arms. It was blessedly short and once again we were on dirt road.  

Pat had caught up on the uphill so we began the downhill together, trying to motivate and distract each other.  It reminded me of the long downhill road from Jones Pass in Colorado, unrelenting in distance but not steep, technical enough to keep one’s attention but not enough to slow the pace.

About halfway down, Pat noted that, if the rest of the course were like that, I’d easily make the cutoff. “Don’t get my hopes up” is all I said.  I had thought the same thing, while really wanting to not think about it.   

End of the downhill and back to the uphill. My two favorite Costa Ricans were managing the aid station. I asked them as best I could in Spanish if the rest of the route was road or trail.  They cheerfully replied that it was all road, and I felt my hopes getting up.

Two miles later, my hopes went right back down, as I struggled yet again in the mud to keep my shoes on.  Pat was far ahead of me at this point, so I allowed myself a few swear words. I was just where I didn’t want to be, barely ahead of the cutoff.  

I caught up with Laura, a runner from Argentina, not far after that.  She had cut her leg in the first technical section, and was struggling with the mud and the pain.  I tried chatting with her to make sure she was okay, but her own frustration and our limited language skills kept the exchange brief.  I made my way past her but soon heard her cry out and an unmistakable splash. I turned around to check on her. Her frustration was at least equal to mine.  She urged me on, but I waited until I saw her stand and start moving.

I passed through a huge hydrangea field, outside a small white home with a small white picket fence.  Quaint and completely out of place in these jungles. I struggled with wanting to take a photo and wanting to beat the cutoff, completely irritated with myself that I couldn’t just stop and take it in.  I argued with myself that I’d miss twelve miles of scenery if I didn’t make it in time. I took a photo out of spite and hurried on, almost missing a turn in the process.

I ran-walked until the trail turned back into a road, where I ran-walked some more.  The road wasn’t much better than the trail, huge divots in the shoe sucking mud from trucks and the other runners. I continued to refuse to give completely into the frustration and ran as best I could, focusing on the present and happy at least that it was a gentle downhill.  

I ran into the aid station with five minutes to spare, Laura right behind me.  Pat was still there, waiting for the bus and he cheered along with the others.  I was thrilled that I had made it, feeling as much grateful as annoyed that my frustration had spurred me on. 

Laura caught up with me again on the uphill.  We exchanged eye rolls and half laughs. The uphill was blessedly short but the downhill was again not completely runnable.  I slowly caught back up to Laura as we navigated our way down. One more aid station where I learned the “fluorescent” in French means reflective, or at least I hoped that he was telling me the flagging would reflect my headlamp, because it was about to become pitch blank.

The sun doesn’t linger in the evenings near the equator. Once it’s quitting time, it shuts down for the day and heads to the nearest bar.  I was fortunately on paved road and able to run, but I meandered back and forth, completely unable to see anything outside of the light of my headlamp.  I turned my watch’s face down so I couldn’t look at it every two minutes as I was prone to do when there was nothing else to distract me.  

The rain that had started didn’t help the visibility.  I was in a surprisingly good mood for having been running almost ten hours on the third such day, now in the dark and the rain.  It was still feeling like an adventure, and I was still thrilled that I had made the cutoff.  

Streetlights began to overshadow my headlamp and I knew I was close.  I saw a few people milling around and they began shouting when they saw me.  Soon other runners were out cheering me in. I high fived and hugged my way through the line.


Bernard grabbed me and hugged me hard.  He told me how proud he was of me and how he loved the slower runners.  How much harder we worked and how much less rest we got. He said we were the true heroes of the run.

We both knew that wasn’t entirely true.  The people flagging were up before us, setting the course, then out again to take it all back down.  The checkpoint people were at each aid station, cheering us on, feeding us, taking care of us, no matter how their personal day was going.

There was dancing before dinner.  Some of the locals dressed up and lip synced to some tunes then dragged runners onto the floor.  I watched from my “bed”, admiring the skill and energy of my fellow runners. Even if I knew how to dance, I could not have.  This had been the hardest three days of running I had ever completed. I was proud and I was exhausted. If I thought my new friends would let me, I would have skipped dinner, crawled into my sleeping bag, and let the darkness engulf me.

The briefing during dinner was the most entertaining and most useless.  Our leaders seemed to be three sheets to the wind. We had joked about the length of the French versus English briefings, but this night in particular, not only did the French briefing go on for a full ten minutes more, but the English was completely incomprehensible.  Barbara was kind enough to translate for me.

The next day was easy compared to the last three.  All runners started again together, so I enjoyed another day with Jean-Marie.  He hugged and kissed when we reached the end of the adventure route.  Laura and I continued on, leapfrogging again until another technical section had Laura proceeding even more cautiously than I.

It was a shorter day in distance as well as elevation gain.  I was grateful to be finished before four o’clock, with plenty of time for a long(er) shower, food and general relaxing.  Pat and Haruki had saved a spot for me. I took my time setting up my “bed” and laying out my wet clothes. Haruki had given me a new hack of sleeping on my damp clothes, which not only dried the clothes, but kept me cooler while I slept.

That evening was a presentation with the school children.  The majority of the music was good old American rock and roll.  I wondered if Elvis had ever truly appreciated the depth his influence would reach: into the jungles of a third world country, where the children love to dance.  

The other presentation was The Three Little Pigs.  One of the piglets was an adorable little girl who made sure all her fellow actors were in their proper positions. I root for her to maintain that sense of authority as she grows up. Afterwards was another presentation of backpacks and school supplies. This time, we runners were more eager to step up and play Santa.

The doors were left slightly ajar that night.  The former night in an elementary school had people locked out of one room and locked in the other room.  Getting locked out wasn’t so bad, but those who had been locked in, with an urgent need for the restroom, were a bit scarred.

And then a day off.  I had been looking forward to this day for the last two.  I had learned from the TransRockies run that my body loves running for many days.  Not two weeks after TransRockies, I had run Devil on the Divide for the third time. A 50k with 6000 feet of climbing and a high point of 13,000 feet, it is not for the faint of heart.  

I had run it for the first time in 2014, where I had made the final cutoff by a mere ten minutes. Last year, I had run it again, and missed the last cutoff by a mere ten minutes.  This year, I beat my 2014 time by five minutes. It had been four years since I had set a personal record on a race.  

So my restlessness trying to sit on the bus to Playa Negra wasn’t surprising.  While I was happy for the day off, I was already in running mode and just wanted to keep running.  I watched the scenery as it went by, too tired to make conversation or really even just listen. The contingency from Costa Rica was seated up at the front with me and I just let their musical chatter wash through me.

Ana-Luisa and I were rooming together again, our room much more quaint than the last hotel, with a much nicer shower, which I was actually eager to use, the promise of hot water delightful even in the unrelenting heat.  Ana-Luisa and I walked across the street to the beach, and I tried to appreciate the ocean and the stillness, but I couldn’t. I layed in the lounge chair for about ten minutes, until Barbara and Clair walked by. I followed them back to the hotel, where Pat and Haruki were just leaving to walk downtown.  

I joined them and we strolled along the beach back into town.  They continued to prove they were my tribe by first stopping in the gelato shop and ordering the largest size gelato available.  Who knows if the gelato was really that good, but the moments savoring it were the best.

Next stop was a shop that sold local artists wares.  I managed to do 75% of my Christmas shopping in that store, finding beautiful handmade journals and bracelets and local coffee and chocolate.  T-shirts were discounted if you bought three, so we all bought one.

It didn’t take long from that store to find the next stop.  A rum/wine/coffee and chocolate pairing establishment. I don’t think words were actually exchanged as we entered the shop and each ordered a glass of wine and chocolate.  We sat outside, where a woman from Germany was enjoying the same. She was a school teacher and had taken a year sabbatical to explore the world. I envied her and her students.  

She was at least close to my age, and I felt a kinship with her.  This trip was the first time in many years where I did not feel invisible.  I wanted to pull a chair up to her table and ask all my questions. Was it the same for her? Did she feel like she was breaking barriers traveling solo at her age?  Did age matter as much in the rest of the world as it did in the US?

Haruki and Pat were headed to Panama after the run and she had just returned.  They chatted not so much about must-see places but that the entire area was must-see.  She also explained how sabbaticals worked in Germany. A person could take as many as they wanted, their salary divided to cover the rest year.  For example, if you take a sabbatical every fourth year, then one quarter of your salary is held back for four years, and you are paid three quarters of your salary for that year.  

I wondered what it would take for me to just save that money on my own, knowing that would never be instituted here in the US.  A quarter would be a huge take, but twenty percent or many even fifteen wouldn’t be impossible. It would take sacrifice definitely.  But the reward: a year off. To do whatever. With hopefully ten to fifteen years left in my career, I could so easily see this as a way to break up the monotony of full time employment.  

As we paid for our chocolate and wine, Pat bought her a glass of wine.  I hugged her tightly and told her she was an inspiration. She was beaming when we finally let go.

By the end of dinner that night, everyone had heard of the wine and chocolate bar and most were ready to head back into town that night, the final day be damned. Plans were made for after the final run to meet there.

The next day dawned with a tropical storm, my first. We sat in the dining area and watched the deluge.  The start of the run was postponed as the team tried to figure out the logistics. Most of the run that day was to be along the beach, and the beach simply did not exist. They began the plans to move the run to the road where necessary. None of us truly cared.  We were running in paradise. The tropical storm just added excitement.

We started around ten. I did not bother to pack my rain jacket.  The rain seemed to come from all directions. It felt like the perfect finish to the six day event:  miserable had it been anywhere else yet perfect for that moment, for that adventure.  

I took off with an easy pace.  It was a flat seventeen miles, but more importantly, it was my last run of this adventure. I wanted to take it all in.  I’d left my MP3 player with my jacket. I wouldn’t need it.  

I ran along the beach, feeling the strain in my calves.  I splashed in the puddles, letting my feet get soaked. The rain soaked my hair and ran down my face. My t-shirt and shorts stuck to my body.  I watched for sloths and monkeys and snakes.

And I ran.

The route meandered on to the road then back on the beach. In places, I was in the ocean, going around trees and rocks.  I ended up thigh deep in the water. It was the last day, I kept reminding myself. Back on to the road. 

A little less than eight miles into the run, I saw another runner coming towards me on the road.  He told me in Spanish that the finish was less than a kilometer away. I smiled–he had mistaken the checkpoint for the finish. Or I had misunderstood what he said.

The route took a turn on a trail and back onto the beach. The checkpoint wasn’t far. I passed Barbara.  She called out to me, “This really is the finish.” I looked at her, confused, then looked up at the checkpoint.  All the runners and race support were there, waving and cheering.  

I had no idea what was going on but obviously this was the finish.  I gave high fives and hugged my friends. Someone told me that it was too dangerous to continue, so they’d called the race there. I felt the usual sense of relief and disappointment, immediately deciding I would just celebrate it.  

I threw off my pack and ran into the water, completely forgetting about my glasses and hat.  I managed to hold onto the hat, but the glasses are now floating somewhere off the coast of Central America.  I didn’t much like them anyway. 

We boarded the buses, went back to the hotel, changed, then back out to lunch.  Lunch was a bit of a cluster, as the expectation was runners would eat as they finished so the restaurant did not hold that many people.  We piled in as best we could, eating quickly so we could make room for more.

As I finished, people near the entrance were excitedly taking photographs.  I quickly realized the subject matter was a sloth. It was the one thing I had yet to experience on this trip.  Haruki, an excellent photographer, and I made a mad dash in the rain across the street. We got drenched all over again videoing and photographing the sloth, who seemed to be in a bit of a hurry given the tropical storm that now enveloped the area.


Bernard warned us against going into town given the weather, but when the bus stopped, half the crew piled out.  Haruki and I made our way to the gelato store as everyone else headed to the wine and chocolate bar. We stuck to the small size this time then headed over for wine and chocolate.

Rene and Hans had opted for the rum, Germans that they are.  Barbara and Clair had coffee and had gotten the actual chocolate pairing. Im Palisade, a couple of the wineries have you sample their dessert wine before and after a piece of chocolate and the difference is remarkable.  It’s like drinking a completely different wine.

Pretty much everyone else had red wine. I wanted to try a local wine, so I opted for the white. It was too sweet for my taste, and I switched back the Malbec I had enjoyed the evening before.  I sampled the chocolates, but my mind was more occupied by the people around me. The feeling was the same as when I’d moved to Colorado, that feeling of not just being at home, but being home.  


An introvert and engineer, strangers are not my forte.  Speaking different languages, we were all made a little vulnerable and we all rose to each other’s bravery in reaching out to communicate.  And in our running efforts. And in just being people.

The rain was increasing in intensity, so Pat, Haruki and I took a cab, while the rest walked.  We felt smug in our decision as the rain pelted the windshield but we were not sure we ultimately ended up any drier than those who walked.

The awards ceremony was that evening.  We all huddled in the lounge area by the pool as the tropical storm continued to release its fury listening to the closing remarks. One by one, we received our finisher t-shirts, coffee, necklace, and a special gift: a USB port with photos of ourselves across the seven days. 

Usually with races, runners have to purchase photos, so receiving dozens as a gift made the event all that more special. The photographers were among the hard working, up early and out late, documenting many of the moments that made this trip so special.  And there were so many.

The evening was casually festive, with the running behind us, two free drinks in hand, and a local band playing reggae.  I wanted to try the rum but I also didn’t want to be overly drunk and subsequently overly sick.  Pat offered me a taste of his and I was happy I had not ordered a full glass. We took advantage of the drinks but fatigue from the running and not great sleep had many heading to bed.  The loss of electricity from the storm sent the rest of us the same way.

The next day was bittersweet and long.  Our four hour bus trip took seven and traffic road work and the storm conspired against us.  But still there were no complaints, as we clung to those final few moments. I ate lunch with Franck and his wife Tatyana, who was from Russia. She had rarely spoken to me and I told myself she was shy, not that she didn’t like me for being from the US.  As we ate, she insisted everyone at the table speak English so that I could be included. That small gesture touched me. 

The lateness of the arrival meant that the final celebration was cancelled. Pat, Haruki, Rene, Hans, Pascal, Oliver and I met up for drinks.  Jean-Maria stopped by to say goodbye. Pascal translated for us and Jean-Maria had our longest conversation of the week.  

We had hoped for dinner again at the Italian restaurant but another, larger group of runners beat us there, so we ate at the hotel restaurant. Later, we walked over for dessert and coffee, which is really what we had wanted anyway, the chocolate torte being the stuff of dreams. It was ten o’clock when we arrived, and we lingered as long as we politely could. 


Or maybe it was just me.  Never had I felt so strongly that I belonged, and I wanted the feeling to last.  Before going back to my job with east coasters who lived to work. Before going back to mountain rescue with people whose entire identities and egos were wrapped up in being a rescuer.  Before going back to people who called me crazy without ever trying to understand.

Maybe it was just that we were all on our best Type B behavior.  Maybe it was because it was the tropics. Maybe we were all just too tired to disagree.

But I don’t think so.

Perhaps that’s why my adventure ended the way it did. My last stop in San Jose was the art museum. After spending a couple quiet hours, I headed back to the hotel. Just outside, I ran almost literally into Oliver. He spun me around and we strolled slowly back to the hotel, arm in arm.  

We had the same flight back to Miami–or were supposed to.  We shared a quiet taxi ride to the airport, I think each lost in our thoughts and the sadness of goodbyes.  Just before boarding, I was “encouraged” to take a later flight due to overbooking. I wasn’t entirely thrilled by the change in plans, but a nice voucher and another night in Costa Rica soothed my disappointment.

I told Oliver and his regret seemed deeper than mine that we would be saying goodbye earlier than expected.  As they began the boarding process, we shared one last hug. Oliver pulled back, taking my face in his hands.  Then he kissed me.

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.  


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.


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.”


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.


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.  


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.  


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.


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.


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. 


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.  


“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.


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.


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.


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.”


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

It’s All Going to be Okay

The woman we rescued in the below story wrote a book about her experience.  She asked me to write a chapter for her book, which I happily did. Sadly, it didn’t make the final cut, so I’m adding it here for your reading pleasure.

I was three quarters the way to the summit of Mt Morrison when the pager went off.  I sighed. This was my umpteenth time trying to reach the top of this innocuous little hill, and I really did not want to turn around again. I pulled out the annoying device to shut it up. I read the message.

Request for assistance for a carry out in Park County.

That sounded promising. At least I would get to do something.

Search and rescue has been singularly the most frustrating endeavor of my life. I joined for a very simple reason. I had been rescued from Longs Peak after my climbing partner fell. We had spent a very long night high up on that fourteen thousand foot mountain.  I was a novice and convinced I would die that night.

Actually, I had spent most of the day feeling that way.  I was in way over my head. It was a typical mountaineering disaster story: Over ambitious boyfriend dragging along his clueless girlfriend on a route neither of us had the skill to be on.  I had fortunately taken enough outdoor classes to at least have what I needed: food, water, warm clothes. Sadly, my expensive, thick, wool socks were sitting on the dash of his car. “Leave them. You won’t need them.” Not exactly the truest words spoken.

I remember believing for no logical reason that, if I saw the sunrise, I would live. There had been a full moon for part of the night, but it had set behind the mountain.  I sat, looking at the lights of Estes Park with envy and despair, thinking of all those people in their warm, cozy beds, happily ignorant of the two hapless climbers on Longs Peak.

The sun brought with it twenty some guardian angels in the form of a search and rescue team. They took us under their wings and back safely to our car, thirty six hours after we had started. All I could think about the rest of that day was how selfless these individuals were and how I wanted to be just like that. I wanted to be the one to say, it’s going to be okay now.

An internet search turned up a local search and rescue organization : Alpine Rescue Team. The timing was almost eerie. They were recruiting for a new class, something that only happened once every two years. An application and an interview and I was accepted into the class. Six months of training and a team vote and I was officially a member.

That’s when the fun stopped. As a new member, I was an “unknown”, someone with an unknown skill set, so understandably not someone who was often put in the field. Together with numerous stand downs–missions where the subject walked out before we arrived–and I found myself with a large gas bill and not much to show for it.  

But I was raised with strong ethics. I had committed to this and I would do this to the absolute best of my abilities. So I went to all the trainings and attended as many missions as my job and life would allow. I slowly got better.  I hoped someone noticed.

I looked again at the pager. A carry out in February would be long and painful. Add to that the prediction of a blizzard and time was of the essence.  I am an endurance athlete. This was my kind of mission. I put the pager away and turned back to my car.

I had worked my way up the ranks of the rescue team enough to earn a handheld radio. I turned it on in the car in a vain attempt to hear anything about this mission. I drove on in silence.  Many team members talk about how they mentally prepare as they drive, deciding what will go into their pack, what they might encounter. I preferred to let my mind be blank. It was counterintuitive but it was how my mind worked. I had learned it when I was flying hang gliders. If I over thought the situation, it inevitably ended badly. So I learned to trust my subconscious.

That and I never took anything out of my pack anyway. I train to run a hundred miles. I hike every chance I get.  Most missions did not tax me in the slightest, so carrying a heavy pack made up for any training I might be missing. It was a running joke on the team–I never knew if that was a good thing or not.  

I was pleasantly surprised to be one of the first rescuers on scene–that greatly increased the odds I wouldn’t spend the day sitting around.  One of my favorite mission leaders (MLs) was there already and he shouted to me to grab my pack as I stepped out of my car. I grabbed it and headed over.  One of the MLs just looked at me and shook his head. “Light and fast” is all he said. I returned to my car and pulled a few items out. When he did not look convinced, I told him the bulk was from a down jacket.  He, I, and one other ML, headed into the field for the carryout. It was about 4pm.

I was briefed on the way.  A young lady had fallen and broken her femur. Another agency had already secured her, and we were there to pull her via sled over the snowy trails of Rosalie Peak.  She was somewhere around 13,000ft. A helicopter had located her, but had to leave because of an impending blizzard. I could only imagine her despair. The same had happened on my rescue, but I knew I could walk out. She didn’t have that option.

One of the advantages to being fielded with an ML is their radios–they have access to information the rest of us don’t.  The conversations were confusing, but it soon became apparent that the subject was not only not secured, she had not been located.  The MLs discussed options. Darkness seemed to fall quickly. We continued on the assumption that we would be carrying out the subject, but the mood was decidedly more tense.  

That assumption lasted until about 8 o’clock, when we heard singing. “This Little Light of Mine”. Both MLs muttered quietly then jumped into action. One turned, looked straight at me, and said, “You’re medical. Go.”

I nodded. Medical is something I knew. Something I was good at. I had taken my first first-aid course at least fifteen years prior.  Six months before that, I had found myself dangling from a tree, blood everywhere, unable to breath. I had crashed my hang glider into a tree.  My friends were standing there, staring at me. All I could think was, “I am going to die while they watch.” A nurse who happened to live nearby was soon there, took control, got me out of the tree and I was able to breath again.

As the ambulance drove me to the local hospital, I vowed I would never be in that position, watching a friend die and powerless to help.  I’ve taken countless CPR and first aid courses, before becoming an instructor myself. I moved to Colorado, fell in love with the mountains, and became a Wilderness First Aid instructor.

Now, I was facing my first, real, medical crisis.  Everything I’d taught for twenty years seemed to desert me.  I hurried over to the subject. I put on a positive cheery attitude. As I kneeled beside her, it all came flooding back

Scene safety. The blizzard arrived at the same time as we did. We built a shelter out of a single tarp.  She and her friend were on the saddle and in the brunt of the weather. With no way to move her, it was the best I could do.  

Subject rapid assessment.  Broken femur. I knew that. Hypothermia.  That was obvious. Vitals. She was so bundled up and so cold, I was afraid to expose any part of her to take a pulse.  There was no way to see her breathing. She was alert and oriented. And terrified.

“It’s all okay now, right?”  

It was the moment I had dreamed of for three years. My chance to say “It is all okay now.”

Except that it wasn’t.  Not even close.

We had come under the assumption that she was packaged and ready to go. That was not the case.  If it had been, her leg would be secured, she’d be in a “beanbag” to stabilize her, a thick sleeping bag, and a litter–a titanium, full body carrying device.  She would have been warm and somewhat stable, and, while not the most fun she’d ever had, it wouldn’t have been too bad a ride out.

We had a beanbag and that was it.  She was about to face the most excruciating experience of her life.  Having broken seven bones in my life, I felt my nerves and skin rebel just at the thought of what lay ahead. I glanced down the trail I’d come up.  I could feel the indescribable pain of bone against bone. It was four miles back to the trailhead. I had no idea where the litter was.

I took a breath. I had been trying to keep it upbeat, but I couldn’t lie.

“Actually, the next bit is going to really suck. But I promise, you will get through that, and then it will get better.”

Her friend, helping me out, said, “Oh don’t worry about her. She can do it. She runs 50 miles for fun.”

I looked up.  A fellow runner.  Suddenly there was a bit of brightness.  Suddenly, I wasn’t lead medic in a blizzard in the middle of the night with a subject with the only kind of bone break that could kill you.

“Me too! I ran Leadville last year! Doing it again this year.”

“OMG! Can I pace you?”

I laughed. “Well, let’s get you outta here first, then, yes, definitely.”

The beanbag was laid out beside her.  It was time for the torture. I explained what was going to happen. Her eyes were covered by goggles, but I could feel them widen.  I took her head as lead medic. Other teams had arrived by this time, and there were four others, ready to move her.

For the next hour, all I can remember is the screaming.  It’s what I will always remember most from the experience.  We got her into the beanbag, and began the descent to the litter and eventually the trailhead and ambulance, assuming it could even get there in the blizzard.  She begged desperately for drugs. There was nothing I could do. I was helpless.

We went slowly, stopping often to give her a little break from the torture, and allow the litter to get closer.  I stayed next to her, shouting encouragements over the wind. She and her friend had been imagining a beach in Mexico to escape the bitter cold. I shouted about the sun and the heat and the sand.  I could tell it was doing absolutely no good, but there was nothing else I could do.

I was at my breaking point.  This wasn’t what I had imagined.  I couldn’t tell her it would all be okay.  It wasn’t. It was so much worse. I could feel the tears welling, but I pushed them away angrily. I had no right to cry. I wasn’t the one in pain.  At the end of seemingly endless night, I would go home, and collapse in my bed. She would be wheeled into an ER and all the torture that brought with it.  I kept encouraging her, kept telling her she was doing great, telling her it was almost over.

Finally, finally, we were at the litter.  More teams were there–a call had gone out, requesting assistance from other teams.. They loaded her and her relief was as palpable as mine.  It was still slow going. The trail was packed, but the snow was soft and deep on either side. To keep the litter going in the right direction, rescuers were forced to post hole on the sides.  Everyone was struggling. I at least had snowshoes–most had left them, thinking they would not be needed. A team had brought extra pairs, but still some went without.

As they pulled her down the trail, I kept up as best I could.  The adrenaline was leaving my body. It was midnight already and we were still at least two miles out.  Other medics were there and I was no longer needed. I dropped back. At a mile out, the snow machines were waiting.  By the time I got there, she had already been pulled out by a machine.

There was one machine waiting.  Ego kept others from getting a ride, but I was beyond that. I gratefully accepted a ride out.  No one could question my strength and abilities. I had given my all.

I thanked the driver at the trailhead, checked out with the ML, and got in my car. An hour later, I was home.  I crawled into bed. I squeezed my eyes shut and pulled the covers over my head.

But I could not block out the sounds of the screaming.


“The Inherent Risk is What Makes It Fun”

“From here, the toe of the glacier is about seven miles away, and it’s about two miles from there to the top, with a fifteen degree slope on average.”  

“You’re lying.” The words were out of my mouth before I could even think.

Austin laughed.  “It’s hard to get perspective in Alaska.”

Physical perspective–maybe.  But not spiritual.  If Colorado were not my home, Alaska would be. Someone told me once, take a balloon, draw Colorado on it, blow it up, and you’ve got Alaska.  

I was back in Alaska.  My cousin had IM’d me back in March to inform me of his impending nuptials.  My trip was booked within the month. This was my third time in McCarthy over the last ten-ish years and each time, I had under planned and driven away full of regret, not knowing when I would be back to this remote, rugged area.


First, I had to get there.  The flight to Anchorage was easy enough, but it is an eight hour drive from there to McCarthy.  I’ve driven it twice and had no interest in doing it a third time. I more than anything wanted to fly to McCarthy, to see the mountains and glaciers from an eagle’s perspective.  But flights are limited to certain days, require more than one person, and have a 35lb baggage limit. That was definitely out. Traveling for work has killed my ability to pack efficiently, especially to a place where the weather was less predictable than, well, Colorado weather.

A bit of digging brought up a shuttle service with Wrangell-St Elias Tours from Anchorage to McCarthy.  It still required two people minimum, but one other soul on the planet wanted to go the same week, she (Marie, as I found out) on Sunday, me on Tuesday, so we agreed on Monday.  

Travelling to McCarthy is a bit like rewinding the clock.  Anchorage itself seems a little lost in time, and each town after seems a bit more unstuck. Then you find yourself at the beginning of the sixty mile dirt road, maintained better than it was, but still subject to the whims of geology, meteorology, and beavers.  

The weather was less than stellar when we arrived, a complete deluge that had the river running high, which justified a few extras I had brought. I put on my orange rain jacket and dragged my massive, grey Patagonia suitcase across the footbridge, arriving just in time to miss the shuttle to the lodge. Another came soon.  I thought I was home free, but  the beavers were protesting the road to Kennicott and it was enough under water that someone left a paddleboard to get across.

Tuesday was my play-tourist day with nothing planned,.  The weather was pleasant so I walked around Kennicott, purchasing a necklace from a local artist, then heading up to the glacier.  Even in the few years since I had last been there, the glacier was changed, slowly receding back as global warming made its impact.  I stopped by Kennicott Wilderness Guides and checked in with Betsy, who had helped me plan my entire trip. She greeted me with a hug, a little extra paperwork (this waivers was particularly poignant: “the inherent risk is what makes it fun”), and times for meeting.

I met Austin, my guide for the week, a little later that evening, of course after I’d changed into PJs and settled in for the evening, giving into the two hour time difference and travel fatigue.  Even after a full season of dragging tourists around the glaciers, he was full of enthusiasm and smiles, even pretending not to notice the pajamas. It was his second season there, his first was the prior year, doing his internship for his wilderness leadership degree.  Where were these degrees when I was in college? Where would I be if I’d been born twenty years later?

Wednesday started with another waiver for Wrangell Mountain Air (“I promise not sue if I die in a plane crash”). Bill was an excellent pilot, describing the scenery and telling happy stories of Nizina, the second choice for the day’s hike as the first had been flooded by the recent rains.  Both had already warned me there was a real danger we’d spend the night out–inclement weather and technical troubles being all-too-real in that remote area.


If it hadn’t meant curtailing other activities, I would have welcomed the adventure.

As eager as I was to get down and explore, I would not have minded a longer plane ride. As Bill was preparing to land on the newly renovated (but still very bumpy, according to Bill’s exacting standards) gravel and mud landing strip –my first Alaska bear sighting!  They bounded off, offended by the noise of the plane, but I still regretted not grabbing the bear spray Austin had offered. The pawprints we saw throughout the day didn’t help  any.


The highlight of the hike were the many fossils that we found.  Bill told us on the flight back that they were from the time when Nizina was still part of the Pacific Ocean.  I had the same feeling of eternal time that I felt finding seashells on the top of small peaks in Texas. So long ago but then again, not so much.  You are allowed to take all the rocks you want from the glaciers, but fossils must remain. Knowing that prior respect for that rule had allowed me to see so many of these gems gave me the same respect to take photos and place the fossils back where they were found, maybe never to be seen again, but then again, maybe.

Austin I explored around the morain, occasionally adventuring onto the glacier.  There were icebergs everywhere. He told me that his boss and a couple coworkers had been camping out when the last calving occurred.  It had been a massive event, icebergs shooting hundreds of feet in the air, causing mini tsunamis and threatening their camp. Once the realization hit (fortunately it had happened after they’d gotten out of the water but before sleep had come), they grabbed the gear they could and made for higher ground, amazingly losing only a single trekking pole.

Thursday was predicted to be the rainiest day, so packrafting had been planned for that day.  Packrafting is the result of adventure races that require racers to cross rivers. Like much outdoor gear, it’s become lighter and more sophisticated in recent years.  The rafts, drysuits and paddles weighed less than my rescue pack.


A little patience and a lot of flexibility is required in putting together all the pieces, but the grey skies and forty degree temps didn’t have us in too much of a hurry. I was pretty relieved that only my hands were cold once everything was pieced together.

We were in Kennicott Lake, at the base of the Kennicott Glacier. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the current,  the lake feeding right into the river. Having the upper body strength of an ultra runner, I was a bit at Austin’s mercy.  He kept close during the couple spots where the current swept under the glacier.

The scenery was surreal.  A calving event had occurred there recently as well, and we paddled around the abstract sculptures that remained, making up stories on the “pieces” and their artists.  The deep blue of the newly divided ice was mostly gone, but we did find small segments still gleaming. Small pine trees grew out of the debris on top of the glacier. The rain made small waterfalls.


At lunch, we did a land crossing in the middle of the lake.  Austin showed me how to hook the paddle to the raft to create a handle for carrying.  I didn’t fall over is about the only thing I can say about my lack of style and grace.  My hands were completely numb and my arms were already feeling the effort. I inhaled my entire lunch from Meatza’s, one of two eateries in Kennicott, hoping the calories would restore some of my energy, but the lack of movement and the increasing wind won out.  

As we got back in the water, I finally conceded and told Austin it wouldn’t hurt my feeling if he made this a short day. I don’t think his feeling were hurt much either, his gloves less water resistant than mine.

Glaciers are constantly changing and a route through the icebergs found on one day was not guaranteed to ever be there again.  We paddled into a sort of amphitheater and listened to the falling rocks and water, the lack of wind improving my attitude. A couple times, Austin paddled out ahead to make sure the route was still clear.  It always was, and by 2pm, we were back in the cove, packing up the rafts.

We stopped by the Potato for a quick bite before relieving Austin of his duties for the day.  I had first eaten at the Potato when it was still a food truck and it was the best burrito I had ever consumed.  Egg, cheese, curly fries and sour cream. I tried and failed on many occasions to re-create it.

I was a little sad that the recipe had changed and wasn’t quite what I remembered, but the hot coffee more than made up for it, coaxing warmth back into my chilled bones.

Halfway through my burrito, I noticed Austin listening intently to a group had come in after us.  From scraps of the conversation, I gathered that part of their group was going to be stuck out for the night. Austin told me in a lowered voice that the group was theirs and they had gone out with his boss. The weather was to blame and it looked to be a cold, rainy night to be stuck out. I selfishly thanked my lucky stars.

Ice climbing day dawned clear and cool.  I hadn’t taken long to adjust to the time zone, staying up later to peer hopefully and futilely for the Northern Lights, sleeping a little later in the morning.  Breakfast at the lodge was more than a cut above American standards, but not quite the breakfasts I’d had in Italy. But I was really there for the coffee and it did not disappoint.

I had brought helmet, harness and boots, three pieces of gear I do not like to leave to chance.  Austin had already fitted the boots with crampons so we headed out shortly after meeting up, excited to be out in the sunshine.


The day warmed and we more than made up for the short rafting day.  Maybe it was my hopeful imagination, but Austin looked a little whipped by the end of the day.  He found five great places to climb, starting off with a fun, simple climb, then jumping right into some overhanging stuff, sure to wear out us lesser climbers.  I hung with those as long as I could, making it up once, but never “clean” (without falling), earning the kudos of fellow tourist climbers for my stubborness.

The last climb of the day was a moulin, a vertical shaft that can go down to the bottom of a glacier, hundreds of feet down.  This one had filled significantly with water, but was still quite deep and quite dark. Austin lowered me in, which at least meant I could survey the route before climbing it.  I couldn’t go quite to the water because the moulin narrowed so much that I could not swing my ax.  It would have been like Santa climbing out of a chimney after a healthy serving of milk and cookies. It was the perfect ending climb and twice up the column left my arms and legs shaking in a combination of physical defeat and mental victory.  


We meandered back, me dragging my feet a little in exhaustion and sadness that my three days of adventuring were over. I love hiring guides for their knowledge and experience and the one-on-one camaraderie, but it’s also bittersweet because I know it’s just a job for them, where they have given me a lifetime of memories.

I lounged a little longer in my double bed Saturday morning, listening to the sounds of the kitchen prep going on directly below my room.  The McCarthy Half Marathon, benefiting the Wrangell Mountain Center, wasn’t until 2pm, which wasn’t near enough time for me to recover from the three days I’d just had, but at least made for a lazy morning.

I’ve done many low-key races in my life, but never one where the race map was hand drawn on a piece of paper. And that wasn’t the only first for me for a race.  Two people showed up with bear spray–they weren’t used but there were reports of a grizzly on the course. There was a dog with a bib number–I’ve seen dogs bandit a race before, but this one was full-on legit. And a for-reals gun start.

But the best was the end of the race: it finished at the end of the road (go any farther and you’re in the river). After crossing under the sign, I walked back to the grocery store to reward myself with an ice cream. Just as I was handed my black cherry in a waffle cone, a fellow runner strolled in to order his own–mentioning in passing that he hadn’t actually crossed the finish line yet, but that he just couldn’t wait. A fellow runner offered to pay so he could continue on.

There was a spaghetti dinner after the race but attending would have meant missing the last shuttle back to Kennicott and a five mile walk.  Not impossible, but the bear sighting rumours and lack of a headlamp didn’t make the option terribly appealing.

My cousin, Mark, has lived in McCarthy for at least fifteen years so the wedding Sunday evening was the event of the summer.  Everyone was invited to both the wedding and the reception and everyone showed up. I knew my cousin Mary Francis and her troupe were going to be there, but had found out only the week prior that my older brother would be in attendance as well. 


For most, probably not the biggest of news, but I hadn’t seen my brother in close to twenty years.  There was no animosity–at least that I remembered–but that’s often what divorces do to families. I’m not much of an emotional person but I have learned from experience not to go into potentially emotional situations without some kind of plan. 

A few years ago, I had run into my mother at my sister’s 50th birthday bash–another family member I hadn’t seen since my twenties.  I thought she would take charge of the “reunion”, being the mother and all, but she refused to even make eye contact, leaving me baffled and hurt and feeling like an abandoned five year old.  It was not an experience I cared to repeat.

My plan was simple. I would just go up and give him a hug and hope for the best.  Probably not the best laid of plans, but it worked.  We hugged for a long time and twenty years of absence was gone in a moment.  We caught up on life later in the evening when most of the excitement had died down.

The wedding venue was unparalleled by any I had seen, at the toe of the Root Glacier.  Both it and the Kennicott Glacier were visible, the pure whiteness offset by the changing color of the leaves.  The ceremony brought tears to every eye. I had not met the bride, but by all accounts, she and Mark were an amazing couple, managing their rental cabins in the summer and traveling the world in the winter.  Her engagement ring, made of emeralds, was of course from Columbia, arguably the source of the finest emeralds in the world.

Weddings are often minefields for the single but not this one–the wedding or me.  Maybe it was because of being in a remote and wild place that rewarded fierce independence.  Maybe it was because I had finally outgrown feeling out-of-place on my own and found comfort and stability in standing, climbing, running on my own two feet, as much on solid ground as on a glacier.

Maybe it was just the perspective gained in Alaska.



The Fifteen Hour Friend

“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.


The Life Bus is everywhere!

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.


Another great road name

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?


The shirt I bought at Cabin Coffee

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.


Mile 20, still signs of life

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.


The turnaround at mile 53-ish

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.


My nemesis, mile 80

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.


Me and my fifteen hour friend, Lara

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.


A quote from The Hole In The Wall restaurant


Le Grand Raid

I felt my foot slip out from under me and completely off the trail. The rest of my body quickly followed suit.  As I hung there, dangling, clinging to a small tree, my feet finding no purchase, all I could think was, why am I still holding on?

It was maybe mile sixty of a hundred and I’d been awake more than 48 hours at that point.  I have never known such delirium and hope never to again.


Le Diagonale des Fous.  The Angle of Fools. That’s the direct translation.  The translation of the race directors is not much better: The Madman’s Diagonal.  The race runs diagonally across the island. And you have to be mad to do it.

Or you will be.

I had first heard of the race from a French friend I met via Strava. I don’t know if it’s characteristic of the French or not, but he was one to over promise and under deliver.  He had proposed we do the race together–he would navigate the language and I would help him train. Alas, he found himself a girlfriend (not sure if his wife knew or not) and somehow “forgot” to register for the race.  

I had to get up at 3am to  register–the registration opened at noon Reunion Island time and generally filled in less than an hour. Reunion Island isn’t exactly third world but it’s also not first world, and the server couldn’t handle the load.  Angry red and yellow pages, made worse by being in French, kept popping up. I refreshed as fast as my fingers allowed and somehow finally got my registration completed.

Heart pounding with a mix of exuberance and what-have-I-just-done, I knew I wouldn’t sleep so my training started at 5am.

About seven years ago, I spent two weeks trekking in Nepal, around Manaslu, a trek that few Americans do, so not much English was spoken.  I spent one evening watching my guide chatting with a single woman, older and a hotel owner. This was highly unusual in Nepal. I had a million questions for her, none of which my guide would translate.  I promised myself I would never visit another country where I couldn’t communicate.

So right after I received my confirmation, I found a tutor to teach me French. Chelsea has lived the life I would go back and live if I could.  She’s a language major, speaks seven languages fluently, and has lived in so many countries. She understands culture. We often spent as much in weekly lesson as in animated discussion of politics.  

She had never heard of Reunion Island but had spent much of her childhood in France, living with an aunt.  Her stories were straight out of stereotyped legends.

During my stay, I would spend the hour before an encounter practicing what I would say. At the hotel: J’ai une reservation.  Je m’appelle Lynda Wacht.


Then of course they would ask me a question. Avez vous votre idenficacion? To answer, I needed to understand the question. Which I didn’t.  I spoke French like a champ. Understanding it? Not so much.

Fortunately, the Reunionites do not share the French stereotype of pretending to not understand English.  Unfortunately, it is because they genuinely do not understand English. Some have a rudimentary understanding but I was definitely in the deep end and flailing like a muppet.

I was glad to have paid a little extra for a hotel where the staff spoke English.  At least I had a starting base.

After finding and checking into the hotel, the next order of business was mastering the bus system.  Once I realized my French friend wasn’t planning on being there at all, I had done quite a bit of research on logistics. Being a point-to-point race, beginning in Saint Pierre and ending in Saint Denis, made everything that much harder.  My hotel was in Saint Denis–I knew enough about racing to know that even in the US, I wouldn’t have the brain cells left to get on a bus and off at the right location after 48 hours of being awake.


But that meant I had to get to Saint Pierre for the packet pickup and the race start.  The hotel people were great for getting me downtown via the bus. That took me right to the main station where I could get a bus to anywhere on the island.  Score one for me!

I wandered around the downtown area, trying to find the finish area.  I found a tourist information center and managed to secure a map, but not much else.   I’m pretty decent with navigation and soon found the large field that I hoped I would cross in a few days from then.  

Never have I been more thankful that most road signs are pictures and not words.  The last hurdle in my race would be finding a bus back to the hotel, two miles away.  There is no greater testament to the fact that it is the mind and heart that gets one across the finish line than not being able to walk three feet past that finish line, so laugh if you will: two miles after a hundred is an impossible distance.  I found the station I needed to return to the hotel and hoped my sleep deprived mind would remember the steps it took to get there.

Back in town, I found a small sandwich shop that looked empty enough that I would not annoy people as I tried again to navigate my way through the French language.  I successfully ordered my sandwich only to be stymied by a question: Khoka? I gave him my frustratedly embarrassed look. He looked confused. Anglais? He shook his head but pointed to the *Coca* Cola bottle in the display case.  Ah, si! Dammit. Oui!

I wandered around a bit more, finding a small bookstore where I purchased a running magazine in French.  The lady heard my excellent accent and asked (in French–and I understood!) if I was running the race and wished me well.  I smiled as I walked out. Another small victory.


The next day was packet pickup in Saint Pierre.  I practiced my request to purchase bus fare. Je voudrais un billet pour Saint Pierre pour la journée, s’il vous plait.  I was behind who I was pretty sure was another runner. When it was his turn to purchase, he raised one finger and said “Saint Pierre”.  

He got his ticket and was on his way.

Saint Pierre was a madhouse.  The race I did prior to this one was the Ouray 100.  It was a four am start and there were 30 of us. When I went to get my packet for the race, I and the race director were the only ones there.  

Two thousand, five hundred runners had signed up for this race.  That is a lot of runners. A lot. All in one park, waiting for packet pickup to start.  Getting there an hour early had not done me much good. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.  I looked around, trying to find someone to strike up a conversation with while I waited, but of all the languages I heard, none were English.  About twenty countries are represented at this race. Six people were from the US, nine from Canada and even less from the UK. So I just watched, trying hard to not be overwhelmed and intimidated.  

The group compressed as the gates opened.  Fortunately, I stood about a head above most, and was able to keep my bearings.  I smiled at people as we all became sardines, but the expression was rarely returned.  The race was the next day, and the goal was to get the bag and get back off one’s feet to rest.

I finally got my bag, t-shirts, GPS device, and race information. The line wound its way around all the sponsors.  I soon had quite the assortment of goods, most of which I had no clue to their purpose.

Saint Pierre is one of the most beautiful ocean towns I have ever visited.  Reunion Island wasn’t discovered by Europeans until the late 1800s, and most of the island still feel very quaint.  With the exception of Saint Denis, the business center, the towns are small and full of history.


I wandered around, looking for the restaurant I had found online for lunch, right across the street from the ocean.  My legs were already tired from the couple hours of standing around.

Food is a bit tricky before a race, especially in a foreign country: lots of risk for getting ill.  The restaurant was buffet style, which got me out of having to know what was on the menu. I sat outside and enjoyed the view, trying to ignore my rising nervousness about the race.  I enjoy my own company and usually there is at least one person to chat with, so I rarely feel lonely, but at that moment, I truly felt lonely. I understood nothing that was being said around me.  I wished I had spent even more time learning French, even knowing it would not have helped much. There is understanding enough to get by and there is truly being able to converse. It would take more than a few months of tutoring to be fluent.

The race didn’t start until 10pm.  Unfortunately, the construction next to the hotel started at 7am.  Not that I was really asleep anyway. I got up and headed to breakfast, free with my stay and quite possibly the best breakfast buffet I’ve ever eaten.  I had on my race shirt already–I’m not sure why. It was a requirement of the race to wear it at the beginning and the end. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it during all those middle miles, so just planned on wearing it the whole race, like I do all my races.

Fast forward to the end of the race, where all I can smell is heavy cologne and everyone is wearing a clean shirt, packed in their final drop bag.  Ah, the French. Always about looking good.

Having my race shirt on did allow a TV sports anchor from France to recognize me as a race participant.  He was a beautiful man who spoke beautiful English with a beautiful accent and I learned about how truly popular and important this race is, to the country and to France as well. The entire race is televised both there and in France.  Now I understood the clean shirt at the end–and pretty sure this American was edited out. It was interesting to learn.

But mostly, I was just excited to be having my first real conversation in four days.

A bus was reserved for taking runners to the Saint Pierre from across the island.  It left around 5pm, so of course I got there around 3. On the way, I stopped at my favorite sandwich shop (wearing my t-shirt) and received a special sandwich from my new favorite store owner who remembered me from two days prior and wished me well on my endeavor.

It was my good fortune to find a native who spoke English waiting at the bus stop as well.  It afforded me a chance to ask a question that had been plaguing me since the night before: what the hmmm is a ‘sac banane’??   To pass the time the evening before, I had tried reading the race rules in French and discovered that ‘banana sacks are prohibited’.  In typical last minute freak out mode, I became convinced that I must find out what one is lest I show up at the start and be forbidden from running a race I had spent hundreds of dollars and hours on.  I emailed Chelsea who could offer no help. So I asked my newfound friend, who through a series of gestures led me to understand that a sac banane is a fanny pack.

Crisis averted.  I hadn’t owned one of those in many years.

I managed to sleep a little on the three hour bus ride to the start.  The start was complete chaos. I saw no signs and people seemed to be going in every directions.  I didn’t even pretend to know what I was doing, hoping someone would take pity and point the way.  Not so much. I wandered until I somehow managed to end up in a line, where I encountered an actual crisis.  I had purchased the wrong ACE bandages. Without the proper ones, I would not be allowed to start the race. Seriously.  Through yet another series of gestures, I learned that the correct ACE bandages were sticky. And I also learned that they were for sale at the next table.

Crisis two averted.

There was a large stage where the race director was being made up before being interviewed. A pop band was blaring music.  And two thousand five hundred runners were sprawled out, trying to rest before the start.


I can’t even begin to express the sensory overload.  I was both excited and intimidated, wanting to cry but not sure why.

Everyone on the island was there.  Everyone. There were fireworks. And music. And cheering. And dancing.  I tried to slow my brain, taking it all in. The Ouray 100 had started with the race director waving his arms and yelling “okay, go”.  


Turns out slowing down was the worst possible thing I could have done.  The first ten miles are on a wide road, which then suddenly becomes a trail.  The first ten miles took me two hours. The next three took over three hours. It almost cost me the race.

I just stood in line, trying to figure out what to do.  Some people were just pushing past everyone, but that didn’t seem like the right thing to do.  Did I just stand there and wait? Was this really how it went? For how long? I mean, people finished this race–heck, most people did, given the generous cutoffs.

I finally worked up the nerve to ask the gentleman next to me, “C’est normale?”  

“C’EST NORMALE?  C’EST NORMALE?!! ….” I have no idea what he said after that, but from the gesturing and tone, I guessed a pretty angry rant.  Others were nodding and shaking their heads and I did my best to mimic that. Whatever was said, pretty sure the situation wasn’t normal.

Finally the line cleared and I took off, three hours behind my expected time and fighting cutoffs the rest of the race.  It was three in the morning.

Most of the rest of the race is a horrible blur. I have memories but cannot piece together exactly when any actually happened.  I was awake through three full nights, starting late Thursday and finishing around 11am Sunday.

I think the hallucinations started the second night.  The trail was next to a road and I heard voices near me.  Some people walking on the road. Then suddenly they were next to me! It gave me a start, but when my headlamp illuminated them, they turned into branches.  As I continued down the trail, all the branches turned into mannequins. Not quite as scary as clowns, but a close second.


I had to force myself to not focus on the hundreds of mannequins lined up along the trail. Which just led to worse hallucinations.

Not scarier but worse.  At one point, I knew an aid station was coming up and I started looking for it.  Pretty soon there it was, with runners stopping and sitting–and eating pizza! It was heavenly.  Pizza sounded so good. Sitting sounded so good.

Just as I was about to enter the warm light from the tent, the whole thing disappeared.

I stopped, stunned.  No. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t. But it was.

The hallucinations continued through the second and third nights, although gratefully the mannequins eventually went away.

There were high points too.  We traveled through villages, where residents would come out to cheer us on, even the the dead of night.  At one small village, the woman were singing a song about being exhausted, laughing as they sang. When I came closer, all the women stopped singing and there was a moment of complete quiet as they stared at me. I was pretty sure I should be worried but was too exhausted to really care.  Then the women started cheering and clapping, patting me on my shoulder.


It was a theme that continued through the race.  Solitary women at aid stations would come up and smile and applaud.  Groups of women cheering.

Of the two thousand, five hundred runners.  126 were women. No, that is not missing a digit.  Less than 200 women. I have not read much about European running, but enough to know women are not encouraged or supported like they are here in the US. I had no idea it was that unbalanced. I hope it changes.  I hope I somehow inspired these women. Regardless, I was infinitely grateful for their encouragement and camaraderie.

The food at the aid stations that actually existed was amazing. Pasta and cheese and meats and cheese and other stuff and cheese.  Even pizza. Except the fake beer stuff. I was smart enough to not drink it during the race, but couldn’t resist a sample afterwards.  If you’ve ever had vegemite, that’s what it tasted like. One swallow and the rest went into the trash.


I think it was the second night when I fell off the trail.  I was just so exhausted. People would run past, forcing me to step off the trail, only to stop and rest, forcing me to go around, only to repeat the process.  I was angry and tired and never saw the eroded edge. Another runner stopped and said something in French. I just started crying and told him I didn’t speak French. He quickly switched to English and helped me back onto the trail.

I was done.  The aid station wasn’t much farther and the cutoff wasn’t either.  My brain kept pushing but my body completely rebelled. It was an easy trail down and my brain won over as I started a limping jog.  I made it to the aid station with ten minutes to spare.

I tried finding motivation to go on.  I couldn’t. I didn’t want to.

Then I realized I had to go on.  My friend Lexi was at the next aid station. My phone was useless and I had no idea how I would get in touch with her.  I couldn’t even speak enough English at that point to explain what I needed. And if you dropped, you were responsible for getting back and I couldn’t remember where my hotel was.  

I saw no way out of it than by getting back up and heading back out.

Lexi of course wasn’t at the next aid station, nor the next nor the next. But my brain kept telling me that, forcing me to keep going, until I realized that I was going to finish that accursed race.

The final summit, early Sunday. As I made my way down the impossibly steep terrain, a fellow racer shouted out, “Once we’re at the bridge, we’re done!”

I spent the next two hours seeing a bridge after each switchback. I couldn’t even cry.

As I got lower and closer, day hikers appeared on the trail, giving me a small ray of hope that the trail head was near.  The hikers included one very angry Frenchman, yelling at everyone. I could hear him two switchbacks up. As I slowly and painfully made my way down, he was barrelling his way up until we were at a face off.  He continued yelling and gesturing, making it very obvious I was in his way and he would have none of it. I slowly straightened up, so he could see my race bib.

He immediately stepped out of my way with no more than a quiet “Respecte.”  Some part of my mind smirked.


Finally, a real bridge and the finish line.  I smiled vaguely at the TV camera. There were no more finishers medals and only extra large t-shirts. I didn’t care. I just wanted my drop bags and to get to the bus station.

I didn’t make it that far. My body saw the cot and overruled my brain.  

I woke up from something far beyond sleep two hours later.  I found my bags and amazingly the bus station.

I was a day later than I expected and so had no idea if the buses were even running. It was Sunday on a decidedly Catholic island.  I collapsed on a bench, not sure what to do.

But of course the kindness of strangers.  

They didn’t speak English but I understood “Ou?” Where? I gave them the name of my hotel and they smiled and patted my shoulder.  When the bus came, they gestured to me and spoke to the driver, apparently explaining to him where I needed to go, because he gave me warning as my stop arrived.

I slept until the next morning, awakening to the construction, so thankful to not be moving.  I took it easy that day, only going out to dinner at a recommended Creole restaurant, surprising myself by ordering dinner through dessert in French only.

I had planned on a lot of sightseeing after the race but had not expected to take sixty hours to finish.  I did go to the nature museum and learn about shark attacks and animals indigenous to the area, happy I had not known any of that prior to the race.  I toured a couple small towns I remembered seeing on the bus ride. I purchased a small instrument whose name I have forgotten. I learned about the preservation of turtles.

I drank wine and put my feet into the ocean and called the whole adventure a success.



Les, In Remembrance

The Olympics always make me think of Les. I wrote this a few years ago and wanted to share it on the Life Bus.

The fascinating–and frustrating–aspect of inspiration is that you never know when to expect it. Sometimes, when you most need it, when you’re digging the deepest, it completely eludes you. Then one day, when you’re looking the other way, it comes up and smacks you on the back of the head.

This tale is closer to the latter.

I’m a bit hypocritical, as we all are in some way or another. I love the anonymity of a big city, yet want to be greeted by name when walking into a store. I avoid the Targets and spend a little more at the Tony’s Markets.

From the first day, Les greeted me with a smile and some comment on the day or my attire–I work from home, so rarely change from my running or cycling clothes. It wasn’t long before he knew my name and my grocery shopping took longer as we chatted about his life or mine.

He asked me one day about my job. I mentioned the travel it entailed and he somewhat embarrassedly told me about one of his “silly” hobbies: collecting newspapers from different cities, especially the sports section. I was working in Springfield, MA, at the time, and Les revelled in the Boston papers I brought back for him.

But it was the sports section from Houston which gave me the story that stays with me to this day.

The next time I was at Tony’s Market, Les was so excited. An incredible coincidence, a friend of his had been featured in the Houston paper I’d given him. They had run track in high school together, and his friend had gone on to coach high school running. Les called his old friend and they had caught up after too many years apart.

I don’t remember what I asked to prompt him, but Les told me about loving running. How, after high school, he had continued and gotten better. How he had qualified for the Olympic trials in the eighties. I was amazed. An Olympic hopeful. I was talking with someone, was friends with someone, who had done something the rest of us only dream about.

Then he said, simply, he had come in dead last.

I could hear the disappointment in his voice. I could picture the scene and the look on his face as he crossed the finish, behind every other person there. But I couldn’t help but smile proudly and say, You were the worst of the best; that still puts you in a class the rest of us can only respect. I asked, but could get no more details about the experience out of him.

One day, almost a year ago, Les disappeared from Tony’s. I asked another friend there, but she had heard nothing. I knew Les lived nearby and I hoped to run into him, see how he was faring. I was always looking, but never saw him. Last week, I found out why. Les had died of a heart attack at the age of 59.

He told me once after that conversation that I had inspired him to start running again. We met once at Red Rocks for a go at the stairs. And now, every time I finish a race, disappointed at my time or place, I think of Les and how, just by finishing, I might have been the worst of the people who showed up, but I was the best of all who didn’t.

Thank you for the inspiration, Les.