Did Nothing Fatal

I’d been running for over eight hours near California’s Cleveland National Forest when I started hallucinating. Beyond the granite boulders of Cuyamaca Peak, I spotted the sands of Mexico and paparazzi snapping photos. Odd, I thought, that professional photographers would take pictures of me. It was even stranger when I watched them swirl away into dust.

That’s when I had to walk. Living at San Francisco’s sea level, I wasn’t used to the 90-degree heat or the 6500 feet of elevation. I’d spent the past ten years running ultramarathons in more challenging conditions, so I didn’t think the Cuyamaca 100K would push me towards delusions. How wrong I was, as the grizzly bear to my left turned out to be burned out logs from a forgotten forest fire.

While stepping over black shards of wood, my stomach twisted and growled. I was starving. Like an amateur, I started the race hungry. Not wanting to haul or damage my precious Vitamix blender on the plane down to San Diego, I forfeited my usual breakfast smoothie of almonds, oranges, blueberries, and protein powder to a tepid bowl of hotel oatmeal, which tasted like newspaper. The result? Fatigue. Stupidity.

While reaching for a Clif Bar tucked into the waistband of my shorts, cirrus clouds exploded like fireworks. Lizards and pinecones circled around my head until I noticed that one of my knees was planted into hot dirt. A bit of blood oozed from my leg, but I felt no pain. With my teeth, I tore open the wrapper on the bar, and it spilled like chocolate pudding onto the rocks around me. I didn’t know Clif Bars could melt without an oven or microwave. I wondered if the heat was baking my intestines, my brain.

A few hours later, I found myself tripping over red manzanita roots. It wasn’t clear to me if I’d woken up from a deep sleep. What I thought was the thump of my heartbeat was techno from a nearby stereo. A picture of a 70’s male model with a handlebar mustache dangled from a pine tree. On it, someone wrote in blue marker: You’re too sexy for this race…so sexy it hurts!

Vomit burned in my throat, but I had no memory of retching. I squirted water from one of my handheld bottles into my parched mouth. The liquid shocked my tongue. Instead of cold, refreshing water, I tasted warm, fizzy Coca-Cola. The champagne of ultrarunning made me gag. Eight miles between three aid stations once seemed like a venerable challenge, now it just felt dumb and deadly.

In the past, so many obstacles stacked on top of each other during a race triggered an addictive euphoria. Inching by each breaking point pushed me closer to an elusive clarity about the world and my small place in it. But the clarity never arrived that day. As I staggered into the drumbeat of the Green Valley aid station, I nearly collapsed on the table offering peanuts, potato chips, gummy bears, and cantaloupe.

A man’s energetic voice said, “Let me fill your bottles. Water or electrolyte?”

“Water, please.”

The plastic bottles were yanked from my fists and the joints in my fingers cracked. I spotted several runners passed out in canvas folding chairs, and their faces were coated in brown dust as thick as makeup. They gasped for air as if they were drowning, and the only comfort came from the shade of the aid station’s white awning.

While searching for a chair to fall into, I felt the sting of cold bottles shoved into my blistered hands. Someone wiped the back of my sunburnt neck with a wet sponge. My spine bristled, but my body temperature dropped a few degrees. I was so weak with hunger that I couldn’t turn my head to thank the person.

“What else can we get you?” The source of the voice was a redheaded man in his mid-forties wearing a yellow Tommy Bahamas tee-shirt. He placed a hand on my shoulder like a friend, and since we were about the same age, I sensed he understood my discomfort better than the high school track stars manning the stereo and refilling ice chests.

I mumbled, “I’m starving, but I can’t eat.”

“Have you taken salt pills?”

“Yeah.”

“Gels?”

“One an hour.”

His freckled forehead wrinkled. “You need more salt and solid food.” He hovered over the food table, and hustled around to a stack of boxes from which he retrieved a fistfull of clear baggies. Orange flakes fell into a baggie. “This is what you do. Eat a bag of Cheez-Its every 20 minutes. Even if you feel like throwing up, you eat the Cheez-Its.”

He stepped over a Costco-sized box of Band-Aids and a tube of Neosporin peeking out from underneath a clump of weeds. Gently, he placed his calloused hands under my wet armpits and lifted me out of the chair like a child. My hips felt like they were on fire, but as all 170 pounds of my weight returned to my feet, they felt fine. Pain free. Ready to go.

A hand on my shoulder steered me to the trail. Baggies of Cheez-Its dangled from the elastic band of my shorts and nipped at my swollen quads. My feet trudged forward, but my soul tried to turnaround, sit down, and pass out. I sensed that someone else — not me — was shuffling over the sand of the course.

“The sugar in all those gels has wrecked your metabolism.”

“I’ve done harder races.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Cheddar slipped passed my cracked lips. Cheese jumpstarted saliva. Artificial flavors never tasted so good. Salt crystals crunched between my molars and scratched down my throat. A flicker of hope boosted my pace. Behind me, I heard, “Just keep going!”

Sage. Granite. Pinetrees. Only three Cheez-Its left in the last bag. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen anyone in minutes. Or had an hour passed? I couldn’t remember the last time I looked at my watch or spotted an orange ribbon marking the course. The trail snaked through never-ending trees, which all looked the same, except some were taller than others, and some had roots that poked out of the ground in knots or strings.

I was lost in the woods.

I blamed my skimpy breakfast. I blamed the sun for being too hot. I blamed the race director for the creating an unforgiving course. Excuses. Justifications. A long litany of bullshit. While peering over rocks and brush, desperately scanning the path ahead for footprints or signs of civilization, I quit.

During each ultramarathon, I want to quit a thousand times. The skill of the sport goes beyond the legs and into the mind where you try to talk yourself through each painful step and fight the relentless urge to give up, go home, and go to bed. Perseverance, not necessarily miles or finish times, is how to measure an ultrarunner’s success.

But that evening, I embraced failure with wide open arms and a big wet kiss. I dragged my battered legs and empty stomach along, searching for a magical emergency exit door in between boulders and sprigs. For the first time since mile 40, I felt excited, energetic. Hallelujah, I’m getting the fuck out of here! Failure felt fantastic.

As the sun scooted behind a distant mountain top, and bright yellow rays turned to shadows and darkness, I had a limited idea of where I was. Even though I’d quit, I wasn’t out of the woods, literally. No Uber or ambulance was going to cruise up beside me and chauffeur me back to my wife or hotel. Soil stretched in front of me. Soil stretched in back of me. Either direction offered a glimmer of light and a gamble to safety. I continued forward, unusually content that the outcome was out of my hands.

Cow bells rang. A crowd cheered. Through a silhouette of branches, I saw a roof, maybe a cabin. The downhill strained my knees. Each foot strike felt like I had heavy hooves, as if I was a mythical centaur. I sidestepped down a dry creek bed. Another runner blasted by me as if she was on the first few miles of the course. Her calves, sculpted like marble, were mud stained and flecked with blood. Her feet kicked up a cloud, and I ate her dust. I envied her energy. I wished I was her.

Walking on a flat path of sand towards the finish line, I squinted through shadows and saw families sitting on blankets and in lawn chairs, sharing bags of tortilla chips. They clapped for me, and hollered, “Woohoo,” assuming that I was about to complete the race. Nearing the hum of generators, and the glow of the race director’s laptop, I saw a blur of red digits on a clock. Then I heard a beep. The timing chip tied to my shoelaces calculated my distance.

“Only 17 miles to go.”

“No, I’m done. 45 was enough.”

A moment of silence. A click on a keyboard. Nobody said anything because they didn’t have to. As an adult when you quit, any consolation sounds like a cheap excuse, a dodging of reality, an obscenity instead of responsibility. Facts speak for themselves.

While bumbling in the dark towards the warmth of the cabin, which enticed me with scents of carnitas and refried beans, I smiled. My incredible wife, with her cinnamon eyes, would be inside chatting with others, thinking that I was still trying to triumph against nature; but I had a new experience to share.

On October 7, 2017, out of 204 runners, I was one of the 58 who miscalculated the difficulties of Cuyamaca and received a DNF. Did not finish. Did nothing foolish. Did nothing fatal. Call it what you will.

Quit happens.

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Gavin Austin

Gavin Austin

Tech writer and @salesforce veteran. Sometimes I speak at conferences or run 100-mile ultramarathons. Opinions: mine.