“We should all do what, in the long run, gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry.”
You won’t be able to do that forever, you know.
You’ll ruin your knees.
You’re too skinny.
I’ve heard it all before. Keep running like you do and you’ll be sorry.
I’ll be ecstatic! And guess what… I am!
Before I found running I was an overweight, depressed young man with little to look forward to. I was wandering the earth (from my couch) lost, disconnected socially, struggling to define myself.
Getting off my ass saved my life and sent me on a journey that has taken me all over the globe. It led me to start my own successful business. It’s how I found my wife.
You won’t be able to do that forever, you know.
You’ll ruin your knees.
You’re too skinny.
I started this blog 5 years ago knowing on I was on the cusp of something special. The changes that were taking place in my body and in my mind were beyond positive. I was excited to wake up every morning, to see what great things I could do in my community, to see where the boundaries of limitations might be on any given day, only to push them back a bit further and transform into a better version of myself. I wanted to share my journey. I wanted to inspire others.
Though my posting frequency has dropped off a bit this year, I am happy to report that the journey is alive and well. In May, I accompanied my (now) wife, Edna Jackeline Vazquez, to Namibia as she raced another 250k across the desert. I tagged along as a race volunteer, much like I did last year in China, and once again, I was extremely impressed with the amount of love, strength and fortitude the ultrarunning community provides. The amount of individual accomplishments witnessed in just one of these 7-day stage races is enough to fill a lifetime. I have now been lucky enough to volunteer at two of them; and I must say I am now eager (and mentally prepared) to compete myself, someday soon. Meanwhile, my wife only has one more race to go, The Last Desert: Antarctica, before she becomes a member of the ultrarunning elite 4 Deserts club.
In June, with just one hour and two minutes to spare before the 32-hour cutoff, I crossed the finish line of the Mohican Trail 100, arms raised, legs shot, brain fried. It was a grueling, soul crushing challenge that I never gave up on, despite not being in the best mental space. A full report is certainly in order, but the short version is that I had to adapt from the original race plan and dig deep to finish all on my own, without a pacer, fighting an overwhelming desire to sleep and the urge to quit entirely.
I also sat in a hot tub in my hotel after the race which deserves a report of its own. I highly recommend.
In July, I got married! I married my ultimate pacer for life, Edna, whom I met through… yep, RUNNING… thus completing (and also starting anew) the continued life-as-an-ultramarathon metaphor. It was a glorious day filled with love, joy and Michael Jackson dance moves. Te amo, mi amor!
My business continues to make a difference in the lives of those looking for change. I am thankful to be witness every day to life altering hard work and dedication. Losing weight, getting stronger, being the best versions of themselves possible — my students continue to impress with their willingness to explore their limits on the paths of their own journeys. A young boxer I work with, Alex “The Bull” Garcia, is the epitome of such hard work and dedication. He comes to work hard every day, striving to be the best he can be, knowing that sport can be the door to an open mind and a brighter future.
My own boxing career continues as well as I prepare for an October 1 bout in Libertyville (more details to come). Meanwhile, Edna and I are planning to make a reappearance at the Evergreen Lake Ultra (51 Miles), a race we thoroughly enjoyed back in 2014, as well as run the 2016 Chicago Marathon, together. The latter will be the ultimate combination of my favorite race meets my favorite person. We plan to run side by side the whole way.
I look forward to celebrating in the streets!
So to my fellow run crazies, the next time someone says to you:
You won’t be able to do that forever, you know.
You’ll ruin your knees.
You’re too skinny.
It saved my life.
It brought me my wife.
It gave me a reason to get up and be the best version of myself possible, each and every day.
I never stopped running. I never will. It’s who I am.
Since my last adventure recall back in September, life jumped down my throat, taking wild swings and unforeseen chops — testing me in every way like an ultra eats at you, mile by mile, aid station by aid station, poisoning you with thoughts of quitting, thoughts of defeat. It was tough. No question. But I didn’t give up. I put my head down and kept pounding pavement. I laughed. I cried. I fought.
Considering the severity of issues I faced, I found great difficulty in committing my thoughts to a public realm. The time wasn’t right. I needed separation. I needed solace.
I needed space.
But I never stopped running.
I never will. It’s who I am.
November was a “rest” month. I took it easy, but shook my legs out regularly.
December was much the same, though I admit, these days I much fancy an hour long treadmill slog over a slick 20 degree bone chiller.
Like last year, January began my boxing training in earnest. I ran regularly (4-5 days a week) to stay conditioned, but much of my training focused on sport specific drills, including sparring. At the same time, my business, Iron Lung Fitness, doubled in size, leading to a heavier teaching load, including four aerobics classes each week that I led like Richard Simmons on Red Bull (still do! check them out!).
February introduced me to Alex Garcia, a local talent with big boxing ambitions. I took him under my wing and we went to war and had a great showing in March. I am very proud of him and look forward to his bright future.
And just last night, I followed up my 2015 Chicago Golden Gloves Championship with a trip to the 2016 Semi-Finals. The decision didn’t go my way, but I gave it my all and learned a whole lot about myself along the way, including the fact that I will be back in the ring sooner than later.
Self discovery = Putting myself in extreme situations that measure the size of my heart, mental strength and ability to adapt.
Getting in the ring and committing to combat… running a balls-out-marathon… covering 100 miles on my own two tired feet.
This is not the life everyone would choose. But it’s the only one I know.
I’ll never stop running.
It’s who I am.
My lovely fiancee, Edna Jackeline Vazquez, is training for Racing the Planet’s 250k race across the Namibian Desert and I’m going with her! Like I did in the Gobi last year, I am tagging along to work as a race volunteer and assure she doesn’t get homesick after 7 days of sand-trekking without a shower. It begins May 1st and I can hardly wait for all the adventure to come!
When we return, we will have just enough time to rest before running the Mohican 100, June 18-19. This is Edna’s birthday weekend and I promised her two belt buckles as a gift, even though it will most certainly require a bit of crying, pain and suffering. HAPPY MUTHAFUCKIN BIRTHDAY!!!
Mohican is a beast and we both know it.
Oh well. Bring it on, Mohican!
And after that? Who knows… maybe the Chicago Marathon if I can get in. Maybe some more local trail races. A real non-working vacation would be nice. And I imagine another fight or two or three will be on the schedule.
One thing is for sure in the Lung-Vazquez household: we don’t take no easy roads.
Go to work.
*MOVIE TRAILER VOICE*
In a world… where Jeff… meets Edna… and they run… and run… and run…
Until they form…
Following the incredible experience I had at Pinhoti last year, I knew I would eventually want to run another 100 mile race. I thought about running harder courses, about traveling somewhere exotic, about running all alone with no pacer.
But 2015 has been plenty filled with challenges: the Golden Gloves, the Gobi March and 24 Hours of running in circles, alongside the daily demands of running my own business. With the calendar quickly slipping by, I turned my attention to Run Woodstock, an event in Pinckney, Michigan I have attended each of the last three years. I love Run Woodstock because it celebrates the joy of running — being free, healthy and spirited — with distances ranging from 5k all the way up to 100 miles. Having paced the 100 mile race twice before, I felt like it would be a good place to return to the distance on my own, after slaughtering myself through the Talladega Forest just a year ago.
But the more I thought about running the race on my own, sans pacer, the more I yearned to do the complete opposite and run with someone. A certain someone. Someone I love very much.
That’s when I asked Edna, my fiancee, if she would want to run with me. Step by step.
“You and I, Edna. Just the two of us. 100 miles of beautiful trail… some boring gravel road sections… and probably crappy weather.” I proposed.
“Yes! Let’s do it!” she said, without hesitation.
“Wow. That didn’t take much convincing. Okay. We’re going to do this. Together then!”
Having an ultrarunner as your partner enables one to go all out on the crazy sauce. I couldn’t wait.
Friday, September 11, 2015
Edna and I wake up in Kalamazoo, where we drove to and stayed the night before. We wanted to save ourselves a couple of hours of sleep, deciding to split the four hour drive from Chicago into two shorter trips. Feeling refreshed and well rested, I think we made the right choice.
We eat a light breakfast and marvel at the pouring rain outside our window. Through the cracked sill, there’s also a slight chill. We expect nothing less from western Michigan in September. I check the forecast for Hell Creek Ranch in Pinckney, further east on I-94, 10ish miles northwest of Ann Arbor, the site of our impending pain. Bad weather seems to have been a hallmark of my Run Woodstock experience. It almost always rains. Or it’s really hot. Or really cold. Or all of the above. Last year a massive tree branch fell on my tent that would have otherwise blown away during a storm. Today it looks like we might luck out and have perfect running weather with temps in the mid 60s to high 40s overnight.
Edna and I share some nervous energy through our conversation as we drive towards our destination, interrupted with a quick stop at Cracker Barrel to fill up on high-calorie, salt-saturated ‘Merican food, complete with grits and just-add-water gravy.
“What is greets?” Edna asks in her adorable Mexican accent.
“Um… I actually don’t know. They do taste better if you add salt. And pepper? Eat them. We’ll need all the calories we can get.”
Satisfactorily stuffed, we finish our drive to Hell Creek Ranch and find overcast skies with a slight chill, but no rain.
“Not too bad. We can run in this.” I admit.
Of course, a lot can change in the 30 hours they give us to finish the distance, but starting out knowing we won’t have to suffer through a slopfest is a bonus.
So is arriving on time. Last year, Edna and I arrived just a few minutes before the race began, leaving her scrambling to get her number and to the start line in time. Today we have a couple of hours to chill out, organize our drop bags and even take a nap!
No more sleeping! Let’s do this!
Edna and I gather our things and walk from the parking area over to the campground and start line of what will be a 16.6 mile loop course that we have to run six times. SIX. TIMES.
We place our drop bags in the proper areas (one at the Start/Finish line and one in the truck headed for the halfway point of the loop) and lose ourselves in the crowd of anxious runners. There is also a 100k race starting at the same time as ours, so there are plenty of people around. We step away from them all for a few seconds to snap this picture under the start line banner:
The Jimi Hendrix version of our National Anthem blares and the nervous energy dissipates into the calm of knowing exactly what I’ll be doing for the next 30 or so hours, hopefully less. Running 100 miles is never an easy task, but staying in the moment — each and every step of the way knowing exactly where I exist in time and space — makes it doable in pieces.
The race director gives a final countdown: 3… 2… 1…
AND WE’RE OFF!
Miles 1 – 16.6
“Let everyone go, mi amor. We have a long way to go. People always go out too fast. And they suffer later. That won’t be us today.”
I give Edna this advice as we situate ourselves comfortably at the back of the pack. Having been through the 100 mile experience many times as a pacer, crew member and once as a finisher, I know that it’s always easy to go out fast. I’ve seen it time and time again. What is not easy — but infinitely satisfying — is running strong at the back half of a hundo. It feels so damn good to be plugging along, head down, doing work when doing so seems so impossible. We want to be moving well (relatively) at the end. No zombie walking for us (we hope).
We start out easy and as soon as we hit the slightly uphill trail leading out of the campground and into the woods, I bring us to a walk while everyone else blows by.
“We walk the hills, mi amor,” I tell Edna. “All of them. From the beginning.”
Walk the hills. Run the downs, and the flats. When we have to walk we walk with a purpose. Swing those arms. Mall walk that trail! This is the game plan. This is what we’ve trained for. This is what Edna and I have agreed on.
In fact, as we jog along the conga line of runners, I’m still smiling from Edna’s words to me back when we decided to run this race together.
“I will follow you,” she said. “I won’t think about anything else. Just follow you.”
She’s giving me full control of the situation. As someone who rather favors being in control of… well, everything!… I am quite pleased about this. It puts me at ease.
I test out her sincerity a couple of times and smile as she follows my every move.
This is gonna be a kick ass day.
The first stretch of the loop is a nice lush trail. It’s not technical. It’s soft dirt, sand, grass and SHIT-OUCH-DAMNIT roots. I kick my toe into one right off, solidifying my innate ability to stub my digits on anything and everything.
This is gonna be a loooooong kick ass day.
We hit a gravel road that is as flat as it is long. “We are going to use this road a lot today, Edna,” I say, offering up what little wisdom I’ve gathered having run this course each of the last three years. “This is a part where we can make up time. It’s runnable. No roots for me to kick my toes into. It’s perfect for cranking.”
Edna smiles, like she always does, and I am totally digging this being in control thing. Makes me want to run faaaast!
And we can through here. Once we get onto the trail again there are several downhills, reminding why this course is also perfectly runnable, even late in a race. “We’ll have to take advantage of the downs too, mi amor. Let ourselves go a little bit anytime we can.”
We reach the first aid station 55 minutes into our journey and go through a routine we will do another 23 times: fill up our water bottles. Eat whatever looks good. Get our butts out of there.
On the drive over we discussed not wasting time at aid stations. It’s so easy to do. Prior to arriving, I like to say out loud what I’m going to do once I get to the aid station, so when I get there I do just those things and then get moving. Hanging around, yapping, not running… those activities can kill your race and leave you chasing cut-offs.
Not us. Not today. We grab some food and get out, power hiking up another road as we stuff our faces.
The road goes up and down gently before sending us back onto single track. I stop to pee, something I will do every 20-30 minutes for the entirety of the race, and in my haste to catch back up to Edna I turn on the burners. Vroooooom! I zoom, up over and around rocks and roots and BAM-THWACK-SHIIIIIIIT.
I fall flat on my stomach, breaking my fall with my forearms.
“Mi amor, que pasó? Are you okay?” Edna hollers back.
Laughing, humbled and only slightly embarrassed, I pick myself and rub some dirt on my knees. Nothing hurts. Yet.
“Just fell down, babe. All good here.”
She smiles as I take back the lead position. It’s times like these I can’t help but laugh at myself. I laugh because I can. Because I feel alive. And because falling down, to me, is incredibly funny (pratfalls anyone?).
An hour later and now we’re at the 8 mile aid station. A drop bag is here, but we don’t need it yet. We fill up, grab some food and get on down the road.
We cruise along. There’s a little bit of road, a little bit of trail. We’re feeling good. No, we’re feeling great! We’re jumping and skipping and feeling light on our SNAP-BOOM-THWACK-SHIIIIIIIT.
I stub my toe again.
“Mi amor,” I say, “don’t mind my potty mouth. I can’t help but scream expletives when I do things like that. It’s no reflection on you, nor our race.”
She smiles her approval. We made a pact today to stay positive and quell all realms of negativity. No complaining. No badmouthing. We came here with the goal of running 100 miles. We know the pain and suffering required. But we vowed not to give in to it.
Except in cases where I stub my toes, of course.
“Mi amor,” she says, “why don’t you pick up your feet a little bit?”
Hmmm. What a novel idea. Yeah, dummy why DON’T you pick up your feet?
While I think about it, I BOOM-FUUUUUUUUUUUUU-SHIIIIIIIT, I do it again.
Yes, I paid for this.
An hour has gone by and we’re back at the first aid station we saw at mile 4, which doubles as the mile 12 station. The volunteers are quick to give us a hand, but we don’t stay long, opting to get back down the trail.
We power hike the slow incline leaving out of the station and then pick up speed as we traverse several downs.
This course is fun. It’s not too tough. It’s very runnable. And your body gets to use a lot of different muscles as it tries to survive six full loops.
Don’t remind me.
On the back half of this last four mile section, there are a few bigger climbs. We power hike them like champs and soon find ourselves popping out of the woods and back into Hell Creek Ranch to the rancorous cheers of a bunch of hippies. Some of them are drunk. Some of them are not. All of them are awesome.
First loop done in four hours on the dot.
Miles 16.6 – 33.2
“Let’s grab our headlamps, babe,” I shout out as we find our drop bag and dig through its contents. “We made really great time. Let’s keep up the good work.”
Edna and I don’t stay long. The sunlight is disappearing and we are eager to get back on the trail before it’s completely dark. We grab some food and eat it as we power hike the first part of trail leading out of camp.
It’s quite a trip going from the loud party atmosphere of the camp back into the silence of the forest, especially now as it gets dark. Edna and I haven’t been conversing too much, making the quiet stand out even more, but that’s nothing new. We have spent many a training run trucking along in silence. Every once in a while I look back and find her smile. I smile too. Ours is an understood admiration that, while running, doesn’t need words. We are doing what we love the most: adventuring in the forest for hours and hours.
How fucking cool is that?
“Te amo!” she yells out.
“Te amo tambien, mi amor!”
On the long gravel road this time we crank up the pace again and I feel my hamstrings and calves are kind of tight. They get like this on long stretches of straightaway, but I know they’ll feel better back on the trail, so I keep digging in, trying to let my legs go.
Edna follows along perfectly in stride. Since we have spent so many weekend miles together on trails and roads, training for this race, I am pretty locked in to the range of paces she can handle and I try to push her when I can. My mind-body feedback loop is on point and try to include her body language into the equation as well so I can calculate the right pace.
We have an hour in the bank already on what we need to accomplish overall (an average of five hours per loop) so I know we can slow down and still be safe for finishing the race under the allowed 30 hours. From experience, I know the third loop will probably be our slowest as we traverse the darkness full of fatigue, but I’m not worried about that yet.
Just focus on what you’re doing. Now. NOW.
The constant reminder of the NOW. I absolutely love it. Breathe. Stride. Check-in. Smile.
I’m aliiiiiiiiiive. So aliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive!!!
And I’m sharing this with the LOVE OF MY LIFE!
Pinch yourself, dude! I mean, how many times do you get to fully immerse yourself in your passion with your life partner? I’m pretty certain Joe Montana didn’t run 7-on-7 drills with his wife for 30 hours at a time. And I doubt Ozzie Smith’s spouse hit grounders for him to chase all day. This type of thing just doesn’t happen very often.
I love it! I love her! I love the WOOOOOOOORRRRRRLD.
“Un búho!” Edna screams. “An owl!”
Not just an owl, but the motherload of owls surprises me by dive bombing out of a tree, grazing my head before sputtering off into the shaded green of the forest.
“Wow,” I say, heartbeat racing, “that was a badass buzzing.”
Fueled by the fear of another owl attack, we kick it up a gear and find ourselves at the halfway point of the loop. Here I am reminded once again that I really do love this girl. We pull out our drop bag and DEVOUR a container of macaroni and cheese with bacon that she mindfully prepared prior to the race.
***FLASHBACK TO THURSDAY EVENING BEFORE LEAVING FOR MICHIGAN***
“Is that bacon I smell?” I ask walking in the door, hands full of training equipment after a long day of work.
“Sí, mi amor. I made macaroni and cheese with bacon for our drop bag in the middle of the night.”
I drop everything. “You. Are. The best. THE BEST!”
***BACK TO THE RACE***
“This mac-n-cheese with bacon is making love to my mouth right now,” I tell her. Some 24 miles in, I couldn’t have asked for a better meal.
She also pulls out a container of mashed potatoes and salted ham and mixed vegetables. “Do you want some of this too, mi amor?”
Do I? I want to shove it all into my face. Just cover myself in it. I am so happy.
Tired, but happy. I note the general fatigue as much as we head back out on to the road and eventually the trail where I BOOOM-SNAP-THWACK stub my toe. Again.
“No biggie! I’ll survive!” I say forcing a smile.
I knew the night would be full of this. I stub it a couple more times and decide “Okay, maybe I will concentrate on picking up my feet. Or slowing down. Or both.”
We plug away. Run the downs and flats, power hike the hills. Even the littlest of hills gets a power hike from us. We are all about pacing.
So far, so good, as we roll back into camp four and a half hours after we left it. This time we arrive to darkness. Silence.
Where are all the hippies?
Oh yeah, it’s 12:30 in the morning. They’re sleeping. That sounds pretty nice right now.
I’m sleepy myself. From our drop bag, Edna and I decide to crack open one of the Red Bulls we brought along. We don’t drink this stuff in real life, but in ultras, it’s our secret weapon. Edna calls it “El Diablo” because its immediate ability to “gives us wings” seems thoroughly demonic. How does it work so fast? And so well! When we combine it with small doses of Ibuprofen, it’s like someone gave us brand new legs (for a while, at least).
Vrroooooom. Hyped up on sugar, caffeine and whatever else is in that stuff, we leave camp, back on the trail for the dreaded third loop.
Saturday, September 12
Miles 33.2 – 49.8
Up and down the trail to the road, we don’t say much. We just keep our rhythm with our steps. Like we’ve been doing, we stop every 30 minutes or so to water the trees and then we get back into our routine. Every now and then I check in with a “Te amo” or “All good?” or “Great job, mi amor”. We’re getting tired, but we are kicking ass, with an hour and twenty five minutes of extra time in the bank.
These overnight hours are never easy and Edna has struggled with them mightily in other races. The 4 p.m. Friday start helps us in that we are doing the difficult section while our legs are still relatively fresh, but I expect this to be our longest loop.
I keep track as our time from aid station to aid station slips from an hour and change to an hour and fifteen minutes, hour and twenty. “It’s all good,” I remind Edna. “Let’s get through this one without killing ourselves and when the sun comes up we’ll start cranking out the miles again.”
With my constant toe stubbing and inability to see outside the view of my headlamp, our pace has no choice but to slow. We are still running the road sections pretty strong, but the downhills we were bombing earlier require more care.
It starts raining.
As my body weakens, the voice in my head gets louder.
So what? We got ponchos! You hear me, 100 miler? We came ready for this shit!
AND THERE’S PIZZA! HALLE-FRIGGIN-LUJAH THERE’S PIZZA!
At the halfway aid station we stuff ourselves with more ham, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese and bacon.
This ain’t an ultra race, this is an eating contest and I am kicking ass, man! NOM NOM NOM!
We head back down the road and find ourselves back on the trail, sufficiently stuffed again as we trot along. The silence breaks with BOOM-THWACK-AIIIIIIIIIII. I turn around and see Edna sprawled out on the ground, shoulder rolled and all. My stomach drops. My heart sinks.
“Mi amor, are you okay?”
She mumbles some expletives I rarely hear out her mouth before picking herself back up and dusting off her legs. “Sí, mi amor.” She walks gingerly, allowing 60 seconds for feeling sorry for herself, and then: “Estoy bien. Vamos. Let’s go.”
I love it. Ain’t no pratfalls stopping us today! Bam! Let’s go!
THWACK-BOOM-SHIIIIIIIT. My turn. Again. Doesn’t matter. Pain isn’t real. Let’s pick up the pace!
As we near the camp to finish our third loop, I look at my clock and see that after 5 hours 5 minutes, it was our slowest yet, as expected. No biggie. Still got an hour and a half in the bank. Despite sleepiness and general fatigue, our bodies are working just fine. And best of all, I got a hot sidekick sharing the miles (and smiles) with me.
“Here comes the sun,” I tell her as we chug another diablo drink at the Start/Finish aid station. “We’re going to pick up speed again. Naturally.”
She nods confidently. “I follow you.”
Her loyalty fuels me. The Red Bull may give me wings, but her love gives me the indomitable will.
I can’t wait to cross the finish line holding her hand.
Let’s make it happen.
Miles 49.8 – 66.4
We’re making it happen.
As we walk out of the camp up the hill back to the trail, I take a bite of an Oreo cookie and make sure to gunk it up on my front teeth before giving Edna a big old Oreo cookie smile.
I crack myself up so hard I forget my legs hurt. And my feet. And my butt.
She finds it hilarious too. Of course. This whole thing is hilarious.
What are we doing? Running a 100 miles in the woods? Through the night? What a stupid idea.
Yes, what a wonderfully stupid, AWESOME idea.
“You know what my favorite part of the race is, mi amor?” I ask, back on rolling single track trail, picking up speed from the sun. “Being done. I love sitting at home, with my feet up, watching a game, drinking a beer knowing I just did something epic.”
The idea of using my own two feet to cover ubermega distances is such a turn on for life that I can’t imagine not testing my limits. Nothing makes me feel more alive.
“We always forget the pain,” she adds.
“Yep, we always forget the pain.”
Except right now the pain is very much a reality. Mine is an all-body ache throbbing from shoulders to feet. I’ve been pumping my arms so hard to get my legs to follow that upper body is taking more punishment than usual. But the feet are hanging in there.
No blisters. No injuries. Just well traveled feet with umpteen BOOOOOM-THWACK-SHIIIIIIIT-NOT-AGAIN toe stubbings.
Part of the game, I remind myself. This part will be long forgotten by the time I’m home watching the game.
When we hit that 2-mile gravel road we let it fly. We are getting good at this.
CRAAAAAAAAAAAAANK, mi amor, CRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANK.
She is awesome. Edna is so damn awesome! AWE-SOME. She is FULL of some AWE.
Back on the trail now, we meander up and over and through the woods.
Pump those arms, deep breaths, don’t quit!
Then, somewhere during this automated arm pumping, a fleet of faster feet zoom by us. First it’s just a few. Then a couple more. Then a pack. Then a horde. These are the 50 mile and 50k runners. Fresh legs. They offer up lots of “good job” and “great work” and “looking strong” but they also nearly run us off the single track. We graciously jump to the side, slugging through weeds and brush to avoid being flattened. We can use the break anyway.
The crowds eventually disperse and we continue on. We don’t say much. We are too focused on moving our asses. We do so in lock step. Our footfalls are in unison: miles and miles of perfect unison. Is it possible to be tuned in to another person’s mind? Probably not. Feels like we are though.
We are super connected! We are in love! We are alive!
Every 4 miles now require some sort of caffeine injection. We only have our diablo drinks at the two drop bag stations. In between those we rely on Mt. Dew. Its syrupy texture adheres to my teeth, where I discover with my tongue leftover bits of Oreo that still taste delicious.
Delicious. Delirious. Delicirious. Is that a word? It should be. I want it to be. It’s what I am projecting into the universe right now. Pure deliciriousness. And delightanity.
On our way back around to finish up the fourth loop, I remind Edna of such delightanity: “We ran this loop 15 minutes faster than the last one. We are kicking major ass, babe.”
“I just want to be finished,” she says.
“We will. Two more loops. Let’s just get through the fifth, then the final one will be the last time we see everything on the course. We’ll click off the miles like nothin’.”
“I follow you, mi amor,” she says.
DAMN I LOVE THIS GIRL!
Miles 66.4 – 83
Truckin’, arm swingin’, feet shufflin’…
“Just put your head down and go to work,” I say out loud to pump us up. It’s getting harder to pump the arms. It’s getting harder to keep my eyes open, to concentrate.
DO IT ANYWAY, DUDE! I hear myself inside my head. Be a LEADER! Be the best YOU you can be! Do it for you! Do it for Edna. Do it for JEDNA!
We wind downhill, skipping, hopping, floating along the trail until CRACK-THWACK-SHIIIIIIIIIT, of course.
Not my pain, I say to myself. I give it to someone else. I give it to the forest. To that owl we saw earlier! To the Oreos still stuck in my teeth!
I let go of the aches, the pains. There is no doubt. Only determination.
Together, we go hard. We are blowing my mind.
The only other thing it can focus on is going aid station to aid station. Anything more than that is too much of a chore, too disheartening. We have another loop left after this? That’s a toxic thought. We only have to run to the next aid station. That gets us where we want to to go.
Once there, we do it again. We slam Mt. Dews and Red Bulls when we can. At some point I dig back into the macaroni and cheese.
“I have an aid station baby,” I say to Edna while proudly sticking out my bloated belly, “I think I’ll name it Woodstock.”
It’s funny because everything is funny because running 100 miles is funny and being hypertuned to your body and mind is funny. Tripping over your own feet is funny. Experiencing a deep relationship with your hip flexors is funny. Eating ham and potatoes and Nutella and Oreos and pizza and licorice and watermelon and chicken noodle soup and coffee and Red Bull and Mt. Dew while staying awake for 30-some hours is really fucking funny.
“What loop you guys on? This your last one?” People ask us as we pass.
“Nah, not yet,” I say, the words achy in my mouth. “This is five. One more to go after this.”
But that’s not how we’re looking at it. Just get to the next aid station.
Then the next.
Now we’re approaching camp and Edna and I hold hands knowing the next time we come through here will be our last.
“One. More. TIME, babe! We can do it!”
Her beaming smile lifts my tired trunks again as I know we’re bound for glory.
Miles 83 – 100
“You guys have plenty of time. Just get it done,” says one of the many cheerful aid station workers. The volunteers at this race have been top notch and I want to hug and kiss them all.
Edna and I, freshly charged with diablo drinks and pancakes and sausage, head out for our sixth and final loop. We can’t stop from smiling.
“One more loop! One more loop! One more loop!” chants the entire aid station, followed by any and all within earshot of our final departure from the camp. I start thinking about it, knowing we just pulled off a five hour loop, and looking at my watch, I can’t help but get all teary eyed.
Not yet, dude! Got a long way to go! Get to work!
“Edna, we are GOING to finish,” I tell her. “That is no issue. The question is when? The faster we go, the faster we’re done.”
“I just want to be finished,” she says, forever smiling through her pain.
“Then let’s get moving,” I say. And we take off in step like Harry and Sally, Forest Gump maniacs, two cops in a buddy film, one megaultrarunning duo.
Feels good. Feels good to be this alive.
“Where would you rather be?” I scream out to no one in particular. I look back to see Edna right on my heels as we hammer the trail. Strong. Determined.
We hit the two mile road section and I put on the afterburners and go buck wild.
Not long after, I can’t hear her footsteps behind me, so I look back and see she’s dragging. I slow down to let her catch up and she says, “No puedo. I can’t. On the flats, I just can’t.”
“Yes, you can, babe. You are doing awesome.”
“But I can’t run fast on the flat. I do better on the hills and downhills.”
Sensing this could go into negativity-land pronto, I quickly assert myself: “Mi amor, you are doing a great job. Let’s run fartleks. Let’s run as hard as we can to that flag marker up there and then we’ll take a walk break.”
Her eyes are suspicious of my direction but her legs follow along just fine. We race to the marker, walk for a bit and then again take off towards the next one.
“See! You can do it!” Vroom! We gather curious looks from those we pass running the sprints, but I hoot and holler like a cowboy on my first ride. Running hard in the last miles of a hundred is an awesome feeling.
We get back on the trail and I remind Edna, “That’s the last time we run that damn road!”
Back on the trail, things feel a bit better, but we are slowing down. At the 4 mile aid station we grab some caffeine, but we’re both gunning for another Red Bull at the halfway point. “Let’s just get there, mi amor,” I tell her.
We take off and fartlek our way through another road section until we get back to the trail that will lead us to our drop bag. Through here we are off and on, with little bursts of speed keeping us awake and on point. But when we finally roll into the aid station, I can see Edna is spent. I study her hard, trying to decide what to say to pump her up. Before I can, she admits: “It hurts. It’s hard. I cannot run fast.”
“Mi amor, you’ve been running fast this whole race. Look at you! You’re not zombie walking, you’re running! Still! With only eight miles to go!”
This lightens her up a bit, as does the Red Bull she chugs. “Look, mi amor, I hurt too. But at this point, it’s going to hurt whether we walk or run, so we might as well run. We’ll be done sooner if we run.”
I grab our headlamps from our drop bag, as it’s possible we might not finish before dark. I give her a big hug and check my watch. “We’re doing good on time. Let’s just be done. Yeah? Let’s go out and finish strong!”
“That makes sense,” she says. “It will hurt no matter what.”
Vrroooom. She takes off out of the aid station, leaving me to chase.
WOOOO HOOOO! THAT’A GIRL! LET’S DO THIS!
She high-fives me as I catch up to her, both of us floating along against the pain, arms pumping. We put our heads down, digging deep, running the flats and downs again as before.
We pass more runners. A lot of runners! The plentiful downhills make this possible and now I’m ready to make a game out of it.
“We’re gonna start reelin’ ’em in, babe. Anyone we see in front of us, we are going to pass.”
She’s game. I push hard when I can and to my delight, she is right there on my heels. Goose and Maverick on the MiG attack! Seeing her run so well this late in the game makes me ecstatic! I’ve never seen her do this before! “Edna! You are kicking ass!”
“I just want to be finished,” she says.
And here we go again with a time-stop… I have been so wrapped up in my cadence and my breath and my joy that we are now a mile out from camp and like coming out of a trance I shake my head wondering how did we get here?
I look back and see Edna still right on my heels, pushing hard, swinging those arms. Her smile — that effervescent smile that never seems to wane, even in the toughest of circumstances — is still beaming. We have traveled all this way — together, as a unit — through ups and downs, pain and fatigue. Yet we keep going. We always keep going. Supported by one another, no one, no thing can break through the fortress of our bond.
We are JEDNA. We are STRONG.
It’s dark now. Our headlamps are on. I haven’t tripped or stubbed my toe at all this loop, which means, of course: THWACK-BOOM. There it is. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
As we climb the big hill out of the trail and into the camp, the faint tune of “Play That Funky Music” greets us, a musical welcome that we’ll always remember. Edna and I hold hands as we pick up our pace to make our final 100 meter run through the finish line.
We cross the line, arms raised in the air. United WE DID IT! Edna’s third in her age group. But we both finish as Champions of Grit! Champions of Heart! Champions of Love!
28 hours, 24 minutes after our journey began, we are both finally finished.
And we’re even more in love.
I have long said that the ultramarathon is the perfect metaphor for life. Sometimes it’s a breeze. Sometimes it’s a suckfest. Sometimes you float along on a cloud of endless joy, blissfully trapped in the moment without a care in the world, and sometimes your ass is chapped, your toes are bruised and your legs are shot. But it’s always a journey — always a chance to discover something new about yourself. Like no other physical challenge I’ve ever attempted, the ultramarathon continuously offers me a the opportunity to live, to be present and to focus on the things in life that really matter.
That’s why I keep coming back. I’m a sucker for feeling. And in a world that seems more and more devoid of it, I can’t help but get lost in the full spectrum of feeling that the ultra run provides.
Having a partner who shares my passion is a bonus — a bonus I’ll never take for granted.
Thanks, Edna, for being there for me and staying alongside me. It makes the forest not seem so dark.
For 24 hours.
Go big or go home… that’s the most fitting cliche for the moment. I have a feeling that in a few hours I’m going to want to go home.
But I won’t. I’m here to move. For 24 hours. Whether I log 100 miles or 50, I won’t quit… unless a bone is sticking through my flesh. Please don’t let it come to that.
Think positively. 100 miles would be nice.
Last year, at this same race, I fought my way to 94 miles, something I felt really proud of. But the idea that I was only 10k shy of a century mark has been gnawing at my conscience for a whole year now. In my mind, 100 miles is definitely doable. In my body, hmm… not so much.
While I have been running regularly since my first 100 mile conquest, my training focus was on boxing all winter and spring. My “long runs” became 8-9 easy miles or a fast 10k with weights in my hands. The result was victory for my fight game, but when I started to stretch the legs out in May, my body had a hard time reckoning just how much work it takes to build up the endurance necessary for the extra far efforts. I got in few long runs with Edna on the weekends, then we went to China. My training stalled.
I have heard it from many before in relation to training, but this was the first time I experienced it in earnest: life got in the way.
So what!? Life rocks, man!
Indeed, it does. Life rocks. And if ultrarunning has taught me anything, it’s that the only limitations in life are the ones we put on ourselves. This maxim is not an invitation to recklessness, but rather a mantra for transcendence based on hard work, dedication and basic intelligence. Having already gone the 100 mile and 24 hour distance, I knew that even with limited training my brain could take over through any rough patch.
Ultras are mostly mental. I reminded myself of this. Training or not, I think I can get 100 miles. Let’s see what reality has in store!
Hours 1 – 7 (10:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.)
This feels weird. Even though I’ve done it before, starting a race at 10:00 p.m. still feels a bit strange, like putting on someone else’s shoes before running for 24 hours weird.
Nope, these are definitely my shoes. I look down and second guess my choice of year-old, 900+ mile Nike Vomeros. The tread is still intact despite a ratty affair of frayed rubber from the toes. I wore these in the second half of last year’s race after my beloved Hokas left me blistered. I love the Hokas, but my memory of maceration is hard to kill and on the roads for this long I’d rather just start with a sure thing.
The RDs announce something in a megaphone that I can’t quite understand, and to the tune of quiet lightning in the sky, we’re off!
Everyone starts fast, of course. It’s halfway decent out right now, with temperatures in the high 70s. The forecast for the daylight hours calls for intense heat and humidity, so all 67 of us starters go out with what I assume is the same mindset: bank miles now, while we can.
The course is a .97 mile loop, same as last year, only in the reverse direction. Right away I can feel that it’s a bit easier than last year’s, which had a little more uphill to its design. An easier course is not something I’m going to complain about, so I just put my head down and go into spin mode.
Bank miles, bank miles…
Trying to maintain a 6-mile an hour pace, at the lone aid station I grab water and something to eat (whatever looks good at the time) every loop or every other loop. The soft lightning in the sky offers a little entertainment and I start to wonder if it will rain. The forecast said only a 20% chance, so I’m thinking it won’t.
While I’m thinking about it, the course gets crowded as the 12-hour runners join us. Among them is my buddy, Adam.
Adam and I go way back. We met each other during orientation week of our freshman year in college (1997? DAMN!).
This is Adam’s first ultra. Having shared some training runs with him and watched his build-up for his first marathon some time ago, it’s a joy to share some miles with him now. We are in a groove, both trying to get in as many decent miles as possible before the wheels come off late, and the time is flying by.
Also sharing miles with me in this first part are Nate and Todd, both of whom I’ve known for a few years now. Our constant chatter is a good deterrent for my already tired and tight leg muscles. Already? Damn. Keep drinking water. Maybe it’ll get better.
I keep drinking water. It’s not getting better.
But oh look, now it’s raining, and that’s… something different.
Why not? Ultras are the ultimate test in chaos management. Always expect something to go wrong. Heat, rain, gastrointestinal problems… plan for the worst, hope for the best. I’m trying to find joy in the sloppy, slick conditions. The rain is nice and cool.
For a couple of hours it comes down hard, then lets up some, then comes down hard again. I just smile. Ah hell, going to be out here a long time, I think to myself. Might as well try to enjoy it.
I am. I am enjoying it. Finding out more about myself through intense, focused exercise is the cornerstone to my understanding of self. But 6 hours in and already it’s quite apparent to me that today is not going to be a day for 100 miles. My hamstrings and calves keep tightening up. I stop and roll them out with a foam roller a couple of times and do my best to stretch here and there, but the only real thing that stops them from seizing up is going slow. Or walking. And the sun is coming…
Hours 7 – 17 (5:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.)
As the sun creeps up over Lisle Community Park, the rain has stopped, and we are treated to a picturesque suburban landscape of a happy little lake surrounded by lots of green. The strung up Christmas lights decorating the course give way to the inflatable snowmen, Santas and reindeer — just more reminders of the ridiculousness of our task. Run around a circle for a day! In July! With Christmas stuff everywhere!
I can’t help but laugh. This is ridiculous! Why are we doing this again?
My feet are squishy and soft from the rain, my stomach is growling from hunger and my legs are already shot… with just 17 MORE HOURS TO GO! WOOO HOOO!
“We forget the pain,” I say to someone. “We always forget the pain. When we sign up for these things the only thing we remember is the satisfaction of crossing that finish line — of putting our feet up at the end of the day knowing we did some epic shit. But we always conveniently forget about the pain.”
I won’t forget about what I’m feeling right now. This sucks.
BUT I’M SMILING! Edna taught me that.
“Always smile,” she says. “You’ll feel better.” She’s right.
“Mi amor,” I say, “I want to be with you. Is that okay?”
She gives me that look that says: Is that okay? Of course, it’s okay. It’s awesome! Where have you been?!?!
Good, it’s settled then. We go forth together.
Maybe she thought I meant for just a while, but no, I mean, for the rest of the race. If I’m going to continue suffering, I want to be next to someone I like.
Of course… you could just…. quit, y’know. Stop running. Stop doing this. No one would care.
I would care! Sticking with Edna will help me fight back the urge to go home early too. We don’t quit. We came here to move for 24 hours. We’re moving our asses for 24 hours. The best we can.
We put our heads down and go to work. Together.
Run for a bit. Walk for a bit. Run for a bit. Walk for a bit.
At some point there is bacon. And pancakes. I lose my mind. I eat as much as I can fit in my mouth.
Heads down. Going to work. Together. Run.
Walk. Run. Walk.
I’m… falling…. a… sleeeeeeeeeeeeeppppp
Time for a Red Bull, what Edna calls “El Diablo”. *CHUG CHUG CHUG*
Run. Walk. Shuffle?
Yeah, it’s a shuffle now.
It’s hot. We’re baking. Ice. We stuff ice in our hats, shorts, faces. I want to peel my skin off and put ice in my veins.
The 6-hour runners finished a long time ago. The 12-hour runners finished at 11 a.m., Adam included. He did awesome, logging 44.77 miles! His wife and kids come to cheer him on to the finish and in doing so, give Edna and I a much needed break.
Edna and I move the best we can. Sweating. Slogging. Surviving.
I keep moving… one foot in front of the other… but my eyes… they are getting heavy… and… and…
“MI AMOR!” I hear.
The scream snaps me awake and I find myself a footstep away from walking into the lake.
“Where am I?” I ask, momentarily confused, unsure of who or where I am and what I am doing. I look at my watch. It’s 2 p.m. I’m running for 24 hours.
“This is some crazy shit,” I say to Edna.
“Mi amor, tenemos que tomar una siesta.”
She’s right. Ordinarily I wouldn’t want to take a nap during an ultra. I would do my best to push through without sleeping. But during today’s contest I have had a ton of Red Bull and I still can’t keep my eyes open. The heat and humidity keeps slamming the door shut on my consciousness. I need a nap.
At 2:15 p.m. we sink into our camp chairs, feet up, hats over our eyes. I’m out before I can even — zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Hours 17 -24 (3:00 p.m to 10:00 p.m.)
I wake up to a violent gust of wind that knocks my hat off. “What the…”
The canopy tent under which we sit is trying its hardest to fly off into the distance. Luckily, it’s anchored well and we have a little cover from the choppy sprinkles of rain that follow the strong gusts. Is it going to rain again? I wonder. That’s just what we need.
As soon as my mind recovers enough to conjure up the worst case scenarios, the rain has stopped.
“I’m hungry,” says Edna as we cautiously find our way back to our feet.
“Me too. Let’s go to the aid station and see what they have.”
Before we can, Nate circles back around to us and asks, as if sent by the gods, “Are you guys hungry?”
How did he know? Was it our sunken cheeks? Our frail disposition? The fact that we’ve been running in circles all night?
Everything moves in slow motion, like a scene out of a Scorsese flick, when you know either something awesome or something awful is going to happen in the next few seconds. Nate walks over to his cooler, lifts the lid and reveals a home cooked Filipino meal of pork sausage, flavor-packed cured beef and sticky white rice. AWESOME!
I try not to shove it all into my mouth at the same time.
Is this an eating contest or a running contest? I’d be doing better if it were the former.
“This food is delicious,” I can’t stop saying. Edna loves it too. I have to check myself to make sure I’m not making hog noises as I (ironically) devour the pork sausage. It’s the perfect combination of salt and fat and flavor and… do we have to keep running or can we just stop and eat now?
Just a few bites before immobility, I manage to put the food away and get back to my feet. Edna follows suit and we head out to finish the rest of our pain-filled voyage.
Heads down. Going to work. Together.
We talk. A lot. We figure if we can get through events like this, we can get through life together. Right? It’s hard to not love someone who is there for you, blisters, chafing and all. Plus, we keep dipping our hands in the same jar of Vaseline (IMPORTANT MEDICAL ADVICE: don’t dip your hand in our jar of Vaseline).
The heat won’t go away. It digs deep into our bodies, slowing us, daring us to quit. But our goal is relentless forward progress and in this we will succeed. You’d be hard pressed to find two people more stubborn than Edna and I and there’s no stopping us today. Our minds are made up.
Someone, a spectator, randomly hands us two ice cream sundaes. It really IS Christmas in July!!! WOW!! We SLUUUUUUUURP the ice cream so fast that our mutual embarrassment for one another cancels out. Life is beautiful ain’t it? You go run in the sweltering heat for 24 hours and some random stranger gives you ice cream. What more do you want?
Heads down. Going to work. Together.
I have been reading “A Brief History of Mexico”, so now is a convenient time to discuss pre-Columbian Mexican history with someone close to the subject. Somehow our discussion meanders off towards Lady Guadalupe and all the iterations of the Virgin mother outside of Santa María.
Meanwhile, time ticks… and ticks… and ticks. There is more ice. More shuffling. Every once in a while we try to “run” but we quickly find ourselves back in shuffle mode. We don’t care. We’re all smiles.
What’s the alternative? Being pissy? Aggravated? We signed up for this shit, man! And we are going to finish. The sun is finally going down now and the remaining field of runners is scarce; but we have survived. We’re going to go the whole 24, which is exactly what we came here to do.
Damn it feels good to reach a goal. That’s why I do these things — these insane tests of endurance that call upon one’s mental and physical toughness to succeed. I love what they do to my mind, the conversations they start; and I love that I always leave them finding out something new about myself.
Today, as Edna and I approach the finish line of yet another extreme event — one that beat us down with intense rain, heat, humidity and and overall desire to bail — I realize that I am a better version of myself with her by my side. I know that I can trust her to help me get where I want to go, in races and in life. We are good for each other. We make a good team.
WE CROSS THE LINE…
This article, by Alejandro Yanún, was originally published on June 12, 2015 in the Spanish language publication “Vívelo Hoy”.
Translation by Jeffery Lung
Edna Jackeline Vazquez is used to adapting to circumstances and meeting new challenges. For this reason, when she was informed back in March that the ultramarathon of the Sahara Desert in Jordan was going to be canceled due to political problems, she quickly changed her chip to focus on a new goal: a 250 kilometer, 7 day race in the stunning Gobi Desert of northern China.
“The ISIS guerillas entered Jordan and the race organizers sent us an email informing us that the race would be canceled over concerns of terrorism, just a week before flying there. I had to totally retrain because in Jordan I would have been facing pure sand dunes while the Gobi Desert, in China, is the windiest desert with more rocky terrain, which would be faster but painful for the feet,” says Vazquez, who has been based in Chicago for several years.
The change worked to perfection because Vazquez, 34 years old with a degree in human resources and a masters in business, won her category for women aged 30 to 39, finishing fourth overall female in the competition and 26th among the entire field of 164 athletes.
To get an idea of the dimensions of the race, running 250 kilometers in the Gobi would be equivalent to running from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico (Vazquez’s hometown) to McAllen, Texas, after crossing the border into the United States.
It should also be added, that among the difficulties presented by the actual competition itself, there is also the immediate change to the ‘biological clock’ for the athletes with a 14 hour time difference from China, as well as confronting an inflexible natural climate.
During the competition Vazquez also had to face extreme conditions, from temperatures as low as 5 degrees Celsius and snow storms that began the race up to temperatures of 47 Celsius (120 Farenheit). “The hardest moment was crossing the canyons,” she remembers. “You already get there tired and anything you touch on the ground causes you to lose your balance; in this moment the only thing you want is to leave that place.”
There, in those subhuman conditions, is when the blood of a champion surges. For Vazquez, this quality is the result of a constant daily practice. “All of us desire to come here to America for the American dream,” says Vazquez, who believes that society forgets their ultimate goals while being entertained by momentary gratification. “The main thing is to let go of the economic issues and things that give instant pleasure in favor of developing other skills. The final goal is to have passion and be persistent. The thing that has helped me most is being dedicated, working hard and being persistent.
Vazquez’s consecration in China was not coincidental, but rather the result of a great team. The Monterrey native had a base strength program developed by Jeff Lung of Iron Lung Fitness, with a desert ultramarathon training plan developed by Nahila Hernandez. It also included a swimming program for muscular recovery, a yoga practice taught by the instructors at Tejas Yoga which also helped complement her concentration with muscle and mental relaxation, and the medical advice of Dr. Victor Garza Hernandez.
The China competition is part of the Racing the Planet series, a circuit of elite ultramarathons for a limited group of athletes who could very well be considered some of the best prepared in the world. “We are an elite group and we can say that we are involved in one of the Top 10 most demanding competitions in the world,” explains Vazquez.
For the Gobi race, Vazquez flew to Beijing, the capital of China, then went on to Urumuqi and finally arrived at the small town of Hami, in northwest China, close to Mongolia, where Genghis Khan ran with his wild hordes 800 years ago.
In these arid and indomitable lands Vazquez arrived at the end of May to compete with ultramarathoners from 40 countries and all continents.
Vazquez ran with a backpack full of food that weighed 11 kilograms at the start but dwindled down to just 5 kilos at the end. In her backpack the Monterrey native carried dehydrated foods like precooked and compact lasagna and chicken with rice and noodles, to cover the necessary 1900 daily calories.
After completing ultramarathons of 100k in Spain, Belgium and Taiwan, as well as 250k in the Atacama Desert of Chile, considered the driest place on the planet, Vazquez focuses her attention on the next goal, the ultras of Namibia (Africa) in May of next year and Antarctica in November of 2016.
And facing new goals is her specialty. “When you think you have arrived at one goal, another is going to come, and later another. The the extent that you discover your abilities, you are going to discover more,” says Vazquez.
“I believe that we all have the capacity to develop our abilities and sport is one element that helps us face life and believe in ourselves,” she argues safely. “The important thing is to have passion for what you do and focus on your dreams.”
Edna Jackeline Vázquez
Mexican Ultramarathoner Living in Chicago
When Edna and I boarded a Beijing-bound plane from Chicago, neither one of us really knew what I should expect. For her part, Edna was pretty clear: run 250k over 7 days across the Gobi Desert, carrying all her own gear and supplies for the journey. Having successfully completed the Atacama Crossing in 2013, she knew exactly what type of pain and suffering lie ahead. The only question mark was the terrain.
For me, as a volunteer making his first Racing the Planet appearance, I didn’t really have any idea what I would be doing. I speak Chinese, so I figured I might be doing some of that. I know my way around an aid-station, so I assumed I would be handing out lots of water. Somehow climbing a sand dune in a snowstorm didn’t make it onto my pre-race assumption list. Nor did fraternizing with a precocious camel, busting balls with the Xinjiang locals over fruit and tea or making instant friends the world over. Had I known about any of the above, I would have joined the Racing the Planet ranks a long time ago.
It was a long journey. A very, very, long journey. We left our Chicago apartment around noon on May 24th; 38 hours and 50 minutes later we were finally collapsing on our hotel bed in Hami, Xinjiang, China. The trip included a 14-hour direct flight to Beijing, a 4-hour+ flight to Urumuqi, a not-so-welcoming stay in the Urumuqi airport (we arrived around 1am and were kicked out onto the street where we slept in our sleeping bags), an adventurous death-ride to the Urumuqi train station where we eventually endured three separate yet equally vigorous shouting matches with Chinese security officials about our possession of multi-tools before waiting in line for 90 minutes to buy train tickets for a train we just barely boarded in time, for yet another 3-hour trip to our final destination: Hami.
We arrived on Tuesday the 26th in the afternoon sometime. We checked in our hotel, ate and then went right to sleep. We woke up on Wednesday, went to eat and came back to our hotel, to sleep. Again. We woke up around 5 o’clock on Wednesday evening, went to eat, went for a walk, then went to sleep. AGAIN.
Our bodies were confused. So we slept a lot. And it paid off, because we woke up on Thursday and everything was back to normal.
I spent the entirety of that Friday learning the ins and outs of volunteer protocol for the 4 Deserts race series. Always the nerdy student, I sat right up front and soaked up all the information given (there was a lot). Feeling confident that I’d retained at least 75% of the training, I also enjoyed getting to know my fellow volunteers. We were from the US, China, Singapore, New Zealand, Norway, Hong Kong, India, the UK, Australia, South Africa and Canada. Our dear leader, Tony, was a lighthearted yet focused Englishman from Manchester who peppered his instruction with well timed humor.
At the end of the training, I realized that volunteering would be more work than competing. At least as a competitor one would be able to rest after doing his job. For the volunteers, our days would begin around 4:30 am and end around 10:30 pm, though I imagined we would have less blisters and skin maceration, so that was a plus. Knowing just how much time we would be spending together seemed to motivate us to get to know and befriend one another rather quickly.
Want instant friends? Gallivant in the remote desert for a week without bathing!
Checking In… And We’re Off!
On Saturday morning and afternoon, I spent most of my time checking competitors’ mandatory equipment. This would be my first major duty of the contest, one that would also give me the opportunity to meet many individuals with whom I would come to call my friends after the event. Among them were a host of Chinese, a trio of Belgians, a pair of Spaniards and an American from my own Chicagoland backyard. What a small world!
This early post also helped me prepare my language palate for the days to come. In a matter of a few hours I found myself comfortably switching between English, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, something that I would be doing non-stop the rest of the week.
The buzz around the check-in was global in nature. Surrounding me were people from 40 different countries and various cultural backgrounds. I was in my element. Soaking it in.
Of course, I took my checking mandatory equipment job very seriously. Race officials require each competitor to carry a list of essential survival items. In the middle of nowhere, anything is possible, so making sure each individual was prepared to deal with whatever might come her way was paramount. I didn’t have any major issues. Everyone I checked-in was well prepared. I marveled at how small some competitors’ items came, while others’ did not. The difference between an 11 kilogram pack and a 9 kilogram pack might not seem that much at first glance, but when you consider hauling that pack for 250k through a dastardly rugged landscape, a 2 kilo difference suddenly takes on greater significance.
Edna’s pack was around 11 kilos. I tried not to worry about her small frame handling the weight across the desert. After all, I thought, she is coming in to this extremely well trained (I helped train her!).
After everyone’s equipment was checked and okayed, the 163 competitors gathered themselves onto an army of buses while I and a few other Chinese speaking volunteers tattooed 4×4 jeeps with sponsor decals alongside our new friends, a fleet of Chinese local drivers.
I carefully chose car #8 to be my transport vehicle as all cars and buses, full of staff, volunteers and competitors made their way out of Hami and into the middle of nowhere, bound for camp before Stage 1.
When we arrived at camp, located in a lush, green valley at 2400 meters of altitude, the air was as chilly as the wind was brisk. We were greeted by a lovely sight of local foods, music and dress while the buzz of pre-race jitters filled multilingual conversations in every direction.
After a volunteer meeting where I found out I would be working Checkpoint 3 the next day, I found Edna, wrapped her up in my arms and gave her a long hug before wishing her good luck and good night.
Stage 1 – 34.4k
Sleep? I didn’t get much. The winds whipped through our tent all night. It was cold. And it rained.
Weather is fickle in the mountains, especially here. One minute the winds spear rain sideways, the next minute it’s clear and sunny.
We would have a little bit of both, and everything in between the rest of the day.
After a 6:00 am briefing, the volunteers and staff scattered off by 4×4 to our respective posts. Checkpoint 3 was located beside the sand dune of Barkhol — a seemingly displaced sand dune that towered above and alongside a happy little mountain valley.
We arrived and set up our checkpoint in good time. The air was a bit chilled and there was a steady wind zipping through, but all seemed tolerable… until, of course, it was not. Out of nowhere came violent, sand whipping winds that uplifted our tents, forcing all hands on deck to scurry towards anchoring our infrastructure. The temperature soon dropped, and with it came a torrent of icy, chilled rain.
And it rained.
And it rained.
Then it snowed.
You haven’t seen the truly bizarre until you’ve seen a sand dune covered in snow. I saw most of it from inside the jeep, where I had the heat cranked so I could feel my fingers as I reigned over the most important part of any checkpoint: keeping the book.
My duty was to record every competitor’s name, number and time as they came through our checkpoint. The difference between being accurate and being lackadaisical is a full-fledged wilderness search team and lots of heartburn, so I put my anal retentiveness to work, making sure to get everything right.
It was quite the chaotic day to test such retentiveness. With visibility poor and extremities constantly numb and/or frozen, our entire team was challenged to match the toughness of the competitors, most of whom probably did not expect to traipse through snow and freezing rain on their first day in the Gobi Desert. Hypothermia effected several. Pure insanity effected others.
But at the end of Stage 1, everyone found him/herself back at camp in one piece.
Our camp before Stage 2 was a quaint Yurt Village, surrounded in every direction by green. Upon arrival, my body throbbed with exhaustion. The extreme weather of the first day combined with little sleep zapped by body of any energy it might have had left. All I wanted to do was sleep.
But I couldn’t do so without finding Edna.
I went looking for her, and when I finally found her, we both couldn’t wait to tell one another about our day’s adventure.
Stage 2 – 40k
For the second stage, I was assigned as “sweeper”, which meant I got to wear a sweet pink kit over my gear while going along for a 40k hike at the back of the race.
And oh yeah, I got to carry a 12 kilogram pack and dress for a temperature range between very cold and I-have-way-too-many-layers-on. Still, like Edna, I was all smiles.
This was my first chance to see the entire course of a Racing the Planet stage and wow, did I have a good view! I made the trek alongside fellow American volunteer, Liz, whose husband was also competing in the race. Together with a Kazakh, a camel and a horse, the five of us would start off in the mountains, up a steep, snow-covered 574 meter climb, then descend over 1000 meters through a rocky mountain valley, into the barren desert towards Camp 3.
Having to stay just behind and in sight of the last competitors in the race, while also picking up all the course markings throughout, it was a very long yet uniquely gorgeous 12ish hour day.
When we arrived at camp, a small village in the foothills of Tian Shan, I found Edna and caught up with her about her day. She was tired yet full of elation. She was in her element, pushing her body to the limit in a picturesque surrounding, and I was there to see her. Our love was growing, even though we spent most of the day apart.
That night, in the village where we stayed, the locals made a deliciously spicy noodle dish that I devoured; I even went back for seconds! Later, we volunteers gathered for our nightly briefing and there I learned I would have what seemed like an easier post for Stage 3 (yeah, right!). My job would be to stay at camp and do whatever odd jobs might be necessary in maintaining the finish line and overall well-being of the competitors as they came in.
Little did I know it would be yet another day of extremes.
Stage 3 – 42.7k
We volunteers were up again at 4:30 am, adding water to our dehydrated meal bags while sipping instant coffee from plastic bottles. Since my day would be a little less labor intensive, I was able to take my time getting myself together. Once the checkpoint crews left around 6:00, I had some time to wander around the village, chatting with locals, competitors and of course, Edna.
After all the competitors left the village, the remaining volunteers and staff hurried about tidying up the village before departing for Camp 4.
When we got to Camp 4, a small plateau at the foot of a mountain, it was quite chilly, and the chilliness was only exacerbated by… THE RAIN.
It rained. And rained.
But we had to get the camp together so we bustled about, the best we could, frozen digits and all.
The end of Stage 3 was tough for Edna. She came across the finish line smiling, but because of the long day of cold rain, she was struck with hypothermia when she got back to her tent. It took a good hour for her to stop shaking. Her tent-mates encouraged her to strip down and snuggle up in her sleeping bag with bottles full of hot water. Eventually she was able to regulate her body temperature, calm down and eat a good, hot meal.
She then burned her socks over a camp fire, trying to dry them.
Seems like those are the types of breaks that are common in events like these. But it would take a whole lot more than some burned socks to erase Edna’s smile.
Despite the cold and the rain, I went to sleep a little better than the previous nights. I imagine this had something to do with being exhausted. Volunteering was a lot of hard work, with a lot of time on my feet, having to be actively engaged with my surroundings. I couldn’t wait to rest my eyes.
Besides, they told us we were going to the desert the next day — the real, HOT desert.
Stage 4 -42k
Another 4:30 am wake-up call and finally, the pre-dawn rising didn’t seem so abnormal. I quickly fell into my regular routine of coffee, breakfast and preparing my mind for another long day.
My post was Checkpoint 1, and once we had it set up next to a remote camel watering hole, I was assigned the task of roving back and forth along the course to check up on competitors coming from the start line.
It was only a 9.5k jaunt from the start to Checkpoint 1, but it included a steady bout of numbing cold, misty rain and whipping wind as the competitors made their way out of the mountains and into the more traditional, black Gobi desert. With the snow capped range at their backs, each competitor approached Checkpoint 1 with the ability to see off in the distance for miles and miles.
All of the competitors were through the first checkpoint by late morning, so we tore down the station and headed off towards Camp 5. Along the way we had to make a stop to check on a roving vehicle that had a competitor sequestered due to health reasons. As we stood along the silence of the road, overlooking vast desert where little found life, this medical stop was a humbling reminder of just how serious this event could be. Each competitor was taking a risk by stepping off into the distance; 250k through remote landscapes and weather extremes is no joke.
Eventually, the competitor was taken to the hospital (he made a full and healthy recovery) and the rest of us ventured to camp.
Camp 5 was an old clay village leftover from what looked like 50s era occupational China. Having never seen anything like it, I was marveling at the interesting architecture as I quickly stripped out of my cold weather clothes (it was now about 85 degrees and sunny) and in the combined excitement I totally missed Edna crossing the finish line.
Once I did catch up to her though, she was smiling her trademark grin. She couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful it was to be somewhere hot (words she would regret later).
She was right though. After several days of being cold and wet, the heat felt fantastic.
Adding to this wave of pleasure was the fact that Edna was right near the top of the competition among women. Having been in the top three since day one, she was still there going into the next day’s Long March (80.4k), her signature distance. I encouraged her to eat, get some rest and put her feet up before the long day.
Meanwhile, I got a chance to eat before being sent back out on the course in a roving vehicle. The temperature was rising and the competitors who were still out there were suffering considerably. My Chinese driver and I parked a couple of kilometers from the stage finish line, in a tiny village. There we hung out with two local policeman and four PLA soldiers curious about the goings on.
They fed me fresh fruit, bread and tea over introspective conversation (“why are they running this far again?” seemed to be a recurring question) while simultaneously topping off water bottles for the competitors, encouraging them to finish strong to the end.
After a couple of hours, I too, could feel the restlessness settle in. We were called back to camp where I banged on the drum at the finish line for a couple of hours before eating a hot meal and attending the nightly volunteer meeting.
The next day was the Long March and I would be all over the place. I did my best to get to bed early; unfortunately, that meant drifting off around midnight…
Stage 5 – The Long March – 80.4k
…and a wake-up at 4:30 am. It would have been easy to complain, but considering the barrage of blistery feet and dehydration zombie’ing around camp, I managed to keep my mouth shut.
My duties for the day would be to set up Checkpoint 2, work it until close, then sweep with Liz again through Checkpoint 4 (a total hike of 18.6k) before seeing what would happen next. I was told to be ready for anything. I was, including baking in the 120 degree sun for hours on end.
Since this day would cover over 80 kilometers of terrain, the checkpoint teams were a little spread out. Liz and I were assigned to help Dr. Avi at Checkpoint 2 and once we arrived at our location — a desolate wasteland where one could see for miles — we wasted no time getting set up.
By 3 o’clock in the afternoon, everyone had made it through our checkpoint. It was time for Liz and I to suit up and take to the deserts ourselves, keeping a close eye on those at the back of the pack.
This is exactly where my phone died. From here to the end, I would have no more camera to capture the mesmerizing images around me. I guess that’s what memories were made for.
We toiled. We sweat. We plugged away.
By the time Liz and I finished our sweeping duties, the sun was going down and the familiar chill of night was beginning to set in. By 10 pm, we had hitched a ride to Checkpoint 5 (60.4k), the overnight checkpoint where many competitors were taking advantage of the campfire and tents to eat a warm meal and catch a quick nap before soldiering on through the night. Liz and I ate a little something and chatted with the busy volunteer staff before heading back to camp to get a little rest ourselves.
We arrived at camp around 11 pm and I found Edna, who had finished about an hour beforehand. She was nearly in tears during her retelling of her day — a battle that took as much mental strength and courage as it did physical. She had coasted along until she hit the burning canyon section, enduring searing heat that forced her to scream out loud at no one in particular. But like she always does, she battled through and brought it home, pain and all.
I hugged her and let her know I loved her. I told her she inspired me, and that I was proud to be alongside during her big moment. It was an emotional 10 minute exchange.
But then I had to get back to work, and she had to rest. We parted ways and I reported back to the finish line. Luckily, I was told to take a nap. Unfortunately, I was told to report back at 2 am. Yikes!
I got in my sleeping bag, by now completely immune to the stench of my own being (six days in the wilderness without a shower will do that), and just as I was drifting off…
My alarm went off. 2 am. Oh boy.
I went to the finish line area and if I was feeling sorry for myself for not sleeping much the last several days, that sentiment changed immediately upon seeing the competitors coming into the finish after suffering along the lonely, Gobi Desert for 80 kilometers.
How inspiring it was to see them! Oh the smiles on their faces! And the tears springing from their eyes! How could one not be moved to do something epic himself upon seeing such a feat!
Inspired as I was, I was asked to go out on the course in a roving vehicle from 2 to 4 am, checking on competitors to make sure they were doing okay. Sarcasm and delirium aside, everybody was moving forward, which at this point, was all one could really ask.
After my two hour shift, I got to take another nap. This time I was out before I even zipped up the bag.
I woke up drowning in a pool of my own sweat.
Wow! It got hot quick! And it was only 9 am.
The only thing that made the scorching heat tolerable was the steady breeze accompanying it. When the wind blew, all was well. When it didn’t, things got uncomfortable.
This was very telling later that afternoon as Edna and I lounged in a shaded area in the middle of Camp 6. With all of the competitors finished with the Long March, we had the day off to recuperate before making the last 12k jaunt to the ultimate finish line. All around us was carnage — competitors dehydrated, windburn and covered in sand — but the jovial stories and upbeat smiles countered any physical deterioration. With the breeze, things felt even better than they were.
Until they weren’t.
The breeze became stronger. And stronger. And stronger.
Eventually no longer a breeze, but rather a violent whipping wind powerful enough to uproot tents and send anything not anchored to the ground flying through desolation, this seemingly angry force of nature started to make things very uncomfortable. The only way for me to combat it was to simply lie on the ground, near Edna, going back and forth between chatting with her and catnapping. This is how we spent most of the day.
But later in the evening, as I was making my way to my tent to get some dinner, I overheard one of the local Chinese staff members yell: “EVERYBODY TAKE COVER! IT’S COMING AND IT’S COMING QUICK!”
Baffled, I followed his pointed finger towards the sky and what I saw was right out of a Jerry Bruckheimer film, dropping my jaw to the ground: A SANDSTORM. A real, ominous, terrifying sandstorm.
“Edna!” I screamed heading back to the center of camp. “Edna! Come with me!” I shouted. I grabbed her hand and pulled her, limping legs and all, as fast as I could towards a large rock formation at the height of our camp. I had never been in a sandstorm before and I did not know what to expect, but the panic I heard in the voices of the locals was enough to make me take it very seriously.
With our mouths, noses and eyes covered as much as possible, I hovered over Edna, faces toward the wall of rock standing between us and the brunt of the storm. For the next three hours, the sand whipped and screamed, pelting us from every direction. By 10 pm the worst of it had passed and I was discovering sand in every part of my body, something I never imagined possible.
The storm destroyed our camp. It knocked down all the tents. It sent much of our gear and supplies off into the unknown. Everything was a mess. Still, the weather forecast looked better on the horizon, and due to the late hour, race officials decided it was safest to stay at camp and do our best to continue on with Stage 6 the next day.
Unfortunately, in the middle of the night, the wind picked up again. It was very violent, again pummeling us with sand from every direction. There was even rain! With this sudden change in weather, having to think quick on their feet, race officials decided it was the best and safest decision to immediately evacuate camp, cancel Stage 6 and head back to our final destination in the town of Hami.
Let me tell ya, that first shower after a week without was NICE! Better yet was the beer (or three) that I had while waiting to actually get in a room to take a shower. Of course, the latter only intensified the former.
After cleaning up, Edna and I passed out. SLEEP! It never felt so good.
That evening we attended the awards banquet where we chummed with over 200 new friends, all of us drawn closer after a week full of adversity. Competitors, volunteers and staff all joined in reminiscing over the week’s dramatic achievements. It was evident to me that the heroes in the spotlight were the competitors, no doubt. After all, they did have the hardest job of all, covering over 100 miles on tired legs over unforgiving terrain. Yet, I couldn’t help but marvel at what we as volunteers and staff had accomplished as well. We put on a full fledged marathon a day in hostile natural environments — environments that changed dramatically each day, from snowy mountain tops to searing desert canyons to full fledged sandstorms. Each stage of the race was so robust and detail dependent that it could have very well stood on its own.
For being a part of this, I was immensely proud.
I was also IMMENSELY proud of my girl! Edna WON her age group while also finishing as the fourth overall female. Woo hoo! And of course, she did it ALL with a SMILE!
The extent of memories we took away from this event could fill hundreds of pages, but one thing is definitely cemented in our minds: Edna and I, are very much a part of the Racing the Planet and 4 Deserts family. We look forward to being a part of another adventure very, very soon…
And now for something completely different, yet equally exhilarating:
I’m going to western China to serve as race volunteer for Racing the Planet’s 250k Gobi March stage race across the desert.
While my exact duties won’t be totally clear until I arrive in the middle of nowhere, approximately 10 days from now, I do know that I will be participating in one of the world’s premier ultrarunning events and that I’m in for one hell of an adventure. Luckily, I won’t be alone.
My fiancée, Edna — (aka “La Diosa de la Ultramaratón”) (English version) — is competing in the event; and after hearing her vivid description of her successful Atacama Crossing in 2013, lending my services to a race that features human heroics from around the globe was an easy sell. This time I get a front row seat!
Over much of the last year I have been busy helping Edna train, and while we were both disappointed that the Sahara Crossing was cancelled due to civil unrest, the 2015 Gobi March offers an opportunity for us to experience this event together, even if on different sides. As most readers of mine know, I enjoy volunteering and giving back to the running community as pacer/crew/cheerleader just as much as I do competing. The stories I bring back are always as motivating as they are thrilling.
I can’t wait to share more with you!
But first… 我们 到中国 去 啊!
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