Thursday, May 11, 2017

Monumentally Gump



Stepping out of the sand and onto more firmer ground, I said to myself in a hushed voice, "Okay now Gump, Gump, Gump," as I increased my pace from a fast walk to a slow methodical run. I was somewhere out in the middle of a dried up ancient ocean bed still with miles to go in a 50 mile race trying my best to get to the finish line. 

I was smack dab in the middle of Monument Valley in Utah, where Forest Gump had ended his fabled fictional run in the popular movie of the same name. The ever lovable Forest had ended on the road overlooking the monuments, and probably could have easily gotten a ride back to civilization just by sticking out his thumb. I on the other hand, was in the with the monuments and the only way out was to have my mind trick my body into thinking it wasn't exhausted and worn out, and that it could do another ten miles or more if necessary. 

The Monument Valley 50 mile race had started at six in the morning, just as the sun was illuminating the beauty of the monolithic natural landscape, and now some eight hours later I envied the focus and stamina of the fictional character when really I just wanted to go home. Everything about the race and my journey to get there was an experience I will cherish forever but pushing the forty mile mark, the novelty had worn off and it was time to do whatever was necessary to get it done.

"Life is like an aid station, you never know what you're gonna get," Forest might have said if he ran ultra races. Coming out of an aid station around mile 31-32 I was feeling really great. I just had eaten some great red potatoes, washed them down with Coke and had a belch so loud it could be heard practically across the valley floor. As I moved away from the aid station, I hollered to my fellow runners in my best Slim Pickens voice, conjuring another movie character but this one from Blazing Saddles, "Come on boys, we'll head 'em off at the pass," Yah, my spirits were high, and I rode that feeling as best as I could feeling thrilled that I wasn't running in yet more sand but hard ground. 

Sand and the Monuments went together like peas and carrots, Forest would say. The first couple hours of the race, the sand didn't bother me all too much. It slowed me down but didn't wipe me out, and some of the early sights were just so magnificent that I didn't mind the ever changing footing. It was impossible to estimate just how many miles were spent in the sand versus a firmer terrain but when I hit that harder surface I knew I had to take advantage of it while it was there. I don't know when I put the "Gump, Gump, Gump," mantra in my head, or whether it really had any effect on my pace, but I needed to combat my body with my mind. 

The Bubba to my Gump was my friend John Rodrigue who traveled with me from Maine to experience a place so different from our usual rocks, roots, mud, snow and slush. I had been to the southwest before and relished the opportunity to actually run. We had flown into Las Vegas and rented a Jucy camper, which was a converted mini-van. A bed folded out inside and there was a pop-up tent on the top along with a small kitchen area in the trunk. My brother was actually in Vegas at the time with his college friends so we got to meet up for dinner and a small amount of gambling. I actually won about thirty dollars at the roulette table. So that was real nice to see family so far away from my own back in Maine, and not lose a small fortune.

John and I visited a couple national parks on our drive across the Utah-Arizona border on our way to the four corner region and the Navajo National Park where the monuments stood. John was pretty amazed when we got to the top of Observation Point in Zion looking down on the canyon floor. We also got to run around the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon after waking up to snow on our Jucy then having all the sand/mud stick to our shoes like drying bricks. Perhaps the most amazing part of our journey was driving through a snowstorm outside of Page, Arizona. We abandoned camping that night and opted for a hotel room and were able to shower and have a great authentic Mexican meal that helped freshen us up and get ready for race day

It seemed as if Lieutenant Dan had taken over the race coming out of the last aid station. The course was actually really kind and quite beautiful following a ridge-line below another mesa and looking back toward where I had already been and needed to get back to. I was smiling having a good time, being generally as happy as Forest out on the open ocean looking for shrimp. Then from the top beam Lt. Dan points toward a high sand dune, leading away from the direction I seem to need to head, and yells, "Over there! We need to go over there."

The day before the race, Bubba, I mean John, and I met the man who designed the course, Jeff.  He was working at the gift shop and took us to an outdoor patio and gave us more information than we needed, but greatly appreciated. He told us about the high sand dune climb around mile forty five and how we would be cursing his name. He was right.

The initial climb up the dune wasn't so bad, thanks to the warning from Jeff. It was when the course took another turn away from where I thought we should go, and up another additional climb, that I really began to curse Jeff, who I pictured sitting on the cross beam looking like Lt. Dan. It was also at this point that I saw the dark clouds looking like the ones that had delivered the snow storm I drove through a couple days before.

The sand was relentless now, and there wasn't anything I could do but to keep going forward. The course finally took a turn in the direction I really wanted to go in putting the storm clouds behind me. I didn't know how many miles I had left as my watch battery had died somewhere between the last two aid stations, and I only knew the time of day by checking my phone.

There was a runner up ahead of me who stopped to dump the sand out of his shoes. Although my shoes were also full, I didn't see any point in stopping myself as I was sure they would fill up quickly again. I was taking Lt. Dan's advice about how socks made all the difference, and felt quite satisfied that my feet were in decent shape thanks to my socks. I had an extra set in my pack just in case, along with a few other items that I had worn earlier in the race when the temps were lower. I had taken off my last layer around the marathon mark when I hit an aid station that we had passed by three times. There a man changed his socks with the help of his family, his daughter quite revolted by having to handle his dirty, smelly socks. I'm sure my daughter, or son would have had the same reaction.

At that aid station, I was feeling pretty spent, after a really sandy section that sapped out my strength. That strength came back though as the trail followed a ridge line. I caught up with a runner who had spoken at ceremonies the night before. We were treated to some Navajo dancing and prayers, I would assume wishing us the best, but the audio system was horrible, so for all I knew we might have been scolded for stealing native lands. Really though, we were very well treated and felt welcomed for coming to this amazing place. The runner had been introduced as Vice President of the nation, and I thanked him for having us, and he really didn't have much to say back to me as I could see him struggling.

As I struggled through the last few miles in the sand, the mesas that I ran around in the morning grew closer and closer. It was hard but it could have been much more challenging as the course had been changed from previous races. In the first ten miles of the race we got to climb up to the top of a 6,000 foot mesa, but in previous years this climb was done at the end of the race. While I ran toward that mesa, still very fresh in the gentle morning sun, I kept looking up at it wondering how we were ever going to get to the top as Mitchell Mesa rose straight out of the ground. There was a steep trail that did lead to the top, climbing nearly 1,500 feet in a mile. Some runners were already coming down when I started up. 50K runners had started shortly after the 50 milers and were given a more direct route, so the mass of all runners had to politely share the narrow, rocky trail.

Despite finally getting to the top, I was not immediately treated with a view. About another mile of running before I reached the edge of the mesa to look over the valley floor. It was absolutely amazing, one of the greatest places I have ever experienced in my life. I did have to share it with many others, all getting pictures. After a few moments, I remembered this was a race and that I needed to get going. It was then that John appeared. We had agreed that we would not be running together, and that I was probably going to be faster. I was pleased to see him, but had me wondering if I was going to slow, or that he was going too fast. We didn't talk about it, and I took off wanting to do my best over the next forty miles.

With the finish line within sight, I thought of John again. It had been about eight hours since I last saw him and wondered if he was able to keep his feet going through all the sand. Selfishly, I hoped he hadn't and that he would be there at the finish line to help take care of me when I got done. I stepped out of the sand and into the campground where the Jucy was parked. I could have easily stopped and crawled into the Jucy instead of actually finishing but of course I pushed on as there were some people actually cheering for the first time in the race. I expected someone to yell, "Run Forest Run." A quote that I'm sure all of us runners had heard at one time or another. Now, I was just so damn tired, but fed off my own appointed mantra of, "Gump, gump, gump" in order to get across the finish line.

Fortunately John was nowhere in sight, and I took care of my post race recovery. I gathered my finishing reward. A bottle full of sand while drinking some hot chocolate and nibbling on a few snacks. The storm clouds were still visible while a cold wind cooled off my tired body. I struggled to get back into the van, having a hard time finding where John had hidden the keys. The only time I cursed at John the entire trip but he was nowhere near of course and after I had dumped all the sand out of my socks and shoes, I lied down for a bit after changing into warm clothes and prayed that the storm clouds wouldn't stop John from getting to the finish line soon.

There were make your own pizzas to be had at the finish area, which I loaded with various meats but had no beer to wash it down. Alcohol is prohibited in the Navajo Nation, and so it was unusual not to have a cold beer at the end of the race. I was just about to sit down and eat my pizza when John crossed the finish line, stopping to kiss the ground, all before I was able to whip out my phone to capture the moment. I had him take my seat and I wiped the sand off his nose. I ate while helping him out and he told me that he did get some bad weather on the tail end of the race but it did not stop him from meeting his twelve hour goal. I did the course in 10:14, meeting my own goals for the most part, but I was more focused on the opportunity to run in a spectacular place more than a personal best.

Forest didn't take off from his front porch to set a personal best. He just felt like runnin'. And run he did, and for the most part I did my best to run throughout the fifty miles. When I got tired, I still ran. When I got hungry, I still ran. When I had to, you know, I still ran.

My body has never felt so good and recovered so well from an ultra race. I had to ask John the next day if he felt the same way, and amazingly he did as well. Maybe it was the spirit of the place, maybe it was from a lack of alcohol after the race, or maybe even the blessings given to us from the Navajo before the race. It felt like we were in a spirit world, coming back as the same two dumb ass runners who thought it would be 'fun' to run fifty miles in the high desert, but also somehow more a part of this real physical world. Jimi Hendrix said once, "Sometimes you need to create a fantasy to better understand reality." I wonder if Forest actually told him that.

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