Racing the Masochist
I had both feared and dreaded this day, had regretted ever signing up for this race. Now it was here, and I had to deal with it; had to live up to my own expectation. It is just one day, one race, I reassured myself, it would soon be over. But it turned out to be far more than I bargained for, and as it unfolded, it proved itself for me a profound and significant chronotope upon which I could measure the past and future events of my life.
At about an hour and a half before dawn on Saturday morning our buses arrived at the start. While some opted to stay in the warmth of the bus, I stumbled off with most of the other runners, and we lined up for the porta-johns. Then we gathered moth-like around a large spotlight and Clark Zealand, race director and ultra winner and runner extraordinaire, clipboard in hand, checking off names to make certain he and his volunteers had accounted for everyone that had not checked in on the bus.
The spotlight cut rather harshly through the predawn, its generator creating a racket and belching out chokingly foul smells. But every now and again a mountain wind would bring on the smell of leaves and snow, and remind me of just where we were and what was to come. I glanced around. It was hard to see the surroundings. Just feet from the light stretched that kind of absolute darkness you forget about after living in the city for more than a year. We were in the Blue Ridge Mountains in southern Virginia, at the very end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Between the treetops and the moonless sky, there was a thick blanket of cloud cover. It began to snow.
It was a seemingly small crowd. I knew there were somewhere around 300 running that day, but in the brief pool of light and surrounding darkness it appeared to me to be about 40. Lots of folks still on the bus, I thought, seasoned runners who have the confidence to rest right up until the start. I shivered, feeling once again that I had bit off more than I could chew in signing up for this race.
The runners around me chatted nervously and shifted feet, trying to stay warm; the few of us out here who didn’t want to miss anything, or simply had too much adrenaline to stay on the bus or in our cars. Newbies, I thought. We are the newbies.
Cool calm and collected amidst our newbie fidgets, Dr. David Horton, the ultra-running living legend who had created this race some 27 years ago, leaned rather nonchalantly on the hood of a nearby car, arms folded, eyes smiling.
“So what’s your name?” he said to me.
He’s addressing me? I thought. Unbelieving, I looked about at the empty space around me. Maybe I had been staring at him. Giddy from lack of sleep, too much adrenaline, and well, more than a bit awe struck, I approached the legend.
“I’m Dani Seiss,” I announced matter-of-factly, in a tone that must have come off as “You know, Dani. It’s me, Dani!” as if he surely had heard of me, as if we had been close friends for decades. He needed no introduction. But I felt like we had a mutual understanding–a shared love of mountains and of running that revealed itself purely by our presence here in the Blue Ridge at predawn. Without thinking, I addressed him as David, not Dr. Horton, and he never corrected me.
Horton has held records for the 3rd fastest on the Appalachian Trail, covering its 2175 miles in 52 days 9 hours, 3rd fastest for the Trans-America Run of 2906 miles; fastest ever on the Pacific Crest Trail, 2650 miles in 66 days 7 hours, 3rd fastest on the Long Trail 272 miles in 4 days 22 hours , and not to mention is 1 of 7 finishers ever at the Barkley 100 Miler (a notoriously hellish experience), and 2-time winner of the Hardrock 100. And I was about to run his race.
“Danny? What, did your dad want a son?” he joked.
“No, he has sons,” I said. “I think he is more proud of his daughters, though,” I smiled.
I asked him what he favorite race is.
“Oh, Hellgate,” he said with gusto and without batting an eye.
“I would LOVE to run Hellgate,” I responded, sounding a bit too enthusiastic to be serious. But I really did want to run the aptly named Hellgate. I knew I would have to work up to that one, though, and it was the conditions and not the distance that I would most likely have to worry about. The race is a 100k in the mountains in December. It has more that 11,000 feet of elevation climbs, and starts in the middle of the night, so the temps can get pretty cold. Many years there is ice on the paths, and feet, numb and wet with stream crossings have trouble navigating this. Weather conditions can get bad. One year, runners had problems with freezing corneas because of the constant wind. Why did this sound like fun to me?
I flashed back to when I was a teen. Before I had ever heard of this extreme sport of ultrarunning, I had loved the challenge of the cold and the mountains and the peace they brought me. I spent a lot of time hiking around the Pennsylvania portion of Appalachia in every season, weather condition and every time of day. I even bivouacked at times. The mountains there are not the sharp peaks they are in southern Virginia, but as mountains, they could surely hold there own. And with more limestone, there are more foothills, so it was often even a challenge just getting to the mountains.
When I was 17, I had my wisdom teeth out over Christmas break. They were impacted, so they had to knock me out and smash the teeth before they could be extracted–the bottom set had roots wrapped around nerves and the top had their roots embedded in my sinus cavities. The surgery left me swollen, in stitches and in pain. After days of subsisting off nothing but Ibuprofin, broth, juice, books and television; home alone, I began to go stir crazy and long for the mountains. We had had some heavy snows, and there was about two feet of it on the ground. One morning, the sun finally came out but the temperature was still stuck at 0 degrees F. I decided that if I layered right, with that sun, I could tackle the cold. The town where I lived was about 4 or 5 miles from the nearest mountain, and with two feet of snow, I wasn’t walking anywhere but on the roads. But a plan began to develop. In the barn at my step dad’s farm, about 4 miles away, was a pair of cross country skis that belonged to one of his band mates. I had borrowed these before, and knew I could use them. So I layered properly, donned a heavy down coat, and tucked into it my Walkman and two cassettes: the jazz group Oregon, and a nice collection of analog synth songs called Deep Breakfast by experimental music pioneer, Ray Lynch. Adding the finishing touches, heavy hat, ski goggles and an oven-mittish pair of gloves, I took to the road and made the slow trek to the farm. Once there, strapped into the skis, I climbed the fire road to the top of Williamsburg mountain. I soon forgot the pain in my face, and spent the day skiing the mountain. It was sublime. The day was lovely. The snow sparkled in the sun. Ray Lynch’s song Tiny Geometries spilled colorful, bubbling synth noises all over the day. This was bliss.
The cold. The mountains. They made everything right as rain. And this was why I knew I wanted to run Hellgate. This is why I was here to run the MMTR. If I was able. Time would soon tell.
MMTR is no walk in the park. And it is no JFK. All 50 milers are not alike. MMTR climbs 9200 feet, and drops 7200, with most of the serious climbs in the second half. There are several stream crossings, and so the added joy of running in wet feet.
I told David I would be happy that day if I could simply make the cut off times. I was worried about the vertical miles, and how slowly I would take them. His demeanor softened. He pitched a few of his 50ks then, Promise Land he said was good. I have to run that one.
Why did I have no confidence? Usually when my confidence wavered about a race, others would bolster it. “Oh, you’ll be fine,” they would say. Not so with the MMTR. When I had expressed any doubts about this one, they would more often shrug. “Just give it your best shot,” was the best I got, even from my ultra running friends. To say the least, it left me with lingering doubts.
Now David–notorious for lighting fires under people and getting them, non runners even, to run ultras, either by convincing them they could do it, or challenging them that they couldn’t, was steering my attention to some of his shorter races. What have I signed up for? I thought again. Well, too late now.
Nobody I knew, not even the inspiring David Horton was going to tell me honestly what I could our couldn’t do. It was going to have to be up to me to light that fire under myself. So I drew on my favorite mantras and memories.
“Trust the process” Yassi Ghinsberg had told himself over and over, a mantra that had saved his life when he was lost and injured for three weeks in the Amazon. I reminded myself that 90 percent of everything is just showing up, and well, I was here. I was about to attempt my second 50-miler. This wasn’t even my first, I assured. And then I remembered what Reston Runner den mother Helen Hips had said to me when I flagged and fretted before last year’s JFK50: “Don’t fight it. Just let the mountain embrace you.” And back then, as now, I knew what she meant. And this reminded me of the most important thing that running and mountains had taught me. There is no clear line between you and the world, between you and those mountains. It is an illusion. That boundary is a Mandelbrot fractal. It’s a strange thought, but when you are out there running, you experience it. Hokey as it may sound, that line disappears. It simply falls away and you are one with the day, one with the place. You experience a true present. For some reason, this makes the running virtually effortless.
Just as that line disappeared that day I went skiing on the mountain–the snow, the sky, the bubbling synth sounds, my breath, the cold, the mountain, the pain in my face became all one and the same–so it would be I knew, once I was running the mountains of the MMTR, Dr. David Horton’s Mountain Masochist Trail Race. It sounded like a carnival act to me and began to take on a surreal quality. And now I prayed that I could make the cut off times at the aid stations just so I could remain out there, so that I would once more achieve that bliss.
We gathered on the road for the start, huddled together for warmth, and when given a quiet word to begin, suddenly bolted down the road. I knew well to pace myself at the start of any race, and of all races, I knew I would have to now. But within seconds of the start, we left the light behind, and it grew quite dark and cold. A Chinese dragon of bouncing LEDS and glowing white skeletal outlines of tech clothes, we glided swiftly down the road, padding along, soft running shoes on pavement, occasional sniffs and chatter, sticking together as a pack, trying to stay warm in the predawn snow flurries and wind. At one point, I glanced ahead and saw the sinewy built hams of a runner I was trailing, and I realized simply by her build that I was far too ahead in the pack. I looked at my Garmin and it said we were traveling at a cool 8mph. Yikes! This was much too fast for me to be starting a 50. But I wanted to get warm. I compromised that I would keep the pace up just long enough to get warm, then start backing off. Luckily there was a long up hill. This warmed us quite nicely and took the pace down. As we crested it, dawn came. Then we came crashing down the other side and crossed the James river. Here we hit the first aid station, and started on the first trail up a good steady, climb. We were all warm now, but still held a good pace.
I decided to try and keep up with the pack for as long as I could. I figured I wasn’t certain how much of this run I could do, so instead of conserving, I figured I’d just try to have fun.
The dragon, now colorful in the full morning sun, rose and fell and twisted and turned over switchbacks at a good clip. Everyone was fresh and energized, and when we’d crest a hill, some of the younger guys would let out yelps and warrior cries and we’d all barrel down the descents. It brought on bouts of laughter from some of us. At one point we flew down an incline, rounded a turn, and flew up over the steep banks of a water conversion ditch, launching into the air from sheer speed to their howls, BMXing without the bikes.
I stayed with the pack for just over the first 20 miles, then we all started to spread out.
From there, I started to relax. We were almost half way into the race, and I was making the cut offs with 45 minutes to an hour to spare, and feeling strong, so I figured I was good to go. Though it should have seemed far too fast to start out, I figured the slow inclines to come would use different muscles, and I would have to run as fast and hard as I could on those stretches that proved runnable. Then I hit the first major incline. Um, mountain rather. Wow.
It was going to be hard to keep a good walking pace up this, I thought. Under 5’2”, and much more practiced at running, I am a very slow walker. But I couldn’t run this.
At the last aid station, I had passed a woman, and we had chatted briefly. Now she caught up with me and we talked to the top of the mountain. With her holding the pace, we made good time. I introduced myself as Dani, and she said her name was Abi. Oh! I said, “You’re Abi!” She smiled. (There were only 67 women in the entire race, and only one Abi.) Abigail Meadows, that is. I had read about her. Abi races ultras competitively. She had pulled a hamstring the month before, so she was taking it easy today. But she wanted to finish this MMTR because it would be her 10th, and she would get a pretty sweet Patagonia jacket for finishing. This made me smile. Will run 50 miles in the mountains for a jacket. Hell, I was doing it for a tech shirt that claimed I finished. Sort of. Really, I was doing it for the bliss of the mountains and of running. And because I was there.
She told me a little about herself, and we found we shared histories in having grown up dirt poor in small coal towns in the rust belt of Appalachia. A tough life is its own reward, we decided.
She had been an Olympic kayaker before becoming an ultra runner, and she did fire and rescue for the Park Service for a living, which she loved. Her race schedule for the year lined her up for 22 ultras, and she was almost done. She had run Copper Canyon in March, which she said was great, and her next after the MMTR would be Hellgate. I smiled wistfully. Here was a woman living my dreams. And she had sponsors courting her for her running. I told her about my book, my own Hellgate, and we both agreed that writing often made running ultras feel easy. But the thing that really made her beam with pride was her children–her eight babies as she called them. She spoke mostly of the oldest, 16, who loved to run, and though she was careful about letting him run far distances at too young an age, he had just finished his first 100K, and she was quite proud. She talked of the youngest who is 7, and wants to be a climber.
When we crested the hill, I knew I would have to fly. I had to make up lost time at something I was strong at, and for me, that is flying down the hills.
So I told her I’d see here when she passed me later, smiled and promptly flew down the hill. I was on my own again.
I would meet several other runners this way. But for some long stretches, I was on my own with the mountains to experience that blissful state I’d hoped to catch up with again. And I did. The day was lovely. I thought of my mother who had lived in Lynchburg for several years. This very place, these mountains, and particularly the area around the start of the race, were quite special to her. On her deathbed, she told me of a place she had claimed for her own where she used to go and sit quietly and just be alone in the forest. She never said pray. It was the most important place on earth for her, and she wanted me to take her ashes there. I have searched for this place for years, but have never found it.
Before the race, I dreamt I found it during the race. I even considered taking her ashes along. But I knew it would be dark as we passed through that area, that I would be focused on the race, and that the chances were incredibly slim. But the specialness of finding myself in this place was not lost on me. II thought of her dying, how hard she had fought. She pushed and struggled to stay alive in ways I could only imagine, and when she took her last breath, her heart continued on as if it could alone sustain her. These mountains somewhere held her sacred place, and now I was here in a hightened state, a running state. Right then, I knew I would find it when the time was right.
It was pure coincidence that I happened to be running a race in this special place. Last year’s JFK 50 miler was my first official ultra, and a lot of the first leg is on stony trail (largely AT) that takes you up over a mountain. The rest is mostly flat, C&O tow path along the river, and some paved rolling hills of farmland at the end. After the race, I realized I had enjoyed the mountainous climb most of all. So I sought another race with more mountains. I looked for something recommended for newbies, with plenty of aid stations, and for something close to home.
Headquarted in Lynchburg, VA, a sub 4-hour drive from home, and in a part of the country I was at least familiar with, MMTR seemed like a good fit.
I read as much as I could about it. I asked around my corner of the ultra community for recommendations. Everything and everyone said give it a shot. So I registered. And then I worried. And started training early. Too many hill climbs too quickly and a tendon in my foot knocked me out for a good three weeks. I bounced back rather slowly.
The race proved to be a stresser of a goal for me. When I worried aloud to my husband, he offered me sage advice and insights only a person who has known me for so long and so well could have offered. He reminded me of my tendencies to worry needlessly over things. He reminded me how I always stress before a race. He told me that I was strong and in decent shape, that I could handle it, but also to remember that I had nothing to prove, and didn’t have to run it, and also that I could run part of it, and that there was no shame in dropping out. DNF is par for the course in any ultra runner’s history, because so many things have to come together to make a race that distance possible. Weather conditions and your health being the biggest, but also even tiny things can blow a race when you are going long: a blister can become a disturbing mess, a small sprain can become a major injury. Even a little chafing over a long enough period of time can take you out of a race, or at least reduce the experience to misery. When longer periods of time are involved, even tiny impedances wear like water on stone.
For this race, other than making the cut off times, I had two major worries. It had some pretty serious climbs late in the race. I knew from experience that my concentration waned after 40 miles, and I didn’t know how nimbly I could manage mountain trails at that distance. Also, there were several stream crossings that would undoubtedly soak my feet, and there were no quick opportunities for a change into dry shoes. So I wasn’t certain if blisters would be an issue. I had one drop bag at the half way point, so if I could make it for the first 26.9 miles, I could change shoes there if I had to. My shoes were relatively new, and I hadn’t had the opportunity to run over 20 miles in them wet, so I had to take my chances.
As it turned out, the stream crossings did soak my feet, but they stayed fairly warm, and blister free. I made all of the cut off times without a prob, and other than a brief stint with hyponatremia (fluid/sodium imbalance) at mile 43-44 that was corrected quickly with some sodium/potassium caps lent from a kindly and well experienced former tri coach, I raced problem-free.
I took it easy those last eight miles as I had enough time to walk the entire way and still make the cut off time. But as I started feeling better, I was able to pick up the pace. When I hit the final stretch of pavement running, and when I rounded the bend for the last quarter mile stretch, I decided to walk. Here I caught up with a couple of seasoned-looking fellows, one sporting military hair, who greeted me with smiles, and protested that with only a quarter mile to go, I couldn’t walk now. In fact, they said, I should run it with them. And if I didn’t they threatened, they’d carry me. I laughed, but it got me going, and I ran the last quarter mile with them. About an eighth in though, one of them jokingly said, “Well, this is the part where we sprint.”
Of course, I had a sprint left in me and ran the last 8th full tilt to crowd shouts, slapped my husband and then Clark Zealand five, crossed the finish, and David grabbed me and gave me a congratulatory bear hug, and said “You made it!” I’m not sure which of us was more surprised. Then he gave me hell for having too much energy at the end to sprint, as he has been known to do, expecting racers to give it their all until there’s nothing left at the end.
I never had the chance to explain to him that I always sprint the end. The sprint is not for me. It’s for everyone else. It is out of love and respect for my mother and her painful struggle, and for her yet unfulfilled dying wish of a final resting place. It is for everyone, my husband and the race planners and volunteers, who has stood around and waited in the cold for hours, for everyone who gave their precious time and energy to make the day possible, to take care of us runners so that we might run. We were all running this race together, after all. There are no lines separating us, no boundaries. Running makes them fall away.