I’d signed up for Mogollon Monster 100 almost on a dare to myself. My success at 100 mile races has been, well, not very successful, with a lot fewer finishes than I have starts. Things always fall apart in a 100 mile race, and I fall apart with them. I’m not the kinda guy who segues smooth as silk into plan B when plan A spirals clockwise down the toilet. This year had been marked by frustration, bad spills, and broken bones. It was not looking like I was gonna be the champion of anything. I’d quit my job, my relationship was sort of up in the air, I felt old and tired and ready to quit this running thing, so why not try my hand at one of the hardest 100 milers there is?
There wasn’t time to train physically, so I decided to focus on my weakest muscles, all of which happen to be located inside my head. How would I run Mogollon Monster if I was the Buddha? That was what I hoped I would figure out.
No crew, no pacers, just me and a few hastily packed dropbags. For no apparent reason, I was confident that I’d prepared myself for things to go wrong, and they did. Here’s how:
Let’s get this party started right
We took off along the Highline Trail from Pine, Arizona. After about 5 miles, the trail turned sharply, headed up to the top of the Mogollon Rim, a nasty, rocky, steep and exposed little the top. From there, a short romp and then a steep, nastier downhill into the first aid station at Geronimo, mile 12.
Coming down the hill I mistimed a jump over a downed tree and slashed my leg open, a long and bloody gash down the length of my thigh.
Geronimo to Washington Park
I came into Geronimo with my left leg bleeding heavily. I’m prone to falls and scrapes and disregard them, so I hadn’t really paid much attention to this one. The folks at the aid station did. As always, I declined medical attention. I always look in worse shape than I am. A couple of nurses were crewing a runner and insisted on working on my while I stood there filling water my bottles. They cleaned the cuts and then coated them with Squirrel Nut Butter.
The stretch between Geronimo and Washington Park is 12 miles along the Highline Trail, shared with the Zane Grey course. This would be the fourth time I’d run those 10 miles. They begin with a couple of miles of climbing and then things start to roll. The Highline Trail, which runs for 54 miles below the Rim, is pretty rough. There are a lot of rocks, and a few gorgeous sections of smooth red sandstone. For the most part, it’s exposed, but the heat and sun were mild.
Climb from Washington Park
The Mogollon Rim
The climb to the Rim from Washington Park was two miles long, on a very rocky jeep road. It started gently, but the last half mile was at about a 40% grade, sometimes more. That was slow going, and I thought to myself how little fun it would be on the way down.
There was a small aid station at the top of the climb. No aid really, just folks counting bibs and making sure everyone made it ok.
Houston Brothers aid station would be four miles away, almost all of it on a smooth gravel road, the kind I normally hate, but a nice break after all the rocks.
The race has been rerouted due to pair of fires that burned away much of the Highline Trail past Washington Park. The ascent to, descent from the Rim would be along the stretch I’d just climbed, two times up, and two times down, and then we’d run a pair of loops on the Rim that looked more-or-less like the hemispheres of the brain.
Houston Brothers was headed by Arizona runner Michael Miller. I’ve known Michael for a few years, and it was good to see him. He admired the severity of the gash on my leg. “Is it just a getting old thing?” he asked, marveling at how every one of my races seem to involve blood.
Eight miles from Houston Brothers to Pinchot Cabin, on beautiful and mostly runnable singletrack, right down the center between the two hemispheres of the Rim brain.
From Pinchot back to the edge of the rim was another seven miles of beautiful singletrack followed by a two mile descent to Washington Park on the same rocky stretch we took to get up. The first half mile was slow going on loose rocks at a 40+% grade. I did not scamper down.
A quick turn-around at Washington Park – grabbed some food and warm clothes and headed back up to the rim the way I’d just come down. The second climb up took a lot more out of me than the first did. From there, a repeat on fire-road to Houston Brothers.
The sun had just set, and the moon hadn’t risen. The fireroad skirts the edge of the rim. Down below in the distance I could see the lights of Pine, which is a small that hasn’t enough light bulbs to light up the sky, so up above, the Milky Way was plainly visible. For us LA people, living in a brightly lit city of 13 million plus people, expanding in every direction under a shroud of smog and marine layer, seeing the Milky Way is a rare thrill. I turned my headlamp off so that I could better see the stars. Midway through a pretty brutal race, and enough things had gone wrong already, but this was beautiful. I was kind of thrilled that there had been no moments of mental derailment, and that combined with the stars was more than enough for me to be actually enjoying myself.
View from the Mogollon Rim
At Houston Brothers I noticed my fingers were puffy. I thought it might have something to do with electrolytes, but I couldn’t remember what. The only sports drink at the aid stations was gatorade, which I kind of love but isn’t scientifically proven to do much for you except get you fat. It’s basically a soft drink without any fizz: just a bunch of high fructose corn syrup and no electrolytes. I’d been taking salt pills every now and then. I’d been drinking a lot of water, too. I’d been taking down gels, but those were tasting pretty disgusting at the moment. I’d been peeing well, but hadn’t pissed in a few hours.
While I sat trying to process my nutritional strategy, I downed a few bowls of salty broth, and then headed back out.
Less than two miles later, I stopped to piss. About a mile further, I stopped to piss again. I came upon a couple of runners. I could pass them, but first I needed to piss. By the time I got to Buck Springs, I’d pissed eight times. My fingers were no longer puffy. The salty broth turned out to be miraculous.
Outhouse on the Rim
The trail was so incredibly well marked that it was impossible to get lost. Every intersection was be clearly marked, and there would be warnings ahead of the junction to let you know to pay attention.
From Buck Springs, we went to Pinchot Cabin for the second time, and from Pinchot back to Houston Brothers the way we’d come. There were warnings not to skip Houston Brothers, and these warnings confused me because I didn’t think skipping Houston Brothers would be possible. I was pretty sure the critical intersection would be just at the bottom of this hill. No? Ok, I guess it must be this hill…No? WTF. I started to wonder if I had somehow missed the intersection. Finally I saw it. I was tired. I read the signs carefully. Go straight for Houston Brothers, or turn left for Buck Springs. Just in case there was any question, mile 72 was marked as straight. I was heading to mile 72. I headed straight.
Just in case this next section is as confusing to read as it was to run, let me explain that there was Houston Brothers aid station, and then there were the Houston Brothers – two brothers from Houston, one of them racing, the other pacing.
I remembered that we had about a two mile downhill from Houston Brothers aid station to this intersection, which means in reverse I should go up. And yet I was heading down from this intersection to Houston Brothers. This did not seem right. I turned around and headed back. After half a mile or so I became convinced I’d been going in the right direction and turned around. After three quarters of a mile I became convinced I was going in the wrong direction and turned around again. This went on for a while, going back and forth and back again and forth again and back once more on the same half-to-three-quarters-of-a-mile stretch of trail until finally I spotted the Houston Brothers who shouted that I was on the right trail.
Thinking I was lost ended up costing me a few miles and about an hour of time. Whatever I’d gained on the cut-offs, I lost half of it going back and forth on the trail to Houston Brothers aid station. This is the sort of frustration that might once have derailed a race. This time I surprised myself by just dealing with it.
View from the Mogollon Rim
Descent to Washington Park
Geronimo Number 2: Mile 88
Geronimo 2 was bleak. The aid station had been open for nearly 30 hours. Everything was covered in bees. The people working it were miserable, and they couldn’t leave any food or drink out because the bees would swarm all over it. There were only a handful of runners left on the course who had a chance of finishing, and a handful more in desperate shape who needed to be found and evacuated, including runner #36, who I’d seen about 4 miles back, leaning heavily to his right, balance unsteady.
“You alright?” I asked as I passed.
He nodded, glassy eyed, without much conviction. I’m not sure he understood what I’d asked him.
Most of the folks left at Geronimo were Medical Staff, and they all asked me, one after another, if I had seen #36 and how far back was he.
“He’s in bad shape. You guys better go fetch him.”
The one remaining aid station worker was miserable. The bees were frightening her and she wanted nothing more than to leave. We still had an hour before the cut-off, but the race could not end soon enough for her. It couldn’t end soon enough for me either, but at least I’d get some glory out of it. She would be doing well if she could avoid being stung. I didn’t blame her for wanting to leave. I wanted to leave too.
The problem was I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue. Up next was a miserable climb. I did the math in my head, and the cut-offs didn’t seem possible. “You need to listen to what your body tells you,” said one of the Medical people, in passing. But all my body was telling me was that it was really tired. It was my mind that was telling me I was done; my body said it could keep going but don’t expect much speed. Another medical volunteer wanted to work on my leg. Bugs were collecting on the bloody gash.
I sat in the chair and watched the bees swarm around the miserable girl. To my left was a runner working on his calf with a roller. Stanford was his name. He was determined to continue if he could just get the cramps to stop.
The Houston Brothers came through. Dalton, the runner, called out that 88 miles was too far into the race to quit.
I decided Dalton was right. There was no way I could spend any more time at Geronimo 2 without feeling miserable. It made sense that I was exhausted; I’d been up for 30 hours and 90 plus miles on these rocky trails. If I was going to time out, I should do it on my feet. Nobody at this aid station was going to give me any encouragement.
Highline Trail Red Rocks
1974 Dodge Dart Swinger
I had a dented up 1974 Dodge Dart Swinger I’d paid $300 for in 2003, when my other car got stolen. It ran great until you hit a hill. On hills I’d drop it into low gear and it would crawl, slowly and getting slower, to the top. I always doubted it was gonna make it. If I had to visit my girlfriend who lived at the top of the hill on Echo Park Avenue, I would park down near the Pioneer Market and call her to pick me up. I smoked a pack a day back then and wasn’t gonna walk that last mile uphill.
I felt like both the old me and my old car as I started that last climb. I managed to pass Laura and the Houston Brothers, but things were starting to get steep. After a while, I had to take a seat on a log. Laura and the Houston Brothers passed me. It was a rocky climb, lots of switchbacks, all shaded, one-and-a-half miles, and the grade was somewhere around 40%. There were times I’d stumble and other times I’d swoon. When things would level out for short sections, I’d try to hustle to not fall far behind, and then rest again when the steepness hit. There was no sign of Stanford; I guess he’d turned around. The final water-stop aid station was not that much further. I had plenty of time, and the trail was shaded and beautiful, even if every step hurt. I did not look so pretty when I finally got to the top.
1973 Dodge Dart Swinger
The Last Few Miles.
The last few miles of a 100 mile race are always a little confusing if I’m at all familiar with the course. Time and distance stretch and contract. Everything is familiar but not exactly where it’s supposed to be. Sometimes it’s miles off. The smooth sailing is always just around that corner until you turn the corner and realize it’s around the next one, and when you get there it’s around the next one still. This can get a little disheartening unless you’re used it, and while I don’t have that many 100 mile finishes, I’ve become used to it.
Laura’s boyfriend’s father met up with us somewhere on the trail. We’d been going down on a rocky trail, and then we went down a steeper, rockier trail, and then it got gradual and rocky, and I was sure the smooth sailing last mile or two was just a hundred yards away, but it never was.
“Boy, are we glad to see you!” exclaimed one of the volunteers when I finally hit the Pine trailhead parking lot. I wasn’t really sure what he meant by that but apparently they were so busy trying to rescue #36 that nobody noticed until a little while later that I was gone. Or maybe they were just happy that the last few runners were showing up and they could all head home. It had been a long day for me, and I am sure it had been an even longer day for the volunteers.
A few miles of road into Pine and it was done.
There was a point where the last climb to the top of the rim started getting gentler. My legs had made it. There were only six or seven or maybe eight miles left to go. I had plenty of time. I was going to finish. When I hit that spot, I was the last of us left on the course, but I didn’t really care, and everyone else was still within sight down a short stretch of fireroad. I was tired. I was enormously relieved, but the relief was tempered knowing there were still maybe six, maybe seven, maybe eight miles to do – I really wasn’t clear. I’d started the race knowing I could finish, but I’d started all except my first hundred miler knowing I could finish, and I hadn’t finished more often than I had. That means I’d started this race knowing the odds were better that I’d fail, again.
It was nice having that monkey off my back. It felt nicer as we approached hit the top of the rocky downhill, nicer still when we reached the bottom, even nicer when I knew the Pine trailhead was in sight, but there was also a sort of matter-of-factness about knowing I would finally finish another race, because aside from Western States there’d never really been a good reason for me not to, and even Western States was probably the result of bad tactics and worse decisions in the first half of the race.
It wasn’t until I was back at the motel, after dinner with the Boulder crew, legs in pain, buckle in hand, that it started to sink in. Failure at work, failure in running, a relationship that had frayed badly at the edges and was probably coming apart, and that general sense of all around complete defeat that is at the heart of depression…here in Payson was a little glimmer of hope, a modest success at something not really so modest at all. Even though I knew it was possible as long as I didn’t get in my own way, I hadn’t really expected to break my losing streak. I was surprised.
The next morning I drove up to Durango to meet Andrea, who was finishing her 500 mile thru-hike of the Colorado Trail. She’d been looking for something within herself since before I’d met her. It was apparent from the start that our relationship would be a stage in that process; it had recently become apparent that that stage was drawing to a close. Whether or not I was gonna be a part of the next stage was not so clear to either of us. This was just one of the questions for which she was seeking answers on the Colorado Trail.
Andrea finishes the Colorado Trail
10pm on Thursday. The race ended 5 days ago. The hike ended 4 days ago. The apartment is an explosion of drop bags and hiking gear. We got home Tuesday night. Today we took a short hike in the front range. It’s the first day of autumn. There’s a bit of that post-race/post-thing depression, that quiet what next? funk we get into after accomplishing something big.
My legs are sore. It rained today. The leaves are falling and the smells are thick in the little canyon that ends at Millard Falls. Deep breaths of air are a sensual pleasure.