Butterflies in the Woods

Let’s set the stage. I’m on an out-and-back section of Niwot’s Challenge, a mere 4 hours into the race. Niwot’s is inspired from the Barkley Marathons, completing it requires collecting pages from books stashed deep in the woods. My sling containing my maps and two book pages was ripped off in thick scrub oak, and I’ve lost them.


First thought: Sherpa John (the Race Director) will disqualify me for losing my maps. I’ll be forced to end my day early. Well, I might as well go get pages from the books to prove I did the section.

Realizing (falsely) that I'll be disqualified.
Realizing (falsely) that I'll be disqualified.

I acquire pages from books 2 and 3. All that’s left is navigating back to book 1 and descending to camp. This is not as easy as it sounds. The group of veterans has dropped me, I’m alone. I’ve lost my map. I know I have to turn left off this forest road, but beyond that, how will I navigate the 3 miles up and down multiple ridge lines without a view of the mountain in the distance? I remember one thing: the compass bearing we used to navigate to book 2 from book 1. So I reversed the bearing and hiked. Up a 1500ft ridge, down a 1000ft ridge, back up. Am I going the right way? I don’t recognize the terrain. I must be off course to the north, no wait, to the south, I don’t know. Just keep hiking on the bearing. Check the bearing again. Still on it. What was the original bearing? I don’t remember now…

Thick scrub oak covered the course.
Thick scrub oak covered the course.

After two hours of hiking on this bearing, the destination mountain comes into view. sigh

At this point, I’m defeated by my own mind. I know I’ll be disqualified. I sit down and admire the view 500ft shy of the summit. At Niwot’s, everyone chooses a spirit animal; mine is the butterfly. As if by fate, a butterfly flies around me. As it flaps around me, I reflect on my journey, my life, why I’m here, why I keep going, even when the outlook is bleak. I’m a late bloomer, but I do bloom.

I stand up and hike the peak, grab the book, and head down to camp. Sherpa just laughs at my plight, “You’re the perfect virgin.” I deserve it. But, he doesn’t disqualify me, which means I can continue. With how hard I’ve worked to become the man I am, this means I have to. I do a full 180 from I’m getting disqualified to I’ve got to catch up with the group. But, thanks to my lack of maps and deteriorating mood, I’m a full hour behind the group of veterans I started with. I’ll never catch up to them. Bob rushes myself out of camp after refilling liquids, eating a bit, and grabbing my backup maps. I head out for the “easy” loop of the course.

I’m battling dehydration as I climb the long trail section. I could easily run much of this section, but I can’t seem to find the energy. I keep drinking water, knowing I’ll eventually recover. One step in front of the other. Hours later, I grab book 1 of the loop with solid navigation. The air cools off by about 10 degrees as the clouds get thicker. I start to feel a lot better; I kicked the dehydration! In front of me, there’s a long off-trail descent. I start to run, it feels easy. I hit book 2 easily. I continue to push pace on the difficult terrain. Book 3 eventually falls too. Navigating back to the trail comes easily. As I descend back to camp, I’m feeling lightyears better than when I was climbing this same trail four hours ago.

Many miles alone on the Burn loop.
Many miles alone on the Burn loop.

I consider my prospects of going out on the final (and extremely long and hard) loop of Niwot’s. It will occur overnight, and I’ve never been out on the course. I might be able to find one or two books, but I have no chance of completing the race without a group of veterans. The group I want to catch up to is an easy hour ahead of me. I’ll probably see them running out of camp as I come in. No way I’ll catch them.

I roll into camp at 6:15 or so, 12+ hours after we started this morning. I’m stunned to see the group that I started with still in camp. I don’t even register what has happened. Somehow, someway, I caught up to them. They are getting ready to head out on the final loop.

I won’t be able to catch them. I have to eat and change and pack. Most people take 30 minutes to an hour in camp between the day loops and the night loop. I’m dead tired. My feet are destroyed. I need calories. I want to drink a beer. I want to see my girlfriend. I can’t get ready in time…

I sit down and accept defeat. Bob, once more, encourages me to get my ass out of camp and catch them, “You have maybe 10 minutes.” Somehow, I find the energy to stand. I walk to my car. I tell Fawn, my girlfriend, “Put this food in my bag, get out my clothes, fill my reservoir with water, my gbottle with Coke.” I chomp down a burger and pickle, chug a latte, change clothes, and run out of camp with barely a goodbye. I turned around the aid station in a mere 12 minutes. I’m not even thinking. I just run. I sprinted down the road and up the trail until I caught up with the group.

Finally back with the group! Michael peeing in front of me.
Finally back with the group! Michael peeing in front of me.

My buddy says, “how the fuck did you catch up?” Another runner starts calling me the “Rizzuh”. Sherpa will eventually call my Chief One Bearing. Me, I’m just a butterfly: it takes a bit of time for me to emerge.

Maybe thats why I’m out here. Maybe I’m trying to find the point where I can truly open up my abilities. I’m not the most consistent, but I’ve got a comeback or two in me.

15 hours later (that’s another story), we ran into camp, six-abreast: conquerors, friends, Chiefs.

I’ll be back.

I can’t thank my old and new friends out there on Niwot’s enough: Sherpa, Bob, Bill, Michael, Conan, Alan, John, Miguel, and Brandt. I would have never finished without their support, navigation, constant chitchatting, Sasquatch sightings, headlamp borrowing, aid station hurrying, and silent encouragement.

(all-posts)