The Breaking Point
Mile 78 of the 2018 High Lonesome 100 Miler
My body is spent. Every footstep squeezes the converging blisters on my feet. Every step shoots pain through the torn fibers of my quads. Every push with my trekking poles sears through my back. Every uphill taxes my lungs until I wheeze. Every downhill feels like my quads are being burned in acid.
My mind is spent. It’s been 26 hours since I started moving; 26 hours since I last stopped. Deep thought has left me long ago. Simple math abandoned me as the first sun set. Determination got me here, but it too is fading now.
20 more miles to go. An impossible task. I simply cannot go one mile, much less twenty. The enormity of the task ahead overwhelms me.
I sit down on the trail and try to cry; my body fights me, rejecting the energy and hydration cost of tears. I yearn for sleep, for rest, for a respite from the pain. I stare at the ground. I’m afraid to look at my pacer, my hero. I’ve failed her. I’ve failed my brother. I’ve failed myself.
How did I get here?
Nearly eleven years ago, my brother died in a car accident. His name was Samuel James Eisen. He lived for 18 years. He was friendly, passionate, and smart.
When it happened, I broke. I couldn’t handle the loss. I couldn’t reconcile what my life meant anymore. I buried my loss deep within me. I abandoned my family because they reminded me of him. I abandoned his memory because of the pain it caused. Any reminder of him would bring me to tears. And yet, I thought I was fine. I thought this was normal. I thought the pain would haunt me for the rest of my days.
Nine years later, in the middle of the forest in Oregon, I saw something spectacular. Something that made me think there was a way to overcome this pain.
Mile 50 Aid Station of the 2016 Pine to Palm 100
I’ve been invited to crew my friend, CC, on her first attempt at a 100-mile ultra marathon, the Pine to Palm 100 in Ashland, OR. I was unsure of how well CC would fare. I’ve never seen or done an ultramarathon. Although she was an experienced ultra runner, I only knew her mostly from our weekly group trail runs and post-run drinks.
The early part of the race was going well. CC looked great, even when other runners were suffering from the heat. All that came apart at mile 46. I overheard a runner telling the aid station captain that there’s a woman passed out, 4 miles up the trail. Reports kept coming in from runner after runner. Apparently, two fellow participants were helping CC regain consciousness, treating her immediate needs for water and salt. Our crew immediately decided to run backwards on the trail to her.
We made it a half mile out when CC came jogging up with an older man flanking her. We escorted them into the aid station. All eyes were on CC. So many people are helping her; I took a step back from the commotion to think about what’s happening. She’s going to drop from the race. We’ll need to get a hotel room somewhere. She’ll be incredibly disappointed. I’m not sure if she’s ever quit on anything before in her life.
After what seemed like an eternity, she finally spoke, “How far to the next aid station?”
My jaw dropped. I simply couldn’t conceive of the reality in which she lived in. Continuing this race now would be suicide. It’s a safety issue. Surely her husband or the aid station captain will step in. Neither did.
CC stood up and jogged out of the aid station, with hard cutoffs at mile 67 looming. She had a 3000+ foot climb in the darkness alone ahead of her. Somehow, she pushed through, beating the cutoffs, and eventually finishing the race.
I was in awe of this determination I couldn’t comprehend. She overcame severe pain and anguish to accomplish her goal. It was an incredible thing to witness. She immediately became my hero in my mind.
I’ll never forget what I saw on that fateful night in Oregon. CC’s body and mind broke; she had a brush with death, only to get up and run. I saw pure determination.
Something clicked inside me. I needed to find that determination myself. Sam’s death had broken me. After seeing what CC did, I saw a way to fix myself. If I can find that pure determination within myself, I can use it to help me find peace. My journey to 100 miles had just started.
I ran the 2017 Quad Rock 50 Miler as my first ultra marathon. I found difficulty and pain in that race, but not the determination I remembered. I needed a longer race. I signed up for 2018 High Lonesome 100 Miler, a high-elevation romp through the Sewatch Range of Colorado, easily more than twice as hard as Quad Rock.
I started training for the race in January of 2018. With 7 months until the race, I had a lot of work ahead of me to get ready. I ran hard. I ran up a 13,000+ ft mountain nearly every week once the snows melted. I spent every weekend day out on the trails. Eight to ten hour days spent just running, hiking, and healing.
Throughout this time, I worked hard with my therapist to process Sam’s death, determined to come to terms with the loss at last. The efforts worked in tandem. Training runs helped me work through my feelings, and therapy helped me find motivation to run. Through all this work, I finally found some measure of peace with Sam. I mended my relationship with my parents. Now, with my mind at peace, it was time to run the race.
Mile 78 of the 2018 High Lonesome 100 Miler
Finally, I look up at CC. She coaxes me into standing up and walking. She pushes me forward. I continue to try to cry. For the first time in 26 hours, I don’t know if I will be able to finish this race.
I’m getting sleepy from the adrenaline crash of my episode. I’m drowsy as my eyes are slowly shutting. I need to find energy.
I close my eyes and try to remember why I’m here. I think of CC’s determination. I think of Sam’s loving eyes. I think of my goal of peace.
And in that moment, I found my determination, my will to continue. I have my friends around me, my brother in my mind, my parents waiting by the phone. They motivate me to keep going. A tear runs down my face. Not one of pain or suffering, but of happiness.
I can do this. I control my body. I control my mind. I don’t need sleep. I can overcome pain. I will finish this race.
I hike the next 20 miles in 8 hours, finishing the race in 34:31.
I pushed through it all to accomplish my goal. And somewhere out on that course, I left my pain behind.