Last fall my friend Mike Foote asked me if I wanted to do his race. He said, "It’s going to be really hard."
Mike Foote is one of the best and toughest ultra runners in the country. When he says "really hard" you know he’s not messing around.
I made an uncharacteristically sane decision and said no. Then he asked if I wanted to work at an aid station. It took me a nanosecond to say yes.
In its second year, The Rut 50K attracted 500 of the top runners in the world to Big Sky resort in Montana. It was the finale of the World Skyrunning series. For the second year, I spent the day working the aid station at the summit of Lone Peak, essentially a big pile of rocks at 11,000 feet.
Anyone who’s ever done a hard trail race knows that the experience depends on the kindness of volunteers who are willing to give up their time, energy, comfort, and often warmth, to help runners. When I signed on to work the second edition of the race, I told Mike I wanted to be in charge of the aid station. I have ideas about how these things should go.
Fans of this niche sport would, I knew, be thrilled to see the rock stars like Killian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg. But I wanted those runners who were struggling at the back of the pack to be treated like elites as well. I assembled a team of people who made sure that no one had to refill his or her own water bottle and that each runner was greeted like royalty after running 20 hard miles.
After the last runners came through, I still needed to get my Virtual 10 on 10 Run in so I’d decided to run the last third of the course.
It took me 3:18 to run 11.4 miles. According to my GPS watch I started at 11,028 feet, went up 2,055 and down 5,549. My pace for the first two miles was 28 minutes. Each mile. It was like running on dinner plates that slipped and slid and sometimes jumped up behind you and hit you on the calves, butt, or head. As hard as it was, I kept telling myself that the runners in the 50K had to tackle this terrain after they’d already run 20 unimaginably hard miles.
I caught up to the folks who were dead last in the 50K. First a guy from San Diego who was, not surprisingly, struggling with the elevation of these big Montana mountains. Then I passed two big, strong, athletic, and hot (by the way, all men who run ultras are hot—it’s one of the pleasures of the sport) from nearby Bozeman. I told them they had 45 minutes to go 2.2 miles to get to the next aid station before the cut off.
On a crazy steep uphill where there were ropes for safety I caught up to Shannon, a civil engineering and environmental studies major from Montana State University. She said she was done. I told her she was wrong. She was moving strongly and she could do it. After that, she picked up the pace and made it to the next aid station fifteen minutes before the cut off. She pointed out geological features of the terrain for the few miles we ran together.
A guy named Dave was wearing a tee shirt from the Missoula Marathon, my favorite race. I had led the 4:10 pace group there in July. We knew people in common. Montana is a small town. On a nice downhill I met Christian from Atlanta and asked him if he’d ever done the races in Virginia directed by legendary badass, David Horton. We talked about the Mountain Masochist 50 miler and joked that it wasn’t nearly as hard as The Rut 50K. The sport of ultrarunning is a village. Nine miles into my run, 29 miles into his, I fell. Christian helped me up and told me that he was running with a paralyzed diaphragm. He’d gotten amoebic dysentery at a 100K in Nicaragua in 2012 and still didn’t have full lung capacity.
In the last mile I caught Joel. He had done the race the year before, when the weather was terrible but the course was easier. He’d trained all year to better his time but his knees hadn’t cooperated. He was disappointed. I told him what they say in endurance horse riding: to finish is to win. Sometimes it’s important to remember that.
When I met up with Tomas from Pittsburgh I asked him how he’d heard about the race. He said read about it in Trail Runner magazine. I said, "Hey, I wrote that piece." It had come out in April. The race was in September. He said, "Yeah, I got in off the waiting list in August. Didn’t have a whole lot of time to train.” At the end, after I watched him finish, he told me that when I’d caught him he was ready to quit. My words of encouragement got him to the finish line. He couldn’t have done it without me, he said.
I know that’s not true. I’ve led pace groups at many marathons, and have accompanied a number of runners during the last 20-40 miles of 100 mile races and what I know is this: they could of course do it on their own. I also know that something that’s easy for me to give—words of encouragement, help with a water bottle, a bunch of lies ("You look great!" "You can do it!")—can be of incalculable aid.
A number of years ago I accepted that I was never going to get any faster. That’s the reality of running and of aging. The first time I paced someone at a marathon I learned the cliché that all students who are forced to do community service understand: it feels great to help others.
As a writer, I think the word "multitask" is ugly, but on September 13 I was able to accomplish a whole bunch of things at once: I spent the morning working with friends to offer aid to runners of The Rut 50K; I got to run beside a half dozen folks who’d already been out there for 10 or 11 hours on one of the toughest courses in the country; and I got to run my Virtual 10 on 10 to celebrate the anniversary of my favorite item of sports apparel.
As hard as my Virtual 10 on 10 Run was—and believe me, it was a hard run—I kept in mind my mantra: This is what we do for fun.
At this point, I no longer have goals for my own races. What I want to do now is help get others to the finish line. And to the start.