Mourning My Father With Ultra-Long-Distance Running
A funny thing happens after you’ve been running long distances for a while. You begin to lose perspective. It happens so gradually that you barely notice, until the day when 12 miles seems like a “short” run. When a couple thousand vertical feet of gradual uphill running spread over 15 miles is “pretty flat.”
It’s human nature to adapt, to keep moving the mark and pushing your own thin edge. Whatever you do regularly becomes routine, no matter how extreme it may appear. Ultrarunning — any distance greater than a traditional 26.2-mile marathon — is no different. In the winter of 2014, I’d been running ultramarathons for two years. I’d run and won 50-kilometer and 50-mile races. So it made sense to try making the leap to 100 kilometers.
And at the same time, it made no sense at all.
I never set out to be an ultrarunner. A million steps along a crooked path led me here. It was impossible to trace my unlikely journey back to a single moment. Was it when I was three years old and sprinted headfirst into a tree, got up, laughed, and kept going? Or when I was seven and ran my first 10K race, or when I was 15 and jogged out my back door to the beat of INXS blaring through my yellow Sony Sports Walkman? Or was it in 2006, when I accidentally ran my first marathon while interviewing the ultrarunning legend Dean Karnazes? Or that terrible December night in 2010, when my father died of cancer, three months after my second daughter was born and less than 10 weeks after doctors discovered a tumor the size of a fist on his left kidney?
In the aftermath of Dad’s death, running was not a logical decision; it was triage. He’d been my kindred spirit, a National Geographic photographer who taught me to find inspiration and solace in nature. Now that Dad was gone, I understood for the first time that I would die too. Consumed by grief and almost immobilizing anxiety, half-delirious from sleep deprivation with a toddler and a newborn at home, I needed to prove to myself that I was still alive, to find my way back to the fearless girl I’d once been. Running long distances alone through the mountains scared me, but dying scared me more.
One hundred kilometers is 62 miles. I almost don’t want to say it out loud. The distance sounds absurd, obscene even. I start training slow and low, like always. Eight miles on my first long day. Then 10, then 12. There’s magic to crossing the 20-mile mark. Under 20 miles, I run from my calculating brain: How fast can I go? How soon can I be done? But once I’m on the other side, the distance teaches me patience. It’s too far and too long to be in a hurry. There are so many uncertainties, so many hours on my feet, that I have no choice but to surrender to the run. I worry less. I run a little bit faster and a little bit farther each week. The few extra pounds I always gain over the holidays melt away. The callouses on my feet grow thicker. I know there will be off days, but I’m learning to run with all of it: the insane nagging fears, the egotistical glory dreams, the dull soreness in my left ankle, the hum in my heart, the ache of losing Dad, the old nudge of him daring me to do the unexpected.
When I run, I long for my children. The yearning comes over me when I am absorbed by the effort, at 12,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near our home in Santa Fe, high above the tree line, hours from a trailhead. It comes over me even when I crave solitude and time to think, or not think, after I’ve rewritten stories in my head and felt the ideas emerge and when I have crossed over into stillness, empty of thoughts. Sometimes it’s a lonesome feeling, but it’s hardly ever sad: I have daughters at home. Knowing this is what pulls me through the lows at mile nine, 17, or 35. It’s what anchors me to the endeavor and helps me go the whole way.
The last time I saw Dad healthy, it was November, a year before he died. He and my stepmother and my sister and her family flew to Santa Fe to spend Thanksgiving with us. I was three weeks pregnant, and my younger daughter, Maisy, was a pinto bean worming queasily around inside me. The day after Thanksgiving, we drove out to the cliff dwellings at Bandelier. Dad wore his blue jeans and red down vest and held my older daughter Pippa’s hand, walking slowly as they searched for broken bits of 800-year-old pottery. Once you saw one, you saw hundreds. Shards littered the ground, with faded black and ocher designs. We turned them over in our hands and then put them back where we’d found them.
The year after Dad died, I was cleaning out our freezer when I found a container of frozen cranberries left over from that Thanksgiving. As I poured the whole hardened chunk of them into the garbage disposal, it dawned on me that Dad had eaten those very cranberries with a turkey we’d bought at the farmers’ market. I wanted the cranberries back. I felt like I was throwing away Dad’s tongue or his taste buds, some part of him that had stayed too long in a freezer-burned Tupperware, ignored. The sadness that came over me as I watched the last reddish bits disappear down the drain was so complete, it seemed to contain everything: love, fear, rage, regret, disappointment, tenderness, shame, surprise, anguish, even awe. Grief is all of these things and more; a big, messy wad of emotion. It is beyond category, as fathomless as desire, as luminous as joy. It will break your heart and fill it up again.
The Angel Fire ultra is a small, local event, with only a hundred people registered in four distances: 50K, 50 miles, 100K, and 100 miles. Held at the Angel Fire ski resort, east of Taos, it won’t be an especially competitive race, and I feel no pressure to perform. I’m not even especially concerned about my time. It’s a new distance for me, my longest yet, and I just want to finish.
For the first time, Pippa and Maisy have come with us to see the whole race. For two years, I’ve been trying to keep my two lives — running and mothering — separate. I didn’t want my running to define our family life. I’d go off alone while the girls were at school, and when we came back together I could give them all of me, because I’d just given everything to the run. Balancing the two balanced me. As much as I loved and craved trail running, coming home was still the best part of every run.
I tried to run free of ego and competitive zeal.
But as I trained for the 100K, my worlds diverged even more. The farther I ran, the more seriously I trained, the more I missed them and the more my running suffered. By separating the two, I’d given myself too much time and space to think about running. The more I fretted, the more distracted and impatient I was at home and the more exasperated my husband, Steve, became.
“Remember, it’s just a race,” he’d say, and I’d nod, chastened, and lace up my sneakers anyway and ease guiltily out the door. Steve never once told me not to go, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was running through our daughters’ childhoods, and my marriage, missing out on the best of them.
On the two-hour drive to Angel Fire, Pippa and Maisy sang, “This is an annoying song! This is an annoying song!” over and over. It was annoying — so annoying that it distracted me from the inconceivable, horrifying prospect of running 100 kilometers. In the hotel room after dinner, they jumped like maniacs between the beds while I filled my hydration pack and pinned my number to my running skirt. When we turned off the light at 9:30, they lay in their bed chattering while I shoved earplugs into my ears and prayed for them to go to sleep so — please, God — I might do the same before my alarm went off at 4 a.m.
At 5 a.m. on June 21, the longest day of the year, the night is still black, save for a faint, hopeful brightening behind the ski mountain. But 20 minutes into the race, I’ve clicked off my headlamp and am jogging through the first light of the first day of summer. Unlike in previous ultras, I feel none of the loneliness that often overtakes me when I realize how far I have to go, all on my own.
The 100K course consists of a sequence of two separate, repeating routes. One is a rolling 10K loop that I will run four times, and the other a 19-mile climb up and over the ski mountain that I will complete twice. At the end of every section, I will pass through the base area aid station, where I’ve stashed a drop bag crammed with gels and bars, a rain jacket in case it storms, salt tabs, and extra socks — most of which I know I won’t ever touch. Drop bags are a safety net. You want to cover all possible contingencies — blisters, sour stomach, lightning, and hail — but hope you won’t need any of them. It’s here that Steve and the girls plan to greet me every few hours.
In the first six miles, I deliberately hold back. I let other runners, and other women, take off in front of me. All four races start together, and it’s hard to tell who’s racing my distance. The ambiguity works in my favor: I have no urge to push my place in the pack, since it may not be my pack I’m pushing.
This was my plan going in: to be calm off the start, because 62 miles is so far that anything can happen at any point. But mostly because I want to see if it’s possible to race simply to run, not to win. And if I run this way, will I win?
My last race, a 50-miler in California, had been a disappointment. I’d gone out too fast, gotten dehydrated, and barely hung on for the last 25 miles. I’d been running for the wrong reasons — to prove myself to myself and to others, not for the rush of happiness and well-being I always feel when I’m on the trails. For me, running has never been about time or speed or results. Its benefits are deeply personal, beyond measure, sometimes even explanation. Running is how I feel at home in myself and in the world.
The California race left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth, and for months I worried that I’d let my stupid pride ruin my love of running. In his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the Japanese novelist and marathoner Haruki Murakami calls the letdown after a race “runner’s blues fog.” I called it runner’s block, and all spring while training for Angel Fire, I tried different methods to break it. I tried to run free of ego and competitive zeal. I tried to run for joy and flow, with humility and confidence. Now that I’m here, though, I want to empty myself of all expectations — good and bad — and run for nothing.
In Zen Buddhism, ridding yourself of preconceived notions and habits is called emptiness. You open yourself to all possibilities, without getting attached to any. My friend Natalie Goldberg had explained this to me a few months earlier. Natalie is in her early seventies and wrote the bestselling book Writing Down the Bones, about how principles of Zen meditation also apply to creative writing. I’d met Nat by chance the fall my father was dying, and we hiked together almost every week. Though we seldom spoke of it outright, I had a hunch that Zen and running were the same thing too.
The day Natalie told me about emptiness, I pictured a whole universe with nothing in it, an empty home, all the furniture gone. The dog, too. It didn’t sound very nice. It sounded lonely.
“Is emptiness a good thing?” I asked her.
“Oh, absolutely,” she said. “It is it.”
The trail to the top of Angel Fire Resort climbs through a fir and aspen forest, switchbacking so often that the pitch is never onerous, almost pleasant. The last half-mile, however, is so steep and gravelly that I have to walk. That’s when I notice that runners ahead of me are pointing and shouting at something. It’s a bear. Black and shaggy and huge. A hundred yards away, maybe less, so busy chomping bushes that it doesn’t even raise its head.
I’d always hoped that running would make me a better mother, but now I know that being a mother makes me a better runner.
The course follows a rough dirt road all the way down the other side of the mountain. The aid station at the turnaround is a beat-up VW bus with its pop-top up. An older man with a broad smile hands me a salty boiled potato on a toothpick. I pop it in, swig some Gatorade from a cup, and am gone. My legs are made of wind, and I sail back up the way I came.
This is how it goes all day: up and down and all around. I thought the course might grow tedious with its repetition, but surprisingly, I like covering the same ground over and over; I like knowing what’s around the bend, how steep the next hill is, when to conserve energy and when to charge. And most of all, I like knowing that Steve and the girls are nearby. Sometimes they’re waiting for me in the base area, cheering me through M&M-smeared mouths. Sometimes they’re not, and I worry: Have they gotten lost? Did they crash their bikes and get hurt? But I know myself well enough by now that it would be weird if I didn’t worry. Maybe, finally, I have made friends with my fear.
When I come through the aid station for the last time, Pippa and Maisy are waving signs: GO MOMMY! KATIE, KATIE! and below that, my age, with an extra zero: 402. I laugh weakly through my fatigue. Eleven hours into the race, with six miles still to go, I feel that ancient.
I’ve been maintaining a moderate tempo all day, consciously holding back to make sure I have enough energy for the end. Nothing hurts all that much, but I’m just really, really tired.
“I’m so ready to be done,” I whimper to Steve, who’s running the last 12 miles with me as my pacer while a friend stays with the girls.
“Do you want to walk?” he asks.
For the first time all day, I start running flat out, my legs turning as though it’s mile one, not 61, racing through the final turns on the dirt road, then onto pavement. The finish line is nearly abandoned. No music pumping through the loudspeaker, no runners eating hamburgers or swilling beer, just a handful of volunteers settling in for the long haul. The 50K and 50-mile races have been over for hours; the 100-mile runners still have 10 hours or more to go. I’m the first runner across the line in the 100K. I’ve won it outright, in 12 hours and 14 minutes.
I’d stepped out of my own way, one foot in front of the other, for many miles and many hours. I didn’t have transcendent highs, but nor did I have wrecking lows. In this way it wasn’t a spectacular race, which made it, in its own way, sort of spectacular.
I’d always hoped that running would make me a better mother, but now I know that being a mother makes me a better runner. I wasn’t running from nothingness after all, but fullness, where all possibilities exist equally — winning, losing, hurting, dropping; being strong, being a mother, being alone; being scared, missing my father, missing my daughters — yet I wasn’t attached to any one of them. So empty of wanting one specific thing, I was full of everything.