I was taking a leisurely stroll through the woods minding my own business, when a shirtless man with a white beard wearing a bib that said “pacer,” popped out of nowhere. He looked like the legendary man I had only read about in books. He introduced himself and indeed, it was the father of modern-day ultra-running. How did I get here?
After cheering on team mates John and Henri at the start of the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) Endurance Run at 6 AM, I started a solo hike through quiet woods with a plan for a nap and a date with my sandwich among the singing aspen trees and shimmering Marlette Lake. The TRT race is one of the hardest (if not the hardest) area trail race — an ultramarathon mountain race at altitudes of 7000 to 9214 feet, with rocky terrain and lots of climbs. I had just flown into CA days before, and haven’t had anytime to really chill out since taking care of my dying Mom. No friends were available that weekend, so I started on my last-minute trek to the lake alone. After all the crowds and fanfare, I thought this would be a good place to clear my head.
The crazy period started last fall, when I begged my tough elderly mother to retire from her late night shifts at her urban, private medical practice, and at a mental hospital, respectively. One night she got mugged. Another night her car was stolen from outside of her office. On yet another night she called me while driving home to say that she was being followed. I urged her to drive to the police dept. Then, the crazy year of 2014 started with a call on New Year’s Eve that she was in the hospital. She was in a car accident — she had hit a police car while having a stroke.
My life has been turned upside down since: her illnesses lead to the discovery of her advanced stage of cancer, taking leave from my work, having a long-distance relationship, my unsuccessful fight to move Mom to a hospice among the trees, the literal loss of my voice, her death soon after diagnosis, and now the great solo task of closing down her business and her home on the opposite coast. The stress has become a part of my daily life. I had stopped running for over a month (any free time was for a bit of sleep), and just haven’t been running much since starting this insane flying between coasts to take care of my Mom and her business in Feb.
Perhaps the endurance running prepared me for the long, overnight shifts taking care of Mom, who could not rest from her intense pain and awoke every 5-10 mins. though she was on morphine. I took shift turns with my pregnant sister (who flew in with her son from their home in Hawaii). When Mom and I did not sleep the night, I looked forward to her going for her radiation treatments so I could take a nap and she could let go of my hand. The problem was that she never wanted to let go of my hand.
I was in my reverie in the forest for about five minutes, then a shirtless guy wearing a bib that said “pacer,” popped out of nowhere. He looked like the Legend I had only read about in books. He introduced himself and indeed, it was Him. I had no choice but to get off my lazy b___. The Living Legend insisted on running behind me for a while, so I sucked hard on thin air and nervously complied. Later, I attempted to chase him when he sped up. He stopped occasionally to point out such things as a mountain or a grouse, which allowed me to catch my breath. He regaled me with stories (about counseling addicts, alcoholism, being a chiropractor, Cowman, horse riding, power to weight ratios, dopamine, his last WS race, etc.) as we ran. His stories reminded me that I was out there battling my family’s addiction. I thought of how that addiction lead to the destruction of my poor mother, formerly a smart and successful person.
My mother was born in the countryside, surrounded by the Cordillera mountains. Her parents, who were part of the Philippine resistance, were on the run from the Japanese military during WWII. She moved to the lowlands as an adult. She generally lead a sedentary lifestyle until her death, despite all her travels, medical missions, and raising her children near the South Mountain Reservation. (However, I imagine an alternate reality in which she became an ultra runner, perhaps trekking the Cordillera Great Traverse.) I tried in her final years to make amends, encourage her to hike, do yoga, eat healthy foods, plan an intervention for her addiction with her friends, but I was too late in her lifetime. Slowly, with time, I will erase the illness from my memory with every footfall and every ascent. Today, I took pictures on the trail, with my Mom’s camera-phone (which I have been carrying to inform people of her death). The pictures are of some of the places I wanted to take her had she actually lived to retire in CA, and been on the road to recovery.
The Legend inspired me to run past Marlette Lake — and beyond. We parted ways on the ascent to Marlette peak (where I walked with an injured runner-racer for a while to make sure she was alright). Before he left, I asked him, what is the lesson to your story? He said simply (something like):
My plan to hike an easy flat-ish ten miles was foiled. It turned into a ~19 mile trek: from Spooner Lake — Marlette Lake — Marlette campground — Snow Valley Peak* — last aid station (to cheer on John) — Spooner finish to meet and support John, and friends Remi, and Nu.
* This is the peak where I usually suffer from lightheadedness from thin air and altitude sickness.
I couldn’t have dreamed of a more amazing day with great friends and volunteers, awe-inspiring natural beauty, and the Ultimate trail partner. I am so blessed to have my health and the angels around me through my life’s continuing, strange, beautiful and awesome journey. Hope you had a good rest of your run, Doc and thank you for the pep talk!
PS Runners, ask me if you want to know what kind of shoes the Legend was wearing and about the mysterious red drink in his hand bottles. 🙂
to my life partner John (55k), friends Henri (50mi), Remi (100mi)! Crew and ultra pacer Nu! You all rock, bravely meeting and surpassing your goals on a tough course, through heat, higher altitude, lightning, and nightfall. John beat his goal in spite of a sprained ankle from the previous weekend. Our friend Henri was one of the runners, who was stuck at Snow Valley peak huddled with a bunch of other’s in a volunteer’s car, waiting out the loud lightning storm. I’m happy you made it down safely and so very proud of you all. Blessed to know these fine runners and see their training progress over the years. Cheers.
The Legend of Dr. Gordon Ainsleigh and how he started the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run:
(It all started 40 years ago…)
Nuggets of wisdom for ultra runners from Dr. Ainsleigh and WSER veterans panel, 2013: