Living in the Moment
By John Prohira
I remember learning in art history classes about the Renaissance masters. I was supposed to be a chemistry major at the time, why I was enrolled in liberal arts courses was beyond the understanding of my college advisors. I told these professors I craved the arts and that I was striving to become a gentleman. Needless to say I did not learn much science or math in those classes but it was fun and I am now filled with all sorts of useless trivia about the humanities. Something I learned back then was that many of those artists would reuse expensive canvass, painting over old works; their own and those of others. To this day masterpieces created by then unappreciated artistic geniuses may be found underneath more mundane works. These artists truly believed that they could start over. I like that as an analogy for beginning again and starting each day brand new. I also try to remember that I do not always know what lay under the surface of people, places and things and that I must really look. I try to keep in mind that each day is indeed brand new and all I have.
Living in the moment can be challenging. Especially when that moment, the here and now hurts. The natural response is to avoid pain and remove oneself from it. When stressed out I find solace in the diversion pleasant memories provide or in future dreams. I often use this as a defense mechanism against the unpleasant and boring. Distraction works when wanting to take one's mind off the situation at hand but like anything else in life there is a price tag attached. One cost of trying to escape the suffering and tedium of the moment is the possibility of missing a valuable piece of life. Important sights, messages and lessons may be traveling hand in hand with physical and physiological distress. If I am concentrating on avoiding momentary misery by developing tunnel vision I may miss treasures at the periphery, escape by daydreaming and I could cheat myself out of the riches that eyes wide open bring. Knowing this stuff does not necessary mean I use it when frazzled and weary. On June 28th and 29th while on the Western States Trail in northern California I tried very hard to remain in and embrace the moments that were unfolding. I did not want to miss a thing no matter how uncomfortable I had become.
But at 6:42AM On Sunday I wanted nothing more than to ignore the facts and avoid the reality of the moment. I did not like what was happening. It had been a beautiful sunrise, the second one of this race but not totally appreciated. In the midst of the dawning day two miles from the Auburn Lake Trail aid station I was tired and my feet were swollen and hurt. I stunk to high heaven after more than 25 hours on the Western States Endurance Run course. I was hungry, thirsty and discouraged. So what? I've been there and done that many times before. But having a heavy heart complicated this familiar physical state. I wanted to think about anything but what was happening at the moment. My best friend Valerie had just conceded her race. Her run was over and she wanted me to continue on alone and finish what she couldn't. I would because it was the right thing to do and because it was still possible.
Western States! The granddaddy of all trail ultramarathons! This event was 30 years old this year. In 1974 Gordy Ainsleigh traversed the entire 100-mile course of the Western States Trail Ride (the Tevis Cup) on foot along with 198 horses. He finished in 23 hours and 42 minutes proving that a man was capable of traveling 100 miles on foot through and over some of the West's toughest territory in less than a day. And see what he started? 29 years later Gordy was lining up with 405 other runners at the floor of Squaw Valley, California. On Saturday we would run the race that began with his solo journey three decades ago. Entry is earned into this race by completing qualifying races of 50 and 100 miles and then being lucky enough at having your name pulled from a lottery. The odds of having your name pulled from the hat was around 70%. First time was a charm for me; I knew that I had gained entry last December.
The day before the race I had watched cable cars leave the Squaw Valley Resort and move up and onto the mountain. I wondered where they went. On Saturday morning I found out. The starting shotgun went off at 5AM and the crowd moved towards Emigrant Pass 2500 feet up and almost five miles away. I walked most of these first miles and was pleased to find that the elevation of 8750 feet was not affecting bodily function. I was fascinated on this first climb and again later at seeing snow in summer. It was an interesting contrast to feel the heat of the sun through thin air and experience the cooling effects of the mountain snow. I had to touch this frozen water and play with it. Dawn greeted us with views of Lake Tahoe, appearing purple by first morning's light and very big. As we crested the Pass it was like I could see forever, the valleys below and the mountains beyond capped in white seemed surreal. Maybe the skinny air was making the moment feel bigger and more intense. I did not care and enjoyed the mood. It was indeed a brand new day!
By the time the runners reach the finish line of the Western States Endurance Run in Auburn 100.2 miles away from the start they will have climbed over 18,000 feet and descended nearly 23,000. The overall downhill nature of the course takes its toll. The combination of the heat and downhill running blistered my feet and I will lose the toenails I just re grew after last month's Massanutten Mountain 100 Mile Trail Run in Virginia. Much of the Western States Trail passes through remote and rugged parts of the Sierra Nevadas that are described as being accessible only to hikers, horses and helicopters (and ultrarunners). The trail stretches from Salt Lake City, Utah to Sacramento, California and was used by the indigenous people of that region, the Paiute and Washoe Native Americans. In the mid to late 1800's this route connected the silver mines of Nevada to the gold mining camps of California. To this day most of the trail remains in its natural wild state. Wild areas contain wildlife. This is cougar country and signs warning hikers about kitty-cat are posted at trail access points. There were no reports of cat sightings during the run but one black bear was seen running ever so fast down a hill and a rattlesnake was taken off the trail just ahead of us.
This region of northern California has to be the most beautiful country I have run in to date. The stunning vistas from atop the mountain ridges complete with raw and rocky drop-offs along the trail were attention getters. It would have been foolish in more ways than one not living in the moment; if not for the magnificence of the scenery then for safety's sake. Attention to foot placement was a very good thing. I find it difficult to adequately describe the splendor of running beneath trees that are centuries old. I marveled at how seemingly fragile saplings growing from beneath rock could one day tower above the ground, reaching up as if to kiss the sky. The wildflowers on the high ridgelines, many poking their heads out from the mud in the melting snowfields and others hugging rocky outcrops were thriving. At dusk and later on through the night I saw blossoming wildflowers as we ran down towards the river. Seeing them under lamplight's glow somehow reassured me that all was well. I chuckled when I discovered that I had provided safe passage to new ground for seeds caught on my trail gaiters. All around was example after example of life living life, nature cycling on if only for life's sakes. Layer upon layer of the living world was painted everywhere I looked.
Every run of this type is challenging. When asked what is the toughest course I have ever run I'd have to say the one that is taking place at the moment. One twist that the Western States event added to the mix were the ever-present cutoff times. There were 18 of them starting at the Red Star Ridge aid station and ending at the finish line at Placer High School in Auburn. Runners are kept track of throughout the run. Vital statistics of blood pressure and weight were taken before the start and then recorded on a plastic wrist bracelet worn by the runners. At designated medical checkpoints we stepped on a scale and had our weight recorded which is a good indicator of trail health. Lose or gain too much weight and your race may be over. Losses could indicate dangerous dehydration and weight gain may indicate kidney distress. Miss a cutoff and your bracelet is unceremoniously cut off and you are out. The omnipresent threat of missing a cutoff and being pulled from the race can be nerve racking.
After touching the highest point on the course at Emigrant Pass we moved through the Granite Chief Wilderness Area and then to the Red Star Ridge. It was still morning and I had the opportunity to breakfast on vanilla Ensure that had been placed in my drop bag. With another 350 calories in my tummy the world looked even sweeter. I had heeded the advice of the friendly, helpful, resilient and talented Rob Apple from Tennessee who warned me to take it easy early in the run because the challenges begin in the canyons at midday.
We ran the ridge to Robinson's Flat, the 24.6-mile mark. Those who came to run the Western Sates training camp in late May had their plans to start at Robinson's canceled due to snow. Remnants of winter still remained on Saturday but presented no problems for running, only added charm. I tromped through a few yards of the dirty white stuff a couple of times on my way towards Little Bald Mountain. During that climb I chatted with a fellow from Canada who was running Western States for the 6th time. I was amazed when hearing that of his previous 5 attempts he had only finished once. How persistent! His return year after year was impressive, perhaps more impressive than his finish.
The sun was high in the sky at 1PM as we left Little Bald and ran along the rocky Cavanuagh Ridge to Deep Canyon. There was no reprieve from the sun. I wore my white hat and two hankies around my neck, one in front on my chest and the other behind on my back. These I soaked in water and filled with ice whenever I could. I always left aid stations with three full bottles of drink that provided enough fluid even when deep in the hottest of the canyons. While in stations I also made sure to fill my belly with food and drink for I am convinced that the best place to carry supplies are in one's stomach.
As midday waned we approached the dirt roads and trails leading us to Dusty Corners, around Pucker's Point (don't you just love these names?) and then to Last Chance, a mining ghost town. All this time we are running down and down and my toes were beginning to remind me of their existence and telling me how important they were. We still had not reached the canyon floor and the air temperature was over 100 degrees. Soon after at Deadwood the forewarned came. We dropped 2000 feet down over the next two miles into the oven. But as hot as the dry heat of these canyons was it pales in comparison to the east coast summer conditions of 90 degrees with 90% humidity. Once down it was time to climb back out towards Devil's Thumb, so named for the large piece of dark rock protruding from the side of the mountain, looking like a thumb's up on a closed fist. I knew that once viewed the thumb indicated the ascent was ending. It had taken us almost 13 hours to cover the first 44 miles and although we had an hour to spare before cutoff aid personnel harried and hurried us out of that station. Well meaning folks I am sure but I should have stayed a bit longer, eaten more before continuing on. For the first time in the run the glory of the moment was clouded by doubt. Would we make the cutoffs throughout the night and next morning? I refused to give these negative thoughts space in my head. It was time to continue on back into the oven and then to Michigan's Bluff.
First we moved into El Dorado, a deeper canyon that was reached in a more gradual downhill manner. Still hot but manageable. Climbing back out the buffet tables at the Bluff aid station provided respite and momentary reprieve from forward motion. With the sun moving lower into the western sky the world took on somewhat of a kinder appearance. Out of the canyons leaving Michigan Bluff trees lined the trail and often times single-track just thinly cut through the encroaching brush. It was after 8PM when we left the Bluff - 15 hours into the run. While moving in and out of Volcano Canyon night fell and headlamp glow provided weird ambiance to the task at hand. After dusk groups of runners would bunch up, run together for a bit and then disperse. The conversation was of course witty and profound. There were no complaints voiced; we all knew what everyone else was feeling, there was no need to describe it. In the dark of night each runner continued to brush more color onto his canvass, add more to the story that would describe his effort, his struggle; his race.
Two and a half hours later we could feel it. We could hear it. Cars and people. My ears had become so attuned to the resonance of the trail these sounds at first perplexed me. From the trail to dirt road then onto a one-half mile stretch of pavement complete with road traffic bringing us to the 62 mile mark at Foresthill. It was 11PM. I had hoped that we would arrive here at 8:30. This was a big aid station full of friendly people and where I met for the second time of the day a new friend, George Miller. George is a good friend of Valerie's and a paramedic firefigther, budding ultrarunner and all around good guy who flattered us and coddled us then turned us out into the night. From this haven of relative civilization 16 miles of rolling wild descent lay before us.
The remote California Trail would eventually bring us to the bottom of the American River Canyon and the Ruck a Chuck river crossing. The journey from Foresthill to Ruck a Chuck was quiet and conversation was minimal as I pulled into myself looking for the reason to continue, asking again the question of why and somehow knowing the price demanded was a fair one. The here and now of that moment was filled with a dark sky full of stars, the glowing from the brush as lamplight reflected from eyes of forest dwellers, the sounds of night birds and at one point near the river of violent splashing in the water off to our left side.
Near 4:40AM it was time to get wet. The saturated moment that lay ahead filled me with apprehension. How cold would that water be? How would my body respond to the shock of being half immersed after almost a day on the trail? Would I slip and fall in completely? All worry for naught! It felt wonderful! Refreshing, soothing and fun. There were three men in body boots standing behind and holding onto the guide cable strung across the river we grabbed as we forded. They were there I assume to retrieve me should I begin to flounder downstream. As I crossed I overheard their conversation. One talked of a girlfriend's doctoral thesis involving the study of chemical fluorescence. Seems she was a physicist. Although it was apparent he was proud of that lady's accomplishments he added this, "fluorescence! Who knows what that is?" My unsolicited response was that I did and that and said, "one definition of fluorescence is the property of absorbing radiation of a particular wavelength and then emitting it as light." I introduced myself as a tired chemist from Rochester New York and pulled myself out of the water on the far side of the river.
Time to climb up the canyon and greet the dawn. It was nearing 5AM and we had 40 minutes to climb 1.8 miles to Green Gate and then had 5.4 miles to get into Auburn Lake Trails, an aid station that had to be reached by 7AM. It was there that my friend's race ended and mine began again. If I were to finish I must move at a sub 9 minute per mile pace into Auburn Lake in order to beat those damn cutoffs! What a goofy type of running this is when speeds such as that are defined as fast! Sucking major wind I made it into that next station with one minute to spare.
I managed to clip off a few minutes of cutoff at every station from then on in, hitting Highway 49 at 93.5 miles with 9 minutes in the bank. The last 1.3 miles of this event is all road in the town of Auburn, some uphill but close enough to the finish to hear, smell and taste it. As I approached the High School Stadium I saw my friend sitting on the curb watching and waiting. I was pleased that she knew I would finish. Her smile was enough and told me all. That smile told me she was happy for me and proud I was there. Sweet! Very sweet indeed.
What a rush to enter the stadium and run 200 completely flat meters around the track towards the finish line, all the while being cheered and then called in by name over the loud speaker. At 10:46AM on Sunday - 29 hours and 46 minutes after I began my race was over. I wasn't the last runner to finish although at Auburn Lake Trail I was the last runner allowed to continue. And I knew how big the moment was. A finisher's medal depicting a cougar was draped around my neck and later the coveted finisher's belt buckle was received.
Why keep doing this? Because I can? Or maybe more importantly because maybe, just maybe I can't. Isn't that the example of those returning year after year, even if the final outcome is not to their liking? I like that reason better - embracing the challenge because maybe I will not succeed. Or if I do finish I will have the opportunity of redefining the meaning of success.
It's not just the act of physical exertion while ultrarunning and the endorphin high that follows that I am addicted to, although I must admit to being in love with both. It's a combination of that and the beauty of the diverse regions I get to visit while running and the people I meet along the way. It's the journey not the destination. The destination came in a single moment at 10:46 on Sunday morning but the journey took many, many, many moments - over 29 hours of them. All those moments offered rewards and lessons. I love the experience that people bring with them, such an eclectic collection of knowledge and wisdom. I wonder what has gone on in their lives to shape them into such strong yet gentle runners of long distances. The way they live is the result of unseen layer upon layer of life savored and lessons learned. One thing I know is that I like these people. They are people not afraid of trying. They teach me important things. They set high standards and provide good examples. They are people who can applaud the success of another in the midst of their own disappointment. Those who return time and time again even if there is a good chance that success will be denied. These are the people who have shown me the importance of the journey. Shown me how not to be afraid of the dark nor fear the unknown. In the midst of endorphin glow, in the moment, at look at these people and smile at the way they carry themselves. But what I admire most is what is underneath and perhaps not so obvious.
That's my Western States story. I'll close with a couple of quotations that say in a sentence or two what I've spent five pages trying to describe.
"When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take the step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for us to stand on, or we will be taught to fly." - Patrick Overton
"Despite what seems like the extraordinary nature of these events, in the end, they make you even more human. - Joel McNamara