Zermatt, Switzerland. July 4, 2015.In horror movies, little kids are always the ones with gut-wrenching insights or horrifying premonitions. They are the ones that see the dead people or predict that the character played by Tom Cruise is in love with their mother.
At mile 16 of the Zermatt Marathon, a group of 5 children had such a horror-movie moment. I was sitting in 20th at the World Champs, with the US in great position for a team medal, about to start the longest climb of the day, when they began the chanting.
"Die! Die! Die!"
I was later told that meant something like "Go!" in their language, but I've seen enough horror movies to know that the death chant was either an astute observation or an insightful prediction. They were seeing the metaphorical dead person or the figurative Tom Cruise setting his laser eyes on their mother.
Remaining: 10 miles with 4000 ft of climbing up to 9000 ft elevation
Diagnosis: Horror-movie bonk, confirmed by adorable children
For one of the first times in my running life, I was going to face down one of the most scary monsters of all--failure on the biggest stage. This is the story of fighting the bonk monster.
Pre-RaceBack in May, Megan and I found out we made Team USA. We would be racing up the flank of the Matterhorn on July 4 with some of our mountain running heroes as teammates. It was going to be as American as baseball, apple pie, and accepting that 5% of our processed foods are made up of rodent droppings.
We were ready. 1st at the Hyner Challenge 25k, the Denver Trail Half, and the Leadville Heavy Half, with good training and better spirits. Best of all, we were going to get to share the experience. This was going to be my 2nd USA singlet, and like last year when I made the Mountain Team, I was acutely aware that it could be my last. Sharing it with Megan meant that--no matter what--I wouldn't forget it.
The monster was looming though. Looking at the course profile, you could almost hear it snarl. 26.2 miles, 8000 ft of climbing, only 1000 ft down. And, while we have learned to fake it, neither of us consider ourselves uphill runners. So we trained our asses off and hoped for the best. Fear is a wonderful motivator.
After a mini-taper and a few dozen maxi-pizzas, I was that optimal level of squishy for a long day in the mountains. As we left the USA, our red, white, and blue wardrobe felt even better with the news that those colors now incorporated the whole rainbow, at least when it came to love.
The usual hellish travel 2 days and we were in Switzerland! Somehow, we successfully navigated Swiss public transportation. Every train map is signed by M.C. Escher.
Then we saw it. The Matterhorn. Running there was like stepping into a Disney movie and getting to explore the parts of the set they never show you. Each switchback had another superlative.
"Wow!" "Shitballs!" "(awe-struck silence followed by tripping on a rock)!"
We met our teammates, who also seemed like they were from a Disney movie--too wonderful to be real. We ate our weight in gelato, rode the train in the afternoon rain, and kissed over Swiss Miss. Fortunately, we did not eat Tex Mex, because the walls of the Team USA apartment were pretty thin.
Race day dawned hot and clear, with a full moon over the Matterhorn and our hearts full of love for the experience. Megan and I did our 5 min warm-up together, shared a start line smooch, and waited for the gun.
A quick glance up revealed a shadow engulfing the valley. It was the monster lurking, 26.2 miles in the distance.
The Matterhorn was temporarily blocking the rising sun.
RaceIt's hard to explain the start of a marathon or ultra. Using the Independence Day analogy, it is like being given 100 fireworks, and planning a few-hour fireworks show. You think about the show, the beautiful explosions and the brilliant colors, only to get to the day and realize that most of a great show will be empty space.
Fire those babies early, and the end of the show will be terrible. Wait for the finale, and it may already be too late. Instead, you need to be consistent, and stick with the plan, hoping the fireworks don't turn out to be duds when it counts.
I decided to save them. Over the first half, which had 2500 ft of climbing, I tried to run smooth and relaxed. My group included the Italian runner who was expected to win (Spoiler: he did!), so it seemed like the perfect position. When it was flat or down, I'd lead, only to go to the back on the steeper ups. Not the best pattern in an uphill race, but I was full of hope!
Just before halfway, tummy issues forced me to stop briefly. How briefly? Well, Strava GPS calculates total elapsed time and moving time. The offset should be called Bowel Movement Pace. Mine was only 26 seconds. Poop PR!
I lost contact with the group, but it wasn't a big deal. Lots of racing to go! We ran through thousands of spectators leading up to the big climb at mile 16. I was sitting in 20th, still comfortable-ish and just behind a group of 10 that included the eventual gold and bronze medalists. But something disconcerting happened as we turned out of town, careening up an alley to a 3000 ft climb.
I fired off a few of my best fireworks, and nothing happened.
So I tried another. Then another. Still nothing. Oh shitballs.
Just then, the 5 children began their satanistic death chant, and I knew that the English version of what they were saying was exactly right. Dying! Dying! Dying! I was stripped bare on the dusty, hot mountain. The monster was still lurking ahead, and I was defenseless.
And that is the moment I will always remember. The urge to quit was momentarily overwhelming, the prospect of climbing the hulk in the distance utterly insurmountable. But I didn't quit. Not even for a second.
I kept firing off lame-ass fireworks, never giving up hope that the next one would light up the sky.
Here's where we stood: the US had our 3 scoring men ahead. They were strong, but you never knew what might happen on the mountain. I knew that if someone couldn't finish, we could still get a team medal if I kept fighting. With that, I began the 10 most unpleasant miles of my life.
Full body failure is a tough thing to explain. Think of the most random, obscure muscle on your body. Okay, what were you thinking of? Pinkie toe? Forearm? Sphincter? Now, imagine that muscle spasming as if it chose an inopportune time to practice twerking.
That is full-body failure. And my extremities were all doing one hell of an inspired Miley Cyrus.
I don't remember too much after that. It was gorgeous beyond belief, I remember that. I also remember spectators yelling "Happy National Day!" as I slogged by in my drenched USA jersey. Outside of those snippets, my memory is a dull haze of searing discomfort.
The usual trail race stuff ensued: I ran. I walked. I fell. Parts of me twerked involuntarily.
And after 3 hours, 30 minutes, I got to the finish line at the base of the Matterhorn. The first thing I heard was Team USA leader Richard Bolt saying the men had silver. I was filled with indescribable joy! I'd later learn that with my finish, we'd have medaled even if someone ahead on the team didn't cross the line.
Then, I sprinted down the mountain on peg legs to see Megan finish. She had almost an identical experience, and I am so fucking proud of her for fighting her ass off. At the finish, we shared a kiss and a few waves of nausea (I never thought to ask whether hers came from the race, or came from the kiss). Then we sat down. We couldn't move, but that was okay.
There's the Matterhorn. There are our teammates for the race. And right there is my teammate for life.
Mix with post-race beer, and it doesn't get any better than that.
Thank so much to all of you guys for your support over the years! Oh my gosh, it's been a crazy ride. Special thanks to Pat Werhane and Nike Trail Running for being the best, most supportive company on the market. Everyone should buy 1 million shoes. Thanks to Clif Bar for fueling the adventures. And thanks to everyone involved with US Mountain, Ultra, and Trail running. What a great community.
USA! USA! USA!