I could have been drinking coffee and eating pancakes.

Instead I’m sitting in a school bus staying warm and dry while I count down the time to my 5:06am start. The elites are long gone. They were part of the first wave at 5:00am. Normally I would have been out there to cheer them on but nothing about today feels very normal. Storms have been hitting the Bay Area all week and there is more bad weather in store today. The course no longer extends past Stinson Beach into Mt. Tam. Instead, at the 11th hour, a mandatory re-route has us loop, loop, looping around the Headlands and going only as far north as Muir Beach.

What am I doing out here?

Mark and I have crested the first climb up Bobcat and it’s so foggy up on the ridge that I keep rubbing my eyes as if that would somehow clear my vision. We start descending Rodeo Valley. The wind kicks up and the rain is coming down sideways in heavy sheets, slamming into my face. I could have shook my fist in the air and yelled out “You call this a storm?!” It would have been appropriate. I’ve had the first of many falls yet I’m only 3 to 4 miles in.

Above Muir Beach
Above Muir Beach. Photo: Lisa Aguilera

What am I doing out here?

Mark’s IT band is flaring up. Badly. We are up on Coyote Ridge about 13 miles into the race. We’d talked about this earlier and neither of us wanted to hold the other back. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” We part ways and I’m on my own.

What am I doing out here?

Heading back to TV
Heading back to Tennessee Valley via Miwok for Loop 2. Photo: Cord Leonhardt

I’m back at Fort Barry, the start/finish/half-way point trying to pull myself together for loop two. I look around for Cord, Mark’s pacer, but don’t see him. I’m only 15 minutes off our ETA. Where’s Cord? If Cord’s not here, did Mark get word to him that he’d dropped? My heart sank. I leave and see a friend coming in. Her leg is giving her problems and she’s going to drop. I want to follow her back in and do the same. I feel desolate. I thought Mark was out. I have no pacer. I wanted Jen with me but she wasn’t trained up for 24 miles. I had to tune everything out. My discomfort, the weather, the endless mud, being alone. Squish, squish. Squish, squish. I suppose it says something when one of your race goals becomes “Don’t get a concussion.”

What am I doing out here?

A woman is hiking toward me, climbing away from Muir Beach as I am descending toward it.

“This is the *** Zone”, she says.
“The what zone?”
“Hug Zone! Hey, I remember you from Mt. Tam.”
“You too.”
And this woman, whose name I don’t even know, gives me a hug. It is unbelievably kind.
“What’s your name?”
“Rebecca.”
Thank you, Rebecca, wherever you are.

What am I doing out here?

Finally I’m heading away from Muir Beach. Every step I take brings me closer to the finish. I hear my name being called. I react like a puppy, head cocked to the side. Huh? There, as I live and breathe, is Mark coming toward me. As he would tell me later the pure joy on my face when I realized it was him was indescribable. We quickly check in. I know there will be a good story to hear but now is not the time. I give Mark and Cord a hug and we part ways again. This time we’re smiling.

What am I doing out here?

I’m leaving Tennessee Valley for the last time. No one I know is here anymore. Janeth, who’s been offering me a smile and encouraging words all day is out sweeping the 50k course. 8 minutes. It takes me 8 minutes to put arm warmers on and grab a headlamp. I head up Marincello, which is the last major climb before the finish. The temperature is dropping and the rain is falling harder. I’m not at risk of missing a cut off but I just want this insane day to be over with. I cross paths with mountain bikers and hikers heading back to the TV parking lot, clearly wrapping up their day, so I wasn’t paying any particular attention to the woman heading toward me. It’s dusk and I can’t see well but there is something familiar about the way she moves. Again, head cocked to the side. Huh?

“Jen?”
She returned the biggest, sunniest smile I’d ever seen.
“What the hell are you doing out here?”
“Looking for you.”

More bad weather
More bad weather, more hills, more mud. Photo: Cord Leonhardt

She’d parked at the finish and followed the course in reverse, through the mud, the rain, the impending dark, looking for me. I can’t fathom this on any level but accept that somehow where one moment I was alone, now I’m not. We talk, we laugh. We are adding another chapter to the many trail adventures we already share. On the dreaded descent down Rodeo Valley I seem incapable of picking a route to follow and find myself at times stepping knee deep into muddy sinkholes. I was on autopilot, occasionally meandering from one side to the other, as Jen tried to direct me.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m looking for the pipe, the pipe that crosses the trail. I’ve been down this 4 times. The pipe means gravel. No more mud.”

It’s odd the things you fixate on to get through a moment.

We get to the road crossing where a man covered in rain gear is waving a flashlight at me like a marshaller guiding a plane to the gate.
“Come to me.”
“Thank you!”
“You don’t have to be so polite.”
“I actually wanted to tell you how much I love you.”
It’s nice to know I still have a sense of humor and can form complete sentences at this point.

When I did cross the finish line, Pauline was there. I was so happy to see her. She’d finished her 50k hours earlier and had nothing to do but stand in a mud pit patiently waiting for her sister and husband to come in. Jen continued to keep her pacer/crew hat on and went searching for our drop bags. I dutifully tromped after her, which generated a raised eyebrow.

“Stay here. I’ll take care of this.”

But I needed to do something to take my mind off how cold I was. Bags in hand we find Pauline with Mark and Cord who had finally come in. I could feel Mark’s body shaking as he hugged me. What a day we’ve had. I couldn’t wait to get warm, dry, eat something and find out how he had come back from the racing equivalent of the dead.

But first I had to say good-bye to Jen. I didn’t know what to say but I knew she “got it” in the way that only another ultra runner could. A thank you seemed so inadequate but that’s all I had. I didn’t want her standing in the cold and rain any longer than she needed to. I hugged her and hoped it would somehow tell her how grateful I was that she was here. I watched her disappear into the dark and like that she was gone, as quickly and as mysteriously as she had appeared on Marincello. If I hadn’t gotten a message from her the next day checking in on me, I might have thought I’d conjured her up. But no, she was real.

What am I doing out here?

Maybe I do know. I will never be one of those people whose split times and placements will impress. But this day I learned a little bit more about myself and the people I share these trails with. I felt the kindness of strangers, the love of family and the bonds of friendship. I know with absolute certainty that I won’t lie on my deathbed thinking – gosh, I wish I hadn’t run that windy, rain soaked, mud fest that was The North Face 50 Mile.

The morning
The morning. Photo: UltraRacePhotos

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