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July 10, 2015 Comments (0) All Posts

Ultra Runner Joe Grant: The Space Beneath The Brim

I stumble into the Cal 2 aid station, 70 miles into the race. I hand my bottle to a volunteer asking for cola with ice and immediately take a seat. My breathing is shallow. My awareness of my surroundings is limited. I feel a small sense of relief being firmly planted in the chair, allowing myself to pause for a moment.

For the last few miles my attention has been fixated on the steep ravine to the left of the singletrack leading several hundred feet down to the American River. I had been wondering to myself how bad a fall down to the river would hurt. My level of discomfort and nausea has reached an apex to where an out, any out from this situation would be welcome. Thankfully, the cola perks me up enough to disregard such unreasonable thoughts.

The volunteers kindly tend to my needs and offer up a grilled cheese sandwich. I don’t typically eat much solid food in ultra races, but I’ve felt ill since mile 25 with absolutely nothing sticking in my system. It’s not that a specific food, liquid or gel hasn’t gone down right, I’m just overcome by a general sense of malaise, akin to altitude or motion sickness. Despite my best efforts to stay cool, hydrated and properly fuelled, my body isn’t accepting anything – a particularly frustrating situation as none of my usual tricks to combat the nausea have worked.

The past 50 miles of running on empty are starting to catch up with me. The grilled cheese tastes delicious, but as I leave the aid station, I know eating it was a mistake. A few minutes later, I am bent over retching my guts out on the side of the trail.

I pick myself back up, attempting a feeble jog. I feel so weak, I question whether I’ll make it to the river crossing before dark. I pull the brim of my hat low on my forehead, so I nearly have to cock my neck back to see in front of me. The bandana draped over my head shields my view of either side of the trail. All I can see is the 6 foot stretch of dirt directly ahead. There’s something comforting in letting my vision only occupy this small space. The scope and challenge of the race is broken down into a seemingly manageable undertaking, reduced to small, deliberate steps.

Taking on board lots of fluid as Western States temperatures rocket. Photo by  David Payton

Taking on board lots of fluid as Western States 100 temperatures rocket. Photo by David Payton

Regardless of how hard I try not to think negatively, the gradual degeneration of my body is starting to wear on me. I find no more pleasure, no more discovery in the effort; rather a painful awareness of familiar, prolonged discomfort that won’t end until the crossing of the finish line. I feel guilty for having such selfish thoughts. Running Western States 100, or any long, challenging ultra race for that matter, isn’t a solitary endeavour.

I was fortunate to get into the race through a sponsor spot from Buff, bypassing the lottery or other qualifying races. I took the place of another deserving runner and by doing so have a responsibility to give nothing less than my all. In these wavering moments stumbling down to the river, I wonder if I could push harder. Am I honoring the privilege of running this race to its fullest?

Coming into Michigan Bluff several miles prior, a similar sentiment occupied my mind. Feeling particularly woozy, I take a seat just next to the aid station. I am immediately surrounded by my crew – my wife Deanne, uncle Dave, Nico Barraza, Nick and Arielle Giusto. They are smiling, joking, helpful. They’ve driven countless miles to get around the course, waited in the heat and care for me with devoted attention. While I can’t express it in this moment, I feel such a deep appreciation and gratitude for their support. Running the race is much bigger than just myself.

My crew tell me that Dylan Bowman is going to drop. He’s sitting across the way with his family. I know how much this race means to him and how difficult of a decision this must be. Dylan is a good friend, with whom I made an immediate, strong connection when he paced me at my first Hardrock in 2011. I’m brought back to those early miles we shared together and think of how similar my relationship to Hardrock is to his with Western States – a strong love for the race, intense pressure we put on ourselves to do well and a huge sentiment of guilt of letting everyone down when we can’t succeed. All I can think of is that I need to give the man a hug and try to persuade him to go on with me to the finish. Dylan tells me he doesn’t have it in him to walk the next 45 miles to the finish, a painful reminder of what lies ahead for me. I get it.

The Western States finish line. Finally. 20:55:46. Photo by David Payton

The Western States finish line. Finally. 20:55:46. Photo by David Payton

Having prepared diligently for the race, my first Western States wasn’t what I had hoped for from a performance standpoint. I didn’t feel excited or happy to finish, simply relieved. Sometimes pushing up against one’s physical limits is a transcendental experience. Other times, such as for this race, the grind is familiar, painful and really not that fun.

But, with some perspective, I am reminded of why I keep coming back to these races year after year. It’s for the collective experience, the heightening of relationships with fellow runners, crew, family and friends regardless of how well or poorly you perform. At the end, what remains for me is not a time or an award, but a feeling that what I do somehow matters to someone other than just myself, that there is some reciprocity in the experience. The mental clarity that emerges from the distilled, simple act of putting one step in front of the other overwhelms me with gratitude and for that the race was well worth the effort.

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