Summer Vacation - Page 2
Cox relishing Death Valley's 120-degree heat. Photo by Rickey Gates.
Simon gave Martin all the information he would need to break Mount Washington’s master’s record. Martin has the exact splits—when to be where at which mile—written on the back of his hand. For the past two days they’ve been discussing race strategy over bowls of pasta and pints of beer. Which mile is the longest? Which is the fastest? Simon can’t race for the first time since 1981, and he is giving away critical advice on how to take his own record down. “Martin is such an icon in the sport of mountain running,” said Simon when I asked why he was helping Martin remove his name from the record book. “It would be an honor to have my record broken by his Royalness.” I begin to suspect he’d be helping Martin even if he were racing.
From there to the finish, nothing changed. I never caught Joe, Max never caught me and Martin never appeared. When he finally appeared at the finish, out of the top 10 and several minutes behind Simon’s record, I waited for one of the few excuses that have followed his occasional shortcomings over the past two decades—poorly marked course, bad race management, blood dopers or a mysterious injury in his left calf. Regardless of the reason for his failure, you could always count on a drawn-out and colorful recap of the race—the further back he finishes, the brighter the story. Finishing behind the first woman or dropping out completely yielded Nobel prize literature. He rubbed his calf, implying that excuse.
Though noticeably disappointed, Martin took it in stride, as we descended the mountain via the infamous Tuckerman’s Ravine.
An early morning flight from Boston got us to Boulder, then we drove to my sister’s wedding in Albuquerque, arriving an hour before, “I do.”
We drove all the next day to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, me at the wheel and Martin riding shotgun. A sizeable crack across the windshield obscured my line of sight and had me either sitting up extra straight and proper or slouching down low. Martin was in charge of music, as he doesn’t know how to drive and is determined not to learn. When I asked why, he responded with what sounded like a statement of fact rather than boasting: “I don’t need to drive. I run like the wind.” Along the way, Martin made clear his few requests for this road trip.
“I want a trucker’s tan.”
“You’re the navigator. It’ll be on your right arm. A true trucker’s tan is on your left arm.”
“Not in England,” he reminded me. “Also, I want to eat at one of those restaurants where you can eat and eat. And a bear.”
“You want to eat a bear?”
“No. I’d fancy seeing one, though,” he said. “Will there be bears in the Grand Canyon?”
We camped in a parking lot on the south rim and set off the next morning down the Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River. A few hours and 16 miles later, as the thermometer approached triple digits, we crested the rim of the canyon at the South Kaibab trailhead. Later that day, in need of a few more miles, Martin ran past the miles of traffic build up on the Hoover Dam while I sat behind the wheel. We pulled into a casino on the outskirts of Las Vegas in time to take advantage of an all-you-can-eat buffet.
On our way out, Martin suggested that I update my Facebook profile: mt.wash=>boston=>alb=>gcanyon=>vegas=>dthvalley. He doesn’t participate in the Facebook culture joking that it is like “one big cyber heaven where you have 294 friends and they don’t mind if you write on their walls.”
On the outskirts of Death Valley, we slept in late and lingered over coffee. Just before noon, the thermometer bumped 110 in the shade. Here, in the Badwater Basin at the base of Death Valley, 282 feet below sea level, shade is artificial, found in the outhouse, beneath cars and under shoes. Everything else is cooking in the afternoon 123-degree sun.
From the parking lot on the east side of Death Valley, a run across the Badwater salt flat to the west side of the valley appeared to be a 15-minute jaunt. If we got back here in half an hour, we could refill my two eight-ounce water bottles before shooting across again to get in an hour of running. As we set off, the salt crunched beneath our feet like corn flakes.
Martin enjoys this sort of suffering for the same reason that he loves running—it is simple and pure. While I was trying to think of things other than convection ovens, saunas and engine rooms, Martin playfully mimicked the gait of a fellow fell (British for hills) runner from the UK. I was supposed to guess who he was imitating. “John Fulton,” I said. It’s always John Fulton. He then slowed to a shuffle and extends his arms out ahead of him like a zombie.
“An ultrarunner,” I said.
“Very good,” Martin replied.
Outwardly, Martin displays a distaste for ultrarunners, mocking the gear they carry, the pace they run and the food they eat. Inwardly, though, he is as fascinated by the sport as I am. The biggest question of ours being, “Why?” Few mountains in the world require more than a few hours to ascend. So why run for 20, 30, heck, 40! hours at a time? What happened to the classic 90-minute training run? How come these people can’t be content with a good ole fashioned race to the top of the mountain? There’s beer up there, ya know. And you’ll still have the rest of the day! You’ll actually be able to run tomorrow!
Back in the UK, Martin had watched a documentary on the Badwater Ultramarathon, then read Christopher McDougall’s recent hit, Born to Run. Subsequently, it was his idea to run across the Badwater Basin. Not mine. I began to gather that the Badwater Basin is a Mecca, of sorts, for the seekers of suffering. Because of the heat, altitude gain or sheer distance (135 miles) the race represents the ultimate ultra not only to Martin but many ultrarunners as well.
“That’s the point isn’t it? To suffer?” he asked. “At a certain point,” Martin explained, “running ceases to be about running anymore and becomes, quite simply, a means to an end.”
“And what end might that be?” I asked.
“For some, it’s endorphins. For others, it’s simply the act of going fast. For ultrarunners, I’m convinced, it’s suffering. Suffering can teach you more about yourself than a psychiatrist.”
We had been crossing the basin at a swift pace for 30 minutes. The surface lost its charm as the salt flakes morphed into serrated plates and I was forced to look down at the blinding whiteness to avoid tripping. I embraced a cloud of dizziness, thinking of how many awful stories must begin with this same cloud of dizziness. I told Martin that I needed to head back.
Martin returned to Orange half an hour behind me. He was noticeably darker in color, drenched in sweat and grinning from ear to ear. He said he got close to the other side but turned back because it could have been another five minutes, or just as easily another 15 minutes—a dangerous difference in this heat.
As we continued north on 395, I peered through the windshield at the road up ahead with Squaw Valley as our destination. In a few days, I would be pacing a young Spaniard, Kilian Jornet, in the Western States 100. My 18-mile section would be from miles 62 to 80, otherwise known as Foresthill to Greengate. Over the past few years, Kilian has run his way to the top of the mountain and ultrarunning circuits throughout the Alps. At the age of 20, he broke the 104-mile-long Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc record by nearly an hour. In the two years since then, he has netted course records for the crossing of Corsica, the Pyrenees and the Tahoe Rim Trail.
In August of 2009 I raced Kilian at the 36th edition of the legendary Sierre-Zinal in Switzerland. In a race that frequently has Olympians and sub-2:12 marathoners toeing the line, I was elated but nervous to be in the lead group. An hour into the race, Kilian turned to me and casually asked about the rest of the course. The calmness with which he spoke made me question if he had run the same 5000 vertical feet that I had just run. I shook my head, which was the last bit of excess energy I could muster to answer him. When our mutual sponsor Salomon asked me to pace Killian for one of the final sections of the Western States 100, I immediately agreed.
As we approached Lake Tahoe we passed a car pulled over by a state patrol. In a practiced John Wayne-English accent Martin said, “Excuse me, sir! Please step out of the car and put your hands on the bonnet.” He then added the non-sensical line, “Sir! Get off your horse and drink your milk.”
Martin swapped out Vampire Weekend for the Beta Band and turned up the volume. Looking out the window he asked if we could go search for Fredo in Lake Tahoe.