From Virginia Beach to the pages of Born to Run to Hawaii’s HURT 100, Billy “Bonehead” Barnett and the author have shared a (short) lifetime of adventures on the trails
Billy Barnett rolls to a different beat. Photo courtesy of Billy Barnett
Billy sits down, breaking a promise he made to himself. It’s the most basic promise of the human condition: that no matter what happens, you always keep moving forward.
Parking it here, at mile 80 of Oahu’s 2015 HURT 100-Mile Endurance Run, he is fully aware of his track record against “the chair.” Every time he has ever sat down in a race, the chair has won. He’s never risen.
For most of his running life, regardless of his frequent winning performances, Billy “Bonehead” Barnett, now 30, has basically blundered along, a quality that has permeated his life. Sometimes he was madcap, sometimes idiotic, sometimes just unlucky and sometimes all of the above. He acquired his nickname, “Billy Bonehead,” when one day he and I attempted to sandwich our lifeguard captain by skidding our bikes to a stop with him in the center. Billy miscalculated, nailing him in the back. “I don’t know which of you is the bigger idiot, you or that bonehead!” our boss yelled at me as I dropped to the ground at his feet, trying not to soil my red bikini in a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
Billy’s been a part of my entire adult life. He’s been my boyfriend, my best friend, my co-worker, my training partner, and, most of all, my partner in crime. I’ve watched him, sometimes with awe, succeed in spite of himself. His first-ever running race was the 2001 Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in Virginia Beach. An 18-year-old surf bum, he didn’t train a step for the race. The starting line of the race looked like a textbook example of “which of these items does not fit.” Billy, wearing tube socks and neon polka-dot board shorts that hung to his shins, stood on the front line amid the favorites, all of whom were flown in from Africa’s Rift Valley. When the gun went off, Billy hung on to the leaders for seven miles, which was exactly seven miles farther than anyone expected him to, before he started dry heaving and was forced to a walk.
In his first ultramarathon, the 2003 Mountain Masochist 50-miler in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Billy had all but locked in a podium finish before going the wrong way with only 10 miles to go. Instead of following the course markings, he followed a pair of hunters down a game trail, thinking the two fat men in camouflage carrying a bag of dead squirrels were race volunteers.
Being a “bonehead” is endearing, but tough for those who want to run long distances. One-hundred-mile races in particular require a high level of personal management, and the faster you try to run them, the higher the stakes become. Flashes of brilliance can’t propel you to the finish; it’s the constant drudgery of taking care of yourself that gets you there. There’s so much that can go wrong and little things, like not changing your socks in a timely manner, can lead to big problems, if not catastrophe. When I think about it—and I often do—it strikes me as a small miracle that Billy is even still with us, let alone striving to finish one of the toughest endurance races on the planet.
The only time Billy actually completed a 100-miler was his first one, over a decade ago, at North Carolina’s Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run in 2004. We ran it together, side by side, because that’s how we did everything. He was 19 and I was 20 and we were hysterically and obnoxiously in love. We were in love with each other, in love with love, in love with lovely people who sang about love (Cat Stevens, the Ramones—it didn’t matter who), and, of course, in love with running.
This was a time when ultramarathons were more than just obscure; they were veritable psychiatric wards, the padded hallways replaced with tree-lined singletrack. The only people on the starting lines were middle-aged neurotics who used ultras to manage their lifelong battles with either addiction or depression. Or, more commonly, both.
But to Billy and me, who stumbled upon the sport by searching the Internet for anything—anything!—fun to do in the great Commonwealth of Virginia, where we both had grown up and spent summers on the beach lifeguarding, the act of running great distances was nothing short of the last frontier of the new world order. We believed the constant pitter-patter of our feet was the soft drum-line to the next widespread revolution, or evolution … or something. We were still too young to drink legally, let alone think rationally. Our delusion was one of vaguely outlined grandeur.
Shelton, Prospero Torres and Barnett in the Copper Canyon, 2007. Photo: Chris Labee collection
When we were finally old enough to order a beer but still too young to rent a car, fate struck with the publication of Born to Run, Christopher McDougall’s ultrarunning blockbuster about a race against the Tarahumara tribe in Copper Canyon, Mexico. The book would sell over one million copies, introduce ultrarunning to the mainstream and, ipso facto—because we were two of its main characters—introduce Billy and myself as the indomitable and in-love faces of the sport.
By the time the book came out, Billy and I were best friends and long past our romantic entanglements. I was living in Oregon by then, while Billy had gone to Hawaii. I’d stuck seriously to the silly sport, racking up a resume of 100-mile victories, including setting the American record (at the 2007 Rocky Raccoon 100, in 14 hours 57 minutes), while working as little as possible at a graphic-design job I didn’t give a two-pixelled shit about. Billy was pursuing his master’s in teaching, running shorter distances after having grown frustrated with the sport of ultrarunning.
Being a character in a bestselling book comes with its own set of challenges. To be sure, there are plenty of benefits—I’ve certainly never refused any frothy brew an enthusiastic fan has pushed into my greedy hand. But Billy and I are in a constant custody battle with readers over our life stories. With each turn of the page, strangers gain access to our lives, and in the process Billy and I become characters, if not caricatures, of ourselves.
For me, the worst part is first encounters with people who only know me from the book. Comparisons to your 20-year-old self are hard to uphold, especially a decade removed. It’s hard to grow crow’s feet or, God forbid, gain a few pounds, when you know the person shaking your hand is judging you against his idea of you. I can see the recalibration in his eyes, and it’s always a downsizing.
For Billy, tucked away in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it became difficult to be known as a badass 100-mile runner, expected not only to win, but win while pumping his fist and belting out beat poetry every step of the way. But Billy’s career in ultras hadn’t even lasted until the book appeared, in 2009. In fact, of the three 100-mile attempts Billy has made since we completed that very first one in 2004, he hasn’t been able to finish one.
Finding Balance on the Big Island. Photo by Robert Malovic
Billy’s most regretted battle with the chair happened in 2006, at Ohio’s inaugural Burning River 100 Mile race. Billy was having the race of his life. He was running so well that I was lucky I didn’t miss meeting him at mile 60, where my pacing duties would begin.
I spotted Billy’s springy stride on the horizon and knew that I better lace ’em up tight. He was moving fast, and he wasn’t alone. Billy, an unknown, was abreast with the pre-race favorite, Mark Godale, then the American record holder for 24 hours. By the time their two silhouettes made it across the field, the aid station was only half erected, and the volunteers had to hastily put down their beers to assist the two leaders, who were coming through much sooner than projected.
“You’re drunk,” Billy barked as I exchanged his empty water bottle with a freshie.
I’d had a rough day. Billy had decided that instead of driving to the mile-60 aid station, I should just park his car at the finish line and mountain bike the last 40 miles of the race course in reverse. That way, when he finished we could go straight to sleep, without first having to worry about bumming a ride to middle-of-nowhere Ohio to retrieve his car. It seemed like I was getting the short end of the deal, but Billy had been the pacer at my last two 100-milers, which weren’t exactly the most organized of trips. And even if it was a crazy plan, at least Billy had made a plan, which was a first, so I agreed.
It only took a few miles into the ride before I realized that my complete inexperience on a mountain bike was the least of my concerns. What Billy and I had failed to consider was that the race course was marked for runners coming from the opposite direction. Not only did I curse Billy’s name after every time I crashed, but also after every missed turn, of which there were many.
I arrived at the aid station—bruised, muddy, dying of thirst and angry as a hornet—in the middle of the afternoon. The leaders weren’t expected through for another few hours, so when the aid-station workers, who themselves were just arriving, offered me a beer, I couldn’t help but chug it. They were so impressed with the small girl covered in scrapes, downing a beer like Homer Simpson, that they offered me another. And then another. I was on my fourth and about to take a nap when Billy and Godale were sighted, cresting the hill and moving toward us fast.
Godale was in and out of the aid station quickly, while Billy took his time, laying into me.
“Who the hell drinks before pacing? You know what? Don’t answer. Just shut up. I’m buzzing off your breath.”
“You have no idea what I went through today for you!” I yelled. “I don’t even know how to bike!”
“I feel great. Your drunk ass better not mess this up,” he said.
“I’m doing you a favor, and you tried to kill me!” I yelled, waving my arms to show the blood and bruises covering my body. I was dehydrated, and the beer was beginning to hit me something fierce. “Besides, you went out too fast. You have no trash on you, which means you haven’t been eating. There’s a shitstorm about to go down, and I’m not about to take the blame,” I argued as we left the aid station, immediately taking a wrong turn. The aid-station volunteers witnessed our error, and, angels that they were, chased us down.
“You just biked this, and still you are getting me lost!” Billy screamed. I couldn’t argue with that one, so I silently tucked in behind him, forcing down wet burps.
“Disgusting,” said Billy.
“Shut up and chase that guy down,” was all I could muster. My innards felt like a lava lamp, and I wasn’t sure how long I could hang on.
Luckily for me, Billy hadn’t been eating and was nearing the end of his tank. We never caught Godale. When, at mile 85, he was reduced to a walk, I’d been sober for hours. I felt both vindicated and disappointed. No matter how ungrateful he was, no matter how idiotically he raced, no matter that he had sent me on the mountain bike sequel to Deliverance—he was my best friend. I was rooting for him. I knew how much he wanted to set things straight after dropping out of his last hundred. His walking slowed with each mile, until eventually he would only be able to take two steps before he had to sit down. It took us so long to make it to the next aid station at mile 91 that by the time we arrived the race officials had called search and rescue.
When Billy sat down at mile 91, refusing to go another step, the aid-station volunteers lectured me that I should pull him out of the chair and cattle prod him to the finish.
“He has over 12 hours to make it to the finish before the cutoff!” they pleaded. The last nine miles were a flat, smooth bike path—buttery goodness compared to the 90 trail miles he’d just covered. Come morning the volunteers would be forced to fend off runners—having missed the final cutoff—begging on their hands and knees to be allowed to continue to the finish. Quitting here voluntarily, so close to the prize, was like quitting two steps before the summit of Everest. In their eyes, it was an unthinkable breach of sportsmanship.
I shook my head. “He wants to suck a gun. Let him quit.”
Billy may have been mad at me for being drunk and taking a wrong turn, but he never once blamed me for not making him finish. “You don’t ask people to make you finish for the same reason you don’t ask them to wipe your ass,” he said afterward. “It’s a personal matter.”
I knew dropping out of 100-mile races always bothered Billy, even though he often vowed never to attempt them again. He’d said “never again” 10 years ago, when we both dropped from the HURT 100 at mile 70, our first drop from any race. Training on the roads of Virginia Beach, we were not prepared for the brutally technical trail, made worse by the deluge that started as soon as the gun went off. As the day progressed, the trail conditions, which were the sloppiest and wettest trails I’ve ever seen in my life, deteriorated with each hour. As only our second 100-miler—the first one we ran together and finished in 19 hours—we’d never been forced to run through a whole night, let alone wade through one.
In Hawaii we decided to run separate races. I ended up sleeping for a half hour in a mud puddle, because there wasn’t a single dry patch on the whole trail. Billy had spent his night carrying a stick and yelling at wild boars that were stalking him. Ten years later, he’s still not sure if the murderous boars were real or a hallucination. Even with the nasty conditions, dropping out was a big deal. We were both in college and had barely scraped the money together to fly out. I had to cash in savings bonds to buy my ticket and Billy (I wish I were lying) ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for every meal to offset his. But the trails of the HURT were too bleak and, unbeknownst to us, we both dropped at the exact same spot, less than an hour apart.
I moved on to other adventures, but Billy remained plagued by the Oahu trails, never having finished a 100-miler since that first drop. “Those trails have been tormenting me for the last 10 years. I have had bad dreams of running and not moving, like I’m running a sick, twisted trail treadmill,” Billy told me, when I asked why in the world he wanted to go back.
Barnett persevering at the HURT 100 in 2015. Photo by Laura Casner
Completing a 100 has become his albatross, an obsession that’s haunted him for years. And it’s the reason he’s found himself in a chair 80 miles and 25 hours into the 2015 HURT 100, on one of the most grueling courses on Earth, contemplating his fifth and final loop. Billy knows that if he quits now, no one would blame him—after all, over half the field has dropped.
Each loop is the same: Three massive climbs, three massive descents, 20 miles of eroded, off-kilter trail over thickly rooted banyan groves, forcing a constant choice: high-knee over the roots and step into the mud pits, or risk a dance atop the roots themselves, which are slick as wet marble.
Twisting over the uneven trail is unbearable. It feels like the entire ball of each foot is encased in a blister. But the worse pain comes on the ascents, Billy’s specialty, because the climbs force him onto the balls of his feet. Over the course of his running career, spectators, reporters and one random dude sitting outside a 7-Eleven drinking a forty of High Life have likened Billy’s powerful, muscular stride to the late Steve Prefontaine’s. Undeniably, Billy shares the same long hair and stocky build as America’s tragic running hero, but I’ve always found Billy—with his electric grin and impossibly chiseled face—to be a dead ringer for the wild-man punk musician Iggy Pop.
For as long as I’ve known Billy, he has carried himself with the beautiful, bounding gait of a miler. Since he was a small boy he has always held an affection for frogs (his blog was for many years called “Billy’s Frog Blog” before he recently changed it to “Breathing Deep and Walking Light”), and he runs over technical trails much like his spirit animal, as if hopping effortlessly between lily pads.
Today, however, after 80 miles of jumping over roots, he wishes he could save his feet and slither across the next 20 miles like a snake. But as much as his feet are killing him, altering his stride now, after 12 years of competitive running, is about as physiologically possible as breathing underwater.
His feet began hurting at mile 50, and for 30 miles he ignored the pain, refusing to change socks and assess the damage. Before the race he vowed he’d never stop, and Billy knows that here, at the start/finish area where it would be so easy to quit, is the worst place to linger. But he’s not sure he can take another step.
The winners finished hours ago. They’ve showered, napped and changed into fresh clothes. Many thought Billy, the local favorite, would be among them. Since moving from the mainland in 2008, the beloved Haole school teacher from Big Island has remained undefeated on Hawaiian soil. Within his first few months of living on the island he raised eyebrows by setting the course record at the Hilo to Volcano 50K, beating everyone including the relay teams. After the awards ceremony the second-place finisher shook his hand, but instead of offering Billy the requisite congratulations, he said, “You must have just moved here, because you’re still fast.”
Despite the slower pace of the lower latitude, six years of island living has only seen Billy grow faster, so fast that he has morphed into a reluctant legend. The local newspaper, the Hawaii Tribune Herald, often refers to Billy as “The Ghost,” based on his aversion to sticking around after races for interviews. The breadth of his myth spans beyond the archipelago he calls home. He has become a target for many mainland triathletes whose goal is to beat the elusive, long-haired local standout while visiting Big Island to train for the Ironman World Championships. But whether it’s a 5K or a marathon, the triathletes have yet to pin him down. The Ghost is always two hops ahead at the finish.
Billy originally moved to Big Island to work on a farm that served as a rehabilitation center for troubled youth, but eventually supported his running habit by earning his master’s in special education from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and landing a job in one of the worst school districts in the country. Pahoa High School, on the rainy side of the island, serves mostly underprivileged and at-risk kids. The Daggers, the student body’s befitting nickname, had a reputation for chewing up and spitting out its teachers. In his first few weeks of teaching, a student crumpled up a worksheet Billy had just handed him and threw it on the ground. “Not today, Billy Boy,” he said.
But “Mistah B,” as the kids called him in pidgin, quickly became a favorite teacher. Perhaps because the students found something in him they could identify with. An aging-punk-rocker-turned-hippie, Billy held a lifelong aversion to following the rules, a highly revered virtue in the small town of Pahoa, known as the Big Island’s “Outlaw Town.” The Big Island Revealed, a bestselling guidebook, even pokes fun at the guerrilla town that Billy calls home, telling vacationers to drive through and see “how many homes are built on vacant land—at least according to the County Tax Assessor’s Office. ‘Permit? What’s that?’”
Billy wasn’t your typical yuppie Haole gentrifying the island one plucked parcel at a time. While many teachers commuted from the sunny Kona side of the island, Billy lived close to school in a yurt that was built around a mango tree. His floorboards were cut around the trunk, which shot up through the middle of his living space. Lining the canvas walls were elaborate spider webs that, instead of knocking down, he called his “art.” He surfed at the local breaks with his students after school, and when the kids were relatively well-behaved he made them Belgian waffles, topped with syrup and mangos plucked from his roof. Billy’s success at running earned their begrudging respect, even if they had a strange way of showing it.
After his last big win at the Hilo Marathon, when a picture of him running shirtless—shaved chest puffed out as he breathed deeply—was printed on the front page of the Herald-Tribune, a student told him, “I saw the paper. You think you’re cool. But you look like a fuckin’ turkey.”
“Yeah, Mistah B, you’re just a fuckin’ egg-layer,” another student chimed in. Instead of disciplining the kids, Billy laughed. He was just happy his students knew that turkeys didn’t give live births.
If his marathon wins drew chides, the fact that Mistah B was attempting to run 100 miles impressed even his most jaded kids. Before he boarded the island hopper to Oahu, he pleaded with his students to take it easy on the substitute while he was off racing. He knew he was wasting his breath: he may only have been missing one day of school, but he knew he was feeding his poor stand-in to a pack of wolves. But Billy was surprised when, after his speech, some students wished him luck, while others even went so far as to beg him to return victorious.
But Billy never had sights on the win. For 10 years he’d only had one goal: to finish.
Over the last six months of training, “beware the chair” had been Billy’s mantra. It is arguably a silly saying, but running 100 miles through a Hawaiian rainforest is arguably a silly endeavor. And if Billy “Bonehead” Barnett has taught me anything over the years, it’s that silliness may be the only aspect of life worth taking seriously.
The doctor kneels in front of the chair and unlaces Billy’s shoes.
Billy watches as the doctor’s brown eyes grow huge. Billy thinks that the large, shocked eyes look just like two coqui frogs, an invasive species native to Puerto Rico and brought over to Hawaii in Walmart crates. The high-pitched, incessant song of the coqui frog (CO-KEE!) was almost deafening as Billy made his way through the previous night in the Hawaiian jungle. Now, as the doctor helps Billy in the break of dawn, the frogs have finally silenced, but Billy still can’t get them out of his head. He thinks he might finally be losing it.
Billy regains control. He looks away from the doctor and lifts his feet slowly, stiff from 80 miles of running, to finally have a look. He is expecting to see blood blisters encasing the bottoms. Instead, his flesh is as white as coconut meat, his skin pleated in a network of soft, rotten creases.
“Trench foot,” says the doctor.
“What can I do?” asks Billy.
“You can change into dry socks, but it’s too late for much,” he says. After a pause he adds, “You will probably be fine.”
Billy laughs. It’s a diagnosis he’s familiar with.
The year was 2012. When I saw “Billy Bonehead” come up on my caller ID, I knew something was wrong. The sun was just beginning to rise in Oregon and I was still in bed. It was the middle of the night in Hawaii.
“Hey,” I said, braced for something bad.
“I’m probably gonna have brain surgery tomorrow. If the swelling doesn’t go down before morning, then they are cutting me open. I don’t want to worry my parents, but I thought I should tell you, in case something happens.”
Huh? Brain surgery? What?” I asked, sitting straight up in bed.
“I wrecked on my skateboard yesterday,” said Billy. I’d never heard him sound so tired. “I was just going down my driveway. Ha, of all the times I should have gotten hurt, this time I wasn’t even doing anything stupid. I hit my head and thought I was OK, but then I kept puking so I went to the hospital.”
“Where are you?”
“Oahu. I had to take a helicopter because the hospitals on Big Island are worthless.”
Billy’s swelling had subsided enough by morning that he didn’t have to have surgery. The doctors were amazed, and he stayed in the hospital in case the swelling returned. A few days later, his friend Patrick flew over from Big Island and brought Billy watermelon ice cream, his favorite.
“Man, this ice cream is really delicious,” Patrick said, scooping a bowl for himself.
I know,” smiled Billy from his bed, as he started in on his second serving. “Wait a minute,” he said, “I can’t taste the watermelon. Hey, I can’t taste anything!”
Billy’s taste wasn’t the only thing he lost. When he was finally released from the hospital and returned home to his yurt on Big Island, he could barely function. The smallest tasks left him depleted and he had to spend hours in bed resting. He’d try to read, but the words blurred together. Concentration was difficult, and simple math gave him a migraine. The doctors told him it would take time to get back to normal, that he shouldn’t even consider running for at least six months.
“Most people we would tell to rest for a full year, but you’ve surprised us with your ability to heal quickly.”
“Will I ever be able to taste again?” he asked them.
“Probably,” was the best answer they could provide.
Billy had a bottomless sweet tooth, but after losing his sense of taste, he cut out sugar and started eating foods based on their health benefits. Leafy greens, rainbow chard, dinosaur kale and whole grains replaced cinnamon buns and coffee cake. He’d just started his first year of teaching, and the income allowed him to eat healthily for the first time in his life. Unable to exercise, he began to dabble in domestic projects. He started making his own Kombucha, and while he never before had any patience for art, he took up painting. Before long he had enough paintings to rival the tapestries of spider webs that hung from his walls.
After a few months, he started to run again, but even three miles left him dizzy and sick. It would be six months before he would slowly start regaining his taste. The first food he’d be able to taste were strawberries. “It was like magic in my mouth,” he would say. Other flavors would follow the strawberry one by one, and before long the entire spectrum of his palate would return. Even after his taste materialized, he would still shun sugars, committed to his healthy new diet. The only negative effect of regaining his taste was when he would be forced to dump an entire batch of his own creation—coffee-infused Kombucha—which his revitalized taste buds deemed inedible.
After a year, he found he could put in more miles—10, 15, 20—without experiencing the nausea, dizziness and other scary side effects still lingering from his brain injury. Instead of brooding about his bad luck, he spent the year slowly rebuilding. He focused on treating his body more kindly, on finding balance and a better sense of self-control and maintenance, the very things that had plagued his running career.
While many people would assume that running ultramarathons before the age of 20 would teach a person some of life’s most valuable lessons, Billy managed to do so while shunning any sense of personal growth. That Billy could run so well without taking care of himself made me, over the years, believe in his myth: that he just might be the one wild horse who could not be broken. After all the futile pleas begging him to take better care of himself that fell on deaf ears, I never could have predicted that all it would take was a seemingly innocent fall in his driveway to make the old Bonehead trade in his blundering, madcap, idiotic ways.
By the time I visited a year after his injury, I was shocked at the transformation. This wasn’t the same Billy Bonehead who had once collapsed at mile 91 while leading the Burning River 100-miler, unable to finish because he refused to eat or drink in the 100-plus-degree heat.
This wasn’t the same Billy Bonehead who once became so miserably lost at mile 65 of a 100-miler that he was forced to drop out—a statistic that doesn’t sound all that clodpolled until you learn that the course consisted of repeating the same 10-mile loop 10 times.
This was a man who was not only high functioning, but one who led an examined life. I found a man who taught troubled kids and who was loved by them. A man who stocked his cabinets with natural agave nectar instead of white sugar; a man who now carried food and water on long runs. Well … let’s not go overboard. Billy had suffered a brain injury, not a lobotomy. He still had some old habits, especially when it came to carrying food and water.
“We have water, right?” I asked as we drove to the Halape trailhead. Last time I had visited, a few months before his skateboard accident, we ran this same trail and he had told me that we didn’t need water because there was a catchment at eight miles, the halfway point. It was full-bore winter in Oregon, and the Hawaiian heat combined with the sun beating off the black lava field was a menacing combo. By the time we arrived at the halfway point I was dizzy with thirst, and the catchment barely had any water left. I didn’t want to risk depending on that as our only source this time around. Billy showed me his water bottle, and waved it in my face, annoyed.
“For the hundredth time, yes,” he said. Billy didn’t like owning extraneous possessions and only had one hand-held water bottle, and I’d forgotten to pack mine. We were sharing.
The exposed lava fields were just as hot as I remembered and about an hour in I asked Billy for water. He handed me the bottle. It was filled with some sort of gel.
“This isn’t water.”
“It’s better than water. It’s honey,” Billy beamed, proud of himself. “Magic honey.”
“Come again?” I said, starting to panic.
“I infused it with mushrooms. They are magic.”
“I don’t like magic mushrooms.” I tried to decide if I should be scared or pissed. Billy knew I wasn’t big into drugs. He knew I was already crazy without them, that the whole reason I kept running ultramarathons for the past 12 years was explicitly because it took a whole lot less than psychedelics to make me lose my mind.
“No, no. These mushrooms don’t make you trip. They make you hear everything. You’ll be able to hear a butterfly’s wings from a mile away.”
“I’m hot and thirsty. I need water, not good hearing.”
“Calm down, Jenn. There’s water in a few miles. The honey will make you relax. Trust me.”
Whether I ate the honey or not, I was still going to be in the same state of dehydration. I decided to eat the honey. I’d never heard a butterfly.
By the time we made it down to the beach at Halape where the catchment was located, I was so transfixed by the thundering roar of the ocean and the sound of crabs click-clicking as they scurried across the sand, that I almost forgot to get water. I had to hand it to Billy. I might be the more accomplished runner, but I still had a thing or two I could learn from the old Bonehead.
“Probably isn’t the most encouraging word, Doc, but I’ll take it,” says Billy with a laugh. He rifles through his drop bag and finds his extra pair of socks. It’s his fifth attempt at a 100-miler, but the first time he’s packed a drop bag. The race director, Bob McAllister, who is congratulating finishers as they straggle in, comes over to Billy’s chair.
“I remember you from 10 years ago,” he says. “You and your girlfriend were so cute, covered in mud from head to toe. Those were the worst conditions I’ve ever seen.”
“It was my first time ever dropping from a race,” Billy says, surprised the race director remembers him. “I had to come back this year and make it right. Then never again.”
“That’s what they always say,” Bob says with a knowing smile.
Billy replaces his wet, muddy socks with a dry pair and knows what he must do. He must stand and keep moving forward. Were he his 20-year-old self, the boy known to a million readers, there’s no way he’d continue on, knowing the 20 miles of misery that lay ahead. He’d stay in the chair; he’d never rise.
It takes him almost eight hours to stumble through the final loop. Halfway through he is surprised with a pacer. His friend, Patrick, has flown from Big Island once again to be by his side. This time Patrick hasn’t brought any watermelon ice cream, which is just as well, as the pain and the miles have reduced Billy to his truest nature. With 10 miles left to go, he refuses all food, all reason. Patrick watches as his friend, The Ghost, stumbles through the final miles. The doctor was right, his feet are too far gone and every step feels as shocking as the last, the pain as unrelenting as the coqui frog’s song at night. They are passed by almost every remaining participant, and though Patrick has never seen Billy lose a race, he swells with admiration each time Billy offers a kind word to each runner who shuffles past.
By the time they round the final rooted turn, most of the people have gone home, and they cross to zero fanfare.
The Bonehead, the turkey, the egg-layer, gets it done at last. Officially it takes him 34 hours 11 minutes, 13 hours slower than the winning time and less than two hours under the final cutoff. But really it takes him 10 years to run these 100 miles. He crosses the finish line and collapses into the same chair that he sat in 20 miles earlier while he changed his socks. He’s back in the same spot where he started, but he kept his promise—he kept moving forward. The taste of a hard-fought victory is sweet. It’s better than the first taste of a strawberry. It’s better, even, than magic.
Jenn Shelton lives in Durango, Colorado.
This article originally appeared in our April 2015/DIRT issue.