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Ultra Crew

No! It was too early to be comatose! I struggled down winding singletrack, repeatedly forcing my eyelids back open. The fatigue was getting worse. I imagined myself swerving, like a blind drunk, over the side of the trail and down the soft pine duff.

It was only 11 a.m., and I had nearly 80 miles to go.

Just get to the aid station, I told myself. Coke is your salvation.

I fixated on the peppery sweetness of soda as I rounded the bend and saw the aid station. I wanted deliverance, but the first thing I saw was my sister. 

Ingrid had never been to an ultramarathon, let alone a 100-mile event. She thinks running more than a marathon is “kinda crazy,” and would much prefer spending her free time curled up on a couch with a blanket and “comfy socks.”

It’s not that she’s sedentary. Ingrid was awarded “All-School Athlete” her senior year of high school, and she plays basketball in a women’s rec league. It’s more that she enjoys her urban trappings and is resistant to any form of self-imposed suffering. 

My sister is also the only person who can make me laugh in the most dismal circumstances: funerals, break-ups, large family gatherings. I had imagined my first 100-miler—Angeles Crest in California—would be dismal at best, so I asked her to come.

That morning, as I hiked up mountains and descended switchbacks, I had lingering worries that Ingrid would hate the ultra experience and spend the weekend curled up with blankets and magazines in the back of the Subaru.

Yet there she was, baking in the hot sun next to a folding table loaded with food in the wilderness of Angeles National Forest, cheering my name—handing me Coke.

“What else do you need? How are you feeling?  Do you want some sunscreen?”

Without pause, Ingrid squirted a pile of sunscreen into her hand and turned my arms, shoulders and legs a blinding shade of white. I stood still, like a race car at a pit stop.

“So,” she said coolly while applying the lotion. “Gretchen and I have found some guys to set you up with.”

Oh, god, not now …

I needed to get back on the trail. The cutoff clock was ticking.

“There’s the guy with the beard, the other guy with the beard … We like the one with the dreadlock beard.”

I was laughing by the time Gretchen pried me away from my sister. I left the aid station wide awake and feeling strong.

For the next 24 hours, Ingrid prepared food, filled water bottles and retrieved layers of clothing. At mile 52, she even removed my shoes and socks and cleaned my disgusting hobbit feet—without being asked. 

I pushed through a couple more bouts of sleepiness, but finally crossed the finish line in 31 hours 42 minutes—with Ingrid by my side.

Two weeks later, Ingrid and I sat on a couch in my apartment and reminisced about the race. When I asked if she’d enjoyed crewing, her smile faded.

“I was so mad at you,” she said. “I felt tricked.”

“Really?!”

“Yes! I didn’t know we were going to be in the car the entire time, or that we wouldn’t be in civilization.” 

She said that by mile 52 my crew had run out of food and water, the bathrooms “were disgusting,” and they had to wait several hours for me. 

“I was starting to go stir crazy!”

I had thought she had seemed rather enthusiastic.

“I’ve never been so mad at you,” she continued. Then her face relaxed. “At the same time being so happy and so proud of you.” 

Ultrarunning is a sport of extremes, but, after we cross the finish line, only the highs seem to linger on. I’ll definitely sign up for another race.  And if ultracrewing is anything like running, Ingrid will be right there with me.

Claire Walla writes and runs in Los Angeles.