With sweat-stained shirt and wobbly knees, a gaunt trail-runner made his way gingerly back up the steep trail, holding head high while hiding his insecurities amidst cheers from his family and friends. He had battled his way through 50 miles of rugged terrain--And this wide-eyed 100-mile runner was realizing that the Palisades Ultra took no prisoners.
A perfect 6:00 am temperature had been accompanied with high hopes and excitement…Legs were strong, and more importantly, so was his will to finish. To meet the challenge head-on. To achieve his dream of finishing a race with such extreme terrain... And importantly, to show his son and daughter that nothing is impossible.
But racing has an uncanny knack for knocking down even the most determined runner, imperceptibly at first, but with an increasing degree of terrible finality. After a few miles, most can no longer ignore the constant blisters and side-aches, the unrelenting heat and the hills. With quads and lungs begging for respite, a tiny voice begins to murmur, until whispers of self-doubt lead to screams of desperation... “Why did I sign up for this race?” “Did I train hard enough?” “Will this forest ever stop climbing?” and “Should I have eaten that last plate of bacon?”
And so, In the dwindling hours of daylight, thousands of steps and sweat drops from the adrenaline-filled start, and yet worlds away from the distant finish, a broken man sits in an overused camp chair, swallowing ginger ale as his young children crowd at his feet, pride in their eyes for the hero sitting before them.
“Are you tired?”
“Did you see any bears?”
“Did you miss us, daddy?”
“When are you going to finish?”
With his “Plan A” now impossible, his “Plan B” too unnerving, and even his “Plan C” looking unlikely, Dan made a hasty decision: In spite of the discouraging fact that there was no way he would reach the finish line, he choose to prolong his agony just a bit more. To stumble into the night, for the simple purpose of giving his kids a few more hours of knowing that their hero was in fact indomitable in both body and spirit.
Mike Tyson famously said “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Although ultra-runners don’t typically fear getting hit, the sentiment couldn’t be more true for those who have gone ten, twenty, or thirty rounds with a brutal wilderness, where every creek is a mortal enemy, when even the roots grasp upward in attempts to send you sprawling. For Dan, mid-way through the hardest journey he’d ever undertaken, he couldn’t have felt more punch-drunk if his eyes had been swollen shut.
And yet on he marched, spending the better part of the night with only the moonlight and mosquitoes as his companions. At roughly 2:00 am, he stumbled into the next aid station… And following some attention from aid-station volunteers, he promptly collapsed by the campfire for a couple hours of desperate sleep. And sleep he did, dreaming as deeply as he ever had, until a race director showed up just before the sunrise, helped him into his truck, and drove him back to the camping area at the finish, while listening attentively to the emotional tale of the night a stoic runner spent in the wilderness, wishing for rest, but happily knowing that two wide-eyed youngsters would sleep soundly in the knowledge that their hero was flying high.
-By Jeremy Smith, RD Palisades Ultra Trail Series
This Article was published in the Mountain Running Magazine, click here to check out other great articles featured on their website and to subscribe.
Pictured above: After mile 50 , Dan's family proudly walking their hero to begin a brutal 2 mile 2k of vertical climb as he departs in the waning light for another punishing 9 miles in the dark, knowing he will not finish, but not wanting to quit in front of his children. His son & daughter were so proud of completing the Critter-Kids 1 mile race a few hours before and kept on their bibs and medals to show dad how they too were trail runners.