Reaching Sin City and Beyond
The pain and pleasure of running an unsanctioned ultra-relay race through the desert
I have spent months in a garage with two space heaters propped up and teetering on overturned plastic buckets pointed at the center of a treadmill I bought secondhand. I have watched entire seasons of teenage vampire drama television shows on Netflix while running on this treadmill after abandoning audiobooks I dutifully tried to get through. I have worn holes into the backs of three pairs of running shoes clear through to the heel counter. I’ve had my gait and running biodynamics analyzed by a sports therapist.
I have stood naked in an insulated octagonal chamber filled with liquid nitrogen. I have fought inflammation and won.
I have seen the sky turn deep blue while the mountains were still cast black in shadow before the earth had fully turned towards the sunrise. I have seen a lot of road. I now know intimately the various functions and settings on a Garmin Forerunner 945 watch (along with the many ways it can fail).
I have eaten frozen sealed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches wrapped in thin crinkly plastic. I have eaten pickles swimming in vinegar with dill and garlic. I have consumed state-of-the-art liquid carbohydrates suspended in “biopolymer matrixes.” I have eaten Cup-O-Noodles ramen with my hands, for the sodium alone.
I have watched a teammate peel back the skin on a blister the size of two silver dollars on the arch of her foot. I have watched her tape gauze over it then go and run 5k after 5k after 5k over hot blacktop, loose gravel, and sand. I have watched another teammate puke with an arm against the side of the RV for support before going out to run a few more miles. I have seen friends reach their limits–and keep going.
I have clipped off whole toenails down to the cuticle after draining blood welled up beneath them in blisters that had pushed the nails from their beds. I have soaked a tank-top in ice and water and tied it to my head during the high heat of the day.
I have watched a disco ball hanging from a Joshua Tree spin in the evening twilight. I have seen a graveyard of broken-down commercial planes and abandoned aircraft at the far reaches of the Mojave. I have screamed at dogs in the night to stay back. I have strapped lights to my body. I have been followed by an old limousine on a sand-covered road in the dark and had a light shined in my face while a stranger asked me questions. I have watched a headlamp bounce a dull beam on the side of a road for miles slowly dying to a mere dim glow.
I have fallen asleep while zippered into compression boots that made sounds like a ventilator, beeping as air pumped through fabric chambers working pressure up and down my legs. I have felt the full terror of the unknown when an inebriated man blocked our car with his in the middle of a bridge and got out to approach my teammates and me late into the night.
I have run across the hottest place on Earth for a total of 9 hours 11 minutes and 24 seconds. I have taken on 63 miles of a 340-mile course from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. I averaged 8:45 minutes per mile running through temperatures ranging from the low 40s to 103-106 degrees in Death Valley depending on which car thermometer you want to believe reporting the heat coming off the asphalt. I have seen the Vegas lights in the valley from 20 miles in the distance.
I have been sprayed with champagne and confetti beneath marquee lights. I have paid more than I care to admit for jalapeño margaritas at a hotel pool in Vegas riding an ebbing wave of adrenaline and delirium. I have put a poker chip hanging from a dog chain between my teeth and grinned.
It was the Speed Project.
Signs of a scorpion sting include intense pain, numbness, and tingling. In a way, it is not unlike the sensation one gets from a pinched nerve. On my first segment of the course, I had a little over 4 miles through L.A. and had tied my shoes too tight. This resulted in one leg starting to get pins and needles about 2 and a half miles in then quickly going completely numb by the time I reached the RV for the handoff. I regained feeling after loosening the laces—it’s an easy fix to get the pressure off the metatarsal region, but a stupid, nervous mistake. It was painful in a brief, disorienting way that let fear creep in.
In the days immediately leading up to the race I was haunted by the parable of the Scorpion and the Frog. If you’re not familiar with the fable, here’s Orson Welles telling it in Mr. Arkadin:
I prefer the translation with the scorpion saying it’s in his “nature” rather than “character,” but that might be a distinction without a difference—the point remains the same and both creatures still drown as a result of the scorpion’s decision and behavior. But it’s not just about the nature of the scorpion, it’s about the nature of the frog, too. The frog demonstrates its own nature to trust the scorpion’s promises and inclination to help the scorpion.
The only other pain I dealt with was an intermittent tightness at my hip and IT band that seemed to dissipate after laying on the ground in pigeon pose at a gas station before Death Valley.
I’m not going to lie, my legs were sore. Pretty much everything hurt, just from the sleep deprivation alone. Darlene gave Forrest and me massages to get knots out and she seemed alarmed at the state of my quads by the time we got to the Old Spanish Highway. But it wasn’t anything I didn’t know or wasn’t expecting—not real pain. Soreness has something sweet under it, all the micro-tears in the muscle fiber will heal back stronger.
I was worried about the hip pain before in the lead-up to the race. I didn’t even want to directly acknowledge it like I did with my fears about nutrition. I’ve had trouble with it before and done races in the past where I had a whole roll of kinesio tape wrapped around my side fighting sharp stabs with each step stubbornly in denial making it worse. But somehow, I avoided reinflaming that injury, by what miracle or grace from a higher power, I do not know.
Any time it flares up I’m reminded of the whitewashed yoga-ism “the hips are the emotional junk drawer of the body.” Before the desert, I pictured a drawerful of scorpions I had collected pinching me as I ran. But they didn’t bother me once I was finally out there.
In the original Persian iteration of the story it’s not a frog at all, but a turtle who carries the scorpion across the river. Learning this felt like a significant cross-over given that other story of animal foils runners love: the tortoise and the hare. The shell protects the tortoise from the scorpion’s sting.
I want to say I learned some great lesson about the sublime austere beauty of the desert conquering all, but I don’t know if it’s true or if human brains are even wired to work that way.
Our brain’s primary function is to keep us alive. What that looks like in practice after putting the body through severe trials is to focus on threats and the moments of greatest danger to avoid or survive them should they be faced again. This is a normal and healthy response to stress—when it tips over into preoccupation and hypervigilance is when it begins to be cause for concern. Still, these are not the moments I wish stood out in my memory even if I understand why, from a sense of self-preservation, they would.
The moments I felt like myself far outweighed the times I was afraid. Before the race a friend and I talked about the exercise of writing down and recognizing the moments and memories in your life when you feel or felt most happy so that you might replicate that feeling more easily and regularly. The first time I made that list it was almost exclusively experiences of running alone in new places.
Among my many toxic traits is upon seeing that the solo runners had dice on their dog chains along with the poker chips was an immediate desire to earn those as well—to go back out and run it alone.
But the one thing this experience gave me that I had been lacking and wanting, was being on a team I not only fully trusted and respected but genuinely enjoyed being with and learning from. My history of being on teams is not a healthy one (I would not wish NCAA athletics on my worst enemy). I do think the GRIT team redeemed my sense of teamwork, fellowship, solidarity, and possibility. Joey on the team put it best: “Although I spent some lonely hours in the dark and in the middle of nowhere, I never really felt alone.”
We didn’t end up getting team tattoos together in Vegas. All of us were pulled in different directions by family and exhaustion. But I think I know now what I’m going to get to commemorate the Speed Project.
Thank you for reading along these past 10 weeks! Look forward to a few updates ahead of Boston.
Hannah! Thank you for sharing the past 10 weeks with us. You’re writing has drawn me in every week and as a former runner (my hips finally won after 49 years) it’s been fun to follow your journey. I look forward to your Boston posts. It’s right around the corner!
Reading this all I could think of was Roy Batty….
“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe... Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion... I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain... Time to die.“