Shaun Shue

Closing out: Ultramarathons

I did my last ultramarathon.

I didn’t go in thinking it would be my last, but when I stumbled into the mile 29 checkpoint and devoured half a potato before I fully registered I was holding it, I knew.

It was a cool enough day to start the run with a long sleeved tech shirt, my favorite for sun protection. The course itself was beautiful, winding through forests and grasslands of Santa Barbara county. Some climbing, but not too much. The race directors were newer, but along with the volunteers, friendly and helpful. It started out with everything I enjoyed about ultras.

A coworker once asked what went through my head while I was running all day. Usually, it was everything and nothing: A song lyric on endless repeat, or noticing a rock that looked like that other rock. Like spending hours to analyze a minimalist artwork. Around mile 14 though, I was getting hungry and kept thinking about the two burrito-sized musubi packed in my halfway bag, cling wrapped, next to my change of shoes and just-in-case jacket. The marine layer was coming in, so I would take the jacket. But priority #1, musubi.

I called my number and “in” as I came into the halfway checkpoint. There were three volunteers by the fireroad, under shade structures. One marked me on her clipboard and I thanked her. I refilled my bottle with red sport drink and went to the bags, looking for the brown paper supermarket bag stapled in the middle and bearing my name. After triple checking, I was sure it wasn’t there. I let them know, and the volunteer with the walkie-talkie started asking about it. After a lot of back and forth, he concluded “It was probably sent to the 50 mile turnaround.”

Probably… I could have dropped, but given other issues with the race, I would have to wait at least a few hours cold and hungry for a support car. The next stocked checkpoint was 14 miles off, which at my trail pace would also have been a few hours. I drank my bottle, refilled it halfway and drank it, refilled it again, then called my number and “out.” Based on volume and flavor strength, I estimated that I drank about 300 calories and had 200 more in my bottle.

The marine layer came out in full force about five miles into that leg, and chilled me to my core. I wrapped my arms around my torso and tucked my non-bottle hand in my armpit. I knew I had to keep moving or I’d lose body heat, but I was so hungry, and my pace slowed to under 4 miles an hour. The grass became forest, and I looked for edible plants and wet spots of dirt to dig for worms. One mildly promising dirt patch on the south side of a tree turned to disappointment when I picked it with my toe, removing an inch of mud to reveal drought-baked hardpack underneath.

I trudged on, thinking about all the people who have had to endure far worse, and who weren’t given a choice in the matter. Mom. A few miles on, I came across five or six women going the opposite way on horseback. They had matching helmets and were dressed nicely, in a casual-classy style that people wear to a high-end brunch. Seeing the state I was in, the one closest to me offered a Coors Light and apologized that it was all they had. 100 calories, but cold, so very very cold. I politely declined, said thank you, and wished them a good trip. I went back to thinking about the people who have endured far worse.

It was at the last trail junction before the finish where I saw the mile 29 checkpoint. I saw the trays and camp stove set up on an aluminum folding table, and knew it would be stocked. The lone volunteer had a safari hat for the sun, wore his red jacket zipped up, and was sitting on a camp chair. I said my number and “in,” then took a foil-wrapped, boiled-and-salted potato. I bit into it, and the satiation, the warmth, the resolution hit all at once. I didn’t finish chewing or swallowing before I took a concluding bite and held the warm foil. That potato remains the best thing I have ever eaten. I stood by the camp stove, took and ate another potato, then ate three handfuls of peanut M&Ms. My primal instincts subsided, and I talked with the volunteer about what happened.

I didn’t enjoy that race, and as I stood there warming up over the pot of potatoes, I realized I didn’t enjoy ultramarathons. Not enough to keep doing them, at least. It wasn’t this negative experience. This just broke something that was going to break anyway. I realized I was doing them as a distraction from caregiving. It planted another flag to focus on.

I could find diversion in other things that I would actually enjoy. There would be other feats and other flags to plant. As Sir Edmund Hillary said, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”