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On the Trail – Reminiscing Desert RATS

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On the Trail – Reminiscing Desert RATS by Gregg Lemkau

When I opened my eyes on the dawn of the 52-mile expedition stage, I was in good spirits.
A medic had lanced my toes the night before and wrapped them in various tapes. I thought I was ready to go, but after wiggling my toes and stretching my feet the thought of standing made my stomach turn. The blisters had healed and refilled overnight. I awkwardly placed my beaten pads softly on the ground. They hurt. Fluid pulsed once again across the virgin skin. I readied myself for the coming miles and stuffed extra supplies for foot care in my pack. Shoelaces loose and tongue stretched taut, I tried to slip my battered feet inside my shoes. Did some devilish desert pixie swap shoes with me overnight? I ate a bagel, downed some Heed and tried not to think about my extremities and the miles that lay before me.

At the start the Race Director told us that parts of the race today were going to be hot, desolate and hilly. The information was delivered as though it were a departure from the norm. While real competition in this race was limited to a handful of runners, we all shared the palpable charge in the air. Today’s stage was the true test of our resolve. The stage began. We trotted away from the crew and up a hill. The familiar crunch of soles on the trail calmed my nerves. We were damaged goods, having been tested for three days and 70 miles through a sun-baked sea of sand and rock. Today though, lore of the cool La Sal Mountains gave us new legs.
The first nine miles lacked significance. Early walking. Slow progress. Mounting pain. Hours into the stage, Entrada and Navajo Sandstone behemoths began to rise from the desert scrub. The overwhelming awe I felt in the presence of these formations was the reason I was running in the desert, it is why I am inexplicably linked to this hostile land. I was renewed. After three hours on my feet, twice the time it should have taken, I crested a hill and saw the Old Dewey Bridge and the first aid station. I hobbled down the path to the teenage son of a Scottish runner, assisting with the road crossing for safety. He was filthy, sullen and downright pissed-off that his father had dragged him to this forsaken corner of the Earth. We all liked him in camp. I gave him a thumbs-up, and he leaked a hint of a smile. His mistaken gift drove me forward.

It was a relief to get to the station and sit. I was frustrated by the condition of my feet and the crew’s jovial mood smothered me. I drained my toes, re-taped my foot, added a liner sock on one side and got on my feet again. Deflated, I started the long climb to the next water drop alone. One of the guys at the station yelled “what’s wrong – it looks like you are walking on glass!” It felt like I was. Out of habit I checked my Garmin but it was of little use. It had to remain off until mile 25, or it would not hold a charge for the rest of the stage. I had only the passing hours to gauge my progress.

I climbed slowly higher. I grew tired of the slope, and began to cuss at the trail when it offered a false crest. I questioned the path ahead whether it was going to be an “uphill” or a “downhill” and started to sing. From those miles came a short unsavory ditty about the “uphill prick-bastard,” a personification of the never-ending uphill climb. I laughed at my condition and trudged on, running for a minute on a relative flat and walking the next ten. When the trail meandered close enough to the face of a butte, I shouted to see if my voice would echo. My daughter tests an echo by shouting the name of her favorite stuffed animal. Sometimes the walls shouted “Goldie” back at me, and she filled me for that moment. One of the older guys running the race this year caught up with me a few miles before the first water drop. It was a nice change from the solitude of the last hours of solitary climbing, but it made me wonder whether I would finish within the cutoff. He immediately began to fart – seemingly uncontrollably. I ignored it, and asked him about past runs; running veterans are a wealth of valuable information. He began to tell me about trail running in its youth. A pause . . . more farting . . . still he did not address his flatulence. After a few more respectable rips he apologized and then told me he used Boost during races. It made him fart constantly. Apology out of the way, he found it easier to talk through the gas. He was farting more often than not – but it made me smile, and the laughs we shared eased the weight of the climb we were finishing together. At the first water drop we parted ways and I carried on alone – limping away from water, companionship, and an early finish.

To reach the next water drop I had to traverse a blistering canyon and cross the Rose Garden. The Rose (or Rock) Garden is a stretch of steep trail littered with boulders better suited for hiking than running. I had what I hoped was about 120 oz. of water when I left the drop, but was careless in my haste to get back on the trail. After a couple of hours of travel, I reached the interior of the canyon. The stifling heat waves parted only as I moved through them. With burnished skin and a sandy tongue, water conservation was difficult. A small alcove offering shade appeared around a bend. That 10 feet of shade was all the day would provide until sundown. I leaned against the cool sandstone, trading my heat for its soothing relief. It could have been habit forming, so I left quickly. Some time later, at a fork in the road, I began to show signs of fatigue. I found the telltale shoe prints showing which path to take, but decided not to trust them. A mistake could cost hours and probably the stage. Nothing crystallized, so I made the obvious choice against my own will – it was of course correct. Much of the trail at that point was rough, rutted, and unforgiving. Toenails ready to come off. Blisters separated by raw layers of skin. Walking on razor blades. I kept moving. Occasionally I mustered a joggy trudge, but mostly I walked. It is odd how so many hours can pass so quickly when one is enduring such pain. Maybe I have repressed those miles, but I’d like to think I was in a zone – listening to the wind and the earth, searching for signs of life.
A frequent companion traveling those slow miles was the desert fly (latin – buzzicus pissofficus). The noise a fly makes when it follows you in the desert seems altogether different than it does elsewhere. Maybe the difference is based in its confusion that this particular carrion was still moving. “Get off me” I told it. “I stink but I am not dead.” No luck. During the 40 mile stage I swatted at flies, now I just let them land on me. I am unsure whether I wanted the company or I thought it better to conserve my energy for forward momentum. The flies left within a couple of minutes, leaving me alone again with the desert, the sky, and my battered soles.
It was frustrating to feel so strong, yet be so limited by my body. There was nothing to do but keep on moving forward. I arrived at the Rose Garden. There were lots of rocks – from boulders to pebbles, sharp and rounded, laying lateral and perpendicular to my steps. This was no garden. Common gravel was the worst. It pierced my heat-softened soles and drove through to the battered pads of my feet. Every now and then, I stopped to drink and rest. I’d kiss the desert stained bracelet my daughter made for me, thank her out loud, and keep moving forward. I tried to gauge my progress, but matching mesa outcroppings to my stage map proved unsuccessful. There seemed to be an infinite number of them, proving my map-reading skills, my stage map (or both) deficient. I caught a glimpse of a solitary monolith miles away, gracing an entirely different canyon system. Others had traveled this way long ago. Did they also view this relic of the Earth with such reverence? The thought nourished my soul. They pulled me closer to home.

Climbing out of the Rose Garden, I saw someone above me on the horizon. It looked as though he were filling up a bladder. Common sense told me it could not be the next water drop. “Tell me that is water,” I shouted. The person responded, and I decided it was a “yes.” When I got to the top of the hill, I found the RD and no water. Reid asked me if I was out, and I told him I was close. He immediately offered me some water from his handheld but I declined, hoping to get to the drop without his help. He asked me how I felt, and I told him that but for my feet I felt strong. We walked in an unsettled silence. Reid asked me if I would continue the stage after the next aid. I could not comprehend the question. I felt the need to show him I was not unprepared, so I began to tell him the story of how I ended up doing the race. Years before now, when the event was still young, I stumbled upon the site for Desert RATS. There was an immediate draw to spending days running through an unspoiled area most people don’t even know exists. I had only trained for a marathon, but found long runs more fulfilling. In a short email I asked him what it took to be prepared for such a race. He responded, suggesting I had at least an ultra under my belt. I found a 50M I could do, and decided that I was slowly going to work my way towards RATS. I told him “I guess you could say the reason I have continued to run all these years is to be right here, right now, doing this.” There was silence again, but this time it felt right. My mouth now completely dry, I accepted his repeat offer of water. Renewed by his visit, I trudged on towards the next water drop, now only minutes away.

I left the second water drop quickly, anxious to get more miles under my feet, and finally started my watch. I drew strength from the information I knew it would offer. Quarter-miles would tick away slowly, but as long as forward momentum existed, I would reach the next aid. I had saved my music for a time when it was most needed and I could wait no longer. The boys of Wilco and Alterbridge helped me more than I could have guessed. Every song was written for this moment. Each strum of the guitar, every beat of the drum and every note sung massaged the pain from my conscience. After an hour plus of walking on shredded feet, I came over the top of a rise in the desert floor and spotted flags at the second aid station. I took off my headphones, anxious to hear a noise from another being. Within minutes the telltale “woohoo” from John, a volunteer and the father of another runner in this year’s race, bounced off the butte walls. I broke into a jog, knowing that his smiling face would be there, ready to fill me up with a dose of feel-good and send me off on the next leg of my journey. I hobbled the last 100 feet towards temporary rest. Relief filled me when I saw Trevor, the foot-fixing guru. I just sat at first, unable to think about removing my shoes. After water and ginger ale, I slowly took off my first shoe so Trevor could assess the situation. “Woah, you are in bad shape, dude” he announced. I asked if I was the last on the course. “Every runner behind you has dropped. You gonna’ keep going?” He asked. My response was the only one I could have uttered at this point. “I want to see every mile of this race. Fix me up so I can finish this. I think I still have enough time left.” I handed him my son’s mini Gerber knife and some K-tape. He rubbed the blade on an alcohol pad, and dug into my left pinky toe. I gritted my teeth and gripped the arms of the chair. He pressed the fluid out. Stars filled my vision. “Oh man, it looks like you have a second blister under the first one . . . you sure you want to do this?” he asked. “Just get it over wit.” I pleaded. Again, Trevor began to slice into my toe. It would not pop. “I am having trouble, it’s pretty leathery skin under there” he said as he sawed through the second layer. It reluctantly gave. He squeezed as hard as he could on the raw skin. The pain was numbing, but all I could do was look at my watch and calculate how fast I’d have to travel the remaining miles to finish the race before the cutoff. There was so much attention on my feet, I’d stopped eating or drinking. Trevor finished his work and I cautiously replaced my shoes and socks and got up to leave. A thousand microscopic needles drove through the virgin skin. The first steps were the most excruciating. I spotted a bag of chips, and asked if I could take them. I’d refuel on the go. As I stepped away from the tent, John began to cheer again. I asked him if he might do it in slow motion to match my pace. His laugh strengthened my stride as I sauntered away. I washed the chips down with cool water, hoping that darkness would come soon. Energy replenished and feet stabilized, I started to jog some. So began the slow climb into the LaSalle Mountains. On went the headphones to let Mr. Tweedy croon away the pain. My pads felt usable, so I did a fast walk on the downhills and straights, and loped on the ups. Up the twisted path carved through the desert facade I climbed for hours, aided periodically by a huge butte blocking the setting sphere of heat. I thanked the running gods for their mercy.
I took off my headphones to take in the surroundings. Deafening silence. Another participant in the race decided to ride the stage that day, and I heard her catching up to me on the trail. It was good to see another human being. We exchanged a few words about the benevolence of the waning temperature. Little else was said. We played leapfrog for a while as darkness approached and decided together to don our headlamps. As we began to climb a large hill, she dismounted and walked alongside her bike. I thought of all the riders on that day – it was no easy task to haul a bike through the Rose Garden. Although my speed was slow, walking the bike was cumbersome, and I said good-bye to Wendy for the time being. I reached the top of the mesa by starlight, inhaled a cool breath of pine-laden air, and watched the fading colors of the forest ahead of me. The La Sal Mountains! The water drop was not far, and I filled up for the trek to the last aid. I put on my long sleeve shirt to meet the advancing cold, and moved towards the looming sentinels.

After four days in the desert, the huge pines seemed out of place. Although I had looked forward to this stretch of the race, it was no easy task to carry on in the dark. My legs were shot, my depth perception was poor, and every time I started to run, pockets of soft sand threw me forward. A new blister along my left heel was forming. The forest on both sides grew ever thicker. The exhilaration of reaching the mountains relented to the eerie silence of the darkening path through the woods. What roams just past that stand of Aspen? What was that noise off to the side? What the hell are those wraithlike eyes looking at me? It took a moment to remember they belonged to cows grazing on BLM land. Whenever I found a sturdy part of the road I jogged, aided by the nighttime jitters. A couple of miles before reaching the last aid station, I saw a light approaching. I knew I had more time, but wondered whether the race organizer had decided to stop me. It was Ajul, part of the crew from Boulder. He gave me his characteristic thumbs up, and filled me in on the status of the other racers. The lead runner had seen a bear on the trail. That was no help in the moonless night. He also told me I was closing in on the last aid station. It gave me a much-needed boost, but not for long. After realizing we were still miles away, I reverted to an uncomfortable shuffle, and Ajul left to find the last rider. No music for now. I heard the sound of rushing water, and knew I must be at the waterfall the RATS veterans had mentioned. “My goal is to cross it in the daylight this time” one had said. I was happy to have reached it at all.
I reached Aid 3 at 11:30 p.m. – the last runner to check in. They were staying open for me, volunteering their time so I could finish. It was humbling and energizing all at once. All of the others had begun their last miles or dropped long ago. I was the worst, the slowest, and maybe the dumbest (for trying this), but I knew I would finish the stage. After a quick refuel, I decided to set off. Too close to home to rest now. Six miles left. Six. A number that during training was short now seemed insurmountable. I knew it would take well over an hour; my walking was labored and slow. I left the last station alone, but it was not long before Wendy passed me up, and I had three new companions for the remainder of the ride. The course sweepers had finally arrived. I was spent, but their enthusiasm was sincere, and it kept me going. I do not remember much about those last miles. My blister ridden feet pulsed painfully. Walking took real concentration. I wanted to crawl into the ditch on the side of the road and sleep for a while, but the sweepers pushed me on. Finally, after a couple of hours of walking, the sweepers pointed out the lights in the distance. Base camp! The twinkling lights helped me straighten my spine, forget the pain, and find enough energy to trot to the finish. As soon as base camp saw us coming they started to cheer, flash lights on and off and play music. They stayed awake to bring home the last arrival. Choking back tears of gratitude, I crossed the finish line around 1:30 a.m., fell into a chair and thanked all of my trail comrades. Camp cleared in a matter of minutes. Happy silence. I accepted a last grilled cheese, ate, gave thanks, and said goodnight. As I entered my tent, a few sleepy runners stirred to congratulate me. I smiled in the darkness and fell to my pad, slowly pulled my shoes off and crawled into my bag.

Given the day’s events, I thought sleep would come quickly. It did not. As I lay down that night, my feet throbbed and legs ached in a way I have never felt before. But my heart was filled with joy. My tired, desert-beaten body sang a song to me – not some silly ditty about the troubles of trail running, but an epic song of ancient mesas, austere monoliths and the unrelenting heat of the red-rock canyons. A song of the sky, a blue so deep and striking one cannot describe it with words alone. A song of the living, breathing Earth under my shoes giving me strength to travel through Her beauty. It came not from one voice, but from the many people I like to call my Desert R.A.T.S. family. It is a song that will not soon be forgotten.
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