Posted by: cousindampier | 31 October 2017

200 Miles to Sandpoint

 

Someone once told me that when a friend of a friend is about to help you out, it’s either going to be the most spectacular story or total disaster, with no in between. Kelsey wasn’t exactly a friend of a friend – many New Years Eve’s ago, we were assigned a McDonald’s run for the rest of the family – but that was the only real time we’d ever spoken. She was the one putting the team together.

I’d heard about it through a few other people throughout the early summer and never bothered to pay attention because I had commitment issues. I didn’t know where I would be at the end of August, and I kept saying no but the race wouldn’t die. Her brother, Aaron – taught me everything I know about soccer and bartending, usually at the same time – was already driving one of the vans, and his wife Marina – Mar – kept asking me.

I hadn’t run a mile since early June, when I was in Reykjavik and the sun was in the sky until almost midnight and I spent the evenings running wherever I wanted, away from the surreal aura which midnight often brings. Later, as I made my way up Ramsey Road in a part of Idaho I didn’t know existed, the darkness hugging my shoulders and a headlamp guiding the way, I spent miles thinking about the Reykjavik sun and how long it seemed to take to fall away from earth.

I’d hurt myself too many times over the past three years – strange pains behind my knees, strained iliotibial  bands, tight hamstrings. Being a runner – in the sense that it bites into your soul and makes itself part of your identity – was something I resigned to my past, my twenties. I’d started to find new outlets which hurt less and my running dropped off

I didn’t know that the Gruis family were relay race veterans, nor that Kelsey had a system down for this. All I knew was what Mar promised me – running. She kept asking. My buddy Curtis signed up as well and I still found a dozen reasons to say no. I had to get shifts covered at work. I had a dissertation to work on. I wasn’t a distance runner anymore. Yet, as I opened my mouth to say no, what came out was “right on, let’s do this.”

And so I found myself as the 11th of 12 legs on the 200 mile relay race from Spokane, Washington to Sandpoint, Idaho, moving down a mountain and through a city before hitting the lakes and hills of Idaho.

****

The basics first: The team was 12 people, split into two vans. Each van had three segments, six legs to a segment, so we all ran three times. Although the distance of the race was 200 miles, the actual distance from Spokane to Sandpoint was about 90 miles – the race began on the top of Mt. Spokane and wound its way down to the west, running through Spokane along the Centennial Trail before turning around in Riverside State Park and finally making its way back to the east towards Coeur d’Alene and then north to Sandpoint.

Looking at a map of the route beforehand, my Dad, who’d lived in Spokane his entire life and visited areas of the state which I know only as legend, studied the route north from Coeur d’Alene to Sandpoint before passing his judgment: “I didn’t know you could get to Sandpoint that way.”

2017 was the tenth edition of the race, and the rumors beforehand made it seem like there might not be an 11th. As difficult as it may be to run, the logistics are worse – signs every turn for a 200 mile span while ensuring – and worrying – about the safety and security of the runners. 12 people run throughout a Friday night in parts of Idaho where the only light comes from stars, only to emerge on Saturday morning at the tip of a massive lake.

Two vans. Six runners per van. One starts at the top of Mt. Spokane, heading west, which – if you look at a map – is not the way to Sandpoint, yet after curling around a state park on the other side of Spokane the long run east begins.

Knowing all of this, I joined up with the group late.

I’d been working on a dissertation for the better part of a month, and I was stressed and tired. The project spiraled, and my organization skills were lacking. While the rest of the crew was on the top of Mt. Spokane early in the morning Friday, I begged Kelsey to let me join around noon, a few hours before I had to run.

I joined just before Micah’s leg. A cousin of Kelsey and Aaron, he was both humble and witty. Later, I understood the importance of having both of these qualities when dealing with the race. As I met up, it made for a warm environment.

His leg was short, just over three miles. Micah was a strong runner, able to push himself in what seemed like a dead sprint, a linebacker hurtling towards the finish line. He was wearing a headband, and seemed like a mix of Paulie Bleeker and Richie Tenenbaum, only much faster than both and I had just a few minutes to warm up and go.

The baton we handed off was a Carhartt snap bracelet, the kind you undo rigidly and snap back over your wrist. I was in the parking lot when someone saw Micah in the distance; everything went into the van and I tore off my shirt and threw it on the hood, grabbing a water bottle and headphones, and sprinted to the starting line. An old work buddy was at the starting line, and I stopped for a moment to say hello only to glance over my shoulder and see Micah bearing down on me like an antelope sees a lion. I yelped and grabbed the bracelet and ran.

I’d run most of this six-mile trail before. The Centennial Trail is a popular running route which requires little stopping; but away from the downtown core it has enough bends and curves to get lost in. Headed upstream, it follows a two lane-road at first, and I started fast. A few honks from cars followed me, either because of the American flag short-shorts and socks combo, or because the pale whiteness of my back and legs blinded the drivers as they passed.

The path began to deviate in the first mile, wandering away from the road and through a little shade along what looked like a slow-moving river. Across the way the ground rose quickly, emphasizing the banks of the old river valley. Flowing west from Lake Coeur d’Alene, the Spokane River is the perfect middle-class river for a middle-class city: broad, but not too broad, and fast – but not too fast. It points the way west, towards the ocean and we were following it to the foothills of the Rockies.

I wasn’t good with the heat, and the streets were brutal. Like much of Spokane, the road along the river was under construction and I was re-routed through some residential streets. The shade was almost entirely gone and I pounded pavement in the spotlight of the sun. When the detour dumped me back onto Upriver Drive, I was high above the river’s edge and away from the trees alongside it. I dreaded this part of the train, just after the uphill when there was no time to recover before facing a mile alongside the road with no shade and no recovery. The van passed with a honk and some cheers, or because they were also blinded, and parked further along.

The halfway point of my run was at a turnoff near Minnehaha Park, a popular climbing and biking area. It’s pretty, in its own way – the river straightens out behind Upriver Dam, with an airfield on the right and a small park on the left. Mar held some beef jerky and Aaron some water and I took a sip from both and tried to look like I was doing allright. I was pouring out sweat and I had to use the toilet, and I nibbled on a piece of jerky and headed off again, hoping to seem like I was making good time towards the end, mostly because the trail began to move through the brush and I wanted to use the opportunity to step aside and take a piss.

Water adds an expansive dimension to running that is both mesmerizing and intimidating. The breath of openness brings a feeling of smallness, of fitting into the world as a small piece amongst everything going on around you. Simultaneously, you can usually see some obstacle in the distance which you’re aiming for, and it never seems to get closer. Depending on the curve of the water, it sometimes seems to get further away, and it is usually at that point you start cursing yourself and path you chose and why you even run in the first place when you could be drinking beer instead.

For the most part, running over the river valley was the former, and as I moved away from it and headed through more residential streets I said a silent goodbye in words that made no sense.

About two miles after the Van met me, up a hill and through some residential streets, I arrived at a school where I passed the bracelet to Toni. She took off towards the east and I limped towards the van, hip on fire, to drink some water.

top of Mt Spokane

From the top of Mt. Spokane

****

The sun set by the time we reached Coeur d’Alene. The other van picked up from Toni near Maribeau Point in the Spokane Valley and made it across the Idaho border and to Coeur d’Alene in good time. Curtis was the first to run, and his leg was there to simply add miles – it was an out-and-back leg through the park and along Lake Coeur d’Alene, six miles in all, pushing the total mileage close to 200.

Curtis was already in love with the race. He’d been a cross-country runner in high school, and van life brought back memories of road trips past. We’d nearly matched on the first leg – his American-themed socks had little wings on them – and he was ready to go, moving around jogging for a few blocks to warm up. He’d knocked out his first leg of 3.5 miles at a fast pace – seven minutes per – but during the downtime back at Toni and Micah’s place he’d spoken of being sore and spent the better part of an hour with me stretching his legs out. This run was flat, and he wasn’t as sure of his time and speed.

It was the recurring theme of the weekend. The distance wasn’t the problem – the longest run for either van was ten miles, and they usually fell between five and seven. The challenge was the recovery. We were all pushing ourselves on the runs, and only to face a rest period of about ten hours before having to go again. We did the obvious stuff – compression and movement and water – but we were still living out of the backseat of a van, sleeping on the floor or against the window, and as our Van took over the baton, I was aware that the next two days would be strung together by hope. My calves felt strong. My hamstrings did not.

Curtis agreed with me, and then he went out and ran six miles in about 40 minutes, remaining ridiculous.

It was somewhere between 10 and 11 pm when he finished, passing the baton to Mar. She’d been trapped by work during the summer and hadn’t had enough time to train either, and the run and rest grind was starting to wear at her. She’d run her three and hand it to Kelsey and it was sometime during Kelsey’s run that the day shifted to Saturday and we moved out into the cold, rural part of the course. Kelsey’s run began in the middle of a park and ended in the middle of nowhere, and I imagined the middle of her run the same – a dark nothing. We weren’t in the mountains, but we’d made it to the hills, and as Micah took over and ran my time resting grew limited.

Houselights burned as we passed them, and for a short period we were on an arterial, closed-down businesses flowing beside us. A gas station light up and we drove past it to a parking lot by a deserted field. It seemed to be a school sports field, tall chain-link fences surrounding wet, green grass which sucked up the light provided by a few street lamps into a thick darkness.

I jogged through the hazy parking lot. My legs remained tight and I was about to enter this stretch of run, seven and a half miles, on a prayer. I didn’t trust my right knee, and both of my hamstrings were sore and there was no time to think about it because Micah suddenly appeared out of the darkness, as if launched from a black hole, and into the spotlights provided by the race. He handed the bracelet to me and I started off into the darkness, down a rural road in Idaho I’d never heard of.

****

Everything is bigger at night, which is strange because you can’t see as far. What you lack for vision, however, you make up for in imagination, because just beyond that line of sight might be anything. That light in the distance, which you’d never notice in the day, suddenly stands out, both a beacon and a warning.

Seven and a half miles in the dark didn’t seem like much. The yearly road race in Spokane is almost equal in length and I kept telling Mar that I was just running that race, Bloomsday, except at one in the morning, and for all my worries about my knee it started fast. Out of the parking lot, the road ran straight, gravel edge with a street in the distance. The Van sped past, and then another, and I crossed the street we’d arrived on and then I was alone.

In any run, the first mile is settling in. I kept adjusting my pace, counting my steps, 42 every 15 seconds, remembering that cadence fixes form. I ran with some arm warmers and a bottle of water, iphone in the other hand. I was there, thinking about every step, working for the flow I knew would come.

And then sometime around the second mile, or maybe after, the night began to shift. For a race defined by the people – the Van, other runners, houses and crowds along the route – I was suddenly in the antithesis. In the far distance, I saw a light. Or I thought I did, for it would come and go and I wondered if it was real, maybe a runner, or if it was some reflection of a houselight or passing car. I’d run along large fields, stretching forever until they mixed with the sky, a swirl of paint, and only the stars let me know that the horizon was finished. Then a house would appear, its single light more ominous than the night. The dirty trick of the nighttime was that light is more ominous than the dark itself.

It began to get to me, not in the fearful way as much as the sublime. It was not as though nobody would notice if I disappeared – the Van surely would, and they needed their damn baton-bracelet – it was more that there was an infinite space to disappear in. I felt tiny compared to the dark, as if it were a big, ominous ocean which was allowing me to traverse through it. And as I moved from house to house, field to field, and tree to tree, I began to understand that. I understood that the night was bigger than me.

Lots of things appear out of nowhere in the night, although they should not. The lights of the Van were visible to me for miles, only guarded by the curve of the road, but the trick with light in the dark is that you never know what form it may take. Sometimes a porch light, other times six people with water and Gatorade and encouraging words. I stopped for a minute and then I was off again and the Van passed and I was left to Ramsay Road and Northern Idaho.

Strange thoughts creeped into my head. I started to wonder if there were bears in northern Idaho. I tried to remember what I needed to do if I saw a bear – was I supposed to play dead or get big and loud to scare it away? – and I turned this over in my head for a bit before realizing that if I saw a bear, I’d be dead before I decided what to do. I kept glancing over my shoulder just to make sure and around the end of the fourth mile I looked over my right shoulder and saw two eyes staring back at me and nearly had a mess. A deer stood and stared at me not more than ten feet away, and I started to think about some statistic I’d read a long time ago stating that deer killed more people every year than bears, and I hustled away only to have the world ahead of me explode in noise and light.

My route was simple. Five miles straight. Take a left, and two and a half miles to the finish. The map warned of three potential pauses – a two-lane highway, and two railroad tracks. All three were empty, but the map failed to mention the third railroad track just before the left turn, which had the biggest, most immense train I’d ever seen running along it. It reminded me of when Martin Sheen arrived at the base along the river in Apocalypse Now, with the christmas lights strung across the bridge and the sudden noise of partying. In the middle of the night, the train seemed like a nuclear bomb.

The Van was there too, stopped by the train, and I stood and waited for it to pass. They sped forward, two and a half more miles, to meet me at the end, and I turned down a small side road lit by a dying red light on a cone marking the route. Once the turn happened, and that second straightaway hit, the run – until this point, somewhat of an experience – turned into a race, the last stretch of road leading to the handoff point.

A slight downhill led to a large field on my left with a massive view of the sky, the field ending only when the stars began, and as the road moved uphill away from it I saw the sign indicating one mile to go and as hard as I tried to move faster, to hit a final, eight-minute mile, the best I could manage was a steady pace, just like the turtle in the fable and just as slow.

A gas station appeared and I handed the baton to Toni. Curtis smacked me on the ass, and I crawled into the back seat of the Van and was asleep before we started moving.

****

Somewhere, Micah acquired a bullhorn.

I remain unaware of exactly where it came from. Kelsey may have brought it with her, or, in a flash of foresight, Micah realized exactly how useful it would be. Like many Greek myths, the origins were never clear, so it was considered fate and credit given to the Gods.

While I never found out where it came from, it was as if Micah found his medium. The bullhorn became his paintbrush, and the race had become his canvas, and he was determined to leave his mark on the world.

As we drove to meet Toni, and then to the resting spot for the night, I only awoke once. As the rest of the van drifted asleep, only Micah and Aaron remained awake, and to ensure that Aaron remained awake and diving, Micah found it necessary to sit in the passenger’s seat and occasionally use the bullhorn to communicate with.

At this point – a day in – it was normal, almost background noise. I learned that bullhorns have a use inside of a car, to communicate which turn to take, or to ask for food, or to amplify bodily noises. It had never occurred to me to use a bullhorn inside before; but I was merely an apprentice. I only awoke once that drive, to the sound of Aaron and Micah giggling uncontrollably in the front and the screech of the bullhorn being used, and I rolled over and smiled knowing that all was good.

****

I woke up curled on the backseat of the van to the deep sound of Curtis’s voice as he swore to himself.

Looking at my phone, I saw a text from the other van. One of their runners texted saying she had just a few miles left, and Curtis was the next runner to go. He had – at best – thirty minutes to get his stuff together and wake up enough to start out an eight mile run.

My legs were tight and sore, although they did not hurt. That was crucial, because I somewhat expected my right knee to explode in pain when I awoke. Curtis cracked the van to a warm July morning and started warming up. He had this pre-workout mix with enough caffeine to kill a small child and sucked it down while doing a light jog around the school.

The parking lot was full, and everybody else was still asleep.

This should’ve been our first hint that something was wrong, but after three or four hours of sleep that kind of thinking was difficult. Someone woke Marina and Kelsey, the runners scheduled after Curtis, and they started moving too.

Ten minutes passed. Curtis wasn’t happy, but he was ready to go.

Another ten. And then another.

Kelsey texted the first van, and went from confused to shocked in a cocaine heartbeat. The group text we received was from their third runner; they still had three more to go. Curtis wasn’t about to run, he had another three hours to go and he’d just sucked down about three cups of coffee.

I rolled over and went back to sleep while Curtis started into the distance before deciding to fuck it all, and went for a two-mile jog.

By the time I awoke, the rest of the parking lot was moving as well. One person had strung up a hammock in a corner of the chain-link fence, and I could see his sleeping bag and fuzzy hat appearing in the morning gloom. Curtis was ready. A trapped engine ready to explode, he was moving about like this run was something he’d been working towards for months. As it crept closer to his start time – we were in better contact with the other van – the sun appeared and started to warm the pavement.

As the other van appeared and everyone mingled about in front of the high school, I walked over to where Curtis was stretching.

‘Last run. You all ready to go?’

‘Hell yeah Abester,’ he replied. ‘It’s going to be sunny and nice.’

‘Get any more sleep?’

He smiled beneath his sunglasses. ‘Yeah, I managed a twenty minute nap after I went on that jog.’

The transfer point was easy, but the road to it was not. The last runner of the other van – also a Kelsey – was hidden from view until she curved up to her right and appeared at a road directly across from the school. We waited, all of us ready to start.

And then Curtis uttered his last words.

‘I’m sore today. I’ll be happy to keep it around eight minute miles.’

54 minutes later, he was done with his eight mile run.

Curtis remained ridiculous.

****

We moved north along Lake Pend Oreille. Curtis handed to Marina across from a farmhouse proudly displaying a massive Trump-Pence yard sign. Marina had a short run, just a few miles, and handed to Kelsey in the middle of nowhere, Idaho, a straightaway with a dirt turnoff and tall grasses. Kelsey hit a few curves and handed to Micah, who started to the final uphill.

One more run.

The map made it seem difficult. The first third was uphill, followed by a downhill slide to the final handoff point about five miles from Sandpoint. I stared at it a hundred times, and each time came away thinking that I really knew nothing about it. It was only a few hundred meters uphill and those numbers meant nothing to me aside from the up and down.

I figured I’d have a slow first third, and try to make up the time on the last bit. I was solidly into the nine-minute-mile pace by now. It was frustrating. I wanted to be faster and I knew I was, but I just couldn’t manage it.

We hit another dirt road. I borrowed Marina’s headphones and used the restroom one final time and then Micah appeared, moving along fast, chest thrust out like he was running for the tape and he handed me the bracelet and I found Lynyrd Skynyrd and I set off uphill.

And for all my frustrations of the previous two runs, and all my worries about my knee and hamstrings, it all came together.

The uphill didn’t last as long as I’d expected. I passed two people on the uphill and when I reached a plateau, I thought there was more to come. It started to turn downhill, and then switched back up.

Last run.

Fuck it.

I sprinted.

The Van’s stopped about two and a half miles in, just after the downhill, right as the guitar solo of ‘Free Bird’ kicked in and I was hitting just under seven minutes. They were all there. Micah with his bullhorn and Toni and Kelsey with misters. Aaron had water and Curtis was wearing a green speedo.

I wasn’t surprised by that. I was more surprised he wasn’t wearing any shoes, because it was an old country road and all I could think about was how painful it would be to hit a rock, but he went all out, a green-speedo wearing never-nude, running a few hundred meters with me while I tried not to laugh in between gulps of air.

And then the van sped off again and I kept downhill and found the map lied to me, as I left the country and found where the lake houses began, the road moved uphill and curved to the right. The trees began to provide shade and on my right was a hill – mountain? – and I heard people screaming, kids playing somewhere, but I couldn’t figure it out.

I couldn’t feel anything anymore and began to target distant trees as my goal: ‘After this tree, I’ll stop for a moment.’ My sprinting died, and I kept churning uphill like a slow train, shade to sun to tree. And then at some point the road flattened and I saw groups of people standing in the distance. It looked like a small park, one of those grassy areas surrounding a parking lot whose reason of existence is the beach just beyond, the kind of place that exists around every lake.

I handed off to Toni and hit the shade and no matter how tired I was after the run I never wanted it to end. As long as I kept running, the weekend and the race and the Van would still exist. Micah would still have his bullhorn, Aaron would still be driving and Marina would still be his co-pilot; Kelsey would still be making sure we had it all figured out and Toni would still be the anchor, finishing every leg we had and making sure we were all settled and ready.

****
This is not an expedition story. Nor is it really a story about overcoming long odds. To be fair, I don’t know what this story is aside from a story about a run, and yet there is a certain basicness to a story about a run which lends itself to overcoming long odds. Running is many things – challenging and cathartic, necessary and sometimes painful. Putting together a team of 12 to run 200 miles is crazy, yet every July dozens of teams showed up and pounded the same route.

Toni finished her run and the race was over. We spent some time in Sandpoint along the finish line before heading back to Spokane, and the finality only hit home as we were driving back down Ramsay Road, the same road I’d run the night before except in the daylight it was a different kind of beautiful. Wide, open fields straddled the road and the late-July sun brought heat and haze. It wasn’t the muggy, slow haze but rather the hot haze of a desert. A few cars passed us and Ramsay Road seemed alive and healthy, and the Van became just the van. Chatter stopped. Micah and Toni seemed to fall asleep and Kelsey went through her photos and Curtis and I sat in the back and started out the windows and as we left Idaho behind, the energy of the race streamed out with us, waiting out there somewhere south of Sandpoint, south of Pend Orielle, waiting to be collected by some crazy group of people next July as they ran and moved through the middle of the night, along dirty roads, and, if all goes well, with a bullhorn in tow.

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