Maybe it was the lack of oxygen, maybe the dwindling light, maybe the sounds of heaving on the trail beside me, but I was starting to get a little scared. I tried not to let my voice reveal the anxiety in my head, but knowing we just had to keep moving forced me into some panicked prodding.
“Twenty steps, just twenty, then we rest,” I repeated for the nineteenth time. In truth we’d take about ten before her body took over and shut down for another minute or so. “Twenty steps, then we rest.” It became a mantra.
I have been lucky to experience enough long hours on the trail to get glimpses of the bewildering range of emotions and physical difficulties that are so unique to each body. Here at the bottom of Hope Pass, fairly late into the Leadville 100 trail race, the thin air felt heavy with struggle. Plenty of faces came by us, down the pass, making their way to Winfield far past the cutoff, where they’d have to catch a ride. Admittedly, I’d almost hoped we’d be giving my longtime friend (and extraordinary woman) a ride out, too. Apprehension about beginning the long trek back toward Twin Lakes worked its way into my head while we sat and waited for her arrival, but when she clearly commanded, “Let’s go,” I went. Of course.
Selfishly I love pacing from Winfield fifty mile mark because of the gloriously high Hope Pass crossing. This year the light faded and a quarter moon began rising before we got out of the trees, and I was barely aware of the nearby peaks or wildflowers. Instead, spots of light and their owners’ vague silhouettes zigzagging along the switchbacks above us captured my attention. I tried not to do the math in my head to estimate our time to the next aid station.
Slipping and sliding in the dark down rocky singletrack on the other side of the pass did not exactly boost my confidence that we’d make it to the aptly nicknamed “hopeless” aid station. There’s no way out but on foot from there. But, the glow of a huge fire grew closer until finally we were there. We fueled up, warmed up and we found our way out to the rest of her faithful crew waiting with Snickers and blankets. Certainly it was not the day any of us had hoped for, but the different challenges we fought through were rewarding in their own right.
I hadn’t been out running – or walking – in the dark, in the woods, for a long time. Why would I? But during the last hour of gentle descending to our rescue team I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Along the quiet trail, I was consumed with a profound feeling of capableness, and I realize that this is what is one of the most valuable things running has brought me. Often I am paralyzed in daily life; incapable of making minor decisions, incapable of adjusting my mood, incapable of producing anything of value. So I tell myself. I feel broken. Running has shown me that I have talents waiting to be uncovered. It’s shown me that I can make friends, develop relationships, and be a source of inspiration to those people. My experiences on trails transcend gender and age paradigms: everyone’s a badass out there; everyone cries; everyone shows compassion; everyone can be a hungry wolf looking to crush. Everyone has been humbled, but through that humbling become someone better.
That night on the Colorado Trail, I watched one of my closest friends in the world struggle with an angry body and defeated mind, but handle it with grace and gratitude. Despite my uncertainty about beginning the route back from Winfield, like all my millions of blind steps in life, I was also grateful that we made a go of it. Nothing is worse than wishing you’d tried. Nothing is better than a quiet trail, through the trees, under moon and stars, feeling complete and able and just damn happy to be on a journey.