The sun angles below the horizon as we climb. JC is ahead of me, like he has been for most of our run, and I can see by his posture that he’s feeling good. I’m relieved, because for a while he was struggling, though he never told me. I understand. Once you mention the fatigue, the pain, the doubt… you can no longer pretend it’s not there.
But now he’s feeling good. He runs up the hill, a solid pace that I’m scrambling to match. Although we share the same parents, he somehow got almost a foot of height advantage over me, and I swear it’s all in his legs. Fortunately for me, his legs were already going 33 miles before I joined him, or I would have no chance of keeping up.
As we crest the hill, we can see the Lamb’s Canyon aid station far below us. It looks like a bright little city in the darkening canyon below. It’s not fully dark, not up here, but the temperature dropped with the sun.
“Are you cold? Do you need your jacket?” he asks me.
He’s wearing long sleeves, his foolproof sunscreen, so I don’t think he’s cold, but one thing I learned in the past few hours is that this is not about me. The last thing I’m going to do is ask him to stop right now while he’s on one of the high points of this ultra-marathon roller coaster.
“No, I’m good.”
I met KC, my sister-in-law, earlier in the day at our staging point. The aid station at Big Mountain is so small that pacers are asked to wait at the staging area until their runner is approaching. The communication is pretty good, but pretty good for a backcountry 100 miler is not foolproof.
KC has been navigator, mobile aid station and co-planner through all of JC’s adventures. She’s also a skilled cyclist and water skier in her own right, not to mention gourmet chef and amazing mom. And probably other things that I’ll find out by accident one day.
Anyway, when word never comes that JC has reached the final checkpoint before the aid station, volunteers suggest we head up anyway. We have about fifteen minutes to cheer for strangers before we see him coming down the hill.
As we wave goodbye to family and head away from the noise of the aid station, I feel the full weight of my responsibility.
In most of my endeavors, I train and compete alone. Even if I’m with someone else, I’m focused on myself, my hunger, my pain, my thirst, my joy and misery. A month before the Wasatch 100, I helped some co-workers complete their first Spartan Race. This was an entirely new experience for me. It was all about them. I enjoyed my role a lot more than I thought I would.
But this is not the same. I’m not helping JC to experience something I have done. I’m helping him to get through something I can’t even comprehend doing. Ever. Running the Wasatch 100 is a huge endeavor and, of course, the welfare of co-workers isn’t the same as the welfare of my brother. So I worry for a bit, but we fall into a pace and I start to relax.
We climb through old forest, then drop for a while through some meadows. Sometimes we pass runners, sometimes runners pass us. Whenever this happens, my brother starts chatting them up like old friends. Just like my dad would do. The most I can usually muster on the trail is a nod or a good mornin! but here he is, dozens of miles in, having full conversations. One runner he seems to know pretty well. After they finish their conversation and the man heads up the hill ahead of us, I ask JC, “do you know him?”
“Yeah, his name is Rupert* I met him a few miles back.”
(*totally made up name)
Of course! Your old buddy from mile 20!
If you think people can’t change, you are wrong.This tall person running along in front of me used to be an introvert. He also used to be pretty lazy. Both of us were, really. We could waste an entire day trapped in the house avoiding the chores that would have earned our freedom. I would say he’s no longer lazy. I don’t know what happened.
We reach Bald Mountain and I warn him about the tiny horned toads on the mountaintop. He scoops one up to show me, which wouldn’t be that impressive in normal circumstances, but he’s got a lot of miles on his legs. As kids, we spent a lot of time in the summers hunting for lizards and snakes in the brushy hills around our home. I guess he never forgot that lizard-scooping technique from so many years ago.
After we come off of Bald Mountain, we drop for a while, then climb to a ridgeline. We’ll follow this rolling ridgeline for a few miles until we reach an aid station. Somewhere along this section, I notice some tension in his posture, his head drooping a little. He asks me to lead for a while. I lead until we reach the aid station, set in a field of long golden grass. He doesn’t chat much with the volunteers. I get him some broth and he sits in a folding chair. He starts talking to another runner, which makes me feel better, but he also starts looking a little too comfortable. I give him a time limit, which he honors, and we head off again.
For the first time, the trail is wide enough to run side by side. It’s also a long uphill and we walk most of it. We talk a lot. We talk about our kids and our grandkids. He’s wearing a wristband with a bead symbolizing each of his, his good luck charm. We talk about our mom and how proud we are of her. Her mother feared many things, and our mom pushed beyond all those fears, adventuring far beyond her comfort zone. We can probably blame her for the crazy things we do.
Then we’re back to single track, and a final push uphill before the course drops to the next aid station. The sun is starting to set. We pass a few runners and he’s chatting them up again, back to his old self. I’ve never run as far as he is running today (and tomorrow) but I’ve run long enough to know that the bad times always end. So do the good times, but you don’t think about that. Now he’s feeling good. We run down some switchbacks into a dark canyon. We put on our headlamps and I follow him and his light, regretting the baseball cap that is serving to block most of my own headlamp.
I ran this section twice while training, and twice I got lost. JC doesn’t. In the dark, 45 miles in, he takes the correct turn. We make our way up a gravel road to the noise and lights of the aid station. We see a single headlamp, someone standing outside the tent.
My husband, B.
He hugs us and leads us into the tent where he has already retrieved JC’s drop bag.
After a few minutes with the two of them, I have to leave. KC has come to pick me up, and parking at the aid station is not allowed. KC will take me to my Jeep and I will drive to the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon where I plan to sleep for a few hours in the back of the car until it’s time to wait for them at the aid station.
JC is my big brother. He’s older, smarter, and much more athletic. But as I climb a little rise to meet KC, I worry for just a minute. I hope this all goes well, I hope he achieves what he wants. But I know, that at least for this next leg, he’s in good hands.
B and JC reach Brighton Ski Resort in the darkest part of the morning. Their leg included cold temperatures, ridiculous vertical, disrespectful foxes and adorable burrowing owls. Oh, and a grilled cheese sandwich, but only for B.
When they reach the aid station, JCs next pacer has not arrived. It turns out there is a marathon going down this canyon on the same day, and runners are coming up the canyon on buses as KC tries to get to the aid station with the pacer! We did not know about this. B can’t continue pacing because he has to get to work. I can’t continue pacing because I’m basically in jammies. We send him off into the dark almost alone (Follow that guy! Go!) and then we just feel bad as we hurry down the canyon minutes before it’s closed for the marathon. His pacer does arrive at the aid station, and with his fresh legs, he’s able to catch JC. They make it to an aid station around the 75 mile mark, but just over the cutoff time.
This, of course, doesn’t dull my pride at all. Or his determination. He is currently training for a 100 miler in Bryce Canyon. My schedule won’t allow me to join him, but rest assured my heart will be there with him for every step.