I was fueled with the same nervous anxiety that overwhelmed Brad a few hours before. Something about the dark removes the certainty of a body in space that swells with the shining sun. I could not wait for tired eyes and untied shoes; I had missed my chance to sleep: It was now or never.
This instalment in the speed project x motivation series will explore the grit and determination required to persevere in the face of myriad obstacles. Murphy’s law states, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” And while I wouldn’t change a thing about the overall experience of our journey, this principle of physics certainly held true.
In-limbo between grates on the side of the highway, unsure as to whether the passing high beams belonged to the vehicle I needed, I stutter-stepped up and down the gradual descent of what would be the last bit of pavement underfoot until well after sunrise. Finally, the sprinter emerged and flooded the path with light as I made the turn onto a powerline road.
That transitional step onto the trail was like stepping into quicksand. Surprisingly deep, it took enormous strength to pull my foot out of the earth’s hold. Rocks of all sizes and shapes made the terrain harder to navigate. My brain was in a fog from lack of sleep and the clouds of dust being cycloned into the floodlights as the van crept behind me. And then suddenly I was shocked into mid-air by the violent blare of the horn. It was unexpected and slightly terrifying–much like most of the experience thus far.
I hopped in and Thai emerged for his first three-minute turn. We had remixed the runners after the last segment. Our other female runner, ill-prepared and lacking in strength for the sandy hills, stayed behind but Aric and Thai, the floating god and the Powerhouse, were ready for anything in front of them, visible or not. This is why we couldn’t see the van getting stuck in the deep yet dry mire that was the powerline.
Pictured above is the only photo from our midnight ramble. Our photographer, Moe, was somehow fast asleep. We were all exhausted–that was a given as we were all running on zero to less sleep over the past 24 hour period by this point. He had assisted Brad through that 17 miles detour which though pretty flat was the same thick, loose sand we were ankle-deep in. His stability and endurance were tested on a mountain bike. (I guess that’s why it’s called Death Valley?) I was almost envious that his body shut down to allow him to recover.
The ride in the van was unpleasant on this terrain, to put it mildly. Remember rap videos from the early 90s? The ones where the vintage cars were all tricked out with hydraulics and bumping up and down as they cruised down the palm tree-lined streets of LA? Great! Now you can imagine what it felt like inside the sprinter every time we went over a rock–and it seemed like all the earth’s rocks were on our path.
But now we were stuck: too far from the last transition to turn around and find an alternative route, no cell phone service to be able to call anyone for help, and no way of knowing if and when we would get unstuck. I kept my knowledge of vans in years prior getting stuck pretty much the same way we did to myself for the most part, and mostly because I didn’t know what the solution had been. Why add insult to injury? I think we were all too tired to panic. We poured out of the van and began to attack the problem–not quite sure of the correct approach.
Through this entire ordeal, there was not one person who questioned–not one person who complained. As irritable as we all could have been from fatigue, no one person felt themself more important than another. Everyone pushed. Everyone gathered rocks. Everyone dug dirt.
And then Moe woke up. He used his expertise as a backcountry guide to navigating us out of the mess we quite literally dug ourselves into. The defeat and exhaustion were left in the dust as a renewed sense of purpose sent us forward uphill–rock underfoot, van in tow.
Even more so than before, we couldn’t wait for our turns to run. It was as if the inside of the van now felt like we were going over the side of a waterfall in a barrel with no end in sight and no way out. It wasn’t as though running in this situation was terrific, either. It required intense focus so as not to break an ankle with a misstep. You still had to push hard, you had to remain alert; which is why after 26 hours without so much as a nap, I asked for 30 minutes to close my eyes. There was a long way to go and I couldn’t play the short game. I knew the risk of injury was high if I wasn’t on my game.
The exhaustion overtook me and I entered into what felt like a mini-coma. My body laid out on a bench in the back hurtling into the air over every bump–at one point colliding mid-air with moe but unable to open my eyes or speak. I could hear and feel it, however. I felt the van stop. I felt everyone get out. I heard someone say, “should we get Leigh out of the van?” I heard Remi (the true hero of this journey) say his life was flashing before his eyes as the van crept slowly forward. People said we could die. And I just thought to myself, with my eyes closed and a grin across my lips, “if this is how I go, at least I’m in good company.”
Exactly thirty minutes later, I was awake and ready to go: It was half past 4 in the morning. We didn’t know how much further we had to go before we got to the tour bus and the other half of our team, but you could see a crack of light peeking up over the horizon. The sky over the next few hours was a healing bruise of black to dark blue to purple to light. As we made progress we ran in longer intervals. The trail started to flatten. Eventually, the rocks were fewer and farther apart. The deep sand turned to packed dirt and way, way off in the distance you could make out what must be tiny cars passing perpendicular to our path. It was a long way off, but the end was palpable.
The sun brought new life. Metaphorically, it was as though we were coming out of hibernation. Picking up speed and motivation as the sun climbed higher in the sky until finally, I saw it! About a half-mile away, there was the bus, a figurative knight of shining armour, beacon of hope, all the cliches. And so I sprinted as fast as I could. Travis who was my silent hero, running step for step with me through those early hours of the morning left behind as I got a second wind. Everyone in good spirits, smiling with the sun, doors open and ready to trade places. And not just a transition of runners but a transition of hope and of energy. We survived. Anything is possible.