Excerpt from Run! 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss
When All Else Fails, Start Running
“Now you wouldn’t believe me if I told you, but I could run like the wind blows. From that day on, if I was ever going somewhere, I was running!”
HOOD TO COAST is a 197-mile twelve-person relay race. Why I was running it solo was for one reason and one reason only: Adventure!
Dear ol’ Mom and Dad were also along for the ride, as was tradition. They’d joined me as my crew, supporting on many such escapades. In fact, they looked forward to these outings as much as I did: the places we’d go, the people we’d meet along the way, the encounters we’d have–it was all an exciting journey into the unknown.
Last night, during the first night of all-night running, we’d passed by a house in the countryside only to be spotted by the owner who invited us in for some freshly picked berry pie. She was delightful and the pie was otherworldly delicious. It was after midnight.
Now, some twenty-four hours later, Mom lay strewn across the passenger seat of the crew vehicle, snoozing. After nearly two days of continuous running, I was feeling a bit groggy myself. Much to my delight, we came upon a twenty-four-hour convenience store. I desperately needed coffee and made a dash for the door. Dad always carried the cash since I was clad in running gear, so I was glad to see him pull in after me.
The gentleman behind the counter eyed us with suspicion, perhaps judging us against the height marks on the entrance doors that convenience stores use to ID criminals. We were the only people in the store. I immediately darted for the self-serve coffee section to prepare a cup of brew. My dad ambled toward the checkout register.
Along with the coffee, there were various flavored creamers. They had vanilla, hazelnut, chocolate mint, and a host of other delectable choices. I began concocting the ultimate cup of convenience store brew. My dad and the checkout clerk watched as I carefully crafted my little cup of paradise. Finally, Dad turned to the man and said, “He’s been running for two days now. He started up at Mount Hood.” The clerk didn’t respond.
“He’s trying to get to the coast,” Dad went on. The clerk kept his eyes transfixed on me.
“Doing it to celebrate his 40th birthday. It will take him about forty-five hours,” my dad continued.
That did it; enough was enough. “Go on, take your coffee!” the clerk barked. “Have it. That’s fine. Just go!”
His sharp words sent my dad and me reeling. It took a moment compute, but then I realized what was going on here. He thought we were beggars. I could imagine his mind working: A young guy comes in and pours himself a presumptive cup of coffee, stalling so that the old guy can deliver a fancifully inventive pitch to get the goods for free.
My dad recognized the clerk’s misunderstanding as well. “Oh no,” he said, “I was just telling you this to let you know, that’s all.”
“Go!” the man continued. “Get out! Take your coffee and leave.”
“Look,” my dad said, pulling a five-dollar bill out of his pocket, “we had every intention of paying you.”
The man shouted at us, pointing at the door. “I do not want your money! Just take your coffee and get out!”
I realized now where the breakdown in communication had arisen. Beyond the clear cultural differences, the misunderstanding was heightened by the fact that it was 3:00 A.M. and by my strange outfit, one he’d probably never seen before in the store, if ever. (I wore a brightly colored singlet, shorts, reflective ankle bracelets, clear glasses, and a headlamp.) Add on top of all this some old loon claiming that his young accomplice was running hundreds of miles for days on end without rest, and the setup was all too obvious. The clerk would not be played for a fool; he knew better!
It was an honest mistake, one I was willing to leave at that. So I started toward the exit with my coffee.
“Son,” my dad instructed me, “put the coffee back.”
“What? Are you kidding?”
“Son, put the coffee back. He won’t take our money. Let’s go.”
“Look, with all due respect, Pops, there is absolutely zero possibility I’m gonna put this coffee back. He said I could have it.”
My father stomped over to me and got right up in my face. “Son, put the coffee down!”
I started to raise the cup to my mouth, and he grabbed my arm, forcing it down. We began to struggle, and I started to think this would be the first time ever my dad and I got into a fistfight. I didn’t care. I wanted my coffee!
“Take it outside, you two!” the clerk yelled. “Just leave or I’ll call the cops!”
My father turned back to face the man. In that brief instant, I managed to take a gulp of the hot brew. It scalded my mouth, and I cried out.
My dad glared at the clerk. From behind his back I gestured frantically to the clerk with both arms for him to continue elaborating. I needed him to distract my dad for as long as possible so that I could take another sip.
Unfortunately, my dad saw the reflection of what I was doing in the window. He whirled around to me. “Son,” he commanded, “put down the coffee!”
It was obvious this was going nowhere. In somber retreat, I put the coffee back on the counter and walked out the door, head slung low. My dad eventually followed.
We reconnected on the sidewalk. “That was crazy,” I said. Trying to make light of the situation, I went on, “At least I got a sip of coffee for free.”
“It wasn’t free. I left the money inside,” my dad proclaimed with defiant pride.
“I left the money on the counter.”
“You put that five-dollar bill on the counter?” I asked in disbelief. “Did he take it?”
“No, the ungrateful buffoon. He just brushed it to the floor with the back of his hand and said, ‘Your money is no good here.’ “
“So where’s the money now?”
“It’s sitting in a wad on the floor.”
I turned around and started walking back inside.
“Where are you going?” my dad asked.
“I’m going back in there to get my coffee.”
“Oh no you don’t!” He ran over and jumped in front of me. He put his hands out in front of his chest like an offensive lineman, preparing to prevent my reentering into the store.
“But we paid for it.” He didn’t budge.
I shook my head in saddened defeat. My dad and the clerk weren’t all that different. These men, with their old-world ways, were so proud, there was no use trying to argue with them. Stubborn pride was just part of their hard-wiring. Precious stuff, actually, for it provided the fodder that turned a rather surly interaction into an endearing lifelong memory, one that my parents and I would cherish for years to come.
Flash forward the better part of a decade and things have changed a bit. My parents and I still hit the open road together, but they are getting older now. Our adventures have become fewer and farther between.
My life has changed as well. In many ways my life has become something of a contradiction. Above all, I am a runner. I run–a solitary pursuit–and it is the activity I most treasure. However, I have also become somewhat of a public figure, at least in certain circles, which doesn’t exactly go hand in hand with a solitary pursuit.
Like many people, I’ve always wanted to write a book. It was just something I had on my proverbial “life list,” along with skydiving, visiting the pyramids, learning a foreign language, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and a cadre of other ambitions. So I wrote the book, checked it off the bucket list, and left it at that. If I sold ten copies to my buddies, I’d be lucky. After all, who wants to read about some obscure guy off running hundreds of miles across the most godforsaken terrain on earth? No one, right?
Wrong. Ultramarathon Man landed on the New York Times bestseller list. Next thing I knew, my “story” was out in the open, my insulated private life all but blown to smithereens. I guess in writing about doing the things I love, about following my heart and setting my own course in life, I somehow gave others permission to do the same. Runners and nonrunners alike flocked to my story, and my once very solitary life suddenly became a little less so.
That is why I look forward to all-night running escapades now more than ever. There is no greater therapy for me than to escape the trappings of humanity and embark on an adventure where I follow my own course freely. These long runs recharge my batteries and leave me feeling rejuvenated and ready to step back into the unexpected life that I now find myself living.
Please don’t get me wrong, my so-called “fans” are mostly great people, many of who are accomplished athletes themselves. It’s just that while I can run for hours on end without a problem, signing books for hours on end requires a different sort of endurance. As someone who is fairly introverted by nature, it takes a lot out of me spending time immersed in large masses of humanity for extended periods. I don’t like being the center of attention. In fact, at times, I don’t like attention at all.
As liberating as being the master of my own destiny is, I some times think these long solitary runs are a form of running away from myself, basically escaping this new life I’ve created for a brief reprieve. Out here on the open road nobody knows who I am; and that’s just the way I like it.
And tonight’s run felt especially rejuvenating. The moon was full and big in the sky.
My wife, Julie, has always insisted that strange occurrences happen during full moons. As I departed the city that evening, a colossal white orb gradually rose to prominence, silhouetting the San Francisco skyline and highlighting the buildings’ contours with striking clarity. The moon tonight seemed exquisitely large, and the naked eye could easily discern the craters and pockmarks marring its surface.
The autumn air was unusually dry and warm; I thought about how peculiar it was to be so comfortable while crossing the notoriously blustery Golden Gate Bridge. Tonight was strange, make no mistake.
My path was a familiar one. After reaching the North Headland, I diverted onto a narrow footpath that crosses under the bridge and proceeds up into the trails of Marin County. The rumble of traffic slowly faded away as I ran, eventually replaced by the rustling of tree branches and the sounds of small animals dashing for cover as I glided by.
Once in the wild, I switched on my headlamp to help illuminate the dirt terrain, though I scarcely needed it given the moonlight. The hills around me were bathed in a molten silver hue; they rolled on forever like giant waves in a massive sea.
I ran through the headlands for miles, completely engrossed in the natural beauty of the surroundings. I’d been going for hours when I reached the paved road, though I hardly felt tired at all.
The junction where the trail meets the road was quiet. Besides offering a more pastoral route, using the trail network I’d just been on had allowed me to bypass some of the busy roads of the Bay Area and emerge here at this lesser traveled back road in Marin County. The footpath deposited me onto a quiet two-lane road, which I would follow farther west into even more remote stretches of highway later on in the night. The further removed from automobile traffic I could get, the better.
It would have been possible to remain on the trail even farther into the countryside, but I needed to resupply. My route was calculated. Near the exit point of the trailhead lay the last vestige of humanity, the final signs of intelligent life before disappearing into complete darkness: a liquor store.
Okay, it isn’t the ideal place for an endurance athlete to restock, but, hey, it was the only option available.
If you’ve ever frequented such esteemed establishments late at night, you know the majority of after-hours business comes from the sale of cigarettes and booze. I was after neither.
Upon entering the store, I didn’t see anyone. The checkout counter was cluttered with displays of libations and “fine” spirits, many of which were available in single-size containers for less than a buck. Apparently somebody other than McDonald’s offers “value pricing.”
From behind the displays, a head peeked out, startling me. I jumped. After my initial recoil, I took a look at him and realized he’d been examining me all along, as if grasping for some frame of reference to place “my type.” He craned his head, inspecting me from head to toe. Nothing appeared to register. He offered neither smile nor frown.
I said hello and he uttered an indiscernible response, still wary of my presence. Walking down the aisle, I could feel his eyes following me, tracking my every movement. He was a tall man, dark and tan, with facial hair, though not the typical razor stubble of the unkempt; instead he had longer strands that flowed down freely from his chin. His eyes were piercing, as though he had seen things that made him suspicious of even the most seemingly harmless subjects. I got the sense that his primary concern tonight was avoiding being held up at gunpoint.
At the bottom of the candy rack, the token energy bar choices sat covered in dust. Did I care that they were all stale? Heck no. I grabbed a few of them, along with a couple packages of almonds. In the small medical section of the store, I noticed a bottle of Pedialyte. Designed for children suffering from diarrhea and vomiting, in a pinch it is the ultimate athletic rehydration beverage. Gatorade is glorified sugar-water by comparison.
I brought my items to the checkout counter where I discovered, much to my delight, a bowl of overripe bananas. “How much are the bananas?” I asked.
“What are you doing?” he replied sternly.
“Ah . . . asking about the price of the bananas?” I said.
“What are you doing now? It’s dark out.” He was taken aback by the fact that I was out running at this time of night, but there was earnest inquisitiveness in his eyes, a genuine curiosity. “Are you one of those marathon people?” he asked.
“Ah . . . yes . . . I guess you could say that.”
“I used to run when I was a boy,” he said. “I want to start again. How far do you go?”
“Tonight?” I didn’t want to tell him I was going forty or fifty miles, fearing this might dampen his enthusiasm. “Well . . . let me explain . . . “