The Painful Language of an Ultrarunner’s Body on a Sweltering Day
J.M. Thompson Maps the Intensity and Freedom of a Very Long Mountain Run
The trail leads back into the forest and heads uphill. Onward. Running, you always look forward. You have to. This feeling now, seeing the trees, planting the right pole, then the left, knowing I’m getting somewhere, must be the absolute polar opposite of how I used to feel, circling around in my head, going nowhere.
The mountain summer heat is scorching. I can tell from the position of the sun overhead and the glare of the light against the white gravel path on the way out of the checkpoint toward the trailhead. But some of the normal signals are missing. You can’t necessarily discern the heat from how you feel. Under extreme conditions, the signals get harder to read. The air’s so dry in the mountains the sweat vaporizes so fast you don’t even feel it on your skin. You don’t always experience thirst. It takes a steady fluid intake to stay hydrated. You learn over the years to spot the early warning signs. The way your mouth dries up. A vague overall feel of the forward effort getting harder. The body is crying out, I am thirsty, but using a different language than the one you’re used to.
It must be in the high 70s now, a few hours after I left Stephen Jones. I’m almost out of water, running on an exposed stretch of trail with the sun baking down on me, breathing dry and dusty air that parches my lips and builds into a weary depletion that doesn’t feel like thirst but which I hear as the speech of my shriveled cells, crying out for a drink. The body under stress speaks its own special language. You might think that a thirsty body would cry, Water! But instead it says, I’m tired. I want to stop. This is stupid. I didn’t train hard enough for this. You learn to turn your attention to this voice and listen to the basic need that in its cranky and whiny way it’s trying to communicate. I get it. Don’t worry—I’ll find water.
I can hear the trickle of a creek on the other side of a little mound on the left side of the trail. It looks like an easy scramble up no more than about twenty feet and then down the other side of the mound to the creek. A couple of runners overtake me. I’m not sure I know why they don’t bother stopping. Either they didn’t notice the creek or they’re not low on water, or they figured it’s too much hassle to climb the mound when there’s likely an easier spot to access the creek farther down the trail. It’s possible they’ve studied the map with a level of focus and rigor that’s made them certain about where that next, easier spot is down to its exact GPS coordinates. If they’ve geeked out on the maps to that degree, good for them. If they’re blowing past this awkward refill spot because they still have plenty of water, that makes sense. If they missed this spot, too bad. But if they’re low on water and planning on running farther in the hope or expectation that they’ll soon get somewhere better, in my experience of these adventures that’s not a good call. Maybe the easier spot is ten minutes away. Maybe it doesn’t exist.
Then you’re running on empty for miles, until the next aid station. By the time you reach water, you might notice your fatigue or a headache, but what you won’t notice is the depletion deep on the inside, things you can’t feel yet, hidden stresses in the basic structures underpinning life, which have a nasty habit of compounding on themselves and in the end leading to a breakdown. You’ve crossed a border into a different physiologic state—a whole different physical country, even. Bad things happen there. You can only go there if you know what you’re doing, and have a plan to get back home again, or if someone’s available to help you.
I scramble over the mound and down to the creek. I take off my shoes and socks and soak my dusty, hot, and bloated feet in the cold alpine water. It . . . feels . . . so . . . good. The instant my feet come out of the tight little feet prisons called shoes that they’ve been living in for the past six hours and dunk them underwater, the chill is such a tonic for all their angry inflammation, I can almost hear them saying thank you. I take out my ultraviolet-light water-purifying device, a fountain-pen-size plastic rod, stick it into one of my water bottles, press its postage-stamp-size rubber on switch, and wait sixty seconds until the little smiley face comes on to tell me that my water is now pure. Forty-eight . . . forty-nine . . . fifty . . . It feels like an eternity. A frowny face appears. My water is impure! I try again. Fifty-eight . . . fifty-nine . . . smiley face. Now for the second bottle.
I soak my legs underwater. After all the hours of pounding on the trail, every muscle, joint, ligament, and tendon from my navel to my pinky toe has already taken quite a beating. In a run that lasts a few hours or even a whole day, I wouldn’t normally indulge in this regimen of cold therapy. It wouldn’t be worth the time. Barring a broken ankle, my thought in response to almost every conceivable hobble, owie, ache, or boo-boo—I believe those are the correct medical terms—is to keep on keepin’ on and witness the natural magic of a moving organism spontaneously restoring itself to harmony, to run it off, as they say, and take care of any lingering aftereffects the morning after. But I can’t do that here. Tomorrow I’ll still be running. And the next day. And the day after that. And maybe the day after that. Twinges can turn into nerve damage, aching knees into a kind of agony you can’t ignore.
What goes for muscles and tendons goes for everything else in the ultrarunner’s body and mind. Avoid taking care of blisters and they turn into bleeding wounds. Skip stretching out tight calves and they turn into horrible cramps. Skimp on food and you wind up woozy and horizontal somewhere, wondering where you went wrong. All of this is, if not preventable, at least predictable and to some extent manageable if you take care of little problems before they spiral into big ones. I climb across the rocks to the side of the creek where I’ve left my shoes. I can feel how after the cold soak my legs feel more limber. I dry my feet with a bandanna and put on fresh, clean socks. Then I put my shoes back on and climb over the mound and back down to the trail.
This whole excursion to get water and soak my legs and feet and change socks must have taken thirty minutes, maybe even longer. But it was so worth it. I might as well have had a leg transplant from someone ten years younger. As I run down the trail, I can’t remember ever moving before with quite this same sense of strength and flow and freedom.
Excerpted from RUNNING IS A KIND OF DREAMING by J.M. Thompson, PhD, reprinted with permission by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2021.