Cut to mile 83. I check in at the Heaven Hill aid station, where a red-headed guy with a beard greets me with such contagious enthusiasm that my droopy eyes perk up. I’m tired enough to believe he is Leif Erikson or at least Leif Garrett before the drugs. Leif has been working this aid station since the race started and shows no signs of fatigue. He is clean and dry and stationary. He is everything I want to be.
He makes me an amazing egg sandwich and tells me I’m his favorite. I don’t realize it at the time, but there are fewer than 20 runners from which to choose. Everyone else has dropped from the race and headed home to shower and sleep, which sounds like an absolutely brilliant plan after running more than 24 hours.
“You have to get out of here.”
Leif doesn’t want me to fall victim to the same siren song. He forcefully sends me on my way. He closes the cap to my handheld water bottle and pushes my shoulder in the direction of the trail.
“But let me congratulate you now,” he says. “Because you’re absolutely finishing this.”
It’s exactly the kick in the ass I need to keep going.
I listen to my body, which tells me it hurts just as much to run as it does to walk, so I pick up the pace a little. I feel remarkably self-aware, which is good because there’s no one else around me.
These long stretches where I’m alone are the toughest, but they are also the most enjoyable. Perhaps it’s the result of practice or familiarity. Maybe it’s because I prefer to just squat and pee without excusing myself.
Maybe it’s because at heart, I am a wild animal who just needs to run free.
Cut to mile 87. The sun stretches its long arms across the forest floor with a patronizing, “Rise and shine!” after a full night’s sleep. I had heard many ultrarunners talk about the jolt you get when the sun comes up, but to feel it is something different altogether.
It provides such overwhelming power that I wonder if the night has turned me into a plant, experiencing photosynthesis for the first time. No time for hallucinations, dummy. Keep running. Suddenly, the trails feel less lonely, less ominous. I’m almost embarrassed by how literally the sun has brightened my prospects.
But the next few miles wear on me. Heavily.
For motivation, I think back to how I got through some of my most miserable training runs. Running Blowing across the 14th Street Bridge with sand in my eyes and a scarf over my mouth, wearing two layers of pants that still didn’t hold out the -3 degree windchill. Playing a soccer game after running 30 miles, only to wake up at dawn the next morning and run another 20.
The person who does that does not quit just because it is hard. I am a finisher.