We went. We saw. We cooked some Spam. We made it home.
Two weeks ago, Kingston, Marc and I drove from here in Bellingham, Washington to Leadville, Colorado. We went onto Denver to visit with friends before heading back, over 1,400 miles each way.
Leadville is a former mining town up in the mountains just over 10,000 feet with area peaks reaching more than 14,000 feet. It's now best known for the iconic ultra running and mountain biking races that have been taking place there for about the past thirty years. It's a basic kind of place, with one of everything you need and the quaintness of a crotchety old mountain town. It's just a few blocks long -- and wide. Which is to say, it's tiny.
My husband, Marc, was on the support crew for his friend, Chris, who was attempting to complete the Leadville 100 Trail Run ("Race Across the Sky") for a second time. Yes, 100 miles of running. Of Chris' four designated pacers (allowed only after mile 50!), Marc was to take the final leg, bringing Chris across the finish.
Did I mention that once the race starts at 4 a.m. on a Saturday (this year, August 22nd), there is no time for sleeping, little for eating and only room for forward movement, no matter how slow over the roughest terrain until the race is finished? That's how they get it done. Running at elevation, up past 12,000 feet. These athletes. This year, 650 of them. Men and women. All in serious beast mode.
It takes the all-out efforts of a crew to get a racer across the finish line. Chris, AKA "Team Laszlo" (his middle name), had the best people taking care of him.
His crew included his wife, Chanel, who paced him for four miles, cared for their little girl and made it to nearly every aid station; Olan, a veteran Leadville 100'er who kept him on pace for over 20 miles; Greg, who made sure Chris had the gear, nutrition, and anything else he required at each aid station; Luis, who paced Chris across 12 of the most challenging miles of the course terrain-wise, and of course, Marc.
Marrielle and I had the distinction of cooking up Spam, one of Chris' requested foods during the race. Salty and fatty, it's just what this endurance runner wanted to eat to keep going across mountainsides and over fields of boulders. Chanel delivered it to him with rice.
I don't think any of the crew got any sleep during the entire race as they were going all out and entirely focusing on Chris' times as he passed through each checkpoint. I didn't mention it before, but there are time cut offs that must be met throughout the course in order for each racer to continue on. The race must be completed in 30 hours, which is about six hours shorter than the time allowances of most 100-mile races.
We were all gathered just past the Twin Lakes Aid Station. Everyone who was staying at the cabin nearby, including all the kids, were there when Chris came through looking strong and still fresh at mile 39.
It was not until the dark hours of Sunday morning when those of us still at the cabin learned that Chris had made it past mile 87 but had missed the time cut off at the mile 88 May Queen Aid Station. By fourteen minutes. Fourteen! Chris continued to run as long as he could, until they asked him to remove his timing chip.
It was brutal for all of us to hear what happened. I think it was even harder for Chris, who seemed to feel he had let the whole team down.
But it wasn't that at all for the team. We talked instead about what an accomplishment it was that he'd gotten so far. To be able to even consider running a race like this at all -- that was tremendous.
I felt like I couldn't find quite the right words to say to Chris when he waddled slowly up the stairs and into the cabin later that morning. I don't think there were any "right" words, really. Not finishing something can be so painful, especially when the whole point of the endeavor is to finish. The arc of it, the ups and downs along the way, the shin pain, thirst, hallucinations, are incorporated into the body and the totality of the experience -- suffering and all -- because the point is that it will end. It will end in a great way, in completion and satisfaction. And when finishing is not possible, as in Chris' case, it can feel like a ball of tangled-up feelings: disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness, not to mention the raw and blistered feet.
I've been thinking about it. Maybe these words from the iconoclastic Jack Kerouac, are best for such a situation. He wrote:
Dear Chris, the race you ran was perfect. Here's a little more race food for you for the next time around. Because, we all know there will be a next time. And we will all be there, pushing you along.
Spam and Herb Onigiri (AKA the perfect food for a 100-mile run)
If you have never eaten Spam, well bless you. As a kid growing up in Chinatown, it was unavoidable for me to be exposed to it (and happily so -- isn't Spam Fried Rice amazing?), as it is for anyone who lives around any Asian immigrants or their children. Chris grew up in Hawaii where it is impossible not to eat it. Onigiri covers the range of Japanese rice balls that can have all sorts of fillings placed on top or inside them -- bonito flakes, plums, tuna and mayo. This is more of a general approach which can be altered as desired. Simple, basic and quick, onigiri is just the thing to put together while in a cabin on a mountain top. Add whatever herbs you like, as well as a strip of seaweed (just dampen the ends a bit so that it sticks). Or leave it plain Jane, though I think the herbs provide a touch of freshness, a nice counterpoint to the Spam.
Makes 8 portions.
1 cup of cooked rice of your choice, though white short grain works best
12 oz. can of Spam (Original "Glorious Spam," Lite, or Low Sodium)
1/3 cup chopped herbs (parsley, chives, scallions)
1/2 teaspoon black sesame seeds
Add herbs and sesame seeds to cooked rice and combine well. Divide rice mixture into equal portions. Using damp hands, form each portion into a flat puck shape or ball (this is up to you). You can also take a piece of plastic wrap, place it into a small container or small circle-shaped cutter and press the rice into it to form the shape you want.
Slice Spam into 1/4-inch slices (note: for this amount of rice, you will have some Spam left over). Cut the slices into any shape you want. Place slices into a skillet and cook over medium heat to brown slightly. Flip pieces, repeat. When they are done, remove and place one piece on top of each rice ball. Add seaweed if desired. Eat immediately. Or, wrap up and take to an aid station to feed the hungry endurance athlete of your choice.