With the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run happening this weekend and the 4th of July right around the corner, I got to thinking about this editorial I wrote a few years back.
Fourth of July in River Forest
I am lightheaded. Floating on air somewhere between Squaw Valley and Auburn, California. Vaseline has proven useless. The blisters between my toes are bloody and rubbed Howard Stern raw. The water bottles attached to my waistbelt rattle and gurgle with each and every stride. A leak in one causes a constant spittle that oozes out of the top and drips from calf to ankle to trail.
My field of vision – my vision of life – has narrowed significantly in this, my third consecutive 25-mile running day. Yellow ribbons are my only link to the dusty trail, and they are up high, attached to overhanging tree limbs. Danger is down low, where ankle-snapping rocks and hidden tree roots lurk in the shadows. I try to balance my vision, to look high for ribbons and low for obstacles at the same time so as not to miss a turn. My synapses are at the ready and adrenaline is on call, standing at attention.
The real world simply does not exist in my mind at this point. Life is all too simple. Run a few strides, spot a ribbon, scan for danger, slurp some fluid.
The idea was to give some of the less ambitious in town (namely me) the chance to run the Western States 100 with a touch of sanity thrown in. Instead of doing the deed in 24 hours or less, instead of enrolling in Sleep Deprivation University, we invitees of the American Medical Joggers Association would camp out at night and have all of four days to finish the course.
Even with the luxuries of a tent and sleeping bag, you will have to navigate 100 miles of trails in four days, the only 100-mile training week of my seriously under-trained life. Work and cars and friends are replaced with a new focal point. The trail that stretches out to eternity in front of me is my only concern.
I have made the world’s most inexcusable mistake numerous times already. Zoning out on the beauty around me or thinking about old Three Stooges reruns for what seems like only a few nanoseconds, I fail to note one of the yellow ribbons that mark the course. Finally realizing my mistake, I find myself far off course and forced to backtrack.
Face it. The workout is long enough, thank you. There is nothing more aggravating – or worthless – than running 105 miles.
Halfway through day three, a ridiculous number of miles into our journey, my running partner and I are suddenly at the end of the trail. The dirt road connects to something we barely recognize. It’s called a street. On this ‘street’ are people — lots of sleeping-in, omelet-eating, football-watching, Big Mac-devouring normal people. They are lined up 10-deep in front of perfectly manicured lawns and white picket fences.
Big trucks pulling big trees are heading down what looks like Main Street. What’s all the commotion?
The two of us are coated from head to toe with trail dust. Two potential mass murderers, the words tattooed on our puny forearms. We look like two wackos stumbling out of the woods, and the citizens of River Forest obviously agree.
After the flatbed lumber trucks come troops of cub scouts and boy scouts. As we walk toward downtown and parents scurry to save their children, it finally hits us. We were so out of touch, so into our own little running world, we forgot that this was the Fourth of July! Small children are up on their daddies’ shoulders waving American flags, dusty degenerates in bloody running shoes are wandering the streets. What could be more festive?
Fortunately, I prepare for any eventuality. I had put a $5 bill in my pack about a month before and forgot about it. We find a Mr. Frosty shop in downtown River Forest and I treat us both to chocolate milkshakes.
We grab a seat in the sun, stretch our legs out and sit back to watch the scouts and the rest of the parade meander by. Some time later, we go searching for and find our trail, and finish up our third and fourth days of almost-marathon running.
It’s the little things in life that stand out. Ever been in a long, hot bike race and get handed a really cold sponge? Or how about an ice cube at mile 20 of a marathon? You put it in your mouth, roll it around with your tongue, and it’s like the best gift you’ve ever received.
Coming into River Forest on a fluke and getting to see a small-town American Fourth of July celebration was like that.
I’ve searched worldwide to find a chocolate milkshake that tastes anywhere near as good as that one, but I don’t think it will happen. The shake still tastes so good because that memory still tastes so good.
Find this in my book: Never a Bad Day