Editor’s note: This is part 2 of this story. You can read part 1 here if you haven’t already.
As runners go Jeff was nothing special. He could break off a 6-minute mile if he really pushed it, but there was no sustaining it for any length of time. Every time speed was involved he usually suffered one of two fates. One outcome meant a lower leg injury that would have put Achilles to shame. The alternative meant he just ran out of gas well before the race was up. The two had never combined to make the worst day ever, but that’s mostly because of his choice in races.
Jeff’s secret superpower when it came to running was distance. Ever since he heard about crazy people who ran ultramarathons a few years back he knew it was for him. Jeff could run for miles and miles, plodding along like a high-torque locomotive dragging a 1,000-ton payload of daily necessities and hobos back and forth across the country. The longest ultramarathon races didn’t include speed as a prerequisite for winning. In the last couple years he finished in the top 10 in some of the world’s most prestigious 100-mile races. Now he was looking to get his training up to the next level. A level where he would have a chance to win.
“Good morning!” a cheerful ponytailed man with an orange bandana said as he passed Jeff on the trail.
Jeff barely registered the presence of another human on the path. He was deep inside a flow state, one that he normally only reached after at least 60 miles of running in the mountains. There was something about pushing his body to the absolute limit that put Jeff into a state of bliss. It was during these moments he felt like he could peek over the edge of the galaxy and see the universe for what it truly was, without the incessant chatter inside his head.
Despite the flow state, something in Jeff’s mind realized he was about to pass the trailhead leading up to the parking lot on his second loop. Each loop was 10 miles, so he was pushing halfway through his run. Twenty miles also meant it was time to climb up the trailhead to the car for more fuel.
Performance in super long distance running came down to three key characteristics: A strong mind, an excellent eating strategy, and an exacting control of hydration. Most people never run long enough to think about how they are going to eat during the run to replenish their energy stores. For Jeff and the ultramarathoners like him it was a necessity.
“Bonking, huh? That’s the worst,” a friendly face had said to him at his first long trail race. He was in a deep crater, so dark it had become apparent to his fellow racers that he needed help. “Here’s some gummy bears. Get those down with some water and you’ll be feeling better in no time.”
Jeff choked down the sickly sweet gelatinous globs with the help of almost all the water in his bottle. He could feel his throat imitating an accordion, but this one was stupidly trying to push the offending food back up his craw instead of air from the bellows.
It took a few miles before the sugar hit him. It was like adding jet fuel to a souped up dragster. The terrible feeling of his body shutting down faded into the distant past, even though it had only been a few minutes earlier. It took two more bonks before Jeff realized that eating was just as important as anything else when running extra long.
Since then Jeff made it a point to meticulously plan and schedule his caloric intake. He knew exactly how much he needed and when, so the only thing that could throw him off was an upset stomach or some other unexpected trail malady. He glanced down at his watch as he made his way to the car and the cooler stuffed with cold drinks and trail mix. After many trials he preferred the mixture of sugar and fat that trail mix provided in the middle of a long training run.
That can’t be right, he thought. There was no way he had covered 20 miles in just over two and a half hours. That would mean a 7:30 pace or better, which was about a minute faster than he ever went on long runs. Normally it was just a matter of settling into what he knew was a comfortable training pace. The watch was just there as a way to track miles and accumulate data for future analysis.
Jeff slowed as he reached over his chest to switch the watch into pace mode. He almost tripped on the trail when he realized he was in fact running at a 7:30 pace. Apparently all it takes is a random Saturday to have one of the best runs of my life, he thought. Why couldn’t this happen during a race?
He downshifted and slowly cut back the pace as the trailhead came closer to his right. Jeff didn’t mind walking, but on principle he tried to keep most of his runs true to their descriptive name. Over the years he had learned just how slow he had to go to make the hairpin turn back up to the parking lot and the waiting fuel. It was important to pay attention here, because the rocky Texas trails forgave no lapses in concentration. There were no loamy, lush trails here — only sharp edges to cut skin and hidden holes to break ankles.
Jeff downshifted again and glanced down at the pitted stretch just before the trailhead. Out of nowhere his mind was thrown into chaos as a high-pitched keening entered the space between his ears. It was louder than anything Jeff had imagined and threatened to pop his eyeballs right out of their sockets. The scene in front of his eyes was even worse. At first he thought he had broken his ankle, but it was nothing that simple.
Jeff could see the ground through his legs, and not in the normal way he expected when he was looking out for hazards on the trail. No, the space where his leg was supposed to be was somehow pixelated. It reminded Jeff of a corrupt photo file with blank spots on the pixels where the data was missing. Each step he took shook off more pieces of himself. The destruction was worse on his left calf. Jeff could see a gaping slice forming around the area where the mugger scratched him last week.
The next moments of panic trebled Jeff’s pulse to the point where it felt like his heart was beating out of his chest with each stroke. His well-tuned body responded to the increased blood flow in the only way it knew how as he sped past the trailhead. Jeff felt better immediately after he inadvertently increased the pace in his panic.
He looked down at his fully intact legs, his mind free from the klaxon heralding the end of the world. How was everything OK after that cloud of madness he just ran through? His goddamn leg was disappearing in front of his eyes just seconds ago!
He slowed again and started to make the turn back to the trailhead. Within a few steps the white-hot pain was back in his head and bits of his legs were floating through the air like shards of grass thrown up from a hungry lawnmower blade. This time Jeff kept slowing down, and the closer he got to standing still the faster everything fell apart.
“What the FUCK is going on?!” Jeff said.
He piled on a burst of speed and everything snapped back to normal. The transition between the earth shattering decimation of his mind and body and complete normalcy happened immediately. As soon as he sped up something clicked and the world was as right as he could expect it to be. Jeff looked up to a withered old woman with a miniature schnauzer and a small child in tow, weaving her way down the trail toward him with a reproachful look on her face.
“Keep that language to yourself young man,” she said as Jeff passed her by.
Why wasn’t she screaming in terror, exclaiming to the gods about the impending apocalypse instead of chastising a grown man for a bit of language? Didn’t she see the cataclysmic scene just a few seconds ago? There was no way all three of them could have missed it on this part of the trail, which was straight as an arrow for hundreds of feet on each side of the trailhead. One of the humans should have been flat on the ground in shock. If nothing else the dog should have been barking like crazy to ward off the impending attack from the shapeshifting runner ahead of them.
No, it was something else. Jeff was close to a fate worse than death and he had no idea why. The clock portion of his GPS watch ticked over to 9:20 AM as he careened away from his fuel for the rest of the run.
See you next Tuesday for more!