Scatter my ashes here...

Scatter my ashes here...
scatter my ashes in the desert...

Monday, September 21, 2009

One Step at a Time

I'm headed back to Arizona again this week. I had not planned to go back so soon, not until the holidays, but some things have come up and I need to go.

The road is long and stretches out far ahead of you, but you never know what's around the next curve. I have said it before, life is an ultra, and sometimes you find yourself looking at this:

But there's always a way to climb over it.

I wrote earlier about how I'm looking forward to going part-time at my job, I've felt fatigued and it's been affecting my entire life. I got the news last week that my dad is facing some health challenges and I'm going to Arizona to support him and my stepmom. Dad has a type of chronic leukemia and he's most likely had it for some time, but just found out.

I always wondered why he got so many colds. He takes good care of himself, eats well, exercises frequently, works out with a personal trainer and runs about 30-40 miles a week on his treadmill, and is a young 67, just started a new business, and has more energy than I have most days.

What's scary about this is that he's vulnerable to infections. That's what worries me most, being the ICU nurse who sees all the septic patients who come through. I'm scared he'll end up in a hospital.

He's going to have to make some lifestyle changes, mostly with regards to stress reduction.

We could all learn from that.

People reach a point where they realize their parents are aging, and my dad has always seemed so young to me. I've thought about it before, but always brushed it aside. Now it's like a giant cliff that can be scaled but needs to be approached cautiously, and there's always the danger of falling, or losing ground in the sand.

Last week I made the mistake of going to work after getting this news, and not having time to process it. It was the day from hell. It was almost traumatizing to be there, ICU is not the place you want to be when you're trying deal with your own personal life-and-death issues! I ended up taking the next two days off, and I've been running trails in the foothills trying to sort through my thoughts and feelings.

My dad has always been there for me, even in my worst moments, someone to admire and look up to, someone who believes in what he is doing and works hard and spent years building the business he was so proud of. It wasn't always easy and we didn't always agree, but he never let me down. We have a lot in common, we are both driven, high energy, focused people. He's improved with age, become more sensitive, more empathetic, more aware of the value of differences between people. My stepmom has been a positive influence on his life and all of us.

I didn't know about this when I asked to cut my work hours back, but now I'm glad I did and I intend to use the time to make more frequent trips to Phoenix, regardless of my dad's health status, which I feel will take a positive turn as he takes steps to manage it. Knowledge is power.

It's an odd feeling, knowing this, like running through sand. Somehow it gives you strength, even though the footing isn't secure. Life is short, we are all mortal, love while you're here, give thanks for all of the gifts in your life, learn to recognize the gifts. Be kind at every opportunity, and forgive yourself when you're less than perfect, because none of us are perfect.

Keep moving forward, and you'll find a way over the cliff and down the other side, where the road resumes. I am reminded of the quote on the back of the Badwater 2003 race t-shirt.

"as I have always held it a crime to anticipate evils, I will believe it a good comfortable road until I am compelled to believe differently"
-Meriwether Lewis, May 26, 1805

Monday, September 14, 2009

Paatuwaqatsi Run

Water is life.

I run in reverence for all living things. In our prayers, may we always remember that water is life. That is the quote on the t-shirt for the Paatuwaqatsi Run.

Katy and I went to the Hopi Reservation in Arizona this past weekend to do this 50K run. The weekend, it was an ultra event in itself.

We drove nearly 15 hours each way. Katy and I have both been stressed and fatigued lately for various reasons, and I can't even count the number of times we looked at each other during the weekend and didn't have to say the thing that was running through both of our minds: "Are we insane?"

If we had been in our twenties, maybe it wouldn't have been hard to drive so far on either side of such a long, tough run. But we had no regrets. The only thing we both agreed we'd do differently if we came back to run it again, was that we'd take the time to split the driving up into at least 2 days each before and after the race.

Allow me to go off on a tangent here. Just last week I made a decision to go part-time at work as of November. I have been exhausted all the time, I don't recover between 12 hour shifts, I never get enough sleep, and it affects my entire life outside of work, because I'm so tired that everything I do on my days off feels like a chore. Including running.

I spend 2 days of my week recovering from doing my three 12 hour shifts, and I don't feel like I'm able to live my life the way I want to when I'm brain fogged and feel like a slug. Furthermore, I'm not getting paid to recover. I feel like I'm being used up in so many ways, it feels like I've aged 10 years in the past three. I can't continue to do this or I'll burn out, and I don't want to burn out on nursing. I went into it so I could do it for a long time, even if only part-time. After just 3 years, I'm there.

So last week I talked to my boss, and I am going to start doing just two 12 hour shifts a week, since there are no 8 hour shift options in my job.

Neither of us slept much the night before we left. Katy drove down from Cheyenne Friday morning and we left my house at 5:30 am. We kept each other awake, switched off driving, and eventually made it through the horrible roads in New Mexico and through the traffic jammed town of St. Michaels, Arizona, where we didn't realize that the 63rd annual Navajo Nation Fair was going on. The main highway through town was a parking lot with the streets lined with trucks and people setting up tents, selling mutton stew and Navajo tacos, and general chaos.

Eventually we reached the Hopi Cultural Center in Second Mesa where we stayed the night and did get a good night's sleep before the race.

To describe this run like a standard running report would diminish the uniqueness of this event. To say that it was a difficult, challenging course, one that took us nearly 9 hours to complete, that it was hot, that there were aid stations nearly every two miles, that there were people along the course not just in the villages but out in remote places, cheering us on, in their native language, that it was well marked to the point where we never once got lost or even questioned the route in 30 miles of remote, mostly single track trails or across the tops of mesas on slickrock, all that is not enough to describe the beauty and spirit of this run.

Most of the run was on soft, deep sand, on trails across high desert, pinon juniper forests, and over cliffs and mesas with rocky, narrow ledges and stone steps that have been around longer than any of our White ancestors have been on this continent.

Ruins of old stone buildings were on the edge of every cliff.

Thanks to the Hopi people for allowing us to run through these remote and sacred places, to see their ancient villages and springs.

"It is not a race," Bucky Preston reminded us as we stood at the unmarked starting line. There were a handful of runners doing the ultra, no more than 30, I'm guessing. Most people were running the relays of 5-10 mile legs.

Bucky has been a long distance runner for many years. He told us to remember that water is life, for all living things depend on it, and to pray for rain. He told us the meaning of what the Hopi men and women would say, which I cannot remember now. The men would say something that sounded like "Qua Que" and the women would say something that sounded like "Paa-Squal-e", that I think meant "go on, go on".

Note: According to Woofie, they were saying "KwaKway"..."It means thank you and many other things in Hopi. A man uses KwaKway, a woman Asquali." Thanks for the clarification, Woofie.

Before we started Bucky's father came to the starting line and said a prayer. The sunrise was pink and purple and we were in the shadow of the ancient village of Walpi, atop the cliffs, overlooking the village of Tewa, closest to where we started.

And we were off.

Katy and I had the unusual distinction of having runner numbers One and Two. How we got those, we have no idea. Maybe we were the first two to sign up? I pointed this out early in the run, as we stumbled across the first mile of deep sand and mud-caked stream crossings. I said, "Remember Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat?" I told her we look like Thing One and Thing Two, in our goofy running hats with our bulky packs, navigating our soon to be sunburned, tired bodies up and down the thousands of little sandy hills over the course.

We arrived at the first aid station at 4 miles in about 50 minutes and we knew it would be a long day, but we came for the scenery and the experience, and we didn't care how long it took. We figured at first that it shouldn't take us more than 7 hours.

We both had nearly a gallon of water and plenty of food, and rain jackets, we were told to carry everything we needed, and we had no idea what to expect out there on the course. It was 83 degrees when we arrived at 6 pm the previous day, so we knew it could get hot, and it was. There were no clouds in the sky until late in the day, we saw approaching thunderheads in the east, but they never got close.

As it turned out there were aid stations all over the course, some only a mile apart. They all had bottled water and snacks, and a few had cold water. I still drank everything I carried with me. It was hot in the afternoon, it might have hit 90, but there was usually a breeze when we were up on the mesas and it never felt bad to me, but then I feel better when it gets hot.

Don Meyer, one of the volunteers at Badwater who is an ultrarunner I know from Arizona and Across the Years, was there, volunteering at this event. We saw him at 6 miles and then several times later in the run. He was cheering for us as we approached the second aid station, and it was so great to see him. Every time I see Don, he is helping someone.

We climbed up the mesa to the village of Walpi, on narrow stone steps with some exposed places, that had been there for hundreds of years, the village was built in the 1600s, and the old stone buildings are still there. The view from the top is amazing, over the buttes and mesas and toward the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff.

After we came down from Walpi, we hit the 8.5 mile aid station, and 2 hours and 35 minutes had gone by since the start. Katy and I looked at each other. It was going to be a LONG day.

We descended into the village of Wepo, and the course took an interesting little loop to Coyote Spring, the first of a half dozen or more sacred springs. I didn't include pictures of the springs or the village of Walpi because these are sacred places and generally White people do not go there, and photographs are discouraged in these places.

We climbed a long, hot, sandy ascent to the next mesa and descending the other side was scary and exposed. There was a narrow crack in the rocks and then a narrow ledge with a long drop-off below. We took off our packs to make it across the scary part. When we dropped down there was a White woman with an aid station, near a spring under the rocks. There was 8 foot tall grass, and people coming through. This was the start of a 9 mile loop on the course. The fastest runners were already coming through at 22 miles as we were getting there at 13 miles.

It was amazing to us how slow the pace was, because we were running. We found early in the run that it was much easier and faster to run through the sand instead of walking. But it was slow, and we were taking our time and taking pictures, too. We stopped four or five times to dump sand out of our shoes. I had lumps of sand underneath my toes and under the ball of my foot.

We got water at 13 miles, but it was only 2 miles until another major aid station, above an arroyo with old stone buildings. Don was there again, cheering for us. They had ice-cold water, pretzels, trail mix, gels, gatorade, potatoes, oranges, bananas, pretty much everything you could ever want at an aid station.

We climbed another mesa and saw an amazing spring up there, descended stone steps into it, and there were stone walls built around it. Many of the springs were like this, and a few were dry with only the steps and walls remaining. The water dripped from the ceiling of rock, like a cave. It formed a pool that was deep and full of green algae and plants.

Being out on the course, on those sandy trails, there was a feeling about the place, a calm and peace that I don't experience too often any more when I'm running, mostly because there is too much going on. There are other people, sounds of cars, airplanes, traffic, city noises, hunters, whatever it is. Out here at Hopi there was none of that. Except for the aid stations and the people greeting us along the way, we were out there and there was nothing else. It felt sacred. The Hopi people were thanking us along the way, but I was thanking them, for giving us the opportunity to be there.

We passed through the 20 mile aid station and got our last cold water, and then at 22 miles we met the woman at the loop again. This time we stopped to dump out our shoes and talked with her. Turns out she's a nurse at the Hopi Health Center and I talked with her about it. She loves it up there. I asked her what services they offer there, and what the Hopi people's greatest needs were, and she told me they were hiring! After we left, I told Katy, "I should have asked if they work 8 hour shifts!"

I have done my share of time living in remote places, and I don't want to live like that anymore, but I can understand the appeal of living there and doing that. One of those ideas to stick in the far corners of my mind.

We climbed up the mesa again and crossed the top for about 3 miles on slickrock. The views went forever. We could see a huge thunderhead with lightning off in the distance over the Navajo Reservation. But it was clear and dry and hot on the course.

When we reached the last aid station, they told us it was 5 miles to the end. We went by two more springs, but the last few miles were more sandy hills. We laughed at the last mile. Someone designed this course to be unrelenting. We descended the last mesa below Walpi and a woman yelled "Paa-Squal-E" to us several times, at the top of her lungs.

When we finished, it was about 8 hours and 45 mintues after we started. We sat down with Don, and we ate the delicious blue corn tamales and watermelon at the post-race meal. They gave us prizes, too, which we did not expect at all. Katy got a mug with a Hopi design on it. I got a glass box with another Hopi design.

We got in the car afterwards and headed to Gallup where we spent the night, and finished the final 10 hour drive on Sunday.

I don't know if I'll do the run again. It was certainly worth the experience. Even with the long torturous drive, it was well worth it. It was probably the toughest 50K run I'll ever do. Mile for mile it was a difficult as Badwater, for different reasons- because of the sand, climbs, heat, and carrying so much in the pack to be self-sufficient.

I might find myself wanting to go back by a year from now. But I'll decide then. I do know that this run was exactly what I needed at this time in my life. I am so glad I did it when I did, because this weekend I got even more validation that the decision I made about cutting back my work hours was the right thing to do. More about that later.