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Ultra-Masochism

I ran 43 miles through the California wilderness to connect with my primal roar. It turned out to be a whimper.
By Kyle Thiermann

I am not a runner. I associate it with cold ears, a wet nose and shin splints. I’m not exactly sure what shin splints are—and I’d prefer to keep it that way. So when my friend Cory Jones invited me to join him on a 43-mile run through the San Luis Obispo wilderness with only a month to train, I was surprised when I didn’t reflexively fabricate an excuse.

There is something so primal about running. Quads contract, breath deepens, and we remember the animal that lays dormant within. We humans have strayed so far from ourselves, sitting in defeated postures, day in, day out, staring vacantly. But when we exert ourselves, we connect with the bones and tendons and blood that was with us long before our modern brains came online. I like this feeling. The great remembering. 

“I’m in,” I texted Cory.

Three of us embarked on the death march: Cory, who organized it, my buddy Ian, and me. Cory is a San Luis Obispo local who enjoys running ultra-marathons, fighting fires, and doing other stuff that makes you really, really tired. Like me, Ian is not a runner. He does qi gong for an hour each morning, paints pristine landscapes for his girlfriend, and says “grrr” when he gets mad. (Before swiftly working through it with more qi gong).

His equanimous demeanor is maddening, and I decided that if he beats me there’ll be hell to pay.

We started training with 2-mile trail runs daily. Then, once a week, we ran 10 miles. I found a technique called pose running, which trains you to land on the balls of your feet, rather than heel striking—the source of most running injuries. I practiced by jumping rope in forward motion, one foot at a time, likely resembling a 9-year-old girl at recess. I also started running errands, literally. Perhaps my greatest training snapshot (queue the Rocky soundtrack), was sprinting home from the market, sweating profusely, clutching a bag of groceries.

Then, a week before the big day, Cory got injured. Graciously, he offered to serve as an aid station, driving ahead to various points with water and energy goo.

I didn’t sleep much the night prior. Maybe it was because the next day I would run 43 miles. Maybe it was because I was on Cory’s couch that smelled like dog. Or maybe it was because Ian, who was on the adjacent couch, emits the sound of a B-52 bomber while unconscious. 

Ian and I set off in the blue-black morning light. We wore small hydration packs carrying water, energy goo and salt pills to keep us from cramping. We jogged up a steep fire road for 30 minutes. At the top, we turned onto a trail that led east into thick-timbered wilderness. 

As we continued deeper into the forest, I noticed my visual acuity sharpen. Rather than perceiving the external world as a blur, like I do while driving, I could zoom in on details, quickly process the information, then move on. I felt like Bradley Cooper from that one movie where he played a smart guy.

Trail running is very different from pavement pounding or running on a treadmill. In nature, you need to balance and thus pay attention to the things around you and the trail ahead. We looped liked wolves down the sinuous trail to the valley floor.

At mile 17 we emerged from the forest, found a fire road and there was Cory waiting with more goo and water.

“How are you feeling Ian?” Cory asked.

“Good,” Ian said, as he chugged water like a camel. 

We ran for another hour or so when suddenly euphoria swept over me like a warm wind at my back. I thought I understood the concept of the runner’s high, but I had no idea. My body was buzzing in the 80-degree heat. This was better than I’d felt on any drug—ever. Then, without consulting my running mate, I took off. Cory later estimated that I blew past my next checkpoint running a seven-minute mile. I charged up and down steep fire roads and finally onto a flat paved road surrounded by ranch land, horses, cows, walnut trees, and vast, rolling California hills. At one point I was feeling so good that I looked at the bag of salt pills and thought, These must be MDMA.

Then, on the unending highway, I began to perform an interpretive dance that we shall call “The Fall of Rome.” First, my left knee started to throb, then my hips turned to cement. I went from running to jogging to limping. The torrid sun beat down and the black asphalt reflected it back at me. I considered the fact that if I died, Cory would likely tell a reporter, “The last time I saw him, he was sprinting at mile 23.” And the whole running community would think, “What an idiot.” 

I continued chugging water, popping salt and slurping goo. By now, though, the goo was caked to the back of my mouth, the sugar slowly eating away at my enamel. My hallucinatory feelings of self-confidence had now been replaced by dread. What if God is punishing me for ditching Ian, and my sentence is to walk this unending highway for the next 10,000 years? Around mile 30, I made it to Cory’s next checkpoint and saw a flash of pity in his eyes.

“He’s gaining on you,” Cory told me.

“Cool, I’ll slow down so we can finish together,” I said, hobbling off as fast as physically possible. 

By now I wasn’t only in physical pain. I was also disgusted with myself. I had ditched Ian, and my lack of consideration was now throbbing like a shin splint. Then, I looked back and saw him. Should I make eye contact, hang my head in shame, or drop to my knees and beg for forgiveness? When he caught up, he just smiled and said, “Hey man, how ya doing?” Not a trace of anger in his voice. Fucking qi gong.

The final stint was on a steep, dusty fire road that resembled the one we had started on that morning, 10 hours and 43 miles earlier. As dusk approached, I saw the saloon that marked the finish line, Cory waiting outside, beers already ordered. I’d set out to do this race because I wanted to find the animal that laid dormant within me. I wanted to reconnect with my primal self. Ian later reflected that he’d had the same intention. Two young men, yearning to learn who they really are. As we crossed the finish line, arm in arm, it dawned on me that we had found the answer. It turns out that Ian is a tortoise, and I am a hare. 

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