By Katrin Silva
Last December, my friend Rachael and I got lucky at the Western States lottery. We were excited, then terrified. After that, we got serious. We watched Unbreakable over and over, which confirmed what the Western States website says all along: It’s a downhill race, and most years a very hot one.
In Mid-June, with Western States two weeks away, a heat wave swept the Southwest. We decided to meet in Moab, Utah, for one last weekend of intense training before the final taper.
Moab is a mountain bike mecca. The town must have a city ordinance that makes driving a car without a bike rack illegal. Mountain bikers like riding downhill a lot more than riding uphill. In Moab, enterprising individuals have recognized this as an economic niche. Like Sisyphus pushing his rock, shuttle buses transport mountain bikers up into the mountains. From there, they roll back into Moab, avalanche-like. A light bulb went on in Rachael’s head.
“We should do that, just without the bike!”
When Rachael says we should do something, I usually agree. She has a PhD, after all.
“How many miles is it?”
“I have no idea. Twenty-five? Thirty?”
“It’s going to be 104 degrees. How much water do we need?”
We filled our hydration packs. We filled all the bottles we brought. We stuffed some of them into our packs, others into our waistbands, and attached more to the outside of our packs with spare shoe strings. Thus prepared, we met a van with a giant black spider painted on it the next morning outside a bike shop. The driver, who looked about seventeen, eyed us with suspicion, from our bottle-decorated upper bodies down to our oversized Hokas. He probably thought we were a pair of very fit clowns.
“Where are your bikes?”
“We don’t have bikes. We’re ultrarunners.” said Rachael.
“You know it’s a long stretch?”
“Thirty miles? That’s not long!”
He shook his head, but dropped us off at the Poison Spider trailhead without further comments.
Our plan worked. We started running in the cool pines, and made it back to Moab six hours later, in the mid-day heat, guzzling our last drops of liquid. We felt invincible. We felt we had impressed all the young whippersnappers on the mountain bikes. So we refueled that night, according to our pre-Western States dietary protocols: protein in the form of cheeseburgers and carbs, in the form of beer. Alcohol is a proven muscle relaxant. And it helps people come up with ideas that seem smart at the time.
“It’s supposed to be even hotter tomorrow.”
“We should take advantage of that!”
“I know a canyon a few miles South. We should run it.”
The next morning, we nursed our hangovers until 11 a.m. Then we drove to the edge of a wide, gaping ravine. The red rocks glistened in the sunshine. We headed down. The plan was to cover no more than twenty miles today, ten out, ten back. Simple. But we felt a lot less spring in our steps than the day before. Maybe the recovery brews hadn’t helped. And yesterday’s run had at least started off in the shade of cool pines. We reached the bottom, and looked at the spot where the car perched on the rim. It seemed very far above us. Something occurred to me:
“We’re gonna have to climb back up at the end.”
Rachael grunted, probably in agreement. We slogged along a rocky double-track, dodging cactus spines. Red dust covered us from head to toe. Our sweat evaporated as soon as it seeped out of our pores. Salt formed a crust on our bodies, where it mixed with the layer of dirt. A large black bird flapped its wings above our heads.
“Is that a vulture?” Rachael inquired.
I wasn’t sure. Birds of prey are not my area of expertise.
“What’s the difference between a vulture and a buzzard?”
“Not much. They both eat dead things.”
“So we stay alive?”
I tripped over a rock and fell. I got back up. A trickle of blood ran down my shin. We slowed to a walk. The water in our packs was hot enough to make tea. The vulture had left. He was probably calling his friends, inviting them over for dinner. Or maybe he was taking his siesta, like any sensible carrion-eater. We kept moving. My Garmin said we had gone nine miles. It seemed a lot further. We decided to turn around. A hot breeze brought zero relief from the furnace-like conditions. Our ground speed slowed to a crawl. Our conversation slowed to an exchange of “grmmph” sounds. The canyon wall did not come any closer. The vultures were probably getting their napkins and silverware ready.
An engine roared behind us. We stopped and turned our heads. The salt that seeped into our eyes, and the dust on our sunglasses, made it difficult to see. But we both heard it. This meant it probably wasn’t a hallucination, and vultures don’t operate motor vehicles. We remembered that Moab is also an off-road-road driving destination. Sure enough, a red jeep was moving in our direction. It slowed, then stopped. The window on the driver’s side rolled down. A pink face appeared in a cloud of air-conditioned comfort. We moved closer, eager to benefit from the unexpected bubble of ice-cold bliss.
“Can we give you ladies a ride?”
We made efforts to straighten our backs. Rachael’s firm “No!” sounded indignant.
“Of course not!” I added.
What made this ignorant old man — who probably was a lot closer to our age than yesterday’s young whippersnappers had been — think we needed a ride? Just because we were two middle-aged women stumbling around in the middle of nowhere? In the mid-day desert heat? Just because we wore running skirts and and hydration packs and not much else? I realized that, had we been twenty years younger, we might have passed for hookers, preying on tourists without much success.
I felt a little more explanation was needed.
“We’re training for a 100.”
The smile under the grey crew cut changed to a bewildered, even concerned expression.
“A run. An ultramarathon. It’s 100 miles long.”
The bewildered expression remained. Another pleasant, round face, this one female, with a head full of tight greying curls, leaned over from the passenger side to see what was going on. Clearly, both of them thought we were incoherent. Maybe they thought we were insane.
“Is there anything we can do for you?”
Rachael and I looked at each other.
“Do you have any ice?”
“We sure do!”
Both jeep doors opened. The emerging couple, plump and rosy in their spotless polyester shirts and sensible sandals seemed happy to be of assistance. A large cooler sat in the back of the jeep. We felt ecstatic, but didn’t want to scare them away.
“Nice day to be out in the desert, isn’t it?” Rachael said in a chatty tone. Her smile revealed reddish sand stuck on her teeth, like wads of chewing tobacco. Her braids, caked with dirt, stuck out from the side of her head at a ninety-degree angle.
The tourists nodded, happy to revert to familiar conversation patterns.
“Where are you guys from?” I inquired, encouraged. I could feel the dried blood on my knee and hoped it didn’t look too gruesome. Some dirt was stuck in my throat. I spit it out, making an effort to be discreet.
“Tulsa, Oklahoma. How about you?”
Before we had a chance to respond, Mr. Tulsa lifted the lid of the large cooler, which looked to us like a treasure chest in a pirate’s cove. It was filled with ice. And cans of soda. Much better than gold coins. Our eyes lit up. We abandoned further attempts at small talk and grabbed handfuls, stuffing it under our hats, into our sport bras, down our skirts. We gulped regular coke, refined sugar and all. I considered climbing into the cooler for an impromptu ice bath, but didn’t want to appear greedy, or uncivilized. We filled our bottles, and our bladders (the ones in our packs) with more ice. Our core temperature dropped. Our heart rates slowed. The ice that remained in the cooler had taken on an orange tint, but our hands had returned to their normal color. We looked up.
The woman with the neat perm held an iPad in our direction. We were being filmed.
“So, what do you ladies do when you’re not running?” She asked.
“I teach English Literature.” I responded.
“I’m a psychologist,” said my friend.
Mrs. Tulsa smiled. Her vacation movie promised to be a good one, full of colorful wildlife in its natural habitat. I’m not sure she believed us. But we felt restored, and reassured about the fairness of the bargain. Our entertainment value made up for the damage we had inflicted on the contents of the cooler. We thanked them profusely, and with the help of all the melting ice, made it back to our car.
I still wonder about this video. Has it inspired curiosity? Intrigue? Interesting conversations? Has it contributed to the growth of our sport? As far as I know, it has not gone viral, but I haven’t checked. Thank you, dear couple from Tulsa. We will never forget you, or your cooler.