“I think I might throw up,” I heard Shacky mutter during the steep climb. My friends Vanessa and Shacky and I managed to make it to the top of Gooseberry Mesa without anyone throwing up (or dying). The climb to the top of the mesa ascended more than 1,500 feet in less than a mile, early in the Zion 100.
Making it to the top of Gooseberry is the type of adventure that fills your lungs with molten lava and leaves your legs feeling like melted Jell-O Pudding Pops. The scene of runners hunched over trying to coax air into their lungs would have been uproariously comical – if we weren’t also experiencing the same thing ourselves.
Reaching the summit rewarded us with jaw-dropping views of southern Utah and Zion National Park on the horizon. We then traversed another twelve miles of slick rock across the top of the mesa. Those twelve miles of slick rock felt exactly like having a filing cabinet dropped on our quads and knees.
We were then 30 miles into the race. We were sore and exhausted and had begun fantasizing about a bed and a Netflix binge. And then, in the middle of nowhere, I saw a sign that summarized the essence of ultrarunning. It said: “You are NOT almost there.”
Over the years, I have taken thousands of pictures during my races. (Maybe I’d have slightly faster finish times if I had the self-control to put my camera away). Out of all those pictures, this simple picture of that sign has been shared most widely. I’ve wondered why “You are NOT almost there” resonates so deeply with runners in our crazy sport.
I can only image that it connects with people because every single ultrarunner has arrived at this point in a race. You know, that point of absolute physical exhaustion that overcomes you – even though you are not even somewhat close to the finish line. Like you are dead to the world but you are still multiple marathons from the finish. It’s that point when blisters are brewing. A bonk is beckoning. The stomach is queasy. Your legs feel like flimsy Ramen noodles. And you are NOT almost there.
My most recent “NOT almost there” moment was at the Rio Del Lago 100. I made it through a night that involved far too much sleep walking. My legs were sore and I just couldn’t pick up my pace. I was dangerously close to missing cutoffs.
I stumbled into the aid station at mile 84 only five minutes before the cutoff. I knew that the upcoming trail had the not-so-adorable name “Meat Grinder,” and I lacked confidence that I could finish in time. In a weary voice I said to an aid station worker “Is this even possible?” She handed me a breakfast burrito and a cup of Coke. Then she looked me in the eyes and said “You’ll have to run the downhills hard. You’ll have to hike the uphills as fast as you can. You don’t have time to spare. But you can do this. Go get it!” It was just the motivation I needed at that moment. I could have shed a tear – if I had any fluid left in my body.
And so I did what every single one of us must do when we are going through a rough stretch and are NOT almost there: I kept moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other. I just had to take one more step. And then another one after that. And then another.
I am consistently amazed by this simple truth of ultrarunning: if you keep making forward progress, one foot in front of the other, it will bring you to somewhere incredible: a finish line! And it’s the most rewarding feeling when being “NOT almost there” finally becomes “you ARE there!”