In 5 Parts
Photos: Daniel Gray
Text: Matt Gray
Crew Chief: Gary Gray
1. The Waking
Most people probably don't land in California to find themselves just a couple hours later camping out in the desert, preparing for a 50 kilometer run. I stare up at the intricate silhouette of a Joshua Tree and ponder. The first light stirs. We'll soon be stretching, eating what our stomachs will accept, and then heading out across the mystical landscape of Joshua Tree National Park. I climb, stumble, pretty much fall from our crew vehicle (my Dad's Ford truck), where I decided to hunker down for the night. My feet hit the ground with a thud, the cold air knocks against my skin, my tight muscles scream at me, and I too wonder why I crammed myself into the backseat to sleep . . . I suppose it was warm.
Our first running segment is about 8 miles long, predominantly traveling up a wash, though a few hills and a broad valley vary the landscape. Our Dad will drive nearly 30 miles from our campsite around to the end of a dirt road where we'll meet him to pick up supplies for the next leg of our journey. Running our first ultra-marathon distance, without having to carry everything, will be a nice treat. Before I left for this trip, I'd mentioned the adventure to a few friends and colleagues. Everyone asked which race we were running. The befuddlement on their faces when I explained we were doing this on our own accord was no surprise. I'm befuddled myself. But by Mile Marker 6, as we pass another incredible rock formation, it all makes sense.
We leave the first rest stop with our Dad trying to explain to some hikers what we're doing, and we cross a section of the park neither of us have ever seen. We are on the edge, looking out over the Colorado River Basin, across the Salton Sea, and into the mountainous desert of Mexico. The temperature is perfect, and the solitude and new scenery offer inspiration to move with little effort. We're nearing a state of running meditation, but our conversation keeps us distracted. As we climb the steepest section, we design our intentions for the awareness team. And to affirm our brainstorming at the top of the rise, a familiar panorama unfolds: the Wonderland of Rocks, Hidden Valley, and Ryan Mountain.
There's a threshold you cross in endurance running when the rest of the world slips away. The trail in front of you, and the breathe moving your body, are all that matter. And yes, the pain and exertion nag at you, like a small child asking "why? why? why?" In order to continue, you have to relax, ignore the poking finger, and put one foot slightly ahead of the other. I tend to pass this threshold between mile 12 and mile 20. So the last two sections of the Joshua Tree 50k were particularly challenging, but most definitely exhilarating. Runner's Brain. Bone Games. Stress-Induced Visions. LSD. Mindfulness. It's called many things, yet only one thing is for sure: light, shadow, shapes . . . the world suddenly looks very different.
5. A Sunset
While I have little memory of the last two miles of the run, I do remember how good it felt to reach the end of the trail. And I most certainly remember the sunset. I wish sunsets weren't so damn cliche, because I would write poetically about them every chance I got. They mean a great deal. After the most challenging athletic experience of my life, the high desert offered up a grand culmination to our day.
I climb, stumble, pretty much fall into the truck. My back hits the seat with a thud, the cold air chills my skin, my tight muscles berate me, and I too wonder why I ran 32 miles across the desert . . . it was most definitely fun.