Icarus by Mark Stone
April 2015. Never regret thy fall,
O Icarus of the fearless flight
For the greatest tragedy of them all
Is never to feel the burning light
Painting by Raychul at Deviant Art
As runners we thrill with each new height ascended, whether it is the first marathon completed or a new PR at a favorite distance. In that moment our emotions burn bright with the glow of achievement, and we wonder, hopefully, how much higher we might ascend. We are undaunted by the fear that some day we will fail, and from a great height we will fall.
The ancient Greeks intended the tale of Icarus as a sober reminder that we are not immortals granted unbounded ascension, and thus our aspirations must be grounded in the humble bounds of what is possible for mere mortals. This we all understand when first we hear the tale of Icarus, and this lesson in humility is the origin of the expression, "Pride goeth before a fall."
I took my own great fall at the Gorge Waterfalls 50K, plummeting from more than a thousand feet above the gleaming waters of the Columbia River, and more than 24 miles out from the starting line, to the wreckage of my first "Did Not Finish" in a race. Yet in my failed attempt I was reminded of two lessons from the tale of Icarus beyond the lesson of humility, lessons that are oft forgotten in the re-telling of the tale.
First, we forget that "Do not fly too close to the Sun" was only one piece of advice that Daedelus gave to his son. Icarus was also advised not to fly too low, lest the dampness of the sea saturate his wings and drag him down. So in the familiar Greek manner the lesson is really about finding the happy medium -- be ambitious, just not too ambitious.
I am competitive. While I do not race to win, I do race to challenge myself. Running has long since ceased to be merely about fitness and health for me, and has become a quest to push myself to new limits. A casual runner for many years, I have only gotten serious about running since I turned 50. I've run numerous 10Ks and half marathons, and completed three marathons. As a "late bloomer" every PR I've run is from my fifties. And I've run it all on a crippled leg. What tanalizes me most is not how fast I can run, but how far. So an attempt at a 50K seemed like a natural next step.
The Gorge Waterfalls 50K, however, is not just any 50K. With 6000' of elevation gain (and descent), including a 1500' climb to the last checkpoint at Mile 25.5, the course is far steeper than most ultras. The terrain is also challenging: endless miles of single track, stream crossings, scrambles across jagged moraine, tree roots waiting in ambush, and switchbacks that seem endless. Not a course for the faint of heart, and perhaps an arrogant choice for a first ultra attempt. Yet I think not. In the end, I think the course was just right for me. While I did not complete the course, the course completed me.
The second overlooked lesson from the tale of Icarus is "Do not fly alone." Recall that the journey of Daedelus and Icarus was an escape from imprisonment on Crete, and that Daedelus had fashioned wax and feather wings for them to make this escape. Because Icarus flew off on his own, no one was there to catch his fall.
What I took to heart most from the Gorge was a powerful reminder of what a welcoming community ultra runners are. No matter what your ability or what your struggle, you are never removed from their supportive embrace. Truly you are never alone.
After last May's Capital City Marathon, I looked for new challenges. A summer battle with Achilles tendonitis kept me from trying anything ambitious in the fall, but I had a growing sense that a 50K should be my next challenge. My friend Ken Ludt and I both saw the Ginger Runner's inspirational video of the 2014 Gorge Waterfalls 50K, and Ken decided he wanted to fly out from Ohio to run in the 2015 race. I couldn't have him come all the way to the Pacific Northwest alone, so I decided to join him.
There was only one catch. Gorge Waterfalls 50K is a hugely popular race. Not surprising given the size and strength of the Oregon running community, and given that the finish line is less than hour from downtown Portland. Given the stunning scenery of the Columbia Gorge (a protected National Recreation Area), and the intense challenge of the course itself, the race has international appeal. In 2015 we had runners from as far away as Marseilles and Puerto Rico. With that kind of popularity and the need to limit the entries to less than 400 runners, entry is by lottery. Unless... unless you provide a volunteer. Ken and I prevailed upon our significant others, RoseMary and Karen, to serve as volunteers so that we could automatically gain entry. This might be the biggest spouse favor I've ever asked, but it meant the world to me to have Karen fully involved in the event with me.
This was a tough training season for me and for Ken, starting in early November and spanning the coldest and darkest months of the year. We lose daylight rapidly here in the winter months of the Pacific Northwest, so I had many long runs that started well before sunrise with only a head lamp for illumination. Rain is a constant companion this time of year; my final long training run was 6 hours and 40 minutes in a steady rain. Ken had his own challenges as Ohio suffered under one of the snowiest winters on record. This dashed any hopes Ken had of getting in a few decent trail runs in preparation; he spent more hours than I can even imagine on the treadmill.
As the grind of training wore on, and the anticipation the event grew, the race crept into every nook and cranny of my thoughts. For about ten days prior to the race I had this recurring dream. In my dream Ken and I were running side by side down the final stretch, and I was encouraging him. I'd wake up, and think to myself, "How odd. I'm pretty sure that Ken is the stronger runner." The dream never made any sense. Indeed on race day I would quickly put that dream out of my thoughts. Ken did prove to be the stronger runner, and spent a lot of time that day encouraging me, for which I am eternally grateful.
Race weekend arrived. Karen and I picked up RoseMary and Ken the afternoon before the race at the Portland airport. We had a delightful early dinner in Portland, and a quiet evening at the hotel. RoseMary was to help with sign-ins first thing in the morning, and Karen's volunteer duties would be serving food at the finish line in the afternoon. For the 50K runners check in is at the finish area at Benson State Park, and then we are bused to the starting line at Wyeth Campground for a point to point run back to the finish.
Next morning RoseMary, Ken and I arrived early so that RoseMary could get started on her volunteer assignment. In the gray pre-dawn Ken and I strolled around the finish area, and on a whim he started walking the course backwards from the finish line. Benson State Park features a small lake, and the course winds around the far side of the lake before doubling back to the finish line. We walked all the way around the lake, and a mile or so later found ourselves at the base of Multnomah Falls, the most popular tourist destination in all of Oregon. At over 600' it is Oregon's tallest waterfall. We made our way back to Benson State Park. After final preparations it was time to board the buses for the starting line.
The mood on the bus was cheerful and positive. I sat next to a young man who had run 8 previous ultras; this was his 3rd time at Gorge Waterfalls 50K. He was very encouraging, assuring me that I would do great. I commented that this was a big unknown for me since it was my first ultra attempt, and I didn't really know what to expect. He laughed, noting that experience wouldn't necessarily change that. Then for just a moment he got very quiet, the weight of our endeavor suddenly real to him, and said, "I don't even know what to expect today."
Start time was scheduled for 9:00 AM. Ken and I had agreed to run the race together as much as possible. We waited anxiously, and finally at 9:12 Race Director James Varner signalled the start and we were off. There are three checkpoints / aid stations on the course, at Mile 9.3, Mile 18, and Mile 25.5. Runners have 2 1/2 hours the first two legs, and two hours for the last two legs.
The race starts immediately with a 4 mile run up 1000' of elevation gain, narrowing very quickly to single track. There's a dip of a mile or so, giving up about 200' in elevation, and then another steep hill. Then it's gradual downhill all the way to the first checkpoint. I took two falls in the first leg, the second including a spectacular barrel roll about 15' down a hillside. I suffered nothing more than a few scrapes from either, though, and entering the first checkpoint I felt good. While my intent had been to conserve energy on the first leg, Ken and I were told we were only 10 minutes ahead of the cutoff time, which was cutting it closer than I had intended.
The second leg was tough, much tougher than I expected. Knowing that the third leg included the big 1500' climb, and wanting to bank some time for that effort, Ken and I set out from Checkpoint 1 at a brisk pace. With the big 1000' climb in the first leg behind us, I was hoping for relatively easy going in the middle stretch. For a couple of miles the going was indeed easier. But of the 6000' of elevation gain on the course, the first and final hills make up only 2500'. The other 3500' of elevation gain comes from all the smaller hills in between. Hill after hill of 300 to 500 feet, with switchbacks and grades of roughly 10%, with a few spots even steeper. This kind of terrain had been a staple of my training runs, but I was now about a half marathon in and that first big climb up from the starting line had taken more out of me than I realized.
By Mile 12 I was struggling, and the next two miles were particularly difficult. It was obvious that while Ken had not put in the trail miles I had, his extensive time at steep inclines on the treadmill was paying off. He was powering up hills that I was struggling up. And I just could not find a comfortable rhythm. Everything I tried felt either too fast or too slow. Then we caught up with two women running in tandem down the single track ahead of us. Silently we fell in behind them. Nobody said a word. Yet the woman in the lead of our little group had found the groove. Her pace was perfect, and the rest of us just followed her all the way in to Checkpoint 2.
I had a drop bag waiting for me, enabling me to swap into lighter and drier clothing, and leave behind the jacket and long sleeve shirt I no longer needed. While I was changing one of the volunteers refilled the water in my fuel pack. Mentally I was struggling. I kept thinking that we still had a half marathon to go, including the biggest climb yet on the course. A quick time check showed us coming up on 2:00, right at the cut off time. That was discouraging. We had hoped to bank time on this leg, and instead had lost a little bit of time. For the first time it dawned on me that I might have the strength to reach Checkpoint 3, but that time might well run out on me.
Somewhere in the background I heard one of the volunteers calling out to the runners, "You have time. You have until 4:12 at the next checkpoint." However, I was so focused in on my run that I didn't really process what she was saying. Elsewhere I heard a couple of other volunteers making arrangements to drive some runners back who were dropping out, and I realized in a few minutes more they would start pulling runners from the course for missing the cutoff time. I looked at Ken as he shouldered his refilled fuel pack. He was clearly feeling fresher than me, and I was holding him back. The next cutoff time at Checkpoint 3 was going to be a very near thing. At that moment it would have been easy to drop out, and it was so tempting. This was a low point, a moment when my dampened wings nearly dragged me down. But somewhere inside of me a little voice said, "No. It doesn't end here. You have to see what you have left."
I looked again at Ken. If today I was to be Icarus, then I would follow my Daedelus. "Let's go," I said. So began the third leg.
At first I was just walking. But this stretch was flat, following a road, and I told myself that if I wanted a chance at making the cutoff time I had to at least jog the relatively easy stretches. So after a couple hundred yards I started running, slowly. Ken was running in front of me, and the gap between us gradually widened. Without a word spoken, we both just let it widen. We both knew he was going to make the cutoff time, and we both knew that I might not. There really wasn't anything to be said. A few minutes later he passed a woman wearing a bright pink running shirt, and then I lost sight of him altogether. But I was still running. I kept my eyes on the pink shirt, and step by step narrowed the gap.
Visibility was quite good on this stretch with the road forming a long straightaway. Beyond that was a wall of green, a vertiable rampart of steep, wooded hillside thrown across our path: the final climb that would take us high up above Multnomah Falls, then down the course's steepest descent on the far side before the flat stretch sweeping behind the lake and turning back to the finish line. The wall of green looked utterly impassable.
After a bit the course left the roadside and began winding through the woods again, starting with a gradual ascent that would become steeper and steeper. Although I didn't know it at the time, this stretch covered my second fastest mile of the day. I passed the lady in pink. We smiled at each other, each of us with breathing too shallow for words at this point. She passed me back a little later, and then slowed. In this way we leap frogged past each other, higher and higher, trying to show what encouragement we could. No one else was in sight, and the trail behind us for at least a good half mile was empty. In my judgment (mistaken as it turned out) we were the last two runners chasing the cutoff time. I didn't see how anyone further back would have a chance.
The trail turned to ascending switchbacks. The trail steepened. The pink lady receded behind me. I ran any flat stretch, even if it was just 20' or so. I walked the rest, and mine was no longer a brisk walking pace. Higher and higher I trudged. Nausea slowly crept over me. Nothing felt appealing. Not water, which I continued to sip anyway, nor any of the food I had packed with me. My legs felt like rubber, and I leaned more heavily on my trekking poles. The grade steepened, and the flat stretches shortened, and became less frequent.
I clambered up another sharp turn, and a longer flat stretch opened up in front of me. I willed my body once more to run, and I just couldn't. So I walked. I glanced at my watch, and realized 4 PM was coming up fast. By my estimation I was at least two miles from the next checkpoint, maybe further. At my current pace that was probably an hour or more away. And then what? 6 rugged miles from there to the finish. At the end of the flat stretch I had just walked was another climbing turn, and at the turn was a boulder about waist high. Looking up the hillside, I knew. The wax was melting from my wings, my feathers were falling, and this was as close to touching the Sun as I dared reach on this day. Suddenly the boulder in front of me looked like the most comfortable chair I had ever seen, and with a deep sigh I sat down.
For what seemed like a very long time, I just sat there. In actuality only a few minutes passed. The pink lady passed me, and I gave her a thumbs up. A couple of other runners shuffled by. I wasn't sure what to feel. Anger, frustration, and despair are all things I would have expected to feel as the reality of my first "Did Not Finish" began to sink in, but I felt none of those things. Mostly I was in a daze, only dimly aware of my surroundings.
Icarus flew alone, but I did not. Another runner approached, and he stopped.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"I'm done," I replied flatly.
There was a long pause. Oddly, I found myself worrying about him. He was perilously close to missing the cutoff time at the final checkpoint, and I didn't want him missing the cutoff on my account. Finally he spoke. There are many things he could have said. He could have given the cheerful encouragement that runners so easily give each other, coaxing me to push on a little more. He did not.
Very matter of factly, he asked, "What are you going to do?"
From deep in the tunnel vision of my run I began to think about his words. Indeed, what was I going to do? I said simply, "I don't know."
"Well, you can go up or you can go down," he said, glancing at the parking lot hundreds of feet below us. He paused, and with just a hint of a smile, said "Down is easier than up. You may have a cell signal down there, or you may be able catch a ride back to the finish area."
And just like that, the fog cleared from my thoughts. I said, "Yes, you're right. I'll go down. Thank you."
"No problem." He turned and headed up the trail.
"Good luck!" I called out.
He glanced back my way, genuinely smiling, and said, "Thanks."
I remained seated for another minute, gathering my strength and my thoughts for the walk down. And again I was not alone. She was a day hiker, and her name was Andrea. She asked me about the event, puzzled by the exhausted, bib-wearing crowd that was passing her by. I explained about the race, and she asked me what I was doing. With a wry smile, I explained my predicament.
"Do you need a ride?" Andrea asked.
"I would be incredibly grateful for a ride. And you would be my wife's hero for the day."
And so gingerly I made my way down to her car, and she drove me what seemed like a shockingly short distance back to Benson State Park and the finish area. We chatted. It turned out she was in the area on a spontaneous vacation. She lived and worked in New York City, but was growing tired of urban life. "It's just too far from real woods" she exclaimed at one point. Some friends had connected her to some people in Portland who might be able to help her with a job search, and she had flown out to check out the area and get a sense of the Pacific Northwest lifestyle. That almost made me laugh out loud. You can't more Pacific Northwest than an ultra run in the Columbia Gorge. Perhaps, in a wonderful bit of life's symmetries, I was in the right place at the right time for her as well.
When I walked up to Karen at the finish line she looked crestfallen. "I didn't see you come in" she said." I, on the other hand, had never been so happy to see her. Regardless of the outcome, we now had the day as a shared experience, and that meant the world to me.
"I didn't finish," I told her. "But it's okay.
And it really was okay. I didn't understand why, but I really didn't feel sad. Removing my bib, I sat down in a chair looking at the finish line. I had cold beer from a fresh tapped keg, I had food that suddenly looked delicious, there was live music from the band wafting in on the breeze, and all around me was a celebration of runners. It was impossible not to feel happy.
Honestly that was the longest I have ever spent at the finish line of a race, and it was amazing. James, the race director, positions himself at the finish line around noon, and for the next six hours he personally greets and congratulates every single runner who comes in. I saw runners come in laughing, and runners come in crying. Two guys actually sprinted the last 200 yards, and when they finished one turned to the other and said, "Thanks. I didn't think I was going to make it around the lake." Then they parted and went their separate ways, comrades, and maybe new found friends, who had only just met that day. Two women came in together, stride for stride, holding hands. Runners older and grayer than me crossed the finish line triumphantly.
I began to understand the source of my happiness. I was not alone. This was my community too.
About then I noticed that I had a text from Ken, time stamped 3:45. He had texted when he reached the last checkpoint. "I made it with 40 to spare." At first this didn't make sense. Then it occurred to me that the organizers had decided to grant extra time because of the late start. That's what the woman at Checkpoint 2 had been calling out, I finally realized. What would I have done with an extra 20 minutes out there on the trail? Yet I sensed it didn't matter. I had traversed the narrow space between arrogance and humility and chosen correctly.
Based on Ken's pace up to Checkpoint 3, I figured he should reach the finish line around 5:15, and that's what I told RoseMary. We could see the runners emerge from the far side of the lake, so the entire final quarter mile was in view. 5:15 came and went, and still no sign of Ken. Then 5:20. Then 5:25. RoseMary was quiet, but I could see the anxiety written on her face.
Suddenly a thought occurred to me. For all Ken's long, diligent hours of incline training on the treadmill, there was one thing the treadmill did not prepare him for: downhill running. And the last leg included a merciless, steep 1500' descent. Without thinking, without saying a word to anyone, I stood up and started walking the course backwards from the finish line, exactly the same path that Ken and I had traversed so very long ago that morning.
Runners passed me on their way to the finish, and I applauded and coaxed them on. None of them was Ken. I reached the lake, and began to see runners who had passed me on that last ascent. None of them was Ken. I left the lake behind, and walked towards Multnomah Falls. The pink lady approached, and I said, "You made it! Congratulations!" She beamed. Then I passed Multnomah Falls, and reach the base of the long, steep descent. I wasn't sure what burst of strength had carried me this far, but I knew I wasn't going to be able to climb much. Determined, I started up.
A few more runners passed me, and then the trail was empty. I looked at my watch; 5:42. Doubt crept in. Did I miss Ken? Was he already at the finish? Should I continue climbing up? Should I turn back? I started to turn back, and paused. Just one more minute, I told myself. Finally another runner rounded the hairpin turn above me, and sure enough - bright blue tech shirt, and bright green cap; it was Ken.
A smile burst onto his face as he walked up to me, and he said, "You made it!"
I smiled. "No, I dropped out. But you're going to make it. Come on. Let's go."
And suddenly we were running, together, and running felt like no effort at all. We chatted idly, and I have no recollection of what we said. I was just happy he was okay, and happy that we were together. The lake slipped by on our left, we rounded the final turn, and cruised towards the finish line. Daedelus and Icaraus, together again. I dropped back, and let the cheers of the crowd and James' waiting congratulations carry Ken across the finish line. The RoseMary was in his arms, and Karen embraced me, and I felt complete.
As my watch turned to 6:00 PM one more runner crossed the finish line. It was the guy who had stopped to talk with me. I went up to him and said, "Hey, you really saved my butt up there. That meant a lot to me when you had your own cutoff time to worry about."
"Well," he said. "It seemed important."
"Congrats on your finish. Well done."
Life guides us in ways we do not always understand. We end up in the right place at the right time, never having anticipated the moment, there for people we never knew we needed to be there for. We catch each other when we fall, so that when the Sun rises each morning the Icarus within us can boldly rise again, reaching once more for new horizons. I can still vividly see, like a slow motion shot, Ken and I loping towards the finish line, James and MaryAnne eager to greet him, and me applauding him. And that very moment is just like the moment in my dream.