January 11 2018
A runner shares a personal essay documenting her years as "the runner" in rural South Dakota.
“Do you want to run across the Sierras?” My husband Sergio barely acknowledged my question as he tried to ignore yet another one of my ‘adventure run ideas’ and eventually responded, “Ask one of your crazy friends.” Except when your friends are badass mountain women they already happen to be climbing mountains, backpacking or, you know, running in the Olympics on a random weekend in August. After the final decline I looked Sergio in the eye until he finally looked up at me. “Wait! How did you come up with this anyways?”
I love exploring the mountains in the summer after a long track season and before fall base training ramps up. I typically mix longer hikes with short runs until I’m ready for full training again. This year, however, as my itch to explore deeper into the backcountry grew, reality hit me—if I wanted to get to the places my heart longed to go (and not spend weeks on end away from civilization, keep my job, etc.) I needed to start running there. For years my aunt and uncle encouraged us to join them on their annual Mono Hot Springs camping trip, 7 driving hours away from our home in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., but only 20 miles or so away directly across the Sierra Nevada mountain range. We always passed on the road trip, but running there would allow us to experience the deepest valleys of the Sierras for the first time. In all the route required about 20 backcountry miles, lots of high elevation and even a ferry ride to our final destination.
Our family agreed to provide us with all of the shelter, food and provisions needed on the other side, and within 24 hours of the idea Sergio and I were running over 12,000-foot Mono Pass with nothing more than light packs filled with water, snacks and a light rain jacket! Once over the pass our route lay clearly in front of us—seemingly endless miles of single track trails descending from the high alpine granite down into a deep lush valley containing the meandering Mono Creek, connecting with the John Muir Trail and spitting us out at Lake Thomas Edison where we could take the ferry across to our campground.
Overall the first run was uneventful and we admired amazing views of the surrounding peaks, scurried past a few backpackers, crystal blue lakes and attempted to take in the views while watching our footsteps amongst the rocky and uneven terrain. I didn’t look at my watch—with this being my longest run in years I didn’t want to think about how far I had left or had gone. Instead I got lost in the dance of my steps and the beauty of these new exciting surroundings. In fact, once we reached the shore we discovered it had ‘merely’ been an 18.5+ mile run and it ‘only’ took us 3.5 hours. We smiled, took in the view and ate some more Pop Tarts. At the lake shore we discovered that the ferry was set to arrive at 4:45 p.m., and since it was only noon we decided to hike the remaining 5 miles around the lake to the general store and hopefully meet up with our family sooner than expected.
After enjoying some snacks with PCT-through hikers my relatives rolled up a few hours later at 5 p.m. and we simply hopped in their truck for a ride down to the Mono Hot Springs, which would serve as our basecamp for the next 36 hours. To kick-start our recovery we soaked our legs in the creek with cold beers in hand. The next morning we woke up to sore legs, bacon and eggs and were still overwhelmed to truly be on the other side of the mountains via the power of our own motors.
Monday was a planned a layover day at the hot springs for sheer enjoyment and spending time with family as much as for the recovery necessary to be able to repeat the trans Sierra run again on Tuesday. We hung out in the natural hot springs, took naps in a hammock and feasted on a steak dinner with amazing wines. Despite wearing the same damn clothes we ran in the day before, the day felt like a resort vacation.
With a strict 9 a.m. timeline on our return day to catch the ferry, we woke up as nervous as we have ever been for any big workout or race. At the office to buy the ferry tickets Sergio walked out of the store with map in hand, “I’ve got bad news. The ferry is broken.” My heart sank, which really means my intestines sank, and I suddenly felt the strong urge to poop out my nervousness and dread. After discussing possible alternatives it was very apparent that the only way back required us to run the additional 5 miles around Lake Thomas Edison. Our 18-mile day was now confirmed to be a 24-mile uphill slog with 5,000+ feet of vertical gain. We certainly were not impressed, but what other choice did we have? There was only one way home after all.
We said our goodbyes to our family and set off running at a slow and steady pace to preserve energy for the long run ahead. Neither of us talked much until we hit mile six, immediately distracting me. I tripped fell HARD on my knee. I sat on the ground covered in dirt to gather my composure, “Yup, this is going to be a long day!”
The early miles progressed gradually uphill, but I could quickly sense how taxing the grade plus the extra miles were on my legs that had already covered 24 miles, two days prior. In fact this was the first time ever running more than 20 miles during a training run, and certainly the longest time I ever spent continuously running. By mile 12, shit was getting real. I kept tripping over my own feet, roots and rocks. “Sergio, I feel drunk!” He stopped his run and looked at me face to face, “You better sober up real quick!” I chugged the “Adventure Dust” (a.k.a. extra Cytomax electrolytes that Deena Kastor sent us with) and began my constant chomping of Jelly Belly Sport Beans to get my blood sugar and morale back to a working level.
The following miles and hours were a bit of a blur to me, I simply kept moving one foot in front of the other. I sang songs in my head to keep focused but somehow it always came back to the current situation. I asked Sergio what he was thinking about and he honestly admitted he was frustrated with how slowly we were moving, which I also marveled at, until we reached the 10,000 feet sign which marked 3,000 feet of climbing since step mile one. Unfortunately that only meant that things were about to get steeper and slower.
After running for hours (albeit slowly) walking the 2,000 feet of vertical up Mono Pass made us feel like snails. Every muscle was cramping up and the increasing altitude was making our nervous system fire even slower adding to the misery. We were moving at survival pace while the exposure, sun and wind continued to increase the struggle. Sergio began to finally feel the effects of the entire journey and neither of us said a word. Despite our running backgrounds this part, this walk, was the toughest part of all. Why the heck did we do this? I kept my eyes up ahead on Sergio for motivation alongside constantly reminding myself to take in the view and to appreciate how far we came to get here.
Once atop Mono Pass again, we could taste home. With three miles left of steep descent back to our car, Sergio wasted no time to start running again. I didn’t think it was possible for my feet to lift up and actually run anymore, but within minutes I was feeling better than I felt in hours and started flying down the mountain. Of course that also meant my joints were achey as hell and murmuring, “Oh shit!” every time we hit a big rock to leap over.
As we rounded the final curve running on the trail side by side I burst into tears. We had done it—together—48 miles total across the Sierra Nevadas and back. Hours of the most painful running of our lives amongst some of the most beautiful and unforgiving terrain. In between, it was all made possible by our love, strong bond and teamwork. It may have been my wild idea in the first place but we pulled each other up the mountains to literally reach these big dreams in sync. It was more special than any race I’ve ever run and I now know that the power of love and union with nature trump any special training. It’s all within and it’s all around us. Always.