Muscles coiling and straining at the impact of running down a steep rocky road, I raced towards the valley floor. I heard someone breathing behind me and was surprised to see a woman twice my age and half my size churning down the hill, passing me in a blur of sweat and gravel. I had swept past her about six kilometers back and thought I had left her in the dust for good.
Now approaching 10 kilometers, I was only a third of the way through the Tecpán International 30K, with the toughest part yet to come. The trail map had shown an ominous spike in elevation that lasted for about 11 kilometers, and I mentally prepared to hit that as I flowed along a creek bed. Guatemala's Western Highlands were proving a true test of my mettle.
A real endurance racing amateur, I hadn't run more than seven miles since high school cross country, which was five years ago. At the time of the race I was living in Guatemala City, three hours away from rural Tecpán, working for a human rights organization. I started running long distances to soothe the competitive ache left behind by a college sprinting career.
Along with about 200 other runners, I raced by sweeping vistas of Acatenango, Fuego and Atitlán, three of Guatemala's volcanoes, and hillsides dotted with villages occasionally set off by a white church steeple. Villagers lined the path to cheer us on our way, or just shake their heads at our foolishness. One woman shouted, "La gringa sí se puede!" at me as I rolled by.
In various ways, this race has become a hinging point for my more recent introspection. Since returning home, I've become reacquainted with the network of natural spaces I can run to in a five-mile radius of the house I grew up in. A pond for when I'm pensive, open fields to salve anxiety, a river rock for solitude… I did this in Guatemala City, too, slowly letting my legs carry me farther and deeper into its urban forests and cinder block neighborhoods.
But Guate was no runner's city. Long runs required a lot of creativity with Google Maps to avoid red zones while getting in mileage and dealing with verbal harassment on the street, which is sadly the norm. Nevertheless, running became a way for me to connect with the city and its people more intimately, and each run became its own tiny adventure. I remember trying to bring home a stray dog that was literally following me to my apartment; another time I pushed a cart full of street food up a hill with a little girl.
I met a man named Joel who told me that cities have acute masculine and feminine personalities. Guatemala City is a proud lady, he said, a doña, a jealous woman that draws you in and then breaks you down in a roller coaster relationship. As you slowly become more integrated with her rhythms, you begin to experience this spirit woman's push and pull. The gnarled tree roots and rippled pavement that tripped me and the black bus exhaust that is surely still thick in my lungs seem to be her less than gentle toughening measures. The volcanoes shrouded in orange evening clouds became the lady's jewels, and the sunrises silhouetting the National Cathedral, her bower.
Why do we run?
Kilian Jornet is the six-time champion of the Skyrunner World Series, races held at high altitudes over challenge terrains. He, too, runs to soak in the places he visits, to experience them through muscle aches and raggedy breath. A week before an ultramarathon, instead of tapering — the practice of steadily scaling back exercise before a race — he ran five hours on the course every day. In an interview with Outside for the magazine’s cover story in November 2014, he said, "Such beautiful mountains! I went out, met people, ran the summits, the rivers. It's a shame if you just go there to race."
Known as a sky runner, he has distinguished himself in an already obscure sport by setting FKTs (or fastest known times) on some of the world's highest mountains. He ran up and down Denali, North America's highest peak, in less than 12 hours.
I read a story about a college English professor who runs to keep "one step ahead of his ghosts." Matthew Batt wrote that, in a most dire and urgent sense, he runs so he will not die. Logging over thousands of miles in a year is for him the most effective physical treatment for staving off the darkness of depression.
When I started running longer, farther and faster, I was struggling with the aftermath of a relationship and its deep-seated pain. In some ways, grinding that emotion into the pavement with each footfall helped.
But nothing sweeps the pieces of a heart away like a mountain. The uphill section was a dramatic change from the first third of the race — decidedly more menacing. I began the long slog upward, and at some point near the top of the first ascent I was forced to join the other runners who were, well, walking. I soon fell into a rhythm of jogging with hunched shoulders, arms feebly pumping and legs moving at a centenarian's pace. Soon, I came again to the same petite woman who tore by me on the downhill, and, just as I suspected, she was making slow progress. Inching past her gave me enough gratification to fuel a few more meters of grandma-jogging before I too fell back to a long-strided walk.
And I pressed on. Climb, climb, climb until the path wound out of sight, reach the bend, take a few blessed steps on flat earth, then start the climb again.
Not running isn't an option
People that are runners down to their core don't run merely to stay in shape, to win medals or even just to be outside. They run because they cannot not run. My motivations are a mix of all of the above, and racing in the Tecpán 30K gave me a glimpse of that crazy singleness of intent. When you start to dabble in endurance running, people will inevitably ask why? Running is downright painful, may seem lonely and yields such unseemly bowel troubles at inconvenient times. I talked to some of my friends about running, some former teammates and others not, and I got a mix of responses.
The most interesting response was this: "It's more like a drug addiction… I've had trouble applying the same level of focus into anything else in my life."
Mira Rai is one of sky running's newest phenoms. A village girl from Nepal, Rai won her first 50K in 2014 and hasn't stopped racing on ridge tops and shaving time since. Professional endurance running has led her from a childhood of carrying rice and water buckets up and down hills to spotlight in an international arena. She says she's always wanted to compete as a professional athlete and is driven by a real desire to bring more opportunities to Nepali women.
The rawness inherent in competitive spaces pulls me in, too, and is what I identify with most in the spectrum of running impulses. I ran track in college and did well for a Division III athlete in my event, the 400m hurdles. Adjusting to life without that level of competition was harder than I thought it would be, but I found the same root satisfaction in performing in the 30K as I did in the 400 meters.
In the race, I didn't think about anything but racing. No music, no watch and, in many stretches, no people. Here I come to a slight downhill, turn over turn over. A person 30 meters ahead? Reel him in slow. A woman sitting in a Jeep came into view pointing runners down a trail entering the forest. "You're in fourth place for women now with six kilometers left," she called out to me. Euphoria! I actually smiled as I ran and felt a familiar little high that I recognized from other races where I performed well. To throw oneself at something with all your mind, heart and body and then see results… that yields an unmuddied, guttural, wholehearted response.
The last part of the race felt like the longest as I entered the town and lost perspective on how far left to go in Tecpán’s narrow streets. Then, a racing disaster struck. About 300 meters left to go and my calf seized up — the muscle constricted into what felt like a rock lodged under my skin. I resorted to picking my leg up from my hip and limping at a jog, thinking that I must at least have it in me to finish at what was now a sorry excuse for a run. The finish line was now 150 meters dead ahead.
Then that same woman appeared at my left shoulder, I turned my head to look at her, utterly shocked she had come to challenge my lead at the race's end. And then I flew. The first few steps of my flight released the knot in my calf, and I hurtled away from the nemesis of the last 30 kilometers of my life's journey.
This outcome felt good, surely, but what I carry with me is this: Running is a way to harness pain, to own it and to elevate oneself. It's a metaphor for so much that both beleaguers a human soul and sets it free.
Haruki Murakami writes in his memoir, "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running":
"It's precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive — or at least a partial sense of it. Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within action itself."