When I lived in Chicago I ran like there was no tomorrow. Sundays had me running long steady miles, Mondays were a set up for double-down Tuesdays, and Wednesday’s leg screaming repeats on the University of Illinois’s Circle Campus track provided the week’s endorphin highlight. A friend whom I trained with told me about ultramarathon running and thought I should give it a try. My first 50-kilometer trail run took place on a cool Kettle Moraine day. There were no cars to dodge, no pinballing between pedestrians, only bib-numbered souls encouraging each other along pine-scented singletrack.
As I got more involved in the sport I learned that family and friends crewed and paced runners at 100 milers. Crews wait at aid stations with fresh shoes and clean gear. Pacers get their runners up big climbs, run with them through the night, and keep them running in the morning light. For most of the race, however, the runners are alone and it’s possible to take a wrong turn far away from any help. There is one runner I’d like to tell you about, a unique runner who found me after I had gotten lost during a 50K in the Sierra Nevada.
Photo: Jeff Johnson
Post holing in deep spring corn, sweat dripping down my face, I looked for course ribbons. There were none. I had just seen them not too long before, but somehow I had taken a wrong turn. The race director had said there would be snow on the course due to late winter storms. He was right. I stood next to a mother of a snowdrift and tried to decide whether I should forge ahead or turn back and try to retrace my steps.
I turned around and there stood a skinny kid no older than ten dressed in a race singlet and shorts. He said, “I was running and saw you through that group of trees, and thought I’d check to see if you were okay. Are you lost?”
“Yes, I am. What’s your name?”
“James, what’s yours?”
“Craig. James, what do you say we run the rest of this thing together?”
Penguining across the windwhipped snow James lead us back to the trail. Soon we ran past pink ribbons and a mile marker sign next to a giant sequoia that made us look puny.
“I was closer to the trail than I thought and can’t believe I couldn’t find it. I’m glad you found me.”
“Yeah, me too.”
He said he had started running with his Dad when he was younger, doing short runs that got longer over time. When James ran his first marathon he knew that running long distance was for him. He talked about camping in the wild, a family trip to Gettysburg, pointed out different birds that came into view as we ran. He went on about his home in the Southwest and the sunsets he said he never tired of. That kid had a lot of life stuck to his bones, and a heart that knew how to get out and see the world.
Out in the Sierra on that long run, James and I ran side by side, all the way to the end.