The Desert

More than any other adventure in my life, running Badwater 135 has taught me about the long and winding road, the struggles involved in our journeys, the joys, the importance of teamwork and trust, and what it means to propel yourself forward in adverse situations. Badwater 135 has educated me about aspirations, preparation, and how to rebound when I spiral downwards. The race’s challenges are endless: mind-erasing heat, relentless climbs, and endless road, all mixed in with a creeping sleep deprivation. The experience has taught me to find my why when I am fragile and broken. Because without a why, the will to finish those 135 miles diminishes.

This year, filling out my application for the 2018 edition of Badwater 135, I cried. It was around 10 p.m. on a Saturday night and I had just arrived in Florida a few hours earlier to see my dad after a week of work travel, before I was to head back to D.C. As I tried to get organized and focus, I felt myself unravel. I moved to D.C. on July 15, 2017—the day after I returned from Badwater 135, and my mom’s birthday. Six months have passed. I miss my life in Florida and the conveniences of driving to my dad’s house, or over to the cemetery to meditate at my mother’s grave. I miss my friends. My first semester in 13 years not at a university in some capacity, I miss teaching and my students. And yet, I am already immersed in this new life, which moves 150 miles an hour daily with clients and meetings and travel and colleagues. I’m in the middle of an ultra, with the course unfolding as I go. There is no turning back regardless of the wishes and wants that take over when I grow tired and dismayed, so I do what I know how to do best: keep going, keep striving, keep finding gratitude for the opportunities before me and the people I am presently surrounded by, and keep searching for my why.

The BW135 application brought me back to the months leading up to Badwater 135 in 2017, when during my training runs in the taxing South Florida humidity, I pondered my choices. I had been torn between remaining teaching full-time and returning to corporate after my 1.5-year break. I knew then what I know now: in life, we make choices, we take risks, we go for it, and even if the dots don’t all connect, we have faith in the universe and ourselves that the path will become clearer once we are on it. I knew that what often feels like an end, is only the beginning. The application made me reflect on the change that was brewing in my life those months ago, and how I so desperately wanted things to stay as they were, while at the same time, I knew that taking chances in life and saying yes to new experiences not only enriches who and what I am made up of, but it humbles me and  forces me to be a beginner again, which helps me to evolve and grow.

Beyond the emotions fueled by acknowledging the change I am living, thinking about Badwater 135, it was the desert that encapsulated me, perhaps because I am in a desert now. I have been here before: when my mom was diagnosed with cancer, when she passed away. I know that it is a cycle and that sometimes we need to get lost—move far away from all that we know and what was—before we can find our way back. I was able to feel the blistering heat, take in that vast star-soaked sky, and replay in my mind the experience of moving along that road, which regardless of the pain and loathing it induces after some twenty plus hours in, is also magical with its mirages and sand storms and its ups and downs and flow. For me, there is nothing like those first 42 miles on that course, in the dark, when each runner must find their own rhythm sans pacers, take it all in, make peace with oneself, and commit. Once the commotion of the start passes, and emotions begin to quell, that trek on that dark desert highway is one of the most spiritual experiences of my life.

The desert has a way of reminding us all how small and vulnerable we are in this vast universe. It brings us back to the basics and the importance of teamwork to survive the elements. Last year several runners and pacers encountered a withered coyote a few miles before we reached Panamint Springs at mile 73. At that point, we were drained, the first night long gone as we made our way through the afternoon, its intense heat beating us down. Crews were trying to keep the coyote off the road, away from the cars and safe. In my overheated and restless state to reach the next check point before the demanding climb towards Father Crowley, I feared his biting me. But he was just a lone coyote, slight and frail, hoping perhaps for some food to survive another day in the desert, just like every one of us. Since my move, I have thought about that coyote many times, and how like him, we are all wanderers in the desert, and while we feel deprived at times, the desert also affords us space to roam and dream and think and be.

In a running race, as in life, although we are typically pinpointable in terms of geography, often, emotionally and mentally, we are in the desert—far away, alone, and stranded. It is about one foot in front of the other to find our way through. It is about taking in the world around us so that we don’t miss any of this life. It is about asking ourselves what we want, what we need, what we seek, and committing to it. For me, that is the allure of running long distance: the ability to lose myself so completely—the noise, the drama, the to do lists—and focus on the task at hand, take in the views, and begin to put myself back together in a way that liberates me of the clutter of my life, and grounds me in the things that really matter, so that when I cross the finish line, I exit the desert—both within and without—a better version of myself.

 

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