There was a night in high school where it became too much. The dull hum of small town Bridgton, Maine had dipped its toes into our ears before deciding that the water was just fine and that it could make itself right at home in our heads. That hum had grown in volume over time creeping up to a buzz and then a loud rumble. Our eyes started to shake and our fingers started to tap. The asphalt of main street stretched out out out until, at 10pm on a random fall night, we started driving south. Three high school guys with nothing to do, we made our way to one of the only places that is reliably open in Maine 24/7: L.L.Bean.
I don’t remember much of that night except wandering the empty store, buying nothing, hitting a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through and getting some light and sweet coffee, and, as the sun was rising, the classic rock station playing Here Comes the Sun. There’s an achievement in itself to staying up all night. We made a few dumb phone calls, left a few voice messages. In the early morning we pulled back into our town’s beach parking lot and jumped into the frigid fall lake. The glint of those weary but vivid rays mixed with the sugary coffee and tasted like the present. The town woke up unaware of our night spent on the backroads of Maine.
There’s a secrecy to breakthrough moments. Something that’s often not worth articulating because it would evaporate in the explanation. In the world of ultrarunning, these breakthrough moments seem to exist along side those of bottom-of-the-well desperation. I had a few of both in my most recent ultra: the High Trail Nine Peaks in Ulju, South Korea. The course was a soul-sapping 105km loop over, you guessed it, nine peaks that added up to an ascent about equal to the elevation of Mount Everest from sea level. And to make it more fun? A midnight start.
As the sun rose after seven plus hours of running dark trails over peaks and through small-town roads (some not unlike Bridgton) a moment hit. The loaded spring of months of training released and propelled me into the day’s first hour. A dog in the distance barked and I barked back. The trail had become a reality of existence. The only thing was to move forward on it and let it unveil the scenery and experience.
The race was a quiet one. I was one of three foreigners and it felt like a disconnect, like I was kind of running my own race. Maybe it was in my head, but it felt like when other runners saw me they either wanted to pass me or were surprised at seeing a foreigner. This wasn’t true for the kind folks at the aid stations though. They took reliably good care of me. Other than that the trail was mostly a lonely one. Usually I relish the lonesome trail, but at another point after over twenty hours of little to know interaction the silence had started to feel like a weight. I found two other runners on the dark trail at my pace and formed a bit of a pack. We hiked along in stride, silently lapping up the dark kilometers. I imagined I was in the army, marching through the night under orders.
I started out the race feeling strong. Despite the daunting 105km ahead of me, I plodded off into the dark with the intention to put distance between me and most of the pack. My legs started to work the first ascent as headlights danced behind me on the trail. “Alright, Tim, 10 minutes and and all systems are go. Breathing is good, poles are working it, legs are feeling great and….” fuck! I was suddenly skidding face first down the trail. My pole had caught my shoe and used my momentum to fling me forward. I popped back up with a skinned knee and no small amount of pain. Great start, Cushing. Now time to keep moving. Don’t think about it.
As the night wore on, I kept to the plan. Keep sipping water. Check in with the body. Keep eating gels. The aid stations were efficient and progress was steady. By that first sunrise breakthrough, some confidence was starting to find its way into my stomach. My knee hurt a bit from that fall, but other than that all systems were go.
The day dripped away in hourly increments. A small headache set in that I monitored closely. These had had a habit of turning into full-blown migraines in the past, and I was determined to stave off this one through sheer will and lots of electrolytes. To my amazement, this strategy worked. In the heat of the day, the trail meandered through some of the most stunning views of the course. I popped in my headphones and queued up my playlist. My legs kicked when I asked them to. I zigzagged through groups of hikers. At a popular peak a race photographer snapped my picture and I refueled before resuming movement.
The trail itself is probably best summed up in one of the only few texts that I sent out during the run: “This race is satan.” The flats were few. You are either moving up or down. As for terrain, take your pick of adjective: jagged, sharp, stabby, snaggy, agro, thorny. There were a few times when I woke from a running trance to realize that I was lost in a bramble patch. I had to trace back and find a flag, pick a new direction and push on. Lazarus Lake, the creator of the infamous Barkley’s Marathon could take some notes. I thought about this as I bulldozed through a few small trees to get back to the trail.
Night descended for a second time and I flicked on my headlamp. The end was the slightest bit palpable. Coming into the next town and one of the final big aid stations my legs found some bounce. My body was responding and some focus clicked in. I picked off five runners and left them behind in the dark. I came up on another group and blew by them. I churned into the aid station, grabbed some snacks and sat cross-legged as I made preparations for the hardest section of the race.
Exiting that aid station I still felt good. Maybe it was dehydration or hunger or exhaustion or delusion, but a punchy humor seeped in. I began an ascent with a few other runners in the distance. Something glowed in the woods. It looked like a golden levitating cross-legged Buddha in the forest, emanating light. This turned out to just be a sign warning of falling rocks that was catching light from my headlamp. The hallucinations continued. The reflector vests of the runners ahead of me started to dance. They were neon football pads and then animated frogs moving to the rhythm of Demon Days by Gorillaz in my headphone. “Rad,” I thought and smiled. My eyes were playing tricks but my legs were strong. I caught up to the dancing frogs and left them behind in my wake. That climb eventually hit a peak and brought me down. The trail was flat and I started to cruise at my fastest pace of the race, putting healthy distance between the pack that I had passed.
On the race profile there’s a sheer climb that I had been dreading. It was about 700 meters of straight up that I knew would hurt a lot at that stage of the run. I hit the climb and tried not to think about it. Jack Kuenzle, a dynamite runner who took the White Mountains Hut Traverse FKT last summer reiterated a mountain mantra on a recent podcast that stuck with me: “Slow is fast and fast is smooth.” My brother said the same exact words in a phone call before the race. I tried to focus on that. Small smart movements that could add up to success. The climb melted away. I passed a few more people, reached a flat and raced off into the night.
The end felt near. I was low on water, but getting closer. That’s when a painfully long stretch of up and down began. Frustration set in. I was thirsty. I wanted the race to be over. “Focus Cushing, focus,” I muttered intermittently. The hallucinations had continued and all the rocks seemed to have tiny playful faces on them like something out of Princess Mononoke. Mountain spirits. The rolling hills played mind games. I couldn’t tell if a large looming silhouette was another mountain that I had to climb or just a trick of the night. And then my watch shut down. I cursed as I fished out my battery and cord. Without the race gpx file the organizers wouldn’t count my time. Did the file save? Was all the data gone? I couldn’t think about it now. As I waited for the watch to kick on I looked behind me down the trail at a few headlamps that were meandering in my direction. They weren’t going to catch me. The watch flicked back to life. I started a new file and hoped that the other 20 hours of data was still on there somewhere.
There was one final aid station before the finish. I knew I was close but my headlamp was dangerously dim. I had to stop again. It was then that a small bell sound started to shimmer from behind me down the trail. Oh great, are we starting auditory hallucinations now? Nope. Two ladies blew by me, one who was wearing a tiny bell on her pack that taunted me as they churned on. I managed to muster a small “fighting!” for them. Batteries clicked into my headlamp and the chase was on.
When I got to the final aid station Tinker Bell was there but her friend had pushed on. We gave some encouragement to each other. “You’re amazing,” she said and grinned. I lit up at the unexpected words. A paradox of competition and encouragement is rife in ultrarunning. The same runners that we leapfrog battle with over hours of terrain can be our biggest encouragement. She took off a few minutes before me as I greedily downed some water. “How many more kilometers?” I asked the volunteer. “Six,” he said. I had this. First I had to catch up to that nice lady with the bell.
I chased Tinker Bell’s tinkling noise through the dark. Passed her. Kept going. The descent was on road and my legs felt strong. I wanted to catch her friend. I hit the final trail section that would bring me to the finish and just kept churning. I passed the friend. She looked pretty cooked. I’m sure I looked the same. But the finish line was near and I had discovered a little something left in the tank. I erupted into the finish area, and a wave of triumph washed over my tired body. Finish lines are emotional places for me. I’ve cried at a few of them. This time I just felt proud. Proud of the effort, proud of the training, proud of the people that had helped me reach the finish line. “You finished in 12th! Amazing!” a text glowed from my phone. Some friends had been texting me all race, and their company was important beyond words. 12th place didn’t seem possible. I had been in the mid 20’s three aid stations back. I started out the race only wanting to finish. All details to mull over tomorrow. I hobbled down to my hotel room for a beer and a sleep. And yes, in case you were wondering, the data was all on the watch.
I don’t know why I keep signing up for these things. It definitely has something to do with that high school decision to just get in the car and drive. That small itch to explore has grown into a big one. I’ve been collecting these snapshots of breakthrough moments since those teenage years, and there’s something about ultra racing that lets me punch through more frequently. The trail, the travel, the people. Main street keeps stretching ever forward, and I’m happy to see where it leads.