It is 7:15 in Twin Lakes, Colorado. The sun hasn’t set as much as the mountains have hunched their shoulders over us, trying (like we were the ones on fire) to keep us close, away from the wind. From here, eye-level with grass and tired knees, Twin Lakes smell like sweet and broccoli. Among each other, in our layers (now in shadow), we wait and watch for runners running 100 miles from Leadville to Leadville. It is the rickety approach towards mortality, the pained threshold of the modern man. All of these bodies— the way they look so far from antiquity— make me realize how far we from a natural existence but—
Two weeks later.
I expected the Leadville 100 to show me a return to a natural human state. As if this level of extremity would allow scaffolding like training and elite gear and scientifically-driven nutrition to fall away to be replaced with a raw instinctual capacity to survive. As if personhood would step away into animal body in the shape of its movement, like how a horse at a gallop doesn’t have limbs.
Here, limbs are more limbs than they’ve been before, and awkward at that. This body— whatever they say— is not made for this movement. The way the hands flap or are brought in with a clench. The head that rides above, held in place, or is trotted absently, or kicked back. The feet in need of cover. And the body too. The arms the torso the shoulder, all so far from the ground. The ground that asks for bodies back, when at 88 miles a body collapses, breathes, moans, and stands again to walk another 12.
Is the natural state the brink of death? Imagine the coyote, or the horse, or the bass— all the unfettered speed. All direction funneled, and energy made only for the concerted living. But I think of — even then— the horse’s heart attack in a field in Colorado Springs. How afraid it was of itself— how much it wanted to run from the predator at its chest. That, too, and the weakness and exhaustion. The horse clipping its own front feet bloody. The coyote running on a rabid limp.
The erratic jump. Perhaps it is not grace that returns us to nature— not hardly— or only in poetry— the return of our bodies is in pain, or tolerance thereof. The return to the humanness of the body is bodiless. From my folded chair where I shook in a sleeping bag with a cup of buttery broth, it looked bodiless to me— for anyone aware of their decrepitude would not carry on. Or anyone angry at it, rather. It is the gentle, endorphine-fueled decision— “I must carry this body on.”
Too, gorgeously, does that “must” develop in these minds. Unpredatored bodies, bodies not at risk, have released themselves of the successive choices of taking steps. Or if they have not, they’ve even more incredibly been faced with these hundreds of thousands of steps and thought again, “go on…”— and—again— for what?
This, perhaps will bring us back to what is natural— is it an ache for this type of pain? The victory of the mind? The displacement of the body’s authority? Is it the natural inclination to ignore pain? To having pain to ignore? Or— what other pains does this one heft off? Or dull? Destroy, even? Or is it the knowledge that the body comes back? Are these things our humanness must venture into?
What must we venture into? Is there a threshold beyond this one— one more humbling or dissociative or numbing or ecstatic? (Does this race house all of those? Is this running body, too, the sensational interaction of these?)— that tumbles a human further into herself? Into the borders of capacity? Are we only human in our extremes? Is this how we must experience ourselves? Is it good to do so? Must the cheetah run itself to death to be a cheetah? That is, of course, its identifier, isn’t it? Top speed?
I wonder again at why I cried. Men and women have unnecessarily endangered themselves for themselves. But that choice— is it the joy or the pain? Both? This. So vivid. So holy. The body rejoicing as it collapses. The legs that no longer run like legs—that can no longer step or stretch—the feet landing flat—the shoulders—the hands that grip friends on the last mile to keep going—and then release to rise in fists across the line, unmeditated, and shrivel, and drop, and fall into the crowd.
Is that it? The explosion of personhood? And we as a people are proud. We as a people are satisfied once again with humanness—not the distance, but the pain we can endure. That chipping away of our mortality by looking at it, clearer. By seeing surely what could kill us and hasn’t.
And a note on kindness after the race— It was a unique type. But simple. No runner with assumption. Not to prove a point. Not owed anything. The knowledge that this choice had been theirs, and the pain, and the cold. And, therefore, gratitude. Where crew (those of us who lined the trails and watched vividly through the night to recognize the height of a runner’s headlamp, or their gait) would grow ornery and delirious, organized and full of exhaustion and plans, the runners carried a kind resolution. We brought a support and, too, such a pitiable unknowing. The race was not ours. Of course.
I’m not sure that I know anything new about me or anyone. I don’t know more about humanity, because I was not the human in the race— but I saw a joy that seems to have come at the ownership of pain and diminishment of it. Or the management of it. I saw, perhaps, that the human body is not lost to modern man. That we are not far from it.
How incredible—it is a human body— of trees, air, ants— we, too, standing in personhood of natural life. We— we who check our teeth in mirrors, we with non-physical resources— biologically so far from capable, and yet still real. Still alive at Mile 100 with feet on this shifted earth.