You Were Born For This

You Were Born For This

Cortez, Colorado

December 11, 2023 4:01PM

I’m on an airplane, if you want to call it that, a frighteningly small aluminum tube with two pilots, two propellers, nine seats and five passengers, three of whom are my companions, one of whom I’ve never met and who has shown no interest in amending our estrangement. I am the fifth. Scott left early this morning in his truck, intent upon crossing the continental divide before lunchtime and returning to the barren, straight sections of interstate in Kansas that will lead him home. The rest of us meandered around Cortez, Colorado for the first part of the day, the small town on the outskirts of the Navajo Reservation where we’ve made camp—in a Hilton property—for the last five nights.

This whole thing was my idea, and as my ideas go I can argue its merits. Below the stunted wing of the airplane, the Rockies gather more and more snow, though this week we only saw it from a distance despite the cold. I suppose this all began when Brian and I started running races together. For years we paced the Lincoln Half Marathon, and ran every other race that we could find from Hospital Hill to Olathe, Omaha, and beyond. About a year ago he told me he was done running, a preposterous and offensive statement to which I responded that I thought we should run the St. Jude Marathon in Memphis. We did. For his part, Scott, a former football player who certainly looks the part and can bench press approximately nine of me started running ultras a while back, and so he and I have lately taken to running the I-35 Challenge, which entails running the Kansas City Marathon on a Saturday morning, then driving to Des Moines to run the Des Moines the following day, racking up some fifty-two miles and change on our sneakers over the course of less than thirty hours. So when I casually mentioned the Quad Keyah to these guys, I guess I wasn’t that surprised that they bought in.

I’ve been a runner most of my life. I love football and basketball, but I was too small and too weak to find much success playing those sports in high school, so I quickly took to cross country and as we runners like to phrase it, got comfortable with being uncomfortable.  I ran my first half marathon in college, my first full shortly after I got my undergrad degree. Last year I ran five or six full marathons and twice as many other races. This year, among a smattering of half marathons and other distances, I’ve run ten full marathons. Truth be told I can’t seem to stop running. My love of the sport is exacerbated by a natural zealotry that permeates my very being, which is probably what led my friends and I to the Navajo Reservation this past week.

The Quad Keyah is an event that, to borrow a phrase, beggars description; even my staunch faith in the power of the written word is shaken when I attempt to put it down on paper. To describe it literally would be to fail entirely. It is really only from experience that I feel as if I truly know. That said, I want to at least attempt to tell you what this monster is.

For context, a half marathon is, for all intents and purposes, something akin to ten percent of a marathon. This is in no way intended to take anything away from the half, which regarded properly is not half of anything but a distance unto itself and a race I truly love to run, but I believe that if you are ever to begin to wrap your mind around the marathon, much less the Quad Keyah, you must first accept that math is, ironically, rather meaningless when it comes to describing distance running. If you can accept that in the world of distance running—the world to which humans rightfully belong—13.1 is approximately 10% of 26.2, then you have begun to understand the marathon and we are one step closer to describing the Quad Keyah. The matter is that miles grow exponentially more difficult as they pass. Most marathon runners agree that the first twenty miles are relatively easy compared to the 10K at the end, which forces a good many to their knees, some never to rise again. The first person ever to run a marathon, the Greek warrior Pheidippides, died from the experience, and to this day many people indeed do die each year from doing the exact same thing. A handful of those are idiots who don’t train, but more are well-trained, well-hydrated, and quite fit, yet are overtaken by a raft of anomalies and various assassins. Far more people, of course, die in car accidents, from what they eat or don’t, and from getting run over by buses than they do from running, and it would never cross most peoples’ minds not to drive a car. There is an assumed risk to everything we do, and unlike eating highly-processed garbage, the benefits of long distance running far exceed the risk factors. Don’t let the rare fatality prevent you from running a marathon, unless you also allow it to prevent you from riding in or driving cars, at which point you have my deepest sympathies.  

There is something inside each of us, something Maslow wrote about at length, which pushes us beyond what we once perceived to be our limits. It has pushed me there, and as of today it has not yet ceased to shove me onward in that direction. This is how I come to find myself sitting on this tiny airplane in the company of people who, like me, have sore and bleeding bodies to juxtapose alongside a temporarily-slaked thirst for self-actualization.

Glancing back, Abigail appears to be asleep, while her husband Aldo is watching something funny on his phone. Abigail and I ran together for about thirty percent of the Quad Keyah. She finished second among the women. I finished sixth among the men. If I am not mistaken, eleven people finished at all.  Brian is in front of me. Scott is somewhere down below on the roads that wind through the eastern slope of the Rockies. All of us are battered, some of us far more than we ever before have been. And amazingly all of us are happy about it.

The nice thing about the tiny airplane I’m in is that, probably to keep from putting too much weight in this oversized pringles can with wings, there are about half as many seats installed as it would hold. Glancing down on the snow-covered mountain ranges, I’m able to stretch my battered legs out in front of me as far as they can go, and I find myself fantasizing about upgrading my next flight to first class in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, I can get back to Omaha without cramping up. Brian removes his headphones and turns back to me, gesturing out the window over the wing. “That’s Pike’s Peak,” he informs me over the sound of the twin-props. Beautiful.

Our first day in Cortez, Brian and I grabbed a bite to eat at one of the ubiquitous Mexican restaurants and checked into the hotel. After a forty-five-minute drive in our rented Hyundai, we arrived at Four Corners—the location on the Navajo, or Dine’, Reservation where Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona meet, around seven thirty the next morning. It was cold but not overly, maybe thirty degrees, and the sun was shining brightly. There, the race director informed us that he wasn’t going to tell us it was impossible to get lost, because “Whenever I say that someone takes it as a personal challenge,” but that the course was well-marked. This was day one, Arizona, and the course consisted of five laps over a combination of sand in which traction came at a premium and rock so jagged that it threatened to turn our feet into raw hamburger even through the soles of trail runners. I had told myself six hours would be a good time, allowing me to conserve some energy for the days to come, but after one lap in fifty-six minutes which, stupidly, I let myself believe had been easy on my body and mind, I adjusted my goal to five hours. I’m an experienced runner, a former coach, and I should easily have realized that this was nothing short of stupid. It’s the kind of thing I beg other people not to do, and I paid a hefty price for it. It was on the second lap that I realized that most of the first half of the out-and-back loop was at a fairly steep incline. By the time I’d finished five laps and twenty-six miles, I’d been running for four hours and fifty-some minutes. My shoulders were cramping, as was my stomach, my knees hurt, and my feet felt raw. That said, I’d done it, I’d run a marathon in Arizona on the beautiful Navajo Reservation. Brian and I drove back to the hotel where we met Scott who had driven in, arriving around four o’clock in the morning, and the three of us went to a small brewery on main street and gobbled up as much pizza and as many wings as we could hold. That night, we lounged in the hot tub, used Scott’s compression leg boots, and generally licked our wounds. I went to sleep at eight o’clock and got a quick ten-hour nap in before our alarms went off the next day.

As tempted as I am to belabor the point, to tell the whole story as best I can, to relive every mile if not for your benefit then out of my own profound sense of nostalgia, the only truly essential thing to know is that the following day we ran Utah, on a course that all-told had us climb almost four thousand feet. That morning we began not on mile one, but on mile twenty-seven, with every passing mile adding to the tally and contributing to the exponential difficulty of the experience. The third day, which kicked off with mile fifty-three, the course was adjusted due to a local who didn’t want a group of weirdo-zealots traipsing over their land, so we ran an adjusted course through Colorado. The fourth day, we ran New Mexico, though the course was nearly the same as day one. Each day, we awoke with new soreness and pain, new-old wounds, odd pains that came with each new step and movement, injuries that threatened to end the entire experience. Each night our aches made it harder to sleep. Every meal, despite our best efforts, our calorie deficit continued to grow (by Monday morning I had burned more than twelve thousand calories more than I had managed to consume over the course of a mere week). And all of this took place at an elevation of over six thousand feet.

Why would you put yourself through that? Why would anyone do something like this on purpose? Interestingly enough, there’s a good answer to that question, and it has very little to do with the self-actualization that I referenced earlier.

By mile sixteen on day four, I was considering dropping out as my right glute was in so much pain that it threatened to give out with every step and my run had devolved first to a limp, then to a dragging of my leg as if the limb itself were dead. I was with Abigail. I beat her day one. She beat my day two. Day three we had finished together. Her husband, Aldo, was there wearing a Patrick Mahomes jersey and cheering us on. Brian finished the half and was doing similarly. Scott’s head wasn’t in it and he was cheering, too. Jaicee, Reinhardt, and numerous others we’d met along the way did similarly, encouraging us with every step. I had asked Abigail to leave me behind, but she wouldn’t do it, and soon the pain had ebbed enough that I found the ability to finish. We ran the last mile, mile 105, at the fastest pace of any mile we had run the entire week. By the time we cross the finish line, I was almost delirious and nearly giggling. I snarfed down a Navajo taco and hugged anyone who appeared to be up for it and several who did not.

Why would you put yourself through that? You may still be asking; I may not yet have sufficiently answered the question. The cross country team I used to coach joked about the “TED talks” I would give them, though this did nothing to deter me from embracing my loquacious nature and sharing my thoughts with them each day. One of the things we often revisited was the idea that we, we being humans, were “born to run.” This is a mantra, yes, and also a song, but first and foremost it is a biological reality. There are essentially only two things that human beings do exceptionally well: run long distances and destroy the planet. And of the two, I’m only interested in participating in the first.

Humans evolved and survived because we are the world’s greatest long-distance running animal. We have tendons in our necks and legs that no other creature has. We have the ability to move our heads 180 degrees on our necks while continuing to run in the same direction. We can regulate our breathing with our own minds to improve our oxygen intake. We are even water-cooled and can remain so indefinitely so long as we also remain hydrated. No other animal on the planet can outrun a human being over a distance measured in double-digit miles. We can run down horses, deer, cheetahs, wolves—it doesn’t matter the animal, a well-trained human being is faster. Much faster. In fact, we can and historically often have run other animals to death. At the same time, we are utterly pathetic swimmers, even worse at running short distances with speed. We can barely jump and we can’t fly at all.  Animals with hooves or no limbs whatsoever are better climbers than we are. We lack the physical strength and natural weaponry to fight. Despite all the noise we make and nonsense we write down, people are generally unremarkable in every way but one: Nothing can compete with a human being in the arena of distance running. This is what we were made to do. This is what we evolved into. This is how we survived. This is who we are.

And here I must address something that I consider to be a very important point. What about those who physically cannot? And to that I’d reply: I’ve never met someone like that. The fastest marathoners in every race are, almost without exception, those in wheelchairs. You can’t tell them they aren’t running because they’ll fly by you at such breakneck speeds that they won’t hear you anyway. Others run on blades. Others run with partners who push, guide, or lead them. Some run marathons at under five minutes per mile, while others run them at closer to twenty minutes per mile, and most fall somewhere in between. It isn’t about form, or speed, or gender, or category, or anything else. It’s about not denying yourself the privilege of doing the one thing you were made to do, in whatever way you’re able.

We were born to run. Perhaps it is unwise to run a marathon over brutal singletrack at high elevation for four consecutive days, but don’t tell the Tarahumara that, nor the fifty-something Dine’ man who won each race outright.  As this tiny aircraft touches down at Denver International Airport I resist the urge to upgrade to first class, a seemingly inappropriate punctuation to an otherwise spartan experience, and instead conclude my musings about this bizarre, somewhat spiritual, somewhat masochistic thing that I—we—have just done, or, perhaps better, accomplished. Whether it’s the Quad Keyah in 2024, your first marathon, your first half marathon, your first 5K, or your first mile, and whether you use two legs, one, or none at all, I hope you’ll begin it in the comfort of the knowledge that this isn’t merely some wild ambition that you’ve set out to attain, but the very realization of human evolution. I promise you: you can do this. Running is for everyone, and that certainly includes you.

Mark Gudgel

Denver, Colorado

December 11, 2023 4:58pm