Seeking the edge

The pleasure of searching for my limits.

A fitful night’s sleep.

That might be an overstatement. Three hours is more of a nap than a sleep. Every time I start to drift off, I’m jolted awake again by a combination of excitement, nerves, and a sense that I’ve forgotten something. That’s nothing new, though, and the knowledge of what’s coming the next day keeps me from caring.

My alarm wakes me from my half-sleep around 3:30am, when I’d usually be going to bed. A grade A sufferfest is the only thing that can get me up this early. My shoes are tied and my pack on before my brain finishes booting up, and I’m on the trail.

The first 30 minutes feel like an eternity, and my legs are made of lead. But like the night that preceded it, I know this will pass and I’ll hit my stride. My legs will be weightless soon, or at least that’s what I tell myself.

A few blurry miles later, light creeps over the edge of the world and turns an imagined landscape into gold-lit reality. I emerge from the tunnel of night, and the adventure starts in earnest. The sun speeds me up. I float uphill. My legs feel like they don’t belong to me.

Time is strange on the trail—some hours pass like minutes, and some minutes feel like hours. The morning fast-forwards. The miles tick by with ease. I’m close enough to the beginning that I haven’t started to think about the end yet. The hard part is still over the horizon…for now, movement is effortless.

At some point, I realize how hungry I am and make a couple bars disappear in record time.

If I’m lucky, I’m on a ridgeline with a broad view of the path ahead, or in a cwm with the landscape rising to the sky before me. Nothing pushes me forward like the sight of where I’ll be later. The mountains take my breath away no matter how much time I spend with them, and my insignificance compared to the landscape around me gives me a deep sense of contentment. For today, at least, there’s nothing to do but keep moving forward.

Time, miles, peaks pass by.

Mile 16. I’m at the half-way point. I still feel strong, but I can tell my feet will soon make their displeasure known. No point thinking about it, though…might as well go fast while I can.

Sometime in early afternoon, the flow of time slows down. I notice the heat, and my legs become gradually heavier. Occasional fantasies of a cold river and a huge pizza sneak into my mind. I try not to check my watch too often, but I do anyway. My mood rapidly deteriorates, and I realize that I’m about to bonk. After a short break, eating as many calories as I can get down, I feel remarkably better. It never fails to amaze me how wildly my blood sugar can affect my mood when I’m exerting myself. I move on.

26 miles down…a mountain marathon! I’m no ultrarunner, but it’s deeply satisfying to know I’ve broken that barrier. The rest of the hike is flat or downhill, and I find myself jogging. Sitting down sounds delicious, and the faster I go now, the sooner I get to do that. I’m tired but happy as the physical challenge gives way to a mental one. I’m going farther today than I ever have before, and I want to show myself that my limit is beyond physical pain.

As the end gets nearer, I speed up. Sprinting over the finish line (metaphorically or otherwise) is deeply ingrained into my psyche, and I don’t intend for this time to be any different.

The last mile feels as long as the previous 5, and just as I’m about to slow down, the trailhead comes into view. I run as fast as I can past some very confused tourists who look askance at the sunburnt, dirt-covered madman careening through the parking lot. I tag my car, breathe a sigh of relief, and half-sit, half-fall to the ground. I feel mildly shell-shocked. I made it.

A long drive and a beer later, I finally relax. I’m content, but there’s still an unresolved question floating in my mind. What’s next? And how far, high, or long can I push it? Where’s the edge?

Thanks to Caryn Tan and Jude Klinger for their feedback on this piece, and for their writing that inspired it.