7am. I had been wrapped in my sleeping bag for less than two hours, fully clothed and exhausted beyond logic. My feet were a throbbing and swollen mess and covered in blisters that were a chilling reality that I could drop out of the race at any checkpoint. It was the start of Day 4 on the long stage of Grand to Grand, a six-stage and seven-day fully self-supported foot race spanning 170 miles from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the summit of the Pink Cliffs of the Grand Staircase in Utah.
I had already covered 96 miles over three days and just spent 24 hours on my feet in the effort to complete the 54 miles of the long stage. I arrived at checkpoint 6 at 4:30am after a grueling 8 miles over 4 hours in the dark of night. Never before had I been enfolded in total darkness and had to navigate my way by the small beam of my head lamp and the faint trail marked by LED lights scattered across the black of a night landscape fraught with steep, sandy and unsteady terrain. “Keep moving” was the endless mantra of my meditation as I forced my legs and feet to execute the demands of my mind. My 15lbs race pack was digging hard into my shoulders and back and the desire to drop it became overwhelming.
Checkpoint 6 had hot water and was one of the sleeping checkpoints on the 54 mile long stage. It’s regrettable that in my effort to save a fellow racer from dropping out, that I inadvertently compromised my own race plan. We met at checkpoint 4 as we were the last two racers making the cut-off. He was in bad shape and wanted to quit. Quit. Really? No way! No bloody way! I convinced him to continue to checkpoint 5, six miles ahead of us. Saving him from quitting became my most important focus and although I felt strong and able to run, I matched his speed of less than 2 miles an hour, thereby adding significant time to my own journey. I learned that night that one can only save oneself and that withdrawing from a race is a very personal decision. I had to continue to checkpoint 6 alone in the pitch black of night.
Dawn broke as I left checkpoint 6 with approximately 17 miles left on the long stage after a short reprieve and a much needed cup of hot soup. The next 4 miles were spanning across the Coral Pink Sand Dunes in Utah. Near Zion National Park, this is the only major sand dune field on the Colorado Plateau. I timed my departure so that I would see the sunrise across the dunes. I knew that crossing the dunes after already been on my feet for 24 hours would be tough, I just didn’t know how challenging.
Alone once again, as I was the last runner to leave the checkpoint, the sand dunes were covered in the chilly shadows of early morning. Daunting, and with the wind whipping hard at my body, I sought out my mantra of “keep moving” to focus my mind on the task at hand. Each step made me sink calf length into the sand. My gaiters kept the soft pink sand from eroding my blistered feet any further but the exhausted effort to dig my legs out of the sand abyss with each step was staggering.
So often I have encountered pure magic. Sometimes it has been while scuba diving, or on mountain tops or in the simple pleasure of a spectacular sunset under a big sky in Dallas. Frequently it is because I seek out the magic in the art of living a life lived well. I have learned that there is incredible beauty in each day. However, the wonder that the sunrise over the sand dunes in Utah bestowed on me will forever be etched in my mind and heart. It was the gift granted to me from this extremely tough and relentless endurance race.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho was on my 9th grader’s summer reading list and out of boredom on a flight from Costa Rica I read it. What a read. What a story. If you have not yet read it, read it now.
As I watched the sunrise that morning in Utah over those dunes, stripped from every ounce of veneer, exhausted and on my knees in the sand, I discovered that I too am an alchemist.
(Side note: I’m the little figure on the dunes in the picture.)
(Side note: Alchemy is the art of liberating parts of the Cosmos from temporal existence and achieving perfection which, for metals is gold, and for man, longevity, then immortality and, finally, redemption. Thanks Wikipedia.)
Santiago sets out to find his destiny and personal legend and after a long journey he had to transform himself into the wind to save him from execution. As the wind was whipping around me and the sand was hurling itself against my skin on the dunes, I too realized that I can become the wind.
Like Santiago, I believe that when we reach through the Soul of the World and see that it is part of the Soul of God, we discover that it is also our own soul. And that we can perform small miracles every day. I finished the 54 mile long stage in 31 hours. It was brutal, unforgiving and liberating. It forced me to rise beyond what I thought was possible. It pushed me to a new frontier in my mind. The journey was awesome. I went on to finish the 170 miles of Grand to Grand and I earned my belt buckle. There were many moments during the seven days that I was left breathless and inspired by the beauty of nature and the splendor of the human spirit. However, sunrise across the dunes will always be a special bead in the necklace of my soul.