“The point is reached when fatigue drives us back into ourselves, into those secluded parts of our souls that we discover only under times of such duress and from which we emerge with a clearer perspective of the people we truly are.” - Timothy Noakes
The 2022 Badwater 135 ultramarathon finished last night. Badwater 135 is a 135 mile race that starts at the lowest point in the US and finishes at Mount Whitney Portal, some 14,600 feet of vert. The course crosses Death Valley in the summer heat. Runners run on the white fog line on the roadway because the asphalt is so hot it melts shoes and the white paint is the only refuge. I don’t know that the advertising tagline of “World’s Toughest” is completely true but it’s certainly right up there.
One of the runners this year was Bob Becker. I’ve had the good fortune to run for a short while with Bob during Badwater Cape Fear in 2018 and then again in 2019. I remember following Bob’s amazing and inspiring win at A Race for the Ages in 2019.
Anyway, to the point.
Last night, Bob finished the 135 mile course, but missed the final cutoff time. Officially, he’ll be listed as DNF - Did Not Finish. This might sound like a failure. It is, in fact, a glorious triumph.
The videos, which are on Facebook and which I therefore can’t link here, are amazing. Bob’s back had given out and he was no longer able to walk upright, so he was shuffling along bent nearly double. According to posts on Facebook he was making a 1.43 mph or a 42 minute pace. He continued on despite. He reached the finish line in 48:17:27, not quite 18 minutes after the cutoff.
My wife showed me the videos of Bob with some 4 miles to go last night. Bent over, he’d shuffle for a bit, and then be forced to stop and rest. There’s obviously no possible way he can continue like this for another 4 miles. This morning, we watched the Facebook video of Bob’s finish. The video is heartbreaking and incredibly inspiring as Bob shuffles the last few yards to reach the finish line.
He’d done it. Miles of agonizing shuffling to reach that finish line. It was an astonishing display of fortitude.
I’m not all that accomplished as an ultrarunner but I’ve done enough have a glimmer of understanding of both the cost and the reward of what he accomplished during that forty eight hours, seventeen minutes, and twenty eight seconds. He spent a long, long time in that place where he could not possibly go on, and yet somehow he found a way to continue, for hours and hours and hours.
When trying to explain ultrarunning to non-runners, the biggest struggle is to explain this time when you can’t go on, but you manage to do it nevertheless. It seems impossible to explain how, when your brain insists you’ve reached your physical limit, you can keep going by running with your heart and not with your head.
The race is no longer about time, distance, and speed. It becomes a test of the depth of your soul. Or maybe it was always a test of your soul and it’s just that now time, distance, and speed matter less.
While you are in that place, every pretense and false front gets ruthlessly stripped away. All that’s left is this little scrap that’s the real you.
You get to gaze through what my friend Erik describes as a bay window into your soul. I think it’s more like a peephole. You only get to see a tiny bit of the view each time you look. It’s just a jumble of out of focus images and impressions, partial thoughts and fractional discoveries.
After you reach the finish line, you’re left with no understanding of how you could have done this impossible thing, even though you know that you’ve just done it. And then as you recall those little flashes of what you saw through that peephole, you start to see the patterns that knit the little glimpses into a single picture. It looks like you, but with all the bullshit washed away - the real you. And when you can see yourself clearly, the revelations come fast and furious.
One of the things you realize is that what you thought was the limit of what you can do is an illusion projected by your fears and the accumulated cruft that clutters your mind. And you can see that the way past that barrier is not physical strength or endurance, but reliance on endurance of the spirit.
When you can’t continue, there are resources of your spirit that will let you go on. You just have to recognize that although we think it’s our legs that carry us forward, it’s actually our soul doing all the hard work.
And that’s what makes Bob Becker’s finish such a glorious triumph.