Personally I am not very familiar with the world of track and field, and even less so with the world of cross country. My running world is in the woods, on the trail, atop the mountain.
A couple of weeks ago now, I had the privilege, pleasure, and utmost duty of running in my world; running, not for me, but for someone else.
In ultra and trail running – in particular at longer races (50 miles plus) – runners are afforded the companionship, the guidance, of a pacer for a certain distance along the race course (usually the last 1/4 or 1/3 of the race). The pacer is typically allowed as a measure of safety, and in certain races can function as a true pacer: ensuring the runner gets to the finish line by or before the predetermined “goal” time.
June 10, 2017. The day Henri died.
Henri was my cat. He was beautiful, a burst of light, a lifter of spirits.
June 10, 2017. I am in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania. My best friend, my partner – Michael – is running (racing) his first-ever Laurel Highlands Ultra in attempt to gain a lottery ticket into arguably the most storied ultra trail race in US history: The Western States 100.
Our pre-race antics went perhaps better than ever before: we drove all the way to Ohiopyle from Rochester, making it to the hotel before dark. We ate a solid dinner (sweet potato and beet gnocchi with kale and cauliflower salad, I might mention), walked along the gorgeous river under a full moon, kicked back a casual beer, stretched, and slept soundly until 4 AM.
Alarm goes off, Micheal literally shoots out of bed, and I gently fall back in to a light sleep until 4:45 AM.
Now it’s 5 AM. We make our way down to the river for race start. Michael gets his bib, I run back to the car to get his Vaseline, and before we can really bat an eye, the horn blows for the 5:30 AM race start.
John and I (John is Michael’s personal videographer for the day, and future additional crew personnel) meander around the river as the runners speed on by to start their day running 70 miles along the ridge of the Laurel Highlands in southwest PA. We revel in the full moon still gloating in the sky; we brew coffee on the side of a gas station using the hot water that the attendants set out for tea; we arrive at the first Aid Station barely in time for the first runners to come through.
One, two, three, four….eight. No Michael. Interesting. Okay, maybe he’s just playing it smart. Ten, eleven. Finally, Michael’s head pops out of the woods, bobbing along as he glides into the grassy aid station. I have his bottles at the ready: one with Nuun and one with just water; both with their sleeves stuffed full of gels. He’s out in less than a minute.
On to Aid Station Two we go. We arrive with enough time to use the public facilities, toss a few sticks to Michael’s dog, Gambit, and find an appropriate perch from which we can wait and watch anxiously for Michael’s head to bob out of the woods again.
I’m sitting a fine broad log, with Gambit at my side, while John sets up his camera. I check my phone for the time so I can estimate when Michael will be arriving.
“Message from Mom: You guys. Terrible news Henri died.”
What!? No. What!! Mom.
It’s 8:36 AM. Michael should be here any minute. And apparently my kitty just died. I am in (expletive) Ohiopyle. My cat died. In Rochester. Many people would probably say, “who cares, it’s just a cat”. I actually don’t know what to do. I want to tell Michael when he comes through, but he is a lover of animals more than anyone I know. He loved Henri too. Telling Michael at mile 12 of 70 that Henri is dead might actually break him. I know Michael would drop out of the race over this. I can’t tell him. I need to tell him.
Here he comes, head bobbing. My tears unleash. I can’t hold them back, I can’t hide it.
“What’s the matter?? Oh no what’s wrong!?” Michael is running the biggest race of his year right now and he’s about to pull over at mile 12 to attend to me, sobbing.
“Henri is dead” I muster.
We dart up the trail into the woods together.
“Henri. He is dead, apparently…”
We’re on a single-track trail now, with hoards of spectators and other crew personnel lining the side of the trail in the woods. They can all see my face. See my tears. See my heart break.
“Henri! What! No, that’s impossible. How do you know?”
I’m trying to give Michael his full bottles. I’m carrying his entire aid kit with us long this people-lined trail. We’re pulling out empty gel packets and stuffing his pockets full with new ones. I’m trying to get a grip. My sole duty for today was to make sure Michael is in the best condition possible to run this race as fast as he can. But Henri is dead.
“My mom. She just texted me. I guess she found him dead on the driveway this morning.”
“Oh Natalie I am so sorry. We can leave. Do you want to go home? We can drive home tonight.”
We pass the actual Aid Station. The side-line spectators are dwindling.
“No. I don’t know. It’s okay. We’ll figure it out later.”
“I am so sorry Natalie. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. Run well. I’ll see you soon.”
He’s gone. Into the woods. At least I can assume I’ll see him again.
Back to the car. On to Aid Station 3. Thank goodness John is here today. I don’t have to do any navigation. I just have to follow John. He gets us to Aid 3.
I park. I call my mom. I cry, without pause, for almost twenty minutes. I can’t explain this cat to you, nor to anyone. He was orange, and white. He had so much life in his eyes. He loved to play, he loved to be around people. He took care of his sister, June. He napped with June and followed June around the yard. As a little kitty, Henri was always more timid than June. June was the first to go out in the snow in the winter; Henri waited inside until a path had been cleared by his sister. He would jump up to the rim of the garbage can just to pull the salmon skin out of it, when it was in there. He used to let my brother bench-press him, and wear him around his neck like a scarf. All while purring the loudest, sweetest purr you’ve ever heard. He was a lover.
My mom face-times me and shows me his dead body. Yep, he’s dead alright. Oh. My. God. There are plenty of people around Aid 3 now, and I’m sitting in my car bawling. Over a dead cat. I will never see Henri again. He will not be there when I get home tomorrow. He will not come running up the driveway when he sees my car pull in. He will not hop onto my bed in the morning when he hears me get up. He will not beg for treats in the morning when I walk into the kitchen. He will not sneak under my bed at night when he knows I’m getting ready to sleep.
Michael will be coming up the trail again. I have to pull it together. I left him at the last Aid Station with very little fuel, because my brain was so dismantled. I have to get over there and be ready for him.
I say goodbye to my mom. I tell her I love her. At least I saw Henri yesterday right before I left for this trip. I picked him up, nuzzled my face in his white neck, and kissed his orange head. “I love you Henri!”
John has a perfect perch. He’s set himself apart from the other crew folks. I walk over with all the food I can find. I cut up grapefruit, peel some banana, lather a piece of bread with peanut butter, I have more than enough Nuun and water available: some in bottles ready to carry, some ready to drink before he takes off into the woods.
Michael’s head bobs in. He asks if I’m okay. I ask if he’s okay. I want to go home and hold Henri. I can’t anyway. Focus on today. Michael is looking good. He’s running strong. He’s moved into 6th or 7th place now. This is great.
Off he goes. John and I pack up, move to Aid 4. This is a surprise for Michael. We’d told him we would skip Aid 4 since it was only four miles from Aid 3. But for what? We show up anyway, we offer him more food and fresh electrolytes. We tell him to douse himself with cold water. It’s getting hot out under this Pennsylvania sun.
On to Aid 5. I realize that we are rapidly approaching mile 45, which is approximately where I am supposed to jump into the race and run with Michael to the finish. Oh my goodness; I can’t. All I want to do is curl up into a ball and cry until my stomach is so raw from sadness that I just fall asleep. And then I want to wake up to Henri licking my nose. I can’t. Not ever again, actually.
Aid 5. Gambit (Michael’s dog) and I walk down the trail. Gambit hasn’t had the best day ever: lots of car time, very little running or walking; it’s probably taunting him, being in the woods all day, but having to just sit patiently and wait, while he watches plenty of people – his Michael included – run by him in the woods.
Michael comes in. He comes in with the previous course-record holder. Shit. Wow. They’re running 9’s on this stuff. Holy crap. I can’t put down 9-minute miles on this terrain. This is some of the rockiest trail I’ve seen in the northeast. I can’t start running with Michael at Aid 6. I am heartbroken and in no shape to run fast trail miles. Michael kisses me, asks how I’m doing, takes some food and drink, and runs on.
On to Aid 6 we go. I change my clothes at the car and transfer what I think Michael and I will need at the finish line into John’s car. Deep breath. John and I talk logistics for getting to the finish line, Gambit, filming, cars. I tell him that I will go in at this Aid Station if Michael needs me; if not, there is one last Aid Station where I can jump in – 13 miles before the finish. If Michael needs me I will go now. I have to put Henri in the back of my head. I have to think about Michael right now. The last thing I want to do is focus on my footing (I sprained my ankle last year and it’s still hardly 80% recovered…one misstep today – when it’s not even my own race – and my own season is over) and act cheery on Michael’s behalf for the next five hours. But this is what I came here to do today. I can’t bring Henri back. Even if I were to drive five hours to home right now, Henri won’t be there. I will never see Henri again.
Aid Station 6. We see some familiar and some new faces at the Aid Station. We learn that the front runner already came through about forty minutes ago. We watch runner 2 and runner 3 come through. We wait. I stretch. I hydrate. I make sure John has what we’ll need 25 miles from now.
Somebody calls to me from the trail below. He tells me my runner is coming. “The one with the hair – he’s yours right?” he asks. I nod, grin “yeah, that’s him”.
Here he comes, head bobbing. “Do you want me to run with you?” I ask, not knowing what answer I want anyway.
“If you want to run, I want you with me. I would love to have you run with me, but it’s up to you.” Great. Not only do I have to be “on” mentally, but now I have to make a decision. Not my strong point.
If he leaves right now he’s in fourth place. “Let’s go” I say. There’s a girl, now, in the aid station. She looks (expletive) strong. If we don’t get out of here before her, we’ll be in fifth place, behind the lead female. We’re both fine feminists, but, heck, it’s another runner!. “We gotta move” I say under my breath to Michael, “we gotta go!”.
We’re off, almost flying down the trail. Another runner had come into the aid station just as we peeled out. I thought he was a relay-runner at first; he literally looked like he’d just walked onto the course, rather than run 45 miles to get there. Yikes, fourth place might be hard to keep.
We run my first five miles pretty seamlessly. I do my darnedest to think only positive thoughts. I say only nice things to Michael, and I mention Henri not at all. The only thing I am actually thinking about…is Henri. I want to cry so badly right now. I want to pour my heart and my anger out to Michael, my best friend, my confidant. What if someone poisoned him? His body was in mint condition when my mom showed him to me. He was foamy in his little nose and mouth. He clearly died of poison. My blood boils. It’s somewhat of a challenge to run 9-minute miles on trail with boiling blood and a raging heart. Who killed my cat? It’s all I can think about.
“You’re doing great Michael” I say, as much for myself as for Michael. “Nice job buddy, keep it up”.
We roll into a water stop around mile 50. Michael takes some water. I stand to the side. I look behind us. The girl comes charging up the trail. She has a gouge in her knee and blood dripping to her ankle. Her eyes of full of frustration and determination. She stops for the water not at all. She is working and she will not stop until the end. We have no chance.
So now, fifth place. Let’s go.
Another five miles and we enter the final Aid Station. Michael is ahead of me, as is the rule of pacers in this race. He goes straight to the food table, I go to John. We exchange bit of information on our respective companions – Michael and Gambit.
I’m stealing a few strawberries from the Aid Station while Michael eats watermelon. John waves three fingers at me. I give him an eyebrow. Then he points behind him. The guy who’d been running in first place with a 45-minute gap on the rest of the pack was sitting in a chair, eyes glazed over, cold wet towel draped over his neck. Holy crap! Michael’s in third place! If we leave now…
That strong-looking runner from the previous Aid Station comes running in. Jesus he looks so fresh. Still! Michael, watermelon in mouth, and me, strawberries in hand, shuffle out of the Aid Station. Strongman comes right along with us. He chats us up as if we’re sitting down over wine. Asks if we’ve run this before, how we’re doing, talks about the elevation and descent ahead of us. What the heck?! Is this guy for real? He seems so unbelievably fresh.
After some small talk, he kindly asks to pass us. Michael almost stops dead in his tracks to move over for this guy. Great. I let Strongman get ahead of us a little bit, then, quietly as I can manage, I tell Michael that the front runner was still back at that Aid Station, and this Strongman just took over Michael’s third-place position. I suggest just holding on to this guy until the big descent (not knowing how far away that descent would be) – Strongman is clearly in better shape than Michael at this juncture, but Michael is a wicked descender. If Michael can just hold on until the decent, I have no doubt we’ll beat Strongman in the downhill.
Off he goes. Michael peals away from me at what is probably a 7:30 mile. We jolt right past Strongman and eventually put him out of sight. Holy smokes! Michael! I didn’t realize you had that in you!! “Nice work buddy!” I whisper to him.
It doesn’t take long before Michael resumes his 12-minute mile pace, and Strongman comes swiftly up the trail behind us, kindly passes us again, and takes off into the woods. Okay, well, maybe we can still hang with him, this time…
Eventually we hit a road section that must be 1.5 miles to the horizon. We can see a tiny man far down the road. Strongman. Let’s go – road, we got this, let’s pick up the pace and catch him. No dice. We crest the road climb, but learn from the course martial that Strongman passed by close to ten minutes ago. Wow.
Final descent; we’re finally here. With 2-3 miles to go, and all downhill, Michael finds his flow. We glide down the rocky slope, follow an obnoxiously long wooded ridge, Michael trips and catches himself on his back, we wonder if we’ll ever get out of these woods, and then finally, it’s there. Flat ground. Noise. Chatter. We’re here. We did it. Michael did it. This is the finest performance I have ever seen this guy give! I am so proud of him.
We learn eventually that Michael finished fifth male, sixth overall. A stellar performance nonetheless.
And the sadness sets in. Henri, I love you.