Giving up a lung for Zion

Midlife Sentence | Top of Zion Relay

Once a year, a group of friends of ours gathers for a running relay event somewhere in the region. Mike and I haven’t been able to join them for the last couple of years for reasons that basically boil down to the fact that everything in our lives tends to happen all at once, and sometimes we have to prioritize as though we’re bonafide grownups.

If you don’t remember my talking about running with this group, here’s a little thing about the Grand Teton Relay, three years ago, and Hood to Coast, which we finished up on my birthday the year before that.

This year we were able to join the group for the Top of Zion Relay: 12 people split up between two vans winding 195 miles through southern Utah, with the opportunity to experience some of the best scenery the West has to offer.

Midlife Sentence | Top of Zion Relay

I was really nervous about this run, not because of the distance, nor the prospect of spending 36 hours in a van with five other sweaty runners, but because of the elevation. I’ve run in the mountains before, mostly when Mike and I have been camping with family and I realize I need to get away from the people I love before killing them. I’ve noticed three things:

  1. My heart rate elevates to an alarming level in record time,
  2. My lungs turn into teensy, little thimbles that don’t draw in enough air to keep me confident I’m going to be able to maintain consciousness, and
  3. Whatever the temperature is, it feels about 20 degrees warmer when the sun’s out, or that much cooler at night.

The elevation for each leg in this run ranges from 6,200 to 9,500 feet. We live (and train) at about 2,700 feet, and because we have lives, taking a couple of days off every other week to run in the mountains wasn’t possible. This, the race organizer told us, was not a problem. We’d be so focused on the views, she said, we wouldn’t notice the pain.

I’m just going to break the suspense for you all right now and say that she seriously underestimated my ability to be aware of how close I am to death, regardless of the vista.

But the view was spectacular. Every leg of the race was a showcase of some new and fascinating terrain – although a part of me wondered if it was just so-so and it was the oxygen-deprivation tricking me into thinking it was more amazing than it was.

I was supposed to be the photographer for our van, responsible for capturing a range of candid shots: stoic athleticism, camaraderie, team support, and clowning around. You know … a compilation that says: “we laughed, we cried, we felt like puking and got over it.”

Instead, I was the one leaning over people in the van to snap shots of the passing scenery.

I did manage to get a few people shots …. and then I stole a few others from my teammates:

Our group represents a pretty wide range of running ability – from the fast to the slow to the barely plodding along. There are people who are there every year, others we only see every few years, and those we only have the chance to get to know over the course of one event. The youngest are in their twenties, and the oldest has recently stopped joining us for relays but still regularly runs some pretty challenging events close to town. He’s in his early 80s.

For this event, our assemblage included a mix of distance runners, serial marathoners, and a few runners (okay just me) who say they like running, but really mostly just find running clothes really comfortable, and the prospect of burning off enough calories every week to compensate for beer is cool as well. The age span for our team for this race ranged from 33 to 66.

One thing about gathering a group of people who are willing to shoehorn themselves in a van for the better part of three days (with the commute, all told), only to get out and kill themselves for 90 minutes every twelve hours or so: it can be a little challenging to recruit a full squad.

Go figure.

This year was no exception. People had vacation schedules or injuries or work or family. A couple of months out, we had a core group, but still needed four or five more people, or we’d be running a whole lot more legs than most of us would want.

You would think it would be easy to recruit a new team member and expect they’d fit right in with our group, considering the easy-going people runners are.

I mean, unless, of course:

  • they’re tapering
  • they’re bonking
  • their equipment/clothing/shoes are malfunctioning
  • it’s too hot/cold/windy for their taste
  • they have blisters/muscle cramps/GI issues
  • there aren’t enough portable toilets on a run
  • the sports drink at the aid station is watered down
  • someone has the unmitigated gall to shout: “you’re almost THERE, just another half mile!” when EVERYBODY in earshot knows there are at least six-TENTHS of a mile left to go, and six-TENTHS of a freaking mile does not equal a HALF MILE for God’s sake
  • someone has the audacity to serve Michelob Ultra at the end of an event wherein I’ve just burned seventeen thousand calories and watching my weight is not high on my priority list

Even with all these things in mind, in the end we were still able to fill up our roster with weeks left before the event. BOOM.

Then, about a month out, someone was injured and another spot opened up. At this point, we needed to act FAST and even given how easy going runners are, maybe employ a little strategy to recruit the right person at this stage in the game, just to make sure we didn’t get someone in that cramped, little stinky van with us who ended up not being a good fit.

No we didn’t. Strategy, schmategy. We just needed to fill the spot. Ultimately someone advertised our team opening on a social media running group, probably using some kind of flowery description full of promise and hyperbole.

Something like: “Come with us. We’re almost completely sure everything will turn out fine.”

Which is how we met Jesse.

Midlife Sentence | Top of Zion Relay

Jesse has an interesting story. He has a couple of kids, a boy who is six and for whom he wears a batman tattoo on his wrist (“I’m his superhero, and he’s mine”), and a daughter who just graduated from high school. A thirty three year-old single dad, he has rarely had the opportunity to travel outside of his small home town. He’s a college student and a mechanic who plans to open up his own shop. Jesse was thrilled at the opportunity to see a new part of the country and to be a part of the event. His enthusiasm was persistent and infectious.

After the event, his vanmates invited him to take his medal off and relax, ribbing him a bit about continuing to wear it.

“This thing?” he said, “this is the first thing I’ve ever won – the first of what’s going to end up being a collection, I’m going to keep it on for a while.”

Midlife Sentence | Top of Zion Relay

When I asked Jesse after the event whether I could share his story, he told me about seeing the post come up about our team opening, and how it spoke to him. He’d lost his dad just five months prior, and said he felt driven to do something big in his honor. This relay, it turns out, would be that big something.

We gave Jesse the team wrist band to commemorate the occassion. Because, really, nothing says “way to go” better than a strip of plastic on which 12 people have sweated and a few have probably inadvertently rubbed their snot.

He was thrilled, of course. We’re starting to learn that’s his MO.

Midlife Sentence | Top of Zion Relay

Later, on Facebook, I saw one of our Top of Zion relay medals next to a gravesite marker for one Jose I. Salinas Vargas.

“You told me to see the world
So I did and I also brought you a piece to see it.
Dad, I hope ur proud.”

I’ll just take a wild guess and say he is.

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