The American Sherpa

Sushma and her Sherpa

Sushma and her Sherpa

I found her in quite a state. She had just covered a little more than 78 miles, and when I encountered her approximately a mile before my checkpoint she had already emptied the bottle that she was carrying. I knew she was in trouble just from that sign alone. Checkpoints in this race were spaced approximately 3.5 miles apart, frequently enough not to empty a bottle that you carry unless you are in trouble, and she had a mile to go before she got to my checkpoint as I had run the course backward from my aid station to find her. That’s when the words entered my head, and I have heard many people say it when they see other people down on their luck, homeless, or otherwise in a very bad state of affairs and looking to be on their last line – “There but for the Grace of God go I.”

I asked her what she wanted in the bottle, water or a sports drink. She said, “water and ice.” I then asked, “do you want real food or sports gels.” She answered, “real food, and I need some ibuprofen.” This was my experience in distance running serving her like a champ. A runner in dire straights cannot formulate rational thoughts. You wouldn’t ask a little child, “what do you want for dinner?” Their little minds cannot work through the myriad of choices that are available, and they won’t even be able to think about the ones that might not be available. So you limit their choices, A or B. Pick. A runner in the stresses of breakdown is the same as a little child. If you are going to give them any decisions at all you can and should only give them either/or choices.

After I got the answers to my decision tree I ran as fast as I could the mile back to my aid station and gathered some fig newtons, filled her bottle with ice and water, and then I grabbed the pain relievers to complete the task. On the way back to the station I had passed my aid station partner, Michael, who was also making his way backward along the course to find me and the runner, and I told him to go back and make a PB&J sandwich because she wanted real food, and that she was in trouble. I ran at a very fast pace to return to her with the goods, and I shook the bottle of ibuprofen in an exaggerated manner so that she could hear me coming through the woods, to know that comfort was on its way.

As we walked past the aid station together she said, “I cannot stop, or I will drop. I have to keep going.” I told Michael, who was feverishly scrambling to make a sandwich as we passed right by, “Forget the sandwich. The figs are good for now. Get word to the race director that we need a pacer at Aid Station #2 to take over for me when we get there.” To which my new running partner said, “Please don’t leave me.”

My new friend told me her name was Sushma and that she was from Nepal. Trying to lighten the mood because I knew she was in pain, I said, “I will be your Tenzing Norgay. You know who he is, right?”
Sushma said, “Oh yes. Everyone knows him.”
I said, “Alright then, I am Sherpa Jack. We will climb this mountain together.”

It was hard for her to laugh because she was in so much pain but nonetheless my humor made its way in. I wanted to lighten the mood, to take her mind off the pain, but I have never been in a position to care for someone this late in a race by being a pacer. I’ve worked aid stations before and I have camped out on the back half of desolate marathon courses to cheer on friends as they passed mile #23 or #22 or some other random number below the 26.2 that meant their effort would be done soon. That would not be the case today. This race, Sushma’s race, was 100 miles long. My longest race to date was the marathon and my longest ultra running distance was 50k, or 31 miles. I am training for my own 100 mile race but I have yet to find out where that special level of pain threshold is or how I will cross it when I get there. At this time I only know that I have suffered myself in long races and though the pain must be different I can identify with it. We had just crossed mile #80 on Sushma’s journey.

I had locked hips with someone who was on the fourth and final lap of a 25 mile loop around the wooded area of St Sebastian River Preserve State Park in Fellsmere, Florida. I wasn’t sure if I was up to the task, but it was easy enough to let my doubts go when I thought about what she was going through. There was a moment of silence after the point of initial introductions and my attempt at humor and then the realization started to set in. Sushi, as I was now allowed to call her – as that is what all her friends call her – and I were now involved in an effort that would have both of us thankful at the end of the day that we had met each other. But frankly, at mile #80 in Sushi’s journey I was still of a mindset that there would be someone else to pick up my special baton and to keep running with her. I was not prepared to run a long distance at this point in my day, or so I thought.

The course, a 25mile loop in deep sand and Florida brush

The course, a 25mile loop in deep sand and Florida brush

My weekend started by getting a little bit of sleep on Friday night before the race. I left my house at 2am for the drive from the west coast of Florida to the east coast to arrive about an hour before the race started. A friend of mine was running the race and I thought the best way to watch, and also to learn about what a runner goes through during a 100 mile race, would be to get involved by way of working an aid station. This was a trail race, in Florida, and I have lived in Florida long enough to know that my skin needed to be protected from mosquitoes by way of covering my entire body with long clothing regardless of how hot it might get, especially in a situation that would have me standing around in the woods for extended periods of time waiting for runners to pass by. I was wearing jeans and a long sleeve t-shirt. I decided to wear my Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars because I knew I needed to move around easily, but it would be unlikely that I would have to run that far, so I didn’t think that wearing running shoes was necessary. I was really happy with this decision for most of Saturday as a light rain soaked us most of the afternoon and into the night. As the night wore on the toughest part of being a worker at the aid station was the boredom, and the sleep deprivation. My aid station co-worker was a last minute add to the roster because he was also there to cheer on a friend. We both had camping gear but neither of us set up a tent or bothered to figure out shifts for breaks. We discussed sleep shifts briefly at about 1am but neither of us offered up a plan. Looking back I think we got ourselves into some sort of competition to see who could go the distance without sleeping. All we had to do, our half-baked unspoken reasoning went, was to outlast the last runner through our aid station. Since we were the first aid station on the course, this meant that we would be done with our duties at approximately 8am. I figured I could take a nap back at the start/finish line when our aid station duties had concluded and then I could watch runners finish before heading home. Mike Tyson is famous for saying, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” I watched the sun rise and I refreshed a bit by washing off the overnight sweat with the water from the cooler and changing out of my long clothes and into a pair of shorts and a short sleeve t-shirt. I had survived the night and by 8am I was worried and took a personal interest and concern that the last runner would be okay. I had been awake for more than 36 hours by the time I found Sushi on the trail, and I was realizing as we passed by my aid station, as we were leaving my home for the last 24 hours behind us, that I had just been punched in the mouth.

Sushi was expecting me to stay with her the rest of her race. I humored her but frankly I was still operating under the delusion that I would be able to hand her off to another pacer. I told her that I would get back to the start/finish and would come out in the final miles, even if it was 10 or more, to bring her in. She responded by saying, “You are committed to stay with me. You just haven’t realized it yet.” All I could say in response was, “I promise that you will not be alone.”

I asked her if her name had any special meaning in the Nepali language. She said, “it translates to beautiful,” and she told me that she was a little embarrassed about that. I learned the name of her husband and her two beautiful children, all of whom I met at the finish line, and she told me about how she got interested in the ultra distances and came to be in this 100 mile race. She said she didn’t care about the belt buckle, which is what 100 mile finishers get if, and that’s a big IF, they can finish the race under the time limit. The cutoff for this race was 3pm. At this point in the race Sushi was on pace to finish at 2:15pm, which gave her 45 minutes to spare if we could hold pace. She told me that she could be out here all day to finish. The belt buckle didn’t matter but it would be nice. Her reason for running was the personal achievement but more importantly she was raising money for an orphanage in Nepal. My eyes welled up with tears as she told me about all the children back in Nepal who were rooting for her to finish, which was an absolute must. I was leading the way for her, walking and trotting about three feet in front of her, so she did not see me crying. The thought that entered my head and that I did not share until later that night was this, “You gave me a reason to care about you. Now I will care for you. You are running for others, and I will run for you.” My realization was not long in arriving. Sushi was right; I was committed to staying with her to the finish.

We were approaching what I consider to be the toughest part of the course, but then again I am saying this in hindsight. I was still coming to grips with the prospect that I was going to be running more than 20 miles after having been awake since… I stopped doing the math on my own sleep deprivation. It all looked difficult at that moment, especially when I thought about the clothes that I was wearing. So I put all those thoughts away. Thinking about how my attire was not suitable to a full day in the hot Florida sun would not help me achieve my objective. I wanted to focus on something positive and I found it. My hat. My wool crushable Stetson cowboy hat was perfect for keeping the sun off my nose, ears and neck. “I love this hat,” I said to myself, “This hat is perfect and I am happy to have it on.”

I told Sushi that she had to describe to me what was coming up next after every turn, to focus on our task. She responded to my first request by saying that we were going to go through about a mile and half of deep sand and that it was really tough. I now know that my new friend is a master of the understatement. That stretch of sand was brutal, and this was her fourth time through it. I was gaining more respect for all the participants at this very moment as we made our way to mile #6 on the loop. We would have 19 more to go before it would be over, and the clock was ticking on that belt buckle, which suddenly became a very personal, potentially angry goal of mine. I implored her, “Sushi, we have to maintain this pace. We cannot let the clock beat us. We have to make it.” 19 miles to go and I was in the right frame of mind. Finishing was not in question, but earning that belt buckle came with time pressure.

I stopped asking Sushi to describe the course almost immediately after requesting it. Leading her by three feet or so I was using my knowledge of running technique to help her, and every now and then I would turn around and run backward while watching her. She was marching along looking at the ground. I had told several runners who stopped at our aid station throughout Saturday afternoon that it’s okay to look at the ground to see what your footing looks like, but you have to keep your head level. Otherwise you will develop severe upper back pain or a stiff neck. Bad posture aggravates other problems in distance running. Protect a blister on one foot by limping, the opposite leg or foot develops a problem with the added weight or pressure.

Since I was now carrying Sushi’s water bottle, I would occasionally turn around and ask the binary yes/no question, “Need a drink?” She stopped talking and I learned to read the sign language. She would reach to me with a hand for ‘yes’ or give me a quick head shake for ‘no.’ I was doing all the talking. Earlier she had asked me to tell her about myself, which I would come to smile about every time I felt the need to transition to a new topic. I believe she may have gained more information about me than I would be willing to share with someone I just met, but these were extraordinary circumstances, so I opened up.

In the later miles I began to have problems of my own, but they were superficial and I was mostly concerned out of fear of ‘what if’ than having actual problems. My shoes were not designed for running and they were filling up with sand as we progressed. I thought I felt blisters developing but I wasn’t actually trying to alter my stride to protect the affected area. A lifeguard is taught to put his victim between himself and an obstruction as he brings the victim to shore, e.g. – like a support beam under a pier. That sounds cruel on initially hearing that but when you consider that if the lifeguard is injured the lives of both the victim and the lifeguard are in jeopardy. I don’t remember where I first learned about that lifesaving tactic, but I thought about it during this race of ours. I had to feed and hydrate myself first at the aid stations that we passed while Sushi kept moving, and then I would get food and water for her. I would see the aid station ahead and pick up my own pace to be well ahead of Sushi. I would be done eating and hydrating myself and would be preparing her bottle and getting food for her as she passed by on that steady pace she was keeping. I had to actually run a good pace to catch her after each aid station.

The girls at aid station #4 had a recreational vehicle that they were operating out of, and the best piece of evidence that I was not alone in caring for Sushi came to me when I saw Lynsey from that station taking over pacing duties while I was taking care of my dietary needs. Lynsey did a great job of coaching Sushi on what was working (thighs felt good) versus focusing on what hurt (multiple foot blisters). I heard the tail end of that conversation as I caught back up to my charge and took over from there. “Let’s continue with that inventory,” I said. “Your arms. Good?” Sushi said, “yes.” I said, “Pump them up and down with each stride. They are helping you lift your feet off the ground. Your arms are strong and pumping. Pump them. They will carry you.”

It was 60 years ago that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit of Mt Everest. That was the extent of my knowledge about Nepal. What I learned from Sushi was that the word Sherpa doesn’t mean what most people who I have ever heard use the word think it means. It is not a servant or a person who acts like a pack mule. Sherpa describes a region in Nepal and people from this eastern region of the country are referred to as Sherpas the same way that a person from Ohio would be called a Buckeye, or someone from West Virginia a Mountaineer. While preparing this essay I referred to the wikipedia page for Sherpa People and found this:

“Sherpas are highly regarded as elite mountaineers and experts in their local terrain. They were immeasurably valuable to early explorers of the Himalayan region, serving as guides at the extreme altitudes of the peaks and passes in the region, particularly for expeditions to climb Mount Everest. Today, the term is often used by foreigners to refer to almost any guide or porter hired for mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas, regardless of their ethnicity. Because of this usage, the term has become a slang for a guide or mentor in other situations.”

At first I thought it may have been a little insensitive of me to refer to myself as a Sherpa in this ultra marathon expedition of Sushi’s. But the similarities to the real thing are hard to ignore. I am an avid student of my sport of distance running, having an extensive knowledge of what a runner experiences and how to manage the course when the going gets tough. I study runners’ posture every time I see someone on the road and I am constantly evaluating my own running form to look for improvement and to correct inefficiencies. As we made our way through the trails of this race I noticed Sushi sticking to tire tracks and well worn areas of the path. I ordered her to follow my footsteps as I was running the tangent of the course and stepping on hard packed sand and sand covered in pine needles that would provide firmer footing than where everyone else had been before us.

I said, “Sushi, you have to think about the technicalities of this task. It will help you take your mind off the pain. We have to run the tangents, to shorten the course wherever possible.” She asked, “What is the tangent?” Trail running may be different from road races, especially with the ultra distances so I am not sure how the course gets measured outside of either GPS mapping or driving the course and using an odometer. My experience from road races though is this, they measure the courses on the tangent of the course. If you stay in a particular lane, then you are running further than you have to. Running the tangent means taking the left side of the road for an upcoming left turn and hugging the right side of the road for a right turn. After explaining the tangents I said, “Sushi, we are going to shorten this course even if that shortening only works out to a 1/10th of a mile after the dust settles. Also, you have to stay on firmer ground where possible. Get out of those tire tracks and follow my path! I will show you the way.”

The Perseverance Award

The Perseverance Award

As we were closing in on the finish line Sushi’s grunting and moaning became more of a regular chant. I told her, “I love that song, so sing it! Don’t be shy about letting the world know you are in pain. Moan, and then push. Grunt, and then push.” With about a mile and a half to go we were met by two male runners who had finished earlier and were sticking around to help the last runner home. I shouted at them as we drew closer to them, “Gentlemen, I’d like you to meet the first person, man or woman, from Nepal to ever complete a 100 mile ultra marathon.” That was something Sushi had told me when we first met and I was counting on it to be fact. I was proud of her as if I myself were Nepali. We were going to make it after all, and with about a quarter mile to go Sushi’s 10 yr old son came running around a corner to greet us, and then her 4yr old daughter, and then her husband. We had a party now and the emotions of the moment began to overwhelm Sushi. The two male finishers who greeted us and escorted us to the finish had taken over coaching duties while I was still ordering Sushi to sing her pain. “Moan, and then push. Grunt, and then push.”

Sushma and her children

Sushma and her children

Sushi’s escorts backed away, every last one of us at the finish line, to let her cross that finish line by herself. She made the cutoff time and the race director handed her the well-deserved and hard won belt buckle, signifying her as one of the few people on this planet who can claim they’ve finished the 100 mile race in the time allotted. Sushi was given her finisher’s medal and awarded a special piece of artwork titled, “The Perseverance Award.” Mike and Kristen Beck serve as co-directors of the race, and Mike told Sushi the story of her split times for the race. Mike said that Sushi actually ran her last lap two hours faster than the previous lap, and everyone was in awe and astounded by her toughness.

100 done!

100 done!

I told Sushi that this race will be an example that she will be able to draw on when her children face rough times or their own tough challenges. The experiences and the lessons that Sushi learned this past weekend will serve her for the rest of her life.

For my part in Sushi’s journey Kristen Beck apologized and told me that they didn’t have any special award for a volunteer doing what I did, but to have a finisher’s medal as a token of recognition because I was serving as an inspiration as well. “After all, you did run your own ultra distance this weekend,” Kristen said. I thanked her and acknowledged the truth in that statement.

What I know about distance runners is that my effort was not that special of a case, which I can say in spite of the love that I am receiving from my new friend, Sushi, and my other friends who are just now learning of my weekend exploits. The aid stations were all managed by runners and friends of runners who love to be part of the action even if they are not racing on that particular weekend. Every runner out there cares about every other runner out there, and I have learned that this is especially true in the ultra distances. Because every one of us, no matter what the distance is, can honestly say when we see another runner in distress, “there but for the Grace of God go I.”

My Ultra. Note the Chuck Taylors that carried us the final 25 miles

My Ultra medal. Note the Chuck Taylors that carried me through deep sand