8,000 Meter Challenge – More Than a Day of Trails
I know I need to write something here but I’m honestly not sure how to begin or where to go. If you would like to see the data and specifics of the 8,000 meter challenge, check out the write up on the Off Road Pursuits blog, here I’d rather just talk about what it meant to me personally.
When I originally asked Jess, Dax, and Carlyn if I could join them during their attempt at the 8,000 meter challenge the idea was simple. I’ve never attempted to summit Baldy, Gorgonio, or Jacinto so I wanted to find out if I could do them all in one day. It’s been too long since I put myself in a solid position to fail and I needed to get out there and test myself again. I would be joining Jess for his last big training day before Leadville 100, hopefully do as much as I could and if all else failed I would act as support for the group while they finished what I couldn’t.
Then on Thursday, while I was spending the week alone in Idyllwild, I got the terrible news that our good friend, Ben, and his climbing partner, Gil, had gone missing in Peru. I spent all day and night wandering aimlessly around the cabin praying for the best case outcome while trying to get a signal on my cell phone to keep updated on the progress of the search. While I know that these types of situations rarely end well, I also know that Ben is one of the strongest and most determined people I have ever met and if anyone could get themselves out of a bad situation it would be him.
While I spent all day Friday trying to keep updated on the search I debated on whether I even wanted to go out and do the challenge and I wasn’t the only one. Dax sent out a fantastic email that summed up what we were all thinking. We all were hesitant to go out in the mountains with a friend missing but it would be the only true way to honor his spirit and the best way we could find to send our positive energy to Peru. To finish the email Dax had a great suggestion, keeping with Ben’s belief in Naked Wrist Racing he asked that we all take on the day with out our watches and GPS. It turned out to the one of the best ideas of the weekend.
While my concern was going in to my biggest challenge in terms of mileage, time and elevation that I have ever done, it has always been my watch that kept me on track with my calories. How would I do without knowing how often to take in my food. Well, as it turns out Ben addressed this with a great Nietzsche quote early on in his post about it: “Necessity is not a fact then, but an interpretation.” It turned out that if I just stop thinking and let my body do what it needs to do, I’ll be fine. That would turn out to be an overwhelming theme later in the day.
So with the following in mind, “if a fulfilling run is part of the game, and especially if the time is not too important, the Naked Wrist can be a good option,” we met up on Saturday morning to start on an adventure that would turn out to be more than I even imagined.
With a start just before 6am, we set our sights on the summit of Mt. Baldy knowing it would be a warmup for the big climbs later in the day. Ben was immediately on my mind and would remain there throughout the day. Baldy is the shortest and steepest climb of the day but a good one. Never having done it before the time seemed to fly by and we were able to summit and get back to the car on Jess’ “warp speed” time projections.
After getting back to the car we made a quick change and got on our way to San Gorgonio. As we were driving I did the math and was surprised to realize I had taken in exactly as many calories on the mountain as I would have if I had a watch and was keeping track of time. It looks like maybe my body does know what is best for it, another lesson from Ben.
By the time we got to the parking lot for Gorgonio it was already starting to get warm so we through on the layers of sunscreen, prepped the packs and hit the trail. Gorgonio is the longest of the three climbs but, despite a brutal steep switchback start to the trail, it’s incredible beautiful. The combination of the scenery, the ridiculous music accompaniment which would include Ace of Base, Carly Jepsen, Sir Mix-a-Lot among others, and the great company the mountain went surprisingly quickly. I hit a brief low point on the ascent which I recovered from quickly and again on the descent that a small piece of Dax’s beef jerky saved me from. Other than these two instances I really enjoyed this climb. Ben couldn’t have been more right, without a watch to worry about I was able to take in so much more of the beautiful nature I was surrounded by and enjoy the company I had out there. The final push to the summit was a long, exposed effort but it was completely worth it to just put my head down and charge to the top. The views from the top were amazing and I immediately understood why Ben thrived when he was in the mountains.
After a long descent which featured all of us starting to battle a little bit with various stages of soreness, stomach issues, and fatigue, we made it to the cars to start the drive to Jacinto and our final climb of the day. We jumped in the car and less than a mile down the road Jess pulled over and we pulled in behind him. Expecting Carlyn was about to succumb to the stomach issues she was having Dax and I waited for the passenger door to open and see her leap out. It was Jess that stepped out of the car and headed in our direction and I immediately felt something was wrong, then he gave us the news that Ben and Gil’s bodies had been found on the mountain in Peru. I was speechless, it was like getting punched in the stomach while in a headlock. All the air was completely out of my body. Dax and I sat there silent for a while trying to process what Jess had just said. How the hell could Ben be gone? There has to be a mistake! He’s one of the strongest people I have ever met he can survive anything. He’s told me about things he’s done that I don’t even understand until I go home and look it up and realize just how amazing the accomplishment was. There is no way he won’t be joining us for the R2R2R run in the fall that he was organizing.
Finally when I couldn’t take it any more I put the car in drive and pulled out. I had to do something to try to stop thinking. The drive to Jacinto was a mix of silent thought, Dax and I trying to find the right words to help ourselves come to terms with the news, and an overwhelming sense of loss that turned to inspiration and finally determination. There was no way I wasn’t completing this climb of Jacinto. Ben was a huge inspiration to me, not just his physical ability and the things he accomplished but the way he lived his life. He was one of the most passionate people I met and without question one of the most well rounded. Some of the best parts of running with him were listening to his ramblings on everything from 90’s Hip-Hop, to climbing, to the Dalai Lama. It never ceased to amaze me how many topics he knew intimately and how passionate he was about each. However, the thing that left the biggest impact on me was Ben’s complete intolerance of anyone not pushing themselves. He surrounded himself with people that strived for greatness and in turn he pushed all of us to be better and stronger as well. He didn’t have time for people that made excuses, were afraid or too caught up in what other’s thought to put themselves on the line. Ben truly lived by the Prefotaine quote, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
On one of my earliest runs with Ben we discussed this philosophy and how much he hated people telling him how “amazing” something he had done was. At first I thought it was a harsh way of thinking, that the everyday jogger wasn’t as good as those that could do more, go longer and do it faster. But then I realized, it wasn’t the jogger that Ben had a problem with. It was the jogger that never wanted to be anything more than that. It was in him to desire more out of himself and those around him and he couldn’t afford to spend his time wanting more for you than you wanted for yourself. He had great things to accomplish and he wanted you along for the ride.
It was with all of this in mind that when we got to Humber Park to start our climb of San Jacinto I was reinvigorated and ready to tackle the mountain.The group had a swap of women as Carrie joined us for Jacinto and Carlyn stayed in town due to her stomach problems and constantly rolling her ankles. There was no need for her to keep pushing, she has an Ironman soon and can’t afford to get hurt. Unfortunately, my mind and legs being ready to go wasn’t enough to convince my stomach. While I was staying on top of my calories all day this was the first time I had done anything that woud take this amount of time and all the gels, chews, and waffles I took were catching up to me and I had no desire to eat anything sweet. I was able to get in a few hundred calories on the way up the mountain but once we hit the summit I had a fig newton and a couple sips of water on the entire descent. It wasn’t enough…or even close to enough. We were all hurting on the climb but we were able to pass the time with stories of Ben, recounting our favorite runs (unanimously the JTree Traverse), and generally doing our best to honor Ben the way he lived his life, by pushing ourselves to be better and stronger than we were when we started the day.
My lack of calories was causing me to crash badly on the way down but one constant thought kept me moving forward, Ben wouldn’t quit. It hurts? Who cares? Keep moving! Summiting Jacinto was tough but getting back to the car was probably the hardest thing I have ever done mentally and emotionally. There is no question I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of Dax, Jess, and Carrie and especially the constant thought of Ben in my heart and mind.
While I was typing post this I got a call from Toby, who was very good friends with not only Ben but Gil too. Toby was on his honeymoon when this happened and I wasn’t able to talk to him until today. Honestly, one of my biggest concerns was how he was doing with the loss. Of course, Toby was way ahead of me on this and was able to put in to words what I wasn’t. We didn’t lose two friends on the mountains in Peru, they will never be lost because of the impact they have had on our lives. We may not be able to make new memories with them going forward but they will always be there with us. Every time I step on the trails I know Ben is out there in the mountains ready for the adventure.
Much like Ben found a renewed sense of determination since the passing of Tim, it is now on to us to find our purpose and drive in this world. What is it that we will do to make ourselves and those around us better people? It’s up to us to live our lives to the fullest, we can no longer be happy just knowing someone that pushed themselves to the edge and live vicariously through them. Ben would never want us to live that way.
Rest in Peace Ben and know that your legacy is in good hands. We will all continue to Pullharder in your honor!