Cathy Beaudoin’s fiction stories have been published in literary journals including Pomona Valley Review, Angel City Review, and Freshwater. One of those stories has been nominated for a pushcart prize. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in Triathlon Magazine Canada, the Reader’s Choice award-winning anthology: Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities, and literary outlets such as Five on the Fifth. She enjoys hiking in the big mountains when she is not writing.
One Hundred Miles
It was five o’clock AM and a full moon lit the peaks of the San Juan mountains. Minka and Amelia stood in the midst of a group of four hundred runners.. “You ready for this?” Minka asked, her hands resting on Amelia’s shoulders. “I’m nervous. I’ve never run a hundred miles before.” She tapped the race bib fastened to her shorts. “Who’d have ever thought I’d be here today?” “Just remember, this is a choice, the choice to go on a journey, the choice to find out who you are. Sometimes it just takes a hundred miles to get there.” The two friends hugged and wished each other good luck. “Have fun out there,” Minka yelled as she headed to join the other elite runners. Amelia turned and went in the opposite direction. Once the race started, she didn’t want to get trampled by the faster runners. ***** Minka settled in at the front, waiting for the race to start. She futzed with her GPS watch, making sure it had a signal. Satisfied, she looked to the sky. Her goal was simple: to stay committed once the trails pulverized her feet, quads and lungs, and win.
“One minute, one minute to go,” the announcer yelled out, no microphone needed. Tall and boney-kneed, Minka was inked from shoulder to ankle. Wearing a hot pink skort, white technical tee shirt and a fire engine red hydration pack, she adjusted the black and white checked buff wrapped around her neck. The tats told a life story, the bicep with a man’s head topped with green spiked hair, the thigh with a jet-black chopper, the words Running is Life stenciled on her left calf, just above three broken links from a chain. But from the neck up, she was untouched, her long brown hair pinched into a ponytail that dangled out the back of a white baseball cap. Surrounded by a dozen of the world’s best mountain runners, Minka took a couple deep yoga breaths and wished anyone within earshot a hearty good luck. “Three, two, one,” the announcer bellowed. A horn blew and a couple of top guys, and one woman, charged toward the base of a steep, fifteen-hundred-foot climb. Breathing easy, Minka settled in behind them, content to see how the day unfolded. ***** At the back of the pack, Amelia heard someone up in front yell, “One minute, one minute to go.” She tugged at the hem of her extra-large, navy-blue basketball shorts. Her over-sized neon-yellow tee shirt was tight over her belly and stained where she lubed herself silly. When Amelia secured the clips to her hydration pack, the straps pinched her breasts. On top of her head, a black trucker hat hid her blonde, pixie haircut. Worried her bowels were about to let loose for the third time in the past hour, Amelia shifted her weight from one leg to the other and clenched her glutes. She scanned the faces of the other runners and muttered. “What am I doing here?” “Three, two, one,” the announcer bellowed. A horn blew, but no one in front of Amelia moved. When the runners finally surged forward, she started to jog. Slosh, slosh, slosh. Her hydration pack sounded like a giant rubber band expanding and contracting as she bounded up and down. Within a minute or two, the runners spread out in a long, thin line, gaps already forming. Just make it to the first aid station, she told herself. ***** Amelia never ran a step before she met Minka. The two women, both thirty-eight-years old, met when Minka’s partner, Teddy, came to the cancer clinic for prostate cancer treatment. Amelia was Teddy’s nurse, tending to him during his chemotherapy treatments. She noticed how Minka doted on Teddy, loosening his shoelaces when his feet swelled with diabetes, wiping his forehead with a cool cloth when he became red-faced, and taking notes when the doctors talked about treatment options. Though Teddy constantly thanked Minka, he seldom looked her in the eye. For years, Amelia huffed and puffed her way around her patients, a tender hand on the arm here, an inconspicuous needle poke there. Short and stocky, she blamed her growing waistline on the long hours. It didn’t help that her patients often brought her chocolate truffles, homemade banana bread, and oatmeal cookies. One day, when Minka sat at Teddy’s side, Amelia groaned, “I need to get out and move or I’m going to end up being a patient here!” Minka’s eyes lit up. “You know, I run with a group of ladies on Tuesday nights. We run a little, walk a lot, and gab like Olympians. You should join us.” Amelia locked her eyes on Minka’s arm sleeve. “You’re a runner?” “Yes,” Minka answered, her tone uncharacteristically brusque. “I’m a runner.” “Oh boy,” Teddy snorted. “You’re in trouble now.” “Hey,” Minka shushed Teddy. She turned to Amelia, her soft face already suggesting forgiveness, “We leave from the running store at six. It’s just down the street. I can pick you up.” Without thinking, Amelia shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t even have running shoes.” Minka looked at Amelia’s feet. She wore a pair of old, unbranded sneakers. “Those are fine. Hell, I’ll go in my old army boots if it’ll make you feel better!” ***** Though the grade up the mountain quickly morphed into a fifteen percent incline, Minka stayed right behind the race leaders. She shifted gears and power hiked, her gait looking effortless. Amongst the other runners, Minka had a reputation for being able to endure more pain than anyone else on the mountain. Of course she could. She was the daughter of a poorly equipped, single mother, and was effectively emancipated when she was fifteen years old. Minka knew how to manage through tough times. Behind her, most of the mid-packers walked, hands on knees. Still in last place, Amelia bent at the waist, grimaced, fought gravity, and sucked in big gulps of air. Chest heaving, she looked at the switchbacks looping up the mountain. What in god’s name am I doing here? She looked up again. Half the runners were no longer in sight. ***** When Minka crested the first climb, she pumped her fist, increased her speed and disappeared down the trail. She wasn’t worried about the woman ahead of her. This was Minka’s eighteenth one-hundred-mile race and, if she won, it’d be her fourteenth victory. She knew the exact splits needed to have a chance to win, and planned for a big effort during the second half of the race. In the meantime, the goal was to conserve energy. When she wasn’t caring for Teddy, Minka trained in the mountains, spending as much as six hours a day traversing trails at altitudes of up to ten thousand feet. For Minka, the trails were everything she hoped for, a place of peace, a place where she was in control. But if she stopped and thought about it, the mountains were daunting. That’s when she reminded herself, it was a mental game, telling herself the mountains were nothing more than dirt, grass, rocks and bushes. Stripped down to the basics, life really was that simple. As strong a runner as Minka was, she savored her Tuesday night sessions with the ladies, most of whom ran less than ten miles a week. Not long after Minka invited Amelia to run, the two women entered the running store together. “Hey all, this is Amelia,” Minka announced. “She’s a virgin.” A teenage boy at the register blushed and a group of ladies milling around the front entrance giggled. “Just walk when you need to,” one of the women offered. “We don’t leave anyone behind, ever..” Minka checked her watch. “It’s time ladies. We can do introductions on the run.” The group headed out the door, walked two blocks down Main Street and turned off into the town park. The women paired off in groups of two or three and started jogging on a cinder footpath that took them along a rambling creek, past a duck pond, by the outdoor pool and past the tennis courts. The women turned onto a dirt road that cut through miles of dry, high desert pastureland and into the foothills. Whenever those in the front got ahead by more than thirty or forty yards, they slowed, letting the others catch up. Like usual, the women chatted about their babies, spouses, partners, and jobs. Amelia gasped for air. “Breathe in your nose and out the mouth,” Minka told her. “Yeah, right. Easy for you to say.” Amelia grabbed a handful of her mid-section and joked, “My belly’s flapping around. Who ever heard of a belly flapping when they run?” A woman in front turned. “That’s nothing. You should’ve been here when my kid was breast feeding. My nipples leaked all over the place.” The other women laughed and Minka slowed the group to a pedestrian, twelve-minute mile pace, allowing Amelia to catch her breath. A couple weeks later, paired up on a Tuesday night run, Amelia asked Minka, “You and Teddy married?” Minka bit her lip. “I’m sorry, I should mind my own business.” “No, it’s okay. We aren’t married.” She hesitated. “We have what you might call ‘an arrangement’.” Amelia cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. “We’re not lovers. I take care of Teddy, like a caretaker. When he found out he had cancer, he wanted a live-in companion. You know, so he wouldn’t be alone, at the end.” “Well,” Amelia said, huffing and puffing, “lots of people need a companion to lean on when they’re facing their mortality.” “It’s more like a financial arrangement. I have a place to live, food, that kind of stuff. And if I stay with him until the end, I get the proceeds from his life insurance policy.” Unsure what to say, Amelia stared at the trail twenty yards in front of her. Minka continued, “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t wish the worst for Teddy. But I never expected him to hang on so long. First it was radiation, now chemotherapy. I guess I didn’t realize men could live with prostate cancer for half their life!” “Well,” Amelia said, her hand touching Minka’s forearm. “You take such good care of him. He’s lucky to have you no matter what the arrangement.” ***** In addition to the Tuesday night outings, Amelia and Minka started running together on Sunday mornings. Amelia enjoyed running longer distances, an unexpected self-discovery. When she was outdoors, she felt unburdened by the stress of caring for cancer patients. And while she lost a couple of pounds, it was the change in her mental game that motivated her to keep at it. She was sharper, more alert, and her overall mood was better. Minka didn’t mind running with Amelia. For her it was an easy recovery run, and the one thing she was never good at was going easy on herself. Tap. Tap. Tap. their feet hit the ground together. “So, what’s your story,” Minka asked Amelia as they ran through the woods outside of town. “What do you mean? I’m a nurse who for a long time ate too much and didn’t move enough. But this running thing, it makes me feel good about myself.” Minka brushed away Amelia’s answer with the wave of a hand. “No, not that. I mean boyfriends, girlfriends, anyone special?” “Oh, that.” Breathing hard, Amelia struggled to get any words out. “Divorced.” Tap. Tap. Tap. “Married after college.” She grunted. “Ended it four years later. Nothing terrible. The man had no ambition.” Minka slowed her pace. “What about after that?” Amelia inhaled through her nose. “I guess I got self-conscious, afraid of being rejected.” Tap. Tap. Tap. “What about you? What’s up with you and Teddy?” “It’s a job,” Minka said gently. “Seems like it’s more than a job. It’s an intimate thing, to care for someone with a cancer diagnosis.” “I do care about the man,” Minka insisted. “But he doesn’t care about himself. He won’t eat healthy food and his diabetes is going to kill him if the cancer doesn’t. The constant junk food, it’s getting on my nerves. He’s going to live forever, and expect me to take care of him.” Tap. tap. tap. “I think I need to make a change,” Minka confessed. “I’ve been saving money so I can get my own place.” Amelia glanced at Minka. “Why? Seems like you have a good deal with Teddy. Caregivers come in all kinds of shapes and forms you know!” “It is a good deal,” Minka admitted. “What’d you do before taking care of Teddy?” Minka picked up her pace. “I worked at the mini mart after I stopped dancing at a nightclub.” Amelia stumbled and rolled her ankle. “What?” “I was a stripper.” ***** Nearly forty miles into the race, and still able to see the lead woman in front of her, Minka felt a pull in her right hamstring. Dang it, she thought, it’s too early for this. She went into troubleshooting mode. She’d been drinking her normal amount of water and electrolytes, but it was warmer than expected. Minka dug around in her skort pocket looking for a salt pill. She panicked. There were no salt pills. The hamstring spasmed. Shit, this is going to hurt. She ignored the pain and legged it out to the next aid station. On arrival, she begged for a handful of boiled potatoes dipped in salt and chewed through them like a beaver. Hoping the food rebooted her system, she resupplied, and assumed the niggle would work itself out. As she hustled to get back on trail, she caught a glimpse of the third-place runner coming up behind her. Minka bolted out of the aid station. The next climb topped out at an altitude of eleven thousand feet. Though the pinch in her hamstring disappeared, Minka’s legs felt like rubber, and she was low on energy. She drank some calories but couldn’t coax her legs to turn over at a decent speed. The last time she saw the leader was two miles ago, and now the third-place runner was coming up behind her. “Want to run together for a few miles?” the woman asked. “I’ll probably slow you down.” Minka stepped to the side, giving her competitor plenty of room to pass. “Go on ahead.” “Okay.” The woman gave a thumbs up as she trotted by Minka. “Hang in there.” Normally a bulldog, Minka was shocked at how easy it was to let the woman go. She walked the next hundred yards. Come on. FIND A WAY. Picking up the pace, Minka surged, then slowed, surged, then slowed. She finally eased into a respectable pace. As long as her hamstring held up, Minka was confident she’d catch both women in front of her. The trail took her down to Big Basin, where there was an alpine lake with crystal clear, turquoise water. Dusty and warm from the mid-day miles, she stopped and splash the frigid snowmelt on her face, neck, and arms. Refreshed, she attacked the next climb, then picked up her pace, running through a grove of Ponderosa Pines, White Fir and Aspen trees. This was her place, where she could outrun everyone, everything, her past. Minka popped out of the trees into a clearing, no one else in sight. Surrounded by a field of vibrant yellow arnica flowers, a cold wind came hard at her. A rain squall advanced from the north and within minutes, Minka was drilled by tiny, hard pellets. Chilled, she slowed and dropped her pack off one shoulder, unzipped the storage compartment and pulled out a black, eight-ounce rain jacket. Within a minute she had the thing on, zipped, and had her pack back in place. Thunder boomed overhead and hail stones followed. Minka looked at the sky. “Really? You have to do this now?” The temperature dropped a couple degrees and her hamstring contracted. She ignored the cramp and sprinted as best as she could to the next clump of pine trees. Once under cover, she massaged the back of her leg and looked at her watch. The display suggested her heart rate was over one hundred and seventy beats per minute. This was not in the plan. She took a few deep breaths and stared at her watch. One sixty. One Fifty-five. One Fifty. Keep it under control, she reminded herself. A crack of lightening touched down on a ridge a quarter mile away. The tinny smell of electricity in the air, more thunder followed. “Dang it.” Her skort front stained with rain, Minka jogged to the next clump of trees. She ate a protein bar, then took a long drink of water. Once the lightning struck on the trail behind her, she started running again, never looking back. Within minutes, the rain slowed to a drizzle, then stopped. The moisture left the trail tacky, but the rain didn’t last long enough to puddle. With firm footing, Minka ran a very controlled pace to the next aid station. “What do you need?” a man asked with urgency. “Water in my bottles. Some fruit, if you have it. And something salty.” Like a pro, she ripped off her jacket and repacked it. A volunteer held out a plate of juicy watermelon wedges. She sucked them down, letting the liquid dribble down her chin. A second volunteer dumped a packet of cashews in the palm of her hand, then jammed refilled water bottles into the front of her vest, Minka stuffed the nuts in her mouth and licked the salt off her fingers. Done refueling, she wiped her face with her sleeve. “How far back am I.” “Second place left four minutes ago. The lead woman is seven minutes ahead.,” “Thanks,” she said as she hustled out of the aid station, toward the next three-thousand-foot climb. ***** Four hours later, Amelia walked into the mile forty aid station. She missed the storms, passed eight other runners, and beat the cutoff time by more than an hour. “Woot, woot,” she exclaimed, hands waving overhead. “I can’t believe I made it this far. And I’m not in last-place!” “You’re doing great,” a volunteer recording her arrival reassured her. Another volunteer located in the food tent asked, “What can I get you?” Amelia’s eyes fixated on a package of tortillas. “Are you making quesadillas or burritos?” The volunteer twirled a spatula between his fingers. “Burritos with beans and guacamole, or cheese quesadillas.” “I’ll take a quesadilla to go.” Amelia hobbled over to the medical tent and took a seat on a thread bare camp chair. “Blisters?” a medic asked. “Nope, at least not yet.. It’s, uh, this.” Amelia lifted her shorts, exposed her inner thigh. and pointed to the red, bubbly rash “Oh, chafing. I can take care of that.” “Can you hurry? I don’t want to be pulled from the race because I didn’t get out before the cutoff time.” The medic pulled a tube of ointment and some sterile pads from a bucket on the ground. “Give me five minutes and you’ll be good as new.” Amelia sighed. “I think I’d need a magic pill to feel good as new!” By the time she left the medical tent, the burning on her inner thighs was gone. After grabbing her food and water bottles, Amelia hustled out of the aid station. It wasn’t long before she was at the base of the next climb. After a rocky uphill section, her calves screamed, her ankles swelled, and her feet burned. How does Minka do this, she wondered. With each painful step forward, Amelia negotiated with herself. If you finish, you can have a sausage pizza, with extra cheese, a whole one, all to yourself! With a beer, a Vienna Lager. Saliva flushed her palate. Then again, she told herself, you already made it farther than you thought was possible. Who cares if you quit now? No. No. No quitting. She knew from training with Minka that the negative self-talk was the effect of the prolonged effort, the resulting rawness,, the exposure. But she also felt something new inside. She was evolving as a person. Amelia lumbered on, passing a couple more runners. Halfway up the next climb, she came across a guy on the side of the trail, bent at the waist, a pool of vomit at his feet. She stopped and placed her hand on his back. “Hey, you okay?” she asked. “I’m a nurse. How can I help?” “I’m okay. Just couldn’t hold my food down.” The man dry heaved. “You keep going.” Amelia pulled off her pack and dug around in one of the side pockets. “Here. Eat one of these and save the rest for later.” She handed him a couple pieces of crystalized ginger. “You sure? What if you need them?” “I’m sure.” She placed the ginger in the palm of his hand. “I have more.” “Thanks.” Wrapping his fingers around the bite-sized chunks, he nodded in the direction of the trail. “You should get going.” The two made eye contact. “Okay,” she conceded. “You have enough food, water and electrolytes?” “Yeah. Get going, I don’t want you to miss the next cutoff because of me.” “Alright, but I’m going to give them a heads up about you at the next aid station.” She patted him on the back and started down the trail. By the time Amelia got to Big Basin, she passed four more runners. Stunned by her progress, and the views, she stopped dead in her tracks and gaped at the turquoise-colored lake, the big horn sheep on the hillside, and the ridge line framing a pink, alpenglow sky. Tears trickled down her cheek. She wished she had someone to share this moment with. She knew that’s what running long distances did to people, gave them the ability to strip everything away and evaluate what was important. Ignoring the pain in her feet, Amelia picked up her pace, intent on continuing her journey. ***** At mile seventy-five, Minka was losing ground to the first and second place runners. She was pushing hard when she came across the most technical section of the course, a quarter mile stretch through a scree field alongside a cliff with a five-hundred-foot drop. Fatigued, Minka’s concentration waned. She thought about Teddy. When she first moved in, she thought it’d be a short-term thing, maybe a year. That was four years ago. If she left him now, she’d be leaving him in a lurch. Minka zoned-out at the thought. Focus, she chided herself. With every step she took, the rock under her feet shifted, no foundation to rely on. Minka’s right foot slipped on some loose debris and her legs split wide. Her left femur stressed to a near break, she fell to her knees and rolled against a sturdy rock marking the edge of the trail. You’ve been here before, she told herself, the number of times she’d found her mother with slit wrists, the freezing nights walking the streets to avoid her mother’s drug habit, the ease with which she removed her clothes for money. You are strong.You’re not going over the edge.You didn’t then, and you’re not now. Blood flowed from Minka’s kneecap. A sharp-edged rock had ripped a gash across the patella tendon. “Dang it!” Her scream echoed in the valley below. She grabbed at the knee and fingered the open wound. Struggling to her feet, she tore a water bottle from her vest and washed the blood away. Then she pulled the buff from her neck and tied it around the open cut. After wiping her wet palms against the side of her skort, she limped through the rest of the scree field. Back on firm ground, Minka’s gait morphed to a trot, one clearly favoring the damaged leg. She glanced down at what was now a mere trickle of blood. No problem, she thought, ignoring the pain and picking up her speed. When she arrived at the next aid station, Minka waived off the medics. “I’m fine. How far ahead are the first and second place women?” “Second left ten-minutes ago,” a woman with a clipboard answered. “What about first place?” “Oh, she’s long gone, maybe thirty minutes ahead of you.” “Oh, no,” Minka grinned. “Don’t count me out yet!” She took a deep breath, refueled, strapped a headlamp to her head, and sprinted out of the aid station. ***** Exhausted from hiking alone through the night, Amelia was unnerved. She thought the light on top of her head caught the glow of several pairs of eyes staring right at her. Before she started trail running, Amelia was petrified of wildlife. As a kid, the thought of coming across a wolf or bear kept her far from the woods. Now she was sure they were just yards away. “Control your fear,” she muttered. “Control your fear.” After several minutes of repeating the mantra,. She heard a noise behind her, turned, and screamed, “Oh, shit. It’s a bear. It’s a fucking bear.” “Hey,” a man yelled out, I’m not a bear. I promise, I’m not a bear.” Amelia stared hard behind her. “Hah. It’s vomit man!” He laughed. “It’s the ginger lady!” Amelia slowed until they were walking side by side. “I can’t believe you caught up to me. I thought you were done back there!” “Oh that. Just a bad patch. After a half an hour of walking, and the ginger things, I felt better.” He patted his belly. “By the way, My name’s Rob.” “Amelia.” She drew in a long breath. “My name is Amelia.” “That sigh,” he said, “I know the feeling.” “Oh, I don’t know about that. My hips, my knees, my feet, they’re all screaming at me to stop. And I have a gnarly blister on the heal of my foot.” “Yup, sounds pretty normal. It’s what we signed up for – right?” Amelia didn’t answer. What had she signed up for? A physical challenge, yes. Being stripped down to the rawest of emotions, that was unexpected. No longer feeling skittish or alone, she treasured these intimate moments on the trail. The two shuffled along, sharing their post-race plans. The food: pizza, hamburgers, French fries, chocolate shakes. The shower, with foamy scented soap, a palmful of thick, gooey shampoo and a soft towel to wipe off with. The plans for sleep, a cushy queen-sized mattress, a soft comforter pulled up to the chin. When they walked into the next aid station, they made a pack to leave together. Amelia went to the medic, untied one of her laces, pushed a sneaker off her foot and peeled off a grimy sock. The medic sanitized her heel, popped her blister, then wrapped her foot with mole skin and duct tape. She was on her way again. At the food tent, she slurped hot chicken broth and some fizz-free coke, then crammed a few packages of saltines in her jacket pocket, made sure her bottles were refilled and coaxed her new friend out of his chair and down the trail. They walked, then jogged, then walked again. In the silence, Amelia felt like she was with an old friend. ***** With less than fifteen miles to go, Minka knew she’d have to red line it to the finish if she had any chance of catching the woman in second place. She high stepped her way across Dead Man’s Creek. Three feet from the other side, she slipped on the wet rocks, rolled an ankle and fell into the knee-high water. “Dang it,” she yelled out, slapping the water with the palm of her hand. Immediately chilled to the bone, Teddy’s comment you’re in trouble now, ran through her mind. Minka scrambled to her feet, streams of water flowing from her skort. Shivering, she exited the creek. Just do what makes you happy, Teddy told her. She didn’t need to win races to be happy. And she didn’t need to have her own place either. That would come soon enough. She made a commitment to him. All he asked in return was for companionship. It was never about the money. It was always about security. And for the first time ever, Minka felt she had it. She’d be an idiot to leave him. Minka picked up her speed and sprinted down the trail. Two miles to go. One mile to go. Her legs buckled and she fell. In the dark, she remembered calling out to her mother, get up, get up. Minka didn’t want to be her mother, the one who didn’t answer the call. Raising herself off the ground, she committed to finishing what she started. Fourteen hours later, less than a mile from the finish line, Amelia and Rob were in the final stages of the dreaded death march. No longer able to run or shuffle, Amelia walked, groaning with every step. “You can do it,” Rob reassured her. “We’re almost there.” “This has to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Amelia cried. “Yeah, but we’re almost done.” A hundred yards from the finish, Rob asked, “Do you want to go ahead of me, you know, so you can cross the finish line by yourself?” Amelia thought about it for a minute. “No, do you?”