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Chapter 14
SHE’S INSANE! She’s … awesome.

Coach Vigil was a hard-data freak, but as he watched Ann plunge into the Rockies with her ballsydo-or-die game plan, he loved the fact that ultrarunning had no science, no playbook, no trainingmanual, no conventional wisdom. That kind of freewheeling self-invention is where bigbreakthroughs come from, as Vigil knew (and Columbus, the Beatles, and Bill Gates wouldhappily agree). Ann Trason and her compadres were like mad scientists messing with beakers inthe basement lab, ignored by the rest of the sport and free to defy every known principle offootwear, food, biomechanics, training intensity … everything.

And whatever breakthroughs they came up with, they’d be legit. With ultrarunners, Vigil had therefreshing peace of mind of dealing with pure lab specimens. He wasn’t being hoodwinked by aphony superperformance, like the “miraculous” endurance of Tour de France cyclists, or thegargantuan power of suddenly melon-headed home-run hitters, or the blazing speed of femalesprinters who win five medals in one Olympics before going to jail for lying to the feds aboutsteroids. “Even the brightest smile,” one observer would say of disgraced wondergirl MarionJones, “can hide a lie.”

So whose could you trust? Easy; the smiles on the oddballs in the woods.

Ultrarunners had no reason to cheat, because they had nothing to gain: no fame, no wealth, nomedals. No one knew who they were, or cared who won their strange rambles through the woods.

They didn’t even get prize money; all you get for winning an ultra is the same belt buckle as theguy who comes in last. So, as a scientist, Vigil could rely on the data from an ultramarathon; as afan, he could enjoy the show without scorn or skepticism. There’s no EPO in Ann Tra-son’s blood,no smuggled blood in her fridge, no ampules of Eastern European anabolics on her FedEx account.

Vigil knew that if he could understand Ann Trason, he’d grasp what one amazing person could do.

But if he could understand the Tarahumara, he’d know what everyone could do.

Ann sucked air with deep, shuddering gasps. The final push up Hope Pass was agony, but she keptreminding herself that ever since the time Carl cursed her out, no one had beaten her on a bigclimb. About two years earlier, she and Carl were running on a rainy day when Ann begangrousing about the endless, slippery hill ahead. Carl got tired of hearing her kvetch, so he blisteredher with the most obscene name he could think of.

“A wimp!” Ann would later say. “The big W! Right then, I decided I was going to work to be abetter hill climber than he was.” Not only better than Carl, but better than everybody; Anndeveloped into such a relentless mountain goat that hills became her favorite place to drop thehammer and leave the competition behind.

But now, as she approached the Hope Pass peak, she could glance back and see Martimano andJuan steadily closing the gap, looking as light and breezy as the capes that swirled around them.

“God,” Ann panted. She was so hunched over, she could almost pull herself up the slope with herhands. “I don’t know how they do it.”

A little farther down the mountain, Manuel Luna and the rest of Team Tarahumara were alsocatching up. They’d gotten scattered in the early miles by the startlingly fast pace, but now—likean alien protoplasm that re-forms and gets stronger every time you blast it to bits—they weretightening back into a pack behind Manuel Luna.

“God!” Ann exclaimed again.

She finally reached the peak. The view was spectacular; if Ann turned around, she could see allforty-five miles of tumbling green wilderness between her and Leadville. But she didn’t evenpause for a slurp of water. She had an ace in her hand, and she had to play it now. She was woozyfrom the thin air and her hamstrings were screaming, but Ann pushed straight over the top andstarted chop-stepping downhill.

This was a Trason specialty: using terrain to recharge on the move. After a steep first drop, thebackside descent quickly softens into long, gently sloped switchbacks, so Ann could lean back,make her legs go limp, and let gravity do the work. After a bit, she could feel the knots easing inher calves and the strength creeping back into her thighs. By the time she reached bottom, her headwas up and the glint was back in her cougar eyes.

Time to fire the jets. Ann veered off the muddy trail and onto hard-packed road, her legs spinningfast and loose from the hip as she accelerated into the last three miles to the turnaround.

Juan and Martimano, meanwhile, had gotten a little sidetracked. As soon as they’d broken past thetree line above, they were startled to see a giant herd of strange, woolly beasts—and among them,animals. “SOUP’S ON, FELLAS,” hoarse voice bellowed to the uncomprehendingTarah(some) umara from somewhere inside the herd.(a) The Tarahumara had just made first contact withanother wilderness tribe: the Hopeless Crew.

Twelve years earlier, Ken Chlouber had mustered enough of his neighbors to staff a good half-dozen aid stations, but he refused to put anyone at the top of Hope Pass; even the tough-guy minerwho delighted in his race’s high hospitalization rate considered that inhumane. A volunteer onHope Pass would have to haul enough supplies up the mountain to feed, water, and bandage anendless parade of battered runners, and then camp out for two nights on a snowy peak with gale-force gusts. Nothin’ doin’; if Ken sent anyone up there, he’d have hell to pay when they didn’tcome back down.

Luckily, a group of Leadville llama farmers shrugged and said, Eh, what the hell. Sounded like aparty. They loaded their llamas with enough food and booze to make it through the weekend, andhammered in tent stakes at 12,600 feet. Since then, the Hopeless Crew has grown into an armyeighty-some strong of llama owners and friends. For two days, they endure fierce winds andfrostbitten fingers while dispensing first aid and hot soup, packing injured runners out by llamaand partying in between like a tribe of amiable yetis. “Hope Pass is a bad son of a bitch on a goodday,” Ken says. “If it weren’t for those llamas, we’d have lost a good many lives.”

Juan and Martimano shyly returned high fives as they jogged through the raucous Hopelessgauntlet. They stopped to drink in the sight of the weird gypsy camp (as well as cups of somereally tasty noodle soup someone shoved into their hands), then began quick-stepping down theback side of the mountain. Ann was nowhere to be seen.

Ann hit the fifty-mile mark at 12:05 p.m., nearly two hours ahead of Victoriano’s time from theprevious year. Carl loaded her up with sports drink and Cytomax carbohydrate gel, then snappedon his own fanny pack and gave his shoelaces a tug. According to Leadville rules, a “mule” canrun alongside a racer for the last fifty miles, which meant Ann would now have a personal pit crewby her side all the way to the finish.

A good pacer is a huge help during an ultra, and Ann had one of the best: not only was Carl fastenough to push her, but experienced enough to take over if Ann’s brain fritzed out. After twenty orso hours of nonstop running, an ultrarunner can get too mind numb to replace flashlight batteries,or comprehend trail markers, or even, in the unfortunate true case of a Badwater runner in 2005,distinguish between an imminent bowel movement and an occurring one.

And those are the runners who are really keeping it together. Hallucinations are no strangers to therest; one ultrarunner kept screaming and leaping into the woods whenever he saw a flashlight,convinced it was an oncoming train. One runner enjoyed the company of a smokin’ young hottie ina silver bikini who Rollerbladed by his side for miles across Death Valley until, to his regret, shedissolved into heat shimmers. Six out of twenty Badwater runners reported hallucinations thatyear, including one who saw rotting corpses along the road and “mutant mice monsters” crawlingover the asphalt. One pacer got a little freaked out after she saw her runner stare into space for awhile and then tell the empty air, “I know you’re not real.”

A tough pacer, consequently, can save your race; a sharp one can save your life. Too bad forMartimano, then, that the best he could hope for was that the shaggy goofball he’d met in townwould actually show up—and could actually run.

The night before, Rick Fisher had brought the Tarahumara to a prerace spaghetti dinner at theLeadville VFW hall to see if he could recruit a few pacers. It wouldn’t be easy; pacing is sogrueling and thankless, usually only family, fools, and damn good friends let themselves get talkedinto it. The job means shivering in the middle of nowhere for hours until your runner shows up,then setting off at sunset for an all-night run through wind-whistling mountains. You’ll get bloodon your shins, vomit on your shoes, and not even a T-shirt for completing two marathons in asingle night. Other job requirements can include staying awake while your runner catches a nap inthe mud; popping a blood blister between her butt cheeks with your fingernails; and surrenderingyour jacket, even though your teeth are chattering, because her lips have gone blue.

At the spaghetti dinner, Martimano locked eyes with some longhaired local who, for some bizarrereason, immediately began cracking up. Martimano started laughing, too; he found the shaggy guytotally cool and hilarious. “It’s you and me, brother,” Shaggy said. “You follow? Tú and yo. If youwant a mule, I’m your man.”

“Whoa, whoa, hang on,” Fisher interjected. “You sure you’re fast enough for these guys?”

“You’re not doing me any favor,” Shaggy shrugged. “Who else you got lined up?”

“Yeah,” Fisher said. “Okay, then.”

And just as he’d promised, Shaggy was hollering and waving by the aid station the next afternoonwhen Juan and Martimano came running into the fifty-mile turnaround. They took a long, cooldrink of water and grabbed some pinole and thin bean burritos from Kitty Williams. Rick Fisherhad also roped in another pacer, an elite ultra-runner from San Diego who’d been a longtimestudent of Tarahumara lore. The four runners traded Tarahumara handshakes—that soft caressingof fingertips—and turned toward Hope Pass. Ann was already out of sight.

“Saddle up, guys,” Shaggy said. “Let’s go get the bruja.”

Juan and Martimano barely understood anything the guy said, but they caught that all right:

Shaggy was calling Ann a witch. They looked closely to see if he was serious, decided he wasn’t,and started laughing. This guy was going to be a kick.

“Yeah, she’s a bruja, but that’s cool,” Shaggy went on. “We’ve got stronger mojo. You understandthat, mojo? No? Doesn’t matter. We’re gonna run the bruja down like a deer. Like a venado. Yeah,a venado. Got it? We’re gonna run the bruja down like a venado. Poco a poco—little bit at a time.”

But the bruja wasn’t backing off. By the time she summited Hope Pass for the second time, Annhad widened her lead from four minutes to seven. “I was heading up Hope Pass, and she just blewby me going the other direction—vroo-o-o-om!” a Leadville runner named Glen Vaassen later toldRunner’s World. “She was cruisin’.”

She threaded her way to the bottom of the switchbacks and plunged back through the ArkansasRiver, fighting to keep from being swept downstream in the waist-deep water. It was 2:31 p.m.

when she and Carl arrived back at the Twin Lakes fire station at mile 60. Ann checked in, got hermedical clearance, and trudged up the twenty-foot dirt ramp to the trailhead. By the time Shaggyand the Tarahumara arrived, Ann had been gone for twelve minutes.

Coincidentally, Ken Chlouber was just arriving at the Twin Lakes aid station heading outboundwhen Juan and Martimano came through on their return trip. Everyone in the firehouse wasbuzzing about Ann’s record pace and ever-growing lead, but as Ken watched Juan and Martimanoexit the firehouse, he was struck by something else: when they hit the dirt ramp, they hit itlaughing.

“Everybody else walks that hill,” Chlouber thought, as Juan and Martimano churned up the slopelike kids playing in a leaf pile. “Everybody. And they sure as hell ain’t laughin’ about it.”


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