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Chapter 22
JENN AND BILLY met in the summer of 2002, after Billy had finished his freshman year atVirginia Commonwealth University and returned home to lifeguard on Virginia Beach. Onemorning, he arrived at his stand to discover that the Luck of the Bonehead had struck again. Hisnew partner was a Corona commercial come to life, a beauty who earned top marks in all theBonehead scoring categories: she was a surfer, a secret bookworm, and a hard-core partyer whoseancient Mitsubishi had a life-size silhouette of gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson aiming a .44Magnum stenciled on the hood.

But almost instantly, Jenn began to bug him. She fixated on Billy’s University of North Carolinabaseball cap and wouldn’t let up. “Dude!” Jenn said. “I need that lid!” She’d gone to UNC for ayear before dropping out and moving to San Francisco to write poetry, so if there was any karmicjustice on this beach, then she should be sporting the Tar Heels gear, not some pretty-boy surferlike him who only wore it to keep the pretty-boy bangs out of his eyes….

“Fine!” Billy erupted. “It’s yours.”

“Sweet!”

“If,” Billy continued, “you run down the beach, bare-ass.”

Jenn scoffed. “Dude, you are so on. Right after work.”

Billy shook his head. “Nope. Right now.”

Moments later, hoots and cheers rocked the boardwalk as Jenn burst out of a porta-potty, herlifeguard suit crumpled on the ground behind her. Yeah, baby! She made it to the next stand ablock away, turned around, and came charging back toward the throngs of moms and kids she wassupposed to be protecting from, among other things, full-frontal nudity by college dropouts goin’

wild. Amazingly, Jenn didn’t get canned (that came later, for shorting out the engine of herlifeguard captain’s truck by sticking a live crab under the hood).

During quieter moments, Jenn and Billy talked big waves and books. Jenn revered the Beat poetsso much, she was planning to study creative writing at the Jack Kerouac School of DisembodiedPoetics if she ever dropped back into college and got a degree first. Then she picked up LanceArmstrong’s It’s Not About the Bike and fell in love with a new kind of warrior poet.

Lance wasn’t just some brute on a bike, she realized; he was a philosopher, a latter-day Beat, aDharma Bum sailing the asphalt seas in search of inspiration and Pure Experience. She’d knownArmstrong had bounced back from cancer, but she had no idea just how close to the grave he’dactually been. By the time Armstrong had gone under the knife, tumors were spreading throughouthis brain, lungs, and testicles. After chemotherapy, he was too weak to walk but had to make anurgent decision: should he cash in an insurance policy worth $1.5 million, or turn it down and tryrebuilding himself into an endurance athlete? Take the payout, and he’d be set for life. Turn itdown and relapse, and he’s dead meat; he’d have no money, no health insurance, no chance ofseeing age thirty.

“Fuck surfing,” Billy blurted. Living on the edge wasn’t about danger, he realized. It was aboutcuriosity; audacious curiosity, like the kind Lance had when he was chalked off for good and stilldecided to see if he could build a wasted body into a world-beater. The way Kerouac did, when heset off on the road and then wrote about it in a mad, carefree burst he never thought would see thelight of print. Looking at it that way, Jenn and Billy could trace a direct line of descent from aBeatnik writer to a champion cyclist to a pair of Pabst Blue Ribbon-chugging Virginia Beachlifeguards. They were expected to accomplish nothing, so they could try anything. Audacitybeckoned.

“You ever heard of the Mountain Masochist?” Billy asked Jenn.

“Nope. Who’s he?”

“It’s a race, you crackhead. Fifty miles in the mountains.”

Neither of them had even run a marathon before. They’d been beach kids all their lives, so they’dbarely seen mountains, let alone run them. They wouldn’t even be able to train properly; the tallestthing around Virginia Beach was a sand dune. Fifty mountain miles was waaaay over their heads.

“Dude, that’s totally it,” Jenn said. “I’m in.”

They needed some serious help, so Jenn looked where she always did when she needed guidance.

And as usual, her favorite chainsmoking alcoholics came through in the clutch. First, she and Billydug into The Dharma Bums and began memorizing Jack Kerouac’s description of hiking theCascadia mountains.

“Try the meditation of the trail, just walk along looking at the trail at your feet and don’t lookabout and just fall into a trance as the ground zips by,” Kerouac wrote. “Trails are like that: you’refloating along in a Shakespearean Arden paradise and expect to see nymphs and fluteboys, thensuddenly you’re struggling in a hot broiling sun of hell in dust and nettles and poison oak… justlike life.”

“Our whole approach to trail-running came from Dharma Bums,” Billy told me later. As forinspiration, that’s where Charles Bukowski stepped up: “If you’re going to try, go all the way,” theoriginal Barfly wrote. “There is no other feeling like that. / you will be alone with the gods / andthe nights will flame with fire…. you will ride life straight to / perfect laughter, it’s / the only goodfight there is.”

Soon after, surf fishermen noticed weird goings-on each evening as the sun set on the Atlantic.

Chants would echo across the dunes— “Visionnnnns! O-O-O-O-O-mens!

HallucinAAAAAtions!”—followed by the appearance of some kind of loping, howling, four-legged man-beast. As it got closer, they could see it was actually two people, running shoulder-toshoulder.

One was a slim young woman with a “Gay Pride” bandanna on her head and a vampirebat tattooed on her arm, while the other, as best they could make out, seemed to be a welterweightwerewolf under a rising moon.

Before setting out for their sunset runs, Jenn and Billy would snap a tape of Allen Ginsbergreading “Howl” into their Walkman. When running stopped being as fun as surfing, they hadagreed, they’d quit. So to get that same surging glide, that same feeling of being lifted up andswept along, they ran to the rhythm of Beat poetry.

“Miracles! Ecstasies! Gone down the American river!” they’d shout, padding along the water’sedge.

“New loves! Mad generation! Down on the rocks of Time!”

At the Old Dominion 100 a few months later, aid-station volunteers at the halfway mark heardscreams echoing through the woods. Moments later, a girl in pigtails burst from the trees. Sheflipped up in a handstand, jumped back to her feet, and began shadowboxing.

“This all you got, Old Dominion?” she shouted, throwing punches in the air. As the sole memberof Jenn’s support crew, Billy was waiting with her favorite midrace meal: Mountain Dew and acheese pizza. Jenn stopped bobbing and weaving and tore into a slice.

The aid-station volunteers stared in disbelief. “Hon,” one of them warned her. “You’d better take iteasy. Hundreds aren’t halfway done till you hit the last twenty miles.”

“Okay,” Jenn said. Then she wiped her greasy mouth on her sports bra, burped up some Dew, andbounded off.

“You’ve got to get her to slow down,” one of the aid-station volunteers told Billy. “She’s goingthree hours faster than the course record.” Tackling one hundred miles in the mountains wasn’tlike running some city marathon; get in trouble out there in the dark, and you’ll be lucky to getback out again.

Billy shrugged. After a year of romance with Jenn, he’d learned she was capable of absolutelyanything except moderation. Even when she wanted to rein herself in, whatever was buildinginside her—passion, inspiration, aggravation, hilarity—inevitably came fire-hosing out. After all,this was a woman who joined the UNC rugby team and set a standard considered previouslyunachievable throughout the sport’s one-hundred-seventy-year history: Too Wild for RugbyParties. “She’d get so nuts, guys on the men’s team would wrestle her down and carry her back toher room,” Jessie Polini, her best friend at UNC, said. Jenn always went full speed ahead, onlydealing with stone walls after she hit them.

This time, the stone wall arrived with a vengeance at the seventy-five-mile mark. It was now six inthe evening. An entire arc of the sun had passed since Jenn had started running at five thatmorning, and she still had a marathon to go. There was no shadowboxing this time as Jennwobbled into the aid station. She stood in front of the food table, stupid with fatigue, too tired toeat and too fuzzy-headed to decide what to do instead. All she knew was if she sat down, shewouldn’t get back up.

“Let’s go, Mook!” someone shouted.

Billy had just arrived and was pulling off his jacket. Underneath, he had on surf shorts and a rockband T-shirt with the sleeves torn off. Some marathoners are thrilled when a friend paces themthrough the last two or three miles; Billy was jumping in for the full marathon. Jenn felt her spiritsrising. The Bonehead. What a guy.

“You want some more pizza?” Billy asked.

“Ugh. No way.”

“All right. Ready?”

“Right on.”

The two of them set off down the trail. Jenn ran silently, still feeling awful and debating whether toreturn to the aid station and quit. Billy coaxed her along just by being there. Jenn struggled throughone mile, then another, and something strange began to happen: her despair was replaced byelation, by the feeling that damn, how cool it was to be wandering this amazing wilderness under aburning sunset, feeling free and naked and fast, the forest breeze cooling their sweating skin.

By 10:30 that night, Jenn and Billy had passed every other runner in the woods except one. Jenndidn’t just finish; she was the second runner overall and the fastest woman to ever run the course,breaking the old record by three hours (to this day, her 17:34 record still stands). When thenational rankings came out a few months later, Jenn discovered she was one of the top threehundred-mile runners in the United States. Soon, she’d set a world best: her 14:57 at the RockyRaccoon 100 was—and remains—the fastest hundred miles on dirt trails ever recorded by anywoman, anywhere.

That fall, a photo appeared in UltraRunning magazine. It shows Jenn finishing a 30-mile racesomewhere in the backwoods of Virginia. There’s nothing amazing about her performance (thirdplace), or her getup (basic black shorts, basic black sports bra), or even the camera work (dimly lit,crudely cropped). Jenn isn’t battling a rival to the bitter end, or striding across a mountaintop withthe steel-jawed majesty of a Nike model, or gasping toward glory with a grimace of heartbreakingdetermination. All she’s doing is … running. Running, and smiling.

But that smile is strangely stirring. You can tell she’s having an absolute blast, as if there’s nothingon earth she’d rather be doing and nowhere on earth she’d rather be doing it than here, on this losttrail in the middle of the Appalachian wilderness. Even though she’s just run four miles fartherthan a marathon, she looks light-footed and carefree, her eyes twinkling, her ponytail swingingaround her head like a shirt in the fist of a triumphant Brazilian soccer player. Her naked delight isunmistakable; it forces a smile to her lips that’s so honest and unguarded, you feel she’s lost in thegrip of artistic inspiration.

Maybe she is. Whenever an art form loses its fire, when it gets weakened by intellectual inbreedingand first principles fade into stale tradition, a radical fringe eventually appears to blow it up andrebuild from the rubble. Young Gun ultrarunners were like Lost Generation writers in the ’20s,Beat poets in the ’50s, and rock musicians in the ’60s: they were poor and ignored and free fromall expectations and inhibitions. They were body artists, playing with the palette of humanendurance.

“So why not marathons?” I asked Jenn when I called to interview her about the Young Guns. “Doyou think you could qualify for the Olympic Trials?”

“Dude, seriously,” she’d said. “The qualifying standard is 2:48. Anyone can make it.” Jenn couldrun a sub-three-hour marathon while wearing a string bikini and chugging a beer at mile 23—andshe would, just five days after running a 50- mile trail race in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“But then what?” Jenn went on. “I hate all this hype about the marathon. Where’s the mystery? Iknow a girl who’s training for the Trials, and she’s got every single workout planned for the nextthree years! She’s doing speedwork on the track like, every other day. I couldn’t take it, man. I wassupposed to run with her once at six in the morning, and I called her up at two a.m. to tell her I wasshitfaced on margaritas and puh-robably not gonna make it.”

Jenn didn’t have a coach or a training program; she didn’t even own a watch. She just rolled out ofbed every morning, downed a veggie burger, and ran as far and as fast as she felt like, whichusually turned out to be about twenty miles. Then she hopped on the skateboard she’d boughtinstead of a parking pass and kicked off to class at Old Dominion, where she’d recently droppedback into school and was making straight As.

“I never really discussed this with anyone because it sounds pretentious, but I started runningultras to become a better person,” Jenn told me. “I thought if you could run one hundred miles,you’d be in this Zen state. You’d be the fucking Buddha, bringing peace and a smile to the world.

It didn’t work in my case—I’m the same old punk-ass as before—but there’s always that hope thatit will turn you into the person you want to be, a better, more peaceful person.

“When I’m out on a long run,” she continued, “the only thing in life that matters is finishing therun. For once, my brain isn’t going blehblehbleh all the time. Everything quiets down, and the onlything going on is pure flow. It’s just me and the movement and the motion. That’s what I love—just being a barbarian, running through the woods.”

Listening to Jenn was like communing with the Ghost of Caballo Blanco. “It’s weird how muchyou sound like a guy I met in Mexico,” I told her. “I’m heading down there in a few weeks for arace he’s putting on with the Tarahumara.”

“No way!”

“Scott Jurek may be there, too.”

“You. Are. Shitting me!” the budding Buddha exclaimed. “Really? Can me and my friend go? Ohno. Shit! We’ve got midterms that week. I’m going to have to pull a fast one on him. Give me tilltomorrow, okay?”

The next morning, as promised, I got a message from Jenn:

My mom thinks you’re a serial killer who’s going to murder us in the desert. Totally worth therisk. So where do we meet you guys?


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