White Rim Road: in search of fast time
Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself.
—Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference
The High to me is peeling back every layer of the mind and soul until there is nothing left but the moment and the emotion within that moment, whatever that may mean. It’s the point of the run where I see across the abyss that is the self, and see myself staring back, where there is no one else, and nothing else. It’s no longer a race against others, it’s a race with yourself, leaving everything and everyone behind. It’s a time to rage, to burn everything you have in the tank, to make a mark, to leave the “ifs” and “whens” behind. It’s the moment in the run where there is nothing else but me and nature, moving together, in sync with each other; two life forces fighting for survival; a primal dance distilled to the most basic of movements.
The windows of the airbnb were left cracked open all night and the cool desert air collecting inside lifted Logan Williams out of a dreamless and short-lived sleep. The idea of running the White Rim Road had been fermenting in his mind for years and now, sitting upright in the bed, it was as if a cork had popped and bubbling romantic imagination effervesced into the unmistakeable reality of actually doing it. The room was thick with electricity and the static flickered across his body with a primal excitation. After luxuriating in it and the velveteen solitude of a 3 a.m. wake-up, he got out of bed and waded through darkness to brew his coffee. He stood gripping the handle of his mug, blood and caffeine circulating throughout his body, building compartments in his mind, creating the psychic feng shui necessary for running the 100.8-mile route faster than anyone else ever had before.
Two days prior, Logan had driven from his home in Salt Lake City with his partner and crew to the route in Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah. The interim time was spent renting a jeep; checking into the airbnb; scoping out the trail; preparing all logistics, including taking a gamble on being able to secure a first-come-first-serve day pass granting access to the route; and acquiring necessary provisions. After the mishaps experienced earlier that year on his 52-hour failed FKT (fastest known time) attempt on the 171-mile Tahoe Rim Trail, Logan ensured conditions would be different this time around: unlike most ultra distances which tangle through mountains and require the implementation of multiple aid stations en route, the White Rim Road is such that his crew could follow in a mobile aid station, driving behind him at all times. The yellow jeep, like some pre-Copernican sun, orbiting him as he did his best to run 100.8 miles in under 18 hours. This, along with the fact it was a much shorter route than the Tahoe Rim Trail with a fraction of the elevation gain (7200’ of vertical gain versus 31000’), made it so he could focus purely on the running.
Logan ate his oatmeal and apple. As he did his mobility work, the veneer of small talk with his crew faded earlier than usual and he retreated into himself. On a day like this, the past more than at any other moment feels truly passed. The last thing on the mind is going or looking backward. He knows there is no proper way to train for a run like this. Any question of physical preparedness was futile. A runner can be in peak physical shape, but if they don’t have the capacity to respond to the quintessential one hundred mile problems that will inevitably arise (stomach issues; niggles in the knee; severe chafing; dehydration; blisters; etc), they are doomed to fall apart. It’s like swimming in violent ocean water—the waves will either pummel and beat you down or you figure out you can dive underneath and let them wash over you. What really separates the best ultra runners from great ones then becomes a matter of the psyche; problem-solving and adaptability fueled by intense determination and acquaintance with pain. As Logan’s foot glided over the spiky foot massager ball, he was an astronomer mapping constellations in his mind.
The drive to the trailhead was engulfed in pitch black. Not a fleck of milky way, breath of moonlight, or speck of star in sight. The field of view from the jeep headlights was composed of sand, rock, and dirt, and if it weren’t for the road signs littered along the way, it could have passed as Mars rover footage. As they barreled deeper into the abyss, his mind stretched over the dark expanse. Leaning his head on the glass, he looked out, thinking, reflecting, admiring, in a state of stupefaction not altogether unmingled with fear, dreaming with his eyes open. If at every instant he could fail, at every instant he could succeed. It was like his downhill ski instructor would always say: If you never jump into the deep end, who knows if you can swim?
They arrived at the top of Shafer Canyon Road ten minutes before the 6 a.m. start time. In Tahoe, there had been signs of life: backpackers, thru-hikers, campers, critters. Here, remote in the thick of dark, Logan detected nothing. The jeep illuminated the direction in which he would begin—light reflecting off hi-vis markers and road signs glowing orb-like bordered the path. The crew prepared while he did his warm-up; music, machinery, voices and the crunching of feet carving out a niche in the twilight. As he neared the end of his shakeout, things such as pace and distance became neutralized of their significance, merely products of imagination. For the first time in his running career, he decided he would shut off his watch face after getting it started to record the effort. He would follow his heart, mind and breath. Time seemed unimportant entering the void.
Logan took the plunge into unfathomable darkness. In the light of day, he knew that from where he ran now, he would be looking out onto a vast and stunning landscape—the La Sal mountains over red rock formations, wilderness expanse, low-hanging shrubs, trees. But now, despite his familiarity with the route, it felt as if he were traversing some distant planet for which his terrestrial experience lent him no cognizance. With no physical landmarks to serve as points of reference for any sense of relative speed, he went purely by feel as he conducted his bodily orchestra: the rhythm of his feet tapping terrain falling into sync with every inhalation, exhalation; the timing of swigs of water; the sensation of the swings of his arms. The symphony came together effortlessly and he fell into a flow.
Around 6:45 a.m., Logan observed the transition from dark to light. Peaks slowly rising in the distance and the silhouette of the La Sal Range were made visible by a nascent sunrise. The periphery of tunnel vision created by headlights began to fade and trees, shrubs and stone creeped into existence. He continued to descend, the sun continued to rise. Vibrant pink streaked across blue-gray sky—celestial cotton candy—so vivid it nearly replenished his glycogen stores and the air felt just as sweet entering and exiting his lungs. He reached the bottom of Shafer Canyon Road. Eight miles in and he had finished the first descent. In front of him laid five miles of undulating dirt road before the turn onto BLM 129—the official starting point of the White Rim.
Continuing onto Island in the Sky, now in full light, the extent of what he was doing began to register with him. In a race, Logan knew that he could take others, otherwise strong and experienced, to depths they had never experienced. Places where the coats of civilization were stripped away, where life and death interpenetrated each other in a quicksand of heart anguish and muscle despair, where nothing was left but the moment and the emotion within that moment. When competing against others trying to avoid that space, who were trying to minimize pain rather than embrace and acknowledge it, if all else was equal, he knew he could outperform them. But here, there were no others to feed off of.
An FKT attempt captures the absolute essence of what it means to be both machine and spirit. It bridges the gap between the order of an impersonal mathematical cosmos and the world of human experience. Through running, concrete quantitative data points—such as pace, heart rate, and distance—can be related to subjective experience. But at the same time, there is something inarticulable about the embodied force of the moment, something that extends much further and deeper than the reach of what a watch can translate into the form of a Strava activity. The FKT is a feat of imagination, and to successfully accomplish it is to push the machine aspect of the self as far as it will go until the depths of the spiritual essence are maximally summoned to push it even further. As he neared the left turn onto the BLM 129, Logan felt the floodgates of his spirit open up and a guttural giddiness began to color his perception.
Thirteen miles in, Logan reached White Rim Road. It was surreal—being out there all alone roving over red orange earth freckled with brown and green underneath cascading cerulean sky; music, hum of jeep, intermittent shutter sounds from Moe’s camera and the hypnotic rattle of Matt’s mountain bike pacing, all behind him like contrails. He had reached a state he thought he could sustain eternally, an intuitive meditative rhythm that felt comfortably uncomfortable; one foot in front of the other: step step step drink, step step step drink. As he continued running through it, the canyonlands were shaping his mind: thoughts and sentiments, adrift like paragliders, awe-suspended hovering through immense beauty. In tune with the breeze, he felt himself blowing undifferentiated across the landscape. As he melted into the earth, the next thirteen miles flew by.
The flat road abruptly ended at what seemed like a precipice, an infinity pool leading into the ether. Coming to, Logan looked at his watch for the first time all morning. He had covered a marathon in 3 hours and 15 minutes. Checking in with himself—his body felt strong; he was keeping food and drink down; he hadn’t dug into the well yet, as was often the case during races with his all or nothing starts; and he was far ahead of schedule. In contrast, after covering this much distance on the Tahoe Rim Trail, he had already sown himself in the seedbed of heat stroke and dehydration after the three springs he was counting on for water came up dry. Here, he was flowing—body and mind in perfect symbiosis. He looked down onto red rock face, slowing for just a moment at the start of switchbacks that would take him down to the portion of the route that followed along the Green River, and headed downward.
After reaching the river and running a couple miles along it, Logan approached the first big climb of the day. Now thirty miles in, he decided to take a proper pause to replenish calories and spirit, indulging in donuts, Pedialyte, attention from crew and affection from Cat as he prepped for the vert. The glow of undying energy had faded and familiar waves of exhaustion and pain swelled inside him; his stomach began to revolt a little. He could feel the well being tapped and a different kind of determination was washing over him. Staring at the steep climb, he noticed the surface—loose rock sandy—became more precarious so he grabbed the trekking poles from the jeep before starting up the road. Not quite ready to disrupt his form and flow, he started the climb without using them. He felt the shift in muscles being engaged as he leaned in to the mountain. He had become so accustomed to flat and descent that the transition put extra strain on his body and mind.
As he was getting ready to implement the poles, an audible pop inexplicably sounded from below. Searing pain tore through his ankle, as if someone had clumsily dragged a tattoo gun across it. Amy—with her PT expertise—got out of the jeep to check it out. In this type of situation, medical rationale is necessarily distorted. Of course, the healthy thing to do would be to call it a day and go home having minimized damage to the ankle, pocketing that as a success of sorts. You would be hard pressed to find any professional who would medically recommend running 100.8 miles, remote with no cell service an hour from the nearest hospital, as fast as they could. But Logan told himself this was just a quintessential one hundred mile problem. It had to be. Things had been mostly smooth sailing and he was due for an obstacle, right? Unready to even consider he could be injured, Logan shrugged off the significance of the situation and stabbed the earth with the poles and continued on.
One hundred miles is the great equalizer. He remembers this as he drags himself across the dirt. He’s dealt with hiccups like this before—sprains, blisters, twists—and knows the unignorable quality of the pain has the potential to disappear over the course of another (albeit extremely labored) five miles. After all, it’s only after trudging through the depths of these lows that the highest forms of transcendence have revealed themselves to him. Though the rhythmic tapping of his cadence decayed, this macroscopic perspective propelled him onward. Even as he did his best to alleviate some weight from it, the pain in his ankle throbbed. It wasn’t getting worse but it certainly wasn’t getting better. He tried taking his mind off it by talking to Matt and shifting focus to appreciating the atmospheric beauty. On the flats, he could at least muster a clunky but acceptable pace. As he hobbled over the earth, yellow jeep in tow, his mind promised his screaming ankle that they would reevaluate in an hour.
As he continued sticking the road and catching up with his feet, another loud pop from his ankle slowed him to a stop. Amy helped him limp to the jeep and sat him down to remove his sneaker and assess the damage. Logan’s ankle was beginning to slightly swell in size. Continuing wasn’t recommended, but there was still a chance that doing so might not cause irreversible damage. Thirty-six miles deep: he was still way above goal pace, had the company of some his favorite people in the world, and had yet to enter the depths of the proverbial pain cave. Maybe this was just a second iteration of the quintessential one hundred mile problem. In Tahoe, while failing to snag the FKT, he managed to overcome heat exhaustion and dehydration to run another 100+ miles. Surely he could combat this to finish. At this point, the flats were becoming unrunnable for him as he insisted forward.
Rain from the days before rendered this part of the road even more soft and uneven with deep trenches from bikes and 4x4s decorating the path. Covering just three miles over the next hour, he decided to pull off to the side to check back in with his ankle, which had only become more painful in the duration. Upon removing his sneaker and peeling off the sock, he discovered what looked like a sausage. The ankle had doubled in size and was pulsating with severe pain. Amy questioned if it was worth carrying on and the rest of the crew seemed concerned as well. It started to sink in that it might not be just another quintessential one hundred mile problem. Refusing to relent, he decided to give it yet another hour.
The landscape began to feel oppressive and his presence no longer seamless but rather forced and unwelcome. The majestic buttes that were once cradling his effort now threatened to close in on him, the insurmountable heights of rock cruelly indifferent to his suffering. An hour had passed and he became completely unable to run, resorting to a painstaking limp shuffle through mile forty-three. Matt was doing zig zags on his bike to ride slow enough to match pace and Amy’s boyfriend Jarrod walked alongside him for the morale boost. The disconnect between his body and mind was like a shattered mirror in the dirt—unity lost, fragmented, and out of place—and he felt the limits of his ability to carry on becoming taut. The frustration that rose from the gulf between what his mind believed it could do and his body’s inability to mirror it was even more excruciating than the pain raging in his ankle.
His crew and the yellow jeep, like a trip sitter, radiated the positivity and support that was still urging him toward progress. Over the next three hours, he was able to cover just seven miles. He was now nine hours and fifty miles in, hardly able to walk, staggering across the canyonlands. The FKT, like a mirage, was wavering and dissipating before him. In Tahoe, all the physical problems he encountered were things he could overcome, and he did just that. Over the course of that fifty-two hours and 171 miles, there was never a moment where it felt like the landscape was fighting back. He was realizing that if he were to continue pushing on like this, he might not only be worsening his injury, but potentially throwing away an entire season of running.
“I think I’m going to have to call this.”
As the words escaped his mouth, he felt himself come to a halt. For the first time all day, he truly stopped moving. The shock and significance of his words whirled dizzyingly around him as he stumbled over to sit on the rear bumper of the jeep. Head hung low with his hands pressing into his knees, disappointment rang in his ears like tinnitus, leaving him, in that moment, deaf to any consolation or comfort. He was shaken to the core—ripped out of the experience and carelessly glued back like some gauche collage, trespassing in territory reserved for winners and dreamers. He had planned to hurt, hallucinate, leap emotional hurdles, hurl, barely hang on—but nowhere in that had there been a plan to stop. Stopping was never in the realm of possibility, in this or in any facet of his life. There was an insatiable force inside him that he gave shape and form to in everything he did—law school, work, relationships, diet, drink, love, long distance running: all various forms through which he expressed this force, predicated on movement and flow. Sitting there, stopped on White Rim Road, he was confronted with this force absent of any form. As Cat pressed his head into her chest, tears began flowing uncontrollably down his face.
Logan announced officially to the crew that the day was done. At the bottom of Murphy’s Hogback, he collected the pieces of himself scattered all about and got behind the wheel of the jeep. As he accelerated, so too did the thoughts, emotions, and memories coursing in his head. He always considered the art of running to be mindless and the joy he derived from it stemmed from this mindlessness. The thick haze of laughter and relief collecting inside lifted him out of his defeat and his mind emptied out the cracked windows of the jeep like hotbox smoke. He marveled at the radiant sky and arbitrary fictions he’d invented to punish himself for stopping. These endurance events had always been about taking something bigger on and accepting whatever came as an experience for him to grow as an athlete, as a person. The universe owed him nothing. Sometimes, the only way to move forward is to stop and take a step back to see the bigger picture. He looked through the windshield at the mesas, buttes, plateaus and red rock formations surrounding him and felt himself open up to the gentle indifference of the landscape.