Pied Pipers

imageWe were hiking up the side of a mountain to get to the wedding when it struck me:  who were all these people happily following a rocky singletrack trail to an unknown location, and why were they coming?

At least I knew why I was coming.  I had met the groom, Nattu, many years ago on an online running forum.  He was an ultramarathoner – someone who runs distances longer than the traditional 26.2 mile marathon, usually either 50 kilometers, 50 miles, 100 kilometers, or 100 miles – and sometimes even longer.  I was intrigued by the posts about his adventures, and I became interested in attempting an ultra myself.

I bombarded Nattu with questions.  He was gracious in his replies, and both generous and encouraging with his advice and information.  On our family vacations to Boulder, CO, where Nattu lived at the time, I had the opportunity to meet him and run with him on trails.  As I recently told my wife Carol, there is something enjoyable about being around Nattu that is hard to describe, a happy, positive presence.  His enthusiasm for trail running and ultramarathoning drew me in.

And so began a roughly five year odyssey which took me on trails all over the United States.  Ultramarathons were far out of my comfort zone, and I don’t know if I could say I was ever entirely one with them, but I found them compelling largely because they were so different from what I had grown used to:  the epic distances, the beautiful wilderness locations far removed from my urban home.  And they tapped into something elemental in me from my earliest childhood camping trips:  the excitement, even to the point of risking my parents’ wrath when I strayed too far, of following a winding trail to places unknown.

Ultramarathons also reminded me of participating in sesshins, those multi-day Zen practice periods of intensive stillness and silence where I first realized, through sitting and staring at a wall for long periods of time, what a merry chase our mind and emotions lead us on every minute of the day.  You can run the full gamut of emotions in ultramarathons and sesshins, from despairing boredom to pain to joy and back again, and hopefully along the way you learn at least a little about the things that make you tick – and maybe something of how to accept and cope with them.

Nattu continued to be an excellent mentor and, especially after I had met him in person, a friend.  I and others helped pace him through 120-degree heat in Death Valley for his second successful attempt at the Badwater 135, and he sat all night in freezing cold, mummied in a sleeping bag, to shepherd me through my first 24-hour race.

While helping crew Nattu at Badwater I met his now-wife Karen, a highly accomplished ultra athlete in her own right, and I was impressed by her intensity and focus, her ability to help motivate Nattu to work through his pain and fatigue.  What they have already experienced together in their ultramarathoning adventures – learning to accept and adapt swiftly to sudden and unexpected changes of fortune, navigating rapidly whirling events and emotions – would easily fill several lifetimes of marriage for most people.

After a beautiful mountainside wedding just off the trail, a small clearing dotted with yellow wildflowers, my wife and I were hiking back with everyone to the reception.  We began asking others:  how do you know Nattu and Karen?  And their stories sounded, not surprisingly, very similar to mine.  Nearly everyone had been wishing they could do something:  run trails, work better with the weight machines at their gym, somehow improve themselves or broaden their horizons a bit.  Nattu and Karen welcomed their questions, shared their advice and enthusiasm, and soon each person found themselves doing something he or she had never done before.

At the reception, it happened almost without me realizing it.  Nattu and I began talking, first about family and friends, and then of course running and trails slipped into the conversation.  Nattu, in that quietly subversive way of his, encouraged me to check out the Pacific Crest Trail, just about 10 miles up the road.  The next morning Carol and I left for the airport a little earlier than planned to go find the Trail.

We only walked about a quarter of a mile on it, but at one point I stood on a rocky ledge looking across the mountains and I understood what I had to do.  I did manage to wait a day, but I messaged Nattu, and as of now we’re tentatively planning a 2-3 day hike on a section of the PCT next June.  They did it again.  Nattu and Karen, a couple of modern-day pied pipers, leading us to someplace surprising, yet somewhere we had always wanted to be.

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