The Gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again. – Achilles
When we planned the 8,000 meter challenge, a 42 mile ascent of the three highest mountains in Southern California (Baldy, San Gorgonio, and San Jacinto) in a single day, we didn't know that our friend, Ben Horne, would be missing in Peru, and we didn't know that we would receive the news that his body had been found as we headed towards Mt. San Jacinto, the last climb of the day, and one of the many mountains that Ben made his playground.
What had initially been planned as Jess' last big training run before Leadville 100, and a second chance for me to finish this challenging route became an opportunity for us to honor, then remember our departed friend.
When I heard the news that Ben was missing, I sent out an email to the three others who were attempting the 8000 meter challenge -- Jess, Paul, and Carlyn, all friends of Ben. I knew Ben from running with him and I am a big fan of his writing. The others were closer to him, and I didn't know if they would still want to attempt the challenge, given the circumstances. In the email I wrote that at first I wondered if it would be appropriate to continue with this challenge while Ben was still missing, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there would be nothing more appropriate than getting out to the trails and to the mountains that Ben loved, to think about him and to send positive energy his way, because there wasn't much else I could think to do.
I had been reading Ben's writings the previous evening and I went back to one of my favorites, Naked Wrist Racing. I think about this post a lot because I've never been able to cut all ties to quantifiable running data, but I have consciously made an effort to scale back on relying on GPS and heart rate monitors, and to try to take cues from my own body on effort and pace. I still find myself looking at my watch way too often, but for the 8,000 meter challenge, I decided not to wear one, and my hope was that every time I would look at where my watch was supposed to be, I would think of Ben and say a silent prayer. I invited the three of them to join me, and this turned out to be one of the best decisions of the day.
Describing his Naked Wrist philosophy, Ben wrote
But speed is not the only point. Racing is about pushing yourself -- and to do so psychologically, having a watch may even be a distraction. Going fast is nice. But a time is not the goal, rather the best experience is what we strive for.I kept that thought in my head every time I looked at where my watch was supposed to be and reminded myself that time wasn't the goal. The enjoyment of the experience, and all that goes with that...the pain of the climbs, the triumph of the summit and the freedom of the descent is what is most important.
We got started a little late, but luckily we ran into Paul at the trailhead, ready to get started. Perfect timing seeing as we neglected to nail down a start time. It was one of the many things that was just meant to be on this day.
We took the Ski Hut trail via Manker Flats, climbing the steep 4+ mile trail to the summit. I felt good, knowing that Baldy was just warm-up to a long day helped keep the pace and effort easy. The wind was blowing hard at the summit and we sat behind a rock shelter. It was quiet and everyone's mood was good. Paul brought a piece of appropriate Ben-themed fashion-killing, and he stuck it under a rock at the summit. I mentioned that when Ben returns, we're all going to have to do this climb together so Ben could retrieve the item.
Running down the Baldy trail was fun, steep, sandy, and crowded towards the bottom. In the future I would start even earlier than our 6:00 start time to avoid the traffic coming up the mountain as we ran down.
A few different groups of hikers asked us what our round trip time was or how long did it take us to reach the summit. They seemed shocked when I said I had no idea. It felt fast, but it also didn't feel like we were pushing too hard.
|Summit of Mt. Baldy|
|Paul and Carlyn make the stash|
|Paul taking in the sunrise as reflected off of Mt. Baldy|
The drive to San Gorgonio went by quick as I tried to take in calories in the form of pureed baby food and beef jerky. I also drank a big carton of coconut water. At this point my stomach felt good. I was drinking to thirst and eating regularly. I stuck mainly to Clif Shot Blocks on the trail and jerky and baby food in the car.
The 17 mile round-trip hike up San Gorgonio is becoming more familiar to me. I did the hike with my wife a couple weeks ago, so I was prepared for the steep switchbacks at the start of the climb and the long, exposed slog to the summit. The altitude started to really get to me about a mile from the summit and I was glad to drop back and hike to the top with Carlyn. The summit was more crowded than Baldy and we didn't spend as much time up there. As we started the descent, we ran for a few steps before I realized I needed to hike to a lower altitude before my legs and lungs would allow me to run. When we did get lower, the running felt good. The trail, especially the middle five or so miles of long switchbacks and meadow single-track is beautiful and extremely runnable. It is probably my favorite trail in California.
|The final push to the summit|
|Carlyn, resting at the summit|
As we pulled out of the parking lot, Jess, who was driving the car in front of us, pulled over. Carlyn had some stomach issues at the end of the San Gorgonio descent and I fully expected her to jump out of the passenger side and throw up.
Instead Jess got out and walked over to our car. He had just been on his phone.
They had found Ben's body.
Paul and I sat there without saying anything for awhile. I didn't know what to say. I went through all the common things people say that help us deal with death...he died doing what he loved...it was quick...he touched so many lives. These were all true of Ben and just because these have been said a million different times about a million different people, it doesn't make them any less true.
Mt. San Jacinto
We arrived in Idyllwild, at the Humber Park trailhead at a similar time that we had arrived there last year. Last time, I hiked up a mile or two, then tired, alone in the dark, and freaking out about every little sound, I decided to turn back and wait for Jess in the safety of the car. This year, as we prepared our headlamps for the 15 mile round-trip up San Jacinto as the sun set, turning Tahquitz Peak, a peak that Ben climbed many times (61 pitches in one day), a brilliant shade of orange, I knew that I wouldn't turn back.
I struggled on the climb, and about halfway up I hit a low point. If it had been any other night, I would have called it a day. A good, long day, and with many miles ran and many feet of elevation climbed, there would be no shame in turning around. After all, this wasn't a race, just a challenge. But that day, with Ben in my heart, I knew I couldn't turn around. I would push to the summit, knowing that if I did turn, it would be sacrificing the gift of Ben's inspiration. I knew the low point couldn't last, and remembering Scott Mills' words "it can't always get worse," I decided to talk my way out of the low.
I broke the struggling silence with "What was your best memory of Ben?"
I listened as Jess and Paul talked about various runs, captivating and rolling conversations, and reading Ben's accounts of his varied adventures. I talked about our run at Joshua Tree and how Ben, even though he had the physical and mental capacity to crush every runner in our group, stayed with us, focused on the enjoyment of the run, and being with a group of friends, running, talking and laughing across a trail through one of his favorite places. Ben didn't always go easy. He enjoyed pushing his body beyond previous limits, and accepting the pain that comes when you test those limits.
We reached the summit in the middle of the night with the lights of Palm Springs below, a bright moon and stars above, and we shared a silent moment at the top of San Jacinto.
The hike/run down the mountain was long, feeling much longer than the 7.5 miles from the summit to the car. I focused on the oval of light a few feet in front of me, jumping over rocks and roots, forcing my legs to turn over, knowing that this was the last stretch and just wanting to be off the mountain.
As we finished in the dark, I sat in silence, and accepted the anticlimactic feeling that comes after such a long day, a day filled with much suffering and joy. Again I thought of Ben. He will continue to be an inspiration. He inspired me to dig a little deeper, to suffer, to go beyond the pain level that I wanted to accept, to pull harder, and he will continue to inspire me to strive for the best experience.
Thanks for reading.
Here are some of my favorites from Ben:
Naked Wrist Racing
Western States 100: I’m not sweating– my body is crying
Dear Media: Mountains are not Stadiums, even for Honnold, Brosse and Jornet
Till I Collapse: PCT 50 in Memorial of Tim Ray
…but I get up again: The Leadville 100 Trail Run
Tim Rays of Light: Grand Canyon R2R2R
And here is how I remember him, running, smiling, killing fashion, and probably in the middle of some crazy story...