My cell phone was ringing as I climbed into my car in the parking lot of Trader Joes. I had just finished an 8 mile run and stopped on my way home to grab some food. I was starving! I couldn’t face the provisions in my refrigerator which contained one tomato and a half carton of almond milk.
I couldn’t wait to get home and slam a huge meal. I grabbed up the phone noticing a strange string of foreign numbers calling.
“Hello” I was tentative wondering if I had to deal with a wrong number.
“Molly Sheridan, my dear friend” said a melodic voice with a strong accent from India.
“Lama Tsphel! How are you my dear friend?”
“Molly, I wish you many blessings my dear friend. I am so very very happy to get your letter!”
I had written my Lama friend 2 weeks ago telling him I would be returning to his village. I had met Lama 3 years ago in Leh, India in the middle of the Himalayas of Northern India. I was actually on the border of China and Pakistan attempting to be the first American women to run 138 miles nonstop. It was a race that was conceived by Dr Rajat Chauhan of New Delhi. Rajat had contacted me after learning that I had successfully completed the Badwater race in Death Valley 135 miles nonstop from Badwater to Mt Whitney. He invited me to the Himalayas to run his race.
It’s kinda funny even writing this down since I didn’t begin running until I was 48 years old. Through a set of interesting circumstances I discovered running and my love of running long distance.
Lama Tsephel was one of the first people I met in Leh. I wandered the streets of Leh and visited the shops experiencing the mysterious and exotic culture on the edge of the world in a remote location. In the center of town stood the monastery, and when i entered it, there he was, sitting quietly meditating at the foot of a giant Buddha. I was in awe of the temple and felt the reference and the serenity of the village people worshipping there. I sat and listened to the chanting and drum beats and wanted to immediately submerge myself into this sacred place. Lama T wore the traditional red robes of a Buddist monk his large brown eyes and kind face looked over at me with curiosity. I imagined that a tall 6 foot blond didn’t enter their temple every day. There were no wrinkles on his skin and it was hard to tell if he was 30 or 50 years old, although I expected he was somewhere in-between. I introduced myself and felt an immediate connection with him.
Since I had to acclimate in Leh for 2 weeks prior to the attempt to run at 18,000 feet, I visited Lama Tsephel daily at his monastery and we had long chats about life in Leh and compared it to life in the States. One time I glimpsed a tshirt under his robes that said Harvard. I had no idea if he ever went to Harvard but he was so intelligent I knew it was possible. He was full of interesting stories of his life in the Himalayas. I simply loved being in his country and felt an infinity with the people there. They are warm and loveable people with a culture devoted to Buddha and a reverence for all living things.
The second year visiting the monk I asked for his blessing on my race and asked him to also bless my crew who would be supporting me.
He took my hands and said, “You do not need a blessing.”
I was a little startled and said, ” I don’t?” Running non stop going over two mountain passes of 18,000 ft on the only road in the Himalayas, starting at 14, 000 ft was daunting to say the least. I needed more than a blessing to get through this!
“You are already blessed by the moon and the stars,” he continued. “Now you must face your destiny.” I remember his wise council and teachings since our first meeting.
“Lama T I am so happy you received my letter! I am so excited that you called. I am coming back to Leh this summer and I hope to see you!”
“I am so happy,” he replied. “Your letter brings me joy. I will look to your return to Leh this summer. I will accompany you for your race!”
I had asked the Lama to crew me this year, July 2013. That simply means he will be riding in my support vehicle as i race in the Himalayas again this year. My fourth year back to Leh and back to the magical Himalayas that I love.
“Lama T, is there anything I can bring you from the states this year?” I asked. “Do you need running shoes or anything special?”
“I need a teacher” he answered immediately.
“What? A teacher?” I wasn’t quite sure I understood him.
“Can you come and teach after your race?” He asked.
“Teach what?” I was at a loss because I have zero teaching skills and thought maybe we were having a communication break down.
“Can you teach English at my village and the monastery?” his melodic voice implored me.
“Ahhhh, geez, sure” I said. How could I turn down a request from a monk?
“I’m not sure what I can do but I will help” I added, my head spinning.
“Oh I am so happy that you are our teacher. I am so happy. You bring so much joy.”
We ended our conversations and I sat back into my car sitting in the lot of Trader Joes. I had to laugh out loud. I just got talked into teaching English in a rural village in India. Okay, I’m game. I will treat that challenge just like I treat one of my 100 mile endurance races. I’ll jump right in and savor the adventure.
It will be my fourth year back to Leh. I can’t wait.
It all started 4 years ago when I got an invitation to run the classic Ancient Oaks 100 mile race in the Enchanted Forest, Titusville, Florida. It’s invitation only, small, select group of ultra-runners, pulled together by race director and ultra marathon runner Mike Melton… date, first week in Dec 2009.
Fast forward to Dec 1, 2012. It’s the middle of the night and I’m on my 18th lap of the 3.46 mile loop through the enchanted forest. I am seriously thinking I am mad.
This race is deceptively tough. I have run and completed Badwater an received the Badwater buckle. I have completed the non-stop 138 mile race in the Himalayas with peaks at 18,000 ft. I have run through snow storms, floods and fires. I have run through the Sahara Desert in blazing heat and on wild New Zealand trails. Nothing…I mean nothing has effected me like Ancient Oaks.
Personally, I think the oldest oak that sits on the Magnolia loop of that course is to blame. I think that big old oak picks and chooses who she allows to complete that course, and she simply has something against me. Why else would I feel her taunting energy every time I pass her by? She sits there like a big immense queen bee with full reign over her Enchanted Forest. The first time I saw her, I had rounded the bend in the trail and was astounded at her size and shape. She rose out of the ground like a huge creature with leaves so thick on her branches that she made a dense canopy that blocks out the sky. That first year in 2009 I acknowledged her and just nodded my head as I ran by. I made it 17 loops before I completely bombed out. How was I ever going to get to the full 29 loops with that big old oak blocking my efforts.
In 2010, I returned with a game plan. I decided to make peace with the Queen. On my first loop I patted her truck and said hello. I tried to be friendly and ask for safe passage through her forest. She kept very quiet. A torrential rain storm broke overhead shortly after my hello and poured on me all night in that forest. A giant armadillo almost tripped me as it scurried past sloshing through the rain. All the night creatures seemed to be running wildly about as I ran through their paths and upset their quiet solitude. I tried to be respectful on my journey running and running through those wet, slippery paths. The branches seemed to pull my hair and I had hallucinations of fairies grabbing and pulling at my running clothes. I’d turn to see what branch had tugged at me but nothing seemed close enough to pull me…was I going mad? I made it 17 loops then bombed out, exhausted and beat after 60 miles..game over.
2011 I returned with a new game plan. I wasn’t going to touch her trunk or say hello. I was just going to slip in there and run and split. I felt sick the whole race..bombed at 18 loops…went home.
2012… I came back with a vengeance…. And a new game plan. I marched right up to that old oak on my first loop of the course. I stood at the bottom of her throne and said ” Hey Queenie, it’s just you and me…bring it on,” I wasn’t going to take any shit from her. I paid my dues the last few years. I’d had it. I decided to throw some of my positive chanting and high energy into that forest during my run. I started each lap with joy and looked around at the beautiful plants and foliage. I appreciated the exotic ferns and moss covered bridge that all the runners travel on over and over again making their way through the loops in the forest. I marveled at the birds and muffled sounds of the insects and hidden creatures. I loved that trail and felt great all day into the night. Then, early evening my toe caught on a root and I took a spill. That is not unusual for me. I had been nicknamed Crash Sheridan way back after taking an unusually massive fall at a race witnessed by a group of running friends who dubbed me “Crash” then Crash Sheridan soon followed. But this fall hurt and my ankle felt stiff. After walking on it for awhile I soon began to plod along. It still ached but not too bad. Game on, I knew old Queenie was awake and watching.
I made it to the 17th lap then 18 then 19, the longest distance completed by me in that event… 10 laps to go! I decided to go all out and run harder before that old broad noticed I was beating her. 20 loops down, but after running hard my ankle was screaming. 21 loops….slowly, slow, 22 loops. My ankle shoots stabbing pain up my leg at every step and gets worse. My time was slipping. The 23 loop began with a giant 6 ft long rat snake blocking the trail. Stu Gleman ran up beside me and told me it isn’t poisonous but it has a vicious bite so we stepped gingerly around it. Stu continued on wishing me luck and I continued to step and drag my foot which was in agony. The realization set in that I will make my ankle worse and my recovery will take longer, my other racing events in jeopardy, if I continued.
I bowed to the Queen at 25 laps….at 86.5 miles I concede. Queen wins. Checkmate.
Of all my races Ancient Oaks has been the toughest mind numbing chess game I’ve ever played. Am I mad to continue to go up against the Queen year after year? Maybe so…but, if I’m invited back in 2013 I’ll have a new game plan. I am considering carrying my Dalai Lama prayer beads, wearing a rosary, and listening to African Women warrior drum music as I chant and pray my way through the Queens territory. Yes, you can call me mad. Madness did cross my mind as I listened to my Ipod playing the Muse song with the same name through the 29 hours I battled this year. Along that fine line of madness is my desire to reach past my physical and mental limitations. I want to go beyond what I think is possible for me. Is there really a big Queen oak tree out there purposefully stopping my progress or is it my own internal Queen telling me I can’t make it? Whether she is in my head or out in nature, makes no difference. I still need to overcome her.
Next year I will be training like mad to beat the Queen in the Enchanted Forest.
What a Trip! Crewing at Badwater was a mind blower this year! After crewing for Bill Andrews in 2008 then running it myself in 2009, it was great to be back to that incredible race in 2012 crewing for Cath Todd, Australian native living in Dubai. I met Cath at my Rio Del Lago race a few years back. She is a talented runner. I saw her at La Ultra The High last year where I completed the 138 mile non-stop race through the Himalayas (that’s another story!) It was great to hook up with Cath yet again at another awesome venue.
My good pal John Vigil got the crew together for Cath with Cath’s pacer and friend Daryl Chiles.The four of us were Tean Cath!
I forgot how brutal this race can be. Cath pounded it out with grace and ease. She powered through to Stovepipe Wells then had her first stomach issues shortly after the 40 mile mark. John and I loaded her up with an Isagenix shake which did the trick. I remember at The High when I had similar issues and that power packed shake diluted with water got me to the finish. I was really happy to see the same results for Cath. Running in over 115 degrees in Death Valley is a tough ordeal. Getting nutrition to work for you is a fine balancing act. Isagenix products really are amazing.
It was great hangin out with John Vigil who is the best crew person around. That guy can hang in there at the toughest times and always keeps a positive attitude. He is one of the few people I know, like myself, that can actually stay awake 36 hours straight with no sleep. We must be mutants!! I get wired out there, and completely inspired watching all those athletes persevere under tremendous conditions.
I am proud of Cath Todd for finishing in 36:27. What an accomplishment. I am also proud as her crew member for being able to assist and be a part of such an amazing journey. Daryl Chiles was a great pacer and crew member! When the hours got late and we all were tired, hot and miserable, keeping our runner going, John Vigil turned up the music in the van blaring out disco tunes. He suddenly turned into John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. I was hysterical laughing watching John and Daryl turn into Disco Fever dancers, shaking their booties with there flashing lights in a moment of utter absurdity. That’s what happens when you are pushed to the limits of physical endurance, you either turn into a raving lunatic and just completely lose it or you embrace the hilarious and wacky moments and use comic relief to get through it all!! I prefer laughter to get me through!
There were tough moments. Don’t get me wrong. When Cath was down and out and in the back of the van trying to recover from heat and dehydration there were serious moments when our crew, Team Cath, had to problem solve and get down to the serious business of balancing safety and positive solutions to keep our runner going. It is a huge responsibility. None of us took that responsibility lightly. But, we all had endurance running experience. We have all been to those moments of despair when you don’t know if it is possible to continue…but then, you do. That is what we brought to Cath…confidence when the moment seemed dismal. Team work and support counted when she was out in the dark wondering how it was possible to carry on. I remember those moments when I counted on my team to get me through. We didn’t fail Cath.
It was good for me to be on the other side of running this week. Instead of being the runner, I was the support. It made me remember how hard it is to crew someone. Why do we volunteer our time, leave our families and sacrifice ourselves in heat and misery for 3 days? Why? Because we are giving back to a sport that raises the human spirit. We take with us the inspiration and satisfaction that we helped get that runner to the finish line. We are involved in something bigger than ourselves. You don’t think about your bills, your small problems at home…you are reduced to human life on the most basic level.
It was an amazing adventure….now, tomorrow I leave for the Himalayas! back to the land of enchantment…. more later!
We arrived at the Grand Canyon in Tim’s Motorhome……ahhh luxury. We headed over to check out where the trail started on Friday so we could get an early start and figure out where to go in the dark at 4am. Peering over the rim of the Grand Canyon I suddenly realized what I had agreed to do. The idea of running down, then up, then down, then up these massive canyon walls seemed a little nuts! I forgot what Grand Canyon means!
To be continued!!
The ultra running community makes the world a small place. I met Lisa Tamati at Badwater 2009. Actually, I didn’t formally meet her. We were both standing at the awards presentation and I noticed her adorable skirt and top coordinated perfectly with her Badwater buckle. I also noticed her feet looked better than mine after our epic 135 mile race.