By Matthew Helms
As the child of a distance runner, I got used to waiting: for dad to get home from his Saturday long run, for early morning race starts. I stood at aid stations with fresh water bottles ready as he came through, tired and sweaty, his calves caked in California trail dust.
Growing up, my dad was my main man. He worked his ass off to support our family, and managed to train for and finish marathons and ultras. He had a Hobie Cat sailboat, understood how electricity and computers worked, and could fix shit. Fences, carburetors, you name it. The other runner in my life at the time, my uncle Mike, was a little different. He was a forest ranger; he rode horses and carried a gun. He inspired my dad to start running after bringing him along on a trail run in one of the state parks where he worked. He ran the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run five times, each time earning a silver belt buckle for a sub-24 hour finish. As an impressionable young kid, I wanted to be like my uncle. At the age of nine I wrote in a school paper that my goals were “to be a park ranger and to run a 50 mile race when I grow up and to finish it.”
In a family of ultra-runners, these races of 50 kilometers, or 50 or 100 miles, were ordinary. In our house, water bottles sat next to the kitchen sink with their simple handheld straps. Sweat-soaked running shorts hung to dry on the towel-bar in my parent’s bathroom before being thrown in the laundry. There were no energy gels back then, so our pantry was stocked with large canisters of powdered Gatorade.
The sport of ultra-running has grown tremendously in the last decade. New races are born every year, and many established races fill up within hours or even minutes of going online. But back in the early 1980's, ultra-marathons were beyond obscure. In the pre-internet days, a runner found out about upcoming races by word of mouth from other runners, or by looking at the ads in the back of UltraRunning Magazine. Registration involved a stamped envelope and a hand-written check.
I played football throughout high school and even though I was a running back, I never embraced the running side of the sport. Don’t get me wrong: running on the field on game day, carrying the football or chasing down a quarterback, that was fun. But the 100 yard sprints we did at the end of practice were torture. And the long laps around the perimeter of the “south 40,” under the weight of a helmet and shoulder pads in the glaring mid-day summer sun were not relaxing or invigorating, but frequently meted out as punishment. Running sort of sucked.
When I arrived at Chico State University in August of 1992, becoming a forest ranger like my uncle was no longer my goal. I had no idea what I wanted to do. How I ended up becoming a runner was accidental.
The night before my first day of college, I jumped from a pedestrian bridge over the Feather River, plummeting 70 feet into the cold water below. The invincible thrill-seeker in me was subdued by a stressful trip to the emergency room and a diagnosis of broken ribs, dislocated from the sternum. During my recovery I could no longer lift weights like I had while training for football, but I discovered that I could run without aggravating my healing ribs. What started as a one mile loop quickly doubled to two miles; after several weeks I was running three to four times a week, five to seven miles at a time. When I discovered the trails of Bidwell Park, a treasure of massive valley oaks, sycamores, and pristine swimming holes surrounded by cliffs of black basalt in the heart of Chico, I was hooked.
Running remained a part of my life from then on, but I never raced, and rarely ran longer than an hour at a time. That changed in the winter of 2010 when I signed up for a 25k trail race around Hagg Lake, about an hour away from my home in Portland, Oregon. In the midst of training, I found myself looking forward to the longer runs on the weekends. The extended time in the wilderness resonated within me. Shortly after Hagg, I signed up for my first trail marathon. The following year I ran another, and then tackled my first ultra, a 50k through my home stomping grounds of Forest Park.
In early 2013, I registered for the Mt. Hood 50 miler, a race run almost entirely on the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon. My parents drove up from California to support me, and the night before the race, my dad and I camped out at Clackamas Lake, cooked dinner on the camp-stove, and sat together by the fire talking it over.
His advice to me was sound: take it easy. Treat it like a long day in the woods. Relish the beautiful surroundings of the Mt. Hood Wilderness and Timothy Lake, and enjoy the camaraderie of my fellow runners as we all pushed ourselves beyond our comfort zone and into the unknown.
My race unfolded as planned; I started out easy and maintained a casual pace. As the day wore on I found myself thinking about my uncle Mike. He was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer shortly after dropping out of his 6th Western States attempt, and died in October of 1992, just a couple of months after I started running. Thinking about how he lived his life so fully, his loyalty to his family and friends and his connection to animals and wild places both inspired me and gave me a sense of resolve in my simple task for the day: to hammer out 50 miles on the trail.
Having my dad with me on race morning provided an immeasurable amount of comfort. The fact that he had been through this himself so many times, including four runnings of the classic American River 50, kept me calm and relaxed. After all his races that I crewed as a kid, now he was here to return the favor, and it meant a lot to me.
Something unexpected happened 45 miles into the race. I surged. After plodding forward at a modest pace all day, I suddenly felt a raw energy course through me and I started bombing the downhills. Realizing how close I was to seeing my family- my wife, my daughters, and my mom and dad- flooded my heart with a deep feeling of gratitude and brought tears to my eyes. I felt grateful to be physically capable of traveling so far on foot. Grateful for the beautiful place where I was running, and for the race directors and volunteers who made it such a smooth, well-supported event.
As I approached the finish of the Mt. Hood 50, my daughters ran over to meet me and we crossed the finish line together, just like I did with my dad at the American River 50 over 25 years before.
I felt elated at being finished, at having finally accomplished this goal that I had set for myself at the age of nine. More than ever, I felt a strong feeling of connection to my dad and uncle, and to the expansive history of ultra-running that runs a thread through my own family.