Black Mountains, North Carolina | May 15, 2016 | 6:46am
When I pull myself out of bed at 4am, the house is already bustling. Alicia is making coffee. Susan is on her laptop and Sean is on the phone with one of his volunteers. All systems are go for the second annual Quest for the Crest - a very beautiful and very gnarly 50 kilometer trail race across the Black Mountains. Spanning 32 miles and 22,000 feet of elevation change, it is one of the hardest ultra marathons in the country.
I'm here to capture some of the madness with my camera.
Organizing this kind of thing is no small task, but it's something that Sean Blanton does remarkably well - with the help of some all-star people, all of whom are awake right now.
"Good morning Marley," Alicia says from the kitchen, keeping watch on the brewing espresso. "Do you need coffee?" She's Sean's mother, and like any good mom, is eager to take care of us.
"Yes, please. Thank you so much."
I start pulling on layers - thick spandex running pants underneath my expedition pants, a thermal shirt, one of Sean's super warm technical vests, my warmest jacket, a wool hat, and gloves.
Alicia peers at me over her mug of coffee. "You need another pair of gloves."
"You think so?"
Moms know best. I gratefully accept the extra gloves and a thermos of coffee from her. And then I'm out the door - I have a sunrise to catch.
I drive ten minutes down the road, taking the curves slowly, hoping I don't hit a deer (it wouldn't be the first time) and park at the Woody Ridge trail head. Armed with a backpack full of camera gear, a thermos full of coffee, and a head lamp full of much-needed light, I start my ascent in the pitch black darkness. I am not afraid - I know this trail like the back of my hand.
Thirty minutes later, I have climbed 2,000 feet up and the sky is turning lighter.
Another 20 minutes and another 1,000 feet of gain later, I reach to the top of the Woody Ridge trail. With the temperature hovering around the low 20's, and the wind blowing harder than I’ve ever seen or felt, I take in the view. It is beautiful - it always is. But I can barely breathe I'm so cold. I set up my tripod and the wind immediately knocks it over. I stabilize it by shoving two of the legs into a crack in a large rock. I lock my camera on it, set the timer, and pray it doesn't fall again. I get the above shot. This photo does not illustrate the severity of the weather conditions at all. Whatever. I'm so cold I can't even think. I have to get out of the wind.
I retreat 100 feet back down the trail and duck behind a huge boulder. Even with some cover from the wind, I am still so cold.
Despite the extra pair of gloves, I can't feel my hands. I jump up and down. I do power squats. I swing my arms like an erratic windmill. When a little bit of feeling returns to my hands, they burn terribly. I've read about this in climbing magazines—the “screaming barfies”.
Cold exposure triggers peripheral blood vessels to constrict and shunt blood to the core to prevent hypothermia. When blood flow to the hands is interrupted, the resulting nonfunctional nerves create the sensation of numbness. The subsequent pain is associated with reperfusion (return of blood flow) to the hands and nerves. Upon reoxygenation of these nerves, pain signals are transmitted to the central nervous system. In other words, when the blood returns, it re-awakens the nerve endings, and hurts like mad.
And like a mad woman, I scream into the wind. I'm on top of a mountain, alone, miserably cold, and incredibly frustrated. I take a series of deep breaths, cursing the icy air with each inhale. This is type 2 fun in the realest way, I think. I think about mountaineers in the Himalayas and wonder how the hell they do what they do. If they can do that, I can do this. Yeah. I can do this.
Willing my rigid fingers to bend, I pull the thermos of coffee out of my pack and take a sip. The hot, acidic liquid burns down my throat and into my chest, and I send a prayer of gratitude up to the coffee gods. I continue to do power squats. My hands go numb again.
About 30 minutes later, the runners start coming up, rosy-cheeked and impossibly cheery. One of the many things I love about ultra-marathon trail runners—in the midst of an insane physical challenge, they still radiate kindness. Fueled by their positive energy, I snap about 200 photos over the next hour. I hike back down as soon as possible.
A few months later, I read a book about a young woman working at a school in northern Norway. I enjoy the book immensely, but one passage in particular makes me smile:
"The most important thing I can teach my students is how to be cold."
"How to be cold?" I asked.
"How to live," he said.