Meeting the Man with the Hammer

I could tell, about three miles in, that things were not right. Telltale stomach cramps, like the beginnings of heat stroke. “Shit,” I thought, “why?” I hadn’t consciously hydrated during the day, but I shouldn’t have been dehydrated either. There were ten miles to go, and I had a liter of water with me.

I thought I could maybe get it back together. I focused my energy on drinking and eating earlier than I normally might, and the cramps came and went. We ran. My legs felt good. We walked. My stomach foreshadowed doom.

I’m lucky, I guess, that I’ve seen this show before. I focused my energy on managing my resources and condition. I couldn’t shake the idea that really, I shouldn’t be feeling that way, despite the heat and humidity. I could accept that I’d underestimated the water I’d need, but why was I in trouble so early in the run?

When J said, “Is that all the water you have?” it drove home just how hard the next ten miles were going to be.

In some ways it’s obvious, why you fall apart out on the trail. Not enough food. Not enough water. Conditions you didn’t expect. At the same time, you’ve done this plenty of times. You’ve made mistakes before without paying too high a price. Why, this time, was it going the way it did?

I recall a heat stroke one summer night about 7 years ago. I was out on a fast gravel ride with a group from work. The same scenario. Early stomach cramps. Over the top sweating. Crawling, dead in the pedals, home, after two hours of suffering. Then vomiting and chills and a headache. That night, too, I hadn’t started in bad shape, but it came on quickly.

Why was I there again?

The good news is that my strategy mostly worked. The little food and water I had staved off the cramps long enough to get me to mile ten in reasonable shape. I’d run the running sections, and taken point on the fast hike bits. That move helped me govern the group pace, mostly so I could manage my dwindling resources without worry about falling off the back of the group.

Then, when we came to stone steps that led up the side of the last long climb, I fell apart. My heart rate spiked, and my legs got heavy, and my head swam in the heat. At the top I was dizzy, but my legs came around and my heart settled.

Three miles to go. A little less maybe.

My friends took in the view and snapped photos and generally appeared to be enjoying themselves. I stood as still as I could to keep from barfing, doing my best to get myself back together for the last push.

It’s worth saying that despite feeling shitty, I was enjoying myself. The trail was beautiful, the Massachusetts Mid-State trail, the section above Mt Wachusett. In fact, we’d just climbed up nearly to the height of Wachusett before the spill back down to the car. It was hot, but the night was clear, and as a group, we’d moved really well together. The running sections felt flowy. The plants and trees were so lush, it was like walking through miles of green hallway. It was, maybe, too nice a night to toss my cookies by the side of the trail.

Things were going so well, for the group, that I hadn’t mentioned my predicament, but on the backside of the climb, when M said, “This is great. I just have a stupid grin plastered to my face,” I said, “It is great, but I’m trying really hard not to barf.”

In retrospect, I ought to have clued them in sooner, given how light-headed I was feeling. If I had thrown up or passed out at the top of the climb, it would have put them in a bad spot, and even though I felt I was managing just fine, I can see that it was only my ego that kept me from saying something. The right thing to do was say something.

They shared some water with me and a few gels, and we moved resolutely, steadily down towards the car, the light fading, fading, and almost swallowing us before we emerged onto the narrow road where we’d parked. I’d made it, but I was woozy and I spent the whole drive home trying to keep my head straight and my guts together, dreaming of a shower and a cold drink to still my spinning head.

None of that worked as well as I’d hoped, but that’s ok. That’s all part of it. I woke the next day feeling hung over, and the day after that my stomach liquified in a sudden and disturbing way that made me think maybe a bug of some sort precipitated the whole thing.


There are three paradoxes in this story. The first is that, I really, genuinely enjoyed myself. I don’t normally make big efforts late in the day, but this was nice, closing out the week on the trail, with friends. Thirteen technical miles with climbs and heat and views and laughs.

The second is that I performed reasonably well. My running felt good, in as much as my legs were strong. My companions said they didn’t have any sense that I was under the weather, and that makes sense because some parts of my body were up for the challenge.

The third, and this is the toughest one, is that experiences like this are sorta what I’m looking for. Of course, I want to feel good. I want to crush a run like this, feel the strength and power and capability, then drink something cold and move on. But you don’t grow endurance without enduring difficulty. It was only because I’ve had heat stroke before that I knew what was happening and was able to manage it. That’s growth, albeit, not the way you always want to learn your lessons.

The thing is, the man with the hammer* is out there. You can mostly avoid him, but if you run enough, if you hike enough, if you ride enough, you’re going to cross paths. He’s going to humble you. You’re going to feel bad. He’s your best/worst friend, because all the easy days on the trail only teach you that the trail is easy, when in fact, sometimes it’s not. That’s what the man with the hammer says anyway.