Ari: “Are y’all staying in Wyoming through June 19 since it’s a holiday?”
Me: “No, we have to leave right after the race for a 2-day drive back home and get back to work.”
That was my last text exchange with my brother Ari. It’s funny how you may not realize the last time you talk to someone. I was getting ready to run the Bighorn 100, and Ari was going to meet us there to help crew me and help my partner with our 2-year-old while I ran for 30 or so hours. Although I’ve been running ultras for years, this was the first one he was going to be able to make it to, and I was excited to spend some time with him in the mountains. We didn’t see each other often since he had lived in Denver the past few years, while I had found a home in Minnesota.
But a few days after that exchange, on Memorial Day, I got a call from my mom. “Ari is missing.” I didn’t even know how to process those words. “Surely it’s just some sort of mistake,” was my first thought, as Ari sometimes went off and had solo adventures without informing others. But as I learned more details, that he had gone kayaking in the Colorado river and never returned to his campsite, and over the next few days as the kayak was recovered, along with other belongings of Ari, but not Ari, my hope that this was all a mistake seemed less and less likely.
Bighorn was in 2 weeks, and I kept training, I didn’t really know what else to do. After several sleepless nights, I certainly couldn’t concentrate enough to accomplish anything meaningful at work. I was aimless, mustering the emotional energy to run Bighorn seemed impossible and I already felt undertrained, plus I’d be missing a key crewperson. My car was also in the shop after hitting a deer a few weeks before, adding an absurd layer of complication to my life and limiting my ability to travel.
After a week of aimless existence, a call from my aunt convinced me to fly to Kansas with my daughter to be with my parents. This meant I would almost certainly miss the race, and I was ok with it at the time. I hadn’t processed this loss enough for it to give me strength or purpose, and I was feeling both physically and emotionally underprepared for the race. While I was there, I backed off on training but continued to run. Many of my runs involved tears, but the tears felt right. I joined a local running group a couple of times and told them about Ari. On Bighorn race weekend, I found a 10k trail race put on a local group called Team Sparkle that seemed to embody the inclusive values that Ari advocated for. Despite crying for about half of the race, I ended up with a win and a nice unicorn trophy. I got excited about running again and signed up for a 50 miler later in the summer and a 100 mile in October. I realize now that Ari and I were more alike than I had realized, in that we both needed big outlets to express ourselves, neither of us were satisfied with a normal, predictable existence. His outlet was performing drag and mine is ultrarunning.
This ultramarathon of grief is far from over. I don’t expect it will ever be over. Even as I write this, I found myself tearing up for the first time in several weeks. As life has gotten busy again, I’ve been back home and back at work and back to training. But I do think that my ultramarathon experience will help me weather this ache and this uncertainty. Ultramarathoning brought me closer to Ari in the last few years through our shared love of hiking and adventuring in the mountains, and for that I will always be grateful. As in ultramarathons, there is much that we can’t control in life, and we certainly can’t control how and when our life ends. All we can do is keep living, keep loving, and keep moving forward. And maybe, as Ari would advocate, back off on work sometimes and spend time with the people in your life who are most important.