I picked my way through rocky arroyos under my headlamp's dim beam. Except for the narrow cone of light illuminating the ground beneath my feet, I could see nothing. It is difficult to gauge speed when you run in the dark. You have to go more slowly to avoid falling, but without visible landmarks, just colorless, indistinct shapes lunging up at you—trees, boulders, sharp turns—you feel as if you're careening along at a reckless velocity. Sensory deprivation creates the illusion of speed.
As the sky gradually lightened to dull gray, the objects around me became recognizable. I was on the side of a rugged, dun-colored canyon, steep and treeless in places, forested in others. The sky appeared cloudy, but there were no clouds, just the absence yet of sun, the eastern horizon whitening on its way to blue. When the sun rose, an hour later, I whooped with joy; daylight was a shot of optimism straight to my heart. Far below, the canyons puckered and wrinkled, slouching downstream to the Rio Grande.
Halfway to the summit of 10,440-foot Pajarito Mountain, I hooked my foot on a rock and slammed into the ground. I knelt in the dirt and licked my gritty palm and used my spit to wipe my bloody shin, remembering horror stories of runners who'd nicked their knees on a root and kept running, only to look down hours later and find that the scrape had bled down to the bone.
Barreling down the other side of the mountain, I watched the runner in front of me trip and rag-doll through the air, landing in a heap, and then stagger to his feet and keep running. My fingers turned into fat sausages and I peed urine the color of Dijon mustard and I force-fed myself two energy gels and a few swallows of electrolyte water to bring myself back from the brink of dehydration.
I'd been running for three and a half hours, and I hadn't even gotten to the caldera yet.
Running is linear, almost tiresomely so. You're moving forward through space and time, sometimes for a very long time, over a very long, sometimes idiotically long, distance. Even when you're running in a loop, your progress is forward—arms and legs aligned, you take one step ahead and then another until you reach the end. Your mind, though, takes a more circuitous route: jumping from the past to the future and back again, like a movie reel or a time machine. Sometimes it projects a whirring jumble of memories and impressions, zooming in on minute details. Other times it pans out and makes cinematic leaps. At the beginning of a long run, you may be excited and impatient to see what will happen. Did I train enough? Will I make it? What's going to happen? So many questions. You're running to find out.
The middle miles are the hardest. The early thrill has worn off, and you still have so far to go. You just have to put your head down and do the work. There's no glory in the middle, but it's beautiful in its own way, because at last your looping mind has nowhere to go but right where you are: your shoes striking the ground, dust puffing up around your ankles. Can you smell the pine trees? Like magic, they've been there all along. It's every runner's dream—maybe everyone's dream— to make this feeling last.
Eventually you cross the threshold where you're closer to the end than the beginning. You can't see it, but you can feel it. With each step the finish is calling you forward, reeling you in. It's a force bigger than you, invigorating and impossible to resist. You're running home.
There's no way to enter a crater without going down. The trail into the Valle Grande, the largest of the seven calderas, pitches down through thick forest, loose rocks, and bare roots at a nearly thirty-five-degree angle. I leaned back on my heels in a semi-controlled slide, grabbing for branches and tree stumps, anything to keep myself from somersaulting all the way to the bottom. My shoes and socks filled with pebbles and dirt, and sand sloshed between my toes, but I was too impatient to stop.
It was then that my brain detached from my body, a kite cut loose from its string. It was no longer calling the shots, as it had been all morning—slow down, speed up, don't trip, don't fall, eat more, drink more, keep going, don't die. Instead it said to my body, You take it from here. Suddenly I was all legs, no thoughts. It was much easier this way, and faster.