Around 9:30pm local time on Saturday, April 28th, I completed the twenty-one hour, thirty-ish minute trek across a small, windy, volcanic island in the Atlantic Ocean that I barely even knew about a year prior. And not more than six days later, none of those accomplishments would matter, as I would be a helpless, direct witness to the death of a human being for the first time in my life.
I’ve had some time to process both experiences, and in the spirit of never writing a typical race report, here we are.
There we go; first hill tackled.
The Madeira Island Ultra-Trail isn’t known for its modesty. With 115 kilometers of terrain, over 7,000 meters of climb, and a wide range of climates and terrains, a runner could experience the full breadth of emotions, spills, and thrills that would require a half dozen races elsewhere all within the bounds of this little island in the Atlantic. It takes a bit of effort to rock yourself out of the notion that this island is meant to be savored, perhaps even rationed out in a way so that you make time to embrace its wildness.
MIUT, in all its painful, awful glory, concludes that you’re not allowed to embrace said island, instead try to conquer it. No stable-minded individual out for a leisurely jaunt would ever decide to start this traverse at midnight, what through darkness and storm and wind, and aim to do so all in one fell swoop with minimal rest. Yet, to that point, nobody would ever really make a concerted effort to call an ultrarunner stable.
So, we set forth as a collective mass of headlamped journeypersons. To my right and left were men and women representing over fifty countries - including Kelsie Clausen, fellow friend of SFRC and equally adept at tackling sufferworthy trails - yet it wasn’t nationality that defined our differences: it was our attitudes, whether we wore smiles or grimaces, and how that first hill - three miles and 1,200 feet of gain - would be embraced. I relished it and understood that the two previous months of slogging up and down Mount Tam proved valuable.
Weak pulse. But it’s okay.
It had been three minutes since I parked the car, leaving Stephanie and her aunt Anne to make the short journey toward the entrance of the sculpture garden. Stephanie and I - she still recovering from slight jetlag, I from the Madeira sufferfest I endured days prior - were eager to return to London for the final two days of our Tour d’England.
If you’ve not been to Cornwall - the southwestern province several hours from London - it’s idyllic. Lush, green hills mark the pathway throughout the countryside, eventually leading you to a gorgeous seascape. While Madeira’s topography dares you to explore it, Cornwall almost wants you to rest in its comfort.
A short walk up the pathway, where I expected to meet Stephanie and Anne to begin our brief walk through the exhibit, led me to a scene that didn’t resemble such a slumber. “We have an emergency here,” Stephanie calmly stated - and there was Anne, sitting in a chair experiencing something akin to a seizure…or something else entirely.
It’s an odd thing, being witness to someone who is alarmingly helpless and unresponsive. I suppose for my friends who are EMTs, ER doctors, trained in first response, this experience is more common if not expected, but I deliberately chose a professional pathway that wouldn’t involve such things.
What was surprising was my own subconscious decision to act. Paramedics had been called, and the woman stationed at the garden entrance, Allie, was speaking with emergency response. Meanwhile, Stephanie coached Anne through deliberate breathing as I checked for a pulse - which was faint if not nonexistent. We got Anne out of the chair and onto the floor, where I started to methodically press against Anne’s chest and began the process of getting her heart kickstarted. Color started returning to her face. We were succeeding.
The week prior to MIUT, Madeira was visited by a combination of wind, rain, and soupy conditions that made life on the island a little less pleasant. Even my flight was diverted to mainland Europe for an evening due to high winds, and the eventual landing on Madeira is likely captured on YouTube somewhere, much to the horror of future island-travelers.
Those conditions alone made the subsequent evening/late morning hours frustrating, as they muddied up the trails - and, furthermore, left behind layers of fog and wind that started simply as a mist. By 7am, that mist had turned into an all-out wind and rain storm.
If you’ve ever seen the movie The Truman Show, you probably recall the scene where the showrunners play God. In some ways, unexpected conditions during an ultra feel a bit like someone deciding the push a few buttons to fuck with you a little. The only constant in an ultra is the unexpected.
To say I was handling these little tweaks poorly would be accurate. Three hours in to a race I had mentally hunkered down for, I was already under the impression that quitting would be a perfectly fine thing to do. It was a shocking and sudden cratering of my psyche, and it was happening way too early for my own good.
Why isn’t she responding?
Anne’s sudden slip into unconsciousness and cardiac arrest surprised us both, but in retrospect, it wasn’t all too unexpected. Stephanie and her family made mention of her battles with diabetes, knee pain that limited her mobility, and aging. And while I was aware of these things, such history is seemingly a distraction to a layperson performing CPR.
But, that history provided all the context as to why Anne wasn’t responding to our efforts. But it doesn’t always play out with such logic: self-doubt crept in, as I wondered whether I was using the right method for chest compression, or if I was supposed to elevate her legs, or provide breath support differently, or…
The sun was obscured by the continued fog and rain layer blanketing Madeira’s crevasses. But feeling the air warm slightly, it brought a sense of hope that my clothes would dry, the clouds would burn off, and the iconic sights Madeira was known to exhibit would eventually emerge.
With daylight came a sense of calming - yet I could also tell that Madeira’s carnage had stunned me a bit. My pace didn’t increase, nor did I experience a renewed feeling of confidence that I would somehow compete and meet my goals. It seemed as if I would be clawing my way back into this race despite my protestations of being fit, ready, and eager.
Nevertheless, it’s in these moments where you hold on to anything you can that brings levity. Kelsie and I set out toward the most aggressive climbs of the day together, shouting words of encouragement (“Go go go!”) and frustration (“Ugh, fuck this!”) as another conga line of weary athletes continued onward.
“It’s not looking good.”
I could hear the sirens approaching from a distance, but at the moment, my mind was fixated on properly pumping Anne’s chest. “One, two, three, four” repeated - I was always good at cadences, and Stephanie excelled at cradling Anne’s face to provide support breaths.
The professionals arrived with urgency - no “thanks, lad, we’ll take over” or “good work here” emanated as they brushed me aside to begin their efforts; I suppose it was comforting that they centered their efforts not on pleasantries, but on the mission.
This moment - this was where my emotions went full paradox: on one hand, I was processing the weight of what I had just done - putting my CPR training into action wasn’t something I expected to do, nor to a semi-relative. On the other hand, I placed an inordinate amount of trust that nothing devastating was going to happen, now that professionals with the aid of modern medicine were present.
An oh, if only my optimism was met with reality. Instead, Stephanie and I paced, called relatives, and watched our hands move from steady to trembling as the paramedics shuffled through various methods, almost like a basketball team trying different approaches to slice through a staunch defense. Nothing was working, and Anne - of what we could see of her in between the green-clad jumpsuits of the half-dozen paramedics - seemed as if she had shed her body already. When Anne’s partner, Terry, joined us from their home up the hill, our faces must have written the story for him.
Take whatever you can from this moment.
For the remainder of my jaunt across Madeira, each segment between aid stations seemed longer and more aggressive than I had mapped out. “Surely, something must be wrong with the map”, I remember muttering (with far more colorful language, I must add). And at some point in my generally-increasing stupor, on the final climb of the day, I called Mario. The conversation was akin to something along these lines:
Me: Mario, people are passing me on this last hill.
Me: So, I’m not hitting my goal time!
Mario: You’re finishing this race, and no matter how that looks, the people who care about you are behind you.
Noted, coach. So, we’ll just ignore how my left knee decided to fall apart with ten miles to go and I basically tumbled down the last aggressive descent of the race, and we’ll focus on a few moments of bliss.
The endless miles of coastal trails, where it was so steep you couldn’t see where the sea crashed up against the shore.
The tea lights strung along this stretch by the locals, whose enthusiasm throughout the journey never dimmed.
The narrow, winding levadas that served as the perfect pathway to guide us toward Machico.
Sharing the last few moments with men and women with the same looks of relief and bliss, knowing that we had accepted Madeira’s dare.
The two minute phone call with Stephanie, hundreds of feet from the finish, as a reminder that we did it.
And then…that was all that those twenty-one hours allowed for me to experience.
At 11:01am, six days after my body somehow endured that, Anne O’Brien’s decided on a different outcome.
Terry vacillated between moments of shock, grief, indignation, and anger, and sprinkled in a few morsels of humor and light-heartedness. In that moment, I wasn’t sure whether what I felt aligned with what I was supposed to feel; I then realized that I had no agency to decide what that latter was, as I’d never even considered what a moment like this would feel like.
And I suppose that’s how it should be. Grief is like perseverance: it can manifest itself in many ways, each with their own choice of gestation and blooming.
Meanwhile, having removed ourselves from the place of grief and returning to their home, we paused our minds as much as possible and embraced the emotional voids. Lots of questions remained unanswered, but we recognized that this experience - occurring at this specific moment - was a little bit providential:
Stephanie and I were in Penzance for less than forty-eight hours, and in that time, we were physically present to provide comfort to her lifelong partner by her side, her siblings thousands of miles away in the States…and each other. And this all occurred in a place of peace and reflection for Anne.
She, nor any of us, would have wanted this to happen. But if it was going to regardless, having others by your side in your favorite place would be a little more just, I suppose.
No matter what we have experienced - joy, pain, death, life, rejuvenation - we spend a lot of time in recovery mode. My body and soul faced a two-phase knockout punch in a short period of time, and returning to the States provided a dose of much-needed normalcy and borderline boredom.
As I sat down to write this, I didn’t expect to discover a handful of parallels between my 21-hour island jaunt and a frantic witnessing of a loved one’s passing. Yet in many ways, death and life compel us to confront fear and persevere in the ways we see fit. And sometimes, the ways we wish to persevere - or see someone else persevere - is simply a request the Universe refuses to grant.
But in that chaos, life appears in special ways - whether it’s the embrace of family members in support or a medal being draped around your neck, the symbols of comfort and healing are everywhere.
To Anne: We miss you. To Madeira: Obrigado.