storytellers | Mystique Belgique by Sarah C. Pierce
today, i am delighted to introduce a new series on the blog. something that i am calling STORYTELLERS. i am honored and blessed to be surrounded by some incredible creatives...and some tremendous writers. this series is an opportunity for me to feature some of my favorite friends and writers on this blog of mine. any and every subject. tales from life, for life. poetry, prose, fiction, nonfiction. words and ideas that provoke and touch hearts and encourage and inspire and challenge and stimulate the mind. this will be a place to let people share their beautiful words and elevate our spirits and take us on a journey through imaginary lands and honest experiences.
and now, for your reading pleasure, i give you a work by Sarah C. Pierce
"You wanna do something stupid?" My phone illuminated across the expanse of the studio apartment I call home for the month of October in downtown Budapest, creating a cozy little cocoon of light that expanded out and danced along the walls around me. It was a text from an old friend from high school currently completing a master's program outside Brussels, and I didn't know what she was suggesting, where it would take place, or what it would entail. And yet, without a moment's hesitation, my adventurous spirit took the reins and I replied to her, "Yep."
Fast forward to two weeks later, we're standing along the side of an emerald field in the mist of a Belgian morning in the countryside. It was just past 9AM and my legs felt like bricks after running the Budapest Marathon just fifteen days beforehand--followed by walking upwards of ten miles every day in eccentric exploration of all the secrets Budapest had to tell me. My friend and I were looking at each other with stoic expressions, our faces painted into a slightly panicked picture of sheer dread. Vastly undertrained, slightly hungover, and operating on about four hours of sleep, we were standing on the starting line of a bare-bones, every-man-for-himself 50 kilometer death march through the rural mystique of Belgique.
This wasn't my first time at the ultramarathon rodeo. This was, in fact, my fourth time running an ultra (which is categorized as any race that is a longer than the marathon distance of 42 kilometers), and my third time running the 50k "starter ultra" distance. Earlier this year, I ran a 50 mile ultra on pavement. Standing at the start of the Trail de la Vallee de l'Orneau 50k, I was dreading the familiar burning in my shins around 35k and the shuffle I'd be forced to adopt at the 40k mark (as well as the absolute drop in personal morale when I hit 42k and realize that I still have somewhere between 45 and 60 minutes left of running), but I was confident. I've done it before, and I'll do it again.
My personal mantra of strength began to wane, however, in the first five kilometers when--despite the cloudless cyan skies above our heads--the ground beneath our feet was not solid ground, but the sloshy muck of mud transforming every footfall from a lighthearted run through an enchanting Belgian forest to a challenge against physics and gravity. The goal was not to just to put one foot in front of the other and keep going for fifty kilometers (as per usual in an endurance race); this run was more or less about keeping your balance and a semi-decent cadence so that you're not running yourself into the ground--figuratively and literally.
My friend and I are both the wild, independent type; we agreed pre-race that we would run on our own and meet up afterwards at the food stations set up near to finish line. As she took off ahead of me, her pastel green tank top looked more and more like the optical illusion of a sun flare in my eyes with every passing moment until she was nothing but a small speck of color splashed off in the wild distance of mud and muck and misery. We ran through fields which, at first glance, appeared to be ordinary, stable ground but proved upon trying to traverse to be mischievous plains of a quicksand-like mud, engulfing not just entire feet but also legs up past ankles and (for the unfortunate shorter participants, myself included) to the mid-shin level. At one point, I lost my balance and fell into a barbed fence that, much to my surprise, turned out to be electric. Blood trickled out of my leg as a low-grade current buzzed through me, and my shriek of pain and astonishment vanished into the vacuum of the bright breadth of the Belgian countryside. The sky above was a brilliant blue, a shade of tranquility that was so profound that it seemed almost mocking in nature; here we were, swallowed up by the earth in the consequences of the sky's temper tantrum and there was the sky, all cried out and smiling sweetly down at us shrouded in struggle.
We ran through forests as well as fields, lush green havens of flora where the sunlight trickled in through the leaks in the canopies overhead. The leaves on the trees seemed almost electric, as if someone had created this backlit system of illumination through every single piece of every tree. The forest was glowing a rich shade of gold as the sun flirted endlessly with the treetops, light falling inside the sanctuary of greenery with a sort of measured majesty.
And of course, solid ground was a rarity. Faster runners were zipping past me on the narrow course--barely large enough for two people at most points--and disrupting the fierce concentration I held trying to keep myself upright in the slick of the slime that had replaced the ground floor. I was covered in mud from the waist down in a combination of slinging the sludge onto the backs of my legs as well as completely losing my balance several times and finding in its wake a gravitational pull that seemed, comically, to be allied with the mud. On one particularly nasty fall, I turned on my ankle in a way that can only be described with the clicking sound, like a light switch or the pop of a plastic bottle, as pain shot up through my left leg like lightning. I sat in the mud--too afraid to get up and try to put weight on my leg that throbbed with agony at 120 beats per minute, visions of broken bones dancing in my head--for a good few minutes. I wanted to stay there forever, just fade into the forest and let all the pain and hardship of this race melt away, but then the rapid clip-clop of runners in a clot behind me approached ever louder, forcing me up and out of the way. Adrenaline pumped through me and, face twisted in a muddy grimace, I shuffled along, wondering why I ever agreed to this.
At one point about 30 kilometers into the race, the winding path (marked by a tape tied to trees and fences whose red and white pattern was oddly reminiscent of candy cane) led to a hill that made me literally stop in my tracks and gulp. The steepness was unlike anything I had conquered before and my slick, mud-caked shoes would have laughed hysterically if they could have; to see the top of this hill required a full backwards-crane of the head, until my scalp was one with the nape of my neck. With a deep sigh of regret at my own unabashed ambition and propensity to put my body through the wringer all for a moment's triumph, I bounded up the incline. The steepness only increased, and as I pressed forward, there appeared a nearly camouflaged rope tied to a network of trees for the runners to convert themselves to rappelling hikers on this Mountain of Misery. Getting past this ten minutes or so that felt more like ten hours of climbing was not for the faint of heart nor calf; it required a mental persistence that, next to the Thoreau-caliber serenity of the woods that enveloped me, seemed laughable in its juxtaposition.
Once I finished my upward rappelling, I pressed on with shins that felt like they had been promptly replaced with Twizzlers instead of bone and calves that felt reduced to the likes of washed-up jellyfish on shorelines after having lost a battle with the raging ocean tides. The course became a blur of green and blue and brown and beige, of forests and fields and corn stalks and hay bales, of castles and railroad tracks all encompassed together beneath the smiling, sarcastic skyline. And then, in one magical moment that I mistook at first for a mirage of sorts, one of the shades of green emerged different from the rest; pastel and mobile in nature, coming closer and closer...
I had caught up to my friend, who was just as mentally done and physically exhausted as I was. After a quick high five and explanation of the ankle situation, we both hobbled together, united in our suffering. The race was coming to an end, we could feel our bodies transitioning to the homeward stretch of the 50 kilometer death march as we shuffled atop cobblestone streets through picturesque, postcard-perfect villages dripping with Belgian charm. Houses were a delightful hybrid of French and Flemish in design; quaint two-story white brick family homes with pansies in flower pots and vintage bicycles parked outside. The streets were eerily quiet and as the sun shifted in the sky, the vast expanse above our heads began to paint itself ever so subtly with the shades of sunset. It was only 15:00, but daylight savings time had just one day prior swooped in to encircle the world in darker days and longer nights.
"I REMEMBER THIS," my friend exclaimed with the passion of a recovering amnesiac as we rounded a corner out of a field and onto a dirt road that had solidified from its muddy origins under the breezy blue of the sky. The sun threatened to leave us, playing peekaboo behind clouds that had formed while we weren't looking, and at the flash of memory of the same path we traversed earlier in dumb naïveté about the intensity of the course, we both found a burst of hidden energy that we weren't aware that we'd packed away and charged onward.
With faces tangled into a collective visage of ambition and agony, with grimy clothes and mud caked to our skin, with blood and bruises and salt-stained foreheads, we barreled across the finish line together, laughing maniacally and high-fiving each other a little over six hours after beginning together with dispositions of dread.
After taking more authentic Belgian waffle squares than were probably allotted for one person in the finishers' chute, I joined my friend on a nearby bench where, instead of talking to each other, we poured ice-cold water from her backpack onto our disgusting legs and winced at the sheer pain of being alive in between breathless chuckles that carried with them the connotation, "Did we really just do that?"
Unsuccessful in removing all the dirt from our legs and still having to wear our ruined shoes, we took to the road and tried our hand (or, thumbs, rather) at hitchhiking to the train station. We were able to get a ride to the race in the morning, but were responsible for finding a way home afterward. "If worse comes to worse," we agreed, "we can just walk to the train station. What's another four kilometers when you've already crushed fifty?"
That was before the race, before our bodies were (almost literally) pummeled into the ground by the elements. I was limping on my left ankle and dripping blood from my right quad. My friend was covered in mud with soaking wet shoes that squeaked with every footfall. The drivers of passing cars shook their heads with an almost palpable incredulity at our audacity to invite ourselves into someone else's car. Just as we resigned ourselves to the cumbersome fate of having to continue ever forward on foot, a black BMW pulled up ahead of us and stopped. It was our turn to revel in skepticism, we exchanged a glance of sheer disbelief at the kindness of a stranger in a fancy car to pick up two girls who had just been dragged through the mud all day.
My friend approached the driver's side window and spoke to the driver in French, and as they carried on a conversation in a kind of cursive I couldn't understand, I subtly surveyed the vehicle. There was a car seat in the back and a location programmed into the GPS. The driver was a genteel looking guy in a sweater over an Oxford shirt with curly blonde hair and wire-rimmed glasses. I sat next to him up front and my friend took the back seat where she spoke to him at length over his shoulder about European politics, world affairs, and life in Belgium. The sun was neon pink at this point and our new friend refused to drop us off at the train station, insisting instead that he take us to the town where my friend called home.
Sitting in the small-town friterie in Genval, Belgium that gleamed with flashing carnival lights through the premature night--beckoning us, the darkness making it feel far later than the time on the clock—we felt like we’d been given some sort of exclusive, VIP treatment to fresh Belgian frites long after the shop should be closed. There was an illusory feeling in the air that the friterie had stayed open just for us: the element-beaten, mud-caked and nutrient-depleted survivors of the most difficult race of our lives. My friend dipped a frite in samurai sauce and then mayonnaise, neutralizing the two flavors. “That race was a really stupid thing to do,” she said, breaking the silence that occurred when we fell into a tone of primal feasting as the frites arrived, steaming and shiny with oil, fresh from the fryer.
I took a swig of the Duvel I had picked up at the mini-market next door, dramatically elongating the sip as the brew hit my tongue and the carbonation electrified my taste buds before flowing through my body, recharging every piece of me from the inside-out. “Yep,” I replied, taking another climactic sip of beer and feeling my mind drift off to ambrosial neverland in its dehydration and depletion.