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Running Across New Hampshire

Sean Hurley

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John Lacroix
(Sarah Chretien)
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I drive along Route 9 as the sun dips behind the mountains. I'm looking for two runners - Nate Sanel and John Lacroix - who are somewhere along this road, on their way to running 124 miles across the state of New Hampshire. Or at least, attempting to do so.

When I finally spot them, they're 12 hours and 60 miles into their run - almost half-way done. I park in the woods, hop the highway barricade and jog out to meet them.

We call out our hellos and then shuffle into position alongside the rumble strip. Nate is tall and lean. John is shorter with a strong wrestler's build. The cars zip past at 60 miles per hour. It's loud and windy - not a great place for a run. I was hoping to find them along some beautiful stretch of country road. This is not a beautiful stretch of country road.

"It was 29 degrees when we started this morning," John says, "and the wind was even colder then."

John Lacroix has only been running for four years. He didn't play sports in high school and he never set out to do this.

"It's hard to imagine not doing any sports," I say, "and doing this."

"Well, before running," John says, "I used hiking as my escape. And while I was hiking I wanted to see how far I could go in a day."

"And how far did you go?" I ask.

"I hiked five mountains in the White Mountains," he begins. "Before I knew it, I was doing 12, 13 mountains in a day. And I made a good friend named Tim Seaver. And Tim taught me about this ultra running thing and I was hooked. I knew this was what I wanted to do."

I've been running 10 minutes, and I'm already the most tired person in our group. I'm still curious about John's motivation. Where did this urge to run huge distances come from?

When I ask directly, John doesn't talk about running. He tells me about his childhood. John's parents divorced when he was 12. His family drifted apart. His confusion and loneliness intensified and he soon found himself struggling against a powerful rage.

"For many years," he says, "I decided I was just going to take it and deal with it, and as the years went on it kind of got worse. I ostracized some of my family members and went away to college. I was pretty suicidal in college and ended up failing out."

It's nighttime. Pitch black in some of these lonely stretches with wide dark fields to our left and no streetlights. But night is a prime running time for John.

"A couple of my buddies and I, we like to train at night," he says. "We did this one run where we ran the Kancamagus Highway from Conway to Lincoln. It's 35 miles. And we did it in February. Started in Conway at 7:00 at night. It was one below [zero] at the top of Kancamagus Pass."

"And what is that, is that like six or seven miles uphill?" I ask.

John smiles and says, "The Kancamagus Highway from Conway to Lincoln is actually 26 miles uphill, and then you finally start to run downhill."

I can't conceive of it. "Is this a good memory for you?" I ask.

"Oh, it's awesome," he says. "One of my favorite training runs to date. You know that night on the Kancamagus we had a full moon; we didn't even need our headlamps. The moon lit everything up. It was beautiful. The snow. There was so much snow. The whole world glowed that night. It was just us. Nobody else. It was amazing."

There's a crew car waiting on the sandy shoulder of the road ahead. On the roof is a gnarl of blinking Christmas lights. John and Nate start to slow, like two big aircraft coming in to land. They depend on their crew and these makeshift aid stations. Nate crashes into a beach chair and tears off his shoes. John changes shirts and wolfs down a bag of potato chips. The crew refill their water bottles.

One of the crew members, Sarah Chretien, is also John's fiancee. She has an unusual perspective - she knew John before he became an extreme athlete.

"He started running while we were together," Sarah says, "And I got to watch him progress. I think running has saved him. Absolutely."

John rummages through the gear for a medical kit. For the last few miles, Nate's been struggling. Nate mentions blisters on his left foot - but he's been favoring the right. John kneels on the pavement and starts cutting tape with his teeth.

I kneel down too, to watch this roadside medical procedure.

"So this isn't blister servicing?" I ask, not sure exactly what's happening.

Nate Sanel runs his hand over the top of his foot, "No," he says. "We're trying to pull my arch up. My arch is kind of collapsing. I've got pain all over my arch and heel."

John runs the tape under Nate's arch and draws a stirrup around his ankle. Nate picks out a new set of shoes. We set off again.

Nate winces every time the right foot strikes pavement. It's difficult to see someone in this much pain labor on. Why not stop? I wonder. I mean, I know that they're trying to do this incredible thing - run across the state. But this is a lot of pain, and they're barely half-way there.

But John has answer for this. "We always like to say that it's almost always going to get worse and it's almost always going to get better."

After running with them for an hour, I realize that they talk about pain a lot. About moving through pain, about falling apart physically and mentally. And then coming out on the other side. Somehow recovering. And I wonder if this is the engine that drives them both. Finding your breaking point - breaking, even.

Nate's form is suffering, and I check in, ask him how the new shoes are working out.

"I'm trying to just run through the pain," he says, "And right now it's just not working that well. I should have stuck with the old shoes. It's hard to remember sometimes that it's going to get better when it's really bad. And then when it starts to get better, it's such a pleasant surprise. It feels really good."

He tries to smile, but he doesn't look good - and a few minutes later, he's doubled over, limping off into a dark corn field for the softness of the soil. He spins around, straightens and comes back to try the road again. Like one of those boxers who won't go down.

I check my watch. I didn't come prepared for the darkness. So before I get to the point of no return, I stop, wish them luck. We shake hands, wave goodbye.

Nate tells John to run ahead. He'll catch up, he says. I watch them for a last moment. John disappears quickly into the shadows as Nate hobbles back out into dark field again. And then again he returns to the road. Starts running.

Later, I learn that Nate finally stopped at mile 70. Six miles further on from where I left them.

The following afternoon I get a message: "31 hours and 50 minutes. I made it!" And then there's a photograph of John standing on a rock, white sea waves splashing all around. As though he'd rushed out into the ocean, unable to stop, even though he'd done it - he'd run across the state. His arms are raised as he stares over the water, the only substance that's ever been able to stop him from running.

Comments

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  • By Rodee Schneider

    From Washington, DC, 12/30/2008

    Terrific piece. It has such a wonderful quietness about it and in its understated way, really gets to the heart of why they or any of us run.

    By Nathan Sanel

    From Penacook, NH, 11/30/2008

    Hi Sean,
    Thanks for doing this report on our run. It turns out that I had stress fractured my right foot. The Doctor said that if I kept running it would have broken. I guess stopping was the right thing to do, but it was still dissapointing. I was very proud of John finishing the run. What he did was amazing.

    By Peter Crane

    From Conway, NH, 11/29/2008

    For more information about Sherpa John, visit his blog! www.sherpajohn.blogspot.com

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