The true genius of Mookie and Bonehead? Looking the wrong way whenever they needed help. Take their names. Mookie worked at a running-shoe store, and her boss begged
her to go by "Jenn Shelton" when she entered races. He tried bribes, then threats. ("You want to be Mookie? Go work someplace where they don't need PR.")
Didn't matter. Jenn and Bonehead — Billy Barnett, that is — didn't really care about the money; whenever they were broke, they'd just sniff out a race somewhere with cash prizes, like the naked five-miler they ran at a nudist resort. Naked running, in fact, was what brought them together in the first place. Despite a 4.0 average, Jenn had dropped out of the University of North Carolina — this would be around 2001 — and wandered across the country — jobless, alone, and still a teenager — with a backpack full of Heidegger and Kerouac, to read philosophy and write poetry in San Francisco. Broke and restless, she eventually drifted back home to Virginia Beach and landed a lifeguarding job on the beach.
"Dude!" she blurted on her first day, when she climbed up on the stand and spotted her new partner's UNC baseball cap. "I need that lid." If there was any karmic justice in the world, then she'd be sporting the Tar Heels gear, not a pretty-boy surfer like him who only wore it to keep the pretty-boy bangs out of his eyes. All morning she kept at him like that until, finally, Billy offered her a deal.
"Fine!" Billy erupted. "It's yours."
"If," Billy continued, "you run down the beach bare-ass."
Jenn scoffed. "Dude, you are so on. Right after work."
Billy shook his head. "Nope. Right now."
Moments later, hoots and cheers rocked the boardwalk as Jenn burst out of a port-a-potty, her lifeguard suit crumpled on the ground behind her. Yeah, baby! She made it to the next stand a block away, turned around, and came charging back toward the throngs of moms and kids she was supposed to be protecting from, among other things, full-frontal nudity by college drop-outs goin' wild. Amazingly, Jenn didn't get canned. That came later, for shorting out the engine of her lifeguard captain's truck by sticking a live crab under the hood.
During quieter moments, Jenn and Billy talked big waves and Beat poets. Jenn was planning to study creative writing at the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics if she ever dropped back into college and got a degree first. Billy was planning... well, he didn't know what, really. As the Bonehead, he was expected to accomplish nothing, so he could try anything.
"You ever heard of the Mountain Masochist?" Billy asked Jenn.
"Nope. Who's he?"
"It's a race, you crackhead. Fifty miles in the mountains."
Neither of them had even run a marathon before, and this would be double the distance. They'd been beach kids all their lives, so they'd barely seen mountains, let alone run them. They wouldn't even be able to train properly; the tallest thing around Virginia Beach was a sand dune. Fifty mountain miles was waaaay over their heads.
"I'm in," Jenn said.
They needed some serious help. And as usual, Jenn's favorite chain-smoking alcoholics came through in the clutch. "Try the meditation of the trail, just walk along looking at the trail at your feet and don't look about and just fall into a trance as the ground zips by," Kerouac wrote. "Trails are like that: you're floating along in a Shakespearean Arden paradise and expect to see nymphs and fluteboys, then suddenly you're struggling in a hot broiling sun of hell in dust and nettles and poison oak...just like life."
"Our whole approach to trailrunning came from Dharma Bums," Billy says. And for inspiration, that's where Charles Bukowski steps up: "If you're going to try, go all the way," the original barfly wrote. "There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods. And the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is."
Before setting out for their first sunset run together, Jenn and Billy snapped a tape of Allen Ginsberg reading Howl into their Walkman. "Miracles! Ecstasies! Gone down the American river!" they shouted, padding down the beach. "New loves! Mad generation! Down on the rocks of Time!" They'd seen plenty of joggers huffing past their lifeguard stand, and that sweaty misery wasn't for them. When running stopped being as fun as surfing — whenever the nights stopped flaming with fire — they'd quit.
That was eight years ago. Since then, Bonehead has won some of the toughest 50-mile ultramarathons in the country, despite stopping in the middle of one to climb a tree. Jenn has run the fastest 100 miles ever recorded by a woman on dirt, even though her preferred mid-race meal is pizza and Mountain Dew, and her strategy involves popping handstands, shadowboxing, and shouting, "This all you got?"
"I never really talk about this because it sounds pretentious, but I started running ultras to become a better person," Jenn told me soon after we met. "I thought if you could run 100 miles you'd be in this Zen state. You'd be the Buddha, bringing peace and a smile to the world. It didn't work in my case — I'm the same old punk-ass as before — but there's always hope."
To this day, she has no coach and no training plan. For years, she didn't even own a watch. She just rolls out of bed and runs as far and fast as she feels like, which most days is about 20 miles. Nearly a marathon a day, in other words, every day of the week. "That's what I love," she says. "Just being a barbarian, running through the woods."
If I'd shared Mookie and Bonehead's instinct for dodgy advice, I'd have saved a lot of pain and wasted time en route to the discovery of a lifetime. Unlike them, I didn't consult poets when I started running. I relied on sports professionals, who all offered the same tip: "Quit."
"Running is bad for you," they said, and my body backed them up. Every few months, something else was torn, aching, or aggravated. I had already given up when I spotted a photo of an old man who looked exactly the way I wanted to feel. He was ripping down a rocky trail in a robe and sandals, and the smile on his face said he was in the midst of an absolute thrill ride. There's something so basic and universal about that sensation, the way running unites our two most primal impulses: fear and pleasure. We run when we're scared, we run when we're ecstatic, we run away from our problems and run around for a good time.
And when things look worst, we run the most. Three times, America has seen distance-running skyrocket, and it's always in the midst of a national crisis. The first boom came during the Great Depression, when more than 200 runners set the trend by racing 40 miles a day across the country in the Great American Footrace. Recreational running then went dormant, only to catch fire again in the early '70s, when we were struggling to recover from Vietnam, the Cold War, race riots, a criminal President, and the murders of three beloved leaders. And the third distance boom? One year after the September 11 attacks, trailrunning suddenly became the fastest growing outdoor sport in the country. Maybe it was a coincidence. Or maybe there's a trigger in the human psyche, a pre-coded response that activates our first and greatest survival skill when we sense the raptors approaching. In terms of stress relief and sensual pleasure, running is what you have before you're old enough for sex. The equipment and desire come factory installed; all you have to do is let 'er rip and hang on for the ride.
That's what I was looking for. I didn't love running, but I wanted to. I wanted to grin like that old guy in the robe, who turned out to be a Tarahumara Indian — otherwise known as Rarámuri, the Running People. Left alone in their mysterious cave-home hideaways deep in the canyons of Mexico, this small tribe of Stone Age recluses had solved nearly every problem known to man. Name your category — mind, body, or soul — and the Tarahumara were zeroing in on perfection. It was as if they'd secretly turned their caves into incubators for Nobel Prize winners, all toiling toward the end of hatred, heart disease, shin splints, and greenhouse gases.
In Tarahumara land, there was no crime, war, or theft. There was no corruption, obesity, drug addiction, greed, wife-beating, child abuse, heart disease, high blood pressure, or carbon emissions. They didn't get diabetes, or depressed, or even old: 50-year-olds could outrun teenagers, and 80-year-old great-grandads could hike marathon distances up mountainsides. Their cancer rates were barely detectable. The Tarahumara geniuses had even branched into economics, creating a one-of-a-kind financial system based on booze and random acts of kindness: instead of money, they traded favors and big tubs of corn beer.
The Tarahumara would party like this all night, then roust themselves the next morning to face off in a running race that could last not two miles, not two hours, but two full days. A Tarahumara champion once ran 435 miles, the equivalent of setting out for a jog in New York City and not stopping till you were closing in on Detroit — this despite living on a diet primarily of ground corn and barbecued mice.
Everything about the Tarahumara seemed backwards, taunting, as irritatingly ungraspable as a Zen master's riddles. The toughest guys were the gentlest; battered legs were the bounciest; the healthiest people had the crappiest diet; the illiterate race was the wisest; the guys working the hardest were having the most fun...
And what did running have to do with all this? Was it a coincidence that the world's most enlightened people were also the world's most amazing runners?
That's what I — and Mookie and Bonehead — eventually set off into Mexico's Copper Canyons to find out, searching for answers in a place even wilder than they are.