by Josh Merlis
The humidity seeped through the crack separating the door from the floor as I squinted in the dark room, wondering if it was time to get up. For indeed, the 11 hour time difference, forced upon us just a few days prior, was a formidable foe in the quest for rest in the days preceding the most prestigious race of her life. And in that moment, with what seemed like no notice, I began to cry. They were tears of joy for my wife, Michelle Merlis, who was only a few hours from toeing the line as a member of Team USA in the 40K at the World Mountain & Trail Running Championships in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I couldn’t believe it. And it was particularly strange as I was also not with her; rather we were separated by a few hundred meters as she was staying with Team USA at the host hotel and I was not.
After succumbing for a few minutes to the depth of my emotions, I collected myself and organized my backpack, intent on ensuring my own ability to make it the entire day, to whatever extent I had to; this was going to be a day that would be meaningful to us for the rest of our lives and I didn’t want to miss a moment.
Through happenstance, Peter Maksimow, a former Team USA competitor and present day media man for some of the athlete sponsors, ended up as my flat mate. Neither of us spent much time our non-descript, utilitarian box of an apartment 3 stories above a Subway, and our separate interlopings were only known by our tacit game of scrambling the key box to a noticeably different incorrect code upon each departure. On that early November Saturday morning, however, we emerged from the shadows concurrently, and headed together to the Kantary Hills Hotel where Team USA was staying.
Well before the first signs of dawn, our short walk concluded with the sight of Michelle waiting outside the hotel, barely 100 minutes shy of toeing the line. We exchanged a relatively short hello before I hopped in one of the event-provided shuttles to the venue while Michelle remained at the hotel for a bit longer. I left early to catch the start of the 80K race, which was 1 hour before her 40K race.
I had told her that my plan was to watch the early part of the 80K and then go up the mountain, ideally to see her a few times in the upper section of the course. After the 80K runners passed me 1 mile in, I initially began in the direction of the remaining 5 mile ascent, before being struck with the feeling that I had to see her and wish her good luck one final time before disappearing into the wilderness as nothing more than a passing glance once the race was underway. And so, at full speed, I took off for the start line in search of Michelle.
And there she was, in her Team USA uniform, approaching the start area. The event had a theme song which had an Olympic ‘gravitas’ to it, and I couldn’t help but feel some level of her own nervousness, excitement, and anticipation all mixed into one as I heard the music, peered at the start arch, and saw the scores of athletes in the singlets of their nations, warming up mere yards from my feet.
I had captured a considerable amount of footage live streaming to Facebook throughout the entire event, and right then I was doing the same; when I first spotted her, I was sharing this moment online, and prior to getting Michelle’s attention, I purposefully did not so that I could simply observe her as she prepared, unencumbered and not distracted by knowing of my presence.
Remembering though, that I did want to actually connect with her this final time, I called out to her, and we shared a brief moment before she waved goodbye and blended into the crowd of lithe bodies. A few minutes before her race began, I took off running for the mountain, intent on placing myself in an isolated area with no other spectators.
That Michelle has ascended to the level of runner she is now will forever impress me. Most uniquely, there are two aspects to this, and one that is particularly unique is that, as her husband, I have front row seats to the level of dedication and sustained consistency she has given to develop her fitness. In the 8.5 years since our first run together, she has dropped her marathon pace to be faster than her 5K race pace and has a tenacity and willpower to take on the most difficult and taxing courses she can find, all with a purity of love for the sport and the experiences during it extending beyond any competitive aspect. She has gone from not winning age group awards at small local races to qualifying to represent Team USA, joining a team for which many of its members have D1 college running backgrounds, with an astounding majority specifically from Colorado and training on its peaks that dwarf our options on the east coast. To that end, to be transparent, Michelle did want us to move to Colorado a few years ago (well, and every day since), in fact, that is exactly where she moved from when we got together; alas, surely I will always be thankful that she compromised that dream to allow us to remain in Albany and for me to continue with the Albany Running Exchange and ARE Event Productions.
There was little sound beyond the repetitive breaths as the lead women reached my obscure spot a few miles up the mountain; for in fact, unlike nearly all events I attended, this marathon mountain adventure did not afford itself particular accessibility, with the great majority of the spectators limited to very few locations. When Michelle did pass, she looked to her left and saw me as I snapped a few pictures and said hello. While the race was not particularly dense where she was, as it was single-track and otherwise best described as a cross between a “forest and a jungle,” I waited until basically last place came through and then hopped in behind that person, heading up the mountain.
What do you think about me going to Flagstaff for 5 weeks to train?
Michelle qualified for the World Championship by winning the Breakneck Trail Marathon in April. At that time, she had been working full-time for 2 years as an economist for NYISO, having taken that job when COVID-19 hit, which instantly flattened AREEP’s viability. With her work hours typically “8 to 5,” her mountain training was limited to weekends, when she’d often spend both Saturday and Sunday driving and running for hours, alternating between the Adirondacks, Catskills, and Beacon (site of the Breakneck qualifying race). As AREEP was finally returning (this past spring) to some semblance of our pre-2020 event schedule, I was working all of those days, spending many of them on the road; most unfortunately, I was in DC working on the day of her qualifying race.
Within a couple of months of qualifying, intent on being able to focus on the race and be free of the stresses and responsibilities that come with her position, she brought up the idea with me of asking her employer if she could take a sabbatical. In short, they agreed, which also validated what anyone who knows Michelle is well aware of: she is dedicated to everything that she does and always a valuable and humble team member, and so they gave her their blessing to take 10 weeks to focus on the race and that her position would be waiting for her when she returned.
Yes, if you want to go to Flagstaff, go.
In the early morning of Friday, September 16, in an AREEP box truck, I dropped Michelle off at Newark Airport and then headed to the Hamptons to work the Hamptons Marathon. It was playfully humorous that it worked out for me to drop her off as part of a work trip. Four weeks later, after working a race in Tarrytown, I took a few trains to JFK airport and flew out to be with her for the final 4 days of her trip. This was the longest we had gone without seeing each other in 5 years.
This course is brutal.
As I scurried up the mountain to see Michelle in more spots, I was exhausted. It was already above 80 degrees, and the high humidity made it feel much worse – not to mention portions of the course were ascending roughly 1,000’ per mile. (The first 5+ miles were entirely uphill, rising roughly 3,600’.) I couldn’t believe they’d be running a marathon on that. To be fair, I would later learn that some portions of the route were Jeep roads, and yes, as the finish was where it started, they’d get all the elevation “back” (ie. downhill) – but it still was a good kick in the rear, rivaling any of the most brutal runs you can do in the northeast, and again, with it reaching 90+ degrees later in the race. (The kind of conditions that cause flat road races in our area to be cancelled.)
I got to the top of the mountain before the leaders returned there their second time (at 26K of the 40K). With the downtime, I bought more water and explored the village, captivated by this new-to-me experience. And yes, capturing a lot of it on video.
Eventually the leaders came through, including 42 year old Max King who was running near a podium spot. As a name I’ve known since college (and someone older than me [the only such member of the team], it continues to be just awe-inspiring to see him compete at such a HIGH level. Indeed, Max would be the first finisher from Team USA and finish fourth overall- In the World Championship.
A bit later on, the women came through. Kimber Mattox was leading Team USA, also flirting with a podium spot. She was looking great, and it was impressive to see the speed with which she went through the team aid station and the determination in her face. (On a side note, it was also great getting to know her and her husband Eric, along with so many members of the team. It truly was; while not the intention of this article, that whole aspect of meeting everyone and their families, etc. made this a joyful experience and surely a highlight of the trip overall.)
After some time hanging out at the team aid station, I headed back on the course so that I could be in a relatively less dense area for Michelle’s arrival. I parked myself about a quarter mile before she’d receive nourishment, hanging out by a small fire next to a teepee, both of which were made by a pair of small boys who seemed unfazed, and possibly not even aware of the significance of the race taking place mere feet from them.
There she is.
It was evident that she was taxed. I cheered for her and told her what she already knew; the aid station was just ahead. I took off running a “back way” to get there while she continued on the course, ultimately weaving her way through the maze that was the area of nearly 50 tents that individually served each respective country.
She took her time in the tent. As I watched her get assisted by the designated official representatives of Team USA, I felt for her. It was clear that she was not having the race she had hoped; not the race she had trained to run. Surely this wasn’t discussed while she was running, and there would be no point – but based upon when she got to the aid station, the time she spent there, and how she looked, I felt her pain. And more than the physical, there is the emotional toll that comes with it. While I didn’t know what was impacting her race, I cheered for her on her departure, which also signified my final descent of the mountain as well, as I had decided on the fly that I wanted to be there at the finish when she got there – and the only way to do so was to also run down the mountain.
Due to the nature of the course and other trails near the top of the mountain, I was able to cut off some distance of the course without being on it, seeing her about two miles after she had left the aid station. At that point, I was basically limited to being on the route; as she was in “no man’s land” (ie. a lot of distance between her and the adjacent individuals in front and behind) I waited a bit after she passed, and then got on the route far behind her, knowing that once she reached the final mile, I could take a short-cut to get back in front of her.
When racing on the track, regardless of the race distance, the entire event is visible from any location in the stadium. As an athlete, you can’t “hide.”.There’s no moment of privacy, and, perhaps also beneficially, you have fan support for every second of the experience. As I was making my way down the mountain, I couldn’t see Michelle, or anyone else for that matter. There was no noise other than the sounds my body was creating, both internally, like my own breath, and externally, like the tumbling of rocks and wafts of sand lifted by my feet. And in that greater moment, I was present; present and humbled by where I was, why I was there, and smiled knowing that some short distance ahead of me, Michelle was doing what she loved. She was alone in nature. Running upon primitive earth, 9000 miles from home. No phone. No computer. No modern day delights, save our beloved reliance and affinity for our GPS watches. And even gazing out, when there was an occasional opening in the trees in those last few miles, revealed a city one thousand years old. Temples centuries older than the country we call home.
The final mile of the race passed through a monastery. Adorning the trees were signs with statements I would liken to “Confucius says" quotes. Laments about overindulgence and reminders about the joys that come with living a simple life.
As Michelle passed through that area with one mile to go, I could not help but smile knowing that her character and spirit is akin to the mantras she unknowingly ran by. That the greatest joys in life aren’t products and they aren’t items that can be purchased, rather they are the moments that make you feel most alive. This was her moment.