I spent a week in Death Valley this month with a group of my friends, some of whom are elite level ultra-marathoners.
We ran and drove around the desert, singing, dancing, peeing among the sagebrush, and ultimately, helping our friend Doug complete what was, in many ways, the race of a lifetime.
Badwater Ultramarathon is a 135 mile endurance race set in mid-July at Death Valley. The course takes the runners, who have to apply and be invited to the start line, from the lowest geographical point in the US, Badwater Basin, to a spot halfway up Mt Whitney; the highest point in the continental US. In July, daytime temperatures range from 110 to 125, and with the elevation gain, nighttime temps can drop to the low 60s. It takes tremendous effort and a lot of teamwork to get to the finish line safely.
This year, Doug not only made it safely, but top 10 and in under 30hrs, which for this race, is a dream time!
Runners who have been admitted to Badwater are often at a level where they have sponsorships. Mulling around race morning, Doug, Hannah, Don and I met a runner sponsored by a scent freshening spray, one that makes your fabric smell like a breeze. The runner’s teammates told us to check in with them after the race, they were sure they would be smelling clean and fresh. Yeah right!
A few days later on the ride back to Vegas with Hannah and Doug, something along the route reminded us of that “fresh as a breeze” team. Doug had bumped into them after the race, and quite bravely, volunteered to smell their shirts—it was true—not a bit of tang, no musk, nothing approaching earthy, foul or stinky. I let this sink in for a moment—fresh as a breeze, like the desert and the run hadn’t affected them—almost like it hadn’t even happened.
Suddenly, I felt a tightness in my gut and currents of heat, like boiling water, began to radiate through me. I was offended. Offended by their non-odor. Offended by the notion that they might be suggesting that we too, should smell fresh as a breeze. If you know me, you’re not surprised in the least that I started to talk about it.
“What’s up with that? I think it’s ridiculous. I want to smell!” I said. “After 30 plus hours in the desert we’ve earned that stink and it’s part of the story. I feel like we’ve done something, worked and sweat and lived those smells. We’re wearing our humanity and I bet our brain recognizes those smells as something primal and important!”
That’s actually part of what I love about 100 mile ultra races, especially trail races, whether they be in the mountains, the desert, the jungle—people get dirty. The gloves come off. Runners push to their limits—from what I can tell, their state of “cuteness” is often the furthest thing from their minds.
For me, these type of experiences out in nature, hiking, running, camping, moving, allow us to tap in to something that is so lacking in our everyday lives; a connection with our own animal nature.
“What is wrong with smelling wild and natural and dirty for a day? And why are ‘they’ always trying to disinfect us? I don’t want to be disinfected or toned down!”
Then it struck me, when I’m out in nature I don’t want to be toned down, and at my core, I really don’t want to be tamed.
Somehow, in my mind, those little bottles of chemical breeze perfume were threatening the sanctity of the wild and often stinky experiences I like to have in nature.
Perhaps too, threatening to steal it from those who have yet to learn (or relearn) how satisfying it can be to smell and feel like an untamed human animal.
Don’t get me wrong, I woke up the morning of the race and put on deodorant. I’ve been conditioned to do it and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon. But there’s a line for me. And where we draw that line is probably different for everyone, but someone needing to smell pretty after running 135 miles in the desert just defies logic for me.
If ever there was a time to stink, I think this would be it.
You might be asking, as I am: How could I feel so strongly about this and still be unwilling to give up deodorant? Perhaps this need to deodorize our body is one of the habits dropped on the path to enlightenment, on the path to a clearer perception. I’m nowhere near that—maybe someone could ask the Dalai Lama if he wears deodorant, I think we can be pretty sure the Buddha didn’t. And in looking at my conditioning, I wonder, would my delicate sensibilities be offended if the Dalai Lama stank? Oh, I hope not! But that’s another post for another time.
For now, I say defy the disinfectant! Get outside. Move around. Be wild, be free, and be stinky!
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