I remember my first impression of Meghan Arbogast: It was the finish line of the 2010 Western States 100 and she was finishing fast and in second place. Her legs were popping with long, lean muscles on each footfall. Her stride was smooth, seemingly non-bothered by the 100 preceding miles. She was smiling with this huge grin that pushed her cheeks far to sides of her face. She was the human-body version of sunshine.
I stood beyond the finish line, using some sort of electronic device to publish live news about the race for iRunFar. She lapped the Placer High School track and I wiped tears from my eyes so that I could see the screen of my device. I didn’t know her and yet I was bawling for her.
A couple days before, I was running with a mutual friend of Meghan and I. He told me that Meghan’s husband was dying of brain cancer. “Dying soon,” is what he said, and those words flashed in my head as I watched her run. This woman, amidst what could only be overwhelming personal tragedy, had the mental and physical strength to finish second in one of the world’s premier 100-mile races. Less than two months later, in August, Meghan’s husband of 25 years, Brian, passed away.
Meghan and I just sat down beneath the awning of a café in downtown Chamonix, France. Gray clouds have been swirling around the mountains all day, and they are finally releasing tiny, misty raindrops. In two days, Meghan will race the 2012 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. She recounts her version of the 2010 Western States 100, “Brian was in hospice care by then. I went back to Oregon and told him all about my race. He knew he was dying. I knew he was dying. But you can only focus so much on it before you go crazy. My race gave us something to talk about other than cancer.”
I ask her about the effort required to run 100 miles under such situational duress just as a waitress arrives with a glass of beer for each of us. We ignore the drinks and Meghan says, “You know what, it was one day in which I only needed to focus only on me. I had been living and breathing my husband’s illness for years. When someone you love is dying, you have to figure out how to live on.”
She pauses for a long, awkward time. Her eyes turn red around the rims and her bottom lip shakes just a little. Before our interview, Meghan had told me it was okay to ask these kinds of questions. Just as I start to regret my inquiry, she smiles the same wide smile from the Western States finish line and takes a tiny pull from her beer. “Running is my rock. When Brian died, I called my best running friend, Craig [Thornley]. It’s my community. My place to stay strong.” I follow her cue and pick up my beer. We are both smiling and a little teared up as we clink glasses and say, “Cheers and shit.”
This interview has progressed into something more like a conversation between friends, so I share, “When my dad died suddenly several years ago, I realized running was my most well-developed coping mechanism. It’s also how I made it through.” Meghan says, “Brian’s last couple years of life were a sick life. Little by little, he could no longer do all the things that had filled his life before illness. His life, our life, was whittled down to first fighting and then succumbing to cancer. Running stayed steady and unchanging.”
We take a break from the tough stuff to sip our beers and chat about what the changing weather could mean for UTMB. Meghan is from Corvallis, Oregon, which is located about 50 miles from the Pacific coast and often beset by precipitation-loaded storms rolling off the ocean, so I ask her if she feels at home. “Ah, rain. Yes, I’ll be fine. I struggle with getting cold, though,” Meghan’s referencing the cold-air mass that’s supposed to arrive soon after this rain. “I brought my whole closet, this massive duffel. If I get cold in this race… Well, I don’t think I will.”
Being in Chamonix before UTMB and its three sibling races is a lot like what I imagine it would be like inside a colony of ants on speed. Thousands of runners and their loved ones fret about, buying rain jackets, eating gelato, drinking beer, cheering for football matches on café televisions, smoking cigarettes, talking wildly, and partying later than I did in my college days. When I ask Meghan what she left behind to join this Mecca of spandex and mountain love, she thumbs through her iPhone to show me a photo of a young woman. “I worry about her, my daughter.” After a pause, she adds, “And my pets. And my garden. I hope there aren’t too many weeds growing in it.”
Meghan’s 26-year-old daughter, Ruby, has been ill since her early teens and was diagnosed seven years ago with chronic fatigue syndrome. “I don’t think Ruby remembers what it’s like to feel healthy.” Ruby’s condition may be even more complex, as physicians are now chasing other developing symptoms and irregular blood work with more tests. “As a mom, it kills me. I want her to be healthy right now and forever. But she’s making do. She has her college degree and she’s figuring out how to work a little despite being so ill. Her spirit is strong.” As Meghan says this, I think to myself, strong spirits are a theme of this family.
In her Oregon home is a cat, dog, and bid ol’ garden which composes the entirety of her backyard. “Since Ruby doesn’t play back there anymore, I let the garden take over.” Why gardening, I ask? “It keeps me connected to the Earth, to the natural world. Gardening keeps me rooted.” She stops to laugh at herself, “Get it, rooted? Anyway, there is something very empowering about being able to produce my own food.”
Though Oregon has been Meghan’s home for much of her adult life, the massage therapist has plans to transplant herself to northern California, in the vicinity of Auburn. “It was my husband’s job that kept us in Corvallis. And now my daughter’s gone, too, so my ties there are not so strong anymore. After a life of living in the rain, I’m looking forward to the sun and warmth of the Sierra Nevada foothills.”
The 51-year-old seems to be keeping on the sunny side of her running, too. A quick look at her race results over the last decade shows a steady performance progression in road marathons, road ultramarathons, and trail ultramarathons. Meghan’s standout performances of the last year include second place and a 6:35 at the 2011 JFK 50, a 3:41 winning of the Dizzy Daze 50k in Washington (which was actually about a mile long at 32 miles), and a fourth place at the IAU 100k World Championships in Italy in April. At this race, Meghan ran 7:41:52, setting an insane nine-minute age group world record.
As we sit in this Cham café, a memory from the 100k World Championships — I was also at the race for iRunFar — falls into my mind and I burst out laughing. We are already talking about her experience there when my laughter commences, so Meghan knows what I’m laughing about: the moment in which 37-year-old Croatian competitor Marja Vrajic signed herself with the cross (in the friendliest of manners) when Meghan revealed her age.
I ask Meghan what’s next after UTMB. As she answers, I realize that my question should have been what is not next for her. “I want to know how much faster I can get. I want to get Ruby healthy. I look forward to moving to California. I think I can get faster at [Western] States. I want to learn about growing vegetables in the California sun. I want to build a new massage practice after I move. The 100k road distance is new to me, so I believe there’s room for improvement there. I want to travel. I want to swing dance. I play the flute, and I want to learn to improvise and have it sound good. I want less material things, and more time in nature.”
Marja Vrajic clearly thinks Meghan is an anomaly, and so do I. I mean, she’s in her 50s and she can kick the behinds of girls half her age. I wonder aloud if she agrees, and Meghan doesn’t necessarily think so, “I believe my progressive results are a product of my progressive training. I’ve been running for a couple decades. I don’t run more now than I did before, but with the help of my coach [Ian Torrence], I run smarter.”
Our beer glasses are empty, and we’ve declined an offer for more from our waitress — Meghan’s got a race to soon run. We pay our tab and walk out into the street, which is shiny with moisture and still crowded with runners. I tease her, asking her if she’s playing herself down out of bashfulness. She flashes her trademark, wide-faced smile and says, “Am I an anomaly? I don’t know. Whatever I am, I’ll keep doing it. And when I can’t compete with the women anymore, I just want to run forever.”