I know it was 1:30 in the morning and we were all a bit delirious, but I’m pretty sure Max King took off his pants at the start line of the MaXi-Race Annecy in France a couple weekends ago. Like, right in front of everyone. Salomon makes these new running shorts where the liner is totally separate from exterior, so it’s possible to divest yourself of the shorts part without getting totally naked, but it’s pretty close. I believe he was making a joke of some kind. That Max King is always making jokes. And since it was dark, it was actually quite funny. I remember laughing.
But then he had to start the race, and immediately after the stupidly early 1:30 a.m. start time, I set out in an unmarked black van for the mountains. My role was to drive for and assist Philipp Reiter, the German runner/photographer who was tasked by Salomon with capturing photos and videos of the 110-kilometer race. We were to follow, photograph, and support the runners in seven different locations. But since this race involved a big media push, I was also accompanied by a Russian PR expert from Siberia who lives in Spain and two Chinese journalists who carried a big-ass camera everywhere and didn’t talk much but smiled a lot. Right away I needed coffee but it was way too early to buy some, so instead Philipp played German dance music really loud and we vibed our way up the first climb.
If you’ve ever been to France or at least watched the Tour de France on TV, you’ll know that the roads are small, winding, and everywhere. There are 12 ways to get anywhere you want to go and you have to have a native’s experience to know where to go because even Google Maps gets confused. I’m not sure if there was ever a plan to these roads or if they just started paving old trail systems without ever looking up. Either way, I spent most of the night navigating a bewildering tangle of roads with a sense of imminent panic blocking my throat while Philipp put a song called “Push” on repeat so that this German guy kept screaming “push push push!” all night while I just wanted to not screw up my only job. Since I was too fat and injured to run, I had volunteered to help and it was a good reminder that helping is usually way harder than running the race. On the other hand, those French cars have standard transmissions and low centers of gravity and I felt like a Formula One driver zooming up the mountain while my passengers clung to each other and tried not to throw up in the backseat.
I spent a week in northern Spain with Max one time and we took a drive in this zippy little Volvo we somehow got ahold of and that was when I realized that driving is a skill that not all of us have. Max was able to maneuver that car up steep and winding roads at incredible speeds without ever making me feel like gravity wasn’t pointing straight down. Halfway through the drive I decided to give driving a shot and immediately plastered Max’s and Nikki Kimball’s (she was there too, even though I didn’t mention that earlier) faces to the windows as I took every corner on two wheels and only avoided zooming off the road because Max reminded me that he had two innocent kids at home who needed a dad. So it was with this in mind that I jerked and skidded my way up the Semnoz mountain in Annecy to the first checkpoint, because I was going there to crew for Max and it seemed like some kind of irony if I wrecked a car trying to help the guy who sort of showed me how to really drive. After some tense scenes we made it to the first checkpoint intact and the Chinese guys spilled out into the cool night air breathing heavily and clutching handfuls of grass.
Max came fully clothed through the aid station with the leaders and still joking. He’s good at making the aid-station volunteers laugh and he proceeded to do that with banter that I’ve forgotten specifically but which went something along the lines of, “Heyooooo, I’m Max King, running a race, hello aid-station people, what’s this, food, alright, look at all this good stuff, is that a croissant, haha, ham and cheese, how are you all doing, oh yeah should I go, okay bye.” You know how he is, that Max King. Always joking.
We stayed long enough to watch the women’s leaders come through and then took off back down the mountain like a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, hanging half the car over precipices on each switchback as I took the turns at speeds exceeding 50 kilometers per hour, whatever that means. In the town of Leschaux I tried to remember where I’d heard that word before while the Russian guy screamed directions at me over the thumping bass of “push push push!” and the piteous wails of the Chinese guys. I drove like this lost in thought for an hour or so until I remembered that there’s a Leschaux hut above Chamonix that gives access to the Grandes Jorasses, which is worth looking up if you haven’t heard of it before. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
At 4:45 a.m. the sun was just coming up and we rattled into a parking lot. We had 15 minutes to spare, so we immediately went to sleep. Then right away all of us but Philipp woke up because he was snoring like an outboard motor and it sounded like he might be dying. At 5:00 a.m. we dutifully suited up with cameras, bags, and jackets and marched a mile up the hill at a brisk pace so as not to miss the runners, who we were sure couldn’t be more than a few minutes away. But of course those bastards didn’t arrive for an hour and a half and we had to just stand there in the dawn cold waiting for their slow asses to get there. But there are worse places to spend a morning and here’s a picture that might shed some light on what I mean:
When Max and François D’haene finally came through the pass they looked like they were jogging and they hardly let me ask how they were doing because they just wanted to chat about what I was up to. “I’m trying to film you guys!” I said. “Can’t you try to look like you’re at least kind of trying hard?”
They weren’t going that slow though, because after they disappeared we needed to leave right away in order to reach the next aid station before them. Philipp and I rushed down the hill to where the Chinese guys seemed to be filming some trees. “Hey guys, let’s go!” I yelled over at them, pointing down the hill toward the car. They looked at me but didn’t move. I turned to the Russian guy, who was talking on his phone in rapid Spanish and running his hand through his hair. “Hey man, can you get the Chinese guys to come with us?” I asked. He looked over at them. “Hey guys, let’s go!” he yelled, making the same gesture I had. They nodded and started down the hill with us.
After another half hour of driving like someone in the car was dying of a gunshot wound, we arrived at the 70k aid station. While waiting for the runners to arrive, I started to get the sense that the Chinese guys were unhappy about something. They were standing apart from us and muttering to each other and throwing me dark looks. I turned to Philipp. “Hey, man,” I said quietly. “I don’t want to alarm you, but I don’t trust these Chinese guys. I think they might try to mutiny.”
Philipp looked at me in alarm. “Mutiny?” he said. “What does that mean?”
“Well,” I said conspiratorially, “it’s like on a big ship at sea, you know? When the crew was unhappy with the captain and they would take over the ship. You know? I think they might try to do something like that.”
“But we’re not on a ship,” he said simply.
“Yeah, but it’s a metaphor, okay?”
“They’re pissed about something!”
“Yeah, me too. You suck at driving.”
Fortunately for Philipp, I wasn’t able to come back with a witty retort because at that moment François arrived and the whole place erupted in cheers. Those French people love them some François. At this point, with 40k left in the race, he had pulled about 10 minutes ahead of Max and didn’t seem to have noticed that he had already run 70k. The day was heating up and he took a few minutes to drink water and restock his pack before leaving.
Max came through not long after, looking a little worse for the wear. He moved through the aid station making the same jokes as before, but this time his face was set, his jawline a little more tense. Despite all his jokes, Max has an air of seriousness that is not to be taken lightly. When he focuses on something, he gives the clear impression that he is not joking around. He later said that he would have been happy if the race had just ended at 70k. But he never said that in the race. He just kept moving forward. His determination can be intimidating.
Max is intense without being crazy; proud without being so at other people’s expense. He manages to exude confidence without ever seeming arrogant, which is likely a matter of experience, since growing older is humbling. He knows what he does and why, and most importantly that it’s no more important than anything else he might do. But for him it’s enough. Or at least it seems to be. At least part of it.
I ran with him out of the aid station and he was really lucky to have me. “François’s about 10 minutes up on you,” I said. “You can get him.”
“Where’s third place?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” I replied. “He hasn’t come through yet.”
“You should just, you know, eat,” I said, grasping for wisdom. “Drink some water. You’ll feel better.”
“I feel okay.”
“Yeah! Good attitude!” I said bracingly. “You go out there and… and you go get him, buddy.” Then I slapped him on the butt and watched him start up the next mountain.
Back in the car, I threw suspicious looks at the Chinese guys in the rearview mirror as we climbed up to the next checkpoint. They huddled together and talked in low voices. Next to them, the Russian guy had taken to giving me directions, which if you know anything about me is NOT okay. I have a great sense of direction and I need everyone to know that. So when people start telling me where to go, they’re subtly implying to me that I don’t know where to go, which is total bullshit. So, not being the aggressive type, I tend to get passive-aggressive.
“You’re going to want to take this left at Le Villard,” the Russian guy (his name was Nikita, okay? Nikita) said.
“Oh, left?” I said sarcastically. “You mean here? I was planning to just drive on straight to Albertville, and then maybe into freaking Italy.”
He seemed somehow impervious to sarcasm. “Yeah,” he said. “Take this left and go through the village, then you’re going to want to go up that valley there.”
“Which valley?” I asked, near-hysterically. “You mean the only damn valley we could possibly go up? I was planning to drive straight up that cliff!”
We drove a little ways, started climbing the valley. “Okay, merge right here,” Nikita said. “This is Bellecombe.”
“Oh, Bellecombe, huh?” I retorted. “How could I possibly have known that? It’s not like there’s a gigantic sign right there, and what’s that? Oh, it’s another sign directing me to exactly where we want to go. But no. I need your help. Please keep talking.”
Philipp just turned up the volume on “Push” and looked through his photos.
Legend has it that, one time at a cross-country race in college, Max either forgot to get pins for his number or decided not to wear a shirt. Either way, his number was required to be on his chest, so he just found a stapler and straight-up stapled it directly onto his skin. Bleeding heavily from four not-insignificant wounds, he then proceeded to run the race. And since this is a legend, we can say that he was marvelous and wild and won the race with characteristic flair and charisma. I can just imagine him at the aid stations like, “Oh hey, water, how’s it going, running a race, I’m Max King, thanks for volunteering, what blood, oh this blood, yeah don’t worry about that.” Because they totally have aid stations in college cross-country races.
I thought about that as I waited for Max at the top of the next pass. It was hot and sunny and I hadn’t slept all night so it felt like the afternoon but it was actually only like 10 a.m. I hate missing sleep and I felt like crap and I couldn’t tell if I was tired or sick, and as I walked down the trail a ways to meet the runners I thought about Max stapling his number to his chest and that just seemed like such a stupid thing to do. Pain sucks.
François was not a good example of this. He hiked up to me wearing his white golf hat and seemed totally unconcerned about his own race. “How’s Max doing?” he asked. I told him he looked a bit rough, but he was still a good way ahead of third place.
“Good,” François responded. “I hope he can stay ahead.”
When Max reached me a bit later, he looked hot, but he greeted me cheerfully. “How are you doing?” I asked. I’m great at thinking up creative questions to galvanize my friends mid-race.
“I’m doing alright,” he said. “Just marching along.”
“Nice,” I said. “Well, François can’t be more than like 15 or 20 minutes up on you. I forgot to time him, but it wasn’t that long ago.”
“Cool,” he said. “And where’s third place?”
“I’m not sure. I didn’t time him either.”
“Well, hey,” I said, pointing up the hill, “you’re nearly at the top! After this you just have to run down to Menthon.”
“And then do another 4,000-foot climb.”
“Well, yeah… but you at least get a rest first!”
Unfortunately, this turned out to be false too. I jogged with Max past the checkpoint and then wished him a happy descent, and he disappeared down into the trees. Fifty meters farther on, the trail turned right and uphill, and he climbed 2,000 more feet up another whole pass I didn’t even know about before running down to Menthon. But he likes pain, right?
I’ve known Max long enough to have an idea of when he has a good race and when he doesn’t. He came down the final descent at a pace that for him was not much more than a limp, his face glistening with sweat and dirt, and his eyes narrow and focused on the trail ahead. “I feel like I’ve had a great race,” he said when I asked. “I just couldn’t keep up with François.”
But Max King doesn’t finish half an hour behind first place when he has great races. Still, it’s important to note that he does sometimes finish half an hour behind first place, and when he does he is always cheerful about it. He displayed this just after finishing. I essentially paced him for the last kilometer with a camera in my hand, running ahead and filming him coming through the final chute, and he kept telling me that my camera was crooked. “Can’t you just run your own race?” I demanded impatiently. He chuckled a little. He’s always joking around. And then he finished the race, and without hardly stopping he took his pants off again and jumped into the lake.
And that’s the end.
Also, I never made up with Nikita or the Chinese guys. They definitely hate me.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- And so, can you share a charming or funny story of crewing a runner during an ultramarathon?
- Or how about a story that explains how tiring and demanding crewing is?