I didn’t want to go. I mean, I did, but I didn’t. I had managed to semi-successfully understand Sam the race director’s strong London accent during our phone call, buy coach tickets to Ljubljana and back, and pack up. Still, when the time came on a Thursday evening to head to the nearest train station, I wanted to just call off the whole thing and stay.
Luckily, my sense of responsibility is quite strong. As I was signed up to volunteer at an ultra-running event, I simply had to go. Backing out wasn’t going to happen even if I had broken an arm. What more, this was my chance to finally, possibly, hopefully, feel at least a speck of happiness again. The six weeks since I’d left my home in California were difficult, discouraging, and soul-crushing to say the least and I was ready to change that, however minuscule that change would be.
Eighteen hours including a coach delay, a sleepless night, and a traffic accident later, I got off a bus in the small town of Ajdovščina. Sam had told me that the base team wouldn’t arrive at camp until six in the afternoon; it was eleven in the morning. So I found a café, settled there, and enjoyed their air-con and a chocolate cake. It was already some 30°C.
A bit later, I headed up to the camp where we’d be all staying. I still had some four hours left before everyone would start arriving so I took advantage of that; I laid down on my hoodie and duffel bag and grabbed a portion of sleep. A weak thunderstorm soon rolled in, bringing a bit of rain and a welcome respite from the heavy heat. I just curled up under my rain jacket and slept on.
Eventually, a few chatting voices woke me up. Disheveled, crumpled, and perfectly confused, I met two girls who’d later become my tent-mates and friends and two locals, one of whom later turned out to be Boštjan the UTVV race director.
A few hours later, the camp was filled with people in blue and grey setting up tents, debating the race plans, and planning the race coverage. A day later, the square in the town was filled with people in blue and gray setting up the finish line, eating pizza, and drinking coffee together. Another day passed and this group of people in blue and gray could be called something like friends, having sweated in the midday sun, run up the surrounding hills, and swum in the freezing Hubelj river together.
The runners came in that Sunday afternoon and the race could truly begin. The beautiful race bubble formed pretty quickly in the camp. It didn’t matter that the runners were the best of the best; as it tends to be within the trail and ultra running community, everybody was chill, friendly, and ready to share food and stories. It didn’t take long before my heart started to feel a bit lighter, even if I hadn’t realized it yet at that point.
The next few days blew by in a blur. I met a few more locals who were helping out with the race, made jokes with the rest of the crew, dipped my hands in ice buckets, and held one of those to catch one runner’s sick in it while stroking his back. I was in my element once more. I might have forgotten what it felt like to be doing the thing that fulfilled me the most but I hadn’t forgotten how to do the thing itself.
I drove big cars on tiny roads and walked with two of my newly made friends into Italy to have coffee and croissants for breakfast. I laughed with the local photographer and ran in the gorgeous Soča Valley. I ate ice cream and swam in rivers and shared sweets and snacks with the rest of the crew, laughed at their jokes, and did their shopping when they couldn’t drive because I was the one insured driver. I laughed with and consoled runners, got invited to come to Taiwan and Mexico to visit them, confused the locals by understanding some of what they said in Slovene, and gave and received more hugs than in the past half-year.
I did a lot of things and at the end of the week, when the runners were gone, the stars were out, and everyone had gone to sleep, I realized that, for the first time in what felt like forever, I had experienced real, unfiltered, serendipitous joy.
Before I came to Slovenia, I had thought nearly every day about what it might be like to just stop existing. At the end of this week in Slovenia, I could only think about how thankful I was that I hadn’t ended my existence in this world and this body. This back-and-forth with what turned out to be a moderately severe depression is far from over… but it’s what it is now: a fight. Before, it was nearly a surrender.
It took me a bit over 24 hours to travel back to where I live now and this journey proved to give me the precious time to reflect in comparable peace. Sure, I fell out of the bus during passport check at the Austrian border and added a few new lines to my already extensive scars but hey, the design on my legs needed a tune-up anyway. As it happens, my body had started to heal immediately the new scratches and I knew that, just like my body, my mind was about to finally follow suit.
Thankfulness doesn’t begin to cover the scope of the emotion I feel. Running might be life-changing but really, it’s the people one meets along the trail or the road that make the change happen.
Thank you, Ultra X. Thank you, the local race crew. Thank you, Slovenia.