The Toughest Man Alive... Lives in White Bear Lake
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This month, Pierre Ostor—a former gunsmith who holds a patent for a grenade launcher—will host and compete in one of the most grueling sporting events in the world, the Arrowhead 135 Mile Ultramarathon, from International Falls to Tower. That is, if he manages not to kill himself first.
As gravesites go, this one is crap.
It’s right on the highway, route 136 in California, for one thing, and the dry crust of salt and rock won’t keep the body down. In a way, that’s fine, because Pierre Ostor isn’t going in the ground. He isn’t dead—not yet, despite his best efforts—and so the Field Marshal, the Rabbit, and the Old Timer—Pierre’s support crew—are debating whether to pack him into the front seat of a rented Dodge Caravan and cart him into the little town of Lone Pine.
The body is fragrant. That’s one factor to take into account. Pierre smells like an offal-and-bunion sandwich, or a Tijuana floor-show, or a guy who’s been wandering through the desert for a-day-and-a-half straight while suffering a heinous case of the runs—which turns out to be exactly the case. And in the Venusian heat, rolling down the windows is not an option.
“We could wrap you up in ice out here,” the Rabbit says.
Pierre doesn’t say yes or no, doesn’t nod or lift a finger. He’s past moving, seemingly past caring. What happens to his broken-down body is a cosmic question now. A boon for the buzzards.
To Lone Pine, then. First, though, there’s the matter of the stake with Pierre’s race number, 71, scratched on the side. The splintery pine won’t mark the place where Pierre Ostor died, but rather the precise spot where the 51-year-old’s quest to run 135 miles through Death Valley came to a miserable end.
The Rabbit bends down in a shallow gully to sink the stake into the ground...and the pointed end snaps clean off. Hilarious! In the shaggy-dog joke that is the Badwater Ultramarathon, this is the punch line.
If the self-inflicted suffering of one man is a folly, the needless agony of dozens is a mass-delusion. A cult of chumps. Heaven’s Gate with pricier Nikes. And yet every summer now since 1987, dreamers and masochists and ordinary wackos have gathered at the lowest point in North America to see who can run the fastest and sleep the least. There are 83 other competitors on the highway this year, dangerously tanned ultrarunners from 15 countries. And every few minutes, one of them is overtaking Pierre. Stumbling faster, basically. You can see them coming from a mile away. Literally. Picture a Segway creeping past a Rascal scooter at Daytona.
Unlike NASCAR, though, practically no one here collects any sponsorship. A free Coleman cooler is about the extent of it. Dean Karnazes, author of the best-selling memoir Ultramarathon Man, is what passes for a celebrity. The fastest finisher will get a Badwater T-shirt. The slowest finisher will also get a Badwater T-shirt. It’s the same T-shirt.
But right now, Pierre lies stripped and supine on one of the double beds inside Room 124 of Lone Pine’s Budget Inn, a fine hostelry if you happen to measure your budget in aluminum cans. “You should take a cold bath,” the Field Marshal says. He looks in the bathroom; there’s no tub. “Or a cold shower.”
“No, I don’t want to,” Pierre says. “I’m freezing.”
Even with the air conditioner rumbling like a cement truck, it’s a dry sauna in here. Something to do with the fact that the window is open. But heat be damned. A few minutes later Pierre burrows into the sheets, and then under the blanket, and finally beneath the Dacron comforter, which is the color of an old bloodstain and bears a floral pattern of vaguely Roman imperial design.