Chased by a Crucifix up Imogene Pass

Hersch Wilson
5 min readJan 30
Picture from . . I am not in this picture!

This sound: “Clunk, clunk, clunk,” is forever imprinted in my neural network.
A note that will help understand the following story. I am not a religious person. I am ex-Catholic. That means while not going to Mass or following the church’s precepts, part of me remains that faithful eleven-year-old altar boy terrified of hell, fraught with guilt, and desiring to be a Martyr.
With that said, it was a September day in Ouray, Colorado. It was 7:00 A.M., and I was standing in a crowd of really fit individuals. We were about to embark on the Classic Imogene Pass Run, from Ouray up the pass to 13,114 feet and down to Telluride. It’s a bit over 17 miles. Carrying gloves, a jacket, and a hat is recommended because the weather can change from sunny to a blizzard in minutes. Yay!
I know you’re thinking, “Fun!”
I wasn’t thinking that. I was thinking, “What have I done?” “Maybe I can sneak outta here and go back to our hotel!”
But Laurie, my wife and partner who had driven with me the six hours from Santa Fe to “support” me in this race, gave me that look that said, “We’re here, and you will do this.”

That’s what support means: making someone do something that they have changed their minds about doing.

What was not helping was that everyone was so enthusiastic. Lots of cheering and backslapping. Standing in line for the porta-potties, I talked to one younger guy in his twenties — too young for this kind of torture — and he told me he wanted to push himself to his limits. I rejoined that I just wanted to survive.
Looking around, I noticed that the bulk of the folks preparing for the run didn’t look like everyday distance runners: not tall, skinny, and lanky. Instead, they were primarily compact and strong: people who do a lot of running up hill. They were mostly in their thirties and forties, with a couple of “older” folk who looked incredibly fit. All had backpacks with water and warmer clothes.
Even though our family motto was, “What’s the worst that could happen?” my confidence was rapidly sinking.
Then, a little Toyota pickup pulled up. A man, two kids, and a woman were crammed in the front seat. I darkly thought they maybe all of them were going to run the race.
Then the guy, presumably the dad, got out of the truck and went to the truck bed. He lifted out of the bed what looked like an 8' wooden crucifix. It must have weighed 50 pounds. Immediately I understood that he planned on dragging the Cross up the race course: for 17 miles!
Now given this, you might think: what devotion! What a sense of sacrifice for what was obviously a deep belief in tenets of Christianity. I come from Santa Fe, where on Easter, individuals drag Crucifixes up the highway to the Santuario de Chimayo, a holy place in New Mexico. Bless them!
But what I thought at that moment was different. I whispered to myself, “At least I can beat this guy!”
Okay, not my kindest and most empathetic self. But hey, I was nearly throwing up with anxiety.
At 7:30, we all gathered at the starting line — lots of whooping and hollering. Then, the gun went off, and we started.
I found myself in the middle of the back of the pack, exactly where I belonged. My new nemesis was about a quarter mile behind, but I noticed he was smiling when I looked.
The first part of the course was a gradual climb, there to inspire a false sense of confidence. Then, after about an hour, we turned a corner and looked up at the next part, a steep climb up the rocky scree bowl. “Running” ceased. Now it was hands on thighs, pushing your legs down as you climbed and tried mightily to keep your heart rate below 200.
Surely, I thought this steep bowl would slow down you-know-who, but no, he was 100 yards behind me and climbing steadily.
I began to think that my religious choices may have been wrong.
The goal was to reach the pass’s summit by 1200 P.M. lest you be humiliated and sent back to Ouray. As more and more runners passed me, the idea of turning around and walking back down seemed pleasant. But there was the guy with the Cross!
So I plodded on. “Plodding” is a well-known stride in mountain running. Place one foot in front of the other, pause, and repeat. Posture is usually bent over, head down. It reflects the sheer desperation in the soul of a mountain runner.
Now exhaustion and pain had washed all rational thought out of my mind. It was only him and me — the Christian vs. the Agnostic. In that hallucinogenic state that often occurs during a long run, the fate of Western Civilization seemed to hang on this race.
I reached the summit with minutes to spare and was politely asked if I was okay. Of course, the answer was no. I mean, who does this? But I mumbled yes, and I was given the best food on the planet: M&M’s. Joyous! Chocolate!
I munched. I drank Gatorade. I put on my jacket for the run downhill.
And then I heard it: “Clunk, clunk, clunk:” the sound of the wooden Cross dragged over rock. I looked over my shoulder. There he was.
We made eye contact.
I put down my Gatorade and began to run.
The mind was willing, but the legs were not. I got about 100 yards when I had to stop and rest.
And then I heard, “clunk, clunk, clunk.” I panicked. Arms akimbo, I began to limp-run downhill. Another 100 yards. Rest. “Clunk, clunk, clunk.”
Sister Mildred, my fifth-grade Catholic school teacher, had intimated that we would never be able to leave the faith, that it would follow us in our dreams, and here it was being acted out!
The rest of the race was a series of short bursts, pauses with increasing nausea, and the sound of the Cross over rocks.
Finally, down around 8000 feet, the finish line appeared. Because I was now with the group of stragglers, there were few at the finish line: officials, one or two well-wishers, and Laurie.
She thought I would run through the line, arms up in victory!
But no. I staggered across and looked over my shoulder at the manifestation of my religious past. He was only ten yards behind me.
And he was still smiling.
It seemed a pyrrhic victory at best.
I don’t remember stopping to high-five Laurie. I think I waved and then kept staggering — walking backward because my quads were on fire — to our hotel room and the sanctity of the bathroom.

By the way, I learned that deeper thinking comes only after pain recedes. My feet were a blistery mess, my stomach churned, and serious fatigue set in. We still had to check out and drive home to Santa Fe (Don’t worry, I didn’t drive: not physically possible). Arriving home after the run and then six hours in a car, I had to be pried out of my seat.
As for the metaphoric — chased by the Cross — I chose to consciously not make too big a deal about it. That’s what agnostics do. But for weeks after, late at night, on the edge of sleep, I’d hear: “clunk, clunk, clunk.”

Hersch Wilson

Writer. Retired Firefighter. Dog Lover. Buddhist Beginner.