Photos by Tim Roberts
“They watched him with something like awe…as though
he’d just returned from a period of wandering in some
remote and holy place, in sand barrens or snowy ranges—
a place where things are said, sights are seen, distances
reached which we in our ordinary toil can only regard with
the mingled reverence and wonder we hold in reserve for
feats of the most sublime and difficult dimensions."
—Don DeLillo, White Noise
Right now, high upon this ridge, we exist only in our lamplights as thin black membranes seizing against the cold red earth. We are like phantoms reveling in their lack of any bones. Things feel fluid and chaotic and not, all at once. Like we’ve given in to an undertow.
I have a lot of raw emotion this morning.
From the valley, we must appear feebly, if at all. Just some faintly shimmering wisps of light patiently ascending in the predawn like bubbles in a boundless inkwell.
I am feeling very teary and vulnerable.
We are five relative strangers casually talking about light things in the dark, moving like a narrow band of flickering cursors against a flat, black nothing.
God, I wish you could see this.
* * *
Race hardware doesn’t interest him. Neither do Ultrasignup trophies, gender placement, or age rankings. Fuck all that. None of it means anything. None of it has a pulse. None of it bleeds, digs deep, or hallucinates. It’s all just sterile coding, a hollow register of zeroes and ones.
What Michael seeks is only found in the unnerving emotional vacuum of hump miles. “Anytime you push beyond what you have accomplished before,” says Michael, “you are forcing yourself to expand, and there is always an unknown. I hate the unknown. I will do everything in my power to mitigate the unknown.” Yet that’s where all the good shit is, in the vague middle distances.
And Michael knows it.
In March 2021, he completed a self-styled 200-mile fatass on Mount Tamalpais (Mt. Tam), a prominent peak in the Marin Hills north of San Francisco. Running the same eight-mile loop twenty-five times over four-and-a-half days, Michael also bagged 57,000 feet of grueling vert. “You have a different sense of understanding and empathy after you have been through something like that,” says Michael. “It’s an experience that’s hard to explain.”
So, late last year, Michael began putting the pieces in place to up the ante. “I wanted to run 300 miles,” he says, “and it had to be 100,000 feet of climb. Those things were not negotiable.” Crunching the numbers, it felt doable. Forty laps. Ten days. Roughly 50k per day, with 10,000 feet of vert. “I can go fast if I want to,” says Michael. “This was about going slow to go far.”
He also gave the fatass a name: The FKTam300.
On the morning of March 17, 2022, standing in the darkness beside a tall, four-sided clock—the marker which would serve as the beginning and end of each lap—in the quiet, sleeping heart of Mill Valley, Michael smiled, snapped a photo, and ran into the unknown.
* * *
“He’s a rare feather,” says Carla Landrum, an ultrarunner and friend to Michael. “If he says he’s going to do something, he’ll do it. Come hell or high water, he’s going to do it.” One would be forgiven for assuming that Carla is referring to Michael’s tenacity. She isn’t, although it certainly applies. Rather, Carla is alluding to depth of character, his unwavering capacity for other people. “There is a social circle where you go and have and few beers and a couple laughs. But the people who will be there when shit gets hard? Michael is there,” says Carla. “There is a fundamental level of trust that I have with him that I don’t have with other people.”
Kendall Young similarly echoes that sentiment.
Having known Michael for nearly a decade, Kendall has served as Crew Chief for both Mt. Tam fatasses. “He is willing to go to service for someone in a way that is not very common,” says Kendall. “Which is friggin’ cool.”
When asked why Michael is so adept at navigating difficult challenges, Kendall’s response is customarily California. “There is this thing called the Integrity Tone Scale,” he says. “Without getting too ‘crystals and incense’ about the whole thing, dense vibrations are heavy. Things like sadness, concern, worry, whatever. They are all denser and further down the scale. Being down on the scale isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there is just less freedom to react. Michael will be sliding up and down this tone scale. At 200-miles, he might be feeling like there’s no way out. But here’s my point: He lives higher up on the tone scale than anybody I know. And it’s not just positivity. True freedom is the ability to not have something. This is critical to understanding Michael. He is absolutely willing to have this blow up. He lives in real freedom because he is willing to have it, but also equally willing not to have it.”
“It’s truly trippy.”
* * *
Through gaps in the coyote brush, the sky gathers form. Deep blue striations of light fan out along a dark furrow of distant hills and bleeds into the bay. Far below, San Francisco sparkles with fading intensity, while a gentle mist, frigid in the half-light, falls sideways and seeps into our clothing.
I am sorry tomorrow is probably going to be rainy.
Michael sets the tempo, leaning hard into a series of long, tight switchbacks. It’s his third day on the mountain. The composite fabric of his red running vest glows in vibrant contrast to the thin white base layer clinging to him like a second skin. On each wrist, he wears a fēnix smartwatch. He moves buoyantly, with childlike playfulness, running like someone who has tapped into a cosmic artery and is drawing energy from an immeasurable source. At fifty-five, he belies his age.
I am still 288 miles from finishing.
Four of us—Isabel, Carla, Tim, and I—fall in single-file behind him. Michael is keeping the mood bright, acting as a tour guide in the lingering darkness. He points out the lights of San Quentin. He points out the lights of Alcatraz. He points out the lights of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. He is an affable, dynamic conversationalist, rational and engaging. His vitality is infectious.
I know I am rambling. I hope there is something in these moments that will help you understand.
“Hear that?”, he asks. We stop and listen. A rich vibration reverberates off the steep serpentine wall. It sounds like a massive alien pump organ droning over a nasty swarm of mechanized hornets. It’s a brutal, disparate moan, booming and ancient. When I hear it, something in me splits wide open. It’s like I’m being spoken to in the mother tongue.
Michael smiles boyishly. “That’s the mountain,” he says, and tears off up the slope, leaving us to exchange confused glances.
God, I wish you could see this.
* * *
The mix reeks like cancer. I try not to inhale the fumes, but it’s futile. Acrid plumes of smoke billow from the hopper and foul up my diesel-stained clothing with a fetid, hellish smell. I’ll leave work today stinking like death.
WhatsApp pings my phone. Sprinkling sand over the steaming new patch, I check the notification. It’s a voice memo from Michael. I tap play, tuck the phone into the breast pocket of my work shirt, and continue filling potholes.
“Good morning, buddy. It’s day six.”
I smell sage and eucalyptus.
“I am standing on top of Tam, on loop nineteen.”
I see the fire tower on the summit.
“It took a little digging to get up here. I’m in those hump miles. These miles are always fucking hard.”
I see tiny, forested islands jutting out of the bay like dull incisors. A vibrant sprig of wildflowers. A vulture strafe a canopy of fir trees.
“Norman, one of my crew, is with me. He was positive the whole way, making jokes. I wrote some posts thanking my crew. I couldn’t do this without them.”
I see tumbling scree, slow-moving newts, and a green slug that is six-inches long. I see Michael running on the fire road. Michael at ‘the scramble’. Michael doing yoga. I see Buddha Rock, Angel Island, and the Anti-Tam.
“Shit. It’s getting hot.”
I hear labored breathing and a scraping sound.
“But I am going to get this done.”
I see a sky on fire and glistening black beads.
“I am going to get this done.”
The message ends abruptly.
And I go back to holding my breath.
* * *
“That’s the simple foundation of friendship. Michael is full of love, and he shovels that out to people. He doesn’t even think about it. There is no strategy behind it, that’s just true-blue Michael. And it brings out the best in people.” Michael is a stalwart in the Bay-area ultra-community. If he isn’t donning a bib, he’s clearing trails, pacing friends, haunting finish lines, or RDing events. His omnipresence, paired with his conviviality, has forged meaningful relationships that Michael continuously nurtures with patience and subtlety. He is blessed, in the truest sense, with an unfathomable depth of friendship.
He shows up for people, and they, in turn, show up for him.
Michael has been bringing people to Mt. Tam for years. “It’s like a sacrament,” Kendall says of Michael’s eagerness to share the mountain with others; the sunrise, in particular, being a favored gift to give his friends. “He really is a conduit for many people’s experiences. And he sees himself as just that.”
“When you go on a run with him, it is about you and that moment,” says Carla. “He knows very well that that moment is special, and he does try to capture it with pictures. When I first engaged with that, I was like, “Dude, we are burning so much time. Can we just run? What is with this picture nonsense?” She laughs, then grows very quiet. For a brief moment, there is silence. “Until the end of the year when I had hundreds of pictures on my computer. I went back and looked at those pictures, some of which I completely forgot, and it just hit me hard.”
“Here’s the thing,” says Michael. “No two summit experiences are ever the same. People. Weather. Me. Combine all of those and every one is different. Even if I go up there by myself, I am the variable that is different. It’s a different trip every time.”
In the weeks prior to FKTam300, seeking positive vibes and inspiration, Michael posted a request on social media asking anyone who had spent time with him on Mt. Tam to share their experiences. Friends responded by the dozens. They shared memories from first ascents and night runs and foggy mornings. They shared photos of coffee enjoyed on the summit and of Michael with a Tupperware of homemade banana muffins. They posted snapshots of the most beautiful sunrises imaginable, creating a dramatic juxtaposition of light and shadow in his comment thread. People expressed their love and appreciation for the simple gift that Michael had bestowed upon them. And Michael replied in kind, thanking them not just for joining him on the mountain, but for contributing to the awesome singularity of the experience.
A few days later, Michael again reached out on social media, this time with a signup link. Anyone who wanted to join him during the FKTam300 could do so. It was important to him that he share this experience with others. Again, the response was overwhelming. People signed up in droves. Some time slots even ran three or four pacers deep. Michael would not be alone on this journey. His friends simply wouldn’t allow it. They would be there for him with all the support they could muster.
Michael will tell me later, after the FKTam300 had concluded, that this incredible outpouring of support from the ultra-community had affected him profoundly during the event. “Sometimes I would be running in front of everyone, and I would be crying,” says Michael. “People didn’t know that. And I wasn’t crying because I was hurting. I was crying tears of gratitude.”
* * *
I walk through the municipal garage towards our breakroom, a bland windowless nook converted out of an old storage area. Parked in its spot along a far wall is the Vactor truck. It must have sucked out an environmental sewer this morning. Wastewater is pooling beneath its overflow valve and trickling into the floor drains. The entire garage now smells like shit. I don’t know how the guys in that department do it.
Tearing open a macrobar, I sit down for break and prop my feet on a thick coil of guywire that runs the length of the wall.
“Hey, buddy. Good morning,” begins Michael’s latest voice memo. “It’s 7:17, day eight. Heading out for lap one. We’re on summit twenty-four. Feeling good. Slow start.”
He sounds weary. It’s obvious he’s tired.
“I think I have concluded that we’re going to do three laps a day. Very manageable. This late in the game, four laps would have to be a really good day. It might come at too much a cost. And so, slow and steady.”
I see mist through the trees. A dim emerald pallor glimmers faintly in the space between branches.
“Today is Thursday, that will put us at lap thirty-nine by end of day Monday. Then we will queue out Tuesday, last run beginning at 9am.”
I brush against lichen on the boulders. I watch it flake off and fall like snow.
“Two guys will run up with me. Kendall, who hasn’t been able to run, I want him to go up and meet me for the final door tap with the rest of the crew so we can get a photo.”
I smell eggs cooking, broth coming to a boil, and all the spices of distant markets. I hear kitchen clatter. A radio playing soft. Whispered conversation. I see Kendall placing a bowl of noodles on the table. Kendall taking a roller to Michael’s calves. Kendall asleep on a blow-up mattress.
“Then we’ll meet back at the bottom, and we’ll take all of the lap numbers that we’ve been posting on the fence and stick them to clock.”
I see Kendall charge the smartwatches. Kendall draw a bath. Kendall divvy out salt tablets and naproxen. I see Kendall give and give and give and give and give.
“I’ll come down with the last number and hand it off to Kendall. He doesn’t know this.”
I see Kendall and Michael sharing a quiet moment on the porch.
“He is going to want me to stick the last one up, but I’m going to let him.”
I see Kendall and Michael embrace beneath the clock.
“It’s only appropriate he gets to tag the last one.”
I see a friendship capable of conquering mountains.
* * *
God, I wish you could see this.
Michael removes a flask from his vest and squeezes out a drink of water. A lone bead dribbles down his chin. He mindlessly wipes it away with the back of his hand. “This is my favorite spot on the mountain,” he says.
We stand on an exposed outcropping of rock, three-quarters of the way up Mt. Tam, facing south toward the bay. A cool, muted gloss of soft silver lighting dampens the sky, blackening faraway peaks, and bathing everything else in a slick mercurial sheen. The ocean is cerulean and featureless. Distant buildings stand out in cobalt variations, their fading light glinting with all the luster of diminished aluminum. Heavy, low-slung clouds charge across the sky like an armada of steel-grey warships. Everything looks like it was hammered out of gunmetal.
And it’s fucking beautiful.
At the end of the day, it is still my journey.
The faint musk of the early morning drizzle has blended with the dense piney essence of Douglas-fir and given the breeze an aroma of fecundity. It feels like every pore on earth is waking up to drink this in. And all I hear are our own tiny frictions. The whisper of fabric. A lens closing rapidly. Pebbles crushed beneath new weight.
“It looks like it has a pulse,” Carla says of the city below.
And she’s right, it does. I look past the valley and across the bay, and it begins to feel like those far off lights are pounding out a message, imploring me to pay attention, to soak this in, to wrap myself in this slate grey dawn and understand it for what it is—Michael’s gift to me.
This is my Mt. Tam sunrise.
Those raw emotions and vulnerabilities that I feel, that openness of heart that feels everything around me, that is something that I rarely feel.
I look over at him and he is smiling at me.
I want more of that.
I smile back.
I am going to lean in hard to that dark unknown and see what else is on the other side.
Thank you, Michael.
From the bottom of my heart, brother—Thank You.
* * *
In the end, he ran 320 miles, with 102,880 feet of vert, over thirteen days.
“Call this what it is, religious or whatever, but this was an epiphany,” says Michael. “Maybe it’s the Universe, or a greater plan, I don’t know, but so many pieces lined themselves up and came together. Reflecting back, I didn’t really plan for a lot of this. Things just fell into place.” He laughs. “I am sounding like a Buddhist, seeing all these universal signs.”
Early on, Michael had chosen to amend his approach, stepping back from his initial goal of four laps per day. “It turned that three laps was the most optimal,” he says. “On the fifth day, when I did four laps, it nearly broke me. We came in at 12:30am. I was super tired. I was low on energy and fading. I sat down at the kitchen table. It wasn’t like I didn’t want to do this anymore, but my body had the wind knocked out of it and I needed something.” Michael found his answer in a bowl of bone broth. “I drank it and literally the life came back into me.”
“That was the only low moment I had physically.”
With his plan moderately scaled back, Michael leaned on his crew for motivation and support. Bruce Nguyen. Satpal Dalal. Norman La. Cindy Young. And, of course, Kendall. Every one of them stepped up on his behalf and helped usher him home. “They have families. They have kids. They have school pickup,” says Michael. “One would come one night, another the following night. They would alternate. They would finish the last lap with me, drive home for the night, and be back the following morning to do another lap. Sometimes they stayed, but there were nights they only got a couple of hours of sleep. Having those people in my corner gave me a way to relax like I have never felt before.”
“I let go,” says Michael.
“I used to be a type-A planner. Very rigid. I’m more receptive now. The more at ease I feel, the more I lean into the unknown. One of the biggest takeaways from all this has been that the scariest part was also the most amazing part. The more I let go, the more okay I became with the unknown. It’s not as scary as I thought it would be.”
In the days and weeks that followed, Michael found himself repeatedly feeling overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the ultra-community, most notably from those who had signed up to join him on the mountain. “For thirty-nine laps, I had company,” he says. “Apart from the fifth lap, on the second day, I was never alone.”
When Michael reflects on this, he gets emotional.
“It was a glorious sunrise on that second morning,” he says. “And I cried. Tears just came out of me. It felt very cleansing. I left something behind and come down a different person. I shed a layer. Whatever that moment of sadness meant, I left it behind.”
“The mountain healed me.”
I am seated on an aisle in the tail section of a Boeing 737.
We should be airborne somewhere over western Iowa. Instead, we’re grounded in Chicago. There are technical issues in the cockpit. Problems with a gas gauge. That’s all we’ve been told.
Our inertness feels heavy and ripe.
The old man next to me is all elbows. He claims both armrests with startling aggression. Thick black frames make his eyes look far away even in his own head. Grey haired and jowly, he tucks his blue paper mask beneath his bulbous, finely pocked nose only to—seconds later—slide it back up over his hooked bridge. Then he does it again, pulling the mask under his nose. And again, it goes back up. And again. And again. Fine dry sprigs of brittle hair dangle from each of his nostrils like desert vegetation. I am certain this delay is all his fault. This fucker shorted out the gas gauge.
WhatsApp vibrates my phone. It’s Michael. I want to lash out at the man next to me. Expose him as a saboteur. Yell at him to go fix the fucking gauge. Until we taxi, he is the source of this delay. The target of my misguided frustration. The reason I am not yet en route to California.
To Mt. Tam.
This quiet old man in black sweatpants, reading a book about birds.
I need to let go and exist vicariously through the message.
“Hey, good morning, buddy. It’s Michael Li here.”
There is an emptiness to the space around him. I hear no birds, no airplanes, no traffic noise of any kind.
“It’s 8:29am. I started a little late this morning. I took an extra hour to take care of some necessary housekeeping, but I also took the time to get a little sleep.”
I try to picture the mountain. I try to picture the ocean. I try to picture what Michael looks like in person.
“I was in a deficit the last couple of nights, only getting four hours of sleep. So I slept in for an extra hour knowing that its only day two and I didn’t want to get too far in the hole.”
Everything I see is generic. Generic mountains. A generic ocean. A generic Michael.
“And that was helpful. I took a little longer to have cup of coffee and connect with people who are being so supportive. I am up here…”
Michael’s voice cracks.
“…at about mile three, almost to the top.”
“God, I wish you could see this.”
Me too, man. Me too.