We all have challenges in life, from balancing work with family to juggling our health and schedules. Each day we tack on ever-increasing years and mileage just by being present. Sometimes falling short is the best we can do, sometimes going bigger than we could imagine is asked of us with no more warning than the arrival of the sunrise. I’ve always on some level viewed success in life as having control of my destiny that day when I first see the sun, but that’s just the goal, a vision, and sometimes just being awake is more of an achievement than we give ourselves credit for.
On September 15th, I was scheduled to enter my first ultra-marathon, a 50-miler that would take place in the La Sal Mountains of Utah and end in the slickrock paradise of Moab — The M.A.S. 50. After hitting some major trail running goals this summer, I elected to take the next step in my mountain-obsessed career and try this. Trying something new and unleashing the process that has allowed me to throw myself at so many bizarre goals is a yearly struggle for me and brings about occasions I fight to rise to. I hate to lose as much as I hate to quit, but sometimes my goals look more like I hate myself, although that is not actually the case (I really just want to know what I’m made of). What looks like punishment from the outside is actually just evidence of emerging flaws within — weakness, doubt and uncertainty that I hope to purge. This process challenges me to constantly conjure a willingness to move forward despite obstacles and in that process, man, I feel good when I execute.
Sure, the above sounds inspiring but this is not a story about the M.A.S. 50, I did not toe the line on that day – September 15th. In fact, I did not complete one mile on that trail that day, and I didn’t even go to Moab. I met a greater representative of who I am inside, and learned to appreciate a different virtue — vulnerability on such a greater scale — just three days before that day I had prepared for with a single-minded focus. On September 12th, my wife and I welcomed a son into the world, eight weeks early.
My wife gives me credit for all the years I spent negotiating life and death situations in the mountains sometimes when I deal with something in a way others may not. However, on this occasion, all of that training saved our son’s life. It was just one simple decision to stop and get gas before speeding an hour and a half down the Telluride Valley to Montrose, Co. that made the difference. Her water broke after dinner, we packed a bag, said goodbye to our dogs at 7:10 and out the door we went, her in an immeasurable amount of pain coupled with the fear and anxiety of a premature birth and far from the world of advanced medicine and OBGYNs.
As any mountain guides know, when things go wrong, making quick decisions can alter the course of action to irreversible. I could tell that this situation was getting intense so we called our doctor in Grand Junction, asked for some advice and as I poured a cup of coffee in the gas station, grabbed my wife a cold water and pumped a few $4 gallons into our car — the five minutes of letting the situation unfold properly passed like an eternity. That five minutes to look at the situation clearly dictated the next two hours. Rather than deliver our son in the car and on the way to the hospital, we safely took an ambulance to the Telluride Medical Center where my wife and an extraordinary team delivered a 4lb 8 oz. boy — one of the few babies since 1964 to be born there. He was welcomed into the world just moments before his first chopper ride to Grand Junction, Co. and a month long stay in the NICU of the hospital.
So, no race that weekend. What I was actually training for was here early and I am proud of him as he showed me that being barely able to do anything on his own, being completely vulnerable, completely helpless, unable to really even live without so much help was OK. We saw a lot of sunrises as he stayed in the NICU in the hospital for almost a month with my wife and dedicated mother-in-law keeping constant vigil over his every breath. Each day was a small step forward as he learned to eat, breathe and keep his eyes open. He taught me it doesn’t take amazing physical feats in the mountains to uncover the human spirit, it is here already everyday — in each of us. He is the best proof I could ever have that life goes on, that moving forward is not always easy, but it is possible, and that life itself is the goal. The situation also taught me that dumb luck trumps the best laid plans; had he been delivered in the car he would have not have made it, drowning in fluid that filled his lungs. To top if off, we had to move our family two and half hours away to Grand Junction, Co. until he can come home in 4 to 6 months.
But that is not the end of the story. Life is about doing what you can even when it seems like you can’t. I always remind myself that patience and an eye for opportunity will overcome the present day at some point good or bad. It helps me to freak out a little bit when it’s bad, get over the adjustment and then pick it up and motor to the next of however many phases there are to whatever new challenge surfaces.
So two weeks later than The M.A.S. 50 in Moab, with my wife’s permission, I toed the line of a 50 Mile race for the first time. This race — The Devil Mountain Ultra in Pagosa Springs Co. started at sunrise on 9/29/12. It was just above freezing at 6 a.m. and after two weeks of very little sleep, being on high alert and a gut wrenching uber dehydrating food poisoning episode two days before, I covered 50.87 miles on trails, climbing and descending 8300′. The most memorable part of the race was spent under a tree on a mountainside during a scary electrical storm that drenched me to the core and lasted 45 minutes at mile 42. Accompanied by another shivering and damp racer, Roger Youngs, who shared the same fear of being hit by lightning, I stood back up with a stiff and riddled body to give it what I had and climbed 800′ back up to the saturated plateau that led for another 8 miles to the finish.
Although the circumstances were not ideal, I never questioned why I was here doing this. I was lucky to meet Roger Youngs that day and hang out for way too long under that tree while the storm raged above. He had destroyed his feet in minimal running shoes, I had hobbled, run and overcome a massive blow to the outside of my right foot at mile 8 that made it swell up and bruise like it had literally been run over or beat with a sledge hammer by mile 23. These were newbie mistakes that put us both at the back of the pack with fresh legs and motivation to finish, but mistakes I could accept easier than telling my wife I had been gone for a couple of days and not really done anything but bruise my foot to the point where I couldn’t run for two weeks.
When we arrived at the last aid station at mile 44.5, I gave Roger my more cushioned shoes and put on a fresh pair I had waiting in a drop bag there. We plunged downhill into approaching darkness and I finished that day by headlamp at 13 hours and 8 minutes, 3 minutes behind Roger who I made a believer in the Brooks Pure Grit shoe that after 45 miles in his other non-cushioned shoes might as well have been hovering above the trail with soft marshmallows under his riddled feet. Running slowly in the darkness with nothing more than the distantly faint sound of music and people around a feast at the finish that I was too late to enjoy, I had no idea if I could finish or not and that was not an easy feeling. I didn’t know if my foot may just completely collapse under a catostrophic stress fracture and totally take me down as the last three miles stretched onward to mile 50, and then there was an extra .87 miles to go past that. I knew I could try until it did and when I finished, it was pretty anticlimatic except for that my foot had not broken in half. I didn’t feel anything at the finish line and wasn’t overly fatigued, kind of like when I summit a peak and have all the way down to go, there was gas in the tank but this time the vehicle had no tires. Despite what you might think there was no sense of relief or accomplishment, no excitement, no hunger, nothing. Well, take that back, I felt my foot and I felt a sense of urgency to ice it. This was OK for me and something I am used to, if you are of the mindset to complete a 50 mile race, delaying gratification is probably in your DNA as well.
Sometimes we have to balance a lot in life, we have to go an extra .87 miles, we have to work harder than others, we have to overcome ourselves and the mistakes we make, we have to push our limits with pain in every step. In this case, I didn’t so much overcome the mileage or the fear, I overcame my expectations and took control of one day of my life at sunrise in the midst of an otherwise out of control plot I am living. Just because I made it to that finish line that started so far away that day only meant that race was over. I had no emotion because the moment it was over, I thought about someone else and hisr accomplishment and was excited to be a part of it. I thought about my wife and my boy and I realized that in order to feel anything like what I thought I might, I would have to be with them. I liked that, realizing that for the first time something that seems like such an individual accomplishment would at least this time hold nothing more than a lackluster statistic of being some guy who finished in the back of the pack, as usual, a display that the only real talent I have to show for my athletics is heart. Beyond that, the true and quantifiable result of running that first 50 miler wasn’t just to realize I could go the distance, but to realize that the distance from my family would be the one that would hold the most meaning and it was time to jump in the car and get moving forward with my life again. This was not the time to pat myself on the back and get too comfortable. After all, there was another sunrise to catch and each one for the last 38 days has been better than the one before.