Let’s face it, every now and then we just hit the dirt. I don’t mean it figuratively; I mean sometimes we are muddy, wet, out of energy, used up and spent. I’ve been reduced to a swim up the last 10 feet to the world’s highest summit, a crawl across exposed ridgelines with lightning dancing around and once — only once in my life — have I been as muddy, wet and spent, and actually attained something without fear guiding me, just pure bliss and the unbridled confidence it inspired. It was two weekends ago in Richmond, Va. of all places.
I’ve had an interesting year. My family had a major emergency in the fall, business was tough as we dealt with an unfortunate loss of an inspiring ski guide we had filmed and when I thought it couldn’t get any more complicated or challenging… my ski clothes and most of my outdoor gear was stolen out of the back of my car in Grand Junction, Co. just as I was considering putting them on and finding the wind in my face again. “Damn!” I thought, “what next?” I drove to REI that day and bought the Brooks Pure Grit 2 trail shoe and started over on rebuilding my kit from the ground up. A frugal man, the task of re assembling $4,700 worth of gear seemed daunting as medical bills got larger and larger. I just wanted to keep it simple so right then and there I committed to running and nothing else until next winter. I had already run two 50 milers that fall and drank the Kool-Aid of simple travel on foot, so the crook who stole my gear only affirmed this decision.
Running was all that kept me in place during this last year, moving toward something I could envision and I alone would be accountable for. Running in the morning, mid day or even at night, running in knee deep powder, running on icy roads, running through the empty desert and running when it was dry and then when spring came and it rained. All along I told myself that if I made a committment to one sport for one year, I could see its merits, I could unlock its “flow.” Running in the mountains was the “secret” to my Himalayan speed and strength, it was also the elusive mistress of my imagination living in a wintry wonderland of dawn patrol distractions. I’ll be honest, it was hard wrapping my head around some of the biggest snow days when “running” three miles took nearly an hour, or when I struggled to the finish of my first 50 mile trail Ultra in September after just three months of running. But all along in that year since I last put my skis on and laid down fresh tracks in the high Himalayas, I believed it was time to leave my comfort zone and enter the empty space between pushing the envelope and sending it. This was a space I often visited on my journey from a Tennesse boy in 2001 to learning to climb and ski the world’s highest mountains for a decade. And an empty place where uncertainty isolates what is possible from what is true.
Now what I have to say may not inspire anyone, but for me, small milestones of discovery are the only thing that allow me to truly believe something big is possible. I have to have them at some point or I feel hopeless — don’t we all? But as an athlete who performs for the views as much as the challenges, I soon learned that competition can also inspire… this is where Richmond, Va. comes in.
As I lined up for a 10K in front of over 790 other people at 6PM on a Saturday night, my tight left hip slowly gained range of motion while I bounced around listening to Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell.” It had been a wet, muggy day, I had done my speedwork on a bike at the gym earlier that morning and then was on my feet the rest of the day walking around Belle and Brown Isle as a guest of the Dominion River Rock festival. As the moments counted down, my name came over a loud speaker introduced as an Osprey athlete and suddenly I realized something; I became a runner and somehow the announcer thought I was somebody and the lead pack might too — ha! I’m nobody special, but when that gun shot rang out and it was time to move, I was at least fast and up front.
The first six minutes were a blur, but a mile moved underfoot, the second six and change — much the same — but I was holding on. In front there were a few people who knew the way, this was a course that had wild urban intricacies broken by long stretches of single track trails and the occasional rock hop, sewage tunnel or fence and railroad tie climb. Put lightly, a badass sprint through an urban trail system that linked technical trail running with the speed of East Coasters who can crush the road. How did it feel? HARD
Halfway through it was impossible to pass, the rutted roots, slippery auburn-colored clay and ankle deep puddles put many people down on the ground. Two-thirds in I busted out a 12-mile an hour pace and passed a large group on a bridge and then settled in for what I hoped would subside — nasuea in deep humidity coupled with just under redline output. In the final moments I tapered back as we charged up a steep ramp across a pedestrian bridge and I thought I would have another .7 miles to go and open up into a fast flat homestretch where I could leave what I had left out there.
Instead… I finished. My GPS watch was .5 miles off due to the forest canopy hovering over the single track and there I was cruising softly through the finish line with energy to spare and a time of 45:24; 6.2 miles at 7:18 pace per mile. “Shit!” I was, as usual, frustrated momentarily at my result (I can’t ever be satisfied-just FYI) and not knowing the end was nearer. I walked away, grabbed my bag and wandered off to the Festival a sloppy mud-and-salt-covered mess and instantly tried to persuade any one who would listen to enter this awesome race next year. I genuinely enjoyed the course and as a mountain and desert open space kind of guy, felt this was every bit as fun –maybe even more so…
The moment of elation came not at the finish line, it came in an e-mail a few hours later. In the e-mail I learned I had finished 39th out of 799 racers. That is the top five percent. I had no idea because I don’t race short distance. I have only raced five times in my life, all over-50K races, and despite moving up each time, you can only see so much progress every couple of months in racing that distance.
I run a lot, every week up, down, across stuff. Often I am totally alone. I don’t care to compare myself to anyone, only to my results yesterday you know, there usually isn’t anyone out there on the trail but me for miles. I can always improve and believe that I always have to, nature certainly has enough spaces out there that take a while to get to. But for one moment, when that e-mail arrived and it set in as I sat there alone, I could call myself elite — something that I never would — and realize that all the miles, time and committing slowness in the snow this winter put me as a 33-year-old adult right there with an Olympic qualifier, college cross country athletes and some of the East Coast’s finest and fastest. What does it mean; I have to keep training harder to pull off what I really want to do — a massive traverse of fourteen 14ers in Colorado in 60 hours, but also that something I put a year into actually was worth it and if nothing else, I held it together that day becuase I held it together a lot of other days. Sometimes life is that simple — a pair of shoes, a small backpack, some water and you can go further than you ever imagined. Now I realize progress doesn’t have to be extreme distances in the wild places that normally inspire me, all it took was a six mile run though the city…