“Life comes from water,” my friend Erich explained at the kitchen table over a beer. “Everywhere you look is something” he quipped, describing the lushness that fills the banks and surrounding terraces along the Colorado river as it carves through the Grand Canyon. Although Erich had made a month-long voyage through the canyon by boat before, this conversation was just 22 hours after our visit there. A journey that made an immutable impression on me as I traversed on foot from one side of the canyon to the other and then back — doing something known as a Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim.
To know something, I must dive in, get my hands dirty and commit. This was my first adult trip to the Grand Canyon so I set my bar high. Always an eager ear to listen to my river-loving friends’ tales of the months of their lives spent exploring this place, one of the seven wonders of the world, I came away with a sense that the canyon was quite large and almost guaranteed to free you from the technological and municipal tangles of daily life. It has walls that are five-to-six-thousand feet high, hidden trails that can only be reached by water and tales of explorations in rugged environments as variable as winter and summer in the same day. My friends always echoed that planning is critical to success, keeping it in check is critical to success and luck… well, that would be a part too. I had that this weekend, that was the most critical piece to my success venturing into this stunning terra firma — not for a month, but for a very long day.
At 5:06 AM in sub freezing temps on November 19th, 2013, the three of us, Erich, Heather and I, dropped over the South rim of the Grand Canyon via the South Kaibab trail. A feathery wave of warmer air softly invited us to descend into the chasm, guided by a full moon and anticipation of our long day. The trail was wide and well worn, with each foot strike powdery bursts of red dust erupted and sent a misty cloud into the follower’s headlamp beam. Massive jagged shapes — like those drawn in Dr. Seuss’s books — slowly rose above us as Gotham-esque outlines. In an hour we were warmed up and dropping 4700′ of vertical to the Colorado river minute by minute. Then suddenly it happened…”Ben” Erich exhaled from behind me “I fell.”
I knew how he felt, the day before I had stepped off a snow-covered front porch in Telluride, Co and ate it so hard. I fell directly onto my butt and took a diagonal impact across my entire lower back and sacrum to the point of some immediate swelling, bruising and an occasional pinch since then. Content to carry on and visit the canyon anyway, I iced it in the drivers seat, took some ibuprofen and figured that a six-and- a-half-hour car ride was plenty of time to determine how it would play out.
Unlike my klutzy self, Erich made it to the trail before going down. He caught a foot step in a powdery pocket of dust, hyperextended his right knee and sent his body hurtling forward. Starting from 8 mph and ending at 0 with a white flash and nausea, a crumpled red dust covered being barely set atop a rock is a tough place to be 5.2 miles into a 42.4 mile day. I walked 150′ back up to Erich and helped him assess the situation. His gear lay strewn about the stark landscape like a gypsy yard sale at a Phish show. The impact had been “big” and he sat on a rock, reeling from mild shock.
“Man, what do you think?” I said. “I think I blew my knee and I’m seeing white” he said. Ughhh, I thought, THAT sensation, when you have cratered full-on superman style into a pain cave, disorientation and a sense of despair so low, so ominously coursing through every inch of your body that retching is all that sounds good. Erich was going to need a few minutes to recover, then we would see where he was at. He is a strong dude with a solid chassis.
In a little time, Erich shuffled to his feet and walked 100′ downhill and it was clear that he could move, but rather than take that as a sign to continue, he wisely chose to use his energy to get himself out of the canyon less injured. He was finished. We both knew Heather, tactfully descending somewhere above us, would be a solid back up as she was doing a burly 14 mile day with 9400′ in vertical change, turning around at the bottom of the canyon and heading back up. I cleaned his shades, put his visor back on him and said good bye with his confidence I could still complete the day alone.
Off I went into the dark maw until dawn. I crossed the Colorado river and arrived at my first water break at Phantom Ranch some seven miles, 4700′ of descent and two hours into the day — a slow setup to a long sustained effort. Forty extra minutes of darkness and low temperatures were absorbed in the scenario above and it was important to cruise with a little urgency in the cool morning up a 6200′, 14.2-mile climb to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I had time thanks to the early start and I wasn’t bothered at all about being off schedule, just aware that the sun would be up soon. I took off from Phantom Ranch after hastily replacing the half liter of fluids I had consumed and had a nice time running a little harder on the North Kaibab trail’s lower reaches and seeing the life Erich had spoken about, the life that comes from water in the depths of such a stark and craggy stack of monoliths.
As I strode through a broad section of opening valley, a hole burst in my hydration reservoir, right at the bottom of the pack and like that, at mile 13 — I had potentially blown this attempt. I had fumbled around in my pack in the dark and placed a sharp object too close to the durable plastic. When I filled the bladder to capacity at Phantom Ranch it put too much pressure on it. My jacket, gloves and two McDonald’s cheeseburgers were soaked in an orange solution of gatorade and fresh water. I was super pissed, this was my fault and now jeopardized successfully completing the traverse to one rim, making running back to the other nearly impossible. All I had left were two gels, three blocks, one granola bar and 29 miles to stretch it out.
I have not had an episode like this in a while, where a total meltdown could be so imminent, with nearly no solid food and no water or way to carry water. I was in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, six miles from people in one direction and going to have to pull off 22 more miles with what I had with only two chances for mere sips of water in between. This was a moment for contemplation as a bright wave of sunlight slowly pushed silhouttes of the enveloping 5000′ canyon walls down into the valley and soaked into my bare shoulders for the first time. I made my decision and went for it; I like to finish things, and figured that if had to hike out to conserve energy — I would, I could — even if it meant going into darkness.
This was my sixth “ultra marathon” distance run. I went into it expecting to just cruise it, albeit with a partner, food and water. I had strategically wanted to run hard from miles 21.2 to 35.4 for training, but other than that, I had no real goals other than finishing before dark and having a nice day on the trail with some friends. This was not a race, it was a day out. I had never set foot on a trail in the Grand Canyon so it felt like I should allow time for photos as well, you know, like a tourist. But now this, a chance for an epic draw on my deepest reserves instead became part of the experience. I hadn’t explored that kind of distance totally alone before and this was my last run before a mandatory prolonged break for a few weeks in between seasons.
Without belaboring the point or disrespecting the canyon, I will say the eight miles and 6200′ of uphill in the sun were hard with no water! As I neared the top and mile 21.2, I felt the pangs of desperation uncoiling from within and sequestering my brain to intervene and stop this messy attempt if I saw anyone at the parking lot. When I arrived, there in the frost-covered shade of a stone-planted National Park sign were three spigots of water I had planned on seeing. I strolled up, tried all three and not a trickle flowed. “Shit, no water, oh man, it’s over,” I thought! I sat down, it was cold, my clothing was soaked in my pack and I sort of zoned out and was trembling from the still, cool air in the shade. Moments later, a trio of climbers I passed on the way up appeared and I asked them if they had any disposable water bottles. They gave me a fresh 24 oz. water bottle that I opened and chugged. Damn I was lucky. Flat out, that gesture took this from being the longest day ever to the longest day on empty.
I crammed the awkwurd bottle in my pack and had revitalized my hydration to a manageable point that could be recovered. Cramping in my side due to dehydration and the fall off the porch from the day before inspired me to jog down the trail a little easier until it abated and soon the trail was flowing singletrack and a river ran nearby. I was never afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it and even got to push the 14 mile section I wanted to, not a ton, but enough to feel like I really “ran” the rim to rim to rim.
By mile 35 I had been through everything, I had lost my partner, my water, my solid food– but I gained the confidence I needed to carry forward and I took a chance that paid off because of luck. As I sat at Phantom Ranch the second time passing through, seven miles and 4700′ below the South Rim in post lunchtime sun, I wiped my salt covered face off with a wet handkerchief. Autumn’s golden foliage flowed from side to side and I sat undisturbed at a drinking water spigot outside the ranch’s canteen for nearly a half hour. Wow, I thought, it’s nice to sit down for a moment and reflect at the actual lowpoint of this trip. I had almost totally crossed this huge feature on foot with the bare minimum and couldn’t really complain about anything. It was all working out, just with some readjusted expectations. I was fast enough to get it done and slow enough to see it for an experience and not just an achievement, it was real and not just a blur.
With this in mind, I departed down trail to the Colorado River and stopped to observe portaging boats as they made their way to and through the beach at Bright Angel campground in the midst of their own three-week journeys through this magnificent feature — the same journey my river-loving friends were always bating me with. I thought about how still and tranquil it must have felt for them at times and how glad I was at the time to know my compressed journey was almost done and it was long before sunset. I was ready to head back to the world to friends and family.
Ascending out of the valley and up the South Kaibab’s 4700′ trail winding through dreamscape and postcard views, I soaked up the last of my water, an 80 calorie espresso flavored gel and just plodded along on empty. In perfect light above wild steppes and crumbling mountainsides carved out of a vastness so immense, I could understand now that which can only be understood after 42.4 miles and 22,000′ of elevation change in a place. My expectations were totally vanquished, I couldn’t help but revel in the sheer magnificence of this iconic National Park and at the same time still obsessively eyeball every 10th of a mile on my GPS watch until the end — about 54 in a row on the grueling return uphill. There is no way to come here and say it should be called, “pretty big canyon” or “yeah that’s a nice canyon.” This thing is the definition of Grand to the core. The running part, totally secondary.
The final four-tenths of a mile at the top were steep but Heather and Erich were there cheering as I approached the end of my first journey through the Grand Canyon. With sunken eyes and waning energy I was thankful for hearing their voices, the jug of water they handed me… and sitting down. Life comes from water, sharing a few sips and scanning the horizon for the last rays of the sun dappling the many features of the sterile and parched upper canyon, life indeed was coming back.
I don’t think I could be a mountaineer without traveling the world, and vice versa. For me the freedom to roam in the mountains in any way I want feels natural, like a “given.” I don’t mean to say that I can do anything I want physically, I’m referring to the opportunity to explore anywhere within reason or without one at all! I am grateful to be an American and to have the privilege of that freedom. If there is a mountain somewhere I want to climb — I can probably at least try it — almost anywhere in the world. So I travel.
One of the lessons I learned traveling was that in other countries, the U.S. stands out, and not just because of our extensive national park system. There were people out there who were so psyched on the U.S. that they would volunteer to die for it — no questions asked. I will always recognize that in our homeland, one of my best friends is one of those people and we grew up near Ft. Campbell, Ky.
My friend Don is a steady badass, and has been since we were 13. He is a helicopter pilot in the Army National Guard and an engineer in Atlanta, Ga. He’s a classic alpinist basing out of the hinterlands of mountain hope in the South and clawing up ice climbs in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia during the winter. After growing up together in Tennessee, Don and I were “all in” on the mountains for a few solid years and notched many adventures in our 20s in Colorado and one sleepless Mexican volcano trip. Two college dropouts — from architecture school and aeronautical engineering — we marched steady toward our dreams.
Climbing peaks sometimes requires a soldier-like mentality; those who cope with fear are generally successful as long as they have tactical skills and luck. Many times when we were younger we talked about the balance between death and “getting the most out of life.” Six months after becoming a Dad, I sent Don an article contemplating some legitimate concerns regarding risks and the types of environments I was negotiating in 2012, Don got it and deadpanned:
“I will always love mountains, even in light of their ability to strike down the sturdiest of souls. I enjoy exercising my body in an environment that is set to the scale of my mind. Living and climbing in Colorado during my early 20s fueled my ability to pursue academic and professional accomplishments that I once thought were unattainable.
Four years ago I took an oath which affirmed that I would put myself in harm’s way for the greater good of our Nation. I would not have been able to take that oath had I not previously put myself in harm’s way for my own self-validation and pure enjoyment. In my own mind, from now on it might as well mean something.”
Don would go to war and die so we could visit the mountains if he had to. I’m not sure how I feel about war or death, but I know how Don feels about our country and I appreciate him even more because of it.
We are here today enjoying what we do because of sacrifices others have made. Ultimately it is up to us all to move ourselves forward remembering that sometimes others gave their lives and that we are the product of the freedom they are protecting. I did the edit on the video below and hope that you will take a moment to learn about Wear Blue: Run to Remember for those who serve our country and protect freedoms as innocent as being able to go outside. Remember those who protect our freedom, they are risking something for us that we should forever be grateful for.
While I may be a champion freeskier and competitive ultra-mountain biker, I suck at running. I’m not sure if it brings back bad memories of being tortured by sports as a fat teenager in high school, or that I’m just not genetically bred for it, but I will certainly never be good at it. Yet now that my knees are recovered from eight knee surgeries and my brain is healing from tumor removal, I suddenly am drawn to this silly sport. Having never been good at meditating, it feels like an opportunity to clear my brain without all the rush and concentration of the speed of skiing or biking. My Akbash livestock guardian dogs also provide intense motivation, as they love to stop working on the farm and do what dogs do — explore, sniff and trot.
And that is exactly what I would rather call my form of running: “trotting” because it’s not about speed. I just plod along, sometimes for hours at a time. I love the sense of adventure I get out of it — exploring a new area or trail, watching the leaves turn, the snow fall and generally just enjoying the little simple things in life.
In fact, I’ve almost never enjoyed the little things in life more than right now. After brain surgery this summer, I was just hoping to live and breath. Then I was re-learning how to walk and talk. Then I got to experience the joy of being outside for the first time, feeling the sun on my skin, breathing non-hospital icky sick air. And so, on the 29th of September, I wanted to make a statement about my return and appreciation of this wonderful life I have. For the second time in my life, and first time in too many years, I entered a 10k, with my doggies of course! That day, I woke up and my scar was sore, but I pried myself out of bed and went for it.
The run was steep and challenging, which reduced the dogs to walking even before I felt the need. My goal was not placing, but just doing. I wanted to soak in the view, enjoy my happy working dogs, smile and have fun. If only we could all teach kids this at a young age, especially in this age of over-competitiveness! One third of the way into the run, I realized I did not see any markers and was lost — a couple extra bonus miles later, I was back on track and climbing the steep Jumbo Mountain trail, leaving third place far behind and now solidly in last place.
But I was LOVING IT. This run/walk represented my return to life.
If you’ve been watching (and re-watching, and then watching one more time) the teaser for Sweetgrass Productions’ fourth feature film, Valhalla, you’re not alone. If you’ve never seen it before, watch it. And then take a few minutes to check out the brand-new, full length trailer for the film that’s going to redefine ‘ski film’ now and forever. Unlike so many other ooh-and-ahh-inducing films that showcase pro skiers on bluebird days blowing pow every which way, Valhalla is thought-provoking, emotional and even existentially challenging. It brings up the age-old question: what happens to that simple joy we all experience as children? The rest of the film explores this question through the story of one man’s effort to rediscover his own youthful nature.
In all of its trippy, whimsical, effortless glory, Valhalla will premiere this fall in Boulder. In the meantime, sit back and experience — perhaps for the first time in decades — the unabashed joy of seeing something truly awesome for the first time: Valhalla.
Osprey is proud to sponsor an incredible, inspiring and educational upcoming special that will air on PBS this month: Bridge the Gap to Pine Ridge. The program was created by executive producer, host and global explorer Chris Bashinelli, who grew up in Brooklyn, NY and has devoted his adult life to traveling to developing regions of the world, where he investigates the lives of people young and old, asking the ultimate question: “How can we change the world for the better?”
Bridge the Gap to Pine Ridge will premiere on many PBS stations nationwide this Friday, July 19th at 10 p.m., and is the first of about five airings that will happen over the next several years. To see if this premiere is showing on your local station, please check the Local Listings, as some stations will air the special as late as July 27th.
Here’s what the special is all about:
In this program, he visits the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to explore a culture all but expunged from the history books, that of the Oglala Lakota Native Americans. While there, he embarks on a life-changing buffalo harvest, gets “schooled” by the women’s college basketball team, visits with a 14-year-old suicide prevention activist, and finds himself shoulder deep up a cow’s backside while trying to better understand employment issues on the reservation. With humor and pathos, he uncovers stories of hope and learns how culture has prevailed in the face of adversity.
Martin Bad Wound, a respected community leader on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
“What do you want people to remember about you?” Chris asks Martin Bad Wound, a respected community leader — “It ain’t just me I want you to remember. It’s my people. We ain’t all depressed, we ain’t all oppressed, we ain’t all alcoholics. We all want something out of life. We’re just like you.”
ARVE Error: no id set
Well, whether or not I can comprehend it, my season ended two and a half weeks ago. If you follow my posts at all, you’ll remember that it was a questionable start, after getting an ankle joint infection from a cut from climbing that required surgery and three weeks on the couch. I fought back more slowly from that than I had anticipated, with five weeks of antibiotics and a few weeks of doing nothing while they took their toll on me more than I would have liked. But about three weeks later, all of that had faded into the background of being immersed in the life of running our ski touring business.
It’s a routine that makes the days fly by, including a 5:30 a.m. wake-up to do the weather, chop wood, prep breakfast and lunch, attend guide’s meetings, help guests with gear issues, and finally get out the door to ski at 8:30. That’s when the day gets simpler, lodge maintenance fades into the background, and the purity of one step forward at a time and snow assessment take hold. Your skis grant you the freedom to escape from the grind, whether you are a guest on holiday or a guide/owner/operator for a day at work. We all lose ourselves in the moment of striding uphill and flying downhill, from valley to mountain top and back again. Smooth and fast, we slide back to the lodge, the tasks take hold for me again, with a mirror image of the morning routine, but its great to watch the guests stay in that zone, melting away in the sauna, replenishing the burned calories and continuing with the simple life.
But then my world decided to change. Just when you are hitting your stride, sometimes the world has a different path for you to follow. I had just finished a big week of guiding with a group of guests, we averaged between eight and nine thousand feet of skiing a day, a few people squeaking in 50 grand for their week. Six weeks after having surgery, I was worried if I would pull it off, but hard and tiring as it was, it was also rewarding, considering as well that we had uncharacteristically bad snow for a bunch of days from an abnormal wind event that seemed to jack every bit of open snow in British Columbia. The next group came in and a few days later so did the snow. We settled in to the ‘normal’ five to six grand of skiing per day, which is plenty by my standards, and with 30 centimeters of fresh snow, it felt like a new world out there. So I was skiing like it was bottomless Kootenay cold smoke, but then I hit bottom. Or at least started my journey to the bottom.
In my typical, ‘I want to ski to inspire’ fast and fun style, I found the wind-jacked snow just below the surface, and my left ski decided to auger in and go a little to the right while my body kept going straight and maybe a little to the left. Then I heard the ‘pop’ you hear about and fear as a skier/athlete/guide. I instantly knew something was wrong. As is human instinct, I tried to get up and walk it off, but boom, I was right back on the ground, my left leg not working right. Deep in the backcountry, I looked at my watch and started to make decisions. I was still with a group of 12 guests and two other guides, so support was there, but that was the rest of everyone’s day, dealing with me. A few super labored zig-zag turns and collapses and I made it off of avalanche terrain and met up with the group, almost blacking out with pain and adrenaline. With cloud-building and a quality rescue sled made by Kootenay Rescue Bubble, Jasmin, my super tough wife and co-guide, made the right call to drag me out. So we immobilized my leg, put me in the sled and spent the next three hours getting me back to the lodge. It took 100 percent from everyone to make it happen, team work at its finest, but for sure Andrew (the other guide) and Jasmin worked the hardest.
Getting back to my cabin at the lodge is when it all broke down. Waves of emotion crested over me as I knew my path had changed. There will be no freedom in the hills for many months now, my endorphin source taken away. A new uphill battle through the ‘non-life threatening’ public health care system was setting up to be my fight. I wasn’t scared or upset at hurting my self, and looking at surgery and the road to recovery, I was more upset about letting down my wife, having doubled her workload at our lodge with me out of commission, scared at losing my freedom and becoming a prisoner of immobility, scared of losing touch with my wife and hound as I knew I wouldn’t be able to be up at the lodge for the rest of the winter as I battled down the road of recovery. The preciousness of the special and unique life we have seemed all too real.
We all adapt and change though, and we settle in to our new roles as best we can. Or maybe we just cope. Again and again, folks like to talk about the ‘reasons’ behind things happening. I don’t think things happen for a reason. I think we are all in control of our destinies. I think the ‘silver lining’ is something we find on our own and decide to focus on. One door closing just makes you realize that there are other doors to open and explore. I found my path and partner in life and I am going to fight like hell to get back on it and with her stronger than before. Eventually I will get in to surgery to repair my ACL and meniscus and my bruised up bones will heal. Maybe I will learn some cool things along the way, or maybe I will realize that in my mid 30s I need to stop breezing through my physical life and start making my body work harder for it and training. Either way, my eyes are open to what needs to get done and now I need to do it!
So you won’t find the deepest faceshot, most majestic views or insane physical feats coming from me for a few months. You will find me filling you in on the slow road to recovery that I know many of you have traveled down, with the small victories and defeats of the daily struggle. I know a ton of you can relate, and my strength comes from standing on the shoulders of so many of you that have hurt yourselves before me. In the end, no one died, and I should be charging in the hills again before I know it, so really it’s just a flat tire, with a busted spare, and a long walk to the nearest service station for help. And when I get the tire fixed I can continue down my wonderful path in life!
Above is a quick vid showing you the life I am now missing…
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.
Because I am a sponsored athlete and adventurer, people often ask me: “How do you get paid to have fun?” Well, the answer is simple: I just don’t agree with not having fun so if I’m going to get paid to do anything, it’s going to be something I like — a lot. Now, that’s just the fundamental philosophy behind why I do what I do, but the real “answer” per se is more complex and hard to fit into a box… I invest myself, my resources and a team of people that I work with into things I think others will like and that I like. So, believe it or not, it’s you (the reader) who inspires me to do this far more than my own adventures. It’s you who I hear and you who I want to hear from. That often means that I have to like things others may not like at all that are unrelated to the conventional definition of having fun, like finance, litigation and collections. So be it. Without making sacrifices or doing things that aren’t fun, I could never “get paid to have fun.” I will admit those less than fun details can be frustrating. I’ll admit that often I personally won’t stand to collect a single dollar for my efforts, that I just like accomplishing things and in doing so watching a team succeed and profit around me as a reward. I accept that what I do won’t make me rich, but I am able to settle for being proud to be a part of something, to contribute, to lead.
Case in point, just before Labor Day, I visited New York City on the beginning of what would be considered a vacation to me despite having a lot of business thrown in. As many people might assume a well-backed mountaineer’s visit to NYC would include, I wasn’t actually there on some cool lecture circuit to talk endlessly about myself or how my process for exploring mountains is going to save the corporate world faster than all the governments out there. I was just there as a working man in a suit (yes, like a black one that was ironed that forced me to ride in cabs because the matching shoes sucked and give me blisters). Just another dude in a suit in New York, I was there as a business person with hope that after I got through the security guards of a few ad agencies, I would be able to stand up for adventure-based broadcast television programming for our generation and not just be shown the door in 10 minutes. Not exactly a situation where you may think you’re going to find someone who not three months ago pulled off a first ski descent in the Himalayas and was rappelling off of three tiny pieces of gear to get home. Believe it or not, it was my second time in a month on a sales trip to NYC, but at least this time I had the early morning to run the big loop in Central Park before my meetings. Overall, it’s a beautiful park, I like the city… and it’s much easier to navigate than Kathmandu.
As you do when you meet with the world’s decision makers on what makes it to TV and what doesn’t, I had a digitized and unflattering photo snapped at the security desk, stuck to my suit jacket and I was sent upstairs in buildings that seem higher than El Cap. In both meetings I was shown the door in 30 minutes, and like any other person out on the streets of New York, I was back at it again with the usual, “We’ll be calling you” response rolling around my head with all the other stresses of result production on the cue in a strained, risk-averse economy where we are hoping to pioneer some inspiring programs. You see, I don’t get paid to have fun, as a CEO and Founder of the company I represent in these meetings, I only get paid if I work hard enough to get the story of inspiring adventures (including my own) out there for you and for me and to convince people that adventurers are doing things of value that others want to see. I admit, it is a tough sell when it is easier to just exploit people as the current model of many networks so effortlessly eases along doing, but although the ad world would prefer you and me to sit on a couch and escape reality by eating yogurt, using soap or applying deodorant, they realize that there is something happening out there. A whole generation of us is on the move and experiencing life for ourselves and making headway in the world — we just aren’t on TV yet. That’s where I come in. I want the world to be inspired; I want the world to communicate; I want all of us who are out there living for the experience to be heard; I want to put that suit away sometimes and so I do… you inspire me to and so does broadcast television. I do this because I believe that every now and then when one of those people really does call on us, the team of people I work with will knock it out of the park and you the viewer will benefit. I do it because I am as unafraid of what challenges I will find on my way to the top floor of the skyscraper as I am approaching the summit of a Himalayan mountain.
Following those meetings, the next day I found myself in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, at the base of Mt. Washington — the beginning of a two day vacation. See, I hitched a ride with some friends to NYC and then we found ourselves tagging this sweet and storied East Coast summit as they continued an ongoing business summit to New hamsphire. That is how I keep my sanity, knowing folks who are driven like me but more successful and able to fit in goals I admire. One of my friends is a high pointer (people who climb all 50 of the United States’ highest points) and Mt. Washington’s 6,288 summit was #49 for him. He is a high level broadcast executive who works hard and travels a lot and who has found a way to “get paid to have fun” too and keep others happy around him. This rounds out a life filled with a lot of pressure to produce big business results. People like that are bigger inspirations to me than the next guy who wants to climb Trango Tower and base jump off of it. It seems like there are a lot of us out there who want to see the world from a lot of places, but it is the few who may not have soloed the Eiger but have achieved a balance that I am now learning from, people who came to climbing after starting careers and have made it to their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and are still full of goals despite having completed long-standing goals like the 54 fourteeners, 50 state high points and 7 summits. Without these friends driving me, how else would I be able to claim in the same year that I did my first-ever 50 mile ultra marathon, that I stood on the point on Earth closest to the sun (20,561′ Chimborazo), the site of the highest recorded wind speed in north America (6288′ Mt Washington), bagged a fist ski descent in the Himalayas (21,509 Chulu West), Heli skied in Haines, Alaska and then spent Labor Day on the summit of Rio Grande Pyramid in the San Jauns.
Wait, what was that last one? Rio Grande Pyramid. Oh, you haven’t heard of it? It is about as cool as a peak ascent can get and it is a far cry from NYC! The bottom line is, I don’t get paid to have fun, I work hard, I knock on every door and I am as curious about how things work as I am about how to get up mountains. Somehow, finance became a tool in that process, but certainly not a driver alone. So if you want to get paid to have fun, well, I can only suggest you do something you believe in and that you don’t give up. Only you can answer what that is and how long you will have to try at it to succeed. The only advice I have on that is that I hope you pick the right partners in your fun endeavor because it is pretty awesome to watch a team reach the top and know you were part of something bigger than an individual’s vision or a solitary moment on a summit, the process is the fun and the process to me is priceless.