Every Teardrop is a Waterfall

Tears are a strange and powerful thing. How bizarre that the seemingly impenetrable veils behind our eyes should momentarily be suspended, allowing our emotions free-reign to liquify on the very public posterboards our cheeks. Before I started trail running, I could count the number of times this phenomenon had occurred for me on a few lonely fingers. Now that I’ve stepped into the unexpectedly emotional world of ultras, I’ve yet to go over 26 miles without happening upon a facial waterfall. The Leadville 100 was no exception.

Attempting to construct the story of this journey’s culmination has proven to be most difficult. For one, the 100 still doesn’t seem real in my mind. Both leading up to and during the race, I refused to let my mind think about the idea of 100 miles in all of its imposing totality. The second I attempted to do so, my psyche began to shutdown thanks to the overwhelming nature of what lay ahead. Thus, race day became a day of mini races, composed of running from one aid station to the next. Mentally, I never ran more than 13 miles on August 18/19, 2017. My mind seems to be holding onto this mentality even now, refusing me the option to look upon the whole of what happened even as it sits safely shrouded in history.

Second, what took place at Leadville seems to transcend anything I can throw words at. How do you describe the feeling of the start line at 4am, surrounded by 600 similarly crazed individuals, knowing the adventure of your life is about to begin? How do you bring to life the comfort of pulling into aid station after aid station, every time being welcomed by the folks you love most who are ready to hug you and encourage you and care for the blisters that refuse to stop growing on your feet? What combination of consonants and vowels even comes close to conveying that ethereal moment of crossing the finish line and all that means and stands for? If I could go back and show you the tears, I think I could help you understand. Perhaps, then, we’ll try to combine those tears with words and see how far we can go.

The Spring

As tradition would have, I slept fitfully the night before race day. And while the morning was strangely warm compared to the past 4 weeks I’d spent in Leadville, I could do little to control my shaking body as the nerves & excitement took over my veins. Unable to believe it was actually here, I loaded up my vest, strapped down my shoes, and prayed with my buddy Adam who’d be there to pace me from miles 93 – 100… should my body make it that far.

Every step we took towards the start line brought the weight of what lay ahead more firmly into reality. And my oh my what a beautiful walk to the start line it was. The stars were out in full force, the air was crisp & cool – laced with those special spices only the mountains can provide – and I was greeted with the warmest of hugs from 4 camp friends who had flown up and slept in the parking lot of the hospital the night before.

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The start line at 4am

The starting line might be my favorite part of any race day. For a few short minutes, the newly forged family is gathered in one place. 4am of August 18, 2017 in Leadville, CO was no different. Hugs were exchanged, old friends reunited, the stands packed with family members and loved ones just as wired as the 600 folks gathered down on 6th St. In the midst of the masses, I was reunited with a few dear friends who were there at the beginning of my love affair with trail running, providing a full-circle feel to the journey. I embraced them as race founder Ken Chlouber came on over the speakers for a few last inspiring words. “You’re stronger then you think you are, you can do more than you think you can.”

And in that moment, enveloped in the collective of this family, all the memories rushed into my heart. First reading of Leadville 7 years ago and thinking “100 miles?! Who the heck could ever do that?” Running my first race in Leadville and falling in love with the sport and the community. Earning a slot in the race so many moons ago. Training in thunderstorms, on dirt roads, next to snakes and wild boar. Becoming deep friends with so many wonderful people who make up the trail running family. Falling to the deep, dark valley when my knee refused to work and community seemed so very far away. The knee healing. Being picked up by community, being loved & supported, trying desperately to get ready with my back up against the timeline wall. Living in Leadville, befriending many, seeing so much of my family gathered in this one place for this one goal.

I looked around me, drinking deeply of the pure joy that moment offered. The long-awaited dream was solidifying into reality, and the first tears fell.

The Waterfalls

The first 39.5 miles all went according to plan. Outside of some lateral soreness in my quads and a strangely elevated heart rate (likely from nerves, I’m guessing), every part of my body felt great. I was conservative yet still well under any sort of cutoff worries. Nutrition & hydration were rolling along perfectly. Aid station transitions were going smoothly as my all-star team put every Nascar pit-crew to shame. I pulled into the Twin Lakes aid station around 12:15 happy as a lark, and the aid station only bolstered my spirits. Set in a tiny town next to a stunning mountain vista, Twin Lakes turns into a raging running party on race day, and a runner can’t help but feel like they’re on top of the world when they pull on in.

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Adam and I at mile 13.5. Clearly, everything was pretty good at this point.

I took a nice break with my crew and glanced up towards what lay ahead – the climb up Hope Pass, the crux of the Leadville 100. 3000 ft. of climbing and descending was waiting over the course of the next 10ish miles, and I was stoked out of my mind. Herein lay what I felt was right in my wheelhouse – climbing on gorgeous singletrack. I had already done this stretch in training with my buddy Lelis, and I told my crew I’d hopefully see them at the turnaround point in Winfield in 4 hours.

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Getting ready for the sun at Twin Lakes.

I could not have been more wrong. As I started the climb, a strange phenomenon came over me. I was hot! I kid you not when I say I had not felt even so much as warm once during my 4 week stay in Leadville. But now, the past month’s bizarre weather system had broken, and the sun made sure each & every one of us felt its presence.

As my body temperature continued to rise, my determined hike devolved into a painstakingly slow trudge. For the first time all day, I felt not just bad, but pretty darn terrible. I prayed for cloud cover. And the Lord delivered… just not quite in the way I was expecting. As I finally made it to the clearing before the pass, the clouds and their henchmen winds came in with a fury. I noticed a strange glint on my jacket and puzzlingly glanced down. It definitely wasn’t hot anymore – ice pellets were collecting on my sleeves and pinging off my cheeks.

I pulled under the cover of the Hope Pass aid station, a place that deserves a whole essay in & of itself. Here, well above 12,000 ft., several hardy men & women hike up tents and supplies on the backs of nearly a dozen llamas all to ride out the weather and care for the hundreds of crazy runners coming to that spellbinding spot. The wind whipped the sides of the tent as I downed some of the mashed potatoes they were furiously and miraculously cooking. A few minutes later, I stepped back into the elements for the final push. It wasn’t long before the sun broke through once more and my trashed legs were finally standing on 12,500 ft. summit. I took stock of my body and looked out towards Leadville’s tiny imprint on the awe-inspiring horizon. Then, my legs let out a massive protest. My quads were toast, my glutes were on fire, and thousands of feet of descent on technical singletrack was staring me right in the face.

That descent wrecked anything left within me. The state of my legs continued to deteriorate, and with 2.5 miles left to the turnaround point at the ghost town of Winfield, my legs completely gave up. It was a heartbreaking stretch. As hard as I tried, I could not get my legs to respond to the “run freaking run!” command my mind was sending to them over & over & over again. As I pulled my body over the singletrack, the clock suddenly became a massive factor. What I thought would be a 4 hour journey tops was turning into a 5.5 hour death march. A new reality started to take hold of my mind – I wouldn’t make the cutoff at mile 59.5. I was resolute that I would not drop out of this race, that they’d have to pull me off the trail before I let my own body beat me. But this reality set in with crippling certainty. I couldn’t get my legs to run. And in that state, there was no way I’d get back up & over Hope Pass before I turned into another one of the 300 DNF’s.

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Views from the top of Hope Pass

I finally came into Winfield with every hope vanquished. My cousin & crew chief Shelley met me as I emerged from the woods, ready as always to give me a hug. And as my defeated body collapsed into hers, the last struggling heartbeat of the dream passed into oblivion. A new reality set in as I sobbed into her shoulder.

Here, when all hope was more than lost, the incalculable power of the human factor took over. Had I been alone in this race, I’m certain I would’ve been cut on the return to Twin Lakes. But my crew refused to give up. With 50 minutes to go until they closed down Winfield and refused anyone the chance to head back up Hope Pass, my crew sat me down, fed me, treated my feet, believed in me, and breathed life back into my broken body.

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Late-night blister treatment.

20 minutes later, I headed back up Hope Pass with my first pacer of the day, Laura. What took place next felt nothing short of a miracle. Somehow, someway, energy was brought back to every inch of my body, and we moved with renewed vigor back up Hope Pass. Having just come out of the worst 10 miles of the entire race, the ensuing 10 turned into the best I had throughout the experience. We passed folks left and right and crested the summit as the sun was beginning to set before dropping back down into Twin Lakes with a fury.

Just 3.5 hours after we had left Winfield, Laura and I pulled into Twin Lakes, a full hour ahead of the cut-off. As the glow of my headlamp led me to the crewing point, I spotted Shelley ready to pull me in. I collapsed into her arms once more and felt the now familiar warmth coming down my cheeks. But this time, these tears meant something starkly different. This time, I cried because I knew the dream was going to come true.

The remaining 40 miles were honestly pretty darn fun. The stars shone furiously above the shadowy outlines of the mountains as we powered onwards from aid station to aid station, gaining a few more minutes on the clock with every leg we completed. Pringles, ramen, and mashed potatoes have never tasted so good as they did at 3am at 10,000ft.

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Sunrise over Turquoise Lake

With roughly 10 miles to go, the sun rose once more over Turquoise Lake in the exact same spot I had been 24 hours earlier –  a strange phenomenon indeed. Those last couple hours felt strangely… normal? Everything felt right, felt smooth, felt quite like home.

And then, with all the normalcy of tying your shoes, Adam & I made the final turn back onto 6th St. The sun covered that final rolling mile in golden light as more of the crew joined me for the final push. As the cheering from the crowd began to enter my ears, the normalcy began to leave and I was reminded of what was about to happen. There, in plain sight, lay the gateway of the finish line. There stood the Leadville family of Bill, Rick, Bec, Ken. There stood my camp family, my literal family, friends who have become family. There stood the spot that 50 miles earlier was lost with utmost certainty. There stood the culmination of this insane, unexpected, wonderful journey.

I pulled out what my legs had left and ran across that line. 28 hours and 42 minutes later, the dream was finally realized. And for one more time, the happiest of tears fell.

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The whole crew at the finish line.

The Ocean

And there you have it. Thanks to countless folks who’ve encouraged, taught and challenged me over the years, thanks to a crew that didn’t give up and pacers who pushed me, thanks to a family that supports me, thanks to a God who never lets go, the dream came true.

But the hard thing about dreams is that, sooner or later, you wake up. You have to move on. You find yourself standing on the banks of an ocean you dared to hope you’d one day reach and are faced with that most terrifying of questions: What now?

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With Bill Dooper at the finish line.

I don’t know. And for a few weeks, that was tremendously hard to deal with. But I’m learning to embrace the freedom found therein, to let my mind wander and dream anew, to take what Leadville taught me and use it in the best ways I can.

And just what did Leadville teach me? That as cool as a race itself can be, it’s all about the people. That you’ve gotta stop and talk with the people around you and learn their story, whether that’s in the coffee shop or at the starting line. That trail running is all about family, and that’s what makes it so freaking awesome. That on our own we’re finite, but with the love & support of those we love at our backs, anything is possible. That you need to chase your dreams down, because maybe, just maybe, they’ll come true.


 

In addition to all the thanks I owe to the folks who got me to the finish line, I owe thanks to Coldplay for the title / framework of this entry. If you’re looking for a sweet video to pick up your day, check it out below.

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Tales from Cloud City

How do you put a town into words? A town that’s boomed & busted time and time again, like a man on the operating table who’s pushed it too far once more but keeps getting shocked back to life. A town that sits at the feet of Colorado’s two highest peaks, that has an opera house across from the saloon, that celebrates its wild history with shootouts in the streets and burro races amongst the 100 year old mining ruins. It’s impossible, I think. For like most things, words only go so far. And yet, words often compose stories, and I reckon that stories seem to be what life is all about. So it appears that it’s Leadville stories that I will tell for this, the last installment before the 100.

Jim

Let’s start by stating that Leadville defines “quirky.” Here, pot-smoking backpackers, tie-dye hippies, history buffs, 14’er peak baggers, and endurance athletes all coexist in 10,152 ft. of low-oxygen harmony. Story #1 highlights one such man who fits perfectly into the quirky patchwork of Leadville – Jim, the official town greeter. After a

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Jim, Leadville’s Official Town Greeter, During the “Boom Days” Parade

recent dinner at Leadville’s High Mountain Pies, I popped into La Resistance with a couple guys from my house. La Resistance deserves some airtime itself before we progress. An angsty coffee shop by morning, this storefront doubles as a speakeasy-style restaurant by night. Step behind the curtain and you enter a lounge that pays homage to Oscar Wilde and late 19th century Bohemian France by serving Absinthe in a setting straight out of “Midnight in Paris.” It was in this unlikely setting over a serving of the best cheesecake Leadville has to offer that we ran into Jim. According to the story told by my buddy, Jim knew at 16 that he wanted to be a “Town Greeter.” He traveled around America, searching for the right fit. He passed through Leadville, deemed it unworthy, wound up in hard times in Kansas, and by providence was led back to Leadville – this time deciding it was the right town for him. These days, Jim strolls up & down the streets of Leadville in a top hat strapped together with vintage motorcycle goggles, greeting the visitors making their way through town and making sure they feel welcomed.

Marge

Story #2 is of a lady who is the original Lead-Woman in my book. About a week ago, I went out on a final long training run with a couple other folks in town preparing for the hundred. As we approached the end of our 25 mile trainer and descended from the last

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Marge Hickman, 16-Time Leadville Finisher, With Her New Fan Club.

major climb of the LT100 course, we passed a woman who appeared to be in her 60’s who was absolutely motoring down the hills. We came to a junction in the road, and being uncertain of which way the course went we waited until our soon to be friend joined us. Upon meeting her, we quickly learned that this was no ordinary runner – this was Marge Hickman, 16 time finisher of the Leadville 100 and, if she finishes this year, the oldest female finisher of the Leadville 100 ever. After a mediocre day of running, Marge brought an overflowing amount of inspiration to me. Talking with this woman who runs a cleaning business in Leadville while also running 100’s like they’re nobody’s business struck some deeper chord within me. Here was someone who’s been there since the early days – before Scott Jurek or Lifetime Fitness, a woman who seemingly runs for the pure joy of it. A woman who by all rights is a Leadville legend and yet took the time to learn about us and help out our novice selves. Her advice that “The race doesn’t start until mile 75” has been and will be at the forefront in my mind until this whole crazy experience comes to a close.

Judy

And story #3? Well that comes from yesterday afternoon. As soon as you round the final turn of the journey down to Leadville and drop onto the main drag of Harrison Ave., you’re greeted by the tower of a beautiful brick church. I’ve walked past this church numerous times, tried to peer through the cracks to see what’s inside, and dreamt of standing in its belltower. As I was walking home, an incredible site appeared at its entryway – the front door was wide open! I hesitated for just a moment, then excitedly

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“The Old Church”

strolled over. I passed through the doorway and was promptly greeted by a kind woman named Judy. She led me inside and introduced me to the 128 year old sanctuary. She pointed out the original wooden theatre-style chairs, complete with metal racks beneath each for the men to store their top hats during service. She told me how the pipe organ had been shipped in from Wisconsin and brought over the 13,000ft. high Mosquito Pass, a road that jeeps struggle to get up even today. She described how the parishioners would fire up the heating system the Saturday night before service in order to maintain some semblance of heat for Sunday morning. All the while I was transported back in time, imagining myself as a prospector high up in these unforgiving mountains, my ragged top hat tucked safely beneath my slightly warmed bum, thoughts of God & silver & surviving the winter running through my head.

As the tour was coming to a close, I found out that Judy has been working the May Queen Aid Station (the first & last aid station on the course) for nearly 25 years. While she used

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The View of Turquoise Lake From Judy’s May Queen Aid Station

to work both the early morning & late night shift, she’s retired to only working the early one, getting out around 4am to prep PB&J’s, snacks, and drinks for the hundreds of runners who will start passing as the sun is just bringing the adjacent Turquoise Lake to dazzling life. It was rather incredible, stumbling across another cornerstone of the Leadville 100 experience in such a historic place, and I can’t wait to see her again in a place of a quite different yet still powerful historical significance.

The Next Chapter

These stories, these people, these places, this is Leadville… or part of it, at least. Because as soon as you think you have it figured out, a new story comes around that exposes a whole new layer of this town’s core. Such stories and experiences have all served to deepened my affection for Leadville while also bringing a new level of meaning to the challenge that’s now only 9 days away. I’m not just running an ultra. I’m participating in an event that flows swiftly in the lifeblood of this wild, wacky, and wonderful town. And for that I am immensely grateful.

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From the summit of Mt. of the Holy Cross, my new favorite hike / 14’er. I definitely did not come up this route.

At this point in the journey, I’m cautiously optimistic for race day. 2 weeks of going up and down 14’ers combined with seeing nearly every mile of the course have me feeling the best I’ve felt this year. And yet, now that we’re firmly into taper-time, my mind suddenly has more moments to think about all that lays between now and August 19th, not to mention everything that could happen on race day. Fears of getting sick from any of the dozens of people coming through the house haunt me, and I find myself just wanting race day to be here already while all systems seem so ready to go. But instead patience is demanded as I seek to make the most of these 9 days by learning more about Leadville, caring for my body without turning into a hypochondriac, and honing the plans for race day.

To simply say I’m thankful for this time and these stories, seems like a gross understatement. And yet that’s the honest feeling that pervades. I’m thankful to be a minuscule part of the ongoing saga of Leadville. I’m thankful for the opportunity to soon share this place with so many friends & family. I’m thankful to chase this crazy dream that was born in my mind so many years ago. I’m thankful for the chance to, as Leadville itself says, “Do something awesome today.”

Thanks, Leadville. Let’s go write a great story.

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The Rocksprings Rumble

With Leadville looming a terrifyingly exciting month away, I’d like to take a moment to share a story from a month or so ago. ‘Cause if I’m being honest, right now that seems a lot better than trying to think through and write about the overwhelming prospect of running 100 miles.

I live in downtown Middle of Nowhere, Republic of Texas, and I must say it’s a lovely place to be most times of the year. Our population ranges from ~60 on a slow week to ~1000 on a wild one. There’s no cell service, our driveway consists of 7.8 miles of gnarly, rocky dirt, and the nearest large town (aka walmart) is 70 minutes away by car – just a few more hours by the stagecoach service that I’m still waiting to have instituted.

In the midst of this landscape that looks like the abandoned set of an old black & white western, there stands one tiny little outpost: Rocksprings. And boy has there never been a more aptly named town. Ft. Worth had the fort, Mineral Falls has healing waters, and Rocksprings has springs… of rocks… everywhere. Outside of a Thai restaurant open for lunch a few days a week, the “Devil’s Sinkhole,” and a statue of a goat on the main square, there’s not exactly a ton going on.

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble

That being said, there are a few tried & true eateries that anchor the Rocksprings foodchain. One is KingBurger, famous for its milkshakes and Americana fare. The other is Vacquero’s Cafe, known for its steeply-priced but delicious jalapeno burgers and grease-laden dollar tacos on Tuesdays. Naturally, the two restaurants sit side by side each other, bringing every smalltown-competition stereotype to life in vivid technicolor. Naturally, with Rocksprings being a tantalizing 27 miles away, I’ve always wanted to run in on a Tuesday and partake in the terrific taco fiesta. Naturally, it seemed that the best course of action was to put a run to Rocksprings on the training plan in the middle of the day in the middle of the summer.

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The second aid station of the now legendary Rocksprings Rumble.

The dream set, a friend of mine and I took to planning the logistics of the epic quest. Having christened the event the “Rocksprings Rumble,” we set up 2 fully stocked aid stations along the route (aka a cooler filled with ginger ale and a smattering of other carbs), invited all of our camp community to attend via whatever mode of transportation they could find, and dreamt of how we were the pioneering few of what would surely become Texas’ most popular race.

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The entire field of the inaugural Rocksprings Rumble.

The Rumble proved to be everything our minds had ever rambled it would be. Hour after hour of putting one foot in front of the other over pavement that grew more like an everlasting toaster as the journey went on. The occasional big Texas truck sailing through the mirage on the horizon and then flying by at 80 miles an hour, the driver surely thinking “What in tarnation?” as he saw my short-shorts wearing, hydration vest toting self go by.

After what seemed like a lifetime and a half from when I set out, I finally rounded the last turn into Rocksprings and glimpsed the finish line marked by the Vaquero’s sign. Never had that old signpost looked more beautiful. There I was reunited with Grable and Steve, the brave bikers who rounded out the enterprising roster of the Rumble, along with a multitude of camp friends and a healthy platter of the legendary tacos. A dream had come true, and our stomachs were content… for a while, at least.

Taco Takeaways

Looking back on this legendary event along with a couple other recent long runs, there are 2 taquitos of truth that have remained with me.

The first: I’m more of a people person that I realized, and on my own, my hopes at Leadville are minuscule at best. After so many hours solo, I get lonely and my morale sinks. But when Steve and Grable ride by 6 miles from tacos and offer encouragement, when I run into friends out hiking while on a long run around camp, when I meet new folks while on a training run in a different place, something happens. Some sort of spike in energy, a refreshing of my spirit that can’t quite be quantified. It’s that inescapable “human factor,” that element that takes a mediocre experience and turns it into something extraordinary. That said, I’m beyond thankful to have an amazing collection of friends and family coming up to Leadville to crew, pace, and encourage. If I make it back to 6th & Harrison, they’ll be the ones responsible.

The second: 100 miles will never feel good. This seems like a no brainer, but it’s been a large paradigm shift for me. You can train to where a 5k becomes easy, then a 10k, and heck, even a 50k can even feel pretty darn fine. But at some point over the course of 100 miles, it’s just going to suck. And then keep on sucking. Hence, I’ve realized that rather than attempt to train so that I can somehow make the whole race feel great, I have to instead train so that the pain feels great. The founder of the Leadville 100, Ken Chlouber, has told runners in his mountain man wisdom to “Make friends with pain, and then you’ll never be alone.” Pain and I aren’t exactly besties yet, but we’re certainly working on it.

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The hills of Middle of Nowhere, Republic of Texas where I’m seeking to make pain my friend.

Perhaps, then, the takeaways we see for life are rather short & sweet. Go out and eat greasy tacos with your friends and see all that the communities around you have to offer.  Encircle yourself with a crew who brings new life to your weary self and then go out and be that spark to someone else. Do everything you can to train for the life you find yourself in, but always respect and be excited for the inevitable moment when you’ll reach the end of your rope. That’s when the adventure truly begins.

Expectations vs. Reality

Of all the things I’ve learned on this crazy road to “adulthood,” one of the hardest to cope with has been this: that the process of reality not meeting your expectations can be tremendously tragic. In fact, I’d say that most of the tears I’ve shed in the past few years have resulted directly from this phenomenon. Some of these tears have been good ones, like when I cried from the unexpected, overwhelming beauty that struck me on a desolate jeep road. But many of them have been hard ones, and those are the ones I’d like to address here.

For some reason, it’s so blasted hard to receive one thing in your life when you’re expecting another. Maybe it’s an expected afternoon off that turns into an afternoon shoveling sewage out of a room that sets off the waterworks. If only you had expected the sewage shoveling instead, it could’ve been better, right? Maybe it’s a lifestyle that you expected to be full of community and growth that in all actuality is quite lonely and stifling that brings about thoughts of depression. No matter what, the striking impact is undeniable.

Before I go on, there’s someone else who can touch this subject far better than I can, namely that stupendous 2009 film 500 Days of Summer. A crazy blend of rom-com, drama, and real-life heartache, this film’s gut-wrenching scene that plays out expectations vs. reality side by side still cuts me deep every time I watch it. A bit of context for the scene inserted below: the main character, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, is preparing to make another effort to win over the heart of Summer (played by Zoey Deschanel). We get a split-screen view of his expectations for the night & the reality of how things actually turn out. Warning, here be spoilers.

 

 

The Leadville Reality

Man.

I cringe every time I watch that. Outside of the piercing lyrics from Regina Spektor, I think there’s immense power to this scene because I’ve experienced the exact same thing over & over in my life. I set lofty expectations, be they for races, relationships, or careers, and then I’m forced to deal with the mental & emotional fallout that occurs when a much different reality comes crashing in with no regard whatsoever for my hopes & dreams.

Bringing this back to Leadville, my expectations for the road to 100 have been dashed multiple times thus far in the training plan. I came into the new year expecting to run a 100k in early March – and not to just run it, but to actually go out there & race it. Instead, reality saw me sitting on the sidelines the weekend of the race, nursing my fiery patella. I expected to be in a place where I could aim for a Leadville finish somewhere between 22 – 24 hours. Instead, I’m praying that I’ll just be able to squeak in under the 30 hour cutoff. I expected that my fitness level would be through the roof by June thanks to a couple months of intense, focused training. Instead, the muscle fibers in my quads are shot after 21 relatively moderate miles on our hill country terrain.

This has all had a far-reaching impact on my psyche, as the reality I’m working with has turned out to be much different from the expectations my body had been preparing itself for. Naturally, this has resulted in a multitude of emotions pulsing throughout my thoughts, with anger, frustration, impatience, and apathy being chief amongst them.

Learning to deal with all of these emotions has been a long, arduous process. For quite a while I wallowed deep within them, letting them mingle with the other unmet expectations in my life. This created what was arguably the world’s most potent self-pity cocktail, and I drank far too deep, digging myself into a deeper and deeper hole instead of learning to accept my reality and deal with it.

Eventually, thanks to some incredible friends, a fortuitous trip to the Guadalupe Mountains, and a somewhat happier patella, I began to reconstruct my framework. I came to grips with the reality I’d been given & reluctantly began to make new plans. I’m by no means fully recovered, but I’m functioning – and that’s saying a lot.

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Sometimes, a chance morning photo from the Guadalupes greatly exceeds your expectations.

What now?

Since this whole idea of expectations vs. reality was thrust upon my mind, I’ve tried to figure out what the proper response would be. Do I never set any expectations, or maybe always set them quite low, thereby ensuring they’re never dashed? That seems appealing initially, but then I’m forced to consider how expectations allow us to better prepare for the situations that we’re soon to face. For example, if I expect that the upcoming afternoon of shoveling sewage is going to be long and draining, at least I can prepare and put myself in the proper mental state to face that challenge. If I don’t expect anything, I set myself up for certain failure when the onslaught of shoveling comes.

Perhaps the answer is found deep within an idea we’ve touched on before – balance. Maybe there’s a balance that exists here between trying to set appropriate expectations and becoming consumed with those expectations to the point where you’re unable to accept a reality that is anything but that which you’ve built up in your mind. It’s kind of like planning out a trip – you need the schedule, the itinerary, the goals. And yet you have to hold it all with an open fist, being ready to roll with the unexpected. Because if memory serves me correctly, it’s those unexpected turns that have led to some of the greatest adventures.

Or perhaps it’d be best to close with a discussion of how to deal with busted expectations. Perhaps we need to remember that at many times in our lives, no matter how hard we try, our expectations will fail to be met, and we’ll be left with a choice. Do we mourn the framework we held on so lofty of a pedestal in our minds? Or do we accept reality & do our darndest to embrace the new adventures it may hold? It’s really easy to say we’ll fight for the second… and by golly do I hope we’ll all be able to actively embrace that. I daresay the adventures of our lives will be better because of it.

Balance. Also known as: Truth in the Tension.

For those of you just joining this adventure, welcome! The second entry you find yourself reading builds upon the introductory story of Leadville, CO and the events surrounding my journey to its very own Leadville Trail 100. Context was the main focus of that introductory tale and, as aforementioned, has become something I value immensely in all aspects of life. That being the case, I’m tempted to continue barreling down the trail of context, building it everywhere and anywhere like those wild-game fences along the backroads of God’s Country in west Texas. However, I’m inclined to believe we have enough contextual foundation to support the house all these stories are trying to build. I’ll let you know up front – we won’t be building a mansion, not by any stretch of the imagination. But I’d like to think the story-laden home we’ll end up with will at least be cozy, albeit quite humble.

I digress. Presently, the Leadville 100 is less than 6 months away. Presently, I can barely run more than two miles. Presently, my life has been a mess with worries about loss of training, loss of sanity, and baffled rage at my left patella which insists upon being wild & excessive in its lateral tracking.

A Rogue Patella

This injury I’m battling, in which my patella is tracking outside of its home in the femoral groove and inflaming the cartilage inside of my kneecap, is most likely the result of an imbalance in muscular strength and flexibility. After months and even years of specializing in distance running with little cross training, certain muscles in my legs have gained more control over my kneecap than they were designed to have. All it took was one ice cold, high-intensity bout at the track to finally pull the kneecap out of alignment. The cartilage responded to this invasion with all its military force, declaring World War 3 upon the knee joint in hopes of restoring that idea which we’ll focus on – Balance.

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The track where balance was lost

Balance

On the list of ideas most highly regarded in my life, balance is right up there with context. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve ended an argument with “Ultimately, it’s a balance between the two,” well… let’s just say there’d be a heck of a lot more Salomon Speedcrosses in my shoe collection.

So what do I mean by “Balance?” I mean that often times, there’s not just one clear answer to a pressing situation, not only one path which must be pursued to bring you home, more than one area to focus on and to learn from in order to achieve full understanding. There’s immense “Truth in the tension,” as one wise man in a far-off land so articulately described it. I believe that embracing this is integral to finding fulfillment in our lives.

Example Time

I’m struggling here. The peril of taking such strong, ambiguous thoughts in my mind and giving them shape on paper is a challenging one indeed. So let’s roll out some examples to attempt to clear this up. We’ll start with an easier one – physical training. As a runner, you have to push your body. You need hard days to initiate physiological responses and improve your level of fitness. However, those days need to be balanced out by easy days so that your body can recover and capitalize on the building blocks you’re giving it. Too much focus either way and you’ll end up at the same place – the sidelines. Herein we find an important truth; balance is rarely a 50/50 sort of deal. An innumerable number of factors may go into figuring out the balance point for any given situation, making it a tricky, potentially never-ending process.

Basic examples like that of physical training are rife throughout our lives. We all need a healthy balance between personal time and human interaction in order to best feel like ourselves (again, this is widely variable dependent upon introvert / extrovert tendencies). In our relationships there needs to be a balance between the spark of fun & excitement and the raw discipline to be true and loyal when that spark is nowhere to be found. In our jobs we find a necessary balance amongst pursuing our passions, while meeting the world’s needs, while also being challenged, while being instructed, while also instructing others (this conveniently reminds us that balance isn’t confined to to a two-sided framework). In our ultra marathon training we must balance the exciting long-distance running with the less appealing, monotonous cross training in order to best pursue the Leadville dream.

These things I’m assuming we can readily agree upon. “Three cheers for balance!” we all toast as we down our celebratory drinks. But put that drink on hold, for it’s in the harder topics, those that so readily polarize us, where balance becomes hated, even seen as weak. In topics such as these, the crowd is suddenly inclined to cry “You spineless, Texan-Canadian wanna-be runner! Why not just pick a side of the argument already?!”

Embracing the Truth in the Tension

Why not? Because in all honesty, I don’t try to find the middle road of heated discussions as a cop-out. Most times, I firmly believe that all sides hold varying degrees of value and truth that need to be appreciated. I suppose this means it’s example time once more.

Take politics. Here, I see a need for balance between the ideals of both Democrats & Republicans (and whatever independents may call themselves these days). Isn’t compromise what got our country off to such a fairly rad start anyway? Give one side all the power with no recognition of the other, and things go downhill quickly for us all. There’s truth and progress in the tension.

In the seeking of truth, I see a need for balance between science and the arts. The immense value of science’s ability to uncover empirical evidence is undeniable. But how could we even begin to catch a glimmer of the depth found in love or sorrow without song & poem? There’s truth and deeper understanding in the tension.

In religion, I see a balance between faith and works. “Faith without works is dead.” But at the same time “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith…” There’s life to be found in the tension.

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This pic is a stretch for relating to the topic at hand, but we really needed a break from all those words.

Make the Patellas Happy Again

While I love this topic, I also struggle with it because it is so annoyingly difficult. So often I want to focus all of my energy on the side of the discussion I enjoy, the side that’s easy and readily makes sense. But then my knee gets angry. I pay the price by being unable to do what I love most, and I’m reminded of the need for balance. Or alternatively, I get so wrapped up in finding facts and valuing the tangible world that I enter depression, forgetting to wonder at and enjoy the beauty & poetry of life.

It’s a hard idea, this beast of balance. And let me be clear in saying a few things. First, balance is not some sort of magical cure-all. Second, let us reiterate that balance is rarely a 50/50 kind of deal. Consequently, we should not simply ride the fence and hide from hard discussions under some sort of false pretense of “balance.” Doing so betrays the true cop out, free-riding through life with no real convictions, refusing to consider all sides of an argument in favor of laziness. We will naturally swing to one particular side of a situation or a discussion. We will be required stand up for and defend the ideals that particular side promotes. This is a good & natural thing, necessary for balance to fully grow and benefit us all.

Those caveats being outlined, I’d wager that all of us could benefit from being just a bit more mindful of the truth in the tension. Maybe, just maybe, it will lead to a few more happy patellas and a deeper appreciation of this crazy life we’re all trying to balance out.

The Start Line

Why?

That’s always the big question we need to answer, isn’t it? And when specifically applied to this blog, the question becomes “Why are you writing?” The best answer I can give is that I’m writing to share stories, stories mostly related to running & the Leadville 100 (seeing as that will be dominating much of my life for the next 8 months). But I’m writing to share other stories as well. Stories from the everyday, from the people around me, from the moment a photo captures. I believe there’s power in story, and I’m here to give voice to that.

Why Context Matters to the Story

One lesson that’s been burned into my mind over the past years is that the context of a story matters, and matters immensely. This theme gets played over and over while working at an adventure camp. When all you know of a camper’s story is his current insistence on not listening to you and his uncanny ability to always wander off 20 seconds into a hike, he’s often nothing more than an annoyance. But when you know his context, the backstory of how his mom is a drug addict and his grandma is raising him and how he really, really loves puppies, something bordering on magical happens. Suddenly, you care. The context brings him to life, takes your understanding deeper, and plants the seed of caring within you.

So, my first step in this whole endeavor is to provide a bit of context. Perhaps it’ll lead you to care just a bit more. Perhaps it won’t. Either way, I know I’ve got to give it a shot.

Once Upon a Time…

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The nerdy teen in question

…there was a socially-awkward high school senior who stumbled upon the story of a strange group of superheroes called “ultramarathoners.” For this nerdy teen, the idea of a mere marathon seemed overwhelming. And now this – Running 100 miles? He couldn’t believe it. Surely this was fiction… Right?

That’s all it took. An idea was planted deep within his mind: “How far can I push myself? What is my body capable of?” And so this young man (who if you haven’t guessed by now is… the author! Shocker, I know) began a journey that would shape the upcoming years of his life in tremendous ways. With dreams of running through mountains dancing about his mind, he signed up for a 15 mile trail race in a far-off land known as “Leadville” and began to run the streets of his rural, very flat, midwestern hometown day in & day out.

Enter: Leadville

A key character in this story is the town of Leadville. Take all of the legends you’ve heard about the wild west, add 10,000 feet of elevation, throw in a couple of crazed trail runners, and you’ll end up with something that tastes a bit like this incredible town that I’ve grown to love.

Founded in 1877, Leadville was one of many small settlements built high in the rockies by men with lofty dreams and hearty spirits. Unlike many of those settlements, the men in Leadville actually struck it big, finding gold, silver and other precious minerals in abundance. In three years, Leadville’s population had boomed to 30,000+. The law was about as present as the oxygen, with saloons, dance halls & brothels readily available to every man. The main magnate in town, Horace Tabor, withheld no luxury, even opening an opera house downtown that was billed as the “finest between St. Louis & San Francisco.” To top it all off, a push was made to make Leadville the capital of Colorado as this, the highest incorporated city in America, rocketed to becoming the second wealthiest city in the state.

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The Tabor Opera House, opened in 1879

Seeing as how Leadville is not the capital of Colorado, you can probably guess what happened next. The boom ended in 1893 with the repeal of the Sherman Silver Act, and though mining continued for other minerals, Leadville’s opulence took a stark decline. A century of hard life later, Leadville’s sole remaining mine and major employer – the Climax Molybdenum Mine – took an economical hit & eventually closed. The town was under the threat of becoming another ghostown consumed by the Rockies.

The 100 Mile Cure

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An aptly-named bar in downtown Leadville

Needless to say, Leadville was primed for a jolt of life. With mine workers & their families leaving in droves, it needed something, anything, to keep it on the map. It was then that a mine employee by the name of Ken Chlouber posited an idea as crazy as the town’s history: to host a 100 mile trail race. The medics thought he would kill someone. The thirst aid center was ready for anything. The mountains laughed at the idea. And yet 45 people showed up for that first race in 1983. None of them died. It was the genesis of Leadville’s new lifeline.

Over the next 30 years, Leadville’s story took quite the upswing. Tourism saw a rise from folks drawn for the races and the museums. The Molybdenum mine reopened in 2012, bringing a multitude of jobs back to the area. And to top it all off, Ken Chlourber’s crazy 100 mile race was experiencing its own boom. Races of different distances were added, a mountain bike series that drew Lance Armstrong was created, and a prominent role in the book Born to Run brought Leadville into the hands & minds of thousands of wannabe trail runners, including one young lad in a rural, very flat, midwestern town. The once near-dead mining town had used its self-proclaimed “grit, guts, & determination” to become an endurance mecca no one ever saw coming.

One Start Line Leads to Another

In the summer of 2011, I ventured to Leadville to run the aforementioned 15 mile “Heavy Half.” My family drove high up in the mountains, laughed nervously at a sign that read “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again,” and finally passed through the shadow of Colorado’s highest peaks as we arrived at the start line in downtown Leadville. 19th century tenacity fuzed with the buzz of hundreds of trail runners, and a few hours later (and on 2 very sore legs) I found myself falling madly in love with the town, the people who built it, and those crazy folks who continued to grow its legend.

To say running became integral in my life after that would be a gross understatement. This is not just because I think it’s obnoxiously fun, but because, as Eric Lidell (featured in Chariots of Fire) so perfectly said, “when I run I feel His presence.” I feel most alive when I’m running. It offers a rare situation in my life where I know, without a doubt, that I’m doing exactly what I was made to do.

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Bibs from the Leadville Race Series

Over the following years I continued to push my mileage bit by bit. I was fortunate enough to run XC at my college for a season, learn a ton, and realize how much I lacked in the speed department. I ran a handful of marathons and eventually moved to the Hill Country of Texas after graduation. It was in this most unexpected of places where I got plugged into one heck of a trail running community and was blessed to begin working with a coach who’s a living legend in the trial community. Throughout all of these developments, Leadville dwelled in my mind, with dreams of running the big one seeming more tangible with every new mile that passed beneath my feet.

In 2016, those big dreams took a hurtling jump forward, bringing the Leadville 100 to the forefront of my mind. Thanks to some stellar coaching and easy access to gnarly trails, I was able to finish a couple ultramarathons. Each one could be written about in great detail, but I’ll try be succinct and wrap this up. Since the Leadville 100 has moved to a lottery system, runners can only get in through the luck of the online draw, by winning an age group in a preceding race in the series, or by finishing a race in the series, throwing their number into a hat at the awards ceremony, and hoping for their number to be pulled as the lucky winner of one of 5 lottery coins given out to finishers of the race in question. With dreams of getting one such slot, I entered a race the Leadville series hosts in Texas. I finished, miraculously enough. Afterwards, I thought I might never stand upright again as I laid like a deadman not far from finish line. Then I thought for sure I had died and gone to heaven when I received one of the 5 lottery slots after the race. The dream was coming true. I had a slot in the Leadville 100.

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The golden coin granting entry into the Leadville 100

There you have it. I found gold at the end of the rainbow marking this unexpected trail. Now all I have to do is get over a knee injury, come up with a plan to fuel my temperamental stomach for hour upon hour of running, and figure out how the heck to stay awake for ~22 hours… while running 100 miles. Sounds like the components of a pretty rad story, eh? I can’t wait to write all about it as we head out from the starting line.