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Stranded on a Desert Island

Ultrarunning blog post develop a code

It’s a silly, simple question.

No, it’s more than that.

It’s a question that has tugged at my mind, manipulated my intentions, and directed my actions for a long time. I’m not here to crowd-please or coddle the spaces of others, but the curious question has given relation to people I might not even like (or more often, people I do like) and my code of habits and efforts. It has taken me across 100-mile finish lines and influenced huge life choices.

It’s a question you’ve heard and asked before (probably).

Are you following me?

It is paramount that a person develops, or acknowledges the need to develop, a code of habits and efforts – the laws of your feet, hands, and tongue – to lean on in uncertain, stressful, or hostile situations. Your code structures work and play, family time and socializing.

Without this code, it is unlikely that you will find yourself on the positive end of the question. In fact, if you are currently on the negative end of the question (and it couldn’t hurt to ask an honest friend), your life is not what it could be.

The question is this:

“If you were stranded on a desert island, who would you want with you?”

You’ve been asked that before, right?

That question is wrapped tightly around my mind, and I am certain it has influenced my life in a massive, positive way.

Are you on the positive end of it?

This isn’t an appeal for agreeableness and I’m not asking you to soften up and be a pushover.

It’s more like this:

“Are you the dependable, strong, patient, intentional person?”

It’s not nodding and smiling during disagreements. It’s not sheepishly accepting disrespect. It’s not moving aside for every other pedestrian or motorist. Nor is it eccentric, dim-witted, people-pleasing to maintain a social or cultural norm.

It is a code. Your code. Our code.

The code of those who seek to lead and inspire, to bear some burden, and to venture into the unknown. It is the code of those who accept life’s mischief and refuse to be beaten down by it.

 

The Code

Developing such a code (and you ought to develop one) is simple. It’s an integration of your personalities into some dependable, strong, patient, intentional being. Let the dependability flow from your family or work life, the strength from the hours under a barbell or climbing mountain switchbacks, the patience from your financial goals, and the intentional action from your passions.

On the island, that desolate, hot, sun-scorched rock floating in shark-infested waters, dependability is good work done well and fast.

Strength is beneficial manipulation of the environment.

Patience is sacrifice; abstain now for longevity of order.

Being intentional is using concise and deliberate speech and action to meet an ideal.

These definitions fit life, too.

The question of your island companionship is really the question of who would be the greatest ally in life’s mischief.

And life’s mischief stands just outside your door, eager to tear down pursuit and adventure, to sink a person’s legs into the concrete of normalcy.

Don’t leave your reactions and words to chance.

Life’s mischief can look like this: You’re having a great day: your morning run went smooth, you stretched, took the dog for a walk, and now you’re sipping hot coffee in morning traffic. It’s chilly outside, but the sun is shining strong.

This is going to be a great day.

You’re early to work and get a head start on the day’s happenings. Oh, and you just realized it’s Friday.

Outside, a customer parks his car and saunters in. His name is Lionel Mischeff (get it?).

He sees your glowing, Friday-morning-ready-for-the-weekend face smiling at him, and you remind him of his jerk neighbor who won’t cut his grass.

Lionel decides (though he doesn’t necessarily do it consciously) to ruin your day.

He complains about your service, questions your knowledge, and abuses your policies. He is socially incompetent and unable to behave within the realm of your good day.

Has something like this ever happened to you?

How do you react?

More often than not, when our good days, good weeks, or good years (looking at you, 2019) are rained on by customers, family, finances, pandemics, health, politics, and many other mischiefs, we retreat to frustration and impatience.

It’s too easy.

Your speech shortens, your temperature rises, and you take to gossip and negative internal dialogue. We frame life’s mischief as unfair, malicious, and intent on our demise.

We have no code to deal with life’s mischief.

Why it matters

The easiest path to take is victimhood. It requires no effort, stimulates no growth, and rejects ownership of our path, our journey, our mission.

Victims Die Slow: when a person begs for solutions without looking inward, cries for help from the mud of pity, or allows the negative dialogue about that annoying customer to fester in the mind, the flame of aspiration dwindles.

Aspirations dwindle for the impatient, for the gossipers of no goodwill, and for the finger-pointing blameless because their own status becomes the ideal.

I don’t mean socioeconomic status. I don’t mean Facebook status.

I mean their point A (right now) and their point B (what’s coming).

This person has ruined my day.

This bill has ruined my week.

This injury has ruined my month.

This disease will ruin my life.

This accident will cost me everything.

Your point A becomes more important than the other point A: the person, situation, or environment ‘threatening’ you.

Your point B, your destination, seems doomed. Your weekend is ruined, your plans are shot, your eyes fall from goals and action to despair.

Because life’s mischief said no.

Despair and negativity ensues. Frustration boils. Your eyes fall and shoulders sag, your smile takes a vacation.

You’ve failed.

You failed not because of life’s mischief. It will come for everyone, after all. None of special enough to avoid bad things.

You failed because you did not have a code.

You’re on the wrong side of the question: “If you were stranded on a desert island, who would you want with you?”

My Code

I’m not begging perfection. It would be impossible and dishonorable to tame your emotions to complete disuse.

However, it is better to practice emotional stability and direct passion and interest toward positivity and growth.

I’d say it’s paramount to success in ultrarunning (and life).

My code is this (and maybe it’s yours too):

“I want to be called on for the desert island. I want to be an anchor in another’s tossing sea. I want to exhibit the dependability, patience, strength, and intentional action needed to survive the worst of life’s mischief, that desert island, and become more dependable, patient, strong, and intentional through it. My presence ought to bring forth positive emotion and inspire dependability, strength, patience, and intentional action in others.

“When life’s mischief comes knocking, when some ghoul throws me down and puts the gun to my head, I will smile. I signed up for life the day I finished my first ultramarathon, wrote my first novel, and sold my car to bike more. Moments like these define the desert island. That’s where I want to be. For the good of others, and for the pursuit of more in my own life.”

That’s my Wicked Trail.

What’s yours?

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White Knuckles

White Knuckles by Wicked Trail Running

The blue sky turned grey, the concrete turned to ice, and our wandering eyes, exploring the Virginia mountainsides, turned to the road. The snow fell in clumps and the temperature dropped; the higher our four wheels drove, the whiter my sister’s knuckles became.

We passed the ski resort we’d be staying at and climbed higher and higher toward the Blue Ridge Parkway, America’s Favorite Drive, where packet pickup for the Bel Monte 50 waited in the silent, white trees.

A truck passed us on the two lane, precipitous road. Around a steep bend, we saw hazard lights flashing and vehicles pulled over.

Then our wheels spun, and the car slid backward.

Contrary to our general assumption, her SUV was not four-wheel drive.

“It wasn’t even supposed to snow.”

We were sliding, turning, and she was trying to keep it between the deep, snowy shoulder of the mountain and the hundreds-of-feet drop—impressive and wonderful before the snow—to our now right side. She managed to right her car facing down the mountain road and we slid, sometimes stopping, mostly going, always with white knuckles and teeth gritting.

“If you lose it, just steer into the shoulder,” I remember saying. “We don’t want to go that way.” I looked over the edge, an arm’s reach away.

I didn’t think we would make it down that long, steep, mountain road without a ruined trip. The snow was too heavy, the roads a slick slush over ice, and cars kept whirring past us, heading up the reluctant mountain.

A small inn, perched on the edge of the mountain, perhaps built just for those envious of AWD vehicles, saved our trip. We slid into the parking lot—wondering if we’d make it back up the short incline to the road—and waited.

We were less than a mile and two hairpin turns from our true destination (forgetting early packet pickup, by this point). We asked if the inn had a room, and they did. However, the owner told us, “When the plows come by, you should be alright.”

The plows did come, sooner than we expected, and we found our way to the relief of our Airbnb.

Perpetual Comfort

Technology has enthralled our minds with conditions. There need never be a moment of uncomfortable sensation in our lives. Deep libraries of music, movies, television, and books lay at our fingertips. Cars turn on from our frosted windows and their heated seats invite us in from the cold and rain. Medication can heal your smallest pains, or mental insecurities. Everything can be just so.

Even primitive elements of human life have become conditional: taking the elevator after leg day, or when you’ve got your steps in; sitting to read only when social media has run out of entertainment; conversing with like-minded people—or family—only when under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Is that not where humankind ought to head? That state of limitless access and conditional participation?

Shouldn’t we be toiling endlessly for perpetual comfort and enjoyment?

Shouldn’t we invent and create and innovate to make comfort accessible for everyone?

STAND AGAINST IT.

It’s a hard position to stand against, and this is not an appeal to live a life without joy, satisfaction, and pleasure (Though I would beg people to consider the sources of their joy, satisfaction, and pleasure). I don’t mean for you to take to the streets and protest technology, entertainment, or innovation.

It’s a personal stand, a personal step into rain and wind, snow and ice, and the dark forest.

The Stand

Life, though we try, cannot be tamed. The conditions, even as we work to keep everything in line, evolve rapidly.

When we sit near the fire of culture, that warm glow of light that keeps the monsters away, our smiles grow big. We smile and laugh and forget the dark forest around us, contrasting the flickering fire. Our legs and back weaken, our lungs breathe the soft flavored smoke of contentment, and our eyes grow weak. Soon, an orange glow is all we can see, blurred and gentle.

Don’t sit around that fire, weak and warm and eased into complacency, unaware of the monsters creeping about the forest. When they come—as they certainly will—the one who set his conditions, who lights a fire in the dark forest, drinks warm cider, and numbs himself to sensation, will be devoured. He will blindly cry and beg and be dragged away from that warm glow, deep into the black nighttime forest, unlikely to escape.

Stand against it.

Sink into the forest, away from the warm fire and the giggling fools captivated by it.

Find the monsters in the forest and cut them down with strong legs, study shoulders, and clear eyes. Breathe well, cold and alone, pained and fatigued.

This is the ultra marathon; it is the dark forest away from the fire of culture, the one that ropes people into blind smiles and vulnerable giggles.

Your Conditions

Give fear, white knuckles and heavy breaths, a place at your table. When you’re sliding down some icy mountain, afraid of failure and worried for your journey, remember why you started up the mountain to begin with. Acknowledge the monsters creeping about—ice and snow and the precarious cliff—and know that the conditions are not your own, and they never will be.

It is your responsibility to act unconditionally, and to proactively fail to set conditions. Keep the seat heaters off, leave your headphones at home, turn the TV off during that bike trainer session. Skip the beer, take the stairs, and start your day without any glance at social media—or technology (try one of these books, maybe).

Be Your Own Culture: it is with such ease that we fall into an addiction to conditions. It’s the direction of technology and innovation, and the money fueling these, for everything to be set to our desires and preferences.

Your favorite workout song, the one you start every set with, might lead to failure down the road. Your pre-run PB&J or coffee, those sweet and sharp fuels of routine, might be handcuffing you. Your average weekend, conditioned into cozy relief from work, might be drawing you into a life of mediocrity.

I know my preferences, and you know yours.

The Wicked Trail has her own; you’ll never know them, and you don’t need to. You’re there anyway: squatting under the barbell or climbing the mind-numbing switchbacks late in the race or pounding your feet over miles of pavement. You’re in the forest, running toward challenge and discomfort.

And you’re smiling because you’ve been there before. You’ve stepped into the dark trees every time you skipped dessert, turned the AC off, put the phone down, or held discomfort’s hand.

Isn’t this why we run ultra marathons? To stand against ease and accessibility, warmth and known conditions? To hold onto, with white knuckles, the distant finish line, hours and miles away?

You see the fire glowing in the distance and hear the soft song of culture. Keep running.

Welcome to the Wicked Trail.

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The Timing of Chaos

The Timing of Chaos - Wicked Trail Running Ultra Marathon blog cover photo

Humans instinctually amass resources. It’s hammered into our ancient DNA to acquire and protect. It’s hunger and thirst, wealth and ease; it’s each of these with a propensity to the stimulation of our mind’s reward—pleasure—centers. We’re pickers, choosers, and takers. We select the good, work for eventual perpetual relaxation, and along the way take materials that will get us there, or give us a taste of it.

Sometimes, though, against our deepest cries for normalcy, things turn bad. An easy example is the COVID-19 pandemic, but it isn’t always as obvious and widespread. It can be personal, familial, or within a community. Chaos doesn’t ask for the world’s attention; it only needs one person.

It dances about and laughs at whoever notices it, those pickers and choosers and takers who spent so much time creating their worlds of eventual relaxation. Their eyes try to blink away the tears, and still chaos circles and laughs and begs them: Why did you think to control it all? Who are YOU?

Control. It’s a human’s attempt to live with blinders on.

It’s a craving to experience that perpetual relaxation, to control the timing of chaos.

Let it come while I sleep.

Let it come after my career.

Let it come for them, over there.

When a picker or chooser or taker loses perceived control (he or she never had it, after all), when chaos dances about, snickering, compensation must be had. We scream at chaos: I did it all right. I picked the goal, chose the path, and took the resources that would get me there. Give me time! Give me space!

Compensation looks like entitlement. It is entitlement.

Struck down, bank account empty or health gone or love lost, we demand. We demand help from Time and Life; we become reliant on support and stimulation, tricking our brains into a false allegiance with hope.

It’s not real hope, though, because you never gave up picking and choosing and taking. You were struck down—unspecially—for your craving of perpetual relaxation. You wanted control of chaos and blinders to altruism.

The pickers and choosers and takers leave behind only the tangible waste of consumption and desire. They’ve put little thought into habits, lived inconsiderate of life (and it doesn’t take any effort to live inconsiderate of life), and ignored the songs of birds for screens and opinions.

If I had to elevate to prominence one gift ultrarunning has given me, it would be awareness of picking and choosing and taking. It’s the existence without thought and curiosity; overcoming it takes work, change, and time.

Hobbling along dark trails with other people—all traversing many miles with sore feet and tired eyes, all craving something more in the experience of their lives—I saw forfeiture of control as the path toward achievement. There was no picking which muscles would be sore, which toes would blister, and which aid stations would be out of my wants. I could not choose sunshine and warmth, smooth and flat. The ultra marathon, like chaos, does not yield to the runner’s demands. We cannot cry and ask for extra time, or space from discomfort; achievement demands only action and indifference to the despair of the trail.

It takes work, change, and time: I’ve DNF’d and thrown pity parties. I’ve succumbed to cold and fatigue. I’ve sat on the side of the trail, wishing it would end.

But I’ve also learned a great amount about thought and curiosity, consideration for life, and the songs of birds.

I now think deeply about purpose and its relation to the world, other people—like those other runners on the dark trails. Why do we run these races? [This might be why…]

I am curious now about other people, and myself. What habits, actions, and beliefs create an indomitable will capable of training for and succeeding in ultra marathon events? What of where I am now is holding me back, and what are my strengths in this arena? How does physical and mental endurance translate to the propagation of strength and character among other people, families and friends and coworkers?

I’ve always had an affinity for animals and wild things, but ultrarunning begged me: What is life? I looked around at the thousands of trees and plants and animals that gave a home to the fatigue and massive challenge of ultra marathons, and fell into alignment with preserving the outdoors, keeping the natural world as it is for the life it gives me, for the opportunity it provides to smile with tired eyes and blistered toes and shaky knees. My life, one of growth by the scalding fire of ultra endurance challenges, depends on the green planet we live on.

Thoughtfulness, curiosity, and an appreciation for life—mine and the moving and growing things around me—all come together when I hear birds sing. It’s especially prevalent just after a race director releases us runners from the starting corral. Their hums and whistles and loos have such variety and color I become curious of their origin; what sort of bird made that sound? As my mind listens to the sounds of the birds singing, and the trees and dirt coming to life, I find myself observing the forest, sensing its depth and complexity. A thoughtful quietness comes over the pack of runners; the smells and sounds of any dirt trail will induce reflection. The reflection turns to the adventure ahead; the miles and hours of winding and rooty and rocky trails unfold and come to pass, one mile or one hour at a time.

It took work, change, and time to get here, and I’m far from all the way there. There are dragons to slay, mountains to climb, and races to run. There are books to read, conversations to have, and habits to study.

Take control of your life—true control—by taking the blinders off. Acknowledge the decay that accompanies picking, choosing, and taking; identify your lifestyle choices and habits that leave that tangible waste of consumption and desire, and leave you vulnerable to chaos.

I’ve crossed some off my list.

Challenge yourself in the discomfort of your own ultra marathon. Move toward thoughtfulness and curiosity. Consider life, yours and the green and feathered and furry ones your journey depends on. Listen to those birds; they have a lot to sing about.

Find your Wicked Trail…

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Torture Your Faults

Torture Your Faults Ultra Marathon Blog

Mornings are hard. Cold weather is hard. Late nights are hard. Saying no to fun is hard.

Nobody asked you to Be Your Own Culture, to chase something intangible and pursue an imagined ideal.

You don’t have to do whatever hard thing you’re doing. You can probably die happy without ever running, squatting under a barbell, or toeing the line for a 100 mile race.

It would be the easier route, right?

The only entity that will question your sloth, your commitment to fitting in, your addiction to plush couches and big screens and instant gratification is the Wicked Trail, that place in your mind where challenge lives, where opportunity thrives as a student of fatigue and pain and adventure.

Culture will not hold you accountable; only the knowledge buried in your mind –that adventure and dissociation from normalcy are one step away– will haunt you.

It’s your call, your decision. It’s a joyous YES or a doubtful and afraid NO.

Have you decided?

That joyous YES demands kinetic commitment, one of action.

You must embrace the hard and challenging and inconvenient. Find a smile in heavy breaths and wobbly legs and blistered toes.

Identify strengths and build them; search for your weaknesses and wring them out.

Torture Your Faults.

Torturing your faults isn’t a negative proposition. It’s not meant for you to ride yourself miserable for your weaknesses and failures. Rather, celebrate and go in the direction of your strengths. Build them and strategize your mission in relation to them.

Then, while honoring your strengths in goal-oriented action, expose those things that do not contribute to your success or the betterment of your team, those people with whom you’re building a community of pursuit.

Faults; Parasites

Impatience, addiction, regret; it may be just a crumb, but at least one these faults has burrowed into your mind. They bore a black and diseased hole and feed on the stimulation of a culture possessed by ease and gratification.

I’ve seen impatience in running with my dog; I want him to skip the many pee stops and sniff breaks for a continuous effort. I’ve had to pay close attention to my emotions and ensure I allow him to be a dog. Don’t worry about the time on your watch; Cowboy is enjoying this run with you.

Addiction hides in ease and accessibility. Cell phones are one of the sneakiest fiends of addiction. Social networks and quick-stop news sites are wired to keep us coming back; I’ve found myself forgetting the actual thing I logged on for and aimlessly perusing pictures on Instagram. Sugar, alcohol, or caffeine, anyone?

I wrote about regret here. Before you ever miss out, fail, or fall into defeat, regret lives in your mind. It feeds on daily indecision and indifference, growing into a monster of what-ifs and maybes that plague a person with negativity. Don’t feed it. After DNF’ing from the Umstead 100, quitting with an indifference to my goal, my pursuit, I felt massive regret. It’s easy to sit in regret and doubt capabilities, motives, and orientation. That’s what regret wants: doubt.

Torture Your Faults

Take your impatience into the sunlight; tie him up and drag him to to the starting line of a 100 mile race. Bring her on your training runs, those ten mile slogs on tired legs, when you must sit in the discomfort and quiet your mind. Impatience will howl and beg for relief in your daily life, if you choose challenge and adventure. Stay in the right lane on your morning commute, let someone take your place in line during the weekend grocery store rush, or just sit –alone with your thoughts– on a bench before entering a store. Inconvenience yourself for the sake of waiting; you’ll need that skill when it comes to ‘mile 90’ of whatever your goal is.

Addiction is tricky. She sneaks around and stays in the shadows. He is brushed off as normal and acceptable. Filling everyone’s cup with warmth, addiction flourishes. We are chemically inclined for comfort; our minds crave salt, sugar, and fat. Medicate, alleviate, and allow your life to spiral into dependence. It’s not just pills and nicotine; look around at the cravings you satisfy every single day. The time has come to torture your addiction. Tape his mouth shut and chain him to challenge. Put your sugar cravings under a heavy barbell and take your caffeine dependence down a dark, twisting trail. Comfort Is A Lie; show your addiction rain and mud, steep ascents and long miles. Do not let addiction have her say: find strength in achievement and the sensation of rugged experience.

Ah, regret. That festering negativity for missing out, for sitting on the sidelines of life. He or she is the fear that your life will remain as it is: complacent, boring, and unfulfilled. Send your regret an email, a link. Better yet, invite him over to watch you peruse UltraSignUp or RunSignUp. Take her for coffee and tell her about your plans for a Spartan Race, a backpacking trip, or a 100 mile ultra marathon. She’ll get angry. He’ll throw a fit. Good. Regret has no place at your table. You’ve left concern and worry behind; your thoughts have moved on to brighter, more adventurous, and hugely challenging endeavors.

Sweaty palms, calloused feet, and heavy breaths.

Pine trees, roots and rocks, and cold creek crossings.

Belt buckles, finish line pictures, and passions pursued.

Write the book.

Learn the skill.

Take the plunge.

Find a Wicked Trail…

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Ask Yourself One Question

Ultrarunners should ask themselves one question

Most people, even many hardened by the pursuit of the experience and sensation that is ultra marathon running, lack fulfillment.

What is fulfillment, anyway?

I’ll let you answer that yourself; most people have a decent idea of what their lives fulfilled might look like.

Close your eyes and imagine your life, fulfilled.

I’m going to guess you’re not quite there, yet.

You might have a plan, an ideal, or a path. Your values and beliefs frame a mission for your life, for a fulfilled life.

There need to be some changes, sure: your job (or just your boss), location (“If only I was in the mountains”), or acquaintances (“I need new friends…”). We all have some environmental factor restricting our growth, some segment of our life or a habit keeping us in the same place.

Right?

Wrong.

Way wrong.

I battled the notion for some time that my environment dictated what I could do and who I could become; it was a lie of culture, a culture fixated on flashy social media profiles and influencer hype. If I didn’t adhere to some brand of success or achievement, my personal mission was at stake.

I was wrong.

My fulfillment, my mission, never depended on anything but my own action.

One question loomed, unanswered, over my head. Through every pair of running shoes I wore out, through every lunge and squat and plank, through every victory and regression and imitation of some brand of success or achievement, I never asked myself:

What if I was better than I am?

The person you closed your eyes and imagined, the fulfilled life you saw, lives on the other side of that question.

It’s a question that has to be answered daily—even every second!—if your desire for ‘fulfillment’ is sincere, if you decide to commit yourself to a higher mission or a victory you can only imagine.

We fall into daydreams and wishes, as if men and women are meant to always be imagining some better place for their lives in some distant future that is only attainable through a massive storm of environmental change. We never stop and wonder if where we are right now is where we’re meant to be, and despite every limitation imposed by the company we keep, our career, finances, and lack of opportunity, if this place is where we are meant to take root and explode in personal growth.

Maybe where we are right now is our greatest asset; to change it, to play into those daydreams of if only, would be to thwart the path we’re on toward mission success.

It’s a dangerous pattern of wishing and searching, beginning and striving, and falling back into despair of circumstance.

Break the cycle: commit the air in your lungs and the blood in your veins to that mission, that peak of accomplishment, without regard for your state of life.

It starts with one question: What if I was better than I am?

Find your Wicked Trail…

 


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Don’t Uber Through Life: An Ultrarunner’s Reflection

Don't Uber Through Life. An Ultrarunner's Reflection

At mile 70, I said I’m done.

I didn’t want to go on. The race hadn’t gone the way I wanted, and my torched hip was bleeding doubts into my mind.

My crew didn’t argue, there was no thinking; it was “I’m done” and we were walking away from the aid station toward our transport.

I felt fine. It was relief and silence; no one spoke.

Crawling into bed that night, I knew I made the right decision.

Waking up the next day, and for weeks after, that right decision haunted me.

[3 Things I Learned From My 100 Mile DNF]

I quit, there is no other explanation necessary.

Last night, over eight months later, I almost quit again.

I caught myself. This one would have been easier to explain: I got a flat tire at 8:30 PM riding my bike home from work. It’s a 9 mile ride, and I was only four miles in; I was 5 miles away from dinner and a hot shower.

My girlfriend offered to come bring me a spare tube or a lift home. I went to check Uber XL prices.

Then I stopped.

WHY?

This is the question I should have asked at Umstead 100, when I walked away after 70 miles.

“Why did you come here?”

I couldn’t see through the fog of pain and disappointment; my goal time was slipping with my stacking nausea and muscle strain.

I went there for challenge and discomfort, for miles and the finish line.

I went to finish.

When I reached for my phone last night, wondering if I should take my girlfriend up on a ride or hail an Uber, I asked myself this question: WHY? Why do you ride your bike to and from work in the cold?

It’s the question I should have asked that cold April night: WHY?

I ride my bike home for the commitment to an active lifestyle, for the extra time out of breath, and for the practice of slowing down–patience. It’s a rejection of rehearsed haste and road rage, of reliance and heated-leather-seat relief.

Things Go Wrong

Just like Umstead 100 went wrong with nausea and strained muscles, my bike ride went wrong with a shard of metal sunk in my tire.

Things go wrong.

Things going wrong should never alter a person’s commitment to the mission. My mission last night was traveling home under my own power for the sake of exercise, patience, and mental training for the crucible that is the ultra marathon.

My mission 8 months ago in April was to cross the finish line for the sake of the person I am called to be, for the Taller Peak.

I ‘Ubered’ away at mile 70, unwilling to see the mission through because things went wrong, the race did not unfold how I intended.

I took the easy way out.

I neglected the responsibility I have in signing up for ultra marathons: to let my life be driven by an instinct for meaning, for purpose.

Last night, 5 dark and cold miles from home, I decided I would not repeat what happened at Umstead.

I decided against the quick and easy path, the phone call or the Uber ride.

I decided to be responsible for the future-me, out running some 100 mile race, cold and tired and beat down, ready to say those words again: “I’m done.”

I decided to put my bike on my shoulder and walk.

For the sake of the person I am called to be, for the Taller Peak.

Revisit Your Quits

This week on Instagram, I posted the following picture. It may have been divine intervention that I wrote those words only a day before getting that flat tire, the one that made me ask WHY?

“Be better than the you who came short,” I captioned the picture.

Last night, that was the decision I made. I decided to be better than the guy who walked away from that 100 mile race, the crucible that is the ultra marathon.

When the easy road shines so bright that it’s hard to see the truth of your mission, your goal, ask yourself one question: Why did I come here?

Then put one foot in front of the other, and carry on.

Stay on the Wicked Trail…

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Instinct For Meaning: My Journey to 100 Miles

Instinct For Meaning my journey to 100 miles

Meaning is heavy.

You’ve felt it.

Haven’t you?

It’s the highest good of your existence, that place where your passions and curiosities interact musically with the history and future of our world.

A chill up your spine, tears in your eyes, anger climbing your face, your laugh bouncing from person to person, lighting a room: meaning is manifested in passion. You can feel it in emotionally charged actions and responses.

Humans have an instinct for meaning.

We are biologically and spiritually inclined to pursue the highest good of our existence; our ears are tuned to that musical interaction of our passions and curiosities with the history and future of the world.

Do not neglect this instinct, this inclination.

It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and watch life pass by. Everyone else does it. Our potential for significance, for the fulfillment of meaning in our lives, is lost in a social blur of images and captions and distraction and work. We work and life goes on. We work for money, for satisfaction, and for opinions, and life goes on. We’re distracted by voices and sounds and flashing images and what comes next.

We get caught up in that social blur and our instinct for meaning, our biological and spiritual appetite for pursuit, is numbed. It’s like a taste bud that has danced with sugar for years, always yearning for that sweet relief from the boredom of existence with all the other taste buds. We need the stimulation to keep pace with the lie of culture: culture says satisfaction is found in the eyes and mouths of other people.

And so, we fall in line; we dance with the sugar of images and captions and distractions and work. Just like everyone else.

Do you realize the damage you’re doing?

When your instinct for meaning is numbed, when you cannot put to canvas your passions and visions of excellence, you forgo responsibility.

You forgo the responsibility to the person you are called to be.

That person exists. He or she is out there, in some future Earth, expertly living out your meaning, your purpose.

What will it take to become that person?

Decision.

DECIDE

Decide to feed your instinct for meaning. Life will not just happen. If you are waiting for a new home, a new job, a new car, a new friend, a new relationship, a new inspiration, or a new motivation, I have news for you: the person you are called to be, that person you are responsible for, is dying. He or she is fading away, lost and never to be born.

Your indecision and laziness, your passive approach to fulfillment, is slowly cutting the throat of that future you.

You are responsible for his or her wellness. That person might exist forever in some mental dimension of regret, of instinct ignored and challenge left for another day. Indecision, laziness, and passiveness are toxins of culture, a culture eager to feed on your unfulfilled and meaningless life.

Culture slips these into your days, poisoning your environment.

You are responsible to keep the person you are called to be tangible; live a concise, intentional, active, and curious life for the sake of that future you.

Anything less leaves you dancing with that social blur of eyes and ears intoxicated with the idols of culture: expectations, opinions, regrets, addiction, self-worship.

Find a Wicked Trail, that place in your mind where challenge and adversity serve as allies to your growth instead of obstructions to your complacent existence; take responsibility for pursuit and adventure.

Watch me cross the finish line after nearly 30 hours:

TAKE ACTION

Acting, doing things to move your present self toward purpose, is the only path.

You must identify that moment in your life where your instinct called out, where you were moved to visualize a future of more of the same feeling.

Your instinct for meaning was begging relevance, calling for a place at your table. Your physiology (crying, getting the chills, laughing) often points toward your instinct for meaning; you must notice and file these moments away.

Your future self depends on it.

For me, it was the finish line of my first 100 mile race.

The 6 weeks leading up to my first 100 mile ultra marathon, the Burning River 100, an Achilles injury left me running a frightfully low 7 times.

That’s right: 7 runs.

And none of those were longer than 5 miles.

I ran less than 35 miles in the 6 weeks leading up to my first 100.

And when I crossed that finish line 8 minutes before the final cut-off, my pain and nausea and fatigue was only paled by the massive feeling of accomplishment despite probability.

“If I could do that, what else am I capable of?”

This question captivated me. I saw the Taller Peak (have you seen it?) and knew my direction. The question morphed into some exploration of my mind and body and our natural world, and a desire to inspire people to inspire themselves through radical challenge and commitment.

That’s the path I’m on.

It started with war stories bringing tears to my eyes and sending patriotic shudders down my back. I didn’t ignore those emotions; I continued to admire and study men and women of incredible bravery and commitment. When one David Goggins, whom I had followed since his rise to ultra marathon significance, asked the question “Why haven’t you done it yet?” I responded by signing up for an ultra marathon.

Those decisions, pandering to some primordial instinct for meaning and fulfillment, were the first steps to crossing the finish line at Burning River.

I have a responsibility to some future-me, some strong and fast and kind and community-driven runner of miles and writer of words, miles and words I know will help me answer one simple question: “What else am I capable of?”

If I don’t answer that question, if I had ignored David’s, or if I had disregarded my admiration of bravery and courage in the line of duty, my present life would look much different.

I sit here, writing this article, glad I had not ignored my instinct for meaning.

Welcome to the Wicked Trail…

Click Here to read about Shawn Livingston’s path toward meaning and his mission. WARNING: Extreme Inspiration Likely.

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3 Lessons of a 100 Mile DNF

3 Lessons From Quitting at Mile 70

I was 8 minutes shy of the 30-hour cut off.

It was not how I imagined finishing my first 100 mile ultra marathon.

I pictured gritting my teeth, conquering, and smiling across the finish line of that point-to-point race from Cleveland to Akron, the Burning River 100.

I didn’t expect to cry, fall asleep peeing, and utter the words I can’t in the nighttime darkness of some cornfield.

“Try to run a bit here.”

I can’t.

My first 100 mile ultra marathon took from me what I didn’t know I had and showed me what I didn’t know I was missing. It was anxiety at the starting line, confidence on the daytime towpath, and then fear of the nighttime single-track.

But I did it. [click here to read about it. Hint: I was unprepared]

And I was eager to do it again.

So, what went wrong?

Why did I DNF my second 100 mile race, the Umstead 100 in Raleigh, North Carolina, 8 months later?

I blamed myself –as I should have—but when my hazy mind cleared, I finally made sense of the whole thing. I drew it out, watched myself say the words I’m done, and came to terms with what went wrong.

Most people point to nutrition, cold, or poor training.

Many will call out the terrain, their nagging injury, or some supernatural calling to drop out.

It just wasn’t my day.

You have to know when to quit.

I made the right decision.

At the Umstead 100, I made the wrong decision. 8 months later, I have finally organized that Moment of Quit in my mind. Here’s three things I learned:

1. Prove Nothing

Pride.

I remember the night before the race I joked proudly about being ready for a sub-24 hour performance. I could taste it after my 8:21 run at the Light 2 Light 50. I knew I was fast enough, and I knew I had the right mindset.

Didn’t I have the right mindset?

I think the better question is: Did my mindset line up with my preparation and focus?

That’s the better question. The answer? No, my mindset did not line up with my preparation and focus.

Had I realized that simple fact, I might not have dropped.

Realize that fact before your race: the best question is to ask if your goal, your mindset, lines up with your preparation and focus. And if it does not, adjust your mindset; challenge your preparation and focus on race day, do not amplify their readiness and push your pride to a point of no return.

My Preparation

This is an easy one.

Umstead was the first week of April. The first week of March, I ran the Belmonte 50 in the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. One month earlier, in February, I won the Light 2 Light 50 mile race on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

“You were prepared!” I just heard you say.

False; I was prepared to put miles on my legs, sure, but not to PR at the 100 mile distance by five hours. Had I accepted a finishing time of whatever my body goes for, I would have finished. Instead, I held my goal of 24 hours firm. It was fragile and soft; it wasn’t ready for fulfillment. My firm grip weakened it.

My second and third 50 mile races –Belmonte and Light 2 Light– torched my legs. I needed recovery time, not a 100 mile race with a huge goal at stake, only one month away.

Umstead could have been a stepping-stone to my 24 hour goal. Instead, I decided it was this moment, and only this moment. When the moment of fruition passed with nausea and twitching cramps, I lost focus.

My race became a shameful plod entertaining imaginary voices:

Shouldn’t he be doing better?

He said 24 hours. I don’t know about that anymore.

He’s moving slow.

I realize now, however, my focus was lost before I toed the line and before those voices started chiming through the trees.

My focus

I won’t bore you with details of my nutrition the night before (though I think I described it on my Umstead 100 race report). It wasn’t unhealthy options that drew my focus; it was quantity and conversation. Lost in hanging out with family and friends, I did not plan. I did not plan my dinner or my super-food smoothie or the cleansing juices I’d drink before bed.

I did not plan. I ate. A lot.

My focus, with laughs and food and light conversation and speculations of grandeur, moved away from the massive challenge before me.

Did my mindset, my contemplation of that 24 hour finish time, line up with my focus?

No.

Had it, I would have paid grave attention to my eating and drinking, to overconsumption. The issues of poor nutrition compounded overnight, into race morning, and along that gravel trail.

I was sick from mile 6 to 70.

Nutrition was not the issue; focus determined my drop.

Focus lost the night before and a goal unsupported by preparation, my mind rattled with doubts and insecurities. We’re supposed to take care of these in training, doubts and insecurities. Explore fatigue and pain, train when it’s inconvenient, and lose yourself in that Taller Peak. Drag doubts with you on those tough hill workouts; bring your insecurities to the weight room and pound them out.

Harden your mind to the voices of quit, the ghouls of ease and comfort, and leave pride at the starting line.

You don’t have to quit.

You have to walk. You have to crawl. You have to exist in the pain.

You have to leave pride at the starting line.

Isn’t that why you came here?

2. Change Your Narrative

You’re tough.

Are you ready to find out how tough?

Are you tough enough?

Let’s find out; let’s transport you to mile 70 of your 100 mile race. It’s cold, wet, and your stomach is turning with nausea. You hamstring is torched and your hip flexors struggle up the loose gravel climbs.

But I’m tough!

This was my message to any voices of doubt: I’m tough!

And I suppose I am. But aren’t there times in life when being tough, or hard, or badass, is not enough? I didn’t learn this lesson at Burning River. 8 months later at Umstead, when the pain and fatigue and miles stacked up in front of me, I asked myself if I was tough.

George, are you tough?

Yes.

Then, a voice whispered through the trees: So what?

This shook my will: So what if you’re tough? You’re not this tough! Have you felt this pain, this nausea, this fatigue before? I think not! You might be tough, but I am tougher.

It was the race, whispering through its own pine trees and along its own trail.

How tough are you George? You aren’t this tough! the race would whisper as I cramped up, or stumbled over a root, or sat shaking in a porta-potty.

I was living the Tough Narrative.

Don’t live the tough narrative; it’s a sham, a lie of culture, that toughness equates success in hardship. There are plenty of tough guys and gals out there running ultra marathons, running the race of life, and venturing down their own Wicked Trails. If toughness is your ally, your well of strength, there will be a race, an event, a hardship, that punches you in the face and questions just how tough you really are.

That event for me was the Umstead 100.

It didn’t matter why or how or when the event went wrong.

It went wrong.

My toughness had never been tested in the ways Umstead went wrong. And toughness never can be perfectly vetted; the combinations and situations life might throw at a person negates a person’s well of toughness. It simply does not matter how tough you are.

It took me months to realize this simple fact.

How tough you are does not matter.

What does matter?

Your endurance.

I don’t mean physiological adaptation of training.

I mean your willingness to endure.

I mean your voluntary commitment to the finish line.

I mean your patience.

I mean your mind’s decision to exist in pain.

Do not fight through pain. Do not push it aside. Do not smile through it or grit your teeth or become some depleted victim of discomfort.

Exist in the pain. Acknowledge its purpose in your pursuit, its promotion of your spirit in the direction of the person you are called to be.

Pain is a wicked teacher. He shows us our shortcomings and puts our anxieties on display for everyone to see. It brings out frowns and tears and impatient outbursts.

Do not be a victim to pain. Exist in the pain and carry on toward the finish line without hurry or expectation of relief. If you expect relief, or some escape, the miles will weigh on your fatigued mind.

Exist in the pain.

Thank yourself for voluntary commitment to challenge and look forward to the person who will come out the other side.

3. A Different Patience

I’ve written about patience before. It’s paramount to success in training, on race day, and in general satisfaction with life. Impatient people can’t run 100 mile races. The training and preparation, the reliance on others, and the pain (see above) create a distance molded in exclusivity.

It’s not for everyone.

I thought I knew patience, this ticket to the starting and finish line of ultra marathon distance events.

The Umstead 100 taught me a new lesson in patience.

My goal for the year 2019 was to cover 100 miles in 24 hours. I trained well and won the Light 2 Light 50 miler, a flat and fast road race, with a time of 8:21. One month later, in March, I ran a mountainous double marathon in just under 13 hours.

With as much elevation gain and loss as the entire Umstead 100, I still thought a sub-24 hour race was on the table.

It wasn’t. And I shouldn’t have gambled my entire race-satisfaction on that benchmark.

Three races of at least 50 miles in three months was a lot for a relatively new ultra marathon runner. Had I acknowledged my expected fatigue and muscular breakdown, I might have approached Umstead as a slow and intentional training run for a sub-24 hour attempt later in the year.

I might have stayed healthy and finished the race with an eager and distance-acquainted mind, unencumbered by the deadly pride that left me doubtful and insecure.

One month later, on May 4, I ran 87 miles at the Outrun 24 hour in Cleveland, Ohio.

4 races in as many months, and my goal remained far out of reach up my personal mountain.

My legs and feet were beat; my sense of ability and optimism were damaged.

It wasn’t easy to take stock of what went wrong.

I see now how a castle is built. It’s not rushed for fear of some unseen enemy. It’s not built with bloody hands and fatigued troops. It’s built with intentionally placed blocks, not a dumping of bricks and stones into a pile, hoping some land in the right place.

Veteran ultra marathon runners have the legs and feet and lungs for exceptional feats. New runners (and I am talking to myself here), take your time. Be patient in your goals and build intentionally, knowing that to summit the mountain, your must be well-rested, have strong legs and callused feet. You must have been on the mountain for some time, and with some direction and purpose.

Do not look for the summit your first week, month, or year.

Climb on, and be patient.

A New Mountain

Five races in four months (I forgot to mention a trail marathon one week after Outrun 24 Hour, which was one month after dropping from Umstead) left me scrambling along a shale ridge, precariously close to a steep drop off the mountain of my goal. Rushing back into training, impatient to get another race in before the year expired, knocked me right off.

Here I am four months into a medical running hiatus, eager to lace up and start back up the mountain and thankful for healing. I learned some things and earned some medals in those 5 races from February to May, and –though it’s hard to say out loud—I would not go back and change anything.

The stacking of races, the dropping from Umstead, and the injury that followed too much running for a novice ultra marathon runner taught me some invaluable lessons to carry forward on my Wicked Trail.

Isn’t that why we run these races?

I peruse UltraSignUp nearly once per week, searching for a comeback race, a first step toward my goal of 100 miles in 24 hours. I won’t rush into it. I won’t neglect the rest and growth between races. I might do some 100 mile races with no goal before another attempt. I will be patient.

I might not be tough, and I might not take any expectations into the races that follow this period of healing, but my goals don’t require those things.

They only ask that I wait in the pain. They ask that I not push through it or search for relief. They ask that I align my focus and preparation with my goal. They ask that I ignore voices of doubt and insecurity, and leave pride at the starting line.

They ask, and I have my answer.

Welcome to the Wicked Trail…

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Afraid to Run That Ultra Marathon?

Afraid to run ultra marathon

Fear is a jester. He dances around the hall of greatness and mocks passersby, planting doubts and insecurities in the minds of those peeking in. He sings of their shortcomings; he jokes about their failures. His greatest trick is keeping people away from the hall of greatness.

Fear’s greatest trick is convincing you to lead a boring, unexplored life.

Have you peeked into the hall of greatness lately?

Open yourself to the physical, emotional, and mental harvest afforded you. There is no other person on Earth with your talents, skills, and experiences; peek in that hall.

Ask yourself: Today, what can I accomplish for the fruition of my goal? What physical storms can I weather? How can I detach from my emotions and calm my society-induced anxious mind? Where are my thoughts taking me?

Fear is a jester. He dances around that hall of greatness and strums an anxious tune, one born of a society infatuated with opinion and comparison. Fear wants you to compare; he wants you to form opinions.

Comparison and opinions are a soil perfect for the growth of doubts and insecurities.

See those people! Why aren’t you like them? Are you working hard enough? Are you good enough?

Fear has you. You peeked into that hall of greatness and stepped inside. Unfortunately, you fell for his tricks.

You’ve fallen for his comparison; commitment to your path crumbles as your mind dances from person to person, desiring what they have and who they are.

He’s roped you into impatient debate, a conversation of distracted minds, a mindless scrolling through social media profiles of status and influence and achievement.

Fear is a jester.

Cut his throat.

“Why haven’t you done it yet?”

I signed up for a 50 mile race before any other distance. I skipped the marathon, half-marathon, 5K and 10K, and any Turkey Trot or Fun Run in between.

It was a Rich Roll podcast featuring David Goggins that left me browsing popular race sites like UltraSignUp, biting my nails as my imagination painted me on some mountainous trail with a colorful bib pinned to my shirt. David mentioned how people often say to him: I would love to complete Badwater one day!

His response to those people?

Why haven’t you done it yet?

His question changed my life: Why haven’t you done it yet?

The next day I registered for an ultra marathon of 50 miles, having never ran more than 10 miles in one go. I left no time for thought, comparison, research (seriously, I was unprepared), or the opinions of others. What would they matter? The only thing I saw was that hall of greatness, of exploration and growth, and Fear lurking around, waiting to trick me into that boring and unexplored life.

Hold on, Fear would say. Let’s think about this. Why not ask someone what they think? Why not train for some time and see how it goes?

I had to cut his throat; there was no room for comparison and opinions, for clicking through websites filled with statistics and numbers and stories.

I wanted my own stories, numbers, and stats.

This is a lesson I carry with me now: the time for thought and analysis is gone. How am I spending my time? What actions am I putting off? What pursuits am I leaving to others, those I see as more capable or in a better position?

Why haven’t you done it yet?

Pursue your goal, that peak in the distance, with a strange vigor. Let it illuminate your thoughts, conversations, and training sessions. Don’t let it slide for Fear, for his tricky tune of comparison and opinions.

Get after it. It is yours to have.

Sign up for that farther distance. Challenge yourself with a time-goal. Commit to a long, patience-testing program for the sake of your health and performance.

Don’t leave those things for someone else.

Peek in that hall of greatness.

Why haven’t you yet?

Click Here to read another quick and thought-provoking post…

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My Dirty Hat

My Dirty Hat - Ultra Trail Trucker Hat

“I thought about buying a new hat, a fresh and clean one, but it wouldn’t be the same.

It’s my hat.

It knows my struggles on the trail and my successes.

I’ve trained and raced with it. It’s tasted sweat and dirt and lots of stream water on hot days.”

It kept the sun out of my eyes on that long, desolate, beach road in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, when I crossed the finish line in first place after fifty miles of asphalt and loose, gritty sand.

This hat climbed those unforgiving Virginia switchbacks that cold March night, when five headlamps bobbed along the Blue Ridge Parkway ten minutes before the thirteen-hour cut-off.

My hat was there at my first DNF, fifteen minutes from my apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina, when the voices of comfort and ease sang louder than my battle-forged will.

This hat kept the rain off my face as I circled a gravel loop in northeast Ohio for twenty-four hours on my twenty-fourth birthday.

Less than a week later, my hat flew to Austin, Texas, to run trails on tired legs and sore feet, all for the sake of adventure and experience.

Hadn’t we had enough adventure and experience?

“It’s never enough,” my hat says, hanging now on my door handle. “Let’s get back out there! Where are we going next? What challenge, fatigue, and fear can we run through together?”

I look at that hat, white and green and now with dirt splotches, and feel its weight on my head.

I feel the sand in my shoes, and I see the heat coming off that oceanside asphalt.

I taste the cold winter air of the Virginia mountains. I see flakes falling thick and frigid stream crossings and myself stopping with ten miles left, taking it all in, this grand adventure.

When I see that dirt-splotched hat, I hear myself say “I’m done” at my first DNF; I feel my hip and foot and I get that April nighttime chill down my spine. I see the doubt and pain in my eyes and return to that Moment of Quit. There’s my hat: along for the bad as it was for the good.

[click here to read about the Moment of Quit]

On that wet Ohio morning, my hat finished 87 laps of monotonous gravel. It heard my conversations, laughs, groans, and self-talk. It sat next to that warm aid station fire for too long and crossed the finish line perched above my smile.

Outside Austin, it saw the rocky hills of Texas for the first time. It slid down loose descents, navigated mountain bike trails, and got soaked by a frigid rain just across the finish line.

My hat is dirty, and it has a salty sweat stain on the brim.

It’s been sat on, dunked in streams, latched to backpacks, complimented, and shared.

It’s seen first-place finishes, fatigue and pain, and moments of massive weakness, of quit.

Races and training sessions. Sweat and sun. Wind and snow. Gravel, asphalt and sand; roots and rocks.

I thought I might swap it out for a fresh one today.

But what good would that do my bank of experiences and adventures, of challenges faced?

I’ll give this dirt-splotched hat another ride. And probably another. It’ll earn its retirement one day; it might get lost in the desert or loaned to a sun-tanned friend. I might leave it under a pine tree or watch it float down some river. It might get blown off in a mountain thunderstorm as I run for the cover of the tree line.

Then I might swap it out for a fresh one.

Won’t that be some story?

Like this post? Check out some other Creative posts…

Creation Trail [reading time: 3 minutes]

Gravel [reading time: 3 minutes]

Barbed Wire [reading time: 23 minutes]

Grounded by Home Trails [reading time: 4 minutes]

Cape Cod 50k: A High Five and a Seashell [reading time: 4 minutes]

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So Long, And Thanks For The Suffering

Thanks For The Suffering Ultra Marathon Blog Michael Moran

Written By Michael Moran

I chose to do this.

Nobody forced me to run 50 miles.

Pouring sweat into a paper cup of Gatorade three quarters of the way through the race, I felt like I was about to cave inward. The weight of the last few months, the heat, my wet and muddy feet, and the physical toll of this race brought me to an edge I hadn’t felt before. I was losing sight of my why.  I thought it was about adventure, accomplishment, and identity, but that turned out to be wrong.

I chose the Pineland Farms 50 miler because of a lifetime-love of playing in the woods of Maine. Maine is nicknamed “Vacation Land” for the hundreds of miles of bucolic back roads, cow pastures, and impossibly lush, dark woods. It’s the ideal setting for long backpacking trips, camping, or stargazing.  When I signed up for this race in November of 2018, I booked a campsite and spent the winter dreaming of starry night skies and bonfires, good beer, and a chance to connect with other ultra runners.

I thought about a terrifying goal and that I was ready to go for it

The night before the race, a few runners huddled around a hissing fire, which was fighting against light rain.

A pleasant couple, Paul and Carol-Ann, joined me by the fire and we started chatting. They were there to watch their son race the 50 miler. Paul’s friendly face poked out of his rain jacket like it was just perched on top of his rounded body. He had a magnetic kindness and openness, which pulled everyone gathered toward him.

Paul’s experience in ultra marathons, if not for his knowledge, would have been given away by his Western States belt buckle barely hidden under his belly. In fact, this Paul was Paul Days-Merrill, winner of the 1996 Vermont 100. When the gravity of my company became clear, the conversation became a frenetic series of my training questions and his stories about ultra races. We spent the evening talking about the sport and its evolution. We chatted about flat coke, Doritos, and fanny packs. We discussed Gordy and Walmsley. His incongruous identity shifted through the night and I could almost see that young ultra runner standing in front of me.  He pulled me into conversation in a way that welcomed me to a club of eccentricity that few people understand. Our conversation lasted until rain and the clock forced us to our tents for the night.  I was about to become part of his pack; I was fired up and couldn’t sleep. I laid in my tent, listening to the sound of heavy rain, thinking about the adventure of the following day.

I did not think about what that rain meant for the trails. 

The Narrative

The rain left deep, murky mud puddles in the cow pastures used for the course. The only way to deal with them was to slog through –up to your ankles— and hope your shoes didn’t fill with mud. The looped course sent us back through the same slog over and over.

By the time I reached the 50 kilometer (31.07 miles) mark, I was feeling intense fatigue from lifting burnt quads against the mud’s sticky resistance. In addition, the course markings were off by a few miles; the mental game was on.

I felt frustration and defeat.

I could barely run faster than a trot with the mud and hills.

The miles felt like quicksand. Thick black sludge suctioned my feet and pulled me under. My hammered quads and burned out glutes fought stiffly to rise out of the sludge. 

My first 50 miler would be a walk.

For some reason, this bruised my ego and seemed to dull my energy further. The sun baked mercilessly on me and my soaked shirt. I have always been mentally tough, and I have struggled in races before. Why was this feeling different? I had to stop for a few moments at an aide station in order to get my shit together.

I thought about where I was in my life and my context. I was beaten down before I even got to the starting line of this race; I needed to look at myself in the mirror. This race, as it turned out, was as much about what I was looking to find inside of my mind as what my body could do. 

In the spring of 2019, just before the race, I found myself in the crosshairs of three massive moments in my life. I was finalizing a divorce from a person I spent 16 years with, selling my first home, and tapering for my first 50 mile race. The pressure of uncertainty, instability and emotional pain mingled with brutal self-talk and taper anxieties.

Three in the morning became the worst time. Sleep was needed with my training build-up for the race, but my brain wanted to do a full review of my resume of mistakes since 1982. By the time my alarm sounded each morning, I was already suffering with physical and emotional fatigue. My family had mostly moved out of the state the year before and I was almost always alone.  I found myself closing off from the world around me. 

Through this period of instability and emotional vulnerability, I continued my practice of writing down five things I am grateful for each morning. I thrive on stability and routine; on painful mornings, with the help of my best friend, a woman I love very much, I clenched my teeth and grunted out that I was thankful for her and black coffee. Despite her living in Arizona and me living in Massachusetts, she texts me like a sunrise every morning: “Gimme those gratitudes!” Often, forcing myself to think deeper, I reminded myself about the obvious ones: my daughter, my family, a roof over my head, my fitness or my best friend.

Yet, in all of my daily gratitudes, I never stopped to thank my suffering. I showed gratitude for overcoming obstacles, my achievements, and my victories, but never just raw pain. 

We are all the product of a lifetime of choices and events. It’s fair to think that the “positive” choices we make are the ones to attribute toward our identity or success. This is my success narrative: going to college, choosing a healthy diet, mindfulness meditation and daily gratitude, a daily commitment to fitness, seven hours of sleep, high effort in my career, a history of solid performance in running. This narrative is why I claim to be successful.

It’s easy to show gratitude for a successful narrative because these paths ease tension and optimize my life.

Conversely, we attribute our obstacles and pain to success with a grit-based narrative.

I overcame adversity through grit, I shoved the bullshit aside and got tough, I got away from that destructive situation. No pain, no gain! I toiled for that outcome. These are my identity and, just like the success narrative, have a positive spin. They rely on overcoming tension between situation and goals. We need grit and it’s easy to feel gratitude toward a mindset that drives us forward through passion and intensity, despite the obstacles.

Yet, when we are actively in a moment of suffering, and we feel defeated –not particularly gritty, or tough, and like we want to break—how can we feel gratitude? We are inside suffering and haven’t met the goal. We see no way out of the current pain and struggle and are flooded with uncertainty. How can we feel gratitude in this?

Why feel gratitude for this? 

No Narrative: Gratitude

“Smile! even when you don’t want to” is some of the best advice I’ve heard. Instead of allowing defeat and discomfort to take control at mile 38 and feed a failure narrative of how my whole life has been a mess, and how life has kicked me in the teeth, I smiled.

I smiled to accept the pain. I tried to embrace it and cherish it. It wasn’t going to kill me or make me stronger. It was just going to hurt. I needed to hurt; that’s a part of this experience too. 

Instead of feeding thoughts about my failed relationship, an uncertain future, the loss of my first home, my loved ones living thousands of miles away, or worrying about my daughter, those voices which were starting to bark in my ear, I smiled.

The pendulum swung back and I was in misery again. Screw this, I’m not going to do this mindfulness bullshit because this pain actually sucks. Mindfulness can feel insulting in real pain. Say thank you for this? No, fuck you

Thanking the suffering took me out of the participation in the suffering and let me observe it. I allowed the present moment to be painful, held, and observed. Suffering itself has a place at the table.

The pendulum went again toward gratitude; I allowed it in.

Thank you, suffering. I am lucky to have you in my life.

It wasn’t a grit-based narrative, or a success-based narrative; it was in true gratitude for the pain. I didn’t imagine overcoming it. I didn’t tell myself I was strong and brave and that I could do this. I didn’t tell myself that I was mentally tough or any number of positive-narrative spins. I didn’t pat myself on the back for running an ultra. I just thanked the suffering. It was good stuff.

I saw Paul at an aide station cheering for the runners and I got a boost. I remembered last night’s fiery conversation about this sport and the people who do it. It’s all about discomfort and hard work. You don’t win the Vermont 100 without suffering at some point on the way to victory. Suffering is a mindset to lovingly embrace. 

There was no more tension, and my mind stopped spiraling. I didn’t force it to happen, and I didn’t magically stop hurting; it just no longer was a source of tension. The pain was very real. The emotional turmoil was still there, but it was all being held and accepted, observed and appreciated.

It was the reason I was there. I was getting what I came for.

After this, I started to run again. Now that the suffering was allowed, and even embraced, I was ok. I was able to turn the volume up on that grit-based inner dialogue and put my head down. I wasn’t gritting through pain; I had accepted it and could work with it in order to finish.  I stopped complaining about the mile markers and the mud. That was some good suffering, too.

I allowed everything to be what it was –even suffering—and I pounded my destroyed legs to the finish.

I smiled and I meant it.

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Shawn Livingston: Be Somebody’s Pacer

Be Somebody's Pacer

 

Woke The Monster

“He’s a lazy, lying, lost, hopeless drug addict,” Shawn Livingston says, reflecting on the colors with which he painted his adulthood. It started as the life of a partier, just an addiction to a good time.

Drug abuse and alcoholism, taking root slowly in late nights and over-prescribed pain killers, became habitual. Good times rolled into bad habits; bad habits became dangerous routines.

Did you make it to work today?

Do you have gas in your car?

Yes? Good.

When he tried to get off pain medications, prescribed for his hurt back, “It woke up The Monster.”

The Monster fed on pain pills and when those became too expensive, heroin.

His family turned their backs which, Shawn says, they had every right to do. The Monster wrapped its gnarled hand around Shawn and wedged itself between he and those who once looked up to him as a proud member of the Armed Forces.

Hopeless, and without purpose, Shawn racked up four felonies and a DWI.

The fourth felony, the one that nearly landed Shawn 15 years in prison, saved his life.

Stay True

My first visit with Shawn in Austin, Texas, I asked him about his knuckle tattoos.

“They’re a little aggressive,” he jokes.

His knuckle tattoos read ‘Stay True,’ a phrase as deep as it is obvious. Shawn inked ‘Stay True’ into his knuckles shortly before the crushing blow of that 15 year sentence.

His lawyer looked at him that afternoon and said, hollowly, “What do you want me to do? They got you.”

Shawn had one request, one dying wish, before spending 15 years behind bars. He’d be almost 50 years old before he was a free man.

“Let me get clean before I go.”

Shawn’s family had been replaced by The Monster, and he wanted them back. If he could get clean before going away, he’d have someone to write him letters. Without his family’s love, Shawn knew he would waste away behind bars.

“Why did you get that tatted on your knuckles?”

Shawn explained that Stay True is a testament to the loss he incurred in addiction. He lost a huge part of his young adult life and would never get it back. Stay True is a reminder, for him, that every day will be a test of his resolve, his recovery and health. He has to Stay True to the kid, the young man who joined the military, who had dreams and goals and love and passion; he had to rediscover his best and commit to living as that person.

The alternative was mental deterioration and death at the hands of prescribed and illegal drug abuse.

Ultra marathon running (Shawn has finished multiple ultra marathons up to 100 miles) and working with others gave Shawn a front-row seat at his own transcendence of the person addiction created. He returned to the truth of who he is, who we are all called to be, in adventure and experience.

We are all called to Stay True to that person, our best, the one free in adventure and experience.

Be Somebody’s Pacer

In staying true to the truth of who he is in adventure, challenge, and experience, Shawn transcended the person addiction created.

In ultra marathon running, Shawn became a new person.

In working with others, those trapped behind the same bars of alcoholism and drug abuse that once imprisoned Shawn, he found his purpose.

It’s a purpose every single person, endurance athlete and otherwise, can grasp and use to change his or her life.

Be Somebody’s Pacer.

In the late hours of an ultra marathon, a pacer can change a person’s race.

It’s a shot of espresso: Conversation, shared miles, and a friend to keep the runner’s compass pointing toward the finish line.

A good pacer can be the difference between belt buckle and DNF.

At Shawn’s first 100 mile race, the Pinhoti 100, he realized the gravity of that friendly voice in the darkness. A fellow runner became his pacer, a lighthouse that steered his mind from negativity and pain toward “I am not alone in these!”

That’s when it hit Shawn.

He needed a pacer to show him a healthy path out of addiction.

[You’ll have to ask him yourself how he discovered trail running: follow Shawn on Instagram @iam_shawnlivingston]

He needed a pacer that night in Alabama, when negativity and pain crept into his exhausted mind.

And now, coming from the pit of hopelessness that is addiction and conquering his Wicked Trail at Pinhoti 100, Shawn has committed himself to Be Somebody’s Pacer in living as a symbol of hope for at-risk youth and men in the same treatment facility where he recovered his health.

Shawn, in telling and continuing to live his story of perseverance through challenge, reminds these young people and recovering addicts that people have sat in those chairs and risen to confront adversity and hopelessness.

Others, like Shawn, tattooed with a record of self-neglect and a forgotten truth, who now smile and laugh and breathe deeply, thankful for life and blue skies.

And, of course, rugged trails.

At the finish line of the 2019 Texas Switchback Trail Marathon outside Austin, I stood with Shawn and watched as multiple men who, upon close inspection, appeared out of place at an athletic event, came and embraced Shawn or shook hands and spoke inaudibly.

“Those are guys from the treatment center,” he said.

That’s when I saw it: Shawn is no longer living his own story. His impact is beyond what social media sees and what news reports cover. It’s real. It’s men and at-risk youth seeing a model for climbing the ominous mountain in front of them. Men and kids, left on the sideline of society, who see someone playing the game and smiling, splashing through streams and smiling up steep hills, heart pounding and shirt soaked through.

Shawn pulls men from the chairs of hopeless addiction and puts them into a pair of running shoes. They might look out of place, but they are right where they belong. Just ask Shawn.

Be Somebody’s Pacer.

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Gravel

Gravel: Ultra Marathon Blog Post

Rugged shoes stand before a yellow gate; it reads: Those who know the song.

“What song?” I wonder.

I step from the parking lot and pass the yellow gate onto the crushed limestone of a logging trail.

The trail is worn and rutted and damp, and it cascades down into some valley.

“What song?”

Is it the song of gravel underfoot? Any who steps here knows this song. The crunch of a step and shift of the ground. It wanders through the forest and mingles with the stream and rustling trees and the sound of creatures alive, high above on branches. It paces my breath and the easy swing of my arms.

Or is it the song of mineral-perfumed pine-air? The damp rocks and dirt, now clinging to rubber soles, rise and mix with the green needles of the loblollies. It’s moss and dirt and pine and crushed rock and with each deep, toiled breath, I taste them. I taste them and experience them and I wonder if this perfume will cling to my damp shirt and hair.

It might be the song of contrast. The gravel running out of sight along the grassy edge, out of reach of the trees. Gray and brown rock and black dirt running along soft greens and wild berries. The civilized and the free; the road of man and the freedom of forest; the alien rock, crushed and spread thin, and the native wood, ferns, and flowers.

I will journey straight into your heart and know you, the road of man says to the forest. I will spread this gravel and it will carry laborers and adventurers into your valley.

The forest replies: I will raise mountains and run streams and fall heavy pines. Your laborers and adventurers will journey with ease, at first, and then I will crush their expeditions, the taming of my pines and streams and peaks by man. You will wind and climb and descend only as I allow, road of man. This is my song: ‘Come here to know me; come here to experience all that I am. Still, road of man, know that you cannot know me, truly. Your alien crushed rock cannot reach my heart and you will wander these pines in search of it.’ This is my song: ‘Wander and smell and taste and feel and see and know not, road of man.’ 

I take a long and deep breath. I see the contrast and taste the limestone and pine in the air and hear the crunch and shift of gravel underfoot. I will wander this forest today; I will summit mountains and descend valleys and search for the heart of the forest.

I know the song, and so I always wander. Up the road of man and then off it, toward roots and vines and mud on dirt trails. Up and down and way up and then down steeply, away from the road of man.

Those who know the song.

Like this post? Check out some other Creative posts…

Creation Trail [reading time: 2 minutes]

Barbed Wire [reading time: 23 minutes]

Grounded by Home Trails [reading time: 4 minutes]

Synthetic Trance [reading time: 10 minutes]

Cape Cod 50k: A High Five and a Seashell [reading time: 4 minutes]

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Victims Die Slow

Victims Die Slow

Casting Call

The Victim strolls through life, uninhibited by his own tragic state, unaware of the folly of his existence. When life goes well, he laughs and sings and is captivated by his circumstances. Life is glorious and wonderful; all is well. The path is smooth and everything is the way it ought to be.

When life turns, as it will, The Victim is taken aback. How could life, something so glorious and wonderful and well, turn to this? What is this? This rain and snow and mud? The path, once smooth and flat, is now a bogged swamp.

The Victim’s insecurities and doubts rise through the mud and fog and into the air. He breathes them in and tastes their bitterness.

Something is wrong here! The Victim cries. Life, this gentle ride, has turned on me. Where is my warmth and comfort and satisfaction with state?

He falls in the mud and weeps for his despair of discomfort and fear.

How was he cast as The Victim? Where did it all start?

Artificial Sunshine

The Victim was something else long before he fell into the mud for his despair of discomfort and fear, long before he was choked by his insecurities and doubts. He was just another person wandering through life, dissecting his purpose and uncovering meaning. Culture, however, took hold of The Victim. It asked him to soften his edges and play gently with the soft edges of others, those without conviction.

Conviction? Purpose? Culture asked. Leave them there, by the door. Step into the warmth of acceptance and ease. Breathe in the artificial sunshine and relaxing melody of a murmuring crowd.

So, The Victim did. He left his convictions and his interest in purpose by the door and wandered into the artificial sun of ease and comfort and joined the relaxing melody of a murmuring crowd. He became like the rest, stuck in routine and fixated on comfort.

A larger television, a softer couch, alcohol and drugs, late nights and later mornings, a craving of opinion.

It all came. Slowly, first, like towering clouds rolling across a blue sky. Then, as a storm drenches an open field, The Victim was enveloped in comfort.

He became addicted to comfort and opinion and visual. He forgot convictions in his blank scrolling through Instagram. His dissection of purpose was lost to his study of material success. Uncovering meaning was left behind as he ran toward acceptance.

Victims Die Slow.

The Victim, our soft character, abandoned his emotions and passions and curiosity for some construct of others. He emptied his interest in himself for his interest in the opinions of some murmuring crowd.

His death comes slowly. It is not a physical death, but a mental and emotional one.

Without these emotions and passions and curiosity, The Victim becomes a robot in a sea of robots. They all chime the same tune:

“We are special. Everyone is special.”

“Our opinions matter. Listen to us.”

“Join us here. Murmur with us.”

Life, the mountain of uncertainty and adventure, does not listen; victims have no say. Lacking emotions and passions and curiosity, The Victim is not special, and his opinion truly does not matter. There is no need to hear him. He begs impatience and his emotions shift with circumstance and he is weeping in the mud, surrounded by an air of his insecurities and doubts.

It all began when life showed him hardship and fear, when he saw Culture’s doorway was open and warm with that artificial sunlight.

The Detesters

The Victim is not special, his opinion does not matter, there is nobody to hear him, and his murmur is detested by those who shut the door on Culture, the great construct.

Those detesters who, with emotions and passions and curiosity, explore the world and their minds and bodies and purpose with a strange vigor, a lust for sensation and experience. Not the experience of acceptance and some great murmur, of course; the experiences of cold water, dry deserts, frosted pines, blistered feet, and bloody knees. Of tired eyes and heavy packs. Of deep wells of paint or long-winded anecdotes. Of tales of courage and fear. Of the Wicked Trail, this great ultra marathon of life. 🌲

We cannot hear his murmur, this cult cry for relevance, from the tall peaks of sensation.

Live as The Victim and you will die a slow death of your mind and spirit, a mental and emotional death.

Live outside of comfort and Culture, explore deep valleys and tall peaks, run the Wicked Trail, and leave the murmur of the special and opinionated and addicted behind.

Welcome to the Wicked Trail

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Bleed For It

Bleed For It Wicked Trail Running

It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and watch it all go by.

I’ve done it. You’ve done it. People around you and I do it every single day.

There it goes, right now, while you read this.

What is it? What is all this going by?

Opportunity.

Not opportunity easily grasped, I warn.

It’s an opportunity to throw yourself so completely into your mission, your goal, that everything else shrinks in stature.

What is it? What is your mission, your goal?

Bleed For It.

Do not be gentle with your goal; run it down hard and scream its name. Bleed For Its attainment, its fruition. Do not be a victim to circumstance or an addict to comfort; a mental and emotional death knocks at the door.

That death is an easy death to accept; just look around.

It’s easy to fall victim to circumstance, to blame the world or things of the world for your misfortune. It’s easy to map your life to comfort, the readily available drug of common men and women.

(Tip: Blame Yourself Blindly)

It is NOT easy to Bleed For It, something born of desire, or some mission rooted in your values and beliefs. It is NOT easy to commit to greatness or inspiration or excellence.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

There it is: that vile death of circumstance and comfort.

It knocks while you watch opportunity go by. There is no in-between; the in-between are satisfied and do not bleed. They rest and watch and map their lives to comfort, comfort of state.

Bleed For It.

That thing that rips you out of bed in the morning and keeps you awake at night, the one built with early Saturdays and late Sundays, the one that calls you through pouring rain and up tall peaks; do not let it pass by. Grasp the opportunity for its difficulty and hold on tight; leave no room for questions.

Blistered feet, callused hands, bleary eyes.

Welcome to the Wicked Trail…

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Cape Cod 50K: A High Five and a Seashell

Cape Cod 50K Ultra Race Report

Written By Michael Moran

Cape Cod 50K: A High Five and a Seashell

By the time I reached mile 28 of the Cape Cod 50k, I had already gone cosmic.

I fell on a root, experienced a full body charlie horse, got up, smiled with deep satisfaction, and held my arms out by my sides like a drunk sugar glider. While I was air-planing down the trail, I was thinking about how much love I had for the universe. I don’t know why I do this in ultras, and it’s probably a sign of impending death, but it feels weirdly good. I was in a zen space, filled with the joy of moving fast through the woods.

It was perfect.

A moment later, all that changed when I passed a runner who yelled, Hey, I think you might be in second place!

With only four miles left in the race, this was like a Nintendo-style power-boost. I had spent the day focusing on the essentials: hydrate with water and electrolytes, chipmunk my cheeks with Fig Newtons and Gu, guzzle pickle juice, run within myself and maintain on climbs.

Let me be clear, I am by no means a competitive runner and, in my mind, I had no right to be in second place. By the time this news got to me, I had run a smart race and was ready to burn the deck if needed, but I am just a standard plodding trail yeti, so this was weirdly exciting.

I let out a startled chortle of excitement and began hunting for the leader through the woods.

Two months before the race I crafted a massively uncomfortable plan of action to be prepared. Not only did I add a bonus 10 miler to my weekly 18-20 mile long run, but the bonus run was on hilly, rocky trails.

And it gets worse.

I asked my buddy Ben to join me for the purpose of causing massive levels of red-zone discomfort. Oh, and it was February, so this was all done in ankle deep snow: the struggle shuffle cocktail.  I gasped for breath behind this smug, stupid, well rested jerk who was grinding me into a pulp. Didn’t he CARE that I just ran 20 miles the day before? No, he seemed to have a stunning dearth of empathy. Thanks, Ben.

On the back side of the penultimate climb of the race, I found him. The clearly exhausted runner,  who would now become known as Second Place, waved at me as I passed. His bib showed that he was running the 50k and he said he was on his final lap. I wished him luck and started my three mile trek to victory.  I was running hard and smooth when I saw another runner with a 50k bib. I needed to check in with him and find out if I was racing him or not.

“Almost done!” I gasped, hoping that he would say he was only on lap four of the five loop course.

New Second Place: “Yep, I’m feeling good and can smell the finish line.”  

At the starting line of the race, you could almost taste the frenetic enthusiasm of a 20-something year old Jim Walmsley body double in Fruit Stripe Gum themed apparel.

Donning a neon crop top and running hard sprints up and down the starting area, he was far too busy peacocking to return my pleasant “Hey, man, ready for a fun day?”

He was a weapon, apparently. A sharpened blade. Just before the gun went off, he continued aggressive jumping moves right next to me, looking like startled cattle. I realized how nervous he was and how much he wanted to destroy this race, so I leaned over and wished him luck. I did this again four miles into the race as I passed him on a hill. He said nothing and never got to return the favor.

In the final mile, my left calf was cramping hard and my left foot felt like it folded in half. I had to drag the leg behind me, but adrenaline gave me enough steam to keep my gap from New Second Place.  I was going to cross the finish line and hear the announcer call my name as the winner of the 50k… I didn’t care if I was on actual fire or my leg fell off, my leg and skin would grow back. As I crossed the line, my friends let out a tepid cheer and some dull claps.

I think someone said “Cool, you finished.”

I didn’t win. I came in third and, I’ll be honest, I was upset I didn’t win.

I took a moment to let it sink in.

The medals were seashells.

It was almost as if they were saying, grab something off the ground for an award and stop smiling so much. Classic New England hard core. There was no podium moment, no ceremony, not even an age group mention.

The race director gave me a high five and said, “Good job!” He was the person at the aid station, alongside all of the wonderful volunteers, filling my hydration pack every 10k and encouraging me, just like every other runner.

I walked over to the winner (Actual First Place) and congratulated him quietly and recapped the day together. I hobbled to my car and drank a Gatorade with my daughter. I drove an hour and a half to get home.

In the end, I was the same as Fruit Stripe Jim Walmsley, Second Place, and even New Second Place. I was the same as the Actual First Place. I was Third Place.

We all spent the day in the woods challenging ourselves and received a well organized race that wasn’t about glory or material rewards. It was entirely about an experience. There was no technicolor finish line with a medal and a swag bag waiting for us. There was no external symbol of what we had accomplished, except for the really pretty seashell I was now admiring around my neck.

It was perfect.

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Synthetic Trance

Ultra marathon runner Erik Hamilton Story blog post

Written By Erik Hamilton

Back in my day —because all good stories begin this way— I was a child of the 80’s. I wanted it all: the loudest guitars, the longest and biggest hair, the fastest car. Too young to have any of this, I was glued to my drum set, Lego bricks, a Gameboy and a pile of books.

My weekends were filled with these.

I didn’t need to play baseball with the neighbor kids or rely on them for entertainment. I’d hop on my rusty bicycle and ride local trails, escaping into my mind and winding through creativity. One day I was a pro motocross rider. The next, I’d be part of some recon mission to save the earth.

Eventually, I’d hear my mother’s voice echo through the trees: time for me to go grab some food. Until sunset I’d head back out to my favorite trails.

We adventured as a family; I learned all about the 4000-foot high peaks of New York State by age 6. My school reports brought my classmates to places like Mount Marcy, where I stood tall at 5343 feet above sea level. I enjoyed pushing my limits in the mountains from an early age with my older sister and then-married parents; we were one cohesive unit traversing the trails of the east coast.

For reasons they claimed were unrelated to my sister and I, my parents grew apart. Inevitably the day came when they demanded an answer; bad-mouthing one another, each enticed my sister and I to “choose” to live with either of them. The conflict was selfish: my mother needed for her kids to prove father wrong, our father needed us for tax reasons.

My mother won that cold Autumn day; my sister and I reluctantly agreed to grab our belongings and move them to a strange new home. We had never had a ‘new home’ before, and in this home the booze flowed like water.

Black-outs were a nightly occurrence.

For the first time in my young life, I saw the big smile pills and vodka could put on a person’s face.

In the coming years, my sister became my best friend. Until, that is, being friends with your little brother proved to be un-cool for someone who had just entered high school.

It was back to my music and art, two things that never found a way to desert me in my early years.

A decade of beating the heck out of my drum set and weekend touring with a band of four friends allowed rotation at any of the cool kid tables in high school. Our band stuck together for good times and making crummy music.

Once a week, we’d ditch our place within our families for band practice.

These cool kid tables at lunchtime, however, opened up new doors for us. Jamming out on a stage under bright lights bought us acceptance; free tickets and CDs bought us little baggies of dry green stuff, casually slipped under cafeteria tables.

Drugs and alcohol became pillars of our lifestyle. We began spending time together for one reason only.

As time went on, I grew to assume this alter-reality, this strange descent into abuse, was just how real-life went. Everyone lived a whiskey-fueled night-life, right? After all, it didn’t seem to affect my work and family-life.

“This is just adulting.”

But something didn’t feel right. Where was success? Where was the adventure and experience I once knew?

I was beyond frustrated that things just didn’t feel right; I desperately needed to get away from the hell that I had created for myself. I somehow began to recognize that I did not want to wake up hungover every morning.

Where to begin?

24 hour sessions of abuse would begin with a ‘wake and bake’ before heading to my college classes. Loaded down with tall cans of the cheapest ale, the pre-game would begin. I’d run to the bathroom at each break to top off my buzz. I’d get my drug of choice after class from the neighbor kid.

We drank high-end whiskey and smoked what seemed like the fattest joints, occasionally highlighting evenings with a bag of mushrooms or little pink pills. Somehow, I found my way to my bed each night, usually just in time to wake up and do it all again.

But I was making it work: I kept my grades up, could muscle-memory my way through work, and no one asked questions.

That’s how I wanted it.

The adventures of my childhood and the freedom of swimming or exploring trails, however, kept calling.

 I needed a taste of those things in my life.

In a haze from the previous night’s intoxication, I threw on my father’s old pair of running shoes. They were older than I and certainly just as beat up as I was inside. The chilly springtime rain was coming down in sheets, but that didn’t stop me.

Cotton shirt? Sure!

I didn’t know how to run or what I should wear, I just craved that sweet forest air and rain dripping down my face!

Fifteen years ago, on that first run, the fuel sparked and burst alive within me.

I ran to feel my body breathe life. I ran because no one told me I had to.

Running that day, and moving forward, was my much-needed escape.

I didn’t think of my next drink when I ran.

I could only feel the miles burn. The simplicity of rocks and roots, and the occasional deer to dip or dodge, settled my mind. I ran for no particular reason for the next several years, always keeping the mountains in my back pocket.

I ran because I loved it, but in my mind, I wasn’t a ‘runner’.

Runners don’t take shots before hitting the road to suppress their appetite. I knew I wasn’t healthy, but I was getting by.

I thought I could keep prying eyes off me by simply telling family “Yes, I run.” I left out the “…after I drink” part.

I ran because I enjoyed the movement, the freedom. But deep down I hoped my heart would pull the trigger and just explode in my chest, or perhaps a truck driver with ill timing might glance at their GPS, cross the dotted yellow line and squish me like a bug on the road.

I secretly hoped each run would be my last.

Hiking became a mess, a bottle of whiskey my best buddy.

Somehow, I always found my way home.

When I would hike with my father and our friend Wendy, we didn’t do any of this. They didn’t know my alter ego even existed; I left that darker side at home and tried to resonate normalcy in front of others. 

The three of us would go on to hike the Adirondack 46 high peaks (summits over 4000′ of New York State), beginning together and finishing this challenge together.

I was hiking with them, but for me this was my escape from the hell that I had created out of my life. With them I felt accomplished again; they were supportive. My father was a different person on these hikes, we all talked and shared experiences or good memories.

I was old enough to try to poke into my desperation during our talks while hiking, hinting at a jacked-up lifestyle that was (I thought) unlike anyone else I knew.

To become an ‘ADK 46er’ was bittersweet, something I had dreamt of since those days of hiking back in 1st grade. An ADK 46er was my idol, the height of hiking in New York State.

But an ADK 46er was not an alcoholic, so how was I able to accomplish this?

The questions circled, plaguing my every thought. This certainly wasn’t a feat that I thought I could accomplish in my lifetime; this title was reserved for the old-timers, the map and compass hikers, the over-night hikers, the real-deal hikers.

But I did it; we finished our hiking journey in the summer of 2016.

What could possibly be next? What could top this accomplishment? I wasn’t sure I could do anything else so epic in my lifetime.

Well heck was I wrong!

At the recommendation of a close friend, I resigned from a good paying job that had required a prescription of Xanax to survive daily operations.

I decided prescribed psycho-pharmaceuticals were just not worth it and shoved those little orange pill bottles as far back into my desk drawer as possible.

I wanted to forget all I knew.

This orange-bottle-epiphany just happened to be on the morning of an organized group hike: an outing in support of cancer awareness. I meant to spend more time with my father and Wendy, but we quickly found a childhood friend was on the hike. Catching-up and conversation ran high.

It was a cold day, a bitter cold day in the woods. The 15 of us talked in our own little micro-groups, preferring familiarity, but still all converging on the summit for a group photo.

I didn’t feel like being around anyone. I was there for the nature, the sensation, the escape from me.

Before we left the summit, a bubbly girl with frozen dreads and a gigantic smile approached me. She had an intoxicating laugh and was closely followed by two spunky puppy dogs with frozen beards. She asked for a photo with me and my frozen beard. 

I managed to smile that day. This was an unfamiliar gesture.

It felt real; I hadn’t experienced a genuinely real smile in a long time, a smile brought on by natural forces, not chemical influences!

Together this bubbly girl and I would hike and spend an incredible amount of time together.

I wasn’t cured though; I hid my dark side and broke it out when she wasn’t around.

“I do what I like, and I like what I do.”

My mantra –for as long as I could remember– fueled the lies and justified the self-destruction I administered daily behind closed doors.

I hadn’t planned for this very well when we decided to hop in her CR-V and travel cross-country for 3 months. Tent camping every night, we toured the national forests, hiking and trail running together by day and enjoying campfire by night. I was typically in mild panic trying to find a drink for the campfire before we settled in. I saw her sideways glances but didn’t care.

I didn’t know what our future held. In fact, I didn’t care if I had a future at all

My self-destructive thoughts were a long-time-coming; I hoped to fall into a crevasse somewhere in the mountains around Lake Tahoe. Plain, simple, no mess for friends and family to deal with, just blink my eyes with one misstep and the world would be rid all the chaos and grief I had created. Needless to say, my plans were not long term.

Well, luckily for all of us, I returned unharmed.

Once again, however, came the anxiety of “What do I do next?”

Get the heck away is what we decided to do!

We moved to New Hampshire, landed some decent jobs and continued running and hiking together. The White Mountains became our newfound playground. Friends and family left in New York, we had all we needed: ourselves and our dogs (plus our cat, but she doesn’t hike or run with us!).

Upon our arrival to New Hampshire, life gave me an option.

I truly enjoyed running and hiking, it had gone from a whiskey-fueled escape to a plant powered utopia. I found my body felt light and fresh when fed whole foods, thriving on fruits and veggies. Step-by-step, I cut out things that I saw as “extras;” I began to remove wasteful, unbeneficial things from my pantry and fridge.

I had known for a long, long time that alcohol fit this category.

Of course it hurt to let it go, but it would have hurt more to keep it around.

I decided which route I wanted.

“One day at a time.”

I had not had a day without alcohol in almost 15 years.

That void seriously needed to be filled.

I began running, a lot

I ran daily and found satisfaction in the accomplishment of throwing down 5 to 10 miles every morning. I needed to occupy my mind, whether it was the self-destruction of alcohol or the self-preservation I found in the outdoors.

I am an addict and always throw 110% of my enthusiasm into whatever is in front of me. The drunkenness of 3 AM had been replaced with vistas and vertical gain, with heavy breathing on winding trails.

Sitting idle at work one day, I cruised a new-to-me website, ultrasignup.com. 

I had always envied the cars with those little black and white oval ‘26.2’ stickers. “Oh yeah, they look like a runner!” I’d think as I pulled up. 

But could I do it? Could I run like a real runner?

I had accomplished so much with mountains and so far 2018 had brought my first 5k, 10k, and half marathon, so why not push for that full marathon? If I only did one more thing in my lifetime, why not run a full marathon.

Well, I did. On October 14th, 2018 we all made the long journey to Acadia National Park, Maine, for the Mount Desert Island Marathon.

Maybe it was having them around pacing me in their car (with dog heads out the back windows, naturally!) or the fact that I was fueled by high-energy plants and coconut water (2+ years full plant-based by then) the entire race, or having my name printed on a bib and hearing “Good job, Erik!” at every aid station, but the race left me smiling for days.

My first marathon wasn’t an epic finish or some crazy awesome sub-three-hour finish, but I finished. That’s what mattered to me. Next time I could push for a faster time, but this was the first time running that distance!

The celebration was short-lived as the desire for more burned bright. Two weeks later I toed the starting line of my first 50K. Loving the struggle that came deep within after mile 20, I found the place where my mind was at ease without the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The desire to push on was my drug. 

I turned the final corner after crushing 3500′ of elevation gain and, of course, said “Oh, wait, that’s it?!” 

It’s safe to say at that point I was hooked on running ultra distances.

The mental growth and stimulation were empowering. I could once only reach those places with drugs and alcohol; now my adventures were, and still are, fueled with laughter, smiles, and plants.

I have never felt so satisfied.

And I get urges damn near daily to return to my old ways.

Through the beautiful struggle of running and recognizing growth — becoming stronger, faster, healthier than I was yesterday– I am able to resist that next craving. I shove the satisfaction of resistance into my pain cave where it stacks up like kindling, waiting to be lit aflame during my next run, my next venture into sensation. 

This new ‘physical abuse,’ ultrarunning, took place of the abuse I waged on my body every day for fifteen years. My reckless habits prevented more than a normal life, they kept me from pursuing more and becoming what I wanted to be from the beginning: a kid, lost in the woods, chasing my imagination down trails. Fueled with vibrational plants and released from the rot of addiction, I can run down limitations and decimate the walls I built, walls that should’ve ended my life years ago.

A love of life cannot be found in a synthetic trance, it’s found in that little kid in the 80’s riding his rusty bike down local trails.

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Ultra Runner Candice Burt: Read the Fine Print

Ultra Runner Candice Burt: Read the Fine Print

Mile 92

When I reached mile 92 of my first 100 mile race, the Burning River 100, I was told I wouldn’t finish. I was almost hoping to miss cut-offs by this point in the race, for someone to pull me off this Wicked Trail and say “You’re done. You failed.”

Standing at mile 92, shoveling fruit and baked goods into my exhausted, pained face, I realized I could actually stop right there. I could take a picture for Instagram and text my friends and family and say “I didn’t make it. 92 miles in and I couldn’t go on.”

I knew what everyone would say.

They’d call me tough. I’d be a ‘badass’ for even making it that far. 92 miles?! The phrase ‘mentally hard’ might be thrown around. I’d smile and accept the compliments, nod my head and agree with their assurances of toughness.

But that’s not why I came here, to mile 92. I came to mile 92 because it stood between myself and mile 100, not because I needed affirmation of my fortitude, my toughness. A Wall existed in my mind, and I think it exists in a lot of people’s minds; we want to stop when we’ve affirmed our desired characteristics.

If you want to be tough, or badass, or mentally hard, stop at mile 92.

Mile 92 is where the tough and badass and mentally hard call the race; it’s where people will smile and affirm your toughness. They’ll say how far it was, how tired you must’ve been, and how crazy the whole thing seems.

You have to Dismantle Your Wall, the Wall that separates the tough and badass and mentally hard from those who find goal fulfillment. Many tough people never reach what they want because their desires rest in the eyes and mouths of other people.

Separate yourself completely from opinion, from sensation, and move forward.

You can be the baddest, strongest, toughest guy or gal running the “race,” but if you don’t Dismantle Your Wall, that’s all you’ll ever be.

And there are plenty of bad, strong, tough guys and gals out there.

The Headline

Alongside single mother, professional athlete, business owner, 200-mile race finisher, Candice Burt is the creator and race director for the Triple Crown of 200 mile races.

In 2014, Candice created the first non-repetitive 200 mile ultra marathon in the United States, the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run. The next year, in 2015, Candice created the first point-to-point 200 mile ultra in the United States: the Bigfoot 200 Endurance Run. Finally, and to complete the creation of the Triple Crown of 200s, Candice organized the Moab 240. This race, in staying true to the adventurous nature of the first two, is a non-repetitive 238+ mile run through Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.

She also has two daughters, a business, and races of her own to compete in.

Go ahead and talk about her consistency in training and commitment to her business. Or mention her persistence in running races of 100 and 200+ miles. Just don’t leave out her unrealism, the culture she has created for others, and the wall-dismantling presence she brings to trail and ultra running.

Don’t leave out the change she’s brought to words like adventure, experience, and challenge.

Cowards Are Realistic

Be realistic. Think of the consequences. Proceed with caution. Be like us.

Stay inside the lines. No adversity, no pain, and no fear. Live like everyone else.

Men and women become cowards when they climb into the box of culture and society, aligning with others, existing as others exist. The box of culture and society provides comfort, sows mediocrity and complacency, and reaps an individual incapable of truly living.

Ultra runner Candice Burt lives unrealistic.

Competing in ultra marathons and becoming a professional athlete each check the unrealistic box on their own, but Candice wanted to truly foster adventure and experience. She wanted to promote challenge.

She’d tasted adventure on her own, she’d faced adversity, and she decided to give others the opportunity to do so in a remarkable, badass race series.

Candice’s venture into 200 mile races was unprecedented; there didn’t exist at the time a non-repetitive 200 mile course in the United States. Such a feat, requiring complex logistical coordination over a huge distance, is daunting and –perhaps— unrealistic.

I wonder if anyone told Candice that her races seemed a bit far-fetched.

Cowards Are Realistic because people who live in the realm of realism are unable to imagine excellence and fulfillment despite odds. Dreams and passions become hobbies; as imagined duties and the expectations of others choke out ambition, hobbies become chores.

Had she lived in the realm of what was realistic, Candice wouldn’t have imagined the fulfillment of these races through unprecedented logistical challenge. The challenge would’ve appeared too great. She may have settled on manageable –realistic— distances.

She may have left the gifts of adventure and sensation, those she’s offered to runners all over the world, for someone else to bear.

Cowards Are Realistic.

Be Your Own Culture

In the creation of her 200 mile+ race series, the Triple Crown of 200s, ultra runner Candice Burt established herself as the ‘Mother of 200s’ here in the United States. No ultra marathon runner or race organizer before her imagined such organized and accessible adventure on a massive scale.

She created her own culture, and invited others to experience it.

This culture broke from, and built upon, the adventure driven pursuit that is trail-ultra running. It asked people to redetermine limits, mentally and physically, and to explore something new as a community.

The longest FKTs [Fastest Known Times], or solo expeditions into the unknown, match the adventure of the Triple Crown of 200s, but none are community-driven and accessible for any one person who dares to ask How far? Any person that desires to truly Go Farther and adventure into challenge now has the support and opportunity to do so in a never-before-imagined way.

Candice didn’t start a trend.

She created her own culture, one in which participation means incredible fulfillment by way of 200+ miles.

Adventure. Experience. Challenge. Bring others with you.

Be Your Own Culture.

Dismantle Your Wall

While exploring the unrealistic in business and adventure, and while creating and building a community centered on runners who ask How far?, Candice tackled, and continues to take on, incredible solo adventures.

Candice currently holds the Fastest Known Time for unsupported women on the Trans-Zion trek in Utah as well as the 95 mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier in Washington.

Dismantle Your Wall, one of our Tenets of the Wicked Trail, isn’t just about pushing forward through physical pain or removing self-set mental obstacles to your perceived abilities.

Instead, Dismantle Your Wall, showcased in a real way by ultra runner Candice Burt, speaks to a removal of the veil of opinion. Our minds, infatuated with social media and consumption, crave opinion and direct our lives as such.

Unsupported FKT attempts alone put this veil, this shroud of opinion and visual, to the test.

This veil, this shroud, is burnt to the ground when you list her active roles: entrepreneur, single mom, professional athlete, podcast host, and race director of probably the most logistically challenging events in the country, if not the world.

You see, those who take on massive projects and passion-fueled endeavors, those who run successful businesses and are held in high regard by their peers and associates, are welcome to relax. People like Candice, and maybe you, are non-verbally invited by the actions of others to rest on achievement, or to exist within your noble pursuit.

You don’t need to take on more, your friends say.

She ought to relax a while! your family muses.

Take a break; look at us! We’re happy and content in our victories, culture, one sucked into social attention and opinion, cries out.

Dismantle Your Wall, this wall of opinion and visual and attention.

Drown out the noise: “There is so much more on the Wicked Trail. I have so much more to offer. My mind can take my life to incredible places beyond where I am now.”

Ultra Runner Candice Burt: The fine Print

I wrote this short article about Candice Burt because looking up to someone, like many runners look up to Candice, should be actionable.

It’s a bit of a weird thought.

Don’t look to people like Candice and imagine her life and accomplishments as some otherworldly gift or unattainable level of influence. Look at the example she sets, the fine print of her work, and apply it’s lessons to your pursuit.

Live unrealistic, be your own culture, and dismantle your wall.

Don’t squeeze into the lines established by your world. Don’t settle for what’s available; give people the gift of new opportunity, new sensation and experience. Don’t stop at mile 92; don’t settle for the standards of others, or the standards of your world.

Get to mile 100. Then go to 200. Then beyond.

Ultra runner Candice Burt is a warrior for change. Your life, and mine, will change drastically in reading the fine print and in imitation of the intangible.

Welcome to the Wicked Trail…

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Creation Trail

Creation Trail Running Blog Post

I smell the trees and taste the sun.

Have you ever tasted the sun?

The hairs on my arms stand at attention as a strange nostalgia envelops me. I haven’t been here before, but its like the ghost of every other explorer who’s helped to pack the dirt of this trail is whispering in my ear.

“Carry on. Look ahead. Breathe. Deeper. Smell. Taste.”

Sensation.

Is that what we crave?

The sore edges of our feet dance around rocks. We feel the heat of the sun and the gentleness of the forest-filtered air, each of these contributing to our heartbeat.

Brush against a thorn bush.

Rub the dirt off your calf.

See the valley from your hard-earned perch. Don’t just see it, though, and move on.

Let it captivate you. In just a moment it’s entirety passes through your mind; it’s trees and rocks are innumerable, the streams wandering this valley bubble without spectator. You see these. You can see the valley grow and die and grow and become what it is today, this view you entertain from your hard-earned perch.

It’s history is massive; your time races while the valley moves slowly.

You’re not here to race, to grow quickly.

Did you come to the mountain, this trail, just to hasten away from it?

Become like the valley. Let Creation take a hold of you. Let your roots dig with time.

In patience from your perch allow birds to sing and crickets to chirp. Let trickling water wear stones smooth, watch fires burn and storms quench. Remain observant and malleable.

Become like the valley.

Like this post? Check out some other Creative posts…

Gravel [reading time: 3 minutes]

Barbed Wire [reading time: 23 minutes]

Grounded by Home Trails [reading time: 4 minutes]

Synthetic Trance [reading time: 10 minutes]

Cape Cod 50k: A High Five and a Seashell [reading time: 4 minutes]

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Barbed Wire

Barbed Wire | Scott Waldrop

Written By Scott Waldrop

Scott has completed numerous ultra marathon distance races (including a Badwater 135 finish and an Arrowhead 135 attempt) and is a father, husband, writer, and guitarist.

He placed first in the 2018 Charleston 100, 2 weeks after winning the crewed division of the Tarheel 378-miler. His story has been featured in The News And Observer, USA Today, The Chicago Tribune, Ultrarunning Magazine, and Endurance Magazine.

I hope I didn’t miss anything. Although, knowing Scott, I’ve hardly scratched the surface…

We all have God on our side.

Most of us are too blind or too numb to be aware of the presence; many of us have misgivings about what to call it so we choose not to call it anything. We stagnate in our inability to choose and in this moor we become fearful, angry, guilt-ridden, jealous and wanting.

In these negative emotions we lose our power.

Conversely, moving towards finding divine purpose creates new potential. Momentum and riding the crest of the present moment clears stagnant energy and opens the doors of circumstance to a veritable constellation of synchronicities which light our way. This requires one to surrender unto belief which is counterintuitive to the pragmatic ‘elbow grease & gumption’ paradigms bestowed upon us by our parents’ generations. The world is changing fast enough for anyone to find themselves estranged who spends too long looking backwards from the zeitgeist, back towards the familiar comfort of what was and will never be again.

You have to move with the changing waters as opposed to fighting their current, which is limitless in its ability break you.

It is ever-changing and doesn’t care about the illusionary concept that you may have even an infinitesimal sway on its ever-unfolding aspect. This movement begs the question, “Are we at least presently moving towards being someone we’re comfortable with being when we die?”

Drunk & Stoned

I grew up valuing a day spent outdoors.

My mother’s side were horse people and much of my childhood was spent on the back of a pony in the woods. My father was athletic, a marine, and made sure I was never a stranger to mountain nor sea. Growing up in North Carolina & Virginia, I spent a good deal of my youth hiking The Smoky Mountains and The Blue Ridge Mountains. My stepmother was from California so I also spent many summers in The Pacific surf as well as The Isle of Palms in South Carolina where my Dad had a timeshare.

During my formative years I lived in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Vienna, Virginia where my home was perched near a small cliff only yards from Difficult Run, a tributary stream of the Potomac River. In those woods I could ride my BMX bike for miles and miles in either direction, stopping to catch eels and crayfish.

In my early 20’s my friends and I would spend much of the summer in George Washington National Forest within The Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. Here, we’d hike, fish, swim and –most importantly– get drunk & stoned.

We decided to spread our wings and set out to see America in its entirety by car and tent. This was the mid 90’s and we did it all by map. We went on epic hikes through Glacier Park, Yellowstone, The Black Hills, The Badlands, Crater Lake, Mount Rainier, Vail, The Grand Canyon and so on. This wetted my appetite for getting out into our nation’s vast wilderness.

Again, by the time I was exploring America by car & tent, psychoactive chemicals were integral to my journey. My aforementioned childhood was depicted as idyllic, but it was not without its events that perhaps lead to my alcohol consumption developing its own creeping momentum later in life.

To egregiously abbreviate a dark period, my drinking increased in my 30’s and with that I began to realize that I had some significant underlying mental illness. Mercifully, some unknown force came to free me from my own wreckage.

I prayed to return to that child who loved to wander and knew peace.

So, I started to run and I managed to run myself out of the depression and anxiety that caused my addiction.

Gushing Gratitude

To greatly simplify and encapsulate this process, I began running a mile further each week until I could run 70 miles from my house, down The Falls of Neuse River trail in Raleigh, and back.

This process included learning where to stash water and food along the river bank. It also involved learning how to cope with lightning, snow, hurricanes, rising floods, dehydration, near overhydration, and sunburn, when I was twenty miles from home on foot.

By early 2016 I had trained myself to be an ultrarunner but didn’t go out to meet any like-minded people nor allow the magic of circumstance to take effect. I was aware that I had done the work and it was time to grow in a new way.

I decided to jump into a new unknown.

I don’t know where it was ultimately leading me to, but I knew I had to start taking steps. I wanted to give others the gushing gratitude I felt towards the blue sky and sun on my face while running in sobriety.

I decided to get a running coach certification from the RRCA (Road Runners Club of America).

The only thing stopping me was the fact that the only class I could get into was far away, in Boise, Idaho. I was unsure about what to do but my wife catalyzed my courage saying, “We have the money; go after this. I believe in you.” It was her strength that propelled me to take the steps that would set forth a chain of events which quickly and beautifully reshaped my life.

In the true spirit of adventure, I flew out west with only my wallet and a hydration pack; there was no rental car waiting for me. As we began our final descent I saw the amazing desert plateau that would be my ‘downtime playground’ for the next few days; emerald Tolkien-esque hills rolled across the horizon, divided by The Snake River. From these myriad Hobbit Hills arose a yellow-orange rock which beckoned to me from the airplane’s little window.

These hills exuded mystery as they were (to me), a perfect romanticization of “Old West” ghost stories.

Once on the ground, I ran to my motel which was a few miles from the airport in the urban sprawl.

Boise is typical of an 18-wheeler interstate interchange area; a spaghetti tangle of swirling exits and road debris. As I ran, I’d look to the ground to dodge needles, bottles of urine, bits industrial metal, and all other manner of road detritus. Off in the distance I could see the rolling hills and prairie which clashed in stark disparity against Boise’s monotone infrastructure and right angles.

Barbed Wire

The first morning I woke up before the sun and ran the 5 miles from the hotel to the gym where the certification course was taking place. When class let out in the early afternoon, I literally began to run for the hills; in the remote distance I saw snow peaks which pulled at my heart. Along the way were historic markers for The Oregon Trail. I thought about ‘Indian attacks’ and bones buried under rock piles.

I was running along a path where daring hearts –far bolder than mine!– had faced undreamed hardship.

There had recently been a massive snow melt which left The Boise River violent and powerful beneath the rusted bridge I crested as I moved closer across a grassy field towards a dramatic ascent at Table Rock Trail.

I ran past innumerable amounts of ageless barbed wire which seemed to litter the countryside. It made me feel like a stranger as I had no personal history nor connection to ‘the lands of barbed wire prairies.’

As an Easterner, being in this environment was like finding myself in some childhood dream about “Cowboys and Indians” (please pardon the antiquated terminology as these thoughts are being reflected through the lense of childhood memory).

Delicate wildflowers sprouted from juxtaposing gnarls of rusted wire. This wire was made to harm, hoard, enslave, and divide. Its profusion was subconsciously unnerving. Large rocks jutted upwards from the hills arranged in strange caprice. They were gorgeously jagged and their exposed layers of strata were ribonned in warm hues. Some of them were conspicuously monolithic and stood like sentinels in the blowing tall grass. I passed a true ‘Old West’ prison which now stood as a museum.

It was as if so few men ever came this far into the wild, the facility was preserved from lack of interaction with the incarnate, and seemingly tended by the dead.

The dirt trail which ran along the hill just above it was encrusted with relics of the bygone. The dark yellow dirt was bejeweled with implements of the previous century which were rusted beyond recognition inasmuch as one could begin to decipher their original purpose. Misplaced structural stones carved into crude squares by the hands of The Prairie’s long-since departed inhabitants were dispersed sporadically about the precipitous and narrow path which loomed over the hoary prison.

As I looked over my shoulder the sun was setting and the vision of the compound was curiously monotone in its dusty desert yellowishness. I continued towards the snow peaks unconcerned about impending nightfall and being alone in the wilderness of this strange new land.

This exhilarated me.

I’d spent so many years under the influence of substances I’d learned to not trust myself.

I was learning that I could trust myself and that I was capable of so much more than I ever imagined. My self-assuredness that I would be okay as I journeyed into this bizarre and alien terrain was affirming this trust. I ducked under more barbed wired, surmounted several nearly vertical hills, and then went down again. However, I was surly trespassing and hoping I wasn’t being observed from afar by a rancher’s gunscope.

I felt strangely calm as if I had spirit guides protecting me. I felt very much in touch with my true self exploring this place. Adventure into to the unknown brings with it the promise of general weirdness.

The twilight lingered far longer than I suspected which inspired me to go out farther; the snow peaks being my north star. Along a valley floor where no one could possibly have recently been – save a ghost, extraterrestrial, or perhaps an ultrarunner – lay the scant and mysterious remains of some large animal. It was a fully intact stomach, a small bit of gut, and not a trace more. There were no tire tracks, footprints, nor animal tracks in the surrounding area. I hastened my pace to surmount the canyon wall and gain higher ground. Once I made it to the top, I found myself on a road so dramatically cracked in half and separated, it looked like cartoon-depicted Armageddon.

There were tilted signs reading Danger Zone and Do Not Enter dotting the obliterated road. I couldn’t resist walking into this area like I was be sung to by syrens.

It was truly one of the strangest scenes I’d ever chanced upon.

There was an entire neighborhood of unfinished mansions which had all been torn in half by cracked earth. The destruction looked biblical and it was fully deserted save me.

This was a hidden gem of urban decay tourism; a ruinscape of towering transom shards and diagonal colonnades in splinters. It was clearly all recent construction yet nestled in the middle of nowhere. The ruin eerily implied that some elemental force simply wouldn’t allow these superfluous monuments of avarice to stand in the sacred midst of this wilderness.

There was a clear and final demarcation with a particularly large sign erected by The State of Idaho. It extended the width of the road, warning not to enter.

I walked past this sign feeling very uncomfortable in my gut, and proceeded to raise myself several feet up over a layer of the cracked earth. In that moment my cell phone slid from my fingertips and shattered on the ground joining the sea of broken glass.

I took this as a sign from forces greater than The State of Idaho to turn around and start heading home. The snow peaks could wait for another time.

As I saw the lights of the city reappear in the distance, the sky was the most dramatic shade of amethyst I’d ever seen it. The darkening blue enveloped the firmament with a nearly imperceptible softness.

In this time of half-dark I came upon a valley where a hoard of ancient wagons and anachronistic farm equipment lay ochre-colored and corroded like giant red skeletons. Some were behemoth machines while others were simple and modest, but all slept in death-silence forever rusting in this twilight prairie.

It was like a dream.

It was a scene I never would have saw back East or in a parallel future in which I never started moving towards signs.

Leadville, Old Dominion, and Service

When I returned home as a certified RRCA running coach I felt confident that I could now pull off what once seemed foolhardy, so I decided to keep the dice rolling. I knew one of the things missing in my life and on my journey to betterment was service to others. My friend at the local running store kept telling me to volunteer at our local and venerable ultra, The Umstead 100.

For some reason I didn’t immediately take his advice albeit obvious now that it was opportunity falling on my nose.

A sign, perhaps.

I kept telling my wife that I needed to volunteer to figure out my purpose and she (again) pointed me to the obvious. She said, “They keep telling you to volunteer at Umstead, why don’t you start there?”

I had been thinking that ‘service’ had to mean volunteering at soup kitchens and my mind just couldn’t get around it.

I relented.

At Umstead I volunteered to be a pacer for runners in the middle of the night which entailed being morally supportive, making sure they were taking in calories, drinking water, and not freaking out. The race director had the pacers do a night time training run on the course to make sure we knew what we had signed up for.

Before this training run began, I heard a loud voice punctuating the still night air and dominating all the other voices. It’s a friendly and excitable voice. It sounds like life is new again to this person. I’m drawn to it.

It is Sean.

We wind up running thirteen miles in the dark together and blathering like long-lost brothers. We had a similar history of alcoholism and a very similar envisioned future for ourselves.

The following week he invited me on a road trip to Boston to meet the charity team he ran for (and still does) called The Herren Project (THP). It felt a little weird saying “yes”, but I went on the 12-hour car ride with my new friend as heeding omens had done nothing but pay off thus far.

Meeting the folks at THP and the intricate synchronicities around this are another story unto itself, but in the spirit of keeping this particular story focused on relentless forward movement, it suffices to say that THP gave me the opportunity to run The Leadville 100; a goal I hadn’t dare dream of realizing for years to come.

The only stipulation was that I publicize my story and raise the funds. Again, taking this chance and its outcome was a force of wonder in my life but to pay it justice would be to take the reader down a tributary on the ‘proverbial river of chance’ and off the one you’re currently on.

It was April 2017 and in August 2017 I was to run Leadville.

A month earlier I didn’t even know another runner!

My life had taken a quantum leap to a level some people work decades towards.

Of course, we cannot know the future despite our anxious minds telling us the opposite.

I had signed up for The Old Dominion 100-miler a month prior to meeting The Herren Project. Old Dominion is one of the original races from the ‘golden age,’ or seminal time, of this sport and is a real deal 100 mile ultra marathon through mountains. Despite its lack of altitude, its terrain is as brutal as you could ask for on the eastern side of the Mississippi.

Old Dominion

Sean and I took my Tahoe and some tents into the Blue Ridge Mountains, and then into George Washington Forest; my old watering hole where me and my college buddies would get loaded up on weed and beer every summer. This was incredibly venerating and beautifully ironic. I woke at 3 am in my tent, ate my cold oatmeal, took a shot of apple cider vinegar, and Sean drove me to the starting line.

In the dark of pre-dawn the pack of some 150 runners made our way out of Woodstock, Virginia and straight up the mountain. As the morning rolled on, I saw younger athletes flying up the ascents as I paced myself, hoping that I was making the right decision in conserving my energy.

The late morning brought me to quintessentially Virginian country roads flanked by precariously quivering grey-boarded structures, red barns, and mossy pastures in the bottoms of hollows. The multi-triangular mountain skyline zigzagged blackish in the approaching distance; I’d be inside them by early afternoon if I kept an honest pace.

I climbed Skyline Drive and spilled out onto The Massanutten trail which was sodden, rocky, and generally-cruel. Much of it was simply un-run-able as it was comprised of rocks of such varying size and shape; it was perpetual negotiation for several miles. As the rocks gave way to mud, I was able to pick up my pace and take in the scenery.

I had a panoramic view of the mountain range and lush forest presided over by ancient and unusually tall trees. The sky was a shocking blue in its springtime glow. The memory of that day is punctuated by exquisitely perfect weather with the familiar odor of Virginia’s flora which I felt so at home in.

Exiting the forest, I emerged onto Skyline Drive and proceeded to run down the winding mountain road with a pack of runners. I think we were all trying to impress one another because after 5 miles of dramatic downhill road racing you could hear the groans of people shredding their quadriceps into hamburger meat.

As the day wore on I was racing towards Elizabeth Furnace, a deep valley just below the race’s most brutal ascent. As dusk began to set I was running through an open field and something large flew inches from my face. I must be hallucinating. Then the blackish blur whizzed in front of me again, swooping a bit then soaring upward. I look up to see the silhouettes of bats against the darkening purple-orange sky. They were feeding off the numerous tiny insects which were swarming around my headlamp!

Innumerable obstacles conspired to make me face-plant in the dark should I turn the light off. I was going to have to deal with the unnerving dive bombers until the trail spilled back into the dense forest where they wouldn’t have the tactical advantage of air supremacy.

When I made it into Elizabeth Furnace I picked up Sean to help guide me over Sherman Gap. I was nearly 75 miles in, about to embark upon a phantasmagorical ordeal up this ‘hill.’

We began to ascend the nearly vertical climb and it was immediately cruel on the glutes, calves, hamstrings, lungs, and my core temperature. To my left was gaping darkness and underfoot were streams curiously dribbling across the steep rooted trail. The whole scene seemed to defy natural science as it felt like we were walking up some alien night-world dreamed by MC Escher. It was psychological calisthenics to continuously place one’s feet on wet obsidian-like river stones and not slip into whatever chasm was in the blacker dark at my side. By headlamp, deprivation, and depletion, these stones’ bright green slime coat seemed to take on weird phosphorus properties. Their stringy algae undulated wildly in the trickling brook like witch’s hair in some underwater tribal dance. Mercifully, dawn broke and reality returned with the rising sun. I made my way down the mountain, through the town, and across the finish line. My first 100 mile ultra marathon was complete!

Leadville

With the coming of August, it was time to confront the infamous Leadville 100 which started at over 10,000’ in The Colorado Rockies. Two days before I left, I met with New Balance who hired me as their new coach. The fact that I was running Leadville that year made my resume “stick out” as they’re a major sponsor of the race and have their own trail shoe with its namesake.

This was another amazing synchronicity of 2017. If I had to summarize the entire experience in a phrase I would say it was like running with spirits under the bluest of skies. For this event I brought my wife and fourteen-year-old son. We flew out to Denver, borrowed my best friend’s SUV, and drove out to Leadville where we had a campsite served.

The moment we started to put up our tent it started hailing!

This place was unpredictable to be sure, and my beloved pack took it like champs. We had the tent erected, air mattresses inflated, blankets laid out, and cozy clothes on in less than a half hour.

I was so proud of us!

Once settled we took notice of our environment. The hail had passed. The air was noticeably thinner and my wife asked, “I can barely breath in this, how are you going to run in this?”

I told her truthfully that I wasn’t quite sure.

With the weather now calm again, we decided to walk to Turquoise Lake, about a quarter mile from our camp. Similar to how the hail storm had begun with such a fickle turn, the mists on the lake began to rise.

The swirling amorphic grayness contrasted ominously with the dark mountain range behind it. It was as if the weather possessed the mind of a neurotic human prone to violent mood swings, this one being a cold-calculated demonstration of its dominance.

The lake and landscape’s green-blue palette instantaneously fell pallid and ill into monochromatic grays.

The winds were domineeringly forceful, as a general malaise of bleak indifference issued forth from the water.

To say it seemed like the wind, sky, and water were personified as some supernatural being bent on petty demonstrative power understates the ethereal nature of the experience.

Despite the oppressive weather we were able to hunker down and enjoy our sleep in this beautifully rugged place. On the morning of the race I woke up to eat my obligatory oatmeal and geared up inside the truck with the heat blasting to temper my shivering. My family saw me off at the starting line with hugs and well wishes, then I began running with some 700 other runners into the black morning. After a spin around Turquoise lake the day broke and I was running up the Colorado Rockies in some of the crispest air, bluest skies, and divine sunlight I can remember.

I was staying ahead of the cutoffs as the infamous ascent to Hope’s Pass approached. I ran through a valley, across an open field, crossed a cold river with the aid of a rope, and came to the shadowy foot of the mountain.

The aspect of the forest here took on a pronounced feeling of primordial energy.

There were greens so deep you simply felt more alive by being near them. Everything smelled of earthen godliness and ancient moisture. At first the ascent was pleasant enough. Sunbeams shot out in straight white lines from the tree line above and touched the surface of a hurried mountain stream making it shimmer in a myriad of ephemeral bursts of angel-light.

As I progressed upwards the terrain became increasingly difficult. Soon, it became an all-out death march. I conserved my lungs, legs, and general homeostasis by climbing very slowly as if in suspended animation. This atmosphere, coupled with the extreme strenuousness of the climb, was putting me in touch with something undefinable.

I could begin to see where I would summit; once I burst upon the highest point, something in my heart felt like it was set free. I was finally walking amongst the snow caps. There is something unique to the feeling of summiting a mountain on your own legs and being in the presence of this sun-coated wilderness in the clouds that changes you. It’s abstract to contemplate but I suppose it could be described as “coming closer to God;” albeit I’m yet unsure if I mean that literally or metaphorically.

I was now at nearly 14,000’. The atmosphere dizzied me enough to make me cautious, but I was okay. I had to be mindful of keeping my balance after the taxing ascent.

There were many other runners bottlenecking the small rocky trail and you simply had to let one person pass, or the other allow you space, as the trail became narrow and dizzying. The run downwards was nerve-racking, even terrifying, when I looked at the drop to my left. You had to choose between running or possibly knocking another runner off the mountain.

As I heard other runners talking who were coming from the opposite direction, I began to realize that I was behind the 50 mile cut-off time. I was 7 miles up and a little over an hour away.

The prognosis was grim but salvageable. So I thought.

I started to fly downwards as skillfully and valiantly as I was capable. I was choosing every rock and root in sub-seconds; heading downwards with reckless abandon.

Then I hit a wall of runners who weren’t running.

As more runners coming from the opposite direction clogged the tiny artery, it slowly became clear that my chances of hitting the 14-hour cut off time were quickly waning. Runners coming back up were saying things to me like Never give up and I love your spirit. It became obvious that I was fighting a logistical impossibility as I looked to the aid station far below and the massive procession of runners squeezing the trail in every direction.

A girl near me began to petulantly cry after her friend ran up the hill and said, “There is no humanly possible way you can make it to the cut off in time.”

I’d resigned to my fate and decided this would be a humble learning lesson. Ultrarunning isn’t supposed to be easy and I was okay with not earning my wings without due process.

Without a “Why?”

After my DNF (did not finish) at Leadville, I needed to affirm that my success at Old Dominion wasn’t a fluke, a victory won by a once-in-a-lifetime conjuring of fear-strength.

A couple months had gone by and my thirst for redemption was so great that I couldn’t sit around any longer without taking action. I had to sign up for another 100 mile ultra marathon and it had to be now.

The Devil Dog Ultras in Triangle, Virginia was the closest and soonest option I had.

If I had to summarize this race in a few words it would be brutal, sleet, and rocks.

In the first few minutes of the start a girl wiped out and succumbed to this course’s sole aspect: a mind game where any break in one’s laser-focused and perpetual observation of the root-choked ground hidden beneath a blanket of rotting leaves clumped in hoarfrost, inevitably leads to a crushing impact on vicious terrain.

The girl was bleeding and crying.

Despite her friends’ remonstrations, she was already heading back in the opposite direction.

The ankle-breakers on these trails were so incessant in their repetitiveness it was almost comedic how much everyone was spilling.

50 miles in, I noticed my back leg muscles stiffening every time I hit a root. I went airborne only to readjust at the last moment and hit the ground with both feet running hard. Eventually my number was up and one of the roots got me, and got me hard. I hit the ground with a pitiful thud and my left calf muscle balled up with such quick and blinding pain I was certain something had snapped off internally. In a fractious second, I was buried in rocky mud as a tremendous howl began to well up from a dark chasm inside. I saw two runners approaching, and I instinctively grabbed the balled-up muscle forcing it back in place.

I stood up and to my complete astonishment, the calf stayed in place.

The runners passed by asking if The Mudman was okay; I gave the thumbs up and, feeling a little pukey (but mostly grateful), I kept running.

Night fell and the running was smooth past the 60 mile mark; then plummeting cold fell upon the forest with a disconcerting quickness.

Sleet started to come down and it wasn’t the sort of sleet that seemed like it was going say “hello” and scamper off.

This was tenacious Type-A personality sleet with no social filter and it was coming right at ya.

I’d experienced this before on my long training runs at home and was aware of how serious the various factors involved were. I made sure to keep my core temperature up by running hard and taking in the needed calories. To stop moving in this kind of weather was to surrender. I kept my fingers warm by stuffing them in my pants, armpits, and alternating gloves periodically. Still, my hands were frost nipped and would be numb days later.

When I came in from my 3rd loop the main camp was full of people that looked haggard and glazed; they drank coffee by huge fireplaces.

I turned around and ran right back out into the darkness and sleet.

There were certain outcroppings of rock on this course that were so ridiculously dangerous and awkward to maneuver around that by the third time you crossed them you knew them quite well. The problem was this: the technique you’d used the last time you passed this obstacle no longer applied when you see it again as you’re increasingly less limber and less intelligent.

I never stopped on this race as the thought of another DNF terrified me.

But why?

Why abuse myself to this degree?

I heard that if you don’t know why you run these races, you won’t have anything to dig deep from when you’re in the dark night of the soul.

This concerned me because I wasn’t totally sure what made me do this crazy stuff.

Nevertheless, I saw the sunrise and I made it to the finish line.

I was elated. I knew I had what it takes to get through 100-milers, even in punishing weather. But again, why? What did I really stand for? This bothered me a bit until the end of my next race where I figured out my answer to my question.

“I hate this.”

February 2018 found me in the outskirts of Houston, Texas.

The last time I was in this state was 20 years ago. I was thrown in jail in the little desert town of Alpine near the border of Mexico. I got pulled over with an ounce of weed and they locked me away for 48 hours without telling me what they planned to do.

I’m guessing that’s why I had no interest in returning. It’s different down there.

My return to Texas was a redemptive one; I’d be running the Rocky Raccoon 100. This is a qualifier for some of the more nefarious ultras on my bucket list.

Running this race is par for the course if you’re a developing ultrarunner.

The race started in the usual black hours of predawn – as all other 100-milers – where the runners are pinned together like sardines for the first couple hours. This seems to bring out as much nerve and weirdness as the end of the race; it just manifests in a different type of ‘the jitters.’

The shrill voice of an old lady cut through hundreds of mumbles and marching feet. She was talking to some youngsters about the good ‘ol days of ultrarunning, how she knew all these special people, and about how she herself was a legend.

The girl to my left mumbles “Shut the fuck up,” under her breath.

About an hour in, the pack thinned, the trail widened, and the rain started. It would rain and mist for the next 30 hours. The four 25-mile loops that comprise this race were rather ‘hard on the brain’ in the sense that I was very cognizant of the fact that I was running 4 marathons in succession.

This mileage is no different than any other 100-miler, but for some reason when divided into these marathon distance denominations, the numbers sound scarier.

As the day wore on, the rooted track turned into a glorious mud pit.

By now I was very at home in these conditions; they actually seemed rather benign compared to Devil Dog. However, more than half of the runners would eventually drop out.

Moisture seems to always bring with it a high attrition rate in these races.

As the night came down the tiny mist particles falling horizontally in the wind looked like Star Wars Hyperspace in the light of my headlamp. This weird visual effect wasn’t helping my sour stomach, but I trudged on knowing that the key to finishing 100-milers is relentless forward motion.

Towards the end, I encountered my reason for being there; I found my reservoir to tap into when things get rough. I had forgotten my reason and purpose in its simplicity.

There was a gentleman I encountered in the most remote part of the course griping in the darkness by himself. He was saying, “I hate this, I don’t want to be here, and I never want to see this place again.”

This guy showed me my purpose!

It was not only my purpose for running ultras, but my purpose in life: I never want to be the way he was then.

Never ever.

I will never again let the cycle of self-victimization thoughts swirl through my mind and hypnotize me into holding limiting beliefs. I will not wish things different and suffer in my inability to deal with things I cannot change.

What you say to the Universe is exactly what The Universe responds to.

The Universe does not play in semantics. If you say “I hate this,” it will be so.

It’s such a simple and profound truth that it’s lost in plain sight to most.

All you need to do is ask yourself, “Who am I and what do I stand for?”

Ask these questions in every moment and look for the signs. As the signs appear in response to these questions, we just keep moving towards them with relentless forward motion.

Written By Scott Waldrop

Connect with Scott on Instagram and visit his blog at runnerscott.com

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