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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, 

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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