• Thoughts of an Ultrarunner

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    It’s been nearly a year and a half since I packed or sold what I owned and tossed anything valuable into a 49lb duffel bag so I could fly. While it seems like years ago, it also feels like I was just handed the keys to this rig yesterday. I write not to brag about all the cool things I’ve done or to complain about how hard things can be at times, but to hopefully inspire you in your own journey. Long drives, runs, and rides have given me time to reflect recently in ways that are hard to convey to others. Nearly a month ago now, I wrapped up several days at a festival in central PA and found myself with the opportunity the day following to run a 28 mile stretch of singletrack along the Standing Stone Trail. Sitting there with Helena and Evan in State College, I was offered a free lift to 1000 steps, the start of the segment. 1 beer in, I was on the line. A sip of the second, and I decided I was in. After breakfast, Evan went to pick up a friend before stopping by and giving me a lift to the trailhead. Here goes nothing.

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    1000+ strategically placed steps in the first mile or so was a hell of a way to start out, but it was incredible to experience such beautiful trail building. While I don’t want to bore with the details of every single stretch of trail, I learned a lot about myself. I mean, this was a random Monday morning in May that I decided to run 28 or so miles along a gnarly stretch of punishing singletrack solo and self supported. Helena was nice enough to watch my dog G (Geronimo) while I was out and was my ride home once I hit Greenwood Furnace. While a lot of pictures remain solely in my head, the emotions I experienced along that trail linger with me daily – just like those I experienced at Palo Duro 50, Old Pueblo, and even R2R2R. Although nobody was there cheering me on along the course, the feeling that it was something I NEEDED to finish was overwhelming. While nobody really truly cared whether I finished, I knew I had to. On the final stretch, Helena ran up from Greenwood Furnace until she ran into me (literally) right before the overlook and we turned around and finished the final piece of mellow singletrack back to the trailhead. That final mile is more clear in my mind than the other 27.

    Finishing it has now become one of the many stories I have that inspires others. Talking with a friend today, I discovered that is all I really want. I don’t want you to take up running. I don’t want you to go vegan. I don’t want you to live in a van. I want you to see how those choices have affected me in a positive way. I hope that through my lifestyle, I can inspire you to improve yours. I’m learning things every day, both riding, running, and personally. Learning and improving yourself constantly is what it’s all about. If you’re not improving, you’re going backwards.

    While I don’t consider myself “religious” anymore, I do consider myself to be more spiritual than ever. Sitting along the edge of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the spring and watching the sun rise and set over the mountains is something truly incomprehensible. Is it about the mountains? The sun? The colors? The clarity? What is it that makes that moment so enjoyable? What is it about a mirror-like pond in the middle of NH several miles into a trail that makes me just want to stop and take in the beauty of it? Is it because we were meant to live like that or is because I’m just that weirdo dirtbag, hippie, runner that lives in a van?

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    The things I’m discovering are not new to our society. This isn’t some revolutionary idea that people struggle dealing with and comprehending. It’s something that has been and always be a part of humanity. Why don’t we do it more? Why are most people’s lives base their days off or vacations around trips into the mountains or woods? How many people do you know that just want to go camping on their days off? How many people do you know that want to take trips to go hiking or mountain biking on their vacation? This isn’t something new, and while these things bring a sense of comfort to us while we work 9-5 in the office, the real beauty is that they actually bring us back to this primal feeling that we need to be outdoors. There’s so many way to experience this feeling and running has been the most raw and unadulterated way for me to satisfy that need.

    I’m running around Pico mountain these last few days and I’m wondering when I’m going to hit the summit. I’m climbing, yet I’m not there. Will I ever be there? After taking a drink from the fresh spring near the summit, I’m descending down towards the trailhead at an unfathomable speed. G is on my tracks and I’m running without poles or a bottle since there’s fresh water along the trail. My mind empties of everything – only me and the trail. I don’t even have to worry about the dog since he stays right on my tail. I reach the bottom and wonder what happened over the previous 3 miles. The same way that most people go for a ride with friends and have conversation during it to pass the time. Finish a ride and try to retell the entire conversation you had during your run. It just doesn’t work like that. Your body needs a time to prioritize memories while flushing out things that don’t matter. When you finish a 50 mile run, what matters most? The struggles you dealt with along the way, or the fact that you actually finished what you set out to do? If you have something you need to do, do it. If external gratification is your goal, instead focus on what you will gain yourself and focus on how your experience will inspire others.

  • Recent Epiphanies 

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    Here I sit at the beginning of a new year. trying to recollect all the things I’ve done this past year. Yet, as I try to write them down, I draw a blank. They have different meaning to me than I can’t convey through words or pictures. Driving down a state highway in Canada during the middle of summer with the windows down and temperatures hovering around 18 degrees Celsius, while rocking out to some Ray Wylie, is something that I’ve never mentioned to anyone before, yet memories like that often surge to the top of my list.

    I’ve reached a point where I can’t figure out what I want to write about. Do I tell you about some awesome trail I hit recently? Do I tell you how I think hydration packs beat out handheld water bottles 9 times out of 10. Do I tell you about how I watched a couple of drunk rednecks talk about how Busch heavy is the best beer in the world or do I tell you yet again why I think veganism is the way to go?

    I’m too busy enjoying runs and rides for what they are to me that I no longer want to sit and type out how it went. Their meaning will never be the same to you as it is to me. Climbing Goat Camp Trail at White Tanks at a steady 18 min/mile can’t be explained, only experienced. I ran White Tanks recently for the 4th time in 2 weeks. I can’t fully explain to you why I go back, I just do. Put yourself in my shoes as you round the contours of the mountains, traverse the grueling switchbacks, circumnavigate the towers, and ultimately descend the 7 mile descent – you can try, but it will never do it justice. I can’t fully explain why Hidden Valley in Moab, Big Bald in NC, or Indian Pond in NH draw me back, but they do. I don’t go to run them, I go to experience them. Sometimes I stop along the way, and not for the typical picture or snack that I usually do. I stop because I want to be in the moment. Because the next time I find myself in a hard spot, fighting a battle inside of me, I want to remember what it’s for. I keep going back to the tanks because the way the trail was cut reminds me of the Grand Canyon and because of how secluded and unadulterated the trail is. I went back to Hidden Valley because I could watch the sun rise over the La Sals or descend over Canyonlands while everyone else sat around at the bar and enjoyed a beer. Watching the sunset is only the beginning, dissecting all the colors reflecting off the mountains is a truly religious experience. I go back to the Indian Pond loop in NH because I get to see a secluded pond, a mountain overlook, and an abandoned mine, before descending possibly the steepest sections of trail I’ve ever been on. Running merely gets me there. In the process of getting there, I discover a lot about myself. I can try to explain it, but I’ll always fall short. What it means to me I can never impose upon you.

    Learning who you are is ultimately what’s it all about. I’ve said it a million times, but it’s what it all comes down to. The level at which I push myself increases every week and I don’t know where the final line is, if there is one. Even if I were to taper down on my distance per week, I would likely find myself pushing to make those goals just because they were appropriate to the level of fitness I was at. If I were to have never run when I felt tired, turn around when I didn’t have the energy, or give up when times got tough, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now. Running to see and experience things, both externally and internally, isn’t for others – it’s for me.

  • Thoughts from South Mountain

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    After some recent thoughts while running, I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, ultrarunning’s greatest downfall has been its success. The sport originated from a group of people who simply wanted to run. They didn’t race, they didn’t want to run fast, they didn’t want to run steep, they didn’t want to impress anyone, they just wanted to run. The longer you do that, the further you can go and the faster you can cover that distance. They didn’t have aid stations, technical clothing, hydration packs, or nutritional supplements, but somehow, they ran distances unfathomable at the time. The pioneers of this sport just ran because they enjoyed it. Maybe it was what they got to see, or where they got to go – or maybe it was because they just enjoyed discovering who they were.

    That’s really what ultrarunning comes down to – pushing yourself to new limits and discovering who you are. Things are changing though, and many individual’s motivation for running long distance has shifted. What do you do when the fundamental basics of your sport take on a new meaning? When a sport founded by individuals who are internally motivated is overcome by individuals whom are externally motivated, the dynamic changes. Do you follow the trend? or do you intentionally alienate yourself from a group of people who claim to be the same person as you?

    Maybe you just go run. You run because you get to see things that others don’t. You run because you discover things about yourself that you wouldn’t have otherwise. You run because you want to push yourself to new limits. You run because its what you want to do. The only thing you can do is run your own race. You can’t focus on anyone else’s reasons to do what they do, only yours. R2R2R was one of those things for me. I started with some friends, but ultimately split off when I realized I had my own race to run. Suffering together is the basis for community among ultrarunners – if it sounds egotistical, its because in some ways, we are. The problem is that in most ways, this egotistical nature of the sport has led to a narcissistic following. To round things together though, running longer distances is interesting because it creates a community setting of egotistical people, which is a complete contradiction. Then, you get into another argument. Do you follow in suit with the purists? Or do you find yourself on the front lines revolutionizing the sport into something new and fresh?  I see the argument for both, and I am in a process of discovering where I fit in.

    Where do I see myself going with things? We’re coming up on a new year and I find myself with a couple of opportunities to participate in races this winter and spring. If I want to continue with running for the reasons I always have, I have to follow in line with what the sport was meant to be – self exploration. That may be using a race here and there to help cross a new distance barrier. It may also mean doing longer runs, and even ultra distance runs on my own time without anyone knowing whats happening. Do I want to rely on aid stations and crowds of people cheering me on along a race course or do I want to push myself to a new limit without it? In my experience, races are merely a balance of fighting demons between aid stations. Aid stations and crowds help to bring you back to life after a stretch of hell, yet removing them seems to bring one to a different realm. It’s one where running with the hope of seeing food and water at set checkpoints isn’t an option. Its a place that hurts more, yet less as time goes on. Running a half marathon in the dark in the Grand Canyon seems like hell, but if you go into it knowing that it will only be mile 13 of 50 in a self supported run, its nothing. If you go into a race expecting water at mile 9 but you don’t get any until mile 15, your emotional stability will suffer substantially. If you put your mind in the right place to begin and focus on providing for yourself like the forerunners of the sport did, then you can do incredible things. Because of that, you may have to rely on things like hydration packs and modern day nutrition to fuel you through activities like that. While I began this post with an seemingly indirect disapproval of those things, I think they are great tools to help complete self supported events in our current society. With unreliable water sources, whether it be consistent supply or safe supply, hydration packs have provided opportunities for runners to cover longer distances without having to rely on others which, if you’ve picked up anything up out of this post so far, you’d realize that I’m alright with that. Using these tools to help through longer activities is different than using them to attain acceptance from the remainder of a community you’re trying to fit into.

    Although it isn’t that long, I think this post has taken more time to write than anything else I’ve ever written. We’re approaching a new year and I find myself wanting to take my running to a new level, yet that actually entails taking a step backwards to why I began. Self exploration is ultimately what it comes down to. What you do should always be evolving you into a newer and better version of yourself.

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