Taking Punches

It has been said that the person who stands at the starting line of an ultra is not the same person who finishes. While that is true, it can also be said that the person who stands at the starting line is not the same one who signed up for that ultra.

Many of us spend hours planning the perfect race, using the perfect training plan and visualizing the perfect outcome. We often miss the fact that life is not perfect. Things change, weather does not cooperate, crews get delayed in traffic, the list goes on and on.

When faced with a unique circumstance, that’s where you are changing. Are you facing the problem head on and adapting to it or are you reacting? Reactions are emotional responses. Getting angry because the weather is bad does nothing to help your situation. It’s weather, there is not one thing you can do to change it. You can, however, adapt to it. If it’s raining, get the rain gear and keep moving. It’s just water after all. If it’s hotter that planned, adjust your pace, drink more water.

Reacting is just a waste of energy, but learning to adapt is what will get you to the finish line. Learning to adapt, that’s the biggest training obstacle, no matter what the distance is. Planning and training for a big race is a process of self-evolution. We must learn ourselves on a deeper level.

Mike Tyson famously said “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” This is why we need to be ready for anything. The situation is always changing, especially in a race setting. So many things can go wrong during a race or during training, we must constantly evolve and adapt to the situations. If your training has not challenged you mentally, then have you really trained at all?

It is the same in life. We continually have plans and paths we wish to follow. And then that punch. Sometimes that punch hits you squarely in the face. We all have that moment in our lives when it all changes, but for some that moment, that punch is bigger. That punch is a life changing health situation. When faced with these types of punches, one can either cower down and hope that the hit isn’t too bad, or they can stand up and face it.

When facing these situations, it seems that the young have a unique stance. They tend to face the situation with more courage and resolve, but they seem to be the only one they know who is facing the same fight. When cancer strikes, how many of your friends have faced that? Then there is the question of moving past the diagnosis and treatment.

First Descents was founded in 2001 by professional kayaker, Brad Ludden. the idea was to allow young cancer survivors a chance to connect not only with others who had shared a similar journey, but to reconnect with themselves.

The idea was to take these survivors on epic multi-day adventures such as, climbing, paddling and surfing. The program has been shown to decrease rates of depression in these fighters while increasing self-confidence. Being with others who have shared in the struggle helps reduce the feelings of isolation, of alienation that comes with the unique battle.

While the programs are life changing, they are not free. This is why, in 2019 I decided to join the First Descents Leadville Trail 100 team. Each year I pledge to raise funds to send these young adults who have been impacted by cancer and other serious health conditions on these adventures.

Ultra-marathons, and running in general, have been the life-changer for me. This is my way of changing for others. Join me in helping these young fighters by donating at my fundraiser. This, my third year on the team, is a little more exciting. I have a donor, who has agreed to match all funds, dollar for dollar, up to my pledged amount. This means, every dollar you donate is worth two dollars to First Descents.


Trail Runner Nation podcast released an episode a late last year, in which the guest, Hillary Gerardi, spoke of courage. More specifically she spoke of the French term “Bon Courage” which is essentially an encouragement meaning good luck. Literally translated it means “great courage”. She discusses her philosophy of building courage with “little c’s and BIG “C’s”.

They use the analogy of having a bag of courage, filled with big and little “c’s”. Big acts of courage and little acts of courage. They discussed how every little action adds a little courage to the bag. During the discussion several other “c” words were added to the bag, for example, confidence.

I’ve gone back and listened to it several times, and each time I felt like there was something they were missing. Something in that grab bag that wasn’t mentioned. I finally realized that there is one huge “C” that was left out, but it is somewhat understandable. Most runners, and athletes of all sports for that matter, forget it. Maybe it’s just that they don’t want to face it, they don’t have the courage for it. It has taken me weeks to realize what was missing…

That big “C” is convalesce.

We all hate down time from injury, it’s worse than tapering. At least with a taper, there is an end in sight, a future release for all that energy. With the convalesce, there are so many unknowns, so many question marks.

It takes “bon courage” to take the time off to allow the body to recover. We just are not wired to admit that we are vulnerable humans. There is a fear of missing out and a fear of losing fitness, but constantly running hard paces puts many into dangerous territory – the injury zone.

When I experienced my first sidelining injury, it was devastating. In truth, it was only minor; only couple of weeks off. In the grand scheme of things, two weeks isn’t a very long time.

As a runner, this seemed like eternity. What had I done to bring the ire of the running gods? Oh, how my life was doomed.

Ok, so maybe I am exaggerating a little, but we have all had similar thoughts. When something you love is taken away, however temporarily it might be, it feels as though the world has conspired against you. Time suddenly drags, like an analog clock ticking off the seconds – tick…tick…tick…tick…

Roger Bannister spent months training to break the 4-minute mile. While he improved his lap times, eventually, he plateaued. His training became stagnate; faster times were not coming. Roger, his coach and his teammates knew what was needed, some down time, some convalescing. That is exactly what they did on April 22. Six days off from the strict training regiment.

On May 6, 1954 the time convalescing paid off. A rested Roger ran one mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.

Like Roger, if many of these overtaxed, exhausted runners had just taken a few days here and there, they would not need anywhere close to the time off that they are forced to take.

The body needs rest, it actually allows us to become faster and better. The body gets stronger during rest, not stress. Short rests during the training cycle, days off here and there won’t hurt you, they will heal you. Not taking these days, ignoring your body will force you to take time off.

The best advice I was given during my injury was to look at all the athletes that had taken time to heal. Their performances did not get worse, in fact, many actually improved. Their bodies had time to rest and recover properly. Instead of chasing medals and glory, they had allowed themselves the chance to breath, a chance to heal. They had pulled convalesce out of their grab bag of courage.

Athens Big Fork Marathon

In 493 B.C. the Athenians were under attack from the Persians on the plains of Marathon, Greece. Outnumbered 4:1 the Athenians sent a messenger the 150 miles across rugged, mountainous terrain to Sparta, asking for help. The Spartans agreed, but would not join the fight, due to a religious celebration, until the moon was full. The messenger returned with the news.

By the time the messenger, Pheidippides, returned, part of the Persian army were heading towards Athens while the remaining Persians had been defeated. News of the situation needed to get to Athens, so Pheidippides was on the run again.

Legend says that he arrived and proclaimed victory, then collapsed and died.

The modern marathon is much less intense than the one Pheidippides ran. Most are on nice smooth roads, relatively flat and usually there are many other runners to keep you company.

The one of the exceptions to this is called the Athens-Big Fork Marathon. It starts in the small community of Big Fork, Arkansas and runs to a town called Athens via an old mail route trail.

I am number 60, just right of center.

After the heartbreak at Leadville, I was informed that I would be running in this marathon. Everything had been arranged everything, including time off from work and getting me registered. I was excited and nervous. I had just failed at a mountainous race, how would I be able to do this other one?

This race has 8 mountains on an out and back course, meaning 16 climbs. Some of these are actually steeper than Hope Pass in the Leadville 100, although not as long.

I went into this race, admittedly undertrained. It seems that this is easy for any of us to do in those races immediately after the holidays, but add that I had been fighting a cold the week before and you have a recipe for a disastrous race. I was not about to pull out of this one, I had wanted to try it for way too long.

The morning started off in the mid 30’s with a light rain. The temperature was suppose to get into the low 50’s. I knew that the rain was to only get heavier as the day wore on.

Athens-Big Fork course map

As we took off, I ran with my friend, Ken. We kept a decent pace, but I wasn’t feeling great. I guess my lungs were not back a full capacity, I just could not catch my breath. I told Ken to go ahead and run his race, I didn’t want to pull him down. In my mind, I was thinking that I could turn around at Blaylock Creek aid station at the 8.5 mile mark and accomplish the shorter 17 mile “fun run”, but I refused to make that decision until I got there and took a minute to reset my mind.

By the time I got there, the rain was still light plus I saw friends and family there, it was a small mental uptick, so I decided to continue for the full marathon.

One of the toughest climbs in the race is right after leaving this aid station. As I climbed, that’s when the RAIN started, I would not be dry again until I was finished.

Runners often hear Forrest Gump comparisons ad nauseam, but I felt like I was in that movie. Not the running parts, but the scenes of the rain in Vietnam.

We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin’ rain… and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath.

We all go through ups and downs during a race, this one will cause you to do it mentally and physically. I was no longer counting miles, I was counting mountains. I knew there were a total of 8 each way, 16 ascents, 16 descents.

Forget the GPS watch, when I hit the top of number 8, I knew a downhill and a little bit of dirt road, then back to the start-easy enough, or so I told myself. Many times the “out” is much easier on the mind and body than the “back” in a race like this.

All the rain had started turning the trail into creeks. I asked myself out loud if I had signed up for a trail race or a duathlon. The small creeks and streams that I had crossed on the way out, were deeper now and flowing a little faster.

Up to this point, I had never made the connection that Pheidippides ran a mountainous trail to Athens to carry a message of victory and here I was on the old route that was for mail delivery…to Athens.

Things started coming apart on me somewhere around the 9th or 10th climb, my thighs began to seize on me. All the braking I had been doing on the downhills because of the mud was starting to take its toll on me. I kept telling myself, just make it to the next aid station, just after mountain number 11. I could sit down, reset mentally and get some food. This would be the aid station where my friends were. (It’s also the one known for their “Arkansas Crepes”-pancakes with peanut butter and jelly.)

The few minutes of rest and some nutrition were exactly what I needed. I felt ready to finish. My legs felt like they were coming back. I wasn’t sure how far it was, maybe 8 miles or so, but I knew I had 5 mountains left. I got a rhythm in my head, 3 mountains, an aid station, 2 mountains, then some dirt road, and 3/4 mile of paved road, then I would be done.

And that’s where my problems started. It was actually 4 mountains, before the next aid station. While it didn’t change the distance, it can be demoralizing when you expect an aid station and you see another damn mountain. I was towards the back of the pack by this time, so I was alone on the trail. I started to question whether I was still even on the course, I saw the marking but I was second guessing them. By now the worst rain of the day was hammering me as I started to climb that fourth mountain. The sound of wind and rain inundated me, I couldn’t hear my feet hit the ground. My legs were getting worse than they had ever been. My calves were starting to cramp, visibly.

This is probably the lowest I have ever been while running.

Here I was, on a 25% grade, winds howling, rain pounding, all I could do was dig deep and hope for the best. I was in too far to quit, all I could do was push on. After watching Leadville slip away, I could not let this one get me also. Athens-Big Fork was not going to break me. There was no option, other than finishing. Plus, there was a burger for me at the finish line and that sounded like it would hit the spot.

Finally the rain had let up and I was on a little downhill, then I saw a creek crossing. There are many creek crossings in this race, but this one had a directional marker for runners that I remembered. I knew that just beyond it was the last aid station! Then, I could hear the volunteers. Going into the last aid station is a boost to the moral of any runner and a boost was needed at this point.

One mountain left to conquer. Now, on paper, this last mountain isn’t all that bad. In fact it’s probably the shortest climb of all, but I wasn’t dealing in theories. I had around 22 hard miles on my legs by this point. Most of those were either hard climbs or steep, muddy downhills. What got me over that 16th climb was my mind. I was all but done and I kept telling myself that I was a finisher. I just had to prove it by getting over one more mountain. I hit the crest of 16 and through the trees I saw a field in the valley below, the valley where the finish line waited.

As much as I love downhill running, this was not the time for it. My legs and the mud would not allow me to enjoy that last slope. I slid down the best I could, then found that dirt road. Just a couple of miles to go. I decided that I would alternate running and walking. While I wasn’t moving fast, I was moving and soon, I could hear cars. The highway was near.

While we like to think of race finish lines where there are lots of people cheering and encouraging the runners, this is not the case in most trail and ultras. Especially at small runs like Athens-Big Fork. I came up the road and turned into the Big Fork community center and was greeted by the race director, Stacy, and the time keeper. That was it, no crowds, no frills, no medals. But I did get the pride of accomplishment and the deep-self satisfaction of finishing one of the toughest trail marathons around and that’s better than any medal collecting dust. I went inside, changed into dry clothes, got my burger and went home.


Numbers seem to run our lives. We are constantly bombarded with numbers and metrics that compare us to each other. We create these yardsticks just to make one person seem superior, or twist it to make another inferior.

How much does he make, that house costs more than this one, who had the highest sales, the statistics and surveys…they are all just numbers to obsess over.

The numbers matter so much to many that app developers work in “streak” counters for their apps. I have fallen victim to this one myself. Several apps that I have count how many days in a row, how many weeks in a row that I have used it. When I miss a day, I kick myself a little that the little counter on the app is back at zero.

One app in particular, I had a streak of over 500 days. Then we were on a trip and I wasn’t able to use it for a day and the streak was dead. At first, I was devastated. After some mourning, I came to the realization that it did not really matter in the grand scheme of things. Who did I truly let down? Who was I trying to beat? No one! Sometimes these numbers take too much control over our lives and emotions.

I realized that the number on the app did not matter, but for some, the constant comparisons to others can lead to anxiety and depression. It can distort their self-image, leading them to believe that they are not good enough.

Running the numbers

The number obsession applies to running also, they can be the most dangerous thing that most runners deal with. These constant comparisons to other runners can lead someone to over-train or hurt themselves.

Some will plan out their weeks and try to make room for as many miles as possible. Spend hundreds of dollars on a watch to tell them the numbers, then realize that its not accurate enough for them, so they spend even more to get better numbers. They adjust the pace to make a particular heartrate zone, hoping it will maximize the fitness level.

From paces in workouts, number of intervals, or race times. Lately, I have even seen runners comparing their total number of races. Any number available to make ourselves feel better.

I’m not saying that these numbers don’t matter or don’t affect results, on the contrary, they provide great yardsticks for improving performance. They become a problem when they become an obsession.

The numbers that matter

In the movie “City Slickers” there is a scene that always spoke to me. The main character, Mitch, played by Billy Crystal, is a sales executive from New York. Mitch is looking to decompress from his mid-life crisis by taking a trip with two friends. They go to a dude ranch style cattle drive.

This cattle drive is led by Curly, played by Jack Palance. Curly and Mitch don’t exactly see eye to eye, but after a series of events that force the adversaries together, they begin to form a bond.

Having seen many others in the same emotional state, Curly offers some sage advice for Mitch:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [pointing index finger skyward] This.

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.

Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”

Curly[smiles and points his finger at Mitch] That’s what you have to find out.

That’s great advice for anyone, even a runner, but what’s the one thing? According to Curly, that’s for you to discover. But I have a starting point for you…the mile.

Not your mile time, the mile, you know the one mile that you are currently running. Stop thinking about how fast or slow you might be going and just run this mile. Stop ruminating on the next hill and just run this mile. Stop kicking yourself over that last split and just run this mile.

These are the Days

A few drops of rain spattered on the windshield as we headed towards the forest for our training run. The temperature was already hovering in the low 40’s, so the rain wasn’t exactly welcome. Quickly, before cell reception was lost, we checked the radar on our phones.

The image on the screen wasn’t promising. As we moved north towards the trail head, an ominous colored blob on the screen was moving towards the west. We would be meeting the blob about the time we started our run.

A cold rain was not what I wanted to accompany me on my run, but it was what Mother Nature had dealt me. I tell myself that these are the days that build my inner strength, that build my mental fortitude and in a strange way, it builds my determination. It’s these bad days that numb me to the uncomfortable times that will surely come during an ultra-marathon.

We had not prepared for rain, the forecast from the night before had put it coming in later that afternoon, which is why we had opted to start this early. The cold front would not allow the temperatures to rise much, so my short sleeves would not be of much use. I did have a rain jacket in my truck, so that could be of some use.

As I head off, the rain gets harder, but the temperature is steady. The hourly forecast had been updated and now called for the rain to taper off, at least the last few miles might not be as bad.

My luck and, more importantly, the forecast, would not hold.

I am training for the Leadville 100 and the Rocky Mountains are notorious for changing weather conditions. This rain, I tell myself is merely a trial run for what lays before me. I will be running a race that could be in the mid 30’s at the start and climb up to the 70’s.

In the first few miles, I start to get use to the rain and being a little cold. I start to get my focus on the run and ignore the discomfort of the weather conditions.

These are the days that make us. If all the training miles were easy, we would not know how to handle the hard times during our races. As the old saying goes, smooth seas don’t make a sailor. Rain, cold, heat, hills; they make the runner. If I can learn to handle days like this, it will only help me in the end. It will not guarantee me a finish, it will simply aid me in my quest.

Leadville is a legendary race. It did not come by its reputation by being sunny and easy. The days when most people don’t run or opt to run on the treadmill, these are the days when I will earn my finish, these are the days that I will earn my buckle.


Thank You for Your Service

Over the last few years I have noticed that more and more people thank me for my service. At first it was somewhat awkward, I did not know how to respond. I was a teenager who wanted to serve my country and see the world, why would they thank me?  What was I suppose to say? You’re welcome just does not seem appropriate. Over time I have started saying “no problem” or what seems like the most standard for veterans- “I was just doing a job”.

Over time I have just come to accept it for what it is, a way for someone to show a little gratitude for sacrifices we have made. I have even noticed that veterans have started thanking each other. This seems to me like a verbal fist bump, as if saying “yeah, I understand”.

Last weekend, though, I received a thank you unlike any other I have heard. I was in Nashville and we had taken an Uber to get downtown. I ended up in the front seat and started a conversation with the driver. As it turned out he was Kurdish, I told him that I had been a part of Operation Provide Comfort and was stationed in Turkey after the first Gulf War. During this operation, U.S. and allied forces defended Iraqi Kurds and provided humanitarian relief.

It was dark and I could not see the driver’s face, but I heard his voice start crackling. He thanked me. He told me that I have no idea how many lives we had saved there. When he was 4 years old, Saddam Hussein’s forces bombed his village, killing his grandfather and 2 year old sister. One of his earliest memories is of the naked bodies of his family members and other victims being thrown into a mass grave on the same day of the bombing. I was in shock, no child should have to see this.

His enraged father became a leader in a humanitarian organization. Apparently, a fairly effective leader because a price was eventually put on his head. Bodyguards were a constant presence.

In 1996, they decided that they had had enough and immigrated to Nashville, Tennessee. Apparently, there is a large population of Kurdish immigrants in the area. So many that there is an area referred to as Little Kurdistan.

My driver now loves the area. He said that he once went back to his native land, but decided that the United States was now his home.

As the ride came to an end, he thanked me again and gave us some advice on places to go while we were in town. (if you are in the area make sure to check out Peg Leg Porker Bar-b-Que).

This is the one thank you that will always stand out to me. It wasn’t awkward, it was the most sincere one I have ever received. To my Uber driver, Shorishvan, you are very welcome!


Leadville, what can I say that hasn’t been said. She is a brutal course, full of challenges. This is what attracted me, along with hundreds of others, to the race. Perhaps the allure of some of the best views in ultrarunning tempt us to forget the trials and hardships to get there.

While 4 a.m. may sound early, it can’t come soon enough when you are full of anticipation and excitement. The early time also provides for a nice cool start (38 degrees). In the darkness of the hour, the excitement and anticipation could be seen and felt in the air. We were all here for the same reason. The personal challenges lay before us, spread out over 100 miles.

The race starts at 6th and Harrison Avenue, right in the middle of town, a fitting place since it seems that the entire town revolves around this race for several days. We followed 6th street to the edge of town, then turned on to a dirt road. It was here that my first surprise happened. While I had studied the course, it never occurred to me that over 600 runners hitting a dirt road at once would create so much dust. While my training had been on dry dirt roads, it just never crossed my mind that I would encounter these conditions in Colorado.

This section did provide a couple memorable sites that one can only see during the race. While on the dirt road, we had a small climb. It was here that I looked ahead, only to see a glow of headlamps accentuated by the dust in the air.

I had read that the headlamps reflecting in the waters of Turquoise Lake create a majestic site. This year it was only enhanced by the glow of a nearly full moon. It was here that the photographer in me came out, torn between my two passions, this day running would be first.

This first section was the only one that I was even remotely familiar with. Last year we had camped on Turquoise Lake and I had ran several miles of the trail around it. I knew that it was somewhat technical. This section would be my downfall.

Around mile 10 my left foot landed on a rock at an odd angle, it twisted my foot and knocked me off balance. When I fell, I tucked and rolled, managing to come out unscathed-or so I thought. No blood, no foul. As I continued on, I started feeling an aching in my left leg. It seemed to be centered behind my knee and radiate into my calf and hamstring.

The first aid station, May Queen, came up at mile 12.6, the plan was to exchange my jacket and headlamp for sunglasses and get out of there quickly. As my wife helped me, I mentioned the fall in passing. I still thought it would be ok, the pain was a dull ache, but nothing major. I managed to move in and out as planned. Off to the next aid station at mile 23.5-Outward Bound.

This next section provided me with the other big surprises of the day. The first being that after a couple of miles of climbing, I could hear cheering in the distance. I knew that I was nowhere near the Outward Bound aid station. I also knew that it was in a flat field, we were on a mountain. I looked down the mountain, towards the cheering and realized that I had climbed up the mountain above the aid station, those few miles had been steeper than I realized, but I was feeling good.

The other surprise of this section was the flatness. While I had heard that there were some flat sections, I envisioned something more like the small Arkansas hills, not the Kansas plains. I could actually see the aid station for about a mile and a half before I got there. It was on these flats that my leg started getting worse. The combination of flat areas and asphalt must have aggravated it.

One of my biggest fears before the race was not being able to find my wife/crew in the crowds. While there were many people crowded around the aid station, I found my wife right of the bat, she had positioned herself so that I could find her without looking too hard.

My R8 Recovery Roller was pulled out. While this device can feel intense, I knew that this is what I needed. The plan was for me to only stay for a couple of minutes, drop my trash and reload my pack and get back out on the course. I did take a little longer than intended, but I needed the time to massage my leg. This extra time wasn’t anything to worry about since I was doing well on time.

Leaving the Outward Bound aid station, I had been warned that it was a field riddled with unseen holes created by prairie dogs. This fact kept echoing in my mind, I did not want to take another fall, so I eased through the next mile or so, eating, scanning for those small pits and wondering when I would get back on those mountains.

Little did I know that before I could get back into the mountains and trees, I would have several miles of roads, both dirt and asphalt. These miles were painful. It started to feel like a stabbing on the back side of my knee. It radiated up into my hamstring and down into my calf.

Finally, I started to get into trails again and start climbing Mt. Elbert. This mountain is the highest peak in Colorado. While I would not scale the peak, It felt like the climb would never end. It was here that I realized that I should have been carrying my trekking poles for the entire race. Not necessarily using them, but carrying them in my pack in case I needed them.

Short of flying out to Colorado, the only way to know the course was to study maps and race recaps. I spoke to people who had been there, who had run Leadville, who had hiked the area, but there was a gap in my mental picture – Outward Bound to Mt Elbert. All I really knew was to watch the field leaving Outward Bound. I wonder if this would have helped me plan better when things went wrong.

The next aid station after Outward Bound is called Half Pipe. I could not remember how far it was, making the plan to run from aid station to aid station and not think about the miles getting a little harder. While it was only about 6 miles, it felt like much more due to my leg.

I made the decision to stay with the plan and get in and out. I topped off my bladder and got a cup of ginger ale, then pushed on. I knew the next station was called Mt. Elbert and from there is was only a few miles to Twin Lakes where I would see my wife again.

Mt. Elbert is 6 miles from Half Pipe. These mile felt like they would never end. The climb wasn’t what bothered me, it was that leg. Climbing has never bothered me. I cannot be called a fast climber by any stretch, but I relish the challenge. This day, however, was different. One quote from Ken Chlouber, founder of the Leadville 100, is known for is “make friends with the pain and you will never be alone.” It was during this time that this quote started echoing in my head.

As hard as I tried, the pain did not want to play nice.

I reached the aid station and made the call to rest a few minutes. I sat down and drank a quick cup of coffee. I tried to stretch my leg and reset my mental focus, but I knew that I had to keep pressing on if I was going to finish.

From there it was mostly downhill into Twin Lakes. I began to realize that the pain was worse on the downhill. This was bad news, since I have always been better on the downhill, I had lost my strong point.

The entrance to Twin Lakes is a steep drop. With my leg, my footing was unsure. As I came down the embankment, I lost my footing, TWICE! Luckily, it was steep enough that I managed to almost sit down on my butt and slide both times.

I hobbled into the tent that First Descents had set up (I got into the race by raising funds for them). I was ready to quit, but my wife pushed me to keep going. She massaged my leg while the rest of my crew put a fresh bladder in my pack and got my trekking poles out. My friend Chad, who was to pace me from mile 50 to mile 75, ran with me through the tiny town of Twin Lakes, giving me advice for the next section.

Every race, whether a 5k or an ultra, has its challenges and demons. The biggest two in Leadville were on the next section, the crowning jewel of the Leadville 100 trail run, Hope Pass. This is the section I, along with most first timers, focus on, dread and obsess over 4 miles, 3,000+ feet of climbing on a somewhat technical trail. But before you get to the climb, there are 2 miles of fields, marsh land and water crossings.

The biggest water crossing is a river that was nearly knee deep and flowing fast with snow melt. Race officials had stretched a rope for us to hold while crossing. The water was so swift that I could feel it trying to pull me with each step. While most people would not want to attempt such a crossing, I remember thinking how great this was and how glad I was that I had pushed on. I remember wishing that the water was a little deeper so that it would ease my knee a little.

I stepped out of the water and faced the beast. I knew from the course descriptions that I had read the climb would start soon after the water crossing. I had also read that there was a creek next to the stream that should be enjoyed for a minute before heading on. The creek was raging this year. The roar was a nice distraction from the climb.

The climb-while it wasn’t as steep as I had imagined, it was a little more technical. Perhaps it seemed worse because the pain in my knee was getting so bad. It had gone from throbbing to a stabbing, but I wanted to see the top of this climb. The final three miles to the Hope Pass aid station took almost 2 hours.

Volunteers who had finished their shifts were on the way back down the mountain encouraged all of us to the top. They kept telling us that we were only about half a mile from the aid station. I know that they were just estimating but after hearing that so many times, I started to grumble to myself every time I heard it, at least until one of them looked at her GPS watch and said that it was .62 miles left and I had less than 5 minutes to get there.

Given my average pace and the pain, I knew that getting past Hope Pass would not happen. This destroys a person’s drive, and I was no exception. I feel like I slowed down even more.

As I entered the aid station, there was a man standing there pulling our timing chips. I knew it was over, or I thought it was. You see, there is no vehicle access to this particular point, I was told that I would have to get back to Twin Lakes aid station on my own.

So six miles back down the mountain.

The trail seemed even more treacherous on the way down. Each step reintroduced me to the knee pain. The only solace was that I wasn’t the only one who was making the descent of shame. Together, we talked and worked our way through the emotional pain of missing the goal that we had all set for ourselves.

We were total strangers bonded by a common dream that was now lost and a future goal that we collectively set for ourselves, to finish this race.

Over the last few weeks, I have come to realize that the Leadville 100 trail race is not so much a race as it is a virus, an illness. Somehow this event gets inside a person. It takes over ones soul like a demon. There is only one true way to exercise that demon…

Don’t Ring the Bell

As I stood at the starting line that dark Saturday morning, the air was crisp, but not too cool. While it felt good, I knew the comfortable temperatures at the start would mean that later in the day I would be uncomfortably warm. Still, I had an objective, a mission to do. I was there to run 100 miles. I had tried it before, things did not go well.

In the year since my last attempt, I had learned much about ultrarunning, about training for 100 miles and most importantly about myself. I started this year out with a mission of finishing the 2 races that I had failed to complete last year, I had completed the first one in January and now I needed this last one.

The gun went off and I knew that I had to pace myself. Just enjoy the first few miles and save energy for the long road ahead. It was still dark until I was almost to the first aid station. Everything seemed to be flowing perfectly. I focused on running aid station to aid station, not thinking about the miles left or the challenges that I may face.

It was through this area that I started a mantra. I was wearing the KIA bracelet for a fallen Navy SEAL named Adam Brown. Call it fate or call it divine intervention, I ended up with the bib number 24, Adam’s football jersey number.

SEAL training has what is called Hell Week. During this time, trainees are subjected to superhuman tests. They are almost constantly moving on minimal sleep for 132 hours. The trainee can stop anytime they want, therefore quitting the SEALS, the catch is that they must stand in front of all the others and ring a bell. The sound of the clanging bell announces to the world that you did not have what it takes to finish the test.

I started to think of this race as my Hell Weekend. I had a mission and I would not quit, I would not suffer ringing that figurative bell in my ears again. This was just the line of thinking I needed because I don’t remember a time after that point that I thought about quitting. I just kept telling myself, don’t ring the bell-don’t ring the bell!

The miles clicked off and before I knew it, I had reached Lake Sylvia, the first station where my crew would be waiting. A quick shirt change into a singlet, I grabbed a sandwich and was out. I’ve done more hill repeats on the stretch coming out of Lake Sylvia than I could count. This could be dangerous, I could get over confident and burn myself out in that section. I made it a point to hold back through here.  On to Pumpkin Patch at mile 22, Electronic tower at 24.6 miles,  then on to Lake Winona at 31 miles, calling to the radio operators as I left each one- 24 out. This is done for safety and to track each runners progress.

Running has it’s ups and downs emotionally and Electronic Tower to Lake Winona provided my first down. The stretch seemed to drag on. In years past there had been an aid station between to two. This year race officials eliminated it and moved them slightly closer together. Don’t ring the bell.

At Lake Winona I had my entire crew waiting. Change of socks and shoes and a few minutes of stretching and I was ready again. As I left, I told my pacers to be ready, they WOULD run with me this year. Last year they didn’t get that chance.

By this point it was getting warm. I had to change my nutrition strategy. I had planned on gels and waffles between aid station, but they just didn’t taste good. Not that my stomach was bothering me, they just were not doing the trick. I made the call to switch to Tailwind  as my primary calorie source between the aid stations and rely on the solid foods provided at the stations.

I settled into a rhythm, not looking at the time, just running. I wasn’t wearing any GPS watch, just a cheap Casio I had bought earlier in the week. As I neared the Power Line aid station at mile 48, I realized that I was about half an hour faster getting to that aid station than the previous year.


At Power Line (mile 48). Best Coke ever!

At this point a runner can pick up a pacer. Someone to help guide you, to make sure you are eating and drinking enough and making sure you check in with the Ham radio operators as you left the aid stations. I had a pacer who was suddenly deployed and finding a replacement was tough, so I opted to run with out one for now. I would end up running 68 miles solo. I was on to the Copperhead aid station at mile 52. This would be a mental milestone for me. This was the aid station I dropped at last year. As I approached, I made the decision to move as fast as possible through it, I didn’t want to linger on the bad memories. If I had not needed to get water and food, I would have passed it.

As I waited for my water bottles to be filled, looked over at the chairs. Runners who had dropped out sat there in defeat. Wrapped in blankets and asking themselves what they could have done differently, I knew that feeling. They would face weeks of self questioning, wondering if they made the right call. They had rang the bell and I would not put myself through that again.

The Turnaround aid station was another mental milestone for me. At that point I was running back towards the finish line, there were only 42 miles left! This thought reinvigorated me, I wanted this. Back to Copperhead  then on to Power Line (mile 68) again.

At Power Line I was joined by Micah. She had never paced anyone in an ultra, but she had a very positive energy that I knew I would need through the night. She would take me back to Lake Winona (mile 84.8). Off we went over Smith Mountain.

Looking back, two thing during this time really stand out to me. The first is when we got to a clearing on Smith Mountain, I stopped and we turned off our headlamps. We just enjoyed the stars for a couple of minutes. This was a small reward to enjoy the beauty for a moment. The weekend had been about moving, sometimes it needs to be about stopping and enjoying.

The other thing that stands out was an odd thing that happened, I was nodding off while running. Somewhere between Bahama Mama (mile 72.6) and Club Flamingo (mile 76.4) I realized that as I ran, I was leaning on my trekking poles and almost falling asleep. I got a cup of coffee at Club Flamingo and continued. This woke me up just enough to stop the small naps between steps.

We continued towards Lake Winona, watching the lightening all around us. Wondering if we would get rained on or if we would have to whether a small storm. Luckily, it never happened. We got to Lake Winona just as the light started to appear on the horizon. I quickly got what I needed and thanked Micah for her help.

Shauna would be joining me from here on out. She and I have ran many miles together, I knew she could push me if needed. We headed out for Electronic Tower (mile 91.2) just before sunrise. This would be a key aid station. If I made it past there before the cutoff, I would be allowed to finish regardless of 30 hour time limit. The problem was that this would be the longest most miserable stretch. I had not been close to cutoffs, but my energy was fading.

She would push me, while not telling me anything about pace or distance. We both knew that I did not need to know that information, I just needed to keep moving as fast as I could.

It was during this stretch that I realized that my perception of time and distance were way off. The miles dragged on and on. After what felt like days, we finally reached Electronic Tower, I would be a finisher! I was tired and beaten, but I would be able to finish. My friend Tina was there and gave me a zip lock bag of chocolate covered espresso beans that ended up carrying me through.

I always thought that I would be a little emotional at the end. As it turned out, my emotional moment came at mile 93.7, Pumpkin Patch. A lady named Lisa Gunnoe introduced me to the world of trail and ultra running. I paced her when she ran this race the first time. While she finished that year, she has tried unsuccessfully two times since, this year became the third unsuccessful try.

At some point during the night, I got word that she had dropped out. I knew she would be at Pumpkin Patch since her family volunteered there. As I rounded the corner, she stood there in the middle of the road, tears rolling down her cheeks. As she hugged me, I told her how sorry I was that she wasn’t able to finish. Lisa said to me that she wasn’t crying for her race, but that she was crying because she was so proud of me. After we had our moment, her family and some of our friends came over and took care of me.

A little over 6 miles left and I was ready to be done. I had 3 miles to a creek crossing, one mile from there to the last radio check station and then 2.5 miles to the finish. I was ready, so we ran a bit. I felt like we had ran for a couple of miles, but no it was only a couple of minutes. I would take a walk break then run again and repeat. Shauna and I had found a pace that felt good to me and she kept me there (She still hasn’t told me what the pace was, but I know it was slow).

I was worried about the creek crossing. How would I do it on my worn out legs? Should I just push across and not worry about wet feet? When we got there, Shauna went first, finding any loose rocks. When she got across, she turned around and talked me across. In the end, I got across better at mile 97 than I did the first time at mile 18.

I had done many hill repeats on this last couple of miles of the course. It’s near an area that we camp and train at often. I knew that it would be a mile and a half of down hill and some flats then one last small hill to the end. I ran the down hill as much as I could.

The one uphill that had scared me during all the training was that last one. It’s not really that steep, I just wondered how it would feel to run it with 99+ miles on my legs. As it turned out, I opted to walk it. I did know that there was a point where the hill leveled off and actually went down a little, there was a road sign there that had always been a marker in my mind. Traveller

At that point, I ran as well as my worn out, chafed legs would allow. I had always thought that I would be extremely excited and over joyed to cross the finish line. In the end, it was just sense of being done. It was an odd feeling, not exhaustion, I just wanted to stop running. There was too much adrenaline to be sleepy, this was the most worn out yet awake and in the moment I have ever been. I had not rang the bell, I had survived my own little Hell Weekend. After 29 hours and 20 minutes, I turned to the Ham radio operators and gave my final check-24 DONE!

Ever Changing Motivation

The sun was beating down, it seemed like there had only been two or three days of nice spring like temperatures. Now summer was here in it’s full fury. Beads of sweat gathered on my hat bill, hanging for a second or two before giving up. That’s about how I felt, like giving up. I’ve hung on as long as I could, just turn around and go home.  Something made me keep moving up the hill, but asking myself why the hell I was doing it.

Recently, I was asked about my motivation. I thought of the high cholesterol and blood pressure that I had been trying to correct when I started. Those problems are a distant memory, so what kept me going? It wasn’t the weight, somewhere along the way running to lose weight had given way to keeping weight down so I could run better, in a weird twist the two had switched places on my priorities list.

I reached the top of the climb and looked ahead. A nice down hill and then another climb. Why am I doing this? If I go down that hill, it will only become an uphill climb on my way back. For some reason I kept moving forward, down the hill and up the next. Why am I doing this?

Somewhere in all of us there is a tiny spark of motivation. What each of use chooses to do with that spark, defines us. When we feed this motivation continually, that is what people remember. This is where we grow physically and mentally. Those that keep moving have learned to nurture that spark and grow it. It’s like kindling in a fire, if you don’t feed it, the flame will go out. If you watch it, nurturing it, then the fire will grow, sometimes beyond control.

Our motivation must be ever evolving. Always moving towards the next hill. I think this is why many people fail to keep the weight off. Their goal is to lose a certain amount of weight and once they reach that point, the motivation is gone. There is no longer a reason to maintain a healthy lifestyle. With their motivation gone, the kindling burns out, there is no more fuel in the fire. When we find one little bit of motivation, one piece of kindling, we start. If we don’t add to that kindling, we stand a high chance of failure. Why? Because the fire no longer has fuel to maintain or grow.IMG_9406

When the flame on the log is getting low, we stir the fire and add another log. When the flame of your goal is low do you stir it and add another? Did you run a half-marathon? Good, then set a goal to do it faster or do a full marathon.

Many of us began our journey due to health problems, for others it was to support a friend or family member. Eventually, that motivation is going to vanish. Things change, goals change and when they do, that’s where many people have trouble. They stop nurturing that fire within. Just keep looking to the next peak, the top of the next hill and keep moving towards it.

Something pushes me to keep moving until I get to my turn around point. I stop and look at where I came from all the hills and challenges and start heading back. Those nice downhills are now climbs, those climbs that I cursed in the beginning are now my friends. I realize that nothing in life has actually changed except my perspective. I look at those hills and challenges differently now, once they were an excuse, now they are merely a small obstacle.



My Favorite Mile

Each year, I run many miles. Some on the road, some are on the trails. I have my preferred routes. For example, Hot Springs National Park just up the road from my house, a full loop around the park can get me up to 17 miles with roughly 3,300 feet of elevation gain. I can zigzag around the trails and get many more if needed.

My neighborhood has several subdivisions that I loop around. I know the distance of each loop off the top of my head. I know that if I have “x” miles left that I can go to this loop or that one. I have even made Strava segments for these loops, just to keep an eye on my progress.

Still other times, I will go out to the Ouachita National Forest and run different routes there. Usually I will run on part of the Arkansas Traveller 100 course, just to get more familiar with it. The views there are amazing and there is camping nearby.

Out of all of these miles, though, there is one that stands out for me each and every year. At mile 16 of the Arkansas Run for the Fallen, we take a small detour off of the main highway to the front of an elementary school.

Several years ago, we decided to start the run on Friday and run through the weekend. Until then we had just ran on Saturday and Sunday. Word got to an elementary school on our route that we would be going by during school hours. To our surprise, the teachers, faculty and students were all outside as we came by, cheering for us while waving signs and flags.

Part of our mission is to teach others about the fallen heroes that we honor, so it was a natural progression of our mission to move the hero marker to the front of this school. This would allow the children to take part in honoring the fallen and learn about the costs of freedom. While it does make for a long mile, the reward is the greatest experience. With motorcycles and police cars in front and behind us, we turn off of the main highway and go several blocks up a small hill and then make a right.

As we come up the hill, you can hear something faint in the distance, over the sound of the roaring motorcycle escorts. If you have never ran this mile, you might not be able to distinguish what it is, but you can hear a distinct rhythm.  We draw close to the school and it becomes clearer, the sound is children chanting -U-S-A!-U-S-A!-U-S-A! The chants drive our cadence as we push up the hill. We can feel the energy and excitement as we near the small turnaround in front of the school.

As we approach the flag pole, the chanting stops, slowly fading as we assemble. These 85 children, all in the 5th and 6th grades know what we are doing. They have adopted this hero as their own and are there to honor him with us. This hero is SFC Kevin P. Jessen.

With children this age, silence is often lacking. Some how these kids all remain silent as the name and brief biography of SFC Jessen is read. We then come to attention and salute this hero and the chanting starts again.

We then make a loop around the front of the school and high five all of the kids that we can. We are made to feel like star athletes, not because we are fast or that we are running ridiculous miles, but because we are honoring the heroes of this state.