May 22, 2019 may be a day that lives in infamy within the trail community. On this date Outsider published an article making claim that trail runners are parasites within the world of development, rehabilitation, and environmental protection of our trails.
Needless to say the comments made were not necessarily well received by many among the masses. On the other hand though; there were specific individuals within my own niche that questioned, “But was the author wrong?”
Consider this not a rebuttal, not a compliment, but merely a modest proposal to the trail running community (especially our new runners that continue to show up because for some reason they enjoying nearly dying on any given Midwest summer evening).
Merely…I call it the 1:1 challenge…
It’s very simple, and I picked it up from my first year volunteering at High Lonesome 100 near Salida, Colorado. There, one of our medics on site was speaking to me on the topic in the pleasant rain shower of that specific hour. She informed me that she is a trail runner, but she divides her time. For every race that she partakes in, she then gives back (usually in the form of medical) for a race. This creates a reciprocal approach when enjoying the world around us, because let’s be honest, we do all of this for more than a medal, a sticker, and a new hat (…well…most of us).
There is more than just building and maintaining trails that are needed within our community; so I’d like to present you with three potential areas of inclusion to be a part of the bigger wilderness conservation picture:
While this is easily the easiest way of giving back to the community, it is often overlooked. Make no mistake; I am not beyond a crisp Jefferson in my pocket. In some ways it almost feels guilty to just ‘give money’ versus physically doing anything of value. However, I think this is a stigma that we must remove. Many trail rehabilitation groups, such as the Colorado 14ers Initiative, request both time and resources to continue their projects. Let’s not forget that a good chunk of these organizations are non-for-profits, and practically live off of the financial ability of the rest of the populous.
Plus, if you’re a complete, extreme introvert, you can give online without having to speak to a single person…if that’s your cup of tea.
Additionally, it isn’t always the resources going into the trails specifically, but also the people that are frequently on them. The Barr Trail Mountain Race in Manitou Springs, Colorado sets apart some of the race fees directly to benefit the El Paso County Search & Rescue; a non-profit that literally saves lives along the mountain side. Just last week, I came across a hiker who had severely dislocated (along with other things) their ankle heading down Barr Trail. I watched EPCSAR show up with a ‘box’, stretcher, mountain bike wheel for the stretcher (it was cool), along with 12 other people just to get this one hiker safely down the mountain and to the hospital. The craziest part out of all of that? The hiker will not be charged a dime by EPCSAR; they work 100% on donations and grants.
If I’m speaking from personal experience; this is an area where I lack the most. When it comes to actually building, repairing, or maintaining the physical trails I can become very confused. Confusion leads to hesitation, hesitation leads to excuses, excuses gets me out of working on trails. That’s my brutal honesty to you.
I lived on this cycle until last summer. Moving along with some of the High Lonesome 100 members, I found myself up Quandary Peak with the Colorado 14ers Initiative, rebuilding part of the hiking trail towards the summit. I knew absolutely nothing about trail building, rock splitting, laying, etc…Thankfully, I was with professionals who knew exactly what they were doing, and patiently guided me step-by-step to ensure everything was done correctly.
It can be a confusing process.
What’s confusing? Well, if you’ve ever ventured out onto a trail, there is a science that goes into understanding how the trail is to be set. A few questions to consider:
This is just the beginning of the trail process. It can be overwhelming, and at the same time a great excuse to avoid the work.
Take heart though! Groups like Urban Trail Co. here in Flyover land, create a volunteer sheet tailored specific to your desires, interests, and possibly…fears. Even local trail groups within different regions of the United States have opportunities to serve. In some instances, such as the Lawrence Trail Hawks out of Lawrence, Kansas, will likely be gearing up for the repairs needed at Clinton Lake due to recent, seasonal flooding. For others, such as High Lonesome 100, trail days are part of registration requirements.
The reality is this; the organizations exist, the trained professionals are alive, and honestly when it comes to trail work…all of us (including me)…should take some time to lace up and get dirty.
Volunteering is arguably one of the most beneficial experience a trail runner (especially a new one) can experience. Not only are you watching runners, who paid for an event, base their survival by your hands…but you can enjoy all of this with a smile on your face.
While the idea of race volunteering doesn’t necessarily, directly pertain to the upkeep of a specific trail; it does build in you this ongoing appreciation of what you have, and what is needed in order to keep it.
Personally, when I was running around on the trails; it was a great, dizzy, sweat-inducing experience. When the sun went down though, and the lights came on, and I was watching this runner trying to get to mile 66 before cutoff. That’s when I started to really fall in love with the community. The notion of watching humans do amazing things never gets old. When we volunteer, we get the entire experience. It is no longer our race, it is our community, our world. In realizing this, it creates a pride of upkeep that stirs within the heart of any runner. Whether it be removing one pesky widow-maker, a quick, approved reroute, or even stringing a rope along floodwaters for other runners, there’s always something more that can be done.
In the end there are limitless opportunities to serve in the world that so many of us have come to love. We just have to look, step outside of our comfort zone, utilize some free time, and make our community a little bit stronger.
The challenge is that for each race you find yourself running in (because you will and it will be glorious) make an effort to take another date to spend time outside of the moment of running, and in the opportunity to be a part of something bigger.
It is not about mountain biking, trail running, horse riding, underwater basket weaving, or anything else within these strange likes.
It is about being human, understanding the world we have been given, and as cliche as it is…just doing the right thing.
Desperately gasping for breath, a rasping, wheezing chain-smoking cough, aching, possibly blistered feet, and a knot in my stomach indicating that the concept of violent, projectile vomit was surprisingly high…
…at mile 2.
Make no mistake, there is a slight pride in knowing that I make several dumb choices during, before, and after trail races so that you, dear reader, don’t have to repeat the same narrative. It’s simple math; I get a story, you get a laugh, and your soul gets to remain in your body for a little bit longer. It’s a win, win…win?
However, I have also come to learn that there are moments, races, that you can prepare for in your life, and go into them with the knowledge and desire to excel…and at the same time…still have everything fall apart right before your eyes.
This is my introduction to the 2019 North Fork 50k.
It is rare for me to run the same race twice throughout the trail community. There is just so much going on all at once that I want all the dirt, all the rocks, and all the blood that’s available. Doesn’t everyone? After North Fork last year though, I wanted to run this race again. The desire stemmed from a few reasons:
North Fork had been on my list for several months, almost a full years worth of training. It was, in the words of my coach, “a goal race”. The random 6 hour hill run in September was not a goal race, the floppy, raw bacon episode of the Back 40 was not a goal race, this race was. I put serious training into it. For all the humor that encompasses my existence, like a good teacher I also will not shy away from data, I had over 700 miles logged in the books, 48000 feet worth of gain in the year prior, and more Honey Stinger gels consumed than anyone within their right mind should be privy to witnessing.
In the motto of Team Sparkle Productions, “Nothing lucky about it. We train for this.”
It all started back in January. This ‘snowball’ effect leading up to this race. It began with -20 temperatures and taking pity on our students. It began with insane snowfall (by Flyover standards) in November. It revolved around a nasty, nasty winter. Not that it messed with my training; I ran regardless. I have a new love for Yak-Trax, and often felt like the anti-thesis to Elsa when it came to ice.
What it did mess with was the amount of snow days that my school district had to make up at the end of the year. Translation: our last day of school was May 31, 2019.
North Fork 50k was June 1, 2019.
My school district is in Missouri.
North Fork is in Colorado.
My school district is probably -3000 feet* below sea level.
North Fork starts off at 6100 feet above sea level.
Are you connecting the dots yet?
In the end, school was let out at 10:30 AM May 31, at 5:50 PM I was on a flight bound for Denver International Airport, at 7:00 PM, two stale bags of pretzels, and a really bad remake of The Sword In The Stone, my wife snagged me out of a really crazy airport (WITH TRAINS!).
At 8:00 PM MST, a small manic episode, and an AMAZING chicken sandwich later I was in an AirBnB getting gear ready for the next day.
I distinctly remember my wife looking at my gear that night, splayed across the table like like kids bag after Halloween (that the parents took to split up after the children went to bed…don’t act like you don’t know that happens), and looked at me, sighing, “You’re not going to have enough to eat.”
…you already know where this is heading…
Prior to the beginning of the race on a chilly, brisk Colorado morning; I ran into enough people that I didn’t have a chance to be nervous. I found Stu & Deb from Kansas City, Mary from Kansas City, and Heather from the joy of High Lonesome (she finished it last year…like a boss). Because I had spent so long training in isolation, I had forgotten how niche the trail running community really is. Truly, everyone knows everyone, and it also helps when you inherently stick out a foot above everyone else.
Deb, Stu, Mary, and Heather all creeped toward the front of the 200+ runners. Naturally, I creeped further back towards the very end of the group. Let’s be realistic. When the race started, something very dumb triggered inside my head. The only word that came to my mind was, “GO!”
And my day was trashed…
My first mile was under 12 minutes. Anyone who knows anything about me knows that if I’m moving at that speed, that early, someone is going to need to brace for the 40 minute miles later in the day. I’m not even saying I felt great while moving that quickly. Perhaps peer pressure? Perhaps trying to warm up? Whatever the case was it, the speed was short lived because about the time I crossed that magical little bridge
into my eternal slumber the realization really hit me.
That was mile one. The next 15000000000 miles would. be. straight. up.
Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, but after that bridge the first major climb did begin, and it did not stop for quite some time. This is truly where the errors of my ways started to show themselves. Mainly in the form of the dreaded conga-line. Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to apologize to each of you and give you this heartfelt confession…
I WAS THE CONGA-LINE.
See, the problem with my poor choice to start out so quick was a double-edged sword. First, it was fast and the likelihood of death was moved quicker towards midnight on my own doomsday clock. Second, all of those people I passed earlier? They were smart by taking their sweet time, and now they were ready to move, and I was left with two choices.
A. Step to the side, fall off the cliff, and allow them to pass.
B. Try to match their pace, and hang on for a breath-draining, show-ending ride of rollers and climbs.
…and because of pride I inherently chose the latter…and that made all the difference**
After climbing, breathing, trying to cry, and contemplate all of my poor life choices I began to see the clearing, the flattening of the land, the hope. I also began to realize that I was hobbling like a death march way too early into the race. While traversing at my own pace, a very nice lady came up to me and asked if my name was Fruit Loop (I cannot make this up), and if I had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. Inherently I said, through a gasp, that may name was Shawn, I have never been referred to as Fruit Loop, and that I most definitely did not thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.
“I see, you’re distinguishable though with your nice, cinnamon hair. Have a great run!”
Reason #9717 for trail running: While school, as a student, was a time for peers to completely harass me about the color of my hair (of which I grew to hate), trail running has brought out the joy of having ‘cinnamon locks’. Thank you nice lady from mile 6 of North Fork 50k.
We parted ways at a restroom near a trail head. She stopped for her peers, and I continued on my trot, across the road, and onto the next segment of trail…completely off course.
It was only the nice AT lady yelled, “Shawn! John! Shawn!”, and sent three mountain bikers after me that I realized that I had not turned where I was supposed to, and can finally said that at a race…I got lost.
After scrambling under the guise of shame, I made it back to the main course, only to be met with a strong, short downhill and a random guy*** in blue telling me which way to go to my first aid station.
Upon decent into the Golden Mountain Runners aid station, for the first time that I could recall, I truly thought about quitting the race right there. My feet and ankles were destroyed, my stomach was already started to become upset, I couldn’t breathe (more than usual), I got off course…and it was just a pile of garbage that I couldn’t shake.
Unfortunately for me, I also knew that I was stepping into the one aid station that was definitely not going to let me drop. No bones were sticking out, both eyes were still intact, and I was moving. It was there that I found a multitude of people that have had the humbling sensation of pushing me up mountains; Kelsey, Caleb, David, and the rest of the Golden Mountain Runners were running the first aid station. I had no chance of dropping at this point. I came down the decent looking like death warmed over, they forced me to eat, my wife switched out bottles, and after a brief interview with a local newspaper (?) I made my way backup onto the trail.
Life just sloshed by for the next set of mileage. I was just moving, barely, but I was moving. My feet hurt so much; even a word-junky like myself struggles in being able to adequately define what it felt like to run. The best example I could muster up is when The Terminator freezes the T-1000, and then he tries to walk and his feet break off…yeah…something like that.
However, I did not have to go up Tramway. Here’s the lowdown on this course; this year it was changed slightly and ran almost entirely backwards. That meant last year where that 5% of sucking happened with going up Tramway was replaced with 95% of the course sucking…but Tramway’s decent was absolutely lovely!
After journeying halfway through eternity I made it into Meadows. There I was greeted with organized chaos, bacon, and the glaring sun. Meadows is a fun bunny ear, weird multi-point location for the 50 mile runners. The rest of us just have to check in and get moving again. It was there that I switched out another bottle of Tailwind (bless my friend Sharon, and her realization of what an ultra looks like by trying to put Tailwind powder into a Salomon soft bottle. Sharon, the struggle is indeed, very real.), met Kate, who owns Go Far Run in Boulder, and was pacing her husband Zach on the 50 mile. She forced me to eat. This was an ongoing theme; GMR people throughout the course making sure I was eating (don’t worry, it wasn’t the last time). Naturally, I left the aid station the same time Kate did with Zach…the difference was the fact that he was in first place of the 50 mile and completely torching the field…while I was on mile 14 of the 50K. I sheepishly said “hi” and “bye” as they came speeding past me.
I thought, after ingesting some bacon, that I had, had enough of this course. However, like all good races, the course had not had enough of me. One of the unique adjustments this year was that both 50K and 50M runners had the privilege of embarking up Mount Baldy. I’m here to tell you, as a testament to my humility, that had there been an aid station remotely close to anywhere along that section of path…I would not have finished this race. Mount Baldy now stands as the most miserable piece of earth I have ever found myself on…and I’ve been to Skidmore, Missouri. My feet were already aching, the course was just another large climb, with transitions between loose gravel, solid boulders, and just sadness…pure sadness. My stomach felt horrible, breathing was nearly its final breath (…ha…), and the course never ended.
Hours…hours later I came into Homestead Aid Station. There, I had a small 4 mile loop, and then 5 miles to the finish line. I came into the station dizzy, disoriented, and overall miserable. I sat down for a second, downed a ton of fluids, and tried to eat. I tried to keep moving, just to get the misery over with. I left with half a soft bottle filled with Tailwind. Two miles into that loop, mainly exposed, I realized the tragic error that I had made. While not thinking I had managed to leave the aid station with…an empty soft bottle, and an empty 2L bladder, and all I had was half a bottle of some watered down Tailwind.
Truly, I had every excuse to drop from this horrific atrocity. The second half of that small loop was an uphill climb, my miles were down to 30 to 35 minutes, and the prayer of the sweet release of death was going through my mind. I hit Homestead once more; where I found Ashley. Yes, another GMR runner nearly threw fruit ice…icee…popsicle…whatever those things are called at me. At this point my body wasn’t regulating heat at all, there was dehydrations, and a severe lacking of calories because I was refusing to eat (I’m not saying this was a good idea). The term mess was appropriate at this point. Under my weight, a lone chair sacrificed itself for the cause (sorry guys!), I was filled up with water…and I took off for the final 5 miles.
I’ve been in thunderstorms, insane heat, completely isolated, winter weather, sub-zero temperatures, and just about every other crazy predicament that one could conjure up while on the trails. Two miles until the end though; I experienced two things that were completely new to me:
It’s hard typing those last words, for all the humor in my endeavors, that thought stung more than any humor could lift me through. The amount of guilt on my heart, for thinking that, was the rawest feeling of the entire day. Running is my life, it’s what I do, and this thought was almost what I’d imagine a cheating spouse to be like, the pain of turning my back on what I love.
The race needed to be over, and over quickly.
Through the setting sun, the cooling breeze, giant mosquitos, and a long freaking gravel road I started to see the beginning of the end…of the race. Coming through, I could see Lauren, yelling at me about finishing the race or something…she came and trotted (aka: walked) next to me to the finish line. Upon completion I found Janice, one of the most amazing RD’s ever, an award plate, a chair, Kate pulling my shoes off…with somehow no blisters at all, Heather (who crushed her 50k) with a cold beer, and enough time to relax while watching another one of our runners, Brit, finish her 50 mile race****.
There wasn’t some traumatic crying moment, nor was there a collapse into someones arms, or any other photogenic opportunities. It was just a finished race. I definitely found myself in the darkest places I’ve ever been, and finished because the people around me knew I could keep going.
It really does take a town to raise a runner.
If you’ve read this far already; you may as well stick around and enjoy a random story included within the journeys of North Fork 50K. At the Back 40 Trail Race it was the floppy bacon the day after the race. At North Fork it was the experience leading to getting to Denver.
Let’s start at Kansas City International Airport. Now, I have a unique gift of finding ways to be patted down at every single airport I walk into. It happens without fault. In fact; once at George Bush Intercontinental in Houston I even got to spend time with the Department of Homeland Security.
My wife was already in Denver, so my stuff with already with her. All I needed to do was board a one-way flight to Denver with my body, phone, and the clothes on my back. I had cargo shorts on, my BOCO hat, a tank top from Ruhn Co., and just plain Hoka shoes, plus one Hawk 100 drawstring bag. Minimal stuff for the ease of getting through security. To no surprise I was pulled from the scanner and received a pat down, but still made it through in quick time.
Sitting by myself, near a window, thirty minutes before my flight, I was lost in my music and Soccer Spirits: Season 7 on my Pixel. No one was seated near me, and I was in my own world.
That’s when it happened…
A muscular figure knelt down next to me, I pulled my head phones off (out of respect), and the next thing I knew…
Sir. Can I have a few moments of your time? I have a few questions for you.
He opened his wallet, and I was entertainingly bracing myself to hear about Jesus and the path to salvation from this man.
Instead I saw his badge.
HIS. DEA. BADGE.
DRUG. ENFORCEMENT. ADMINISTRATION.
My heart sank.
Now, it suddenly became like my venture with Homeland Security. “Where are you going? Why do you not have any bags with you? Can I check your bag (thank goodness I didn’t have my Tailwind baggies with me)? How long will you be gone? Have you see anything suspicious?”
The only thing suspicious was Macho Man Randy DEA squatting next to me, and his three musketeers of muscle standing behind him ‘trying to blend in’. He thanked me for my time, and went about his way of awkwardly trying to blend in with the public.
It wasn’t even ten minutes later…
Here comes the Kansas City Police K-9 division. Guess where fido was heading? You bet! The officer made a b-line straight to my chair, and was intent on investigating the bag that was with me.
All done with no problems what so ever.
This all unfolded around 4:45 PM CST; five hours prior I was saying goodbye to another batch of students on route to high school, five hours later I was trying to sleep prior to another ultramarathon.
Truly, never a
dull relaxing moment.
…no…they did not find anything…thanks for asking
It has been a while since I’ve typed…ran…raced…puked…lived much of anything within the trail community. After the race in June of 2018 (2018!) I definitely hit a long stretch of lonely miles, uncertainties with my health, and just an overall adjustment in what I really wanted to accomplish as a runner.
Meaning; I’m truly no different from the stubbornness and dreaming ideologies that my 13 and 14 year olds remind me of on a daily basis…when they do not turn in their papers when they are due.
However, after being shot with a nuclear isotope, listening to my heart do its own version of a Latin Salsa, and building…rebuilding…and building orthotics in my shoes (thanks to a very unsettling, slightly unhinged mad scientist) by the end of November I had finally felt that my feet were under me, and I was slowly (so slowly) crawling through each mile.
Because learning from the past is for losers, this obviously meant that I was ready to go back to a trail racing!
Now, I did
ask beg my coach to enter a race. With December quickly approaching I knew there was a frozen, miserable race with my name on it: The Back 40. I even tried to negotiate (HA!) by saying that I would run the half marathon instead of the usual 20 mile race I had done in the previous two years.
With God laughing, Michael facepalming, and the stars beaming down on me I was finally given approval to head back out on the trail. With excitement, a week prior to the race, I hopped on the internet and began the registration process.
Only to learn that the half marathon at The Back 40 was completely sold out.
After swallowing tears (and snot) I refused to back down from my own bouts of stupidity, and did what any sane person would do:
I sent an email to the race director asking if there was a wait list for the half marathon.
Yes, you read that correctly, I requested a wait list for a 13.1 mile race.
I’m still laughing at myself.
Days went by without hearing anything from the group in the Natural State (that’s Arkansas by the way), and I began to realize that my dream was gone, and even more painful was knowing that instead I would have another long run in the woods, in the cold, in the dark around my house. Truth is, I had been itching (not quite oak mite itch, but more like poison ivy itch) to get out of town for a few days. The Hitchcock 100 was taking place in Iowa that same weekend, and I knew enough to know to evade that frozen tundra like my life depended on it, but I still sought adventure. In Arkansas though…the weather was setting up to be perfect for racing…snow, wind, rain, and ice. There’s no place I’d rather be.
In my own grief of eating Tailwind straight, and gorging Honey Stinger chews, my sugar-hyped eyes bounced around my screen until I saw the response come through my email.
Well, we can’t let that streak end, can we? Come on down and sign up when you check in.Seriously. This group is amazing to allow me into their race just like that.
Sweet redemption! I texted my coach, kissed my cat, fed my wife, and packed my bags…red coat and all! I stopped at Run816, our local running store, and purchased some Yak Trax (because I like being cool and trying to fit in, though each race photo with others shows me that I’ll never fit it) and a new BOCO beanie. Afterwards it was a quick trip down to northwest Arkansas on my own. I met with a few others from Kansas City who were…thrilled with the upcoming weather that they too had to get in on the action. The bib I received for the race was custom made for me…meaning it was made with a Sharpee marker…and the race director wanted to know what I didn’t sign up earlier. I explained the situation, to which (JOKINGLY!) he said he wouldn’t mind fighting my coach, to which (JOKINGLY!) I said he’d win. In the end, the marker on the piece of paper still held true, I was back in action.
Saturday morning, if being honest, came with a blur. There was no snow, there was no rain…in fact, similar to the previous two years, the darn race weather was the exact same. Cold, windy, overcast with a hint of death (or wannabe snow) in the air. The 20/40 mile runners had already left, allowing me to have a moment of self-pity for not being with them, but that was quickly replaced with the echoing tunes that had become accustomed to this race from the race director.
Y’all pay attention! I’m only gonna say it once! This is your ribbon! If you do not see this ribbon, you are lost!
Something about that noise that is abrasive to the ears is also calming to the soul. The next thing I knew the horn went off, and we were already heading down the pavement to the trailhead. Like any good Arkansas race, it is pivotal for me to start off in the best way possible, but practically sprinting the first mile. Looking back, I clocked a ten minute mile in the first mile, it was rather daunting.
After the first mile and onto the single track, I spent the time in a very awkward scenario blended of peer pressure, poor choices, and pride. I had ran to the front third of the race group in the first mile, meaning I was with really fast people. The only problem? I am not a fast person. However, I didn’t want to be “that person” that slowed down the folks on the single track. Because of this dilemma I did the only thing that was feasible at the moment; I sucked air like a dying velociraptor, and tripped over every rock in the state of Arkansas while trying to keep moving with the group.*
Thank goodness my wardrobe failed me after 3 miles.
I had layered the heck out of myself for this race; a singlet, a dry-tech long sleeve shirt, and finally my new running jacket. That jacket is as close to the furnace of hell as I’d like to get. The harder you run, the hotter it gets, and like a bad hotbox at youth camp, the heat goes nowhere. By the third mile, dying from trying to run with a bunch of Pre’s, I pulled off to the side to ‘put my gear in my pack’…which really meant…let the Daytona 500 get past me so I could run at a pace that wouldn’t kill me at mile 8.
The journey calmed down tremendously from that point on. I barely stopped at aid stations as I made my way through the course, I did not have any chaffing issues, and cramps were a thing of the past. A few bone issues at my ankle by mile ten, but the biggest issue came only from the scalding, delicious chicken broth around mile 9. On a side note I am pleased to report that I did find the remnants of Cheryl’s She-Shed laced along the trail side between a few residential development areas…hot water heaters and all.
While listening to the rage of Witt Lowry and his broken heart over the years through some speakers, I noticed two runners that had been behind me for some time during the race. They kept chatting in their wonderfully thick southern accent, but as angelic as that noise was, the guilt was building in me. I had to let them through.
Naturally, I stepped off to the side to allow them through.
Naturally, they did not go through.
Oh, you’re fine! You’ve been constant, so we’ve been using you as our pacer most of the race. We’ve sat back here chatting, and on occasion we’d look up and say, ‘Where’s the guy in the yellow? We need to find him again.’ Thank you for pacing us today.
Truly a pacers job is never actually done.
The final two miles were possibly the best miles of the race. They were a blend of uphill, and the final section of pavement. Through the misery of uphill running back home…and many nights at the gym learning to “hinge”, I’m pleased to say that I passed more people in the final inclines versus the rest of the race.
The concluding pavement turned into an emotional wash of feels and warm fuzzies. As I came out onto the blacktop, I noticed that I was still feeling somewhat fresh. So…I left the race like I entered…just about straight sprinting into the finish line. Ugly running and all. My final mile was nearly identical to my first in relation to time.
…and somehow…frozen in sweat, soggy clothes, and chicken broth…there was a 45 minute person record for a half marathon awaiting me at the finish line.
Along with two Big Mac’s, two double cheeseburgers, a large fry, and a Dr. Pepper…plus a steaming hot shower.
I think Candice Burt, race director of the Tahoe 200, made the best note a few days ago when she said that races are viewed as celebrations for the work that we’ve put in leading up to the moment. In many ways, this was my celebration. Physically and mentally I did not have any breakdowns. It wasn’t the longest race I wanted, but there was nothing tragic to write home about…except the bacon. That’s a victory in my book, and it gives me a nice, defining, restart leading into 2019.
*Aside from a former Soviet judge, I would have scored a 8.9 on dismount
…speaking of bacon…
If your eyes are already bleeding, please pay no attention to this section and move forward with your life. You deserve it.
If you are looking for more punishment, sadness, and overall insanity of my own mind…keep reading.
The day after The Back 40 I was to head back home to Kansas City. Prior to leaving I had made up my mind to get a ‘fancy’ breakfast on my way out of town. I had earned it, and it would taste better after putting some work in. My wife works at Starbucks, so I am always in the mood to find better coffee shops (because we love to argue). This brought me to the Onyx Coffee Lab in downtown Bentonville, Arkansas.
The decor was exactly what you’d imagine for a millennial-driven concept. Hanging Edison bulbs along the tables, contrasting black and white countertops and tiles. Tattoos and man-buns galore, with at least three church buildings within walking distance on any given Sunday.
I stepped into the building, and walked up to the counter. I did not see a menu, and there was a line forming behind me. The barista was patient, but the sweat on the back of my neck told a story of panic knowing the people behind me were waiting.
So I randomly picked a drink and a sandwich for the road. The drink was to be expected (delicious). The sandwich was toast with avocado on it (I said it was millennial-driven for a reason). They boxed up the toast for me to take on the road. I never opened the box prior to getting in the car.
Twenty miles down the road, with cruise control set on I-49, I opened up the box for my breakfast.
Pickled onions? Yes
Egg? Hard boiled, dropped on top…but yes.
Raw, floppy bacon?
Raw floppy bacon?
RAW. FLOPPY. BACON.
Staring at this food poisoned disaster I was not sure what action to take. I did my best to eat around the raw hog pieces, and enjoy the rest of the bread. However, there was this morbid curiosity about the bacon. What did it taste like? Was it there on purpose? Was this an assassination attempt? I contemplating my life, running, and my hunger for a solid twenty minutes before I decided that, that bacon was there for a reason.
…and I ate it…
…and it had the texture of what I imagined raw bacon to have…
…and I gagged…
…and I finished it.
The rest of the car ride was a game of trying to figure out what food poisoning felt like, and my over zealous mind trying to figure out strategic hospitals along the way home in case it got really rough.
By the point I hit Kansas City I nearing a full meltdown mode in my head. I sent a message to my therapist (she’s around for these exact moments). I explained the situation, trying to calm my anxiety, and not go into a complete panic attack.
The phone stayed silent.
I pulled up their menu. I found your toast. You were stressed at the place, so you did not read the menu. That was not raw bacon, that is called prosciutto. Have you ever had that before?My therapist…who deals with more than she ever should…
After swallowing my pride, I decided to share with story with my wife. Knowing that we grew up in similar households (where that stuff would never be found), I could teach her something new.
Oh. You had prosciutto. You’ve never had it? We sell it at my store…quite a bit actually.My wife…who loves when I’m wrong and she knows something that I do not
Needless to say; after any race I’ll be avoiding the panic of raw, floppy bacon…also known to the fancy folks as prosciutto.
Excuse me. Are you the one who wrote that blog about High Lonesome last year?
It started with tacos.
It always starts with tacos.
These tacos happened to have spicy cabbage and Korean beef tips.
The person asking the question about a blog, 1000 miles away from my own home was a complete stranger to me.
Though not for much longer.
Yeah, that was me. Haha. Hope it doesn’t rain this year. Me? I’ll be all over the place, again.
You would think after a year of the insanity that came with High Lonesome, mountains, a Mazda 3, and weird food items in the middle of the night; nothing would come as a surprise or shock to me this year.
However, like in good fashion and failing to miss a beat, God had a chuckle, and decided to teach me a lesson.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
After learning so many lessons as a volunteer at High Lonesome in 2017, there were some serious upgrades that I needed to make before jaunting back out into the rocky rendition of chaos and calamity.
A few changes*:
Needless to say I was ultra-prepped for my journey. It also helps, as a side note, that I was able to purchase an all wheel drive vehicle before this adventure even started because this time I did not want to consider what lied on the other side of the cliff.
Through communication with the race director (Caleb) and the people in charge of the aid stations (Kelsey and David) I started to put together a solid itinerary of the race, weeks before anything even started.
Schedule of Events:
I’ve learned that with race planning, ADHD, and my overall Spider-sense of chaos, it is best to have a plan weeks in advance.
I forgot to take into consideration the element of humanity.
It was Summit County that reported it first. A hiker had fallen down a mountain. I did not think a ton about it because…I met Adam Campbell, I know Hillary Allen’s story by heart, and it was someone that I did not know. These things happen, right?
High Lonesome reported it next. It wasn’t a hiker, it was a runner, and it wasn’t just a runner, it was Hannah Taylor. It was last year’s female winner of High Lonesome. It was an elite. It was a person. It was real.
It was gone.
Now, in full confession mode, I did not know Hannah personally. I remember her flying by me at St. Elmo last year smiling. I know she was fast, but I can’t make a claim to being her friend.
That does not mean it does not shake me like the rest of the running community.
High Lonesome started to slowly take on a new form to me personally. It was not just a race where I can construct my own written oration of crazy, it was now personified. Internally I no longer wanted to just wing it and laugh it off, it was Hannah’s race, and I should do my absolute best because that’s what everyone else would be doing.
Sounds kind of cheesy coming from a volunteer, right?
12:00 PM Thursday: After staying an eclectic AirBnB the night prior in Colorado Springs; my wife and I journey into the actual mountains on route the High Lonesome. The objective was set, help with what needed to be done to make the race was ready. We stepped** into the shiny high school, and Kelsey immediately put us to work. Our job was relatively simple; the aid stations all had specific locations around the music room. All the aid station supplies were located in the middle of the room, we were given an inventory list of each aid station and just had to make sure it had all of the supplies. Frankly, between inventory experience at Subway for myself and Starbucks for my wife, it was a steady three hours of movement. One of the things that makes this running community so awesome is knowing where the aid station supplies came from. Some of the pieces were from High Lonesome themselves. Others though were items supplied by the race director of Ouray 100, and others were items from Hardrock 100. The concept is simply; people work together in order to make the whole picture better for the entire community. Honestly, it was moving (and felt a lot like home). We chatted with the other helpers. They were real, super runners. In fact, they started talking about CCC, UTMB, NWS, WWW…I got lost in all the different letters flying by. All I know is one of them said, “By the way Sabrina, good job at Hardrock.” Hearing that made me realize something about Sabrina right off the bat…
…she must be awesome because she was able to run the Hardrock 100***!
The trail community reading this understands the hand-to-the-face moment that should have taken place at the moment.
Kelsey, through my moment of dumbness, pulled us together to inform us about a change
to the usual aid station grub for this year. Each aid station was going to have a unique item at their station; Skittles, snack size candy bars, cheese puffs (goodness), etc…She explained that each food item would have an image of Hannah, and a quote from her. All of these specific food items were her favorite things to eat during a race.
I’m not crying, you’re crying.
While working on inventory we kept finding that there were missing water jugs for the aid stations. At least I thought they were missing. It turns out that all 97, 7 gallon water containers were being stored at Andrew’s house in Salida, just waiting for someone to drive over there and start filling them with water.
It was at that moment, in the dry Colorado summer, that I knew those years of wedgies were all worth it. My years of being a football water boy had finally paid off. Kelsey, without missing a beat, sent me to Andrew’s house to fill 97, 7 gallon containers of water for the aid stations.
I was greeted by
Forest Gump when he ran across the United States Andrew. Andrew was the natural man. He looked like he ran forever, nature flourished around him, in fact there were deer that were laying down in the yard next to him…IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS CITY LIKE IT WAS NO BIG DEAL. My wife and I started the long process of removing the plastic label off of each container, each sticker off of the containers mouth, rinsing each container out, filling the container, and sealing the container.
Thank goodness for a clean water hose.
The containers were filled in around two hours. Afterwards I stayed at the house, waiting for the aid station captains to pick up ‘their share’ of the water. If you’re ever curious how to converse with the good people of Salida, put a bunch of water containers in the front yard of a desert town. It does the trick. I shared my stories with twelve people throughout the evening before I disappeared for the night.
Honestly, High Lonesome was started off right where it left off. Doing weird things for good reasons.
It was only at Taco del Gnar that the world started to get strange. A polite woman asked me if I had written a story about High Lonesome last year. Naturally, embarrassingly, I confessed to that sin. She enjoyed it, said her son ran the race, and this year they were in charge of the Antero Aid Station. You read that right, he ran the race last year and came back to volunteer this year. The conversation over tacos resulted in two realities:
9:00 AM Friday: I found myself thoroughly enjoy the God-like power of all wheel drive while cruising into St. Elmo. My wife enjoyed the reality and Chip & Dale scurrying all over the place for fun while I went running. While we parked the car in St. Elmo, I saw Ryan Smith come flying by along the road, easily the first place runner in High Lonesome. I started to trek after him to the aid station to see what was going on, and how he was doing. You can imagine my surprise when my slow, snail, soul-sucking self arrived to the aid station before he did. Confused yet? Me too. I started to chat with the aid station, and that’s when we discovered the critical reality: coming up the trail there is a fork in the road. If you go left you head to Tincup. However, you must stay right to go to Cottonwood Pass and back before moving on to Tincup.
Ryan went directly to Tincup.
Like a nightmare out of Hardrock, we started moving to redirect him. However, our terror was soon wiped away when Ryan came flying up to the station. He had backtracked back to the fork, and corrected his route to St. Elmo. I’m rarely around race leaders (minus that one time I could hear Kaci Lickteig when the rest of the field went the wrong way in Omaha), so seeing Ryan up close was…well…actually…quite normal. He stopped, grabbed some food, and was extremely chill. He laughed with us a bit, decided on some gels, and after some pleasantries he was gone. I would not see Ryan again, and I would only hear of him again when he crossed the finish line in a course record 21:02:59.
Leaving St. Elmo, fearing that my wife had been kidnapped by the cutest creatures on the
planet, I begin my jaunt back to our car in the ghost town. On my way down I found Anthony Lee in second place, and even had the opportunity to give him a fist bump on his way to the aid station. It was those little moments that truly set the tone for the race; sure they were elites, fast, and likely to do crazy awesome things, but they still respected the human condition and were willing to take those few seconds to smile while on their own journey.
The runners were High Lonesome.
12:00 PM Friday: After freeing my wife from her fuzzy kidnappers (she was a great hostage, so kind), we began the trek to Hancock. Last years memory recalls the rain, the narrow road, and the Mazda 3. We were obviously free of two wheel drive, and it wasn’t raining, and frankly…the road wasn’t that bad in all comparison. We rolled into the quiet
world of Hancock, unknowing that in a few hours it would look like a small town football game on a Friday night.
However, with the downtime prior to setup, it gave me an opportunity to do something that I was so super nervous about; actually running on the trail. Because it was Hancock, and because my timing is impeccable, it started the raining the moment I started down the trail. It rained on me the whole time, giving me a glimpse of the misery for the runners from last year (no wonder they were so cranky). Personally though, it was a perfect blend of excitement and terror. I had never tried to run that high in the mountains, I had never tried to disappear on a trail by myself in the mountains (it was safe), and for one split second I allowed myself to be a bit reckless…and I let myself imagine what it’s like coming down this trail into that mile 48 aid station. It was only 3 miles, but after this summer and all the weird health stuff, it was my reminder that dreams still exist to be accomplished.
I came back into the aid station to the volunteers covering themselves in glitter and neon
I kid you not.
They decided that ‘rave’ was the theme of the aid station, and hey…I ACTUALLY GO TO RAVES!
With glitter in my beard, mushrooms
consumed painted on my face, and my actually raving shirt from a Krewella rave months ago; I was ready to bounce my way through Hancock for the night.
My instructions were simple; all I had to do was park cars. Personally, I loved this because it gave me an opportunity to interact with the crew members of all of the runners. Something I have a slight, morbid obsession with. Each crew team that came through were cheerful, energized, and extremely friendly. A few remembered me from the year prior, one asked where my red jacket was, and another was curious why I wasn’t running (har…har…har…). As I continued to pack in the vehicles, I started to notice that the vehicles were not leaving in a rush. Literally, the road to Hancock began to look more like a major sports event (minus that one drunken, 45 year old man who thinks that the coach should have put him in back in ’85 to win state…just me instead). Hancock was getting packed at the actual aid station. While this was all taking place a car had been parked just next to my own. The runners/crew/humans were throwing a ball for a dog up the mountain.
The next thing I knew was one of them coming up to me with a bag of cookies…
Hey. We got into our junk food stash, want some cookies?
Like I’m declining that offer.
As we conversed over the hour, I started to learn more about the two then I could have ever imagined. While the primary race of High Lonesome was indeed a bunch of people sniveling, crying, and snot-rocketing their way through the mountains, there was also a relay going on at the same time, on the same course.
Yes, dearest reader, there was a relay race at High Lonesome. I’ll never have flashbacks of my high school coach looking for a fill for the 4×1600 meter race ever again. Why the relay? Those in the relay were all friends of Hannah, and they were running the course in her memory with her bib that she was to have during this race. They were some of her closest friends, and it was a challenge to keep it together listening to the story. Each pair ran 25 miles a piece. The first pair was struggling, not because of the terrain or the course, but because of the reality. Just knowing that of these rugged movers was heartbreaking in its own right.
As time drew near for the trade off, the two went over the aid station, and had a small request for myself and my wife at the vehicles. Would we watch their dog? I am not a dog person, but I really like people in Colorado, so inherently my answer was a resounding yes. The dog was chill, and his name was Saco.
I had no idea that Saco would be the mascot of the race.
I had no idea that Saco had been recently adopted by the two I was talking to.
I had no idea that Saco had a history of some stroke-like symptoms that caused his face to droop a little bit in the cutest way.
I had no idea that Saco had been Hannah’s dog for years.
I had no idea that I could draw close to a dog (especially after being nipped at, at the actual aid station by another dog).
Saco just laid down in the shade, drank some water, and watched the world go by. I
couldn’t resist by to scratch his head and just remind him that he’s a good boy. He helped me park cars for about an hour, and also find Rick Mayo of Mile 90 Photography, before the rest of the relay team came back to the car.
After departing from Saco and from parking duty (still proud of that), I hiked back to Hancock to see absolute insanity in the best possible way. The sun was setting, the air was getting rather chilly, and people were sitting in chairs, standing on rocks, or wandering into the woods waiting on their runner (I am so sorry for that poor soul that I spotlighted around 9:00 PM in the woods, you were very sneaky). When each athlete finally came in, Hancock erupted with cheers and screams. You honestly would have thought that the finish line was right in front of you. That’s where I met the man that I would refer to as “Taco & Tequila” for the rest of the race. He looked excellent at Hancock. Meaning, he looked pretty rough. However, a conversation about Korean Beef Tip Tacos at Taco del Gnar with a beer after the race sounded appealing enough that he left for his next leg (that or it was so nauseating that he just wanted to get away from me…I have that gift). Heather came into Hancock also, a bit cold, but in good spirits. I found out much later, like after the race, that she had signed up for this race partly because of last years report (meaning, she’s a glutton for punishment). An hour of bottles being filled, runners being chatted with, and a handful of social miscues on behalf of myself, and I labeled Hancock a success.
I bid my farewell to the station, and began my long trip to Monarch Pass with a simple thought of fact in my head:
The crew members were High Lonesome.
12:00 AM Saturday: There are a few things that are guaranteed in life; death, taxes, and bowel movements. Last year I had the great fortune of stumbling across a bathroom in the middle of the night in Poncha Springs on route to Monarch Pass. Obviously, like any other time, I had high hopes of the same low point in my life. My wife, half asleep, delirious, and questioning why on earth this was a ‘cool thing to do’ for an anniversary (love you), sat shotgun as I wheeled up my beloved Shell.
Only to learn that hours of operations had changed (times are tough), and the store…and bathrooms…were closed.
While my insides continued to die, we made haste to Monarch Pass. There really wasn’t a plan at the pass, just a chance to get some rest before our next stop at Blanks Cabin.
Wheeling into Monarch, there were two things that were immediately noticeable; the fact that it was freezing cold with wind, and also the stars in the sky. Last year Monarch as a foggy mess of depression and poor choices (both for runners and for myself). This year the sky graced us with its own light during the middle the passing night. I could see the stars, the Milky Way, Venus, Mars, and just about everything else out there (except Sputnik…I don’t want to see Sputnik). The moment, short lived, was a clear reminder of why we come out and do stupid things in the woods. It’s for the moment where the world, the self, and the universe connects together between chattering teeth and Ramen Noodles. After checking in with “Rock” at the aid station, I popped the seats down in the back of our vehicle, pulled up my quilt, wool blanket, 500 pillows, sleeping bag, and hunkered down for a quick sleep.
I never slept.
First, the theory of car camping is solid. However, if you don’t have something comfortable to lay on between you and the framing of that car, the ridge from the seat will give you a reason to visit your chiropractor upon your return to civilization.
Second, we were in a parking lot. Each time a crew members vehicle parked, the lights came through the window. I opened my eyes to realize that with the stars I was finally being abducted, or it was just another random DUI checkpoint.
Reality is this; the natural world, stars, planets, moons combined in the stillness of night…that’s High Lonesome.
6:00 AM Saturday: After a drive on a ‘road’ that would make the road to Hancock blush, we found ourselves in the isolated aid station of Blanks Cabin. There was no cabin, it was just a few tents and plenty of cows. At mile 82 this is when the runners start to get a crazier look in their face then usual.
Blanks was absolutely one of the most incredible aid stations I have seen in some time. Check this out, the kitchen area was ran by a guy who owned a restaurant and a guy who just enjoyed serving people (never being around an ultra in his life). They volunteers outside of the kitchen were roaming about pestering runners, and it all led up to the captain; Emily.
Fun fact about Emily: Prior to moving to Colorado, she lived and ran in the Kansas City/Lawrence area. In fact, she ran with the same people I currently run with back home, before heading west.
Emily is absolutely insane.
Emily, when not running, jumps out of planes and tries to break world records with lots of other people jumping out of planes. When Emily is running, she has a tendency to get “trench foot” while running, and also has a history of picking up a lost calf and carrying it back to its mother during the race.
I. Kid. You. Not.
Emily had an unofficial 10 minute timer before she “kicked you out” of the aid station, and was adamant about throwing a no hitter in relation to no drops at her aid station.
Ladies and gentlemen; I would like to introduce you to Trail Nerds/Mud Babes/Trail Hawks West led by Emily. It was a slice of home…10,000 feet up.
The runners started trickling in before the
plague convoy group of crew members really descended (ascended) to Blanks. Nothing brings more joy to me then getting to belt out, “Bring out yer dead!” at 6:30 AM when a runner is coming into an aid station. Alex (kitchen) was the master of breakfast burritos (because…ultras…because…running…because…Colorado) made to order for the runners. You read that right, we were yelling out orders like a little restaurant while Alex was cooking. Crew members were already crying, runner had been crying (for miles), and the aid station crew was there keeping tabs, writing down numbers, and making sure everyone was attended to. Honestly, I had a hard differentiating between this event and the recovery from a natural disaster (I’ve done both for the record), minus the fact that people paid for this event. This included finding Taco & Tequila having the time of his life. In fact, he was having so much fun that he almost made an error that he would have never forgotten. With a smile, he looked at me and said…
You should pace me in.
Dearest reader; there are bad ideas and there are ideas that are so bad that they appear great. My gear was in my car a 1/4 mile away. In fact, because of my packing, I actually had all the mandatory gear in my pack. I had my shoes already on, and my running pants already on. If I wasn’t so adamant about getting him out of the aid station, I would have done it. That’s my confession; I would have gladly paced that last 18 miles. It would have been a horrible, horrible idea on so many levels. However, the waivers were at the aid station and my gear was checked.
I let him move on without me. The second year I turned down a pacing opportunity during this race (and the second year a pacer didn’t become stranded at High Lonesome). Also, I was still reeling from the crew member that looked at her runner earlier in the morning and said (after he laid down when he came in), “Oh? You just needed some time with your kiddie blanket to feel better now?”
The cutoff at this aid station was 2:30 PM. I had gone out on the trail to walk a few runners into the station to keep them moving because it was beginning to get hot. Threw ice on a runner (seriously Colorado…it’s called boob ice!), and by 2:20 PM we were missing one runner. Emily looked at me, strapped a cowbell on my neck, and said, “Go find him!” while I took off running into the woods for my third trail run of the entire race.
He was just moving at his own pace, on route, and he looked great. His story was one that will divide people, but at the same time bring about this amazing sense of joy. He ran the race last year, and completed it in those nasty conditions. This year, he came back from Georgia, and signed up a week prior to the race. His friends were already entered. The concept was for him to run with his friends through the whole race. Georgia is different from Colorado. At one point he waited 45 minutes for them at an aid station early in the race. Unfortunately, altitude sickness got to both of them and they dropped, leaving him behind schedule and alone. He kept moving though without concern, and without a single regret. He left our aid station with 4 minutes to spare. Some could argue that his idea wasn’t bright and selfless doesn’t equal success, but he truly did not care. His friends waited for him at Blanks, and got him back out. That moment of selflessness echoed through the whole aid station.
Georgia was High Lonesome.
4:00 PM Saturday: In a barren field up the grueling, cruel, paved hill from Princeton Springs sat the start/finish line. Through the dust and wind, we arrived at the end of our High Lonesome journey. Runners were coming in left and right; blisters and tears were scattered throughout the worn resting in chairs. Chili was being served with Laws Whiskey on the side. Start/Finish wasn’t a place for the survivors this year, it was the place of the winners, the runners, and the joy of the sport.
David from Golden Mountain Runners (GMR) met me there with the BOCO GMR hat that I so desperately had wanted since unofficially adopting myself into their running group. Buzzing with a porter, Laws, and a few amazing cookies I just took in the entire moment. The kissing, hugging, photos, and stories. This was it. This was exactly where I wanted to be at the exact moment. I wanted to see the finish, the finishers, the fight, the emotion, and I wanted to mentally record it for my own dark times. Their stories and their images would be my fuel for my adventures.
Eventually, the reality of what had gone on in my own body started to emerge. I exhaustion began to set in, and I realized that I still had two hours to get back to Colorado Springs for a shower, food, and a place to sleep. I said goodbye to Caleb, Kelsey, David, Lauren, Anthony and the list really could go on for hours. I was leaving a family reunion that I actually wanted to stay at.
Driving out of the field and getting ready to turn onto the road, I pulled a KeKe and jumped out of our moving vehicle. Heather, whom I had seen at Hancock and Blanks, was 200 meters away from the finish line. She was moving, and that’s what counted. I had told her crew that I would be at the finish line for a while. I gave her a hug, said how proud I was to see her do something amazing, and then got out of the way. It was her race to finish.
An hour later, cruising through the rain heading into Colorado Springs, I sent Caleb and Kelsey a quick message. Thanking them for allowing me to hang out and create chaos with a purpose throughout the race.
Caleb replied first. He stated that I should have gotten a High Lonesome edition bottle of whiskey for my work.
It was a super kind gesture.
I replied back:
No worries about the bottle. Let me earn it 😉
Even though I never knew her; I’m pretty sure that’s what Hannah would have wanted.
She is High Lonesome.
For the new reader; we left off on this random adventure of nonsense with a trip to the emergency room, Troponin, and chest pains. After four and half hours of entertaining nurses with unstoppable word vomit (I am so sorry to the University of Kansas Emergency Room), I was informed that I would be seeing a cardiologist and have a stress test done in mid-July.
Reminder from the rules of the previous post:
Rule 2: Yes, you do have to go get a stress test in July. That will cover anything else that may have been missed.
Oh, if only life was that easy. Granted, I had been restricted on my activities up until my followup on July 9th. This meant that I only had to survive the Night Hawk 50K, not actually run in it for 2018. It also meant going a little stir crazy, really embracing the ADHD, making a ton of origami cranes*, and making random trips to Colorado.
No big deal.
I had two objectives in relation to my health:
In an early morning, fighting the traffic of Johnson County, Kansas (bring on “the 405” world), I stumbled into the Mid-America Cardiology Office at Overland Park, Kansas. I was the youngest in the room by 50 years, and I wore all my running gear because I was told I was going to get a treadmill.
Being nervous I walked into the room, and started the process…
Go ahead and step on the scale.
*Reads 260.5 pounds*
*Steps off scale*
*Cries on the inside*
The nurse and I stepped into the cold medical room of a flat table, one-ply paper on the bed that would be a God-sent if you needed as toilet paper after 40 miles…but only then, and she started with the standard routine.
Checking blood pressure.
So she checked the blood pressure.
So she got quiet.
So I stared off into space.
So this was the most awkward date I had, had in years.
155/105. Is your blood pressure usually this high?
Ha! If you think that’s high, you should have seen it in the emergency room when it was 163/137!
*Nurse walks away*
I sat in the room alone, fidgeting, trying to understand why these rooms always feel so cold, listening to my heart, and trying to figure out if I could get in the miles I wanted during the week.
That’s when the doctor came in.
I thought that the doctor was a cardiologist (ignorance is bliss people), but later I would learn it was a PA (physicians assistant). She gave me a quick look, looked at my chart, and said…possibly…one of the most awkward things I’ve heard in quite some time…
Shawn. Do you understand with this kind of blood pressure you are on the cusp of being at high risk for a stroke?
We’re going to get you started on some blood pressure medication today.**
So I got quiet.
So she left.
So I felt sick.
So, in my running singlet, this was the second most awkward date I’ve had in years.
After I stepped out of the office with my prescription and schedule for the real stress test (because somehow that wasn’t it), I did what any normal person would do after being diagnosed with high blood pressure as an ultramarathon runner at the age of 30…
I went and got a shake, two cookies, and nearly lost it at the gym that I train at because I was emotionally devastated.
Yes, even as a sub-par, daydreaming athlete, I felt broken. Also, because of the time between the medication and the stress test, every day felt like a ticking time bomb. However, there were so many people that found themselves frequently calming me down, showing me articles of ultramarathon runners who are on high blood pressure medication, and I even started to get random, vegan cookbooks in the mail from friends elsewhere in the United States.
The world was telling me to eat broccoli, and hope that I would survive.
I kept running with the new medication in me. There were no to very little side effects, but the toll it took on my brain was extensive. Medication is new to me, something that doesn’t happen too often, and after a stellar month of running in June, July was slowing down and quickly turning into the summer from hell (no pun intended in relation to the heat in Kansas City during this time). I made some adjustments to my diet (DASH, yay!), and counted down the days until my stress test.
Results: Objective 1 ended like a dumpster fire you find with MLB baseball teams (or at least their trash cans in their parking lot).
I had dialed down the miles, focused on yoga and strength, and enjoyed frequent meals of hay. Sure, it was only two weeks since the blood pressure medication started, but after a round of panic attacks, I was feeling solid. Heat running scared me, but like any good runner…I wasn’t dead…yet.
The stress test comprised of three specific tests: echocardiogram, treadmill stress test, and a nuclear heart scan. The catch was no caffeine for a day before the test, no food from midnight on to the test…allow me to repeat that…a runner was not permitted to eat between midnight and the test at 9:15 AM. People! I almost died of starvation (and they almost died of me being hangry).
For this stress test I waltzed into the office ready to slay anything before me. I was rocking my Run 816 singlet, BOCO hat, and my 6″ compression Ruhn Co. shorts (shout out to the 93 year old that couldn’t take their eyes off of me! Again…I am so sorry).
I can say, looking back, that I would never wish a stress test on anyone. It’s, well, stressful. They started by making me feel like I was expecting and was in my final trimester by smothering me with the gel that you see with ultrasounds, and running through an echocardiogram.
The technicians were silent. The only time they spoke to me was when the needed me to breathe, hold my breath, breathe normal, let some air at, get some air in, etc…
It wasn’t the Simon Says that made my hyperventilate, it was seeing my heart beat on a screen, and watch people do their jobs…silently.
I was convinced something was up.
After an hour of that out-of-body experience I finally got my treadmill. Now, a friend of mine that runs ultras (like, actually runs them) had been on the treadmill test before. Meaning one simple thought…
…I have to beat her on the treadmill.
After the kind folks hooked up all the cables on me (while shaving a smiley face into my
chest hair), they allowed the newest version of Doc Ock to step onto the treadmill.
The rule was simple: I had to keep track of where I was on the pain chart. They started me moving slow and at an incline. Every three minutes the treadmill will automatically speed up and increase in elevation.
Basically, I was running hill repeats and I was rather giddy. I started pounding the rubber while they kept looking at my vitals, and checking my blood pressure. It was crazy hard (remember, no food since midnight), but I lasted a solid 15 minutes on the device. I maxed out at a 204 HR (104% of my max HR), and a blood pressure of 200/100 (the only time that is normal is while conducting strenuous activity, as the poor lady had to remind me…frequently). I also set a course record on the treadmill for the amount of sweat left on the device after finishing. No regrets.
Directly after the test they shot a nuclear isotope into my body, giving me the strength of The Hulk (missing the intellect of Bruce Banner though), and set me up in the machine to watch that particle move through my body. I fell asleep.
I started this whole process at 8:00 AM. I was completely finished with everything by 3:00 PM. That gives you an idea of the duration of the full order of an echocardiogram, stress test, nuclear heart scan, and blood panel. Afterwards, a scheduler set me up with my next appointment to go over the results with a cardiologist.
Results: Something was fishy with the echocardiogram, and the salad shop just down the road was a disappointing lunch.
I so wish the story ended right there, but trust me…things are about to get even stranger…
I was first scheduled for the next Wednesday to go over the results. On Tuesday I was told that I need to see an actual cardiologist (because I wasn’t going to this time either?), so they moved me to the next Wednesday. On Wednesday, while at my parents house, I received a call again from the department. I was informed that they were needing to change my appointment again. Becoming a little more confident in my patient rights I asked what was going on for all of this to happen.
The. Next. Statement.
Shawn. Looking at your information, we need you to see a cardiologist because your tests had some questions in them.
Your coronary arteries are hardening, so you’ll need to get in to see what options…including heart surgery…may exist to get this addressed.
Go ahead. Reread that quote again.
What you’re telling me is that even though I ran a 50 mile race last September, even though I ran a 50K mountain race in June, even though I climbed a mountain a month prior to this…my arteries are hardening?
You can only imagine what my search history on Google looked like for hours after that. Like any decent human I panicked, and spent the day problem solving, learning about stents, reading articles about ultrarunners and blocked arteries, and trying to get a grasp on what was going on. I went from training, running like crazy, to sitting in my car thinking about heart surgery. It was that fast.
The race director of The Hawk 100 suggested that I call the cardiologist for more information (shoutout to her for being an awesome mother over the past month). I called and left a message, directly after telling my administration of my school I may have heart surgery during the school year.
At 4:30 PM, while trying to process all of this with my wife, the phone rang. I answered it because I thought it was a friend that I had just spoken with about heart attacks, and overall cardiovascular health.
It was a nurse from the cardiologist office. Her name was Mary, and she asked what was going on that had me worried about my meeting with the doctor.
I gave her the story.
Shawn, I am so sorry. We do not even have your test results back. It would be impossible to give you that kind of information. I am so, so sorry. I have some of your information here from the blood work and the stress test. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, so let me take a look at a few things because that does not make sense.
Shawn, you there? Great. Listen, your blood panels are perfect. What information I have from your echocardiogram shows a very healthy heart. I can’t imagine your fear, but know that what we’re looking at shows that you are very healthy.
The conversation lasted a few more minutes, lowering my blood pressure (HA!) in the process. I was able to sleep that night, soundly, for the first time in three weeks…after I had to go back and tell everyone that had been tracking me that it was all a clerical error.
I woke up the next morning, Friday, to another phone call from the cardiologist. They felt horrible about the mistake made, so instead of me waiting a week to see him, they were wondering if I would like to come in within the next hour.
I was out the door.
I met with Dr. Dak Burnett from the University of Kansas Cardiovascular Health. He’s in his late 50’s, early 60’s I’d guess? When he walked in he wanted to know what went on with the scheduler and the ‘hardening of the arteries’, so I repeated the story. They had long since launched an investigation into the phone call and discovered that someone had read me the results of another patient.
After getting that out of the way; Dr. Burnett hopped right into the facts:
Your echocardiogram was abnormal during your tests. If you were a 70 year old woman who didn’t move, we’d be prepping you for surgery because of your heart. However, because of your background, you are on the opposite end of the bell curve in relation to heart health.
Your heart is enlarged, but not just the muscle tissue that gets many people in trouble. Everything is enlarged, including your coronary arteries. What this means is you ‘idle’ lower than the average person. It requires less strokes from your heart to move the same blood through your body. We would compare you to an elite soccer player because of this, and if the department existed, we would be tempted to move you to sports cardiology. It’s a fascinating heart, and it has evidently adapted for what you do with the miles you log.
I kind of felt proud.
Overall, if someone did not know my background as a runner, the tests would have been off substantially, raising flags in the process. However, because of the amount of running that I do, my heart has adapted to that environment, and displays on tests that it happens to be extremely efficient.
I have zero heart issues. My sodium levels, cholesterol levels, self esteem levels were all right where they should be.
That was the first area of discussion.
The next piece was the blood pressure. I had been on Norvasc for three weeks at this point, and it had not put a dent in my blood pressure (still 150/96). Obviously, this is still a massive problem because a 31 year old should not be walking around with that kind of blood pressure. The doctor put me on Losartan along with Norvasc. It’s also a very friendly “runner drug”, but staying hydrated is super important because of what it can do to your kidneys.
I brought up the weight with him also because no one made a comment of…well…I weigh a lot!
Could you lose weight? I guess? If you want to? No one talked to you about it because you can run 40 miles at 260 pounds. Also, you could change your diet, weight, sodium intake, etc…your blood pressure is not going to be affected by those changes.
This one is 100% genetics, and you’ll be on these drugs for the rest of your life.
Fun fact about this doctor; he’s a hiker. He hikes things like the Andes Mountains, and backpacks across entire countries. It was such a relief to hear that about him, because he’s active enough in an extreme sense that he understands my own
Before stepping out I asked if there were any restrictions to activity. His words made my day:
Go run your ultras.
I left his office and drove straight to the gym to share the information.
I ran just under 6 miles that night.
I ran 4 more two days later.
That’s the most miles I put together in three days in over a month.
Training for my next 50K starts next Monday.
Moral to the story: Sounds cliche, but seriously, if you are doing something considered an ‘extreme sport’ by the rest of the world (be honest people), get yourself checked out by a doctor just to make sure everything is functioning as it should.
*I made zero cranes.
**This is the first time in my life that I have ever been given a prescription.
Do you want to kill yourself? Do you want to harm yourself?*
Yes, that is how you start out any interesting story that connects somehow, someway to strange world of trail running and all the insanity that comes with it.
I need to preface prior to the waterfall of thoughts, beliefs, and poor choices to state that I am not a medical professional (and the world is a slightly better place because of that). Everything that I am typing comes from personal experience (over the past 48 hours) that I firmly believe highlights the actual risk that is associated with our sport today.
Without further ado…let’s talk about breaking my heart…
First, let’s begin with a confession. I am competitive. Mentally at least, physically is more like a daydream on the days that I forget my medication. Internally though I am competitive. Even during strength class, when required to carry kettlebells like a jug of moonshine from down south down the street and back…yes, I wanted to complete it first. I am opening my heart, soul, and fears to confess that as a trail runner internally I am competitive.
Because of that, and my lack of experience, knowledge, skill, hopes, dream, etc…I tend to want to rush everything to ‘catch up’ with everyone else. However, the fun part of trail running, especially the endurance races, is that isn’t how it works. Patience, grace, and humility tend to be the building blocks of success.
I tend to miss those blocks, step on them in the middle of the night, and then wonder why we didn’t just replace the world’s landmines with Lego’s instead.
I am a teacher in my other life. That means the summers are designed for a time to recharge, refresh, and more importantly…run. The month of June this year was just littered with all sorts of new opportunities for me. Whether that was running the North Fork 50K, climbing around Quandary Peak, fishing in the Missouri heat, or learning that raves at night clubs have dress codes…I was moving around the nation literally the day after school got out.
Here’s the kicker to all of that though…
I never stopped.
I told myself that I would “recover” after North Fork by fishing and camping an entire weak in 90 degree heat in southern Missouri. The recovery from that trip would be me attempting (and failing) to climb my first 14er in Colorado the following weekend. Finally, the ease back into ‘reality’ I would not do anything strenuous for a while, I would just go to a rave, and finish the month with another 50K. Granted, to make sure I wasn’t too lax throughout the month I had yoga, a yoga mala, strength class, ab class, Monday run nights, Friday speed sessions, and all sorts of goodies in-between.
The knowledgeable, experienced runners know exactly where this story is going by now.
Two nights ago, on another normal Monday night run, I went running with my friends (yes, they are real). The final mile I was feeling spunky (because it was only 80 degrees, not the standard 1000 degrees outside), and in turn I dramatically** picked up the pace.
Dramatically: Going from a comfortable 16 minute pace down to a 10 minute pace and holding it for nearly a mile on single track.
Upon finishing my attempt at the land speed record (and likely causing the seismograph in the community to go off) I slowed down and walked out for some fresh air. That’s when I noticed my chest hurt. Yes, seriously, it felt like I had a cramp in my chest near the center. I laughed it off (freaked out internally) and went to dinner. At dinner I had a classic meltdown in front of the people at the table (so sorry!), and talked about my concern. They were all super chill.
I went to bed that night and woke up the next morning. The dull ache was still there (this is where the medical folks reading this go, “You’re an idiot!”), but I decided to go to yoga because I couldn’t figure out the different between a physical issue, anxiety, and a panic attack. After too many namaskars to count, a ton of sweat, and a moment of relaxation broken up by a Harley Davidson zooming away (to another country? Too soon?) I made the comment that the cramping, dull pain was still there…except that it was a little further to the left.
The next comment, I kid you not…
Go ahead and get in my car. We’re going to go get you checked out at urgent care. Actually…we’re going to the ER.
Now, this comment came from a person with medical background, someone very knowledgeable, and likely someone who did not want to perform CPR on my gangling, pasty body. I didn’t question, I just followed.
I could tell you the story of being in the ER, but solely off my writing style I’m certain you
can imagine what kind of dumpster fire that was. My blood pressure was through the roof, they couldn’t get me calmed down, and I could not shut up. Frankly, it was less like a hospital visit, and more like the final 5 minutes before a race starts.
After two EKG’s (heart stuff), a blood pressure cuff that freaked me out, two blood tests, a bag of IV fluids, being asked at least 10 times if I wanted to kill myself, and a really creepy lady named Betty (psych eval); I was out of the hospital by 12:30 AM this morning.
I went in at 8:00 PM last night.
Thankfully all of the signs for a cardio moment, like a heart attack, were negative. In fact almost everything looked rather healthy. However, there was one indicator on the blood work that caught the attention of all three doctors, nurse, and creepy Betty (you had to be there) was this stuff called Troponin. There was an amount of it that was found within the blood tests. Troponin is a protein enzyme that should stay in your heart, not the rest of your body. It is a protein that helps your heart contract when it is going through the beating process. If you have some sort of heart injury, heart attack, cardiovascular failure, Troponin can show up in your blood work.
It showed up in mine.
I was hooked to an IV, and practically told to chill. The results from everything else were not indicative of a heart attack. However, with that protein floating around, something was obviously amiss somewhere. After the IV was finished they ran the results again; the Troponin levels were back to normal. According to the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, if Troponin levels continue to stay elevated for days (10-14) it can indicate a heart attack has taken place. However, if the numbers drop there is a strong consideration of another piece in play.
Once the head doctor got my story of what I do with my free time (hehe), and started looking at the charts, everything was coming into focus. While preliminary (stress test ordered for next month), his thoughts are that I overexerted myself over the past month. Imagine your body being dehydrated for an entire month, imagine not taking legitimate rest days for an entire month, now you’re starting to see the same picture he was seeing.
The reality is that I pushed my heart, along with all other muscles, too far, too fast, and this was the result. Yes, I did injury my heart in this process. No, it was not a heart attack. Yes, it can result in a quick recovery if
you I play by the rules.
Rule 1: No, you cannot go run the Night Hawk 50K this Saturday. The doctor indicated that by crossing his arms in the form of an “X” and saying, “Times three.”
Rule 2: Yes, you do have to go get a stress test in July. That will cover anything else that may have been missed.
Rule 3: No, you cannot run or do strenuous activities prior to the stress test. You need to rest.
Rule 4: Yes, those closest to you will kill you if you try to violate any rules mentioned above.
Rule 5: Learn to rest.
For the experienced runner much of this information above is redundant and a whole lot of ‘duh’. However, for the rest of us I really do think it is a crucial lesson. I did not get an advantage over other people, I did not ‘up my game’ on the trails, and yes I did hurt myself in the process. The good news is that I am surrounded by knowing individuals who repeatedly keep me from making really bad choices, or at least are there to pick up the pieces afterwards.
It is easy to get excited, wrapped up in the fun, and in some cases make stupid ideas because they result in hilarious stories. At the same time, there is a fine line between trying new things and causing harm to yourself and your passion.
For once, even with a smile, let this be my lesson so that I can run further next time.
*I learned that it is common for people with heart attacks to sometimes feel lousy before the incident and become extremely depressed. Hence the constant checking.
**For humor purposes; 16 minute mile to a 10 minute mile…that’s dramatic in my world
I have learned of a few sayings in the trail running community over the span of the past two years:
The mountains are calling, I must go
Not all who wander, are lost
I am pleased to share that after studying each saying, reflecting on them with
granola crunchy hipsters trail runners, and dreaming of the cliche world of tattoos with these sayings on my wrist, back, foot, and heart…that I have come to a solid conclusion:
Both of these sayings are just traps set by higher powers in order to snare humans into despair, misery, and quite possibly death…or worse…all three.
Our story begins within the confinements of Arc’teryx. No, this is not a French statue, nor is it alphabet soup. Instead it represents some weird, dead bird-animal-thing that would make Jurassic Park blush if they knew how evil it truly was. In 2018 the dead bird-animal-thing has taken on an even scarier presence for people like myself; an outdoor clothing store. It was here, within the center of Denver, Colorado that I ran into two people that should have immediately been my indicator that I was in the mix of bad company, and eventual poor choices:
While chowing down on a burger** after hearing Adam speak about his endeavors and remarkable recovery, with Caleb, Kelsey, the manager of Arc’teryx, the winner of the 2017 High Lonesome 100 (Anthony Lee), my wife, and other random people throughout the region, I began to wonder if we’re all connected through bad ideas, good beer, and uplifting stories of perseverance.
Translation: I was near several insane people at the same time that can easily give way to an awesome opportunities to make some really stupid choices.