Bighorn 100 (48)

The first climb up out of the Tongue River Canyon, and the heat, on the Bighorn 100.

The first climb up out of the Tongue River Canyon, and the heat, on the Bighorn 100.

 “I found that when I’m ground down to a fine dust physically, my mental excitement and passion for running dwindles,” – Mike Wolfe, professional ultra runner and former Bighorn 100 record holder, quoted in “Running on Empty”

The Bighorn 100 is a classic mountain ultra race that takes place in the Bighorn Mountains of north central Wyoming. The course is an out-and-back, meaning you run roughly 48 miles out to a certain point, then turn around and re-trace your steps all the way to the beginning, and add a few miles of running down a dirt road to land you in the town park where the finish line and festivities are, as well as round out the number of miles run at exactly 100. The course is rugged and remote. The vast majority of aid stations along the route have to be packed in by horse, as there is no road access. Although it is not designated as wilderness, the areas run through are waaaay out there. And while the course profile doesn’t make it look quite as hard as many other famous mountain ultras, the roughness of the track along the way more than makes up for its apparent lack of vertical.

I found myself toeing the start line of the 2015 running of the Bighorn 100 for basically one single reason: to gain a qualifier for the Hardrock Hundred, another ultra adventure that happens to take place around my home in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The Bighorn 100 is one of the few races tough enough to be included on the list of qualifiers that an aspirant must complete in order to gain access to the lottery for entry into Hardrock. All that said, I was dreading the painful experience that I knew was to come, while trying to tell myself I was up for the challenge.

The race began at 11:00 am on a Friday morning in the blazing sun of the hottest day yet this year. The roughly 330 runners and their attending friends, family, crews, pacers, etc. all huddled in massive piles of humanity beneath the few shade trees near the start as the sun beat down on the dry earth around us. Nervous, bubbly anticipation coursed through just about everyone’s veins. Strategies were discussed, the plea for the race to just start already was often heard, and worries about the hot weather were frequently expressed. Eventually the time to start had come, and we all lined up and began our respective individual adventures, all in each other’s wonderful company.

The awesome single track in the Tongue River Canyon.

The awesome single track in the Tongue River Canyon.

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Jemez Mountain 50

Mile 10ish of the Jemez Mountain 50 mile course. Still feeling good... Elizabeth Riley photo.

Mile 10ish of the Jemez Mountain 50 mile course. Still feeling good… Elizabeth Riley photo.

“Go toward your fears.”Dean Potter

“The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything.” – Chogyam Trungpa, Shambhala

After twenty miles of technical, rocky trail running at the Jemez Mountain 50 mile race in Los Alamos, New Mexico, this past Memorial Day weekend, I realized that this race was probably not going to end the way that I wanted it to. Although at that time I still felt relatively good, I was obviously slowing down. This fact wasn’t observed by marking split times on my watch, but instead by the steady stream of runners passing me one-by-one and slowly pulling away into the distance. For the first four hours I had run fast and strong near the front of the pack, but with my position continually declining and over 30 miles of running left to go, I could see that this race had all the makings of a classic death-march.

A “Death-March” in an ultra-running race is the very unpleasant effect of having not correctly paced yourself for the distance you are trying to cover, and thus reaching a point of physical degeneration that is exquisitely painful and can seem to persist just about forever. It is a condition from which there is no recovery, until you choose to quit moving and sit down, that is. Running long distances inevitably causes muscular damage, and running faster causes the damage to happen sooner. Muscles break down and begin to tighten up. Tight muscles cause limited mobility, ruining proper running form. A heap of accumulated miles induces pain – in the joints, in the connective tissue, and in the muscles themselves if they start to cramp. Add the pain and the limited mobility together and you get an ever-decreasing running speed, until running stops being an option and you are simply walking. But even at a walk the pain doesn’t leave, it persists as strongly as ever, and the amount of time you must endure to the finish only increases as your pace gets slower and slower. Staring down a trail that is twenty miles long, that will take a seeming eternity to finish, with jolts of pain at every step and smarter runners jogging past making you look silly… This is the Death-March.

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Seek Adventure

Island Lake and the peaks of the Ice Lakes Traverse in the distance.

Island Lake and the peaks of the Ice Lakes Traverse in the distance.

wow, haven’t posted in a while. Here is a story that I wrote in my journal about an adventure last summer…

 

“Seek Adventure” – Micah Dash, Alpinist

Death beckons me as I look between my legs at the empty space below. That’s why I’m here in the first place. A man died up here a few days ago. He was an ultrarunner, a brother who takes inspiration from these mountains the way that I do. I had never met him, but his death of course saddened me. I ran up here to the ridge crest above the Ice Lakes to see where he had died. And to think about death.

For about the last year I have worn a bracelet on my left wrist composed of a string of tiny skulls carved by hand out of yak bone. I bought it in Namche Bazaar in Nepal, on a cloudy and rainy day. At the time I was reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which inspired me to spend quite a bit of time contemplating the nature of death.

When people say things like, “I was contemplating the nature of death,” our culture usually reacts by thinking that they are prone to committing suicide. Our culture, to me anyway, seems to be in no way curious about death, instead we are neurotically afraid of it. It seems that at our most fundamental level our culture strives to be entirely deathless–we will do anything to fight against our own and other people’s death. The Tibetan Book of the Dead instead taught me that death is another step in the process that is life, a transformative step. It told me that there is opportunity in death, there is a moment when our souls get to choose whether to be reborn into this world once again, or to realize that we have experienced enough and that we can instead escape it. The message to me was clear–escape the fear of death and you are truly free to live life to its fullest. I did not want to forget this epiphany, as it feels like I so often do with other sudden realizations and insights, so I bought the bracelet of yak bone skulls, and still wear it to this day to remind me to live my life without fear.

The beginning of the ridge that forms the Ice Lakes Traverse, Pilot Knob in the distance.

The beginning of the ridge that forms the Ice Lakes Traverse, Pilot Knob in the distance.

Most of the greatest people I have known in my so-far short life have seemed to possess the ability to live their life without fear. I suspect that the man who died by falling off of Pilot Knob, near where I now stood, was one of these rare and blessed individuals. He was up on this jagged, loose, and magnificent orange-tinted ridgeline trying to complete a route known as the Ice Lakes Traverse. It is a somewhat well-known, although rarely completed, linkup of many beautiful mountain peaks that surround the famous Ice Lakes, although one typically only undertaken by ultrarunners, who have the speed and endurance to complete such an arduous task. I heard that he had even completed the traverse himself one time before. The Ice Lakes Traverse had in fact been on my list of objectives, or ultrarunning adventures, that I wanted to complete during the summer and his untimely death was unfortunately a perfect excuse for me to wake up early and finally tackle it.

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Mustang Trail Race

Running across a bridge in Mustang – Richard Bull photo

“Every place distills an atmosphere–a state of mind–that can more easily be felt than described, a something that overshadows all activities and bathes all events in a peculiar light. Some places have a feeling of sleepiness, others one of loneliness and desolation. But every place in Mustang was, I felt, characterized by dynamism and an enthusiasm that infected the entire population.” – Michel Peissel, “Mustang”

“A rocky cave in the wilderness was the home of your spiritual Father. A deserted and solitary place is a divine abode.” – Marpa the Translator, from “The Life of Milarepa”

The wall of Lo Manthang on a fresh morning after snowfall – Richard Bull photo

The idea of visiting the forbidden kingdom of Mustang first entered my mind as I descended from the summit of the Thorung La pass on the Annapurna Circuit last year. The Thorung La is the highest point on the famous circuit and from it’s 17,000+ ft. summit the views in every direction are expansive to say the least. Technically, as one descends into the town of Muktinath far below you are entering the Nepali district of Mustang, but the heart of the kingdom, the area which the country restricts access to – Upper Mustang – remains mostly invisible behind 4,000 meter passes and peaks to the north. As Paulo and I walked slowly down from the culmination of our Annapurna trek, I peered restlessly off into that dry and desolate land hidden from view, feeling as if I could perhaps stand a little higher on my tippy toes and see what lay beyond the barren dirt hills, catch a glimpse of a magical land which had no reality to me but was only a concept. I don’t know why I was drawn to look yearningly in that direction in the first place, except perhaps for the mystique the area generated amongst the other Annapurna trekkers. The high cost for a permit and the low number of trekkers allowed in by the government of Nepal turned it into a fable around evening dinner tables in guesthouses from Chame to Manang. Everyone seemed to agree on one thing about Mustang: while very few had visited it, they all had heard that it was amazing. But our trail bent off in another direction, which we eagerly pursued in search of more adventure and growth, and Mustang was filed away into the very large mental bin titled, “places I would like to go one day.”

Flash forward almost exactly one year and I was poised to enter Upper Mustang from the town of Kagbeni, a green farming oasis on the edge of the wide stony Kali Gandhaki river gorge. The water carves its way through the hills and mountains blocking the way into Upper Mustang, yet still bends out of sight just above town so that the mystery of what lies to the north prevails. The circumstances which led to me being there were so bizarre and seemingly disconnected that I can only percieve them as a long tangled thread perfectly described as, “what is meant to be.” If I had set out with a firm intention to visit Mustang within a year it seems likely that other plans, obligations, new decisions – Life – would have inevitably intervened, as it always seems to do. But instead Life decided that my path needed an adventure through Mustang in order to develop the way that it is supposed to, and so the many random ocurances and decisions that could only be seen as related after the fact worked their magic, and I stood alone in Kagbeni awaiting the group with which I would venture into Mustang.

A happy group of runners above Kongcholing Cave on stage 4. L to R -> Mira Rai, Matt Moroz, Upendra Sunewar, PhuDorjee Lama Sherpa, Nicola Bassi, Marco Baretta, Andy Wellman – Richard Bull photo

The reason for me going to Mustang was an event which was right up my alley – the Mustang Trail Race. This second year race winds its way through the highlights of the land in eight running stages spread out over the course of nine days and covers roughly 200km of rocky desert on very runnable trails mostly at elevations of around 4000 meters. As the culmination of a seven week long “Nepal spring training running camp” of my own design, it was the perfect chance to inject a significant amount of volume into my training (the most running I had ever done in one week) as well as some intensity and speed – and I would get to explore Mustang! Buzzing with anticipation would be how I would describe myself at that moment.

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The Dream is to be Healthy and Balanced so that I can Run

Pumori, Khumbu, Nepal

“The first step of the dream-change process…is to define what we want, to make certain that it is a dream, not a fantasy… An essential next step is to give the dream energy. Constantly bring your dream out into the light of day. Think about it, meditate and journey on it. Talk about it with everyone you meet. Shout it out. Share it with the Earth, the sky, the clouds, the sun and moon, and with all the plants, animals, and minerals of the Earth. Give it voice and song!” – the shaman Manco, from The World is as You Dream It, by John Perkins
“The energy created by our dreaming is like air. It travels everywhere. Your ability to use this energy is limited only by your dream of its power. Your faith. Our dreams can affect everyone and everything else–if we energize them with enough power.” – the shaman Manco 

There was a specific moment which occurred this past year while trekking in Nepal when I truly came to realize what running means to me. My brother Paulo and I walked downhill in the morning sun along the main trail through the Khumbu region, the trail leading away from Everest Base Camp, which we had left that morning. As we strolled along we talked–musing, dreaming, contemplating–as we usually did. We were essentially ‘homeward bound’ as we were now headed out of the mountains on our final trek of the long three-month trip, so our thoughts naturally journeyed forward to what we would do next and where we were going. Within a few short weeks we would split and continue on following our own individual paths. Both of us intended to keep on traveling for many months. I had an entire itinerary planned for the next many months: the beaches of Thailand, then the northern mountains, on to the Indian Himalaya, Sri Lanka, then New Zealand… It was a dream trip that anyone would be envious of, but instead of looking forward to all the amazing sights and places I would see, I was instead pre-occupied with a dream of heading home and spending the summer in the mountains of Colorado, simply running.

Paulo walking down the trail where this story takes place, between the towns of Gorak Shep and Chhukung in the Khumbu

It didn’t make much sense, and I voiced my confusion to my brother in what I thought was a rhetorical question. “Why can I only think about running when I have so many amazing travels to partake in?”

By his immediate and pointed response, it seemed that he knew exactly why: “You need running to be who you are.” Continue reading

Crazy Thoughts on Knowing Your Future and New Years Resolutions

Moonrise over a long line of peaks – san juan mountains, co

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” – Kurt Vonnegut

At a family get together in an apartment building in Denver just after the Christmas holiday I stood on the outdoor patio ten stories above the ground and looked west, towards the skyline of the Rocky Mountains which are visible from just about anywhere in Denver. The sun had already gone down, indeed much of the sky was already black, but the sky behind the mountains still shone bright yellow, perfectly outlining the long, semi-jagged line of peaks stretching from Pikes Peak far to the south, Mount Evans in the middle directly above Denver, to the obvious pyramid of Longs Peak to the north. A long line of black bumps on a skyline, it reminded me of something…

Recently on a long drive home to Colorado from spending a couple weeks in California I was listening to a book on tape to make the hours pass more rapidly. The book was “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut. In it the main character, named Billy, is kidnapped by aliens from another world – specifically the planet of Tralfamador. The Tralfamadorians had mastered the art and physics of long distance space travel and took Billy to their planet where they put him on display in a zoo. To the Tralfamadorians, the most interesting thing about humans was that they could only view time in a linear fashion. They themselves were capable of seeing time all at once: they could view everything that would happen during a person’s lifetime just by looking at them. When Billy tried to warn them about the dangerous attitudes and tendencies of humans, they were unfazed, as they claimed to already know how the universe would end – they would destroy it. Anyway, the way that Vonnegut chose to describe it, when a Tralfamadorian looked at a person, they saw its entire life stretched out as a timeline, like looking at a “long ridge-line of mountain peaks.” And so staring at the long line of mountain peaks still faintly illuminated above Denver, I thought about Time. Continue reading

Solo in the Weminuche

“Mountain peaks are special places that can build energy in whomever sits on them.” – James Redfield, The Celestine Prophecy
“The eternal present is the space within which your whole life unfolds, the one factor that remains constant. Life is now. There was never a time when your life was not now, nor will there ever be.” – Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

Power

Living your life completely in the present moment is a lot easier said than done. To dwell constantly on the details or events of the past, or to look forward relentlessly towards the future seems to be the pretty common human condition. It seems that either the present moment is not how we wish it was because something happened in the past that made it the way it is, or that the past was so much brighter than this moment, we just wish we could have those times back. Or on the flip-side, we can’t wait for what will happen to us, we just wish it was the future already, christmas can’t come soon enough, and this moment is just one to be endured on the way towards that rosy future. Then again, perhaps we are anxiously worrying about the future because we don’t know what will happen and don’t feel like we have enough control, and so can’t be happy right now because of our self-induced stress and tension. But to be present in the now is the teaching of virtually all the spiritual traditions, and it makes perfect sense, because it is indeed true that nothing ever happens any other time but right now, so why not embrace the only time which actually is?

For the past few weeks I have been trying to find a place to live in Silverton while camping out of my car in a nearby valley. With the constant logistical challenges of daily afternoon and evening rain, trying to store food in a cooler, cook stoves breaking, varmint invasions, and not enough money for the amount of eating out and drinking I found myself doing just for the luxury of being indoors, I slowly began to lose my acceptance of the present moment, which I found more and more uncomfortable by the day. I found myself yearning for a future in which I had a roof over my head and a kitchen in which I could cook food, or sometimes spent time dreaming about the past, when I actually had a home and all the material possessions which make our little human nests so comfortable and convenient. The blissful joy of not having a true care in the world, no matter what was actually happening to me, which I carried within myself upon coming back from Asia slowly evaporated, but I was not present enough to watch it happen, rather, it just happened, and I was left frustrated.

But then I did find a home, a large and comfortable home which is exceedingly cheap to rent, does not have a leaky roof, and has a plentiful kitchen and even a refrigerator. The inconveniences of weeks past were now solved, but the undiscriminating joy and bliss had not returned, because I did not realize that they had even left. Granted, I was not unhappy, had not reverted to my old mr. grumpy pants ways, it’s just that something minor had been misplaced without knowing it. Luckily I have learned to listen well enough to the voice in my head which often seems, and very likely is not, my own voice, which was pretty emphatically saying, “Go backpacking!” So into the wild I went…

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The Mobius Strip

“The Möbius strip … can easily be created by taking a paper strip and giving it a half-twist, and then joining the ends of the strip together to form a loop. The Möbius strip has several curious properties. A line drawn starting from the seam down the middle will meet back at the seam but at the “other side”. If continued the line will meet the starting point and will be double the length of the original strip.” Wikipedia

Arrow Peak reflected in the surface of a pond along the Colorado Trail.

Meditations, visions, yearnings, intuitions – all conspired to draw me here to Silverton, Colorado. Forces pulled me here from the other side of the world in a series of events that made no logical sense and ended up costing me almost all of the money I had saved for traveling. And yet, in my moments of greatest clarity I realized that logic has nothing to do with making the decisions that really matter, or it shouldn’t anyway. Lists of pros and cons, factors weighed against each other in some mathematical formula which will somehow lead to the “correct” decision should be discarded completely. This is the old way of thinking about what we are doing, where we are going, or what we should do – the new way needs none of these things, and is not bound or contained by any meticulousness or “reason.” The new way knows what needs to happen, where needs to happen, who needs to be met, and the only true action that needs to be taken is to be sure to stay in the current, not to get dragged off into a swirling, stagnating eddy. Bumping down the river, rock to rock, being mindful to pay attention to where the current bends and twists so as to keep moving forward, progressing, learning. An open heart is the guide…This is the new way, my new way…

Vestal Peak and the Wham Ridge bathed in sunlight.

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Soul Rebel – Trekking the Khumbu

“If you’re not living good, I beg you to travel wide, travel wide.” – Bob Marley, Soul Rebel

“Feel them Spirit…I rule my Destiny.” – Bob Marley, Put It On 

As Paulo and I walked out of Namche Bazaar on a stunningly clear morning towards the west and our eventual destination for the day of Thame, we looked up at the mountains surrounding us, very short by Khumbu standards, but wonderfully adorned with a fresh snow from the previous evening’s storm. I asked Paulo, “what do you think the frame is for this trek, what is the general theme?” We had been in Nepal adventuring about for over two months at that point, and to us it had felt like each thing we had done and place we had visited had been imbued with a special purpose as it related to our own journey. By the time we had walked out from Annapurna Base Camp we understood the meaning of our pilgrimage there, and had left the past up there in the snow, in the past, where it belonged. As we followed the long circuit around the Annapurna Massif we spun the wheel of our lives back into action from the stagnant, stalled state which they had degenerated into. Upon our return to Pokhara we felt like we had a purpose again, there was a path in front of us that we understood and could follow, life had motion. A week of intensive practice at Sadhana Yoga Center had taught us some methods by which to implement our quest for self-betterment, and had more importantly intoxicated us with a fresh breathe of progress. So in a way, as we embarked on another 20 days of wandering around the mountains, something we were getting fairly proficient at, I wondered if perhaps this mission would merely entail sightseeing, if perhaps the mountains had given us all that they could for this go-around, and hoped that as we walked we wouldn’t fall into some form of spiritual holding pattern, a bardo.

The path we walked in the early morning sunshine traversed along a south-facing slope through pine and rhododendron forests. The rhododendrons were in full bloom at this particular altitude, which was incredible because it seems that everywhere we have walked in this mountainous country, for three months, the rhododendrons have been blooming. Instead of the ubiquitous pink and sometimes dark, rose-like red, this day we experienced a pale off-white interspersed with yellow, a color grouping we had not yet seen. Trampling the carpet of fallen blossoms below his feet and strolling beneath the canopy of still hanging blossoms above him, Paulo replied something like, “I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve been waiting for it to hit me, what this trek is supposed to be all about, what we are supposed to learn. But we didn’t know at the beginning of the other trips either.” Patience: ponder it and walk on, through meadows, under rocky peaks, across clear brooks, past monasteries, and through our minds…

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Surrender

“I see whatever exists as good, death is to me like life, sin like holiness, wisdom like foolishness, everything has to be as it is, everything only requires my consent, only my willingness, my loving agreement, to be good for me, to do nothing but work for my benefit, to be unable to ever harm me. ” – Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

At the end of the second hour long mediation session of the day at Sadhana Yoga Retreat, I lay back on my yoga mat, eyes closed, and had the sudden Inspiration to write a blog about “Surrender.” The meditation session had gone very well. Besides feeling like I spent the entire time in the present moment, which can be quite a challenge while meditating, I had managed to spend the entire session with my legs crossed in the Sukhasana position, without having my feet go to sleep or having to spend most of the session trying to detach from the incredible pain. The Sukhasana position involves bending the right leg so that the foot sits on the floor right up next to the crotch and then bending the left leg so that the left foot lays on top of the right foot. Four days into our retreat, I was making progress!

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