“Your outer journey may contain a million steps; your inner journey only has one: the step you are taking right now. As you become more deeply aware of this one step, you realize that it already contains within itself all the other steps as well as the destination. This one step then becomes transformed into an expression of perfection, an act of great beauty and quality. It will have taken you into Being, and the light of Being will shine through it. This is both the purpose and fulfillment of your inner journey, the journey into yourself.” – Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
“YOU SHOULD ALWAYS GO FUTHER THAN YOU SHOULD GO” – painting on the wall at Cafe Mobius in Silverton
I walked slowly and gingerly through the mud and melted snow which made up the Grand Traverse trail along the top of Vail Mountain, pain and stiffness torturing me with my every movement. The late afternoon light was exquisite–warm, yellow, comforting. The wind blew gently from the snow covered Mount of the Holy Cross on the horizon to my left, over my head, and on to the similarly adorned and equally as beautiful Gore Range across the valley to my right. I was somewhere around 45 miles and 8 hours into the UROC 100k trail race and I had just decided to give it up, I was walking to the next aid station where I would drop from the race. Surprisingly I felt totally at peace with the decision and knew that this was exactly what was meant to be on this day. I happily plodded along in the sun, watching the hawks soar overhead, and trying to understand all the lessons that this experience was supposed to teach me…
I had entered the Ultra Race of Champions about seven weeks prior after a lengthy discussion with a newly made friend, Edward Sandor, at a table in Cafe Mobius in Silverton, on a dreadful day where it was pouring rain outside. We had started up a conversation after noticing that we were each runners, something which was pretty obvious as we were both wearing running clothes. He hails from Minnesota and is a seasoned ultra-runner, touring the mountain west with his wife Alicia and their dog, running crazy long mountain trail races along the way. I took the opportunity to try to glean any nuggets of wisdom I possibly could from someone who runs much further than I typically do. The most prescient of these nuggets was that if you wait until you feel you are ready to run crazy long ultra races, you will never do it, cause really you are never ready. You just have to pull the trigger and jump into the deep end, and as far as he was concerned, a person couldn’t possibly do so soon enough. The conversation eventually ended with him telling me, “I will be extremely disappointed if I hear you didn’t end up running UROC!” So, buoyed by his belief in me and suckered by his “wisdom,” I registered a few days later.
Fast forward to race morning and I was feeling less than confident. After competing in the Silverton Alpine Marathon five weeks earlier I had developed terrible pain in the arches of my feet that took almost two weeks of no running to recover from. These injuries transitioned into shin splints, which I was able to run through, but which left me in pain on virtually every run I did, and forced me to severely limit the amount of training I did leading up to the longest and hardest race I had ever thought about attempting. September for me was far more about nursing myself back to being healthy enough to be able to run at all than it was about preparing in the manner I would have liked. Even crawling out of bed on race morning I somehow tweaked the ligaments in my left ankle, pain which I felt throughout the entire race.
In addition to all the physical setbacks, I found myself completely unable to attain the proper mental space for an ideal performance. I simply could not let go of my ego’s desire to prove myself on the large stage against the best in the world. Performing at a level beyond my capabilities became a totally consuming idea, one which my ego fueled for weeks in advance, one which I was totally aware of and meditated for hours on trying to release, to become detached from, but somehow could not. I learned from rock climbing long ago that performance derived from love, purity, and total detachment from the outcome always leads to the best results. Performing with an attachment to the results or a sense of impatience virtually always leads to a session of frustration and a lesson in humility. Only when you truly let go will you finally succeed. I knew this, and yet was unable to affect my mental patterns, and the mind/body connection spiraled into itself, my impure motivations manifesting themselves as physical ailments, which only agitated my ego into more impatience and frustration… and around, and around…
So by race morning I was hoping for the best but prepared for the worst, half expecting that I wouldn’t make it 10 miles before it became obvious I would need to quit for self-preservation reasons. I didn’t really know what goals to shoot for, I didn’t have too much of a plan or strategy, I was basically just in it for the experience, take it step by step and see what happens. But I still carried with me my untouchable and never wavering belief in myself, as without it I would never even get a sniff of 62 miles, or achieve anything at all I aspire to in this life, for that matter.
It snowed the day and night before, and the Tenmile range above Breckenridge was bright with the fresh stuff. We started running down Main street at almost the exact moment the first orange rays hit the top of Peak 10. The race began with a straight up the hill climb of Peak 8 for about 2500 ft. before zipping back down a windy mountain bike trail to the base, and then following the beautiful Peaks trail for nine miles or so through the forest over to Frisco. I was running behind some ladies at this point and didn’t see a stump, caught my toe, and super-manned onto the frozen ground, skinning up my arms, knees, and thighs, but except for the flesh wounds, it actually didn’t hurt that bad. We made our way on roads through Frisco, then climbed dirt jeep roads up through the forest until we reached single-track buried in snow as we aimed to cross Wheeler Pass. Above treeline we kicked steps into the snow as we climbed the mountains in our shorts and running shoes, then spent a couple miles side-hilling in roughly knee deep snow at around 12,500 feet. I enjoyed this part by far the best of the entire course, as it seemed almost everyone else did as well, and managed to pass a number of people on this climb. Eventually we crossed the divide and ran down into Copper Mountain, where there were a number of contrived course variations seemingly thrown in just to make it longer(?), not sure, but at mile 27ish I saw my dad at the aid station at Copper Mountain base and he said I was in about 12th place, which blew me away. I had felt good all morning, no pains of any sort, and had been running comfortable but not slow by any means, roughly the pace I usually run in training. Usually at this point in a race my body would already be feeling pretty uncomfortable, but I felt good, so that was fun!
After more contrivances thrown into the Copper Mountain ski area we eventually reached the Vail Pass bike path. Near here I suddenly heard people cheering my name, and was shocked to see my friend Josh Emdur and his family on the course cheering me on. It was a buoy for the spirits for sure! I was running up the pass alone and it was really tough to keep running, which I had to because the grade was too low to consider walking. The top of the pass was windy and cold and I froze in my t-shirt as I ran along the roads, hoping to hit the aid station, and pretty de-motivated by all the road running. There I put on more clothes and left before the others, so I was firmly in 12th heading down the other side of the pass, which was steep pavement for about 6 miles. This part was totally brutal for me. I made the decision to open up my stride and let the legs roll, as I figured holding back and braking the whole way down would lead to more muscle destruction. But the muscle destruction was severe anyway and it hurt real bad. Not to mention the bike path here is right on the side of the freeway, which could not have been more of a downer. I passed one guy on this stretch, but was passed by another, and at the aid station at the bottom, near mile 40 or 43, who knows, as the course was longer than advertised, I was so worked I had to take a couple minutes to regroup. I adjusted my shoes, took off my jacket and gloves, and ate some food, before heading out on the huge climb up Two Elks. But then my water bladder hose stopped working, so I tried to adjust it, couldn’t get it to work anymore, so didn’t have the option to drink anymore, and by the end of all that about six people had passed me. Deflated and worked, I started power-hiking up through the snowy and beautiful forest, but on the way up two other dudes passed me like I was not even moving, which for me was so disheartening. Everything hurt, I was slowing down big time, couldn’t drink, had certainly lost my focus and mental edge, and at the top of the steep part when some random people out there started ringing the cowbell as I approached alone all I could do was laugh, it seemed so ludicrous someone was cheering for me at that moment! The trail flattened out and became runnable again and I tried to run, but couldn’t hardly waddle. I stuck to walking very easy trail and was soon passed again. On a short downhill section I could hardly even walk and had to turn around and go down it backwards so as to baby my quads. At that moment I started thinking about how long it would take to walk the 20+ miles which remained to the finish, and at what price physically? I didn’t want to risk injury, or even risk having an October which mimicked by September, and so made the decision almost instantly that I was done and would just stroll to the next aid station and drop. I felt lighter and at peace the moment I made the decision and didn’t regret it or think about changing my mind for an instant!
So as I watched the hawks circle above in the lazy afternoon sun, strolling along all alone, I couldn’t help but get emotional. Whether it’s from the bizarre chemical states which this much exertion surely induces, or just from the culmination of so much focus and energy actualized into a moment, I have cried numerous times while running very long distances. This time the tears were of pure gratitude and appreciation for this beautiful moment of failure. I realized that I sort of had this coming to me, as I have been on an upswing for so impossibly long, and surely there was going to be a lesson about ego thrown into this experience somewhere. But seeing this failure for the beautiful reality that it was instantly dissolved any sense of failure I may have perceived, and I felt in my heart that this run had been a great success! I finally let go of my attachments to the outcome, as the outcome was now revealed, and the peace was blissful. Everything happens exactly as it is supposed to and I surrendered completely to appreciating that fact!
There were also practical running lessons to ponder as well. Despite not finishing, I was really happy with the fact that I ran 47ish miles and 12,000ish vert in 8.5ish hours. Compared to the only two other times I had run more than 40 miles, I was much stronger, ran much faster, felt far better at the end, while this course was much harder, so a considerable amount of progress has been made, which is up-lifting. I realize that I probably could have finished this run if I had paced myself better, which meant going slower. However, I thought about this a lot and can honestly say I was never pushing unreasonably hard. I never ran harder than I do in training, and I ran at a pace which was fun to me and kept me inspired. If I had instead spent the entire day holding myself back I just don’t think I would have enjoyed myself nearly as much, which is what this is all about anyway. And so I also realized that in order to run a pace which inspires me for this long a distance, I will need much more training, and so it seems wise to drop back down on the distance ladder for a few more training cycles. This just sounds more fun to me than immediately trying the distance again and either blowing up again or running much slower. Lastly, racing, and especially the races I choose to run, need to stem from the same motivation as running alone in the mountains does – appreciation of beauty; artful expression of movement in the natural environment. Racing offers a unique opportunity to challenge oneself, but I would be better off sticking to solo adventure runs and never racing again than compromising my ideals solely for the sake of competition. Don’t get me wrong, I will continue to race, next time I just won’t do so on contrived and sort of pointless courses which are next to freeways…
Lastly, the amount of support, encouragement, and simple interest I received from my family, friends, and people I hardly even know surrounding this race was really incredible, far more than I could have imagined, and that is a true gift. As long as I can do anything at all that inspires myself and others and brings us all together into a more connected reality, I will do so! Thank you! ONE LOVE!