The hour is getting late…

Well, well, well… it has been a long time! First blog post in almost a year. I guess COVID took a toll on most of us but I cannot use that as an excuse for my absence. I just took an extended break from writing anything that I felt comfortable sharing with an audience. I thought about writing a post detailing what I have been up to since we last met and I still might; but for now, I would like to share with you a recent encounter and the impression it has left on me. I am thrilled to be dropping a new addition to the Juandering Advocate. My hope is that you will enjoy it; that it will inspire or challenge you, and that it will not be so long before I see you again! 

My story begins as I was rucking home from Crossfit one evening recently. I was cruising along, minding my own business, lost in thought. I was tired from the workout, my ruck was uncomfortable and my sweat soaked clothes were beginning to give me chills. My thoughts were focused and small much like the illuminated pool cast by a nearby streetlight. In an instant, I was jolted out of my contemplative daze when a car nearly ran off the road and hit me. Thinking about it now makes my heart rate quicken. Time seemed to slow down and everything began to blur except the wide eyes of the driver illuminated by the glow from his cell phone. For that brief moment in time when our eyes locked, nothing that I had been thinking about two seconds or two minutes earlier seemed to matter. 

All at once, I was unaware that I was cold and exhausted. It did not matter what I was going to eat for supper. The rude comment a judge had leveled at me earlier that day no longer occupied any space in my mind. I gave no thought to how much money was in my wallet or how many square feet are in the place I choose to dwell. The only number that mattered to me was how many inches were between my right leg and the distracted driver’s bumper.

As an avid runner who does not always have or make the time to get out to my local trail, I am no stranger to close encounters of the automobile kind. I have felt the wind on my cheek from a school bus mirror, heard the awful whine of tires sliding on the blacktop and been close enough to a ladder rack on a construction truck to see the mounting bolts. However, none of those close calls shook me quite like the one I experienced Monday night. 

Standing there underneath that streetlight, my heart pounded like it wanted to come out of my chest; my hands and legs shook; my eyes dared not blink until I could no longer see the taillights of the car that could have changed my life. I was acutely aware of my complete and overwhelming focus. I was as present and engaged in that moment of time as I think I possibly could have been. But, the moment of terrifying clarity soon passed and I gave in to the mind’s natural tendency to wander. 

The rest of my walk home found me in a contemplative mindset as I pondered the seemingly inevitable “what ifs” that accompany such harrowing encounters. What if he had looked up a split second later? What if I had been wearing headphones? What if he had been driving a large truck instead of that small sedan? As my mind rolled through hypotheticals, the interrogation turned darker and deeper.  What if I could not go to Crossfit anymore?nWhat if I could no longer guide trips? What if I lost my ability to walk? What if I ended up in the nursing home?

It was at that point that my thoughts found themselves in familiar territory – the nursing home scenario. Allow me to explain as this is something I think of quite frequently. Over the years, I have spent a considerable amount of time in homes for the elderly. I worked in a convalescent facility when I was in high school. My grandfather spent the better part of a decade confined to one. In recent years, volunteering with hospice has taken me inside the rooms (and sometimes the minds) of people sequestered from their family, friends and oftentimes, their own sanity. 

I am acutely familiar with the sights, sounds and smells of these places and I also know that there is a fair probability that I will someday reside in one of them. My girlfriend works as a hospice nurse and we sometimes talk about regrets of the dying and a life well lived. Those conversations make me ponder what my thoughts will center upon while I am there. What will I think about? What memories will I cherish? What regrets will haunt me?

After my close call, I revisited those questions again but I was also reminded of a Reddit post I stumbled upon recently. I have chosen to include an excerpt from that post here as I feel it illuminates the subject matter in a way in which I simply cannot. For context, the following is from a 41 year old man with lung cancer who was recently given mere weeks to live. The thoughts from that dying man have kept me company for a few weeks and if you are anything like me, you may find the following quite eye opening – 

“Wishes are usually reserved for the future. I have no future. But I find myself still wishing.

I wish I had not worried so much about the little things. I wish I had not worried so much about the numbers in my bank account or the punch of the time clock. All that time working. I had enough money to keep a roof over my head and to invest in what few hobbies I had, yet I still kept racking up overtime. And for what? Only to find myself here. It all came to nothing in the end. I robbed myself of the most precious commodity I had, time, in exchange for green pieces of paper and little metal discs. A perverse and twisted trade. Only now do I see the truth.

I wish I had had the courage to live my life the way I wanted to. I wish I had traveled the world, fallen in love, written a novel. I wish I had had children. I have no one to whom I can pass my life lessons. No one to sit by my side, here at the end of my world. It is too late for me. But it is not too late for you. Live the life YOU want, no matter how strange it may seem to others or to society. It is your life and yours alone. Live it well.”

Although we are all actively dying, there seems to be something about being consciously aware that your time is almost up that affords one a perspective that is hidden from those who cannot appreciate how late it really is. I believe that there is great benefit to be gleaned from thinking about my own demise and the things that will really matter to me when my time has come. This is nothing new. Philosophers, artists and ordinary people have contemplated their death for as long as we have had brains capable of such contemplation. Stoic philosophers from the times of classical antiquity were fond of visiting tombs where they would ruminate on their own eventual passing. I did not think about these things much as a younger person, perhaps only when someone close to me died. But, I find that the older I get, the more I contemplate and even somewhat embrace thoughts of my own eventual demise. 

I frequently conjure up visions of the 80 year old Juandering Advocate. When I am faced with a tough decision or need some motivation, I stop and ask that elderly man what he thinks would be best. It was that old man who told me to stop working for a law firm where the only thing that mattered was the bottom line. It was that old fella who told me to face my fears and fly off the side of a mountain. That same old man told me to move to rural West Virginia, live in a shack and work with adolescents in the unforgettable and unforgiving Appalachian mountains. Some of the greatest experiences of my life have blossomed from uncomfortable conversations with that elderly version of myself. 

I want to make that man proud. I imagine he will look back over his life and relish the trips, chances and adventures he took. He will be proud of the risks he embraced and perhaps wish that he had summoned the courage to take more. One thing is for sure – he will have some good stories to tell if he can remember them!

I also have an idea what that old man will not think or talk about. He probably will not worry about how big his house was but rather did he create lasting memories in it. He probably gives little thought to how fancy his car was and instead wishes that he had ridden his bike more. I doubt he gives too much thought to how big his bank account was but rather did he use the money he had to help make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate than himself. 

Since that close call with that distracted driver, I have kept these questions and thoughts close to my heart. I want that 80 year old man to know that I thought about him a lot, that I anticipated meeting him and that I did what I could and thought best to make him happy and proud. I know that man does not have much left and while he manages to hold onto them, his memories will be among his most prized possessions. 

I hope that you have enjoyed the latest installment of The Juandering Advocate. I wish you all the best in the upcoming year and hope to see you back again soon. When you talk to 80 year old you later today, tell them I said hello!

Runnin’ down a dream

If you’re reading this, I assume you know that I attempted my first hundred mile race in December 2018 at the Daytona 100 where I came up 38 miles short. Although I set a new personal distance record and learned a lot from the mistakes I made, I went home with a heavy heart instead of that coveted finisher buckle. That race reminded me that desire is a fickle mistress and although I wanted that buckle, I didn’t really want it. When the pain, loneliness and mental battle became too much to bear, I had chosen relief and reprieve and that bothered me. I’ve heard it said that quitting is a stink you can’t wash off and the smell that clung to me after Daytona was one that turned my stomach. That DNF haunted me but I was determined to make amends.

I entered 2019 with a resolute spirit set on avenging my shortcoming and trained harder than I ever have before. I ran more miles in that calendar year than ever and set personal bests in distances all the way from 5 to 100K. I finished two of the hardest races in the southeast in the form of the DoubleTop 50K and Blood Rock 50 mile and spent time racing in a variety of unsavory conditions with everything from sleet to hours of rain and even racing through the night to help callous my mind. When I boarded that plane in Atlanta to head to the Across the Years 100 miler, I felt I was in the best shape I had been since high school and was confident that if I could win the mental battle, my body would handle the rest.

On the morning of the race, the sky glowed bright orange against the desert landscape and I felt the dawn of a new day calm the butterflies that I had been battling all week. As I pinned my race bib on, I silently swore to myself that I would not take it off until the deed was done. If I did quit, I wasn’t going to go home to face my friends and family. I would simply slink off south over the border and begin a new life there. Maybe I’d even take up golf…

At 8AM, I began the first of 96 laps around the 1.05 mile track that circles Camelback Ranch on the outskirts of Phoenix. 31 other aspiring runners surrounded me as we began our journey that would test the limits of our physical and mental fortitude. My girlfriend joined the many others who walked the first lap with their respective runners and then left me with 10 small sealed envelopes. I was to open one every 10 miles and the anticipation of reading her encouraging words was something I looked forward to throughout the race.

I soon settled into a steady rhythm and the first 30 miles went by in a blur of casual conversation, laughs and getting to know some of the runners out on the course. Not only was it a 100 mile race but there were relay races, a last man standing event, a 200 miler, a 6 day and even a 10 day race all happening simultaneously on that 1 mile track. People were everywhere – running, singing, laughing and enjoying a beautiful, sunny day under a a dark blue sky. The first 7 hours seemed to flow by. I felt good and my spirits were high as I worked my way through the first 1/3rd of my event. When I stopped to grab some water at the 50K mark, I opened card #3 and was reminded of one of the reasons why I had taken up this grueling and often unpleasant sport in the first place.

“When you start feeling uncomfortable, just remember that your dreams don’t sit inside your comfort zone.”

I stared at the card. I was still in my comfort zone. I felt great. But I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew that at some point it was going to get harder than it ever had before. I tried to brace myself for the storm that I knew was beginning to form off the coast of my sunny day.

Those words on that card helped to solidify my resolve and I pushed on to the halfway point. 50 miles in, I was beginning to feel the physical and mental toll adding up and knew it wouldn’t be long before the demons showed up with their temptations and easy excuses. The sun set, the air began to cool and the thought of moving around that dusty track for another 12+ hours was more than I was willing to entertain. Instead, I tried my best to take each lap one at a time slowly watching the numbers creep north.

At mile 62, I entered uncharted territory having never ran farther than 100K before. I found myself simultaneously excited and terrified. On the one hand, I had matched my previous best in record time and had not thought about quitting even once. On the other, I had nagging fears about what the unknown held in store for me. I knew the pre-dawn hours would be some of the hardest I had ever experienced and I tried to brace myself for the physical and mental breakdown that I would have to overcome if I wanted to earn that beautiful buckle.

As I slipped over 70 miles, the demons began to softly sing their siren song and they recruited my body to join the chorus. I lost the manual dexterity needed to open my water bottle and instead started drinking from the paper cups at the aid station. My feet were beginning to swell and I could feel them pressing against the insides of my shoes. Worst of all, my left hip flexor joined the revolt and over the course of the next 5 miles slowly shortened its range of motion until it was almost completely locked up. This reduced me to an awkward stumble and I moved around the track at what basically amounted to a fast walk. This wasn’t how I wanted it to go but I was still moving. I knew that was the most important thing.

Just. Don’t. Fucking. Stop.

At that point, I decided to pull out the pocket aces I had kept hidden in the hopes that they would help see me through the literal and figurative darkest parts of the race. Music and caffeine. I dug out my headphones and chowed down on chocolate covered coffee beans. The tunes lifted my spirits and the caffeine helped me to stay awake as I approached 24+ hours without sleep. Unfortunately, the reserve weapons did nothing to ameliorate the straightjacket hip flexor and I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to walk the last 25 miles of the race. The wheels were coming off and I could only watch them go. So be it. No way was I going to accept defeat again and return home empty handed only to tell my friends and family that I had quit because the pain and mental exhaustion had become too much to bear.

And so I walked as fast as my limited mobility would allow and tried to talk to anyone on the course who would entertain what I perceived to be as my own incoherent ramblings. I knew I wasn’t making much sense at that point but I figured I was in good company for such a thing and I received no judgment; just smiles and encouragement. Somewhere around mile 85, I stopped to adjust my socks and thought I heard something in a nearby tree. Glancing over, I noticed the tree start to shimmer and then stared in awe as I watched one of the branches slowly transform into a raccoon. The friendly animal waved at me, turned around and promptly morphed back into the limb of the tree. I was cognizant of the fact that what I witnessed was simply the combined effects of sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion but it made the experience no less real. I saw what I saw and it rattled me. I knew my body was shutting down and that one by one the systems were going offline. I needed to hurry up and finish while I still could.

Shortly after 7AM, the sun rose and the warmth lifted my sagging spirits but my hip refused to budge. So, I plodded on and willed myself not to think about the hours and miles remaining. I figured I had at least another five hours to go swinging that leg around the course and the thought made me nauseous. I did what I could to ignore it and instead focused on simply putting one foot in front of another.

Approaching the final miles of the race, I knew I was in 6th place thanks to the continually updated screens located at the start/finish line. I found perverse solace in the fact that despite my slow progress there were more people behind than in front of me. I knew that many of those individuals would be on the course long after I had taken a hot shower and gone to bed and that some would simply have to resign themselves to living to fight another battle another day. I felt it an honor to be among them all.

Around mile 90, I pulled my phone out to change the music and noticed a text from my buddy who had been following the live race tracking. Since I was moving at such a glacial pace, I didn’t even have to slow down to read the words-

“10 to go DonJon. Push. Push. Two guys in front of you are fading.”

I cannot begin to remotely explain what happened next. The closest I can come is to simply say that those words flipped a switch in my mind that I didn’t even know was there. “DonJon” was my nickname at CrossFit Grit in St Simons and I flashed back to all those days I spent toiling in that hot, humid box. I thought about the guys from that gym who had stood beside me at the finish line of our first ultramarathon so many years ago. I thought about the dozens of races and thousands of miles between then and now and how they had all led me to this place – this dusty track in the middle of the desert where I was facing the greatest physical challenge I had ever undertaken. At that moment,I found an untapped reservoir deep inside and was amazed at what I discovered within. Not only was there a sub 10 minute mile in that well, I found the strength and courage to pour out everything I had knowing that if I blew up, at least I would know that I left the tank on empty. I passed those fading guys in a blur of bewilderment. Even now, it is hard for me to grasp. It was like watching someone else fly around that track. I ran the 96th lap faster than I had the 95 that preceded it and overtook third place less than two hundred yards from the end.

When I crossed that start/finish line for the last time, I stumbled and collapsed in the dirt beside the track. I felt a wave well up inside of me and even now as I type this, I can feel the emotions that threatened to overtake me at that moment. I managed to keep them at bay until I got behind the aid station tent and it was there that the dam broke. I thought about all the sacrifices, all the early morning runs, all the pain and all the lessons that running has taught me over the years. I thanked God for the strong and capable body He blessed me with and for hiding some of life’s greatest pleasures in some of the most difficult places. I felt an abundance of profound appreciation for the amazing life that had led me to that point and stood there alone soaking it all in. I then got my shit together, grabbed a picture with Jamil Coury and took a nap on an army cot in a hot, musty aid station tent. It was all as glorious as I imagined.

A week later and I am still riding the high from that race. It was so much more than just a race though. It was a spiritual/mystical experience. It was an end and a beginning. It was a life changing moment. The hours I spent at Across the Years showed me things it might have taken me years to see otherwise. “Life in a day” as some say. I have a newfound appreciation of the strength of my will, a sense of gratitude for the physical strength I have been blessed with and a deeper appreciation of all those people in my life who played a part in helping to make this dream come true.

Thanks to everyone who made this happen! You know exactly who you are. Huge hugs to Aravaipa Running and their amazing crew of volunteers for an over the top experience complete with the most delicious race day food I had ever had. Big props to Chad for giving me those ibuprofen at 4AM and thanks to William who regaled me with stories of his ultra running adventures late into the night. If you guys are seeing this, understand that you helped me more than you may ever know. To everyone else, thanks for reading and come run a few miles with your boy sometime. I would love to see you!

Happy trails,

The Road Goes on Forever

I woke to my alarm blaring Aerosmith at 5:15AM. I rolled out of bed and stumbled to the kitchen counter to silence my wake up call. The first thing I noticed when I picked up the phone was the date – October 19. A day that is etched in my conscious. A day I hope I never forget. A day when my entire life changed.

I knew right then that it was going to be a good day. I got that tingling sensation that one experiences when it appears that everything is falling into place. I smiled from ear to ear and stepped out the front door to breathe in some of that crisp morning air that I had been savoring over the past week. Instead, I walked out into a deluge. Raindrops fell on my bare feet as I watched little streams on the sidewalk glistening in the streetlight reflection. My smile fell. But only a little. “Maybe it will stop” I thought to myself. There were still two hours until race start. That would be plenty of time for the storm to blow through. I was tempted to check the radar but I resisted. It didn’t matter what it said anyway. I had a line to toe at 7:30 and I was going to be there rain or not.

I went back inside to get ready. I chugged some water, slathered Vaseline all over my feet before stuffing them into my socks and shoes and pulled on two layers of clothes over my running kit. I would at least be warm and dry for a little while longer.

Before leaving the house, I felt the urge that experienced runners hope and pray for. The smile went back ear to ear. I heeded Mother Nature’s call and once again told myself that it was going to be a good day. I ran from my front door to my Jeep in the pouring rain and thought about the fact that those would be the first of over 50,000 steps I would take that day. They wouldn’t all be as flat and smooth as that sidewalk. Nevertheless, the grin persisted.

Tyler Childers was singing about tobacco juice and moonshine as I cruised toward the Liberty Bell pool in F.D. Roosevelt State Park. I’ve made this drive so many times over the years, it has become like an old friend. Sinking into my seat, I focused on my breath and let my thoughts wander along with the music. I nodded in solidarity as Tyler talked about all the “vices that I’ve let take me over time.”

The rain stopped briefly and then began again with even more intensity. Whatever. I accepted my fate. I have been wet and miserable before. I’m sure I will be again someday. As long as you keep moving, it really isn’t all that bad most of the time. So it goes with many things in life.

I met my friend in the pool parking lot and we walked through the rain to the packet pick up tent where I got my race bib. For someone to get out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness on a Saturday morning just to stand in the rain and watch someone run away from them just reinforces my belief in the innate goodness of humanity. If they happen to be reading this, I hope they know how much that meant to me.

Soon, the race director, Coach K (I think she may hate that nickname but I love it and I’m leaving it in to see if she reads this) gave us some final words of wisdom and sent us on our way. I allowed myself to drift to the back of the pack and find my own rhythm. Too many times I have started a race too fast and paid for it later in the day. These days I have no issue with being in the back of the pack for that first mile or two. I find that I often end up passing people in the later stages of the race and that is usually accompanied by a surge of adrenaline and energy when I need it most.

An hour into the race, the rain was still coming down and the seemingly endless array of rocks, roots and low hanging branches demanded my full attention to stay upright and moving forward. I run the Pine Mountain Trail often and despite the gorgeous surroundings, I most often find myself staring at the 3 feet of real estate directly below and in front of me. I cannot count the number of times I have looked up to see a deer, a waterfall or a fellow runner and immediately found myself intimately acquainted with the ground underneath. So, I focused on the ground, kept my hands loose and forced myself to smile every time I slipped on a rock or stubbed a toe on a root.

I soon caught up with a group of people who had missed a turn and gone half a mile off course. I started chatting with the guy in front of me and soon learned that this was his first ultra. Not only that but he had driven the 6 hours from Tampa to run this race. I just laughed. “I’m sure they have ultras where you live! And they’d be a lot flatter and not filled with ankle destroying rocks too.” Dave grinned and said this race worked best with his calendar and he enjoyed a challenge. Roger that. We swapped stories about CrossFit, Gasparilla and our favorite post run stretches as we followed behind the others along a narrow, technical section that made passing near impossible. I could feel his impatience and mine growing. We were ready to break away.

At one point, Dave asked me how many ultras I had run and I guessed a dozen. Later that evening, I counted them up and I was right. Technically, I’ve ran 26.2+ miles quite a few times more than that what with training runs and a couple DNF’s at longer races but I have officially completed twelve. I didn’t quite realize it at the time that this would turn out to be one of the best.

The people at the front of the group soon made another wrong turn at a trail fork and Dave and I managed to move to the front of the pack on the right trail. I stopped to tell them they were going the wrong way and then Dave and I took off. We never saw them again.

As we worked our way up and down the relentless elevation gradient, the rain continued to come down but our spirits were high. We soon came upon the leader of the 50K race who was now several miles ahead of us and heading back toward the finish. The runner looked strong and breezed by us at a pace that I still can’t quite fathom. It was only after he passed that Dave told me that runner was his friend who had driven up with him. We would later find out that he had finished over an hour ahead of the next male competitor and had set the second fastest time ever at that race. Who knows what he could have done had rain not been an ever present factor…

Inspired by the brutal pace Dave’s friend was pushing, we stepped ours up as well as we made our way to the out and back section past the Rocky Point aid station. It was at Rocky Point that I had my first caffeine craving of the day. As I stood under the pop up tent eating a banana, I enviously eyed the Mountain Dew on the table before me. Coke and Mountain Dew are staples at ultra aid stations and as a true southerner, I love them both; especially when I am 22 miles into a run and feeling a bit depleted. The combination of easily digestible calories, caffeine and carbonated deliciousness is just too much to pass up. Or at least it used to be. This was my 19th day without coffee or energy drinks as part of sober October (I was originally going to eliminate all caffeine but gave in on the green and black tea) and I was determined to keep it that way.

Never before had I started an ultra without at least one cup of coffee in the morning. Never before had I ran an ultra without caffeine. The first week of October saw intense cravings when I cut out the coffee but they had settled down and I found myself sleeping better and having more energy throughout the day without it. But, I was worried about how my body would handle the demands of a race without what is arguably the most popular performance enhancing drug known to man. Turns out, as is often the case, I was worried about nothing.

Subsiding instead on Cerasport, oranges, bananas and a PB&J sandwich, I felt a steady stream of energy throughout the entire race. I never bonked and I ended feeling as if I could have kept going for another 8 hours. Although, in the interest of transparency, I had absolutely no desire to do so.

As we pushed on into the last third of the race, Dave was exploring unchartered territory having never ran more than 16 miles before and I began to see it as my personal mission that he finish. I should point out that as an extremely fit 24 year old, Dave needed no help from me and the mission assignment was purely my own creation.

We started talking about goals for the race and Dave mentioned that he wanted to go sub 8. I do some strained mental calculations in my head and realize that while this is not impossible, we would have to ramp it up. I tell him that after we leave Mollyhugger aid station, we should start to slowly blow it out in hopes of running out of gas 5 feet over the finish line. Dave agrees with the game plan but Mollyhugger is nowhere in sight. My GPS says we should have been there already and Dave says the same but doubly so. I begin to think that I may be responsible for getting this guy lost at his first ultra and maybe he should have stayed with his original group. I look at the map Coach K sent me that morning but it does little to clear my confusion.

At that point, I pass a sign that I don’t recognize or recall and begin to seriously entertain the fact that we may have missed a turn off. Not knowing what else to do, I call Coach K. Surely the race director is not going to answer her phone during a race seeing as she probably has a bazillion other things going on but I don’t know what else to do. At least I can tell Dave that I tried. She picks up on the first ring and asks me if I’m ok. I’ve said it before in my writings and I will say it again – Coach K is my favorite race director and for good reason. The level of empathy and care that she exudes for everyone around her, in and outside the running world is something to behold. She listens to my jibber jabber about my location, the sign, the GPS, etc. and calmly tells me that I am still on course and that I am doing fine. I thank her and tell Dave we really need to step it up.

We soon arrive at the Mollyhugger aid station and guess what?! It is STILL raining. We scarf some oranges and head out knowing we only have 5-6 miles left and we are going to have to hurry if we are going to make that 8 hour cutoff.

The trail coming off the mountain after Mollyhugger is basically a creek at this point. There is no point in even trying to skirt the ankle deep water filling the trail so we plod straight through. We pass 3 other runners in quick succession stopping only long enough to ask them if they are okay before we continue. We keep pushing the pace and every time my watch clicked off another mile, we ramped it up a bit more. I was feeling better than I can ever remember at this point in a race and I was determined to leave it all out there.

The last mile ended up being my fastest mile of the day. When we got to the turn off for Liberty Bell pool, I was running as fast as the terrain would allow and much faster than I had any business doing on such a rocky, technical trail. I thought to myself – “if I eat it going down this hill I am fucked. A fall at this speed in this mine field of pointed rocks would not be pretty.” But I’m so close and Dave is right behind me. The finish line and a road is less than a mile away. If I bust my head open, I’m halfway confident they’d get me to a hospital before I bled out. I give it everything I have and watch the rocks and leaves turn into a blur underfoot.

I cross the finish line in 8:00.38 and Dave comes in shortly thereafter. The race wasn’t an overall 50K personal best but when factoring in the nearly 10,000’ of elevation change, the technical terrain and the endless rain, I chalk it up as one of the best races I have ever completed. I’m not exactly sure what combination of factors transpired to make Saturday’s race such a phenomenal experience, but I look forward to attempting to recreate it soon.

6th and 7th place overall!

I ate some post-race pizza, changed into some dry clothes and climbed into the car for the ride home. I threw my finisher medal in the passenger seat where my 3 year sobriety pin sat. I sat and looked at them both while I thought about everything I had gone through on that race course and everything I have gone through since October 19, 2016. I will cherish both of those medals and they occupy a special place in my home. But that feeling is tempered. While I certainly worked hard for those small trinkets and that’s all good, they don’t really mean much in the long run; they’re just mile markers on the path. There is no real finish line on this journey as long as I occupy my small space on this “pale blue dot.” Like that gray haired poet from Houston said – “the road goes on forever and the party never ends.”


I hope you’ve enjoyed keeping up with my journey so far and I look forward to sharing more stories with you in the future. Thanks for taking the time to drop by and until we meet again…

Happy trails 🙂

Under the Bridge

“To understand me is to understand that I am an alcoholic, through and through. If something is good, then more is better, right? Balance is for ordinary people. Why not strive for extra-ordinary. This had always been my rule. And my ruin.”
– Rich Roll – personal inspiration, recovering alcoholic, endurance athlete

I struggled writing this. Then I wrote it and struggled deciding to post it. I wasn’t sure it belonged here. The inspiration for this blog was to share my love of travel and adventure and this is a radical departure from that model.

I wasn’t even sure my story belonged in the public eye. I felt some would find it preachy or holier than thou. I know that some people simply don’t want to hear about these sorts of things.

But I could not shake the fact that my own life has been profoundly affected by reading and listening to other people’s stories about their struggles. Everybody has a demon, or a monkey, maybe even a skeleton. I think it would behoove us all to acknowledge that and share our stories so that others do not feel they must fight their battles alone.

I have chosen to include my tale here for a few reasons. First, it tells the story of one of my most significant journeys.  Secondly, I believe that sharing your story is harder than not sharing your story. Most importantly, if just one single person reads this and makes a positive change in their life, then it will be worth it. So, here we go.

Allow me to take you back to my late twenties…

The slam of a heavy metal door wakes me up and I peel my face off a cold, concrete floor to see who was making all the noise. As I sit up, a wave of thoughts flood my mind. “Oh no, not again. What did I do this time?! Where is my wallet?! Does anyone know I’m here?!”

These thoughts are soon overcome by the rapidly increasing urge to empty my bladder. I stand up and wobble toward one of those metal doors. Peering through the tiny pane of thick polycarbonate, I yell at the first person I see – “Yo! I need to pee!!” The uniformed guard strolls up to the door, cracks a shit eating grin and points behind me. I feel the pit in my stomach grow larger. I turn around to see a hole in the floor. I should’ve known…

That wasn’t the first time that scenario had played out. Or the second. At that point, I was 28 years old and had seen the inside of a jail cell through the eyes of a drunk man more times than I cared to count. As I stood there peeing into that hole in the floor, I swore that it would be the last time. Alcohol had wrecked my life enough. No more. I was done.

But, I didn’t mean it.

Sure, it sounded good but I just kinda wanted it. Kinda wanting something is about as useful as not wanting it at all. Like the dozens of times before, I stayed dry for a while but eventually the hangover wore off, the charges were dropped, the shame diminished and I found my way back to the bottle. It would be another seven years before I found a sticking point. A sticking point I have miraculously clung to despite and partially in spite of the 73 failed attempts that came before.

Just so we are clear, I don’t know that it was actually 73. But that is the number I calculated on October 18, 2016 when I sat down with a twelve pack and a bomber and wrote down every failed attempt, fuck up and wrecked night that I could remember. Every Sunday afternoon I spent drowning in anxiety and shame. Every time I messed up bad enough that I had to seek help. Every time where I had swore that time was the last time.

By the time I had finished that list, I had a nice buzz. I flipped the page and filled the next with all the reasons I wanted to quit. All the ways that alcohol was robbing me of my potential. All the ways that it was destroying my health and relationships. I wrote until all the beer was gone and fell asleep amidst empty bottles with my legal pad still on my lap.

The next morning, I threw out the empties, burned the lists and by the grace of God, with a heaping of grit, sleepless nights, and no small amount of luck, I’ve avoided #74.

I would be remiss if I did not point out the fact that I have not done this alone. I have an incredible support network spearheaded by two remarkable individuals who themselves found sobriety years ago. Anonymity is valued in the recovery community so I will refrain from using their names here. But, I know they are reading this and I hope they know how much their support has meant to me. I could not and would not have wanted to do it without their help. I have enjoyed traveling the path with them and one of my sincere hopes is that I can offer companionship to others who seek to join the journey.

My road to sobriety started a long time ago when I drank my first beer in the LaGrange High parking lot at the age of sixteen – a Bud Heavy in a can my friend had pilfered from his dad’s stash. I thought it tasted awful. But, I drank it and a second because I wanted almost nothing more than to fit in with my peers. I had my first taste of liquor not long after when a buddy and I swapped swigs off a bottle of cheap vodka he had swiped from his sister. Alcohol soon found its way into all areas of my life. Parent’s basements, river trips with friends, concerts. All those things were enhanced by alcohol. I loved it, wanted more and had no idea when to say when.

I soon learned that I could use booze for almost anything. It was great to get geared up for a night out or perfect for an evening around the house. It made me a better singer, a funnier friend and a more talented cook. It eliminated my image issues and caused my social anxiety to vanish. Alcohol was my constant companion after high school, through college and well past grad school. I worked part and full time jobs, made decent grades, stayed active through outdoor adventure and from most outward appearances probably looked like I never had too much of a problem. Even when I did mess up, it would seem that fate would just give me another get out of jail free card.

It took almost two decades, but eventually the cumulative shame from my actions led to the realization that I could not allow myself to go down that road anymore. I had a hunch for some time but it hit home for me one sunny afternoon in Malibu where I was sharing lunch with a friend. As we rose to leave the restaurant, I noticed my friend had left half her beer on the table. When I mentioned it, she just smiled and said that she had enough. That just didn’t compute with me. Not only had she only ordered only one beer, she didn’t even drink the whole thing! If Don Johnson ordered a beer, he was going to order at least two more and he sure as hell wasn’t gonna leave half of one unfinished when it was time to go. I knew then that it had to be all or nothing. This wasn’t going to be something where I could one day reintroduce alcohol into my life and enjoy it in a moderate fashion. That wasn’t me and it never would be. I had to stop completely because I didn’t know when to completely stop.

I’m not going to paint some rosy picture of recovery. Staying sober is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Giving up the luxury of being able to twist off and make my problems temporarily disappear was a huge adjustment for me. Furthermore, alcohol was a band aid I used to cover up my social anxiety and I never realized how much I depended on that bandage until I ripped it off. Without it, I found my social circle shrinking and some of my closest friendships suffering because I withdrew to a place of comfort.

Saturday nights were eye opening.

I often chose to stay at home rather than deal with choosing between finding a sober activity or not drinking at my familiar haunts with my old friends. Not only did I not yet trust myself but it was exhausting. Friends would ask me if I was still not drinking or when I thought I would drink again or why I stopped and on and on and on. I didn’t know how to answer them. I didn’t want to talk about it. Like someone who keeps a terminal diagnosis a secret, I stopped telling people because I felt it was just easier if I could avoid the inevitable conversations.

At one point, I mentioned to one of my sponsors that it seemed I had basically traded one set of difficulties for another. Sobriety wasn’t the panacea I had hoped it would be. I was losing friends, coming to terms with my natural introversion and constantly battling the urge to drink. His response? “Yeah, we try to keep that under wraps. Not good for business.” Great. Just great.

Some of my friends would even insinuate that I had overreacted and that I didn’t have a problem. But, I did. I had a huge problem. The glaring absence of a DUI or worse from my arrest record is a testament to how lucky I was, not an indicator that I wasn’t an alcoholic.

People are in jail or dead for much less than what I did. I wrecked a Jeep and a motorcycle drunk. I came close to burning a house down. I was almost shot trying to enter the wrong apartment in a drunken stupor. I got stitches at the ER on three different occasions. I blazed a trail of destruction and with the exception of a few small scars, I somehow managed to walk away practically unscathed.

But, worse than all that are the things I did that didn’t leave visible damage. I said horrendous things to people I love. (It should be noted that I said some pretty awful things to complete strangers as well). I ruined relationships and disappointed those who loved me most. I lied, broke promises and acted in total disregard of anyone’s feelings other than my own.

My mother probably bore the burden of my behavior more than anyone. I have no idea how many sleepless nights she endured. It tears me apart when she says that giving up alcohol is her proudest moment of mine. Of all things a mother should be proud of her son for accomplishing…

I know she has forgiven me, but I will spend the rest of my life trying to make up for the heartbreak I caused her. And not just her.

I’ve taken an active role in trying to make amends with those I wronged. I’ve apologized to so many people. I’ve made phone calls, written letters, sent texts and stopped friends and old acquaintances in public to express my regret. Most people are gracious and tell me not to worry about it. Some people just say thank you. Others don’t respond. However a person chooses to react to my apology is fine by me. I’m not looking for forgiveness. I just want them to know that I feel remorse for my actions.

I make it a point to not blame the alcohol; even in conversations with myself (You have a lot of those when you stop going out on Saturday night). A great and insightful poet once said “the bottle ain’t to blame and I ain’t trying to. It don’t make you do a thing, it just lets you.” I used to sing that line at concerts without much more than an iota of understanding the truth contained in that statement. I’m still wrapping my head around it, but I think I know what he’s talking about.

1000 days is a big deal to me but it’s a drop in the bucket to some. I love to hear stories about people who have decades of sobriety under their belt. I also try to remind myself that all it would take is one drink to breach the dam. For every story about someone who found sobriety and kept it, there is a story of someone who did not. So sure, 1000 days is great but what really matters is right now. Not the months past or the weeks to come. Today. I will not drink today. “Not the prize, but the journey.”

Writing this caused me to give my situation a lot of thought and I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe this story belongs here after all. It is its own version of a travel tale. Sobriety has been quite a trip and the places it has taken me are ones I never want to forget and hope to be able to share with others.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story. I have one favor to ask before you go. If you or someone you love needs to to chat, vent, run, cry, yell or just have a cup of coffee, do not hesitate to reach out to me. I would love to help in any way that I can.

Happy trails…

Tramps like us…


By the Numbers:

16,100’ – elevation change on the 31+ mile course

9 hours, 46 minutes – total time

36° – temperature at the start line

41° – temperature at the finish line

3 – # of jumbo oatmeal crème pies I ate during the race

2 – # of times it sleeted during the race


It took me quite some time to get around to writing this race report. As such, the passage of time may have obscured or rearranged some details. I have tried to recreate the race experience as accurately as possible. Big thanks to Perry Sebastian and all the race volunteers who made that cold, rainy weekend as enjoyable as it could be given the circumstances. Allow me to take you back to that April weekend…

I shifted nervously in my seat and asked my client to repeat her question. It was 10:30AM in Columbus, Georgia but my mind was in another time and place. During a lull in the conversation, I had let my thoughts drift to North Georgia and the race I would be involved in the following day. I could see the rain falling outside the window of the courthouse and it seemed to be trying to tell me something. Exactly what I could not quite decipher but I knew I would have plenty of time to figure it.

Later that afternoon, my attention was all over the place on my drive up to Fort Mountain State Park. Much like I would be doing on rain slick rocks the next day, my thoughts jumped from one spot to the next. I tried to remain focused on the road but could not quite halt the meandering of my monkey mind.

I thought about how the weekend would be the seven-year anniversary of my first ultramarathon and the mental and physical journey the sport has taken me on since that time.

I thought about the looming challenge that lay before me. DoubleTop would feature the most challenging 50K course I had ever encountered taking full advantage of some of the steepest trails the Chattahoochee National Forest has to offer. Boasting an elevation profile that would be equivalent to hiking up and down Stone Mountain 11+ times, I knew the DT50K would test my glutes and my grit.

I wondered about race day conditions as the public radio broadcast was repeatedly interrupted with severe thunderstorm and flash flood warnings, tornado watches and even reports of hail in North Georgia.

I imagined what sort of food I would find at the aid stations. I love to eat and I have had some amazing meals in my lifetime. But, I would put a PB&J devoured off a Styrofoam plate handed to you by a friendly stranger in the middle of the woods up against the best of them.

I wondered what internal demons would surface during the harder parts of the race. I speculated about how loud they would talk and what sort of persuasive techniques they might use to convince me to heed their beck and call.

I thought about familiar faces that I would encounter and new friends I might make along the way.

But mostly, I thought about the food.

I arrived at packet pickup that evening to find one of those familiar faces that seems to be a regular on the Georgia ultrarunning scene. I’m always happy to run into Brad since we share a mutual love of Thailand, mountain trails and Subarus. We first met last August at the Project 42 Southern Fried 50K when I took shelter from the brutal heat at his shady aid station. While I munched on orange slices, I listened with rapt attention as he told me about his exploits in the North Georgia mountains. Since that day, I’ve always looked forward to running into him at race events.

After getting my race bib and t-shirt, I headed back down the mountain to find some pre-race carbs and a bed for the night. Along the way, I passed sections of road where the trail crossed over and I wondered how the runners out on course were fairing. Ultrarunning tends to attract a certain breed of masochist and when you get enough of those certain people together, boundaries and reason begin to bend and blur. It was this sort of unraveling that led 9 brave souls to start their race on Thursday afternoon as part of the 72 hour DoubleTop event. Yup. 72 hours. 3 full days on one of the hardest racecourses in the southeast.

As I was driving down the mountain, not far from my climate-controlled cage, they were nearing the 24-hour mark of their race. While I had been sleeping the night before, those individuals were climbing switchbacks in the dark possibly wondering what had made that noise in the brush beside them. When I was sitting in court earlier in the day, they were running through wind swept sheets of rain. Long after I got back in my car and headed off to a hot shower and a warm meal, some of them would still be on course, still striving to reach the goal they had set for themselves. It was those thoughts of those hardy souls and the war they were waging that accompanied me as I finally fell asleep later that night.

At 5AM, I rolled out of bed and got geared up. Two hours later, I was standing in the drizzling rain with 19 other runners as we listened to the final instructions from the race director before embarking on our journey. We trotted out of the parking lot and soon left the paved road behind and ventured onto the rollercoaster of dirt and rocks that would be our home for the next several hours. Or it would have been dirt and rocks except for the fact that the rain had turned a lot of that dirt to mud and transformed those rocks into slippery ramps just waiting to roll an ankle or send you tumbling off the side of the trail and into the blueberry thickets.

I settled into a comfortable pace a few dozen yards behind a lady running in a red jacket. I typically try to avoid running with anyone at the start of a race as I find that I do best working my own comfortable pace and settling in to those first few miles. I am never worried about starting a long race too slow but I’ve certainly dealt with the consequences of starting them too fast. It is generally accepted knowledge in the ultra community that you cannot win a race in those first few miles but you can certainly lose it. Just like a car or a first date, ultras work best if you give things time to warm up before you start mashing on the gas.

I would occasionally catch glimpses of red jacket when the trail and fog opened up enough for some extended visibility. Seeing her up ahead reassured me that I was still on course or that we had both taken the same wrong turn. Either way, misery and misdirection love and find solace in company.

Around the 6 mile mark, I began the first of three 1000’+ descents that I would make over the course of the day. Many runners relish downhills as they view them as free speed. I certainly appreciate their point of view but my knees do not. I would love to open it up and barrel down steep descents flirting with that fine line between control and reckless abandon, but it is simply not in the cards for me as of yet. A combination of lack of experience on steep descents, uncooperative joints and a healthy dose of timidity kept the reins pulled in as I worked my way down the muddy and rocky slope.

Like the familiar clichéd saying, what goes down must come up and DoubleTop was no exception. I soon found myself giving back every bit of that 1000’ loss in the form of a brutal uphill showcased by a ridiculous powerline section. I had read about this segment in race reports posted online and found a bit of strange solace amidst the horror stories. My first 50K at Sweetwater State Park outside of Atlanta had also featured a powerline section and so I found it fitting that I would again get to revel in the joys of hands on quads hiking under the buzz of high powered voltage. Kind of like eating a slice of your old wedding cake on your anniversary.

Insert expletives here

The going was slow at this point but I managed to catch up with one runner who appeared to be struggling. I struck up a conversation and asked him if he needed anything. While trying to decipher his mumbling response, I realized why he was moving so slow. He was one of the 72 hour runners. At the point that I met him, he had been on course for almost 40 hours. The mere fact that he was even awake and moving humbled me. I wished him well and continued my upward journey.

At the top of the powerlines, I reached the aid station located almost halfway through the 50K course. The middle of the race is always a mental boost for me and I celebrated by grabbing my first oatmeal crème pie of the day. I ate half of it while thanking the volunteers and stuffed the rest into my vest to save for later. I was about 4 hours into the race at this point and I was beginning to feel the cumulative effect that being soaked for that long can take on one’s physical and mental condition. You can only get so wet and I had reached that point hours ago but physical and mental deterioration know few bounds and I found myself preoccupied with the hot spots forming on my soles and in the recesses of my mind. It was at that point that I stepped into an aid station tent and saw Brad. He grinned and told me that he had a message for me from our mutual friend Coach K, but that he couldn’t remember it at the moment. That was fine by me. Just knowing that somebody had thought about me out on the course warmed my heart and I felt that warmth spread throughout the rest of my cold, drenched body.

I left the aid station and made my way several hundred feet down the Pinhoti Connector trail to pick up my first playing card of the day. A common tactic in races that utilize an out and back section of trail without an aid station at the turn around point is to place a deck of cards or a book from which runners must pull a card or a page to verify they actually ran the entire route. Due to the steepness of the grade at this point and the narrowness of the trail, this was the most treacherous part of the racecourse that I encountered. Were it not for a few well-placed tree limbs and a little bit of luck, I would have surely ate it on this section. Red jacket lady was coming back up the trail as I was descending and we wished each other well as we slipped and slid past each other.

Back at the aid station, I dropped off my playing card and grabbed my second Little Debbie treat of the day. In a moment of déjà vu that harkened back to Southern Fried, I found myself again not wanting to leave Brad’s aid station. He had a nice, warm(ish) tent with chairs and lots of food. Outside, it had begun to sleet and the ringing of the ice pellets off the plastic roof tempted me to just stay put. But after a few minutes, the volunteers gave me that “get out of here” look and I sheepishly complied.

“Don’t you draw the Queen of Diamonds, boy…”

I soon found myself on a beautiful trail running alongside Hassler’s Mill Creek and for a few brief minutes, all was right with the world. The sleet had turned back to rain and the raindrops falling around me combined with the sound of the rushing water and my leaf-dampened footsteps to create a musical backdrop that lifted my spirits and spread a huge grin across my face. “This is what it is all about” I thought. But I knew it wasn’t and I knew it would not last. As ultrarunner Gene Thibeault is known to say – “If you start to feel good during an ultra, don’t worry – you’ll get over it.” Sure enough, I got over it quick enough and soon hit the lowest literal point on the course and not much later found the figurative low point as well.

I’m just happy to be here

I crossed the 20-mile mark and began my biggest climb of the day gaining over 1200’ over the next 2 miles on a combination of horse and bike trails. The little demons began to chat incessantly at this point. I had been soaking wet for close to 6 hours; I was repeatedly slipping in the mud and I knew I was going to have to repeat this climb (in even muddier conditions) again before the race was over. I also knew that once I reached the top of the hill, I would be a 5 minute walk from my car. “Fuck this,” the demons said. “Warm car, dry clothes. What are you trying to prove? Nobody cares if you finish this. And even if they do, they wouldn’t blame you for quitting. It’s raining and sleeting for the love of God. You’ve already ran farther today than most of your friends run in a month. Why don’t we just call it a day?!”

Slip n slide

And the demons were mostly right. Except about one thing. I knew one guy that would care if I quit. I didn’t know where he might be or what he might be doing but I thought about him a lot as I slogged up that hill. I think about him almost every day, race or not. That guy is 80 year old me. I could feel him looking over my shoulder and reminding me that he is not able to do this sort of stuff. He has his own demons and the difficulties he face make mine pale in comparison. However, he reminded me that I had the power to give him a gift. Decades from now, he would be able to look back and recall with pride and satisfaction how he used his strength and energy when he was capable; even when he did not want to, even when he was out in the cold rain, even when demons and common sense may have chosen otherwise.

So, I stayed on course. At the Cool Springs Overlook aid station at the top of the climb, I scarfed down some M&M’s and headed straight instead of taking the right that would have led me back to my car. I ran back to Brad’s aid station, down the Pinhoti Connector trail and again along that glorious stretch beside Hassler’s Mill Creek. And once again, I crept up that 2 mile climb. When I reached the top, I grabbed my third oatmeal crème pie, thanked the volunteers and shuffled up the road to the finish line. I took my time and enjoyed that Little Debbie and the last 5 minutes of my race. I soon saw Perry standing out in the rain and knew that my day was over. I could almost hear 80 year old me whisper “thank you” as I crossed the finish line.

That wasn’t so bad. What’s next?!

“This town is nuts, my kind of place”

As I write this, I sit across the street from a larger than life sized statue of Donald Trump, hair plastered to appear that it is waving in the wind. A few storefronts away is a two story building full of ninja stars, samurai swords and butterfly knives. Between The Donald and the Asian arsenal are tiny shops selling burnt wood signs, airbrushed t-shirts, and legal moonshine.

The air is filled with the smell of smoked sausages, vehicle exhaust and funnel cakes. In the distance, I can hear the sound of Indiana Jones’ theme music playing at a putt-putt golf course. The sidewalk is crammed with tourists including one portly fellow buzzing along in his motorized wheelchair; one hand on the handlebar, the other clutching a turkey leg. The small two lane road is packed as well, full of adventure vehicles, loud motorcycles and the occasional orange and green trolley.

It is a surreal sight to behold and I try my best to appreciate it for what it is worth, something I have not always been willing to do.

Consider the fact that less than a mile away from the above described chaos lies the boundary of one of the largest and most awe inspiring sections of federally protected land east of the Mississippi – an International Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most polluted parks in the country. That these two wildly dissimilar environments exist alongside each other is something I once took for granted.

I’m sure some of you have already guessed where I am by this point. Most likely, you’ve visited this town yourself or you know someone who has. Perhaps they even brought you some saltwater taffy or a sweatshirt with a family of black bears on it as a souvenir.

Gatlinburg, TN is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the country; bolstered by the fact that the Great Smoky Mountains draw somewhere around 11 million visitors per year (for contrast, Yellowstone receives less than a third of that).

Or at least the Smokies draw some of them…

Most are “windshield tourists” coming for the miniature golf, themed restaurants and any number of the seemingly endless attractions Ripley Entertainment manages to cram into the city. All of which helps to explain why less than 5% of the people who visit the Smokies ever set foot on a backcountry trail. Not that I am complaining…solitude in nature is a wonderful thing and it can be hard to find at times.

I don’t intend to sound as if I dislike Gatlinburg. No place outside of Georgia invokes more nostalgia for me. I’ve been visiting this small mountain town for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories include vacations here with my grandparents. We would load up my Pop’s green Ford pickup early on Friday morning and I would sleep on the bench seat in the back while he and my Nanny sang along with the local country music radio. We would roll into town and head straight to Jack Huff’s Motor Lodge. To this day, I never pass that little motel without a smile and maybe a tear.

Jack Huff was a prominent figure in the Smokies in the 20th century and as a young boy, I was fascinated by the tales of this mountain man who built the highest inn east of the Mississippi. Leconte Lodge has been drawing hardy visitors for longer than the National Park has been in existence and over 90 years after its founding, this cozy, rustic lodge remains accessible only by foot, helicopter or llama train.

Many of the hotels, stores and cliché restaurants from my boyhood days have come and gone. But Huff’s is still there. I spent the night at that little motel for the first time in over two decades recently and the familiar sights and smells that I encountered when I walked through the lobby door transported me back to another time. I was reminded of how my grandparents and I often ate lunches of Vienna sausages and saltine crackers in our motel room owing to my grandparent’s penchant for frugality dictated by decades spent working in the mills. I walked around the outdoor pool where I spent countless afternoons. I even swore that the elderly lady at the front desk looked familiar…

I felt nostalgia and my emotions begin to get the best of me so I set off for a stroll up the parkway that runs through the heart of town to perhaps clear my mind. But, everywhere I went, the memories followed me. I stood on the sidewalk outside an arcade where Pop fell one evening when it was becoming apparent that his aged legs were beginning to betray him. The next time we came to town, he too toured the streets in a wheelchair (minus the turkey leg). I walked past the Pancake Pantry where we would eat almost every morning and recalled the exhilaration of looking out over my plate of chocolate chip pancakes at snow falling outside. Snow in the morning meant that the road home between Gatlinburg and Cherokee would be closed and that we would get to stay another night. My Nanny was always as excited about this as me. Pop pretended to be bothered by the inconvenience but deep down, I think he loved it as much as we did.

My memories of this town don’t stop there. I was sometimes allowed to bring a friend along on our family trips to the mountains. My buddies and I loved spending our vacation days playing putt-putt, wandering through Ripley’s Believe It or Not and going to the haunted house at night. I went through the Mysterious Mansion so many times that I memorized the layout and would yell at hidden employees before they could do the same to me. I suppose I was and always have been easily entertained.

As my friends and I got older, we began to seek new adventures. My first experience hitchhiking came one summer day when a buddy and I hopped in the back of a pickup for the 15 minute drive to neighboring Pigeon Forge. Later that day, we visited that Asian arsenal and bought ourselves a couple of blowguns. We stayed up into the wee hours of the night practicing our aim by shooting the wooden mantle in my parent’s condo. This skill would come in handy years later when I was handed a homemade blowgun by a villager in rural Ecuador and promptly lodged a wooden dart into a mango some 15 feet away. My two friends who had seen their darts hit the ground in front of their feet just looked at me in amazement as did our tour guide. Rather than explain the backstory, I just grinned and chalked it up to beginner’s luck.

In the hostel later that night, I couldn’t help but think of how Gatlinburg and the Smokies had somehow impacted other areas of my life as well. Hikes in the park had sparked a love for the natural world and admiring relics and antiquities from around the globe in Ripley’s Believe It or Not had fostered a natural curiosity about faraway lands and adventures.

After high school, I continued to make my way to Gatlinburg, still seeking new adventures. The city and I seemed to grow together over the years and I began to feel like a local whenever I would come to town. Familiar restaurants and trails greeted me like an old friend and I loved sharing these places with others.

Up to that point, I never considered Gatlinburg any different from the other vacation spots my family frequented. Sure, the neon and airbrushed t-shirts were tacky but so were the ones in Panama City. And I didn’t mind tacky. I guess I just assumed that was all part of it. When you went on vacation, you got a colorful t-shirt and maybe a wooden keychain with your name carved on it. I never stopped to consider that the over the top kitsch somehow conflicted with the nearby natural beauty.

It wasn’t until reading Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” while preparing for my hike on the Appalachian Trail that I began to understand that not everyone thought so highly of my favorite little mountain town. I furrowed my brow when Bryson wryly pointed out that –

“For years, it (Gatlinburg) has prospered on the confident understanding that when Americans load up their cars and drive enormous distances to a setting of rare natural splendor, what most of them want when they get there is to play a little miniature golf and eat dribbly food.”

I was taken aback. What was so wrong with mini golf and dribbly food anyway?! I didn’t know it then but it would not be long before I obtained a bit of perspective and began to understand a little of what Bill was talking about.

Fast forward a few months and my buddy and I standing on top of Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail and just a short drive from Gatlinburg. We had been hiking for weeks and were looking forward to heading into town for a warm shower, a hot meal and a cold beer. We soon managed to use those hitchhiking skills I had perfected as a teenager to flag down a group of college girls who graciously gave us two stinky hikers a ride down the mountain into town.

I had looked forward to this part of the trip since we took those first steps off Springer Mountain in Georgia. My buddy had never been to Gatlinburg before and our girlfriends were driving up to spend the weekend with us. I was so excited to show them all around the town that I had come to know and love over the years. But, when we stepped out of that tiny car onto those neon lit streets, I noticed that things weren’t quite the same.

Things just did not feel right. “Why was it so noisy?” “Where did all these people come from?” I was then reminded of another line from Bryson’s book – “Gatlinburg is a shock to the system from whichever angle you survey it, but never more so than when you descend upon it from a spell of moist, grubby isolation in the woods.”

Ahhhh. So, maybe that was the problem.

Somehow, the flashing lights and carnival style food didn’t seem to hold the same sway as it had before. Perhaps Bill was right. Could it be that the last two weeks and hundreds of miles of walking in nature had sensitized me?! I was almost tempted to turn around and head back into the woods.

Although we all ended up having a great weekend in town, when my buddy and I left to resume our trek north, I remember thinking that I wasn’t inclined to come back to Gatlinburg anytime soon. I needed time to process how a place I once held so dear could now somehow seem so strange and out of place. And so I stayed away for a few years, uninclined to cast anymore shade on a place that my childhood memories held so dear.

I visited Gatlinburg once while in grad school but was met with the same conflicted thoughts. This was not the town I had grown to love as a child. It seemed fake and I felt in some sense that I had been betrayed by its inviting lights and cheap entertainment. Those diversions had distracted me from the true beauty that existed just a few miles away. And so I left and told myself that I was unlikely to ever return. Sure, I would come to the Smokies again, but not to this town, not to this cheap rip off of what I thought a mountain escape should be.

And so it went. I didn’t set foot on those neon lit streets for almost a decade. And then, last summer on my way to West Virginia, I missed a turn and found myself on an old, familiar road in north Georgia. I drove past the restaurant my parents and I used to eat at on the way to Tennessee. Further up, I slowed and admired the stately college prep campus that had fascinated me as a child. I realized in that moment where the road was taking me and I decided to proceed rather than turn around and backtrack. I told myself that I would just ride down Gatlinburg’s main strip as a reminder of how obnoxious it all was. A reminder that I had somehow matured beyond the corndogs and neon t-shirts. But, when I pulled into town, my gut and my heart told me that I would soon be stopping.

I found Jack Huff’s Motor Lodge at the edge of town and felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me. I soon opened the door to my motel room and felt my grandparent’s presence stronger than I could possibly hope to describe here. I spent all afternoon walking up and down streets that I knew like the back of my hand. I ate a sausage dog on a spinning stool in an arcade just as I had done as a child. I wandered through the music store where I bought cassette tapes (man, am I old) for my grandparents to play on the drive home. I stopped at a small theatre I loved as a child and learned that my favorite actor there had recently succumbed to cancer. Time had marched on and this little town and I had both changed in myriad ways but we still recognized each other.

I thought about how silly I felt for having judged the neon and airbrushed shirts years before. People love the kitsch here and deep down, I do too. I cherish the mountain streams and trails that lie just outside earshot of the clamor of town but that doesn’t mean that I can’t also embrace their gaudy neighbor. These wildly dissimilar environments have coexisted for decades and I think I’m starting to understand why.

Exposure to one can help you appreciate the other. People who would otherwise never set foot in a National Park may be inclined to do so by taking a vacation to Gatlinburg. And self-righteous nature types who abhor flashing lights and carnival food might find out that a corndog and a round of putt-putt golf is just the thing to relax after a day (or week) spent communing with Mother Nature.

So, I guess I’ve come full circle. The next time I swing through Gatlinburg, I’ll probably load up on saltwater taffy for a snack on my hike and after I’ve scratched my nature itch, maybe I’ll buy myself an airbrushed t-shirt and a wooden keychain. That way, I can have a reminder of how much I love this little mountain town and all the tackiness and “dribbly food” that it has to offer.

Not the prize, but the struggle

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again…”

I share the words above with almost every outdoor education group I have the privilege of leading. Not just because Teddy was the best President ever; or because dust, sweat and blood are part of nearly every outdoor ed trip, but because those words are timeless and universal. At some point on every wilderness trip, the typical youth will encounter failure of some sort. Maybe they set up their tent wrong and wake up soaking wet; perhaps they can’t keep up with their peers on a strenuous hike; some can’t deal with the homesickness and call their parents for extraction.

I want my campers to know that failure is part of a life well lived. I want them to understand that failure is not definitive, but how you react to that failure very well may be. I want them to see the illuminating insights that failure offers us if we are willing to take a close look.

Walk into a Crossfit gym, go to an AA meeting, hang out at an aid station late in an ultramarathon and you’ll see failure in some of its most poignant forms. You’ll see the shock of first time failure, the tears that accompany failure when the will to persevere can no longer be found, the frustration that comes with repeated and persistent failure. To fail, whether publicly or privately, once or repeatedly, by an inch or a mile, and to get back up and try again is one of the most powerful forces that exists in our world.

I share Roosevelt’s words for a deeper reason as well – because they resonate with me. They strike a chord deep inside. Like the man in the arena, despite my valiant striving, I too come up short. I too experience failure more often than my fragile ego would prefer.

Over the years and through numerous events, I have come to appreciate failure, to seek it out and to embrace it. I believe that if you are not looking for those areas of your life that scare you, where you come up short and where you fail, you’re robbing yourself of something amazing. Failure has valuable lessons for those who can put aside their ego and accept the painful truths that it will teach.

This is a bit of a detour away from my previous posts. If you like to keep your internet browsing superficial or of the feel good variety, please feel free to skip this one. I’m going to peel back a few layers of the metaphorical onion and hopefully I won’t shed too many tears along the way. I’ve chosen to share this story in the hopes that someone else will read it and realize that the failure they’ve experienced doesn’t have to define them or signal the end of their hopes and dreams.

When we peel back those layers, what we find at the bottom of it all is a flawed human being. Someone who has made a lot of mistakes. Someone who has quit and someone who has failed. Over and over again. But I believe in second chances. And third chances. And the fact that failure can bring out the best in all of us. It is those failures that helped make me who I am today.

Success and failure are two sides of the same coin and I’ve had the privilege of experiencing both in 2018. I think that the dual outcomes are important for a happy, healthy, balanced existence. But…only one of them teaches the hard lessons that so many of us miss out on in our pampered lives. Failure helps you figure out if you truly desire the things that you say you want. Failure helps shine a light on the areas in your preparation, planning or execution that could have been improved. And finally, after it has its way with you, failure will offer you a concession prize – the option to stay down, admit defeat and avoid crossing its path again. The choice is yours to make. Listen to the critics, whether external or internal, pointing out your shortcoming as a sign of weakness. Telling you that it would probably be easier if you just gave up the fight. Or listen to the voice telling you to get back up and press forward.

2018 got off to a great start for me. In late February, I battled sub-freezing temperatures and dozens of miles of soul sucking sand to finish my first 50 mile trail race at Antelope Canyon outside of Page, Arizona. Despite the less than ideal conditions, I ran a strong race and even set a new 50 mile personal best time. As my buddy and I sat around a campfire swapping stories after the race, I could not help but be slightly amazed that it had all gone so well.

I was extremely nervous in the days leading up to the race. I worried that I had not trained enough. I fretted that the extensive deep sand sections would wreck my feet or my stride. I laid awake the night before the race wondering if I would struggle to finish under the time cutoff. Surprisingly, none of these things happened. I had a great race in one of the most iconic environments of the American Southwest. I met some amazing people who helped me enjoy the experience more than I ever thought possible. The feeling of sitting around that fire after the race was one of pure joy and elation. Chucker and I had signed up for the race months in advance, put in countless training hours and miles and had successfully completed the most ambitious running undertaking either of us had attempted up to that point. We felt amazing. At least until we stood up and attempted to walk back to our cars…

“Come play in the sand,” they said. “It will be fun,” they said

A couple of months after Antelope, I participated in the Goruck Battling Bastards Tough in Atlanta. This was a commemorative event designed to honor those who were a part of WWII’s Bataan Death March. Most Goruck events are a difficult affair, but commemorative excursions typically promise a little extra kick in the teeth and this one was no exception. I knew this going in, but worried little. I’d done over half a dozen Goruck events in the previous years. I knew what was coming and told myself that I was ready for it. Or so I thought. I found myself gassed and struggling from the very beginning and it only got worse.

Log PT is an integral part of most Goruck classes but it typically lasts only a few hours at most. Bataan was different. At the start of the event, the Cadre (former Spec Ops members who lead the event) took all our food and gave us 4 long sections of telephone pole in exchange. We carried those poles practically everywhere we went that night. And we carried them well into the next morning. 12+ hours after starting, Cadre finally relieved us of our logs, gave us our food back and announced that we had completed the event.

I was buoyed by my success at Antelope and Bataan and as a result, I slacked off in the following months. I “rested on my laurels” so to speak and didn’t keep my training or my discipline in check. I even joked to Chucker about this wonderful new hedonistic lifestyle I had discovered.

Somewhere along the way, we grew restless and decided that we again needed to challenge ourselves. Much like the idea that the sum can be greater than its parts, our collective appetite for suffering outweighs anything we would attempt to digest on our own. In our infinite wisdom, we decided to up the ante and run the Hell Hole 100K in Francis Marion National Forest outside of Charleston. That’s right. A 62 mile run. In a coastal swamp. In June. How hard could it be? It was only 12 miles more than what we had run in February and on a much flatter course. Neither of us saw the sucker punch that was coming.

Torrential rains in the days leading up to the race had forced a reroute of the race course since waist deep water, snakes and alligators had found their way onto the planned route. Whatever. We didn’t care. We laughed and joked the morning of the race like we were getting ready to run a 5K. We didn’t laugh very long.

Despite the course modifications, we still encountered mile after mile of shin to knee-deep, murky brown water in that blistering swamp. The sensation of unseen creatures rubbing against my leg caused my heart rate to skyrocket despite my slow and stumbling pace. After the first 15 miles, I was already feeling the effects of the heat and the deep water sections had substantially slowed my pace as I slogged through them in a mix of terror and caution.

The stuff nightmares are made of

The second lap only intensified the suffering under the full heat of the midday sun. The pace was slow and saw me coming to grips with the reality that I would almost certainly be finishing the last loop in the dark. Dealing with knee-deep water in the swamp in the daylight was intimidating as it was. The thought of doing it in the dark terrified me. So, I let that fear and my cramped muscles take control and I quit after 30+ miles. I wasn’t alone. Of the 13 individuals who signed up for that race, only 4 completed the course; a dismal finishing percentage by almost any race measure.

Looking back, it is clear that I could have finished that race. I did not reach a state where I was physically incapable of continuing. Despite my fears, I was not bitten by a snake or dragged underwater by an alligator. Rather, I lost the mental fight and threw in the towel because I could not, or would not, find the will to continue. Such is the case in almost all endurance event DNF’s. People don’t typically drop out on a 62 mile run because they break a bone or because their kidneys fail (although these things do certainly occur). People quit because the demands of the event eventually outweigh the desire and discipline required to continue. The pain, anguish and frustration grow louder and louder until you can no longer hear that little voice in your head reminding you “why” you signed up for the race in the first place.

And so it goes with life. People who accept failure’s concession prize and give up the fight rarely do so out of a complete inability to soldier on. They give up because they lose sight of their goal. They give up because their will gets eroded to the point where it can no longer stand. Or, as in the case at HellHole, they give up because the fear of the unknown becomes more powerful than their faith in themselves.

Chucker and I elected not to accept failure lying down and instead we signed up for the Daytona 100. Spanning the distance from Jacksonville Beach to Daytona, the race offered the opportunity to run through some of the most popular beach communities in Florida on one of the most iconic oceanfront roads on the East Coast. A1A Beachfront Avenue!!!

I ran religiously in the months leading up to Daytona and saw my running times reach levels that I had not encountered since high school soccer. Driving to Jacksonville on Friday afternoon, I truly felt that I was prepared. Unlike the nervousness that I experienced before the Antelope 50, I felt confident and ready. I had a great carb loading supper that night with Chucker and his family and slept better than I can ever remember before a big race. I felt very few butterflies when we took off through the darkened streets of Jacksonville Beach at 6AM the next morning.

A lot of things happened between that start line and my ultimate drop at mile 61 of the course. I saw a beautiful sunrise. I met a fellow runner who I would share the journey with from the very first steps to the last time I saw him somewhere around mile 45 (I later learned he dropped out shortly after). I met some truly awe inspiring race volunteers; including one who has run across the U.S. and rowed across the Atlantic. I fought gear and gastrointestinal issues most of the day. I watched a sunset of unspeakable beauty. I experienced highs and lows, often within minutes of each other. I laughed, I cussed, I prayed, I cried. And ultimately, I failed.

Just like HellHole, nothing that happened to me on A1A forced me to quit. I did not get heat exhaustion. I did not develop rhabdo. I did not get hopelessly lost. I simply reached a point where I could not find or force the will to continue. Somewhere along that dark, lonely stretch of A1A that parallels the Matanzas River, the answer to my “why” lies lost. I looked for it for hours before I finally called off the search.

It has been said that quitting is a stink that you can’t wash off. It is true. Despite having run over 50 races in the past decade, I can only vividly recall a few of the most important ones – my first half marathon, my first 50K, my first 50 miler, etc. But, I can tell you exactly where and when I quit every race that I ever DNF’d. I don’t think that I will ever be able to forget those failures. And you know what? I don’t want to. They inspire me. They keep me awake at night. They make me lace up the shoes when I want to sleep. They remind me of the things that I have sacrificed on the altar of security of comfort.

An oft read maxim in the ultrarunning community is DNF>DNS.

Did Not Finish > Did Not Start.

Teddy knew all about this. Like the man in Teddy’s speech, I have stumbled. I have erred. I have come up short again and again. But, I am not done. I will not let my failures force me to adapt a life controlled by fear. I will again toe the line. I will continue to attempt things far outside my comfort zone. And I will most certainly fail again. But, that is okay. It is not a life devoid of failure that I seek. It is not a life full of success and shiny medals either. Rather, I choose to travel this path for the strength and wisdom that comes from difficult experiences, regardless of the outcome.

“…if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

It’s not about the miles. It’s about the smiles.

I was at a birthday dinner recently where the possibility of an after party was being tossed around. I told my friends that I would have to bow out early since I still had to get in my run for the day. This led to talk about the training plan I was following for an upcoming race. One of my buddies just rolled his eyes and said what I was doing was “dumb”. While that is not necessarily uncommon to hear, it still stung a little. I was reminded then of the words of Ann Trason. Widely considered the greatest female ultrarunner of all time, she described running as “romantic” but was quick to point out that her friends “didn’t get it.”

Later that night, while getting my miles in, I still couldn’t quite shake my friend’s comment. I started thinking about how I got into running and why I continue to participate in events that many people consider ludicrous. I’m still not quite sure I know the answer but this is what I have come up with so far – like a large portion of things in my life, it most likely boils down to a series of questionable decisions.

I never really ran growing up, aside from what came incidentally from casual participation in recess and field days. I played soccer and basketball in high school but my lack of natural talent and halfhearted interest kept me out of most of the actual playing time. However, I did enough suicide drills and last man runs during practice to confirm my distaste for running.

The meager running that I did in high school quickly subsided when I entered college. I found myself relieved of the obligatory sports participation that athletic life in my extremely small high school had necessitated and was grateful for as much. I stayed active by playing (and routinely losing) tennis matches with my girlfriend. I rode bikes with her dad on the weekends and I even lifted weights with a coworker now and then. But I surely didn’t run.

Post-college days saw much of the same. I did a lot of hiking before I entered graduate school as my best friend and I walked almost the entire distance between Georgia and New York. It was on the Appalachian Trail that I first stumbled upon the phrase echoed in the title of this post. A wise, old sage by the name of Sourdough sat me down one night and explained that it wasn’t about how far you hiked. What really mattered was how much enjoyment you derived from whatever distance you covered. It made sense to me. I still didn’t run but I was beginning to see the appeal of self propelled locomotion.

Does going on a beer run count?

It wasn’t until the start of my second year of grad school that I began to run with any sort of rhyme or reason. Several of my classmates were signed up to run the Atlanta Thanksgiving half marathon and seeking any excuse I could find to stay out of the law library, I made the spontaneous decision to join them. Like I said earlier, questionable decisions…

Some of my peers at the time were lifelong runners who took racing seriously. They were following training plans and logging mileage as they built up a base of aerobic conditioning that would leave them in peak physical condition when the big day arrived. Hearing their stories of speedwork and weekly long runs reminded me of the rigors of pre-season soccer training. I wanted none of it.

Luckily for me, one of my friends had completed the Thanksgiving half several times before and felt that running should be fun, not a chore. Bob’s running style was erratic and unorthodox. He ran when he felt like it and didn’t when he didn’t. He was more focused on enjoying the experience than tracking mile splits. I could see a little bit of Sourdough in Bob and that appealed to me.

I thought Bob was cool as a fan and his laid back approach to training suited me so I just started inviting myself on his runs. We had a great time getting ready for that race. We ran late at night, down alleyways, in parking decks and even in the rain while we blasted the Grateful Dead. Running with Bob was the first time I’d ever viewed running as something to be enjoyed, rather than tolerated. I didn’t see Bob on Thanksgiving since we started at different times but just knowing that he was out there somewhere, most likely singing and laughing, buoyed me through the harder miles of that race.

I continued to run after that half marathon but never more than a few miles here and there. I began to keep a training log tracking my runs around that time; something that I continue to do to this day. Most of the time, I just jot down the time and distance. Sometimes, I’ll make notes about things I saw or comments I received (as a general rule, the shorter the shorts, the more frequent and entertaining the passerby dialogue.)

In early 2012, I found myself living on St. Simons Island where I stayed active by riding my bike and going to Crossfit. I still didn’t run much unless the coach made us. Those workouts humbled me as I did my best to fit in at a gym full of firebreathers. I walked in one afternoon and saw a sign-up sheet advertising a 50K race that was going to be held outside of Atlanta in a couple months. At the bottom of that flyer were a few names belonging to some of the guys that I looked up to in that gym. Continuing my lifelong tendency toward bad decisions, I put my name underneath theirs. I conveniently ignored the fact that I’d never run further than 13.1 miles in my life.

I went home that evening and googled “SweetH2O 50K.” I was mortified by what I read. This wasn’t just a 31 mile run. This was a trail race with waist deep stream crossings, a time cutoff and some terrifying uphill section known as the “Powerline.” I felt nauseous. I began brainstorming how I could get my name off that list. Maybe no one had seen it. I could just mark it out with black sharpie. Nobody would be able to read the name. I’d be good to go.

I showed up at the box (Crossfit gyms are called boxes because cults like to confuse outsiders) the next morning before anyone else. I even brought my black marker. I walked up just as the head firebreather got out of his truck. “Don Jon!! You signed up for the ultra. Hell yeah!!” My spirits sank. I pushed the sharpie deeper into my pocket. “Yeah man, I’m stoked.” The pit in my stomach got bigger. I was on the hook.

A few days later, I sent an email to one of those grad school buddies with the training plan I had scoffed at years before. Surely there would be some sort of ultra training regime I could follow. I don’t remember his exact response but it basically questioned my sanity for attempting such a thing; especially considering I’d never even ran a marathon. To this day, despite completing over half a dozen ultras, I’ve never participated in the traditional 26.2 mile race so many runners consider the holy grail.

To make a long story not so long, I did find a training plan, halfway stuck with it and finished the 2012 SweetH2O 50K and promptly swore I would never do another one.
If it weren’t for an unexpected turn of events in South America, that might have been where this story ended.

One and done. Or so we thought

But, on a warm, summer day, in a moment of flustered confusion, my backpack was stolen while I waited on a train in Buenos Aires. The contents of that pack are largely inconsequential today. Other than an Ipad, a hat and my travel journal, I couldn’t tell you what items it contained. The journal was the hardest pill to swallow. It detailed every trip I had taken since college. More than half a decade later, it still pains me to think about those memories that are presumably gone forever. My name, address and offer of reward if found were written on the inside front flap. I sometimes fantasize that one day it will show up in my mailbox, but I don’t get my hopes up.

You may wonder why I remember the hat. That precious yellow hat. You see, it was the finisher award from SweetH2O. Everybody that paid the race fee and showed up that day received a t-shirt. But only those who crossed under that finish banner got the hat. As I sat in the train station, kicking myself for being so careless, it occurred to me – “I have to go back.” I couldn’t replace that travel journal but I could certainly get another hat.

And so it went. The next April, I toed the line again at Sweetwater Creek State Park where I met one of those St. Simons’ cult members who apparently hadn’t gotten enough the first time. He still had his hat. I wondered why he even bothered. I ran the race substantially faster than I had the year before (or maybe I just spent less time at aid stations), received my replacement hat and again promised myself that I was done. No more of this nonsense. No more “dumb” decisions. Maybe I would take up golf.

Since then, I’ve done more races than I care to count. Twice, I’ve watched New Year’s fireworks in the midst of a 24 hour race. I’ve skirted alligators on a racecourse in Florida, been in the porta-potty when the starting gun went off for a night race in Macon and watched the first rays of morning sunlight illuminate the unspeakable beauty of Antelope Canyon in Arizona. I’ve even been a part of the largest 10K in the world. I’ve been privileged to run in some amazing places with some incredible people.

2017 Peachtree Road Race

But, as any ultrarunner will tell you, there comes a time in almost every long run when a subtle shift occurs and the focus changes from the physical and the external to the internal workings of the mind. You stop thinking about your burning lungs and cramping quads and start probing the deeper recesses, searching for answers to questions like “why” and “can’t it just be over?” It can be a painful adjustment but that is where the real magic happens. My running odyssey has followed a similar path.

Much more important to me than the places I’ve gone running are the places that running has taken me. Over the years and through thousands of miles, I’ve found sources of strength and resilience deep inside that I never knew existed. I’ve felt the exhilaration of seeing my name in the 1st place finisher column. I’ve also finished DFL long after my friends had packed up and headed for home. I’ve been moved to tears by the simple act of crossing a finish line that mere hours before I was convinced I would never see. On another level, I never feel closer to my Creator than I do all alone, deep in some forgotten woods, miles from my car and the nearest human. In my mind, it is no coincidence that certain Native American tribes consider running a form of prayer.

Running has truly been a transformative force in my life. I believe it has made me a better son, friend and uncle. It has given me the opportunity to share the thrill of racing with individuals who otherwise may never have had the experience. Running has taught me to entertain pain and suffering; for they possess powerful insights for those who are willing to invite them in. Most of all, I am grateful that it has given me the ability to know myself, my strengths and my weaknesses on a level that I never before truly appreciated. I now believe I know what John Muir was talking about when he said “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out ’til sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

We didn’t win. But I like to think we had more fun than anyone else.

In a couple of weeks, one of those St. Simons’ firebreathers and myself will attempt our first 100 miler. I’ll have at most 30 hours to ponder why I choose to do such “dumb” things. Maybe I’ll come up with a better answer than what I have so far. But, if I don’t, I think I’ll be okay with just chalking it up to bad decisions.

Thanks for stopping by and happy trails,

The Juandering Advocate


Sierra Sojourn

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness” – John Muir

6AM – Portagee Joe Campground, Inyo County, California

I awoke with a mild sense of confusion. A common experience when I am camping in a new place, it sometimes takes me a few moments before I can do the mental backtracking necessary to figure out exactly where I laid down the night before. As I stared at the ceiling of the tent and began to piece things together, someone shuffled in the sleeping bag next to mine. It was my buddy Jared. I had picked him up outside of L.A. the afternoon before and we had driven the 4 hours from the Elsinore Valley to the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. Arriving at our campsite well past dark, we hastily set up camp without being able to see the majestic mountains that we knew loomed over our makeshift digs. We crawled out of the tent in the pre-dawn darkness eager to take in the early morning celestial show that we knew would soon cast light on the enormous granite escarpment that lay just a few miles away. It wasn’t long after sunrise before we identified the peak we were after – Mt. Whitney. Known to the Paiute Indians as “Toomanigooyah,” or “the very old man,” Whitney was the reason that we were there. Fueled by the success of a hike the previous year, Jared and I had decided to up the ante so to speak and attempt to summit the highest mountain in California, the grand dame of the Sierras. From our viewpoint, Whitney commanded attention, her multiple minor summits appearing as needles jutting into the sky. It was crazy to think that if things went accordingly, we would be basking in those first rays of daybreak when they graced the summit the following morning.

I first met Jared in the summer of 2013 when we were in Alaska working on a Habitat for Humanity build. In his introductory bio to our volunteer group, Jared had written that “travel and open roads call to my heart and I love wandering around in search of new experience, adventure and people.” I found those words intriguing and since we both arrived in Alaska a few days early, we had decided to meet up to get acquainted and scope out the town. The day we met, we made a thorough round of Anchorage’s finest and not so fine watering holes, all the while imploring anyone who would entertain us about the best local hiking trails. One route in particular that we heard over and over was Bird Ridge. One of the most popular and difficult hikes in Chugach State Park, the walk promised steep climbs and stunning views of Turnagain Arm and the Kenai Mountains. We were sold. We closed down the bars that night, stumbled back to our hostels in the otherworldly Alaskan twilight and promptly drug ourselves and accompanying hangovers to the top of the ridge the next morning. It was a spectacular trail and years later, it remains one of my favorite hikes. Jared and I haven’t closed down a bar in a long time, but we still like to get after it. Which is exactly how we ended up standing underneath those Sierra sentinels on that late summer morning.

Bird Ridge

4PM – The Alabama Hills

Jared and I pulled our hoodies down over our faces as a fierce wind pelted us with sand and small rocks. We were lying underneath one of the surreal rock formations that dot the eroded hills between the Owen Valley and Inyo National Forest. We had secured our Whitney trail permits earlier in the day from the impressive Eastern Sierra Visitor Center and in doing so had obtained one of the last pieces of our logistical puzzle. While standing in the permit line, we overheard rumors of people starting and finishing this hike in the dark. Early morning hikers often would not return to their vehicles until well past sunset. Jared and I exchanged confused glances as we eavesdropped on the conversation behind us. Surely that didn’t apply to us. It wouldn’t take us that long. Or would it?!  We were both avid, experienced hikers not subject to the same laws that govern the masses of weekend warriors who attempt to conquer Whitney. Right?! But, the seed of doubt had been planted and we began to question what circumstances we may have failed to consider.

Later, while wandering along Cottonwood Creek in the Golden Trout Wilderness, we decided that we would begin our push on Whitney shortly before midnight in hopes that we could watch the sunrise from the summit and be back into town in time for a late lunch. Faced with the prospect of such an early start, we had spread out in the shade hoping to grab a few hours of sleep before gearing up. The relentless wind storms and numerous, noisy off road vehicles traversing the hills soon proved our idea unfeasible. So, we laid there in nervous anticipation with the layers of dust accumulating on our clothes; every passing minute bringing us closer to our most ambitious undertaking to date. When the excitement became too much, we emptied our bags and geared up for the trip

10:30PM – Whitney Portal

Half a mile into our hike, water drops began hitting the back of my leg. Reaching around, I discovered that the bottom of my pack was soaked. Closer inspection revealed that the bladder carrying my 3 liters of water had cracked. “Must have happened during the duffle shuffle earlier today,” I thought. There was no easy fix for this. We had a case of bottled water but that was back at the trailhead. I had a Nalgene in my hip pocket but that wasn’t going to cut it. We were embarking on a 22 mile trek through the Sierras. I would certainly need more than one bottle of water to get me through the day. As we finished the first leg of our hike back at our Jeep, things didn’t seem too promising. So, this is how it begins? I gazed at Jared with a look of incredulity. He just laughed. I envied his seemingly indefatigable spirit.

5:15AM – Mt. Whitney Trail Switchbacks

Hours of hiking underneath the faint, red glow of our headlamps had only taken us up 65 of the 97 switchbacks that separate Trail Crest from Trail Camp some 1700′ below. The switchbacks seemed endless and we had fallen off our goal pace by a considerable margin. I was perplexed. “We should have been up on the ridge by now. No way are we going to make sunrise on the summit.” I couldn’t quite figure out why we were moving so slowly; or rather, what specific reason or combination thereof was to blame. Was it the fact that we were standing at over 13,500’? Our breath was ragged and erratic and we were not thinking clearly. The brain and lungs take hard hits in low oxygen environments and ours were no exception. We had opted to skip an acclimatization day due to our eagerness to knock Whitney off our list. We had other hikes we had planned for this trip and wanted to cram in as much adventure as possible. If it was not the altitude sickness symptoms, there was also the glaring distinction that neither of us had slept in almost 24 hours. The light delirium that accompanies lack of sleep was slowly being replaced by something more sinister. Whatever the reason, things were clear – this is not how we anticipated this going. We weren’t even halfway through this hike and we had already discussed turning around. We wondered if the guys who had adventured in Alaska would laugh at us now.

Years have passed since that summer in Alaska and despite being on opposite sides of the country, Jared and I have remained close friends connected by our mutual love of wild places, people and times. We’ve hiked in Colorado together, crossed paths in the Grand Canyon and even knocked out the infamous Cactus to Clouds hike last year; a trek that Backpacker Magazine rated as one of the hardest day hikes in the country. We knew that hike would be a difficult one to top which is one of the reasons we had picked Whitney.

By our reckoning, the ascent shouldn’t have posed such a formidable task given our experience and training. But the combination of less than desirable conditions had delivered a sucker punch that neither of us had anticipated. Despite the struggle, we knew we had to finish. I had flown across the country for this. Jared had left his family back at home to tackle this adventure. His wife, Hannah, had even prepared goodie bags full of homemade trail treats to power our push. Whitney didn’t care. She was handing out metered doses of humility faster than we could take them in. The headaches and inability to catch our breath just compounded the struggle up the relentless incline. We agreed that even if we had to finish in the dark, we had to get it done. We couldn’t go back and tell our friends and families we didn’t make it. So we pushed on. Lumbering and stumbling but at least moving forward. I kept reminding myself of a favorite proverb – “Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”

Early morning at Trail Crest

6:15AM – Trail Crest

7 small plastic water bottles squeaked in my pack as I shifted my weight and spun in a slow circle. We were now standing on top of the highest trail pass in the country. The sun was rising and beginning to paint the higher reaches of the mountains around us. In my oxygen deprived state, I could almost see the colors change as they bounced off the granite reaches less than 1,000’ above. We were getting closer. Soon, we were able to spot the Smithsonian Institute Shelter that resides at the summit. Though only 2 miles away at this point, it appeared to be much further away than we had hoped. But our goal was now in view and we anchored our sights upon it, willing it to pull us closer. We shuffled along sharing words of encouragement with the hikers we passed and graciously accepting the same from those who passed us.

Those last 2 miles to the summit were the slowest of our entire hike. When we finally reached the top and soaked in the view we had worked so hard to obtain, we were overcome with emotion, fatigue and sleep deprivation. We embraced with an overwhelming sense of awe for our achievement and the natural beauty that surrounded us. But we also shared a sense of trepidation that our journey was technically only halfway done. We still had 11 miles to go and we were well aware that those miles would not pass without their fair share of suffering.

Summit Selfie

When Jared and I finished our Cactus to Clouds hike atop beautiful San Jacinto in Southern California, only 5 miles stood between us and the Palm Springs Aerial Tram which would transport us back to the desert floor below, saving us many knee pounding miles and over 6,000’ of elevation loss. Whitney afforded us no such luxury. The return to the trailhead, a hot meal and a soft bed would only be facilitated by tens of thousands of steps down rocky terrain in ever increasing temperatures. The slog back down the mountain is not one I will soon forget.

When I first started hiking, I abhorred the ascents and delighted in the downhill. Aging joints and experience have caused an about face. These days, I relish a long climb but fear descents, especially the extended ones where the knees don’t enjoy temporary departures from the pounding visited upon them. Whitney Trail dealt this out in spades. Certain downhill sections saw us moving slower than we had on our ascent. We gingerly and carefully chose step after painstaking step in an attempt to minimize the jarring the large drop offs and unforgiving surface delivered.

1:30PM – Trail Camp

Jared and I didn’t talk much on our descent, each of us content to suffer in silence. As we sat underneath the shade of a boulder near the colorful tents that jotted Trail Camp, we stared at each other with a mix of elation and exasperation. Despite the assistance of our trekking poles, the descent was taking a toll on our knees and we wanted little more than to be done with the hike already. The descent of the 97 switchbacks had showed us little mercy and every lake we passed beckoned us to just drop our packs and hop in. But we both knew that if we stopped for too long, we might not get moving again. Something about objects in motion and objects at rest… Best to just push on through and finish strong. So, we crawled out of the cool shade, shouldered our packs and kept moving down the trail.

Saying our goodbyes

3:30PM – Whitney Portal

When we finally arrived back at the trailhead that afternoon, we had been awake for over 33 hours. Our hike had taken us through a backpacker’s paradise and to the limit, both mentally and physically. We had stood on top of the highest peak in the contiguous U.S., battled internal and external demons that threatened our success and even managed to finish with several hours of daylight remaining. That afternoon, we found ourselves in the tiny frontier town of Lone Pine, CA eating platefuls of food truck tacos while recounting our adventure. We were exhilarated with our accomplishment despite the exhaustion we felt. However, we knew the importance of remaining focused on the task at hand. At the outset of this trip, we had decided that after Whitney, we would tackle Nevada’s highest mountain before turning our sights on the fabled El Capitan. With that in mind, we didn’t close down any bars that night. Instead, we found a cheap motel on the outskirts of town and slept the wonderful sleep of the weary with dreams of those new experiences, adventure and people.

I will leave the tales of the rest of our trip to another time and place. Both of the mountains that we climbed after Whitney have their own stories of struggle and success and to try to include them here would be to sell them short. Maybe I’ll include them in a future post. Until we meet again, I would love to hear about your favorite trails and/or mountains. Jared and I are already throwing around ideas for next year’s throwdown and we would greatly appreciate any recommendations or ideas.


Thanks for reading and happy trails,

The Juandering Advocate

Fly me courageous

“I wandered way out on a cliff with the brilliance of an angel…”


I’ve marveled at (and feared) the art of flying underneath a canopy of brightly colored nylon for many years. When I was a little kid on vacation at the beach, I would stare wide-eyed at the parasailers soaring over the waves and wonder if they could float up to the moon given enough rope. Years later, I spent some time taking scuba classes in the Dominican Republic. After dive lessons during the day, I would hop on a rusty, old motorcycle I rented from one of the local beach bums and I’d cruise down the coast to Cabarete to watch the kitesurfers in their evening sessions. It was like poetry in motion. Dozens of kites dancing amongst the waves pulled by a force that none of us could see but that we could all feel. I almost signed up for lessons then but I let my fear get the best of me… Fear of drowning, fear of looking like an idiot, fear of a catching a rogue wind and being swept off to Haiti.

Fast forward several years to one hot, summer evening when I’m scrolling through my Instagram feed instead of prepping for court like I should have been. One of my favorite social media accounts belong to Sean Blanton, otherwise known as the RunBum. Sean is a runner and director of some of the most popular ultramarathons on the East Coast; not the least of which is the (in)famous Georgia Death Race. He’s also a paraglider. It was Sean’s video that put everything in motion. I watched in awe as he soared above the Swiss Alps with his legs dangling in the air much akin to a child in a playground swing set. As I replayed the video, I felt simultaneous pangs of terror and excitement. Was that something that I could do? Where did he plan on landing? Would I enjoy such a thing or be too frightened to embrace the experience? Do they even do that sort of thing around here?

I closed out my social media and googled “paragliding in the southeast.” I soon found myself chatting with David Hanning of Flying Camp located outside of Chattanooga, TN. Dave reassured me that not only could I go paragliding but that I could do so with a seasoned instructor who would control everything and allow me to just enjoy the flight. It just so happened that Flying Camp was even offering a Groupon. And I could do this outside one of my favorite cities? Fine. Sign me up. Take my money. Fly me to the moon.  Or just get me back to the ground in one piece. Whatever works. Let’s just make it official before I talk myself out of it. I’ll deal with the fear later.

I booked my flight the next morning and sent the Groupon link to several friends as well. I was only slightly optimistic that I could talk somebody into joining me. The first few responses confirmed my suspicions. Yup, not gonna happen. This might end up being a solo excursion. Not necessarily a bad thing. At least none of my friends will be there to see my get cold feet.

But then, a few minutes later, I got a text from my buddy, Ben. I took this as a good sign. Since we were little kids, Ben and I have seemed to feed off each other’s appetite for excitement and we’ve had quite a few adventures together as a result. I won’t go into all that but if you want to read more, be sure to check out Ben’s account of one of our most cherished trips here.

Before I even opened his text, I could read in the preview screen something along the lines of “heights are not my favorite thing.” Yeah, yeah. I know where this is going. But, when I opened the text, I was surprised to see this at the end of the sentence – “but maybe it’d be good for me.” Nice! He was nibbling at the bait. All I had to do was play it cool and let the seed I planted do the rest of the work. I casually changed the conversation to some mutual friends and left it at that. Later that night, I got another text – “Ok – I bought the paragliding Groupon…let’s go!”

The next day we compared schedules and agreed to book our session for August 1st. My nerves increased exponentially as the day grew closer. On the eve of our flight, I called to check the paragliding forecast and was disappointed to hear that it wasn’t looking favorable. There was a high rain percentage with only a small time window where we might be able to fly. It was a crapshoot at best. A seven hour roundtrip crapshoot. We balked and rescheduled hoping for a more optimistic outlook. A month and two more weather related cancellations later and Ben and I are getting antsy. The rollercoaster of excitement, anticipation and disappointment starts to become a bit tedious. We’re ready to do this thing already.

And then, the day before our fourth scheduled flight, I get this message from Flying Camp – “Good winds from the SE which means we will be flying.” OH SNAP! It is on. That night, I lie in bed imagining what it will be like to fly off the side of a mountain. I can literally feel my heartrate increase as my brain begins running through the same old, tired scenarios. “Will I chicken out? What if I puke? Is there a parachute if something goes wrong? Maybe I should unfollow the RunBum.”

Sunday morning arrives and finds Ben and I cruising up Interstate 75 headed toward southeast Tennessee. We don’t talk much about the day’s planned activities.  Instead, we are content to catch up on family, work and travel. There is a nervous energy in the car. We are both aware of its presence but refuse to acknowledge it. The wheels are in motion. There is no turning back now.

We’re cruising through small mountain towns and turning on progressively narrower, winding roads that eventually lead us up onto a ridge section of the Cumberland Plateau. As we begin to gain clearance over some of the surrounding treeline, we see almost a dozen paragliders circling in the skies above us. We are struck by not only how many of them are visible but also how high up they appear to be. Some of the vibrant kites are hundreds of feet above us. How did they get way up there? The road doesn’t seem to go up that far. Is there another launch site that we don’t know about?

We find the address we were looking for and make our way out to the launch site where dozens of people are hanging out in various stages of fright prep. We would soon learn the answers to those questions we were pondering minutes before. Turns out that the road doesn’t go any higher; this is the only launch site here and those people above us got way up there through a thing called ‘lift’. This came as a bit of a surprise to me. When I pictured paragliding, I imagined flying away from the hillside and floating gently back to earth in wide circles much like the plastic parachute Army men I played with as a child had done. It never occurred to me that going up was also an option. An option it is and one that I later learned paragliders exploit to enjoy flights that can last over ten hours and cover hundreds of miles.

While waiting to sign waivers and pretending to be casual and aloof, Ben and I noticed a strange-looking vehicle sitting off to the side near a small shed. It was the size and shape of a soap box derby car but with an exposed frame and only three wheels. I had not seen anything like this in Sean’s Instagram videos. Could it possibly be for something other than paragliding? Perhaps racing down the curvy mountain road we had come up earlier? Chattanooga is known as one of the greatest outdoor towns in the country and people there are always coming up with new ways to enjoy the outdoors.

While admiring this tricked out mountain buggy, we noticed a guy in a wheelchair nearby who also happened to be eyeing this mysterious contraption. Introductions were made and we soon learned that Ryan was there to go paragliding for his wife’s birthday and that the chair we were looking at was to be his personal vehicle for the flight. Dave at Flying Camp is partners and friends with Project Airtime whose mission is to welcome disabled individuals, the elderly and veterans to the world of paragliding. The sensation I had at that moment is a familiar one. It is the one I get when I’m allowed the opportunity to examine my weak excuses through the lens of another who may have a genuine rationale for not engaging in a fearful, challenging or risky endeavor but chooses to do so anyway.

The enthusiasm that everyone there had for the adventure that lay ahead was palpable. Ryan and his wife, Sarah, were both so excited to be taking to the skies and the passion that Dave and his instructors had for sharing their love of flying with others was evident. I knew then that Ben and I had made the right decision. These are exactly the types of people that we love to be around. A few minutes later, we stood by and watched Ryan roll off the side of the mountain and start flying towards the clouds, wheels still spinning.


It wasn’t long before it was our turn. We stood peering over the edge of the cliff at what lay below while our pilots fastened buckles and tightened straps. I heard Ben’s instructor yelling “Go, go, go” and turned to watch my friend run off the side of the mountain, lurch left a couple times and then soar away into the great blue yonder.

Seconds later, I was airborne as well. The initial sensation of falling as the mountainside dropped away below my feet was soon replaced by one of being carried up, up and away. The variometer strapped to our rig began to beep to indicate how fast we were rising. My heart seemed to match the beat. Not only were we hundreds of feet above the ground and rising but I could feel the g forces pressing me down into my seat as the updraft pulled us higher. It was simultaneously thrilling and slightly nauseating. My stomach was not entirely prepared for its sudden relocation into the base of my throat. It wasn’t long however before my pilot, Chris, took us into a slow turn where we leveled off and the beeping and my pounding heartrate began to subside. I relaxed the white knuckle death grip I had on my hand straps. The rest of my body followed suit and I settled in for the trip.

As the adrenaline rush started to subside, I began to notice the incredible view all around me. Deep, green forest stretched below me in every direction. I could see the Tennessee River and parts of Nickajack Lake to the south. Above was nothing but blue skies, white clouds and the occasional kaleidoscope canopy. Over a thousand foot below me lay freshly cut fields where other pilots were landing. The only noises were me muttering “wow, wow, wow” and the sound of the wind under the wing. I began to relax even more and leaned back fully into my harness allowing my legs to swing freely in the air below. All the anxiousness had subsided. The fears that had haunted me for weeks leading up to this seemed silly and out of context. I was now truly enjoying the experience for what it was completely unimpeded by any of those negative emotions.

The next twenty minutes were sheer bliss. Words fail me here. I can’t adequately describe the combination of excitement, happiness and pure gratitude for the beauty that surrounds us that filled my heart and soul. As we made our way to the valley floor, flying in those wide circles like the plastic army men of my youth, I was reminded of my need for experiences like these. The need to remember that most of the things I worry about never occur; the need to be reminded that sometimes it is best to just let go and relax and that when exploring realms outside your comfort zone, sometimes it is best to take an old friend along for the ride.

I’ve been back on the ground for several days now but part of me is still in the clouds. Ben and I are already trying to figure out our next adventure. If you have any ideas for us or would like to share a story of your own, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.

I hope this finds each of you doing well and I extend my heartfelt thanks for checking out another edition of The Juandering Advocate. Until next time, much love and happy trails…