The Grand Teton

A couple weeks ago I did a race called the Speedgoat. It’s a highly specialized kind of race for mountain runners, and represents, at least to me, the big show. Leading up to it, I thought I had something to prove, at least to myself. I wanted to know that I’m a great mountain runner, I wanted to be recognized, I wanted to see it in print in the results. When you work so hard at anything, it’s natural for anyone to want to be successful at it, right?

Well, I failed. I came in 20th. It was the first time I’ve ever tried to actually race a race, to give it my all. No matter how bad I felt I would think, “Am I going as hard as I can right now?” and the answer was always, “Yes.” I went as hard as I could, and I still failed. It was heartbreaking. I had thought being a mountain runner was my identity, and now here I was, not even good at it.

I’ve been dreaming about the Grand Teton for years, long before I ever saw it in person 3 years ago. About 3 million people go to Grand Teton National Park every year to stand on the sidewalk at one of the overlooks and take their picture in front of that big elegant beast. I’m sleeping at the park boundary, and I drove past it today, and saw dozens of the people posing with arms outstretched, no doubt for Instagram. I dreamed of the Picnic, of the Grand Traverse, of putting a fast time on the Owen Spalding route, just of standing up there.

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First Teton trip, pc Skylar Lincoln

My second trip to the Tetons was to climb, but we got rained on pretty much every day and it was later in the season so the Grand was covered in verglass, we had just missed the window to climb it. On the last day of our trip, we had a rare beautiful day and summited the Middle Teton. The route up the Middle starts from the south side, so when you gain the ridge you get a breath taking view of the Grand. It made my heart rage in my ribs like a jungle cat, it brought tears to my eyes. I said, probably out loud, because I’m weird like that, “I’ll come back for you.”

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Grand Teton from the Middle Teton

It was on that trip that I understood what it is to fall in love with a line, a mountain, and thus to have a responsibility to it. I don’t know if people that don’t climb can understand climbing objectively, from the outside. It takes years to develop the strength and skills and confidence to even have any business going up there in the first place, let alone attempting it, let alone actually being successful and summiting. I know people don’t get it because they’re always asking “why?” Because you have to.

I sped into the Lupine Meadows parking lot at 1:10am, I was late because I hadn’t ever measured how long it takes me to get there and I had underestimated it (nobody’s surprised). I met my partner for the first time, the night before we had set up this climb last minute through Mountain Project. His name is AJ, he works for the forest service. We’re packed up in a matter of minutes and blazing on the trail with headlamps. I say blazing because the guy is like eight feet tall and hikes extraordinarily fast, so fast I’m often running to catch up with him. It wouldn’t have been a challenge, except that just a few hours before, I had run the Middle Teton,

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And then gotten no sleep, not even for a minute, so I was a little tired. When we reached the meadows, we could see the headlamps of a handful of other climbers both above and below us, getting ready for what promised to be an extraordinary day, however it turned out. Just above the first rock climb, we couldn’t find the trail and so did what turned out to be a totally unnecessary snow climb, but at least we used our axes since it turned out they were unnecessary for the mountain, the remainder of snow on the upper mountain had just finally melted off.

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My partner AJ

Twilight came, and then sunrise. As we got higher, the views of the middle and the rest of the southern part of the range got more and more incredible. I read once that when you’re in nature all the time, when you make it your home, it ceases to be beautiful and it just becomes normal. I don’t think the guy that said it meant it in a bad way, but I hate that. It’s never happened to me, and I was fortunate to have an equally incredulous partner, both of us continually astounded by how beautiful everything was. After a lot of difficult and high consequence scrambling, we roped up on an exposed catwalk they call Wall Street for 1700 feet of exposed and difficult rock climbing.

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Yeah those people up there, other climbers getting ready to start the ridge

Throughout and after the climb we couldn’t stop saying how awesome and amazing it all was, and I’m not sure what else to say about it. There was tons of exposure, there was tons of beautiful climbing, there was some shitty climbing. Some parts were easier and we simul climbed (still roped up, but climbing at the same time instead of one belaying to protect the one climbing), some parts were harder. I hand jammed with gloves on and pulled off a heel hook on wet, snowy granite. AJ climbed beautifully and confidently but I don’t think we made any of the same moves on any pitch, we climbed so differently, which was very cool. The V Pitch was possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever climbed.

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Here’s me at the top of the V Pitch, this amazing photo by AJ

The confidence that I lack in climbing was really on display, at least three times I yelled to AJ checking that he had used gear to anchor himself to wherever he was in case I was about to fall on my next move. I never did fall, and those moves I executed beautifully, but I suppose it’s apparent why I don’t want to lead trad. Every time I do something hard and scary, I think, “Now I am fearless!” But then, something harder and scarier happens.

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AJ on the Exum ridge

I broke several of my toenails in the Speedgoat race, and all the steep and technical running I’ve done since being in the Tetons hasn’t helped, so 10 hours in climbing shoes was more painful than I can describe. There’s a last little bit of easy but high consequence simul-climbing to the summit, and the pain was so extraordinary that I thought I couldn’t bear another step. Getting those shoes off was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, and I’ll never again make fun of people that complain about their climbing shoes. Also, there were summit gummy bears!

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Summit of the Grand motherfucking Teton

Upon the summit, we found several other teams, some we had been in proximity with throughout the day. Climbers are such cool folks. I’ve complained a lot about the people I come across in the mountains of Colorado, but you don’t find those sorts of folks in the Tetons. There’s no jealousy or competition. The Tetons are so brutal, I wonder if it’s that the sort of folks that are badass enough to climb them are much too cool to be competitive, and the people that can’t climb them are so humbled they feel inspired instead of jealous? Anyway, the folks on the summit were so badass and cool, and I feel very fortunate that these are the people I’m surrounded by now.

We hadn’t taken pictures yet, but teams started leaving and we hoped to tag along so we didn’t have to find the rappel stations ourselves, so we rushed to put away the rope and a very cool dude from Bozeman took a couple quick pictures (above) for us before we hastened out. At that point, we had no idea that the downclimb would easily be the crux of the route. The rap stations weren’t hard to find, and the raps themselves were extraordinary. The following downclimbing was just awful. Miserable, way too difficult, butt puckering, sometimes exposed, and everything made worse by our bodies hurting and a day’s worth of adrenaline ebb and flow. And, probably, a hard climb yesterday and a night of no sleep to speak of. I said many times, “I’m never doing this again.” And as usual, when things are scary and high consequence and also really, really scary (it bears repeating), I thought, “I’m done with mountains.” Only once, I warned AJ that he might be about to see me cry, on a 20 foot chimney with a roof that you have to downclimb, but I somehow kept it together, despite my nervous system being well over capacity and my fear and adrenaline being far outside what I considered to be my acceptable limits.

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Middle from the Exum ridge

I texted several important people “It was everything.” Afterwards. and I couldn’t mean it more. It was beautiful, painful, terrifying, surreal, brutal, fierce, extraordinary, powerful, life-affirming, joyous, crippling, heinous. At one point we even called the route disgusting. It’s hard to pick and describe any particular moment, but I often felt the most scared and the happiest I’ve ever been at the same time. An alpine climb like this, you get the entire range of the human experience all in the same day, and sometimes all in the same moment. Every cliched quote imaginable is applicable here, I kept thinking “you’re stronger than you seem and braver than you believe” afterwards, but in the moment all you can think of is, “I don’t have a choice I have to do this no matter how hard it is or terrified I am.”

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the Exum ridge to the Grand

Our bodies had been so broken by such an accomplishment, 7100 feet gained, 14200 total change (my knees and toenails will never be the same), 2700 feet of rock climbing, 2 long rappels, approximately (here I’m guessing) 2700 feet of downclimbing, we struggled to put one foot in front of the other for the last few miles back to our cars. We kept saying, “I can’t believe we just did that.” And in one day. We divied up our gear, hugged, and went our separate ways. The moment I started driving, I wept. Not for one particular reason, but for all of them. I had just realized an enormous dream, years in the making, and it was harder and more beautiful than I ever could have conceived. I’ve done lots of things now that I never believed I could, I’ve had lots of wonderful successes in the mountains, I’ve stood up to and overcame fear many times before. Each time it’s like it’s on a bigger scale.

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Me on Exum, photo by AJ

 

 

There’s a part in Again to Carthage where he talks about ascent, unfortunately I’m in Jackson at the library and not a home where I can look it up (and I just checked, this library doesn’t have it). The quote also isn’t on the internet, so I have to paraphrase. He’s talking about how different regular adult life is from running full time, and how when you’re running full time, you’re always on an ascent. You’re always bettering yourself, and the results are measurable. Day to day, year to year, you’re getting stronger, faster, etc. But in regular life, it’s sort of like you have wins and losses, things happen, and it all goes along pretty steadily. And he misses so much that feeling of always being the ascent. I’m pretty sure I’m very lucky to have a life like that. Looking back on the race, now, after something so much bigger and more important, like the Grand, I can’t even believe I bothered to do that race, let alone be hurt by the results. There is no race that makes you extraordinary, it wasn’t even a particularly interesting experience. Every moment that you choose to overcome, to be stronger or better, to be scared out of your mind and do it anyway, that is what makes you extraordinary.

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The Tetons: remembering why I do this, over again

It’s sunny and the skies are clear, except for the haze coming from the fires in Montana.  I’m kickstepping, kickstepping, climbing class 3 rock that is wet from snow melt, an axe in one hand and the other absently brushing again the wall of snow next to me for balance.  I’m in a couloir maybe 100 feet below the summit, I’m so alone up here that I haven’t seen anyone since leaving the canyon, and I think, “I would do anything, for you, to be here right now.”

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summit of the South

Going to the Tetons this year was something I had meant to plan and be ready for all summer, and as time slipped away and the season disappeared under the weight and tragedy of my unhealable psoas injury, this trip ended up being a last ditch effort to do something meaningful with my summer.  I was worried I wasn’t in shape, I was going without a partner, and I had something like 4 days of climbing if the weather cooperated.  Weather in the Tetons is notoriously uncooperative.

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I arrived in the Garnet Canyon parking lot at night after driving most of the day, and climbed in the back of the truck to sleep.  In the morning I headed up Teewinot.  You gain 5,550ft in 2.5 miles, so it felt a little brutal.  The routefinding is somewhat hard, the steep, super exposed kickstepping is a new and exciting scary thing, and the climbing is terrifying.  There was a lot of chameleon-ing, where you make a move, then reverse the move, over and over again until the future where you have to downclimb that move isn’t nauseating.  My mom was watching this hysteria on the internet via my SPOT tracker and she said something later like, “you were really moving until a certain point, then it’s like you weren’t moving at all, what happened?”  Well, shit got hard.  And scary af, to be honest.

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I read later that people like to take a rope up Teewinot to rap the downclimbs of nightmares, and that, though it’s technically classified as 4, it’s the hardest and most sustained “4” in the Tetons.  Anyway, I learned things about being brave that day.  That I can downclimb anything I can climb up, and that I am the master of my own nervous system. I also learned, BRING A FUCKING AXE NO MATTER WHAT.  Because you don’t realize how much you want an axe until you need it, when you’re turned around downclimbing your vertical kicksteps like a ladder and trying not to cry.

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On the second day, I headed up to Garnet Canyon to check out the South Teton.  Because This involves a long trail approach and a lot of elevation gain, some climbers camp in the canyon to shorten their approaches on climbing days.  I ran this approach three days in a row (that’s exactly how pent-up I was after spending most of my summer injured).  It was a perfect sunny day, and the high snow cover made some of the weird part of the route slightly less mankey (between Garnet Canyon and the Boulderfield, alongside and above that southern glacier if you really want to know).  What I hadn’t counted on was, the boulderfield was still snow filled, and there were two shitty snow climbs.  I had an axe (lesson learned) and started kickstepping on the lower climb, and it felt okay, but I remembered the Teewinot snowfield down climb and something felt weird.  I felt uneasy, I was thinking about the upper snowclimb and the fact that it could be worse, that I was in Dynafit trailrunners with no additional traction to speak of, and I just knew I didn’t want to do the downclimb.  I turned around.

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Back to Garnet Canyon, then on up to the saddle of the Grand.  Running down from the saddle, I came across a nice guy who turned out to be an off duty Exum guide waiting for his friends to catch up, and we chatted a bit.  I told him I turned around at the lower snowclimb en route to the saddle between South and Middle, choosing to come back the following day with crampons because I knew I’d feel 100% comfortable and I would just go for Middle and South in the same day.  I knew it sounded silly, but I was honest, it felt too spicy.  He told me a girl had slipped in that snowfield yesterday and died on the rocks below, they just finished recovering her body.

 

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On the way down, I chatted with some folks about a secret lake and they told me how to get to the social trail.  I can’t remember what it was called, but I found it.  It was incredible.

 

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On the third day, I headed up to the South again, with crampons and boots.  It was overkill, but I felt totally secure.  The weather was perfect again, and there was just no one else around on either route.  And it was here, on the South, that I remembered how I felt last year.  That I would do anything to be here.  That it was my responsibility to honor these routes, these mountains, with my intention, bravery, body, heart.  That I would sacrifice anything, everything to feel like I might evaporate between earth and sky; where everything is possible, where risk and pain are currency, where freedom and joy are boundless.  Grating bits of my heart and body off on rocks and snow so the prana of the Tetons could fill me back up again and I could be a part of their bigness for just a moment.

 

I read this great article about Cory Richards and his PTSD from an avalanche he survived [https://www.outsideonline.com/2234616/life-after-near-death-cory-richards].  The author has a lot of opinions about the way the alpinist community handles this.  I’ve been thinking about darkness; how and why it compels us, a lot lately, and I think it boils down to 2 things: alpinists are people that are so intense they would sacrifice everything to stand on top of the mountains, to live in the sky. We can choose [I’m pretty sure it’s a choice, but it doesn’t always feel that way] to risk and suffer because our demons compel us to do hard shit and risk and ride the edge of our abilities, or because we want to use their demons to make ourselves stronger, meet fear and rise above it, and find freedom.  Both are scary as fuck; nobody likes to talk about either.

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Like anyone, I’m inclined towards both, after years of trying I like to think I’m more of the later, but it’s a constant struggle to understand my motivation and intention, to be intimate with fear, and to understand why I risk everything.  It’s sort of like walking on two tight ropes that are just beside each other, and you could hop from one to the other as it suits you.  Why is it so important to stand on top of a mountain?

 

After a beautifully successful third day, I headed up high again on day 4, this time to Disappointment Peak.  The first couple moves to get into this low angle crack started on an overhanging roof (I would love someone to explain to me how climbing a roof could possibly be class 4).  The rest of the climb was pretty easy, except the end where you’re climbing this obscenely exposed catwalk with sporadic class 4 moves.  After the previous four days though, the exposure and climbing both felt good (even if the wind made it feel like you could easily be blown off and away into infinity).  The summit block, being accessed by this narrow catwalk, is like a 340 degree Teton panorama.  Breathtaking.  I actually stood up on it at one point and got vertigo.  Every time I get a close up of the Grand, my heart grows three sizes, and seeing the whole range at once like this, the big, scary beautiful mountains that had asked so much, the sacrifices already made, and whose bigness had filled me up when I stood on their summits;  the whole Traverse just laid out in one perfect, aesthetic line…I see why I devote my life to this, and why I’ll never stop.

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R2R2R: run across the Grand Canyon twice…overnight.

It’s something like 5am and the sun is coming up and an older Japanese man is standing timidly like 10ft away from me, his enormous tourist camera in one hand, the other outstretched as if to offer me support without being nearly close enough to actually touch me.

“Are you…okay?” He asks tentatively.

Fair enough, I was probably screaming or coughing or weeping, I don’t remember.  Actually, it’s been…four months?  And I’m still crying as I type this.

“I’m okay, I just had a really long night.”  What to say?  To a random stranger.  What could I say that would make this kindly man understand?  The sun is coming up and it’s 20 degrees and I just ran across the Grand Canyon twice, and I have to get to the kennel the moment they open because Luna had never been boarded.  “I’m okay, really, thank you.”

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It’s been four months and I haven’t written this yet, this write up of one of my favorite projects and greatest runs of all time, because when we got back from this trip I found out that Luna had a very aggressive form of squamous cell carcinoma, and this trip was my last big one with her and it is so hard to relive what an extraordinary trip it was without tinging it in the resulting tragedy.  But I’ll try.

We arrived at Grand Canyon National Park just before sunset on Sunday, and spent most of Monday lounging in the back of the truck reading and eating and keeping my legs up.  Sometime in the afternoon, I ventured to the ranger station to discuss trail conditions and water.  There had been a rock slide that damaged the pipes that bring water to the North Rim, and apparently a significant portion of the trail.  The North Rim was scheduled to open that day, and it still did.  If you didn’t already know this, the very remote North Rim of the park relied on those pipes for their water supply.  While they worked to rebuild the damaged pipes, the NPS had contracted a company to deliver water to the North Rim by truck, by the 10’s of thousands of gallons per day.  Incredible, right?

Anyway, a very helpful ranger discussed trail work and water availability and mule train schedules with me, and all the while I carefully did not disclose I was planning to run it that very night.  From the ranger station, I drove to the kennel to leave Luna for the night, then off to the S Kaibab Trailhead.

The S Kaibab trail is spectacular, maxing out around 60% grade, and highly technical both by nature and by the erosion from millions of feets tracking it in the mud.  It follows a steep ridgeline almost all the way to the Colorado River.  An extraordinary amount of tourists attempt to hike down it despite these difficulties, resulting in an average of 250 rescues per year and a lot of very dramatic signage.

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I took a picture of another one that I can’t find; it’s a similar illustrated man on his knees with vomit spewing on the ground.

Update: I found it. KIMG0169.jpeg

So anyway, there was a lot of tourist dodging and while I was still very friendly and courteous, it scares the bejesus out of tourists to pass them at 12mph.  Views were great though:

Just before leaving CO for this trip, I remember voicing my significant concerns that I had only been running for one month before this and while I was in banging shape from all the alpine touring and skate skiing, the impact resistance might be a big problem.  You can do infinity elevation gain, but joints need to assimilate to impact of running technical downhill.  So spoiler alert, 5k later, I see the river and my knees are trashed, the little stabilizer muscles feeling so taut it made me wonder if popping them was something I actually had to worry about.

But anyway, arriving at the river in under an hour looked like this:

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and felt like pure joy.  The trail here becomes softer and is banked for the last almost mile or so, allowing me to hit almost 15mph however briefly.

Crossing the bridge over the river, the sun was setting and there was a large crew on Boaters Beach cheering me on; I would find out later that they were from Leadville, and I knew many of them!  All kismet.

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After the river, the trail begins a steady low grade incline that lasts for 7 or 8 miles.  It’s like a jungle down there, with creeks and all kinds of foliage everywhere.  No exaggeration, it is the most vibrant environment I’ve ever had the pleasure of running with.  If my knees weren’t hurting so much that I was questioning ever being able to walk again, I would have felt I could run forever.  It started to rain, but here at the bottom of the canyon it was the warmest and despite and the dark and storm it was still around 60 degrees and the rain felt like it could restore new life to a body that gets broken by ultrarunning time after time.

Mile after mile ticked on, but so did the time, as the clock was getting on towards 3:30 I realized I hadn’t even started the proper ascent of the North Rim, thus thoroughly jeopardizing the 4hr crossing I had hoped for.  The North Rim trail was actually super exciting, with tons of exposure, making a full dark ascent interesting indeed.  I passed a large group of tourists, maybe 7 or so, that had headlamps mysteriously but were otherwise struggling so majorly that I asked them if they wanted me to call the ranger station when I reached the top.  But, they didn’t speak English.  And they were still moving, so.

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I hit the North Rim at just over 5h.  It was one of the most satisfying moments of my life, to see the TH sign reflected in my headlamp.  21 miles down, and hard earned.  I sat in the sand and ate a Larabar and contemplated how far behind I was timewise.  It just didn’t seem to matter anymore, like the number of hours could possibly describe the experience.  As I started the descent and my knees reeled, I made the call to take it easy before I caused serious damage and didn’t come down balls to the wall.

Crossing the 7 miles on the bottom of the canyon to the river was absolutely surreal.  It had stopped raining, but was cloudy, so the dark was complete.  Just me and my headlamp and the plants and creatures and water rushing; the backpackers all tucked into bed and it felt as though they ceased to exist, and I was all alone.  Do you remember that Third Eye Blind song, Motorcycle Drive By?  1999.  “I’ve never been so alone.  And I’ve…I’ve never been so alive.”  The balls of my feet just sweeping the sand, and I, cruising the darkness.

Crossing the river for the second time it felt like I was on another planet, my headlamp barely illuminating the bridge around me but the feeling of being swallowed up in the rushing movement of the river overwhelming.  And so, with knees that were barely holding my weight, quads that had properly been banged, and 35 miles already come and gone, I ascend the brutally steep and long south side of the Grand Canyon.

Kripa in Sanskrit is the word for Grace.  We have this idea of grace in the west, like it’s all about ballerinas or beautiful things.  I suppose the idea of saying Grace is closer to the real concept, that holds up in basically every other language.  Kripa, anyway, is to honor something with your presence.  With your attention, your devotion, your will, your intentions, your body.  Last year, in the Tetons, I got really into the idea of honoring a landscape, a line, a mountain with my presence, intention, and body.  To put so much time and effort into finely tuning this instrument to cross any terrain seamlessly and in style,  [I used something similar when describing this run to another person and she assumed by “in style” I meant “looking good”] so that when the time comes, I can properly honor the landscape and its’ lifeforce.  I believed [believe] there is nothing more perfect.

This double crossing was imperfect; I trashed my knees so early on that I couldn’t do the whole 42 miles full out as I had intended.  However.  About halfway up the south side, there was a light behind me so bright I was sure that a large group of people with headlamps must have somehow just caught me without my noticing until they were right behind me.  I whipped around, startled, and saw, instead:

the clouds had finally parted, revealing an almost full moon, a sky full of stars, that so thoroughly bathed the canyons below me in light that all depth, rock, water, shadow was now made of liquid silver; iridescent and fluidly moving with the energy of life within.  I can think of few times in my life that I actually found something breath-taking literally.  So overwhelming, I couldn’t even be moved to weep [or perhaps too exhausted and dehydrated?].  And once again, as I had emptied myself, given everything of myself, sacrificed and destroyed, to and for this environment in the name of divine Grace, the environment filled me back up.  Have you ever thought about what it really means to be FUL-FILLED?

And then, if you really want to know what happened next, I knew I was getting near the top, a group of runners was on their way down.  Or, I guess I think of them that way because they were wearing running vests and running shoes and backward hats, but they weren’t running at all.  They were attempting a R2R2R as well, and told me they hoped to finish in less than 30 hours.  I smiled.  Then, at like 430, the sun came up:

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And I staggered to the Trailhead.  And I screamed or wept or coughed, I don’t really remember, causing that poor tourist to reach out to help.  I walked to the car.  It was so cold, and I didn’t really have the energy left to homeostasis my body temperature, so I shook wildly.  I drove to the kennel.  I got a coke from one of those NPS vending machines that features old photo inlays of whatever park you’re in and isn’t labelled brand-wise.  It was 75 cents.  I was there to get Lu the moment they opened.  And we carried on.

Lake City (and now I’m 30)

I’ve been putting off writing this one you guys, because I think it’s gonna be rough, and I’m gonna cry.  But here it is, finally.

I came up with all sorts of wild ideas for my bday this year, but since even the greatest ideas fail sometimes, instead I opted for tried and true.  In the grand bday tradition, I dropped a pile of money at Whole Foods, packed up Lu and Hooptie, and off we went.

Lake City was founded in 1873 as a supply center for miners and prospectors in the San Juans (not super successful mining, especially when compared to the other mining towns).  Now, it has a population of 400.  LC is so awesome because it’s like a teeny town got smashed between mountains, and a river runs through it.  As if the natural boundaries weren’t restricting enough (I think they’ve got maybe a four-block width max), the town ends abruptly when it runs into the lake to the south.  Incidentally, I always assumed “Lake San Cristobal” was another example of Colorado recreational reservoirs- but it is A NATURAL LAKE, and Lake City’s obvious namesake.

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I stole this photo from lakecityswitchbacks.com because I’ve never been willing to stop on this narrow road to take one myself.

There are so many things I love about Lake City: the coffee shop that advertises their friendliness towards bikers and doesn’t have an actual espresso machine (or actual iced coffee, but they do have 32oz styrofoam cups!)(and I don’t have anything against bikers in coffee shops, I just never knew before that bikers needed a special sign to know they’re welcome), the tiny, sassy grocery store (the sign on the door tells you exactly how far away the nearest Safeway [Gunnison] and Whole Foods [Frisco] are), the old gas pumps with cranks and little plastic numbers that actually flip (that I forget how to use every single time).  But mainly, it’s the fact that Lake City is on the slopes of 5 major mountains.  I love Leadville, and living in the shadow of the Sawatch, but it would be as if they picked up Leadville and moved it 10 miles onto the slopes of Mt. Massive. Oh! Or into the middle of Missouri Gulch!

Monday morning I rolled into the city, and onto the Alpine Loop.  Naturally, it had just snowed (this was on Oct 3rd), because that’s when the first snow always happens in the mountains that I spend my birthday in.  The fresh snow made the Wetterhorn road a little more “fun” [terrifying] than usual.  As Lu and I got out of the car, I thought ‘we’re turning around when it’s not fun anymore.’

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you can’t see my legs. also, those sunglasses were a bday present to myself. because, duh, they are amazing.

The higher up we got, the harder it snowed.  I was just about to turn around when we crested the ridge and found epically high winds that’s slap you in the face and try to knock you over (try?) and amazing views:

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Still my bday, we headed next to American Basin to spend the night.  Because the storms cleared up (briefly) Lu and I did a quick one up Handies (because it’s short, not because it’s dirty), then settled in to Hooptie for an evening of reading Steve House’s alpinism training book.  I sang Happy Birthday out loud to myself, and cut a lemon Miracle Tart in half.  (I didn’t think it was sad when I did it, but I later heard that the Mars Rover sings itself Happy Birthday every year, which makes me tear up a little, even though it’s a robot https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxVVgBAosqg&feature=youtu.be I think the song starts around 1:17).

I knew it’d be cold.  But that night in American Basin, it was 11 mf degrees.  Lu and I got up to pee around daybreak, and the 30 seconds we were outside of Hooptie (and the covers) had us both shivering and shaking until we were fully submerged under the sleeping bag pile once again.  I smuggled the bottle of iced coffee I brought, my headlamp, and my book under there with us since none of my skin could be exposed without frost nipping it [that’s not actually true, you might remember from an old post about winter camping that it’d have to be colder than that to frost nip skin that quickly.  On that note, CHILLBLAINS!].  I later discovered that all of the water in Hooptie froze (including the gallons) overnight.  Which means that the only liquid in the truck that didn’t freeze was the iced coffee.  Was it because there’s sugar in the almond milk? Was it the acidity of the coffee?  What changed the freezing point?  We’ll never know.

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all the way up here just to get some water

Needless to say, we didn’t leave our nest until after 10, when the sun finally filled the valley between [aptly named] Sunshine and Handies Peaks.  There wasn’t a lot of snow in the valley, it was just cold.  This trip, I should point out, was soon after we got back from the Tetons, and I was still buzzing with the implications of everything that happened there.  Just before (quite literally, 1 or 2 days before) we left for the Tetons, I sent out resumes and cover letters to a couple jobs I had been thinking of for a couple months.  Grown up jobs.  Real jobs.  In California, NM, all over. Why would I do such a thing?  I’ll call it the Year-I-Turn-30-Rolling-Life-Crisis.  All this year, I’ve questioned all of my life decisions every couple weeks or so, and made [occasionally ridiculous] massive overhaul plans to fix everything I thought went wrong.  And I thought it was time to move on.  I had literally given up everything to move to Leadville and pursue Nolan’s, and after dedicating something like 3000 hours just in training and route finding, and two full years of my life, I had failed again.  All I could think was, how could I possibly have gotten here?  30 years?  And what have I done with it?  I haven’t done anything with my life.  It’s over.  And I sent out my resumes and prepared to leave Nolan’s behind.

Bear with me with all the jumping around here.  So then I’m in the Tetons, and I have that moment where I realize something I’ve known all along: when you fall in love with a line, it is your responsibility to run it or climb it or ski it as fast and flawless as you can, and that is the most perfect thing in the world.  That suffering and struggling in the mountains breaks off pieces of your soul that you leave behind there, but they fill you up, and not only is that how the mountains become your home, but further, these mountains are my daemon-a part of my soul that lives outside me.  And (as you read in the last post), that was when I knew that I will never be able to go back.  That moment was the threshold.

Now, back to Tuesday October 4th, my first full day as a 30 year old.  I’m here:

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And it is a gorgeous [fucking cold] day in the San Juans.  Since I got back from the Tetons, I felt pretty tumultuous.  I had those really important realizations consuming me, but I didn’t yet know what to do with them and they were still conflicting with that idea that I needed to DO SOMETHING WITH MY LIFE.  That I needed to act like a GROWN UP.  30 is a huge cultural milestone you guys.  I think people can get away with screwing up and messing around in their 20’s, but 30 is like for real grown up time.  And up here on Redcloud, in the cold sunshine with the wind blowing the day after my 30th birthday, I finally felt at ease.  I don’t think I’ve felt completely at ease all year, because it has been in the back of my mind all of the time, and the front of my mind quite a bit.

I felt at ease because I knew the answer to all of the questions.  How did I get here?  I chose this life every damn day.  I worked so hard for this.  Mountain running, ultra running, people ask me all the time how you get into them.  The answer to that is, you work so fucking hard every day.  You run until you feel like you’re going to die, then you hope that the next day you can run faster and higher before you feel like you’re going to die.  You revolve your entire life around it, because if you didn’t do 3 hours of yoga every night or massage every inch of your legs, or cut sugar and flour out of your diet because they’re inflammatory, your legs wouldn’t work to run as hard as you can the next day.  You get a job that you hardly have to work and live in a town that’s cheap to live in but close to the mountains so you can run more than most people work.  I didn’t just magically appear here.  I’ve chosen this life every day, every step, and I’ve given up nearly everything else for it.  Can you imagine what I could have done with my life if I had devoted it this intensely to something else?  I can certainly imagine, I’ve been imagining all year.  BUT I FINALLY DON’T WANT TO ANYMORE.

And on to the bigger one.  “I haven’t done anything with my life.”  WTF!  Do my values really align with the standard American culture?  White picket fence. 9-5. Arguing with the contractor about the renovations. Pick up the kids from school. Happy hour with friends or coworkers. Going shopping, out to dinner.  No, you guys. Those aren’t my values. So why would I define success in terms of things I don’t care about?  Living in this society for 30 years, it makes you think you should have those things, or some semblance of them.  It gives you all these ideas about what success is, what it should be, as if one definition could be the same for everyone.  It is really hard to define success personally because there are so many other factors trying to influence you all the time!  And I finally did it. When you are scared out of your mind, and you look at your fear, and you wrap yourself around it, and you move on.  That’s it, that’s what success actually, truly means to me.  And honestly, I think that is also what freedom means.  There’s a famous quote about the mountaineer knowing what it means to be free, and that’s what it’s about.  The price of freedom is that you have to be the most intimate with your fear, and then transcend it.  Finally, 7 miles west of Lake City, on a Tuesday, I just understood everything.  “I haven’t done anything with my life”? I HAVE DONE EVERYTHING WITH MY LIFE.  I have always done exactly what I wanted, never what I thought I should.  Always what I wanted.  And for that, I am deliriously happy and totally fulfilled.  There is no substitute for the highest of highs and lowest of lows.  All I can ask for is to be scared out of my mind and so happy I’m about to explode.

Finally, I’m done using terms like “grown up” and “real”.  This is real life, here in the mountains and the sky.  What could possibly be more real?  Climate controlled houses?  Grocery stores? Museums? Schools? Office jobs? My life is real. My job is real, I get to engage with our little community and be nice to people, and it pays for me to live and eat so I can do what I love the most.  And I am a grown up.  I don’t need to look like other 30 year olds to prove it.

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On Tuesday, October 4th, I felt at ease about all of these things.  And I knew that I’m not going anywhere (and that I’m also going everywhere).  I’m definitely not going to get one of these “grown up” jobs and moving to a city where I have to go to an office and work more than I run.  I’m not giving up on Nolan’s, she is the line of my life (and hopefully one of many).  I actually made a 1, 5, and 10 year plan for myself while I was eating the other half of that Miracle Tart.  And it is terrifying!  And exactly what I want! I’ve never been happier.  I think it’s safe to say now, I’m never going back.

The Tetons: climbing, purpose, and jumping off the deep end

When I told a gal at work that I was going to the Tetons for a week, she said “Well I wish *I* had money for vacations like that” which I thought was pretty comical, because a climbing trip isn’t a vacation anyway, and if you’re planning to sleep in a van and eat PB&J all week it’s not as if you’re breaking the bank, per se.

I also told a regular at work that I’d be in the Tetons for a week, and it went like this: “WHERE?”

“The Tetons”

“WHERE?”

“Grand Teton National Park”

“WHERE?”

“The Teton range.  Of mountains?  In Wyoming?”

“Okay but where?”

“It’s 14 miles long, man.”

I’d been to the Tetons earlier this year, with the intention of scoping them out.  It was a bit of a wash because there was still so much snow I couldn’t even get into Garnett Canyon, and the mountains were mired in storms the whole time like Mt. Doom.

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The first thing to know about the Tetons is that they’re only 9 million years old, max.  Sure 9 million years seems like a long time, but when you compare that to the Rocky Mountains’ 300 million, it’s clear that the Tetons are an adorable baby range and we can expect a variety of interesting and tumultuous things to happen up in there since that fault is still active.  You may already know that I’m in love with the Grand Teton, 13,775, with around 7k prominence.  It’s been a dream of mine for a bit to stand on top of that beautiful pile of (mostly) metamorphic rock, along with the fairly major goals of completing the Picnic and the Grand Traverse.

http://www.outsideonline.com/1868436/picnic-teton-triathlon

http://www.outsideonline.com/1908886/grand-slammed

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Anyhow, so we went to the Tetons.  And the very first morning we woke up to this (above) and it was amazing.  We had no idea what we were in for.  Even to get to the jumping off point (“the meadows”) you have to hike your equipment miles and 1000’s of feet.  There’s some crazy reason that you think once you make it up there, that’s when the climbing starts, but you would be quite wrong.  In fact, there are still several miles and many more 1000’s of feet of iffy talus, scrambling, and just generally exhausting steepness before you can even begin any route at all.  I thought it was funny that apparently on Tony and Kilian’s first trips to the Grand Tetons, both managed to get lost by going left at the first big glacier and ending up at the saddle between South and Middle wondering where they went wrong.  I can tell you, it’s really that easy.  If you take the wrong path through any of the various talus fields, you could end up miles away from where you need to be.

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Day 2, after having experienced all of the madness and misadventure that awaits in Garnett Canyon, we thought we’d wise up and get permits to haul all our gear up there and sleep in the Meadows.  I had a wonderfully useful discussion with a climbing ranger about where to drink wild water (once you’ve already had giardia like he has, you’re immune for life!), and we were off.  While dropping our gear, it quickly became apparent that I had forgotten the tent poles (later: “I really appreciate that you didn’t get mad about my forgetting the tent poles, because that really wouldn’t have helped anything.”)  Assuming we’d figure something out later, we headed up to climb up things.  In retrospect, we should have listened to the book that said “don’t climb anything at all until you see Ice Flow Lake”.  Since we didn’t listen, we had a lot of fun that turned terrifying, and a bail off that really was the stuff of dreams (especially when you compare it to future bail offs).

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I think it’s safe to say that the take away of this and the next several days is, the Tetons are: epic, terrifying, super fun, an elaborate and very long maze, stupidly beautiful, longer on the descent, and demanding of our utmost respect.  A few days later, we were bailing off an arette belonging to Disappointment Peak, and decided to head up in the general direction of the Grand’s lower saddle as the sun was going down. [I would like to point out that this was my first trip using my new camera, and I had not yet figured out how to keep random body parts out of the picture yet]

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Climbing the Grand, quite unfortunately, was not in the cards on this trip as there was a lot of very fragile, thin ice (verglass) posing quite the obstacle.  On our hike up, I was thinking of Kilian’s FKT on the Grand [I didn’t know this at the time, but a Teton NPS ranger beat Kilian’s time 11 days later by 59 seconds] that’s just under 3hrs (2:55).  From the parking lot, to the summit, and all the way back in under 3hrs.  It sounds amazing when you hear about it, but when you’re hiking all those miles of talus it just seems so outrageous and extraordinary.  But if he can do it, I could do it.  Not right in that moment, of course, but if that’s what I wanted to pursue with my life, I could do that.  His physical feat proves that it’s possible.  So naturally, I started thinking about Nolan’s in 30 hours (or any ridiculous, truly fast time that blows the current FKT’s in the 50hr range out of the water).  I actually met Tony for the first time in the coffee shop right before this trip, and we talked about the Nolan’s in 30 hours thing.  I’ve talked to a lot of people about the possibility of Nolan’s in 30 hours and the general consensus is that it’s not possible for a variety of reasons.  I maintain that if anyone can do it, Tony can.  So back to current time, sunset near the saddle of the Grand, this is what I’m thinking: how wonderful that these amazing people can do these things that blow your mind, and that sets the standard for what I believe is possible.  Chris and I argued about this for a while, then we argued about FKT’s.

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It’s getting dark, and I suddenly realized that I want to see Tony do Nolan’s in 30 hours so badly because I want to believe that it’s possible.  But I don’t need him to show me, just like I don’t need Kilian [or Andy Anderson, the actual record holder at the time] to show me that it’s possible to ascend the Grand Teton (or the Matterhorn, for that matter) in less than 3 hours.  Anything is possible.  For a long time I’ve thought of myself as someone that doesn’t believe in limits; limits are self-imposed by your imagination.  But all this time, I’ve actually been using other people to adjust my perception of limits.  The reality is, if I want Nolan’s done in 30 hours I better fucking do it myself.  I had told Chris on the drive to Wyoming that I’ve been sort of teetering on the edge lately, that sometimes I think I should have a normal life, and sometimes I think I should really jump off the deep end.  I had also been teetering with climbing in general: getting so frustrated that I never climb again, or falling madly in love with climbing.  It was so suddenly obvious what my purpose in life is.  Just as the sky transitioned to true dark, I pressed my face against the rock and cried.

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Another thing I hadn’t thought about much was how I really feel about FKT’s.  I’ve battled this in my head for a while, and there’s certainly a lot of controversy and mixed feelings about this in the mountain community.  Until I defended them, I didn’t know this was how I felt.  Sure, some people put down FKT’s because they’re competitive and they want the speed record.  That’s not everyone, though.  I’ve been working on Nolan’s for a very long time now, and I finally understand that as I destroy myself on that course, and I suffer, and I fall apart, and I keep going despite all of this, those mountains fill me up again, and that process is how you get to find your home.  Nolan’s is my home, and it belongs to me as I belong to it.  When it’s time, I’ll run that course as fast as I can.  Not for a record or for recognition from the very small community of people that care about Nolan’s, but because I am in love with that line, and it is my responsibility to run it as fast and light as I can.  That’s what grace is, to honor something with your presence.

As we suffered and struggled in the Tetons, and sometimes fell apart a little bit, I realized that the Nolan’s course aren’t the only mountains that will be home to me.  Every time I go back to the Tetons, I’ll break off bits of my soul for them and they’ll fill me up just like the Rockies have been doing for years.  And eventually, I will belong to them too, and this process will continue to happen every time I fall in love with new mountains and new fantastic, aesthetic lines through them.  Then, it will be my duty to run and climb those lines as fast as I can.  That is the most perfect thing in the world.

Because Mama Teton watched us struggle with hard climbs, long exhausting days up before dawn and to bed at 11, and kind of scary weather, she rewarded us with a perfect day on the Middle Teton right before we had to leave Wyoming.  The route along the sw ridge crossed over briefly and dropped below the North side of the ridge, and suddenly the Grand Teton appeared.  Awe is a very powerful emotion, current research tells us that it strengthens our immune system and improves our general health to feel it regularly.  In this case, I could hardly breathe, and it filled up my chest so much it hurt.  I told the Grand Teton that I would come back as soon as I could.  Because, like many mountains before her, the Grand Teton will become a part of my soul that lives outside me.

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Lastly, Oliver the Fox definitely deserves mention here.  He’s my best friend. [unsure why I capitalized fox, guys, but I’ve decided it stays]

 

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Right?? I can see now why people are tempted to feed wild animals.

It was a no good, very bad day

A friend had graciously volunteered to drop me off and pick me up for some one-way linkups, so we set off from Leadville reasonably early and headed down to BV to start at Cottonwood Creek. The plan was Columbia to Harvard to Pine Creek to Oxford/Belford then down to Missouri Gulch, where we would camp. I thought this would take 8 hours, 12 if I got into trouble. It was forecasted to thunderstorm.

 

The morning was beautiful, I love the basin of Harvard and Columbia, the wildflowers were blooming, CFI was out working on the new and improved Columbia standard route. There were an extraordinary amount of Alpine Spiders out, and especially some really big, wicked looking ones. I made a mental note to look up whether there are any poisonous spiders living in the talus (since that episode on the Sawtooth, I am no longer irrationally afraid of spiders, but I’d still like to know if they can kill me). (If you’re wondering, my research didn’t uncover much. According to the internets, black widows, brown recluses, and “hobo” spiders are the only poisonous spiders in CO that are a threat to humans. While the big black ones I saw in the talus were horrific, they weren’t black widows, so I guess it’s safe?)

 

As we neared the summit of Columbia, I started thinking I saw storm clouds coming FROM THE EAST. Which is impossible, right? I kept an eye on them, carried on, but as I descended the summit onto the shitty crazy gnarly ridge, it was impossible to ignore them and I began the bail into the even shittier, crazier, talus field, all the way into a lush, green valley full of willows to the NE of the ridge. By now, the sky was blanketed in storm clouds, and it was sprinkling, but not storming yet. I began a very long ascent towards the summit of Harvard, thinking that along the way I’d find a crest to cross over down to Pine Creek, without having to summit Harvard in a storm. The North side of Harvard is very cliffy, and of course I couldn’t find a safe place to descend, especially since I had Luna with me. I could see the beautiful tundra-covered North arm that is the Nolan’s route, but the further up we went the more obvious it became that there was no way to get to it besides crossing directly over that rocky summit. As we approached it, I almost slowed down, trying to make the call. Up until now, we weren’t very exposed, but the final talus climb to the precarious summit would leave us extremely exposed to lightning for just a couple minutes. If I did it fast, would it be okay? Then the thunder started. There’s something about thunderstorms above treeline that make you feel like the mountains under your feet and the sky are about to break apart. We ran for our lives, bailing all the way back to the willow basin we had come from. I couldn’t think of another safe solution, so we began to descend East, hoping to come across the Colorado Trail.

 

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lunchtime

At first, this was actually kind of a nice time. I sat down with Lu right around treeline and enjoying the epically beautiful, quiet, isolated valley while having some lunch. It rained off and on, but didn’t pour. Below treeline, things got nasty quickly. The rain picked up, and so did the piles of dead trees making a crazy tangled maze that it was impossible to climb over or under, so we had to wedge ourselves between trees and climb through. I was quite certain I’d come across bears, and spent the whole time yelling, and I also figured I couldn’t escape this without a host of ticks. There were freezing water crossings, more and more tree tangles, and it took hours to make it what had to be only 4-6 miles. When we found the Colorado trail, I thought I might burst into tears, but resisted, because I still had a long, long way to go and losing it is the perfect way to sap your limited energy.

 

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looking back on the ridge we bailed from, NE of Columbia

Maybe 15 minutes after gaining the trail, I saw a person! I asked her if she happened to know how far it was to Clear Creek and county road 390, and she said at least 11 miles. Which might have been disheartening, as that would make about 17 miles to get to my friend at Missouri Gulch, but 17 miles was reasonable on easy trail and road, and it was around 3pm so I figured I could make it before dark. The sky started to clear, and I jogged pretty contentedly. Crossing Pine Creek, I considered what it would take to off trail to Oxford from there, and finish my original route. Then, a trail junction. To ELKHEAD PASS. I took it, and up into the bowels of Pine Creek we went. It’s actually a beautiful area, if not a little creepy and very isolated. There are a ton of fairly intact mining buildings, with windows and padlocked doors. As we approached the southern slopes of Oxford, the thunderstorms rolled in again, so we continued on the trail to Elkhead Pass. I kept thinking we were going too far, that it didn’t make much sense. But as the sun began to set, I didn’t feel quite up to off trail route finding in a place that was unfamiliar, and I wished I had just ascended Oxford because at least I’d know where I was. After miles of going southwest, we suddenly wrapped around and headed North, and I understood that the trail had taken us several miles out of the way, only to bring us back around up through a valley we would ascend NE to the pass. It was one of the most beautiful basins I had ever seen. My knees had just about had it, the bail off the Columbia ridge had destroyed them and each subsequent mile was taxing too much. My nervous system was fried. I had been hoping and hoping that I could just make it back before dark, but darkness was coming too fast and I was moving too slow, and still had so many miles to go.

 

Gaining Elkhead Pass was another moment that I wanted to burst into tears. What a relief, after all the off trail, all the route finding and wondering, the bailing from storms, that I was on a trail that I knew. The thunderstorms raged over the mountains around me as the last bits of light dissipated. I got out my headlamp, the batteries needed replaced and I happened to have packed new batteries, but I couldn’t see well enough to change them. I descended as fast as I could, it still probably took over an hour from Elkhead Pass to Missouri Gulch parking lot as I arrived about 10pm. There I burst into tears, finally safe and sound. 35 miles, 11k gain, 15 hours.

 

The aftermath of that day has made me question what I’m doing with my life. I don’t ever want a day like that again. I didn’t even want to continue to pursue Nolan’s, as it will inevitably be a lot of the same isolation, loneliness, miserable off trail, painful gully descents that defy you to break all your bones. It’s hard to get past all that. The net gain of that day was, a week later, I realized that I don’t have to finish Nolan’s. Yeah, that doesn’t seem that novel. But I’ve always thought of it as a do-or-die situation, and it’s just not. I have to attempt Nolan’s, otherwise I’ll never be able to move on with my life. I can finally see, though, that days like this are the net gain of Nolan’s. You will get lost, you will find the way. You will be miserable, hopeless, and desperate, but you will be alive and you will be happy again eventually. You will run for your life, you may get hurt, but when it’s over, you will understand the value you place on your own life. The two years that I’ve been up here, training and route finding, planning and talking about it, running free in the mountains: that’s the glory of Nolan’s. I’ll have it forever no matter what happens in August. Maybe I’ll finish, or maybe I’ll call it hallway due to thunderstorms or a busted knee or whatever. Maybe I’ll finish in 66 hours. That stuff doesn’t matter. People say it’s the journey and not the destination, right? The journey is nearly over, and it has been the greatest of my life.

 

 

Mt Princeton (who’s the boss?)

Mt Princeton (14,204) is generally believed to be the crux of the Nolan’s route. Its long approach, almost entirely off trail ascent and descent, and the fact that it generally falls overnight in most people’s attempts have led me to believe that if Nolan’s were Super Mario, Princeton is the big boss. Once I make it past Princeton, nothing will stop me from finishing.

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It was incidental that last summer, as I hammered down every part of the Nolan’s route, I tread nearly every piece of Princeton except the summit. I spent 3 days route-finding from the Avalanche Gulch trail, putting tons of miles in figuring out the [long] way up off trail on the NE arm. I spent a day in Grouse Gulch, learning the descent. But I didn’t summit. Princeton was the only Nolan’s mountain that I did not stand on top of all year.

As I considered my winter training, I knew that I’d have to push harder on winter ascents this year (no matter how miserable! I would prevail), especially since I planned/am planning an ambitious July attempt (if you don’t remember from last year, there was still waist-deep snow in the mountains at the end of May, summer doesn’t generally start until the end of June). I knew that I had to do Princeton in the winter.

When I drove to Arizona in February, I hadn’t yet managed to do more than Elbert, Massive, and La Plata (I was busy skiing I guess). Passing Princeton as I drive through BV, gracefully and commandingly taking up the sky, I thought “Princeton is such a boss, I have to get up there.” (I not only thought this but texted a running buddy, who was not thrilled like I was).

After AZ, I came back injured and spent a month trying to get back on my feet. One week ago, I went out for my first long(ish) run. Basking in the glow of Princeton on the East side of BV, I resolved to get up there. Another friend asked if I wanted to run together, I suggested Princeton, and ultimately plans fell through.

It’s not that Princeton (or any Sawatch Range winter ascents) is inherently dangerous or harrowing or even difficult.. just long, somewhat miserable slogs. Which is why I was hoping for company (because good company can make even the longest of drags fun) but I guess it wasn’t in the cards. Despite a lousy forecast, I headed up Princeton on Friday. The weather was beautiful when I got there, clear and sunny and warm, but turned terrible about 6 miles in. I got this picture just before it started snowing and visibility was totally lost (and my phone turned off because it wasn’t willing to suffer the new frigid wind),

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Terrible weather in the winter doesn’t scare me or even affect me that much (as long as I know the route well enough). It’s even kind of appropriate, because it’s slow and miserable to begin with so the weather’s like “hey, why not take away your view, too?” (“Bwahahaha”, because I think the weather should be personified). Someone asked me after if it felt good to be in the mountains again, and I didn’t really know what to say…it felt normal. It wasn’t “fun” and there wasn’t the thrill of standing on a summit (conditions were so bad you could have been standing anywhere and just seen gray). I had kind of forgotten just a little what it feels like to endure…so at least I still had that sort of toughness to push on.

The truth is, some days I’m so pumped to get back to climbing mountains and running again, and other days I don’t even want to go outside let alone spend another full day dragging my legs through the snow. I heard a team went up the Maroon Bells, and at first I was inspired, then it faded to meh…fuck that. As does everything eventually, I think this whole thing boils down to GOOD VS INTERESTING. Would you rather your life be good or interesting? Most people say good. If you read that question and thought “why would you ask a question like that?” Or “why can’t it be both?” That’s ok, I get it. Sometimes I admire you, a lot of times actually. I’ve come to realize during this time off that I can’t just read and watch TV, or study yoga or design or whatever I get into. I need the full spectrum of pain, the challenge, the risk, the fear, the incredible doubt. I choose interesting, and I don’t care at all if it’s good. Good is such a relative term. When someone asks you how you are, you say “good.” I don’t want easy, and as much as I sometimes regret moving up here because it is quite the POLAR opposite of easy, I know that this is where I’m meant to be.

It’s hard being 29 for a lot of reasons. There’s the cultural/societal pressure around 30, and there’s this “return of saturn” business that I would have never believed in except that I’ve been having rolling emotional/life crises for months. Sometimes I think “how the fuck did I get here?” Or “what have I DONE in the past 10 years!?” But I will never measure success by my job or my house, my friends, my bank account. At least I don’t ever feel like “why aren’t I married?” It’s more like “WHY haven’t I been to Banff!??”

I guess the point of all of this is, I climbed Princeton and it didn’t feel like epic or harrowing or victorious. I just quietly surpassed my recent (injury-induced) doubt and accepted that this is who I am. Some days I am NOT okay with it, and I wish I could stay at home and eat pizza and watch TV all day…and sometimes I do (and whether you know about chakras or believe in them, let me tell you when I stay home it physically hurts beneath my sternum and in my solar plexus). And sometimes I go out and run mountains.

AZ (can you see the end?) pt 2

The day before the race I went to the finish line so I could visualize it when things got rough. I packed a drop bag for the first time that would wait for me at mile 37. I filled my vest with the same things I had been eating on my runs all week: cucumber slices, blueberries, avocado, and Larabars. My legs felt tired. I hoped a good night of sleep would change that.

At 4:45 I boarded a bus that would take us to the start in Mayer. It was full of runners, and you guys, sometimes I’m disparaging about runners but it’s because most (not all) of us are self absorbed assholes. Mostly they were posturing; talking PR’s and saying things like “a marathon is a really honest distance” and comparing toenails lost (which, ok, that is a fun pastime among us). There was a lot of buzz before the start, and especially at the start line, which has always been one of my favorite things about racing.

The very moment I started running, both of my calf muscles seized up (gastrocnemius, if you’re wondering), and not only would they stay that way, but my other leg muscles would follow suit over the course of the very long day. I don’t race much, but I have cultivated a long practice of staying rational when shit goes wrong, and this was no different. I Scott Jureked the sitch: what is wrong? My calf muscles hurt and are barely working. What can I do about it? Run anyway. I put myself in a solid 5mph pace and stayed there.

I’ve heard other runners say they race to experience community, which is missing from our long training runs, even when we’re out with a running buddy. But I’ve said it before, runners are assholes, and they will literally push you off the trail if you don’t let them pass you quickly enough, and nobody spoke a word to each other besides “on your left” for almost the entire day.

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There was a 4 mile stretch or so that my legs started to feel strong between mile 23 and 27, but that was the only 4 miles that I loved running that day. My hip flexors began spasming, which sucks (besides being painful) because if they’re not working well it’s very hard to climb. My thighs seized. By the time I made it to the 37 mile aid, running on my legs had escalated to the worst pain I had ever been in. I’ve never had problems with my legs cramping, and this was so far beyond cramping. I have no explanation other than putting in too many miles that week. While I was getting some food in me and repacking, a girl was checked out by the medic, complaining of dizziness and nausea. The runner next to me leaned over and said: “dizzy? Nauseous? Welcome to ultras.” I checked the time, I was still looking at 5mph, and if I had managed this far, I didn’t see any reason I couldn’t keep it up. I was still eating and drinking fine. I looked at my phone. My dad had texted “Sarah take it up a notch, you can do this.” I tried, and I did.

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The 9 mile stretch to the next aid station contained the biggest climb of the day. I powerhoused up it, ascents being my strength, and when my hip flexors failed I pulled my legs up by my pants with my hands. My left knee had been hurting on descents for a while, but now my right knee started throbbing in the PCL area on ascents. I didn’t see anyone for a long time. And I thought, human relationships and support are good, but I must be able to overcome the worst by myself. The worst pain, the worst fear, the worst day of my life. Nobody can be in my head and fix this but me. Then the nausea started, and let me tell you, once you start vomiting the fun don’t stop (I had a lot of time to think about what I did wrong and I’m going to go ahead and bet it was the salt tabs someone suggested for the cramping). I finally staggered into the remote aid station just as twilight gave way to full dark.

And what a motley crew I found there. Nearly everyone at mile 46-47 was miserable, and while the wonderful girls working tried to bolster our spirits and pump me full of ginger, we all discussed dropping. “I’ve just been so miserable for so long, I don’t remember what it was like to be happy” which sounds melodramatic NOW, but at the time we all thought “that’s exactly how I feel!” It was 4.5 miles to the next aid station, 5 of us set out with the hopes and dreams of dropping if we could just make it there.

It’s funny (or terrible) how misery makes you so apathetic. Earlier in the day, I would not have considered dropping. I was thinking, Sarah if you can just make it to the finish you never have to run again. But suddenly, I couldn’t bring myself to care about finishing (or anything), I just wanted this terrible day to be over. We staggered in to aid, mile 51.2. Here again was an unbelievably supportive staff, rushing around trying to help us as much as possible. Two of my dropping compatriots had a mental turn around and set out on the last 11 miles. I sat next to a 4th. Finally, I asked the crew what the process was to drop. They weren’t hearing it, and said all sorts of encouraging things, including lies about how far the next aid was. They lent me a jacket (as I had forgotten mine 14 miles back), and just as I was gearing up our 5th came in, shouting “I’m done! I’m dropping! Enough!” I left, and the 4th not too far behind me.

Very soon I realized, I had gotten my feet wet after dark and they were starting to burn. My spare shoes were back at mile 37 with my jacket, neither of which I needed at the time, in the daylight my feet had dried quickly. The burning intensified into crazy sharp pains: the formation of about 40 blisters (that is not an exaggeration). On the tops of my toes, between my toes, all around the perimeter of my feet, all over my heels. I don’t generally get blisters, so I faced another new but major problem that I didn’t know what to do about. At about mile 55, the weeping started, and by 58 I had
a. Gotten slightly lost
b. brushed a cactus that stabbed my foot with spires (which are like FISHING HOOKS) that sliced right through my shoes and deep into my feet
c. Taken more than one weeping break

I wasn’t vomiting anymore, but I hadn’t eaten in 20 miles and my body felt like very painful metal. Rather than pass me, a very nice man convinced me to pick up the pace and stay with him, and having company pulled me just enough out if my misery to keep on.

When I staggered across the finish line, I just wanted this day to be over. Another very nice man, the official finish line greeter and hugger, congratulated me with great enthusiasm and sincerity. He hugged me and said “you did it! You finished! You did a great job!” And I realized, I DID finish. It wasn’t how I thought it was going to go, but I DID do a great job. I sat down with my new friends, 4/5, and we talked about how we would have dropped if it weren’t for the rest of us and those wonderful aid station crews. And some insane number like 100 did drop. As we were eating our finish pizza, number 5 crossed the finish line. All 5 of us had picked ourselves up and carried on to finish. I was so miserable that I wouldn’t have been ashamed to end it by dropping. But it wouldn’t have been me.

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I couldn’t have imagined how bad the recovery was going to be. It subsided after several days, at which time it became obvious that something is actually wrong with my left knee. It’s a repetitive motion injury, probably from the cumulative week of overdoing it (including the race, I ran at least 130 miles). I’ve wondered over and over, when is enough, enough? Sometimes I’m psyched to get back into training and redeem myself. Mostly, I think it’s time to give it up. Long distance is the best and worst thing I’ve ever done. I’ve justified pushing my body so hard because I believed I was making it stronger. But am I? Really? Naysayers tell us we are destroying our bodies. Are they right?

In Kilian’s book he says you have make running your whole life. Every other part of you has to work together to support it. I know I can do this right.

Obviously it is not time to give up yet.
I identify as a runner not because I have nothing else, but because I know it’s who I am.

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ARIZONA (can you see the end?)

It’s been about a week and a half since I got back from AZ. That trip is definitely in the running for favorite run trip, but the aftermath is forcing me to think very hard about my future in long distance running (and while it’s not the first time, I don’t think I’ve ever been this close to giving it up).

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Hooptie and I rolled out of Leadville on a Sunday morning and drove straight through, fueled by Coke and pb&j’s. we arrived at the South entrance of Grand Canyon National Park around 8pm. The forest roads that were recommended as good places to sleep were gated closed (this would become a theme in AZ, as if the sad remnants of a couple inches of snow constitutes winter) so I parked in front of a gate and hoped for the best.

I set an alarm to wake up before sunrise, and drove into the park around 5:30a. I had never been to the GC, I stopped at the first overlook and watched the sun come up over it for the first time.

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Teddy Roosevelt first saw the GC in 1903, and proclaimed it to be “the one great sight every American should see.” Despite his enthusiasm, a bill to make it a National Park failed 6 times from 1882 to 1919. 13 other National Parks gained their status during that time, making the GC the 15th (Yellowstone had long been a NP, since 1872). The Grand Canyon, 45 miles long, and 5-18 miles wide, is often considered one of the “Seven Wonders of the World”, a list that is apparently frequently changing and now, according to Wikipedia, includes the internet. The original 7 were things the Greeks had seen, and included a mausoleum. Some current lists are 2-3/7 NYC buildings. The most legit one I saw is “natural wonders” like Aurora Borealis and Victoria Falls.

I geared up and headed down into the canyon. I had never had the opportunity to destroy my legs on a big descent at the beginning of a run, so I did exactly that all the way to the Colorado River in less than an hour and a half. Many people said many things as I passed them, but they will mostly remain a mystery as I was listening to my new 90’s hip hop playlist. Arriving at the river had a larger than life quality. Maybe it had something to do with the sign reading “DO NOT ATTEMPT TO HIKE TO THE RIVER AND BACK IN ONE DAY” with an illustration of a man dying of exhaustion (marvel of graphic design). Maybe it was that just weeks ago I’d run to and from the CO river in Moab. Idk, maybe it was that I’d just run to the base of THE GRAND MOTHERFUCKING CANYON, which was carved out by the river 5-6 million years ago and has been a Native American holy site for 5,000 years.

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I didn’t go on, partly because I still had a cold (oh cruel fate!) but mostly because I couldn’t see how to cross the river (I would eventually find out the trail turned East before the river to a bridge that I couldn’t see). I ate a Larabar (sorry GCNP, I know you recommended 4 sandwiches but I didn’t, ok?) and headed back up. About 2 miles from the river, I saw an older gentleman that I’d passed early on the trip down. This is notable because we were far below the turn around point for nearly everyone, and I had only seen 2 or 3 backpackers. He stopped me, “do you remember, you passed me earlier?” I did. “I don’t think you heard, but I said ‘get the lead out!’ And I started running! With these legs! I haven’t ran for years!” He continued on, and so did I.

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The last 1,000ft up was a bit of a struggle because I could really feel the tightness from the fast high-impact rocky descent that my winter-in-Leadville legs were undertrained for. At the top I sat on the sidewalk and ate rice with vegetables with my camping spork out of my tiny camping bowl. I was high as shit (from running, not drugs); it was a wonderful run. I thought about where I might sleep (?) and what I would do tomorrow (run to the river again?) and chose to leave. Interestingly, I bought a bag of chips in the park for $1.29 which is like normal grocery store price, then bought a Coke just outside the park for $3.38 which is more than 3x regular price.

I drove to Flagstaff where I stocked up on food for the week, used a real bathroom for the last time, and noticed one of my tires was down to the steel. I drove to Sedona, hoping I’d find a place to sleep in the canyon that’s full of campgrounds and recreation areas, but they were all “closed” and worse, gated! Finally, almost out of Cottonwood I saw a sign for a trail and turned without knowing where I was going. The road turned into dirt that became BLM land! I had accidentally stumbled across the northernmost TH of the Black Canyon Recreational trail, that I would be sleeping, running, and racing on for the rest of my trip!

After a good night’s sleep, I went back to town to buy not two but FOUR new tires. The tire man pointed out that my tires are 11 years old, and that he believes they are being held together by sheer will, as he could not even put air in them and expected that they would disintegrate into thin air. On 4 new tires I headed to Bumblebee road.

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I could not have been more thrilled. This 80-mile section of BLM land housed a most excellent rolling technical trail and it was 85-90 degrees and sunny all week. I ran as fast as I could, and I saw at least five different types of cacti. It was as if someone painted a cartoon of Arizona for me to run in all week. I had a sweet Biolite stove with me and cooked real food on it in the evening. I ate pb&j’s, as usual, but also fresh fruit and copious amounts of avocado and cucumber (which are CHEAP in Az!). I slept 10-13 hours every night. I did yoga several times a day. I sweated everywhere (that’s a novelty for us highlanders, where it’s too cold and high to sweat). Every day I ran somewhere different but it always looked like:

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I knew I should taper for the race, but I couldn’t help myself. I ran 4-5 hours a day. It just felt so good. SO good! And that was how the whole week went. I rode my bike on any paved roads I could find. I resupped at this adorable little shack of a grocery store, filling several gallon jugs with water for a quarter out of a rickety machine in the parking lot and selecting vegetables from the tiny produce section next to the canned meat and salsa isle. I read books and went to bed early, to the regular howling of the coyotes.

Sooner than later, it was time to race. I’m going to cut it off here and make the race its’ own post since this is already pretty long. TO BE CONTINUED…!

MOAB (running for freedom)

I went to Moab because I had forgotten why I love running. Training has become a miserable chore that I have to force myself to do, leading me to constantly bash my own self discipline and question pretty much my entire life (including and especially living in Leadville, and pursuing a serious race season this year). I had 3 days off coming up, and what could solve my problems better than a run trip?

The area that would become Moab was first populated by settlers attempting to cross the Colorado River between 1829 and 1855, when it became a trading post of Latter-Day Saints. Another group settled there in 1878 and Moab was established as a city in 1902. The name Moab is either biblical, referring to “the far county” that’s populated by sinners apparently (because of which the city dwellers have petitioned to change the name unsuccessfully multiple times) or the Paiute word for mosquito, maopa. Moab has about 5k permanent residents, boasts millions of tourists, is home to an incredible amount of restaurants that are mostly closed, and has weather that’s generally better than forecasted. [in the course of the extensive Moab research I just did, I saw a statement that the Potash mine near Moab dyes the water in its evaporation pools blue to speed the rate of evaporation, is that a thing? Does it even make sense? If you understand why, please leave me an explanation in the comments]

Friday morning the sky was dumping snow over my mountains so hard it was challenging even to get out of the high Rockies at all, it took over 5 hours to drive to Moab. But it had stopped snowing by the time we hit Utah, and by the hwy 191 exit to Moab it was sunny and getting warmer in spades. I drove straight to the Hidden Valley TH, jumped out of Hooptie, and started running up. The Hidden Valley trail goes up to a pass that marks a gateway to the Behind the Rocks Wilderness Study Area, something like 50,000 acres of un-trailed wild desert.

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At the top of the pass, you could go straight to remain on the Hidden Valley trail down to the mesa, or you could go right. Going right was rewarded by walls covered in petroglyphs.

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Petroglyphs are rock art carved or otherwise scraped on (as opposed to pictographs that are painted on). Apparently there’s some evidence as to the period the petroglyphs represent, but they can’t be geologically dated, and the best guess is that they were made by the Anasazi Indians, who lived in Utah between 200 and 1200.

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The social trail I was on descended and connected back to the HV trail, that ends when it meets the Moab Rim Road. West from that connection is desert as far as you can see. The downside of desert running is the sand and the cacti, but the upside is the vegetation is sparse and allows you to run easily wherever you want without a trail. I kept a close eye on the landmarks of the pass from when I came, but was overcome by the thrill and fear of going nowhere as fast as possible, how easy it would be to get lost, and that scarce possibility of what if I don’t make it back? It’s been a long time it seems like since I’ve felt that thrill.

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After dark (since I had indeed made it out of the desert safely) I took Hooptie West of Moab, a ways down an access road bordering the CO river to a parking lot along the Poison Spider 4×4 road, to sleep where I would run in the morning. Eat, sleep, wake up, eat, run. On the network of 4×4 roads in this area, you could run all day easily over sandstone and past arches, caves, and all kinds of interesting terrain without seeing a single person. You can stick to the roads or you can wander off in any direction, hoping you can figure out the way back (which takes a surprising amount of time and energy to think and worry about, thereby pushing any other problems you’d been worrying about straight out of your mind). Safely returning to Hooptie again just before dark, I headed to the south side of the Kane Creek Canyon, past all the TH parking lots, stopping at an overlook to eat and sleep.

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I woke but didn’t run where I was, by Hurrah Pass, I drove back to town (for coffee) then East to the Sand Flats to run the famous Slick Rock Trail. Running on sandstone for 3 days was starting to get a little rough, but something turned over and I picked up speed, flying over technical for 12 miles up and down rock formations wild and free. The previous 2 days, and the previous 3 months or so, had caught up with me, and I was finally free of all of it. I continued on a 4×4 road called Fins N Things (I know, I know), but at the end I just wasn’t done running.

I went back to the canyon I’d slept in the night before, already 22 miles in or so, and went flying down the Amassa back road at almost 10 miles an hour (which is really fucking fast for me) and continued that ridiculous pace for over an hour.

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Past the point when your muscles can’t keep up and you’re out of breath, past the soreness of joints worn from 3 days of impact, past the achilles tendon pain and tightness I’ve been dealing with for a few weeks. Past the questions of success, age, choices. Past fear. There was no question of where I was (I had gone so far I had no idea) or if I would get back. My feet didn’t stumble over obstacles, they landed softly and in perfect balance; just brushing the ground and rocks that technically anchored me to the earth. I’ve tried to explain what long distance running feels like over and over, both because I’ve been asked and because I want co-conspirators to share in this extraordinary adventure. It’s like this: suddenly you feel very light, and it’s as if the molecules that make up your body and spirit evaporate into the environment around you. Simultaneously, the molecules of the terrain and the sky are evaporating into you. And you know that you are inextricably linked to the earth and the sky, as the smallest piece of a vast working universe, but every tiny atom of you exactly the same and just as important as every other atom that exists now or has ever existed. It is freedom and joy that are hard to find in the world that we’ve built where we work and buy things and interact with each other in strange ways, with little community and a lot of dishonesty.

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I remembered why I run. Why I’ve made the choices I have and how I’ve come to be here. It doesn’t happen like that every time, to be sure, but every time it does I remember how important it is to live honestly, to bare my passions and dreams, to take risks. It’s time for positive change.